Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Let them hear your voice at Blackfriars this Wednesday

There is a tide in the affairs of men.
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Act 4, scene 3, 218–224

Can people-power achieve a modern, civilised urban design for the Blackfriars intersection? Please help make it happen.
Progress on making the roads of the UK, and particularly of London, fit for walking and cycling has been more or less stalled for at least 30 years. But now, I think, we may be on that tide which should be taken at the flood. We have reached a moment which could be our equivalent of that at which the Dutch, through mass, popular action, reversed their slide into motor-centric city planning in 1973, with the launch of their Stop der kindermoord ("Stop the child murder") campaign.

There is a confluence of several factors. There is a growth of cycling in London, confined mainly to the middle-classes and to inner-Londoners, it is true, but a growth, nevertheless, that is bringing with it an upswell in support for more investment in cycling, plus an understanding, gained from the common experience of these people, who are knowledgeable and well-travelled, of what is being achieved in other countries in making major cities people-friendly, but not being done in London, and a disgust that our authorities are not using the knowledge that exists to tackle the deadly danger that cyclists and pedestrians face on our streets every day, preferring instead to serve an outdated car-centric socio-economic model of the city that does nobody any good.

As Tony Raven, a London Cycling Campaign (LCC) member who happened to be on the scene of the latest sickeningly predictable and avoidable cyclist death in London commented:
“It only takes four deaths to shut down the whole rail network until the safety issues have been addressed, but after tens of cyclists nothing changes and the carnage goes on.”
Another factor is that we now have an organised campaign in the UK for proper cycle infrastructure (and for the pedestrian-friendly planning that goes with it): the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. This has changed the game in terms of what cycling organisations are now asking government for. No longer are they asking merely for ineffective tweaks around the edges of a hostile road environment, which may perhaps just be noticed by dedicated existing cyclists, but which would do nothing to achieve mass cycling. The Cycling Embassy, and other groups now thinking along similar lines, are demanding a complete re-think in the way cycling is accommodated in our citiess, in line with the policies which have been shown so spectacularly to work in the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Austria and Italy (and even in places in New York and Paris). One established, and major group which is now thinking along similar lines is the LCC, with a new campaign slogan Go Dutch.

And, of course, another factor which has galvanised and concentrated action has been the extraordinary intransigence of Transport for London, headed by Mayor Boris Johnson, over the re-design of Blackfriars Bridge. This has led to two "flashride" protests by cyclists on the bridge, organised by LCC and backed by CEoGB and other groups. The first, in May, organised in about 48 hours, saw hundreds of cyclists take to the road in protest. The second, in July, attracted at least 1000 protesters, and gained major national news coverage.

The third Blackfriars Bridge protest will take place this Wednesday, 12 October, at 5:45pm, starting from outside the Doggets pub on the south side of the bridge. We are aiming to make this far bigger than the earlier protests. We want everybody who cycles in London, anywhere, ever, and every pedestrian and public transport user who is dissatisfied with the way the Government and TfL refuses to prioritise their movements in the city, preferring to prioritise instead the movements of those in cars, to join us. This is far bigger than cycling: it is about the whole way our precious urban public space is used. Car drivers have had it all their own way for far too long.

In July I wrote a post on this blog that suggested that cycle activists, rather than fighting ineffectually over scraps dropped from from the "big man's table" of motorised hegemony, for such tiny measures as advanced stop lines and the like, which will never do anything to move the UK towards the kind of cycling culture seen in the Netherlands and Denmark, should up their game, and rather be thinking about, and working on, designs that would completely transform our roads. They should be seizing the initiative, taking the best international ideas and adapting them to British towns and cities to make the wider public to think creatively and fundamentally about the whole purpose being served by our streets.

To aid this process, the Cycling Embassy organised a study tour in the Netherlands to find out exactly how the Dutch have achieved their world-beating cycling rate of 28% of all journeys by bike. Staff at the London Cycling Campaign have been on a trip to the Netherlands as well. And now the LCC have done exactly what I called for: they have seized the initiative and come up with a visionary and far-reaching re-design of Blackfriars that puts cyclists and pedestrians first (their visualisation shown at the top of this post). This is Blackfriars as it might be re-engineered by Dutch or Danish urban planners.

LCC’s radically different road layout features protected cycle lanes and safe turns with cyclist-specific traffic lights, as well as convenient crossings for pedestrians. 
750m sq of easily accessible public space would also be opened up outside the Unilever building for recreation or other purposes.
The design team was led by my friend Richard Lewis, an urban planner who has studied Danish infrastructure design. He currently works for the London borough of Newham, but he used to work for the Borough of Brent, where he drew up a very forward-looking public realm guide (little of which has so far been implemented in Brent, unfortunately).

Here's the comparison of TfL's plans with LCC's for the north Blackfriars junction:

TfL design
LCC design
The TfL design is for a 1970's style urban motorway junction where the movements of cars are prioritised and speed is encouraged, creating unnecessary danger created for all road-users. Pedestrians (who are present in huge numbers outside the station, and for whose convenience the whole layout should have been designed) are led a merry, and long, dance to get from A to B, and cyclists have inadequate space, with no real protection, and have to attempt to cut across fast-moving lanes of vehicles to make simple manoeuvres.

The LCC design represents something far closer to modern, state-of-the-art, European city centre street design, with two compact, simple T-junctions, through which motor vehicles are forced to drive slowly and carefully. Pedestrians have direct, fast crossings on their desire-lines, and flows of cyclists are separated out and taken through the junctions separately and safely, using capacious cycle tracks and lanes, without having to cross lanes of moving traffic. In addition, lots of space is actually saved. There can be no argument that "we don't have space for this".

If you wish to see more detail on how it could actually work, LCC have made some animations that demonstrate the possible flows of bikes, pedestrians and motorised traffic through the junctions in their design. Though LCC's Going Dutch policy is not, as yet, fully-formulated, this is a professional and compelling piece of work, and the Mayor and Transport for London would be very foolish to dismiss it out of hand.

I am sure this design is not perfect and that not everything has been thought of. It is not exactly how I would have designed it, and I could query fine details. For example, I would not have included the advance stop areas for cyclists at the junctions. The Dutch have perfected cycle-friendly junctions, as I saw on my recent trip with the Cycling Embassy, and advanced stop areas have no role in modern Dutch design for major junctions with cycle segregation, because cyclists are never required to get to the front of lanes of motor traffic (as they are shown at the front in LCC's "street-level" visualisations). In modern Dutch design for busy junctions, cyclists are taken to the junction in segregated tracks and kept to the right (our left) of all motor lanes, then given safe passage using their own all-green cycle phase while all motor traffic is held. The LCC design seems to be borne out of a desire to compromise between the Dutch paradigm and UK traditions, but this is not necessary. Cyclists will never wish to use the vehicle lanes if the cycle track flows are correctly prioritised in the signal sequence.

But these are details, that I don't want to get into a "People's Front of Judea" versus "Judean People's Front" type of argument about them. I am willing, and happy, to support this design. This design is vastly better than anything that has ever been built on a similar road junction in the UK, and is a great publicity tool for getting the Going Dutch message across to the wider public. It provides a basic concept, or set of concepts, that cycling, pedestrian and urban design campaigners can rally around. Of course there would be tweaks if TfL actually agreed to re-think their design from scratch and go for something like this. But I have got what I asked for when I called for campaigners to produce a transformative design. We now know basically what we want, and everybody who sees it can examine it and discuss it and debate its merits.

So please, whether you cycle in London or not, whether you wish to cycle in London or not, even if you drive through central London, but want to see a simpler, calmer and more humanised environment with better public space and safety for all (and probably less congestion because fewer vehicles would be attracted to the centre of the city), then please support the campaign for a better Blackfriars. If you possibly can, please join with us this Wednesday on Blackfriars Bridge for a peaceful demonstration to send an unmistakable message to City Hall that Londoners demand new thinking, not only on Blackfriars, but on all main roads and junctions in London. 

We know what we want: we want modern, people-friendly streets. We want a safe environment for all, and we want an equitable balance of space and priority for all transport modes. We know how these things can be achieved. They have been achieved elsewhere and could be achieved in London, if only our politicians had the courage to think differently.

Political will can be like a chain of dominoes. Once politicians get the message that public opinion is not what they thought it was, that there is a new tide flowing, then all the old obstacles and objections can fall down one after another almost instantaneously, and a whole new situation can be created, where everybody finds they are actually on the same side. The Dutch people created a whole new situation in 1973 with their campaign to "Stop the Child Murder". A flood tide of opinion created then by a confluence of circumstances changed roads and urban design policy completely, and the Netherlands has never looked back. I hope Londoners may now do likewise, and take their tide at its flood as well.

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