Wednesday, 16 January 2013

City of Westminster is at last drafting a cycling strategy. Don't get your hopes up: The council is already insisting cycle routes mustn't "adversely impact" private car use

Classic bike lane in the City of Wesminster. The 'bike lane' leads straight into a traffic light
Last month, the City of Westminster issued a response to a Freedom of Information request that provided some detail on the council's approach to cycling. It's a fairly damning set of responses:

During the year 2011/12, according to the FOI response, the council spent £173,000 on its cycle parking programme, less than the £208,000 the previous year. To put this in context, the City of London spent £93,000 to provide additional cycle parking for just one residential housing estate last year. Not only did Westminster decrease its investment in cycle parking at a time when cycling is booming but, when looked at in context, the total expenditure in Westminster looks extremely flimsy.

It gets worse when you look at how much time and effort Westminster spends on making the borough safe, let alone convenient, for everyday trips to made by bike. Asked how much the council spends on cycle paths and other cycle facilities across borough, the City of Westminster replies: £1.72million in 2010/11 which was then reduced to £946,000 last year. It's unclear whether that was Westminster's own cash or whether the money was Transport for London cash spent in Westminster (for example, TfL paid for the new cycle super highway that heads from Millbank to Wandsworth Bridge). Either way, it is highly unclear what the money was actually spent on given that Westminster counts "public realm schemes with improvements for cyclists and highway maintenance" as a 'cycling scheme'. For all I know, that could include schemes like the new road layout at the top of Waterloo Bridge which, frankly, does absolutely nothing for cycling but certainly involves some highway maintenance. If you look at the website of the Westminster Cyclists group, it's immediately obvious that, when it comes to cycling in the City of Westminster, there's a bit of talk about cycling but not much happening on the ground.

So it's faintly encouraging to see Westminster confirm in this FOI response that the council will start consultation on its new Cycling Strategy in late summer this year. About time too. The Strategy was originally meant to be published late last year.

It is concerning, though, to see that better and safer cycling will only be built provided it doesn't impact other modes of transport. The councillor responsible for the Cycling Strategy confirmed last year that he wants "to improve the attractiveness of, and facilities for, cycling and walking in Westminster, whilst striking an appropriate balance with the need to ensure powered vehicles continue to be able to get around the city, and that the steps we take do not adversely impact upon other modes of transport". That will probably mean Westminster will refuse to move car parking along cycle routes in order to build cycle infrastructure. Weasel-worded commitment, if ever I heard it.

Let's just remember that 63% of Westminster households don't own a car. You'd have thought the council might want to prioritise cycling, walking and bus transit for all those non-car owning households.

We'll see what comes out of the Westminster Cycling Strategy in the coming months.

In the meantime, I have to hope that Westminster doesn't copy one strategy that is spreading its tentacles across the City of London. The Square Mile is doing very impressive work on cycling and walking in general. It has recently committed to a Road Danger Reduction Plan, for example.

This is the space left to cycle along Cheapside
now that the road has been made massively narrower
and the pavements almost doubled in width
But one aspect of that Plan is to make road carriageways narrower. This is something that the Square Mile seems weirdly obsessed with. Cheapside, which runs between Bank and St Paul's was the first street to get the narrowing treatment.

Why has the City of London narrowed Cheapside and why does it plan to narrow more of its streets? The City claims that "Cheapside was deliberately narrowed to make cars and cyclists move together at broadly the same speed. The design reduces the prospect of vehicles stopping on the carriageway; which limits the risk of vehicle doors being opened in front of cyclists. All of these are behavioural issues but they are influenced by the surrounding street environment."

The problem is, that for most of the day, cars don't move much along Cheapside. They do stop on the carriageway pretty much all the time.

End result? People on bicycles can't move either. Either that, or they squeeze along the side of the pavement or overtake a couple of dozen stationery taxis and buses on the wrong side of the road. The end result is that even City of London insiders are starting to admit cyclists aren't doing what they hoped they would (simply cycling at the same speed as the completely stationary taxis).

I'm not surprised. The new road layout simply doesn't work for cycling. During the few hours of the day when motor traffic is moving, you see cars and taxis inching past cyclists hugging the kerb because they feel so intimidated by the new road layout. The City might well claim this makes the street 'safer' but it makes it markedly more intimidating to cycle along and hugely less convenient even for highly confident cyclists who don't mind weaving in and out of crawling motor queues.

Narrowing roads and expecting them to work for cycling is completely inappropriate. I hope Westminster doesn't borrow this particular strategy from the City of London.