Boris, Bikes, and Trucks

London Cycling Campaign proposed truck design

Boris Johnson, the mayor of London, has listed in The Telegraph one of his objections to the European Union being "the time I discovered, in 2013, that there was nothing we could do to bring in better-designed cab windows for trucks, to stop cyclists being crushed. It had to be done at a European level, and the French were opposed". Whilst I try to avoid discussing the failings of other cities, this is a very important point for cyclists in general. Since Push Bikes is a cycling campaign group, and I was personally involved (albeit in a very small way) in the call for low cab trucks, I would like to examine Boris' statement.

I support the switch to low cab design (shown in the photo compared with a conventional European truck and a cyclist) because it offers better visibility. Ideally a truck driver would never need to interact with a vulnerable road user, but at the start and end of a journey that is likely to be necessary even with well designed infrastructure. For example, delivery trucks need to be directed into their parking bays, and removal trucks need access to residential streets. Additionally, some vulnerable road users will not recognise the dangers of being near a truck and will consequently place themselves in danger accidentally. So we need to maximise the ability of the driver to see other road users, especially vulnerable road users, and clearly the standard European truck design has serious and avoidable shortcomings. That's hardly surprising for a design that has been around for a very long time.

It is certainly true that truck design is defined by European Union rules. That makes complete sense, because trucks are not restricted to one country. They travel all across Europe, and through the channel tunnel. We don't want to create on an international scale all the problems that were created in Birmingham by the Worcester Bar. Can you imagine the chaos and expense created by transferring goods from one truck to another of a different design at every border? As an engineer myself, I know all too well the importance of standards, and I prefer those standards to cover as large a geographic area as possible, because the more standards you have to meet around the world, the more ways engineers have to do the same thing slightly differently, and the more expensive becomes meeting standards so that you can trade.

But let us suppose Britain had been able to, or does, go off and do its own thing. In addition to turning Dover into a giant Worcester Bar, we would have a second problem. Who would actually make the special British trucks? There are in fact no British commercial truck manufacturers. The closest we get is Alexander Dennis. Dennis started out manufacturing bicycles and went on to build special purpose trucks, but Alexander Dennis only manufacture buses. The truck making division, Dennis Eagle, made refuse trucks of the sort that inspired the London Cycling Campaign truck design shown in the photo above, but Dennis Eagle was sold in 1999 to the Spanish company Ros Roca. If you're wondering about those lovely red Dennis fire engines that used to be ubiquitous, John Dennis is now a coachbuilder, building fire engine bodies on to various European truck chassis from mainstream truck manufacturers, such as MAN. All the other British truck companies are defunct. ERF was bought up by the German company MAN, but the factory was eventually closed and the name is no longer in use. Foden was bought by the American company PACCAR, and the name is no longer in use. Scammell became part of Leyland. Leyland Trucks merged with the Dutch company DAF. DAF went into bankruptcy, and the Leyland Trucks brand is now owned by PACCAR. You can see the trend here. In the automotive world you either have to merge with and take over other companies to stay alive, or you have to do as Dennis have done, and specialise. Specialising allows you to charge more for your product, because buyers benefit in other ways from that specialism. The mainstream vehicle manufacturers avoid niche products, because they require massive economy of scale to achieve competitiveness. Some have specialist divisions (eg Bentley and Lamborghini are part of Volkswagen AG), but the products made by those divisions are expensive.

One niche market most vehicle manufacturers are involved in is the right-hand drive market. In a world that is largely left-hand drive, right-hand drive is a niche market, and the engineering and special production required costs money. Those costs are passed on to the customer, which means British people have to pay several hundred pounds extra on each and every car in order to drive on the left. We also have to pay extra to have our speedometers marked in mph rather than km/h (since most of the world has metric speed limits).

So if we had special British trucks they would be expensive, making our hauliers uncompetitive in the European market, and increasing prices in the shops. However, British hauliers would undoubtedly campaign strongly to use pan-European design trucks, to minimise costs and to allow them to compete in the continental market.   So inside or out of the EU, it is likely the trucks on British roads would be EU standard, and in or out we would end up waiting for the EU to pass the necessary legislation for low cab trucks. However, outside of the EU we would have no say in that legislation.

It is true that there were objections from other European countries. However, one of the European countries that objected was Britain. I was one of those who lobbied British MEPs (who are democratically elected to the European Parliament by British citizens) to push for low cab design. Nevertheless, some British MEPs (some of them West Midlands MEPs) voted against the proposed changes. UKIP, who hate everything European, were opposed, of course. But they weren't the only ones. Boris' Conservative colleagues in the British government were opposed too. However, despite the opposition, the design change was merely delayed, not rejected, and the European Parliament is calling for the changes to be mandatory for all new lorries in the EU by 2022. In other words, we wouldn't be getting pan-European low cab trucks if the official British view had prevailed in Europe. Unfortunately Boris doesn't want us to have any further say in the legislation; he wants brexit. The Tory government having helped to drill a hole in the boat, Boris now wants to take an axe to it, because it allows him to blame someone else (the French).

Boris needs someone else to blame, because he has a political problem. Cyclists have been dying under the wheels of the large number of construction lorries in London because they are forced to share the carriageway with those trucks, even though the two forms of transport are wholly incompatible. Even if trucks were better designed, the two would still be incompatible, just less so. We never mix trams and trains in the UK, because in a collision between a tram and a train the tram passengers would find themselves with too little protection, so why do we consider it OK to routinely mix cycles and trucks, where the disparity is very clearly much greater? Cyclists are dying in London because the infrastructure is not fit for purpose, not because the EU is taking a bit longer than is preferable to change truck design. Inside or outside of the European Union, as the mayor of London Boris could have done something about it. Instead he just said that cyclists need to "have their wits about them". David Hembrow invited Boris to go and see how the Dutch keep cyclists safe (on infrastructure all built whilst a member of the EU, the Netherlands being a founder member), but apparently Boris was too busy. Just how important does something need to be for Boris to pay proper attention to it? Only far too late did the message sink in that to keep cyclists safe you need to keep them apart from trucks and other motor vehicles, just as they do in many continental cities. Building cycle-friendly infrastructure does not require approval from the European Union, but as members of the European Union it is very easy for British people to see best practice for themselves, and even gain professional experience with the people who have built the best. Additionally, government and local authorities are able to bid for funding from the European Regional Development Fund towards specific projects that could be used to make Britain a greener place to live.

When someone starts blaming foreigners for their failings, you know they're scraping the bottom of the political barrel. Other European leaders and politicians have adopted this approach in the past, and, like Boris, some still do. In the past it quite often had disastrous consequences. The irony is that the European Union has been created to allow European nations to resolve their differences and work together to build a better Europe for all. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. Perhaps Boris is just too busy to pay proper attention to history.


Trucks Separated from Bikes

Trucks separated from bikes
Trucks and bikes are incompatible, trucks being much larger, heavier, and faster than bikes, whilst bikes have far less protection for the operator. They should be kept apart, as they are here. Note also the unobtrusive glass sound deflector (so people don't have to endure the noise from this busy road), the cycle path lighting, and the smooth, wide, low rolling-resistance surface. This is what great infrastructure for cyclists looks like. It's great for truck drivers too, not having to look out for something as small as a bicycle.