At the end of January I attended a vigil for a cyclist who was killed by a lorry on a street close to where I live in north London. Stephanie Turner was an enthusiastic sportswoman who cycled regularly to appointments for her job as a physiotherapist. She was 29 years old and the first cyclist to be killed on London’s roads this year. Part memorial, part protest, the gathering culminated in a “die-in”, a two-minute silence held as hundreds of cyclists lay down in the road where she was hit on her way to work. A small line of policemen waved vehicles away from us but I felt intensely exposed as traffic rumbled past. Our silence heightened the sounds around us: the drone of cars was accompanied by the horns of irritated drivers beeping out their resentment towards us for disrupting their journeys. It was a reminder of how vulnerable cyclists are.
Two weeks later I attended another. Akis Kollaros was born in Greece but lived in Hackney, where he worked as a music producer. Like Stephanie, he was an experienced cyclist killed by a lorry turning left. As well as commuting regularly by bike, he rode with the London Dynamo cycle club at weekends. His vigil was held where he was run over, on a busy, bus-filled road in Homerton in east London. But the emotion of the crowd transcended our environment. Candles were lit, poetry was read and speeches were made. A church bell tolled during our two minutes of silence for him.
Road deaths are first reported as traffic updates: as inconveniences to cars and buses. Later, as details emerge, your mind races, wondering who might have taken that route. The revelation of a name brings a moment of relief followed by grief and guilt: that I don't know them doesn't lessen the tragedy. I hadn’t known them, but in them I recognise myself, and my friends, my family and the hundreds of cyclists that I see in London every day. I felt compelled to honour them.
The vigils are organised by Stop Killing Cyclists, a group formed in November 2013—a particularly gruesome time when six London cyclists were killed in just two weeks. Along with other activists, such as the charity Road Peace, they started organising die-ins to raise awareness of road violence and to demand more space for cycling in city infrastructure plans. Sometimes cycle campaigning can feel militant: a battle for the road. The monthly “critical mass” rides, designed to reclaim the streets for cyclists, begin joyfully but can end in anger and antagonism between cyclists and motorists. Perhaps it is a war. Recently we had a young nephew staying with us. Like many little boys he takes great joy in pointing out every vehicle he sees: “Car car car car”. The list was a stark reminder of how they dominate the landscape of our city.
“She did not die in vain,” said Ted Brown from Stop Killing Cyclists, as he led the vigil for Stephanie. He explained how Dutch cyclists (and their brethren, the pedestrians) used die-ins to campaign for better road safety in the 1970s. It's little comfort to a grieving family, but some progress is being made. London has miles of cycle lanes but many of them are woefully inadequate, an overestimation of the protective power of white and blue paint. But City Hall should be applauded for its recent decision—up against some powerful opposition—to build two of Europe’s longest segregated urban cycle lanes. Even more crucially, a ban on lorries without specialist safety equipment—sideguards to protect cyclists from being dragged under the wheels and better mirrors to reduce deadly blind spots—is due to come into force later this year. Welcome moves, but too late for hundreds of victims. On February 6th Frederica Baldassa, a 26-year-old fashion buyer from Italy, was killed by a delivery truck in central London while cycling home. We will gather again, in her name, on Monday. “We will mark every death this way until we get change,” Ted said. “We have lost a fellow cyclist and we will not forget.”