In part 1 we looked at the change of attitude towards cycling. Attitude, however, is only part of the battle. London presents some unique challenges for cycle planners – from road layouts to royalty – all of which need to be overcome for cycling to prosper. Few things highlight this better than the planned East-West (and North-South) Cycle Superhighways, and so it is to their story that we turn next.
Crossrail for Bikes
With the usual Mayoral hyperbole, the proposed East-West Cycle Superhighway has been described as “Crossrail for Bikes”. On this occasion, however, the analogy may well be appropriate and indeed could even be extended. Like Crossrail, the planned route of the East-West Superhighway runs roughly east – west across London and there has been a lot of consultation and controversy involved with it. It will also be very expensive for what it is. As with Crossrail, it may even alter the nature of London and will certainly have a variety of knock-on effects and consequences (intended or otherwise).
If the proposed East-West Cycle Superhighway is the Crossrail for Bikes then the North-South Cycle Superhighway, which will run from Elephant & Castle to King’s Cross, must be the Thameslink Programme for Bikes. Appropriately, to continue the analogy, it can be considered more of an upgrade to an existing scheme rather than a completely new build. Where the two cycle routes cross at Blackfriars we will have the cycle equivalent of the interchange between the two lines at Farringdon.
North-South Cycle Superhighway
With the East-West route receiving the bulk of media attention, the North-South route has somewhat slipped in under the radar. There are a variety of reasons for this. For a start, much of the route already has some cycle priority and is well used by cyclists. TfL believe that bikes now make up around a quarter of rush hour traffic in central London (according to the central london cycle census) on average and clearly some routes (aligning with the North-South) are more popular with cyclists than others. One reason for this is probably gradients and, north of the Thames, the existing route from Blackfriars to King’s Cross roughly follows the route of the Fleet River meaning that this road is probably easier than most to cycle. With cycles estimated at up to 40% of all vehicles at Blackfriars and the outcry a couple of years back concerning the high number of deaths involving cyclists, it really would be hard to make a case against cycle improvements along the already busy North-South route if they led to increased safety.
The North-South route has not been completely finalised yet, with some decisions to be made on the exact route between Farringdon Station and Kings Cross. Nevertheless, this has not stopped work beginning at the southern end and, in the inevitable blaze of publicity, the Mayor recently symbolically started work at Elephant and Castle. The TfL website already has a web page reporting on expected progress and disruption in the months ahead as a result of this work.
East-West – the fantasy and reality
In comparison to the North-South, the East-West is a far more complex beast. On the surface, the idea is a simple one – put in a segregated cycleway along the Thames between Westminster and Tower Bridge. Problems with junctions almost disappear. Furthermore, with the experience of the Olympics, TfL have a high level of confidence that they can manage traffic well along the Embankment route.
The confidence that TfL roads possess lies not in a belief that such a cycle route won’t cause congestion, but in the belief that in a worst-case scenario they can manage it in a controlled way without snarling up the rest of London. During the Olympics, Whitehall was closed to all motorised traffic except buses and approved Olympic vehicles displaying the appropriate sticker with other traffic diverted via Embankment. This was judged to have worked well, except possibly on the first (non-Olympic) day, due to the dynamic traffic management measures taken. One of the genuine Olympic benefits is confidence that traffic can be managed when necessary – with no claim that jams will be avoided but that a lot can be done to avoid complete gridlock.
Unfortunately, just like rail schemes that seem so obvious, when one looks into the details of the East-West Superhighway things get a lot more complicated than expected. There also appeared to be a further fundamental flaw in that, initially perhaps, TfL were rather too keen to showcase a segregated cycle superhighway without actually considering how useful it was in terms of where it went. In particular the original plan rather spectacularly dumped cyclists by Westminster tube station and then left them to the vagaries of mixing in with the rest of the London traffic. Parliament Square, it is fair to say, is not currently noted for its cycle friendliness.
Enter the Mayor’s advisor on cycling
It seems that it was the intervention of the Mayor’s cycling advisor, Andrew Gilligan, who highlighted the unsatisfactory nature of this abrupt end of the cycle superhighway at Westminster that helped kickstart better thinking here. Once the principle of taking things further had been established more options were sought. With one corner of St James’s Park less than 500m away from Westminster station and other Royal Parks beckoning beyond there must have seemed a very obvious solution. Accordingly the proposed route was extended to go through the Royal Parks and head off towards Paddington and beyond.
One must wonder if Mr Gilligan thought that going through the Royal Parks TfL would have a pleasant side-effect for TfL – removing the need to deal with the City of Westminster, sometimes regarded as one of London’s more awkward Boroughs. If so he was almost certainly in for a shock, but we will return to that later.
Going back to the main proposal along the north bank of the Thames, one early concern – one with considerable potential implications – must have been the tunnel in Upper Thames Street. This currently has two lanes of (generally fast) traffic in both directions. Even assuming it was realistically possible to route cyclists through this tunnel it would not be a pleasant experience. One made worse by the unavoidable presence of exhaust emissions.
Likely because of this issue, the chosen route avoids this by going to the north of it. This has resulted in the segregated cycleway being located on the north side of Tower Hill at its easternmost extremity. Given that this was expected to be on the south side of Victoria Embankment there would be an obvious problem to come.
Squeezing in an extra lane
The original proposal was for a bi-directional segregated cycle lane. To accommodate this without compromise it was proposed that the remaining road part of the highway generally be reduced to a single lane in each direction from the two that are currently planned for the most part. Unfortunately when this option was modelled it was found that significant delays would accrue, with traffic affected including buses. Eventually a few compromises were made, including reducing the width of the cycle lane in places, which enabled a westbound lane to be included all the way from Tower Hill to Northumberland Avenue.
It is not entirely clear why this is more of a problem westbound than eastbound, but the need for motor vehicles already on the main Embankment route to turn right and head north into central London is probably a major factor. Obviously this right turn is generally not an issue with eastbound traffic with the only possible exceptions being the bridges. Both Waterloo Bridge and even Blackfriars Bridge are already difficult to access from the Victoria Embankment and in fact both involve negotiating a series of junctions and mean initially turning left off the Victoria Embankment, not right.
Tower Hill – the start
The route starts relatively uncontroversially at Tower Hill. A nice touch is that it actually continues eastwards along Shorter Street and onto the western end of Royal Mint Street which is the western end of Cycle Superhighway 3. So one could regard the East-West Superhighway as just the logical extension of Cycle Superhighway 3.
At Southwark Bridge the route almost meets up with Cycle Superhighway 7, a blue paint on the road job, which terminates there. Shortly afterwards it diverts to the parallel Castle Barnard Street to avoid the Upper Thames Street tunnel.
The Blackfriars Challenge
At Blackfriars there is the complication of connecting to the North-South Superhighway, which runs along Blackfriars Bridge above the East-West one. The solution to this is to reassign the westbound slip road from Blackfriars junction to Victoria Embankment exclusively to cycles (both ways) and redirect motor traffic onto a two way, previously eastbound only, slip road with an appropriate signalised junction on Victoria Embankment.
One of the most prominent mock up pictures of the proposed route features this link. In fact it is probably very misleading because the dominant cycling feature in it is neither the North-South nor the East-West superhighway, but the link between them. A slight danger for an eastbound cyclist not paying attention is that taking the obvious route and going straight on actually takes you off the main route – eastbound motorists wishing to stay on the M25 at the M25/M26 junction may actually have a bit of sympathy with the cyclist’s plight here.
Junction with Northumberland Avenue
Another of the critical junctions on the East-West superhighway is the junction of Victoria Embankment and Northumberland Avenue just to the west of Embankment Underground station. The proposed arrangements for this junction have been revised. This junction is critical as it needs to be able to accommodate traffic turning right from Victoria Embankment into Northumberland Avenue without delaying through traffic on the Embankment to such an extent that through capacity is reduced. To permit this traffic to turn right requires a dedicated right turn phase on the traffic lights there. Conveniently, at the same time, traffic can also turn left from Northumberland Avenue into Victoria Embankment.
To prevent problems at this pinch point it has been necessary to propose introducing a banned right turn from Northumberland Avenue to Victoria Embankment (except for cyclists who have their own signal phase). It has also been necessary to propose the removal of a pedestrian crossing underneath Hungerford Bridge. As the crossing outside Embankment tube station would remain and the steps accessing Hungerford footbridge (upstream side) are actually located on the west side of Victoria Embankment this should not be a major issue.
What is more interesting at this junction is what isn’t there and that missing thing is any kind of cycle provision for cyclists in Northumberland Avenue wishing to turn right off the cycle route at that point. Such provision does exist in the form of a segregated cycle lane already in Northumberland Avenue and wishing to join the superhighway. We will come back to this point later.
From the junction with Northumberland Avenue the route continues fairly uncontroversially to its junction with Westminster Bridge which was the originally proposed end of the route.
The symbolism of Parliament Square
The other great iconic mock up of the East-West cycle superhighway is that of Parliament Square, which the route needs to cross to reach the first of the Royal Parks it will use.
Parliament Square is absolutely full of symbolism when it comes to transport policy. The first traffic light in the United Kingdom (gas lit and manually operated) was installed there in 1868. Over a hundred years later, Margaret Thatcher was determined that eventually no London red bus (symbolising public ownership) would be routed through Parliament Square and was keen for the privately owned ones contracted to run on London routes to have a distinctive colour that was anything other than red. Once in power the first London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, was equally determined to banish these buses from Parliament Square as soon as possible and ensure that every bus going through Parliament Square was red once again.
When the Jubilee Line Extension was scrutinised by Parliament it gave most of the project the nod without objecting. It did, however, reject proposals to locate the new tube station at the centre of Parliament Square itself. In doing so it caused considerable problems and delay by demanding the station be relocated – not an easy task given the buildings in the area, many of which are designated world heritage sites.
Another policy of Ken Livingstone was to support partially pedestrianising Parliament Square at the first opportunity to follow on from his success with doing the same with Trafalgar Square. When Boris Johnson replaced him, determined to have a policy of “keeping the traffic moving” and supporting business, he cancelled the project. Somewhat implausibly he claimed that the scheme was impractical because of the need to take into account the increased future traffic due to Crossrail construction.
Parliament Square then always had the potential to be a hot potato for those planning the East-West superhighway. Fortunately for supporters of the scheme the highway on the northern side of Parliament Square is actually particularly wide and it is relatively easy to install a segregated cycle way and incorporate it into the traffic light sequence. Perhaps more important still, it did not require the approval of Parliament – just that of a Mayor almost certain to be shortly needing to cycle to the Houses of Parliament regularly once again. It probably also suited him that this iconic world famous site will now show London with a cycle lane outside Parliament, sending a continuing message about how the city has reinvented itself during the period that he is Mayor.
The route through St James’s Park and Constitution Hill
The next section of route enters new territory as it clearly is dependent on the co-operation of the Royal Parks.
The Royal Parks Agency is a curious historical anomaly. Famously it used to have its own police force. Its officers are now fully integrated into the Metropolitan Police but parks officers still have a distinctive RO (for ROyal) shoulder number prefix and a local headquarters in the centre of Hyde Park. Since 1993 it has been administered as a Government Agency. Indeed a specific Act of Parliament lays down what is permitted within the parks and what isn’t – The Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations 1997. Despite this national status, however, in many ways as an organisation it relies on functions provided by the Mayor.
If Gilligan (and indeed TfL) had hoped for an easy ride here though (pun most definitely intended) then their illusions were quickly dispelled. The Royal Parks has its own agenda and TfL have very little leverage to get them around to their way of thinking – even if the Parks’ board members are actually appointed by the Mayor of London.
This is why there are no less than six maps in the consultation document for this section, despite it only being a short one.
There was always going to be conflict – both in terms of planning and actual usage – for a variety of reasons. The first major conflict is going to be with other users of these two parks. As coaches and lorries are not permitted within the Parks, the transport groups using them are basically pedestrians, cyclists, horse riders, and everything else – which essentially amounts to cars and taxis. One would have thought that cyclists would be treated more favourably than general motorists, given that arguably they are probably appreciating the park more and not disturbing the ambience as much as a motorist, but this presents challenges nonetheless.
There are also a couple of problems presented by St James’s Park – issues on which the Royal Parks clearly have strong opinions and really have no reason to alter their stance. The first is that the view from the Mall to Buckingham Palace is one that the Royal Parks probably want to preserve at all costs and they probably don’t feel too comfortable about a cycle way crossing it – especially if significantly upsets the symmetry of the vista.
Here at LR Towers we believe that there was (and is) a second problem, however. One that, it must be said, is unique.
This is the problem of the Changing of the Guard ceremony. As with the issue of Tower Bridge being raised, this problem probably isn’t covered in standard reference books and courses on highway planning and consequently there is no textbook approach as to how to overcome it.
It is a well-known fact that that most Londoners do not regularly visit the same places that tourists do. A bit like understanding London’s night time economy, it is a bit difficult to comprehend the disruptive impact on normal life of the Changing of the Guard ceremony if you haven’t seen it for yourself. The ceremony goes on, intermittently, for roughly an hour and is very popular with visitors from all over the world who arrive in great numbers well before the ceremony is due to start.
Just about every guide book to London will mention the free spectacle of the Changing of the Guard in an approving tone. It takes place daily in summer and every other day in winter. During times when the marching bands appear or disappear the traffic is stopped and pedestrians are not allowed to cross the roads by Buckingham Palace. It is hard to imagine any conceivable way one can have a functioning cycle lane through the melée that is present. On top of everything else, many tourists do not understand, or choose not to understand, what they are told to do and will do almost anything to place themselves in a position where they can get better photograph. The chances of them respecting any signs not to block a cycle lane are probably very close to zero.
Once you bear all the above in mind, the route of the superhighway through St James’s Park suddenly makes a great deal more sense. For one must look at how to resolve the issue of getting past Buckingham Palace and then work back to the entrance to St James’s Park near Parliament Square.
There is probably only one way around the problem of the Changing of The Guard – at least if one operates on the presumption that the Queen wouldn’t be too happy with a cycle superhighway through her back garden. This is to go to the north of the Mall and Constitution Hill, which is what the planned East-West route would do by proposing that the little used horse ride along Constitution Hill be replaced with a pedestrian and cycle path. Near the Victoria Memorial at the front of Buckingham Palace there is a short section that will be shared cycle and pedestrian space. To keep well clear of the crowds by Buckingham Palace the cycle route then needs to continue along the Mall towards Trafalgar Square.
Horse Guards Road
Coming from the south east corner of St James’s Park, cycles will have to use Horse Guards Road along the eastern side of the park. This then presents two issues.
Having come from Tower Hill to arrive at St James’s Park, a cyclist entering St James’s Park could follow the official route and go up Horse Guards Road. Horse Guards Road will effectively become a no through road off the Mall except for cycles which will be free to use the junction with Birdcage Walk. More likely, regular users would continue down Birdcage Walk (unless they knew that the Changing of the Guard ceremony was about to take place) and take their chances with the rest of the traffic outside Buckingham Palace. It seems that this is tacitly accepted as there will be segregated cycle lane along Birdcage Walk to Buckingham Gate and a suitable cycle crossing to enable cyclists to get to the northern side of Constitution Hill and rejoin the superhighway route there.
The other issue with the use of Horse Guards Road is that this then puts the route within around 250m of the roundabout featuring the King Charles Statue located just south of Trafalgar Square. Beyond that is Northumberland Avenue – a relatively short road about 350m long. So from the junction of Victoria Embankment and Northumberland Avenue to the junction of the Mall and Horse Guards Road is only around 600m by the shortest route. Alternatively, by taking the cycle superhighway route, you can make the same point to point journey but it involves three times the distance. That is fine if you are using the route for leisure purposes and want to take in the sights of Westminster, but it is hard to imagine a daily commuter travelling over a kilometre further than necessary just because the traffic isn’t segregated around the base of Trafalgar Square.
It has to be said at this point that it would be very difficult to arrange a segregated cycle route that went from Northumberland Avenue to the Mall without causing a major disruption to other traffic. Nevertheless this would seem to be a very popular potential future route and one that will be taken by cyclists. Indeed one wonders how much modelling has been done on the basis that many cyclists will take this short cut anyway.
It has been mentioned before on this site that London’s Royal Parks have speed limits which do apply to bikes. At first sight this restriction as to how fast a cycle can be ridden in a Royal Park would appear to be a simple drafting mistake by virtue of the fact that the Parliamentary Act linked to earlier in this article refers to “vehicles” and not “motor vehicles”. However it is apparent that this was deliberately intended because the relevant paragraph in the legislation is headed Speeds at which vehicles may be driven or ridden on a Park road. Presumably a horse is not regarded as a vehicle.
The Royal Parks also has a cycling policy and from that it is clear it is already concerned about cycling in Hyde Park. To quote from their policy:
The cycle routes in Hyde Park have been in place for over 10 years and there is concern that they are not able to cope with the numbers of cyclists using them – particularly in the peak. Their segregated nature is an issue as there is the fear that young children and dogs, not aware of the segregation, are likely to be involved in cycle related accidents on these routes. There is an aspiration to move to more shared-use spaces where people can behave in a considerate manner to one another.
They also state that “We generally keep cycle routes in the park (other than those on park roads) to the perimeters of the London Royal Parks.”
The problem with Hyde Park is thus similar to St James’s Park in that the ideal cycle route (from a cyclists or TfL’s perpective) will probably not be favourably received by park management.
After crossing from Constitution Hill to Hyde Park via existing cycle infrastructure TfL’s desire is for the cycle route to exit Hyde Park at Lancaster Gate. The ideal route is the shortest one along Serpentine Road but, apart from everything else, this has a 15mph speed limit for the benefit of all park users and one can see the Royal Parks being reluctant for this route to be the cycle superhighway. Similarly they are probably reluctant to allow cyclists to use the next shortest route involving the traffic-free Broad Walk, parallel to Park Lane. As a consequence the proposed route takes cyclists along South Carriage Drive and West Carriage Drive though it is hard to see what incentive there will be to stick to the official route rather than use Serpentine Road instead.
Beyond Hyde Park the route is only currently well defined as as far as Westbourne Park near Paddington. This involves some changes to the one way system at Lancaster Gate. Many of these changes, such as reversion of Bayswater Road to two-way traffic, were long overdue anyway.
After that comes a proposal that history will judge either to be genius or madness – closing one lane inbound of the Westway to provide an elevated section to take the route onward to Acton. This will hardly create a pleasant environment for cycling in, but the advantage of a speedy direct route will likely more than compensate. One concern could be the effects of winds at such an exposed location. Of course these could sometimes work in the cyclists favour.
What will likely happen is that the outside world will make the mistake of judging the success (or not) of this idea entirely by the number of cyclists using it. Future hyperbolic articles from the mainstream media (and the odd bit of political grandstanding) accompanied by images of congested traffic alongside an empty cycleway seem sadly inevitable.
One wonders though if a section of TfL’s road force has realised that traffic management could greatly be improved in central London if one reduced the number of lanes of traffic coming into the central London area via Westway from 3 to 2 lanes. Maybe they were looking for is an opportunity to do this and that opportunity has now come.
Alternatively, the idea could be as much about symbolism as anything else. “We are prepared to turn a lane of what was once an urban motorway into a cycle route” sends out a very powerful message about what one intends to do and how determined one is to do it.
Regardless of the reasons for it, one cannot but think of Norman Foster’s idea of cycleways on top of railways (which we have previously looked upon with a rather cynical eye). So perhaps it is time to take a leaf out of Private Eye magazine.
Successful or not, both the Westway segregation and the East-West route itself show some of the unique challenges that cycle planning in London presents. In part 3 we hope to finally get around to looking at how well (or badly) these proposals went down at the relevant TfL board meeting.