A Letter to Boris

19 November 2013

Apparently today is the last day of London Cycling Campaign’s email campaign asking Boris Johnson to take positive action. You can write to him here. Here’s what I wrote.

Dear Mr Johnson,

I am not a Londoner. Nor, indeed, do I cycle in London. You may feel that this entirely devalues what I am about to say, but I shall say it anyway.

You’ll of course be aware that London is – whether the regions beyond it like it or not – the focus of Britain’s attention in many ways and at many levels. So it is with the business of managing the ways in which extraordinary numbers of people live and work together, not least the way in which they move around.

To achieve this in an efficient and safe way is no easy task. I envy no-one the job of marshalling millions of busy individuals by way of engineering, nor would I expect anyone to meet this goal flawlessly.

But whilst no-one, and no engineered system, is perfect, it is equally true that without striving for perfection, nothing will ever come close.

And the crushing disappointment to those of us who look inwards on our capital city in hope of leadership, is that its Mayor, its transport authority and its police all seem to be showing signs of not striving.

For you to say that “unless people obey the laws of the road, there’s no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people’s lives” is jaw-droppingly appalling. To say that when three deaths have occurred within yards of each other at just one roundabout, and to do so after an inquest damning it as “an accident waiting to happen” is to reject any sane interpretation of evidence. Aside from all else, investing in traffic engineering that keeps pedestrians and cyclists as fully segregated as possible from HGVs, their statistically major killer, is patently a means of saving lives.

The approach to safety right now is little more than one of rolling dice, of holding one’s breath for that “accident waiting to happen”, instead of changing the odds. The concept of sustainable safety is eschewed in favour of blind faith in five million emotional individuals, each armed with vehicles of varying mass and speed. Systemic solutions are ignored, with a reliance instead on a level of law enforcement which is an economic impossibility. “Sustainable safety” is not a word on your lips in this darkest hour of London’s road deaths.

The words that are on your lips are those of someone who is intent on anything but sustainable safety: clinging to the hope and faith bestowed upon bright clothing and polystyrene hats. The police are on the streets in their thousands, offering coloured vests to people who ride in broad daylight and under 24-hour street lighting, and advising people to wear polystyrene helmets in a month which once again has shown the main cause of their deaths in urban areas to be crushing by HGVs and buses. It is no more than bows and arrows against the lightning, Lieutenant George’s stick against the German machine guns as he goes over the top – not charging patriotically into Nomansland, but simply bracing himself for his commute to Holborn.

Worse, for you to criticise the victims by saying publicly that “you can see that people have taken decisions that really did put their lives in danger” when coroners’ reports are unwritten and the bodies barely cold, is – no matter how carelessly you prefix such statements with “there’s no question of blame, but…” – callous and presumptious. On the one hand we have Leon Daniels defending the complete resistance to a “knee jerk reaction” by saying that the facts need to be established, yet on the other you have evidently jumped to a conclusion. This is the worst of all worlds: presumption and inaction. It is manifestly abusive to the people you are entrusted to protect and whose city you are privileged to administer.

The truly unbelievable aspect to all this is that nothing here is uncharted territory. The Netherlands is a veritable showroom of sustainably safe engineering designs; Sweden offers proven techniques to convert car dependency to sustainable transport; Paris offers an example of simple steps to reduce the odds when you roll those dice again and again and again. Yet there is precious little appetite for any of this. An HGV ban at peak hours has been discussed for years, but nothing has been done. Offers of instructive tours of Dutch best practice have been made, but none have been accepted. Examples of social change have been pointed at, but never mirrored. Instead, the choice is to reinvent the wheel, seemingly stubbornly blinkered and arrogantly ignorant in doing so, and then to fall back on hats and rules when that wheel turns out to be square.

I fully support London Cycling Campaign’s current petition for you to immediately address the dangers of CS2, particularly at Bow and Aldgate, and to continue making London’s junctions safer.

Do not forget that the whole country looks in on London. The way in which London treats its citizens, the way it approaches egalitarianism, the regard it has for its environmental qualities, the value it bestows upon people’s wellbeing, the braveness it shows in questioning reliance upon petrol power – all of these are things which will, through the media and through parliament, lead the country.

It is not just the Londoners who ride bicycles that depend on your actions. It is not just Londoners who walk, or Londoners who are stuck in traffic, or Londoners who breath the city’s air, or Londoners at all. It is all of us, nationwide, who depend on you.

And we are watching your next moves with great interest.

If you’ve ever wanted to lead the country, Mr Johnson, you should realise that you are already doing it.

Do it well. For all of us.


  1. Cycleoptic 19 November 2013 2:18pm #

    Well written and said.

  2. Kim (@kim_harding) 19 November 2013 2:34pm #

    Well said.

  3. Richard Evans (@laid_back_rich) 20 November 2013 11:27am #

    excellent letter thanks, the blond buffoon is not taking any notice yet though, this morning at AM questions he was evasive and abusive

    • Fred 26 November 2013 10:50pm #

      I saw the AM questions thing, I think he totally tried to dodge Jenny Jones’ questioning of his dodgy use of statistics (deaths) when KSIs are a much better indicator of road safety, especially when small changes from year to year are meant to prove (or not) the efficacy of the mayor’s policies. For this purpose the mayor’s measure is no good because any change has low statistical significance due to the low numbers involved and is as likely to be luck than anything else.

      There’s a protest this Friday outside TfL HQ, 1500 people have already said they will come and the police are going to close Blackfriars Road for the protest. http://stopthekilling.org.uk/ (and facebook) if anyone is interested.

  4. Rebecca Olds (vélovoice) 20 November 2013 4:26pm #

    Bravo! Nice dig at the end at his PM pretensions as well.

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