This post is somewhat tangential to the big news today, of the Times’ launch of their Cities fit for cycling campaign, which I wholeheartedly support. I can think of no clearer reason for doing so than the words of Kaya Burgess, the friend and colleague of Mary Bowers, the young woman critically injured while riding her bicycle in November last year.
The reality with any major issue is that it only truly touches you when it comes close to home. However regularly you may cycle on Britain’s city streets and however aware you are of the risks of doing so, it is not until you have seen one of your closest friends and colleagues stretchered off the tarmac from beneath the wheels of a lorry only yards from the office that the vulnerability of cyclists hits home.
Mary Bowers is a news reporter at The Times. She joined the paper as a graduate trainee in September 2009, though her beaming smile and effusive personality were common sights around the office from previous roles as a researcher on the comment and foreign desks.
With a passion for social affairs investigations and witty features, she has a writing style that is as distinctive as her sharp, quirky dress sense. She also has a remarkable singing voice, and it is an honour to have been one of those lucky enough to perform with her on several occasions in the folk clubs of London.
Yet it is only by a hair’s breadth that we are still able to talk about Mary in the present tense. Her survival to this point, now almost three months since her accident in London at 9.30am on Friday, November 4, is down to the passers-by who stopped and called the emergency services.
It is down to the paramedics who arrived on the scene within three minutes, to the fire crews who cut Mary and her mangled bike from beneath the wheels of the lorry, and to the doctors and nurses in the intensive care unit of one of the city’s busiest hospitals. But Mary cannot thank them herself. Not yet. Not for a long time. Possibly never. Because, though she is stable, Mary is still not conscious and remains in a trauma unit. Her broken legs, arm and pelvis are slowly healing, but other damage sustained during complications in her treatment, almost inevitable after so traumatic an injury, will be far harder to overcome, though she is making slow progress.
There are also people Mary would not want to thank. There are the authorities who have neglected to ensure that junctions like those on The Highway in Wapping — or countless others where cyclists have been maimed and killed in Britain — are made safe for cars, lorries and cyclists to co-exist safely.
Ensuring that junctions in London – and elsewhere in other UK cities and towns – are far, far safer than they currently are for people using bicycles will necessitate more than mirrors, and sensors, and training for cyclists and drivers (although these measures are, in and of themselves, useful); it will surely involve a major reassessment of how these junctions are configured. Far too often cyclists are expected to share space with fast flowing streams of traffic, or with large vehicles which can all too easily fail to spot a cyclist in a dangerous position around them. This must change.
Quite what these changes will involve is something that will be discussed in detail, but it will surely necessitate the reallocation of some of the vast swathes of our streets and roads that are given over to the motor vehicle.
This is the focus of my tangentially-related post, which has been brewing since I attended a Transport Planning Society talk last week, and has been given impetus by today’s campaign. The talk was entitled Cycling infrastructure in London: have we got it right?, and one of the speakers was Lilli Matson, who is Transport for London’s ‘Head of Delivery Planning, Better Routes and Places’.
She spoke for nearly twenty minutes; strangely, for a talk specifically about infrastructure, there was next to no mention of it in her speech, let alone any assessment of whether it was being got right. There was a reiteration of the review of junctions on the TLRN (the roads that TfL administer), and she made the point that there was a ‘moratorium’ on any changes to roads until after the Olympics, but beyond that, her talk was entirely devoid of the subject matter that was under debate. We had lots of figures about how cycling was growing, how many people go on Skyrides (which she referred to, bizarrely, as a ‘strange event, because you cycle slowly’ – perhaps an accidental admission of just how fast you have to cycle ordinarily on London’s roads, and how unsuited they are for the typical participants in a Skyride), the glossy promotions that have happened, and that are planned, how Boris bike docking stations are going to be expanded eastwards, but nothing, at all, about how successfully London’s roads and streets are being designed for the bicycle.
Something of a disappointment.
A question came from the audience (I believe it was from Kate Carpenter of the Chartered Institute of Highways and Transportation) – which, after making reference to people switching transport mode if car use is confined – asked whether, in London, we will ever see a day in which road space – lanes for vehicles – are taken away and reallocated for bicycle use.
Mark Frost, a senior transport planner in the borough of Hounslow – who had spoken after Matson, with great enthusiasm about encouraging cycling in his borough, and who was about as critical as he could be about the limitations imposed on him by funding – responded that this was largely a political argument, that could be taken to politicians where they thought they had a chance of making the case.
Matson then answered that this reallocation has happened in London already, pointing to the ‘shared space’ schemes being implemented across London, which she was ‘very interested’ in. (This neglects, of course, the fact that nearly every single ‘shared space’ scheme in London involves no reallocation of space from the motor vehicle whatsoever, merely the belief that drivers will behave better around vulnerable users in these environments, which is a very different beast from reallocation of space). She said she was interested in wider benefits to roads and streets, beyond cycling (another coded reference to the perceived benefits of ‘shared space’), before finally stating that any reallocation that does occur will not come easily, and will be a slow and incremental process.
I have two fundamental difficulties with this position.
The first is ideological. I’m not expecting miracles from Boris and Transport for London, but it would be nice if they would at least make some kind of commitment towards genuinely fostering saner travel choices, beyond just talking about how wonderful cycling is (‘encouragement’) and putting down blue paint. The general thrust of Matson’s response was that it should be up to us – the current people cycling – to gain sufficient political weight to then influence politicians and transport planners.
But I’d like to see some people pushing from the top, while we push from the bottom. This is not completely pie in the sky – it’s happening in New York, where Janette Sadiq Khan has been very active in reallocating space away from the motor vehicle, quite often in the teeth of serious opposition, because she has a firm belief in improving her city for everyone. Getting more people on bicycles, and people making more journeys on foot, reduces congestion for those who continue to drive, as well as all the other attendant improvements for public health, noise, well-being, and the civility of our urban realm. Paris is also seeing an increasing number of road closures, and reallocation, as I’ve written about here.
Boris, and Transport for London, on the other hand, seem to be far more regressive – following, when they should be leading. Reallocation isn’t just about bicycles – it’s about public realm. Most notably we have the fiasco of Parliament Square, a place that Boris himself has proclaimed a ‘world heritage site’, yet one which is rendered inaccessible on foot, and clogged with motor vehicles. Boris has, of course, personally scotched a plan to remove vehicles from one side of this square, to open it up into a plaza (note – removed from just one side. Vehicles would still have been able to progress around the square, just as they currently do in Trafalgar Square). Boris is simply going along with what he thinks constitutes the majority – ‘the motorist’ – wants. I don’t suppose you can blame him for that as a politician (although his diagnosis of majority opinion is almost certainly wrong), but it would nice, just occasionally, to see him, and the bodies for which he is responsible, make the case for a saner alternative.
My second problem with what Matson said about the difficulty of reallocating road space, and the apparently slow and incremental way in which this will have to be achieved, is that Transport for London are already quite merrily reallocating road space away from the car. Take their latest scheme for Euston Circus, at the junction of Tottenham Court Road, Hampstead Road, and Euston Road.
Here’s how it is going to change. From this –
To this –
The six lanes for motor vehicles in the current arrangement at the top of Tottenham Court Road have been whittled down to three. This is reallocation of road space, away from the motor vehicle, on a grand scale. Indeed, space for motor vehicles has been halved. Did Transport for London have a grand battle on their hands coming up with these plans? Did they fight tooth and nail against the vested interest of the London motorist?
No. They just did it. They reallocated space all by themselves.
The only problem is, they just didn’t reallocate any of that space for bicycles. Worse than that, it doesn’t seem like the bicycle as a mode of transport has entered the design process at any stage (something I have remarked on before). Just two aspects of the design will quickly illustrate how the bicycle was not considered, at all.
Firstly, if you are coming south on Hampstead Road (the road we are looking towards in the photographs above), you used to be able to turn left onto Euston Road, to head eastbound, be it on a bicycle, or in a car.
Under these plans, you won’t be able to do that any more.
The left turn into Euston Road has been eliminated for vehicles. And the designers have evidently not thought about the possibility of an exemption for cyclists – perhaps a dedicated left-turn cycle path around the apex of the corner. This kind of thing is evidently far too radical. I can only guess that the left turn here has been sacrificed to allow pedestrians to cross Euston Road more easily, but without having an effect on ‘smoothing traffic flow’. Precisely the same kind of arrangement is now in place on Piccadilly, where pedestrians have a single stage crossing (good) but at the expense of right turns from St James Street, for all vehicles, including bicycles (bad).
The second clear indication of how the bicycle has not been thought about is the treatment of the cycle path that runs east to west along the (dualled) slip road into Gower Street. This is the path that I wrote about here. It’s dreadfully narrow, and in places it has to be shared, by default, with pedestrians.
None of the £10 million being lavished on this redesign will be used to rejig or improve this path, to make it wider and more suitable for use alongside pedestrians. The unnecessary three lanes of width of the slip road, pictured, will remain, as is. And where the cycle path meets the top of Tottenham Court Road, we have what I consider a frankly dangerous arrangement.
After you’ve crossed the slip road and proceeded to Tottenham Court Road, at the very bottom of the map above, you are simply dumped into the ASL (Advanced Stop Line). Now a natural continuation of many cyclists’ journeys will be westbound – carrying on in the same direction. That means they have to get to the left-hand side of the ASL, to make a left turn from it.
Unfortunately while they are moving across the ASL in this horizontal fashion, they will have no indication of when the lights are going to change. This is apparent when we look, again, at the artist’s mock-up –
The cycle path (the barely visible dark grey strip on the pavement) emerges into the ASL, at right. To continue west (leftwards), you have to get across to the left-hand side. But the traffic lights for vehicles queuing at the top of Tottenham Court Road could change at any moment, leaving you stranded in the middle of the road.
The cycle path has just been drawn so it meets the road, and that’s about it. It’s completely half-arsed. A real design would have a proper off-carriageway cycle path that continued across the top of Tottenham Court Road, with a dedicated signal-controlled crossing, and thence west-bound, alongside Euston Road. Ample space has been taken away from cars here, that could have been used to achieve this.
This is not an argument for taking space away from pedestrians – I think wide pavements are fantastic. But the pavements that would be created in this scheme are so wide that pedestrians would not suffer from some of the space they have gained being given over to bicycles – indeed, the pavements would still be substantially wider than they are currently, given that TfL have taken away 3 vehicle lanes here.
It’s worth bearing these kinds of schemes in mind the next time you hear TFL or Boris talking about the political difficulties they face in reallocating road space. They can do it all by themselves, quite happily.
Looking at that last photograph, it’s horribly easy to imagine a cyclist using the filter lane to enter the ASL, alongside an HGV that might be intending to turn left, as the lights change. Mirrors, sensors, and training can mitigate this danger, but the ultimate safety advance would be in keeping the bicycle and the HGV separate entirely. The space is plainly there. Let’s start using it.