I attended the City of London’s Cycling Forum last week, where the main items of discussion were the proposed plans for the Aldgate gyratory, and the City’s plans for cycle routes in the City of London.
As it turned out, most of the time was spent discussing Aldgate. There are some good bits in the plan, most notably the ‘filling in’ of the road between the St Botolph Church and the Sir John Cass Primary School, with the creation of a new public space. This will close off the existing gyratory.
Encouragingly there will be a cycle route running north-south across this area (you can see it just to the right of the ‘F’ on the above illustration). Without this link, anyone coming from the south on a bike would have to travel around three sides of a large, busy rectangle, so it is pleasing that it has been included.
One interesting detail that emerged during the discussion was that this path was quite contentious. The City of London representative told us that the primary school resisted having this route running past their entrance, on the grounds that they didn’t want ‘cyclists’ mixing with the children at school opening and closing time.
I remarked that the attitude exhibited by the school demonstrated that the pupils were not cycling to it – if they were, there wouldn’t be the hostility to a cycle route, that pupils would be using themselves. Evidently the school thinks that ‘cyclists’ are some distinct group, that is quite separate from primary school pupils.
The City of London representative assured me that he has seen children on bikes at the school, but he didn’t really answer my other question about how children under the age of 11 are reasonably expected to cycle to this school from Tower Hamlets, to the east (which is where many of the pupils are coming from). At the moment, they will have to cycle around the existing Aldgate gyratory. The plans put forward by the City will turn this section into a two-way road (about which more later) but in other parts of the discussion it was made quite plain that this new scheme (repeat – new scheme) would not be suitable for less confident cyclists.
The City of London, it seems, is adhering to a two-tier strategy, where children and the elderly (and, frankly, anyone who doesn’t fancy riding on busy roads) will have to stick to ‘Quietways’, while the ‘Superhighways’ remain the preserve of the existing, confident cyclists. Anyone who does not wish to mix with lorries, buses and heavy traffic while on a bike is not going to catered for by the new east-west design, in front of Aldgate tube station – quite explicitly. These roads are not for them.
I can’t think of a clearer illustration of how this approach is flawed than the death of a young woman on Friday evening, hit by a large lorry on precisely one of these ‘Superhighways’, just a few hundred metres east of this school.
She was presumably using Whitechapel Road to get home to Bow, because this is the direct route. There is a Superhighway running along this road which suggests that this is where cyclists should go, but tragically there is nothing more to this Superhighway at this location than a stripe of blue paint, within an existing vehicle lane.
These designs are totally inadequate, yet I suspect they have convinced some people that they are being catered for on a bike, when in reality nothing has been done for them, at all. The target market for Superhighways designed like this are people who are already cycling in London; for ‘hardened cyclists’ like me, who are used to cycling with lorries and buses just feet away from them. They are not for young women with shopping, or the elderly, or children.
I suspect this attitude about who Superhighways are for lies behind the subtle victim-blaming that has come out in reports of the woman’s death; the attitude that this woman was not ‘a proper cyclist’; that she shouldn’t even have been on this section of road.
The Metropolitan Police told us she was not wearing a helmet. A PCSO has ‘claimed’ that he ‘thought’ that she had some shopping on her bike, which ‘might’ have made her wobble into the lorry’s path. The impression given by these details is that she was not competent. She was French, helmetless, carrying shopping, unskilled, and wobbly – frankly (so the subtext runs) she was out of place, and shouldn’t have been there, doing what she was doing.
But this is a failure of design, not of behaviour. French pedestrians can carry shopping, and wobble, and not be quite sure of where they are going while they walk through Aldgate, and not risk instant death if they make a minor mistake, or a driver fails to spot them.
This is the central point of my post – namely, that the City of London is designing an environment for existing ‘cyclists’, when instead they should be designing an environment for people on bikes. Tourists. People trundling along with lots of shopping. The elderly. Pupils going to school. An inclusive environment, for all types of bicycle users.
This isn’t a specious point – there are already large numbers of people cycling in London who will not go anywhere near Aldgate and roads like it, if they can avoid it, particularly those casual Boris bike users who stick to parks and quiet routes, and their numbers are bound to increase as improvements are made across London.
To exclude people like this – indeed, large swathes of society – from using your roads while on a bike is not just unfair, it’s short-sighted. As someone else at the Forum pointed out, the trends in cycle usage in London suggest that the City’s plans for Aldgate will be hopelessly under par for cycling demand within a decade, and that will necessitate yet another redesign. The £12 million being spent now should be spent properly.
The current plans proposed by the City of London will cram those using bikes right next to the buses and HGVs that pose the most danger. There will be no separation where it is most needed; only intermittent (and occasionally very narrow) cycle lanes that disappear at precisely the places real protection (not just paint) is needed. Here’s an example of that lack of continuity, right outside Aldgate tube station.
Likewise, the only useful function of an ASL is to allow you to position yourself ahead of stationary traffic to make a right turn, but the City plans to install three of these ASLs in locations where you can’t even turn right (like those pictured above). The only thing these ASLs will consequently achieve is encouraging people on bikes to place themselves directly in front of a queue of motor traffic, which will then have to overtake these people once again. It’s a recipe for conflict.
On top of that, there are some nasty looking sections where people on bikes will be squeezed into the same space as large vehicles. The area pictured below in particular – right by the aforementioned school – looks especially dangerous, where kerbing pushes motor vehicles and bikes together right on the apex of a (created) corner. The only way to safely ride through this design on a bike is by positioning yourself directly in the middle of the kerbed section, to prevent vehicles trying to squeeze past. I can’t imagine many people being able or willing to do that.
There is no need for this degree of danger, and lack of subjective safety. The building-to-building width here is approximately 22 metres. The street is enormously wide. Four lanes of motor traffic currently race through here.
The pavements – while not expansively wide – are currently wide enough give pedestrians an A-minus level of comfort (by the TfL measurement of pedestrian comfort), according to the City of London representatives. It seems odd – to me at least – that the pavement is being made even wider, while no serious consideration is given to the comfort of anyone choosing to use a bike through here.
What would be the ‘cycling comfort level’ approaching a narrow pinch point with a lorry or a bus bearing down on you? Or having to negotiate out around a stopped bus, with heavy traffic passing you? ‘Cyclists’ like me may be happy to do this, but there is no way primary school children will be cycling like this any time soon.
To be fair, the City of London acknowledge that their new design will not be appropriate for any ordinary person to use on a bike. They are quite clear that the new Aldgate will only be suitable for confident ‘cyclists’.
I suppose the question is why?