Tuesday 30 October 2012

Where ‘Go Dutch’ is going nowhere: the case of Waltham Forest

Part One: this Plan is not Dutch 

Antonio Gramsci famously wrote

The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear. 

Among these symptoms may be included the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s 2012 Cycling Action Plan, which was greeted with rapture by certain bloggers who should have known better, and which - if you are looking for an example of hyperbole this will do nicely - was reported as bringing Amsterdam-style cycling measures to this particular car-sodden fragment of car-sick Greater London.

Before I proceed to bash this particular manifestation of ‘Go Dutch’ let me first of all say what I believe should be done to reverse cycling’s stagnation in an outer London borough like Waltham Forest.

A genuine Cycling Action Plan should, to my mind, have two basic features. First and foremost it needs to build a network of primary segregated cycle track routes across the borough; secondly it would close all residential areas to rat-running. This is my understanding of how the Dutch reversed their cycling decline, and I am not aware of any other evidence-based model which has been shown to work.

Let me enlarge upon these two core aspects with regard to Waltham Forest. The first thing that needs to be done is to establish basic bike grids across this relatively compact borough, i.e. physically segregated cycle paths on the high traffic volume primary routes. The major north-south route through the borough – its spine, as it were – is the A112, which runs between Chingford and Leyton via Walthamstow. The major east-west routes are the A503 (Forest Road) and the A104 (Lea Bridge Road). Add to that the A106 (Ruckholt Road/Eastway), a commuter route into the City, and High Road Leytonstone.

Here are some scenes from the A112. The Waltham Forest Cycling Action plan offers nothing to change conditions for cycling here. In the first photo, in the Chingford section, cars are parked quite legally in a cycle lane.

Turning these primary routes into safe, convenient, attractive segregated cycling routes (which obviously would require priority over all side roads and dedicated cycling-only green phases at major junctions) provides the beginnings of a network, which can then at a later date be enlarged. You do not then need to waste any money on a promotional budget to ‘encourage cycling’ because the attractions of cycling will be highly visible to anyone travelling in the borough. Such a network needs to be uncompromising in its adherence to the Dutch template. There is no reason in principle why such a network could not be built. On some sections all that is required is the re-arrangement of existing infrastructure, such as here on Chingford Road (A112), where the cycle lane has been placed alongside parking bays.

Instead of expecting cyclists to risk ‘dooring’ you move the cycle lane next to the footway and create a cycle track, and put the parked vehicles alongside the moving vehicles. Local residents don't have to lose their precious parking bays and cyclists gain a safe, segregated cycle path.

There is, of course, always the argument that there ‘isn’t enough space’. But while a section of the cycle campaign community keeps repeating this mantra, Waltham Forest Council has been busy re-allocating footways and cycle lanes for car parking on supposedly ‘narrow’ streets, as shown below.

(Above) The cycle lane and footway on Wood Street E17 (the B 160) being converted into free parking bays in December 2010.

(Below) Palmerston Road E17. A through route to Walthamstow's market and shopping centre. Space has been found here for parking bays along both sides of the road, even though this causes problems for two-way motor traffic.

The primary network then needs to be reinforced with a radical programme of road closures and one-way systems which halt rat-running through all residential areas, making access by car circuitous and access by bike straightforward and direct. Low speed limits and traffic calming obviously need to form another aspect of this support infrastructure.

However, the borough’s record of strategic road closures is very poor; they are few and far between, their implementation is incoherent and unsystematic, and even where a road closure has been introduced since the announcement of the new Cycling Action Plan no attempt has been made to provide cycling access. The council’s purported commitment to permeability could scarcely be more hollow and more contemptuously indifferent than here (below), where Somers Road E17 meets Palmerston Road. This is a permanent structure, not roadworks.

I don’t believe any other programme of action will reverse the stagnation of cycling in this part of Outer London. And the primary network has to come first. Trying to catch up with the Netherlands by shunning the key basics and by instead ‘pepper potting’, i.e. working to improve isolated and disconnected sites in the hope that one day they can all be joined up or that this in itself is sufficient to get more people cycling, who will then magically exert political influence, in my view simply isn’t going to lead anywhere but further failure.

What’s wrong with the new Cycling Action Plan? The problem with Waltham Forest Council’s supposed commitment to ‘Go Dutch’ is that it ignores the need for a primary network of segregated cycle routes, it does nothing whatever to stop rat-running, it in no way makes driving less attractive or less convenient and it does not re-allocate an inch of carriageway from the motor vehicle to the cyclist. Its solutions are wholly vehicular cycling solutions which in no way challenge the hegemony of the car. In short, the London Borough of Waltham Forest’s version of ‘Go Dutch’ is not remotely Dutch in practice.

The Waltham Forest Cycling Action Plan’s commitment to ‘going Dutch’ boils down to ten points, which fail to cohere into any kind of programme that is recognisably akin to the infrastructure to be found in the Netherlands. The full Plan can be read here - and now here is my point-by-point critique:

The first two points require certain commitments to lorry safety. However they apply only to lorries which come under the control of the local authority (most of the lorries on Waltham Forest’s road don’t). There is also the question of how such commitments will be effectively monitored and enforced. Finally, this kind of initiative is basically aimed at making it safer for cyclists and lorries to share the road, whereas Dutch planners prefer to keep cyclists and lorries separate.

The third commitment promises to ‘Identify the borough’s 20 most dangerous junctions and roads and introduce remedial measures to improve cycle safety.’

Apart from the issue of how ‘danger’ is defined and identified (this will doubtless be the conventional approach of using recorded road casualties), the promise of ‘remedial measures’ is lamentably vague but will almost certainly involve conventional ways of supposedly ameliorating the risks faced by vehicular cycling. A larger Advanced Stop Line and dedicated cycling lights which give cyclists a few seconds start ahead of motor traffic at signalled junctions appears to be about as radical as it’s going to get. It probably won’t even add up to that. This is, of course, not remotely Dutch. At the very least, cyclists need a dedicated cyclists-only green phase. But this, of course, would conflict with ‘network assurance’, i.e. smooth traffic flow. All transport planning in Greater London seems to be based on the core principle of accommodating and easing existing motor vehicle flow; there is no commitment to traffic evaporation. 

Scepticism about the efficacy of this plan can only be reinforced by the fourth commitment, which starkly underlines its poverty at a fiscal as well as infrastructural level, promising at some point in the future to spend the risible sum of £100,000 “to support safe cycling and cyclists, on top of the existing £70k spent on cycle training.” A banquet requires more than a saucer containing a scattering of stale crumbs.

The fifth commitment to ‘Carry out an annual cycle count across the borough to accurately assess the full cycling levels in Waltham Forest’ would be more impressive if it didn’t simply reinstate a policy which was terminated two years ago. There is also the very big question of which roads are chosen for counts, and when and how often the counts take place. In the past the Council has preferred to focus on primary commuter routes (which give the best results) and moved the (very inadequate) annual one-day count from the autumn to the summer with an obvious view to getting the best figures possible. Massaging cycling statistics helps no one, unless all you are interested in is PR and self-congratulation.

The sixth commitment promises to ‘Improve consultation arrangements with the Waltham Forest London Cycling Campaign on all matters cycling and carry out a borough wide survey of residents’ views on our approach to cycling. 

The kindest thing I can say about this is that this kind of consultation is unlikely to produce results which will be useful or enlightening. I am afraid there is a vast abyss between how I think a primary route such as Lea Bridge Road should be restructured for cycling and the kind of infrastructure which pleases cycle campaigners, as is starkly illustrated on Page 5 (printed number) of this document.

There is a further commitment to more cycle parking provision and a proposed improvement to the Bike Recycling Centre – worthy but not transformative initiatives and not in any sense uniquely Dutch.

At the end there are the two most ostensibly radical commitments:

Introduce a scheme to allow cyclists to ride in the opposite direction to the traffic flow in our one way streets. This will inform a Waltham Forest permeability strategy (maximum route choice, minimum diversion) 

The problem with this is that the borough’s network of one-way streets exists for the sole purpose of managing traffic flow for the convenience of drivers and to maximise car parking. This is the antithesis of the Dutch approach to one-way networks, which designs out rat-running. The London Borough of Waltham Forest is one massive rat run and cycling can’t and doesn’t and won’t flourish in this environment. Simply allowing cyclists to ride against traffic flow doesn’t by default make cycling subjectively or objectively safe, or attractive.

Finally the Plan promises to Roll out a 20 mph default speed limit across the borough in our residential streets. The problem with that objective is quite simple. Whilst desirable from a casualty-reduction perspective, there is not a scrap of evidence that 20 mph zones generate new numbers of cyclists, for the simple reason that 20 mph zones on the British model do not deliver safe, convenient, attractive cycling. They do not in themselves modify in any significant way the car-centric status quo.

(Below) Conditions for cycling in a Waltham Forest area-wide 20 mph zone.

Part Two: things are getting worse for cycling, not better 

The Cycling Action Plan does not address the need for safe, convenient primary routes in the borough. Nor does it address the very low modal share for cycling locally, or enquire what its causes might be. Amnesia, as usual, rules.

In reality conditions for cycling have been getting worse for cycling in recent years thanks to ’improvement’ schemes like these which involve putting cyclists alongside parking bays and narrowing the carriageway, putting cyclists closer to lorries etc. Things are about to get a whole lot worse on the borough’s primary north-south route, the A112. The council is about to do three catastrophic things on a section of this primary route connecting Walthamstow town centre with High Road Leyton.

Firstly, it is widening the footway, in the process getting rid of the existing cycle lane, with the result that cyclists will be pushed closer to motor vehicles on a route with high volume traffic including buses and lorries. Secondly it is introducing new central islands, which will create new pinch points and generate conflict between cyclists and large vehicles such as heavy goods vehicles. Cyclists will be squeezed out, which is a classic recipe for a fatality. Thirdly, the widened footway will be used to create parking bays, with the result that cyclists will face the threat of ‘dooring’. The idea that existing non-cyclists can be persuaded to ride their bikes on streets like these seems to me to be completely lunatic. But you would never know the catastrophic implications that this new project has for vehicular cycling from the council planners' smiley-smiley rhetoric:

The Council has been given funding by Transport for London to look at road improvements along Hoe Street between Third Avenue and Boundary Road. The changes will help to make this part of Hoe Street a safer, more attractive and more user-friendly environment for everyone, and will help encourage the use of safer and more sustainable modes of transport.

Hoe Street will be narrowed between Granville Road and Boundary Road as many people cross the road here. Narrowing the road will reduce traffic speed, and reduce the distance people have to cross. We are also proposing a footway loading bay here to improve access for deliveries and reduce traffic congestion. 

New or improved central islands will be provided along Hoe Street to help people cross the road.  

Additional cycle parking will be provided close to shops to make it easier for people to cycle as a mode of everyday transport. 

The plans show all too clearly how space which is available in such ‘improvement schemes’ for a segregated cycle path is instead being used to make car driving and parking even more attractive (see below).

Needless to say when you look at the fine detail of the traffic order you will discover that free footway parking bays for motorists have been slipped in at the very last moment, long after the consultation was over, even though the original plan suggested that such bays would only be for business deliveries. The council planners have played this trick before: the Forest Road Corridor Scheme purported to be about reducing traffic speed, but after the consultation was over, the Traffic Order revealed that a new, hitherto-unmentioned aspect had been included: raising the speed limit from 30 mph to 40 mph on a section where the carriageway had been narrowed.

(Below) A waste of space. Car-centric planning to the detriment of safe cycling.

Part Three: Accessorize with ‘greater mutual respect’ 

As a substitute for meaningful cycle infrastructure we get associated 'Go Dutch' initiatives like this, announced in the council’s propaganda sheet Waltham Forest News, issue 74 (20 August), promoted with the endorsement and active support of the local LCC branch:

Six local driving schools have already signed up to Bikeaware, reducing road danger at source. Getting a driving license is a good thing. Not only opens it up another transport choice. It also gives people a thorough understanding of the Highway Code, which is after all important whichever way you get around. Bikeaware is a simple concept developed by an LCC trustee(www.bikeaware.org.uk). Waltham Forest has embraced this ‘pop up brand’ and six driving schools have already pledged to teach safe driving around cyclists. 

Problems with that, anyone?

Check out the website and you’ll find gems like this:

This simple scheme would change the cycling landscape forever.  

greater mutual respect would inspire less confident cyclists, particularly women, to saddle up. 

Unfortunately, this is not evidence-based campaigning. And once again we witness cycling campaigners not even asking for what needs to be asked for, but instead settling for inferior vehicular cycling strategies with no history of success and which, all too predictably, will fail to increase cycling’s modal share in any significant way.This is, sadly, business as usual.