Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Causes for optimism in November

Grey November is here in London, and a very grey, damp one we have been having so far. But every season has its place, and there is nothing wrong with the grey dampness of the London November, in its place. It provides a contrast to golden October, a pause before the hardness of winter sets in, with the (sometimes forced) jollity of the Festive Season, and, with nothing much growing or needing harvesting any more, and no sky to see, a time for reflection, with few distractions from the natural world. As Thomas Hood wrote in 1844:
No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!
And so I cycled off yesterday, armed against the darkness and damp of November with a new Schmidt dynohub, which perhaps I will review sometime (brief review: it is a superb gadget), to plan Brent Cyclists' Infrastructure Safari. This ride will take place this Saturday, 12 November. I am sorry that it coincides with another high-profile ride in central London, Mark and Danny's Tour of TfL's 10 most dangerous junctions for cyclists, but my ride was scheduled first. Its idea is somewhat the reverse of Mark and Danny's ride. We will not be deliberately going to dangerous places. The idea of this ride is a constructive one, to look at as many implemented examples of cycle infrastructure in inner London as possible on a short ride, to critique them and assess how they are working, note how they could be improved, and also note locations with no infrastructure, which patently need it.

What I am going to say next is purely based on subjective opinion arising out of my exploratory ride yesterday, interspersed with the odd fact, but I think it is worth saying, bearing in mind the highly negative (but I believe realistic) articles I have written recently about the state of cycling in outer London. It should be borne in mind that when I lived in the Borough of Camden, up until eight years ago, I cycled in inner London every day. Since moving to the outer suburbs, I have been cycling less to the centre. So I am perhaps more likely to notice the gradual changes there, on the occasions when I do cycle down, than those who now cycle there every day.

The disclaimer is that because I was exploring cycle infrastructure, I was likely to be going to places where more cyclists are; even poor cycle infrastructure has some positive effect on cycling numbers, in my experience. Also I was cycling around at peak time on a weekday.

What I have to say is that I got the feeling that cycling in inner London, particularly in Camden, Islington, Southwark and the City, has taken off in a new way, that I had not seen before, and is now probably on an irreversible upward trend. Last week, at an event I attended in Parliament, on behalf of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, the Cycle Rail Awards Ceremony (never mind what that is, it's not important), the well-known transport commentator Christian Wolmar stated that "cycling in parts of London has now almost reached Dutch levels". This is an exaggeration. The highest-cycling borough, Hackney, had, in 2009, a mode share of 6% officially recorded, and though it might have gone up since, it is unlikely to be comparable with the mode share of cycling in Dutch city centres, which I guess would be typically above 50%, since they have whole cities, including suburbs, with a mode share of 30–50%.

Nevertheless I felt, riding yesterday, that a qualitative as well as a quantitative change has occurred in cycling in central London. It felt very different to how it felt only a couple of years ago. It is also starting to look different. Yes, it is still dominated by young to middle-aged men wearing high-viz and helmets and riding fast bikes fast, but not so much as before. There seems now to be a high proportion of women in the mix, mostly young women. There seem to be more continental-style bikes on the road – practical, town bikes with hub gears, mudguards and chainguards, integral lighting, luggage-carrying features, and an upright riding position. I even saw a lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike with handlebars decorated with flowers, as you see all the time in the Netherlands. The sedateness of the Boris Bikes seemed to have made its impact on the cycling atmosphere as well.

Starting my journey from north Brent, I saw there is still no cycling at all to speak of north of the North Circular Road. But after going through the horrible Neasden pedestrian/cycle underpass, getting into south Brent, on the quieter backstreet routes and in the parks, I was seeing women on bikes, and even families of children on bikes. And from Camden Town onwards there seemed to be a flood of people on bikes. When I cycled around Camden a decade and more ago (when I was involved in planning the Camden segregated cycle tracks with Camden Cycling Campaign), when I stopped at junctions, I would need to be wary of the cars around me, wondering what the drivers were likely to do, but I would not have checked for the presence of cyclists behind me, because there would never have been any (as in outer London today). But yesterday there seemed to be cyclists behind me all the time, if they were not in front or to the sides.

The cycle facilities in inner London still do not make up anything resembling a coherent network, on the Dutch or Danish or German pattern, but some of the gaps that used to annoy me intensely have now been closed up. In Camden, Islington and the City, at least, there now seems to be the beginnings of a functioning network. There has been an improvement in cycle permeability, and also a fall in motor traffic. This last is not an opinion, but a fact, confirmed by a useful analysis by Jim Gleeson

The segregated cycle facilities in Camden are now getting absolutely packed, confirming both the popularity of this style of engineering with a broad range of cyclists (though still not adopted widely by other boroughs, or by Transport for London on its Cycle Superhighways), and the fact that these highly-engineered routes are now being fed better by better bike permeability elsewhere. This is what we always intended, in Camden Cycling Campaign, in our campaigning for them in the late 1990s. We never imagined many London roads would have segregated cycleways on them – just a few, to create a few high-profile, highly-attractive routes, in the Dutch style, fed by lower-profile permeability and cycle priority measures on other routes.

The signs are that this has worked, and I felt for the first time, on this journey, that the undoing of this work has now become unimaginable. Though, as I have reported before, there have been threats to the Camden segregated cycle tracks, I can't see them being taken away now: they are too popular. Unless, that is, cyclists were to be given the whole road, as they have been in Goldsmith's Row, Hackney, where a segregated cycle track was removed. But I can't see this happening in the Camden cases – there is too much commercial activity needing servicing by motor vehicles on these streets, so the segregated tracks remain the best solution.

The tracks still stop dead at the Westminster border, though the routes notionally continue. There has been no change in the anti-cycling attitude of Westminster Council (though they are, for reasons of their own budget, now starting to reduce free parking, which should benefit cycling). But the City Corporation has had something of a turn-around in attitudes, and the effects of this are noticeable. 

There remains much to do in the City. The very useful Queen Street and King Street corridor north of Southwark Bridge, extending Cycle Superhighway 7, that I noted in my article on the bridge, has become such a high cycle-traffic route it needs to be converted to a proper bicycle road, Copenhagen style, with priority at the junctions, and none of the silly button-pressing and confusion with pedestrian facilities that currently occurs at the Cheapside junction. The Gresham Street to Moorgate route via Coleman Street is also so popular it needs regularising, with a properly signlised crossing of London Wall, for bikes only.

Back in Camden, I saw, and perhaps this is the first time this has ever occurred in British history, proper measures to divert and keep protected a cycle route when the usual route is closed by building work. This is a diversion on the Royal College Street two-way cycle track:

Diversion currently operational on the Royal College Street cycle track, Camden (picture courtesy Jean Dollimore).
I noted the problem with these works back in June, and I know that Jean Dollimore, co-ordinator of Camden Cycling Campaign (whom I happened to meet yesterday on the track: two-way cycle tracks are particularly sociable places) has been working hard to try to resolve it since then. My earlier photo showed the famous UK-standard "Cyclist Dismount" signs on the track. Now the solution implemented by Camden officers looks so good it is almost as if they have been reading A view from the cycle path.

Just to cast our minds back, before 1998 this road was a three-lane one-way race track for cars, with cyclists directed to a wiggly and inconvenient back street route. Just like Matthew Wright now thinks is the best, indeed the only practical, solution for London cycling. Since then one lane for cars has been removed, and the remaining two lanes have been narrowed and calmed, to make way for the cycle track and segregating strip. Now, one of the remaining lanes has been taken away from cars to keep cyclists safe for the expected 6–12 months duration of the building work. Note the child cycling in the picture. Segregated cycle tracks on main roads are particularly crucial to getting children cycling. Keeping them safe and the priorities unchanged when works are carried out is particularly critical, as the Dutch know. It seems that one London council is now aware of this as well.

Unfortunately I can't lavish too much praise on Camden council, as two other important cycle routes in the borough, that I used yesterday, are also blocked by street works, and without satisfactory mitigating measures for cyclists. One is in Tavistock Place between Marchmont Street and Judd Street. Jean informs me this blockage, for cable-laying, should only last a few days. At least the closure of the track here is clearly signed in advance. The other is Malet Street, in the centre of the University of London, where major street rebuilding work, taking a long time, should have had temporary cycle facilities incorporated, on this very high-cycling street. The result of the lack of them is cyclists annoying pedestrians on the pavement.

Cycle facilities in Islington looked relatively neglected, with a failure to sign routes consistently. In the City and Islington, cyclists were not directed around temporary blockages to their routes.

Going back out to Brent, I found that there is still a lot of work needing doing on permeability there, in the southern parts of the borough that I don't often cycle in. Brent did attempt at one time to create an off-road cycle path linking Canterbury Road, near Queens Park Station, to Kilburn High Road, but the details of the execution are poor, without even dropped kerbs in the right places. For this route to be useful, something needs to be done about the dangerous gyratory system around Queens Park Station. There needs to be a bypass to get cyclists from Albert Road to Salusbury Road without getting involved in the one-way system. Then very simple bike permeability measures, like cut-throughs at the road closures of Chevening Road/Winchester Avenue and Christchurch Avenue, where they meet Brondesbury Park, and Lechmere Road at Willesden High Road, have not been thought of.

Basically, the pattern is that conditions for cycling deteriorate as you go out from the centre of London, with fewer and worse cycle facilities, and the number of cyclists falls off correspondingly. The divide between the two cities, inner and outer London, the first of which has clearly had at least a bit of a "cycling revolution", and the other, which certainly has not, is becoming more and more striking.

I don't believe in the thesis of "safety in numbers". Cycling safety comes from good infrastructure design, and that then gets the numbers up – the safety does not come from the high numbers themselves. This is demonstrated by the increasing casualty rate amongst London cyclists, both absolutely and relatively, despite their rising numbers. This is a great cause for concern, and can fairly be blamed on Transport for London's lack of concern for the safety of cyclists, and their prioritisation of motor vehicle flow, as most casualties are occurring on the major junctions managed by TfL, not the boroughs. The boroughs are increasingly concerned about this, and are speaking out publicly about it. Anger, particularly at recent deaths at London's major junctions, widely commented to be unsafe for cycling, is behind the ride around the 10 most dangerous junctions.

It may be that a tipping-point has been reached in central London, where the number of cyclists has now become so great that they can exert themselves, through protests, conventional lobbying of politicians, and through the London Cycling Campaign, as a serious political force for gaining real change on the still, for the most part, far too hostile roads. If so, this would generate even more cycling, and a virtuous circle of rising cycling and improving conditions would be established, the reverse of the cycle of decline that I described operating in outer London. Not wanting to be complacent, it now looks to me, for the first time, on the basis of yesterday's ride, on a cold, damp November evening, as if that point could have been passed, and that inner London could be leading a revival of cycling in the UK, ahead of such traditional English cycling towns as Cambridge, Oxford and York, and despite many of the policies of London's mayor.

If you are interested in the Infrastructure Safari, join Brent Cyclists at 11:45 on Saturday at Gladstone Park Railway Bridge (the foot of Parkside, NW2). A meeting point closer to the centre could be arranged if anyone not from Brent wishes to join us.


  1. Good luck on your ride Saturday! Sounds interesting. Love to come, but I am on another continent! Too bad Mark and Danny couldn't have scheduled their ride for Sunday. It would have been a good combo; see the good on Saturday, the bad on Sunday.

  2. While definitely not as grand as College St, the Lower Lea cycle track allows me to tackle a hill without worrying about skip lorries roaring by. A while back I reported on the provisions they installed when resurfacing the track http://iamnotacyclist.blogspot.com/2010/10/road-work-job-well-done.html

  3. "Back in Camden, I saw, and perhaps this is the first time this has ever occurred in British history, proper measures to divert and keep protected a cycle route when the usual route is closed by building work."

    It took the construction company (¿or Camden?) a good few months to put this in, with the obligatory "Cyclists Dismount" signs in place all that while. Okay going North, but Southbound you were left in the lurch. They put the diversion in over the week of my viva, the last week I needed to take this route.

    Still, better late than never.

    I attempted to take my bike out for the first time in Brent last Sunday, and if moving house hadn't wrecked my front dérailleur I would be joining you on Saturday.

  4. The main cause for optimism in November is that the nights start getting lighter next month.

  5. Ah but the Schmidt dynohub is so good I like it being dark, so I can use it :)