Mayor Johnson’s “Vision for Cycling in London”: Part One

Victoria Embankment cycle lane proposal

This is the biggest current story for anybody interested in sustainable transport policy.  As the ever sensible Chris Boardman correctly commented: “This is the most ambitious cycling development and promotion plan in the UK in living memory, perhaps ever.” However, you don’t have to be a cynic for the excitement of first part of that sentence to be somewhat cooled by the “in the UK” part of it.

As a London cyclist of 35 years standing, campaigner for most of those years and transport professional in London for 25, here is my assessment of what the Vision for Cycling  may – or may – not mean for London.

 Reactions

Reactions are as may be expected: praise from campaigners CTC “breathtakingly ambitious”  , the London Cycling Campaign “ground breaking”  , and the Guardian: “bold thinking”.  Even the response from opposition politicians in the Green and Liberal Democrat parties is mainly along the lines that the Vision – specifically with regard to the increase in funding and programmes for Outer London Boroughs – is good, but just not good enough.

The Good News

To start off with, here (in no particular order) is what looks good:

Normalising cycling:I want cycling to be normal, a part of everyday life. I want it to be something you feel comfortable doing in your ordinary clothes, something you hardly think about”. This is part of the third outcome devoted to increasing cycling: “We will ‘normalise’ cycling, making it something anyone feels comfortable doing”. Elsewhere this is described as “De-Lycraification”. The cycling commissioner Andrew Gilligan, has specifically talked  about cycling being something that doesn’t require helmets and hi-viz. At the launch Chris Boardman and the Mayor went helmetless, as has the Mayor on so many of his cycling appearances.

Mayor Boris Johnson with Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman                                                                     Photo:Guardian

I think this is critical, and indeed a crucially positive part of Mayor Johnson’s legacy is his own habit of everyday cycling wearing normal office clothes.

Andrew Gilligan: Obviously Gilligan is not just a “Johnson crony”: he is plainly committed to supporting cycling as significant form of transport.

More money: Although previously announced, this funding is ringfenced for cycling and stands at a level higher than ever before.

The right kind of vision: The following kinds of phrase are welcome: “Cycling will transform more of our city into a place dominated by people, not motor traffic” .(Better places for everyone). And in the Mayor’s introduction: “Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network, with the capital spending, road space and traffic planners’ attention befitting that role.” Nobody supporting cycling can complain about this kind of statement being made so clearly.

 Outer London: After the (to put it very kindly) minimal success so far of the Biking Boroughs project, we have a promise of targeting the least favoured part of London ”… very high spending concentrated on these relatively small areas for the greatest possible impact. In many ways, this will be the most transformative of all our policies.”

Replacing car use? : There is a definite suggestion that cycling will replace car use. The illustration of the Victoria Embankment flagship scheme – on the cover of the document – shows a road currently with five lanes of general traffic reduced to three for motor traffic. Cycling is stated to be the desirable alternative for car journeys of short distances to town centres in Outer London. And look at this:

Cycling will transform more of our city into a place dominated by people, not motor traffic” (p.9)

All of this is undoubtedly good news. As a practitioner, I have been excitedly preparing for the bidding process for the extra funding since it was first flagged up some weeks ago. I am not denying the potential benefits of the Vision. But that does not stop me having to analyse exactly what it might – and might not – mean for actual and potential cyclists in London, and the possibilities of a sustainable transport system. We have, after all, had supposed “step changes” and “sea changes” before – older readers will remember the Star Routes, London Cycle Network, London Cycle Network Plus, CRISP studies, Biking Boroughs …The problem with visions is that they really need to become good quality realities.

So we need to have a critical analysis of what is on offer

The problems

The role of infrastructure

Most discussion of cycling has revolved around highway infrastructure types. I have my doubts about exactly how beneficial constant reference to continental types of highway layout actually is – even if the best are somehow imported wholesale into the UK context. (Take a look at the interventions by myself and Carlton Reid here ). Let’s see what is on offer:

  • The Victoria Embankment scheme. This looks like a massive improvement on what is there now.
  • Promised upgrades in the quality of the “Cycle Super Highways” (CSHs). At their inception their design was met with derision from both integrationist and segregationist schools of cycle planning, so this is welcome. The LCC has questioned the ambiguity of the wording about the design standards of the new CSHs, but let’s not be too critical.
  • The Bike Crossrail – partly running dramatically on the Westway – across London. The LCC has questioned the issue of exits and entrances to and from it , but let’s not carp.

These are interesting, but let’s not forget that they will cover no more than some 2 – 3% of London’s roads when completed in 10 years’ time, with what appears to be a facility aimed primarily at the already dominant demographic of middle class commuters.

  • The back street “Quietways”. I’m pleased to see an interest in dealing with the all-important potential junction problems here, but we have no detail – will this network be an improvement on the LCN+ which TfL abandoned? Will they be longer than the 8% of London’s roads which was supposedly covered by this “London Cycle Network Plus”?
  • The “mini-Hollands”. This is “the most transformative” part of the Vision. So it is noteworthy that it will happen in just one Borough or lesser versions in three – out of eighteen Outer London Boroughs.

What this means is that only a small minority of the highways that cyclists have to use will be on one of these programmes. This is a classic problem with looking at the problems for cycling in terms of highway design – most of the highway network inevitably gets missed out.  But, as both the Green and Liberal Democrat parties have pointed out, particularly with the “most transformative” mini-Hollands, the vast majority of actual or potential London cyclists in Outer London will miss out. And that’s if the design standards employed actually meet the requirements of cyclists.

This is particularly obvious with the case of some of the junctions crossing the trunk roads in London, particularly the North Circular. These have been commented on as major barriers to cycling for some time – but they are not specifically addressed in the “Vision”, not even in the one to three “mini-Holland” Boroughs. There are also, of course, problems with gyratories in Inner London – such as Hackney – which continue to be unaddressed.

Finally, a big change – following the deaths of two cyclists in quick succession at Bow roundabout – has been the TfL Junctions Reviews. These have raised various alternative options (with varying degrees of complaint) at some key junctions on TfL controlled roads. The Vision intends to continue this process – but at fewer junctions. Quality is to be emphasised over quantity. But why not have both?

All of this suggests that the schemes with their various brand names will be addressing only a minority of the places people cycle in, and with yet to be determined quality.

Money, money, money

£1 billion highway

                                                                Photo: Cyclists in the City

As ever, the amount of funding has been questioned, by the Greens, Liberal Democrats and LCC  . An increase in funding would certainly allow for more junctions in the Junctions Review, and more Outer London and gyratory schemes to be financed.

As with many TfL funding arrangements, considering the amounts to be spent can become somewhat complex. I’ll just raise some issues: How much is Barclays to put into the Cycle Hire and CSH schemes which give it a substantial advertising impact? How much funding will back up LIP (Local Implementation Plan) funding to Boroughs which should already be supporting cycling?

Without being greedy, the amount allocated really does need to be seen in the context of TfL’s budget of £5 billion per annum. Cycling is at some 2.5 – 3% modal share with a 5% target over ten years – some £150 million per annum rather than £90 million would seem appropriate. Of course, as mentioned, LIP funding is supposed to benefit cycling. But this is questionable and the relative benefits of cycling compared to public transport in terms of health and sustainability are higher. And this is without raising the issues of “external costs” which could be paid by drivers through road pricing.

I’d also raise a question which few consider: why should “cycling money” be used to treat junctions designed in ways which endanger and/or inconvenience them? Why shouldn’t that money come from general highways budgets like LIPs? All in all, even given the mantras about austerity, there is a case for substantial increase in the funding.

But of course, it would have to be spent properly. And here we are looking at a whole new set of issues.

(To be continued in Part Two)

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