Wednesday, 4 April 2012

New York spells out you can't keep 'smoothing' motor traffic unless you want to stop people cycling. Meanwhile, Transport planning chief attacks London motor traffic forecasts. So why is the Mayor still clinging to a policy of more roads and more motor vehicles?

Which way to turn for cycling?
When I started this blog, I tried very hard to make it non party-political. What I've realised since then is that writing about cycling need not be party-political but it is a hugely political isue.

Some of that politics is now going mainstream. The Times newspaper and Sustrans announced today that they will be hosting a live debate of the four main Mayoral candidates for ninety minutes where they will talk only about cycling. Gosh.

Cycling cropped up as an issue yesterday on LBC radio when Ken Livingstone suggested that Boris Johnson's focus on 'traffic flow' was deliberately putting the lives of people on bikes at risk. Livingstone made the claim slightly clumsily but I think he has a point.

Under the current Mayor, it seems that there simply isn't room for a London in which motor traffic isn't going to grow and grow. The rest of us will just have to move out the way so that those extra motor vehicles get 'smoother' conditions.

Last month, the Department for Transport issued a report suggesting that London will need to plan for 43% motor traffic growth by 2035. This might seem like just another statistic but it's very important because, as the Transport Planning Society points out: "these forecasts are used to underpin decisions on what transport infrastructure we build". And lo and behold, how did the Mayor respond? He announced a plan to invest in more roads to smooth yet more traffic flow, which you can see here.

Compare London's response with New York. In New York, Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan says that 'traffic flow' must be about: "reducing private auto use in the most crowded parts of town ... to make more room for [cycling and for buses]". None of that in London. Not from either of the two main candidates, in fact.

I cannot say loudly enough how wrong I think Boris Johnson's 'smoothing the traffic flow' agenda is for Londoners. The reality of this doctrine is massive junctions to speed as many cars through as possible; it means high streets turned into race tracks and it means pedestrian crossings removed all over London. Soon it will mean road building, more neighbourhoods plagued with lorries, noise and pollution. Above all, though, it means that proper, safe and sensible cycling infrastructure will always come second to motor traffic. And that means cycling will never be considered a normal mode of transport.

The cycling charity Sustrans warned this week that Boris Johnson's road building plans "put the car right back at the heart of transport policy, yet nearly half of Londoners don't have access to a car. Expanding roads, ruling out congestion charge expansion and putting up fares will only see more traffic on our roads...It seems that Boris is intent on bringing the capital to a standstill."

This is not a 'cycling revolution'. New Cycle Super Highway
in action. Spot the bike lane?
And yet, the Mayor seems quite genuine about his plans to improve junctions for cycling. There was the hint last week at reviewing Blackfriars Bridge and there are signs that the Junction Review announced by Transport for London in February has real money behind it. I have to acknowledge that Boris Johnson has ultimately put some money behind cycling and started (albeit rather late) to realise he needs to 'do' cycling properly.

Ken Livingstone is also promising safer junctions and safer cycle super highways. In my view, though, the only two politicians who have consistently 'got' cycling and really made noises about it (dare I say before it became a bit more 'fashionable) are Jenny Jones (Green Mayoral candidate) and Caroline Pidgeon (LibDem) who was the first Assembly member to stand up and say clearly that the Mayor "favours smoothing the traffic flow for motorists and worsening conditions for pedestrians and cyclists."

My sense is that whichever politician becomes Mayor, safer cycling is now more firmly on the agenda than it was at the last election. That's good. But neither of the two main candidates is really addressing the key issue as clearly as New York's transportation commissioner. The message in New York is that you can't keep planning for more and 'smoother' motor traffic growth unless you want to prevent people cycling or switching to other modes.

What's more, Boris is selling us a fallacy. Even the head of the Transport Planning Society says that planning for increased motor traffic in London is "no longer realistic" Both the lead candidates should head that message but Boris needs to hear it more loudly. Boris is finally stepping out for cycling in a meaningful manner and his commitment to finding the money to sort out some of London's worst junctions is good. But his obsession with more and more motor traffic and 'smoothing the flow' risks killing off cycling as a legitimate mode of transport. He needs to decide whether he's going to take cycling seriously or simply clog up London with more motor vehicles.