Bike To The Future Part 1: London’s Cycling Revolution

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History is littered with events and announcements that didn’t seem important at the time. When the transport planners of the future consider this period in London’s history what will they see as the most significant decision of recent times? The confirmation of Crossrail would be the obvious answer with the Thameslink Programme perhaps running a respectable second. But important as increasing rail capacity in London is, it is hardly revolutionary stuff. At LR towers we aren’t afraid to back an outsider. And we therefore wonder perhaps if the real story will be something else – the point where London began to re-invent itself as a cycling city.

If this proves to be the case then perhaps transport historians will look back at the 2015 TfL February board meeting as the defining moment when the approach to transport in London changed forever. For this was when the creation of the fully segregated East – West Cycle Superhighway was finally confirmed.

Before looking at that board meeting in particular (and explaining our hyperbole) it is perhaps best to set the scene. So, in true LR style, we will look at the Cycle Superhighway itself in part two. First, we will look at London’s relationship with cycling so far.

1960s – the decline in cycling

In our article on Tottenham Court Road, we looked at how changes made to the way we use London’s roads in the 1960s still affect us today. The disappearance of the trolleybus was one obvious change. More insidious was the near total elimination of the bicycle from our roads.

Lest it be thought that bicycles never were that significant, one should look at the importance of cycling for getting children to school. School cycle sheds have almost always been of significant size and much was done in decades past to promote good cycling with the National Cycling Proficiency Scheme. Diamond Geezer even reports on a Model Traffic Area to encourage good cycling which was still active in the 1960s – something that appears to have been a unique example in London and not often seen in other parts of the country but, to this day, is quite common in Germany.

When the love of the motor car began to fade, for at least some parts of society, the dangers of traffic were often over-stressed as a reason why people wouldn’t get “on their bike”. So, of course, because it was perceived as too dangerous to cycle, people took to the motor car in ever greater numbers.

That is not to say that this perception of danger by lone cyclists was irrational. Quickly discovered when people took more of an interest in the subject was that one of the biggest factors that makes motorists drive in a cyclist-aware manner is seeing other cyclists elsewhere on the road. For the cyclist, as far as the danger from cars is concerned, there really is safety in numbers.

Cycling is cool

The overall negative attitude towards cycling has now largely disappeared. It is very hard to pin down just what brought this about, but it may be that a change of attitude to cyclists themselves played its part. Like the Thatcherite idea that a 30 year old who still caught the bus must be a failure in life, there was for some time the perception that many people rode a bike because they couldn’t afford a car and were thus almost meant to be pitied. Cycling was not seen as an ordinary activity and part of daily life – certainly not in the same way as it was in the Netherlands or Denmark – something that is changing now.

It is also fair to say that, perhaps crucially, cycling attracted a new generation of people who had an ability to campaign and get their voices heard. Issues such as keeping healthy and the environment also scored prominently and what possibly started as a sop gathered momentum. Whatever the reasons, this overall change in attitude doesn’t mean that cyclists are universally welcomed now but at least the objections are generally for reasons other than a blanket assumption of both pity and danger.

Indeed it is easy now for people not to appreciate the sheer number of cycle journeys made in London. According to the Managing Directors Report of the February 2015 Surface Transport panel at TfL “More than 580,000 cycle journeys are made every day in London, and cycling in London has more than doubled in the last decade”. To put that in perspective, there are around 50% more journeys made by bike than made on London Overground. Or, perhaps more crudely, that’s roughly the equivalent of the entire population of Sheffield jumping on a bike, every day.

A possible turning point

These, and others, are perhaps the overall trends that have led to a new age of cycling in London. Pinning down the significant events from this century that have contributed though is somewhat harder. With our penchant for the obscure we would, however, like to suggest an unlikely one that may have been highly influential. In 2005 the DfT set up Cycling England to promote and co-ordinate (unsurprisingly) cycling in England. Readers might be interested to learn that one of the board members was one Christian Wolmar, keen cyclist and avowed future mayoral candidate. In 2010 the government, in a move which was clearly designed to capitalise on the public’s apparent dislike of “quangos” announced a “Bonfire of the Quangos”. In reality, of course, in many cases the administrative function simply moved elsewhere with no real saving but Cycling England was one organisation that was genuinely destined to disappear without an obvious replacement.

This populist elimination of quangos in general, and Cycling England in particular, genuinely alarmed some in local authorities and elsewhere who foresaw a lot of expertise and knowledge that had been painfully built being thrown away. This was especially bad for those local authorities who were already now planning to make their roads more cycle friendly as part of their transport policy.

The concern at local authority level was also present within TfL, who had also embarked on a much more pro-cycle policy. Alarm bells rang and Transport Commissioner Sir Peter Hendy got involved to genuinely do something about it. Sir Peter’s reputation as a busman is well known, what is less well known is that he is also a man occasionally prone to put foot to bicycle pedal. At the time, it was probably also rather fortunate that in 2011 he just happened to also be President of the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport (CILT).

Professional Cycle Planners

The Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport is an amalgamation of the Institute of Logistics and the Chartered Institute of Transport. It sees itself as very much as an organisation for “professionals” in the business of transport. It was therefore highly significant that in 2011 it saw fit to add a cycling forum to the various areas of transport that it covered. It also provided a convenient repository for various Cycling England documents – suitably updated and available to all.

On the 4th October 2011 at 55 Broadway Peter Hendy delivered what was billed as the inaugural CILT cycling lecture. This is not to say that the CILT had not had cycling lectures before. It was just that this was the first one that was aimed at professionals in the business – and there are cycle professionals in the transport business. Indeed it was also done to encourage those with a professional interest in the cycling sector to join the Institute.

It is hard to really know what the significance of this promotion of cycling was, but one effect was to at least give those professionals supporting cycling more of a voice as well as re-assurance that the man at the top was firmly behind them. The Commissioner also pointed out that solutions had to come from within TfL as there was no-one else to turn to. At the time this was considered a little bit controversial and, to put it bluntly, arrogant – implying as it did that only TfL was capable of doing the job. Others pointed to the wealth of experience abroad but there was at least an element of truth in the commissioner’s point, for what will work in the Netherlands, with its different attitude to cycling, will not necessarily work in London.

In most cases the cycle professionals in the business are traffic engineers who are also cyclists and the meeting was preceded by a fact finding cycle ride. The bikes at the back of the art deco room normally used for board presentations seemed very out of place and prompted Peter Hendy to point out that this showed how unfit for purpose 55 Broadway was as the headquarters of a transport organisation planning for London’s transport future.

Pinning down a change in policy

It is relatively easy to support cyclists in one’s transport policy when you are an organisation such as TfL. One can provide a few cycle routes and some support. For example Journey Planner has the option of cycling and will provide complete maps for journey from A to B by bike. One can also do relatively innocuous things such as Cycle London events (whose name changes depending on the sponsor) and set up cycle hire schemes. One can also do a lot to educate both cyclists and lorry drivers of the dangers of their respective methods of travel when they occupy the same road space.

One can even, on projects that TfL control, mandate that all lorries must comply with the latest cycle safety features (e.g. additional mirrors). Something that is simple and relatively cost-free to implement but which can genuinely save lives. Crossrail, for example, not only carries this requirement, but is ruthless about its enforcement. It has a very strict policy of not accepting delivery from any lorry that fails to be compliant with its mandated features. If your mirrors don’t allow you to look down, then you are most certainly not getting in.

Indeed TfL do appear to be very much taking the lead on the issue of making lorries safer and one cannot imagine any other organisation (with the possible exception of the DfT) that could have possibly have taken the initiative. The latest step seems to be that TfL want to go even further than Crossrail’s example and work with the Boroughs to ban from London any lorries not suitably equipped with additional cycle safety features. According to the latest TfL budget (presumably in draft form but this is not stated) enforcement will commence on this scheme on the 1st September 2015 and the enforcement area will coincide with the Low Emission Zone.

Crunch time (metaphorically)

The above measures are relatively easy to introduce as they have very little impact on the (voting) private motorist. The current Mayor is a known keen cyclist but, in the early days, was also very keen to have a policy of keeping all the traffic flowing. It was fairly apparent that, then, at the low level of cycling taking place, cyclists and other road users could co-exist relatively happily. What must have been obvious though was that, if cycling increased in popularity to the extent that it was generally hoped, inevitably there would be a critical mass of cyclists by which point it made sense to give them their own, more segregated, facilities even if at the expense of other traffic (including buses).

Cycle Superhighways Mark 1 – swathes of blue paint on the road

When it was time to give more cycle priority the solution seemed to be to paint a blue line on the road to segregate cyclists from other road users. This turned out to be a somewhat simple (and flawed) solution but in all fairness any attempt to be more radical at that stage would have probably not have been politically acceptable.

Expensive

The first problem with the “paint on the road” solution was that it was seen as a quick, cheap fix. In reality, it turned out to be neither.

A lot of the cost of a traffic scheme is involved in the setting up of traffic orders. These can be numerous as even shifting a parking bay slightly involves one of these. As a result, the simple act of reallocating space on the road can actually involve horrendous sums of money in administration procedures. It also generally isn’t quick. On top of that measures such as moving bollards, or even just kerbstones, cost far more then the public would ever imagine. One can also imagine EDF Energy not regarding installing or modifying highway lighting as a priority as far as they are concerned – much to the chagrin of Borough or TfL highway engineers anxious to see their project progress.

Possibly worst of all from a public perception was that there seemed to be very little to show for all the work involved on these cycle superhighways. One report suggested that the cost was between £2-4 million per mile, a cost assumed to be outrageous and inflated. Behind the scenes a generation of railway engineers put their hands on the shoulders of a generation of cycle engineers and said “now you know what we put up with.”

Unenforceable

The second problem with the blue strip on the road was that the attitude in London is not the same as the Netherlands, Denmark or Germany and the road markings were often ignored by other vehicles – sometimes including TfL’s own. At the same time there was very little actual cycle priority, forcing cyclists to stop at numerous traffic lights, so inevitably there were lots of cases of cyclists ignoring red lights – sometimes with fatal results. Whilst the jumping of red lights is not to be condoned, from a human behaviour perspective it is hardly unnatural. For the reality is that a cycle priority route with too much unavoidable stopping and starting is very tiring and leads to a cyclist either not using the route at all or abusing it.

Not under TfL’s control

A further problem with the cycle highways was that they were put on the busiest roads. This may sound absurd, but this was because they were the only roads that TfL controlled and at the time many local councils were (perhaps understandably) unwilling to hand over swathes of local roads for longer distance cycle routes. Even cycle highways on TfL roads required some level of local co-operation and when this was not forthcoming this led to unsatisfactory situations such as Cycle Superhighways ending abruptly at Borough boundaries, or a complete lack of any cycle superhighways at all in some places (Kensington & Chelsea, the Sauron-esque eye atop LR Towers is looking at you).

Not there when needed most

Probably the biggest complaint of all cycle priority schemes is that the priority is there when you don’t need it and the moment you really do need it you find it disappears. So along a stretch of plain road there is a cycle path and when you reach a roundabout (one of the scariest traffic intersections for cyclists) you are thrown into the melée with the other traffic.

The issue concerning roundabouts really came to a head with the notorious Bow Roundabout. Initially the response from TfL was that it wasn’t possible to redesign it to make it safer because that meant cutting overall road capacity. Implicitly it suggested that the Mayor’s policy at the time of keeping the traffic flowing was trumping any attempt to make some of the worst cycling blackspots safe. Diamond Geezer has often reported on Bow roundabout. Whilst just one traffic intersection, it is an important one with a lot of physical and political conflict and the past and present proposals to change the layout seemed to be indicative of the current roads policy at the time.

Six cycle deaths in less than a fortnight

In November 2013 things really came to a head when six cyclists died in the space of less than a fortnight. All but one involved a collision between the cyclist and a bus, coach or truck. Such a spate of deaths attracted a lot of media attention and it was clear that there was a general feeling that things could not go on as they were.

One can never eliminate all road deaths except by imposing conditions so onerous that they disrupt normal life. But that is no reason not to adopt the Health & Safety principle of “As Low As Reasonably Practical”.

Of course by not predetermining what period is being measured and selecting start and end days retrospectively, the result of six deaths in a fortnight was seen by the public as much worse than it really is. For example, for all other fortnights in the year there were not anything like six cycling deaths and in most of them there were no deaths at all. It is also a mathematical fact that inevitably with random events there will be some clustering and to some extent what was being seen on the streets of London was simply down to the laws of chance.

Whether this was a tragic, statistical fluke or not however, ultimately didn’t matter. Clearly it is hard for anyone to believe that six deaths in a fortnight could be considered as low as reasonably practical and thus it attracted headlines. No doubt Lady Bracknell would have complained that the number of deaths was “considerably above the proper average that statistics have laid down for our guidance”.

One clear consequence of the six deaths was that Metropolitan Police were deployed in force at many junctions to check on all road users behaviour and compliance with the law. This produced a dramatic fall in collisions but clearly must have been very expensive to implement. It was obviously thought worthwhile though because the scheme was recently reintroduced as a result of a rise in road deaths. This time most road deaths did not involve cyclists. In some ways this helps show us the financial cost of road deaths if it is considered worthwhile to run an operation of this magnitude and costs in order to reduce them. It should hardly need stating but if cycling was more popular, and consequently it reduced the amount of other traffic and more segregated (or otherwise fairly safe) cycleways were provided, then this economic cost associated with road deaths would be reduced.

A segregated cycleway along the Embankment

It was thus almost inevitable that, with just about everyone regarding the current situation as unsatisfactory, a proposal would be made for a truly segregated cycle route. The Victoria Embankment was quickly identified as a particularly suitable place to put one. Or to put it another way, if you can’t get it to work along the Victoria Embankment then you probably can’t get it to work anywhere.

One big attraction was the Victoria Embankment has no daytime TfL bus routes running along it. Another was that a segregated cycleway next to the river would have the considerable advantage of not having many traffic junctions and also no issues with deliveries to adjacent premises.

It was clear that the mood had changed. One criticism of the previous cycle highways was that they were compromises which, amongst other things, gave cyclists a false feeling of safety. In March 2013 the Mayor published his Vision for Cycling with much emphasis on the segregated route along the Victoria Embankment.

The City of Westminster has had a history of not wanting the vista of the Victoria Embankment in any way diminished by prominent transport infrastructure and this turned out to be no exception. They objected to the scheme as it was. Fortunately, their main concern was that they objected to the blue paint – arguing that as the cycleway would now be fully physically segregated from other road users it was unnecessary. It was a reasonable point.

Whilst it would be going too far to suggest that there was now an attitude of “no compromises” one could at least fairly say that there was now an attitude of “we do this properly or we don’t do it at all” – a remarkable contrast to what had hitherto been the approach.

In February 2015, something approximating the final extended scheme was unveiled at a TfL board meeting and approved. In part two we will look at the scheme in much more detail and we will also look at the concerns some board members had with it.

When discussing this article please remember the spirit of LR. This is not an opportunity for other roads users to make derogatory statements about cyclists or vice versa. Any comment containing such statements will be deleted in its entirety.

Written by Pedantic of Purley