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'.


  1. I'm not convinced you are being critical enough. This is the sort of cycling strategy that has existed for decades. Things have got worse while documents like this have existed. Given the historical context I think you're being far too generous.

    No room for diplomacy on this one, it deserves outright mockery, ridicule and rejection so Westminster and Gilligan get a good understanding of just how poor an effort this is.

  2. I agree with Kristian: why soften the message? There might be a few weasel words at the start of the strategy document but the rest of it is clearly trying to keep everything on Westminster-controlled roads exactly the same as it is now. Which means filthy, toxic, terrifying and repulsive car-choked insanity that does no-one any good at all -- especially not the Westminster businesses that the council presumably thinks they're helping somehow by clinging to their outdated ideas.

    "I'm afraid I don't think that's good enough". Is that what you really mean? It almost sounds apologetic. It's not your fault that Westminster are clueless. Just say, "that's not good enough"! ;)

  3. I agree with Kristian too. The document is absurd.

  4. It can be almost pleasant to cycle round Westminster - I was cycling around today with my two teenagers and we saw a few groups of tourists on bikes - relaxing way to get around on a bank holiday Monday. But please, Westminster, please put together a proper plan so people on bikes can have a peaceful journey every day.

  5. I don't see it as all that contradictory, as there’s a certain crazed consistency to Westminster’s approach here. The target of 5% mode share is laughably low, but the only way to ensure cycling remains so unpopular in a place where its speed and low cost give it such an advantage over other modes of road transport is to have strongly anti-cycling street design and overall transport policies - which pretty much describes the strategy as a whole. If you understand that they’re planning to fail, then it starts to make lots of sense.

    Having said that, they’re obviously hoping that TfL will come up with something high-quality enough on a couple of main roads to fool some people into thinking that Westminster really is a ‘national leader in cycling provision’, without Westminster itself having to do anything to earn it. And if that happens, cycling numbers will continue to grow in Westminster while the streets they control remain as dangerous as ever. Which means that casualties will continue to rise.

    I hope Andrew Gilligan and TfL don’t fall for it: Westminster have to change, or the Mayor’s cycling vision won’t succeed.

  6. I'm with Kristian too. All the pro-cycling platitudes are pointless if it doesn't result in changes on the ground.

    I thought Jim's comment was spot-on, too. I hope nobody minds, but I liked it so much I added it to the bottom of my post on the matter.

  7. my note to them:

    Dear Sirs,

    Having waited to see the draft strategy I must say I am as dissapointed as much of the cycling community of London are. Though the strategy sets off in the right direction there seems little in terms of strategy of how to achieve any form of change except hoping the TFL roads through the borough form this change while Westminster sticks with the status quo.

    Quite how a target of 5% modal share is acceptable while Hackney already has 6% and Bristol are bringing in 20% seems quite laughable but I accept 5% may be reasonable if Westminster makes the decision not to invest in new infrastructure and effectively kick the can down the road.

    I am unsure it is worth me picking through point by point given a number of other commentators have already done so and published their pretty sensible commentaries on the strategy. At high level I just wanted to make my dissapointment known and hope that all stakeholders here can turn what is a poor draft into a very good final form.


  8. Westminster already has a starting point to deliver Ciclovias in London. One notable resident likes her Sundays peaceful and bans motor traffic from the street outside. This could surely be spread out to deliver ciclovias at least on a monthly basis to the core of London's tourist and visited areas, we already have the proof of how successful it can be with the road closures for le Tour and annual pedestrian day (note just one day) for Oxford Street shopping. A visionary policy might be to deliver at least one day per month when the West End and key tourist areas are made free from motorised traffic.

    The other visionary move should be to work with TfL's Freight Unit to provide locations on rail and river where bulk materials can be shipped in and out to minimise the damage, pollution (noise PM10 etc) and reduce the haulage costs for major projects being carried out in the area - to retain (for example) the railhead used to load spoil from Crossrail for future construction projects*, and use the canal (1 freight barge = 4 fewer tipper trucks) - oh and of course this reduces the risk of HGV -cyclist collisions. * it costs over £1m and can take 2-4 years to install a new rail siding but just a few £'000 per year to maintian it available for use. Likewise for a riverside wharf.

    The Council should follow the example of Crown Estates, and as a policy should consider cycle logistics as an option for many council contracts (collections/deliveries, putting up statutory notices on lamp posts - much faster on a bike).

    The Council should make a policy decision to ensure that all HGV's purchased or used by contractors on refuse and other contracts, have cabs which provide high levels of direct vision (ie walk-in cabs)and other key features for safe operation, as per the LCC safer truck design detail.

    Glasgow has had for the past 18 years a programme of installing 200-300 parking stands annually, responding to need, and requests made by cyclists, and he programme has included monitoring the units. Increases in bike parking counts have exceeded 30% per year at times, and one location has moved from a single bike locked to a bollard to a covered 48-space parking facility - often filled - in that time.

  9. "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."

    This point is quite interesting and highlights a problem in that, your travelling along Camden's (still) beacon of cycling infrastructure, the Torrington / Tavistock Place cycle lane, and wham - at the border between the two boroughs, you're suddenly thrown into the above. That is - totall different, and certainly not joined up (literally) provision by neighbouring boroughs. I think Gilligan might have his work cut out if this is replicated too much amongst other boroughs.

  10. The Westway lane looks good but haven't they got the tactile surface at the start of the lane the wrong way around? It should be tramlines/straight on for cyclists and a ladder pattern for pedestrians. Getting that right is quite important for blind/partially sighted people!

  11. Oi! Westminster, you're in my way: can't you see I'm DRIVING here!?

  12. The way to solve “fear of traffic” is not to segregate it, nor to treat our (man-made) road safety problems with yet more rules and regulation. We can unite all interests in the common good by designing streets to express a social context. Replacing priority (“Get out of my way!”) with equality (“After you”), will make way for the abolition of the real WMDs (weapons of mass distraction, danger and delay): traffic lights.

    We need fewer interventions! Design a level playing field on which all road-users can filter sociably (as distinct from fighting for gaps and green time on an unequal killing-field), and you will see "fear of traffic" evaporate.

    It’s good to encourage “road users to show consideration” (give me integration over segregation any day), but rarely is it spelled out how to achieve the equality that will stimulate the empathy that will make roads genuinely safe. My recipe: roadway redesign, culture change, re-education, deregulation, legal reform. The current system puts the onus on the child to beware the motorist. It could, and clearly should be the other way round.

    [the Council] "has to balance current requirements with ... different types of user it wants in the future." To me that smacks of prescription. Hans Monderman said, “We need a balance between the movement and social functions of the space”. You, the cycling lobby, are spot on in wanting an end to intimidating traffic. But you won’t achieve it through segregation.

    “a mesh of fast, intimidating one way streets”. Why is traffic fast and intimidating? Because roads are designed for priority and danger. Given equality, those streets will be as safe as houses.

    You are “surprised by the Council’s target [of] 5% of all journeys … by bike by 2026”. I’m no fan of political targets. Make roads safe and congenial, and cycling will blossom naturally.

    “The point about 20mph streets is they enable traffic engineers to implement solutions that create equality ...” You’re right in wanting equality, but wrong in thinking it will result from engineers’ “solutions” (unless along the social equality lines I advocate!). 20 is a number, a target. Would you want to be hit by a bus doing 20? We should learn to drive by context, not be infantilised and coerced into driving by numbers.

    Given equality, we won’t need bells, whistles or horns. We'll be too busy enjoying limitless civilised social interactions.

    The photo of Waterloo Bridge approaching the Strand – me too, I’ve had to dismount there. It’s a problem of design. Kensington High St is no better – high vertical kerbs offer no escape. Like traffic lights, high kerbs are monuments to the many cyclists killed unnecessarily on London’s roads.

    If you haven't seen the masterclass in roadway design at Poynton, search 'Poynton Regenerated': Multi-lanes turned into single lanes, double the space for walking and cycling, not a traffic light, speed camera or speed limit in sight. People used to call me a loon when I began suggesting this sort of thing moons ago. Now it’s happening, albeit in depressingly sporadic isolation.

    In the Comments, David Cohen mentions the Torrington Place cycle lane. He’s not applauding it, I hope? I detest that restricting, dangerous funnel. My best cycling experience? Merging equally with other road-users when traffic lights were out of action across the whole of central London in Nov 2008. Free of lights that conjure congestion, and free to disperse of its own accord, the familiar fume-spurting, queuing traffic had vanished into thin air.