Wednesday 1 December 2010

‘Pedal power: the cycle hire scheme and cycle superhighways’: going nowhere

If only this cycle lane could be painted blue and made mandatory, what a difference it would make… Not. The westbound A503 in Walthamstow, a major route into central London.

What was the winner of the best cycle facility in London in 2010, awarded by the London Cycling Campaign at its AGM earlier this month? The bike hire scheme.

With well over a million journeys taken so far and over 100,000 users signed up, the scheme — more than any other — has given everybody in London secure, convenient and safe access to the best mode of transport there is. The scheme’s sheer visibility and practicality were the deciding factors in awarding this to Transport for London.

Everybody in London? It’s another reminder that the London cycle campaign establishment is lodged in a little bubble world made up of the West End, a bit of the South Bank and the City. But as we know, boroughs like Greenwich, Hackney, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest and Newham are strange unvisited regions, “out there” to LCC full-timers.

This LCC award seems to me a little ironic in the light of yesterday’s report by the London Assembly Transport Committee, entitled Pedal power: the cycle hire scheme and cycle superhighways.

The Transport Committee discovered that:

Around one-fifth of respondents had started cycling as a result of the cycle hire scheme.

Around one-fifth reported using the hire bikes instead of just the Tube, eight per cent instead of just the bus and seven per cent instead of just walking. Less than one per cent reported using the bikes instead of the car.

So less than 13 people gave up driving and switched to cycling. Not exactly a cycling revolution.

TfL’s original exaggerated estimates of 10 uses per bike per day have nowhere near been met. TfL claimed a "5% shift from car to bike", but defined it misleadingly as 5% of the bike trips replacing car trips. TfL thought it would get 3000 trips converted from cars, but the reality turns out to be less than 150 trips converted from cars to hire bikes.

The hire bikes are currently being used three times every 24 hours, which means that if the sample used in this report is at all representative the bike hire scheme is contributing at best to a cycling modal share in Greater London of 0.02 per cent. Which makes it the most expensive cycling project in history.

The report also reveals that TfL has preferred not to release its own findings about what users think of the bike hire scheme and cycle superhighways:

There are various pieces of information which TfL could publish immediately. This includes: the ‘raw data’ from its Ipsos Mori survey of users of the cycle hire scheme and its survey of users of the cycle superhighways

Why is TfL being so coy? Presumably because the results of these surveys are embarrassing. TfL is all about spin, not reality. There are plainly lots of disgruntled cyclists out there but in the smiley-smiley world of cycle promotion no one wants to hear from them.

The bike hire scheme is attractive to Boris Johnson and Transport for London because it gives the appearance of promoting cycling while doing nothing whatever to challenge the dominance of the motor vehicle by reallocating road space to safe, convenient cycling. The bike hire scheme challenges nothing; it’s a substitute for the cycling infrastructure that London so desperately needs. The basis of mass cycling is there – look at the examples supplied by SkyRide – but bike hire does nothing to develop it because shortage of bikes isn’t the problem.

The biggest obstacle to mass cycling in London is, of course, Transport for London itself. It’s a fundamentally car-centric body which prioritises motor vehicle flow above all other considerations. Secondly it prioritises parking for motor vehicles. This culture also permeates local authority transport planning. It’s all about accommodating the motor vehicle and the driver. This is the number one priority. If someone in a property with no off-road parking chooses to own three cars, then that person must be accommodated, and if necessary the footway will be turned into a car park to make their vehicle ownership possible and so as not to inconvenience other drivers. As the streets reach saturation point for parking, they are then made one-way to smooth vehicle flow, irrespective of how this might affect cycling. (I’ve just obtained the latest TfL Local Cycling Guide 4, November 2010. It is laughably out of date, since it shows local Waltham Forest cycle routes which have long since been denied to cyclists by being made one way.)

You are never going to get mass cycling while this transport culture persists and it is delusional to pretend otherwise. But this is the illusion that almost all U.K. cycle campaigning buys into. The vehicular cycling philosophy is all about thinking you can generate mass cycling on roads shared with traffic while simultaneously accommodating mass motoring. This is the common ground shared by the Mayor of London, the members of the London Assembly Transport Committee, the London Cycling Campaign, the Cyclists’ Touring Club, cycling campaigners like Carlton Reid, and numerous others.

It is a bleak irony that among the obstacles to mass cycling in London is the capital’s most progressive politician in the sphere of transport. Jenny Jones, shown below handing over the LCC prize, is a cogent critic of the Met’s traffic policing and a feisty defender of Critical Mass. But she represents a political party which asserts that Cycles are a vehicle and, as such, cycling should, wherever possible, take place on roads

Photo: road c.c.

Bike hire is a massive waste of money which would have been much better spent on infrastructure. It will do nothing for modal share, and may yet turn out to be a gigantic white elephant. As the report acidly notes

The costs and funding arrangements for the cycle hire scheme remain opaque.

What’s more

TfL has reported that, in the first four months of the scheme, it has achieved £1.9 million of income from charges. This is just 10 per cent of the amount it expects to generate from charges by March 2011 (£18.7 million).

That that extra £16.8 million will be generated in the next 4 months seems highly unlikely, especially if it turns out to be a long snowy winter.

The report reveals (on the seventh page) that the scheme is actually absolutely nowhere near "breaking even" as TfL was claiming a few months ago. And even then there's a very long way to go to ever pay back the set-up costs. Realistically, it is probably impossible for the scheme ever to do this

TfL has not revealed how much income from sponsorship it has received to date. It is possible that it has received less than anticipated because the scheme has not rolled out as planned. The agreement with Barclays provides for £25 million of funding over a five year period (equating to £5 million per year) providing TfL meets key performance indicators such as the number of trips generated through the scheme.1

TfL has not told the Committee how much Barclays has paid to date for its branding of the scheme. The argument that all details of the relationships between TfL and Serco and Barclays are confidential is not a compelling one.

Needless to say the ostensible Green credentials of the scheme have also turned out to be bogus:

It was originally expected that only electric vehicles would be used for redistribution. Serco is now using 14 electrically powered vehicles, 10 Focus/Mondeo vehicles and, on a temporary basis, three 7.5 ton lorries and four Sprinter vans. It also uses 10 Nissan vans for on-street maintenance.

As for the Cycle Superhighways:

The two pilot cycle superhighways are attracting 5,000 cyclists per day and only one per cent of respondents to our survey had started cycling specifically as a result.

60 per cent of respondents did not feel safer using the cycle superhighways and two-thirds did not feel they were respected by other road users.

No surprises there.

In the face of this devastating evidence, what conclusions does the Committee draw?

The Committee welcomes the introduction of the cycle hire scheme and cycle superhighways. These schemes have an important role to play in increasing cycling in London.

Cognitive dissonance on the grand scale yet again. People won’t cycle in motor traffic and the Committee therefore welcomes schemes to encourage them to cycle in motor traffic. Mass cycling requires the reallocation of road space from the car to the bicycle and the Committee therefore welcomes the continuation of the car-centric status quo on London’s streets.

The way forward is acknowledged by cyclists, if not by those who claim to represent them:

Many people want more measures on the cycle superhighways which reduce motor traffic, traffic speeds and/or provide better segregation amongst road users. Respondents to the Committee survey have commented on other vehicles frequently driving on the cycle superhighways. One said "[the cycle superhighways] need to be physically segregated from other traffic. There are too many lorries drifting into the cycle lanes despite the blue paint." Sustrans has highlighted that the greatest barrier to Londoners cycling, or cycling more, is fear of traffic yet the cycle superhighways generally follow busy arterial roads and provide no or minimal segregation from traffic. It therefore concludes that in their current form the cycle superhighways have limited scope to facilitate an uptake in cycling, particularly by new cyclists.

What recommendations does the Committee make? Apart from coming up with such flaccid generalisations as “all junctions on each route will be improved”, its concrete proposals are all vehicular cycling ones:

The Mayor and TfL could establish a minimum level of features which should be introduced. This could include:

all the blue cycle lanes will be 2 metres wide and mandatory

all the advance stop lines will be 5 metres deep

There's not a squeak about car-free streets or segregated cycle paths with priority at side roads and dedicated cycle lights at all junctions - you know, the sort of stuff that has a proven record of massive success elsewhere in Europe.

Nor do the Transport Committee's feeble recommendations address the fears of the majority of existing cyclists who have so far used the two pilot superhighways (they also ignore the reality that existing ASLs are mandatory and ignored by drivers on a colossal scale), let alone the fear and the inconvenience which deter the vast majority of Londoners from cycling.

As another blog cogently observes

advance stop lines are not the solution.

The London Assembly Transport Committee exposes itself here as a collection of provincials, either ignorant of or indifferent to what has been achieved elsewhere in Europe. London’s atrocious modal share is never mentioned. Even the cycling infrastructure of Paris doesn’t rate a mention, let alone Amsterdam’s.

As always, we enter the realm of faith detached from all reality:

It is hoped that the cycle superhighways will help create the potential for a critical mass which will eventually encourage others to get on their bikes and help realise the Mayor’s ambition for a cycling revolution in the capital.

In much the same way, alchemists in the middle ages believed you could turn base matter into gold.

You can read the report here.

The Committee welcomes feedback on its report.


(Below) A 'cycle friendly' street on the model recommended by the London Cycling Campaign - a cycle lane leading to an Advance Stop Line cycling reservoir. The westbound A503.