Friday, 10 August 2012

Vigil for the death of Dan Harris

The history of the relationship of the London Olympics to cycling has had many chapters, each individually saying so much about the British relationship to the bike, each succeeding the last with the inevitability of epic tragedy, like something made-up, so artistically, tragically perfect has been the symmetry of dramatic construction, running from the early official claims about how the Olympics were to be actually built around "active travel" including cycling, through all the broken promises and failure to deliver even the slightest attempt at cycling infrastructure to the venues, while a mass of pro-bike promotion flooded out of TfL; through all the protests by LCC that the road network being constructed around the Olympics was unsafe for cyclists, totally ignored by TfL and the ODA; through the death of two cyclists on the main recommended route to the Olympic Park at Bow roundabout last year under the wheels of lorries in near-identical incidents entirely attributable to the bad design of the Cycle Superhighway; through TfL's half-baked efforts to correct that design; through the closing of the one safe route near the Olympic Park, the Lea towpath, on "security" grounds, forcing all cyclists in the area onto lethal road systems; through the implementation of the Olympic Route Network, entirely ignoring, of course, the safety and comfort of cyclists; through the opening ceremony of the Games themselves, which featured winged bikes, while outside the stadium the police treated the Critical Mass riders, people just out for a bike ride, like criminals, kettling and arresting them, then holding 182 of them overnight before releasing all but three of them without charge; through the triumphs of Britain's cycling medal-winners on the track and in the road races; through the death, on the night of geatest triumph – the gold won by Bradley Wiggins in the Men's Time Trial – of cyclist Dan Harris under the wheels of an Olympic bus right outside the park, at a place where LCC had condemned the road design; through the (later retracted) suggestion by Bradley Wiggins, when asked about that tragedy in a way he perhaps was not prepared for, that a solution to cycle safety issues in the UK might be compulsory helmets (despite the fact that Harris was crushed bodily, like so many other cyclists, under the wheels of a turning heavy vehicle, and that a helmet would have been of no help), to today, Friday 10 August, when cyclists plan a mass ride and vigil to commemorate the death of Dan Harris, and the Mayor, Boris Johnson, plans some new announcement on a "cycling legacy".*

A summary of all this might be to say that though we in the UK have started now to treat our cycling sportsmen and sportswomen as heroes, our public authorities still treat those who try to get around on a bike like dirt. It's a weird juxtaposition, and one that, through its sheer existence, shows the folly of trying to equate popularity of high-level cycle sport with the dedication of political and public respect and resources to transport cycling. It shows rather that this contrast can exist, and maybe even the more we elevate sports cycling as the image of the way bikes are used in this country, the more we depress and crush the simple concept of the easy mode of transport for anyone. I'm not certain of this idea, but I throw it into the philosophising as a suggestion worth of consideration. For throughout this whole saga everyday cyclists and their organised representatives have been ignored, patronised, conned, insulted, fobbed-off, and treated as a minor irritant, not really cared about at all, by the ODA, LOCOG, the Olympic boroughs, the government, the cycling Mayor, and Transport for London, while these all claimed to espouse some kind of "cycling revolution" or "renaissance" that was nebulously linked to sporty cycling.

The vigil for the death of Dan Harris will begin with a ride from the National Theatre (where Critical Mass gathers, though this is not a Critical Mass event) setting off at 6:30pm. The vigil itself will be quiet and dignified gathering at the crash site, at the Lea Interchange on the north perimeter of the Olympic Park, from 7:30 to 8:30pm.

There has been some controversy arising out of the fact that the family of Dan Harris have reportedly said that they do not wish his death to be used for "political purposes". But it should be apparent from what I have written above that his death was not an isolated and random event, it was part of a whole history and scenario which is deeply political. Perhaps the family do not yet appreciate this. Every cyclist death on road systems where cyclists' interests have not been taken in the slightest way into account is a political issue. It was totally right for LCC, as a cyclists' representative body, to refer to the death of Mr Harris in its press release and public statements about the need for safe junction designs for cyclists in London. It is their job to try to prevent such tragedies recurring, therefore they need to describe what has actually happened, in a specific case where representations were made about a dangerous road design that was not fixed, where a predictable death subsequently occurred (exactly as at Bow roundabout). To make the points they have to refer to the specific case. This is an entirely defensible and moral thing for them to do, indeed not to do so would be immoral.

There is a tradition in the UK of road deaths being swept under the carpet as "accidents" that "should not be used for political purposes". The results are injustice, and more deaths. Bereaved families have to greave, but the rest of us should take action.

*Update: this announcement was merely of another Skyride-type event for next Summer, not of anything worthy the epithet "legacy". Utterly pathetic, but no surprise.


  1. Well written. Well explained. Thank you.


  2. First, I’d like to say something about the Games themselves, having attended one event at the Aquatics centre last Friday. Basically, there are two side of the Games on view.

    One side is the athletes and the “games-makers”. The athletes are truly inspirational. Their feats and achievements are astounding and uplifting to watch – seeing the women’s springboard diving I marvelled at the extraordinary grace and power exhibited in their somersaults and pirouettes in the few short metres of descent they had available before reaching the water. These performamces, and those of the runners, gymnasts and cyclists all competing, only come out of enormous effort, dedication and sacrifice – some might call it obsession but it is certainly passion. And most of them can expect noe significant financial reward to accrue to their efforts and the time they have taken out of work to prepare and compete. Bradley Wiggins might, allegedly, rake in £30 million in product endorsement fees, and even young Laura Trott might emerge a multimillionaire in similar fashion, but think of the medal-winning British kayaker who returns to his job as a hospital anaesthetist next week.

    The games makers, tens of thousands of them, are unpaid volunteers, most taking annual leave from their paid jobs to assist with advice, information and directions for people making their way to he venues or attending the Games. One of these is also reportedly a doctor, who came to the aid of the wounded at the 7/7 terrorist incident in London. Apparently high on Prozac, you have to admire their Hi-de-Hi enthusiasm even if it not really your thing, don’t you know.

    The other side is the organisation, at high level, the IOC, LOCOG, the ODA, TfL, the national government (and its predecessor). We have had forcible evictions from the Stratford site to make way for the Olympic park, just as residents were forcibly evicted from the site of the Beijing Bird’s Nest Stadium. We have kow-towed to one of most corrupt and venal international bodies on the planet, the International Olympic Committee, stuffed not with eminent retired sportsmen and women but with political hangers-on, quangocrats and other unsavoury types. We have thus made over a significant chunk of our roads network as “Zil Lanes” to speed them around London between their Park Lane hotels and the Games sites, only to see them not use those lanes or the fleet of official BMWS permitted to use them and not see them occupying their seats in the stadia where they should have been present to support their national teams, because they were all too busy shopping in Harrods. We have the entirely manufactured scaremongering about security (not a new phenomenon of course, the American political commentator HL Mencken made observations on this characteristic of our governors a century ago) which led to the entirely unjustified and unnecessary closure of the Lea Towpath. These measures greatly increased the danger to vulnerable road-users of any kind, and all, it seems, for nothing.

    Worst of all, in my estimation, is the sheer mendacity of successive politicians, of any stripe who, rather than admit that the whole exercise was for their (oops, sorry I mean) the nation’s self-aggrandisement, have continually told us, and continue to tell us in the teeth of the emerging facts and the known history of the last four or five Olympics as analysed by eminent economists, that there will be some amazing Games Legacy to be enjoyed by the nation, both in economic terms and in the promotion of sport.

  3. Contd.

    Possibly there will now be a dividend in terms of sporting participation at least, although whether that will long survive the end of the games remains to be seen. Certainly, some of the lower profile sports such as rowing and canoeing/kayaking clubs are seeing a big surge in enquiries. Predictably enough (it has happened before) bicycle sales are seeing a boom although, as has also happened before, most of those new bikes will soon be languishing in the garden shed of the land, because their new owners have discovered with that the model they have been sold is not fit for purpose, or that the roads are too scary, or both. Meanwhile, at the very same time David Cameron is reported to have approved the sale of about a dozen school playing fields.

    But even if cycling does see a boost, and even if that boost does turn out to have legs, is that something for a “segregationist” to take much pleasure from? I doubt it – the entire thrust of Olympic cycling coverage has been about cycling as an extreme sport. Whippet-thin men with improbably muscular thighs careering along at 50kph+ on carbon bikes, got up in canary coloured lycra, helmet and wraparound shades, duelling other riders and occasionally coming to grief. All this on enclosed elliptical tracks or roads totally closed to non-official motor vehicles. There is more than a whiff of danger even without the HGVs and the boy racers to contend with.

    Segregationists, I submit, are about the very young, the fairly old, and the otherwise faint-hearted, who would like to use a bike in the manner of a wheeled pedestrian. There is absolutely nothing for them in this. Sure, some youngish men, and maybe indeed some youngish women, may be inspired to take up sports cycling. They will be drawn from those who are fit, confident, relatively unconscious of their own mortality, and assertive, perhaps aggressive in temperament. In other words, like the dominant cycling culture we have today, on our commuter journeys as well as out on weekend rides. To borrow from those popular postcards people pin above their desks, You don’t have to be fit, fearless, and aggressive to ride here – but it helps!

    Just as (apparently, according to the BBC last night) Darwinism can explain the athletic prowess of African-Americans through their experience of slavery and the journey across the ocean that brought them to it, the condition of our roads has evolved British commuter cyclists to have the genes which render them more likely to behave in the manner which upsets and infuriates some pedestrians and apparently all Daily Mail readers. We are caught in a vicious spiral of conditions breeding attitudes which in turn reinforce those conditions. I can see nothing in London 2012 which will change that – it will take something considerably more radical.

  4. I'm more optimistic. Cycle sport success leads to more people riding and more people agitating for decent infrastructure and rider-friendly legislation. Politicians will catch up. It's painfully slow but it will happen. I live in Melbourne, Australia and we have our challenges (state budget cut from $28M for cycling to zero this year as an austerity measure) but the political landscape has shifted and these decisions get a lot more scrutiny after Cadel's TDF win. We'll get there in the end.