Monday, 31 December 2012

Boris "We're not going to let the motor car let rip in outer London". Good. A member of the Mayor's Road Task Force (i.e. me) asks whether Boris Johnson can get outer London on its bikes.

People using bikes in London. Lycra, Boris bike, matching bike and red belt, hipster.
There is no such thing as a 'cyclist'. We are Londoners. And we come in all shapes and sizes
"We mustn’t let people run away with the idea that we’re going to let the motor car let rip in outer London". So said Boris Johnson in response to a barrage of questions from London Assembly Members at Mayor's Question Time on 19 December last year

What was fascinating about this exchange was the way that the Mayor stuck to this one central theme and repeated it several times: When asked whether he would support more people driving in from outside London to outer London shopping centres he said yes to more shoppers but no to more motor traffic "We don't want to cause an increase in traffic congestion that it becomes frustrating". He quoted the recent census data which shows a massive decline in car ownership in inner London and talked about the need to bring "mass transit" to outer London to replace the private car. 

A two mile car trip would take less than 10 minutes on a bike. If London could replace half of those two mile car journeys with bike journeys, it would be a major game changer for the quality of life of everyone in this city. But Boris didn't say he plans to bring about mass cycling in outer London. He talked about replacing the car in outer London with 'mass transit' - that means trams, better buses and light rail. As a side note, it's worth noting that the Mayor has twice cancelled plans for mass transit in south London - notably in the form of the tram extension to Crystal Palace. 

Cycle super highway planned for Stratford. Source
Evening Standard
Some of you who know me personally may be aware that, since the middle of last year, I have been a member of the Mayor of London's Road Task Force. I sit alongside the likes of the pro-cycling President of the AA, Edmund Kind and the smart and - surprisingly - measured Chairman of the RAC, David Quarmby.

If you look at the list of members of the Task Force, you'll see three people representing cycling - there's the London Cycling Campaign, Sustrans and me.  From sitting on the Task Force, I know that there's a huge debate going on within Transport for London and within the Mayor's office about what London's roads are for. At times, that debate turns into something more approaching an argument. But the fact of the matter is that the debate is very real and I have to credit the Mayor for including a decent number of people who use bicycles. 

That said, I'm very aware that the purpose of the Task Force is to deliver a strategy for London's roads. And for my part, I want that strategy to shift towards some actual facts on the ground, in particular towards a meaningful shift in favour of cycling as a normal, sensible way for people all across London to travel from A to B.

London might finally catch up with the
Netherlands where bike lanes like this are standard.
Courtesy: AsEasyAsRidingABike blog
There are some very gentle hints of change coming out of the Mayor's office. Some (but by no means all) of the proposed Cycle Super Highway from Victoria to New Cross looks promising, for example. Promising, mind you, not game-changing. 

Slightly better plans seem to be emerging in east London. In the week before Christmas, the Evening Standard ran a piece about the planned extension of Cycle Super Highway to the Olympic Park where several miles of "segregated cycle lanes will be created along the A11 between the Bow roundabout and the Stratford gyratory, notorious for its fast-moving traffic." For an excellent review of those plans, see As Easy As Riding a Bike's blog post.

These are both positive steps. But they are by no means enough to make cycling something that most Londoners see as normal and everyday transport. 

What we need is for the Mayor to start talking about normal people from all over London getting on bikes. He seems to have abandoned any discourse of normal, everyday folk getting on bikes to go to the shops or to visit friends and family. Bicycling in London is heavily focussed on fit, young men (mostly) getting to work quickly along main roads. Cycling is not being sold to Londoners as something that everyone could and should be doing for those short trips. In short, my concern is that Boris Johnson is building a 'cycling revolution' for the people who already use bikes, not for the majority of Londoners who could and probably should be using bikes. 

Contrast that with the Mayor of Memphis, Tennessee Mayor A.C. Wharton Jr: who told the New York Times recently "We need to make biking part of our DNA... “I’m trying to build a city for the people who will be running it 5, 10, 15 years from now". 

Bicycling in Memphis, says the Mayor's office is about using 'bike lanes as an economic development tool, setting the stage for new stores and enhanced urban vibrancy'.

My question to Boris Johnson is: Does he see cycling in the same way as the Mayor of Memphis? Does Boris have the foresight to build a cycling culture in London that helps make our city function better, serves London's economy better and that strives to make this fantastic city even better in five, 10 or 15 years time? 

Friday, 14 December 2012

My heart and my mind are both struggling to understand how the law and the court system have today so completely failed two young Londoners who happened to be on bicycles.

This lorry driver chats away quite happily
on his mobile phone. Rush hour on cycle
super highway 7 last week
Last year, Sam Harding was killed as he cycled his bike in Holloway. He was riding in Holloway Road when Kenan Aydodgu opened his car door. Sam fell into the road and was crushed to death by the bus that was behind him.

Mr Aydogdu, says the BBC "had the windows of his car coated with a dark plastic film which reduced visibility in and out of the car to 17%". I understand that it is not legal to apply this sort of window tinting to your car.

Today, Aydodgu was found 'not guilty of manslaughter'.

To me, that suggests I can go and cover my car in tinted black plastic. That, as a driver, I can throw away my responsibilities to other road users and get away with it if anything goes wrong.

If you think that's shocking enough, wait until you read about today's other London court case.

And this case relates to Mary Bowers. Mary Bowers is a journalist at The Times. Mary was knocked from her bike by an HGV in Wapping last year. She has since been in a coma.

Her colleagues have pursued an unwaveringly diligent campaign to change the way Britain thinks about cycling. All of us who take to two-wheels, all of us who would take to two-wheels if we felt safe enough - we all owe the journalists of The Times (and in particular its editor until this week, James Harding) a debt of gratitude.

We should also be grateful to Ross Lydall, a columnist at the Evening Standard, who has been in court this week covering the Mary Bowers case with sensitivity and compassion. You should read Ross's excellent piece in this evening's edition as he describes how, in his words "12 jurors backed the lorry driver - to the judge's obvious dismay". 

The lorry driver, who came to the UK a year ago and "has previously admitted a series of tachograph offences, including driving a lorry for 20 hours in one day when the maximum is 9 hours" was "engrossed" on his hands-free mobile phone at the time of the collision.

"The court had been told that Ms Bowers placed herself alongside another cyclist in an advanced cyclists' box in front of the lorry as they waited at traffic lights in Dock Street.

Beiu was giving directions on a hands-free phone to a colleague and failed to spot Ms Bowers despite her being "in direct sight" through his windscreen for at least 10 seconds before pulling away and turning left across her path.

He jumped from his cab after hearing "bloodcurdling" screams but forgot to apply the handbrake allowing the lorry to continue rolling over Ms Bowers. He even failed to realise there was a cycle lane on his near side, the court was told. Beiu also lied to the police by claiming he had not been on the phone at the time of the collision."

A jury decided this afternoon to convict the lorry driver of "careless" driving.As Ross Lydall points out on twitter: "Jury never saw pictures of Mary Bowers or heard her family's victim statement. Case centred on lorry driver not Mary's appalling injuries".

As British Cycling points out, many people feel there has been a downgrading of charges around careless and dangerous driving. It has called for a review of the law. This is why: The concept of  causing death by "careless driving" was introduced in 2008. In 2008, only six people were charged with causing death by 'careless driving' and 715 of causing death by 'dangerous driving'.  The numbers of people being charged with ‘causing death by careless driving’ have since risen dramatically, despite the numbers of people killed on the road decreasing, and the numbers of people charged with ‘causing death by dangerous driving’ have dropped in that time as well. As British Cycling points out, this suggests there is confusion over the appropriate charges and ‘causing death by careless driving’ is being used far more than was originally intended.

British Cycling struck exactly the right note this afternoon: "There was no other sensible conclusion than that [the lorry driver's] driving was dangerous, not careless. These failures send completely the wrong message about how we expect people to behave on our roads."

Mary Bowers has been locked in a coma for 13 months. As her father told the Evening Standard this evening "Mary is in effect dead. If it's possible to be worse than dead then she is."

Regardless of the technicalities around the law and around the decision taken by the jury, my heart and my mind are both saying the same thing: It is clear to me, when I look at these two sentences, that the court system has failed utterly to apply sentences that match the circumstances that caused the deaths of Sam Harding and Mary Bowers. The man who tinted his car windows and opened his door, resulting in the death of Sam Harding, will be back on the road tonight (in the same car perhaps?). The man who drove into and then subsequently allowed his lorry to run over Mary Bowers could, if he chose, be behind the wheel of an HGV again by next September.

The reality is that in both cases the verdicts may indeed be the correct verdicts given the law and the court system as they are today. But the question is whether the law and the court system are correct. In my view, when it comes to cycling, they are not.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

The census data is absolutely undeniable: Massive rise in car-free households, now the majority all across inner London. Yet London borough councils persist in designing our roads for cars not for bikes and public transport, in direct conflict with what's actually happening.

Evening Standard is absolutely right.
Time for local councils to react to demographic change
& give cyclists their fair share of the road
I've spent some of this evening reviewing the 2011 census data published earlier today, comparing it to the results from 2001 (see part 2 on ONS website)

It makes for a very interesting story. In fact, it's a primetime, can't-miss-it kind of story. And that is, that as far as inner London is concerned, the private car is well and truly on its way out.

In 2001 in Southwark, 51% of households had no car or van. By 2011, that number was up to 58%. In Hackney, the story is even more dramatic - 65% of households are now car-free, up from 56% in 2001. Lambeth - 58% of households are car-free, up from 51% in 2001. Even in a car-centric borough like Wandsworth, 45% now have no car, up from 41% in 2001. And Westminster, the borough which brings you free car parking all weekend and which is viciously anti-cycling, a whopping 63% of households don't own a car, up from 57% in 2001. In Lambeth, it's now 58% car-free households, up from 51% in 2001. Even Kensington & Chelsea households are now 56% car-free, up from 51% in 2001.

The data is absolutely blatant. Inner London is ditching the car. All over inner London in fact. Both the rich parts and the poor parts, the Labour-voting, LibDem-voting and Conservative-voting parts. You simply can't miss the fact that inner London is going car-free.

And yet London councils, like Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea are clinging on to the mistaken belief that London needs to be designed around the private motor car.

Kensington & Chelsea issued a local transport plan in late 2010 that proposes its streets should be designed almost exclusively around the needs of private car ownership: "Our approach to cycling is to encourage a safe mix with other traffic – our busy road network and densely populated area mean that it is not practical to allocate road space specifically to cyclists. Instead, we focus on providing a smooth, debris–free riding surface, cycle parking and increasing the permeability of the local road network." Get that? The majority of Kensington & Chelsea households are car-free yet the council still regards it as "not practical" to devote space to cycling instead of driving and promotes an ideology that would have lorries, buses, taxis and people on bicycles all jostling for position on four lane highways.

I think what the census data is showing is that being 'car-free' is not a left-wing thing, it's not a right-wing thing. It's not a Labour borough issue. It's not a LibDem or Conservative borough issue either. It's happening all across inner London. Households are going car-free. And most of the boroughs are way, way too slow to realise that their residents are looking for alternatives.

The bicycle is one of those alternatives. It is one that has been woefully underfunded for decades. As a transport form, it needs an injection of concerted effort by local boroughs. Those boroughs are running out of excuses and they need to create networks for people to travel by road but not by private car. Especially in places like Westminster and Wandsworth where the provision to cycle instead of drive is pathetic and has been largely ignored by anti-cycling councillors for years.

That has to change. The demographics say as much.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Plans for cycle super highway 5 published: Vauxhall gyratory plan gives more space for cycling, a more direct route for cycling and shows TfL is clearly 'getting' cycling. However a couple of concerns where the scheme really needs improving.

TfL proposal for protected cycle track through Vauxhall gyratory
Transport for London has submitted its plans for Cycle Super Highway 5 for public scrutiny. And there's an awful lot to take in. Super Highway 5 will run from Victoria to New Cross Gate. 

First things first: When TfL first drew up plans for its Cycle Super Highways, there was no public scrutiny at all. In fact, I was lucky to be given some drawings of the original plans for the scheme back in 2011. And they were truly useless. You can see some of the 2011 plans on this post and you can admire how TfL's teams had originally planned for a super highway around Vauxhall gyratory that was - well, no different at all to what's there at the moment. It would have meant that cyclists going from Harleyford Road into the bus/bike lane towards Vauxhall Bridge needed to filter across five lanes of motor traffic (usually moving at way over 40mph). Twice. A complete and utter joke.                       
TfL has now come up with something much more interesting. The basic principle of the plan is actually really good. The bus lane heading from the Oval towards Vauxhall would be extended up to the traffic lights at Durham Street (currently, you have to jostle for position with a dozen white vans here) and a segregated bike track would lead you under the station, in a straight line to Vauxhall Bridge. The route is much more direct than currently and it actually follows what a lot of cyclists already do (albeit not legally). 

In other words, Transport for London has looked at what cyclists already do and given cyclists a more direct route through the gyratory, it has taken a lane away from motor vehicles and given it to the cycle track. Instead of having to cycle around two sides of the gyratory in each direction, you'll be able to pedal straight through the middle of it. Which is actually pretty impressive and shows TfL is beginning to 'get' it. Full marks on that front. 

This section to become a protected bike track.
Heading east on Kennington Lane
I hate cycling on this bit at the moment
One problem, though, is the link between the bike track and the Oval. See the map above and the blue box entitled 'Road widening to allow cycle access'? AsEasyAsRidingABike blog points out quite correctly, that is an advanced stop line. You're supposed to cycle up from the Oval, wait to cross at the ASL on to the island, then wait again to cross traffic turning right from Durham Street and get yourself on to the bike track. It could work. But it would mean having to wait twice where cars wait only once. It's also not clear how you're supposed to actually get on to the bike track without pacing it across two lanes of traffic all trying to rush through the green light.

AsEasy blog is quite right to say there's a risk that "Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, so a cycle route can be rendered pointless if there are difficult gaps in it". Will people stop and wait in order to use it? Possibly. At the moment, the set up involves waiting here anyhow, then waiting twice more nearer to the station in order to get through that same tunnel. This new scheme means you still have to wait at three traffic lights to get to the station tunnel, just different ones to cars.

The other issue I can see is that the pedestrian island (which is already a busy shared use pavement/bike space) can be very busy at times. If the bike tracks are going to work then those bike/pedestrian crossings look way too narrow to me. They're about the same size as the current crossings and you'll often see half a dozen people on bikes plus a dozen people on foot all penned in waiting to cross on the narrow toucan crossing.

The other major proposal here is Vauxhall Bridge itself. The Bridge is a complete travesty at the moment. Cyclegaz produced an excellent video of the terrifyingly dangerous bike 'infrastructure' that is in place on the southbound side of the Bridge.

TfL's proposal here is quite radical. Back in 2011, TfL had planned to do almost nothing here. The idea was to simply rub out the bike lane and let cyclists play chicken with the lorries. Now, TfL has something quite quite different in mind - It suggests either: a protected bike track running the entire length of the Bridge and a separate bike traffic light at the southern end or moving the bus lane to the left hand side and having bikes and buses share. In theory, either of these options sounds like a massive improvement on what's there at the moment.

TfL plan for  southbound Vauxhall Bridge. Protected bike track
and cycle traffic lights. 
But look in more detail and the protected bike track is pretty disappointing. It would be only 1.3 metres wide (ie barely wider than what's there at the moment) and would lead to a bike-only traffic light that PedestrianiseLondon blog describes as a 'cyclists-always-have-to-stop' traffic light. My preference would be a proper bike track and traffic lights that don't mean always having to wait longer than cars have to wait. If that's not possible, then my money's with the widened bus lane, to be honest.

I have to say that, as far as Vauxhall gyratory is concerned, I think Transport for London has shown some really fresh and clever thinking.

But there are a number of compromises that need addressing. And these revolve around the fact that bicycle must still cede to motor car.

This is London's inner ring road in action. It is the road that skirts the central London congestion charge. And I can only just imagine the hoops TfL has to jump through to fit meaningful bike infrastructure in to this horrible junction.

Exiting Vauxhall Bridge southbound at the moment
This is what it looks like at rush-hour most days
Cyclists squeezed in a 1metre wide gutter
I think TfL deserves a thumbs-up for fitting some pretty decent bike infrastructure into this area. But it really needs to address the links between those better bits of infrastructure and optimise them.

I'm going to review other parts of the super highway over the coming days. There's an awful lot to read through. If you have time and inclination, you can see all the details on TfL's consultation hub pages.

If you use Vauxhall gyratory, you should tell TfL what you think by filling out the relevant sections of the TfL Cycle Super Highway 5 online survey.