Vigilance

Brian Dillon


1


At the time of her death, in April of this year, Moira Gemmill was fifty-five and lived in Kennington, south London. I didn’t know her, though I know many people who did. She was a designer, and lately manager of big, prominent refurbishment projects at cultural institutions and heritage attractions in the capital and beyond. She had overseen the renewal of the Victoria and Albert Museum and as a result been hired — ‘handpicked by the Queen’, reports of her death had it — to undertake similar work at Windsor Castle. For the moment, in the spring of this year, her place of work was St James’s Palace, about fifteen or twenty leisurely minutes over the river from Kennington by bicycle. The final third of her morning commute would have taken her along the outskirts of St. James’s Park, before she headed south-west on the Mall for a minute then turned right towards the palace. This portion of the journey would have been busy but relatively safe. Maybe she used to walk the final hundred yards, among police and security barriers.
Before she rode that last stretch of five minutes or so — the kind of interlude where a commuting cyclist, sweat cooling under the helmet, grows a little less guarded and begins to think about the day ahead — she had to navigate Lambeth Bridge. The alternative was Westminster Bridge, downstream, but that would have flung her into the confusion of cars, buses and tourist coaches adjacent to Parliament Square. Lambeth Bridge – which connects Lambeth on the right bank of the Thames with Millbank on the left – must have seemed swifter, if not safer. At rush hour, Millbank is a blur with carbon and lycra, the faster and mostly male enthusiasts trailed by small-wheeled folding bikes and the heavy three-speed ‘Boris bikes’ you can hire around town. Cyclists, so the latest figures say, make up 16 per cent of traffic in the centre of London.

At around half past nine on the morning of the 9th of April, Gemmill crossed Lambeth Bridge on her bike and, on the Millbank side, entered a large roundabout bordered by an arc of gloomy buildings, one of which belongs to MI5. I know a couple of cyclists of many years’ experience, women in their forties as it happens, who say they avoid the city’s roundabouts entirely or will get off when approaching one and push their way round on pedestrian crossings. I have no idea how common this is, though I quite understand it and cannot claim to be very much more daring: I simply don’t encounter any roundabouts on the few routes I cycle regularly around London. But I suspect that if my journey took me daily over a junction like this, I would do what Gemmill must have done and learn to cope with its rigours.

Cyclists know, or ought to know, that at junctions the greatest danger comes from getting trapped on the left by a vehicle turning in that direction. A car is alarming, a bus is bad, a truck much worse, and a large tipper truck the worst — if one of those hits you, there is usually nothing in the way of fender or truck body near enough to road level to prevent the bike and you from being sucked beneath the wheels. But getting left-hooked is just one of the dangers with such vehicles, which are often bristling with blind spots, including directly in front of and below the driver’s seat. We know, in part because of where she worked and in part because of the disposition of truck and bicycle in the aftermath — the accident was reported within hours by the Evening Standard — that Moira Gemmill was intending either to travel straight ahead or to turn right. And so instead of hugging the kerb in the bridge’s narrow, painted cycle lane, she would likely have moved out into the road as she approached the roundabout, signalling her intention to traverse it. At the time of writing it is hard to say, from accounts later given to the media and campaigning cyclists’ groups, just how far round she got before she was struck by a tipper truck belonging to a construction company. She died at the scene, paramedics having worked for half an hour trying to save her.

Five cyclists have died in London since the start of the year. On the 20th of January Stephanie Turner, aged twenty-nine, was crushed by a 32-ton truck at the junction of Amhurst Park and Seven Sisters Road, Stamford Hill. On the 2nd of February Akis Kolloras, thirty-four, was hit by an HGV on Homerton High Street. Four days later a twenty-six-year-old Italian fashion designer, Frederica Baldassa, was struck by a smaller delivery lorry around half past nine in the evening at the eastern end of Bloomsbury Square. Just over a fortnight later, Claire Hitier-Abadie, aged thirty-six, was riding a Boris bike on Victoria Street, near the station, when she was killed by a tipper truck during the morning rush hour. Following all of these deaths and others in the past few years there have been early-evening vigils, organized by a pressure group called Stop Killing Cyclists, held at the precise spot where the person has been struck. Scores or sometimes hundreds of cyclists have turned out, and speeches from activists and friends of the deceased been followed by a traffic-halting ‘die-in’, with cyclists lying down in the road with their bikes for a silent minute or more. The convention dates back to cyclists’ protests in the Netherlands in the 1970s, when mass demonstrations hastened the construction of dedicated cycle lanes in major cities and smaller towns. If the Dutch ‘segregation’ model were followed, it would involve but the placing of barriers or obstacles between bicycles and motor traffic, and cycle-specific crossings and lights. What London mostly has is partial segregation with lanes marked only with painted lines — as in the case of the four ‘cycle superhighways’ that connect certain suburbs to the centre.

As I write this, the main controversy regarding cycling in the city is about the coming construction of two more prominent and infrastructurally advanced cycle superhighways — running north–south and east–west through the centre of town — which have been cautiously welcomed by cycling groups and charities, supported by numerous high-profile corporations, and loudly opposed by taxi-drivers’ associations and certain representatives of the City. These will have wide two-way lanes, dedicated traffic signals and, in places, wide pavements between cyclists and other traffic. Transport for London, the local-government body that oversees all the capital’s transportation infrastructure, published late in 2014 a ‘Cycling Delivery Plan’, signing up to the government’s stated aim of instituting what it calls ‘a real step change in cycling’. The ambition, which greatly depends upon individual local authorities possessing funds and enthusiasm, is to double the number of journeys taken by bicycle by 2025, thus turning the UK into ‘a nation where cycling levels rival those in Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany’. In the meantime, London cyclists continue to take their chances amid the traffic, and on average a dozen of them a day are involved in accidents. A few minutes’ search online will discover several websites devoted to tracking these accidents — they are colour-coded on maps, from minor collisions through injuries to red-dotted deaths.


2


For several months of the year I spend a day or two in London each week, teaching at the Royal College of Art, in Kensington, and I often have reason to be in town otherwise. For the past six months I’ve mostly cycled around the city, after many years of feeling simply too frightened. I cycle everywhere in Kent, where I live, but had convinced myself London was too dangerous and the middle-aged body and soul too vulnerable. I used to look enviously at Dutch and Danish cyclists with their solid upright machines and safely cordoned paths, but aghast at London riders who seemed to require the sort of pace and recklessness I hadn’t managed in a city since my teens, and could not imagine risking again. I first tried cycling in London a decade ago: a Saturday-morning ride from Charing Cross to a distant gallery in the East End, executed on busy roads most of the way. I panicked on the return journey when a truck almost clipped me during a left turn, and finally gave up among tightly packed buses on the Strand, wheeling my bike to the station. I quietly abandoned the notion of becoming a London cyclist. It took a couple of years of slow and crowded early-morning bus and underground journeys to the RCA, meanwhile seeing my students and colleagues turn up on their bikes energized if often furious, to exhaust and coax me back into trying. Also, a sense that refusing the invitation from city and machine was physically cowardly and somehow spiritually demeaning.

My commute begins with a brief ride to the station. We live on the edge of Canterbury, where suburban and country drivers are apt to come very close at speed, not so much out of malice, I suppose, as out of ignorance of what it’s like to be on a bike. Sometimes, halfway down the hill, I’ll reach thirty miles an hour according to the digital sign by the side of the road, and then I’ll likely mutter ‘Don’t you fucking dare…’ at school-run cars and university-bound buses considering turning in front of me at the next junction. But I hardly think of this first phase of the journey as cycling at all, really; I’m at the station in less than five minutes, folding my bike on the platform and hefting it onto the train where I can spot a luggage rack. It takes fifty minutes to get to London: the one part of the day when I actually feel like that geekish contemporary London caricature, the middle-aged man with a folding bicycle — enthusiast, inconvenience in a crowd, slightly dishevelled bore. The rest of the time I’m too busy trying to stay alive to imagine myself as a cyclist as such.

The journey proper starts when bicycle and rider are extruded from the throng at the western exit of St Pancras station and shot into four lanes of traffic. The first few seconds are oddly calm: the timing of traffic lights means there is usually a nice empty expanse behind the knot of vehicles at the junction with Euston Road, which I must cross, with only a small shoal of buses in between. I need the second lane from left, straight ahead, which always has the longest line of stationary traffic. I must decide whether to stick in lane and wait, where I live in fear of being rear-ended, or overtake the queue on the right in hope of getting in front before the lights change. Almost always I try for the latter, and thus sometimes get stuck next to a traffic island, hoping to hand-signal my way back in lane. If you do get safely ahead of the traffic, you join that fleeting confederation of cyclists of which you’ll be part as you cross the city. Some of them are trying to ensure they get the quickest start, others to find the best position from which to make a getaway without impeding the rest of the pack. Some might be the sort of unthinking riders who undertake you on the left as you near the other side of the junction, just as traffic comes sailing past on your right. I sometimes try to judge where in the pecking order I need to be: ahead of the wobbly Boris users, behind the road bikes and twenty-somethings on single-speeds. It’s emphatically not the sort of spot where any cyclist is tempted to jump a red light.

Crossing after the light turns green requires the first real physical effort of the day, everyone eager to get a head start on motor traffic, so there’s a slight breathlessness as I broach the shallow incline of Judd Street, with its many pedestrians poised to step into the road on either direction, quite ignoring traffic lights and a zebra crossing up ahead. I need to look behind me just after the zebra crossing and move out smartly, ready to swerve right through a stream of black cabs. A couple of turns on empty streets and you are soon on one of the few sustained stretches of properly segregated cycle lane that run street-side through central London. This route runs east-west through Bloomsbury, and midweek when I join it around half past nine it is half filled with students, who soon veer off towards nearby colleges of the University of London. The path remains busy, however, and a little nerve-racking; though it’s separated from motor traffic by a kerb-height barrier, there is no division between two lanes filled with cyclists heading in opposite directions. I have never seen a crash, but there are countless moments when bikes come perilously close, frustrated riders overtaking slower ones with hardly time or space to spare. I’m not the slowest on this stretch, but mostly I’m happy to tuck in to the peloton. It’s a five-minute ride before the path deposits you at a right turn into Tottenham Court Road; I rejoin the traffic early, rather than trust I can edge my way over at the top of the queue, because I’ll be turning right but then left again quickly. My biggest fear while cycling in London involves the moment when you need to manoeuvre among two or three or four lanes, with cars and worse tearing up behind. I’m so used to provincial drivers, who often simply ignore — or maybe genuinely do not understand — the signals of a cyclist ahead of them, or will try to run you off the road if you occupy the lane, that the constant fear of being struck from behind just does not go away.

I fact, I have never been hit from behind while cycling — it’s not a very common occurrence, especially not in the city, where the traffic is so slow. All of my accidents, over the decades, have been essentially self-inflicted. Aged twelve, staring at the road in a daydream, I went straight into the back of a parked car on our quiet Dublin street and wrecked my front wheel. Three years later, riding home from school on a brand-new five-speed Viking racer, I imagined the car in front of me had pulled in to park, and with my newfound pace tried to overtake, then somersaulted straight away in the too-narrow gap between the car and an oncoming van. There was blood and bruising, but nothing broken. Since then I’ve only ever come off the bike, not collided with anything: misjudging a downhill turn on wet leaves or braking too hard when a dog darted onto a coastal path, both times depositing myself hip-first onto the tarmac; losing it in slow motion on a cattle grid and coming down hard with one leg trapped between the bars and a bare arm sunk to the elbow in stinging nettles. And when we lived outside Canterbury, cycling five miles home on country roads in snow and ice, at night too: all triumphant till one evening I broached the last downhill stretch and slalomed into a ditch. All of these were avoidable if I’d been a little more vigilant.

My route to work in Kensington takes me pretty much straight from Bloomsbury to the northern end of Hyde Park. There are no buses at all on the quiet streets that run north of the cyclist’s creeping horror-corridor of Oxford Street, where you will find yourself regularly walled in by them, having to make heart-stopping decisions about the width of a gap, trying to catch the eye of a harried or oblivious driver. But even on the quiet route I worked out last autumn after staring for days at Google Maps, there are plenty of private cars, taxis and delivery lorries. There are a few stretches of painted cycle lanes, but their placing seems quite random and they will fling you back into the motor traffic at inopportune moments. This is the sort of territory where it’s essential — and recommended by the Highway Code — for the cyclist to ‘take the lane’ and either occupy the middle of the stream of traffic or ride far enough out from the left (where there are, anyway, parked cars that might door you at any second) that traffic cannot overtake you at narrow portions of the way. This mostly works, but now and again — that’s to say, now and again in any one journey — it so enrages a driver that he (mostly he) will at the first opportunity execute what some cyclists call a ‘punishment pass’: overtaking perilously close, with centimetres to spare, so as to intimidate or force the cyclist into the gutter. So much of what occurs between motorists and cyclists is so clearly inadvertent that this extra layer of lethality, the very existence of drivers whose intent is to convince the cyclist that he or she is about to be killed — well, this would be amazing, were it not the daily experience of cyclists across this or any other city without adequate infrastructure.

My average speed as I cross the city is probably no more than ten, maybe twelve miles per hour. I am still a slow and careful cyclist, still slightly shocked when others squeeze through narrow gaps in moving traffic and risk long overtakes just as lights are about to change. In the face of a west wind, it can take twenty-five minutes to reach Hyde Park, where everything alters. The park is filled with traffic, but wide and mostly protected cycle lanes run alongside the roads. There is time to take in the morning horse-riders, swans and coots and ducks on the Serpentine, meandering tourists on Boris bikes, rollerbladers and, some days, an eccentric individual on what may only be described as a pair of homemade skis, on wheels, propelling himself in the bike lane with a pair of poles. The Serpentine Road takes me across the park to Kensington. The college is next door to the Royal Albert Hall, but I turn off before the main gate and coast past the Albert Memorial to the Queen’s Gate. At any time of year I’ll have warmed up by this stage, so may already have my helmet off by the time I dismount and cross towards the college, always with a faint pride that I have made it across town again.

At ten o’clock my students will be locking their bikes outside — they’ll pause to mock my ‘clown bike’ and we’ll share any real horror stories from our journeys mostly west across the city. Mine seem to fade from mind as soon as I get off the bike, and what I remember — what in a way the body remembers, and anticipates again at the end of the day — is not the mental strife of looking out for malicious or distracted drivers, reckless pedestrians and so on, but a half-hour interlude of exertion and the opposite of exertion, a sense of being at ease with the city, a feeling that it has in that time become aerated, porous, oddly placid. It’s at moments like this that the urban cyclist feels — a little smugly, some might say — that he or she inhabits a separate version of London from pedestrians and drivers and passengers, one in which not only are all districts within reach without real impediment or delay, but you are somehow sequestered from the city’s fraught and oppressive streets and transport systems. This feeling – no less real for being a fantasy – must be the effect of having mastered certain skills, learned how not to get yourself killed. I think this too is what I mean when I say that I love cycling in London.

3


Get some London cyclists, novices like myself included, engaged on the subject of their diverse and terrifying encounters in town, and the temperature — emotional, rhetorical, political — rises quickly. A student tells me that cycling home to Brixton she watched in horror as the rider in front of her was struck by a lorry and fell beneath it; by some miracle he emerged on the other side almost unhurt, and she cycled to his home with him, delivered this trembling man to his wife, all of them hardly able to credit that he was still alive. A colleague jokes that he gets all his work-related frustrations out of his system in the fifteen-minute commute from Victoria station, shouting at oblivious pedestrians to get out of his way; but then he stops laughing and recalls the moment, cycling through Kensington one morning, when a young woman in front of him was passed dangerously close by a black cab, whose roof she thumped as it went by. It’s the sort of gesture, or warning, or unthinking reaction, that I’ve told myself never to resort to, because the consequences are unpredictable and possibly violent. And so it went that morning: the cab driver pulled across the cyclists’ path, got out of the car in a rage, picked up the slight young woman and threw her into the road. She was a pianist from the Royal College of Musicians, nearby, and terrified in case she’d injured her hands.

Conversations like these are only partly about discrete incidents. They’re also about the texture of anger and fear, the degree to which such an ordinary act as crossing the city to work or college can be so fraught with emotional extremes, how you can surprise yourself with the speed and force of reaction at the moment of panic or indignation. There are ways of controlling this, reminding yourself that mostly people do not mean to be murderous assholes but will likely respond best to forceful politeness. The student who witnessed that narrow escape also tells me she’s cultivated a superior tone for the occasion of near misses: instead of swearing, she will shout things like ‘I’m not going to die because of your stupidity!’ I recognize the recourse to lofty disapproval, though surely it only works at a volume suited to errant pedestrians, fellow cyclists and drivers who have bothered to pause. At best, faced with light-jumping cyclists in my path, pedestrians with gaze locked phone-wards or non-indicating taxi drivers, I find myself adopting something I imagine is a teacherly tone but which probably sounds hysterical. ‘Hello! Really? Are you sure?’ Some other voice seems to erupt at the more serious moments, as when a van overtakes just as I’m heading into a pinch point in the road. ‘What the fuck? What the fuck was that? You fucking prick!’ (No doubt it all sounds highly comical coming from a Brompton rider in tweed jacket and brogues, looking for all the world just like my father forty years ago, pedalling his way bolt upright through Dublin.) What I have not done is start punching cars when they come too close, which another friend and colleague, who is otherwise pretty equable, reveals she has done in London, a city where male drivers like routinely to pull up alongside her at traffic lights and tell her she is simply cycling wrong. Worse — and we all laughed admiringly when she told the story — a van driver once cut her up at the notoriously dangerous Old Street roundabout, then at the next lights made obscene gestures when she tried calmly to explain what he’d done. ‘Things escalated,’ she told us: she unleashed a volley of uncomprehended French-Canadian curses and then in rage, before pulling away, turned and spat at his windscreen.

At a level mostly unexpressed, we all worry about one other. Now and then at the end of the day we’ll tell each other to ride safely, make a small fuss of checking helmets, lights and hi-vis vests. Safe home — for pedestrians, rail and bus commuters, even drivers, it means we hope they get home without impediment or the sort of disaster that seems to fall out of an empty sky. But it feels more urgent as the cyclist departs. Be careful. Please do not die. Mostly all is well, and recent studies confirm that the general public greatly exaggerates the danger of cycling in cities; in the UK, this tendency to overestimate risk is increasingly recognized as one of the main obstacles to raising the number of journeys taken annually by bicycle. But the general public does not cycle, and so has not quite appreciated the constant shuttling one does between mortal fear and the perfectly calm enjoyment of freedom.

Only once in the past six months have I felt I might actually be close to injury or death. Travelling north up narrow Wimpole Street, halfway back to St Pancras on a slightly different route from the one I take in the morning, I heard and felt what had to be a huge tipper truck just behind, then looked round to find a rusting yellow hulk an inch from my shoulder, a V sign flicking down at me from the passenger window as it roared past. ‘Too fucking close, you wanker!’ Pedestrians looked over, flummoxed: the truck had already reached red traffic lights ahead. I passed, and pulled out well in front where driver and passenger could see me — recalling that cyclists are also sometimes mown down at the lights by truck drivers who cannot see what is directly in front of the cab — then looked back to memorize the registration number and company name: aloadofrubbish.com. The truck’s cab erupted with swearing, the driver and his mate leering and laughing, at which point I knew they would try to run me off the road just as I reached the other side of the junction. But the street ahead was full of parked cars, so there was nowhere to go when they drew level again, the passenger screaming at me as I forced myself to stay outside the glinting zone of wing mirrors on my left — any one of which, let alone an opening car door, would have pitched me under the rear wheels of the truck. And then it was gone, driver and colleague probably still laughing. In my experience, it takes a few hundred yards of cycling after such a moment for legs and arms to weaken after the shock, for the moment to arrive when you have to get off and squat by the side of the road and wait for the shaking to stop.



4


Ten days after Moira Gemmill died, I left college and rode through the park then back out again to the V&A, where some of her former colleagues had organized a ‘feeder ride’ to join the vigil at Lambeth Bridge. Perhaps two dozen of us turned up there: people who knew her and many who did not but had seen the news and followed the online organization of a die-in by Stop Killing Cyclists. The sun was shining around six in the evening, and after twenty minutes of waiting and tentatively introducing ourselves we set off into Hyde Park again, then west to Hyde Park Corner, a busy intersection for cyclists which takes you along safe paths to the decidedly unsafe roundabout at Buckingham Palace, then through the usual crazy Westmister traffic, where we crossed lanes en masse to the surprise even of rush-hour London drivers. The group thinned out into a single-file line, but we picked up new riders on the way: the lycra-clad on their slivers of carbon fibre, students and hipsters on single-speeds, suburban commuters on Dutch-style three-speeds and ratty mountain bikes. A few bikes and helmets bristled with video cameras: the mark of the angry activist cyclist, ready to upload footage of reckless driving to YouTube at the end of the day. (I don’t personally know any such cyclists, but I spent hours watching their videos while I fretted last year about whether to take up cycling in London, listened to their running commentaries on close passes and infringements into stop zones, their bellowed recitations of offenders’ registration numbers.) At Lambeth we slowed and dismounted and joined the crowd on the wide pavement by the roundabout.

Three years ago Westminster council rejected a plan to incorporate cyclist-specific lanes and lights into the roundabout at Lambeth Bridge. The plan, so it was argued, would narrow the main lane excessively and make things more dangerous for motorcyclists, who are statistically more vulnerable than cyclists. At the vigil there were speeches against this decision, but also in favour of a properly implemented system of segregated cycle lanes and for limitations on the number of HGVs in London, or at least the legal requirement that they be fitted on their flanks with deflecting barriers near road level. Friends and colleagues of Moira Gemmill spoke too, and around 6.30 police officers on bicycles stopped the traffic and we all lay in the road with our bikes. Inadvertently I chose the spot where the organizers planned to place flowers and, as is customary, a ghostly white bike. ‘Don’t worry, mate, we’ll work around you.’ For a couple of minutes at least the traffic noise fell away and everybody was silent, except for the sound of camera shutters all around as press photographers picked their way through the still figures on the ground. Flat on my back, I watched a couple of contrails intersect in the empty air above the MI5 building. Later I crossed the bridge, and as I followed the south bank of the river towards Waterloo, keeping well out of a potholed gutter, a taxi came tearing past on my right, the driver leaning over and shouting in my direction: ‘Trying to get yourself killed, mate?’

To read the rest of this piece and Dublin Review 59, you may purchase the issue here.