Towards the end of the Ranty Highwayman’s excellent summary of a recent Institution of Civil Engineer’s lecture in London about cycling infrastructure, he makes an interesting observation, based on the two talks given by TfL staff during the evening –
TfL is in turmoil over providing for cycling, but not wanting to reduce unrestricted access for vehicles – something has to give, even on a street by street basis.
I assume he got this impression from the way the two TfL speakers emphasised ‘competing demands’ on the road network. In particular, Michèle Dix – the managing director of planning – stated that there ‘aren’t enough roads’ in London to meet all the demands being placed on them, and concluded her talk with a mention of how TfL are looking at ‘the business case’ (the very expensive business case) for burying major roads in the ground.
The background to this is that TfL’s roads are at capacity. Anyone who watched the BBC’s Route Masters programme earlier this year would have seen how even minor incidents cause complete chaos. One of the traffic managers featured in the programme professed his own amazement at the amount of motor traffic they manage to push through London’s roads.
The calls for Space for Cycling have to be seen against this background; one of motor traffic capacity stretched to breaking point. Any ‘extra’ demands placed on the network are a serious headache – this is presumably why Dix was talking about there not being enough roads, and building new ones (even putting them underground), at a lecture about cycling infrastructure.
These recent Tweets also caught my attention –
— Shaun McDonald (@smsm1) October 25, 2013
— Shaun McDonald (@smsm1) October 25, 2013
Of course the problem here is that TfL continue to see cycling as something ‘extra’ to be accommodated, rather than a way of relieving pressure on the network by shifting motor vehicle journeys to more efficient modes. This is an attitude shared by the Mayor himself; earlier this year, he was interview by BBC Newsnight, as part of their feature on Britain ‘Going Dutch’. He stated
Of course I believe in segregation, where it’s possible to do. But we don’t have – in the centre of London particularly – enough roadspace to consecrate entirely to cyclists.
Ignoring the fact this simply isn’t true, this comment is revealing, in that it demonstrates the Mayor’s failure to grasp that if you genuinely don’t have ‘enough roadspace’, it’s all the more important to make more space-efficient modes of transport attractive and obvious.
I think it is this failure to see cycling as the solution, rather than as a problematic ‘extra’ demand on the network, that explains both these kinds of comments, and also the attitudes exhibited by both Mayor Johnson and Sir Peter Hendy (the Transport for London Commissioner) last week on matters of cycling safety.
Interviewed by BBC News following a coroner’s investigation into the deaths of two cyclists on Superhighway 2, Hendy insisted that
The primary cause of the terrible accident for poor Mr Dorling was that he and the tipper went through a red light. We do need to make sure that road layouts are safe – as safe as they can be. We’ve altered it once, and no doubt we’ll alter it again.
The BBC’s Tom Edwards challenged him on this point, arguing that in this particular case the lights were irrelevant, as, ‘red or green’, Brian Dorling would have been in precisely the same dangerous position when both he and the lorry progressed through the junction. Hendy was adamant –
No. If you cycle or drive through a red light you’re likely to have an accident.
There’s not much to say on this, beyond the fact that Hendy is wrong, and Tom Edwards and the Coroner are right. If the lorry driver and Brian Dorling were both progressing through the junction on red, then they could just as easily have been in identical positions with respect to each other if they were moving under a green signal. The same terrible result would have occurred with both moving through the junction legally. Hendy is obviously an intelligent man, so this point can not be lost on him.
His willingness to maintain the red light violation as ‘the primary cause’ smacks of deliberate obfuscation of the issue; a convenient way for Transport for London to avoid admitting that their design is at fault, and also to limit the scope of calls for redesigns across the rest of the TfL network.
We’ve seen before how both Boris and Transport for London are keen to focus on mistakes by either drivers or cyclists as the reasons for deaths and injuries on the roads, and this latest response falls into this same pattern. Blaming people is convenient, because it means that little has to change. The roads can stay the same; no space has to be reallocated for cycling; no cycle- and pedestrian-specific crossing phases have to be added. The emphasis instead is on education and training – trading places events, posters, and more ‘awareness’ are relatively cheap and easy ways to respond, and don’t involve disruption to the road network.
It’s this attitude that lies behind Boris’s infamous assertion that major gyratories in London are fine to cycle around ‘if you keep your wits about you.’ By implication, the responsibility for safety lies with the individuals using the roads, not with the people who design them. That comment was made nearly two years ago, but in spite of all the fine words in the Mayor’s Cycling Vision document published earlier this year, it doesn’t seem that Boris’s outlook towards cycling has changed all that much. That document contained this inspiring passage from Boris, in the Introduction –
we must now greatly increase our provision for cyclists – and, above all, for the huge numbers of Londoners who would like to cycle, but presently feel unable to.
Yet the evidence available at the moment suggests a deep unwillingness – both on his part, and on the part of TfL, which he controls – to adjust London’s road network in favour of cycling, and more precisely, in favour of this excluded group.
At Mayor’s Question Time last week he made some comments that suggest he has completely forgotten the language of the Mayor’s Vision. Quizzed by AM John Biggs about whether the desperately poor Superhighway 2 would now be converted to a fully segregated route, all the way from Bow Roundabout to Aldgate (in other words, to make it suitable for all potential users, not the current small group of the fit and the brave), Boris responded,
This is always going to be an extremely difficult challenge for us on the streets of London, and no solution will ever be perfect. We will do our best, we will invest what it takes, but I can’t guarantee to Londoners that we are going to be able to produce segregation everywhere that it is desired. I’m afraid that is simply not a realistic objective, just because there isn’t the roadspace to do it.
An echo of his comments on the BBC’s Newsnight programme. Biggs clearly wasn’t having any of this -
On CS2 there is the space on the highway to provide for segregation, and I think that that would make sense. I’m particularly struck by the comment from the Coroner… that the CS2, with its design, creates a false sense of safety, or security, for cyclists, who see the blue markings as an indication that they’ve been thought about, and that they have the right of way, where in some circumstances they don’t.”
Biggs is right. There is an enormous amount of space along the entirety of this section of Superhighway 2 to create safe, dedicated space for cycling, rather than meaningless blue stripe that forms nearly the entirety of this route at present.
This road is four lanes wide, with a wide central median, and with very wide footways – something has to give if Transport for London (and Mayor Johnson) – are actually serious about cycling becoming a safe and attractive option for all Londoners, rather than just paying lip service to it.
But Boris’s response to this point was, frankly, abysmal.
Look, I totally accept that the way you have framed the dilemma is completely right. The dilemma is, could we have a system in London where, on lots of these roads – and CS2 is an example – you created a segregated cycle lane…. The difficulty is that in many cases… you take away a huge amount of road space and you perhaps don’t even deliver the safety improvements that you desire. Because – speaking as a daily cyclist – I think that one of the problems that I think many full-time cyclists have with the segregated option is that they don’t actually always use the segregated gullies. And I’m not convinced that it would be the knock-out solution that some people suggest it would be.”
Extraordinarily Boris is using the low quality of the ‘segregated gullies’ that do exist in London – the ones that are not attractive for ‘full-time cyclists’ like him – as the very reason for not doing things properly. Of course if people avoid ‘segregated gullies’, that is because they are not good enough.
This isn’t the first time that Boris has used crap provision in London as a basis for arguing that busy roads, with multiple lanes full of heavy traffic, are where people might actually prefer to be. The chutzpah is astonishing. It’s his job to sort out that crap provision, not to use it as an excuse for doing nothing. People in London should not have to choose between unpleasant, traffic-filled roads or deeply substandard infrastructure – yet Boris appears to be using the existence of the latter as a reason to avoid doing anything about providing an alternative to the former.
Later in the Question Time session, AM Jenny Jones drew Boris’s attention to two new schemes, the Cobden Junction in Camden, and the Tottenham Hale gyratory. She referred to the removal of cycle lanes on the High Road – I think she actually meant to refer to the situation on Broad Lane.
On this point, Boris responded
Speaking as a cyclist, [the removal of the cycles lanes] would be a good thing, in my view.
This is on a road that carries a large amount of motor traffic, including a high proportion of HGVs and buses. Once again Boris – deliberately or otherwise – is using his own personal standard of what is is acceptable as the basis for what universal cycling provision should be.
All of these noises – coming both from the Mayor and Transport for London – are deeply unpromising. They want to keep the status quo.