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Cycling for Climate Justice | The New Yorker

Cycling in London feels a bit like breaking the rules: you’re allowed to weave in and out of traffic, you don’t have to wear a helmet (most people don’t), and it’s perfectly acceptable to engage a stranger in conversation, as long as they are also on a bike. Early last week, as crowds gathered outside Westminster to protest the suspension of Parliament, Donnachadh McCarthy, of the activist group Stop Killing Cyclists, was in central London, planning a route for the National Funeral for the Unknown Cyclist, a cycling-rights protest to be held a few days later. Logistics were tricky. The protest involved four hired hearses, three led by horses and one by bicycles, in procession with several hundred cyclists on foot. They would walk from Lincoln’s Inn Fields, down toward the Strand and Trafalgar Square, and finish at the Treasury, where participants would make speeches and lie down for a fifteen-minute symbolic die-in. At the previous year’s event, which involved just one coffin, McCarthy said, “The guys on the horse-drawn hearse were brilliant, and they didn’t seem to mind disobeying the police.”

Stop Killing Cyclists (S.K.C.) is at the hard-edged frontier of several cycling-advocacy groups in the U.K., including London Cycling Campaign, which is not participating in the mock funeral, and Cycling UK, which offered a begrudging endorsement on its Web site (“In truth, we’ve struggled with the concept of the coffins, and potentially the assumption that it’s just cyclists who are the victims of air pollution and transport-related climate change,” Duncan Dollimore, Cycling UK’s head of campaigns, wrote in a blog post. But, he noted, “arguing about branding, imaging, and messaging could leave us fiddling while Rome burns.”) This year, however, S.K.C. has partnered with Extinction Rebellion, a climate-activist group that has been staging successful protests in London since October, 2018, in an effort to broaden the debate about cycling. “We want to get across the message that cycling action equals climate action. Climate action equals cycling action,” McCarthy said. To that end, they’ve designated one of the hearses as representative of deaths related to climate change. (The others signify, respectively, cyclists killed by cars; non-cyclists killed by diseases related to inactivity, like diabetes; and people killed by health conditions related to poor air quality.) “We talk about a pyramid of death,” McCarthy said. Cyclists who are killed by cars are “just the tip of the pyramid.”

In London last year, twelve cyclists were killed by cars on the road. That’s down from slightly higher figures in previous years (a study by Transport for London found an average of 16.6 deaths between 2005 and 2009). In general, however, the U.K. performs abysmally when it comes to cycling, consistently ranking among the least bike-friendly nations in Europe (just above Cyprus and Malta). Last year, around one per cent of all journeys in Great Britain were made by bike, and, in 2017, just three per cent of residents said that they cycle daily, according to data cited by Cycling UK. (In the U.S., less than one per cent of commuters regularly bike.). Compare that to Denmark, where, in 2013, thirty per cent of people cycled every day (many of them also wearing fashionable oversized scarves), or the Netherlands, often spoken of in hushed, admiring tones by cyclists, where a whopping forty-three per cent biked daily. A quarter of all trips made by the Dutch are made by bike.

McCarthy, who is a lithe sixty-year-old, with long, graceful limbs, grew up in Cork, Ireland, but has lived in London for thirty years. In his twenties and early thirties, he was a ballet dancer with the Dublin City Ballet and later the Royal Opera Ballet. He didn’t cycle then, because, he said, “they told us it developed the wrong muscles.” When he stopped dancing, he took up cycling as his primary mode of transport. He doesn’t own a car, despises black cabs (“They’re empty fifty per cent of the time!”), and says that his home, in Camberwell, an artsy neighborhood of South London, has been carbon negative since 2007. (He has a wind turbine and rain harvester). He co-founded Stop Killing Cyclists in 2013, after six cyclists were killed by cars in London in quick succession. He was inspired by a nineteen-seventies campaign in the Netherlands called Stop the Child Murder. “I’d seen an old clip, a newsreel, explaining how successful the die-ins were, and how the Dutch got their cycle lanes,” he said. “I thought, We need to do that here, because nothing’s happening fast enough, and it’s just a joke.” As we were talking, seated cross-legged on the grass in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, several black cabs passed. “Cabs. Cabs,” McCarthy said.

On the Tuesday before the Saturday protest, McCarthy met up with two members of Stop Killing Cyclists—Caspar Hughes, who was a bike courier for a decade (“The amount of food we ate! Two extra meals a day!”) and now runs a cycling-events company, and Harry Walton, who owns a shop called Flying Dutchman Bikes—to preview the route. They gathered at the entrance of the park, on their bikes. A sign on a nearby iron fence read “Any bicycles attached to the railings or hand rail will be removed by Security without warning.” I rented a clunky Santander Cycle (sometimes known as a Boris bike, London’s version of Citibike) and followed them into the street. “You’ll notice ninety per cent of cars on this road are black cabs!” McCarthy yelled back at me.

There was a concern that a Brexit protest might displace their procession, which ideally would end in Parliament Square, outside the Treasury. Just past Admiralty Arch, at the entrance of the Mall, the cyclists discussed a Plan B, talking into the wind. “Just logistics-wise, the National Gallery is going to be very difficult,” Walton said. We biked a little farther down the Mall, to the Duke of York Column, a hundred-and-thirty-seven-foot granite monument to Prince Frederick, Duke of York and Albany, built in 1832. A black cab pulled into the open space in front of the column, and a man in a pinstriped suit got out. “Well, it’s not Trafalgar Square,” a cyclist remarked. We turned and rode back through the arch to Trafalgar Square, where there was a taller column, hundreds of pedestrians, and music from a street performance blaring in the background. “There’s so much more power here!” McCarthy shouted.

On the day of the protest, a few hundred cyclists, some in spandex, many with their children, carrying signs that read “Stop Killing Cyclists” and “Don’t be a Fossil Fool,” gathered for the march with their bicycles. A girl in pigtails on a blue bicycle held up a sign that read “Don’t squash me.” The hearses, ornate, huge, and fronted by elegant black horses, lined up alongside them, each bearing a coffin with the signs “Obesity” “Asthma” “Pollution,” “Diabetes,” “Crashes,” and “Climate.” McCarthy, on a loudspeaker, announced a change of plans. A pro-Brexit protest and a concurrent anti-Brexit protest were blocking the path to the Treasury, he explained. They would walk to Trafalgar Square instead, hold a fifteen-minute die-in there, and then carry on to the Duke of York Column for the rally. Several women in sneakers hoisted a fabric banner reading “£6 Billion A Year 4 Cycling.” A boy popped a wheelie. A bagpipe began to play.

At Trafalgar Square, on a section of the road where police had stopped traffic, the cyclists lay down next to their bicycles and went silent. Passing tourists looked on curiously, some offering their own solutions to cycling deaths. (“It’s simple—just use the bus or a car,” a young girl said.) At the Duke of York Steps, the protesters laid out the coffins side by side and placed flowers on them. A pediatrician spoke about air pollution, and Clare Farrell, a co-founder of Extinction Rebellion, talked about frugality (“Joy is not the reward for acquisition”). McCarthy addressed the group last. “The cycling community must unite in love but also in rage at the lack of action,” he said. “It’s too late for pissing around; we have to act.” The crowd dinged their bikes’ bells in support.

ViaNewYorker