Tuesday, 19 April 2011

TfL being "ludicrous" about Blackfriars scheme, suggests Vice Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee

Big Ben - smoothing the traffic flow for cars. Safe for everyone else?
This picture on the left has nothing and everything to do with the fiasco at Blackfriars Bridge where Transport for London is proposing to redesign the northern junction to make it less conveninent and less safe for pedestrians and cyclists so that motor vehicles can get through this junction even more 'smoothly' than they already can at the moment.

I say that because, at present, you hardly ever see significant queues of motor vehicles at the Blackfriars northern junction. Despite this, TfL seems terribly worried that "the need to ensure the traffic capacity of the Blackfriars Bridge junction [should not be] constricted to such an extent that there would be widespread traffic congestion." That concern about supposedly 'widespread' traffic congestion feels to me, to be at the sole expense of cyclist and pedestrian safety.

I wrote yesterday about TfL's concerns that motor vehicles might have to 'stack' at junctions and how the transport authority wants to be able to process as many motor vehicles as possible through its junctions with as little congestion as possible. It sounds sensible enough. But the net result is that you end up with situations like this one pictured above.

The picture shows a pretty typical rush hour as you head along Victoria Embankment beside the Thames and pop up just by Big Ben. To turn right towards Parliament Square, you basically shuffle along some hatchings between two lanes of motor traffic turning right and one lane of motor traffic turning left. It's pretty unpleasant. And dangerous too. Just look at all those bikes hugging the hatchings and imagine an HGV or coach ploughing along on both sides of the bicycles. It's a recipe for collisions.

Interestingly, TfL is proposing to add an extra lane for motor traffic on the northbound junction at Blackfriars and, guess what, some hatchings exactly like these ones at Big Ben to keep motor vehicles apart. The hatchings will become the only refuge for right-turning cyclists, just as they are here.

The Big Ben junction is confusing for cyclists and baffling for motor drivers who wonder what all these bikes are doing in the painted traffic island area and then stress about how to get past the bikes. When the lights go green what ensues is a sort of cat-and-mouse game. What happens is that the cars wait for the bikes, the bikes wait for the cars. Then some motor driver charges forwards. Cyclists dodge, swear and carry on. The whole junction has to proceed much more slowly than it might if bicycles had their own space and motor vehicles had theirs.

My point here is that TfL choses to design its junctions this way. It only recently 'upgraded' Victoria Embankment with bicycle lanes that appear and then disappear every few metres. But it left this particular junction untouched. The result is that both cyclists and pedestrians end up crammed in very narrow spaces between several lanes of motor vehicles. Sound familiar? Something pretty similar is going on at Blackfriars in my view.

And the depressing thing is that Boris Johnson actually encourages this sort of thing. He wants traffic to get through junctions as quickly as possible:

'Smoothing traffic flow means delivering more reliable journey times, and more free-flowing travel conditions than at present.

Thing is, that 'smoothing' of the traffic flow seems to only refer to motor vehicles. If you're on a bicycle you get to wobble along in some hatchings. If you're a pedestrian here, you make do with a tiny and usually crammed pedestrian island. It's a deeply unpleasant crossing for everyone who's not motorised.

So it's not very encouraging to see the latest developments on Blackfriars Bridge. Val Shawcross and John Biggs London Assembly Labour members, Jenny Jones, Green AM and Andrew Boff, Tory AM have all criticised TfL's plans for Blackfriars Bridge. Hundreds of people have written in to TfL's consultation on the bridge design.

You'd have thought TfL might have the humility to admit it might be ever so slightly in the wrong. Maybe it's time to notice that well over a third of commuter vehicles on Blackfriars Bridge are bicycles and design a space that allows them to get through the junction as safely as possible. But no, TfL are sticking to their guns. The design is about motor cars, it seems.

Earlier this week, Caroline Pidgeon, who is the chair of the LibDems at the London Assembly and Vice Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee met TfL on Blackfriars Bridge to see what the Mayor's transport authority was planning for the vast majority of people who walk or cycle over the bridge.

Here's what she had to say:

"I found TfL not very receptive to changes and came up with reasons not to do something. It is ludicrous that any junction redesign should make pedestrians and cyclists worse off".

Let me just be clear about this. My beef with TfL isn't about cycling and only cycling. It's about why TfL continues to design streets around people in motor cars to the exclusion of 10-year olds who want to cycle to school (there's a school just along from Blackfriars Bridge for example), City businessmen who want to use a cycle hire bike between meetings, people in mobility scooters who want to use decent cycle lanes, the way they can in the Netherlands, pedestrians who want to cross the road without having to wait for four traffic signals. We're all lumped together as being non-motor vehicles. In the centre of London, where people on foot and on bicycles vastly outnumber motor vehicles, we're allowed to enjoy dangerous and inconvenient traffic schemes in the name of smoother traffic flow for motor vehicles.

So far, four main political parties in the London Assembly, the Chair and Vice Chair of the London Assembly Transport Committee and hundreds of people who walk or cycle over Blackfriars have all written to Transport for London to object at how the Mayor's transport authority intends to implement a scheme that works against cycling, walking or, frankly, mobility scootering at this junction.

The thing is that Blackfriars is emblematic of the goals that the Mayor is setting his transport authority. If a cross party group of Assembly Members and a sizeable chunk of public response to Blackfriars aren't enough to budge Transport for London on this one, what hope is there for other schemes like this as they pop up across London? Let's see what happens next but I certainly feel that my London mayoral vote is suddenly becoming a lot more relevant as I learn more about where the Mayor's priorities lie.......


  1. Hmm, so who is TfL really accountable for if they can so easily dismiss everyone - all their end users essentially?

  2. (1) Let's not give up. With cross-party support from the politicians we can hope that change will come, although perhaps not just yet.

    (2) The Vauxhall works will be part of the Cycle Superhighways scheme, one of the Mayor's pet projects. One can hope that Boris will be wanting to avoid negative publicity in the run-up to the mayoral elections next year.

    (3) There's a new Deputy Mayor for Transport. I wonder what her views on the matter are.

  3. "Thing is, that 'smoothing' of the traffic flow seems to only refer to motor vehicles."

    Exactly right, and that's the problem. TfL measure congestion as "average *vehicle* delay", they are obsessed with getting this metric down, and they have a huge panoply of technology to monitor and measure it in every part of London. And since the Mayor has ruled out any significant demand-side measures (i.e. whacking up the congestion charge, or introducing London-wide road pricing), they are reliant on supply-side fixes and presumably feel they have to eke extra 'flow' out of every junction redesign.

    The objective of increasing cycling just isn't the same kind of concern for them. Nobody is constantly leaning on them every day to think of every way they can to make cycling safer and more convenient. Nobody has made them develop some easy to use metric of cycling attractiveness they can apply to everything they do. I worry that until there is such a metric, and the same obsession with it, that we won't get the change we want.

  4. Don't give up - the issue of Blackfriars needs all the attention it can get - as you know yourself it starts with Blackfriars and ends with the Vauxhall Gyratory, Parliament Square, all of the Thames Bridges etc etc. As Jan Gehl once said "We don't have to think like 1960s traffic planners anymore!"

    Let's make sure that TfL hear that message. If they are prepared to ignore many 100s and 100s of letters and emails telling them they are wrong then perhaps some thoughts about the next steps in this 'campaign' are necessary?

  5. I think you make an important point which is perhaps lost in the noise of the general argyuments about road use: the *vast majority* of people moving around in London are not in motor vehicles. Placing so much emphasis on motor traffic congestion is to advance the interests of a minority against the majority, not merely to protect their rights.

    It arises from a misconception that the motorist is the majority here, but in fact the motorist is not some definable thing separate and distinct from other life forms - it is just what some people happen to be doing at a point in time. At another point in time the same people are doing something different, and in the centre of London that something different is walking (or cycling).

    If Bozo won't grasp this fact and change the emphasis then I think it requires escalation to national legislators - we need to change the game, and start recognising the rights of the majority, which isn't always the same thing everywhere you look, especially in London.