On Saturday 13 October we travelled down to London to attend the first National Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist, at which I had been invited to speak.
The aims of the event, which was organised by the Stop Killing Cyclists pressure group, were simple:
- To call for £3 billion per year (10% of the UK transport budget) to be invested in a national protected cycling network; and
- To call for an end to and reversal of the annual cuts to fuel duty for diesel/petrol to help tackle the scourge of air pollution.
Having to get there and back in a day due to pet commitments, we had a lot to cram in. Rising at a decidedly unchristian hour for a Saturday, we were on the 8:55 train to Euston, and took in a delicious vegan lunch at By Chloe’s London branch on our way to the start of the demo.
The assembly point at Lincolns Inn Fields looked like most other bike demonstrations/celebrations (e.g. Critical Mass) with one significant difference: this one was to be headed by an impressive, imposing horse-drawn glass hearse, containing the coffin of the symbolic victim. Being one of the few attendees without a bike, I was roped into banner duty, and became left bannerman of the large message demanding £3 billion a year for cycling.
With Scottish bagpipe laments droning from a convoy of bicycle soundsystems (presumably networked via the magic of Bluetooth), the cortege set off: hearse, banner, pipes and several hundred people cycling. We sombrely progressed from the start point down to the Thames, then along the magnificent Embankment cycle lane (anyone who thinks Manchester’s Oxford Road cycleway is the bee’s knees ain’t seen nothin’!) towards the Houses of Parliament. The public response was quite extraordinary: thousands of people out and about on a warm, sunny (sic) mid-October afternoon stopped in their tracks to respectfully behold the scene, many brandishing their camera-phones, and will have spread the images – and the message – far and wide on social media.
A video of the procession can be viewed here.
I’ve never previously taken part in a die-in (where the protesters lie down in the road in solidarity with the victim(s)), and I have to say: it’s an incredibly powerful means of protesting. To me it works on at least two levels: as someone participating, it drives home the notion that, on a bicycle, you’re only ever a split-second from being prone on the tarmac yourself. To onlookers, the sight of hundreds of people representing the many people killed unnecessarily on our roads must be a moving sight to all but the most heartless. It’s not something we’ve done in the past at protests here in Manchester, but it’s certainly something I’d consider for future events under the right circumstances.
After the die-in we proceeded to Smith Square for the rally, where a range of speakers addressed varying issues around the demands being made by the protest.
- Helen Booth (London cycle campaigner) spoke about air pollution and the need for 10% of the transport budget to go on active travel;
- Me (northern gobshite) spoke about the extreme lack of funding for cycling outside of London, how certain towns and cities are taking unilateral steps in the right direction, but that many aren’t and why we need a national strategy and budget. My video of the day can be viewed here;
- Krysia Mansfield sang a song to remember all those killed while cycling;
- Clare Farrell (Extinction Rebellion) spoke about the climate catastrophe the planet is currently facing;
- John Williams (Stop Killing Cyclists co-organiser) read out a poem about cycling;
- Caroline Russell (Green Party London Assembly Member) spoke about her own experience of people she knew being killed on the roads and how that was one of the triggers for her to become a campaigner;
- 11-year-old Scarlett Brady Hughes then read out the names of those killed while cycling in the last year;
- Then consultant paediatrician Chinedu Nwokoro spoke about the shocking health impacts of air pollution and how, among other things, there is a strong correlation between spikes in air pollution and spikes not only in asthma, but also heart attacks and strokes;
- There was then an impromptu, moving speech by Andrew Spink, whose brother Tony was killed by a left-turning truck, about the void that Tony’s death had left in the family;
- Caspar Hughes (Stop Killing Cyclists co-organiser) then spoke about how difficult it can be even to bring about small changes, using the example of the effort it took to re-site a crossing by his daughter’s school;
- There followed a Scottish violin lament;
- Rosamund Kissi-Debrah, whose daughter died of a severe asthma attack triggered by air pollution, spoke about her experiences and the Ella Roberta Family Foundation she set up in her daughter’s name;
- The rally finished with an impassioned speech from Donnachadh McCarthy (Stop Killing Cyclists co-organiser), which pulled together many of the issues around transport policy, public health and environmental concerns that had been aired throughout the day.
The full speeches can be viewed here.
And as the speeches drew to a close, so did our brief sojourn in the capital, and we hurried back to Euston, and on to Manchester, to relieve the dog-sitter of his duties.
Stop Killing Cyclists really know how to make an impact. Having seen reports of their die-ins following cycling deaths in London over the years, I was aware how well the group uses stark, striking imagery to drive home their messages, and this was no exception. Consequently, the event received extensive coverage within the London media (TV and press), in the specialist national cycling press and even a positive write-up in the Daily Mail.
One real shame was the lack of endorsement and support of the National Funeral by the other big cycling organisations: London Cycling Campaign, British Cycling and Cycling UK all refused to take part in the protest and to publicise it to their members. Had they done so, there would have been thousands in attendance as opposed to hundreds, and there would have been truly national reach in terms of its impact. Yes, the symbolism of a funeral is designed to shock, but it reminds us of the uncomfortable fact that motor vehicles, the transport mode our society has bet its shirt on, is deadly in all manner of unpleasant ways. Demanding an end to the child murder on the roads was the clarion call of Dutch campaigners in the 1970s, and that worked pretty well: the Netherlands now being a by-word for safe, inclusive cycling.
So that would seem to be the next logical step: all cycling organisations in the UK pulling together, mobilising their members and demanding urgent action from an eco-hostile government with a track record of the scantest of regard for active travel. I guess the question for us all as cycle/active travel/environmental campaigners is: if mobilising as many people as we can to deliver a hard-hitting message isn’t at least part of an effective approach, then what is?