The Elephant and Castle "die-in" in action (Photo by Sean O'Sullivan, via stopkillingcyclists.org)
On the 13th of May, 47-year-old Abdelkhalak Lahyani was killed at London's notoriously dangerous Elephant and Castle junction, making him the fifth cyclist to die in the capital this year. To the campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists, it was yet another example of an unnecessary death caused by the city's irresponsible road layout.
Founded by friends Donnachadh McCarthy and Steve Routley in November of 2013, the group's first "die-in" protest – where a bunch of cyclists lie down next to their bikes, blocking the road – took place the same month in front of the TfL offices in Southwark. That evening, 1,500 campaign supporters literally laid the issue at the government's doorstep, hoping to incite a reaction and raise awareness.
The last seven months have seen a huge increase in support for the movement, and not all the campaigners are cyclists – some are just regular people who, understandably, don't want to see others die on London's roads. But as Wednesday's die-in at Elephant and Castle demonstrated, decisive action is yet to be taken to combat the problem.
I went down to the protest and spoke to co-founder McCarthy about the changes Stop Killing Cyclists are lobbying for.
Some of the Stop Killing Cyclists protesters; Donnachadh McCarthy is third from right in the beige coat.
VICE: Hi Donnachadh, could you give me a bit of background about Stop Killing Cyclists?
Donnachadh McCarthy: We’re just a bunch of activists. No money, no organisation. We’re just passionate environmentalists who are fed up of seeing our friends killed. We’re trashing the planet, and cycling is kind of a frontline for it – could anything better represent this [situation]; oil-driven vehicles killing us while we try to save the planet using our bodies? It’s a frontline and that’s why I’m passionate about it.
And what are you hoping to achieve through these demonstrations?
We’ve been campaigning for years to get safe, protective bike bypasses at major junctions where there is enough space for cyclists and pedestrians. This is so the cyclist doesn’t have to actually go round the corner, which is where they get squashed by buses and trucks. Over 50 percent of fatalities over the last couple of years have been with trucks turning left, and it’s not necessary.
How much would these road alterations cost?
We spoke to a traffic engineer and he said that we could sort that junction [in Elephant and Castle] out for under £10,000 so that cyclists don’t have to do that sharp turn. This is because the space is there, the dips are there and the signs are there, so all it needs is the paint on the ground to show where cyclists can go through.
What made you stage today’s die-in?
We’re so frustrated that we felt we needed to come and show them what we want, and where we want it. To visualise it.
And how did you visualise it?
We drew the cycle bypass onto the pavement itself.
How many people turned up today?
And how many people are affected by road traffic accidents?
It’s not just cyclists who are dying. Fixty-six cyclists have died since the last election in London, so that’s around 12 to 15 a year. But then there's around 80 to 100 pedestrians, and then you’re talking about 13,000 people dying from traffic pollution – heart and lung disease caused by traffic pollution. And then you’ve got two-thirds of London who want to cycle and they can't because they’re not confident enough on the roads, which then leads to obesity, lack of fitness, illnesses…
I guess, when you put it like that, the case for everyone riding bikes – and the government accommodating that – is pretty convincing.
I think we’re talking about millions of people directly affected by what we call traffic violence. It’s a coalition; we can reach out to almost everybody affected by this, but we can’t do everything.
The cut-across cycle lane proposed by Stop Killing Cyclists at Elephant and Castle
And what have the government done so far to address this issue?
We did a survey on the London boroughs and, since the last election, 24 boroughs haven’t put in one metre of segregated cycle lanes. Not one metre. What people forget is that Boris is only responsible for 5 percent of the roads. The boroughs are responsible for 95 percent of the roads. Southwark actually has a policy of opposing them; the NHS asked them to put them in, the Environment Agency asked them to put them in and they said no. They said, "We want the cyclists on the road, slowing the traffic down."
Have you personally been affected by the poor road system while you’ve been cycling?
Thank goodness, a bus or a truck has never hit me – but friends of mine have been hit. We hear about the deaths but we don’t hear about the thousands of people whose backs have been broken, whose hips have been broken, whose shoulders have been smashed, who lose their job for the rest of their life… Those stories never get seen or heard, but it’s something we made happen today.
How did you give those injured in road traffic accidents a voice today?
There was a guy who had his shoulder smashed on the same day as the death at Elephant and Castle, so asked him to give a statement, which we read out. He wrote a speech from his hospital bed with one finger.
Let's hope it has an impact on people.
We’re trying to move people’s hearts.
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