An open letter to Lord Adonis

Dear Lord Adonis,

I write regarding your recent comments on social media regarding the cycling infrastructure around Parliament Square.

You have asserted that more people are choosing to use the road instead of the cycling infrastructure, and in doing so imply that, as a consequence, there was little point in building that cycling infrastructure in the first place.

I fear that – regardless of the numbers involved – your comments might betray a failure to understand the reasons behind people avoiding that infrastructure, and that in turn could lead you to erroneously dismiss the utility of separating cycling from general traffic at this location, and indeed at other locations across British towns and cities.

Given the importance of your role as Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, I hope you will forgive me if I seek to explain to you why cycling infrastructure of the kind in question remains essential even if some choose not to use it, and also what we can learn from a minority of people failing to use a specific piece of infrastructure as intended.

In the last decade, there have been sixteen KSI (killed or seriously injured) incidents involving people cycling in Parliament Square, and along the section of road running past the Houses of Parliament, alone.

Every single one of those incidents is a personal tragedy that could have been avoided by separating those people from the motor traffic running through the Square.

The new cycling infrastructure achieves this. It greatly increases the safety of people cycling here by removing entirely any interactions with motor traffic. To take just one example, I have seen families with young children cycling through the Square in complete safety; something that would have been totally unthinkable before this infrastructure was built.

I hope you will agree with me that the failure of some people to use this infrastructure should not – in any way – be used as a reason to take those safe conditions away. There is a great deal of point to this infrastructure in safety terms alone, without even considering its importance in enabling cycling as a mode of transport for people unwilling to cycle at present, with all the concomitant (and significant) benefits in terms of public health, congestion mitigation, and pollution reduction.

When it comes to the matter of a minority of people choosing to use the road instead of the cycling infrastructure through the Square, I’m afraid the explanation is rather obvious, so again forgive me if I am telling you something you already know. (I’m prepared to take that risk to ensure that someone in your influential position is fully appraised of the facts).

If one is cycling in an eastbound direction across the Square, there is, unfortunately, a significant amount of delay at each set of traffic lights on the cycleway – typically it will take two or three times as long to negotiate the Square compared to using the road, a delay of several minutes. I don’t think it should be very surprising, therefore, that some people will naturally choose to avoid that delay by using the road instead, especially given that many of these people will have cycled on equivalently hostile roads as part of their daily journey. (As I hope you know, cycling infrastructure in London is far from ubiquitous). These people are not wilfully choosing danger over safety – they have merely chosen to save time.

By analogy, if we see people choosing to dash across a busy road instead of walking several hundred metres out of their way to use a pedestrian crossing, I trust you will agree with me that we shouldn’t respond by questioning whether pedestrian crossings are useful, or whether there is any point building them. No – an appropriate response is to build pedestrian crossings where people actually want to cross, so they aren’t forced to choose between danger, and inconvenience.

In precisely the same way, if you are concerned about the safety of people cycling (and indeed concerned with enabling more people to cycle), an appropriate response to the issue you raise in Parliament Square has to involve increasing the convenience of the cycling infrastructure there, rather than questioning whether it should even exist at all. Nor should we attempt to pass new laws compelling people to use inconvenient walking and cycling infrastructure. If we are serious about enabling these modes, we should be designing environments where convenience and safety directly, and naturally, align, rather than attempting to compensate for poor design with regressive laws.

In this context, I must emphasise that the new cycling infrastructure built by Transport for London in recent years is of a high standard and does, in general, pass this test. Over 90% of users are indeed naturally choosing to use the cycling infrastructure in preference to the road, because it offers them both convenience and safety. I would be interested to see your figures for Parliament Square, not least because it will be a useful way of identifying the degree of inconvenience there.

I will be more than happy to offer any further clarification,

Yours sincerely,


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13 Responses to An open letter to Lord Adonis

  1. Pingback: An open letter to Lord Adonis | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  2. Clive Durdle says:

    Is it a failure if I choose to use local roads instead of a motorway ? Be very careful with assumptions!

  3. Donal Kane says:

    Also worth noting that if travelling South to North ( a pretty popular cycle route ) from Abingdon Street/Millbank or Victoria Street and going to Whitehall the new ( half finished at best ) cycle lane built on the inside of Parliament Square is pretty useless .. you have to swing across the traffic twice to get to it and it suffers from terrible traffic light sequencing issues too .. as a daily cycle commuter here I would never use that cycle lane .. I think the East West run is okay ( especially in E -> W direction) , but the North South run is clearly not … I’m all in favour of using cycling infrastructure when it’s decent and I certainly find it annoying when fellow cyclist choose to ignore decent infrastructure ( say Vauxhall or Stockwell ) .. but Parliament Sq does not qualify as decent cycle infrastructure unfortunately

  4. paul hyman says:

    I tend to give the area around westminster a miss because of the traffic light delays – but the Embankment route it really good and I join it by heading down from trafalgar square which is much quicker. The Embankment infrastructure is well used and makes the route through to Tower Hill quicker and much safer.

  5. C J CLARKE says:

    Many many moons ago before cycling was as commonplace as it is now, I cycled around Parliament Square and took the exit for St James Park and Buckingham Palace, Petty France I believe. Out of nowhere this tank of a car bore down on me and run me over – I only escaped injury by leaping clear. The front wheel and forks were totally shot and had to walk home to Holloway, Islington from there.

    So I totally support your letter and protest to Lord A.

  6. jerryash says:

    Mark – great points, as ever. And having made such great points, I do hope you’ve also sent him the letter (actually printed it and posted it) – unless you know he follows this blog or you on Twitter? You and other brilliant cycling advocates make really compelling arguments on social media, but I do worry that many of them never actually land with their intended targets?
    And a couple of comments about the next bit of the E/W cycle super highway or whatever it’s official name is. Contractors have been on site at Birdcage Walk for was seems like most of 2017. New surfaces are in; white lines painted; smart traffic lights installed. But still it’s barriered off, and the anti-terror security obstructions at the Buckingham Gate/Buckingham Palace junction are still in place. Completion still seems a long way off. But I really fear that when it comes the route up Birdcage Walk will, as you’ve pointed out happens across Parliament Sq, provide a safer alternative than the Mall, but only at the expense of a time lag to negotiate traffic lights and negotiate lane changes.
    My daily route takes me from Victoria, past the Palace and up the Mall. After years of hostility, in the last month the new smart traffic lights finally seem to have been phased to enable cyclists from Victoria (but probably not from the E/W Hyde Park direction?) to move non-stop from the Palace to Horseguards Rd. It’s smoother, quicker and already less hostile. To compete, the Birdcage Walk route will need to offer safety (tick) and not be too much slower.

  7. andy clarke says:

    Well done. The pedestrian analogy is particularly useful.

  8. On Tuesday I opted to use the cycleway to go up Westminster Bridge Road to turn for The Embankment. The level of service for the volume of cycle traffic turning left was abyssmal, hardly any time and perhaps less than a third of the queue got the green. In future I’m going back to using the main carriageway – miles faster, and cutting over where convenient gap appears. Bridge Street/Great Victoria Street is equally troublesome with a lack of clear signage on where to position yourself going across the junction.

  9. Ken says:

    Well said.
    It reminds me of a topic of discussion that come up in my city where an alternative to a right hand turn across a lane of traffic has been developed. Similarly, it’s likely to be slower, especially for the experienced cyclist but my greater concern is that, as a disabled cyclist, I (and others like me) will not be able to make the manoeuver to make this supposedly safer turn. It would result in us being positioned directly in front of cars at a traffic light, stopped perpendicular to the flow. Thus, for me and other disabled cyclist, the safer option is to not use the infrastructure and rather use what I might call the traditional method of making the turn, that being to ride as if I were a car. I would also result in getting through the junction faster as well.
    The most amusing aspect of this is that a representative of one of the cycling activist groups in the area suggested that the cycling infrastructure would surely be the safer option. But clearly this representative doesn’t have the perspective or background on disabled cycling to understand that infrastructure build for one set up parameters, without considering all factors does not necessarily create a safe or practical cycling environment for all the users it’s intended for.
    Thus, to create a better cycling environment, some users will opt to, or in fact NEED to, circumvent the infrastructure fro practical or safety reasons.

  10. ezpc1 says:

    Nicely written well thought out response to what was obviously a knee jerk reaction backed up by a prevailing car based bias.
    We must Keep confronting car bias, but do so with positive logical and clear arguments so people can see what we are saying. You achieve all of that in your letter. Keep up the good work!!

  11. Matthew Phillips says:

    We did a clockwise circuit of Parliament Square on Friday as part of a longer trip with the excellent Pedal Me service. At the north-west corner we were held at the lights quite a long time, and as the cars were given a green first there were a few cyclists riding with the cars rather than in the cycle lane. The reason for the phasing seems to be that cyclists are held till the car traffic from south and west has ceased, to allow them to cross all the lanes safely and exit north up Parliament Street. I suspect the Dutch would have had the green for cycles first, and also would have separated the right and left-turning cycle traffic, allowing the right-turning cycle traffic to have a continuous green because there are no conflicting movements.

    As you say, the question to ask, when cyclists are observed not using the infrastructure provided, is how that infrastructure could be designed better. And the same applies to any mode of transport.

  12. Dan Phillips says:

    Such a simple discourse. As Adonis sees himself as an educationalist, one can only hope that he has the tenacity to lean into his personal tendencies and examine why he believes that cycling is less important than other modes of transport around the city.

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