The quick, the cheap and the temporary

I think it’s worth jotting down some thoughts on ‘temporary’ cycling infrastructure interventions, given that the new (or not so new) Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has expressed an interest in them.

In response to questioning from Michael Gove during an evidence session of the Committee on Exiting the European Union, Khan had this to say –

When these lanes [the new protected Superhighways] were constructed, they were constructed in a way that caused huge upheaval and chaos in some of our streets in London.  When you look at successful segregated cycle superhighways around the world, they are not permanent structures.  They start off as temporary structures which cause less chaos during the “construction phase”, but the beautiful thing is that if they are temporary then you can suck it and see.  You can move them with minimal disruption if they are causing, what experts call pinch points.

First things first, it is simply not true to say that ‘successful’ cycleways around the world ‘are not permanent structures’. High quality cycling infrastructure is permanent, be that in the Netherlands, or Denmark, or the United States, or right here in the UK. They are designed properly, built to accommodate existing and potential demand, and are an integral element of the streetscape.

Brand-new cycling infrastructure in the Dutch city of Utrecht. Very permanent.

Khan’s statement is also perplexing in that he seems to believe building temporary structures, and then converting them into permanent ones, ’causes less chaos’ than simply building permanent infrastructure. Of course, it’s quicker to put in ‘temporary’ infrastructure than building permanent infrastructure, but you can’t simply bypass the process of building permanent structures altogether by doing so. It still has to happen. So if anything, building something temporary and subsequently converting that temporary structure to a permanent one actually increases disruption, rather than reducing it.

That said, I do think ‘temporary’ interventions do have an important role to play. They can be used to build pretty effective infrastructure fairly quickly. A case in point is the ‘temporary’ arrangement at the Blackfriars slip road, where the junction of CS3 and CS6 has been moved while the Thames Tideway Tunnel is being constructed.

This will actually be in place for several years, but I think it does (and will do) a pretty good job, despite being composed almost entirely of rubber kerbs that are simply bolted to the road, combined with wands. It only took a few weeks to implement (although it has clearly been planned just as much as the permanent cycle infrastructure that surrounds it). I’m certainly a fan of this kind of quick and cheap intervention, which closely resembles the amount of protection offered by permanent kerbs, and definitely not a fan of the ‘light segregation’ interventions that can simply be driven over, like ‘armadillos’.

In addition, temporary infrastructure can – as Khan implies – be used to test how things work, and to prove to sceptics that chaos won’t ensue once changes take place. Or to show, quickly and easily, how our streets and roads can be made safe, and more attractive, at minimal cost. This is an approach emphasised by Janette Sadik-Khan, the former transportation commissioner of New York, in this recent interview with London’s own (new) walking and cycling commissioner –

Her thoughts on how to overcome London’s challenges are straightforward: set a vision, and move quickly; trial street closures so people can see that change is possible, and know it can be reversed if they don’t like it. In New York, the administration faced legal action and claims from some residents and businesses that the city would grind to a halt if you took space away from motor traffic. As she discovered, the opposite happened. People just needed to see it to believe it, she argues.

And this approach has been employed – to a limited extent – in London, with notable examples being the fairly rapid conversion of Tavistock Place to a one-way road with two wider cycleways on each side of the road –

… and the Walthamstow Village scheme, a three week trial that closed Orford Road to motor traffic.

However, in both these cases, the respective councils – Camden, and Waltham Forest – clearly saw these ‘temporary’ approaches as a mere stepping stone towards the permanent implementation of interventions they had already thoroughly planned. In Waltham Forest, that permanent intervention is now already in place, and in Camden, the permanent changes to Tavistock Place have only been delayed as a result of some legal wrangling.

In other words, the ‘temporary’ wasn’t an end in itself, or a way of implementing changes quickly to minimise disruption. It was just a small part of a planned process of moving towards permanent change, implemented by councils who have confidence in what they are doing, and the backbone to stand up to criticism.

It’s also hard to see what advantages would accrue from building large schemes like CS3 or CS6 – in combination, several miles long – in ‘temporary’ form, given that despite all the (often justified hype) they are really the bare minimum of cycle provision we should be expecting. We certainly should not be providing anything less than 3-4m wide bi-directional cycleways on main arterial roads in cities, so what is gained by temporary implementation? They might be quicker to build, but if they are going to be turned into permanent structures at some later date, disruption is only being deferred, not avoided (and indeed being duplicated). Joe Dunckley has also explained why ‘temporary’ interventions aren’t ever really going to be appropriate for major schemes. The job has to be done properly, or not at all.

And this is what is slightly concerning about Khan’s comments  (and this is not the only time he has made reference to the downsides of ‘permanent’ cycling infrastructure, versus temporary infrastructure). They don’t strike me as being made out of enthusiasm for getting cycling infrastructure in place quickly and cheaply, as part of a clear strategy to make the intervention permanent at a later date – the approach employed in New York, and in Camden and Waltham Forest. Instead they appear to reflect a nervousness – dare I say it, a cowardice – about implementation. When Khan says that ‘the beautiful thing is that if they are temporary… You can move them with minimal disruption if they are causing, what experts call pinch points’ – that appears to be an open door for watering down, or even removal altogether, if cycling infrastructure is ‘causing congestion’.

It’s entirely understandable that organisations with a vested interest in ‘maintaining motor traffic flow’ are very keen on cycling infrastructure that can quickly be done away with. So a Mayor who seems keen on ‘temporary interventions’ for much the same reasons isn’t particularly reassuring.

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6 Responses to The quick, the cheap and the temporary

  1. Paul Luton says:

    Up to a point. An attraction of “temporary” works is that they can create a viable network relatively quickly. TfL has tended to produce isolated pieces of infrastructure in glorious York stone and wonder why they aren’t much used. (see cycle track along the A316 that just gives up at all major junctions )

    • paulc says:

      “TfL has tended to produce isolated pieces of infrastructure in glorious York stone and wonder why they aren’t much used. ”

      ah yes… nice hard segregated lanes are not very attractive if they vanish at every flipping junction…

  2. ORiordan says:

    Legally, there are such things as Experimental Traffic Orders and where I live in London, I’ve seen the local council use these for road closure (modal filtering) schemes.

    I don’t know if Experimental Traffic Orders actually require a consultation, but in practice, the council has done one. So that means *two* consultations; one for the experimental order then a second consultation to make it permanent.

    In fairness, that allows the council to actually collect data about the impact of the intervention so a decision to make it permanent has some rational basis.

    Of course, this never changes the opinion of the people who hate the intervention in the first place and they never believe the data because “the evidence of their eyes” is what they believe.

  3. Bmblbzzz says:

    Temporary as experimentation seems sensible. Temporary becoming permanent (in the same state) is the danger. Unfortunately, nervousness and cowardice in the face of public opinion are hallmarks of British politicians at all levels.

  4. Pingback: The quick, the cheap and the temporary

  5. Jan says:

    Temporary doesn’t have to mean ‘low quality’. Look at this temporary bike path in Amsterdam, it will only be there for a few months:

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