“I’m not prepared to stand by and let dangerous lorries continue to cause further heartbreak and tragedy on London’s roads” – Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London

As Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, sets out bold measures to rid London of its most dangerous vehicles, I venture into Soho to find out what everyday road users have to say about the perennial driver versus cyclist debate.

If you’ve spent any time on London’s roads, you will well know how difficult to navigate they can be – at best hectic, and at worst, treacherous, the maze of taxis, buses, lorries and pedestrians can be intimidating for even the most seasoned of city cyclists.

And now with 9 cyclist and 66 pedestrian deaths reported in the last year alone, Sadiq Khan, London’s Mayor, is proposing some bold measures to improve safety on our roads.

“I’m not prepared to stand by and let dangerous lorries continue to cause further heartbreak and tragedy on London’s roads,” he said, announcing his new proposals last week. “The evidence is clear – HGVs (Heavy Goods Vehicles) have been directly involved in over half of cycling fatalities over the last two years, and we must take bold action to make our roads safer for both cyclists and pedestrians.”    

“Lorries designed in the 1970s and for use in a quarry have no place on the streets of a 21st century city” – Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport at TfL

With the stats showing that over 50% of cyclist deaths have been due to collisions with HGVs, Sadiq is proposing a new ‘ratings system‘ which could see up to 35,000 banned from London’s roads by 2020.

The proposals have been lauded by cyclist groups, such as London Cycling Campaign, as meaningful progess in what they see currently as an untenable situation for cyclists on the roads.

However, the proposals have also come under criticism from businesses, who say they could form an unnecessary imposition, preventing them from bringing the goods essential for their trade, in and out of the city.

I ventured into Soho’s narrow streets, those most notoriously hectic for drivers and cyclists, to find out how opinion was split amongst those in the know:

“HGVs are bullies – they think they rule the road,” one bike courier – a breed of cyclist most familiar with the reality of cycling around London – said. “I think restricting them on the roads, or at least the time of day they are allowed to drive through central areas, would be much safer for all cyclists.”

“The roads can be frightening, especially for novice cyclists,” said another. “It’s not just HGVs though, I was put in intensive care earlier this year after a collision with a car. But if it’s a HGV, you’re probably gonna get killed. That’s the difference. So I think this would definitely save lives.”

Competition for space: a lack of adequate infrastructure, and poor planning, makes battling through London's roads a nightmate for everyone
Competition for space: a lack of adequate infrastructure, and poor planning, makes battling London’s roads a nightmare for everyone

However, not everyone was so convinced: “It’s ludicrous,” said one lorry driver. “Who’s paying for these upgrades? How are businesses supposed to get their goods in and out of the city?” 

Business owners, particularly Soho’s high concentration of production companies and studios, didn’t think the proposals would work: “We need to be able to shift heavy, bulky equipment to and from the studio throughout the day – restrictions would cause chaos, as we have no other means of transporting the equipment.” Some had alternative ideas, such as a complete separation of cycle lanes from main roads and more pedestrianised areas: “Cycling doesn’t always solve the problem.”

“I think the proposals are positive and most large vehicle drivers are willing to do more to improve visibility and safety measures,” said one haulier. “However, cyclists also need to respect the rules – vehicles don’t run red lights or zebra crossings, so why do cyclists? There is some education needed.”

Gridlock: Soho’s narrow, business-lined streets are often a maze of standstill vans, lorries and cab drivers for cyclists and pedestrians to pick their way through

While stuck in what had already been an hour-long gridlock in the backstreets of Soho, one cabbie expressed frustration that more wasn’t being done in terms of overall planning and management of London’s roads: “Take Tower Bridge – they wait 38 years and then close it for refurbishment in the three months running up to Christmas. It will be hell.” 

The expected plethora of views was reflective of the everyday experience of battling through London’s busy streets – competition for space, a lack of adequate infrastructure and an apparent absence of sensible planning, cause nightmarish road conditions for drivers, cyclists and pedestrians alike.

Despite numerous initiatives already underway, just as Boris Johnson’s legacy cycle superhighway project, there’s an evident need for improvement. Not least to stamp out fatalities on the road for good, but also to correct what seems to many to be a steadily worsening road experience for those trying to get across the city.

It might be things need to get worse before they get better, as long overdue investment is made in bringing our roads up to 21st century city standards. But simple, identifiable solutions that balance safety with a functioning road system that can facilitate London’s transport network and economy, seem to remain elusive. In the meantime – keep your helmet on and your eyes peeled.

Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, announced proposals on 30 September 2016 to make London’s roads safer for pedestrians and cyclists by removing the most dangerous lorries from the Capital’s roads by 2020. Find out more about TfL’s Direct Vision Standard here.