|Stag Lane, Edgware, north Brent|
This is all as subjective as you could get, but the Brent Biking Borough report, produced by MVA Consultants, confirms the extraordinarily low level of cycling in this part of London. It lists, amongst many other things, the cycling modal share for journeys to work in the all the wards of Brent, based on the 2001 census. This ward, Queensbury, has 0.7% journeys to work by bike. This is not quite the lowest in Brent: adjacent Fryent and Kenton wards get 0.6% and 0.5% respectively (though, at this level, these differences are probably not statistically significant). And remember these are cycling to work rates. Cycling normally gets a higher proportion of work journeys than of all journeys in low-cycling places. Commuters are the easiest group to get cycling, as they tend to be fit adults. The Brent cycle to work average is 1.6%. (The highest cycle to work ward is affluent Queens Park, adjacent to Westminster, with 4.2%.) But Transport for London's Travel in London report (2009) reports a mode share for cycling trips of 1% for Brent. So we can be sure the mode shares are lower than the cycle to work numbers, probably by about one third.
Further information in the same report tells us that the London Travel Demand Survey 2006–9 found that in Kingsbury NW9, about 40% of people had not used a bike at all in the last year, the highest non-biking rate in Brent listed. (They didn't do Edgware HA8. Stag Lane is divided between Kingsbury NW9 and Edgware HA8.) The area is also very Asian (about 50%). The LTDS found that of Asians in Brent, 90% never cycle, compared with 74% whites, 78% other and mixed, and 85% black. I feel that caution is needed in relating ethnicity to cycling rates, however. It may not be that Asians as a group are disinclined to cycle. It may be that they just live in the areas of Brent where cycling conditions are least attractive. I think this is probably the case to a considerable extent.
The report does not break down cycling to school rates by ward, but tells us that, for Brent as a whole, it is 0.3% (same for secondary schools as primary). It also, very unfortunately, does not tell us cycling rates by sex. This is a lamentable omission, because of the strong relationship, that I have pointed out before, between cycling rates and gender equality in cycling. As cycling rates get lower (in developed western countries) so the gender split becomes more unequal, with fewer and fewer women cycling. Only in the highest cycling country, the Netherlands, do more women cycle than men. So I don't actually know, but it would appear to me that, of the tiny number of people cycling in this part of Brent, a very low fraction are female. Hence the "once every six months" observation.
I don't want to be excessively gloomy here. People sometimes accuse me of "talking down" cycling. But I want to tell it as it is. I am not in what David Hembrow (or a friend of his) called the "Everything is good committee" The fact is that, in part of a so-called Biking Borough, in a city which, according to its Mayor (who came up with the Biking Borough phrase), is undergoing a "cycling revolution", cycling, all cycling, is at an almost vanishing low level. And for women, children, and old people, it is practically extinct: virtually unheard of.
Jim Gleeson, of the excellent, data-focussed blog (Drawing) Rings Around The World, has extracted census data showing how cycling has changed in outer and inner London 1971–2001. Here it is:
|Courtesy Jim Gleeson|
Jim Gleeson calls this "the urbanisation of cycling in London", and wonders what the reasons for it have been. I have little doubt about those reasons. They seem obvious to me: they are all around you as you cycle in north Brent. Here is another picture of Stag Lane, showing how, typically for this area, the front gardens of the houses have been paved over, and are almost invariably occupied by three cars.
|Three car standard household in north Brent|
|Another Stag Lane view|
If you try to cycle on this road, you find you are in the way of very impatient motorists and white van drivers who have no understanding of cycling whatever and who will overtake dangerously all the time with insufficient room. You find you are constantly having to pull out to pass parked vehicles, which gives no room for the stream of traffic behind you to pass the opposing stream. You have to "take the lane" and risk the incomprehension or aggression of the motorist behind. You need nerves of steel to cycle on a road like this, far more so than to cycle on a main road like the largely parallel A5, where there is at least space, and I avoid cycling on it, even though I live on it, preferring to go round a different, longer way, via the 20mph zone of North Way and Princes Avenue, for most journeys.
But this is a minor suburban through-road, a yellow road on the Ordnance Survey Landranger maps. On roads like this, there is virtually no cycling (except on the pavements) because there simply is no room for the bike. And there is virtually no cycling in the whole area because for most journeys there are no alternatives to roads like this.
|On the straight section of Stag Lane cars typically travel at 30 mph plus, and this is where you have to cycle|
I am comparing these two streets because they are so similar. They have similar total width between property boundaries, similar amounts of green space in the streetscape, similar trees, similar size houses, similar pavement and carriageway widths. These streets are both typical for their areas. The pictures were taken with the same camera at the same focal length. Spot the difference.
|Mollison Way, Brent & Harrow|
Vredeveldesweg has cycle lanes on both sides, done with nice paving. Parking is not allowed in Dutch cycle lanes at any time. It also has very mild traffic calming (that is not a problem to cycle over). There is one central, undivided lane for cars. Cars that pass in opposite directions might overlap onto the cycle lanes, but this is not a problem if there are no cyclists there. If cyclists are there, one car would have to wait. Likewise, cyclists would not be confined to the cycle lanes in the absence of cars. The speed limit in Vredeveldsweg is 20km/h (18.5 mph). The speed limit in Mollison Way is 30 mph.
Note also a fine detail of good Dutch design not significant to cycling, but to pedestrians: the way the driveways slope to the road. They only do so in the last section, so the pavement is flat, for walking and wheeling wheelchairs on. On the other hand, the London driveways slope continuously from the property boundary to the road, so forcing pedestrians and the disabled to walk or wheel on a slope much of the time. Overall, the Dutch suburban environment is simply of far higher design quality than the London one. It encourages walking and cycling, which the London environment certainly does not.
What has happened in outer London, over the period that Jim Gleeson has graphed, is that a cycle of decline has been allowed to operate whereby people have acquired more and more cars and been allowed to store them everywhere on the streets, so making those streets more and more difficult for walkers and cyclists. At the same time, of course, traffic levels have soared. The cyclists that there were in the 1970s, over time, have been squeezed-out, and given up, and then acquired cars themselves, which have been added to the pool, making things even worse. A couple of generations have grown up with no experience of cycling whatever, and so no understanding of what treatment cyclists on the road need, so they give them scant consideration when driving. That hostility has forced most of the few cyclists who were still on the roads off them. The culture of cycling has been wiped out almost entirely.
Cycling to school has disappeared (the 0.3% is a Brent average and is likely far lower in Queensbury ward). Children are constantly ferried around in cars by their parents or older siblings, not only for school, but for all their after-school and weekend journeys. A huge number of the journeys in our suburb are accounted for in this way, I know for a fact. Those parents are then relieved from this duty by the obligatory graduation of the children to driving themselves, getting their own cars at age seventeen. This has become entirely normal and expected.
So huge numbers of cars have to be accommodated, parked and moving, and more and more space becomes unavailable to pedestrians and cyclists. So the standard of the street environment declines, and the decline in cycling continues. With essentially no enforcement of speed limits or driving standards, and very large numbers of aggressive young men behind steering wheels, a significant number uninsured and unlicensed, very few are prepared to take on the hostile environment on two wheels. Most of those who are prepared to do so are young men. Nobody would want their granny to cycle in this environment, and no-one would allow their 12-year old child to cycle on their own.
How can we start to reverse this cataclysm for cycling? The Brent Biking Borough report came up with this list of recommended measures:
- 20 mph zones
- Review and removal of restrictions and bans on cyclists
- Improved cycle parking
- Improved wayfinding and cycle signage
- Bike and ride at rail stations
- School cycling initiatives
- Further roll out of Greenways
- Maintenance and advice clinics
- Cycle training
- Targeted interventions such as information in homebuyers' packs and information for employees and those with health issues
- Events and challenges
- Cycling on prescription
- Cycle try-out schemes
- Bike recycling schemes
- Awareness training for cyclists and goods vehicle drivers.
"Oh dear!" is all I can say to that lot. The (now much missed) "Crap Waltham Forest" blogger Freewheeler analysed this report as well, and I cannot do better than his scathing summary:
This MVA Consultancy report does a professional job of identifying the poor condition of cycling in Brent. However, it doesn’t diagnose it because it is incapable of understanding the reasons for it, and therefore its cures for the condition are rather like medical cures of the pre-modern era – a mixture of quackery and superstition. All the traditional cycling folk remedies are here – cycle training, signposting, promotional activities, recycling old bikes – and none of them will save the patient.More recently, TfL's chief Peter Hendy said this:
But while it's one thing to pedal round Hyde Park Corner or the Vauxhall gyratory in the rush hour, in outer and suburban London, there are plenty of quiet roads and routes that could be developed to help people leave their cars at home.
This is why we also have the innovative Biking Boroughs Scheme to really try to develop local cycle hubs in places where the potential for a shift to cycling is greatest and resources can be targeted. These cycle hubs will become beacons of cycling excellence in outer London and act as catalysts for change in these areas.
In pursuit of this, earlier this year, thirteen councils across London made successful bids for a share of £4 million funding after pledging to put cycling at the heart of their local transport plans. The money will be used to install more cycle lanes and other cycling infrastructure. So residents of these boroughs will benefit from measures to make cycling safer and more convenient: Barking and Dagenham, Bexley, Croydon, Havering, Redbridge, Brent, Ealing, Haringey, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Bromley, Kingston and Merton.So what is a "cycle hub"? Sorry, I haven't got a clue, and I don't think Hendy has either. This is a patent load of waffle, that, like the MVA report, totally misses the point and displays no comprehension of the problem. It is utter rubbish to say that:
In outer and suburban London, there are plenty of quiet roads and routes that could be developed to help people leave their cars at homeIf you actually live and cycle in these places, you know that all the really quiet routes are no use because they lead nowhere. All the useable minor through-routes, like Stag Lane and Mollison Way, whatever colour of road they may be on the map, are choked with parked and moving cars, and most of them are bus routes as well. This reminds me of something Kevin Mayne, Director of the CTC, said some years ago when he was invited to talk to Camden Cycling Campaign. He laid stress on what he called the "white roads" (from their colour on OS maps), and the fact that 90% of them (or something like that) were in towns, and claimed that utilisation of these was somehow the "solution" to UK urban cycling (as opposed to the outlandish concept of Dutch-style cycle tracks that CCC was exploring at that time). These ideas can only be produced by people who have no idea of the true on-the-streets reality of the UK suburbs, and also no idea of the standard of environment, demonstrated by the street in Assen, and thousands of other streets in the Netherlands, that is actually required to generate a mass cycling culture.
So what is to be done?
It seems to me that we will not get much more cycling in the London suburbs until the typical street (Mollison Way) looks a lot more like the Dutch street (Vredeveldsweg). But how can we possibly get that? We can't just take all those cars away from people in a democracy. We can't tell them they can't own and use all those cars. No politician could say that; it would be electoral suicide, when people's whole current lifestyles are bound up so intimately with use of those cars. And we can't magic up more space. People need a viable and attractive cycling alternative first, before we can start to reduce car use and car ownership. But it's the cars that are preventing people cycling. This seems like a chicken-and-egg situation. Where do we start?
It seems to me we have to first throw out all that stuff from the Biking Borough report and all this fantasy about using "quiet roads". We have to start by doing what the Dutch did at first. They were in a not entirely dissimilar situation 40 years ago, when they first started to invest heavily in cycling infrastructure. They never had such a bad situation as us, they never allowed it to go so far, so it is not an exact parallel. But it is the best parallel. The video on this posting from Mark Wagebuur explains it. The Dutch did succeed in turning a not totally dissimilar situation around. They de-cluttered their once car-dominated urban environment and made it safe and attractive for cycling. From having higher car-ownership than the UK, the Dutch reversed this position.
|Assen town square in the 1970s (courtesy David Hembrow)|
|Assen Town square today (courtesy David Hembrow)|
|Burnt Oak Broadway junction with Stag Lane, Edgware: a huge width available for cycle infrastructure|
|Quality Dutch-style cycle infrastructure can be achieved on main roads in London: Royal College Street, Camden.|
At the moment in these suburbs we have far too many residential through-routes. If I decide to drive, or get a taxi, from my house to, say, Stanmore, Harrow, or one of the other local suburban town centres, there are probably 50 different routes the car could take. A few of them are on main roads, and the rest are rat-runs, threading through the network of residential streets. To get Dutch-type cycling conditions on minor roads, this has to be changed.
LCC did a good job, years ago, of mapping all the recommended minor-road routes in London for cyclists, and these now appear on the TfL Cycle Guides as the "yellow routes". But in my area, all these yellow routes are also open to cars, so they are rat-runs, and they do not, in reality, offer significantly better cycling conditions than the main roads.
What the Dutch have done, in their towns and cities, with extraordinary comprehensiveness, is to ban all the rat-runs. The minor road routes between local centres are only available to cyclists. This has been achieved through a combination of road-closures with cycle access, and strategically-planned patterns of one-way streets, with cycle exceptions. This latter option is very general as it is very cheap to implement. The patterns of one-way streets force cars to use main routes while maintaining all necessary motor access, while good design, plus the 20 km/h limit (or lower limits in Woonerven or "Play Streets"), keep speeds down. Residential areas are broken down into discrete "cells", that cars use residential roads to get in to and out of, but travel between on major roads. Few choices of route are open to them, while cyclists have more options, and, usually, more direct routes.
|One-way residential street in Assen with cycle exception: the standard pattern for Dutch streets of this type|
|Device on a road in Groningen that only allows wide vehicles through|
|Fryent Way through Fryent Country Park, Brent|
Using these three main classes of measure: segregated, high-quality infrastructure on the main roads, elimination of through-traffic from minor residential streets through closure and one-way patterns, and "green", off-road, cycle paths, cycling can be made viable again in the suburban environment, and the cycle of decline can be put into reverse. The use of cars can be brought under control, and then the street environment can start to be de-cluttered. The quality of the residential roads can then be improved, and streets like Mollison Way will start to look like Vredeveldsweg. Then cycling in the suburbs will really have come back, and pedestrians will have hugely benefited too, as will anybody who cares about the quality of the environment.
All this would clearly take a long time to achieve. But the sooner we start, the sooner we will get it. What we need is the political will and the money. The money should not be difficult. The UK is a wealthy country. If the Dutch can afford it, we can too. If we can afford the third biggest defence budget in the world, we can afford cycle infrastructure. But we need to be realistic about money. The Brent Biking Borough allocation from TfL is £294,500 for the next three years. That's about £100,000 per year, which is about 3% of the sum one state-run corporation, the BBC, spends on subsiding car travel by its employees ever year, or approximately the same as TfL spend on subsidising their own employee's car trips every year. This sum is a joke. It is 38p a year for each Brent resident. And the adjacent boroughs, Harrow and Barnet, just as needful of cycling infrastructure, are not Biking Boroughs, so they get nothing from this fund. Dutch expenditure on cycling is about €30 per head of population per year.
So Dutch expenditure on cycling is two orders of magnitude higher. At this rate, to build what the Dutch have built in 40 years, it would take us 4,000 years. Can we afford to wait that long? And of course, as David Hembrow always says, cycling infrastructure is cheaper to build than not to build, in other words, cheaper than paying the costs of the alternative, in terms of road deaths, ill-health, traffic congestion and pollution. But that message has not yet sunk in with UK politicians. The current government wants to spend £897 million on new roads for cars.
It depends in the end on what sort of society we want. We can't rebuild the suburbs of outer London, but we could alter them radically, with the correct, directed investment, over a long period, and they could be really cycle-friendly places once again, as they were when built in the 1930s. We have fallen a long way, to the point where a fraction of one percent of Brent's children travel to school by bike. In Assen, virtually 100% of children get to school by bike. In Amsterdam, the figure is 60%.
Here's a picture to end with: young children cycling home from school on their own, in Assen. If we start now with the right measures and a sensible level of investment, in a few decades we will be able to take a picture like this in Edgware, Kingsbury, Harrow or Wembley. How much is that worth?