Saturday, 16 November 2013

Five cyclists, three pedestrians killed this week. Boris turns it into a debate about whether those dead road users are law-abiding or not. Unimpressed.

This was meant to be a 'cycle highway' not a 'danger road'

I've had to do a bit of soul-searching before writing this. The past 10 days have seen eight people killed on London's roads: three pedestrians and five people on bikes.

Speaking on radio, Boris Johnson's response to the cyclist deaths was to say: "There's no question of blame or finger-pointing. That doesn't work in these circumstances...But unless people obey the laws of the road and people actively take account of the signals that we put in, there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives."

Now, my understanding is that in one of the five cycling deaths, the person killed may possibly have been on the wrong side of the road at the time.

But that doesn't excuse the fact that the Mayor seems, in my view, to have missed the point. The point is that precious little of Boris Johnson's "traffic engineering" is going on at the moment. At least, precious little is happening on the ground.

Let's get the facts straight here.

When the Mayor came to power, he scrapped investment in the London Cycle Network. The network was never the most impressive but it did provide a mechanism for councils across London to build decent routes for cycling along quieter roads. After several years of studies and consulting projects, the scheme was due to get an upgrade. That was scrapped in favour of the Cycle Super Highways.

Cycle Super Highway 7 in action in Clapham. The bike lane is under the red car. 

The idea at the time was to provide more direct routes for people to cycle. And I can see some merit in that policy. The Cycle Network was often disjointed, down dark, quiet (and sometimes downright scary) streets and it kind of shoved cycling out of sight, through industrial estates and along railway sidings. Instead, we would see cycling on London's main roads, it would be quicker and faster and easier. In theory, it should also have been safer.

The reality is that the Cycle Super Highways were complete and utter junk.

The reason they were complete and utter junk was simple. The Mayor has consistently backed a road planning team within Transport for London that sanctifies traffic flow of motor vehicles above all else. This policy, 100% supported by the Mayor meant that before they even got started, the planners of the Cycle Super Highways were hopelessly unable to deliver safe cycle routes. It meant that instead of designing the sorts of safe, semi-segregated bike routes you see springing up all over cities in the USA, all we got was expensive blue paint.

What this meant was that at Oval, the cycle lane is just some blue paint between three lanes of trunk road traffic, half of which is turning left directly across the cycle lane, which turns right at the same point that motor vehicles are turning left. At 40-50mph.

What this meant was that at Kings Cross, the scene of numerous cyclist and pedestrian deaths, TfL's solution was to suggest some mirrors, rather than a road layout that kept cyclists and HGVs apart.

In short, cyclists were supposed to cycle like they were cycling a car. On a trunk road. With vehicles at speeds of 40-50mph.

Slowly, we have begun to see the Mayor change direction. He should be quite rightly proud of the very newest section of Cycle Super Highway 2 to Stratford. It is by no means perfect but it is a step change better than things that have gone before it. And the Mayor's cycling vision is also impressive. The plan is for all new Cycle Super Highways to be segregated or at least semi-segregated from fast-moving, busy traffic on trunk roads.

Good. But what I fail to understand is what is taking so long. The East-West cycle highway has been on the cards for nearly a year. The route has been more or less agreed. But the first invite-only consultation on this new cycle highway is still several months away.

Cycle super highway at Oval - down the middle of the trunk road

Then there are problems with some local authorities to deal with as well. Westminster council is more or less sticking two fingers up at the Mayor as far as I can tell, refusing to play ball with the Mayor's plans to build a network of cycling quiet ways. I don't get that information from the Mayor, by the way, but I get that from a whole host of people connected with the programme who are watching with disbelief as Westminster council sinks deeper and deeper into the 1970s.

And then we come to the Mayor himself.

He could, had he chosen to, have spent time spelling out on LBC that he has serious intentions to get things right for cycling. That he is building a network of segregated highways. In fact, he could have admitted he screwed up and that he's starting again. I watched an excrutiating interview with the Mayor on the BBC, where he was interviewed by the political correspondent who asked him that exact question. Did the Mayor think he'd built the Cycle Super Highways on the cheap, he questioned. No real answer.

Every time the question of cycling comes up, the Mayor seems to flounder something about cyclists running red lights, not riding with lights, not riding according to the rules. He could choose instead to focus on the vision. Instead, it's like something kicks in his brain that says, hold on, most of my voters are in outer London and drive everywhere, they don't care about these cyclists all that much, so I'd better not sound too much like I'm pro-cycling.

It strikes me the Mayor is being a coward. He has a vision. It is, slowly but surely coming together. But he won't stand up for it. If he won't stand up for it in public, there's a risk it will never happen. And I think that the fact his Cycling Vision is taking sooooo long to be implemented is linked to his public lack of consistent support for his vision.

The Evening Standard put it spot-on in an editorial this week:

"This is a question of political will, not physical road space: other changes to our roads once branded unthinkable, such as bus lanes and the congestion charge, are now accepted parts of the system. London is a working city with a multiplicity of road users — cyclists, pedestrians, car and lorry drivers. Yet it should be possible for all of us to share the roads, given decent provision and mutual consideration. We can be a cycling city to rival any other in Europe: we just have to want to make it happen."

A previous Mayor implemented the congestion charge. People on phone-in radio stations whinged about it for ages in advance. But now it's accepted. If the Mayor stood up and said for once and for all, 'right you lot, this cycling stuff is going to change, because it has to change and I'm going to build these Cycle Super Highways properly and that means taking some space away from motor traffic and giving it to cycling', people would whinge. And, just as they did with the congestion charge, they'd get used to it. But he's not saying that. He's flip flopping from launching new cycle highways to blaming people killed on his cycle highways. And he risks failing to lead London to a better future on its streets.

Not good enough.

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