Wednesday, 27 November 2013

#VictimBlamingIdiot, Operation Safeway and the 'Dead Cat' on the table

This week I was asked (again) to speak on LBC Radio (London's Biggest Conversation). I'd been asked quite a few times this month but declined thus far, mainly because I find Nick Ferrari's views on cycling to be quite repulsively ignorant which makes it difficult to have anything near a balanced debate. But I thought I would give it a go on Tuesday because I wanted to air my thoughts on 'Operation Safeway' publicly. As expected, I wasn't given a chance to talk about something sensible, and instead was quizzed by Nick Ferrari about whether it was 'okay' for someone to cycle their kids into school in a cargo-bike if that involved the children inhaling lorry fumes.

I pointed out that at least the kids were being reminded to exercise and that we were the fattest country in Western Europe and that obesity and lack of exercise would kill you much quicker than air pollution. Nick Ferrari, a rather portly man himself, didn't take well to this. Of course what Nick should have asked was, is it okay for Boris Johnson to have created a city where if a man wants to cycle his kids to school they have to inhale poisonous fumes in the first place? Is it okay that Boris Johnson is happy for London to be the most polluted capital city in Europe and it's 'low emission zone' to be nothing more than duplicitous Orwellian double speak? Is it okay for Boris Johnson to allow large numbers of lorries and HGVs to use London's streets at the exact time that children are cycling, and being cycled to school?

Unfortunately none of these questions occurred to Ferrari. His surname's appropriate, I suppose.

I was then cut off before I could talk about Operation Safeway, so I'll set down here my thoughts on the Metropolitan Police deploying 2,500 officers to police London's most dangerous junctions. One of my problems with this is whether it will it actually safe lives. I appreciate that people might drive and cycle slower when police are around, but TfL's own figures show that in accidents were a cyclist was killed or badly hurt the cyclist was presumed to have committed an offence in just 6% of cases. Therefore, making cyclists 'obey the law' won't safe the lives of the 94% of cyclists killed or maimed on London's roads who weren't committing any offence when they were killed or maimed. Moreover, though law-breaking motorists account for a large proportion of those killed while cycling on the capital's streets, in most cases of a driver killing a pedestrian or cyclist, the driver is not arrested, let alone formally charged. How, then, will compelling drivers and cyclists to obey the law help save lives, when people are being constantly killed when they are following the law, trying to get home, going about their daily business?

Operation Safeway, in my opinion, won't save lives. The most dangerous junctions where these officers are being deployed are not dangerous because of law-breaking road user behaviour, but because the design itself is inherently criminally dangerous for vulnerable road users. Bow Roundabout is fundamentally unsafe for someone on a bike (or, indeed, on foot). Putting an officer there isn't going to change this. An immediate temporary 20 MPH limit on the roundabout and approach roads until road layout changes are completed might at least improve things, but Boris Johnson has rejected this measure. Why? For political reasons he wants to victim blame instead.

Operation Safeway is part of Boris Johnson's wider strategy of being a #VictimBlamingIdiot. When he come to power in 2008, partly on a 'cycling ticket', Johnson should have immediately began segregating cycle and motor traffic on London's most dangerous junctions and roads, and lowering speed limits and putting in cameras to ensure safe driving where this was not possible. Instead Johnson has pursued 5 years of 'smoothing the traffic flow' and actually speeding up much of London's motor traffic, while forcing increasing numbers of Londoners cycling to share road space with ever faster motor vehicles (often on his death-trap 'Superhighways'). The intolerably high number of killings in the recent months and years are a result of this. (Although, granted, in the last 5 years Johnson has, to be fair, done a lot to push cycling up the political ladder of issues, even if he hasn't done anything positive for the safety of Londoners using bikes).

So, Boris Johnson finds himself in a position where, to quote the man himself, "you are losing an argument. The facts are overwhelmingly against you, and the more people focus on the reality the worse it is for you and your case." This is his position in terms of London cycling. He's done nothing to make it safer for Londoners while encouraging them to cycle for the last 5 years. The result: 81 Londoners killed. Directly his fault, often on or near 'Superhighways' which he personally had built. The more people focus on the reality the worse it is for him.

So what's Johnson's solution to this problem? Again his own words speak volumes: "Your best bet in these circumstances is to perform a manoeuvre that a great campaigner describes as 'throwing a dead cat on the table, mate'. The key point, says my Australian friend, is that everyone will shout 'Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!'; in other words they will be talking about the dead cat, the thing you want them to talk about, and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief." This is exactly what Johnson has done in response to six Londoners being killed in two weeks while cycling in the capital. He has slung a dead cat on the table, namely blaming the victims for either breaking traffic laws or cycling with headphones in (neither the Met nor TfL can cite a single instant where the latter has led to a cycling fatality). Given that the cyclist was breaking the law in only 6% of fatal crashes, attacking cyclists who break the law in response to a string of fatalities is a totally irrelevant issue. It makes everyone sit up and say, 'bloody hell, that's a dead cat', and forget that the reason these fatalities have happened is because Boris Johnson has refused to segregate, introduce 20 MPH, or tighten lorry restrictions and regulations throughout his 5 years in office.

The kind of 'dangerous cycling' Boris Johnson has hypocritically and maliciously blamed London's recent fatalities on. This is the 'dead cat' Johnson wants us to think about and attribute cycling deaths to, rather than appalling road design, which in many cases the mayor and TfL were explicitly told would mean "casualties were inevitable"
Operation Safeway is part of this victim blaming operation by our duplicitous mayor. He tried it before when he lied and said that in 61% of fatalities cyclists were responsible for their own death, when TfL's own figures actually put this at just 8%. Though some police are stopping and checking lorries (which is to be commended) the primary thrust of the operation is being directed against supposedly errant cyclists, therefore furthering the incorrect public perception that cyclists are at fault for their own deaths, a fatuous lie (and 'dead cat') that Johnson wants the public to swallow so they don't see his own grievous failings on the issue of cycle safety.

Moreover, Operation Safeway allows Johnson to further the 'collective guilt' that is currently thrust on 'cyclists' by the media and politicians: i.e. simply because someone jumps a red light in Holborn that makes it okay for a lorry driver to run me over and crush me to death at Bow. He says, 'I know a lot of cyclists have been killed recently, but they've really got to stop jumping red lights and take responsibility for their own safety'. So if someone jumps a red light in front of me that makes it okay for a driver to turn their car directly into my path and kill me? Imagine if a British political figure said, 'I know a lot of British Muslims have been killed recently, but they've really got to stop being terrorists and take responsibility for their own safety'. Some British Muslims are terrorists, but that doesn't mean that British Muslims shouldn't be entitled to not travelling in fear of being killed, and every other right that belongs to UK citizens. Yet Boris Johnson can say it's okay that six cyclists were killed because a bunch of other cyclists have been jumping red lights? Appalling. You can't treat a minority like this. There is no way that I, or anyone else, should have to assume collective guilt for the actions of anyone else that rides a bike. If I'm not breaking the law, I'm entitled to a safe journey home on my bike where I'm not 7 times more likely to be killed than in Amsterdam. I refuse to accept that whether someone else chooses to wear high-viz, a helmet, or obey a red light should have any impact on the standards of road safety I demand from my political leaders.

Yet this is what Boris Johnson is trying to do with Operation Safeway. He's trying to cement the false image of the law-breaking cyclist whose responsible for his own death, and in so doing divert responsibility away from himself, as Johnson is far too aware that it is the decisions he has made at places like Bow Roundabout or King's Cross that have led to the fatalities there, and that he is actually responsible.

It's vile and disgusting. Politics at its lowest. And it's alienating Boris Johnson from not just cyclists, but also Londoners more widely. A lot of people aren't being taken in by Johnson's 'dead cat' trick, and are instead calling the mayor out on his callous and insulting victim blaming antics. Come 2016, he will be in a lot more trouble.

Moreover, this Friday at 5pm the first ever London 'Die-In' is occurring, where Londoners will lie down with their bikes in Blackfriars Road opposite TfL Headquarters to protest at Johnson's failure to act, or even take responsibility for the spate of recent killings on our streets. I urge you to attend.

Cyclists mass die-in protest Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum 1970's. It's because of protests like this that Holland is now a far safer place to cycle than in the UK. Nothing to do with the country being flat, unfortunately...