Sunday, 10 March 2013

"Quietways": If you want to know what Boris's cycling plans for London look like, take a look at what's rolling out right now in Camden, Hackney and the City of London. There's going to be a lot more of these sorts of streets coming soon.

Warren Street in central London. Formerly a rat-run to the Euston Road.
Not any longer. Courtesy Fitzrovia News
Last week, Camden council completed the final piece in its area-wide plan to make Fitzrovia a better place to walk and cycle. And to make it a better place for residents and businesses in the area.

Camden set out to address a problem that is common all over central London and especially so in neighbouring Westminster: "Most of the time the area experiences relatively light traffic...delivered at least in part by the one way systems throughout the wider Fitzrovia area that are designed to discourage through traffic. Unfortunately this also reduces the permeability for cycling, despite many of the streets being ideal quiet roads within central London." Part of Fitzrovia is in the City of Westminster. Westminster's streets are rat-runs for motor vehicles and plagued by one-way systems that make it near impossible to cycle through. Those exact same streets in Camden are now massively nicer places for walking and cycling than their equivalents in Westminster. Thanks to borough policy.

I've cycled around Fitzrovia a lot recently and been hugely impressed by the work Camden has rolled out. The area takes up most of the block north of Oxford Street and west of Tottenham Court Road, as far as Great Portland Street, where car domination courtesy of Westminster council kicks in. Across the entire zone, the council employed a number of strategies:

It has removed several traffic lights and replaced these with zebra crossings on speed tables. This makes it easier for motor vehicles to get through without constant stop-starting. And it makes it easier to cross the road as the cars are going more slowly and you don't have to wait for a green man to cross the road.

Former car parking, now bike parking in Fitzrovia
It has installed bike parking throughout the area, replacing a handful of car parking spaces with dozens of bike parking spaces. (Meanwhile, neighbouring Westminster says it can't find space for bike parking. On exactly the same streets)

It has turned a maze of one-way streets into streets that are almost all two-way for cycling.

And last week, it closed Warren Street to motor vehicles to stop taxis and minicabs using the street as a ratrun to avoid the junction at the top of Tottenham Court Road.

These are policies that have been used to great effect already in Hackney. Vincent Stops, Chair of the Planning Committee on Hackney council has explained very neatly in his new blog that Hackney's policy has been about "incremental change on Hackney's streets to: create a better balance between pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles. There has been an equality of esteem for both movement and, crucially, urban design. Almost every intervention on Hackney's streets has improved its public realm and benefitted both cyclists and pedestrians." I'd urge you to read Vincent's blog post. It captures in a nutshell what's been happening in Hackney over the last decade and the Camden philosophy seems very similar indeed.

Former one-way street in Fitzrovia, now two-way
for people on bikes. 
Fitzrovia is not now a car-free nirvana. But compared to 10 years ago, the place has changed hugely. When you cycle through most of the streets here, you now feel like you're on equal status with motor cars. Not on every street, but on a serious slice of them. Frankly, it's quite uplifting to cycle here knowing that you're no longer the underdog on the streets.

Camden council is going to roll this same strategy out in Camden Town in the area between the Royal College Street bike track and Camden High Street. This is a zone of one-way impenetrable streets that makes it nigh-on impossible to cycle from the bike track into the centre of Camden. Same plan as Fitzrovia: fewer traffic lights; more two-way streets for bikes; some roads closed to through traffic.

Hackney has been doing this for nearly a decade now. And it clearly works. As Vincent Stops points out "With just a few road closures a whole area has become cycle, walk and play friendly while still allowing residents to drive to their homes."

Tellingly, this is exactly the same sort of thinking that is now emerging in Boris Johnson's cycling vision for London, where his cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan describes the network of Quietways planned between neighbourhoods all around London. In that document he promotes the Hackney model as one to watch:
"With just a few road closures, whole area has become cycle, walk and
play-friendly. And you can still drive to your home"
Courtesy Vincent Stops, Hackney council
"Permeability means not completely separating bikes and cars – there is very little full segregation in Hackney – but making the existing streets join up better for cyclists (and pedestrians) than they do for cars. It means blocking rat run-type streets as through-routes for motor traffic, while still allowing through journeys by bike. It means making bike journeys easier and more direct by removing one-way streets, gyratories and complicated crossings of 

big roads."

Boris's document slightly misses the point that this strategy isn't just about cycling. It's about creating a better neighbourhood for everyone. Bye bye to unnecessary traffic lights, hullo to calmer streets and less rat-run traffic. If you link streets like this together, you end up with a really useful cycling network. For example, Hackney's Pitfield Street route takes you the whole way from behind Moorgate in the City of London all the way to Dalston on streets that have been made calmer and easier to cycle on than anything I can think of in west or south London.

Stonecutter Street, City of London, is now a bike-only street.
Courtesy Countercyclical
Even the City of London is catching up with this same model. Earlier this month, the City shut Stonecutter Street in the heart of the Square Mile. Or rather, it didn't shut the street. It just blocked the street to rat-running motor vehicles.

The City of London was very clear about why it wanted to shut the street to through motor-traffic: "The dominant use of Stonecutter Street is as a cut through route for traffic moving south-eastbound from Holborn Circus to Farringdon Street. This conflicts with the character of the road, the local activities, and the interests of pedestrians and cyclists." The City is expecting the number of people cycling and walking here to continue growing at pace and needed to find a way to make the area safer and more appealing to walking or cycling than driving. Hey presto. Two bollards popped up at the end of the street. Bicycles and pedestrians only.

The City is making a sizeable number of its one-way streets bi-directional for cycling or pedestrian and cyclist only. Again, similar to Hackney. What the City isn't doing yet with quite the same success is linking those streets up so that they become a network, like the Dalston to Moorgate link that Hackney has built along Pitfield Street. That needs to happen.

Compare and contrast. This is Westminster council's main
bike route through Covent Garden. A complete and utter joke.
All the more so when you compare with the City of London
or Camden council's equivalents
What also needs to happen is that Transport for London needs to work with the boroughs to alleviate obstacles on this Quietway routes. The routes all too often become unstuck when they reach a main road and - in the words of the fantastic Bella Bathurst in The Guardian this week - "At present, there are a small number of wonderful cycle routes joined together by a lot of very big city and however cleverly you dodge and weave through the backstreets, eventually everyone ends up being spat back on to the dual carriageways. If you're an experienced cyclist, that's fine. If you're not, then you ride scared, and if you ride scared then you're dangerous." Hackney's Dalston to Moorgate route is one of those "small number of wonderful cycle routes". Get to Moorgate, however, and you're on your own, dodging and weaving along four lanes of motor traffic on London Wall. Not impressive.

The City of London and the City of Westminster are both crucial to the future of cycling in London. Because once you arrive at Moorgate, you shouldn't be dumped into car-choked race tracks and left to fight it out on your own. You should expect a similar quality of cycling experience from end-to-end. And that needs the boroughs to play nicely with each other and with Transport for London.

That's not happening yet. The City of London's strategy for the area around Liverpool and Moorgate, for example, would be funny if it wasn't so tragic. The policy is (genuinely) to "Review the current hierarchy of cycling routes, and explore the possibility of encouraging alternative routes through the quieter streets of Hackney and Islington."

I have to hope that Andrew Gilligan will focus minds in the boroughs and encourage them to build a network of routes that maintain a similar quality from end to end, regardless of which borough they're in and regardless of main roads which get in the way.