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.

 
 
 
 

What’s in the government’s new rail strategy?

A train in the snow at Gidea Park station, east London, 2003. Image: Getty.

The UK government has published its new Strategic Vision for Rail, setting out policy on what the rail network should look like and how it is to be managed. 

The most eye-catching part of the announcement concerns plans to add new lines to the network. Citing the Campaign for Better Transport’s Expanding the Railways report, the vision highlights the role that new and reopened rail lines could play in expanding labour markets, supporting housing growth, tackling road congestion and other many other benefits.

Everyone loves a good reopening project and this ‘Beeching in reverse’ was eagerly seized on by the media. Strong, long-standing reopening campaigns like Ashington, Blyth and Tyne, Wisbech and Okehampton were name checked and will hopefully be among the first to benefit from the change in policy. 

We’ve long called for this change and are happy to welcome it. The trouble is, on its own this doesn’t get us very much further forward. The main things that stop even good schemes reaching fruition are still currently in place. Over-reliance on hard-pushed local authorities to shoulder risk in initial project development; lack of central government funding; and the labyrinthine, inflexible and extortionately expensive planning process all still need reform. That may be coming and we will be campaigning for another announcement – the Rail Upgrade Plan – to tackle those problems head-on. 

Reopenings were the most passenger-friendly part of the Vision announcement. But while sepia images of long closed rail lines were filling the news, the more significant element of the Strategic Vision actually concerns franchising reform – and here passenger input continues to be notable mainly by its absence. 

Whatever you think of franchising, it is clear the existing model faces major risks which will be worsened if there is a fall in passenger numbers or a slowdown in the wider economy. Our thought leadership programme recently set out new thinking involving different franchise models operating in different areas of the country.

The East-West Link: one of the proposed reopenings. Image: National Rail.

Positively, it seems we are heading in this direction. In operational terms, Chris Grayling’s long-held ambition for integrated management of tracks and trains became clearer with plans for much closer working between Network Rail and train operators. To a degree, the proof of the pudding will in the eating. Will the new arrangements mean fewer delays and better targeted investment? These things most certainly benefit passengers, but they need to be achieved by giving people a direct input into decisions that their fares increasingly pay for. 

The government also announced a consultation on splitting the Great Western franchise into two smaller and more manageable units, but the biggest test of the new set-up is likely to be with the East Coast franchise. Alongside the announcement of the Strategic Vision came confirmation that the current East Coast franchise is being cut short.

Rumours have been circulating for some time that East Coast was in trouble again after 2009’s contract default. The current franchise will now end in 2020 and be replaced with public-private affair involving Network Rail.


This new management model is an ideal opportunity to give passengers and communities more involvement in the railway. We will be pushing for these groups to be given a direct say in service and investment decisions, and not just through a one-off paper consultation.

Elsewhere in the Strategic Vision, there are warm words and repeated commitments to things that do matter to passenger. Ticketing reform, compensation, a new rail ombudsman, investment in improved disabled access and much else. This is all welcome and important, but is overshadowed by the problems facing franchising.

Stability and efficiency are vital – but so too is a model which offers deeper involvement and influence for passengers. With the building blocks of change now in place, the challenge for both the government and rail industry is to deliver such a vision. 

Andrew Allen is research & consultancy coordinator of the Campaign for Better Transport. This article was originally published on the campaign’s blog.

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