Stephen Knight AM writes…Putting the car first in urban areas comes with a huge cost to human life and health

Stephen Knight die inLying on a cold and damp pavement in central London as part of a ‘“die in”protest to highlight the level of deaths facing pedestrians and cyclists might not be everyone’s idea of a fun Saturday afternoon, but a couple of weekends ago that is exactly what I was doing.

The reason why?


Because the current level of road deaths – let alone serious injuries – is something we can’t continue to accept as being “inevitable”.

Last year 132 pedestrians and 14 cyclists were killed on our roads in London. Across Great Britain there were 398 pedestrians and 109 cyclists killed. And looking at all forms of transport there were 1713 deaths on Britain’s roads.

Stephen Knight Die in 2All forms of road deaths have been falling over a number of years. Factors such as the compulsory wearing of seatbelts, the better design of cars, road safety campaigns, greater enforcement of speeding and improvements in emergency medical care mean that fewer people are dying from collisions on our roads than was the case 10, 20 or 30 years ago

However, the current collision figures are still unacceptable.

What’s more, they only tell half the story, in fact more like quarter of the story.

The harsh reality is that in towns and cities the impact of road traffic on human health is far greater than anything suggested by the official collision figures.

Exhaust emissions from diesel vehicles on our roads significantly impacts on ill health and premature death. Air pollution is the second biggest risk to public health, leading across the UK to an estimated 29,000 premature deaths – a colossal figure that demands our immediate attention

And let’s not forget another health problem created by the low priority given to pedestrians and cyclists: the impact of adults and many children simply not getting regular exercise as part of their daily lives. If people walked and cycled more there would be far less pressures on our health services from diseases such as diabetes, which sadly are soaring at present.

The reality is that we can turn all these problems around.

Improving public transport is vital, but we also need to put the needs of pedestrians and cyclists far higher up the agenda.

Doing so is ultimately a win-win for everyone.

Less pollution, less ill health, less road traffic noise and less pressure on the NHS is in everybody’s interest.

In London both Caroline Pidgeon and I have long argued that we need to be bold. One example is our call for Oxford Street to be pedestrianised. At present there is on average one pedestrian collision every five days on this road. The road also has the highest known concentration of nitrogen dioxide pollution recorded anywhere in the world.

Of course pedestrianisation is not the answer everywhere, although often it has a role to play as experience from around the world increasingly shows. And when combined with other measures, most notably a proper infrastructure designed for cyclists as can be seen in most Dutch cities, we could start to see a real transformation in the number of trips made in our urban areas by foot or by cycle.

Forty years ago Holland was in a very similar situation to the UK in the low priority it gave to pedestrians and especially cyclists. But after protests, similar to that in which I recently took part, real changes started to take place.

Let’s hope it doesn’t take the UK 40 years to make similar changes


* Cllr Stephen Knight is a member of the London Assembly and a councillor in Richmond.

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  • Great article. As you say, people often overlook the toll of the injuries from traffic accidents which leave people damaged for life. In Denmark, which I am familiar with, cycle lanes are completely separate from roads, which is the only way to seriously reduce accidents to cyclists – cars and bicycles just shouldn’t get anywhere near each other. Pedestrians also need to be allowed more time to cross too – only 6 seconds on some crossings – and railings should be introduced along more busy roadways and near crossing points. Heavy goods vehicles should be completely banned from city centres during working hours.. A whole raft of policies is needed to tackle this, but it has to be done. to save more lives. It is terrible that traffic accidents are the biggest killers of young people worldwide.

  • It would be good to have one of the new Garden Cities designed around the premise that no one who chose to live there could own a private car.

  • paul barker 2nd Dec '14 - 10:35pm

    I think we need to seriously consider Traffic Reduction as a long-term aim, alongside a parallel reduction in the owner ship of Cars. Its not just accidents or pollution or the clogged roads there is the wholesale uglification of our sorroundings by long lines of parked cars.

  • Graham Martin-Royle 2nd Dec '14 - 11:05pm

    This is a vote loser, but is something I totally support. The current fad of kowtowing to the motoring lobby has to stop.

  • David Evershed 3rd Dec '14 - 1:09am

    A no car society is great if you live and work in central London.

    Otherwise try living in the new garden city of Bicester but working irregular hours in different parts of the country. It’s not possible without a car.

    The car is magnificent for our economy and for our freedom.

    All modes of transport have risks. My great grandfather was a groom who died from a fall off his horse. Should we ban horses?

  • The car is the only viable method of travel for most of us. If London is going to go on making access by car difficult and charging for it, then it really is time to move subsidised museums, theatres and so on out of London.

  • Well done Stephen Knight and Caroline Pigeon. It is so refreshing to read about campaigning action by two elected Liberal Democrats which is fully in line with party policy and the sort of thing that ordinary members and voters want.

    Keep up the good work!

  • Oxford Street is a major through route for a number of buses, both north to south and east to west.

    How does this proposal deal with that problem? These buses need to pass through the area and there is limited street space in alternatives like Wigmore Street etc.

    This will create major problems and the current proposals don’t seem to recognise or deal with them.

    Furthermore, the figures given in Stephen Knight’s report show a rapid decline in casualties since 2004, so that is an increasingly less compelling argument.

  • To address RC’s comments.

    If you look at the link in Stephen Knight’s article it contains a link to his Oxford Street report. This is the link:

    Of course pedestrianising Oxford Street would create huge challenges, but it happens already on a temporary basis (on pedestrian VIP Days) and buses are rerouted. Most importantly as the report highlights travel patterns will change due to the impact of Crossrail. I think the issues you raise are addressed in his report. Basically the current situation is not sustainable and unless Oxford Street becomes a safe and far less polluted place an increasing number of people will stop using it.

    As for the fact that road casualties have fallen since 2004 – yes that is true, but one factor is due to doctor’s just being able to keep people alive better following collisions. Most importantly the current figures are still horrific – just imagine if 1713 people died each year in plane or train accidents across the UK? We should also remember that for every death there are far more people seriously injured, sometimes with life long disabilities. And as Stephen points out these figures are just the tip of the iceberg, when you factor in the immense number of premature deaths caused in particular by air pollution. In fact the figures quoted by Stephen might even be an underestimate.

    As for David Evershed’s comment – why do people immediately jump to concluding that giving a higher priority to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport in large cities immediately equates to a ‘no car society’. No one suggests Holland, Denmark or even New York are no car societies, but they have led the way in giving a higher priority to cyclists in their main (Holland and Denmark) and New York in pedestrianisation of certain areas.

    Overall I think Stephen makes some great points and unlike many people who write for Lib Dem Voice, or post up comments, he provides a range of useful links within his article to back up his arguments.

    This video link which is contained in Stephen’s article is especially worth looking at relating to Holland:


  • Paul Reynolds 3rd Dec '14 - 10:55am

    Thank you for this excellent article Stephen. In 10 years time I hope people will look upon the practice of cyclists and lorries sharing the same main roads in the same way we look at old movies today where people are smoking and eating at the same time in restaurants !! With all the current spending on roads it is a shame that Boris has abandoned the project to complete all-weather covered cycleways East-West and North-South through the capital.

  • SIMON BANKS 3rd Dec '14 - 11:58am

    While David Evershed is right to point out that in rural and small-town areas, no car is often not an option (although some people, for medical or financial reasons have no choice), there are solid reasons for trying hard to reduce car use and safety is only one of them (though to say that all transport forms have risks is extremely shallow as clearly some kill a lot more than others: trains, for example, are safer for their users and much safer for people around them than cars or commercial vehicles). Global warming is one huge reason and depletion of oil reserves another. I’m not sure how David can say the car is great for our economy – maybe for South Korea’s or Saudi Arabia’s – since we’re importing oil and buying lots of foreign cars.

    The fact is that many foreign cities – Copenhagen and Amsterdam for instance – try harder to reduce car use, succeed and are better for it.

  • Julian Tisi 4th Dec '14 - 3:37pm

    @ Richard
    “It would be good to have one of the new Garden Cities designed around the premise that no one who chose to live there could own a private car.”
    Goodness no, for the reasons David Evershed mentions. But I’d turn this on its head and suggest something subtly different. It would be good to design our new garden cities around the premise that those who live or work in them would have dedicated and well maintained cycle lanes, segregated from the rest of traffic so that cycling becomes the norm and is safe and easy for cyclists of all abilities.

  • I think this report from developments in Paris backs up exactly what Stephen is calling for:

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