Thursday, 10 December 2009

‘Cycling is still a minority activity with most Londoners never getting on a bike’

Sustrans have published their response to the London mayor’s Draft Transport Strategy.

It’s not at all bad in sniffing out some of the contradictions in that strategy. And it makes all the usual right-on assertions about cycling and walking and health, etcetera. Naturally there's a plug for Sustrans-sponsored Greenways. I have in the past had sport with the Sustrans North East Greenways policy document (the original content of which has now been removed from the internet; my original citation links now take you to revised and very different material), in particular the risible assertion that The design of Leytonstone High Street is cycle and pedestrian friendly, while also allowing motorised traffic to pass through.

I think this new Sustrans paper is valuable in its analysis and its vision of the future, but its generalising attitudes I find unhelpful. Generalities take us nowhere. I would have preferred it if Sustrans had called for the concrete, practical policies that could improve walking and cycling. For example, no more exemptions to the pavement parking ban. For example, getting rid of on-street car parking and reallocating street space for segregated cycle lanes on the highly successful Dutch model.

The Sustrans document is good in that it calls for reallocating road space. In my view this is certainly the key to creating a safe, convenient and attractive cycling infrastructure. But the kind of reallocation Sustrans has in mind is disappointingly fuzzy. The only example cited is Blackfriars Bridge, which is hardly a typical London street. It’s okay saying

The Mayor’s Transport Strategy should promote road space reallocation to sustainable modes where appropriate

but what does that mean? It’s far too vague. And that killer phrase “where appropriate” could just as easily have been added by the transport planners of Waltham Forest. It’s the ultimate get-out clause for planners determined to maintain the supremacy of the car.

However, the Sustrans position makes more sense than that of the London Cycling Campaign, which baldly asserts that

Our streets and neighbourhoods need to be redesigned

but says nothing about carriageway reallocation from car parking to cycling infrastructure, and supplies no concrete examples. In reality the London Cycling Campaign has a hopelessly stunted and unimaginative notion of what makes a street cycle-friendly. Its vision is integrationist and relies heavily on marketing cycling as sexy and cool and hoping that if enough people can be persuaded, this will create its own momentum for change.

Although cycling has increased in London, it still remains an experience which is all too often marred by the lack of a cycling-friendly infrastructure and the overwhelming presence of motor vehicles and risk-taking drivers. Even something as basic and non-contentious as cycle parking is neglected to a staggering degree. Bike theft is a major issue in suppressing cycling. In addition, maintenance of integrated cycling infrastructure is poor, and obstruction, whether by unlawful parking or roadworks, is commonplace. But the greatest deterrent to cycling is unsafe streets crammed with high volumes of traffic and very poor driving standards. It’s estimated that one car driver in eight in London is uninsured – a situation that doesn’t greatly trouble anyone in authority – and then again there’s the question of London’s dangerous lorry drivers. Not to mention all those zillions of drivers chatting away on handheld mobile phones. There are signs, contrary to the frothy optimism of the LCC, that cycling may have peaked in London, and as the Sustrans document notes, in one very significant sphere it is definitely in decline (see below).

Sustrans reiterate the conventional and widely-held opinion that the major potential for future growth in cycling lies in Outer London. In one sense, looking at modal share, that's obviously true. But if they bothered to read this blog, Sustrans might understand why rosy optimism about a significant increase in cycling in an Outer London borough like Waltham Forest is unjustified. The existing infrastructure is mediocre, badly maintained, comprehensively and repeatedly obstructed, inconvenient and unsafe. And it is about to get worse, with insane schemes to promote car dependency at the expense of pedestrians and suppress cycling.

Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign (which resolutely refuses to acknowledge the existence of this blog) has just published an interesting survey of local cyclists' attitudes

Cyclists surveyed at the Tour de Waltham Forest said that "bad drivers" and "scary road conditions" - including poor road maintenance - were the biggest barrier to people cycling more. The things liked about the area are its off road, quiet routes including the Lea Valley and Epping Forest.

In other words, local cyclists dislike using road space which has to be shared with motorists and only feel comfortable cycling on cycle lanes which are physically separate from motor vehicles. It’s yet another small confirmation that integration is a failed cycling strategy and that only segregated infrastructure on the Dutch model is ever really likely to result in Britons taking up cycling in a big way.

Unfortunately Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign's response to their own survey is to indulge in the usual chirpy optimism:

"Getting key movers and shakers in the council out on bikes, including council leader Chris Robbins and deputy leader John Macklin, really helped get them to see those issues from a cyclist's perspective.

"That should mean an even better borough for cycling in the future."

Even better than the conditions which are regularly exposed on this blog? Wow, that's something to get excited about, is it not?

Yes, the council leader and deputy leader got on bicycles in June and you can really see what a difference that made.

I don’t want to be pointlessly sectarian but the reality is that Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign is a cycling group which is so complacent and feeble that it can't even get cycle stands restored which disappeared over five years ago. And its website (20 years of glorious campaigning!) links to the William Morris Gallery, which is a bit ironic.

If Councillors Robbins and Macklin are such great friends of cycling, they will throw out their five proposed neighbourhood 'improvement' schemes which reallocate street space for car parking, introduce yet more one-way streets to the detriment of cyclists, and put car parking bays beside cycle lanes and on carriageway space that could be used for a segregated cycle lane. But I have no reason to suppose that they will do anything but rubber-stamp these car-centric schemes. But then I also have no reason to be confident that Waltham Forest Cycling Campaign is even aware of these so-called 'improvement' schemes and their implications. And Councillor Robbins, who they delude themselves is a friend of cycling, is the man who can take most responsibility for this and this. And then again The council is dropping parking charges at six of its car parks for two hours every Saturday in the run up to Christmas in a bid to attract shoppers. Waltham Forest Council's Leader, Cllr Chris Robbins, said: "We want to get people into our town centres and this is one way of making that happen.” Waltham Forest's Labour-Lib Dem coalition council are entirely responsible for diverting cycle lanes to create parking bays.

This survey of local cyclists' opinions reinforces what ought to be the message and the solution for the London Borough of Waltham Forest:

• Bike lanes and cycle paths without sufficient separation from the road are not suitable with high speed or high volume motor traffic.

• Reductions in speed and volume of traffic always help. All residential streets here [in Holland] have a 30 km/h (18 mph) speed limit.

• Fully segregated cycle paths provide a good degree of subjective safety but must be built to a suitable standard.
Here they have a minimum width of 2.5 metres if for single direction use and 4 m for bidirectional use. Paths for pedestrians are separate.

It’s time to abandon the integrationist strategy. All the evidence suggests that those people who do cycle prefer to do it in traffic-free conditions, not on roads shared with drivers. Surveys like the Waltham Forest one make it all the more ironic that the London Cycling Campaign (and for that matter the Cyclists Touring Club) embrace the failed policy of integration (i.e. cycling on roads together with motor traffic, with at best an integrated on-road cycling infrastructure). Cyclists and non-cyclists both agree about what they like and what they dislike, but Britain’s two main cycling organisations, run by ideologues, aren’t listening and display a haughty indifference to what has proven to be a spectacular success in the Netherlands.

What the likes of the CTC are doing with their "it's perfectly safe, just get on with it" attitude is belittling the concern that people have for themselves and their loved ones. They need to address the reasons for the fear, not just blame people, quote statistics to show that cycling is safer than gardening, or endlessly repeat the mantra that there's safety in numbers. The Netherlands is remarkably rarely referenced by the CTC website or documents produced by the organisation. That's most peculiar, given that the Netherlands has the highest cycling rate in the world. Even over there cycling rate varies considerably, something which is directly related to the quality of the infrastucture.

The extent to which cycling is currently failing in the capital is revealed by one startling statistic in the Sustrans paper which I haven’t come across before:

The number of cycling trips made by children and young people [in London] declined between 2001 and 2006/07.

Fewer and fewer children are cycling (I explained why that might be happening at one local school here), far less women cycle than men, and, as Sustrans acknowledge, ‘Cycling is still a minority activity with most Londoners never getting on a bike’. This sorry state of affairs is the reflection of justified public anxiety about cycling on roads which have to be shared with lorries, buses and car drivers who come terrifyingly close, and the reality that the existing cycling infrastructure is largely cosmetic, frequently badly maintained, often obstructed, and lacking in convenient, quick, direct routes. The advantage of cycling – it’s a very quick way of getting around a dense urban environment - is nullified if the cyclist is regarded as a third-class road user whose convenience must always be subordinated to that of the motorist.

Much of the recent growth in cycling in the capital has been in inner London. In a little-noticed remark made at the IMPACTS Conference, Berlin, in June, Keith Gardner of Transport for London stated

Recent tailing off suggests growth from current interventions may have peaked.

Has he let the cat out of the bag? Mr Gardner didn’t enlarge on this intriguing observation, or supply any data. If his remark means what it appears to mean then cycling in London may no longer be growing but may have gone as far as it is likely to go in the current road conditions. If modal share has peaked, it might even begin to decline. The Mayor's transport strategy envisages a growing amount of commercial traffic on London's roads, which in itself is likely to suppress cycling.

As things stand, the future of cycling in Outer London depends on marketing cycling as an attractive means of personal mobility on streets like those shown below. Is that strategy going to succeed? I don't myself believe that it will. And contrary to what Koy Thompson, chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign, says when he speaks of the creation of “a Copenhagen effect” in London, the best practice isn’t there but elsewhere.

(Below) This photograph was taken just after the first one shown above. The cycle lane on the A106, Warren Road, Leyton. A major route for cyclists. I squeezed between the traffic, continuing along the cycle lane to where it went alongside this bus, only to find the cyclists' Advanced Stop Line obstructed by vehicles. That pavement build-out is lethal for a cyclist. Notice that even the pedestrian prefers to keep as far away from the traffic as possible.

(Below) Selborne Road E17. A through route for cyclists using the London Cycle Network.

(Below) The cycle lane on Forest Road E17, at the junction with the A112. A major collision zone. That lorry driver turned left at the junction without signalling. (The glowing light is a brake light, not an indicator light.) A good thing I didn't undertake, as the cycle lane invites me to.

(Below) Beulah Road E17. Here the one-way system blocks access to Walthamstow Village for cyclists approaching from Addison Road and Shernhall Street. So they ride on the pavement instead. Cyclists going in the opposite direction are funnelled down a narrow street lined with parked cars. Institutionalised pavement parking comes before the convenience and safety of pedestrians and cyclists.