There’s been plenty of discussion already about Camden’s West End Project – on Cyclescape, and in detailed blog form on Fitzrovia News, City Cyclists, I Bike London, VoleOSpeed and Rachel Aldred, as well as this open letter from the Movement for Liveable London. A summary can also be found on the Cycling Embassy forum.
So I won’t bore you by writing a long post to go with these detailed analyses, principally because my position is virtually identical to that of Rachel’s and David’s – namely, that whatever the merits of the scheme, and the good intentions of Camden as a borough (both of which are undeniable) it falls short on cycling, and to such an extent that it really has to be improved.
I also think it might be more worthwhile to summarise some of the central issues, both with this scheme, and more generally for cycling in London (and Britain as a whole).
It seems that there is broad agreement, from pretty much everybody, that this scheme is inadequate for cycling, whatever its wider benefits. Even Camden Cycling Campaign – who support the proposals currently on the table from Camden – state that
we feel that it will not do much to encourage new people to cycle
So the debate centres on whether the broader scheme objectives should be supported by cycling campaigners, despite that failure, and, relatedly, how the scheme should be approached by them, either in terms of ‘engagement’ or ‘criticism’ (although it’s not entirely clear where the boundary between the two lies; when ‘engagement’ becomes ‘criticism’, and vice-versa).
What is quite fascinating to me is how cycling campaigners – people who think that cycling can and should play a significant role in making our towns and cities more attractive places – are often happy to sacrifice the quality of the transport mode they want to see more of, in the interests of wider scheme objectives. This isn’t necessarily a comment about the Camden scheme in particular; it’s more an observation about how cycling campaigners almost expect themselves to be selfless.
I can’t imagine pedestrian user groups arguing something along the lines of ‘well, the pavements in this scheme are a bit awful, and not suitable for children. But bus users get a great deal – let’s support it!’
But effectively that’s what’s happening with this scheme, and has happened many times in the past. It’s almost expected. People wanting to see more cycling will defer to those wanting to see improvements in the bus network (for instance) in a way that would never happen in reverse.
Of course a large part of this is due to existing mode shares in London, and other British towns and cities. It seems unreasonable to demand more for a mode of transport that, while increasingly visible, and on the agenda, doesn’t really exist, at least compared to bus travel and walking.
I also get the impression that the fact cycling is very much a minority mode has informed how the West End Project scheme has developed. Cycling is an afterthought, and is fitted in around other modes. If it’s too difficult to accommodate, then sharing with a relatively large volume of motor traffic will just have to do. This is completely understandable, even if it is unacceptable from a strategic, long-term point of view, one where we are aiming for a cycling modal share well into double figures, in percent.
Conversely, in a city like Utrecht, where something like 50% of all trips in the city centre are made by bike, a scheme that neglected the quality of the cycling environment would be completely unthinkable.
This gets us to the nub of the issue, and a Catch-22 that bedevils cycle campaigning in Britain. Namely, it’s politically difficult to allocate space for cycling, and to prioritise it as a mode of transport, when so very few people cycle, and so many people are excluded from it. But to get us to a position where it is politically easy to prioritise cycling requires those changes to the street environment that open up cycling to everyone. Which won’t happen while nobody cycles. And round we go.
Seeing a child cycling in central London is incredibly rare, outside of a closed road event. Children get driven, or they walk, or they take the bus. So why should we create conditions that would allow children to cycle, when they don’t cycle now? Again, we’re stuck in a vicious circle.
How do we get out of this rut? The answer has to lie, somewhere, with the advantages cycling would bring at an individual level – the ease of making short trips without having to worry about parking, independence of children under 17, and so on – combined with the economic, social, health, transport and environmental benefits that would come with much greater levels of cycling, at a general level.
But it’s not going to be easy, and the West End Project scheme points to the level of difficulty. It is being developed by a borough that, to my mind, probably ‘gets’ cycling more than any other authority in Britain – on streets they control. It’s an area that already has (for Britain) relatively high levels of cycling use, declining private motor traffic, very good public transport below ground level (and soon to get even better with the arrival of Crossrail), and wide building-to-building widths (although obviously with many competing demands on that space).
Yet apparently the best that can be achieved for cycling, with all these factors in play, won’t be good enough to make any significant difference.
That’s profoundly depressing. If the surface can barely be scratched here, with all the good intentions, and opportunities, then the prospects for the rest of the country are grim. It suggests a glacial pace of change.
Is there a way forward? David and Rachel both have a number of good suggestions about possible alternative arrangements on the two main N-S streets that form the central part of this scheme. As Rachel writes
surely one of them should be good for mass, inclusive cycling. That shouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to hope to see, in 2018, which is when it’ll be built, surely?
It’s hard to disagree. The proposed scheme involves two inadequate approaches on both streets; one with with no separation at all from plenty of buses and a fair amount of traffic passing through (and of course open to all in the evening), the other with inadequate separation on what will likely prove to be a busy road.
At the very worst, we should consider the space required for just one good approach, on either of the streets in question. They are only around 200 feet apart, so as long as the connections between the two are good enough (and they should be) it won’t be too arduous to divert to the other to make a north or south journey by bike.
It’s up for discussion what form that ‘good route’ could take, but it’s worth bearing in mind the dimensions of these streets at worst. The smallest building-to-building width on Tottenham Court Road is 17 metres. The smallest building-to-building width on Gower Street is 15 metres.*
So if we consider these two streets together, as a whole (this is reasonable enough as the layout of both is being completely altered by this scheme) there is a total of 32m of width available, even at the very narrowest points of both of these streets, within which to create a high quality cycling route, suitable for all potential users.
‘High quality’ means 4m of width, either in the form of a bi-directional track, or two 2m tracks, properly constructed. That leaves 28m of width for footways, bus lanes and motor traffic, at – to repeat – the very narrowest combined point of both of these streets.
Now of course this will be complex, and there will have to be discussion about how this could be achieved. The point, in quite general terms, is that if 32m of space, at minimum, can’t be imaginatively arranged to allocate just 4m of it to proper cycling provision, in a sympathetic borough with all the opportunities detailed above, then we are really in a tremendous pickle.
Even if we accept the difficulties at these narrowest points, the quality of the cycle provision could, at worst, be compromised or abandoned at these ‘pinches’; there’s no reason to jettison the potential to implement high-quality cycling infrastructure in places where it is easily achievable, simply because it’s difficult in other places.
Making the case for the value of designing well for cycling shouldn’t mean trashing Camden’s scheme, or trampling all over it. It should be about improving it, and ensuring that it has cycling provision within it that will enable cycling for all, rather than making things slightly better for the tiny minority of existing users. Doing so would make this scheme considerably better.
I think this is tremendously important; we have to break out of the current model of incremental changes that do little or nothing for the people excluded from cycling. So – as everyone else is saying – get involved, constructively!
*These are the very narrowest points; the average width of Tottenham Court Road is about 23m (it gets as wide as 28m, but for the great majority of its length it is wider than 20m). The average width of Gower Street is 16m (the street width here is more uniform, hovering at a shade over 15m for the great majority of its length).