Thursday, 26 July 2012

Southwark Bridge protected cycle lane appears, disappears, reappears. A case study in how London's bureaucracies fail to 'get' cycling.


Southwark Bridge on a normal morning
You'll have to bear with me a little bit on this. This is the story of Southwark Bridge and its new protected cycle lane. A story over three days.

Most of the time this junction looks pretty daunting to someone on a bicycle. Lorries, vans and buses take up two lanes heading north. And there's a cycle super highway (in blue) that runs underneath the queuing motor vehicles. Several thousand people cycle over this bridge every morning and have to squeeze in and out of the motor traffic to get themselves safely to the junction.  It's completely bonkers.

Imagine my suprise when Transport for London installed a temporary protected bicycle lane to allow people on bikes to cycle safely into the City of London. The measure is only temporary, for the Olympics. Motor vehicles are banned from turning right, people on bicycles can carry straight ahead (motor vehicles can normally turn left or right but not straight ahead). The protected bicycle lane isn't perfect but it's a million miles better than what used to be there.

Southwark Bridge - new temporary protected
bicycle lane
I was looking forward to using the new protected bike lane during the Olympics. As were thousands of other people. You can get a sense of how many people use this junction on bicycles by looking at the queue of people below. On a normal day you can't really tell how many people are also cycling through here because they're surrounded by far fewer people in cars and vans who take up all the road space. But you get the idea.

All in all, I thought, wow! Finally, the City of London gets its first semi-decent protected bicycle lane. Even if it's only for a few weeks, it's an idea of what could and should be done here.

But oh no, I spoke too soon. By 8am yesterday, some bright spark had decided that the crossing wasn't safe. So they barriered off the crossing, except for a one foot gap. In other words, they corralled approximately forty people per traffic light sequence into the protected bicycle lane. And then tried to force them (in both directions) through a one foot gap in three seconds. Needless to say, it didn't work. At one point, the whole junction was blocked off. Every 30 minutes, the signs would change. Left turn only. Bikes must turn left. Bikes can carry straight ahead. Bikes can't carry straight ahead.

This is the main crossing for people cycling into
the City of London
Apparently, what was happening was that TfL had designated the route as a dedicated and protected bicycle lane. But people at City Police and the City of London weren't given clear instructions and nor, in fact, were the people on the ground from Transport for London. So the junction changed designed literally minute by minute during yesterday's rush hour.

 The net result was that people like me were left stranded in the middle of Upper Thames Street with four lanes of motor traffic honking and bearing down on us. Meanwhile, the pedestrian crossing to the left of the picture is also shut. Which means pedestrians were also trying to get through the same ridiculous gap.

This shouldn't happen.

Can you imagine Transport for London designing a road this way for motor drivers? No, I can't either. It would cause mayhem. But it seems it's absolutely fine to be this disorganised when it comes to people on bikes or on foot. If you're on a bike or on foot, TfL will wilfully put your life at risk. Quite literally. Whereas if you're in a motor vehicle, it might inconvenience you a little but is unlikely to leave you completely exposed in the middle of the road on your own.

Cycle crossing blocked at Southwark Bridge
Photo: courtesy @martincampbell2 on twitter
I'm happy to report the junction is more or less working this morning. The official word is that "Transport for London have moved the infrastructure to provide a proper gap for cyclists but not removed the tape from the pedestrian crossing...[we] suspect that pedestrians will try to use the same gap as the cyclists [which is indeed what's happening]".

Well done, City of London for bashing heads together. But not well done London. There are four (I think) police forces in London deciding what is the right approach to road safety. 36 different boroughs decide what's right for their roads. And TfL decides what's right for its roads. The same road will have competing voices all with their own opinions on what's right for cycling. And most of the people taking those decisions will not have set foot on a pedal in London. As you can see at Southwark Bridge, when three different parties with different reporting lines are trying to make their minds up about what makes for a safe road layout for cycling, the result is pretty shambolic.

It wouldn't happen like this for motorists - the thinking would be joined up. I see Southwark Bridge junction as a microcosm of what's wrong with the way London's bureaucracies think about cycling. Good intentions re-intepreted along the way by people with different agendas, each of whom has the authority to alter those good intentions, which delivers massive compromises along the way. No-one's necessarily 'wrong', no-one's necessarily 'to blame' but ultimately, it makes it incredibly difficult to implement a safe, sensible and consistent environment for people to cycle in.