Marta Krawiec 1980-2021
On Wednesday, 4 August, Marta Krawiec left Tufnell Park to cycle to work at the Evelina London Children’s Hospital. She never made it. She died in a collision with a lorry at the junction of Theobald’s Road and Southampton Row. The driver remained at the scene.
The junction is part of the Holborn Gyratory. Six cyclists have been killed there in the last decade, and many more have been seriously injured. ‘The gyratory principle’, the Westminster Gazette observed in 1909, applying the word to road traffic for the first time, was the means ‘by which vehicles are directed into circular lines ingeniously devised to avoid intersection’. In practice, such intersections are not always avoided, and when they occur between a VRU (the Department for Transport acronym for a ‘vulnerable road user’) and an HGV, they are likely to be fatal. A combination of funding cuts and complacency has seen the urgent need for safer junctions, and segregated cycling in dangerous shared spaces, slip down the list of priorities.
In February 2018 Transport for London proposed various ways of improving safety. Each arm of every dangerous junction must be safe to cycle or walk through. This has not happened. Since Marta’s death, the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) has launched a petition to demand that London ‘take rapid action on dangerous junctions now.’
In August 2018, an LCC protest saw hundreds of cyclists bring Holborn junction to a standstill following Peter Fisher’s fatal collision with a lorry. Later that year the campaign group Stop Killing Cyclists, which recognises that cycling saves lives, held a funeral for the Unknown Cyclist, passing through Holborn on its way to Westminster. The protest called for co-ordinated political action and 20 per cent of the government’s transport budget to be spent on cycling. It received coverage in the British Medical Journal and was repeated in September 2019.
Construction has begun on four more cycling infrastructure projects in London, but if these junctions are not made safer, the mayor’s transport strategy will not realise its aim of no fatal road collisions or serious injuries in London by 2041.
Beyond London, organisations such as British Cycling and See.Sense, and people like Greater Manchester’s cycling and walking commissioner Chris Boardman, are demanding better cycling infrastructure in towns and cities across the UK. In Denmark, 62 per cent of people now cycle and only 9 per cent drive to work.
In the last decade, cycling in London has become safer with new infrastructure leading to an increase in cycling, though from a narrow demographic. LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign in 2012 led to a big change in policy. Transport for London and the then mayor, Boris Johnson, agreed to adopt a ‘Dutch’ approach to cycling, with protected cycle tracks instead of blue painted lanes. Four years later LCC won a promise from the new mayor, Sadiq Khan, to ban dangerous lorries.
A further initiative was to train cyclists for London’s roads. All adults and children are eligible for up to four hours free TfL cycle lessons. Figures show a 70 per cent reduction in fatalities compared to the 2005-9 baseline, but the number of people seriously injured while cycling has increased by 6 per cent. There is also considerable variance between councils. The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured in Britain between 2009 and 2019 increased by 11 per cent. With an increase in pedal bike traffic of 17 per cent between 2008 and 2018, this represents an overall decrease, but there is still urgent work to be done.
The Department for Transport goal is for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be made by bicycle or on foot by 2030, but without serious, material improvements for cyclists and pedestrians, how realistic is this?
All HGV drivers are offered free safe urban driving (SUD) training. But it isn’t mandatory, and more than half of cyclist fatalities in London involve a lorry, even though lorries account for only 4 per cent of miles driven.
Lorries need to be made safer. High cabs prevent drivers from seeing people cycling and walking near the front of the vehicle. Direct Vision Standard lorries have low cabs and big windows that significantly reduce blind spots, and London at least is committed to making them the norm, even if the pace of change is too slow.
SUD training is something that all drivers, not only those who drive for a living, would benefit from. Driver error or reaction is the most common contributory factor to road accidents. Marta began cycling in London last year, motivated in part by her concerns over the climate emergency. Thousands more have taken up cycling during the pandemic as an alternative to public transport.
A specialist in paediatrics and then allergology at the Medical University of Warsaw, Marta came to the UK in October 2016. She joined King’s College Allergology Clinic, specialising in the diagnosis and treatment of children with food allergies, and became a consultant in 2018. Her diverse team at St Thomas’s is part of an NHS that was able to open its doors to all in 1948 thanks to migrant workers. Marta had time for everyone. Her team speak of her deep care and commitment to every patient, and her encyclopedic knowledge of their past tests and wellbeing. She combined, more than anyone I have known, gravitas, grace, humour and lightness.
Marta’s colleague George du Toit said that her ‘legacy will live on’ through her research,
with infants being protected from developing food allergies, and allergic children having access to treatments and safer and more accurate diagnostic tests. When the Covid pandemic struck, Marta altruistically put herself forward as a participant in the Oxford vaccine trials and as a clinician in the Covid wards and vaccine centres.
A requiem mass was held for Marta at St Pancras Old Church on 7 August. The Missa de Angelis was sung. Marta was a devoted member of the church community. She also threw herself into London life, going to the theatre, exhibitions and concerts, especially the music of J.S. Bach. She read widely, most recently on South Asian migration to the UK. She visited her family in Poland regularly. Marta is survived by her parents, her two younger sisters and her younger brother.
Marta told her friend and colleague Latifa Rahman how much she loved cycling in London. The pleasure she took in it has a long history. In 1893, sixteen-year-old Tessie Reynolds raced to London and back from Brighton. In 1895 the trade unionist and social reformer Clementina Black observed: ‘I believe the bicycle is doing more for the independence of women than anything expressly designed to that end.’ Not everyone approved. ‘Women are now graduates in half a dozen professions, and disciples in all,’ the Quarterly Review declared stuffily in 1894. ‘They practise medicine as well as novel-writing; the forceps is familiar to them no less than the bicycle.’
In spring 1896 some two thousand cyclists, mainly women, met at Hyde Park. ‘Many acts of courtesy have I received at difficult crossing from hard-worked men,’ the Countess of Malmesbury wrote in the Badminton Magazine that year. A mass market for bicycles developed, and early in the new century Votes for Women, the weekly paper of the Women’s Social and Political Union, offered them as prizes to whoever sold the most magazines.
The poet Alice Meynell wrote in 1896 of a woman cycling along Oxford Street:
Here she was, trusting not only herself but a multitude of other people; taking her equal risk … [with] a watchful confidence not only in a multitude of men but in a multitude of things … She had learnt to be content with her share – no more – in common security, and to be pleased with her part in common hope.
To move into the shared space of the road is to trust your life to strangers, as you are entrusted with the lives of strangers. Meynell’s cyclist ‘could have had but small preparation’ for all this.
Yet no anxiety was hers, no uneasy distrust and disbelief … She had made herself, as it were, light, so as not to dwell either in security or danger, but to pass between them.
The same year, the Lady Cyclist declared that the bicycle was responsible for ‘a new dawn, a dawn of emancipation’. As well as cycling, Marta swam at the Hampstead Heath ponds, practised yoga, and went hiking across each of the countries of the UK. ‘Enjoy your escape!’ she once wrote to me.
Marta was my daughter’s doctor. She inspired her, aged ten, to keep going with immunotherapy, and shared her love of music with her. Sometimes, when the ward wasn’t too busy, they would go to the third floor of the hospital and play the piano together, and doctors and nurses in their rushed lunch breaks would pause to listen.