Monday, 6 May 2013

Westminster council's new cycling strategy - Good intentions at the start but this isn't a strategy; it's a document for keeping things just as they are at the moment: Polluted, congested and intimidating car-centric roads

Travel to work changes in Westminster. Source
City of Westminster
Last week, Westminster Council published the first draft of its new cycling strategy 2013 - 2026. It’s a strategy that is trying very hard to get things right but is severely compromised by some highly contradictory recommendations and some subjective opinion that is presented as fact.

Firstly, the good stuff: The Council’s cycling vision does contain some pretty bold ambitions. Westminster asserts its intention to become “a national leader in cycling provision, making it safer and more attractive for a greater numberof people, from all backgrounds, to cycle more frequently.” Good stuff.

The document is surprisingly clear about why the Council should support cycling. It is packed with evidence to support Westminster’s premise that more people cycling could help the borough to:

·      sustain its population growth and new jobs
·      ease congestion on its roads
·      offer a viable way to its population of travelling at minimal cost
·      significantly improve the health of its residents, worker & visitors
·      improve local air quality

The fact that the borough so convincingly understands why it should support cycling networks on its streets makes it all the stranger that some of the detail in this strategy is downright dodgy. Here are just a handful of the problems:

Some good things do eventually happen in Westminster.
This new link was built with Sustrans for people 
to walk and cycle under the Westway and opened last week.
The document states “the Council would like to see cycling normalised with more people of all ages and backgrounds participating”. Fantastic. It points out that 42% of all journeys made just by Westminster residents by mechanised transport could easily be made by bike, in other words, great potential to get all sorts of people on bikes. But the document rightly acknowledges that fear of traffic is putting people off using a bike instead of other transport modes: A whopping 64% of people say they won’t cycle here because of safety-related fears.

Backed by a clear motive to get people cycling and a clear explanation of reasons why they don’t cycle, you might assume the Council would conclude it needs to create safe networks which make it easy to chose bike transport. And, to some extent, the Council says it will do this by supporting Boris Johnson’s ambition to build a network of bike Quietways, a central London bike ‘grid’ and further develop the Cycle Super Highways. There are also references to working with Sustrans to create links like the recently opened route under the Westway; a nod to the need for more contraflow cycling (which is now standard in many other inner London boroughs); better coordination with the Royal Parks to enable more cycling through the parks; and a realisation that the borough needs more bike parking both for visitors and on street / on estates. 

What concerns me, however, is that these are only small (albeit very useful) interventions. A far greater chunk of the strategy is about “encouraging road users to show greater consideration for each other”. There's nothing wrong with the general principle of that statement. It's what follows that defies belief: Provided the Council can encourage road users to show greater consideration, says the document, this will "enable safer integration and shared routes rather than a presumption for segregation". No mention of the need to make those 'shared routes' safer so that people don't have to mix with lorries, buses and impatient minicabs. And, oddly, the Council recognises and seems to support TfL's plans to put segregated bike lanes on some of its own main roads through the borough but not on Westminster-controlled roads (92% of the roads in the borough).

Cycling into Westminster over Waterloo
Bridge. Most people just give up. Note how
many people are with their bikes on the
pavement. I can completely understand why.
The strategy continues: “The Council has to take account of the volume of different types of [road] user on different streets and at different times of day”. Well, yes, it does. But it also has to balance those current requirements with the “volume of different types of user” (bicycle, car, van or bus user) it wants to have in the future. And in this particular task, I’m afraid the strategy is a complete failure. It refuses to accept that, in order to achieve its vision of becoming a leader in bicycle transport, things will – over time – need to change on its streets. For every bold statement in this document, there is another statement that slams the entire strategy back towards retaining the status quo. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s good enough.

Take, for example, the Council's statement that the proposed central London bike grid "will build upon existing and proposed sections of the London Cycle Network". In its own right, that might be acceptable but only with some significant improvement to those routes. If you’ve ever cycled from Tottenham Court Road to Paddington on Westminster’s London Cycle Network section, for example, you’ll know that it is a mesh of very fast, very intimidating one way streets with cars parked on either side. In short, exactly not the sort of thing you’d build to encourage cycling. But the Council makes clear that it a) has no intention of reducing speed limits (although it is vague about whether it might use other measures to slow motor vehicle speeds) b) makes very clear it does not intend to move car parking or loading bays and c) will accept segregation on TfL roads but not on the 92% of roads that it controls. That leaves me wondering what Westminster's bike grid is actually going to look like? Just the same as the largely awful London Cycle Network routes that run through central London at the moment, perhaps?

I’m also surprised by the Council’s slightly odd target. The ambition is that 5% of all journeys originating from the borough should be by bike by 2026 (up from 3% currently). In Hackney, however, people already make 6% of journeys by bike, so why is Westminster getting away with a target that doesn’t even match 2013’s reality?  What’s more, the goal is even less than Boris Johnson’s own vision, which is to see 5% of all journeys in London by bike in 2020.

This is what the main Westminster bike
route through Covent Garden looks like every night. Head to tail
full of cars and taxis. The only place to cycle is down the wrong side
of the street. Totally insane. Seems unlikely to change?
The Council dismisses 20mph streets out of hand for the ludicrously irrelevant reason that: “it is considered that a 20 mph limit could have minimal benefit as traffic speeds in the City of Westminster are often below 20 mph already, with the average speed being just 10mph”. That is a statement that entirely misses the point of 20mph and is – in any case – a statement of personal fiction. The point about 20mph streets is that they enable traffic engineers to implement solutions that create equality for pedestrians, cyclists and people in motor vehicles. What’s more, the statement is utterly disingenuous. Take a street like Aldwych. Perhaps the average speed there really is 10mph. But most of the time, I’d hazard people are generally whizzing around it at 35-40mph. Not fun when you mix in thousands of people on bikes who have to change across four or five lanes of fast-moving traffic.

At points, the document veers into the surreal. I kid you not: The Council is going to issue free bells to ‘cyclists’ “encouraging them to make use of their bell to warn pedestrians of their presence” (this despite the fact that the document also notes the Police reports that pedestrians are responsible for 60% of pedestrian/cyclist collisions in the borough – Is the Council proposing to give pedestrians bells as well?) This is Nanny state policy in the extreme and is rightfully criticised by AsEasyAsRidingABikeblog.

Ultimately, I feel this is a very worrying document. Parts of the strategy are extremely well written and I’m impressed by the way in which Westminster sets out its case to encourage more people to cycle.
To be fair, the draft is still very much that - a draft. There are lots of chapters that have yet to be written and we'll see how those develop. But the detail of this strategy as it stands right now seems to promise very little other than piecemeal changes to a few one-way streets and a little bit more bike parking. I'm afraid I don't think that qualifies for becoming a 'national leader in cycling provision'.