Almost all of what passes for ‘cycling infrastructure’ in Britain has never generated a backlash, for one simple reason. It has never represented a direct challenge to the way our roads and streets are designed to prioritise motor traffic flow, without giving time or space to cycling in a way that might impinge on that prioritisation of motor traffic. That ‘infrastructure’ has never reallocated road space in any meaningful sense.
The cycle lane in the picture above did not generate any controversy when it was painted, because it gives up at the point when things get a bit difficult. A decision was made to allocate the fixed amount of carriageway space on the approach to the roundabout in the distance entirely to motor traffic – two queuing lanes – and so the ‘cycling infrastructure’ had to end. There was no backlash against this painted bicycle symbol, because it didn’t impinge on motoring in the way a protected cycleway, replacing one of those lanes of motor traffic, would.
In much the same way, the old painted lanes on Tavistock Place in London, captured in this photograph from Paul Gannon, generated no backlash – meaningless blobs of paint at the side of the road are not something anyone is going to excited about.
This contrasts starkly with the situation today. Camden Council have reduced the amount of space for motor traffic on this street to just one lane, allocating the rest of it to cycling. The two-way protected track on the north side of the street is now a one-way track, with the westbound motor traffic lane converted to a mandatory cycle lane. This has generated a furious backlash from taxi drivers, in particular.
In places where there is competing demand for the use of road space – in urban areas currently dominated by motor traffic flow – these kinds of decisions about what that space should be used for are inherently political. Reallocating road space, or re-directing motor traffic away from what we think should be access roads onto main roads, are effectively statements about what modes of transport we think people should be using for certain kinds of trips, and about what our roads and streets should be for.
David Arditti has astutely observed that in these places of competing demand, effective measures to enable cycling should be generating a backlash. If there is no backlash, then whatever it is you are doing is unlikely to make any significant difference. If you are designing a Quietway, for instance, and nobody is moaning about it – that probably means you aren’t doing anything to reduce motor traffic levels on the route so that it is genuinely ‘quiet’, or, alternatively, it means you are sending it on a circuitous and indirect route in order to avoid difficult decisions.
If you are designing a route on a main road and there is no backlash, again, something has probably gone wrong. You aren’t reallocating space and time at junctions; you aren’t moving parking bays where they get in the way of your infrastructure; you aren’t dealing with bus stops; you aren’t repurposing motor traffic lanes for cycle traffic.
London is experiencing a significant backlash against cycling infrastructure because, for the very first time, that cycling infrastructure is itself significant. It is a visible and clear statement that cycling should play a role in the transport mix of the city, rather than being completely ignored – it is a challenge to the status quo, rather than being an accommodation with it, in the form of shared use footways, or discontinuous painted lanes. Or (most often) nothing at all.
Of course this backlash is using all the tired, contradictory and even downright confused arguments about cycling infrastructure.
- that it will ’cause’ congestion;
- that this isn’t the Netherlands, people won’t cycle because of winter/hills/culture;
- that ‘cyclists’ are a minority who don’t deserve special treatment;
- that nobody will use the cycling infrastructure
In London, LBC radio seems to have emerged as a mouthpiece for these kinds of arguments, getting particularly excited (for some reason) about the fact that some people aren’t using Superhighway 5.
One of their reporters, Theo Usherwood, stood by the road for half an hour on the bridge, apparently in an attempt to demonstrate that the new infrastructure is pointless because a majority of people cycling northbound aren’t using it.
This is not hard to explain. Heading north across Vauxhall Bridge from the western approach on the gyratory, you would have to bump up onto a shared use footway, then wait for a crossing to get across the road to enter the Superhighway –
… and then deal with a slightly confusing junction on the north side of the river to get back to the left hand side of the road, where you were originally, just a few hundred metres down the road.
Given that there is also a bus lane northbound on the bridge (which the LBC reporter himself mentions someone using), it’s not hard to explain why a good number of people are choosing not to add this inconvenience to their journey. If Usherwood had bothered to ask anyone why they were not using CS5, he would have found this out for himself. But instead he was happy to parrot his statistics in isolation, as they fit into a pre-constructed narrative about how apparently pointless cycling infrastructure is.
Really, the problem here is the discontinuous nature of the infrastructure. It’s only ‘pointless’ for some users because so little of it has been built, meaning that, from some directions, people have to go out their way, pointlessly crossing the road twice (to go to the other side, and back again) to use it for a few hundred metres. The people using the cycling infrastructure will have been arriving from the Oval direction; those not using it will have arrived from the south. It’s that simple.
Equally, if there was a northbound cycleway on the western side of the bridge, linking up with cycling infrastructure on Vauxhall gyratory (plans for which have just been announced today) then I guarantee everyone would be using it. Indeed, statistics for southbound use of the CS5 (which doesn’t add any inconvenience to journeys) would show that nearly everyone is using it. It’s hard to escape the conclusion that Andrew Gilligan comes to, in reference to an earlier ‘count’ Usherwood made –
I personally counted 750 cyclists using the Vauxhall Bridge track, more than 12 a minute, a figure which appeared in our press release. That, by the way, as the press release also stated, is a nearly 30% rise on the figure crossing the bridge before the track opened.
Why do you think Mr Usherwood made no mention of this, or of his earlier visit to the superhighway? Why, I wonder, did he hang around for several hours, until “just after lunch,” and until it had started raining, to begin his count and do his report? Could it be because he was trying to make the facts fit a pre-cooked agenda that there are no cyclists using the facility?
Usherwood also demonstrated a troubling willingness to strip passages from the emergency services’ responses to the Superhighways to imply they are opposed to them, when in fact they support them.
I’ve just dug out the the responses of all three emergency services to the Cycle Superhighway. The London Ambulance Service says the narrowing of the road could affect their – and I’m quoting here – ‘time critical lifesaving journeys’.
The Metropolitan Police is even more scathing Nick. It lists 14 separate concerns with the North-South route linking Elephant & Castle to Kings Cross. It says it will impact on response times, starting – and again I’m quoting – ‘increased congestion will result in longer travelling times for MPS officers coming into central London which will have an operational impact at times of prolonged public order demand.’ And it says that when it comes to transporting VVIPs like members of the royal family, or for that matter high risk suspects that need an armed guard – think terrorists here – it will have to close the opposite carriageway so that there is an escape route at all times for the Metropolitan Police convoy.
Clear enough, you might think – the emergency services are plainly up in arms about these schemes.
Except that if you refer to the document from which Usherwood stripped these quotes, it turns out that the Metropolitan Police, far from being ‘scathing’, actually support the North-South and East-West Superhighways.
Likewise the London Fire Brigade (not mentioned by Usherwood) also support this both Superhighways, and the City of London Police. The London Ambulance Service make no comment either in support or opposition of the Superhighway schemes, only voicing concerns about how it might affect their response times. Against this, all four of London’s major trauma centres; hospitals; and the London Air Ambulance service, have all voiced strong support for the Superhighway schemes.
So, far from being ‘scathing’, London’s emergency services actually support the Superhighways – but a listener to LBC would have gained precisely the opposite impression.
Of course, this kind of response – however misleading and incoherent it might be – is actually a sign that Transport for London is building cycling infrastructure that is effective, and that matters. It is making a statement that highway space shouldn’t just be solely for the flow of motor traffic; that cycling can and should be accommodated, for sound strategic reasons, set out by the Mayor himself.
With London’s population growing by 10,000 a month, there are only two ways to keep traffic moving – build more roads, which is for the most part physically impossible, or encourage the use of vehicles, such as bikes, which better use the space on the roads we’ve already got.
London – and other British cities – are starting to build something that people feel the need to oppose. That means something. Bring on the backlash.