TfL and corporate manslaughter of London cyclists – key issues

In October 2011 a young woman cyclist was killed at a junction in Kings Cross managed by TfL. TfL was aware that the junction was dangerous following a report TfL itself commissioned. TfL was also aware that the junction did not comply with its own London Cycle Design Standards. Yet TfL had not implemented a junction redesign in a timely way nor applied a basic precautionary principle and modified traffic flows there pending work. I believe that TfL has questions to answer about being in breach of its basic duty of care and should be investigated for corporate manslaughter. I have raised this with the police who are investigating the cyclists death.

Since I first wrote about this topic I have received strong support from the local Kings Cross  community, the London cycling community and elected representatives. The cyclists have made me aware of far wider issues with TfL’s approach to cycling and junctions in London. As a former bureaucrat myself I am startled at TfL’s practice in respect of receiving warnings about threats to human life and apparently not then acting promptly and effectively. Of course, no road junction can be 100% safe, trade-offs have to be made in public policy, but TfL seems to have no reasonable system to do so and is to my mind  in breach of its duty of care to road users.

This blog post rounds up my own views on some headline issues that would need to be looked at in a corporate manslaughter investigation. Issues are expressed as headlines only, sometimes going beyond Kings Cross. I may well be wrong on some of these points, indeed in many ways I hope I am but they reflect views put to me. Please add more or give your views in the comments, in the usual measured, non-partisan way that people choose to use this blog.

TfL context

TfL was created in 2000 and is a well-established, mature bureaucracy with comprehensive information about London’s road network and a substantial body of information on cycle and pedestrian safety. TfL is a very large organisation that performs a complex set of tasks to fulfil a wide range of objectives.

TfL owes a duty of care to members of the public who use its facilities such as road junctions. Given the complexity of TfL’s tasks a consistent, measured, timely approach is vital to delivering that duty of care. Decisions on safety of life must be taken with well thought through methodologies, consistently applied.  The framework within which TfL makes decisions about safety is in part set by the incumbent Mayors policy – indeed, in TfL’s own words:

‘Its main role is to implement the Mayor’s Transport Strategy for London and manage transport services across the Capital for which the Mayor has responsibility.’

Strategy failure?

The explosive growth in cycling in the Euston Road, Pentonville Road, York Way area, far beyond the growth of any other of TfL’s transport modes and puts a special burden on TfL to act strategically, based on evidence with regard to cyclists.  A complex set of junctions designed for cars 20 years ago is highly unlikely to absorb this growth in cycling safely.  The Euston Road is notorious for its aggressive road conditions even amongst car drivers and has few workable alternatives for cyclists – you have to cross it or use it. The growth in cycling numbers on DfT data is extraordinary – yet TfL has not made a large scale strategic intervention in cycling conditions at the Kings Cross junctions.  TfL’s strategic approach and actions appear to have failed.

Failure to act on breach of TfL’s own London cycle Design Standards?

Grays Inn road and York Way junctions both breach TfL’s own London Cycle Design Standards.  I have seen the CCTV footage and in my view, the need to compete for space on Grays Inn Road was a factor in Deep Lee’s death.  TfL went to great lengths to create cycle design standards for London – a pattern book of ways in which one should build a road to make it cycle safe and friendly – the document stretches to hundreds of pages. Yet TfL has chosen for years to ignore these standards at Kings Cross and we suspect a number of other junctions.   Peter Hendy, now Transport Commissioner was a strong supporter of the LCDS in 2005 as his letter shows.  The London Cycle Safety Action Plan does not suggest that TfL should systematically make its high risk junctions compliant with the LCDS. Given that TfL has had plans of the junction in its possession for some time how could it let the junction persist in that state?

Failure in balancing ‘smoothing traffic flow’ and safety of life for cyclists and pedestrians?

A separate cycle lane on Grays Inn Road would comply with the Cycle Design Standards yet TfL cite the Mayor’s ‘smoothing traffic flow‘ policy as a reason not to implement a cycle lane there. That is to say, a cycle lane would make the road much safer for cyclists but would reduce the throughput of cars at the junction – the throughput of cars wins over cycle safety. This trade-off rears its head again and again. Yet we have no insight into how it has this been evaluated – how does a minor inconvenience to traffic outweigh a fatally poor design. What cost benefit evaluation has been used? Given TfL’s strong engineering tradition there must be a simple mathematical formula used to make this calculation consistently across the network. The UK is a world leader in these forms of appraisal but TfL never reveals its workings.

‘Smoothing traffic flow’ has featured prominently in the Mayor’s policy document since ‘Way To Go’ in 2008  and is enshrined in his full transport strategy.  Feedback from cycling organisations and elected representatives suggest that this policy is frequently cited as a reason not to make improvements to road junctions that increase cycle safety. The implementation of this policy, which is intended to benefit cyclists too has failed and the policy has been mis-applied diminishing cycle safety.

Failure to act in a timely manner?

TFL is remarkably slow to act when a serious safety hazard is brought to its attention. In Kings Cross, residents have been campaigning for years about the dangerous junctions.  A TfL spokesman on BBC TV news when asked about the time it had taken to do necessary work there said:

‘For the nature of the type of work we are doing three years is a pretty sort of typical time..’

There seems to be no sense of real-world proportionality here. In three years an entire Olympic village has arisen in East London.

Failure to adopt the precautionary principle while awaiting action?

If a cyclist gets mown down at a junction where you have been told that ‘casualties are inevitable’ in one of your own reports a common sense approach would be to restrict or close that junction until you can put in place hard engineering measures to prevent the problem happening again. The precautionary principle is well established in professional practice and would be expected in a duty of care when operating dangerous systems. See for instance airlines and the volcanic ash cloud etc. Yet TfL repeatedly seems to hose the blood away and reopen the road as quickly as possible without taking precautions to understand what has happened and put in place temporary measures to guard against potential repetition.

Failure in consistency of approach?

To deliver a duty of care some consistency is required over time – TfL’s sporadic changes of position on whether junctions do or don’t need work indicate the lack of a consistent, robust methodology for evaluation human safety considerations against others.  TfL and the Mayor in May 2011 seemed adamant that the priority at the Bow roundabout was traffic flow:

‘TfL have been unable so far to find an immediate solution for providing controlled at-grade pedestrian crossings at Bow Roundabout that does not push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic.’

In October 2011 the Mayor met with the family of a man who was killed at Bow and then in January 2012 to the huge surprise of the cycling community TfL has brought forward comprehensive plans for Bow with a very short consultation time, as if the work is being done in a rush. So within TfL what has changed – there can be little or no new information, why was their viewpoint held for many years so suddenly changed. Was their earlier work flawed or incompetent? Is the fact that TfL now admit that work is required in the face of earlier inaction actually an admission that they were in breach of their duty of care?

It seems that one minute the junction is fine according to TfL then the next minute it’s having hundreds of thousands of pounds thrown at it.  The very cautious wording TfL uses in its announcements about junctions always being ‘under review’ suggests to me that they know they have a problem.  This suggests to me that there is a breakdown between policy and implementation  leading to a failure of a duty of care.

Systemic failure of bureacracy?

The points listed above cannot be sporadic failures by lone operators. In a bureaucracy such as TfL information will be passed around, up and down command chains to and from the Mayor’s office and widely disseminated, the media are all over the issues . The responsibility is shared throughout the organisation.  In too many instances, the bureaucracy as a whole, TfL’s ‘controlling mind’ has failed with respect to the duty of care owed to cyclists that use TfL’s major road junctions.  I puzzle over how the Mayor can on the one hand profess to care deeply about cycle safety (he is after all an ardent cyclist) and on the other direct and control a TfL that appears to be in breach of its duty of care towards cyclists at deadly junctions it controls. The Mayor and his Transport Commissioner are in charge of TfL, well aware of the issues around cycle safety and must bear some culpability.

This list is incomplete and very much a brain dump from me.  Any further suggestions, clarifications or comments are welcome below in a constructive, on-topic, non-partisan manner.

About William Perrin

Active in Kings Cross London and founder of Talk About Local, helping people find a voice online, trustee. The Indigo Trust.
This entry was posted in Road Safety in Kings Cross and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to TfL and corporate manslaughter of London cyclists – key issues

  1. When I worked at the LDA, many moons ago, I had to attend a monthly Mayoral Strategy Co-ordination group. This group was tasked with ensuring that all Mayoral policies worked well together, didn’t conflict etc. I assume something similar remained under BoJo. In which case in addition to TfL’s specific duties there will have been some mechanism for key Mayoral strategic policy elements like ‘smoothing’ traffic flow and his big noise about cycling and the superhighways to be discussed. If they weren’t it might be a small but nonetheless useful point to add to the evidence against TfL and the Mayor’s Office. At these meetings some trade offs must have been agreed. I wonder if minutes are available through FOI or some other mechanism. Shall I put in a request Will?

  2. Ian says:

    Excellent piece. Tfl appal me with their flippant attitude to this, and clearly just want to sit it out, in the hope that it will go away. I second Sophie’s suggestion about submitting Freedom of Information requests to get this vital information. Why should it be secret? These people are charged with acting on behalf of all Londoners, and as you say have a duty of care to them. Why, then, should it not be completely transparent how they arrive at decisions which literally affect the lives of Londoners. I see there is another protest shortly, I urge everybody to attend, especially since a Tfl lackey has pronounced the last one as ‘stupid’. Apparently he doesn’t see any problem with these lethal junctions.

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  4. Cllr Paul Braithwaite, L B Camden says:

    A really terrific review Will !
    I expect you are aware that the new proposal is that TfL is to commission a consultant on its behalf to do a strategic study of the gyratories and surrounding roads, starting in April and taking at least one year: aka parking the problem in the freezer during the Mayoral elections.

    TfL would have the gullible believe that its works being done NOW will improve cyclists’ safety. Piffle. Yes, there’ll be a through pedestrian crossing across the mouth of York Way. But the conflict with two lanes of vehicles in Gray’s Inn Road fighting each other to get into the mouth of York Way will continue. Will indicates the width at the lights at 6.7 metres – inadequate for two lanes of vehicles, with no room whatsoever for bicycles. The only improvement that will help is to have a cycle lane for the 50 metres run up from Gray’s Inn Road to the Euston Road, with only ONE lane of vehicles – thus negating the two lanes of traffic fighting at the mouth of York Way. TfL has consistently argued that this will choke off flow of vehicles into York Way and cause delay and backed up traffic. So what? Actually, if the traffic is stationary back towards St Chads, that will make it safer for cyclists.

    The central problem, as Will hints, is the mindset at the top of TfL. They play lip-service to cyclist and pedestrian safety whilst all the while taking decisions to give priority to traffic flow.
    .
    A charge of Corporate Manslaughter is needed to get TfL to take safety seriously.
    TfL needs a clean out at the top IMO.

  5. Tony says:

    A couple of points to add. TfL point to “smoothing traffic flow” as their justification. But traffic is not just motor traffic. Cyclists are traffic too. TfL seem to be adding their own interpretation on top that traffic means motor traffic.

    Second, have you looked at what they are proposing for the Bow Roundabout. It looks to me mostly as a fudge to pretend something is being done. On the roundabout itself nothing much is changing except to make it more inconvenient for cyclists while I wouldn’t be surprised to see the flyover proposals remaining just that, proposals.

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  7. fred says:

    @paulbraithwaite

    I think it has become very clear that ‘the top’ that needs clearing out is not the staff at tfl (ineffectual as many of them are). It is the Mayor himself who is pushing this policy of disregard towards dangerous junctions and cyclist deaths, in the interest of slight reductions in queuing for motorists.

  8. Mark says:

    I have to ask a question here as clearly London is different to other parts of the UK.

    But as I read above, the suggestion is that the accident wasn’t the fault of the cyclist and wasn’t the fault of the HGV driver but was in fact the fault of either the road or perhaps TFL.

    Since when did did we stop holding road users to account?

    Regardless of how wide a road is or how badly designed a road may be, it’s the user that is responsible for how they use it. After all I have sharp knives in my kitchen but I don’t have a go at the manufacturer if I cut my finger off when cooking.

    So it sounds like (because I wasn’t there) that the HGV driver did not take proper care and hit the bike. Seems pretty clear cut and is an example of the dangers cyclists have to deal with every day of the week all over the country.

    Had the road been of a different design the accident may not have happened but it didn’t CAUSE the accident.

    The issue is the users of the junction driving like idiots, racing the lights, ignoring the lights and not paying proper attention. The junction needs policing so that the existing rules of the road are enforced. That is all.

    To try and blame the road or even worse TFL just makes me wonder if you are using a cyclists death for your own political ends and the poor cyclists memory deserves better than that.

    • remerson says:

      Mark, you are partially right.  But even very cautiously-driven HGVs are still extremely dangerous in mixed traffic, because almost all HGVs have huge blind spots.  In many cases the whole side of the vehicle is a blind spot.  That’s fine on a motorway, but on a busy urban road where the vehicle is potentially surrounded by cyclists (and pedestrians and motorbikes) it is dangerous — fatally dangerous.
       
      Road users (motorised or otherwise) are human and humans make mistakes.  The only real way to protect against such mistakes in mixed traffic, to protect vulnerable road users around HGVs and other motor vehicles, is to “un-mix” the traffic.  At major junctions and on fast or busy roads, vulnerable road users must be *physically separated* from dangerous road users such as HGVs and cars.  This means barrier-separated or kerb-separated cycle tracks, and separate phases at traffic lights.
       
      In short, HGVs and most other motor vehicles are simply too dangerous to be allowed on urban roads given current road conditions and TfL’s lethal designs.  There are only two ways to improve safety: either ban HGVs from urban roads, or continue to allow HGVs but physically prevent them from harming vulnerable road users.  Without a complete revolution in urban transport we are, unfortunately, stuck with HGVs.  So instead we *must* physically prevent them from killing cyclists and pedestrians.  That means proper separated infrastructure and properly-phased junctions.
       
      The Danish and the Dutch, among others, have been doing this right for years, developing simple and safe designs which are proven to work.  There can be no question, no doubt, about how to do it right.  The old excuse about not having enough space on London’s roads is a blatant lie. The real question is *why* we do not do it right in London and in the rest of the UK.  And the answer to that is simple too: wilful self-serving ignorance and criminal negligence.  TfL and the Mayor are most certainly guilty.

    • Sarah Ward says:

      I think you have a point and the lorry driver is obviously to blame to some degree but what you forget is that the design of the built environment (housing estates, traffic routes etc) profoudly effects human behaviour. Roads can be designed to minimise bad driver behaviour and will ultimately be cheaper than posting a traffic policeman on that gyratory 24/7 to make people behave (which is what it would take).

    • Angus H says:

      The immediate decision making at the time of the accident can be laid at the door of road users – nevertheless they operate within a regulatory & physical infrastructure laid down by the various authorities (DfT, local government, TFL, Highways Agency etc). Somebody makes a mistake, and as a result somebody is dead – yet the authorities know full well that people will make mistakes, and, I believe, have a duty of care to build infrastructure (physical, regulatory, operational) that reduces the likelihood or consequence of such mistakes.

      To extend your knife analogy. Knives are indeed produced within a variety of frameworks (BS & EU standards as to their design, laws as to who can buy one, where and how you can carry one about your person); if their normal use were causing the kind of casualty rates that the roads do, you’d see a demand for a strengthening of the standards. Indeed, the police expend an enormous amount of effort trying to see to it that such laws are obeyed.

      To get back a little closer to the subject at hand. If an authority on the one hand encourages people to cycle on the road, but on the other says it’s just fine to drive a car or HGV down those same narrow roads at 30mph or more, surely there’s a degree of negligence on their part when people (quite inevitably) get hurt as a result, and hurt worse than if the same authority had suggested 20mph as an appropriate speed for the roads.

    • dan carter says:

      Mark, cutting your finger on a knife is not comparable to losing your life under an HGV.

      However, knifes do have the potential to kill and people are calling for law and enforcement changes due to the number of knife deaths in london. Why is there not equal treatment of death by HGV?

      http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/2011/news/law-changed-after-newspapers-knife-campaign/

      • Mark says:

        Hi Dan

        I think you missed my point which was that when you cut yourself on a knife (which apparently happens thousands of times every single day) you do not try and blame the manufacturer of that knife in the same way that in this case, we are trying to blame the owner of the road and not the road user (the HGV driver in this case)

        My point here was about apportioning blame not the dangers of knives.

  9. remerson says:

    To put it another way, Mark, your kitchen knife analogy doesn’t really work. Knives are simple things that are easy to control. Busy road junctions that are used by tens of thousands of people a day are much more complex and unpredictable. When someone gets killed, just looking at the vehicles or individuals involved is very short sighted indeed: junction design is an absolutely critical contributing factor.

    TfL’s junction design (and UK road design in general) doesn’t do nearly enough to protect everyone in these very dangerous spaces. All TfL seem to care about is giving car drivers the illusion that something is being done to “ease congestion”. Even if it costs lives.

  10. Mark says:

    I was half expecting a torrent of abuse on that so some unexpectedly positive replies there.

    One problem I have right now is that we are all too keen to try and find somebody else to blame.

    In this case, it doesn’t matter if the truck driver had the bike in it’s blind spot, as the driver of a truck in a busy urban area (or any busy street for that matter) the driver knows he has limited visibility and has a duty of care. In this case he got it wrong. Maybe he was going to fast, maybe he wasn’t paying attention or maybe it was another reason but to try and somehow absolve him from blame by blaming the road is not the right thing to do.

    Trucks and bikes share the road all over the world. Truck drivers drive into cities every single day. Cyclists get hurt and killed by cars and trucks far too often in small villages as much as in large cities.

    Likewise there are plenty of roads and junctions where you could claim the design could be better all over the UK.

    The junction described here is one I actually know as I pass through Kings Cross station often.

    I am pretty sure that TFL didn’t do the original design of that junction. It’s been like that for many many years so you can’t blame them for the junction design or layout. Likewise there are many other junctions where the design could be better.

    But I also know that vehicles (including bikes) regularly race the lights at speed and also that taxies stop straight after the crossing on the red no stopping lines to set down for the station.

    It is obvious that many vehicles passing through the junction are driving too fast for the circumstances (which may be a lot less than 30mph) because as well as bikes, you get a huge amount of pedestrians all trying to get from one side of the junction to the other.

    But I have to balance that against the investment in cycling London is seeing. Most towns and cities are doing nothing to promote cycling. London is doing loads including lots of new cycle lanes.

    And this is all in a climate where cash is limited.

    I am pretty sure we would like to ban all large trucks etc from central London. As you say, not a great mix. But that’s just not going to happen any time soon. Neither is an huge program of works rebuilding all the junctions in London that don’t meet the recent legislation (including this one)

    I still come back to the fact that regardless of the road design, the road users (all of them) have to be held accountable for their own actions. Most users of that junction don’t kill cyclists as they pass through it after all.

    If you really believe the junction itself is that dangerous then I would suggest that knowing that, you get off your bike and walk it across the junction rather than placing yourself in such danger.

    Sure you shouldn’t have to but such is life.

    But to claim this makes TFL responsible for the death of a cyclist is just wrong.

    • Ciarán says:

      It’s quite pleasant when people give constructive and measured answers.

      I don’t think anyone here is trying to shift blame from one party to another I think we are trying to understand and assign who has the power to effect certain changes.

      Certainly a reckless vehicle driver has to be responsible for their actions, but others are responsible for the environment in which we have to live.

      Making sure that those who cause accidents, or behave in an irresponsible manner are brought to justice is only one aspect of preventing people coming to harm. Unfortunately in order for that process to happen, usually someone has to be harmed and report it to the relevant authorities.

      It would be preferable to stop this from happening in the first place.

      What most people here would like is an environment that helps you make the correct decision. For example in this blog post the junction is too narrow for cars to pass through it in a safe manner. Drivers are expected to merge and negotiate around each other, this means there is a high probability that someone will make a mistake (or behave irresponsibly) and cause expensive damage or harm to another.

      It is the opinion of many people that the government in London is doing very little to encourage cycling beyond lip-service, and token-istic infrastructure that does not help cyclists or motorists. Usually if you were to exclusively use the lanes provided you’d end-up in the blind spot of a dangerous vehicle.

      Whilst cash is indeed limited it seems that work to change, improve and maintain the road network continues. Updating road infrastructure takes decades and you do it as and when an old road becomes unsuitable to those using it. Whilst I personally would like segregated, safe and direct cycling infrastructure tomorrow I am realistic that this will not happen. I’m happy to wait decades, so long as each time you update a road you actually follow design decisions that make it safer, rather than faster for motor vehicles, which is the status quo.

      You are correct that a cyclist can always get off his bike and wheel it through dangerous sections. Whilst this is a possibility it is not going to encourage anyone to cycle, nor is it preferable to anyone who does. The benefit of a driving a car is that it is a largely uninterrupted journey (excepting of course traffic lights etc). If I had to stop at every dangerous junction on my commute and walk it would take me 3 times longer to get to work.

      TfL are responsible for their road network and how it impacts on those that use it. They have clear guideline they have to follow and should have good reasons why they contravene them. They are not responsible directly for the crashes, but they have not done anything to reduce the occurrence which is within their remit.

      If everyone was responsible then we could have unrestricted speed limits as drivers would always drive appropriate to the road conditions, we would not need MOTs because drivers would always ensure their cars are serviced and operate safely. Such is life that this is not the case.

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