Wednesday, 24 April 2013

My view: Westminster council is peddling the height of irresponsibility as it designs roads to make people play frogger with lorries and buses when they're on their bikes. It's madness.

The Times's editorial today. 
Today's big news is not actually about Westminster council. It's about the massively impressive work done by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group in releasing its Get Britain Cycling report this afternoon.

The Times has written a  hard-hitting editorial covering the work of the APPCG and its report issued today and I'd urge you to read it.

The Times makes two key points. In its editorial, the lead theme is this:

"Cycling has been good for David Cameron. The Prime Minister has used cycling to help brand himself a modern Conservative: young, down to earth and environmentally conscious. Now it is time for him to be good for cycling."

And within its main pages, there is a stinging article by Chris Boardman which concludes, rightly, that "apathy and lack of leadership that will continue to make us fat and our roads unpleasant places". Bang on.

If you do one thing this week to make a difference, please please please sign the petition started by The Times to ask the Prime Minister to implement the recommendations of the Parliamentary report. Click here to the e-petition website; it takes 30 seconds. 

One of the reasons we need this petition is to intervene on schemes like the one being built in the heart of Westminster by Westminster council and sponsored by the Crown Estate.

Westminster Council has presented this scheme as an 'improvement' for cycling. I've seen some documents from the council that even promote the scheme as a 'vast improvement' for cycling. I beg to differ. I think this is a vast improvement for the rental yields of the Crown Estate (and that's absolutely fine, by the way, if that's what the Crown Estate wants to achieve). It is not, however, a 'vast improvement' for cycling.

Snapshot of the planned road narrowing at Haymarket
and Lower Regent Street. Courtesy Westminster Council
I've now had a chance to review the detailed diagrams of the scheme which are available on Westminster's website.

Just to be clear the scheme costs over £8million. Cycling and road safety element of the scheme? Just over £100,000, ie about 1% of the spend will be on cycling and yet Westminster is trying to pass this off as "vast improvements" for cycling. Utter and complete misrepresentation in my book.

What will happen is Lower Regent Street will become between two, three and four lanes wide. Half way along, we'll have two five metre wide lanes northbound with a big traffic island in the middle. Five metres is just enough for two cars to fit side by side or a lorry and a car. So the two lanes will, in reality, become four and cyclists will feel either a) incredibly intimidated by close shave passes or b) won't be able to get anywhere if the traffic's bad because there won't be any space. Get to the junction with Piccadilly, and you have three x narrow lanes and bus stop (ie four lanes) and an insulting sliver of bike lane down the middle of the four lanes that's only just wide enough for a person to squeeze between two buses. This is 1970s road design if ever I saw it. Nice big pavements and lovely granite in the middle of the carriageway, though, which will make it look nice and a little easier for only physically fit people to dart across the road and seek refuge from the traffic halfway across.

No change here. The bike lane leads into a concrete
traffic island. You'll be expected to whizz across the two lanes
on the right of the picture into the 'bike lane' and then
turn left. Insanity on a plate. 
Haymarket is trickier to tell. The plans don't show how wide the lanes will be. But you can see the road has been narrowed considerably. And you'll be expected to cycle down the RIGHT HAND SIDE of three lanes of traffic. If you want to turn into Trafalgar Square, you'll then have to cross the vans, taxis, buses, lorries all bearing down the hill on you at speed and move into the bike lane. Which will still, as now, be a tiny narrow strip in the middle of four lanes of traffic that leads directly into a concrete traffic island. The problem here is a) too much traffic b) traffic changing lanes frequently c) lane changing takes place at speed d) lots of very large motor vehicles, mainly buses and coaches but also HGVs. The scheme provides lovely wide pavements but actually makes the conditions for cycling (currently you at least have the relative safety of a very wide bus lane that keeps you away from the coaches and lorries) even worse than they are no and neglects to improve the hopelessly inadequate junction design.

Cycle towards Trafalgar Square down Cockspur Street? No change - two x 3.3m wide lanes for buses. If there are four or five buses in the street (which is normally the case), you're stuck breathing in bus exhaust and trying not to get squashed. As a senior road traffic policeman explained to me quite carefully once, if that bus hits you at 20mph, you're long gone.

Central London? No chance. This is Berlin, I'm afraid. 
What Westminster needs to do here is create a two-way system for people on bikes and build at a minimum two metre wide bike lanes on Haymarket and no Lower Regent Street. There is ample space for these. The lanes that run between Haymarket and Lower Regent Street should become two-way for people on bikes and remain one way for people in motor vehicles. There needs to be bike access from Shaftesbury Avenue into Piccadilly (at the moment it's buses only even though bikes are allowed to rejoin a hundred yards up the road - oversight or deliberately excluding bikes?) and Piccadilly and St James need bike lanes too. They are essentially impassable on a bike in the morning rush hour and at weekends.

Of course, the other option would be to massively reduce the amount of motor traffic on these streets in the first place. But Westminster's policies are to increase motor traffic, not reduce it. The neighbouring Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea officially labelled Westminster's pro-car policies as "inevitably producing additional traffic congestion within central London". They're right.

My own view is that Westminster is putting rental yields first. It is eliminating the bus lanes; it is pursuing policies that increase motor traffic congestion; it is failing to create safe, convenient routes through central London for cycling and it is expecting pedestrians to leg it across the road onto traffic islands, rather than creating a genuinely civilised shopping environment in which people on foot, on bike and in buses as well as taxis or cars have to fight for space on narrower, fast-moving, heavily polluted, traffic-congested streets.

The money is there, the will is there to change things and there is tonnes of space to get this right. But the direction of travel is backwards. And it is being presented - in my view utterly immorally - as an 'improvement' for cycling when the numbers quite clearly show that is claptrap.

If you want to do something about this, please do one of these things:

Attend the public consultation on Friday morning this week. 

Or write to

Martin Brazier
The Crown Estate, 16 New Burlinton Place, London W1S 2HX.

Martin Low
Commissioner of Transportation
City of Westminster

The Westminster City Council Project Director for the scheme is Mark Allan

Sarah Coxhall
West End Business Improvement District

If you live in Westminster, write to your councillors