Going Global’s European Correspondent, Will Shiers, explores the UK’s growing demand for low-entry cabs on the streets of London, and gets behind the wheel of the market-leading Mercedes-Benz Econic.
London’s streets are centuries old. Back in the day some of the narrowest lanes in the city were barely wide enough to accommodate two passing horse and carts, and are woefully inadequate for today’s heavy traffic. Yet, for some reason London Mayor Sadiq Khan and his predecessor Boris Johnson, seem to think it’s alright for cars, trucks and buses to share what little tarmac there is with thousands of cyclists.
Both men have been actively promoting cycling, both as a way of commuting, and for healthy living. While I’m the first to appreciate the merits of pedal-power, and regularly take to two wheels myself, I firmly believe that encouraging the activity in a congested city like London is wholly irresponsible. If London had the space to properly segregate cyclists from motorists, like Amsterdam does, it would be a different story. But it doesn’t!
Instead, Transport for London (TfL), the local government body responsible for the transport system in Greater London, appears to think it’s acceptable to paint blue cycle lanes across some of the capital’s busiest intersections and hope for the best. If you ask me, it’s no different to painting a zebra crossing on a motorway!
No prizes for guessing that as cycling has become more popular, accident rates have risen. And according to TfL, between 2015 and 2017, trucks were disproportionately involved in fatal collisions with cyclists (63 per cent) on London’s streets, despite only making up four per cent of the overall miles driven in the city.
Clearly any cyclist death is a tragedy that must be avoided at all costs, and any sane person can appreciate that something must be done to tackle the issue. In my humble opinion, both parties need to take responsibility for their actions.
I’m no expert, but based on my limited experience of driving trucks in London, I reckon cyclist education is key. A frightening number of them insist on cycling on the nearside of left-turning vehicles, apparently oblivious to the dangers.
I’ve also witnessed them holding on to the sides of moving trucks, and even carrying bikes over the drawbar couplings of stationary vehicles. But if I dare to suggest that a simple cycling proficiency test be introduced I’m lambasted on social media. Once I made the mistake of saying that the UK should go down the same route as Australia and make cycle helmets mandatory. You should have read the abusive comments I received, some of the words used to describe me would have made a sailor blush!
No, instead, responsibility seems to have fallen squarely on truck operators. Later this year London will introduce the world’s first Direct Vision Standard (DVS) for trucks, aimed squarely at improving the safety of vulnerable road users. It forms part of the mayor’s Vision Zero approach to eliminating all deaths and serious injuries from London’s roads by 2041.
The scheme will rate trucks over 12 tonnes from zero to five stars according to the level of direct vision a driver has from the cab. From 26 October, 2020, trucks with a zero-star rating will be banned from entering London unless they have obtained a Safe System permit. This allows operators of zero-rated trucks to enter the capital by retrofitting approved safety equipment, such as sensors, camera systems and visual warnings.
From 26 October, 2024, rules will tighten to only allow three-star rated trucks and above to enter London without a Safe System permit. As a consequence, for the first time to my knowledge, local politicians are actually influencing truck design.
Not only do most truck makers now offer optional glazed sections in the lower half of passenger doors in order to improve kerbside visibility, but low-entry trucks are being adapted for a variety of applications. Not too long ago these vehicles were used solely for refuse collection, but now they’re increasingly seen on London’s streets with tipper, skip-loader, hook-loader, fridge and box bodies on the back.
Currently the four players are Dennis Eagle, Volvo, Scania and Mercedes-Benz, with the latter being the clear market leader. Last year the Mercedes Econic notched-up 900 sales in the UK, making it more popular than its Atego sibling. The truck is available in a variety of axle configurations, including 4×2, 6×2, 8×4 and 8×4 tridem. Late last year fruit and vegetable supplier Reynolds added the first Econic artics to its London fleet.