Thinking big

Does the UK have the guts to do what’s required to create mass cycling? We’re good at talk, but action seems to be thin on the ground.

The trouble with most British attempts to improve conditions for cycling is that they aim to cause little or no obstruction to private motor vehicles. As a result, we’re left with seriously compromised designs.

Recently it has been reported that air pollution in Britain is responsible for many thousands of deaths, and most of that pollution comes from motor vehicles. Solving this problem will require more than just tinkering around the edges.

Bollards and paint and signs, oh my!

We should be thinking big. Little nudges will achieve little.

Lambeth council has just voted to adopt a cycling policy which aims to massively increase cycling in the borough. What this will mean on the ground remains to be seen, as they already have a road user hierarchy which places walking and cycling at the top, followed by public transport, with private motor vehicles at the bottom. Yet there’s very little evidence of this policy on the ground.

A section of Lambeth council's transport plan, showing walking as top priority and cars at the bottom. Ha!

Maybe I’ve got the wrong Lambeth, or it’s an April fools joke. (Page 73 of this PDF document.)

Unfortunately the hierarchy is preceded by these horrible weasel words:

Where possible Lambeth will seek to reallocate road space in favour of pedestrians, cyclists and public transport. However, Lambeth will need to work closely with all affected stakeholders to ensure that there is reasonable balance between competing modes.” (Emphasis mine.)

But that was published back in the dark ages of last year. Maybe they really do mean it this time!

If Lambeth aims to be true to its word, then we’re not talking about a bollard here, a dropped kerb there, and a few “no entry except cyclists” signs. It will take far more than this to turn Lambeth into a great place to ride a bike.

Why don’t we start here: close Westminster Bridge Road to private motor vehicles at peak hours.

This is exactly the kind of project Lambeth should now be seriously considering if it is to become London’s top cycling borough. They’ve committed themselves on paper, now it’s time to follow through with concrete and asphalt.

Why not restrict motor traffic on Westminster Bridge Road, between the railway bridge and Lambeth North tube station? Private motor vehicles are at the bottom of Lambeth council’s road user hierarchy, so why are they allowed through here 24/7 creating an intimidating environment for cycling?

This road isn’t essential, motor vehicles will be able to reach their destination by going around using other roads. Westminster Bridge Road is a busy bus route and therefore needs Dutch-style cycle paths along its entire length to be safe for cycling (there are far too many buses for ‘share the road’ to work). The section between the railway bridge and Lambeth North is narrow, so adding decent cycle paths into the current four-lane road would be a squeeze. As far as I can see there’s no other option but to remove the general traffic lanes.

This isn’t just my opinion: I’m putting Lambeth’s very own policies into practice.

An airbrushed image of Westminster Bridge Road showing how it would look with cycle paths.

It would look a little something like this. (Not like this.)

It can be done, by the way. I know Haarlem isn’t London, but that Dutch city turned a pretty horrible road into a beautiful segregated-bus-and-bike-only road.

Ding, dong, the Aldwych tunnel is dead!

I’ve been trying to figure out Waterloo Bridge for some years now. How could it “Go Dutch”? The southern end, at the Imax roundabout, is easy as there’s tons of space. The bridge itself is fairly easy too, I reckon. Remove the central reservation, narrow the lanes and make it 20mph, and I bet there’d be space for cycle paths.

But what about the northern end, where it meets Aldwych and the Strand? On the northbound side there are bus stops and footpaths which are too narrow already, and in the middle is the Strand Underpass motor vehicle tunnel. There’s just not enough space on the road. The nearside lane could be converted into a cycle path, and all private vehicles forced to take the tunnel at peak hours.

But the real solution would be to remove the tunnel altogether. The portal takes up so much room which could be used to create a proper Dutch-style junction. I know this might sound like pie-in-the-sky madness, but it is possible.

Aldwych is wide — incredibly so. The carriageway is five lanes wide. One is used for buses stopping, the next is used for moving vehicles. The middle lane, bizarrely, is used for parked taxis, the fourth lane is used for moving vehicles, and the fifth lane is for parking.

This is utter madness, the land here must cost a fortune and we use it to store parked vehicles!

A photo of Aldwych in London, showing the huge amount of space available.

This is just insane. (Google Maps)

So close the tunnel, make all traffic go around Aldwych — there’s plenty of space for that. Without the tunnel entrance and exit, there’d be space at the end of Waterloo Bridge and on Kingsway to install cycle paths.

While we’re at it, and I say this with a heavy heart, we can lose the old northern portal to the Kingsway tram tunnel. The last tram passed through in 1952! Unfortunately it’s Grade II Listed, which means it’s likely to remain. I do like the old tram tunnel portal, I especially like that the tram tracks remain, but it’s taking up very valuable space on a busy road in central London. But if the tunnel can’t be removed, then a general traffic lane on each side needs to be taken.

Whenever I go out in London, I’m amazed at the number of people travelling in cars, many of them with just a driver and no passengers. This still seems to be the main mode of transport for many people. London clearly isn’t doing enough to discourage private car use, and tinkering around the edges while maintaining motor vehicle capacity just isn’t going to change things.

We should not continue to prioritise motor vehicles. Our political leaders keep talking about how great cycling is, it’s time for them to make it safe for people to do it. They keep telling us that cycling is a priority, it’s time for them to make it so.


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18 responses to “Thinking big

  1. I was in the Borough/ South Bank/ City area on Sunday and was astounded by the amount of people in private cars, it is utter madness in the centre. Outer-London is worse though, shopping rush hour at 10am on Saturday and 11am on Sunday!

  2. Ian

    “We should not continue to prioritise motor vehicles”

    This is the key, and not just in London. The SNP government up here witters on about its vision for cycling, but the money goes on road bridges and dialling A roads.

  3. Richard Walter

    “I was in the Borough/ South Bank/ City area on Sunday and was astounded by the amount of people in private cars, it is utter madness in the centre. Outer-London is worse though, shopping rush hour at 10am on Saturday and 11am on Sunday!”

    I think that some many people still drive in London for short journeys that could be walked, cycled or done by bus/train/tube, is down to people thinking ‘everyone else does it so it must be OK’. Yet driving is the most inffecient way to travel and the most damaging in terms of air pollution and health risks associated with inactivity.

    I think urban car driving nowadays is a bit like smoking was in the 50s and 60s, in those days almost everyone did it, so it was deemed acceptable to smoke everywhere, no one thought twice about it… How things have moved on though since those days…

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  5. GareThugHowell

    The trouble with pushbike supremacists(!) is that they omit to consider the aged, most of whom use cars. an inability to balance afflicts many people as they get older, and also hearing problems increase with age. Heaven knows that a good many cyclists inflict any amount of hearing difficulty on themselves with head phones for listening in heavy traffic…..
    “gets rid of the noise of the traffic which I don’t Like!” Ha! Blutty ha!

    • Michael J

      Actually cycle campaigners do consider the elderly, most who walk and find the roads dangerous because of cars and lorries. Also, the elderly are often quite happy to cycle in the Netherlands because there is safe cycling provision and they are kept away from motor traffic

      • Alex Baines-Buffery

        Gare, You make a good point though, cars are good for people with physical disabilities. I agree, it is shocking how many physically able people needlessly use their cars, often on their own, taking up road space and clogging up London. Really we should do everything we can to make sure that physically able people can use exercise based transport to get about and leave road space free for motor vehical owners who either have to be there for work or don’t have the option of using other kinds of transport due to some physical impairment.

        As somebody who passionately believes in the free market, it is a great sadness to me to see one of the greatest cities in the world, London gripped by a virtual monopoly. We are so wedded to the idea of transport, based on petrol, but 4 1/2 thousand londoners die a year from air pollution, and great swathes of the population who are physically capable of making the short journeys within London are put off because they are physically intimidated by the current transport system. It’s really shocking, and a massive restriction on our freedoms that many members of our society only feel safe to travel from their home to their work in a large steel box for protection, and have to pay a small number of price-fixing petrol companies for the privilege.

        Good cycling infrastructure gives millions the ability to save money, reduce their waistline and improve their fitness. All during the “dead time” of their commute.

        A good cycling infrastructure, by its very nature increases competition in the transport sector and will drive down cost and improve quality. If exercise based transport becomes a viable alternative, then many rational people will choose to switch because of the cost savings alone. As a result, the people who continue to use their vehicles should have reduced journey times and lower costs as their providers adjust to compete with the new, more accessible exercise based modes of transport.

        As a young, strong, white, middle-class man I probably represent one of the most economic lien powered groups in our society. I am also a member of the group who is most likely to commute by bicycle. My travel costs within London are less than £90 a year: which is what it cost me to service my bike, it can’t be right that I have cheap effectively subsidise travel, and other people have to pay either exorbitant travel card prices or fund a car, purely because the travel infrastructure we have makes it too intimidating for them to get to work in the way that I feel comfortable.

    • inge

      9 years ago I got hit by a virus that gave me permanent balance disorder. So no more riding a bike for me ,I thought. I’m over 60, Dutch and have been riding a bike since I was 5 and couldn’t imagine what life would be without my bike! I did everything by bike, my shopping, visiting friends, cats to the vet, even moving house 7 times , really everything. Thanks to my local council I now have a tricycle and even though this bike is heavier than a two-wheel bike, I can get where I want to go. And for sure I would never dare to ride my not so fast bike in the U.K. Those British motorist and lorry drivers would mow me down when I had to” take the lane.”
      In the Netherlands many elderly and disabled people ride their special bikes, electric wheelchairs and mobility scooters on the cycle tracks. Not because Dutch drivers are so much better, nicer or more civilized than the British but because here the infrastructure is designed for ALL road users.
      By the way, is it O.K. for motorist to wear headphones?

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  7. Sophie

    the problem is Boris – Westminster Bridge Road is a red route overseen by the Mayor; Lambeth have little control over it (see for more red routes). Boris is the key to Aldwych too I suggest – he has to take his mates in Westminster council in hand and make them see sense over Aldwych

    • Look closer at the map, you’ll see that you’re wrong about Westminster Bridge Road, most of it isn’t a red route. Part of it is, from the bridge to the new hotel junction, but from there to St George’s Circus it’s Lambeth Council’s road. They could unilaterally make the changes I’ve suggested here.

  8. Sophie

    Ah yes – good points. In that case have you tried approaching lambeth about your ideas? How about emailing the cabinet member for cycling Pete Robbins? At least then you would hear why Lambeth/Boris think its not possible. I would have thought that its better to try and engage rather than moan from the sidelines!

    • So what you’re saying is I should keep my thoughts private rather than air them in public? I find this blog to be a great way to make other people aware of what’s going on.

      I have contacted Lambeth Council many times about all sorts of roads-related issues, and they simply can’t be bothered to respond (unless they can blame someone else — TfL, Network Rail, a private landowner — in which case they respond very quickly!).

      I’ll try to contact Pete Robbins directly (sincere thanks for the suggestion) but I suspect, like the rest of Lambeth’s pro-cycling policies, he’s merely there to protect the council from cycle campaigners like me.

      • davidhembrow

        I’ve been contacting politicians in the UK “quietly” about these issues for over ten years. Replies are rare. Replies which go beyond nice sounding words with just a mild indication of support and indicate a genuine desire to do something, even more rare. Did I say “rare” ? Let’s be clear about this. These meaningful replies as common as rocking-horse excrement.

        For the last eight years we’ve been actively trying to encourage politicians, council officers and others to come on Study Tours in the Netherlands and discover for themselves what it is that they say they support in the mild but ultimately meaningless language used in the rare replies. In the early days we made the effort to contact all politicians from all political parties in the UK who had said anything about cycling. i.e. all of them who were trying to attract the votes of “cyclists” as well as all who had a responsibility for transport. As yet, not one politician has come along. We’ve offered to do these tours on any date to suit (because we discovered quite rapidly that a common dismissal is to say that they’d really like to come but can’t make whatever date it was that we suggested) and we’ve offered to make them free of charge in case the value for money doesn’t look good enough.

        We are still waiting for our first British politician. They have found time to go on well funded junkets to The Netherlands organized by railway companies keen to renew their contracts, and trips sponsored by Dutch construction companies keen to get contracts in Britain. The APPCG has reported receiving tens of thousands of pounds in benefits in connection with these. As such, I don’t believe that time is a problem and I don’t believe it’s a problem to accept . However, our tours which are genuinely educational and not run in conjunction with any company trying to gain a contract in the UK are somehow worthy of responses such as “I don’t take freebies” or fobbing us off by suggesting that contact should be made to some underling or other who then fobs us off in turn.

        The whole thing is being treated as a game. If there’s a fancy well funded trip on offer, then there’s no shortage of takers. The possibility of an educational visit ? No interest.

        Politicians from other countries have found us and asked us for tours and paid us for the privilege of coming on them. These people have come not only from countries within Europe but also close-by countries outside the EU (e.g. Norway) and from as far away as Australia. They’ve come from countries which are much further from the Netherlands than is the UK. These participants from far away lands display a genuine interest in the possibilities and a desire to improve things in their own countries.

        However, British politicians would seem to be cut from a different cloth. Words are carefully spoken in order to sound interested but action is short. For their part, campaigners all too often have their allegiance bought at too low a price. They believe the words instead of waiting for action. We should therefore not be surprised that progress continues not to be made in Britain.

    • Update, three months later: I contacted Pete Robbins and still have received no reply beyond an “I’ll look at this” email. A couple of weeks ago I contacted Imogen Walker and got the same “I’ll get back to you” but have heard nothing since.

      It very often feels like there’s no option but to moan from the sidelines when the council refuse to engage.

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