Friday, 31 May 2013

Could central London be about to get its first ever bicycle-friendly link? Crown Estate proposes north-south route linking The Mall to Regents Park. Please voice your support (see below).

Possible Crown Estate-sponsored bike route through central London, linking St James's Park to Regents Park
Many thanks to Westminster Cyclists for the hat-tip

Last month, I blogged about the proposals to turn Haymarket and Lower Regent Street in the West End of London into virtual no-go zones for people on bikes. The plans, sponsored by the Crown Estate - which owns much of the property in this area - and delivered by Westminster Council would massively reduce carriageway widths, giving the space over to huge pavements. The already awful conditions for cycling in this area would be rendered even worse. The scheme would also make conditions significantly worse for millions of bus passengers on these very busy routes - a point not lost on the Evening Standard.

Cycling on streets controlled by Westminster council is a largely unpleasant experience. Unlike the rest of inner London, this is where motor vehicles reign free. Bike routes are little more than blue signs, often on multi-lane, fast and narrrow one-way streets. The plans at Haymarket are emblematic of the way Westminster has marginalised bicycle-friendly links in favour of pumping motor vehicles through the centre of London. In short, the Haymarket plans caught the imagination of very many people who are fed up with Westminster council's approach to cycling hitherto.

Many thanks to Lord Berkeley for asking the government
why central London can't be made bicycle-friendly
One of those people might just be Lord Berkeley, secretary of the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group. Lord Berkeley very kindly asked the government (given that the Crown Estates Commissioners report to Parliament) "what assessment they have made of the impact of [the Haymarket] plans on the space available for buses and cyclists?" The response was not exactly encouraging: "This is a matter within the competence of the Crown Estate in which the Government do not propose to intervene". 

Roll on a few more weeks, however, and the Crown Estate decides to make its voice clear. In April, Peter Bourne, development manager of the Crown Estate (which is, after all, the sixth largest landowner in the country) responded to the many people who had protested the Haymarket plans with these very encouraging words: "Cycling is good for business" and "We agree with you that what cyclists really need are safe and segregated cycle lanes as suggested by the Mayor in his ‘Vision for Cycling’"

Standard cycle "infrastructure" as provided
in Westminster. Insane.
It took the eagle-eyed Secretary of Westminster Cyclists, Dominic Fee, to spot a freedom of information request based on this blog and asking the Crown Estate to clarify its commitment to cycling. That FOI request was made by Jon Stone. Jon, I don't know you but I congratulate you on getting this far. The Crown Estate has obliged by sending a very detailed overview of its (very early stage) plans. The response includes some detailed drawings of the proposed scheme and a lot of detailed description. It is very, very exciting.

First and foremost, though, is a major caveat. And that is this comment: "The Crown Estate is a substantial property owners in St James's and Regent Street but has no powers to implement anything on the public realm other than with the agreement of the highway authorities". Those 'highway authorities' are Transport for London and Westminster council. My sense is that TfL is very supportive of these plans. My hope (and it is only a hope) is that Westminster council will be able to support them too.

Detailed view of a section of the planned
route from Trafalgar Square northbound
There is a very detailed map of the planned route available.

The route is also described in a lot of detail: "We are proposing a north-south route running from The Mall to Regents Park. It would run from The Mall, where it links into the segregated cycle route
along the north side of the Mall and, via Horse Guards Parade, into the Mayor’s Crossrail Cycle Route which runs along Birdcage Walk. It is proposed to be two-way along the entire route with cyclists in a separate
segregated contra-flow lane along one-way streets. It runs north along Spring Gardens into Trafalgar Square. It crosses Cockspur Street at a signalised crossing and up the west side of Trafalgar Square in front of Canada House. Northbound will be in a segregated lane using space which is currently parking bays  and southbound will be on the carriageway in a
cycle lane. The route crosses Pall Mall East at the same point as the existing signalised pedestrian crossing and along the north side of Pall Mall East to Whitcomb Street. It then follows Whitcomb Street and Wardour Street, with a signalised crossing at Coventry Street, Shaftsbury Avenue and Oxford Street.  Otherwise it has priority at other junctions. We are currently looking at feeder routes into St James’s and Mayfair."

I have plenty of thoughts about the route, not least the fact that it still isn't clear what is happening at Haymarket. But my overall feeling is that this is very encouraging stuff and it is extremely clear that the Crown Estate has been encouraged by Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor's cycling commissioner, to believe that Transport for London will back (and possibly help finance) the plan. Central London desperately needs bicycle-friendly links. A north-south link would be an incredible start to the Mayor's planned inner London bike grid.

As I say, however, it is very early days. The scheme is by no means set in stone. The Crown Estate has this to say: "We have had initial discussions with the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner and Westminster’s Traffic Commissioner and they are very supportive and guardedly supportive respectively."

My suggestion is simple. Many of you wrote to Westminster and the Crown Estate to object to their Haymarket scheme. Perhaps now is the time to write to them again in support of this proposed north-south bike link.

If you live or work in Westminster, you can easily write to your councillors by using the Write to Them tool.

You can also write to the following to voice your support:

Martin Brazier
The Crown Estate, 16 New Burlinton Place, London W1S 2HX.

Martin Low
Commissioner of Transportation
City of Westminster

Sarah Coxhall
West End Business Improvement District

Good luck and thank you to everyone who is helping to make these changes become reality. 

Sunday, 19 May 2013

City of London agrees a strategy at Bank junction that could see Lombard & Threadneedle Streets closed to motor vehicles: Square Mile shows it is prepared to pull its finger out for pedestrians and for people on bikes and (at last!) acknowledges road narrowing schemes are bad news for safe cycling

Approaching Bank junction on a bike
Hard work on a bike when you've got
taxis scraping past you
It's been an awfully long time coming but after two years of back and forth, the City of London has approved a new strategy for the area around Bank junction.

Bank is the meeting point of six major roads. In the mornings it is rammed with people caged into cattle pens trying to cross the road. It is a traffic-choked, polluted mess and it is a hotspot for collisions - most of which involve cyclist or pedestrian victims. It is difficult to easily cycle through the junction and yet - being at the hub of the Square Mile - it's very difficult to avoid it. In the morning peak hours, 33% of all road traffic through Bank consists of people on bikes.

In the City's own words: "Bank junction has one of the poorest road safety records in the City, particularly in relation to injuries to pedestrians and cyclists and the junction does not work well for any mode of transport."

The Bank area strategy sets the plan for the next five to 10 years. The City first consulted the public about its plans for the area in 2011 and a whopping 900 people took part (and huge thanks to those of you that did so) Four key themes emerged: too much traffic congestion; inadequate provision for pedestrians; not enough provision for cycling and conflict between the different users.

51% of all traffic in rush hour on
Cheapside consists of people on bikes.
But there's now hardly any safe space
left to cycle in, only this tiny gap in the gutter
In its first draft of the Bank strategy, the City of London planned to make Bank work better and more safely for "all road users". It was a sort of wishy-washy strategy that implied nothing much would really change here and that the place would continue to be dominated by and designed for [the minority of] people in motor vehicles. In this first draft, the City genuinely managed to ignore the fact that a significant proportion of respondents think 'there is too much traffic' at Bank junction and simply proposed a do nothing solution to the problem.

I'm delighted to see that the revised strategy that has now been approved is of vastly superior quality. It is honest about the challenges faced at Bank and clear about how it might tackle them.

The new plan considers whether it might be possible to do something quite 'radical' at Bank by closing one of the roads: "the project is likely to require the closure of at least one of the arms of the junction in order to reduce the amount of vehicles flowing through...[in order that] capacity could then be redistributed among other users". In other words, the City of London is considering giving proper equality to the vast majority of people who use this junction on foot - and hopefully on bikes as well, rather than in, say, vans or taxis. This could involve diverting some bus routes to make other routes function better for people on foot or bikes. The same approach is being trialled in Hackney, where TfL and the council are planning to divert buses on Mare Street which has the benefit of creating space for walking and cycling.

The initial proposal included plans to widen the pavements on Lombard Street, for example. This would likely have eliminated the contraflow cycle lane on Lombard Street. The problem here was a) very narrow pavements and b) bikes perceived to be going too fast on this very busy bike route. This was causing a perception that there was conflict between pedestrians and cyclists on this street. Whereas in reality, the actual problem is that there are too many motor vehicles - in particular delivery vans parked in the cycle lanes.

Instead of making the road more intimidating to cycle on by narrowing the carriageway, the City has sensibly recognised the need to prioritise this route as a "predominantly safe cycling and walking route", possibly by means of shared space such as the City has implemented with success in some other areas. This may mean making Lombard Street less accessible for through motor traffic; it should make things better for pedestrians by giving them more space and it should ensure that the route remains a useful and safe link for people on bikes - without forcing bikes into narrow carriageways stuffed with idling vans and taxis.

This is probably the only quarter-decent approach to
Bank junction on a bike. Source: City of London
The City has clearly listened to the number of people who responded to the consultation and objected to its policy of creating dangerously narrow carriageways and now states: "cyclists do not want narrower carriageways they feel this would impact on their safety". This is true up to a point. As I argued a few months ago, the issue of carriageway narrowing is one of proportions. In streets like Cheapside, the carriageway has been narrowed so much that it is now a considerably nastier place to cycle (even though the scheme was originally intended to make it better for cycling). In other streets, such as Kingsland High Street in Dalston, the pavements have been made wider but it works because there is enough room for bikes and passes to safely pass each other. That would not have been the case in the original plans for Bank area.

The strategy has also been updated in one other crucial area. The original draft included a commitment to "reduce conflict and improve road safety for all modes of transport". Nothing wrong with that, you might say. The reality, though, is that cyclists and pedestrians are bearing the brunt of the problems at Bank and form the vast majority of victims of road traffic collisions here and the there is a clear need to improve road safety here for pedestrians and cyclists more than there is for 'all road users'. As the City now admits, the junction is "over-complicated, confusing and dangerous and dominated by vehicular traffic at the expense of pedestrians and cyclists". The City authorities have now updated their commitment to road safety to include a specific commitment to "including cycling provision and safety and to review the current hierarchy of cycle routes, and provision of cycle lanes"

Many people who read this blog took part in the Bank area consultation and wrote to City of London politicians. My own view is that this revised strategy works well. It rightly acknowledges the need to make conditions much better for people on foot. And it also now acknowledges the need to improve conditions for [often exactly the same] people on bikes. It concludes: "There is clear evidence that the pedestrian environment needs improving but this will not be undertaken at the sake of cyclists or vulnerable road users safety". I agree with that.

Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Is the government planning to cut funding to bicycle infrastructure before it's even started funding anything in the first place? As German TV puts it: "there are no bike networks" here anyhow.

Germany's main TV station came to London last week and devoted a whole section of its main daily news programme to cycling in London. What was the title of this TV feature? The ARD television people looked at how London's cyclists get to work and called it "transport chaos in London". Kind of says it all, really, doesn't it?

Unsurprisingly, the news clip is in German. But I think it's worth watching, just to see the video selections that ARD chooses. And what I think is really interesting are the themes that the German TV crew pick out as being interesting about London. I've tried to summarise those points below because I think it's really informative to have a look at what London looks like from the outside. Bear in mind that Germany, although not nirvana for cycling, is literally decades ahead of the UK on this stuff. The German government is hosting its national cycling summit this week. Can you imagine the UK government hosting a cycling summit? I can't. In Berlin, the local government is aiming for 20% of all journeys to be by bike by 2025. London is aiming for 5%. The Berlin government, and many of Germany's large cities as well as rural areas are building massive bike networks - the sort of thing that the UK seems singularly unable to do.

Biking in Berlin. Normal folk, normal clothes,
normal thing to do. 
We're busy building more and more roads for driving. The Germans have decided that for journeys up to 15km, the bike is the way to go. And they're going all out to build networks to make people choose bike over car for these sorts of journeys. The UK is simply not keeping pace with Germany on this stuff. That is embarrassing enough in its own right. What's even more embarrassing is the weedy response that the UK government published this morning to a petition by The Times newspaper to encourage the government to really get behind cycling. There have been some rumours in industry press that the government might be preparing to launch an "Office of Active Travel" - a sort of mini version of the Department for Transport that would be tasked with building conditions that make it simple for people to chose cycling and walking instead of driving or taking the bus.

Unfortunately, all we've seen from the UK government to date, however, is an unambitious and profoundly disappointing press release published this morning that repeats the message (for probably the tenth time now) that the government is spending lots of money on little projects here and there that might just about make a difference to a few roundabouts and a couple of junctions. No sign of a coherent national strategy and no sign of any standards that it expects local authorities to live up to. Local authorities big and small all around the country are beginning to want to do something about cycling. They look to the Department for Transport for ideas and standards to help them build good bicycle transport infrastructure. As one senior official put it to me today, "there's just a big hole" at the Department for Transport on cycling issues and standards. That seems true from my perspective. The government is all about cars, cars and cars. Oh, and a few scraps for cycling here and there.

So, back to the German news story.

Pull out section in The Telegraph
last weekend. 
What is the first thing it has to say about rush-hour? Well, the very first observation is that there's no bicycle network. Plain and simple, Germany's equivalent of the BBC observes quite correctly that London simply doesn't have what the Germans would call a bike network. And they're right. The reporter goes on to say "bicycles have to mix with with buses, cars and goods vehicles; if you want to travel through this [on a bike] you need courage, skill and, above all, luck". These are hardly conditions that would encourage most people to use a bike.

49 seconds into the clip is the terrifying scene of a cyclist on Cycle Super Highway 7 who is cycling straight ahead. The cycle highway is specifically designed to make cyclists go straight ahead in the (extremely fast) left turn lane for motor vehicles. What happens? A van overtakes, pulls straight across the guy on his bike and proceeds to very nearly kill him. This is institutionalised insanity. There is no way that a bike lane should be designed to deliberately mix flows of people using such hugely incompatible machines and make them use the exact same space to travel in two conflicting directions. That is a recipe for disaster, again and again and again.

I think what really strikes me about this video are the shots of people whizzing along on bikes surrounded by lorries, buses and masses of motor vehicles. Somehow, listening to it all in German and hearing the incredulity of the reporter at just how ludicrous it all is, it makes you realise just exactly that: it is ludicrous that London isn't developing faster and better bike networks.

The report does point to Boris Johnson's vision for real cycle-friendly networks but, as it points out, this is nothing more than a vision for the time being.

And this is where things get really awkward:

Today's Evening Standard carries a report that states things may never even get off the ground:

"The Mayor’s “cycle vision”, published earlier this year, comes with a £913million price tag over 10 years, of which a £640million is subject to approval by the Treasury.  

A split over potential cycling cuts has emerged between the Mayor and Transport for London, which is  prioritising renewal of existing assets, notably the Tube. 

The cycle vision is one of a range of transport programmes considered vulnerable as Chancellor George Osborne prepares to announce public spending cuts at the Comprehensive Spending Review on June 26."

If the government really does want to cut funding for cycling, then we have a real problem on our hands. Funding for cycling hardly exists in this country. The Mayor has made small steps towards cycling in the past few years but his efforts hardly scratch the surface and he is only now beginning to take funding for bicycle infrastructure seriously.

We'll have to watch this very closely and it may, and I stress, may, be time for people to come together again and start showing very clearly just how impatient they are to see things change on London's streets.

Monday, 6 May 2013

Westminster council's new cycling strategy - Good intentions at the start but this isn't a strategy; it's a document for keeping things just as they are at the moment: Polluted, congested and intimidating car-centric roads

Travel to work changes in Westminster. Source
City of Westminster
Last week, Westminster Council published the first draft of its new cycling strategy 2013 - 2026. It’s a strategy that is trying very hard to get things right but is severely compromised by some highly contradictory recommendations and some subjective opinion that is presented as fact.

Firstly, the good stuff: The Council’s cycling vision does contain some pretty bold ambitions. Westminster asserts its intention to become “a national leader in cycling provision, making it safer and more attractive for a greater numberof people, from all backgrounds, to cycle more frequently.” Good stuff.

The document is surprisingly clear about why the Council should support cycling. It is packed with evidence to support Westminster’s premise that more people cycling could help the borough to:

·      sustain its population growth and new jobs
·      ease congestion on its roads
·      offer a viable way to its population of travelling at minimal cost
·      significantly improve the health of its residents, worker & visitors
·      improve local air quality

The fact that the borough so convincingly understands why it should support cycling networks on its streets makes it all the stranger that some of the detail in this strategy is downright dodgy. Here are just a handful of the problems:

Some good things do eventually happen in Westminster.
This new link was built with Sustrans for people 
to walk and cycle under the Westway and opened last week.
The document states “the Council would like to see cycling normalised with more people of all ages and backgrounds participating”. Fantastic. It points out that 42% of all journeys made just by Westminster residents by mechanised transport could easily be made by bike, in other words, great potential to get all sorts of people on bikes. But the document rightly acknowledges that fear of traffic is putting people off using a bike instead of other transport modes: A whopping 64% of people say they won’t cycle here because of safety-related fears.

Backed by a clear motive to get people cycling and a clear explanation of reasons why they don’t cycle, you might assume the Council would conclude it needs to create safe networks which make it easy to chose bike transport. And, to some extent, the Council says it will do this by supporting Boris Johnson’s ambition to build a network of bike Quietways, a central London bike ‘grid’ and further develop the Cycle Super Highways. There are also references to working with Sustrans to create links like the recently opened route under the Westway; a nod to the need for more contraflow cycling (which is now standard in many other inner London boroughs); better coordination with the Royal Parks to enable more cycling through the parks; and a realisation that the borough needs more bike parking both for visitors and on street / on estates. 

What concerns me, however, is that these are only small (albeit very useful) interventions. A far greater chunk of the strategy is about “encouraging road users to show greater consideration for each other”. There's nothing wrong with the general principle of that statement. It's what follows that defies belief: Provided the Council can encourage road users to show greater consideration, says the document, this will "enable safer integration and shared routes rather than a presumption for segregation". No mention of the need to make those 'shared routes' safer so that people don't have to mix with lorries, buses and impatient minicabs. And, oddly, the Council recognises and seems to support TfL's plans to put segregated bike lanes on some of its own main roads through the borough but not on Westminster-controlled roads (92% of the roads in the borough).

Cycling into Westminster over Waterloo
Bridge. Most people just give up. Note how
many people are with their bikes on the
pavement. I can completely understand why.
The strategy continues: “The Council has to take account of the volume of different types of [road] user on different streets and at different times of day”. Well, yes, it does. But it also has to balance those current requirements with the “volume of different types of user” (bicycle, car, van or bus user) it wants to have in the future. And in this particular task, I’m afraid the strategy is a complete failure. It refuses to accept that, in order to achieve its vision of becoming a leader in bicycle transport, things will – over time – need to change on its streets. For every bold statement in this document, there is another statement that slams the entire strategy back towards retaining the status quo. I’m afraid I don’t think that’s good enough.

Take, for example, the Council's statement that the proposed central London bike grid "will build upon existing and proposed sections of the London Cycle Network". In its own right, that might be acceptable but only with some significant improvement to those routes. If you’ve ever cycled from Tottenham Court Road to Paddington on Westminster’s London Cycle Network section, for example, you’ll know that it is a mesh of very fast, very intimidating one way streets with cars parked on either side. In short, exactly not the sort of thing you’d build to encourage cycling. But the Council makes clear that it a) has no intention of reducing speed limits (although it is vague about whether it might use other measures to slow motor vehicle speeds) b) makes very clear it does not intend to move car parking or loading bays and c) will accept segregation on TfL roads but not on the 92% of roads that it controls. That leaves me wondering what Westminster's bike grid is actually going to look like? Just the same as the largely awful London Cycle Network routes that run through central London at the moment, perhaps?

I’m also surprised by the Council’s slightly odd target. The ambition is that 5% of all journeys originating from the borough should be by bike by 2026 (up from 3% currently). In Hackney, however, people already make 6% of journeys by bike, so why is Westminster getting away with a target that doesn’t even match 2013’s reality?  What’s more, the goal is even less than Boris Johnson’s own vision, which is to see 5% of all journeys in London by bike in 2020.

This is what the main Westminster bike
route through Covent Garden looks like every night. Head to tail
full of cars and taxis. The only place to cycle is down the wrong side
of the street. Totally insane. Seems unlikely to change?
The Council dismisses 20mph streets out of hand for the ludicrously irrelevant reason that: “it is considered that a 20 mph limit could have minimal benefit as traffic speeds in the City of Westminster are often below 20 mph already, with the average speed being just 10mph”. That is a statement that entirely misses the point of 20mph and is – in any case – a statement of personal fiction. The point about 20mph streets is that they enable traffic engineers to implement solutions that create equality for pedestrians, cyclists and people in motor vehicles. What’s more, the statement is utterly disingenuous. Take a street like Aldwych. Perhaps the average speed there really is 10mph. But most of the time, I’d hazard people are generally whizzing around it at 35-40mph. Not fun when you mix in thousands of people on bikes who have to change across four or five lanes of fast-moving traffic.

At points, the document veers into the surreal. I kid you not: The Council is going to issue free bells to ‘cyclists’ “encouraging them to make use of their bell to warn pedestrians of their presence” (this despite the fact that the document also notes the Police reports that pedestrians are responsible for 60% of pedestrian/cyclist collisions in the borough – Is the Council proposing to give pedestrians bells as well?) This is Nanny state policy in the extreme and is rightfully criticised by AsEasyAsRidingABikeblog.

Ultimately, I feel this is a very worrying document. Parts of the strategy are extremely well written and I’m impressed by the way in which Westminster sets out its case to encourage more people to cycle.
To be fair, the draft is still very much that - a draft. There are lots of chapters that have yet to be written and we'll see how those develop. But the detail of this strategy as it stands right now seems to promise very little other than piecemeal changes to a few one-way streets and a little bit more bike parking. I'm afraid I don't think that qualifies for becoming a 'national leader in cycling provision'.