Why don’t ‘urban realm improvements’ incorporate cycling?

This week Transport for London have been tweeting pictures of proposed station improvements, connected to Crossrail upgrades.

I’ve been struck – as have many others – by the way these designs appear to involve polishing a turd, and also by the way they completely ignore cycling as a mode of transport.

The West Drayton station visualisation includes a bridge that doesn’t include cycling.
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The Ilford station visualisation has an expanse of fancy paving, combined with a fashionable narrow carriageway, with someone cycling right by the kerb. 11

This is the A123, by the way – the traffic levels in this visualisation are a tad unrealistic.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 22.57.23

Southall station gets fancy paving, and a nice coloured carriageway, with unrealistic traffic levels. No cycle provision.

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Goodmayes gets a ridiculous ‘shared space’ treatment, miraculously free of motor traffic in this visualisation. No cycle provision.
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Again, it’s fair to say this is a ‘charitable’ representation of motor traffic levels here.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 23.33.40

Seven Kings actually looks like the best improvement out of a bad bunch; the road in front of the station is going to be closed off, and the existing ASL is going to be painted green. 8

Not pictured – buses.

Screen Shot 2014-11-19 at 23.36.22

Another ‘fancy’ surface, serving no apparent purpose, outside Manor Park. Again, this is an A-road – the A117.7

Forest Gate. Another A-road; another smear of expensive granite. 6

Maryland station – three wide lanes of motor traffic replaced by… three narrow lanes of motor traffic. 5

Acton station gets some lovely cycling-hostile carriageway-narrowing.

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Fancy colouring for the car parking spaces outside Hanwell station (this is a dead-end, so they can’t really get this wrong).
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And finally Chadwell Heath. It’s not really clear if there are any changes here at all.2Crossrail’s own page on the ‘Urban Realm’ changes involved across London is here (thanks to Alex Ingram for spotting it).

A continuing difficulty in Britain appears to be an assumption that ‘cycling infrastructure’ is antithetical to ‘urban realm’. It’s seen as ugly, and associated with traffic engineering, and facilitating movement, which stands in contrast to what ‘urban realm’ designers think they are trying to create, a sense of place. White lines don’t fit in with the aesthetics of places like Poynton, or of Frideswide Square.

Of course, there’s no reason why cycling infrastructure can’t be blended into attractive urban realm – cycle tracks can be constructed from sympathetic materials for instance. The opposition seems to be based on what cycling infrastructure looks like now, rather than what it could look like, with a little thought and effort.

And the other problem here is a fundamental dishonesty about the function of the roads and streets that are being ‘prettified’ – this is the placefaking I’ve talked about before, or, more bluntly, polishing a turd. Rachel Aldred has also written about this issue at length. The assumption seems to be that cycling doesn’t fit in with these placemaking schemes, despite the fact that they still function as major traffic arteries. The paving might have been changed, trees might have been planted, the carriageway might be a different colour, but fundamentally it’s still a road with thousands of vehicles thundering along it every day.

Maybe having to include cycling infrastructure represents a tacit admission that the problem still remains. But it’s not particularly sensible to bury our heads in the sand, and to pretend that the barriers to cycling can be resolved with some planting and some surface treatments.

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5 Responses to Why don’t ‘urban realm improvements’ incorporate cycling?

  1. monchberter says:

    Christ. Looks like the Exhibition Road influence / effluence has stuck.

  2. The bridge at West Drayton barely looks wide enough for just walking! Room to march single file, one person in each direction? Fingers crossed nobody with a wheelchair wants to use it, or two heading different directions.

  3. You could add the examples from the Horsham Bishopric Enhancement project here. No one has decided what to do with the space yet, but none of the ideas put forward by the council’s placemakers includes cycling or even cycle parking. This is a large natural crossroads and cycle links through it would join up the existing fragmented cycle routes so people could get across town without using the dual carriageway.

  4. michael says:

    It’s ridiculous the way all these ‘visualisations’ appear to be produced by people determined to delude themselves that they can magically achieve the effects of better cycling infrastructure (fewer cars) without the need to actually build any cycle infrastructure.

    The level of commitment to living in a fantasy world displayed in these pictures seems like a kind of collective psychosis.

  5. I think you are being very charitable. I don’t think the promoters, designers and approvers of the schemes you showed thought for one single moment about cycling, and more certainly not several years ago when the schemes were first mooted.

    When streets designers are not cyclists, as most are not, then they simply don’t have cycling on their radar. Neither do the public, or funders, or the councillors who decide on the end result consider, or have experience of, cycling in traffic.

    All (most?) of these people are well meaning, of course, but they don’t know what it’s like to be ‘chased’ along too-narrow carriageways by Angry White Van Driver with Lots of Flags, and just how off-putting it is for ordinary people to cycle in close proximity to buses and HGVs.

    Instead, they think cyclists are a problem and not part of the solution to transport and health issues.

    Who are the champions of good design for cycling in local authorities? I used to think “cycling officers”, but no, with good exceptions eg Lambeth, Enfield, Waltham Forest and Kingston, cycling officers are just meant to promote cycle training, small schemes and cycling generally (clearly to no avail), in accordance with “vehicular cycling”. They have little power or leverage in the hierarchies of councils and may even be “hierarchied out” if they do attempt to achieve change but touch raw nerves.

    Cycling officers should be trained to design cycling infrastructure, be involved as internal clients and consultees to raise standards, and co-ordinate the provision of practical cycling experience and discussion for engineers and councillors. Instead, it appears, being a cycling officer is too often a rather a lowly occupation at the margins of Council transport planning, rather like cyclists themselves in their intermittent 1.2m cycle lanes.

    If we want to get improvements in cycling infrastructure, get cycling properly thought about in all relevant schemes, then cycling officers should be equipped and given internal authority to be promoters and guardians of the need to include proper and appropriate infrastructure for cyclists.

    After all it is easiest to achieve wider change via the smallest number of influential people. If the cycling officer can, through senior management and councillor support, be made an influential champion for cycling, we will make good progress.

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