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Jul
28
2008

Bicycle bombs: a threat to Westminster?

On 25 June I participated in a debate held by the Royal Institute of British Architects

“This house believes we should fortify our cities”.

Piers Gough and I opposed the motion. In the course of the debate the proposers, Lorraine Gamman and Adam Thorpe, raised the threat of bicycle bombs. After the debate they produced evidence to support their view that bicycle bombs were a threat to be taken seriously – now posted on the debate website . I present below my comments on their evidence.

For my comments click here

8 comments

1 ping

  1. Iain says:

    I can remember fixing my bike to the railings outside Westminister Abbey in 1994, not noticing the sign forbidding it.

    I came back later to find an additional lock had been added to the bike, which the security people were happy to remove once they’d told me off for breaking the rules and explained the risk of it being a bomb.

    I never quite figured out why, if they thought my bike might blow up, making it *more* difficult to remove from the railings was a sensible thing to do.

    I’ve cycled to parliament more recently and I can confirm that finding somewhere legal to leave my bike was not easy.

  2. Jeremy Gaunt says:

    Dear Sir,
    I was interested in your comments on the radio this morning. We produce a product which is aesthetically pleasing but also provides a very high degree of protection from terrorist attack. However, virtually all the experts only ever go on and on about standoff and seem determined to turn London into a no go area reminiscent of central Baghdad. As a Londoner I resent this and wonder if you have any views as to how to open up this debate.

    Regards,
    Jeremy Gaunt

  3. Dave Holladay says:

    John

    On the immediate topic, I have head of a bicycle used as a bomb reported to be Sofia c.1948, when the reports are of the saddle being ejected by some 300 feet but the bike remained rideable. Maybe someone has further details, but the essence of your piece is correct bicycles per se are unlikely to be used as bombs for various technical reasons and it is the bags on the bikes which are effectivel suspicious packages which simply happen to be attached to a bicycle. Note however that it is technically possible to crate a bike that will work as a bomb but the technology and cost will rule this out for general purpose terrorist activity.

    It does begger belief though at the way this risk is managed – by the lack of management that sensitive locations appear to apply to cycle parking – rail statiosn which are earmarked as ‘sensitive’ have no coansitency of signage and thus have bikes left close-in to main circulation areas with nothing to call for bags to be removed or baskets left empty and open – noting this to a BT Policeman on the site he admitted that they had triewd to get the local management to recognise the issue but got nowhere as few rail stations apply any form of management and thus cycle security is poor for the users as well – cycle theft on London & SE ststions is the only crime which is increasing with a few exceptions where the cycle storage is foramlly or informally managed.

    THe old procedure for dealing with parked bikes in Westmister was equally hilarious – the locks woul be cropped off and bikes removed to Cannon Row cells – the words Trojan and Horse come to mind, as the very last thing you do to a bike which is in any way suspect is move it, due to the classic trigger system used in Vietnam and Palestine which used no additional accessories on a basic bike.

    John raised this issue in a debate on whether fortifying our cities was the solution – but it certainly is not. first you lose the passive surveillance which contact and abilty to observe the world surrounding you provides, People withia building will notice out of course activity outside if they can see outside. Then, in locking out enemies you also lock-out relief for any emergency. I was at a meeting in a very secure building when a genuaine fire alert went up, and there was a major delay in gettin g the fire appliances in to the site. The classic her being that the concept of troops travelling around in armoured carriers actually makes then more vulnerable than if they travel around in open sided trucks – it takes just one person with a grenade who gets that back door open and sets of an explosion inside to wipe out a patrol, but an ambush on a group in an open sided truck will see the group able to diaperse rapidly to multiply the target count and thus require more than one grenade to disable that patrol.

    The ‘security presence’ at many airports is equally worrying – surely thay dare not let loose with their semi automatic weapons in a steel and stone building with vast acreages of glazing whilst the public are in there. Good security is not about showing off – it is that nothing happens and no one notces. Set up a security cordon with scanners etc and you actually make it easier to beat the system.

    Finally to return to the cycling issue – and risk – HGV’s have an appalling record of crushing ‘small and soft road users and on the open road the drivers can walk away from crashes where whole families have been wiped out by the truck driving over their car. The latter incident relates directly to John’s spiked steering wheel and when combined with the former – improving visibility between soft road user and users and HGV drivers could be delivered with a very simple change in design – which is not impossible to achieve – vehicles ae already built this way for use on airports and to carry portable cranes. Wahy are thes enot being specified – give that HGV’s are involved in over half the fatalities in most major cities?

    As an interim and far better than a tiny additional mirror or stick-on fresnel lens I suggest that all construction vehicles operating on major projects in London – particularly London’s 2012 site have clear glazed panels in bottom of the nearside door or the nearside wing panels., as a condition which will save more lives here & now than the current obsession with Low emissions

    I may well have a resource to develop the concept with final year design students if there are any takers.

  4. David Hansen says:

    I caught John’s piece on bike bombs on Radio 4 and looked up .

    Other than, “Because of the high risk of theft, a bicycle parked with panniers attached would arouse suspicion and could be treated like any other suspicious package abandoned in a public place.”, I thought it very sensible. However, I have my reservations about this point.

    In Edinburgh, at Waverley station, we have the ridiculous situation that panniers attached to bikes are stolen by the railways, while motorbikes and cars (parked nearby) are ignored.

    It is claimed that this theft is necessary because a bomb could be placed in a pannier by a bomber looking for a suitable place to conceal one. They claim that they are not picking on cyclists as being uniquely likely to bring a bomb with them compared to motorcyclists or motorists.

    It doesn’t take much effort to realise that motorbikes and cars have many more places to leave a bomb. Motorbikes may well have panniers and top
    boxes. They are likely to have a compartment under the seat. Yet the railways do not wander round the motorbike parking area checking that these are
    locked.

    I have also not seen the railways wandering round cars checking that the doors are all locked and thus that a bomber could not have placed a bomb
    inside the car. Even if the bomber does not open the doors there are several other places to hide a bomb, for example the wheel arches.

    Cars and motorbikes have things called petrol tanks, which will increase the effect of any bomb.

    They claim that if the panniers/box on a bike are locked and bolted to the bike they would treat it like a motorbike box/panniers and not try and steal it. I have yet to test this, I have a bike with a box like that on the rack, but suspect that if I did I would prove their claim to be false.

    I think that panniers on bikes should only be considered a problem if car and motorbike parking is prevented far enough away from the bike parking
    that a car or motorbike bomb would have the same effect at the bike parking location as a bike bomb. Otherwise cyclists are being picked on for no reason other than those with power think they can get away with it and this allows them to say they are “doing something”.

    Criminals planting bombs (I never use the word terrorist to describe these criminals) are not defeated by foolish over-reaction. The London bombers killed fewer people than motorists do in a week. They are defeated by two things. The first is an intelligent assessment of the risks leading to measures that do not erode freedom, otherwise the criminals are winning. Knee jerk but pointless measures that allow officials and politicians to say that they are “doing something” are worse than useless. The second thing is the public going about their normal business. “We are not afraid” would have been good if it hadn’t just been spin. Politicians and officials demonstrated by their actions that they were afraid, shame on them.

  5. Julia Bicknell says:

    Just want to support your campaign to point up the absurdity that parked cycles could hide bombs, while cars & motorbikes are not treated similarly.
    I remember several occasions of frustration when I could not leave my bike in & around Westminster, having once had to trek to Cannon Row.

    If Boris is serious about encouraging cycling in our city centre, this needs to be addressed. I hope the London Cycling Campaign can take up the cause.

  6. Audrius Sapola says:

    Dear Sir,

    instead of sending a private e-mail I decided to post my question here (NB! It’s not related to your post on bike bombs). I’d merely ask for your recommendation as to what what books / publications on risk management would you recommend to read for a novice in the risk mangament field? I’d really appreciatte your response and my e-mail is audrius.sapola at gmail.com .

    Kind regards,

    Audrius

  7. Robert Davis says:

    John Adams has made some interesting comments about the alleged threat from bicycle bombs http://john-adams.co.uk/?p=122 concentrating on how the alleged risk is overestimated. The reasons why this might be so are given as (a) The use of worst-case scenarios and (b) Paranoia.

    I would like to argue that there is in fact another reason for this behaviour. This reason is prejudice against cycling and cyclists, combined with (and/or part of) a refusal by motorists to accept responsibility for the many and various depredations visited by mass car use on society and the environment.

    This prejudice may be called “car supremacism” (I use this term in my book “Death on the Streets: Cars and the mythology of road safety”), or “velophobia”(A term originally coined by Patrick Field), or what you will. The key elements of this ideology/prejudice are:

    1. Motorists are an oppressed minority. Car supremacism holds that motorists are prevented from their “basic right” to drive when, where, how and why they wish, by being compelled to pay too much money, obeying laws, and having to cope with obstacles like buildings and trees which have not (yet) been removed to allow them to drive where they wish.

    A key element of this system of beliefs is that there may well be some problems associated with mass car use, but these are dealt with by perceived regulation – although this is actually pseudo-restriction (again, I deal with this in my book). So we have:

    2. Motorists are controlled and regulated adequately, or if anything too heavily. The alleged regulations include a variety of what are actually pseudo-restrictions, such as the driving test, speed cameras, occasional enforcement of the law, payment of “road tax” etc. (I won’t here go into discussion about how these pseudo-restrictions fail to properly control the adverse effects of mass car use on society and the global and local environments – again, read the book!). This then leads inexorably on to a third element of this ideology which is the subject of this note, namely:

    3. Since motorists are being bullied all the time, it’s about time cyclists were as well. This is the reason for media coverage of the tiny handful of cases where pedestrian casualties are caused by cyclists, demands that cyclists do things which are supposed restrictions on motorists (like paying 3rd party insurance).

    One explanation of this phenomenon may be Freud’s notion of “projection”. This is basically the idea that we “project” our guilt for our failings on to other people: if we are secretly (“unconsciously”) aware that we are anti-social drivers, what a good defence (to use Freud’s concept) it is to pick on others, particularly if they belong to another road user group.

    However, this is not just a question of individual psychology. Motorists are very often completely unaware (even at an “unconscious” level) of the problems they are creating. After all, Government policy has been to accommodate or generate increased car use and car dependency, to tolerate (or exacerbate) illegal and rule-breaking driving etc.

    So an important reason for the bicycle bombs panic is:The dominant culture is suffused with background ideas about transport and car use. Part of this car supremacist culture generates a desire to pick on cycling and cyclists. This involves seeing cycling/cyclists as problematic, and escaping alleged (but actually largely imaginary) restrictions and regulation. For this reason cyclists will be regularly targeted in ways which defy any rational explanation. In this case motorists see themselves as being controlled and regulated by a programme designed to stop car bombs: so we get an attempt to deal with bicycle bombs, whether or not they exist.

    Car bombs.
    All of this brings us back to a problem which is rather more real – car bombs. A 2 part documentary on this subject finished last night (August 3rd) with the conclusion that the car bomb was now going to be a regular feature of 21st century warfare, and that it would be difficult or impossible to stop the use of this weapon. The reason given in the conclusion to the programme was that cars are now not just desirable but necessary features of contemporary life – something which may be surprising to the 4 – 5 billion people without access to cars – and that we had better get used to car bombing. (See also a book on the subject: Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb (2007) by Mike Davis).

    This problem has all the ingredients of the problems of mass car use as seen through the prism of car supremacist ideology , from safety through pollution to congestion, namely that:
    (i) It’s a terrible problem and it is going to get worse, although
    (ii) We have a bunch of guys – the “road safety” industry, risk analysts, road builders etc. – who are going to do very well against impossible odds to deal with this problem, and that in fact
    (iii) We are actually doing so well with this terrible problem that you must never suggest that we could actually become less car dependent. And of course,
    (iv) Rather than going on and on about the car bombs, why don’t we talk about the bicycle bombs?

    Robert Davis, Chair Road danger Reduction Forum 4th August 2008

  8. Mayer Hillman says:

    I have had two memorable experiences reflecting the paranoia about ‘bicycle bombs’. The first was about 20 years ago. I could not find my bicycle which I had padlocked outside The Institution of Civil Engineers in Great George Street as I was contributing to a day-long Conference there. This was my common practice when going there or to the House of Commons. Someone suggested that I go to Charing Cross police station to report the theft. As I was giving details there, the police officer said suddenly, ‘I think we have it here’. Sure enough, it was. When I enquired as to the reason for its removal, I was told that it posed a security risk as, for instance, the cross-bar could be packed with explosives and for that reason parking bicycles in the vicinity was no longer allowed. I understandably complained that there were no notices warning me of this rule and following later correspondence I received a cheque covering the cost of a new lock.

    The second experience was at the Israeli Embassy a couple of years later for the presentation of a joint international prize to Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose, an old school friend of mine. In the middle of the presentation the double doors burst open and two armed security officers called out in a very panicky voice ‘Does anybody here know about a bicycle padlocked outside’. With a blush of embarassment that I could only recall from my teenage years, I had to ‘confess’ that it was mine. This was followed by a brief lecture in front of the assembled distinguished audience about the extreme danger that a bicycle could have posed again by virtue of its crossbar being packed with explosives ‑ and the imperative of never ever ever doing it again! ,

  1. Christian Wolmar » Blog Archive » Bicycle bombs myth debunked says:

    [...] using bicycles to convey bombs and it triggered off something of a debate, which can be read here: http://john-adams.co.uk/?p=122 . There are, interestingly, rather more such incidents than might be expected, over 30 stretching [...]

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