Saturday, 16 November 2013

Five cyclists, three pedestrians killed this week. Boris turns it into a debate about whether those dead road users are law-abiding or not. Unimpressed.

This was meant to be a 'cycle highway' not a 'danger road'

I've had to do a bit of soul-searching before writing this. The past 10 days have seen eight people killed on London's roads: three pedestrians and five people on bikes.

Speaking on radio, Boris Johnson's response to the cyclist deaths was to say: "There's no question of blame or finger-pointing. That doesn't work in these circumstances...But unless people obey the laws of the road and people actively take account of the signals that we put in, there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives."

Now, my understanding is that in one of the five cycling deaths, the person killed may possibly have been on the wrong side of the road at the time.

But that doesn't excuse the fact that the Mayor seems, in my view, to have missed the point. The point is that precious little of Boris Johnson's "traffic engineering" is going on at the moment. At least, precious little is happening on the ground.

Let's get the facts straight here.

When the Mayor came to power, he scrapped investment in the London Cycle Network. The network was never the most impressive but it did provide a mechanism for councils across London to build decent routes for cycling along quieter roads. After several years of studies and consulting projects, the scheme was due to get an upgrade. That was scrapped in favour of the Cycle Super Highways.

Cycle Super Highway 7 in action in Clapham. The bike lane is under the red car. 

The idea at the time was to provide more direct routes for people to cycle. And I can see some merit in that policy. The Cycle Network was often disjointed, down dark, quiet (and sometimes downright scary) streets and it kind of shoved cycling out of sight, through industrial estates and along railway sidings. Instead, we would see cycling on London's main roads, it would be quicker and faster and easier. In theory, it should also have been safer.

The reality is that the Cycle Super Highways were complete and utter junk.

The reason they were complete and utter junk was simple. The Mayor has consistently backed a road planning team within Transport for London that sanctifies traffic flow of motor vehicles above all else. This policy, 100% supported by the Mayor meant that before they even got started, the planners of the Cycle Super Highways were hopelessly unable to deliver safe cycle routes. It meant that instead of designing the sorts of safe, semi-segregated bike routes you see springing up all over cities in the USA, all we got was expensive blue paint.

What this meant was that at Oval, the cycle lane is just some blue paint between three lanes of trunk road traffic, half of which is turning left directly across the cycle lane, which turns right at the same point that motor vehicles are turning left. At 40-50mph.

What this meant was that at Kings Cross, the scene of numerous cyclist and pedestrian deaths, TfL's solution was to suggest some mirrors, rather than a road layout that kept cyclists and HGVs apart.

In short, cyclists were supposed to cycle like they were cycling a car. On a trunk road. With vehicles at speeds of 40-50mph.

Slowly, we have begun to see the Mayor change direction. He should be quite rightly proud of the very newest section of Cycle Super Highway 2 to Stratford. It is by no means perfect but it is a step change better than things that have gone before it. And the Mayor's cycling vision is also impressive. The plan is for all new Cycle Super Highways to be segregated or at least semi-segregated from fast-moving, busy traffic on trunk roads.

Good. But what I fail to understand is what is taking so long. The East-West cycle highway has been on the cards for nearly a year. The route has been more or less agreed. But the first invite-only consultation on this new cycle highway is still several months away.

Cycle super highway at Oval - down the middle of the trunk road

Then there are problems with some local authorities to deal with as well. Westminster council is more or less sticking two fingers up at the Mayor as far as I can tell, refusing to play ball with the Mayor's plans to build a network of cycling quiet ways. I don't get that information from the Mayor, by the way, but I get that from a whole host of people connected with the programme who are watching with disbelief as Westminster council sinks deeper and deeper into the 1970s.

And then we come to the Mayor himself.

He could, had he chosen to, have spent time spelling out on LBC that he has serious intentions to get things right for cycling. That he is building a network of segregated highways. In fact, he could have admitted he screwed up and that he's starting again. I watched an excrutiating interview with the Mayor on the BBC, where he was interviewed by the political correspondent who asked him that exact question. Did the Mayor think he'd built the Cycle Super Highways on the cheap, he questioned. No real answer.

Every time the question of cycling comes up, the Mayor seems to flounder something about cyclists running red lights, not riding with lights, not riding according to the rules. He could choose instead to focus on the vision. Instead, it's like something kicks in his brain that says, hold on, most of my voters are in outer London and drive everywhere, they don't care about these cyclists all that much, so I'd better not sound too much like I'm pro-cycling.

It strikes me the Mayor is being a coward. He has a vision. It is, slowly but surely coming together. But he won't stand up for it. If he won't stand up for it in public, there's a risk it will never happen. And I think that the fact his Cycling Vision is taking sooooo long to be implemented is linked to his public lack of consistent support for his vision.

The Evening Standard put it spot-on in an editorial this week:

"This is a question of political will, not physical road space: other changes to our roads once branded unthinkable, such as bus lanes and the congestion charge, are now accepted parts of the system. London is a working city with a multiplicity of road users — cyclists, pedestrians, car and lorry drivers. Yet it should be possible for all of us to share the roads, given decent provision and mutual consideration. We can be a cycling city to rival any other in Europe: we just have to want to make it happen."

A previous Mayor implemented the congestion charge. People on phone-in radio stations whinged about it for ages in advance. But now it's accepted. If the Mayor stood up and said for once and for all, 'right you lot, this cycling stuff is going to change, because it has to change and I'm going to build these Cycle Super Highways properly and that means taking some space away from motor traffic and giving it to cycling', people would whinge. And, just as they did with the congestion charge, they'd get used to it. But he's not saying that. He's flip flopping from launching new cycle highways to blaming people killed on his cycle highways. And he risks failing to lead London to a better future on its streets.

Not good enough.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Mayor launches 'major step forward' with new cycle highway plus announces new segregated cycle highways and upgrades to existing routes. It's not before time.

New look Blackfriars Road? I hope so, but let's see
He is the third person to be killed on this negligent piece of non-infrastructure.
Also yesterday, a male cyclist was hit by a coach on Southampton Row (a road controlled by Camden council rather than the Mayor directly) at 7pm and suffered extremely serious injuries. This is the third person to suffer life-changing injuries while riding a bike across this junction in five years. Two people on bikes have also been killed here in the same period.
This is a bike and pedestrian only route. The barriers went up last week. There were none here for over a decade.
Pic courtesy Cycalogical blog
Earlier in the week, on a smaller scale by far, some chicane fences went up on extremely busy (and supposedly flagship) Lambeth local cycle route 3, between Ovaland Stockwell. The fences make this bike and pedestrian-only route near impossible to use during rush hour, encouraging people instead to use busy,fast, narrow roads instead: The sorts of roads where bikes, buses and lorries are forced to share space. Not smart. So far, TfL: and Lambeth councillors all agree that the chicanes are insane. No-one’s even sure who put them there. Was it a TfL contractor? Is it the housing association that owns the land? Let’s see.
And today, the Mayor rode for the first time along his new,seriously sexy Cycle Super Highway 2 Extension (CS2 X to those involved with the planning) that leads into Stratford from Bow roundabout. CS2X is a major shift for London. It is the first time that TfL has removed a motor traffic lane and installed a pretty decent, high quality bike track instead. The only problem is that it runs out at Bow roundabout and dumps you into the killer stretch of Highway 2 that was built a couple of years ago. Nevertheless, the London Cycling Campaign is right in its verdict that CS2X is a "major step forward" for cycling in London

You can see a review of the new Cycle Super Highway on this excellent and well-balanced BBC news report. 
The Mayor has also today admitted that the whole Cycle Highway scheme needs an upgrade. Earlier today, Transport for London announced that it intends to build a segregated bike track running from Kings Cross to Elephant & Castle in the south. It also releases new images of the proposed East-West track along the Embankment. If these two tracks get built, they will be a game changer, a serious central London cycle link heading in all four directions with a massive cycle cross roads at Blackfriars Bridge, where bicycles already account for 43% of all vehicles in the morning rush hour. 
Updated perspective showing planned bike track along The Embankment. Truly amazing, assuming it does happen.

This is serious stuff. If it happens. For the first time, there is some reason to believe it just might happen. According to today’s Evening  Standard, Transport for London will be hiring “128 new posts within its cycling division with new opportunities for designers, engineers and traffic modellers”. That would be very significant and would, at last, start to give cycling a serious seat at the table within TfL.
For the very first time, there are signs that CS2X and the recently announced plans for new Cycle Super Highways through central London might at last mean the Mayor starts delivering on that 2009 election promise. And it’s not before time. This is what he should have done the first time around, instead of delivering high-cost, seriously low quality routes lined with blue paint.
There are also promises to upgrade some of the other Cycle Super Highways, including route 7 to Balham and Tooting, which is little more than a bit of blue paint that is normally filled with parked cars. Cycle Super Highway 7 is utterly unusable outside of rush hour. Strangely enough, no-one cycles on it outside of rush hour. If we want people to switch to cycling, we need routes that work all day and all night. 
CS2X is the start of something that resembles a real commitment to infrastructure for people who want to pedal from place to place. Don't get too excited, though. The Embankment won't look like this until at least 2016. I don't know if there's a date for the north-south link or not (and my understanding is that the developers along Blackfriars Road are quite opposed to the bike lane for goodness knows what reason). Either way, there's still a lot of time for things to change. We have to keep the pressure up but we also have to acknowledge that, at long last, the Mayor has delivered a couple of miles of decent cycle highway. Which is exactly what he should have done several years ago.