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.

 
 
 
 

“Residents were woken by the sound of bulldozers”: in Lagos, gentrification can mean midnight demolition

A displaced family sits on make-shift structures after their home in the waterfronts was demolished last November. Image: Getty.

The ambitious plans produced by the Lagos state government to redevelop the most populous city in Africa are often lauded in Nigeria. Moving around in this buzzing yet often dysfunctional commercial capital is often tortuous, with thick traffic and poor connectivity problems across the city.

The current state governor, Akinwunmi Ambode, wants to remake the city’s image, turning it from a sprawling bottleneck of a city to a better structured and more functional one. But his plans to improve infrastructure and redevelop large parts of the city have had sinister consequences for swathes of the city’s population: the urban poor, who seem to have no place in Ambode’s vision.

The last few years have seen an alarming trend of state-backed destruction of small businesses, markets and especially informal housing settlements, “regenerating” areas with new expensive housing and development. Last year a large fishing community in Lagos informally called the ‘waterfronts’, housed over 300,000 people. But in the last five months, three rounds of demolitions have ruthlessly left more than 35,000 people homeless.

In November, the homes of over 30,000 people were destroyed by bulldozers. Last week a further 4,700 people were the victims of sudden midnight demolitions. According to residents, the destruction was supervised by state officials and police. A High Court ruling the previous January had said that previous demolitions by the state were “inhumane” and against the residents’ human rights, mandating all parties to enter mediation. All the same, residents were woken up by the sound of bulldozers which destroyed their homes, with no notice to collect their belongings.

Demolitions like this have become increasingly commonplace in Lagos, where land is scarce and valuable. By some estimates, over two thirds of people in Lagos live in informal housing settlements. And not only is there a premium on expensive housing projects; many of the state’s big infrastructure plans, like the desperately needed bridge connecting the Island to the mainland, cut through areas filled with such settlements.

After demolitions, many residents simply move to the outskirts of their destroyed communities or to other informal settlements. The cost of setting up shelters to live in is far more is feasible than formal housing costs.

Too often the government prefers to evict and demolish rather than mediate. It rarely provides assistance for tenants to move, or regulates and redevlops those areas with them in mind.  After a kidnapping near the waterfronts, the governor of Lagos, Akinwunmi Ambode, described the communities as “the abode of miscreants/street-urchins, kidnappers, touts, street traders and hawkers”. In his vision of a modern Lagos, slums and street sellers have little place.


A closing market

Government policies have also made it increasingly hard for the urban poor to work. In many settlement areas, small markets spring up to cater to the communities that live there. Small businesses also set up in other areas that aren’t approved, or in complexes rented from landlords who aren’t transparent with tenants about ownership disputes.

On side streets, women sell items laid on fabric or stools. And on the streets of Lagos, young men and women, and sometimes children, weave dangerously between impatient motorists: the gridlocks that hurt the city present a ready market for those selling anything from drinks and snacks, to underwear or household furniture.

Officially a ban on street trading has been in place in Lagos since 2003, but in the last year, in certain key areas, it has been more keenly enforced. Millions of families rely on street trading for income, yet its dangers and problems are clear. Here too, instead of reforming a system that millions of people rely on, the government wants to end it entirely. State officials have in the last year targeted key areas, arresting street sellers and confiscating their goods.

The government claimed that, after the ban, street traders would be able to access loans to start more formal businesses. But poor capacity, access and loan requirements have made it a out-of-reach for many traders.

Gentrification is a hallmark of major cities all over the world. But in Lagos, to many of the city’s poor, it’s manner is particularly violent and cruel.

The governor is keen to be the face of a new Lagos, attracting and administering new redevelopment projects. But he is not prepared to work out how to rehouse or compensate the people whose lives are being torn apart by such plans. He wants Lagos to be more ordered, for selling on the street to move into more regulated areas. But as the space for those areas diminishes to make way for shopping malls, and the costs outstrip people’s resources, there are many reasons why people aren’t selling there in the first place.

Regenerating and reforming Lagos is not a problem in itself. But the disregard for many of the people who live there is fuelling needless suffering.

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