Sunday, 5 August 2012

Blackfriars Bridge. Yet another collision last month. This time, reported in the words of the cyclist who escaped being crushed by a truck. How far can you blame the infrastructure for what keeps happening here?

The cycle lane at the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge. Everyone is either going left, straight ahead or turning
right. Across one cycle lane and three motor vehicle lanes. Recipe for disaster?

Ruth Anthony was on that bicycle and had been cycling straight over the Bridge when a truck turned left across her towards the Embankment. 

The collision took place at the north of the bridge, pictured above. As you can see, there is a busy 2.5m wide cycle lane used by thousands of cyclists every morning. The vehicles on the right of the bike lane are heading straight-on or turning left at the lights. The people in the bike lane are also going left, straight on, or trying to turn right by getting across the three lanes of motor traffic beside them. 

New York City sign seen at cycle
lane junctions 
TfL has recently widened the bicycle lane here making it much clearer that this space is meant for cyclists. But it's still a hugely ambiguous layout. 

If this were Montreal or New York, there would be a great big sign telling motorists turning left to give way to cyclists carrying straight ahead. Pictured left, the sort of sign you see at junctions in New York City. Motor vehicles yield to people on bikes. Simple.

To reinforce the point, in New York or Montreal, there would be a physical divider, protecting people on bikes and keeping motor vehicles away from them. There might (as pictured below) be separate traffic light phases for bikes to go straight ahead and cars hold on red.

But this is the UK, not New York City. As far as I understand, the Department for Transport won't allow transport authorities like Transport for London to enforce a give-way to cyclists at a junction like Blackfriars. 

So what you end up with is a dangerous compromise. A semi-decent bike lane (if you're going straight ahead) where no-one has a clue who has priority and who doesn't. It's not abnormal to see 20-30 cyclists at each traffic light phase, all going straight ahead. And one or two motor vehicles turning left. The reality is that when the lights go green, the one or two drivers either edge their way or simply force their way through the 20-30 cyclists. 

Bike lane junction in New York.
Note separate traffic lights for cyclists going
straight ahead and cars turning left
Basically, the rules of the road don't work at this junction. There's simply nothing in the Highway Code that tells drivers how to handle junctions with 2.5m wide bike lanes next to them. Meanwhile, cycle training would probably suggest you should 'take the lane' and slot in behind the motor vehicles. But that seems daft here. There are simply too many people on bikes and the queues of motor traffic in the left lane can stretch back quite some way. 

Ruth was run over at this junction by a motorist turning left across the bike lane. I contacted Ruth directly to ask how she was and to find out what really happened. Her story is below. 

I've tried not to pass comment on Ruth's story. What I've tried to do is to set Ruth's story in the context of how this junction really works (or fails to work) - a junction that is used by thousands of people who cycle through it every rush hour. I find this junction tricky to manoeuvre through and keep my eyes and ears on high alert and pedal like crazy to try get through the junction as safely, visibly and clearly as possible. I think everyone on a bike has a responsibility to look out for themselves and look out for others on the road. And I feel that cycle training is one of the most sensible things a regular cyclist can do.

But the reality is that this is a junction (like almost all junctions in the UK) designed for motor vehicle flow, with half-baked solutions for people on bikes that introduce conflict between road users rather than design that conflict out, in the way that you might expect from teams of highly qualified road engineers. Part of the problem is the tools at the hands of those engineers (rather, the fact that the Department of Transport won't allow some simple solutions, such as priority for cyclists here), but a big part of them problem is that this junction is designed to maximise the flow of motor vehicles, not the safe flow of all its users - including the people on bikes who make up 36% of rush-hour traffic here. The result is that drivers don't have clear instructions on how to handle all the bikes around them. And cyclists don't have a consistent or clear way to cycle through the junction either. Recipe for yet more tragedy? I think so. 

What follows are Ruth's own words. I think she's very brave to want this published. See what you think:

Ruth's bike after the collision
"On Tuesday morning I set off on my usual daily commute from Kennington to Farringdon.  It was pretty much business as usual, although I did notice that there was more traffic than usual, presumably due to the Olympics.

On reaching the red traffic lights at the junction of Blackfriars Bridge and Victoria Embankment I stopped behind three or four cyclists in the cycle lane, waiting to go straight ahead.  I was next to next to a truck as were the cyclists ahead of me. The truck was indicating left.

As the lights changed to green the cyclists in front of me proceeded straight across the road. It seemed that the truck driver was letting the cyclists through before it turned. I thought that the truck had seen them and allowed them through, and therefore had also seen me, so I proceeded to cycle straight ahead.

But then the truck started turning left into my path, so I also veered left with it to try to avoid a collision. Unfortunately I wasn’t quick enough because I then I felt a bump on the back wheel of my bike and immediately and instinctively just leapt/dived off my bicycle to my left as far as I could towards the kerb.  

It’s a bit of a blur and I have no idea how I managed to do it, but I did and thankfully cleared the danger zone as my bicycle was swept under the truck and crushed under the wheels of a 40 tonne lorry.

The driver only stopped 20 or so metres down the road - he must have heard the tyres of my bicycle exploding and only then realised that there had been an accident.

I was in shock but the full realisation of how bad it could have been came when I saw the expressions on the faces the people who had witnessed it - they looked completely aghast and could not believe that I was able get up and walk about.

The driver of the truck stopped and came over and asked if I was all right. I said I thought he had seen me because of the other cyclists in front of me and he mumbled something like ‘yeah they went around me’.

I am not sure whether he just didn’t care, or, like me, was in shock, but he wasn’t apologetic and we didn’t talk again other than to exchange details (actually I got his details, he didn’t ask for mine).

Ruth's thank you note, left pinned to her mangled bicycle on
Blackfriars Bridge
A PCSO was on the scene within a minute or two and then a passing car with three CID policemen stopped to check I was ok before a PC on a motorbike arrived to take statements from the driver and I.

A paramedic from an ambulance attending to a separate incident across the road came over to check on me but I decided I did not need further medical attention as I only had a bruised ankle and knee.

The PC on the scene informed me that City of London policy is to separately investigate any incident within their borders involving HGV’s over 3.5tonnes and cyclists. This is to check whether or not the driver has had the correct level of training, is not working over allowed hours, etc. They arrived but didn’t need to speak to me so I left them to interview the lorry driver and proceed with their queries.

The police advised that I keep my bicycle in case of any issues that might arise in any claim I might make, so I locked it to the railings on the bridge to collect it later on (which I have now done).

I decided to write a thank-you note and attach it to my bike because in these situations one does not often get to know how the story ended, and for my part I was so grateful to everyone who stopped to help. I wanted to let them know that I really was OK."