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Profession reacts: make London safer for cyclists


Design client Moira Gemmill’s death has prompted architects to call for improvements to cycle safety

Architects have joined with cycling campaigners to demand urgent safety improvements on London’s streets after influential client Moira Gemmill was killed, reports Laura Mark.

Gemmill best known for her work at the V&A, died after her bike was hit by the heavy goods vehicle last week (9 April) at a notoriously dangerous junction near Lambeth Bridge.

The junction had been earmarked for improvement back in 2012, but the plans were never realised. Gemmill is the fifth cyclist to be killed on London’s streets this year. HGVs from the construction industry have been involved in almost all of these accidents.

Gemmill’s death comes just over a year after former secretary of the Royal Fine Art Commission Francis Golding was killed in a collision with a coach at an infamous junction on Southampton Row.

At the time of Golding’s death, AJ editorial director Paul Finch described him as a ‘victim of London’s inadequate rules, conventions and infrastructure in respect of cycling’. But a year on, the problems with the city’s cycling infrastructure remain widely unresolved.

dRMM founder Sadie Morgan, head of the new HS2 design review panel, says Gemmill’s death is a ‘poignant reminder to the industry of how unsafe London traffic is for cyclists’. She calls on the government to ‘properly commit to an investment strategy for cycling in cities’.

She adds: ‘Better infrastructure – including unambiguous cycle routes – is needed, with clear design guidelines for local authorities. Lower speed limits help, but making sure everyone understands and more importantly respects pedestrians and cyclists while driving is an imperative.’

Tom Dollard, head of sustainability at Pollard Thomas Edwards, agrees that the solutions require widespread, joined-up thinking. ‘There is certainly a disconnect [between encouraging cycling and its safety],’ he says. ‘To make cycling in London safer, we need a combination of measures and joined-up policy to enable that change.’

Among the grander answers to the problem is London mayor Boris Johnson’s proposed £160 million ‘crossrail for cyclists’, an east-west route running for 18 miles across the middle of central London.

Foster + Partners, with landscape outfit Exterior Architecture and engineers Buro Happold, has also proposed a 220km network of bike paths, dubbed SkyCycle, which would be mainly suspended above railway lines.

However cycling enthusiast Joe Morris, of Duggan Morris, believes the ‘hugely complex’ issue could be addressed in the first instance by ‘a range of small and medium scale interventions [which would] at least start to resolve the extreme cases’.

His suggestions include planning roads to pull traffic back at traffic lights, allowing time for cyclist to move away; safe dedicated cycle-only routes at peak hours; and the further expansion of the existing cycle highway network.

Morris agrees that construction vehicles are ‘quite rightly targeted as the worst offenders’. He says: ‘[Although construction companies] are doing everything they can to address these issues … nothing  can remove fully the self-evident danger that having such vehicles on the road presents.’

Hawkins\Brown partner Roger Hawkins, who took part in last year’s Portland to Portland cycle ride, believes London can learn from other cities.

‘Almost every US city felt safe,’ he says. ‘Vehicles shared the road with cyclists, while drivers demonstrated care, consideration and politeness. It all seemed to change when our small peloton arrived back in the UK. In London we felt threatened at almost every road junction.’

He adds: ‘Proper cycle-friendly provision in major cities is not only possible, but provides for better place-making and that streets are safer for walking, riding and driving.’

The architects’ views are echoed by cycle campaign group Sustrans, which has proposed a widely supported Cycle Superhighways scheme.

Nicholas Sanderson, policy officer at Sustrans London, says: ‘We do need more people cycling to ease congestion, ease pressure on the tube and bus and generally make us healthier and happier. In order to do that, we need environments that enable everyone to ride a bike safely.

‘Already in London, there’s a good network of 20-mile-per-hour zones and back-streets for cycling on, but the dangers posed by busy junctions, big one-way systems and roundabouts are unacceptable if we’re serious about making this city cycling-friendly.

‘Apart from boldly redesigning roads which are known to be dangerous – such as where this collision happened – placing cycling at the heart of London’s future growth will make cycling a real everyday option for Londoners, just as the bus or tube are.

‘That means reallocating road space for protected bike lanes, like the latest Superhighway proposals, and other safe and convenient routes such as the Quietways.’

Architects suggest six measures to cut accidents

  • Clear design guidelines for local authorities
  • Establish safe corridors through the road network keeping larger vehicles from roads at peak hours
  • Expand the cycle highway network
  • Build a complete network of segregated cycle lanes across London
  • Fit all lorries with cycle safety gear
  • Cycle awareness training built into driver training and testing

Further comments

Roger Hawkins, partner, Hawkins\Brown
‘The tragic deaths of Moira Gemmill and Francis Golding are both reminders that cycling in London is too dangerous.

‘In 2013 as part of P2P (a group of professionals in architecture, design, planning and media who came together to create a ride across the United States), I cycled into Chicago, Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York and London. Almost every US city felt safe, vehicles shared the road with cyclists, while drivers demonstrated care, consideration and politeness. It all seemed to change when our small peleton arrived back in the UK.

‘In London we felt threatened at almost every road junction. The difference between the US and UK was remarkable. A key factor was speed, as Americans tend to drive below 20mph in urban areas. In all the US cities we visited there were constant reminders of what’s on offer for cycling, with billboards reinforcing the law to “give bikes 3 feet”. Many city authorities had requirements for cycle awareness training built into their driver training and testing – including bus and cab drivers and the police.

‘The experience of cycling across America suggests that proper cycle friendly provision in major cities is not only possible, but provides for better place-making and that streets are safer for walking, riding and driving. The “complete street” was a term we came across in several US cities. It results in safe access for all users, viewing the street as a place for people not just for drivers. London has a lot to learn from other cities not only in America but throughout Europe.

‘The Mayor’s mini Holland scheme is currently promoting examples of good practice in the London Boroughs of Enfield, Kingston and Walthamstow. Our hope is that strong political leadership in these areas can provide a safer environment for cycling, with a segregated cycling system, more effective use of space and better streets for all.’

Tom Dollard, head of sustainability, Pollard Thomas Edwards
‘There is certainly a disconnect [between encouraging cycling and its safety]. To make cycling in London safer, we need a combination of measures and joined up policy to enable that change.  My top 3 measures for safer cycling are:

  1. Build a complete network of segregated bike lanes across London – not just the east/west and north/south routes. Although good work has been done in this area, there is still a disconnect between different parties and projects.
  2. Remove the legal bias for motorists – move to the American and European model of ‘strict liability’ for motorists.   
  3. Safer Lorry Campaign – All lorries to be fitted with safety gear and with limited access into central London.’

Nicholas Sanderson, policy officer, Sustrans London
‘The death of Moira Gemmill last Thursday was an absolute tragedy. Our thoughts are with her family and friends.

‘We need more people cycling to ease congestion, ease pressure on the tube and bus and generally make us healthier and happier. In order to do that, we need environments that enable everyone to ride a bike safely.

‘Already in London, there’s a good network of 20 mile per hour zones and back-streets for cycling on – but the dangers posed by busy junctions, big one-way systems and roundabouts are unacceptable if we’re serious about making this city cycling-friendly.

‘Apart from boldly redesigning roads which are known to be dangerous - like where this collision happened - placing cycling at the heart of London’s future growth will make cycling a real everyday option for Londoners, just as the bus or tube is.

‘That means reallocating road space for protected bike lanes, like the latest Superhighway proposals, and other safe and convenient routes such as the Quietways.

‘It also means banning unsafe lorries, restricting how and where HGVs operate and ensuring the drivers have the highest standards of vehicles and training.

‘Nearby cities such as Amsterdam or Copenhagen have prioritised redesigning their streets for cycling over decades with budgets to match. As such they have the safest streets and the highest number of people cycling about their daily business.

‘The next Mayor of London needs to continue to put serious money and TfL resources to implement the necessary changes to London’s streets.’

Joe Morris, director, Duggan Morris Architects
‘This is a subject close to my heart. I have cycled across London almost daily from the mid 1990’s commuting to and from work as well as countless rides training or for leisure. My daily commute currently takes up some 50km a day, cycling through Southwark, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Richmond upon Thames, Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster, Camden, City of London and Hackney (my morning route) and then back again (my evening route). It is intentionally circuitous and long. I ride for several reasons. I love cycling, I captain (with others) the Cycle to Mipim annual event. I cycle to keep fit, to keep away the underground and off the buses (which are a most unpleasant experience early in the mornings). I cycle because it is liberating. It clears one’s mind. It allows you to escape from the day to day toil for an hour or so at a time.

‘Cycling across London is also exceptionally challenging. There is a huge spectrum of road awareness and experience on the road at any one time; cyclists and vehicle users. This creates untold tension and conflict, constantly. I am amazed at how many cyclists attempt to ride some of the most notorious parts of the road network (Vauxhall gyratory, Blackfriars Bridge, the series of roundabouts at Elephant and Caste, the routes around Victoria and so on), seemingly having never ridden a bike before…many on Boris Bikes. It is always evident to me when a cyclist has no understanding of the dangers he/she is putting themselves in; slow turns, wobbling along the central reservation, turning across traffic without warning, excessive hesitation when to hesitate is a hazard, and so on.

‘Equally, as a cyclist and car user/owner, I can tell when someone in charge of a vehicle is driving without sufficient awareness, empathy, skill or experience endangering themselves and others (cyclists, pedestrians and other vehicle users). There are several who fall into this category. Firstly those who deem themselves above the codes of the road including black taxi drivers, Addison Lee drivers (whom I use daily), white-van-man and courier drivers, and Royal Postal delivery drivers who drive at such incomprehensible speed and recklessness, always, that you wonder how further accident, death and damage is not caused daily.

‘Worst of all, are the construction vehicles. They are quite rightly targeted as the worst offenders of this situation. I do believe they are doing everything they can to address these issues (signs at the back of the vehicle to prevent cyclists overtaking on the inside left, signs to stay back, signs to communicate that the vehicle makes regular stops and so on), however nothing of this sort can remove fully the self-evident danger having such vehicles on the road presents.

‘Resolving this is hugely complex. But I suggest that a range of small/medium scale interventions can at least start to resolve the extreme cases. Firstly, establish notional safe corridors through the road network which are dedicate to the safe transition of cyclists at peak hours. These corridors should exclude all dangerous/oversized traffic between 7:45am and 10am, and  4:45pm and 7pm at night, and in addition enforce slower speed restrictions on traffic with no vehicles allowed to go over 20MPH. Ideally, these should be formed along routes already popular with cyclist traffic. In addition, drivers of HGV’s/Courier vans and so on should be encouraged to attend and participate in cycle days, in which a flip perspective can be encouraged and the experience of the cycle community can be shared with those who regularly cause injury. Perhaps a mandatory annual CPD score for such attendance? Secondly, expand the cycle highway network (blue or otherwise) and make the fines for vehicles crossing into or driving along these immediate, significant and with 3 points on a vehicle owners license for dangerous and reckless driving.

‘I would also suggest that we give local authorities/police/community officers greater powers and resource to fine cyclists for red light jumping. One might also extend this to cyclists who ride on the pavement, the wrong way along a one way street and so on. If you are on the road, follow the code. It is as simple as that. No exception. Perhaps each local authority or indeed the London Cycle Campaign website can publish regular shame and name photos of those caught on the CCTV network jumping the traffic lights. Perhaps TFL could also consider making the bike boxes, those areas painted out at traffic lights, bigger and to pull the cars back further, to allow time for the cyclists to route find, before vehicle drivers overtake. For those using Boris Bikes, I wonder if it is a pre-condition that when someone signs up for a pass, they have to demonstrate road awareness and competency by attending small, local courses.

‘I think that we might also consider public information broadcasts, to a contemporary degree of execution, broadcast regularly at peak TV viewing time, extolling the virtues of considerate road use, and the inherent dangers present when roads are treated with disdain and ignorance.

‘There is a great deal of effort, work and thinking going into making London a cycling city, something that really excites me. I hope that with the above, more people can get onto a bike, out of cars, and through this cultural shift, help slow the city roads down and make it a safe place for all.’



Readers' comments (6)

  • Joe Morris mentions cyclists jumping red lights and riding on pavements, and while these people are clearly a small minority they're very visible, and I - as a pedestrian - despise them for their utter irresponsibility.
    I suspect that they do enormous damage to the reputation of cyclists in central London amongst not just pedestrians but - more critically - taxi drivers and all the other drivers who spend their working lives in this area.
    My early morning bus journeys from Euston down to Southampton Row, and short walk east along Theobald's Road, were a real eye-opener - both for the conflict between cyclists and frequently stopping buses, and for the tidal wave of cycles on Theobald's Road, frequently ignoring pedestrian lights and frequently on the pavement at the junction with Southampton Row.
    These were clearly experienced cyclists, but deserved to be banned, and I wonder whether there's a need for some form of licensing, with heavy penalties for dangerous cyclists as well as dangerous drivers?

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  • The UK suffers from a cultural problem over who has a right to the road, and we need to shift this attitude. As Roger Hawkins points out, car drivers drive more aggressively in the UK, and as a long time cyclist, my perception is that drivers feel cycles should not be there. If we are, we should act demurely and defensively. I think this relationship should be inverted.

    Taxis dislike sharing bus lanes with us, and regularly do their best to squeeze us out, then race past us only to cut us up at junctions or manoeuvre without signalling, as if driving were a sport. Cars drive too closely to the kerb, giving us scant space, and don't use their mirrors. At traffic lights, I have found junction boxes regularly occupied by cars, as if they haven't noticed them, or understood what their function is. I have pulled up several drivers doing this. One driver's reaction was to roll their eyes and look away.

    There is a prevailing attitude - exemplified and legitimised by people like Jeremy Clarkson - that cycling is for wusses, while driving is for the macho hero. So when cyclists behave badly it's considered offensive. Yet drivers behave badly all the time. I reject this double standard. Joe makes a good point that drivers should be required to use a bike on the road as part of their test, to see how vulnerable it feels.

    We have a health and obesity crisis in the UK. Cycling could help this, and provide for our well-being. We should be discouraging cars, dedicating central London streets to pedestrians and cyclists. Vehicle access hours should also be restricted. The speed of movement would be no worse - in fact, it might improve. By privileging pedestrians and other forms of self-propelled transport, including cycling, we will have a generally more enjoyable city and a better public realm, as we sort out what living well in the city is all about. We need the political will to counteract the very powerful vehicle lobby. If other cities can do so, so can we. BTW we also need better cycle parking provision. Boris found space for all those hire bikes, yet often, close by you can't find a Sheffield hoop for love or money on which to fix your own.

    And in answer to those drivers that complain I can't voice and opinion because I don't pay road tax using a bike, I am fed up with my income tax subsidising the roads and giving me little back.

    One final point: two years ago I was knocked off my bike by a mobility vehicle, and went to hospital with a broken wrist. With an ageing population there will be more pressure on roads and pavements from these vehicles too.

    Sarah Wigglesworth - cycling in London since 1978

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  • Why is the Highway Code not enforced?

    The Highway Code rule 163 states:
    'Overtake only when it is safe and legal to do so. You should….
    give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211 to 213) and 214 to 215).' Pasted from

    The illustration of this rule shows a car overtaking on the right hand side of the road, away from a roundabout, whilst leaving the entire left lane for the cyclist. The photo is subtitled 'Rule 163: give vulnerable road users at least as much space as you would a car'.

    The reality we face is Roman, Medieval and Victorian road widths and on-street parking results in insufficient space for vehicles to pass cyclists safely and this results in many cyclists and motor cyclists near misses, casualties and fatalities. Of course other rules such as not using mobile phones and driving without due care are also reasons. So why don't we see more cracking down on this?

    The reasons might be lack of political leadership, cost or laziness, too big a problem, not my problem and lack of accountability. I would say with the high level of casualties and deaths on the roads there is evidence of a systemic complacency and failure in for those who manage our roads including the Police, and directors of TfL, local authorities, haulage, bus, coach, taxi, construction company directors and developers. Do we need a royal commission to look into this or could technology such as video evidence enforce the Highway Code too?

    We could learn from other examples how to overcome systemic failures and improve attitudes and behaviours to improve safety. The construction industry learnt to improve construction site safety by improving attitudes with strategies such as 'target zero' and 'everybody gets home safe'. Such high level ambitions were supplemented with training, adopting processes and work practices that are costly to implement. Nevertheless, the cost of an accident and death is massive to the families and people involved. Also, legislation, such as corporate manslaughter may be appropriate for those who are found to be complacent or negligent in conducting their duties. Moreover, attitudes of road users need to change to be cautious, anticipate and tolerate vulnerable road users.

    The end result could be drivers will wait until there is space to pass vulnerable road users. Traffic speeds will reduce however the average traffic speed is low anyway, not much more than 11mph or average cycling speed. Surely that is a better scenario than present?

    I suggest we need more effective enforcement of the Highway Code with a 'target zero' and 'everybody gets home safe' culture. Jailing those who have failed to uphold their duty in managing and policing the roads or their employees using existing corporate manslaughter legislation could be one way to ensure that change in attitude is effective and implemented quickly.

    John Harding-cycling in London since age 11. One of my school friends Andrew Jackson was crushed to death by a left turning bus almost 40 years ago...what's changed since then!

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  • Living in Central London, I have seen countless incidents of both cyclist and driver irresponsibility at notorious blackspots. I am surprised that only 5 cyclists have been killed this year.

    I really want to support the rights of cyclists to a safer environment, but my empathies have been significantly challenged by my experiences as a pedestrian walking along the canal path from Hackney to City Road or Angel. Many cyclists seem to feel they have some exclusive ownership of this as a race track, and treat pedestrians the way, I suspect, they feel drivers treat them. A kind of victim-turned-bully mentality.

    Yes there are many improvements that need to be made to road planning, but it is the aggressive (as opposed to decisive), boorish or stupid attitudes of both drivers and cyclists that cause most accidents.

    I was appalled to hear of Moira's death last week, and so sorry that it is her desperate story that has prompted this discussion yet again.

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  • Moira's death is a tragedy and a chilling reminder of our fragility as road-users.

    Cycling in London would be much improved if the roads we cycle on are kept in excellent repair. Swerving to avoid pot-holes, hazards and uneven surfaces does not promote safe cycling. So Boris, TfL and local councils please consider the quality of road repair and maintenance - it's a life-threatening street before you have even dodged a bus or lorry.

    Yes, cyclists should be law abiding, and not jump lights, but a 'turn left on a red light, if safe' would help a lot.

    In many boroughs the speed limit is 20mph - yet there are significant number of racing demons who are intent on breaking their land-speed record, and put many pedestrians and cyclists at risk including themselves. Cyclistsshould observe the speed limit at least where there are other road users.

    I do think pavements are safe option for cyclists in busy locations providing they share and go slowly. There are so many incomprehensible one-way systems and fearfully busy main streets, that the occasional sharing is a much better option. You take up less room on a bike than walking with one along the pavement anyway, as long as you cycle very slowly and are not a hazard to others. And for wide pavements zoning is possible - cyclists next to the road, pedestrians inside.

    One-way streets should be used by cyclists going the 'wrong' way. This works in Dijon, a large town in France, and no doubt many other towns and cities in Europe where they accommodate cyclists. There are signs to indicate this so cars can expect to meet a cyclist coming the other way. Most of the one-way streets I encounter on my route to work are very wide and empty and only one-way to satisfy peace-loving residents (who all seem to own cars which are left parked in the street). A cyclist is a peaceful road user and should be encouraged to make use of available quiet routes.

    Caroline Dove
    cycling in London since 1965

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  • Chris Roche

    I cycle almost daily in London, and experience risks every week. Construction Vehicles are only part of the problem. In North London mothers in large SUV's running late on the school run, are a particular problem. As are motorist's on phones, and generally distracted or failing to pay sufficient attention at road junctions - presumably due in part to time pressures. Road safety awareness is arguably higher now than at any point in the recent past and yet some motorists continue to drive in an anti-social or downright wreckless manner. Greater Police powers to prosecute needs to become a priority - and cyclists must be able to record and report the vehicle registration numbers of careless drivers with a view to repeat offenders being excluded from driving for a minimum six month period. Their insurance premiums would rise as a consequence, and they would them moderate their behavior
    Chris Roche
    Founder 11.04 Architects.

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