Tuesday, 18 October 2011

On Southwark Bridge, for a change

This is a sort of postscript to my last piece, on the third Blackfriars Bridge flashride. After the flashride, some of us went to the bar above the Young Vic, to discuss Danish versus Dutch cycle engineering and such fascinating topics, and after that, I needed to find my way back to Blackfriars Station. Not having a clue about the roads of London south of the Thames, particularly the SE quarter (did you know, by the way, that there used to be S and and NE London postcodes as well?), and not inclined to consult maps and iPad, both of which I was carrying, I got lost, and, happening upon Cycle Superhighway 7, decided to follow it to the City, which I had never done before. This took me across Southwark Bridge, which I had not cycled across in recent times. I was impressed, and those who read this blog regularly will know that I am not often impressed by London cycle infrastructure.

Southwark Bridge, photo by Alan P
For Southwark Bridge now has concrete kerb-segregated cycle tracks on both sides painted Superhighway blue. These have narrowed the carriageway to one not very wide motor lane in both directions, which should limit motor speeds. The pavements have, I guess, not been altered from how they always were, and are generous.

This all looks very progressive to me, almost "Dutch". Now a little bit of searching of photos on Flickr has shown me that the concrete segregation was in place before the blue CS7 markings were put down, so I don't actually know when the segregation was done and if it was part of  the Superhighway plan. Certainly in 2004 all Southwark Bridge had was very narrow painted advisory bike lanes, with two motor lanes northbound and one southbound. This image suggests the segregation might have been built in 2007, well before the Superhighways programme started.

Discussion of this subject on A Grim North has suggested that the segregation was not put in primarily to benefit cyclists, but to reduce the capacity of the bridge to lengthen its life. This does not seem to make too much sense, as the bridge previously had a reputation as "the car park bridge" as, according to Wikipedia, coaches used to park there. This parking was presumably in the inside northbound lane, and on top of the advisory cycle lane, reducing the bridge to two lanes: all the old photos I have seen show double-yellow lines in the southbound lane. If the parking was evenings only, and the bridge really operated as three lanes during the day, then, yes, the segregated cycle tracks could have reduced its capacity during the day. So this would be a case of, as so often, the best cycle facilities in the UK coming about accidentally, for reasons other than the desire to create good cycle facilities, as with the Cambridge Guided Busway.

In this case, it does not matter. The result has been to create the best crossing of the Thames for London cyclists, and it made sense to direct CS7 this way. At the north end of the bridge Queen Street is closed, and motor traffic has to turn right or left onto Upper Thames Street, as shown below. Cyclists on CS7 thus have a clear run into a largely traffic-free Queen Street, and then King Street, via another bollarded road-closure, right up to Gresham Street, in the heart of the City: altogether one of the best bits of cycle route in London. This is very much a Dutch city-centre pattern of combining segregation, in places where there is no sensible alternative, with strategic closures of other streets to motor vehicles (sometimes termed filtered permeability for cyclists), or use of one-way street networks, with cycle exceptions, to provide almost traffic-free cycling on the remainer of a route.

Looking from Southwark Bridge towards Queen Street, photo by Alan P
Now again, none of this really came about through strategic planning for cycling. The closure of Queen Street to motor vehicles was part of the Ring of Steel response in the City to Irish republican terrorist attacks in the early 1990s. Again, the best stuff for cyclists in the UK was not done specifically for them. But the combination of this and the segregation of Southwark Bridge did make this the best route for CS7, though, foolishly, the superhighway officially stops at this junction, and the blue lanes do not continue into Queen Street. For this combination of reasons, this is the best-implemented and most attractive part of Boris Johnson's sorry, rather less than half-hearted, Cycle Superhighway project.

In further discussion on A Grim North, it is commented that the segregation on the bridge is poor, with high, unforgiving kerbs, and the tracks too narrow to allow overtaking of slower cyclists. I would say that it would be possible to overtake another cyclist on these tracks, particularly if you rung your bell and got them to move in as far as possible, but it is certainly true that the kerbs could have been done better. Here is a new cycle track in Assen, which I photographed on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain study tour in the Netherlands in September. I have referred to this one before: it is the secondary cycle track, for the benefit of which Assen moved the canal two metres sideways. Being new, I take it to represent the state-of-the-art of Dutch design. You do see slightly different designs all over the Netherlands.

Track along the south side of the Vaart canal, Assen
The fact that this is a two-way track is not relevant here. The outer kerb is in fact fairly high, and vertical, but the inner one is low and chamfered, allowing a possible run-over on to the pavement. This, incidentally, also makes the track usefully permeable to disabled buggies and the like. Accommodating the needs of the disabled is a significant, and generally overlooked, purpose of Dutch cycle infrastructure. Clearly this is not a very similar environment to central London; nevertheless, lessons can be learned. Note the shiny new lifting bridge on the canal in the background. The Dutch are always building bridges. There are loads of bridges across the canals of Assen, and all of them have cycle provision. Either they are cycle-only bridges, or they have cycle lanes or tracks. And you never get parking on Dutch bridges. The Dutch have twigged that space on bridges is too precious to devote to parking.

Despite the general wateriness of the Netherlands, crossing water on bikes there is now never a problem. It has been a problem in the not-so-distant past: here is Mark Wagenbuur's intersting video on the history of the Berlagebrug in Amsterdam. In 1984 Dutch cyclists had to fight for cycle provision on this bridge. They won.

One thing that comes up repeatedly in discussions of Dutch cycle infrastructure by British cyclists is that they don't understand how very new it is. This means that those who last visited the Netherlands perhaps 20 or 30 years ago really don't have much relevant knowledge (another reason to suggest they go on a study tour). Virtually all Dutch cycle infrastructure has been replaced, or radically improved, in the last 30 years, and David Hembrow suggests that most Dutch cycling is now done on infrastructure that is less than 15 years old.  The Berlagebrug incident was perhaps a turning point from which the modern Dutch infrastructure-driven cycling renaissance can be dated. The incident also shows that this renaissance, in its early days in the 1980s, was far from secure. The Berlagebrug didn't recieve cycle lanes until 1982, but they were threatened by a change in political fashion only two years later. The cyclists in Amsterdam stood up to that threat. This is a salutary lesson to the cyclists of London today: it shows how similar our situation is with Blackfriars Bridge now.

It may be that TfL don't think good cycle provision on Blackfriars Bridge is necessary, because they have done CS7 and Southwark Bridge. This is a mistake, because cyclists need a dense grid of safe routes if mass cycling is to come about: this was a vital lesson the Dutch learned in the 1980s. It doesn't all need to be kerb-segregated (Berlagebrug is not), but it does all need to join up properly, cycle space needs to be uninterrupted by parking and taxi and bus stopping, and all the junctions need to be safe, all factors conspicuously factor lacking at Blackfriars and throughout London. There are few enough Thames crossings as it is, and none dedicated to bikes. Boris Johnson could have spent £60 million on a cycle bridge across the Thames, but he chose to spend it on a ridiculous cable-car project instead. The city of Amsterdam injected a fair amount into the London economy by getting London architects to design the magnificent Nescio Bridge across the Amsterdam-Rhine canal, possibly the longest dedicated cycle bridge in the world (which, surprisingly, only cost £6.5 million in 2005 – how do they do huge infrastructure so cheap when it seems to cost us thousands to put in a few cycle stands?). It's a pity that our talented people are not able to exercise their design abilities on cycle bridges for our city, which so pointedly needs them – and not just across the Thames, but also across the Rivers Lea, Brent, and many rail and motorway corridor barriers.

But I wish to end on a positive note. Cycle Superhighway 7 at the City end is a little blue oasis in the general cycling inferno that is London. It is a start. It gives a glimpse of what we could do and what we could get. The key elements are there: dedicated, uninterruptible space for cycling, sensible junction and signal design*, and integration with de-trafficked streets. We need to keep pressing at all levels of government pointing out the good examples like this, showing how removal of motor vehicle space and motor through-routes have improved, not impoverished, the city where they have been implemented, and explaining that the Cycling Revolution requires this sort of streetscape to become the norm, not the exception, and that this would be good for all Londoners. The odd historical reasons we have got here notwithstanding, we have here a start.

*Post-script: OK, in my desire to end on a positive note, I was too positive here. As Cyclists in the City points out today, the junction at the north end of Southwark Bridge is a nightmare at busy times (compare the picture he has used with the one I used). Though not as bad as what is proposed for Blackfriars, it is still poorly designed, with masses of blue paint, but vehicles still allowed and encouraged into the left hand-lane, allowing no space for cyclists.


  1. I live in the area and to me and my two children Southwark Bridge has always been the 'cyclists Bridge' as Waterloo is windy, bus-ridden and long. Southwark has a slight climb,raised brow, good downhill stretch and then a change of gear and uphill all the way to the Guildhall. A lot of the lane and kerb work on SB has been finished in the last year but it was there before BJ was elected it's just that the bridge has had so much work done on it.Anyhow, it's a cracking bridge and for me personally I use it all the time as my river crossing point regardless of what part of Central London I'm going to.It also ties up quite nicely with the quiet City streets at the weekend which gives you a good cycle tour of the world's best city!

  2. It's probably the best crossing of the Thames - but I also think the Greenwich foot tunnel is good too (when the lifts are working!). So, it's all relative really. I'm usually in agreement with you David, but genuinely struggling with you on this one. The standard is terribly low if the only competition is a Foot Tunnel!

    The only positive things I have to say about Southwark Bridge are the following:

    1. no actual parking on the bridge, but this is countered by bus parking on the southern approach road, and
    2. it's probably the least "motor traffic'ed" of all the bridges.

    The junctions at either end of the bridge are truly dreadful.

    I'm not a big fan of the aesthetic appeal of the segregated curbs either - they look vulgar and aggressive - which leads me to believe they weren't intended as cycle lanes in the first place (as your blog alludes to).

    I would be terribly disappointed if Southwark Bridge were used as any kind of 'template' for designs going forward.

  3. Grim North is broadly right about the motivations for the Southwark lanes, and in fact it does matter.

    Broadly right, because the bridge had acquired the status not so much of a car park bridge, but a coach park bridge, and believe it or not this was considered to compromise its strength. The concrete barriers were erected to make the bridge unusable this way.

    It does matter, because although there was indeed a peripheral benefit to cyclists, which I accept should not be sneezed at, that was not the main motivation BUT the cost of the works was paid for almost entirely out of TfL funding for the LCN and not from the City’s bridges endowment fund which is how most bridge maintenance and repair is supposed to be funded.

    The City, which in many ways is in the middle ground as far as progressive cycle policies are concerned (behind Hackney, but streets ahead of Westminster), has form for raiding LCN budgets for projects which are at best tenuously related to cycling. Much of the LCN funding provided to the City by TfL has gone towards consultants’ reports, even towards subsidising the City’s own transport & planning staff costs, rather than spending on concrete and tarmac. Even the physical spend has largely gone on “side entry treatments” – those pretty granite setts at junctions on side streets, which may well calm traffic approaching the major streets, but to the benefit of everyone passing along the main street, including motor traffic and pedestrians, not just cyclists.

    If Southwark Bridge was really about cycle infrastructure, you wouldn’t be thrown off at either end into the path of streams of heavy motor traffic with nothing more than pale blue “elephants’ feet”.

    And you are right, the cycle superhighways had nothing to do with this, they just daubed blue paint on what was already there.

  4. I used to cycle into work over London Bridge before I found Southwark bridge and felt I was taking my life in my hands every day, particularly going home Southbound. I love Southwark Bridge. I feel so much safer coming in and gong home, plus the Kings/queens street approach is brilliant compared to the madness you get on many other city roads. Not claiming it's perfect, but it is still a lot better then the alternatives.

  5. The point about the misuse of LCN budgets is general to all the boroughs, not just the City. There never was any proper auditing of whether the money was being spent well for cycling, and most of it was wasted.

    In Brent it was also the case that most of the LCN funding went on consultants' reports that never led to any meaningful changes on the streets, and the changes that were made were usually prettifying ones like new paving, bollards and tables at side road junctions with main roads, that could only with great creativity be imagined as cycling improvements.

    The misspending of money intended for improving cycling in London has always been an unexposed, quasi-criminal scandal, that really should be looked into by something like the Commons Public Accounts Committee, and people brought to account.

  6. I think the blue paint was added last August as looking at my photos of London last year the north bound lane doesn't seem to have any paint on it and there appear to be metal hoardings and sacks of rubble in it
    I vaguely remember it was coned off too - certainly the cyclist using the road seems to suggest this.
    Sorry I can't seem to post the link the photo is in Sheffield Cycle Chic photostream on flickr set London Aug 2010 photo DSC06977