Friday, 6 April 2012

Great Divides

The Great Divide Ride on 25 March, highlighting the brutal severance of north London for cycling by the barrier of the North Circular Road, attracted about 80 cyclists from Barnet and adjacent boroughs: quite a turn out for a cycle protest in the outer suburbs. A special mention should perhaps go to Mustafa Arif, Campaigns Coordinator of the London Cycling Campaign, and his wife, for cutting short their honeymoon to come on the ride: true dedication – though it was in Mustafa's patch. A splendid planning job done by the organisers, Toby Jacobs and David Shannon of Barnet LCC, the work of the ride leader Charlie Holland (of Kennington People on Bikes) and the marshals (particularly memorable was Patrick Field racing up and down the side of the pack like a bullet on his recumbent, telling motorists "We'll only hold you up for two minutes") meant that the event went off safely and largely free from stress. Cycling on the roads and junctions tackled on this ride is not normally so stress-free. None of them have anything resembling satisfactory facilities for cycling, except possibly the first, and most easterly, crossing of the North Circular we used, Pegasus Way, a new, largely traffic-free, bridge, part of a new housing development in New Southgate.

Ride gathers at New Southgate Station, in a car-park graced by a strange, out-of-place Victorian ironwork relic
(picture by Shaun McDonald)
As a resident of Brent, and previously of Camden, only closely familiar with the western part of Barnet, the thing that struck me was that the crossings of the North Circular are in fact a lot less bad on the eastern side of Barnet. There are several bridges and underpasses in this area that allow one to cross the road without negotiating mega-junctions. As you go west, things get steadily worse, with the newly rebuilt Henlys Corner junction with Finchley Road (which Boris Johnson, bizarrely, in his current transport manifesto (page 35) seems to claim as an improvement for cyclists) creating a severe test of vehicular cycling confidence, with its new left-turn only lanes, that few would like to see their child or grandparent attempt. And this is but a taster for the true spaghetti-junction awfulness of the Brent Cross interchange with the A41 further west, the Staples Corner East roundabout, the start of the M1, and the Staples Corner West junction with the A5, on the Brent border. This latter was tacked by the mass ride from every possible direction, going round the roundabout, over the flyover (taking both lanes), and round the peculiarly pointless West Hendon gyratory system.

In the Hendon area: not the Tweed Run (picture by Shaun McDonald)
Staples Corner East roundabout (picture by Shaun McDonald)
The ride did not go further into Brent. Perhaps that is for another day. Suffice it to say that Brent is even worse than Barnet, with no, legal, practical crossings of the North Circular for cyclists for two and a half miles west of Staples Corner, until you come to Harrow Road. That junction is hardly a dreamy place either, but at least it is a simple signalised crossroads, or pair of crossroads, with no badly conflicting traffic movements. Between Golders Green Road, the last "easy" signalised surface-level crossing of the North Circular in Barnet, and Harrow Road, is a distance of four miles: four miles of a Berlin Wall like curtain across the borough of Brent that demands great determination by cyclists attempting to cross it, either by tackling the dangerous junctions head-on, or negotiating an indirect, slow, illegal way via pavements, pedestrian overpasses and underpasses. This Berlin Wall explains very largely the extraordinary drop-off in cycling rate in Brent between the southern wards, like Queens Park, where it is up to 4% of trips, to the northern wards, like Kenton, where it is down to 0.5% of trips. A fall-off would be expected anyway, or course, when going out of easy commuting range of central London, but the collapse of cycling in Brent at the North Circular barrier is visible and sharp. No other borough has such large differences in cycling rates between wards.

"Taking the lane" on the A5 flyover at Staples Corner West (picture by Shaun McDonald)
A game young rider. Shouldn't he be able to get about this area on his bike without all these people to protect him? (picture by Shaun McDonald)
The Great Divide Ride finished with a picnic in a huge grassy open space, the centre of the Staples Corner East roundabout: a spot that can be made to look, strangely, almost idyllic in a photo, when you cannot hear the roar of motor vehicles from all around and above you, and taste the particulates in the air. It takes a lot of walking on very narrow footbridges and paths to reach.

Not a bad spot for a picnic: Staples Corner East
Gathering on the hill for the final photocall
Video of the ride compressed into 7 minutes, by Shaun McDonald

There are many Great Divides. There are physical Great Divides like the North Circular Road, that isolate communities. Then there are attitudinal Great Divides, such as those between cyclists and non-cyclists, in how they perceive the road environment. And there are Great Divides between cultures, between how different societies approach similar problems and come up with radically differing solutions.

The Great Divide Ride pre-publicity attracted the attention of Dutch cycle blogger Mark Wagenbuur, inspiring him to put up a post Huge roads do not have to be huge barriers, contrasting the junctions on the North Circular with a comparable trunk-road/motorway junction, Goyplein in Utrecht, built about the same time (1971). Ample, comprehensive and direct cycle path provision, fully separated from the roads, was part of the original Dutch design even then, and this was before the Dutch became really keen on cycle infrastructure, in the 80s and 90s.

At this time, the thinking of the UK government seems to have been that cycling was an old mode of transport that would disappear over time naturally, and that it should not be facilitated, as to do so would create a dangerous mix of slow cyclists and fast motor vehicles on the roads. So nothing was constructed for cyclists when the North Circular junctions were built, and, despite a change of rhetoric since then, there is nothing now: save for a few pathetic "shared use" pedestrian facility conversions – conversions of facilities that are inadequate even for pedestrians on their own, as Charlie Holland has pointed out.

Mark Wagenbuur wrote:
I recently came across a video of a crossing of London’s North Circular Road. The way cyclists have to maneuver through traffic, some of which heavy goods transportation, is shocking to anyone I believe. But if you are familiar with the situation on Dutch roads even more so.
So a Dutchman thinks that the conditions cyclists have to endure to make what should be simple journeys in the North London suburbs are "shocking to anyone". Here is a cultural Great Divide. For they are clearly not shocking to most British people. If they were really shocking to them, they would be changed. When British society became shocked at the exploitation of child labour under terrible conditions in the 19th century, things were changed. Why is it not shocking to most British people that children, like the boy pictured above, cannot (normally) cycle between adjacent suburbs of North London without having to cycle through junctions that have 40 mph design speeds, and actual speeds often in excess of this, full of motor vehicles including heavy lorries, where their risk of getting killed will be very great indeed? This shocks me, it is a scandal to me, as it is to Mark, but not to most British people. Why?

The violence of motor vehicles evident on the infrastructure on the Great Divide Ride. Pedestrians clearly need these barriers, but cyclists are given none. Cyclists are trapped on the wrong side of the barriers, given training and helmets and told to "keep their wits about them". (Picture by Shaun McDonald)
Physical barriers are used to separate one lane of motorists from another, because of safety, but the same consideration is not applied to cyclists. (Picture by Shaun McDonald)
To understand the lack of shock about the shortage of safe provision for cycling in the UK we need to consider separately two sections of British society: the 1% who cycle, and the 99% who do not. The former probably are shocked, or have been shocked, in the past, but it has worn off to an extent. It is hard to go around permanently shocked by the daily reality you see around you. It is not a very sane state to remain in for long. Cyclists in Britain have to adapt to survive, or they give up cycling, and become part of the non-cycling 99%. They become used to the conditions, and many come to believe that these conditions are natural or inevitable in some way, and cannot be changed. This is just a standard human mental coping strategy.

Dissatisfied cyclists may lobby by writing to their representatives, or writing to newspapers, but they discover, maybe over years and decades, that this results in little change, and it becomes dispiriting to keep on at such an apparently lost cause. They may join and support the activities of cycling organisations, but they find that even such organised lobbying has little effect on government, when it is on behalf of a widely-despised 1% of the population. They may also find that such lobbying efforts are often partially undermined by differences of opinion on appropriate solutions between different cyclists and groups. This is because the mental effects of the brutal road conditions are pernicious: they create their own mindset, where cyclists have to become hardened, to adapt, to survive – they have to transform into that mythical beast, the "vehicular cyclist", and in some cases they start to imagine that this is what cycling, fundamentally, is all about, this adaptation and hardening process – that is is a thing any cyclist must go through, and that, fundamentally, protection from motor traffic is not what cyclists need. This is another coping strategy. It is the one adopted by our cycling mayor, Boris "keep your wits about you" Johnson. So many people who start by wanting to "change the world", in cycling terms, end up by concluding either it is unchangeable, or does not need changing.

Then we have the 99% of the population that does not cycle. If they think about the problem at all, they mostly think, I suspect, that there is some "other way round". Many think, incorrectly, that cycling is legal on pavements. Others think, incorrectly, that it is legal to cycle in parks (it is not in any Brent parks or in most Barnet ones). Others may think that there is a "cycling network" that works, but they don't know about it because they have never looked for it. They may think that cycling on minor roads for the whole length of a typical cycling journey is practical, and that cyclists don't need to be on the major roads and junctions at all. They may have seen the bits of cycle lane around the place, and, because they haven't actually cycled, not discovered that the routes are not practical, they don't go where people need to get to, and that they are massively discontinuous and flawed.

Often some people in power, and some people in power who sometimes cycle, have similar ideas. A week after the Great Divide Ride I was at a Barnet Cyclists meeting at which the MP for Chipping Barnet, Theresa Villiers, spoke. She is a Minister of State for Transport, and she regularly cycles, or did until a recent accident in which she broke her collar bone (I wish her a speedy recovery). In discussion on the Great Divide Ride and the North Circular junctions, particularly Henly's Corner, though she expressed some sympathy with the points raised, and admitted that we need big improvements to London's cycling infrastructure, and that we could usefully learn lessons from other places (the Netherlands, obviously), she seemed to think that:
1) Shared facilities, as in the new staggered sheep-pen crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at Henly's Corner, are a sensible solution for many cyclists, and,
2) That cyclists don't need to use the A41 or the A5 to get to central London from Barnet, that there are other ways.

Well, there are other ways, in the sense that it is always possible to go round three sides of a huge square five miles across rather than take the direct route, and go up and down at least 100 metres of unnecessary elevation, but is that a way to ever get people cycling to work? No, I think not. I think people will take the bus or train or car instead. This  ignorance of the physical infrastructure characteristics of "her patch"of London, from the point of view of a cyclist, was what I found most disappointing in Teresa Villiers' responses. An important point is that North London is hilly, and the straight, direct routes, the A5 and A41, are the flattest routes.

She had not actually seen the new Henly's Corner, so was not fully conversant with the issues there (but "Why not?" one might ask). But she was in favour of "cycle infrastructure", and thought the crossings at Hyde Park Corner rather good. I have to admit they are better than they were ten years ago, but regarding these constricted, low-priority, semi-shared, already grossly over-capacity crossings as decent cycle facilities just shows how low our standards are in this country.

The Great Divide Ride was one of a series of protest rides held recently in London to highlight the dire state of our cycling infrastructure. It followed on the heels of the Blackfriars flashrides and the Tour du Danger. At least it generated some new discussions with some different politicians, it created some local publicity, and it sent a message to the world (including the cycling world) that London cycling is not just the City, it is not just Hackney and Southwark, but "We are here, we are up here in the northern suburbs, and we have a terrible cycling environment, and can't we have a bit more attention please from government, TfL, media, Sustrans, and anyone who will listen, really?"

The next big event in London will be The Big Ride on April 28, just days before the mayoral election, the results of which will surely have a huge impact on how cycling develops all over London in the next four years, and there is also on that date a Scottish equivalent, the Pedal on Parliament. Be there, or there, or keep riding round three sides of that square.


  1. Is it really 1% of the population that cycle? That is, just 600,000 people - there's about 70,000 in the CTC alone? Or is it 1% of road journeys that are taken by cycle? Various surveys, including one done last year by the AA, suggest that 50% of the population own a bicycle, which might suggest that there is a considerable pent up demand for better cycling conditions.

  2. You are right. 1% is about the modal share, not the number of people who cycle. That figure is a matter of definition to quantify and depends on what statistics you believe. The London Travel Demand survey 2005-8 found that 52% of Brent residents can be considered "regular" cyclists, cycling 3 days a week or more. This figure is based on the results of questionnaires, and is totally non-credible in my view. If it were true we would have streets full of cyclists, which is not what I see looking out of my window. We know the number of cycle journeys per day, from TfL data, in all of London to be about 500,000. If you assume the average "cyclist" makes 0.5 cycle journeys a day, on a generous definition of "cyclist", which would equate to commuting to work and back 1.25 times per week, then that gives you a million cyclists in London, or 12% of the population of London. I think in reality this is too generous, as I expect most trips are made by cyclists who cycle very regularly, and the real percentage of regular cyclists in London would be somewhere between 2% and 5% of the population. Since the cycling mode share for Greater London is about twice that for the UK, the "proportion of cyclists" in the UK population would be lower. So 1-2% nationally still looks to be in the right ballpark to me, on a sensible definition of "cyclist".

  3. We have a similar great divide in north Liverpool

    A very busy road carrying most of the HGV traffic for the container port.

    Maybe there should be a new test for cycle route worthiness, the "Would you let a 10 year old go from a-b?"

  4. Divides exist not only in urban areas, but also in rural areas. Major roads linking villages are divides, even if they have signs to say that they are "cycle friendly".

    Cycling has received far too much lip-service in the UK, while there has been far too little actual change. This is why it is important for campaigners to ask for enough, and not to set the standards so low that every politician can jump onboard and claim to be already doing what needs to be done.

  5. As a child growing up in West Hampstead/Cricklewood I am familiar with the mess that is Staples Corner, and no I wouldn't cycle on it or that part of Edgeware Road. And yes, it does divide the area. Yet for a lot of people in Barnet, their daily journeys shouldn't have to cross it. Same for Kenton -where I have in-laws-. Most journeys are short ones to the supermarket, or over to see relatives. This is by car, from a former garden turned into driveway, over to someone else's house where the garden is driveway, parking on the road made too narrow by overflowing cars, then back again. You go to the shops, there's no parking -so people pavepark.

    It's more than the great divide -it's the whole culture there is "you drive everywhere". A big factor is the probably the fact that even the not-very-main-roads are four lanes wide and abandon you at roundabouts where nobody quite knows which lane to be on. There are more problems than just the A41/A5 roads. But how to fix them. Bristol has made an attempt in the inner cities -bike parking by the shops, permeability, some safer options. Yet the suburbs of Bristol are still lost causes -witness the South Gloucester coverage. Again: cultural. The people who moved to suburbs like driving around, and their whole view is that the inner city is at war with them. Yes we are: we are fighting to get our streets back as places to live.

  6. Interesting! I honestly thought everybody would be shocked. But I now understand it really can be a cultural thing. So to further explain where I come from I decided to show you every crossing of the big circular road around my home town. Bottom line: there is no need for these roads to be 'great devides', ever.

  7. Shockingly the A5 is actually part of some sort of cycling network for a good portion of its length between Marble Arch and Edgware (according to CycleStreets). The worn out cycle symbols painted on the route, between potholes, parking spaces, bus stops and up to three lanes of traffic (2 lanes + 1 bus lane) look just like ghost bikes.

    I have looked up the byelaws for the park I (and many others) cycle in, Gladstone Park, and I couldn't believe that "No person over the age of 10 years shall without reasonable excuse ride a cycle in the ground except on a designated route for cycling"! There is a sign at some entrances that says that "considerate cycling" is allowed, but I do not know what is the legal value of that sign.

  8. The A5 was indeed designated as LCN+5 between Oxford Road, Kilburn, and Stag Lane, Edgware in Ken Livingstone's "London Cycle Network Plus" programme, abandoned by his successor. The route was extensively studied by consultants, who produced huge volumes of suggested improvements for Camden, Brent and Barnet Councils to implement. As a Brent LCC representative I was involved in these discussions, which I always knew were pointless and would achieve nothing, particularly as Barnet wanted nothing to do with them. I was correct. None of the improvements suggested were ever carried out, and the substantial amount of money provided by TfL for the route (I think it was a few hundred thousand pounds) was wasted on some irrelevant speed-tables on side roads on the Brent side and a few logos and direction signs.

    Cycling in Gladstone Park is indeed prohibited by Brent parks by-laws dating from before the Second World War, except I think between 8 and 9am on weekdays, strangely. Cycling in other Brent parks is prohibited full-time. However, the ban is never enforced, so you are safe to cycle considerately in any Brent park. It remains an unsatisfactory situation, however.