Out on her lunch break in February of 2016, Kim Briggs was struck by cyclist Charlie Alliston as she crossed the road near Old Street, east London. Mrs Briggs, a 44-year-old mother of two, suffered "catastrophic" head injuries and died a week later.
Immediately following the incident, Alliston, then 19, posted on a number of forums claiming to not be responsible: "It is a pretty serious incident so I won't bother saying she deserved it. It was her fault but she did not deserve it," he wrote. Alliston said Briggs had walked into the road while looking at her phone and ignored his shouts for her to move, leaving him nowhere to go.
Alliston was riding a fixed wheel bicycle (or "fixie"), most of which don't possess freewheel mechanisms, meaning riders can't coast or freewheel. As the bike's wheels turn, so do the pedals. To stop, riders use brakes or firmly back-pedal, stopping forward momentum. During the August, 2017 trial it was revealed that Alliston's bike had no front brake, rendering it illegal for street use – something he claimed to be unaware of.
Alliston was eventually charged with causing bodily harm by "wanton or furious driving" – an 1861 offence usually reserved for errant horse-drawn carriages, and the offence closest to dangerous driving for cyclists – and this week was jailed for 18 months.
Following the verdict, the tabloid and right-wing press launched an anti-cycling backlash. Were reckless cyclists the scourge of UK streets? Many in the Mail Online comments sections certainly thought so: "Time these lunatics were made to pay," wrote one. "I hope this slug has an argument with a ten ton truck when he gets out of prison," said another. Sky News's Adam Boulton rejoiced in The Sunday Times: "At last the wheels are coming off our senseless worship of bicycles."
Matthew Briggs, Kim's widower, said after the trial that reckless cycling was responsible for his wife's death, but that that he didn't want a witch hunt against cyclists: "This is dealing with a specific issue of reckless cyclists and also those people who choose to ride fixed wheel bikes without the front brake."
The case was even raised during Prime Minister's questions, when Theresa May hinted that dangerous driving laws could be updated to include cyclists. May said Transport Secretary Chris Grayling would "look into it". The same Chris Grayling who car-doored a cyclist outside Westminster and asserted in an interview that cyclists were not road users: "… where you have cycle lanes, cyclists are the users of cycle lanes… there's a road alongside – motorists are the road users, the users of the roads. It's fairly straightforward, to be honest."
Once again, a decades-old debate has opened up: on one side, those who argue that obnoxious cyclists pose a danger to public safety, or are just generally unpleasant to share a road with; on the other: those who argue that it's cyclists who are most at risk, surrounded by motor vehicles that could do them serious damage.
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A disclaimer: I love cycling. I ride daily, am training to race in the near future and, like all cyclists, have experienced many incidents which illustrate why bike riders are classified as "vulnerable road users" – anything from vehicles driving a whisker away from our shoulders to nearly being car-doored on narrow streets. While riding in Essex last year, a car rammed me from behind, grinding me and my bike along the road. I was lucky to survive.
On a more existential level, cycling is good for the world at large. A 2014 study, for example, found that if the UK became a mass cycling nation, like the Netherlands, we could save the NHS £17 billion within 20 years, cut road congestion, drastically cut pollution and prevent 500 deaths a year, among other measurable benefits.
But, for now, that's besides the point. Here, I want to look at why there's been such an upswell in anti-cyclist vitriol recently, and how much of it is really justified.
First: the obvious one. After the fact, Charlie Alliston appeared arrogant, selfish and remorseless, and no doubt his facial piercings and "ghoulish skull tattoo" – as described by the Daily Mail – did nothing to improve his PR. His comments online and reported shouts at Mrs Briggs as she lay prone on the ground stirred the anger of both media and public, many of whom already felt cyclists were a law unto themselves, running red lights and being generally obnoxious.
However, while Alliston clearly doesn't come across as the most sympathetic guy, this was an isolated incident; he is not representative of the vast majority of bike riders. So what is it about cyclists generally that provokes so much anger?
The ignoring of the Highway Code seems to be where much of the general ire comes from. A Twitter account called @anti_cycling says: "Cyclists demand equal road rights then skip through red lights. #bancycles." The sentiment of that first bit is fair enough. But scroll down through the feed and it's harder to agree with other messages, like a retweet that reads: "… roads were built for cars and trucks so fuck off thinking you have a rightful place on any of them".
Yes: if cyclists want fair treatment, they should follow the rules – and there's no excuse for running a red light while pedestrians are still crossing. But there are some other factors to take into account. Unlike drivers, protected in two-ton metal boxes, people on bikes are exposed and vulnerable. So, many cyclists – including myself, on occasion – will ride away before lights turn green in order to protect themselves. By gaining a head start, we make ourselves more visible to traffic – important when the overwhelming majority of accidents between bikes and cars occur at junctions and roundabouts.
Smarter road infrastructure, such as staggered traffic lights, would perhaps protect cyclists and prevent any illegality, and as cycling continues to grow in popularity in the UK, wider, segregated cycle lanes – like those found in Berlin and Amsterdam – need to be built to accommodate these increased numbers.
Alliston's crime was riding without the legally required front brake. Given the vague findings of trial crash expert Edward Small into the stopping speed of fixies vs traditional bikes with brakes, it's unclear whether another type of bike could have stopped more quickly. A number of variables could affect this: how effective are a particular set of brakes? Are the roads wet or slippery? How quick is one rider's reaction time compared to another's?
As an experienced London cyclist who has ridden fixies, I can confirm that riding one without a front brake in a city is risky. London presents myriad dangers from erratic drivers, pedestrians stepping into roads and, yes, other cyclists. Manchester's walking and cycling commissioner, Olympic gold medalist and multiple Tour De France stage winner, Chris Boardman, agrees: "I periodically see people riding around on a track bike, and I think: 'You're joking, what the hell are you doing?'" he says. "I've raced on a fixed gear bike on the road, but it's got a brake on it, for my own safety. It's scary as hell to do it any other way, and I don't understand why people do it." That said, many experienced fixie riders are expert bike handlers, skilled at weaving in and out of heavy traffic with narrow handlebars, able to abruptly stop by jamming their feet back on the pedals. Alliston said he was in complete control riding at 18 miles per hour, which is just above average speed for cyclists commuting in London. It allows riders to flow at the speed of traffic and reduces the likelihood of impatient drivers behind them performing dangerous close passes when the red mist descends. However, at the time of the accident it was lunchtime and pedestrians were everywhere. Alliston failed to acknowledge these circumstances, rendering the combination of speed and fixie a fatal mix.
Since Alliston's sentencing, at least one person has called for a crackdown on "illegal bikes", urging police to punish those who ride with only one brake.
The reason is clear: even one cycling-related death is one too many. But the fact remains that deaths caused by bicycles are incredibly rare compared to deaths caused by motor vehicles. The "lynch mob" media mentality, as Chris Boardman labelled it, suggests a deep-seated prejudice against cycling in the UK, which needs resolving – and with time, investment and understanding, hopefully that will happen.
Much of the reporting on this awful case, and of cycling generally, paints a polarised picture of cyclists vs pedestrians and drivers, forgetting that cyclists are people who also drive and walk. The three methods of transport are not mutually exclusive, and creating an us vs them scenario only makes the debate more toxic.
We should remember that roads are for everybody. Drivers must understand they are controlling a potentially lethal weapon; cyclists owe it to themselves to follow the Highway Code, ride safely and with adequate equipment, including working brakes and lights. We're all people trying to get somewhere, and until more money and attention is invested at a political level in making roads safer for everyone, being respectful and considerate of one another is the best place to start.