Last weekend’s Sunday Politics on BBC One devoted a large segment of the programme to the subject of the new Superhighways in London.
A roving reporter had been duly despatched to examine Superhighway 5, running between Oval and Vauxhall Bridge Road. Besides asking drivers sitting in traffic what they thought of the new scheme (a ‘disaster’, unsurprisingly), the reporter managed to capture congestion on the road while the Superhighway was empty, the result of a broken down lorry blocking one of the lanes.
A casual observer would probably come to the conclusion that the Superhighways are therefore a waste of space, ‘causing’ congestion on the road network, for little or no benefit.
But note that the footway here is also empty. Nobody was walking along this road at the time this footage was taken. Is that a problem? Does that mean that under-used footways on both sides of this road – and indeed alongside other congested roads – are ‘causing’ congestion? Should they be trimmed, or even removed altogether?
Only two footists on that footway! Crazy TfL building footways no footists are using – causing gridlock! Remove ‘em pic.twitter.com/CWBpT6pRv8
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) November 26, 2015
Of course not – nobody thinks like this, because footways are an established part of highway design. Walking is a legitimate way of getting about towns and cities, and we don’t think twice about footways being provided for walking on both sides of the road, even if that is valuable space that could be used to ease congestion for motorists.
Parking of motor vehicles also takes up valuable space on main roads; space that again could ease congestion for motorists. If we look back in time to just last year, we can see that the exact same spot the BBC chose to film a ‘waste of space’ in the form of the new Superhighway, an awful lot of highway space is being ‘wasted’ in the form of on-carriageway parking, on both sides of the road.
If cycleways ’cause’ congestion, then surely the same is true for the on-street parking in the picture above, which reduced this road to effectively just one lane for motor vehicles at this point.
But again, clogging up through roads with parking in this manner is ‘legitimate’; it’s completely ordinary and background, and nobody bats an eyelid or attributes causality, even when they are stuck in a queue right beside parked vehicles taking up valuable highway space.
If Embankment such a critical through road, why aren’t taxis complaining abt its use as empty all day coach park? pic.twitter.com/OqIcLgDOIe
— cyclistsinthecity (@citycyclists) December 5, 2015
Cycling, by contrast, isn’t ‘legitimate’. It’s not seen as an ordinary mode of transport for everyday people, and that’s why we are seeing these curious reactions to the repurposing of highway space. Unlike footways, bus lanes, and parking bays – all of which take away valuable road space that could be used for free flow for motorists – cycling isn’t taken seriously, even when these new, isolated pieces of infrastructure, that aren’t part of a coherent network of cycle routes, are shifting people more efficiently at peak times than a motor vehicle lane that takes up an equivalent amount of space.
This is also why the BBC Sunday Politics programme – which has never even glanced at the major difficulties people walking around London face on a day-to-day basis, managed to focus with a straight face on the difficulties the Superhighways present to pedestrians.
I doubt that one word has been spoken recently into a BBC camera about junctions in the city where there are no green signals for pedestrians; or junctions where there are no dropped kerbs; or pavements completely obstructed by parked motor vehicles; or awful pig-pen pedestrian fencing; or staggered crossings.
Yet as soon as some cycling infrastructure appears, suddenly previously absent concern for pedestrians materialises, with bus passengers apparently ‘stranded’ on bus stops, as a serious voiceover intones
While they have made the road better for cyclists, have Transport for London really just made it a worse place for pedestrians and people who want to use the bus?
This selective concern for pedestrian comfort again flows from legitimacy, and the established order. The established order has motor traffic flow at the top of the tree, with pedestrians waiting minutes just to cross the road, or corralled into zig-zag crossings, or prevented from crossing roads altogether. This passes without comment, because it is ordinary, and legitimate. We can’t imagine things any other way.
We have systematically – over a period of several decades – made roads and streets in our urban areas very very bad indeed for pedestrians. In that context, asking whether some new cycling infrastructure has made things a bit worse for them is an absurd distortion of priorities, a perspective that only really makes sense against a background assumption that cycling is an ‘illegitimate’ mode of transport in urban areas, that doesn’t deserve serious consideration.
These are problems of perception that will be hard to shift, and perhaps will only be shifted once this new infrastructure -incomplete as it is – itself establishes new patterns of behaviour. Until then it’s worth reminding ourselves that these ‘issues’ with cycling infrastructure really flow from starting assumptions about legitimate uses of road and street space.