Monthly Archives: April 2013

TfL starting from scratch: “How many corners should a wheel have?”

I got an email today from London Assembly member Caroline Pidgeon. It wasn’t personal, it was sent out to what I assume is her cycling email list.

Now, as far as I can tell, Caroline is one of the good guys when it comes to cycling. She’s chair of the Transport Committee which was behind the London Assembly’s report into cycling last year, and – while nearly everybody was saying how wonderful Boris’ cycling daydream Vision was – she was calling on the Mayor to increase funding for cycling projects, while the cycling hero Boris and his Conservative comrades were preventing an additional increase to the cycling budget.

I don’t want this post to turn into a party political broadcast for whatever party Ms Pidgeon is a member of, I merely mention these things because she seems to have been batting consistently for cycling while Boris has been making excuses over the past five years. Please let me know in the comments if I’m wrong!

Anyway, this email contained the following:

“Peter Hendy, the Commissioner at Transport for London … stated that TfL and the Boroughs lacked sufficient expertise… Their approach will be to focus on a handful of projects and learn as they go. …TfL hopes they will be able to test what interventions work…”

TfL are admitting that they lack sufficient expertise, and yet they’re planning to spend millions of pounds inventing their own cycling infrastructure?

I know I made this point before, but why hasn’t anybody from TfL been sent on David Hembrow’s study tour? Apparently they considered it but decided not to (probably because that would mean they’d have to actually do it right which might mean upsetting the motor-centric Network Assurance goons). As they’re planning to spend hundreds of millions of pounds in the next few years, I reckon a few grand and a week in Assen would be an incredibly good investment at a bargain price, all things considered.

But instead TfL would rather figure it all out for themselves from scratch. This is madness – all the research is available from the Netherlands, which went through the learning process 35 years ago (and is still improving its cycling facilities). They made the mistakes so we don’t have to.

Yet TfL will “test what interventions work”? We already know what interventions work! They’re going to play around with our money, making it up as they go along because they can’t be arsed to go see what makes roads in the Netherlands work so well.

Attempting to massively increase cycling without looking to the world’s number one cycling nation is a waste of money. TfL will inevitably spend millions of pounds experimenting with the same things that the Dutch tried in the 1970s and 1980s, before finding that they’re not good enough. Meanwhile, people will continue to die because our roads are badly and incompetently designed.

Do we want more experiments such as the untried-and-untested Cycle Superhighways which  failed so miserably – native, home-grown TfL engineering at its best? Or do we want to learn from global best practice – i.e. the Netherlands?

Why are TfL refusing to learn from the experts? Why are they seemingly so keen on reinventing the wheel and starting from scratch?


Addendum: Caroline is asking for cycling and road safety issues or questions that people would like her to put to the Mayor. You can email her at Caroline (dot) Pidgeon (at) london.gov.uk (obviously, type it out properly, I’ve mangled it here to prevent auto-junkmail software reading it).

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Andrew Gilligan versus TfL’s love for motor vehicles

You know what? This Andrew Gilligan chap might not be half bad. I went to a talk last week at which he was the main event, and I went in full cynical miserable sod mode as usual, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Now, all the excitement about the Mayor’s cycling “Vision” has died down and is giving way to more sober scrutiny, although I wonder why we cycling campaigners weren’t cheering for Caroline Pidgeon rather than Boris all those weeks ago. (We have a voice in the London Assembly who has seen the Vision and is calling for more! Surely we should be behind that 100%?)

Having said that, I do like a lot of the language in the “Mayor’s Vision” document, which was written by Gilligan. There’s lots of bold statements about doing things right and about treating cycling as a proper mode of transport, all of which is very pleasing to the cycle campaigner’s eye. At the talk he told us that he accepts that installing cycle paths will sometimes increase journey times for motor vehicles – something which was heresy at TfL a couple of years ago, and probably remains so in certain quarters.

He was also very blunt about some of the crap cycle infrastructure which has been installed in recent years (yes, he used the word “crap”), openly admitting that much of what’s been done, and what continues to be done, simply isn’t anywhere near good enough.

But there’s also some rather less bold statements, about shared bus-and-bike lanes for example (Will motorbikes and taxis still be allowed in them? Is it fair that 50 bus passengers have to wait behind me as I ride at a casual 8mph?), and a strange faith in the power of mandatory cycle lanes (“which motor vehicles cannot enter” – ha!), but still, things seem to be pointing in the right general direction at least.

I was rather disappointed by Gilligan’s target of 5% cycling modal share by 2020, which I consider to be rather unambitious, but at least he did explain his reasoning behind this, which is that it’s a larger increase than anywhere else has managed, so a higher target is very unlikely. (Though I wonder if he’s taken the awfulness of rush-hour public transport into consideration – surely Londoners would flock to a safe, free alternative to the Central line?). I may disagree with the figure, but at least he put some thought into it unlike Edinburgh city council which picked a number out of thin air before deciding not to bother.

So even though I don’t agree with everything he says, I do like the way in which Gilligan comes across (though I suspect that’s one reason why he got the job in the first place). I think this might be because he’s a journalist and therefore skilled at communication, but also because he’s not a politician. He didn’t have to make any promises to a braying public in order to get the job, and he’s not chasing any votes in the future, so he doesn’t have to sugar coat bad news or slither his way around tricky questions. I found his honesty and candour to be quite refreshing, and I was impressed to see that he didn’t rush off immediately afterwards but instead stayed behind discussing things with attendees without even a hint of wanting to be somewhere else.

So I want this post to be read in the spirit of constructive criticism, rather than just whinging. I’m also aware that I covered this topic in my last post, but I’m going to talk about cycle paths along main roads again anyway.

Quietways should be secondary routes

At the talk on Monday there was much discussion of the Quietways and the obstacles which will need to be overcome. One big problem is that the local borough councils control most of the roads, and therefore TfL will need their co-operation (and the co-operation of residents) to implement the Quietways.

When Gilligan was giving hypothetical of the new routes which will roughly follow tube lines, he said something like “for example, you could take the Bakerloo superhighway to Baker Street then get on the Circle Quietway to Kings Cross” as he waved his hand to the south, rather than out of the north-facing window towards the wide, thundering, TfL-controlled clearway of Marylebone Road which lay right outside the building we were in.

I understand that was just an example and that he wasn’t giving us any hints about a probable route for this part of the network – he was very careful to not make any announcements like that yet – but I got out my map anyway and looked for a possible route from Baker Street to Kings Cross which didn’t involve riding along the terrifying but conveniently direct urban motorway which is the A501 (AKA Marylebone Road and Euston Road).

The Mayor’s Vision document says that “unlike the old London Cycle Network, Quietways will be direct” but it’s just not possible here. The best I could find was the red line shown below:

A map showing two routes from Baker Street to Kings Cross in London. The direct route on TfL roads, and the complex wiggly route on local council roads.

Dangerous but direct route (in blue), or safe but slow Quietway (in red)? The dual network awaits your selection!

In his introduction to the Vision document, Boris Johnson says: “Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role.”

Sounds great, but that red line doesn’t look like an “integral part of the transport network” to me.

The Vision’s promise of direct Quietways simply isn’t physically possible here. I strongly suspect that if the only option was a back-street Quietway, most of those hardened commuter cyclists who already cycle from Baker Street to Kings Cross will simply continue to do so along the A501. So who is the Quietway for? Surely we’re not talking about the ridiculous “dual networkagain?!

Why would TfL continue to prioritise motor traffic while keeping cycling hidden on the back streets?

Perhaps it’s because of London’s narrow medieval road system – after all, the A501 only has seven lanes for motor vehicles here and a central divider (how quaintly 10th-century!) so I guess the bike users will have to slum it where they don’t get in the way of all that very important burning of fossil fuel:

A photograph of Marylebone Road in London, which has six lanes for traffic and one parking lane.

“London doesn’t have wide roads like New York City” (Pic: Google Maps)

If Boris is telling the truth, then the only option is to take space from Marylebone Road/Euston Road and turn it into cycle path. Otherwise we’re just prioritising motor vehicles yet again (“Driving from A to B? Take the straight, direct road! Cycling from A to B? Turn right, then second left, then a dog-leg at the next lights, then left, then third right…”).

The nice thing about this is that it would join up with the much-lauded Westway bike paths and – if you’ll permit me a moment of fantasy – from Kings Cross they could easily tackle Farringdon Road, Blackfriars Bridge and Road… Sort Park Lane out too, and we have a central London circular cycle route!

This is a problem which the Quietways will come up against time and time again – very often, the only direct routes between popular locations are the big, busy roads. It’s a problem which will become particularly acute anywhere near the Thames, as nearly all the bridges are heavily used by motor traffic. Unless Gilligan has a big enough budget for two-dozen new bridges along the Thames then bikes will have to be accommodated on the existing bridges, and this can only be done by taking space from motor vehicles (or the footways – this isn’t an anti-car thing – on the western side of Blackfriars Bridge where the footway is extremely wide, for example).

It’s not an insurmountable problem, but creating safe, clear space for cycling will require the cojones to take space away from motor vehicles, which I hope Andrew Gilligan has.

A focus on Quietways means the LCC’s “Go Dutch” campaign failed

Without being prepared to put bike paths on main roads such as the A501, the Mayor’s Vision is not what we wanted. David Arditti’s Go Dutch option won the LCC’s campaign vote by a huge majority, and subsequent events have shown how popular the Dutch concept is. Even after LCC’s yellow-bellied mangling of the wording, there’s only one thing that “Go Dutch: clear space for cycling on main roads in every borough” could possibly mean – Dutch-style cycle paths along main roads. (They weren’t suggesting we all speak Dutch while being tailgated by a bus, were they?)

But that’s not what the Quietways concept is.

Don’t get me wrong – the Quietways are a hugely important addition to a proper segregated network of cycle paths, but on their own they’re not the cycling revolution we’ve been promised. They shouldn’t be the primary cycling routes.

Maybe I’m being impatient here, but I worry that the Quietways is yet another attempt at providing cycling routes without adversely affecting motor traffic in any way, and which will therefore ultimately doomed to die an obscure death on the back streets.

And maybe I’m getting ahead of myself too – Gilligan didn’t give any details about the route, perhaps even the phrase “Circle Quietway from Baker Street to Kings Cross” was just a throw-away example. Perhaps they really are cooking up something exciting for the A501. I really hope so.

I really don’t want to sound down on Gilligan, as I think he gets cycling in a way that nobody of influence at TfL has done before. But by going after this seemingly easy option of the wiggly back-street routes he runs the very real danger of repeating the mistakes of the LCN and LCN+, despite aims and promises to the contrary.

Does Gilligan have the power and influence to change decades of motor-centric culture at TfL, or is he there to use his journalistic skills to put a positive spin on lacklustre efforts?

Perhaps the real battle isn’t the one which Gilligan is prepared to enter with the boroughs, but the fight with a much bigger foe, which is long overdue. I speak of every liveable London and safer streets campaigner’s worst nemesis: TfL’s Network Assurance department.

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