Sustrans’ “Connect London”

There was some excellent news over the weekend, with the opening of the Two Tunnels route in Bath. The huge turnout, with people bikes and on foot eager to use this excellent new route into the centre of Bath, demonstrates that safe, pleasant and useful  infrastructure is in great demand; demand that is being suppressed by current conditions for cycling.

The money for this project came largely from Sustrans; they put aside £1m they had received from lottery funding. £400,000 came from the local council, and the rest from local fundraising. Sustrans do great work. I cycled from Bath to Bristol last year with the Cycling Embassy on portions of the Two Tunnels route, and on the railway path, a wonderful facility that was full with ordinary people, enjoying the experience of cycling away from motor traffic; there are a huge number of similar routes across the country that almost certainly would not exist if it had not been for the efforts of Sustrans.

But I think it speaks volumes that a charity should be doing this kind of work; we don’t expect roads or railways to be built by charities, so why on earth should essential transport infrastructure for cycling and walking be left to groups like Sustrans? As good as their work is, they have to get a lot done with (relatively) little cash. That’s fine for out of town routes, or routes linking towns and cities, but I think Sustrans run into problems when their routes hit town and city centres.

To be direct and useful, routes in these places require substantial investment, and this is something Sustrans are not able to provide. As a consequence, their routes will inevitably be rather circuitous, because they will have to compromise on their directness to get around obstacles like large junctions where there they don’t have the funding or ability to adapt them.

A good recent example is Sustrans’ Connect London project. This predates the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, as Sustrans themselves argue -

The Mayor has proposed a ‘Quietways’ network which will deliver direct routes for cyclists on pleasant, low-traffic side streets. Sound familiar? That’s because it is. You heard it here first… Elements of the Mayor’s announcement echo the Connect London plan which aims to see London become home to the world’s biggest cycle network by 2020.

Simple, yes? The Mayor is proposing a ‘Quietways’ Network, and that’s exactly what Sustrans is doing! So the two elements overlap – Sustrans and the Mayor are demanding the same thing.

Well, it’s not quite that simple. The problem is that the Mayor’s Vision is quite explicit, proposing

A cross-London network of high-quality guided Quietways will be created on low-traffic back streets and other routes so different kinds of cyclists can choose the routes which suit them. Unlike the old London Cycle Network, Quietways will be direct.

I’ve put that last sentence in bold, because I think it is very important. The Mayor and TfL have grasped that the old LCN was a failure, because it was hopelessly indirect. As David Arditti has written -

[LCN+] made very little progress, having little political backing, and being mainly on borough roads where the Mayor had no direct control. It embodied a confused strategy, with some of the routes being convoluted, up-and-down backstreet affairs inherited from the original LCN (such as the slalom-like route just east of Finchley Road in Hampstead) that no commuter would use… Since the LCN+ strategy was basically not about segregation, or even road-space reallocation, there was no coherent picture to put to councils, be they pro or anti-cycling, of what was supposed to be put in place on proposed main road routes like LCN+5 on the A5, and in the end it became a strategy just to spend the money somehow.

The ‘Vision’ document is, pleasingly, very clear that this old strategy of putting ‘nervous’ cyclists on wiggling back routes, where you can easily get lost, is out. The Mayor’s Quietways will be direct and straightforward, and, as the document states,

they will not give up at the difficult places… Where directness demands the Quietway briefly join a main road, full segregation and direct crossing points will be provided, wherever possible, on that stretch.

In other words, quality and usefulness are the governing principles, and money will then be spent to ensure that these Quietways match up. Whether this will happen in practice, of course, is another matter; but the document’s strategy is exactly right.

There are plenty of ‘quiet’ routes in Dutch cities and towns, away from the main roads, but importantly they are just as direct as the main roads themselves. They don’t wiggle around major junctions or roads, they go straight across them.

A 'quiet route' in Amsterdam - the northern exit of the Vondelpark. Direct, cycle-specific crossing across major road

A ‘quiet route’ in Amsterdam – the northern exit of the Vondelpark. Direct, cycle-specific crossing across major road

The southern entrance of the 'Quiet route' across the park. Same wide, direct crossing

The southern entrance of the ‘quiet route’ across the park. Same wide, direct crossing

And the 'quiet route' continues out into the suburbs. Straight and direct, across cycle-only bridges and segregated, even here on already quiet streets

And the ‘quiet route’ continues out into the suburbs. Straight and direct, across cycle-only bridges and along segregated tracks, even here on already quiet streets

This is what the ‘Quietways’ in London should look like; routes that are safe and pleasant to use, but do not lose any of the advantages of directness that you would have cycling on the main roads.

Unfortunately the early signs are that Sustrans’ ‘Connect London’ project will not look like this; they will not have the directness or convenience suggested by the words in the Mayor’s Vision document.

Part of the proposed 'Connect London' network in South London, in green. Note the contrast in directness with Superhighway 7, in blue.

A snapshot of Sustrans proposed ‘Connect London’ network in South London, in green. Note the contrast in directness with Cycle Superhighway 7, in blue.

As Christopher Waller commented on Twitter, the Connect London proposals

look more like a set of postcode boundaries than a network map.

Exactly right. But why does it look like this? At a guess, because usefulness and directness appear to have been sacrificed in order to create, in Sustrans’ words, ‘the world’s biggest cycle network.’

Sustrans want £80 million spent, over the course of 8 years, to construct this network of ‘over 1000 kilometres’. But the amount of money they are asking for to construct this amount of network does not fill me with confidence. Quantity of network is no substitute for quality – 1000 kilometres of meaningless network is 1000 kilometres of meaningless network, regardless of how much of it there is. We already have hundreds of kilometres of ‘quiet network’ in London, which amounts to very little because it is inconvenient, indirect and not very useful to anyone actually wanting to get somewhere. David Arditti again (writing about a ‘Greenway’ scheme in Brent) -

Apart from the fact that it has made practically no progress, in my view, this entire concept is wrong, of attempting to push cyclists onto obscure, un-useful byways. Large-scale popular cycling will only ever be achieved by giving people on bikes direct, convenient, safely segregated routes on main roads, as they have done in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

Now of course we need ‘Quiet Routes’ alongside those safe and pleasant segregated routes on the main roads; Sustrans are quite correct to argue that their project should be seen alongside what might be called ‘Superhighways Plus’, or the new approach to cycling in main roads in London – the segregated tracks which will be appearing on new parts of the Superhighway network from later this year.

But my concern is that Sustrans’ proposals could lead to a worrying watering down of the whole Quietways project, which at least in intent gets things right. I don’t want to see money wasted on fiddly routes that are not useful to anyone. We’ve done that already, and it’s a proven failure. Money needs to be spent doing things properly, or not at all.

We shouldn’t be trying to build “the world’s biggest cycle network” if that network is composed of wiggly circular loops around parks and meandering the long way around junctions. Quietways should not be going down the wrong track.

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8 Responses to Sustrans’ “Connect London”

  1. Simon Parker says:

    I think you’re absolutely right to say that cycle routes need to be meaningful and direct if they are to be useful.

    You write: “Money needs to be spent doing things properly, or not at all.” My own view is very nearly similar: If we are going to spend a lot of money, let’s do it properly; but if we’re not going to spend a lot of money, let’s do it quickly.

    The question of whether to approach the development of a cycle network from the top-down or from the bottom-up has been looked at here. What is being written there is scientifically verifiable, so if there is anything which people think to disagree about, please don’t hold back.

    • In my opinion asking and expecting too little is a lot worse than asking for a lot. Politicians are quite happy to keep going with piecemeal policies, a little bit of paint here and there and maybe a 5% increase in cycling over fifteen years. Which is all we can expect unless we actively campaign for A class cycle routes that set a precedent for decent infrastructure.

      If you ask for little, you will most likely get little. Which is very much a “you have what you wanted, now stop complaining” situation. And if it fails to deliver mass cycling, it becomes just another weapon in the arsenal of the “it can’t be done over here” crowd and you perpetuate mediocrity.

      Whereas if you go for a larger scheme you have something people can get behind, something that will truly make a difference. And if politicians deliver less than the scheme advised, we can come back with a “we told you so, now listen!”

      The way i see it cyclists are being killed on the roads on an almost weekly basis, let down my mediocre or non-existent infrastructure that forces them to share space with lorries, buses and dangerous drivers. Do we really want to keep painting lines down side roads for the next 10 years, while we wait for politicians to realise exactly how beneficial cycling actually is.

      Just my (little bit more than) 2 cents.

  2. “But I think it speaks volumes that a charity should be doing this kind of work; we don’t expect roads or railways to be built by charities, so why on earth should essential transport infrastructure for cycling and walking be left to groups like Sustrans?”

    SPOT ON!

    Completely agree that planned cycle routes are rather pointless if they aren’t direct, allowing someone to conveniently use a bike to get from A to B.

  3. Grant says:

    I strongly urge you to see the Sustrans Connect2 work on Drayton Park, Islington, around the Arsenal stadium(s). It’s so far from being a ‘high-quality guided Quietway… on low-traffic back streets’ that It’s almost possible to believe Sustrans have been hoodwinked into paying for normal highway works.Some more on the works here: http://www.icag.org.uk/2012/connect2-drayton-park/ Rather than do the obvious and move the car parking over to make separated space for cycles, the carriageway has been narrowed, speed humps removed (so you are now overtaken by people able to drive at double the speed limit), dangerous pinch points have been retained, along with installation of one of the worst painted advisory cycle lanes I’ve seen anywhere that weaves along the door zone. I predict not one local kid will start cycling to school because of this scheme. What a waste.

  4. Sustrans is very good at getting funders to throw money into the same pot – with Connect 2 (over 70 schemes across the UK) Sustrans mobilised support across the country to get the scheme funded by the Big Lottery through an ITV phone vote!

    When it comes to delivering routes, they are also very good at getting landowners to talk and especially with Connect 2, they have overcome some serious issues to literally connect up unconnected areas for walking and cycling.

    The problem will always come where routes hit highways and the same old arguments and debates will be had, especially where road space needs to be reallocated to cycling. My most local scheme (which I have been involved with!) has good and bad sections ranging from really good off carriageway routes to signed-only on carriageway parts which I would love to revisit in the future if the funding is there and political will completely changes. But, the good parts of the scheme have connected up areas that one could not walk and cycle before which must be a good thing.

    For Connect London, there is an aspirational map, but the point of the campaign is to get the Mayor to commit the funding, rather than have detailed schemes drawn up now. Sustrans will have to engage with local authorities and now is the time for local groups to get organised to push for quiet an direct routes.

  5. Fred says:

    I agree, although the proposals look more coherent than currently exists on my routes in Islington, they’re not good enough – the more direct ones will become successful but will find people leaving the official route once it starts making circles, on the other ones it won’t matter because the people who do go on those streets may not even realise it forms part of a route!

    Having thought about cycling in Islington the one thing I think is essential is that we build routes people will use, as opposed to a scattergun approach to cycling facilities which are under used, confusing and won’t tempt new people to get on their bikes.

    The Islington Cyclists Action Group is currently looking for proposals to try to tap in to the mayor’s funding for this (http://www.icag.org.uk/2013/wish-list/) – I will point them here!

  6. Ruralista says:

    A little late here, but having heard a little more about Connect London from Sustrans people, I think the “quietways” aspect of it is actually a distraction.

    Connect London appears essentially to be a London follow-up to Connect2. Connect2 was mostly about building bridges (or, yes, reopening tunnels) to overcome severance, whether caused by roads, railways, or natural barriers such as hills and rivers.

    Unfortunately a few of the original plans fell through (often due to obstreprous councils, or third-party funding going AWOL), and less imaginative schemes were drafted in to take up the budget. There were also a handful that were less than inspiring in the first place. I don’t think anyone sane would claim Drayton Park is a good one. But the bulk of the money has gone on some really good schemes: the Two Tunnels, Pont y Werin, Diglis Bridge etc.

    As best as I can tell, Connect London is the same: that is, £10m on a collection of infrastructure projects, boosted by match funding from the boroughs and developers. The “world’s biggest urban cycle network” strapline is designed to attract the funding. The green lines are to say “if we build these bridges, look how many people will benefit”. Sustrans isn’t actually proposing to spend £10m solely on more blue signs.

    But, as you say, the problem is that people look at the map and say “ugh, circuitous routes”. It’s really not been very well presented. About the only sentence I can find in the original release that gives a clue as to the scheme’s real intentions is the one saying “The improved network will tackle dangerous junctions and impassable rivers and railways”.

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