Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Holborn trap

I wanted to do as more positive blogpost at this point, as there is a certain amount of positive news on the London cycling radar, with some welcome (and overdue) moves towards actually making the Mayor's Vision for Cycling a reality. However, a comment I received the other day on my post of 16 July causes me to return to the subject of the continuing, criminally dangerous cycling environment that cyclists are still suffering on routes both north-south and east-west bang in the centre of London, around Holborn, at the southern edge of the Borough of Camden.

That post was prompted by the death, under a lorry, of Alan Neave on 15 July, in High Holborn, near the junction with Kingsway, at the place marked by the red dot on the map.

I linked that death, as did others, with the issue that cyclists from east London travelling towards the West End cannot follow Theobalds Road into Vernon Place, Bloomsbury Way and New Oxford Street on a direct route, as can the buses, but are are forced with cars round a mad multi-lane one-way system consisting of Drake Street, Procter Street, High Holborn, and St Giles High Street, that looks like this:

In the weeks leading up to Alan Neave's death, the police had been actively ticketing cyclists attempting to use the Vernon Place and Bloomsbury Way bus lane. The borough of Camden and Transport for London had always maintained that cyclists could not use this bus lane, as it is not wide enough for buses and cyclists to share.

I called, in July, on these authorities, and, in particular, on the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, to take emergency action to create, through some sort of temporary infrastructure, not unlike that put in place for the Olympic lanes, a safe route for cyclists through this area, which has some of the highest cycle flows seen anywhere in London. They, and he, chose not to do this. Gilligan has persistently claimed, in response to such calls, that the number of cyclists being killed in London does not constitute an emergency, and that hurried action ("panic measures" as he terms it) would be counterproductive.

On 7 November Francis Golding, distinguished architect and former head of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, was killed by a left-turning coach at the junction of Southampton Place and Vernon Row, part of the same one-way system. So I need to add a blue dot to my map to mark his death:

Maybe if emergency measures to allow cyclists more priority and protection through this road system had been put in place after the death of Alan Neave, Golding would still be alive today. Maybe not. The incidents were different, only having a common factor in involvement of a large vehicle. But I just don't think arrangements for cyclists in this area are sane.

I also pointed out in my earlier post how there is a confounding problem, that the cycle route that I helped to devise, with Camden Cyclists, in the 1990s, via Great Russell Street, Bury Place, a short contraflow segregated track in High Holborn, then Newton Street, and Great Queen Street (shown with small orange dots on the map), which was designed to separate some cycle journeys from the Holborn one-way system, had been blocked by long-term building works with the provision of no alternative. Here is the blockage, looking towards the southern part of Bury Place from Bloomsbury Way:

I pointed out that it would have been really easy for Camden to provide an alternative here to maintain the cycle route. The signals cyclists need are still in place. They just needed to remove a section of railing, insert a dropped kerb, put in some markings and do a temporary traffic order. There is still a decent space for both pedestrians and cyclists to get through, with sensible behaviour, outside the building hoardings.

Then this week, a new comment appears on that earlier blogpost, from Tim Brooke:
Thanks for the article, David. 
Interestingly, I was given a £50 FPN [Fixed Penalty Notice] this morning on that very spot on Bury Place that your photograph shows (and where the long-term building works are still occupying pride of place), having cycled on the short stretch of pavement connecting Bury Place to Bloomsbury Way. Police hiding round side of Kier hoarding.
So, not only have we had police fining cyclists for trying to avoid the one-way system by using the bus lane in Bloomsbury Way, we've had them fining cyclists for trying to avoid it by using the disrupted cycle route in Bury Place. It's as if the police, Camden and TfL between them are deliberately laying a huge trap for cyclists in Holborn, trying to force them to their deaths, pushing them through a road system with a terrible safety record.

It is illegal, and it should be, for cyclists to cycle on the pavement.

But it should also be illegal for a local authority to allow a cycle route to be blocked without providing an equally safe temporary alternative.

Camden are supposedly a cycle-frienldy council, and have in the recent past done exemplary work in creating an alternative route for cyclists while an established route is closed for works, at Royal College Street:

But not at Bury Place.

I have learned, in conversations with Camden Cyclists' committee, that cyclists will soon be allowed to use the Bloomsbury Way westbound bus lane. But the lane will be segregated off with wands in the road (things like thin and flexible bollards), and it will still be too narrow for cyclists to overtake buses, or vice versa, and cyclists will be banned from overtaking buses by straying through the wands into the opposing lane. The Camden officer responsible for this scheme is reported as saying that if cyclists are seen doing this, cyclists will be banned from the bus lane again.

So it seems like cyclists are dying on the major roads in central London, and the response of the authorities, rather than providing rationally-designed, safe and practical infrastructure that cyclists can use without breaking the law, is consistently to blame cyclists for the problems and criminalise them at every possible opportunity for merely trying to use the road system in the best and safest way they can find.

Frankly, I'm sick of it. So are lots of other people.

It doesn't help that the first thing that it seems to enter Boris Johnson's head whenever there is another cycling death is some new, counter-evidential argument to attempt to transfer blame for the road danger that is killing them on to cyclists themselves. In November, after the deaths of six cyclists in two weeks, including Francis Golding, his response was to blather some rubbish about headphones. Quite sickening.

This, Mr Gilligan, this whole accumulation of deaths, injuries, insults, and institutional incompetence, is why cyclists and others are lying down in roads to protest. We know you have some good ideas, but there's a huge back-story here, a lot of it is associated with your boss, and we're not seeing the changes we need yet.

Here's Vernon Place looking east, with the contraflow bus lane that cyclists will soon by allowed to use, but not overtake buses in.

So, interpreting Camden and TfL's current position on this, it seems they are saying there's room for three eastbound lanes of traffic, but not room for making a westbound lane wide enough to be sensibly shared by buses and cyclists. These are unbelievably wrong priorities. This problem could be fixed by repainting the road markings with only two eastbound lanes and moving the traffic lights. It doesn't seem too complicated. Is the real agenda here that maintaining the capacity of the gyratory system is a higher priority than cyclists' safety?

Obviously, if Camden do what they say they will, and add these wands to the bus lane at its existing width, cyclists will overtake stopped buses by going over the solid white line, if there is nothing coming towards them in the opposing lane. Why shouldn't they? But I think that these wands will themselves be an extra hazard.

Andrew Gilligan has spoken elsewhere of segregating combined bus and cycle lanes (not necessarily contraflow ones) off from the rest of the traffic with wands. I find this concept hard to fathom. If the lane is not wide enough to combine cyclists and buses in, in parallel, with a good margin for overtaking, then enclosing the whole thing with wands is surely going to create more problems. If it is wide enough, then the wands are in the wrong place. They should be between the cycle flow and the motor flow, in other words, between separate bus and bike lanes. Or alternatively there should be no separation, but the cyclists must be allowed to undertake at the bus-stops with bus stop bypasses. Cycle flows have a totally different dynamic to bus movements. They are about the same average speed, but mix very badly, because of the stop-start character of buses. We have huge numbers of buses in London, and substantial numbers of cyclists (in certain places). Neither of these are going to change quickly. We have to sort this problem out.

I'll look at some further aspects of the practicality of TfL's bike plans for central London, which were announced this week, in another post. For now, it seems that in Holborn they are still intent in trapping cyclists in a weird cat-and-mouse game. If the police actually enforce the "no overtaking" rule (which is hard to imagine), cyclists will not have a practical route, and they will have to use the deadly one-way system again. Trying to prevent cyclists and buses from passing each another is idiotic.

Fortunately, there are other people with better ideas. I draw your attention to the Clerkenwell Boulevard proposal by Andrea Casalotti. I think this deserves some serious consideration. He has considered the east-west corridor from Old Street roundabout to Bury Place, the most cycled route in London, with conditions, that are, as he says, currently "scandalously disrespectful to people who cycle". He proposes making it a bus and  cycle (and pedestrian) only corridor, with continuous separation of cyclists from buses with a single bi-directional track. The removal of turns by other vehicles on to and off the route means that some traffic lights could be removed (though I'm not sure so many could be removed as the eight he claims), speeding both bus and cycle journeys. They would also be speeded, of course, by being separated from one another, and having the cars, lorries, vans and taxis removed from the corridor. This traffic would be displaced to the inner ring road: Euston Road, Pentonville Road and City Road.

Conditions on "Clerkenwell Boulevard": "Scandalously disrespectful to  people who cycle"
It's a radical proposal which would attract huge opposition from taxi drivers and commercial vehicle operators, without doubt. I also think it would need to be part of a wider and more complicated package of proposals. You wouldn't just get the displacement to the ring road, as Andrea claims, you would get displacement to many small roads unless they were all closed as well; particularly, the whole route of the Seven Stations Link, or LCN 0, needs to be closed to through-traffic. But such a radical proposal should force our decision-makers to think about who and what these streets are actually for. Are they there for the benefit of the taxi trade and commercial vehicle operators (there actually are not many private cars here at the moment) so that they have short (but rarely quick or efficient) journeys, or could we use them better, for a more beautiful, pleasant, and more civilised city?

We are not proposing removing motor vehicle access to any destination, but some motor routes would become longer. However, experience in the Netherlands and elsewhere shows that simplifying networks and reducing the number of possible motor routes and open intersections can actually make journeys faster for motor vehicles. Certainly any claim that we have the perfect solution in Central London at the moment would be generally laughed out-of-court. We are constantly told that road space in London is a limited resource, so why do we persist in using it so inefficiently? These roads are not working well now for anybody, and cyclists and pedestrians are coming off the worst. In too many cases they are being killed. More widely, there is a denial of travel choices. Contrary to what our Cycling Commissioner thinks, we do have an emergency, in so many ways. Let's have a radical rethink.


  1. Farringdon Road was restricted to one lane in one direction during recent Crossrail works, with room for a fully segregated contraflow cycle lane. Given that the world continued rotating, with no apparent ill effects to transport generally, it is very disappointing that after the works finished the road has reopened exactly as it was before, with no space reserved for cycling at all in three lanes of busy traffic.

    1. Indeed - all across London there are major roads that are closed for roadworks and London seems to carry on just fine regardless. Cornhill, close to my office, has been shut several times over the last few years; most recently last month and I could see little impact to traffic.

      This is especially interesting as the City of London have been investigating closing one of the arms of Bank junction for years but seem blind to putting up a few "Road closed" signs as a way of seeing what'll happen (or, heaven forbid, learning from the existing closures).

  2. I tried emailing, but the internet broke.

    The guy in the day glo top looks safe

    The other two don't

    Instead of arguing about what provision is there, perhaps education is a
    proper route.

    I cycle through Liverpool on a daily basis, been to London a few times and
    found it a doddle. Take the lane and you are fine.

    Just an observation.


  3. So in your opinion, Matt, all those cyclists who have been killed were just cycling in the wrong part of the road, and had themselves to blame?

    I don't think so, but it's just my opinion.

  4. The only hope I had when Boris was elected was that he would improve cycling conditions. Unfortunately he had proven to be one of the "I'm all right Jack, man up" persuasion. In fact for all his maverick reputation he has shown to be completely cowed by whatever powers are in place, commercial or TfL. In other words full of hot air. Sad to say transport in London would have been much better served by Ken.
    Milligan is only a flak, whatever he says is pretty irrelevant. We will get Boris' s attention only with more disruptive action, or if it threatens his chances at re-election or tory party leadership. If anyone here think he gives a shit about cyclingour even London in general you are gravely mistaken.

  5. So, after so many deaths and injuries, the powers that be don't want to be sued, therefore they have to look to the untrained eye as if they're actually doing something. So they allow cyclists to use the bus lane, but no overtaking - which they full well know in advance is an unreasonable request and therefore impossible for Cyclists to fulfill as part of their tribal collective accountability. Then those in charge can simply turn round and say "look at these criminal law breaking cyclists. We give them "what they want" and they respond by spitting in our faces, so we're not going to let you play with your toys". Then progress for cyclists regresses another decade.

    Are local politicians really so intelligent as to be so conspiratorial or are they just dumb enough to think that what they're proposing is an adequate solution? In either case surely it automatically precludes them from being in any position of power or any decision-making process.

  6. Matt,

    As a fastish roadie, I'm inclined to agree. But as a father, husband, son and brother, I could not disagree more.

    Make of that what you will...

  7. I cycle through this area most days, to and from work. My route, coming through Islington, allows me the alternatives of Theobalds Road and the Bloomsbury Way bus lane, or Russell Square and the blocked Bury Place cycle route that you describe. I think the title of your post is exactly right – a combination of inaction by Camden, TFL and the Mayor’s Office coupled with selective enforcement action by the police has made it increasingly likely that cyclists will feel they have no option but to brave the Holborn gyratory with its manifest hazards.

    Cycling westbound along Theobalds Road in the morning, I have become used to periodic enforcement of the Bloomsbury Way bus lane by police at its eastern end giving cyclists the choice of dismounting or diverting round the Proctor Street one-way system. Recently, the tactic has changed. A police car has parked out of sight in Barter Street near the junction with Bloomsbury Way and an officer has stood at the corner pulling over and fining cyclists coming up the bus lane. In effect this amount to a policy of fining rather than warning cyclists and my observation since is that the number of cyclists using the bus lane in the morning rush-hour has fallen dramatically and I wonder to whether this means all those cyclists coming along Theobalds Road are now going round the Holborn one-way system, or whether they have given up cycling this route entirely.

    For my part, I have taken to using the Russell Square / Bury Place route. A few days after Bury Place was first closed I realised that it is possible to divert round the closure by turning left from Bury Place onto Bloomsbury Way, then right into Barter Street, which bends round to the right to bring you back on route (note that the standard London streetmap doesn’t seem to show the bit of Barter Street that joins Bloomsbury Way).

    It annoys me intensely that there have never been any diversion signs to tell cyclists where to go, it seems like the absolute minimum one could hope for. Of course what is really needed is proper provision for cyclists to continue down Bury Street, particularly since the ban on cyclist in the bus lane makes it illegal to reverse this diversion and going North one has no alternative but to use the pavement on Bury Street, where Matt was stopped and fined.

    Recently I’ve noticed police (usually two) on the corner of Bury Street and Bloomsbury Way. Their function seems to be to make cyclists dismount who are intending to squeeze past the Bury Street closure – I certainly see no evidence of them pointing out the possible diversion!

    Regarding overtaking buses on the stop in Vernon Place shown in the Google Streetview image, it is certainly a manoeuvre to be undertaken with care and if cyclists are to be allowed (finally) to use the bus lane, then it really needs to be wider in Vernon Place. But this should be trivial to do. Bloomsbury Way eastbound has only one general traffic lane (plus a bus lane). At Bloomsbury Square, the bus lane becomes a second general traffic lane. The three lanes referred to, and shown on the streetview image, only exist from the junction with Southampton Place to Southampton Row. So all that needs to happen is that the two lanes continue along Vernon Place up to the lights, rather than suddenly expanding into three, which leads to vehicle moving to the right after the junction with Southampton Place and potentially coming into conflict with cyclists overtaking buses at the stop. This would required only some repainting of lane markings (and perhaps some wands) – the pedestrian islands at both junctions are wide enough to indicate where the edge of the bus lane should be.

    1. I find this nothing short of scandalous. Not only those police could be used elsewhere or better to actively prevent crime/accidents, but they probably cost in the region of £20 per hour per person. Waste all round, just to prevent doing something that might upset a few dear motorists.

  8. Does Vernon Place really need to have 3 lanes, couldn't 1 lanes be taking away for allowing cyclists to overtake the buses. Not great, but at least an easy step in the right direction.

  9. I got ticketed this morning on Vernon Place, but only after I went to speak to the supervising officer to try and confirm that they were actually doing this given that Camden council had confirmed that cyclists would be allowed along this bus lane in the new year. He insisted on ticketing me if I tried to make the 30m journey back along the road to rejoin my route! I've got the whole bizarre incident on camera, including me trying to understand his logic (or lack of discretion) for ticketing cyclists who choose to cycle the safe route rather than endanger themselves around Holborn. Utter madness. Now wondering what to do with my ticket as my appeal would probably struggle on the basis that the officer was "technically correct, but mad to be enforcing this without exercising his judgment".

    1. It appears that new No Cycling signs have recently appeared around Theobald's Road, which seems confusing given the announcement that the restrictions will be lifted soon.