Thursday, 7 March 2013

Game-change for cycling: Boris Johnson announces a 'Crossrail for bikes'; a central London 'bike grid'; a number of 'Mini Hollands' in outer London. And the Westway made into London's bicycling Hi-Line. 9 out of 10 for the concept. Now it's the implementation that matters. And this matters for everyone, not just for "cyclists" . Even the president of the AA calls them "great plans overall".

Coming to London soon. Transport for London's vision of Victoria Embankment. Better for everyone. 
More space for pedestrians. Fewer obstructions for motor vehicles.

Early today, the Mayor will announce “an Olympic legacy for all Londoners”, in the form of a dedicated and meaningful commitment to creating a city where people feel they have the choice to use a bicycle instead of driving. There are six key planks to the plan:

- A Crossrail for bikes from way out west to the east London
- A re-think of the Junction Review to focus on getting fewer junctions right, rather than lots of junctions half-right
- A bike grid of safe routes in central London
- A network of Quietways, to upgrade routes on borough roads
- A series of Mini-Hollands - big investments in cycling in some outer London boroughs, rather than lots of boroughs sharing small amounts of cash
- A slight re-think (in a good way) on the planned Cycle Super Highway 5

It's very impressive stuff.

Bear with me before I get to the detail of the new announcements:

Background to Boris Johnson's "cycling revolution" since 2008

Boris Johnson’s first stab at encouraging more Londoners to cycle was, in my view, ill thought through and much of it felt like style over substance. The Mayor promised a “cycling revolution”. The reality was that he built a series of poor quality cycle super highways at vastly higher cost than their higher quality counterparts in other countries. The new cycle highways did virtually nothing to make people feel their journeys by bicycle were safer.

In the meantime, as the number of bicycle journeys increased, the number of people killed and seriously injured grew even faster. This situation was unique to London; In other major cities, the number of trips by bike has been growing but the number of casualties has been in decline. Something was clearly going very wrong in London.

Victoria Embankment today.
Hardly invites people to cycle here rather
than drive. 
The reality of this first phase of Boris’s cycling revolution was that he invested most of the money not in making safer routes for cycling but in the cycle hire scheme, which swallowed two-thirds of the cycle budget. The cycle revolution was, in other words, a fig leaf that was never backed up by sufficient funding to make it happen. To put London’s cycle hire scheme in context, go to Montreal. London’s Boris bikes are made in Montreal.Cycling has been booming in Montreal and some 37% now cycle weekly. Unlike London, Montreal built (and continues to expand) a large, coherent cycle network comprised of routes safe enough for children, older people and everyone in between to use. That hasn’t yet happened in London.

What Boris Johnson has achieved with some success, however, is to promote the idea of biking as a sensible form of transport.

And despite my criticisms of his policies to date, I can see why his cycling policies have been realistic, even if I haven't always agreed with them: When the Mayor came to power, cycling was already on the increase but it was only just on the cusp of becoming mainstream. In 2006, more people drove over Blackfriars Bridge in the rush hour than cycled. By 2010, however, 36% of people were cycling over the bridge, more than were crossing the bridge in cars and taxis combined. By 2013, the Deputy Mayor for Transport was referring to 40%. It would have been extremely difficult to talk about designing Blackfriars junction around cycling when it was being designed in 2005/6. By 2013, it is simply common sense to design a junction like Blackfriars to include cycling.

2013: The time is right for the Mayor's step-change in his "cycling revolution"

The Mayor’s announcement today marks a complete break with the thinking of the past and, in my view, is a timely and impressive re-start for his "cycling revolution'. Let's call it Cycling Revolution 3.0.

“I want more of the kind of cyclists you see in Holland, going at a leisurely pace on often-clunky steeds”, he writes in his plan.

That’s a pretty clear statement. It might well be the case that 15% of Hackney residents bike to work but only 7% of them bike to work in Hammersmith. And hardly anyone bikes with their kids to school. Let alone to the shops or back from a night out. If we're going to get people cycling the way they do in the Netherlands, we're going to need people to feel they want to cycle to school or to the shops. I believe this is the sort of thing Boris Johnson has in his sights.

And to achieve that vision, says the Mayor, he will "create a variety of routes for the variety of cyclists I seek...Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role. "

Victoria Embankment. There is a bike lane here already. It's underneath
the (legally) parked coach
This is really big stuff.

And it gets bigger:

The Mayor continues: "At the last mayoral election, cycling policy united the political right, who applaud the freedom and individualism it embodies, and the left. In my second term, changing London to make it friendlier to cyclists is one of my most important goals."

That's a very major statement. And that is why I think the Mayor is absolutely on the button to say that this isn’t solely about ‘cyclists’. This is about making London function more efficiently for everyone. It is a call for a coherent, long-term commitment to encourage people to use bikes as a form of transport wearing everyday clothes for everyday journeys. Boris’s speech today is the sort of call that the government should be making and which recognises that the bicycle is not a fad but is a way to improve London for everyone. And, that being the case, that the bicycle needs coherent standards, coherent infrastructure and meaningful money to back it up. This is the sort of vision I'd like to see the government adopt for the whole country. For now, though, Boris is setting the pace. The government is way, way behind.

The question now is whether Boris Johnson can deliver on his vision. Boris’s cycling strategy gives us some clear detail on what to expect although much of the commitment is understandably unclear at this stage as some of the detail still needs thrashing out. Other parts are well on track, however. Here's the detail of what the Mayor intends to deliver:

Crossrail for bikes

First on the agenda is a segregated bike track between Parliament Square and Tower Bridge along Victoria Embankment. This has been mooted before and now appears to be a near-certain commitment in the plan. The plan suggests that this track will route its way towards Hyde Park and over towards the Westway and form a 15 mile segregated route between White City to Canary Wharf and Barking. It will head west along the Westway itself, where a motor vehicle lane will be removed and include a new bike and pedestrian bridge crossing the West Cross Route (currently a giant barrier for everyone who's not in a car). This is gob-smackingly bold stuff. I have to admit that the Westway bit is slightly, how shall I put it, courageous stuff. I love the concept, I do worry slightly that the Westway element in its own right might prove a bit of a tricky sell to the "motoring" community.

But delivering a segregated east - west route for cycling is essential. And the motoring lobby must have no truck opposing it (pardon the pun). The time is right for this to happen:

Here's what a proper bike lane looks
like. Montreal underpass 
I cycle the Victoria Embankment route several times a week. I am one of the tiny number of people I see who cycles here in a suit rather than on a road bike (although I do that too fairly frequently). And I have to say that although the Embankment works fine if you’re cycling at a fast pace, it completely fails for your average person on a bike. The reality is that none of the other west-to-east routes through central London work well either. The Strand is a nightmare to cycle through, so is Oxford Street. And Westminster Council has done its best to make every other available route impenetrable or to fill it with parked cars and narrow, fast-moving one-way streets. London lacks a single end-to-end bike route through the centre of the city and it needs one. So, thumbs up for this.

And it makes sense too: As Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s cycling commissioner, puts it, the Embankment Cycle Highway will have capacity of the equivalent of four District line trains per hour. Get these sorts of numbers off the tube, and you free up capacity for everyone, not just for cycling.

The bike grid

The plan commits to a central London “Bike Grid” of "high quality bike routes". It's not quite clear exactly what form the Grid will take but it sounds like a mix of some segregated routes and some other routes being made calmer and less intimidating to cycle along. London is crying out for decent routes through the centre of the city. Try taking a bike anywhere in central London and you’ll get caught in traffic engineering hell. The streets of Westminster are designed to create a maze for motor vehicles so that people don’t want to drive through areas like Mayfair and Bloomsbury. But they create an unpleasant environment for everyone else with fast rat-runs of one-way motor traffic charging down residential and shopping streets. Look at Bond Street and ask yourself if you honestly think this is a premium shopping environment with its three lanes of roaring traffic and narrow pavements?

Most people look at these streets and don’t see a way through on a bike. My understanding is that various London boroughs are working with Transport for London on the shape and size of the Bike Grid. And good luck to them. If the boroughs don’t play ball (and there is no evidence that some of them are disposed to yet), the Bike Grid is sunk.


Bike lanes for normal folk, wearing
normal clothes. Just happen to be travelling
by bicycle not by car or bus. 
The idea of Quietways is also a sensible one. London has a network of quiet routes already, in the form of the London Cycle Network. In some boroughs, notably Hackney, Southwark and Camden, some of these LCN routes work fairly well thanks to consistent investment. But other boroughs, including Westminster, Tower Hamlets, Hammersmith & Fulham and Wandsworth have largely ignored their Cycle Network with precious little investment.

The Mayor will need these boroughs to work with him to make the Bike Grid work. In some cases, that will mean upgrading existing LCN routes but some routes will be completely new. Provided they are done methodologically, these sorts of initiatives can create meaningful links between communities that are much more attractive and just as useful as main road routes for a lot of local journeys.

Building "Mini Hollands" in outer London

I'm also quite struck by Boris’s concept of “Mini Hollands” in outer London. The idea has been championed by Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s new cycling commissioner. The intention is to provide major funding (we're talking tens of millions) to a limited number of areas where "the main focus will be on replacing short car trips within the target borough". The plan talks about "substantial redesigns of the main town centre, to show what is possible when roads and spaces are built around cyclists" and a network of bike routes linking the centre to where people live.

Funding for cycling in outer London has been risible to date. The Mayor has committed a measly £3million for cycling to the entire outer London area over three years. Bear in mind that the majority of car journeys in outer London are less than two miles. These journeys could easily be bicycle but they’re not. In part, I think that’s because cycling has been made a downright miserable experience in many outer London boroughs. In part, because driving has been made easier and easier. This plan talks about providing genuinely significant amounts of money to cycling in outer London and focussing it on a maximum of three areas where it can make a real difference. Imagine taking an area like Richmond or Croydon (although I can’t see either of those happening as both boroughs seem utterly unable to think strategically on behalf of their constituents) and building a series of bike tracks so that people can bike their kids to school and then cycle off home or to the station to lock up their bike and commute into town.

Major junctions

Map showing percentage increase/decrease
in people cycling to work.
Courtesy Drawing Rings blog
My sense from the document is that the Mayor’s current Junction Review will also get a re-write. The Junction Review was announced last year and was designed to reduce the number of casualties at the most dangerous junctions in London. But many of the schemes I’ve seen to date have felt slightly confused. It’s not clear how they really help people negotiate some of London’s biggest barriers to cycling more safely than they can at the moment. Take, for example, Waterloo roundabout. The junction review has delivered some changes to the white lines on this roundabout and may deliver a lower speed limit. But Waterloo roundabout is still as intimidating as hell to negotiate on a bike. The plan suggests that the Junction Review will pivot towards a ‘less is more’ strategy: Some junctions (including some that have already been announced) will be chopped. Instead, the plan is to get some big junctions like Aldgate, Vauxhall and Swiss Cottage right and do them properly, not just some white lines. Other junctions in the review will go back to the drawing board. This is the right thing to do.

Cycle Super Highway 5

My understanding is that Cycle Super Highway 5, which is due to launch late this summer, will also see something of a review and that the scheme may be rolled out in phases. The idea is to provide a better quality route from end-to-end. And, if I've understood correctly, to link it to Lewisham (currently planned to end at New Cross). It's a bit like the way we built the motorways. The M1 wasn't built in a single dash. It was built section by section, all to the same quality. I'd far rather that Transport for London built the Cycle Highway properly and took a couple of years over it, then it dashed out a mish mash of segregated lanes and then rubbish blue paint just when things get dangerous. By the way, I also believe that the section from Victoria to Oval will see a serious upgrade on the current plans and that should be built by the end of the summer. Other Cycle Super Highways (and Highway 5 included) may take different routes to the ones published in the past, in order to optimise the routes as much as possible. Again, this makes a lot of sense.

This is a long post. And deliberately so. I have never seen a commitment to cycling as ambitious as this in this country. I’ve read countless plans by councils and by other cities and I’m familiar with the strategies adopted in other countries.

Boris isn’t promising to bring Copenhagen or Amsterdam to London. But he is promising to bring about a better London. And I think that’s the right thing to do. London excels at many things it does. Our bus network is world-class. Our tube network, while some people might grumble, is pretty much world-class. It’s time our streets became first class too. And cycling is going to have to be part of that. A very significant part.