Sunday, 4 August 2013

FreeCycle floods a tiny part of London with bikes for a few hours

So we've now had the great RideLondon festival of cycling that Boris Johnson promised us last August. I congratulate Boris himself for finishing the 100 mile ride today, and I congratulate all those who made it to the eight-mile FreeCycle circuit yesterday, especially those families with children who cycled all the way to it, from other parts of London, especially more distant suburbs, on roads that were fully open to motor traffic as normal. I congratulate even more those who cycled back. In my experience, there were very few families who attempted this.

It would be interesting to find out if anybody has surveyed how the participants got to and from the FreeCycle. My guess is that the vast majority either came by car, by train, or they did cycle, but live very close to central London (say within 2 miles of the circuit). I really doubt the value of London Cycling Campaign's led rides. There were about 30 of these, from most of the boroughs apart from Westminster and the City. I would guess that they took about 50–100 riders each, so that would be of the order of 2,250 riders brought to the circuit in this manner, out of the 50,000 who took part: only about 5%.

LCC go a little money from this enterprise, and very limited exposure. LCC representation could be found in one of the tents in the Cycle Village in Green Park, along with British Cycling and some other concerns, but few participants would have found it or sought it out. Much volunteer time was taken up with the effort of arranging the led rides, in support of an event which was commercially sponsored,  necessarily attracting attention away from the bread-and-butter work of trying to hold Transport for London and the borough's transport departments to account for their failure to create everyday decent cycling conditions for Londoners. Officers in those organisations who don't like being pestered by campaigners must have been most grateful to the holiday afforded them by Boris's clever diversionary tactic. The LCC exercise in collaboration over RideLondon seems strange to me in the context of the ongoing protests over the high death-rate for cycling in London and slowness of progress in "cycleising" the city. I think it was a wrong decision, and, as a member, I don't recall being consulted about it.  If it was to take part with the feeder rides, LCC should at least have made a minimum demand that the roads on the routes of the feeders must be closed, temporarily, by the police, to allow the rides to pass.

Anyway, people turned out in their thousands, as they will do, in great weather, to ride on "closed" roads (but were these roads not "opened" to them in a more real sense?) FreeCycle, like its predecessors, the SkyRide, and Hovis Freewheel before that, mainly showed, of course, that Londoners, and indeed people who came from distant parts of the country to take part (Radio 4 today featured a family who travelled from Yorkshire), are desperate to cycle, but the vast majority won't do it on an everyday basis with our road conditions as they are. When the tannoys announced at 3pm on Saturday that "The circuit will close at 4pm and you must be off it by then", there was no mistaking the voice of doom. It was saying, in effect, "You've had your fun; now we return to normal, for the serious, proper business of the nation that is these roads' real purpose. You will have no place here anymore. Get out, go home. Right to Ride, what's that? Never heard of it. This ain't Holland, you know."

Riders on the Embankment enjoying their theoretical "right to ride" ride here, briefly made real, for 7 hours a year, through the munificence of our city authorities
 Londonneur summoned up a good metaphor for the situation in this tweet:
@VoleOSpeed the prisoners and their children allowed to taste freedom but once a year while being taunted by the guards. #cruelty #freecycle
And Kristian also made a good point:
#FreeCycle was mostly a big go-slow, they didn't close nearly enough roads to comfortably accommodate everyone riding
To which Chris Lowe responded:
@KristianCyc @VoleOSpeed And some cyclists won't have gone because they didn't want to go slow - full demand not realised.
So in other words if cycling had be allocated more space than the eight miles of "closed" roads, even more cyclists would have been attracted.

The route actually had been improved over previous years. Last time (the Sky Ride two years ago), there had been a huge jam where it turned left from Horseguards Road into Great George Street. This time the route was altered so it went straight from the Mall, through Admiralty Arch, into Whitehall, which worked far better. But into the City it was much the same, and crowded as before. Those who went earlier in the day seemed to have a better experience than those who were there after midday.

There were cock-ups in other areas of organisation. It seems as if, because the ownership of the event keeps changing, first Hovis / The Mayor, then Sky / British Cycling, now something called the London & Surrey Cycling Partnership, sponsored by Prudential, new mistakes are made every time, or old lessons are not learned in the organising of it. Publicity for the LCC feeder rides went wrong, with, in one case, nobody turning up at one of the start points because it had not been publicised. There was little or no free refreshment provided for the volunteer ride marshals, or, at least, nobody could find it: a fine reward for giving up your weekend to do a painfully slow ride sheperding inexperienced and unfit cyclists on dangerous astreets full of aggressive traffic.

But aside from details, I go back to the question: What the point of it all actually? One of the first things that happened to me when I arrived at Green Park was that I spoke to a lady with some foreign accent (probably not Dutch). She said, of the scene outside Buckingham Palace, as the riders arrived for the FreeCycle, "It looks just like Amsterdam Centraal. But there it's like this every day of the year". (She might have added, "And it's also the same in city and town centres across the Netherlands every day of the year"). She went on: "I won't cycle in London normally. The roads are too dangerous".

rare cycling-related report on Radio 4's The World this Weekend today interviewed a selection of FreeCycle participants, all of whom expressed the same sentiment. People wish to be able to cycle away from motor traffic every day. And we know it could be done. Why does it look like that in Amsterdam and throughout the whole country of the Netherlands every day of the year? It looks like that because the have made permanent traffic-free space for cycling. And they have made far more space than just contained in eight miles of road. They have made about 30,000 miles of cycle paths. (And that doesn't take into account the ways in which the roughly 100,000 miles of other roads have been made cycle-friendly). And that traffic-free space is open 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. No officious stewards with megaphones are required to tell people that their ride is over. Ever.

Caged-in in both space and time: the riders outside the home of the British monarch
There is progress in London. Thirty-five years of campaigning by the LCC have not been wasted, as David Hembrow has claimed. We have a lot that we did not have when the campaign began. Physically, one can point to some of the better pieces of infrastructure, like Camden's Somers Town Route and Bloomsbury cycle track, and Cycle Superhighway 3 in East London, and smaller features like safe bike crossings of major roads and junctions at Hyde Park Corner, Bayswater Road, Knightsbridge, Swiss Cottage, Strand, and other places, and allowed cycling paths through the Royal Parks, all features used by thousands of cyclists every day. We had none of this 35 years ago. It's all been achieved by campaigning.

We've now got extensive 20mph limits, and we've got an increasing number of useful minor road routes opening up through councils implementing cycle exceptions to one-way schemes. Just on the way to the FreeCycle I utilised one of the latest of these, a great scheme by Camden whereby Priory Road, a long, straight residential road in West Hampstead that provides an alternative to a section of the congested A5 or the twisty and bus-riddled West End Lane, has been opened up to two-way cycling along its length, with minimal engineering, just signage. The resulting experience is exactly like cycling in a Dutch residential street: you have to exercise caution at give-ways where it crosses other residential streets, but there is no traffic to speak of, because cars cannot use this as a through-route due to the one-way system. Camden rightly won the LCC's award for "Best Borough cycling Initiative" (jointly with the City) for this and similar schemes elsewhere.

Camden's recent scheme at Priory Road, West Hampstead, NW6
Campaigning has also given us the creation of the post of Cycling Commissioner, it's given us the Mayor's Vision (still only a distant vision, five months on from publication), and it's given a definite political momentum to the issue at London level and borough level, with every council seemingly now wanting to be involved (with the possible exception of Greenwich), to the extent of even such an historically cycle-hostile authority as Barnet actually coming up with a bid for the mini-Holland funding with some impressive features. (This has not been published anywhere, but I can reveal that one idea it contains is for a Dutch-style makeover of Edgware High Street, a road I have blogged about before).

There's been slow change, and its been terribly slow, but 35 years of campaigning have not been wasted. It may be that Hembrow needs to justify his move to the Netherlands to himself by claiming that nothing in the UK ever changes in response to campaigning efforts, or that the campaigning in the UK is always done wrongly, but those are claims I reject. In saying there is no change, he also underestimates the influence of his own blog.

We've got commuter cyclists now dominating the traffic at peak hours on some of the Thames crossings and other main roads in central London. That's really only a central London thing, and just on a few routes at a narrow times, and there are wide areas of Outer London where cycling is still languishing, and where it remains massively marginal. And it's still just fit young people, and mostly men. The rest just come out for the FreeCycle, and put the bikes in the shed for the rest of the year, unless they occasionally make a foray into the local park, or cycle on the pavements.

The disastrous collapse in London children cycling to school, and for other journeys, has continued over the last 35 years, and shows no sign yet of reversal. This has been a massive failure. We were told, back in the 1990s, that the London Cycle Network would be suitable for a well-trained 12-year-old child to cycle on, but that turned out to be a lie. Campaigning never focused enough on children, and it was never tough enough on the authorities, in the sense of trying to hold them to their professed claims of wanting to get children cycling, because children and schools didn't seem to have that much to do with the whole subject, to many. The only place to cycle was on hostile roads, and children could not be expected to attempt to do that. But I think these attitudes are now getting righted.

We've got a lot more words now, in the Mayor's Vison, that promise a "step change" in progress. The Embankment, that I photographed above, during the FreeCycle, should look very different in three years' time, with the promised cycle track. The extension of Cycle Superhighway 2 to Stratford is now taking shape, also properly segregated from motor traffic, and Gilligan is talking of bringing the whole route up to the same standard. We've got also a new willingness amongst cyclists to take to the streets as and when necessary to pressurise the politicians to make good their words, and we've got powerful support from large sections of the media. What we still lack is powerful support in the Westminster government. London and local government raise little of their own money. TfL's £1 billion cycling programme escaped the Chancellor's axe in the latest spending review (in fact, the last time I spoke to Andrew Gilligan, he claimed to have more money now than anticipated at the time of writing of the Vision), but this may only have been a lucky, brief reprieve, and the rest of England is doing very badly for cycle funding. But no progress in London in 35 years? I don't think so.

We certainly need less hype about plans, we need less marketing, and we need more and faster action. It would have been better if the effort and money that had gone into RideLondon had gone into the creation of infrastructure that could be used every day of the year. It's great that some already fit and active people, including Boris himself, had a 100-mile ride on closed roads, but I want the 89-year-old man next door to me to be able to ride to the local shops, and the children on the other side of me to be able to cycle to school. So many other people clearly want these things too. Fifty-thousand people on the FreeWheel circuit demonstrated the vast suppressed demand for traffic-free cycling space in our cities. Boris Johnson seems to be on-side. Bristol's new elected mayor, George Ferguson, has some ambitious plans also. I wonder when our other leading politicians will wake up to the issue.


  1. I saw it as a day out with Ranty Junior, rather than anything which much more meaning and from that point of view it delivered.

    Travel was the issue, the trains in were going to be busy and for us, it was a drive to Barking, but CS3 into the centre.

    I have no problem with LCC being there - they seemed to be signing up quite a lot of new members, although it is borough's politicians who need a bigger kick than the engineers!

  2. Priory Road looks awful. I would be very reluctant to cycle along it towards the camera. Never mind minimal engineering; there is minimal space.

    Michael Rowland.

    1. No, you are wrong. This is the same mistake that people make when they look at Streetview pictures of small roads with narrow marked cycle lanes in Dutch towns, and think "that's terrible – no space for cycling". The point is that in these cases the motor traffic has been almost totally eliminated by the design of the network. The route is usable by bikes but not cars. The markings are indicative of the situation and not prescriptive of where you actually cycle. Our group of about 30 occupied the whole width of the road with no problems, because there were no cars.

      The design of the Priory Road / West End Lane junction shown in the photo is good because: a) parking is prevented at the junction, b) pedestrians have a flat crossing and there is the effect of a "gateway" to the 20mph zone (though the Dutch would go further in a case like this and pave over the junction to look like continuous pavement), and the necessary "give way" for cyclists turning into the busier road is indicated, with a symbol showing any motorist that a cyclist is indeed allowed to be there.

    2. David, the road narrows appreciably at the top of the photograph. Any car going up Priory Street will be occupying the entire width of the road. Therefore, meeting a cyclist coming in the opposite direction is going to result in a "collision".

    3. Sir Velo is correct.
      I am not wrong. I have looked at the whole length on google maps. It is a linear car park.
      I would say that the point is if I were cycling in the 'contraflow' direction, a motorist coming the other way would almost certainly expect me to get out of his way. No matter whether his speeed is 50, 30 20 or 10mph. There is room for a motorist or a cyclist, not both.
      I have a similar situation 100m from where I am sitting now. I have priority as I am there first, but that means nothing to most motorists.
      20mph zones make the area more pleasant for residents. They do very little for cyclists.

      Michael Rowland.

    4. 'The point is that in these cases the motor traffic has been almost totally eliminated by the design of the network'
      'Our group of about 30 occupied the whole width of the road with no problems, because there were no cars'.

      Bing maps aerial view shows at least 172 cars parked on the road. There are many more on private drives.

      I may only have 35 years cycling experience, but I can count.

    5. Parked cars are no problem to cyclists in a road which is "access only" and divided into short sections by the one-way system so that cars cannot drive along it's length. This is a standard pattern in Dutch towns, and it accounts for much of the Dutch cycling success in towns. There are very few motor vehicle movements in such a street.

      I agree the 20mph zone by itself makes little difference. Likewise 30kph by itself makes little difference in Dutch towns. It is the combination of low speeds with network design that is important.

      I suggest you try cycling this road yourself a few times and see how you find it. See also my other reply to Sir Velo below.

    6. David, I just want to pick up on Priory Road and related contra-flows while I have the chance: I cycle that way quite often and commute back up Fairhazel Gardens (also contra-flow for cycling in parts)most days. I never understand what I am meant to do to get over the tracks north of West Hampstead. The option that avoids the horrible roads you describe the most is to go up Broadhurst Gardens and onto West End Lane there (where traffic is mostly static anyway).

      However, Broadhurst Gardens has not been made a contra-flow. It's drivers and buses thunder down safe in the knowledge that theirs is the only direction of travel. The next closest junction with West End Lane is from Compayne Gardens and is actually a prohibited right turn. Any further down and I may as well cycle up winding and speeding WEL itself (we're now at the scene of last years fatal car leap onto the pavement and into pedestrians).

      So I'm left breaking the law with plenty of others too and cursing this crucial missing link. Is this really worthy of awards?

      And while on the contra-flow thing, yes cars and vans and lorries speed toward me and force me into the parked cars on these roads on a daily basis. And I get to play 'dodge the dooring' on my entire journey. Still, better than the A5, Finchley Road and WEL for sure. None good enough for my girlfriend though. She takes the train.

    7. Yes, more needs to be done in this area. Camden Cycling Campaign certainly wanted that west end of Broadhurst Gardens made 2-way for bikes, as it is needed to complete the 2-way link via Priory Road. Camden were not willing to do that one (see this link). I don't know why, but I guess it's because its a signalised junction, so it would need a specific new signal for right-turning cyclists into West End Lane, and they were not willing to spend money on that. So, as you point out, you are still stuck on Cleve Road with the buses, going northbound. I also don't know why the right turn from Compayne Gardens can't be allowed for bikes, as a second-best option. It could be because visibility is poor.

      Whether the whole scheme is worthy an award is questionable, but the award was also for changes Camden have made in Fitzrovia and south of Kings Cross. It's certainly far better than anything Brent have achieved on the other side of the A5, so relatively speaking, perhaps it is.

      I did come up with a scheme, over 10 years ago, that would solve the whole problem around West Hampstead station (the need to get over the tracks, as you say). I proposed to Camden they should build a cycling bridge from the end of Priory Road, across all three sets of railway lines, emerging at the Travis Perkins builders yard on West End Lane. This would bypass the narrow section of the bridges and all the traffic lights. There is currently a narrow pedestrian bridge over the underground line, but it doesn't cross the overground lines. My scheme would be to rebuild this higher, with gradual ramps, so it cleared the high-level lines as well.

      Obviously this has never been progressed, but I suggested it again recently to CCC as part of the implementation of the "Jubilee Line Quietway" that Andrew Gilligan has talked of.

      One other point – "dodging the dooring": I remember what it was like before controlled parking was introduced in these streets. It was far worse. There were no gaps to doge into: every metre of kerb was taken up with parked cars on both sides, and the result was an incredibly intimidating cycling environment. You were just stuck in the middle. On the (rare) occasions I go there now, I find it's not like that any more. Camden has introduced controlled parking across the borough. Brent still refuses to do this. So more grounds there, perhaps, on which, relatively speaking, an a award is justified, though things are far from perfect.
      Co-ordinator, Brent Cyclists

    8. Thanks for replying David- very enlightening and I had suspected Camden baulked at the Broadhurst Gardens contra-flow; Camden or the bus operator/tfl? It's clear from your link that they rejected contra-flow on both East and West bus routes.

      Your scheme sounds excellent- a shame it couldn't have been a s.106 scheme for the new development on the north side of the tracks.

      Keep up the good work!

  3. Why are you complaining about David Hembrow? I don't think he's mentioned living in London on his blog, and London is the only place where anything is being done, try going else where in the country and seeing what being done there. On my commute I pass along exactly 0 miles of cycle lane, 0 miles of cycle path, pass through 0 traffic lights with advanced stop zones. I have zero protection from traffic passing at 60mph (well thats the supposed speed limit any way). how does Boris Johnstone _talking_ about 'mini hollands' etc devalue what David is saying?

    1. I'm complaining about him because, if you look at the Twitter thread that I linked to, and you can judge the rights and wrongs of the argument, you will see that he specifically attacks the London Cycling Campaign in a way I think is unfair and unhelpful. He has also frequently criticised the LCC's "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign on his blog. Sometimes he has made fair and correct points about problems with detail in the campaign. Details need to be debated, and the campaign is still evolving. But his tweeted claim that it is all merely a cynical marketing exercise is an unworthy denigration of people who are working hard for the safety of London's cyclists.

      Of course, you will see from the rest of the contents of this blog that I am, and have been historically, one of his greatest supporters. I've been on his superb study tour, and I constantly exhort others to go on it, whether they are cyclists, politicians, planners or engineers. But I was campaigning for Dutch-style infrastructure before he was, and I feel I need to call him out when I see him being unfair to others who are pulling in the same direction as us.

      The appalling lack of progress on cycle infrastructure in the UK outside London, Bristol, Cambridge and one or two other places is another issue, which I expect I will deal with more in future posts.

  4. So what happens when a car goes hareing up Priory Street only to meet a cyclist coming round the blind corner? From what I can see the cars on the right have all parked in the cycle lane. Consequently, cars and oncoming cyclists travelling in opposing directions are going to be sharing the same small bit of road. Only one winner there methinks.

  5. No, the cars are parked in marked parking bays. There is no cycle lane except the indicative one at the junction. That is the point of this type of design. Cyclists are not in a lane, but using the width of the road in a common-sense way.

    It is clearly never going to be possible to completely design-out the possibility of collisions on narrow two-way streets if motorists (or indeed cyclists) behave like idiots. But that should not be the design criterion. It is far safer for the cyclist to be travelling contraflow on a one-way street than going with the flow. For this reason, the Dutch sometimes segregate the with-flow direction of cycling with a lane or track, and not the contraflow direction. Clearly this road is too narrow for that, and it would be overkill here. The markings clearly show the road-users what to expect, and it should not be too much to expect sensible negotiation at low speeds from them.

    I've cycled in these streets for decades, and they used to be horrible, because the one-way system confined cyclists to exactly the same restricted selection of through-routes as cars and buses, and forced them always to be travelling in the same direction as those cars and buses, in narrow spaces where they were always aggressively tailgated. This scheme has been a huge improvement, so far as it has gone, though more remains to be done in the area.

  6. A couple of observations on the day after the FreeRide. Living as we do right in the middle of the M̶A̶M̶I̶L̶-̶f̶e̶s̶t̶ 100/Classic route in North Surrey, my family and I went to spectate and support the riders, and, knowing the back roads, did so at several places during the day. The surrounding roads were coned off against motor traffic for some distance away from the main route, and staffed by a veritable army of helpful marshals. A fair proportion of the spectators, including us, had turned up on their somewhat-cheaper-than-Dogma bikes, in normal clothing, and there were very few helmets. There were lots of kids among them. These folk could have driven there, but hadn't. I also saw other parents cycling about in the new spaces surrounding the route, with their kids, clearly a novel experience for them It was great, but also poignant. These may be the people I see off-road in places like the Thames Path at weekends, but not on the roads then or at other times. Suppressed demand.

    On the way there and back through the larger streets, I noted that the number of instances of poor driving seemed to be greater than usual. Was this random, was it me feeling overly protective of my family who don't cycle to the same extent as me, or was it that the more considerate drivers were off the roads (some maybe even spectating) or that there was some degree of resentment by the drivers that some of "their" roads were closed? I don't know, but this appeared a week ago:

    So I'm looking forward to your analyses of "the appalling lack of progress on cycle infrastructure in the UK outside London, Bristol, Cambridge and one or two other places".

    jitensha Oni

  7. I live only a few hundred metres from the Freecycle route so I used the opportunity to do a little campaigning of my own.

    I've been on a Sky Ride before so I knew what to expect - an abundance of high-vis, helmets, technical fibres etc. I turned up on my Dutch bike in t-shirt, shorts, trainers, sun hat - the kind of thing you'd wear out on a sunny day anywhere. I wore a t-shirt emblazened with the words "If only cycling was always this *nice* #spaceforcycling". I had a couple of positive comments from people as they passed by but it didn't shake the foundations of the cycling world like I'd dreamed! I went home for lunch and got changed into a normal t-shirt and did another two laps. I wanted to show what normal cycling could be like, but I think I stood out like a sore thumb and just looked like I was riding a novelty bike - like the guy on the low-rider or the one with the speakers.

    Perhaps next time we should get together and be a bit more vocal about what we want and with a co-ordinated message - like the guys who were obviously trying to sell the EllipitiGO machines. Looked cool but did you see any of them trying to stop??!!