Tuesday, 24 July 2012

Westminster council media spokesperson: "Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?" Time to help Westminster councillors think seriously about bicycling.

Rush hour into the City of London. Spot any women
in this line up? No? That's fairly normal in London, sadly
A fascinating storm emerged on twitter last night, fed by someone who has cycled to work for the last nine months. And who happens to be a media spokesperson for Westminster council.

I first noticed this particularly eye-catching comment: "Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?" made by Nick Thompson "an athletic press officer for Westminster City Council and former sports reporter" Nick Thompson made the comments in an exchange with the author of As Easy As Riding A Bike blog

There were plenty of people engaged in the conversation and for each question put to him, Nick Thompson found a way around it.

He put the point to one person on twitter that Amsterdam's cycle lanes are irrelevant to London because it's not a 'world powerhouse'. So I chipped in that he could perhaps look to New York as an example of good cycle infrastructure. Not good enough. "Just yellow taxis n traffic," he responded, "Straight lines only difference". Bicycle lanes only work in straight lines?

The list goes on. The road space is 'limited' in London, he says. The picture below shows the High Street in Leytonstone compared with a eerily comparable Dutch High Street. Note how the Dutch street has a bicycle lane along the left side and compare that with the rudimentary and dangerously-located Leytonstone equivalent. For plenty more examples of British streets compared with their Dutch equivalents, see David Hembrow's excellent collection. The point is that there's plenty of space. It's what you chose to do with it that matters.

London's road space 'is limited' apparently -
Same road, completely different layout. Cycle lane in
the Netherlands above, cycle lane in London below.
This and many more, courtesy Hembrow Cycling Holidays
On the idea that slower car speeds on residential roads might benefit residents or increase safety not only did he ask 'where's the evidence?' but also stated 'but drive at 30/40/50 and see how much more you concentrate? All relative. Av speed in central London is already below 10mph'.

Transport for London used to say rubbish like this. It would talk about 'average speeds' in central London, completely ignoring the fact that motor speeds at night or on bridges can be unbelievably intimidating for people cycling or walking. There's also something slightly sinister about a press officer implying that driving at 50mph down a residential street might be something London should aspire to.

You might wonder why this one twitter exchange bothers me.

In part, it's because this is the voice of someone close to Westminster council. I've always found large parts of Westminster incredibly hostile to cycling. When the council implements new road schemes it rarely seems to think about how it could improve things for cycling or make them safer. In fact, it seems regularly to try and achieve the exact opposite.

Another part of me is simply astounded that Nick Thompson might think that cycling in London is fine as it is. He's not had a problem in nine months' cycling and he thinks everything's fine. He seems not to recognise a conclusion reached by The Economist magazine which states that although "More people are riding bikes...cycling is stuck in a niche". That niche is white, young, more affluent than average men. Men like Nick Thompson in other words.

Waterloo Bridge controlled by Westminster.
40 people got off their bikes in front of me, walked
along pavement, got back on bikes. Why no bike
lane and full of parked cars? Sort it out, Westminster
In that context, I don't think it's acceptable to say the equivalent of, oh well, I'm alright cycling in London, therefore everyone else should be too. As The Economist puts it, the reason more people don't use bicycles in London is personal safety: "62% of people think it is too dangerous to cycle, and around 75% of women do. Accident rates have been falling in London, but 16 people died cycling last year. Cyclists insist that junctions like Elephant and Castle are life-threatening, especially when filled with heavy lorries, which account for many cycling deaths."

I think The Economist makes some good points. Paris, unlike London, has stressed that its cycling revolution is about getting people using bicycles to pedal calmly around the capital. In London it's all about fit young men like Nick Thompson and most people are 'cyclists' rather than your average Joe or Jane just getting about by bicycle. Paris has built infrastructure to enable everyone to get around by bike. In Copenhagen more women use bicycles than men - the exact opposite of London. New York is building infrastructure to enable pretty much anyone to get around by bicycle. The list goes on. 

What frustrates me about Westminster is that there are only a handful of attempts to improve conditions for people to cycle there: Soho and Mayfair are a maze of one-way streets designed to disincentivise motor traffic but insanely complicated to use on a bicycle; Waterloo Bridge has a bicycle lane that is utterly useless most of the time because Westminster lets people park all over the bridge; the excellent Camden bicycle track through Tavistock Square takes you westwards into Westminster. As soon as you cross the boundary, the bike lane turns into a row of parked cars and you find yourself cycling between parked cars, two-lanes of fast-moving one-way motor traffic and a further lane of parked cars. The list goes on. Westminster hasn't even done the easy bits to make cycling a safer, more practical option than driving. You almost get the feeling that Westminster council doesn't want people to cycle. 

I can't tell if Nick Thompson was simply trying to encourage debate or wind people up. But he concluded his twitter conversation with this statement: "...keep the suggestions coming, I assure you they do find the right ears. Thanks for the input."

So, let's take him at his word:

If you're on twitter, send your suggestions for making Westminster less of a cycling desert to:  @NickPJThompson  

Alternatively, email your local councillors by entering your postcode at Writetothem or look up your councillor on Westminster's website

A more direct route might be to simply drop a line to the chief executive Michael Moore mmore@westminster.gov.uk and to the director for the built environment Rosemarie Macqueen rmacqueen@westminster.gov.uk copied to Barry Smith, director of city planning bsmith@westminster.gov.uk

Let's see if Westminster council wants to take bicycling seriously. I'd love to hear if they get back to you.


  1. "The excellent Camden bicycle track through Tavistock Square" Where is that?! I could only find the narrow, dangerous one featuring cars cutting across the path constantly, manhole covers aplenty, tight 'S' bends and lanes that swap over. All that time wasted on the rubbish lane when there was an excellent one on the same road!?

    1. This the the cycle lane that was being referred to.


      I use it everyday and can say it is some of the best infrastructure I have ever used in the UK. There is another even better equivalent on Royal College Street.


    2. Yep that's the one, and I'm not surprised its the best you've used in the UK. That alone is a very sad fact. I was cycling in the Netherlands recently and wow, you've never seen anything like it in the UK. My real objection here is to calling it 'excellent'. See http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/ to glimpse what 'excellent' cycling infrastructure looks like

    3. Yes, it could certainly be improved, it's far too narrow for two way traffic to ride at the same time.

      However I'd like more of it, as it works.

      And unfortunately it is the best I've seen in the UK. Most UK stuff is either useless (paint) or a irrelevant scenic route that goes no where useful, but is safe and wide etc.

      I want what the Dutch have, and by their standards I accept that it is certainly not "excellent".

    4. Kristian, it is helpful to understand the history of Camden's cycle tracks: my blogpost here.

      They are indeed compromised, particularly around Tavistock Place, but were the only attempts ever to build Dutch-style infrastructure in London. They are hugely popular, despite the faults, and should be widened and improved and resurfaced. There was not an "excellent lane on the same road" before, there was a 75cm wide painted lane that was always parked on. The current scheme is a huge improvement on that and attracts far more cyclists.

      We know the Dutch have done far better, particularly in recent years. Unfortunately we are about 50 years behind them in development of cycle infrastructure.

    5. Thanks a lot for pointing me at your blog post, we really need more details on the history of cycle campaigning at the borough level (just starting to get things going with this in Croydon with our new webbie: croydoncyclists.org.uk). I've only just come across the blogs of some of the best cycling bloggers such as yourself and Hembrow and have a lot of reading to catch up on!

      I feel a bit bad now as I didn't mean to come across as 'trashing' the efforts of those involved in making it a reality, merely to point out that this was not 'excellent' i.e. not the pinnacle of high quality cycling infrastructure.

      Two questions I hope you won't mind taking:
      1) For those roads discussed, a two way cycle lane on one-side of the road was chosen over a segregated route each side. Any good articles out there on the considerations for choosing between the two?
      2) You said that CCC had to design every aspect of the new road to get the right design in place. In 2012, its easier than ever for amateurs to sketch up scale re-designs of their local roads. Is there any community forming for people doing this where beginners can get support? I had a shot recently with google sketch up 8, found it very intuitive, but could do with being in touch with others doing the same thing.

    6. (1) Good question. I have not come across any articles about this. The reason we went for the two directions on one side of the road idea in Bloomsbury is that this is easier to fit into a narrow street and still allow parking, as you only need one segregation strip. However it does require a one-way road (which we did not get in the end) otherwise the junction movements are too complex (which caused problems particularly at Gordon Square). A major consideration would be where side roads are. If you had a road with all the side roads on one side (e.g. it's along a river or parkside) the two-way track design would make sense on the non-side-road side. In the Netherlands now one-way tracks on both sides of the road seem to be a much more common design than two-way tracks on one side, probably because of the junction issues, but you do sometimes get the two-way design alongside big roads and dual carriageways. Sometimes you get two-way on both sides, and sometimes one-way on one side and two-way on the other.

      The Bloomsbury track was based on a design for a route in the Hague, but this route in The Hague has since then been rebuilt unsegregated – essentially the whole street has now been given over to bikes on this corridor. It seems to me that the Dutch have moved over (in the last 15 years) to a paradigm for narrow city streets of essentially removing all but essential access traffic, rather than building two-way tracks of the Bloomsbury type. But that is not to say that this is a not stage that we in the UK might have to go through. That type of complete closure of the streets in Bloomsbury was certainly never a political option to Camden Cyclists 12 years ago.

      (2) Probably the best place to pursue this would be through the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, in particular on their forum, as it is certainly a thing people want to do (and we have done some of it at CEoGB meetings).

  2. I was party to the exchange last night with Nick Thompson and after having a night to reflect on what is being said have a few comments.

    "Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?"

    Much as I would like more investment in cycling, what I really want is money that is allocated on transport being used to create infrastructure for cyclists. No more money needs to be spent that what is already allocated, it just needs to be spent in a better way.

    At the moment any budget for transport is synonymous with "budget for driving", that certainly should not continue.

    Another is that twitter is an awful medium for any kind of meaningful exchange of ideas. I just ended up trying to be pithy, and failed miserably probably.

    My impression of Mr Thompson is that he is somewhat open minded, and that his "keep the suggestions coming, I assure you they do find the right ears" should be taken at face value. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain or the LCC should sit down and speak with him. Hopefully they will manage educate him of the current situation, how it can be improved and what facilities people want to see.

  3. Nick is at least listening and one of the few press officers that is prepared to talk to the public.

    Cllr Rowley no longer has the portfolio for transport., Westminster Councillors are just puppets for the policy officers, it’s them you need to speak too to try to get real change, but I must warn you they hate anything on two wheels.

  4. Surely the answer to "Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?" is "Because investment in cycling has been pitifully small for many years and a major rebalancing of our road network is required"

  5. According to the current comms plan (http://www.westminster.gov.uk/services/councilgovernmentanddemocracy/communications-team/), a cycling campaign is part of their planned activity for this year (page 19 of the pdf). If they haven't yet worked out what it is that people who cycle in/through Westminster want, and what it takes to get more people cycling, then it might be worth lobbying them to make sure that their plans are useful and coincide with Cyclesafe/Go Dutch aims.

  6. I also participated in the twitter exchange last night, and I am prepared to give Nick the benefit of the doubt, that he is not some "shock jock" opening up a wind-up so that he can create the oxygen of publicity for himself (that type is best ignored totally).

    As to suggestions for Westminster, oh dear, where to start? This is probably a job better tackled by LCC as the body with the most evidence-able mass support (some 11,000 paid up members and registered charity status). Of course they already have their hands full with TfL, whose roads account for perhaps 5% of total mileage but the majority of serious incidents, and whose junctions are by and large the most dangerous. This is especially so now that there are flickers of life in Palestra on improving those junctions.

    I should imagine that objective safety considerations are further down our priority list on Westminster streets, but connectivity and convenience really do leave a lot to be desired. The whole of "central" Westminster - from the embankment up to the Marylebone Road - has a labyrinth of small streets which have been rendered almost totally impermeable on a bicycle, even more so in fact than in a car where at least the zig-zagging just costs you a few more minutes of pressure on the pedal and a bit of fuel. I have noted before that a "simple" journey from Fleet St to Jermyn St can only legally be achieved by either massive detours, a lot of getting off and pushing the wrong way up one-ways, or submitting to the delights of the Strand, Trafalgar Square etc.

    If the City of London can, at modest cost, survey side streets and follow up with around a dozen contraflow conversions a year, even before the signage rules were relaxed this spring, then I think Westminster can manage that too.

    Another City lead they could follow is to take a serious look at a borough-wide 20 limit. Hopefully Nick was not being serious when he challenged the existence of evidence in support of that!

    And they could fire their transport architects - the ones who redesigned Pall Mall and Picadilly. Much as I applaud the removal of the ghastly supergyratory that used to prevail on those streets, making narrow lanes with wide central medians apprently designed to convert cyclists into rolling speed humps offends me greatly.

  7. It'll be a while before any insurer will cover a freak bike - not unless/until there's some real competition in the market AND freak bike riders either want to or (shudder) are required to get insurance.

  8. There's enough parallel streets in Central London to facilitate making entire east / west and north / south back streets cycle only.

    There's a suggestion!

    1. Spot on. There should be an East West through Westminster, along the Oxford Street corridor. Also why not ban cars from parks? I am alone in thinking cars have 6 lanes on Park lane and other routes to the west. Why do they also need to spoil Hyde Park?

  9. I'll take a whack at answering his question though:

    Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?

    - Because the health of the nation is deteriorating
    - Because health costs are soaring
    - Because air quality is suffering
    - Because we are being fined for breaking EU rules on air quality
    - Because our roads are congested
    - Because our roads are dangerous
    - Because motor infrastructure costs more to build and maintain
    - So our children, elderly and disabled have the freedom to move

  10. I am employed by a Council. There are very strict rules aboutofficers making political points and identifying themselves as Council officers.

    Perhaps this episode should be brought up with City of Westminster Council to find out if the officer concerned is voicing Council policy?

  11. A comment on your first picture caption:
    "Spot any women in this line up? No?"

    I cycle over Waterloo Bridge every morning and evening rush hour and I'd say that the people commuting by bike are around 50/50 male female. Many more women are commuting by bike than there were a couple of years ago.

    I'd suggest instead that the apparent male dominance in cyclists on Blackfriar's Bridge has a lot to do with the male dominance in the City. A good comparison would be to look at the pedestrians on Blackfriar's in the morning and whether there is a similar gender split to the cyclists ie is there also male dominance in pedestrians? On Waterloo Bridge I'd say the gender split between pedestrians compared to cyclists is similar.

    1. The stats are not with you Vicky. They show that 75% of cyclists are male. They also show that in age bands <16, 17-25, 25-39, 40-49, 50-59 etc, there is a marked bias towards 25-39/40-49. Under 25 and over 60 they are almost non-existent.

      Also, most cyclists who cross Blackfriars Bridge continue north on New Bridge St, which takes them pretty rapidly out of the City and into Camden. On occasions when I want to go from Waterloo to central or eastern City destinations, rather than to Fleet St, I prefer to stay on the south bank and cross Southwark bridge rather than take my chances with Queen Vic St.

    2. Hi Paul

      Bet you that the data you are referring to are a couple of years old. I reckon once you are able to look at the data for London this year, the results for the rush hours will show much more gender parity than suggested by the data above.

      When you look around your fellow cyclists, don't you notice more women than just 12 months ago?

  12. UK cycle lanes are generally laughable, dangerous and token. I don't work/live/cycle in London but in most cases I avoid UK cycle lanes for being nothing more generally than a push into the litter-strewn gutter and likely to cause punctures or worse. How about a photo competition for the most laughable 'cycle-lane' in the country (or capital)?

    1. http://homepage.ntlworld.com/pete.meg/wcc/facility-of-the-month/

    2. How about this one in Bournemouth (shortest in the country?) that puts cyclists the wrong way on a one-way street... http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-hdeOuAHQNaM/TclKD4rtFOI/AAAAAAAAAFI/eVHBllk4iKU/s400/P1030639.JPG

  13. I recently taught Bikeability training to primary school children at All Souls School in Fitzrovia. Here's a typical example of the route a child should follow to cycle to school here:
    I've taught cycling in London a lot and this is the most hostile environment for children to cycle that I've yet come across, but it's exactly the place where walking and cycling should be the most prevalent forms of transport - lots of stuff in fairly close proximity, and it's flat. Cycling here should be quick, healthy, and convenient. Westminster need to start fixing the problems.

  14. Where's the evidence that 20mph works?


    "The introduction of 20 mph zones was associated with a 41.9% reduction in road casualties. The percentage reduction was greatest in younger children and the categories of killed or seriously injured casualties."

  15. London may be the powerhouse of the World, not something to be proud of with all the current scandals in finance, but that doesn't mean it can't have decent infrastructure for its inhabitants. Dutch city-roads can be quite crowded, but I would hate to see all those cyclists getting into cars and making the situation even worse. A small investment in cycle-lanes like we in Holland have, may mean more people on bikes and less cars on the road, you don't need to be a genius to come up with this one. The last time I visited London I stayed in the Brent area and was appalled by all the front-gardens that had become parking-spots for all the cars people seem to need to live in London. What's the use of an expensive, polluting toy if your average speed is so low you might as well take a ....... bike?

  16. Westminster hillbillies... If you hear banjos on the Thames, that means paddle faster.

  17. It's not about 'cyclists' getting investment. It's about improving the roads for CYCLING so that PEOPLE (including 'motorists') find it safe and convenient to ride their bike in London, and this will benefit 'motorists' because they can be having fun, saving time and improving their health on their bike instead of sitting in traffic jams.