This is a piece about the unhelpful problems Transport for London have (partly) created for themselves by developing separate ‘Superhighway’ and ‘Quietway’ concepts, but it’s more broadly about terminology, and how we should think not in terms of separate classes of provision for cycling, but in terms of a uniform network, suitable for all potential users, even if it is composed of a variety of types of treatment.
Some of these problems originate with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, which contains some curious distinctions.
We will offer two clear kinds of branded route: high capacity Superhighways, mostly on main roads, for fast commuters, and slightly slower but still direct Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
Here we see a puzzling split – that Superhighways are for ‘fast commuters’, while Quietways are for those ‘wanting a more relaxed journey’. This distinction is reiterated, in different words, in the Mayor’s own introduction –
There will be greatly-improved fast routes on busy roads for cyclists in a hurry. And there will be direct, continuous, quieter routes on side streets for new cyclists, cautious cyclists and all sorts of other people who would rather take it more slowly.
But these kinds of distinctions are unhelpful. It suggests Superhighways are unsuitable for people who aren’t tearing to work in lycra, and also that Quietways are not for people who might want to get somewhere in a hurry, but instead only for cautious types, or those new to cycling as a mode of transport. And it is actually leading to worrying problems of understanding (or, more cynically, wilful misinterpretation for political expediency), particularly by prominent members of the Conservative party in London, all describing Superhighways as some kind of Mad Max-style environment where testosterone-fuelled men in lycra go to lock handlebars with one another.
Here’s mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith arguing that Superhighways have an ‘aggressive’ nature, and that Quietways would be ‘less intimidating’. And more recently on LBC Goldsmith made similar claims, arguing that
I know plenty of cyclists who don’t like to use [Superhighways], they prefer quietways, they prefer to go down more gentle routes.
Meanwhile Conservative Assembly Member Andrew Boff has been telling the Assembly (08:15) –
We do not design London’s roads with the inspiration of Formula 1. So why are we designing Cycle Superhighways with the inspiration of the Tour de France? And that is where people can go as fast as they need to. They are… in many ways, they are seen as concessions to the testosterone-driven, lycra-clad cyclists…
… the inspiration is seen by residents as that is what Superhighways are about. Going as fast as you possibly can down those routes.
While Assembly Member Roger Evans appears to be even more confused (14:20) –
The cycling lobby seems to be full of people who want to get out there and claim their piece of the road, and mix it with the HGVs, and the buses, and the cars, and fight for that piece of space they want. I think we should be listening to the people who would cycle in quieter conditions and safer conditions, if they actually had those schemes planned. So I’ve nothing against segregation, but Andrew [Boff] is right when he says it should be for everyone and not just the Tour de France fans.
All three – Goldsmith, Boff, Evans – paint a remarkably similar picture of Superhighways. Aggressive, inspired by the Tour de France, people going hell for leather, fighting for space. Not a place for those people who prefer a ‘gentler’, ‘less intimidating’, ‘quieter’ experience. Evans even goes so far as to argue that the ‘cycling lobby’ actually enjoy the adeline-rush of mixing with HGVs and buses, presumably enjoying that kind of experience on the Thunderdome of the Superhighways too.
This is all bollocks, of course. The ‘new generation’ of Superhighways are converting unpleasant, hostile main roads into environments that will be suitable for anyone to ride in. There was not a cat in hell’s chance that I would have ventured anywhere near the Embankment, or the junctions at either end of Blackfriars Bridge, or the Vauxhall gyratory, with my genuinely nervous-on-a-bike partner, but we’re already planning cycling up and down the Thames once the weather gets a bit warmer, because the new cycleways are somewhere she will be entirely happy to ride.
Far from enabling hostility and aggression, they’re doing precisely the opposite. And even if some people using them might be doing so in lycra, or cycling fast, mixing with them is far, far more preferable to the alternative – mixing with motor traffic travelling much faster.
We can see just how silly these arguments are if we imagine that for – whatever reason – there weren’t any footways along the Embankment, and the only people on foot there were hardcore joggers, mixing it in the road with motor traffic. If Transport for London came along with a suggestion to build a Pedestrian Superfootway along the river, separating people from motor traffic, would Goldsmith, Boff and Evans argue that such a scheme would be a ‘concession to testosterone-driven lycral-clad joggists’, or that most such a footway would have an ‘aggressive and intimidating’ character, and that footists prefer gentler routes? (Or that the joggist lobby seems to be full of joggers who enjoy fighting for space with HGVs?)
Whether these kinds of arguments flow from basic ignorance about the purpose and function of the new cycling infrastructure in London, or whether they are simply a figleaf for a more general reluctance to repurpose road space, I can’t say, but they have to a certain extent been enabled by the language that Transport for London have themselves used in describing Superhighways – calling them ‘fast routes for commuters’, ‘for people in a hurry’. Almost exactly the same kinds of descriptions that are being used by Goldsmith, Boff and Evans.
But it doesn’t stop there. The problematic language used to describe Superhighways applies in parallel to Quietways, and has opened up opportunities for misunderstanding (or deliberate misinterpretation) in much the same way. Remember that the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling suggested that TfL will offer
Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
The Vision – after enthusing about London’s ‘matchless network of side streets, greenways and parks’ – states that
A cross-London network of high-quality guided Quietways will be created on low-traffic back streets and other routes so different kinds of cyclists can choose the routes which suit them.
Again, ‘different kinds of cyclists’ shouldn’t have to pick and choose a route which might suit them – anyone who wants to ride a bike, whether they are confident or experienced, or just starting out, shouldn’t have to choose. Any part of the network should reach a basic high standard of suitability for any potential user, whether it’s on a main road or on a side street.
But the bigger problem here is that while ‘Quietways’ are themselves being (wrongly) presented as some kind of attractive, gentle alternative to the cut-and-thrust of the Superhighways, the Quietway concept is itself being misunderstood, again because of this TfL language.
‘Creating routes on low traffic back streets’ ducks the central problem that most of the genuinely direct ‘back street’ routes in London aren’t quiet, at all. If they are direct, then drivers will be using them, because they’re useful. To create direct Quietways that are also genuiely quiet will actually require interventions to remove through motor traffic. So while, as Paul Gannon astutely observes, Quietways might be ‘the ideal solution for less confident politicians’, they require just as much political commitment as main roads themselves. London’s (potentially useful) back streets aren’t quiet, and they need action to change them, just as the main roads do.
Here’s just one example of how the ‘Quietway’ concept lends itself to being misunderstood. It’s a blog by a Hackney resident, opposed to the ‘filtering’ of Middleton Road in Hackney, which will (potentially) form part of Quietway 2.
my neighbour made probably the most sensible suggestion of the night. He had no axe to grind so listened intently to Hackney’s presentation. He noted that the Quietways initiative was Boris Johnson’s (not Hackney’s). And that the scheme didn’t require road closures at all – simply the routing of cycleways along roads with under 2000 vehicles a day. Middleton Road was currently 4500 a day (though the council/activists had inflated this to 6000 in their propaganda). Pushed by the activists, the solution had been to close Middleton Road when, as he quietly pointed out, if you moved the cycleway to any other road in the area, the vehicle count fell to just a few hundred. No other change was required, allowing the activists to create their “mini-Holland” without turning other peoples’ lives upside-down – or have I missed the point? [my emphasis]
This resident evidently thinks that because ‘Quietways’ should be using ‘quiet streets’, they should simply be re-routed onto the quietest possible streets in any given area, rather than requiring any kinds of interventions at all on busier roads.
The weakness of language that Transport for London have used themselves has created opportunities for what I might call a ‘double shunting’ of cycle provision. Firstly, shunting it away from main roads onto ‘gentle’ Quietways. And then, secondly, those ‘Quietways’ themselves get shunted away from routes that make the most sense, onto less direct roads that are already quiet – quiet because, of course, they’re not very useful routes for anyone. Those who are hostile to, or uncertain about, loadspace reallocation schemes on main roads can point to Quietways, and people who don’t like the idea of ‘their’ roads being ‘closed’ can point to London’s apparent ‘matchless network’ of already quiet streets as alternatives.
These problems have arisen because the terminology used in the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling has opened the door to this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ approach. It could have been avoided – and I think it can best be addressed – by starting to talk in terms of networks, rather than routes, and about high quality provision which limits interactions with motor traffic, regardless of the road or street context. Obviously this will require different kinds of interventions, but we shouldn’t parcel those types of interventions up into distinct categories of route. A typical journey from A to B in an area with a high-quality cycle network will be made up of cycling seamlessly between these interventions, without even noticing it.
I’m hopeful that networks, and network-style thinking, will naturally start to develop as the density of suitable routes increases, at least in central London. There are some obvious gaps that will present themselves, and need filling in, as the new protected cycleways on main roads are finished. But in the meantime it would be helpful if distinctions between Quietways and Superhighways could melt away, replaced with a concept of high-quality provision for all potential users.