Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cycle danger in London and the predictable, grim farce of the Superhighways

While I was finding "Causes for optimism in November", others were not being so cheerful about the state of cycling in London. The Tour du Danger protest ride against the policies of Transport for London, particularly its refusal to redesign dangerous junctions to make them safe for cycling, which was organised by ibikelondon and Cyclists in the City, attracted a large crowd. They were spurred on by, firstly, the second cyclist death in three weeks on Cycle Superhighway 2 at the Bow Roundabout, and, secondly, by Boris Johnson's outrageous comments in response to questions in the London Assembly about cyclist safety, perhaps the worst of which was:
One of the first cycle superhighways takes you round the back of Elephant & Castle – that cunning little cut-through that I sometimes use.
Though I have to tell you ...sometimes I just go round Elephant & Castle because it's fine. If you keep your wits about you, Elephant & Castle is perfectly negotiable.
This, about the statistically most dangerous junction in London, that has seen 89 cyclists casualties in the last two years. That statistic alone tells you, even if you have never visited the place, that Elephant and Castle is not "fine", and it is not "perfectly negotiable", irrespective of where your "wits" are. It is unacceptably dangerous for cyclists, just as are literally hundreds of other junctions and sections of road across London. Though TfL keep creatively finding ways to combine statistics to suggest that cycling in London is getting safer, as in this attempt:
It is encouraging that the proportion of cycling collisions on TfL roads that result in fatal or serious injuries has declined since 2008, indicating that the severity of collisions is falling,
in fact the casualty rate per mile cycled in London is getting worse, according to Department for Transport figures:

A claim that cycle casualties per journey are declining, that TfL makes in this document, is statistically dubious, for the reasons explained in this valuable blogpost.  In any case this is an irrelevant statistic, as it is the casualty rate per distance travelled that is the real measure of risk. This last-mentioned reference does demonstrate that we actually haven't got much of a clue as to what the cycling rate in London really is, so it is very hard to tell how risky it is, and how the risk is changing. As with everything in cycling, the Dutch do this better. The Dutch have a saying, measuring is knowing. The Dutch know what their cycling rate is, because their cycling is largely on cycle paths, and they have automatic counters on the cycle paths that look like this, that tell them how many cyclists use the routes:

Cycle traffic counter in Groningen
Because, in the UK, we don't actually know what the split of cycling is between major roads, minor roads, pavements and paths, and in most of those places, we don't count cyclists, we haven't really got a clue about how much cycling there is, and how dangerous it is. What we can say is that people increasingly feel that cycling in London is too dangerous. That is what the cyclists on the Tour du Danger were there to highlight, and to highlight, specifically, Transport for London and Boris Johnson's failure to redesign the streets and junctions they control with cyclist (and pedestrian) safety in mind. And they succeeded in highlighting it. The mainstream media is noticing this issue as never before. And, as I write, TfL have been forced to respond on Bow:
Transport for London (TfL) director Ben Plowden promised to look "very closely" at the cycling superhighway which ran through the Bow Roundabout.
He also said cyclists would be advised to avoid the route, which runs to the Olympic Park, during next year's Games.
Where else cyclists will be advised to go, to get to the Games, is not clear to me. Also, the question is, what is there to look at "very closely", that was not looked at last year when the design of the Superhighway was decided upon against all advice from cycle campaigners? Nothing has changed. TfL took a deliberate decision then to risk the lives of cyclists rather than produce a proper design for cycling. The two cyclists who have died there paid the price of that decision. Looking at this one roundabout "very closely" will not fix it, nor any of the others of hundreds of dangerous junctions and roads in London, without a fundamental change of approach from TfL.

For TfL's approach to cycling reflects the views of Boris Johnson closely. Where he says "it is just fine, so long as you keep your wits about you", and, again, "sometimes I don't think that physical streetworks are the answer", he is, as a cyclist himself, only expressing a type of view that has always had some currency amongst British cyclists: the view that the issues are personal and a matter of character and determination, not public, structural and political. This view is exemplified by the slogan, as formulated by David Hembrow, "I cycle, so you could cycle too". It demonstrates a profound lack of insight into how human beings operate, a profound failure of empathy –  a quality you would have thought a successful politician would need. As Green Assembly Member Jenny Jones put it:
The Mayor is an experienced cyclist who wants roads that are safe for him to cycle around. In contrast, I am an experienced cyclist who wants roads that are safe for a twelve year old to cycle on. That is the gulf between us.
But I thought Charlie Holland on the Kennington People on Bikes blog put it best:
As an experienced motorist, cyclist, cycling instructor and trainer of cycling instructors I'd like to say that the Elephant & Castle and the majority of the Cycling Superhighways are bloody awful for cycling - which is why you hardly see any secondary school children, especially girls, cycling there.
Most of the motorists I know dislike many of TfL's roads and junctions, and they've undergone loads of training and a test! So what are the odds of your average soft, squidgy person who can't drive merrily pootling around these roads on bikes? Bugger all...
In the Netherlands they work really hard to make the route for cyclists friendly, obvious, direct and safe, subjectively and statistically, because they want their children to cycle and they recognise their vulnerability.
Here Boris just tells the boys and girls to grow some cojones and jump in front of the HGVs. 
What a pillock.
Charlie later changed the last word to "buffoon", but I prefer his original.

So the Cycle Superhighways project always reflected Boris's view that what was really needed to get people cycling was publicity, encouragement and razzmatazz, not safe, clear cycling space on the roads. It was thus always going to be an entirely predictable, grim farce. Many are now saying that the scheme needs rethinking or abandoning, but to me (and I am not pleased to have been proven right by events), the failure was apparent from the early planning stages of the Superhighways. In August 2009, I urged London Cycling Campaign, under its then Chief Executive, Koy Thomson, unsuccessfully at that stage, to withdraw co-operation from, and support for, the whole Superhighways project. When Brent Cyclists was asked to help with the planning of Superhighway 11, proposed to run along the A5, I wrote, on 6 August 2009, the following to Thomson:
My option is that we should not take part. I am certainly not inclined to take part after having put a lot of effort into LCN+5 (more or less the same thing as Highway 11) which achieved absolutely nothing. 
I think the whole LCC policy on the Highways (or are they Superhighways, TfL can't seem to make up its mind) is now wrong. We should rethink. I think we should not be co-operating with this project as the information with we have been supplied, particularly the presentation from last week's meeting at LCC, indicates that both the funding and the conception behind these routes is so calamitously inadequate to the task that they will be a total waste of time and money, and, worse, will attract inexperienced cyclists onto main road routes that have not been made any safer than they are now, with junctions that are still highly dangerous and unsuitable for all but the most skilled with-traffic cyclists.
The email below [not quoted here] from Koy, Rik [Andrew] and Tom [Bogdanowicz] says:
"The TfL presentation makes clear that the infrastructure element will be accompanied by soft measures such as cycle training, parking and promotion of cycling."
In fact, the presentation makes clear there will be no infrastructure element. Even the few slightly promising-sounding elements in the earlier (May) TfL presentation, particularly closing-off side roads along the routes, and "reorganising" parking and loading, seem to have been ruled out in last week's presentation, on Slide 9, "Constraints" where it says "Cycle Superhighways does not have the time or the budget to... seek major changes to traffic operations (e.g. via side road orders or controversial Traffic Regulation Orders". If B[oris] J[ohnson] did not realise that prioritising cycling would be controversial, why did he start on this in the first place?
The next paragraph on that slide is key for Route 11: the statement "The Boroughs are King". LB Barnet continues to be totally opposed to putting a route on the A5. It stopped LCN+5 and it will stop this. There is absolutely no point in us putting any more work into it before we get a definitive statement of a change of policy from Barnet. All the issues for the section from Kilburn High Road northwards have been covered fully in the LCN+5 CRISP report anyway.
In short, though I can see the argument that LCC needs to make the Highways as good as possible within the constraints, after last week's presentation, I think the balance of advantages to LCC (and London cyclists) has now shifted to one where we would gain more from publicly opposing the Highways scheme, and making a big media thing of doing so, rather than from being associated with the total failure and embarrassment that they will surely be.
Am I alone in LCC in thinking this?
David Arditti
This is a complete and unabridged quote from the email that I wrote in August 2009. I found the policy of conciliation and cooperation with TfL on the manifest impending disaster of the Superhighways, favoured by Koy Thomson, "for fear of losing all influence" to be very unfortunate. Since then, and with a new chief executive, LCC has changed its tone on the Superhighways a great deal, and I support their current position.

I was perfectly right then in pointing to the fundamental problem that anti-cycling boroughs like Barnet were able to veto the Superhighways. That is what happened to CS 2 when it reached the borough of Newham. The anti-cycling Mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, caused CS 2 to stop dead at the Bow roundabout, with no further facilities. The Superhighway may not have been any better implemented on that roundabout had Wales allowed it to continue into Newham, for, as Assembly Member John Biggs was told, it was TfL, not Newham, that was so obsessed with not reducing the traffic capacity of the Bow roundabout as to not be prepared to put in any signals for pedestrians or cyclists. Cycle Superhighway 11 has not yet been "built" (i.e. painted), but it is now planned, like CS 2, to just end, bang on the border of the Bikeless Borough of Barnet, at another nasty junction (the junction of the A41 Hendon Way and Finchley Road), where cyclists will, again, just be "dumped".

Contrary to their protestations, TfL's officials seem to learn no lessons in stumbling from the failed implementation of one Superhighway to the next. Here is Leon Daniels, TfL's Managing Director of Surface Transport, answering a question from Assembly Member Joann McCartney last month (p33 of the minutes of the GLA Transport Committee):
Joanne McCartney (AM): This Committee looked at cycle superhighways and we came up with a list of recommendations which included having a minimum standard on all of the superhighways, for example a minimum two metre wide blue strip, about improving consultation prior to a superhighway going in and about revisiting the pilots to make any improvements that were necessary. I am just wondering how you got on with some of those recommendations? 
Leon Daniels (Managing Director of Surface Transport, TfL): Again, loads of lessons to learn from the initial cycle superhighway not just in respect of the superhighway schemes themselves but also the way in which the construction is done and the disruption to general traffic and so on. In just about every case we are looking to - this is a big compromise because, at the end of the day, the carriageway space is fixed and therefore we are trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. 
I agree entirely with you about minimum widths and so on. Just in some places, on the ground, practically, we are faced with what we have to do. In many cases - and Members will know some of these - there is a requirement for a certain footway width, the frontages need some space, there are requirements for loading and unloading, we need to keep ordinary traffic moving as well and, therefore, in many cases, we are shoehorning this into a narrow space. I agree entirely with you that a minimum width for cyclists is desirable but, again in many cases, we are stuck with what we can do practically and cost effectively.
So there you have it. It's a case of "trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot". It's a case of a minimum width being desirable, but "we are stuck with what we can do practically". What Daniels is clearly saying here is that, though this is supposed to be a scheme for cycling, cyclists are, in reality, still at the bottom of the pile on these roads. Footway requirements can't be altered, loading requirements can't be altered, and capacity for "ordinary traffic" can't be reduced (he might as well have said "proper traffic", that would probably have better reflected the way he was thinking), so the thing that has to "give" is space for cycling. Cycling needs no space, right, because cycles are so narrow? After starting by saying "Loads of lessons to learn", Daniels makes it crystal clear he is learning nothing at all. He is sticking to the same old "big compromise" line (i.e. compromise into meaninglessness) that has caused all London cycle infrastructure schemes over the last 20 years to fail, from the London Cycle Network, to LCN+, to the present.

I don't think Daniels, or Johnson, have the slightest idea what proper cycling infrastructure looks like, what it actually does, or how it can be implemented. I don't know if they have seen what they have in Holland, Denmark and Germany. Maybe they have, but just concluded, in classic British fashion, "This is not why they cycle here, they cycle here because it is flat". Presumably they have never seen the cycling infrastructure in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Certainly Boris seems to make a big thing out of hills. When the ex-coordinator of Harrow Cyclists, Colin Waters, tacked Boris at a public meeting in March 2010 in Harrow School, on the question of why the Superhighways were no good, Boris totally avoided the question, turning it to humour, loudly asking Colin, to the audience, "Goodness me, did you cycle here? Up this fearsome hill? Congratulate that man, give him a round of applause!"

Boris's vision of a "cycle-ised city" (a phrase he copied from LCC) seems to be of a city pretty much as it is now, with perhaps a few more cyclists fitted in, in the gaps between the cars, just to take up space more efficiently, and take a few more people off the tubes. It's not a vision of the radically reconfigured, re-prioritised, safe, people-friendly environment developed by the Dutch and Danes. For some reason, he thinks that's no good, or not possible here. The fact that, in his vision, some cyclists fitted into those little gaps are inevitably going to get squashed by the motor vehicles doesn't seem to occur to him, or if it does, he thinks he can't do anything about it. He thinks that "physical streetworks are not the answer". He won't admit the bleeding obvious, that it is the physical state of his streets now that is the problem.

I don't really see him and his cohorts moving on from that position. We need change at the top.


  1. Well said. What's needed is actual change, not the same platitudes and "soft measures" as have failed cycling in Britain for decades.

  2. You make lots of good points but I cannot accept the assertion that the cycling casualty rate is getting worse in London.
    The suggestion from the DfT figures that cycling distance in London did not change significantly between 2005 and 2009 fails the sanity test.
    If you examine which sites were actually counted, and when, and how they guess the data for the missing counts then it is clear to see that DfT data on cycling in London is useless.
    Any conclusions about trends, casualty rates or anything else is meaningless and misleading.
    We have campaigned for decades to get rate based casualty data from the government, now that they have agreed, they should at least ensure their data sources are reliable.
    As a result of questions we raised at last week's Cycle Safety Working Group meeting TfL have offered to set up a sub group specifially to look for more reliable data sources.

  3. "Cycle Superhighway 11 has not yet been "built" (i.e. painted), but it is now planned, like CS 2, to just end, bang on the border of the Bikeless Borough of Barnet, at another nasty junction (the junction of the A41 Hendon Way and Finchley Road), where cyclists will, again, just be "dumped"."

    I noticed this when comparing the original plans with the most recent maps on TfL's website. What sort of fuss would Barnet council have kicked up if the "Superhighways" become more than just a strip of paint?

    I dread to think.

    Old plans: