Danny of Cyclists In the City has been tireless in documenting the increasing rash of widened pavements and narrowed carriageways that are springing up all over London. In his most recent piece on a location where a street has been redesigned in this manner, Cheapside – where the carriageway has been narrowed significantly, cycle lanes have been removed, and the pavement extended – he notes that
My own view is that the schemes [on Cheapside and St. Pauls' Churchyard] are a disaster for cycling. Anecdotally, I sense that cycling numbers along these roads have also decreased since the changes…
Firstly, the roads are now so narrow, that motor vehicles can’t really get past people on bikes. And vice versa. That means you’re either stuck between buses or you have to overtake by crossing the middle of the road. Which is also largely impossible, because the motor traffic on the other side is stuck in a queue as well…
The other clincher is the addition of new pinch points, particularly on Cheapside. Motor vehicles try to overtake you between the pinch-points, then realise there’s not enough room, then slam in behind you or literally scrape past you.
My personal feeling is that the narrowing of the carriageways, and the widening of the pavements, have been undertaken in a genuine attempt to improve the street environment for pedestrians. A narrower carriageway will be easier to cross, and vehicle speeds should be lower; this in addition to the obvious benefits of a wider pavement. Unfortunately it seems that little or no consideration has been given for how these changes might affect people on bicycles.
Having just returned from the Better Streets conference on the 29th November, these issues suddenly sounded rather familiar. One of the speakers at the conference was David Moores, Technical Director of Public Realm for Project Centre, the consultancy responsible for the redesign of Kensington High Street. Like the streets Danny Williams has been talking about, this redesign features a wider pavement, narrowed carriageways for vehicles, and a ‘median strip’, a kerbed separator that lies down the centre of the road. You can see it in this photograph below, which I have taken from David Moores’ own presentation -
Like the other measures, this kerbed divider is designed to improve the environment for pedestrians, making it easier for them to cross the road, where they choose. They can cross one side, and wait on the divider until the other side becomes clear. In essence, it’s an extended ‘pedestrian refuge.’
As you can see, it’s also used as a cycle storage area. Cycle stands are great, of course, but I’m not tremendously enthusiastic about them being placed in the middle of the road. For a start, you’ve got to get to the central island in the first place, which means negotiating your way across to the centre of the road. You then have to cross the road to get to the shop you intend to visit, before having to cross back again to retrieve your bicycle, and then cross back again to the edge of the road to resume your journey. Cycle stands placed at the side of the road – by the shop, restaurant or place you actually want to visit – are far more convenient.
The principle of using such a divider for making it easier to cross the road has a sound basis, but David Moores talked at length about wanting to make it wider – to make it a ‘third footway’ in its own right. The logic of this escaped me slightly. I’m not sure people really do want to walk down the centre of the road – there’s nothing there, really, apart from the odd tree, and the pavement itself. They just want to cross it, to get to the shops, facilities and destinations on the other side. It didn’t seem necessary, to me, to make this a place where people could walk longitudinally more easily, because people have no reason to do so.
The other troubling aspect of this widening – which of course didn’t take place here on Kensington High Street – was that it would have involved narrowing the carriageways still further. This narrowing was something David Moores was enthusiastic about, in its own right, particularly when it came to interactions with people on bicycles. You can hear what he had to say on this issue by clicking here (the full speech can be listened to here), but I have transcribed the relevant passage below -
Cyclists… We have looked at additional design work since then, on Walworth Road, where, with a narrower carriageway, cyclists get to the front at the signals, and they set off, and they effectively monitor the speed of the traffic. Because we provided slightly wider lane widths here [on Kensington High Street] you actually get vehicles trying to get past the cyclists, so it’s sort of evidence to suggest that a narrower carriageway protects cyclists, particularly when you’ve got a large number of signals, because it acts like lock gates, down through the design.
I must say I muttered something under my breath while I was sitting in the audience listening to this.
This is the ‘narrower carriageway’ on Walworth Road, of the kind that David Moores was talking about, below -
Again, we have the ‘median strip’, designed to help pedestrians cross the road. But crucially the carriageway is considerably narrower than that on Kensington High Street. For David Moores, this narrower carriageway is a much better idea. In his words, it ‘protects cyclists.’ Unlike on Kensington High Street, where vehicles ‘try to get past’ cyclists, on Walworth Road the vehicles are stuck behind cyclists, where their speed becomes ‘monitored’ by those people on bicycles (I think this is just a more attractive way of saying the vehicles are ‘held up’ by bicycles).
My problem is that, for cyclists to ‘get to front at the signals’, the carriageway will quite obviously have to be wide enough for them to move past a car; but if that is the case, then it is wide enough for a car to attempt to squeeze back past them once traffic starts moving, regardless of how safe this might be. The only way to stop this is to adopt an ‘assertive’ road position, which is little understood by most drivers, and can quite often be seen as an act of provocation. It’s certainly not a recipe for harmony between drivers and people on bicycles, to say nothing of the safety consequences for the more timid people on bicycles – possibly the majority – who tend to hug the kerb as they cycle.
To be cynical, it almost appears as if bicycles are being used, deliberately, as a traffic calming measure. Maybe that isn’t the intention, but that is certainly the outcome, and an outcome is being talked about, positively, by the designers of these streets.
It comes as no surprise to me that Project Centre are also responsible for the redesign of, amongst other locations, Cheapside, Walworth Road, Rye Lane, and proposed changes to Holborn Circus (the consultation for which showed absolutely no bicycles at all). Every single one of these redesigns involves wider pavements, more pinch points, and increased conflict between bicycles and motor vehicles. Even if the traffic is stationary, it remains deeply unpleasant to cycle on these kinds of roads, because it is either impossible – or worse, dangerous – to filter, due to the narrowness.
My impression, looking at these schemes, is that very little thought has gone into making these places environments where people might actually want to cycle. And it’s not just Project Centre who are overlooking cycling. Farrells – the architects who elected to remove the cycle track on Byng Place in Bloomsbury and replace it with a rather pointless ‘shared’ space, that in reality is not shared at all - have put forward a proposal for Euston Circus, at the north end of Tottenham Court Road. They intend to turn this large, unpleasant, grade-separated, multi-lane junction into a…
large, unpleasant, grade-separated, multi-lane junction. But with wider pavements.
Better for people on foot, but again, no consideration for anyone using a bicycle. (Indeed, it is telling that not a single bicycle appears in this illustration, just as with Holborn Circus).
We’ve also seen the formerly one-way streets around Piccadilly converted to two-way by Atkins; in principle, a good idea, but implemented with no thought for how their designs might turn out for someone cycling along them.
This street – Pall Mall – once a wide, one-way street, is now one giant pinch point, in both directions, thanks to the combination of parking on both sides, and the new median strip. When traffic is flowing freely, you have to ‘take the lane’ to avoid people attempting to squeeze past you. When it is congested, it is unpleasant or impossible to filter.
And at Russell Square, yet another design that is antithetical and hostile to the needs of cyclists.
This used to be a bus contraflow. It is now a four lane road, with a wider pavement, and narrow carriageways. Unpleasant for cycling. And dangerous. Camden Cycling Campaign have an ongoing safety issue with right turns at the junction behind where I am standing, something that was also highlighted by the late and lamented Crap Waltham Forest blog.
On other sides of the square, carriageway space has been reallocated for more pavement, and for parking.
And incredibly, on the west side of the square, a kerb-separated cycle contraflow has been ripped out, and replaced with… nothing. You can see the old design in Streetview -
It is here that Velorution have been forced to improvise a solution, protecting themselves with cones as they cycle legally against the flow of traffic, as below -
So it seems that at every location in London where a road is being dug up and redesigned, while some improvements are being made for pedestrians, little or no consideration is being given to how the street could be made better for cycling. Indeed, in some cases, the street is being made objectively worse, or even dangerous.
Is the bicycle being forgotten about? It certainly looks like it.