For cyclists, the way Chris Grayling opens car doors is a matter of life and death

Transport secretary Chris Grayling in happier times. Image: Getty.

I’m a London cyclist. I stop at traffic lights, I wear a helmet, and I even have an embarrassingly luminous jacket. After reading about the deaths of countless other twenty-something female cyclists, I hang back behind HGVs. 

And transport secretary Chris Grayling opening a car door without looking is bloody terrifying.

It’s happened to me before. I’m one of the slowest cyclists around, but even so, when someone opened the car door within a metre of me it was all I could do to shout and swerve out of the way. I thought immediately of a friend in Canada who wasn't so quick, and ended up with severe injuries. The man who had opened it looked at me with some confusion, as if he couldn't understand why I was so scared and angry. 

The video that has emerged shows Grayling emerge from his ministerial car in the aftermath of the accident on a congested London street. According to the Guardian, the car door had opened and sent the cyclist, Jaiqi Liu, crashing into a lamp post (a spokesman for Grayling called the incident an unfortunate accident and said the minister apologised).

Liu says that Grayling got out of the car to check he was OK, but couldn’t resist also giving him a sermon on cycling too fast (Liu says he wasn’t). The video emerged after the passing cyclist who filmed it read about Grayling ticking off cyclists for running red lights and criticising cycle lanes. 

Of course, there are cyclists that break the rules, and there is a testosterone-fuelled Lycra brigade that frankly I could do without on my commute home. But if the rules are reasonable, and keep you safe, most cyclists obey them. Just look at the traffic at a red light on a popular cycle route home. 

Every time a cyclist dies, somewhere an angry driver somewhere shakes his head and thinks of the guy who didn't have a helmet last night. But it is verging on offensive to suggest that cyclists breaking minor written or unwritten rules are somehow responsible for the dangers of injury or death. Cycling accidents overwhelmingly occur at junctions, in the daylight, according to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. The most common reason for a collision with a motor vehicle and a bike is simply that most human of errors - "failed to look properly" - and in a slight majority of cases it is the driver's fault.  

I remember how much I resented being lectured by a policeman on my loose helmet about five minutes away from the notorious Elephant & Castle roundabout, where HGVs have ploughed down cyclists for years. Yes, it’s good to protect your head, but last time I checked, that doesn’t protect you if a 26-tonne lorry turns onto a cycle lane. To join in with a culture of blaming cyclists reveals a startling complacency about the patterns behind cyclists' deaths. 


The fact is, if a cyclist skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or just cycles “too fast” (despite being under the speed limit), and an accident happens, it is the cyclist who dies. And if a truck skips a red light, or is in the wrong lane, or is over the speed limit, and an accident happens, it is also the cyclist who dies.

And the solution is not "give up your bike". Successive London mayors have encouraged cycling is not because they are fluffy green bunnies or climate warriors, but because the public transport system is overloaded, and cars already clog up the road. The same could be said for the centre of Bristol, or Edinburgh, or Manchester. In London over the past five years, this pragmatic leadership has transformed my experience of cycling. It is now possible to cross central London using almost exclusively cycle lanes, and I no longer have any hesitation in encouraging others to take up the habit. 

However, this transformation would not have come about without the unpaid work of volunteer cyclists who propose junction ideas, teach others to cycle safely and give feedback when accidents happen. If the Transport secretary learns anything from this encounter, it should be that next time an unfortunate accident occurs, he asks the cyclist what went wrong, and listens to them. 

Julia Rampen is the editor of the Staggers, where this post was originally published.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

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