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Thousands of black people dying due to London's car culture

DIE IN: Hundreds of cyclists protest outside TfL HQ in 2013 (Rory Jackson)

LIFE-LONG ACTIVIST Donnachadh McCarthy is a man who takes pride in practising what he preaches. Once known as the “conscience of the Liberal Democrats”, the 55-year-old Irishman is leading the charge to change London’s transport culture out of compassion for his fellow citizens and Mother Nature.

Co-founder of direct action group Stop Killing Cyclists, McCarthy is busy organising November 15’s central London demonstration calling for the capital’s authorities to implement further policies and infrastructure that truly revolutionise cycling and walking in the capital.

Dubbed the National Funeral for the Unknown Victim of Traffic Violence, the protest represents something much more than simply demanding better facilities for vulnerable road users, McCarthy tells The Voice from his south London “carbon negative” home, kitted out with solar panels, rain-catcher and wood-burning stove.

“Pollution and lack of exercise don’t discriminate,” the former deputy chair of the Lib Dems explains. “It’s a real issue for the black members of our community. Better-off white people know and understand about active travel and are therefore participating in it.”

Not afraid of bold statements, McCarthy claims: “Thousands of black people are dying because we don’t have a cycling culture in London.

“If we had an active transport culture [walking and cycling], research estimates we could save 4,500 lives every year.

“Those people are dying diabetes, lung disease, heart disease. (Inactivity) affects dementia and depression.”

A Transport for London report published in 2011 found that far fewer women and people from black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds were choosing pedal power in comparison to white men under 40 with medium to high incomes. The report stated that 71 per cent of BME Londoners said they “never” cycled, while that number was 57 per cent for their white counterparts. The difference between the sexes was just as startling, with a mere one per cent of BME women cycling weekly and only four per cent of BME men.

HEALTHY: A man and child take part in a London cycling event (PA)

McCarthy is at a loss to explain the disparity between cycling habits of white and BME Londoners, but believes awareness could be a factor, and emphasises again how health and environmental benefits would be “significant” and far reaching if greater numbers of people from all backgrounds got in the saddle.

Nonetheless, he is in agreement with the likes of London Mayor Boris Johnson that perception of the dangers of cycling is proving to be one of the major barriers to seeing more cyclists on the roads. “The biggest reason people aren’t cycling is because they’re afraid,” McCarthy claims. “The group that walks and cycles the least is the bottom fifth income bracket, and 50 per cent of those in London are BME.

“The second reason it’s important to black people is that a lot of them are living in areas that are highly polluted,” the ex-Southwark councillor explains.

“In Peckham and Bermondsey, where there is a high African Caribbean population, people are paying the price of pollution of people who drive cars through our community.

“14 people a year are dying from cycling, but you probably have a 100 times more people dying from not cycling, and that’s the problem. We see the headlines of cyclists killed in a terrible, brutal, barbaric fashion, but we don’t see the headlines of however many people died… from lung disease directly related to traffic pollution.”

Touching upon Saturday’s mega protest, which is expected to attract over 1,000 demonstrators cycling and marching along Oxford Street to Marble Arch, McCarthy adds: “The protest is making the message that if we have a city that’s aimed at active travelling and our streets are made fit for humans, then the quality of life for everyone improves.

“When we ask for better cycle lanes, it’s not only for the four per cent who are cycling, it’s to reduce pollution, and encourage people to start active travel so they can expand their lifespans.”


McCarthy talks about the “invisible” people affected by traffic accidents and pollution, who are the family members of the injured and dead. “4,000 people is a lot to be dying early, but then you have the people living with diabetes, living with cancer, living with injuries. They don’t appear in the statistics, neither does the child whose left parentless, nor the husband of the woman who died of lung cancer.”

He adds: “This culture of violence on our streets affects a significant majority of people in our country.

“We elect our representatives, and their first task is to protect us. Our transport culture is lethal and making vast numbers of people live a poor quality of life, with reduced lifespans because of the culture of cars.

“If a responsible political system would not accept that.”

The consequences of implementing his vision of an active transport culture could help save our ailing public healthcare system, which is dealing with the strain of a country’s obesity crisis and all its related illnesses. “There have been estimates for the savings to the NHS, and you’re talking billions,” McCarthy says. “Even more importantly, you’re talking about decades of good quality life for individual human beings.”

McCarthy doesn’t hesitate to explain what drives him to tackle the status quo and make the world a fairer place: “Empathy.”

The globally-aware campaigner, whose visit to the Amazonian rainforest in the 1990s spurred him on to fight for the environment after witnessing the destruction of Western consumer demands, says: “Why should a kid born into a village in Kenya, that was malaria free up in the highlands, now live in a malaria-filled society because we added to the carbon dioxide in the planet unnecessarily? That’s unjust. I’m 55 and I cannot believe what my generation has consumed.

“I do have a love for what nature is, and the idea that my generation is denying the next generation that fascination, that beauty and mystery, and spirituality – that’s what drives me.”

The National Funeral for the Unknown Victim of Traffic Violence begins at Bedford Square, central London at 12pm on Saturday November 15

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