Wednesday, 16 January 2013

City of Westminster is at last drafting a cycling strategy. Don't get your hopes up: The council is already insisting cycle routes mustn't "adversely impact" private car use

Classic bike lane in the City of Wesminster. The 'bike lane' leads straight into a traffic light
Last month, the City of Westminster issued a response to a Freedom of Information request that provided some detail on the council's approach to cycling. It's a fairly damning set of responses:

During the year 2011/12, according to the FOI response, the council spent £173,000 on its cycle parking programme, less than the £208,000 the previous year. To put this in context, the City of London spent £93,000 to provide additional cycle parking for just one residential housing estate last year. Not only did Westminster decrease its investment in cycle parking at a time when cycling is booming but, when looked at in context, the total expenditure in Westminster looks extremely flimsy.

It gets worse when you look at how much time and effort Westminster spends on making the borough safe, let alone convenient, for everyday trips to made by bike. Asked how much the council spends on cycle paths and other cycle facilities across borough, the City of Westminster replies: £1.72million in 2010/11 which was then reduced to £946,000 last year. It's unclear whether that was Westminster's own cash or whether the money was Transport for London cash spent in Westminster (for example, TfL paid for the new cycle super highway that heads from Millbank to Wandsworth Bridge). Either way, it is highly unclear what the money was actually spent on given that Westminster counts "public realm schemes with improvements for cyclists and highway maintenance" as a 'cycling scheme'. For all I know, that could include schemes like the new road layout at the top of Waterloo Bridge which, frankly, does absolutely nothing for cycling but certainly involves some highway maintenance. If you look at the website of the Westminster Cyclists group, it's immediately obvious that, when it comes to cycling in the City of Westminster, there's a bit of talk about cycling but not much happening on the ground.

So it's faintly encouraging to see Westminster confirm in this FOI response that the council will start consultation on its new Cycling Strategy in late summer this year. About time too. The Strategy was originally meant to be published late last year.

It is concerning, though, to see that better and safer cycling will only be built provided it doesn't impact other modes of transport. The councillor responsible for the Cycling Strategy confirmed last year that he wants "to improve the attractiveness of, and facilities for, cycling and walking in Westminster, whilst striking an appropriate balance with the need to ensure powered vehicles continue to be able to get around the city, and that the steps we take do not adversely impact upon other modes of transport". That will probably mean Westminster will refuse to move car parking along cycle routes in order to build cycle infrastructure. Weasel-worded commitment, if ever I heard it.

Let's just remember that 63% of Westminster households don't own a car. You'd have thought the council might want to prioritise cycling, walking and bus transit for all those non-car owning households.

We'll see what comes out of the Westminster Cycling Strategy in the coming months.

In the meantime, I have to hope that Westminster doesn't copy one strategy that is spreading its tentacles across the City of London. The Square Mile is doing very impressive work on cycling and walking in general. It has recently committed to a Road Danger Reduction Plan, for example.

This is the space left to cycle along Cheapside
now that the road has been made massively narrower
and the pavements almost doubled in width
But one aspect of that Plan is to make road carriageways narrower. This is something that the Square Mile seems weirdly obsessed with. Cheapside, which runs between Bank and St Paul's was the first street to get the narrowing treatment.

Why has the City of London narrowed Cheapside and why does it plan to narrow more of its streets? The City claims that "Cheapside was deliberately narrowed to make cars and cyclists move together at broadly the same speed. The design reduces the prospect of vehicles stopping on the carriageway; which limits the risk of vehicle doors being opened in front of cyclists. All of these are behavioural issues but they are influenced by the surrounding street environment."

The problem is, that for most of the day, cars don't move much along Cheapside. They do stop on the carriageway pretty much all the time.

End result? People on bicycles can't move either. Either that, or they squeeze along the side of the pavement or overtake a couple of dozen stationery taxis and buses on the wrong side of the road. The end result is that even City of London insiders are starting to admit cyclists aren't doing what they hoped they would (simply cycling at the same speed as the completely stationary taxis).

I'm not surprised. The new road layout simply doesn't work for cycling. During the few hours of the day when motor traffic is moving, you see cars and taxis inching past cyclists hugging the kerb because they feel so intimidated by the new road layout. The City might well claim this makes the street 'safer' but it makes it markedly more intimidating to cycle along and hugely less convenient even for highly confident cyclists who don't mind weaving in and out of crawling motor queues.

Narrowing roads and expecting them to work for cycling is completely inappropriate. I hope Westminster doesn't borrow this particular strategy from the City of London.


  1. On Cheapside, it would be interesting to know what the City’s screenline counts are showing these days. The reports presented to the transport committee suggested that the proposals “would benefit cyclists”, who made up around a third of all vehicles on Cheapside at peak times! Somehow I doubt that level exists now. I, for one, used to cycle along Cheapside regularly, but now I do my best to avoid it, and haven’t ridden there in months.

    Having said that, while the City is no cycling Nirvana, there have been a number of improvements of late in terms of parking and permeability measures and some credit should go where credit is due. Westminster council meanwhile is totally toxic for cycling. It is not immediately apparent to me why two areas which share a great many common features should be so different in this respect, except of course for politics.

    The City’s councillors are by and large conservative in their outlook, but this is spelt with a small c. The City is studiously non-political and councillors have to date never stood on party-political tickets. Their election addresses contain very little which could be described as overtly political, and indeed I am not sure how much competition they face when they stand for re-election. That is not necessarily healthy, but at least we don’t have the long and inglorious history of low-level corruption and gerrymandering which were the hallmark of the Shirley Porter years in Westminster and, from what I can see, haven’t really ended yet.

    And as for the Labour opposition there, they do seem hell-bent on out-torying the Tories when it comes to issues around parking and the inalienable right of motorists to motor. Actually, that seems to be a characteristic of Labour at national level too.

    I find Westminster a truly horrid place to cycle. There are of course pockets of tranquillity, but these are mainly not under Westminster’s direct control – routes through the Royal Parks, for example. On road, the cyclist is offered the choice of nasty shooting galleries like the Strand – lane-narrowed with an idiot central median many years ago – and now joined by Pall Mall, Piccadilly, St James etc in these lane-narrowing rolling speed hump schemes, or a labyrinthine back-street network which is supremely impermeable to bicycles as well as cars, requiring a St Vitus Dance of jiggling back and forth to make any progress on any axis, and which is choked almost constantly with parked cars.

    Personally, I can’t see any real improvement in Westminster without a change of national policy on cycle infrastructure standards, and why not? Local authorities are still (largely) responsible for schools, and for roads generally, but are subject to very strict national rules defining how those things should be managed. Those rules cold be easily extended to enforce decent minimum standards for cycling

  2. I think the problem is that Westminister is one of the councils that really does milk motorists. They have a huge transitional population in the form of workers and people out having fun, but relatively few people actually living there, which means their council tax intake is low (although business rates are higher then most), but being the face of London they are expected to maintain high standards.

    As such the income they garner from parking and motoring fines is more important to them then to most councils. So giving parking spaces over to us cyclists is giving a significant proportion of their income away. As such, we face a harder battle with them then with other councils.

  3. Another strong and informative post. Hoping to see better cycling policies from both Westminster and The City of London in 2013.

  4. One of the aspects of cycling in Westminster that I find particularly frustrating is the high number of one-way streets. If it's part of your commute you can figure out the best route, but on an unfamiliar route it really makes the city harder to navigate, and undermines the logic of using side streets to avoid busier routes. It's not like these are narrow streets either, they're just clogged by cars parked on either side of the road!

    While we're at it, there needs to be significantly more enforcement of parking close to junctions - stopping at the give way line your view of oncoming traffic is often completely blocked by parked cars.

    I don't live in Westminster, but what they do affects almost everyone who cycles in London, as it's hard to avoid passing through it, and it's frustrating to see them ignore the needs of thousands of people who cycle through the borough so wealthy individuals like Richard Caring can continue to park for free.

  5. @liz

    It would be easy and cheap for Westminster to make most of these one-way streets two-way for bikes - as the City and Camden are doing extensively already. I'd suggest anyone who reads this take a moment to write to Ed Argar (Westminster's transport head) and Phillippa Rowe (leader of the council) recommending this.

  6. I cycle regularly in Westminster; its where I live and work. I hate cycling in the west end, especially where there are pedestrian crossings, as too many people seem happy to launch themselves into the road when there's a lul, irrespective of whether they have the lights. The cross-roads outside the Hippodrome/Leicester Sq stataion are particularly bad, and especially at the weekend, which in central London starts on Thursday. What is good about central London/Westminster is the provision of Boris Bikes, so we really should be able to use that fact, and Boris' championing of the scheme as both transport and tourist amenity, to push Westminster CC hard to improve the infrastructure. Personally I don't mind the new Pall Mall and Piccadilly arrangements, they make it easier to navigate these roads, but I do think more 'cycle marked routes' would make cycling safer.

  7. The councillor responsible for Westminster's Cycling Strategy was obviously speaking out of both sides of his mouth when he is quoted as having said he wants to strike an "appropriate balance" between cycling and walking with powered vehicles at the same as "not adversely" impacting upon other modes of transport. Impacting anything usually means some degree of negative impact and, if it's deemed acceptable, means compromise. If Westminster is not willing to compromise the 'rights' of powered vehicles then what's the point of developing a Cycling Strategy?

  8. I'm sorry to rain on your City parade but in the four and a half years I've been commuting to the City I've seen precious little improvement for cycling beyond the occasional white line a yard out from the curb. The Cheapside "improvement" is jaw-dropping in its sheer ignorance and lack of concern for cycling. I've read all the recent City development plans and cycling hardly features. Occasionally the words "and cyclists" have been inserted as a last thought.

    As for road narrowing, have a go at running The Cut (prop: Borough of Southwark), which combines narrowing and wiggly sides so cyclists pop in and out of the traffic flow every few yards. Fun for motorists and cyclists!

  9. I work in Covent Garden, and I have the option of going down the Strand, or the labyrinthe of back streets to the north. The back streets win out as the Strand is just awful. But it does involve running one-way streets (with parking on both sides) the wrong way, and dealing with a ridiculous number of lorries. Truly horrific. I'm not even too clear which way I would go if I wanted to go down streets the right way. Actually yesterday morning a massive Carlsberg lorry got just as confused as me and just headed the wrong way up one of them.

    I always think that Parliament Square could be a truly beautiful place. It's a tourist magnet currently, and I always imagine the visitors saying to each other "wonder why they decided to build a huge roundabout here" as they shuffle along stuffed pavements, trying to pose in front of the Palace of Westminster whilst trucks whizz by inches away.

  10. This is Very very nice article. Everyone should read. Thanks for sharing and I found it very helpful. Don't miss WORLD'S BEST GAMES