Thursday, 27 February 2014

"Sixties relics" to be ripped out and made safe for cycling. Major funding announced to make 33 of London's nastiest junctions safer.

Map of the 33 inner London junctions (mainly) to be made safe for cycling
In 2011, together with my cycling partner in crime Mark Ames of ibikelondon blog, we set off with several hundred people on a “Tour duDanger” – a bicycle tour of central London’s most dangerous junctions for cycling. We had only expected a few dozen people to turn up. In the end, we were joined by London Assembly Members, MPs, film crews and many hundreds of people who simply wanted to say they'd had enough of these terrible junctions.

The point behind the ride was to highlight the insanity of the large junctions dedicated only to the fast movement of motor vehicles that are dotted all around inner London. People are largely an afterthought in these environments and yet 10s of thousands of people have to cross these junctions on foot or on a bike every day.

At the time, we were met with fairly little sympathy. The Mayor, notoriously, stood up and proclaimed that the horror of the twin Elephant & Castle five lane roundabouts was just fine thank you very much, telling us that “Elephant & Castle is "fine [to cycle around]...if you keep your wits about you”. Serious numbers of people are seriously injured each year trying to cross the road or pedalling around these junctions on a bike. And most of these junctions act as a huge barrier – people look at them and think that driving or taking the bus is going to be a much more sensible way to get across them than walking or biking. Don’t forget, for example that the twin roundabouts at Elephant used to be a nightlife hub for the whole of south London. Now they are just giant areas for moving motor traffic where most people would rather bus or drive than cycle or walk.

I’ve seen the initial designs for a couple of these “relics”, for example at Oval junction and they’re not bad. They need a bit of tweaking but the stunning thing about the latest Oval plans is they could just about make this place workable for your 14 year old to bike to school without having to fling themselves across multiple lanes of accelerating motor traffic. My bet too is that by redefining spaces like Oval junction, the Mayor can help turn some of these areas from urban wastelands (frankly, that’s what many of them are: no shops; no one really wants to be there except people who have to be there; barriers between communities) into proper nodes where people want to be again.

This has all come about as something of a change of heart at TfL. The original plan was to tinker with over 100 junctions all around London. And the original plans for those junctions were pretty rubbish – some white lines and a few signposts here and there. The schemes that were originally proposed at Oval were absolute junk, to be honest, and that was a result of not enough money to do the job properly. Whether the final list of 33 junctions is the right one or not, I think the philosophy is absolutely spot on: Rather than tinker with 100 or so junctions and get it wrong, pile proper resources into 33 junctions and get them right. If you can really (and I mean really) sort out the windswept grimness of Vauxhall or the choking misery of Marble Arch and make them places where your average person actually feels that cycling looks safe and sensible, then, in my view, you’ll have achieved a load more than some flimsy advisory bike lanes would ever do.

I’m really encouraged by this news but I’m also impatient to see real facts on the ground. We’ve been promised snazzy cycle tracks at Vauxhall for over a year. It may be another year, or who knows, even two more years, before the diggers move in. Likewise, I notice that the announcement avoids making any commitment to a delivery timetable. 

Proposed changes at Kings Cross 
For example, this week, TfL announced some very half-hearted plans to make cycling a bit easier in twodirections around Kings Cross. Elements of this new scheme aren’t bad but, overall, it’s pretty weedy stuff. The new Kings Cross plans hint at great future changes to come (which are confirmed in the 33 junctions announcement) but there’s no indication of when this massive road system is finally going to be sorted out and made to work for people and not just for motor traffic.

Saturday, 15 February 2014

30 years ago, GLC video promised 1,000 miles of safe cycle network in London. Don't let this fail to happen all over again.

Cycle up towards Royal College Street from St Pancras?
You might recognise this bike track (it's green now)
I was 10 years old when the Greater London Council filmed "Cycling for London" in 1984. It is a fascinating video. It shows cycle schemes across central London that I have used every week since I moved here; cycle schemes that - for the most part - are still exactly the same as they were 30 years ago.

The film also shows people in normal clothes on bikes, no helmets and little hi-viz in action. Tellingly, it shows scenes with lots of children pedalling about the place - something that is non-existent in central London these days.

And the film shares a tonne of language with the language we still use today. It criticises urban street design where "pedestrians were funnelled underground, cyclists were ignored altogether & often forced to compete with fast-moving traffic". The same could be said of most UK towns and cities today. The GLC representatives promise that "we won't just be advising cyclists to wear bright clothes at night; we'll be dealing with safety problems on the roads and creating 1,000 miles of safe cycle routes". Similar sorts of promises are making the rounds these days as well.

You should watch the film. It is both fascinating to see familiar cycle route landmarks 30 years ago; to see what people are wearing and how gently they are cycling about. It is also unbelievably sobering to hear how people are talking about 'cyclists' and 'cycling' in such similar terms to the terms people are using today.

All of which set me thinking about our current Mayor's "Vision for Cycling". There are four sets of initiatives all gently easing themselves off the design tables: more super highways; 'quietways' in outer London; 'mini-Hollands' in some outer boroughs and a central London bike grid. All of these things are at a different stage of evolution but it's fairly clear now that we won't see all of these initiatives on the ground until the early 2020s - almost 40 years since this video was produced.

Proposed central London cycle grid

The progress towards the new Vision for Cycling feels painfully slow. Just take a look at the back and forth with a few dozen local residents who oppose the construction of a new cycle track through the Vauxhall gyratory. Over a year after TfL announced plans to build a bike track through the centre of the gyratory (to give people a safe, direct route, rather than having to send them around a massive multi-lane one-way system), negotiations are still going back and forth with a few noisy residents who are trying to stand in the way of something that would improve conditions for thousands of people.

I know that some of the schemes in other boroughs have already stalled. It just needs a few vocal residents (most of the time these seem to be wealthier residents, by the way) and a new cycle scheme gets the chop.

Elephant & Castle cycle bypass in action in 1984
Now part of the 'cycle super highway'
My huge fear is that in 30 more years, someone will be looking back at these blog posts in the same way I'm looking at this GLC video from 1984 and wondering why none of these ambitious schemes ever happened.

And I think there is a risk of that. It's a risk exacerbated by 'noise'. Plenty of people are making 'noise' opposing cycle schemes. Not enough people are making noise in support of them though.

At the moment, there's one thing that really needs some focus. And that is the Central London Bike Grid. Now, officially, the deadline for submissions was apparently on Friday. But my understanding is that TfL will accept comments for a few more days.

The Grid people really need to hear from you. And all you need to do is ping an email to and give your comments on this central London plan. VoleOSpeed blog has written a brilliant summary of some of the issues which you can use as a guideline. But if I can summarise, I'd say there are some big issues to address:

Royal Parks - make the bike tracks 24 hours, not just daytime and early evening routes

Westminster - its plans are way too wiggly. It doesn't seem to think it needs to do much other than puts some signs up. Westminster needs to either actively reduce the amount of or the speed of motor traffic on its proposed routes. And it needs to de-wiggle the routes where it has them running all around one-way systems.

Kensington & Chelsea - why isn't there a route between Notting Hill Gate with Kensington High Street?

Lambeth / Southwark - Roads like The Cut and Southwark Street are both on the Grid. Frankly, I think The Cut is rubbish for cycling. It's too narrow, the kerbs wiggle in and out and it makes for tricky cycling, creeping up the inside of taxis queuing for Waterloo. Likewise, the junction at Lambeth North needs sorting out. It's a complete joke trying to follow Lambeth's quiet cycle route 3 as you pull from the left handside bike lane on Baylis Road to turn right into Hercules Road - you have to literally shove your way in front of the traffic.

Take a look at VoleOSpeed blog if you can and please try and send your thoughts to as quickly as possible. I think your views still count provided you get them in by Monday next week. It should only take you 10 minutes. Please do it.