The City of London needs to think again about its response to the Superhighway proposals

I wouldn’t mind so much if the arguments being presented against the new Superhighway proposals in London were actually considered, and credible. But they’re not. In many cases, they’re ridiculous. Let’s examine the recent City of London response, which sadly is pretty much nonsense, from start to finish.

Michael Welbank, the City of London’s Planning Chairman, states that the City

support[s] the two routes in principle

Which sounds promising, until you consider that – from bitter UK experience – a ‘cycle route’ can mean absolutely anything. A bit of shared pavement, a useless stripe on the road – take your pick.

Simply supporting the principle of a ‘route’, therefore, is meaningless, without any detail on the quality and nature of that route. And it is the nature of these Superhighways that the City of London are specifically objecting to. As Mark Boleas, City Policy Chairman, states in the same press release –

We support the concept of cycling superhighways but have considerable reservations about the current proposals

So not really ‘support’, at all – ‘considerable reservations’. Indeed, what ‘support’ the City are offering is merely for a ‘route’ of some description – the vague, undefined ‘concept of cycling superhighways’.

What form of ‘Superhighway’ do the City think TfL should be employing, instead of the current proposals? They don’t go into detail, but a clue is here –

Mr Welbank said the Square Mile’s dense street pattern meant pedestrians, cyclists and drivers all needed to share the space.

‘We’re trying to get all street-users to adapt constantly to each other and avoid a ‘It’s-my-space!’ mentality.’

Let’s pick this apart. The City of London – as far as I am aware – isn’t proposing to remove footways, and make pedestrians ‘share space’ with drivers. Indeed, pavements have been widened in many places in the City of London. More pedestrian-specific space has been created. How do the City’s public realm schemes fit with their own arguments about pedestrians and drivers ‘all needing to share space’? Are the City actually worried about pedestrians (and drivers travelling alongside the footways they are on) having an ‘it’s-my-space!’ mentality? I doubt it.

So the impression created by these comments from Welbank is that what the City of London is really objecting to is, specifically, the principle of protected space for cycling on the roads in question. Pedestrians and drivers are not ‘sharing’ anywhere in the city of London, nor will they be any time soon. The only ‘sharing’ the City is talking about is of a particular kind – mixing people cycling, with motor traffic. These two modes ‘adapting constantly to each other’.

Now, the charitable interpretation of these comments is that Welbank and the City of London haven’t actually worked out which roads are involved in this Superhighway scheme. That is – they’ve responded without examining where the Superhighway will run.

That sounds unbelievable, but note that Welbank is talking about a ‘dense street pattern’, which bears absolutely no relation to the roads on which the Superhighway will actually be built. Namely – very, very wide roads, carrying tens of thousands of motor vehicles a day.

The 'dense street pattern' of the Embankment

The ‘dense street pattern’ of the City of London apparently means this space has to be shared by pedestrians, drivers and cyclists.

This underpass presumably has to be 'shared', rather than having cycle tracks, because of the City's 'dense street pattern'

Likewise, this underpass has to be ‘shared’, rather than having cycle tracks, because of the City’s ‘dense street pattern’

The less charitable interpretation is that they do know which roads are involved, but haven’t got the first clue about how attractive this ‘sharing’ approach might be on them, or are simply advocating ‘sharing’ because they want to maintain the status quo.

Let’s take a look at the amount of motor traffic on the roads involved – the route in the pictures above. Lower Thames Street, which will form a large part of the East-West Superhighway through the City of London, carries 49,000 motor vehicles a day, including over 4000 HGVs, 8000 LGVs, and nearly 2000 buses and coaches.

The Embankment is scarcely any better, with 61,000 motor vehicles a day, including around 3000 HGVs, and 9000 LGVs. Upper Thames Street by Blackfriars station carries 40,000 motor vehicles a day, with around 10,000 HGVs and LGVs, in total. You can see these figures for yourself on the Department for Transport site.

So these are plainly very busy roads, that are wide, and fast. There might be some people cycling here already, ‘sharing’ and ‘constantly adapting’ to the motor traffic flowing around them, but to present ‘sharing’ as a realistic design approach for cycling on these roads is extremely fanciful.

Someone 'sharing' on Victoria Embankment

Someone ‘sharing’ on Victoria Embankment. Picture by Crap Waltham Forest.

These roads are dangerous and hostile to the few people fit and brave enough to cycle on them. They include some of the deadliest junctions in London, places where experienced cyclists are killed or seriously injured with horrible regularity, one of the most recent being Bart Chan, hit by an HGV on Upper Thames Street in May this year. These awful collisions will continue to happen if, instead of well-designed Superhighways that separate people cycling from HGVs, buses and motor traffic, we get the City’s apparently desired approach of ‘sharing’ and ‘constantly adapting’.

In addition, we have a vivid annual demonstration of how actual demand for cycling along the Thames is massively suppressed. 

For just one day of the year, thousands of people fight their way into central London – carrying bikes on cars, or walking or cycling on footways – to experience the joy of cycling on these roads.

Families cycling with young children on the Embankment

Families cycling with young children on the Embankment

… And on

… And on Upper Thames Street

… And on Lower Thames Street.

… And on Lower Thames Street.

Is ‘sharing’ with the tens of thousands of vehicles using these roads, per, day a realistic prospect for these kinds of people? And if it is, where are they for the rest of the year, when the roads in the last two pictures look like this?

From Google Streetview

From Google Streetview

From Google Streetview.

From Google Streetview.

I don’t think the City of London are really thinking about these kinds of people, to be honest. They cannot seriously be advocating those young children ‘sharing’ with the HGVs you can see here.

So my impression is that they simply don’t like the idea of space being taken away, because they are worried about delays to motor traffic, and are proposing ‘sharing’ the City’s road network, not because they think it’s realistic or attractive for ordinary people, but because they want to maintain the status quo.

They can’t come out and say that, of course, so they instead have to employ these  arguments that don’t stand up to scrutiny. And there are other poor, weak or self-defeating arguments in that City of London press release. For instance –

more thought needs to be given to the knock-on effects on noise and air-pollution.

Really? We can’t make cycling – a mode of transport that doesn’t pollute, and is (virtually) silent – more attractive, because that might affect noise and air-pollution? Are the City of London seriously making this argument?

Likewise, the City have taken the deeply unhelpful approach of spinning these proposals as being hostile to pedestrians. The release starts –

Square Mile planners are urging pedestrians to have their say on plans for new east-west and north-south cycle ‘superhighways’

And states

Pedestrians tend not to lobby for their interests but this is a chance and I would encourage them to have their say before central section consultation closes on 19 Oct. Crossing times might a lot longer in places.

Is this true? Where has the City got this impression from?

The TfL summary of the proposals states that there would be

longer waits for pedestrians at some signalised crossings.

Which the City has presented as ‘a lot longer’ (I’m not sure how they’ve established this).

But it’s quite clear that, overall, these Superhighways would be hugely beneficial to pedestrians. Why?

For a start, as TfL state, they will involve

Increased distance between the footway and the road, creating a more pleasant pedestrian environment

Instead of walking a few feet from HGVs and buses travelling at 30mph, people will instead be walking a few feet from people cycling, at much lower speeds. Far more pleasant, as TfL argue (and, indeed, much safer).

Not just that. Because the vast majority of the space for these Superhighways is coming from what is currently motor traffic space, the distance across the road itself will be much shorter. That means shorter crossing times, not longer ones.

All the elements in these Superhighway proposals that will make life better for pedestrians probably merit a post in their own right, but here are just some examples.

Because Blackfriars Road is being narrowed by the cycle tracks – guess what, TfL can put in a ‘straight across’ pedestrian crossing, rather than a staggered one.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.46.20

Better for pedestrians.

Pedestrians coming across Blackfriars Bridge currently have to negotiate two signalled crossings across two slip roads. Well, one of those crossings will now be bikes-only. Much easier to cross.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.49.23The scheme is dotted with bits of public realm improvement – wider footways, better public space. Here’s a couple.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.52.27‘Footway widened.’ ‘Footway increased’.

Screen Shot 2014-09-14 at 14.56.10More widening, in the busy area where Westminster Bridge meets the Embankment.

Many other streets and roads involved in this scheme are being closed to motor traffic, or involve banned turns. Constitution Hill is being upgraded, separating people walking from people cycling. Parts of the Tower Hill gyratory are having private motor traffic completely removed. Horse Guards Road is being closed to all motor traffic, except official vehicles. I could go on (and will, in another post!).

Of course, there are some problems with these routes that I think could be ironed out, from a cycling and walking perspective. But the essential truth about these routes is that they will have a positive impact on the quality of the walking experience.

So, yes, like the City of London, I would urge pedestrians to ‘have their say’. But, unlike the City of London, who don’t seem to have looked at these plans in detail, and appear to have assumed them to be hostile to walking, I do so because they will make life for anyone walking in the centre of London much better, not worse.

Finally, let’s briefly return to those DfT figures for motor traffic levels on these roads. They’re quite interesting, if looked at over the last decade. Here’s the pattern on Upper Thames Street.

Screen shot 2014-09-15 at 00.30.47

There’s a bit of noise here, because the counts are only carried out on one day. But clearly, motor traffic here has fallen, quite substantially. Over the last 3-4 years, its about two-thirds of the level it was in the early part of the 21st century.

Or, to look at this another way, motor traffic on Upper Thames Street – on the same road layout – was about fifty percent greater a decade ago. That same road layout could cope with those higher motor traffic levels, so why on earth will it not be able to cope, today, with the proposed reduction in capacity for these Superhighways, when the motor traffic flowing on it is much lower? 

And it’s even simpler than that. In broader terms, these Superhighways are really about making the most efficient use of the available space on London’s roads. Cycling, as a mode of transport, is extremely efficient, compared to motor traffic, so that means we should be making it as easy, safe and attractive as we can, for ordinary people, to free up space on the road network. More people cycling means that those essential uses of the road network – deliveries and so on – will be made easier. And – heaven forbid – in a modern, 21st century city, we really should be prioritising a mode of transport that will make a difference, in so many ways. Even if that does mean taking a lane away from four- or five-lane roads.

For all these reasons, the City of London need to reflect on what the Superhighways will offer London, get to grips with these proposals, and change their position.

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7 Responses to The City of London needs to think again about its response to the Superhighway proposals

  1. Pete says:

    Great post.

    Its pretty unbelievable that organisations like the City of London cannot see the benefits provided by increasing cycling and the way that it helps solve so many of the problems that they are struggling to deal with.

    We have to hope that if Boris is fully behind these plans then he will use all of the skills and tactics he appears to have previously used to water down cycling infrastructure to push this through. If this isn’t done properly then they might was well not bother. I haven’t worked through the plans with comments on the website but a quick skim seems to suggest that (whilst not perfect) the really stand-out feature of this proposal is that it doesn’t give up on cycling at the junctions.

  2. Nick says:

    The City does have a bit of a point on noise and air quality. This scheme if implemented is likely to slow motor traffic along the affected roads. That means some drivers are likely to find other ways round, potentially increasing noise and pollution on *those* roads. There might not be a problem, but TfL doesn’t seem to have carried out *any* assessment of what the impacts are likely to be. (If they have, they haven’t published the details.) This should be done as soon as possible, so that this argument can be knocked on the head.

  3. Paul says:

    It should be a general assumption that if a specific space is needed for walking then a specific space is needed for cycling. Where motor traffic is reduced to negligible shared space can work.

  4. Pingback: The opposition to London’s segregated cycle lanes is living in the past | londoncitybreaks.org.uk

  5. Pingback: The opposition to London’s segregated cycle lanes is living in the past | bikinglondon.com

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