The E-W and N-S Superhighways – major change, that needs to be supported

So the big story this week is obviously the launch of the consultations on two new ‘Superhighway’ routes in London. One running from Elephant & Castle towards Kings Cross; the other from the Westway to Tower Hill.

Undeniably, there are problems with these plans.

The whole scheme is composed almost entirely of two-way tracks on one side of the road, which aren’t really appropriate, except in some locations – for instance, along the Embankment, and Constitution Hill. Two-way tracks present more danger with turning conflicts, and they are more inconvenient, as often the road will have to be crossed to make a simple left turn onto the tracks.

What Transport for London call ‘early start’ signals (but in reality are ‘always stop’ signals), as employed at Bow roundabout, feature in many places on these Superhighways, particularly around Parliament Square. This design still isn’t good enough, mainly because it’s inconvenient, and can be confusing.

Turns on and off the Superhighways appear to be being achieved through a formalisation of the ‘Copenhagen turn’, with turns being made in two steps. Again, this isn’t really good enough.

Making turns  off the track, outside TfL's headquarters, via a waiting area

Making turns off the track, outside TfL’s headquarters, via a waiting area

And in many places the designs have been overcomplicated, with an excess of signals and markings that shouldn’t really be necessary. Parliament Square in particular looks very messy.

BUT (and it’s a big but) these plans are undeniably bold, and I think they should be strongly supported.

This is for a number of reasons.

As Rachel Aldred has argued in her excellent blog on these Superhighways

the hard stuff is not digging up and remaking roads, not in a transport rich city like London. And even elsewhere resources appear if something’s a priority. The hard stuff’s the politics – getting support for change.

And this is change – big change. Although these routes are far from perfect, to me they represent a real attempt to actually prioritise cycling as a mode of transport, and on main roads too, something that we haven’t ever really seen anywhere in Britain. There are direct routes across junctions that are currently truly, truly horrible to cycle across, even for someone who is experienced, and familiar with cycling in London. Tower Gateway has a straight, segregated route across it, connecting with Superhighway 3, achieved by completely removing motor traffic from Shorter Street.

Screen Shot 2014-09-03 at 12.02.51Likewise, the sliproad from Blackfriars Bridge to the Victoria Embankment is being turned into a bicycle-only route, which is fairly extraordinary, given the protests and arguments about this location, which fell on deaf ears for so long. The roads involved are the ones that I have been suggesting could easily accommodate cycling infrastructure, if the political will was there. And now that is happening.

In addition, as far as I can tell, every single bus stop in the these plans is bypassed, with the cycle track passing behind them. That means no interactions with buses, whatsoever – no fudged ‘wide bus lanes’ that are alleged to be suitable for sharing. This is hugely significant.

Indeed, overall, the impression given from the plans is that TfL been thinking hard about who they are designing for.

One of my pet moans, for a long time, has been the ‘dual network’ approach, that involves minimal change on the carriageway for those people already confident to cycle on busy roads, coupled with inadequate and inconvenient pavement cycling for those who aren’t. I think it’s fair to say that these Superhighway designs, whatever their flaws, are very different from that approach. There is clear intent to create something that is suitable for everyone, infrastructure that anyone on a bike would be happy to use, be they someone in lycra on a racing bike, or a very young and wobbly child.

And there are major benefits for pedestrians, too. Motor traffic will be further away from the footways, which means walking will be safer, quieter and more pleasant. The carriageways are being narrowed, too, which means shorter distances at crossings. And I strongly suspect that cycling on the footway will be a thing of the past along these routes – no more people cycling along the pavement on the Embankment, for instance, because they will have a much better alternative.

The problems with these designs can, and should be, ironed out. The ‘always stop’/’early start’ signalised junctions should be upgraded to full separate signalisation of bicycle and motor traffic movements, and I think this could be easily achieved at a later date, even if the designs go ahead as they stand. Likewise, most of these roads are so enormous that the two-way track approach could be adapted, with another track on the other side of the road, and the two-way track reverting to one-way.

And there are minor details that could be got right now. The tracks should be built properly, with shallow, forgiving angled kerbing to maximise effective width. Some of the signalisation simply doesn’t need to be there.

Do we need stop lines, and the expense of signals here, for simple bicycle movements? No.

Do we really need stop lines, and the expense of signals here, for simple bicycle-only movements, when give way markings would work perfectly adequately?

These are comments that should be made in responses to the consultation.

But the overall scheme has to be supported. If these Superhighways are built, they will undoubtedly be tremendously popular. The kind of people you see cycling on the Embankment during Skyrides – absent for the rest of the year – will be able to do so, whenever they want.

These conditions will be embedded, permanently

These conditions will be embedded, permanently

These tracks would be just the start, of course. They will only cover a tiny, tiny fraction of the routes that people will actually want to use in central London. But they will drive change elsewhere. Roads that connect up to these Superhighways will be the next obvious targets. Even in this consultation TfL themselves state that their ‘wish is for segregation’ on Westminster Bridge – not part of this scheme, but an obvious connector to it.

And more broadly, the Superhighways will make the case for cycling elsewhere in London, and indeed across the rest of the country. They will show that it can be done, and that when you make conditions right, cycling is an obvious mode of ordinary people, and that it will make a tremendous difference to the quality of our roads and streets. That has to happen.

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11 Responses to The E-W and N-S Superhighways – major change, that needs to be supported

  1. Rob from Really Useful Bikes says:

    Its a change that will enable folk to demonstrate in the best way possible, though daily use, that the bicycle is a great tool for transportation. I wonder how the city will change?
    i cannot see it being for the worst. Boris may well be leaving his legacy, a city more more focused on the people moving around it.

  2. Mark Hewitt says:

    When I saw these plans I expected to look at them and dispair about them being watered down etc, but not a bit of it, very ambitious and exactly the sort of thing we need in the UK. Lets hope they actually get built.

    Of course what we now need is for cycling outside of London to be taken so seriously.

  3. Dan B says:

    These plans blow most of the myths out of the water. No space in London? – yes there is, look at the Embankment. Too difficult? – no it isn’t, look what’s been achieved. Hopefully it will start encouraging more people to ride. It’s a huge shame that Camden haven’t been as bold with Tottenham Court Road as an additional N-S route, but that can change.

    Like you say, this is only the start…

  4. @angus_fx says:

    The other big win for pedestrians is that fast cyclists should get somewhere safe to be other than the shared paths in the Royal Parks, and hopefully a proper route along either The Mall or Birdcage Walk (I’d personally prefer the former, because the road outside Buck Pal regularly gets closed for all sorts of ceremonial stuff – better for the bike route to bypass it to the north). Pavement cycling at Parliament Square (to cut out the gyratory, when heading from Westminster Bridge towards the parks) will be a thing of the past too.

    Those shared paths used to work OK, but in recent years have become a victim of their own success – during commute hours there are so many cyclists that it’s not all that comfortable for pedestrians, and on weekends there can be so many pedestrians that it’s not very practical for cyclists trying to get from A to B.

  5. paulc says:

    so how would the Dutch deal with that messy junction at Blackfriars then?

  6. paulc says:

    Oh and I’ve noticed that they’ve changed their stock photos of cyclists to include more “ordinary” people

  7. Paul Gannon says:

    A very important development which needs our utmost backing for the concept and the ambition though it will be vital to persuade TfL and boroughs where appropriate to achieve the essential high standards of design and implementation. However, now is not the time to worry about details, but to welcome the idea of building long-distance, connected routes from the outskirts to the heart of London.
    One point that does need to be made, however, now and throughout is that this is only the beginning; if the routes are of sufficient high-quality they will rapidly become popular and will soon reach saturation levels in busy periods so there needs to be a follow-on strategy of more routes as well as feeder routes.
    This means thinking about whether it is actually a good idea to support 2-way solutions at first given the potential for turning a 2-way track into a 1-way at a later stage and installing another 1-way track on the opposite side the road.
    Unfortunately, It is unlikely that British traffic engineers will grasp the potential popularity of an effective route, so sooner or later implementation and design detail will become the most important question.

  8. T.Foxglove says:

    I don’t like two way tracks in urban areas for the reasons you mention and I’ve always found them too narrow in the UK. These ones look as though they are a decent width and hopefully will have enough capacity to cope with the demand placed upon them and if not, there still looks to be plenty of space for extra capacity.

    With regards to the traffic lights you’ve circled, probably only the one on the right could be removed, the others would hold cyclists wanting to go through the underpass until the motor traffic has stopped.

  9. Mick Robertson says:

    The E-W highway is my commuting route so I plan to respond after going over the consultation with a fine tooth comb as I know the route well. I don’t know the N-S route as well so will just give it a general thumbs up.

    I think it is interesting the intent is to extend the E-W route to Acton along the Westway and I assume this is because RB Kensington and Chelsea have refused to allow proper cycle paths along streets like High Street Kensington.

    I can but hope the superhighways are a massive success and they are shamed into sorting out the traffic sewers in their borough eventually.

  10. congokid says:

    Some of the route is on my regular commute, too. I just completed the last part of the consultation asking for general comments – I suggested ‘forgiving’ kerbs throughout and also making the bike lane as wide as possible throughout, rather than always have the wide meridian separation, which I think is only needed for bus stops and bike hire docking stations.

    They really could do with extending the east-west route further along the river toward the Vauxhall Bridge, Millbank and Chelsea. When I first used that route several years ago, the road was wide enough for two lanes of traffic each way, and as a result drivers tended to race each other from one set of lights to the next. I felt really vulnerable on my bike as there were many very dangerous overtakes and close passes. When CS8 went in, they also took a lane away from motor vehicles for much of the route, which cut traffic speeds greatly and prevented dangerous overtakes. The riverside pavement for some of that stretch is signed as shared use with pedestrians and I think the other side is, too, in parts, though it’s much narrower.

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