Friday, 20 November 2015

Bike backlash in London: I'm with Green Jenny Jones - We cyclists need to give Boris some love (even if it pains you)

Cycle Highway 5 at 7.30am
Here's a question for you. Have you used Cycle Super Highway 5 at Vauxhall - a one mile bi-directional cycle track that whizzes over Vauxhall Bridge and cuts through the middle of one of London's most dangerous junctions? I have. I am going out of my way each day to test it from different directions. And, with a few teething problems (cars often roll over the stop line on red, blocking the track), I think it is brilliant. It has turned areas I used to avoid into part of a route I will go out of my way to make use of.

And I don't think I'm alone. Sure, at lunchtime it's not that busy. But at rush hour, at the end of the school day and at weekends, it's incredibly popular. As the Mayor's press release stated, cycle traffic is up 29% on the route already. That's only three weeks after it opened. Nearly 40% of vehicles crossing the Bridge at rush hour are now bikes.

The school run - Vauxhall cycle track. There
are three schools here by the way
What's more, the thing is already quite busy despite not even being properly finished. In two weeks' time, there will be a consultation on upgrading the bike tracks around the remainder of the Vauxhall gyratory so that east>west bike journeys are made easier and will line up with the new track on the Bridge. Once those links are built, the thing will be even busier.

In that context, London's talk radio station, LBC, has decided to add some statistics of its own. According to LBC 'research' on the Bridge one lunchtime, 'cyclists' aren't using it and 'pedestrians' don't like it. Have a read of the transcript. It's pretty weak stuff. Still, it allows LBC's reporter to claim the Cycle Highway is a waste of time and money. This is a bit like sending a journalist to view the first section of the M25 before it went anywhere and concluding there was no point building the motorway.

The facts of the LBC report are patently rubbish. But the report is very good at selling a simple message and clearly, plenty of people lap this sort of stuff up. Shock jock radio, 10 points, useful journalism, not really.

Cycle Highway 5 in the evening. 
You might think that a deeply biased radio show on LBC doesn't really matter. And to some extent, it really doesn't.

However, what does matter is that the general hum of noise against cycling is mounting. Love him or hate him, Boris Johnson has come on a long journey with regard cycling. I was fiercely critical of the first cycle super highways. They were an expensive and dangerous fudge. But they laid the groundwork for the Mayor to eventually get his spade out and do the things properly. We are only just starting to see the results of those new cycle highways but the Mayor will have left office before his flagship East-West cycle highway opens along the Embankment.

This puts the Cycle Highways in a really risky position. I wrote earlier this week about the Labour and Conservative Mayoral candidates - there's no obvious sign that the two candidates are in love with the Cycle Highways.

So, noises against investment in cycling do need to be countered. In fact, it is the Mayor himself who has, finally come out and nailed it. Speaking to the London Assembly this week, he said this:

As the Green Party peer Jenny Jones (who has been an absolute rock on things cycling-related for many years) said: 'Boris's commitment to cycling has "made [her] respect him for the first time ever"'. Love him or loathe him, the man has delivered. He was villified by many in the cycling community at the last election (including by me, if I'm honest). But credit where credit is due. Boris has stood firm against the critics. I've seen first hand some of the pressure the Mayor came under from Canary Wharf Group and others. Like Jenny Jones, I have to say that I'm full of respect for him pushing this through and delivering. I only wish he could have applied himself with the same zeal to a host of other issues too (housing, youth issues, to name a few).

Londoners on Bikes - sign up
Put Boris's cycling achievements in to the context of the next Mayoral campaign, though, and things start to look really worrying. Zac Goldsmith told LBC today that "[The cycle] campaign groups are quite hard to deal with". They're not really. For a supposedly 'green' candidate, it really wouldn't take much for Goldsmith to win the cycling vote. But perhaps Goldsmith thinks people who cycle aren't a significant voting block. Some news for him: Just like last time, Londoners on Bikes will be swinging into gear. At the last election, this pop-up campaign group mustered over 11,000 people to vote on cycling. Given Boris won the election by a hair's breadth, that's not a mean number. There are more of us now and I expect the Londoners on Bikes campaign to deliver even bigger numbers. Can I suggest that people start to follow Londoners on Bikes on Facebook or Twitter and all will become clear over the coming weeks.


Monday, 16 November 2015

Cycling in London: Could Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith be about to kill off cycling investment before it even gets started?

The Tour du Danger as we left Oval junction, November 2011
Credit @zefrog
I haven't blogged for months and months. To some extent, I have felt overwhelmed by all the new and shiny cycling things that are going on. It is exactly four years ago that many of you took part in a ride that set out from Oval, the #tourdudanger, a ride which was intended to highlight Boris Johnson's failure to create safe cycling conditions and, above all to reject his theory that cyclists just needed to "keep their wits" about them and they'd be fine. He was talking about Elephant & Castle, a junction where there was almost one serious cycling injury every week. A serious cycling injury meaning, say, a broken back. Or worse.

Clearly, the Mayor's "keep your wits about you" strategy of 2011 was a failure. And we wanted to shout that loud and clear.

Oval bike lane before (under the lorry) & building the new bike lane (right). No idea
how I managed to snap the exact same lorry twice!
Fast forward to 2015 and Oval junction is one of the first to to have been upgraded with new cycling design standards. The new design may have a couple of teething flaws (the most annoying is that motor traffic regularly blocks the cycle track as it crosses left turn lanes) but I know that TfL is aware of these issues and has ideas about improving them. The fact is that there are now people at TfL who think about this stuff. There are (relatively new) standards that they need to design to. Slowly but surely, it feels like the TfL machine has taken cycling into its head and is equipping itself to treat cycling the same way it treats the Underground - like a real and proper part of London's transport mix.

And yet, I can't help noticing that, just as TfL starts to treat cycling like a grown-up transport mode, things are stirring that might bring all this good work to a bit of a messy end.

Two weeks ago, I read a comment piece in the Evening Standard by Andrew Gilligan, the cycling commissioner, which brought some of this home. Gilligan honed in on some comments made by Zac Goldsmith and Sadiq Khan on LBC Radio about the cycle super highways. I've had the dubious honour of paying LBC some hard-earned cash to go back and listen to those radio slots.

Zac Goldsmith talking on LBC about the Cycle Super Highways in September
On the one hand, we have Zac Goldsmith implying that he thinks cycle funding should be put into 'Quietways' and not Cycle Super Highways. I can't tell exactly what Goldsmith means here but if you'll permit me, what this seems to suggest is that the Conservative Mayoral candidate thinks cycling should be down quiet back streets, out of the way (and out of sight of voters perhaps?) with decisions taken street-by-street about whether or not to accommodate cycling. That's the planning equivalent of trench warfare: cycling ok for 100 metres, rendered dreadful for the next 100 metres and then blocked by an intransigent council or bunch of residents for the next 100. It's the sort of mess that built the vastly compromised London Cycle Network - a very patchy network of routes that can be excellent in small parts of London but are downright dreadful in most of the city because those local councils or residents didn't really want to build safe cycling streets in the first place and just pocketed the cash in exchange for a few roadsigns.

Sadiq Khan talking on LBC about the Cycle Super Highways in October

Sadiq Khan is a bit more ambiguous. He seems to suggest he likes the Cycle Super Highways but not the way TfL has gone about building them. He's also questioning "the route" - as if there was only one Super Highway. I'm not sure how else TfL was supposed to go about building the Cycle Super Highway but if you read Khan's comments carefully you might notice something. These comments sound incredibly similar to those uttered last year by both the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association and by Canary Wharf Group. Both organisations talked about 'supporting' segregated Cycle Super Highways. Both organisations, however, talked about 'the route' being wrong, by which they meant the Cycle Highway along the Embankment (and seemed oblivious to the fact there are already two segregated Cycle Highways elsewhere) and both openly criticised TfL's on 'process' issues relating to building the Cycle Highways.

Let's not forget, the LTDA still has a court case pending (early next year I am assuming), having applied for a judicial review on the grounds that TfL should have sought planning permission before beginning construction. If you read Sadiq Khan's comments in this light, it sounds to me awfully like he, the LTDA and Canary Wharf Group are talking the same sort of language.

The craziness of the LTDA case is that the Embankment Cycle Highway will basically have been built by the time the taxi drivers (may) see their day in court. What do they hope to achieve? Another year of roadworks while the thing gets dug up and more people get killed? Certainly feels that way.

But I'm more worried by Zac and Sadiq. They're not exactly expressing much love for cycling as a legitimate part of the transport mix right now.

If I were you, I'd start asking both of these Mayoral candidates much more about where they stand on cycling as a legitimate part of London's transport mix - one that needs proper funding and proper direction. And I'd be keeping a very cynical eye on similarities between how these two Mayoral candidates talk about cycling and how the LTDA and Canary Wharf Group talk about cycling too. The similarities are a bit too obvious, in particular in Sadiq Khan's case here.