I was listening to The Bike Show podcast, which covers recent events. A good portion of it is given over to Mayor Boris responding to Assembly questions.
Amongst what is mainly waffle, I noticed a startling admission. At 21:50 he says that the “whole point” of the Superhighways is “to instruct the motorist that this is a place where you are going to find loads of cyclists, so be careful”.
Well, that’s cleared that up then… The CS is not, in fact, a “superhighway” for cyclists. It is, rather an overpriced and massively over engineered road sign for the benefit of those who choose to drive. How silly of us not to realise. Any expectation that the CS ought to provide priority for cycling is completely unfounded it turns out. Indeed, viewed through the cipher of his statement, the design of the CS starts to make some sense. It wasn’t built for cyclists…Well this kind of thing is not new. I have spent a couple of decades going to meetings with council officers and consultants in various London boroughs, looking at streets that were proposed to be part of one or another "cycle network", and after being told all the reasons why none of the changes cyclists actually needed to make them safer were possible because of either lack of money, or, more importantly, competing political demands and priorities (e.g. parking supply, motor vehicle capacity, and accommodating taxis and buses), finally getting told that what would be done instead would be to put up a few direction signs for cyclists, and paint some bike logos on the road. What was the purpose of these bike logos? Well, they were supposed to be seen by drivers and to "raise awareness" of cyclists in their minds. This was always the great UK "expert" bike consultants' phrase, "raising awareness", and seemingly the purpose of the routes, and the literally millions of pounds spent on studying them and then doing nothing but getting a man out with paint and a stencil. Not protecting cyclists, just "raising awareness" of them. But where did these "experts" get this idea that such "awareness raising" actually achieved anything to improve cyclists' journeys? What was the evidence-base for it? I asked, and was never supplied with a good answer.
I have cause to often cycle on an east to west course across the Borough of Harrow, from Edgware, near the A5, to Harrow town centre, North Harrow, or Rayners Lane. If you look at the map of Harrow, you will see that there are actually only three roads that run as continuous through-roads east-west across it.
|The area between Harrow town centre and the A5|
- The A410 Uxbridge Road
- Streatfield Road (and its westward continuation Christchurch Avenue)
- The A404 Kenton Road
The first and last of these essentially bracket the borough on the north and south sides, and are the major, purpose-built through-routes. The A410 varies between four and two lanes width, building is generally well set back from it, with service roads in places, and it is very heavily trafficked, with several bus routes. It has narrow advisory cycle lanes along some sections, and elsewhere cyclists are directed along service roads. Needless to say, few cyclists use it, with these generous cycling features.
|Uxbridge Road, Harrow, typical view|
The A404 is four lanes wide all the way and is heavily used, with many buses. It is often congested, particularly at the west end near Northwick Park roundabout. It has intermittent bus lanes, which of course cyclists can use. It is not a scenic nor a pleasant road to cycle on, though not as bad as some, as most of the time there is room for cars to overtake bikes. Its main hazards are the nasty multi-lane roundabouts at either end of it, Kingsbury Circle at the east end and Northwick Park roundabout at the west end. The former can be tackled by a fast, experienced and assertive cyclist, but the latter I advise all cyclists to avoid.
|Kenton Road, Harrow/Brent border, typical view|
Streatfield Road is the narrow residential rat-run "C" class road inbetween these two A roads (though of course they are all residential roads). This is the kind of road the Dutch would close off, or make one-way for motors in different sections, to remove the through-traffic and allow it to be a pleasant, quiet cycle through-route. As it is, it is a narrow, minor road with high speeds (often in excess of the 30mph limit), with intermittent parking and other pinch-points creating hazards for cyclists, who are constantly overtaken aggressively and with insufficient space. It also has an entirely gratuitous very wide-geometry lozenge-shaped roundabout at the Culver Grove and Kenmore Road junction. But quite a few cyclists use it in preference to the other routes.
Harrow Council seemingly have noticed this, and, presumably, as some gesture towards trying to encourage cycling, have recently painted "awareness raising" cycle symbols on it. Though I am not really sure why they have done it, as so far as I know it is not a designated bike route, and I never heard anything about it through Harrow Cyclists (the LC group). Here is the new paint-work at the Culver Grove roundabout:
|Streatfield Road, Culver Grove roundabout, Harrow|
|Streatfield Road, Culver Grove roundabout, Harrow|
Note the bad linear surface defects, creating a hazard exactly where cyclists are likely to be (or likely to get pushed to by fast overtaking traffic in the wide space). Note the geometry of the exit, which makes it very hard for a cyclist on the main route, unless he/she is very fast and assertive, not to get swept to the left and cut up by left-turning traffic. Note the totally inappropriate space on the roundabout, considering it connects two-lane roads. Note how the vegetation on the roundabout blocks the view of what may be coming round it.
Rather than recognise that this road is on a cycle desire-line and fix these hazards, the council has painted these "awareness raising"cycle symbols. They go all the way down. Further west, at Kingshill Avenue, we see how restriction of the carriageway width by chevron markings and pedestrian islands, plus a median strip installed to prevent right turns from Kingshill Avenue and Kingshill Drive and to block that rat-run (for all, including cyclists), have created a "trapping area" where you do not want to be caught on your bike with an aggressive driver trying to squeeze past. Note again the hazardous broken surfaces and the magic "That'll make it all right, wont' it?" awareness-raising bike symbols.
|Streatfield Road, Kingshill Avenue junction, Harrow|
I have cycled this road many times before the symbols were painted, at all different times of the day, and I have now cycled it several times since the symbols were painted. I can tell you that I am absolutely certain that they have made no difference to the behaviour of motorists whatever. Why should they? Motorists do not know why they are here or what they mean. It is clear to them, as it is clear to cyclists, that nothing to benefit cyclists has actually been done on this road. They can see that this is in no meaningful sense a specific "cycle route". (There are cycle advance stop lines at the Kenton Lane traffic lights, and short advisory lanes leading to them, but these existed before the new symbols were painted. The lead-in lanes are normally rendered unusable by parked cars.)
All the people who used this road as a rat-run before the symbols were painted continue to do so afterwards. They do not moderate their speed when they encounter cyclists any more than they used to. They do not give any more room or give cyclists any more consideration than they ever did. There has been no reduction in dangerous or obstructive parking. Neither have the symbols somehow magically caused an increase in the number of cyclists, which are always a very rare species in these parts. Anybody who believed these symbols would have any of these effects was living in fantasy land.
I have actually gone off using Streatfield Road recently, and been using Kenton Road more, which, although an altogether more fearsome road in terms of scale and speed of motor traffic, at lest does not have so much problem parking, and at least, most of the time, affords cars and buses sufficient room to overtake cyclists safely. The "he's aggressively revving up right behind you while you are taking the lane going through this pinch point" factor is much less.
For cycling on Streatfield Road, and innumerable other suburban rat-run roads like it all over London, is peculiarly unpleasant. The combination of restricted width, heavy traffic, speeding, impatient drivers, parking, pinch-points, bad surfaces, buses stopping (for there are buses on most of these minor suburban through-routes) and badly-designed roundabouts and junctions, leads to a massively stressful experience that people (like this man) who just see such roads on a map, and say "Yes, minor road, not A or B category, suitable place for cyclists, better than main road" simply do not understand.
The road network of Harrow, that I am demonstrating to you, with through-roads like Uxbridge Road, Kenton Road, and Streatfield Road, shows the falsity of the concept that there is a network of minor roads in London eminently more suitable for cycling on than the A roads, which just need a bit of signage and a bit of engineering work to make them into an attractive and effective network. It just isn't really like that. In reality, the political difficulty of making these roads cycle-friendly is at least as great, if not greater, than the political difficulty of installing high-quality segregated cycling infrastructure on big roads like Kenton Road – which would actually be a much more useful solution, if the junctions could be fixed as well, because another reality is that most of the places people need to go most of the time, like shops and stations, are on main roads.
So why do councils get it into their heads that there is any point in painting cycle symbols on these rat-run roads? Clearly, it's a gesture. They want to be able to say that they are thinking of cyclists, but don't want to annoy motorists by removing any space for parked or moving motor vehicles, and they think it is politically suicidal to propose closing heavily-used through roads (though when roads have been closed in similar circumstances, there is rarely a campaign by anyone to have them reopened) . These roads also cannot be traffic-calmed, as they are usually treated as priority routes by the emergency vehicles. So out comes the stencil and the paint. It's not expensive. But if one added together the cost of putting all this useless paint on all the roads in London where it has been applied, over twenty years or so, you probably would be talking about millions of pounds – enough to created one or two genuinely useful cycle facilities here and there. And that's not to mention the cost of the studies that generally precede these paint measures, which always seem to absorb most of the money allocated to cycling in the UK.
The current LCC campaign Go Dutch for "clear space for cycling on London's main roads" gets it right. Creating the space on the main roads where cyclists feel subjectively safe is fundamental to the Dutch cycling paradigm. Yes, the Dutch do a lot to minor roads as well. They do radical stuff there that has the effect of clearing the inessential motor traffic off them and establishing segregation of modes without cycle-paths. But this is the second stage. In a car-dominated society like the UK there is little political appetite for removing the motor rat-runs on the minor roads while cyclists remain such a minor political force, because of their small numbers, because, in turn, there is no obviously safe cycling space on the main roads, which are the really useful roads. In this situation that we are in, motorists, and councils, feel that they cannot sacrifice any of the current road space given over to cars.
Merely slapping down painted symbols of obscure significance, that have no effect of giving any extra legal protection to cyclists, and which do not legally oblige motorists to do anything in particular, does nothing at all for cycling. There is no "awareness raising" effect. These symbols may be noticed by a driver on his regular route once, quizzically registered in his mind, before being integrated into the constant background and forgotten, amongst all the other things that need to be given attention whilst driving.
In London we have wasted decades doing this pointless stuff. There is no evidence that it works. Cycling in suburbs like Harrow has continued falling. Bikes do not "belong" on the minor roads any more than cars do. Give cyclists safe routes on main roads, and then we can think about the rat-runs.