‘Scooting down’ Euston underpass

At Mayor’s Question Time on the 10th of November last year, Boris Johnson was quizzed at some length on cycle safety. Shortly after making his now rather infamous remarks about Elephant & Castle being ‘fine’ to negotiate on a bike, ‘if you keep your wits about you’, he made the following comments about cycling facilities –

There will be different strokes for different folks. Some cyclists will want to use… I mean, for instance, last night I was going along the Euston Road, and you get to that bit where you come to the underpass, and then the cycle route takes you on a sort of fiddly thing, where you go over… there’s a path, and you’ve got lots of oncoming pedestrians, and then you’re invited to cross at a traffic light, and so on and so forth. Or you can just scoot down the underpass. I just go down the underpass. And there are many, many other London cyclists who will do the same. And I go round, y’know, Hyde Park Corner – there’s no problem. For me. Because I’ve become used to it.

(Jack Thurston of The Bike Show has captured the audio – this passage is at 32:30)

The general thrust of Boris’s comments – at least as I interpreted them – are that what few cycling facilities are present in London exist only to allow people to ‘build up their confidence’ before they venture off into the underpasses, around the gyratories, and along the dual carriageways that Boris himself evidently finds so suitable for cycling. Once people have their ‘confidence’, then they can assert themselves on the road, and the facilities are no longer necessary.

For Boris, cycle facilities don’t exist to make cyclists’ lives easier, or more pleasant – they’re just a training device.

The video below shows a stretch of road that Boris evidently feels that any cyclist with sufficient confidence should be using. It’s the Euston underpass on Euston Road, that he refers to in the comments I have quoted.

The video largely speaks for itself, but I can make a couple of observations.

Firstly, the underpass itself – while unpleasant – is not the most hazardous part of this short stretch of road. The main safety issue is the crossing of slip roads, both before and after the underpass, where you have to merge with vehicles that are travelling at or around 30 mph – much faster than most cyclists (and even ‘confident’ cyclists) can manage. These are roads that are simply not designed for bicycle use; I find it quite incredible that Boris feels comfortable in exhorting people to use ‘confidence’ as a compensatory measure.

Before the underpass, you have to hold the middle lane to avoid being ‘left-hooked’ by vehicles turning into Gower Street; as this lane splits in two, you have vehicles overtaking you in your lane, like the van in my clip. After the underpass, you emerge with vehicles passing you on both sides, and have to negotiate your way back to the nearside. These are serious challenges that are quite obviously going to put off most people, even those who currently cycle in London.

The second point is that while I didn’t necessarily fear for my life, this is not a strip of road that is at all pleasant to cycle on. It’s stressful; just like cycling around Hyde Park Corner, or Elephant & Castle. This is a fact Boris doesn’t seem to consider when he encourages people – ‘confident’ people – to use the road network. Staying alive is one thing – actually enjoying your journey is surely something else. Using a bicycle to get from A to B in a city shouldn’t feel like a white knuckle experience; people will want more from a bicycle journey than mere objective safety. They will want it to feel safe, not just be statistically safe, something Boris – perhaps for expediency – fails to grasp.

The third point is that ‘confidence’ is not going to be enough for everyone – it’s only going to be enough for young to middle-aged males who are more comfortable asserting themselves and are athletic enough to move at closer to motor vehicle speeds. Children are not going to have the confidence to use the Euston underpass (in any case, I can’t imagine any parent letting their child use it), and nor are the elderly.

There is, however, the alternative that Boris talked about.

Again, the video largely speaks for itself. The route – while useful in that it allows you to cycle westbound without using the intimidating underpass – is, speaking frankly, a pile of crap. It is, as Boris says, ‘fiddly’. There are, as he says, lots of oncoming pedestrians, and you do have to wait at the lights, for some time.

These are, however, not innate characteristics of off-road cycle facilities. They are characteristics of shite cycle facilities.

Cycle tracks should not re-emerge back onto a slip road right by a parking bay.

Two-way cycle tracks should not be this narrow, nor should pavements disappear alongside them –

Especially when there is a vast amount of underused carriageway space that could be reallocated. 

It’s all very well for Boris to talk down these kinds of routes as alternatives to the underpasses and gyatories he is comfortable with using – but they are part of his remit! They should not be this bad, and it is his responsibility to sort them out, so that they are a decent way, indeed the quickest, safest and best way, for cyclists to negotiate intimidating road layouts. (Setting aside the fact that plenty of gyratories – for example King’s Cross – have no alternative at all). Cycle paths like this one are typical of those implemented, and unmodified, by transport authorities that don’t care about cycling (and indeed walking), and are uninterested in doing things properly.

Boris could change this, quite easily. He chooses not to. He’s happy cycling through underpasses and around gyratories, and that means we all have to be.

Some ‘revolution.’

This entry was posted in Boris Johnson, Cycling policy, Infrastructure, London, Road safety, Transport for London. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to ‘Scooting down’ Euston underpass

  1. naath says:

    The air quality is sufficiently bad in the Euston underpass that if I am forced by the traffic to stop at the bottom I find it really difficult to cycle out (I’m hampered by a very heavy bicycle, and often heavy luggage too; but on the other hand I’m strong and fit and confident (but not a man)).

  2. I think the other rather telling point in that quote is the “Because I’ve become used to it”
    Used to what? Having to contend with 4 lanes of traffic around Hyde Park Corner? Having to deal with the above described dangers by using the Euston Underpass??
    I don’t understand why as a vulnerable road user you should have to “get used” to anything that makes your journey any more hazardous or time consuming. But then this is coming from the same Mayor who is getting TFL to bend over backwards to ensure motorised traffic isn’t held up! Just imagine the uproar if Boris and TFL implemented a road that followed the same “design” principles as that cycle lane on Euston Road – it’s be 1 1/2 cars wide (I’m being generous!) and force you to stop and randomly placed giveway lines every so often where you have to re-merge with a special HGV lane where they are doing 60mph….

    My commute into London is enjoyable but it’s certainly not a cake walk (or ride) hell just this morning I was very nearly knocked off as a motorcyclists decided to squeeze between me and an already far-to-close coach, so close in fact that he actually skimmed my arm! BTW this was on one of the “Super”Highways…

  3. rosamundi says:

    Boris Johnson is happy using underpasses, is he? Spot the man who’s never been on a personal safety and self-defence course. I’d never use an underpass if I was on my own at night, it’s pretty much the first thing that lone women are told.

    • Well, you appear to be referring to pedestrian subways rather than underpasses for motor traffic… But even if BoJo was fine with the Euston Underpass, there are other places that are even worse. The Hanger Lane underpass is effectively a short cut and cover tunnel – there were even parliamentary questions regarding its lighting.

      • disgruntled says:

        Even an underpass for motor traffic is a bit scary for a woman (or even a bloke) alone after dark. Few other pedestrians or cyclists about – and no guarantee that anyone in a car will see you or stop if anything should happen. Short underpasses that you can see from end to end before you enter are fine, anything else is a bit of a no-no

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  5. YACPOWB says:

    why follow the cycle path on the alternative. use the roads.
    cycling from west to east take the slip to the lights, cross TCR and then use the other slip road to rejoin after the underpass. east to west is a bit longer but still easily rideable.

    most “cycle” routes in London are dire and just put us cyclists in harms way . Ever heard opf the door zone Boris ?? come to Alexandra Road Leyton and have a look at the “improvements ” to the cycle lane that Tfl have sanctioned

    • Cycling west to east, the slip roads are quite easily the best option, as you say. There isn’t a cycle path here, in any case.

      However, I think you’re slightly mistaken about going the other way, east to west. You cannot use the slip road itself in this direction because you will be cycling the wrong way on a one-way street (the road that feeds in to Gower Street from Hampstead Road). The slip road here goes west to east, and is useless (you can see this in the photos towards the bottom of my post). That’s why your only option is the piddly cycle path, or the underpass itself.

      • YACPOWB says:

        No. Heading east to west take a left down gower street then right into Grafton way and then right onto TCR then left at the junction with euston road. adds a few minutes but stops me having to breathe fumes and risk the homicidal maniacs that are in the tin boxes. BTW YACPOWB is an acronym for Yet another Cyclist P Off with Boris

        • Ah yes. That’s an option, certainly better than the underpass, and quicker than the little contra-flow track. Does involve getting over to the right on Gower Street, and back over to the left on TCR, which may put off the more nervous.

  6. monchberter says:

    Boris is trying to say the unsayable – cyclists should get some training.

    He’s obviously cycled a lot in London and has probably done his Bikeability at some point. Problem is, in trying to promote cycling, he can’t just come out and say that he advocates that all cyclists should be trained as that wouldn’t really encourage anyone to get on a bike. Instead he has to skirt around the issue and say ‘getting used to it’ as a euphemism for experience and training.

    Frankly, I think it’s time we all started being a bit more honest about the benefits of training as cycling in rush hour traffic in central London is far from the ‘easy’ image that most people promoting cycling like to repeat. You do need to at least think about what you’re doing before you go out on the road. Unfortunately, alongside aggressive drivers and hideous roads and crap cycle infrastructure, ignorance of the need for a bit of preparation is probably most novice cyclists biggest risks.

    • ‘Confidence’ appears to be Boris’ chosen euphemism….

      I think you’ve put your finger on something. It’s pretty irresponsible to sell cycling as easy without telling people that – in London at least – it’s actually rather difficult, if not downright dangerous, especially if you don’t quite know what you’re doing.

      • monchberter says:

        Cycling is easy

        My personal bugbear is this is exactly how cycling is sold to people, both by TFL and cycling groups (and the odd paper / style section that decides that a Brompton / Dutch bike / fixie / cyclocross is that season’s best accessory). While on the one hand you can say cycling is easy – you don’t need to be licensed for a start, kids tend to learn at some point, on the other, cycling with traffic is something else entirely and sadly, not knowing the best way to protect yourself is the downfall of many of the people who end up in accidents.

    • Tommi says:

      “Some” training, yes, but expecting 12 year olds to learn Highway Code (same as drivers), learn to read and anticipate traffic (same as drivers), learn to actively look for and anticipate errors made by other road users (more advanced lesson for drivers – not sure of UK), learn to balance between riding in physically dangerous position and mentally stressful position, learn to actively distrust the road design and markings guiding cyclists that are supposed to keep you safe.

      Cycling is easy, just look to, well pretty much anywhere outside UK. But in London cyclists are implicitly expected to have far superior road awareness and experience than licensed drivers (without having any of the benefits of actually having a license.)

      The reliance on training is like considering faulty electrical wiring as acceptable. I’m sure with proper training people would be able to use appliances safely, but surely the use would also plummet.

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