Tuesday, 4 September 2012

A blast from the past

Who? What? How? Where? Why?

Whilst I was staying at a permaculture centre one time, I overheard a conversation between two of the lads there:

'You seem a bit down in the dumps, Paul. Is there anything I can do to cheer you up?'

'You could find me a girlfriend.'

[Laughing] 'Yeah, no problem.' [Hopefully] 'Is there anything else?'

'Yes. You can make everyone in the world a vegan.'

I don't suppose that anyone actually feels the same way about cycling as Paul does about veganism, but there is no doubting that cycling excites an intense passion in many of its more sincere advocates - me included.

Without exception, all of the cycling blogs that I have read - I only read the good ones - call for the development of a European-style cycle infrastructure. The commonly-held view goes something like this: 'a mass cycling culture in the UK comparable to what has been achieved in several European nations is simply not possible without substantially separating the car from the bicycle, through high-quality dedicated cycle engineering' (Vole O'Speed).

I am going to take it as given that everyone accepts the policy of the European Cycling Federation, that the development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network is 'a basic precondition' for a high level of cycle use. Before we look at how the development of such a network might be accomplished, there are a couple of other fundamental issues which I would like to talk about first: who would this network be designed for? and, what purpose would be served by its completion?

A strategic cycle network for London (SCN) was first proposed in 1978, soon after the London Cycling Campaign was formed. This network was formally launched in 1994 as the London Cycle Network (LCN), after the then Minister of Transport Steve Norris was inspired into action by a presentation given by John Grimshaw of Sustrans fame.

The early architects of the LCN thought, at least for a time, that all 3000km of the network should be able to be used by an unaccompanied twelve-year old child. Very, very laudable though this aspiration is, it set the bar quite high, unrealistically high you might say, with the inevitable consequence that work on the network progressed at a fairly lingering pace.

TfL withdrew funding for the LCN in early 2002 and, learning from what they called 'world best practice', set about developing a slimmed-down 'spine' network of cycle priority routes - the LCN+. The routes on this network mainly followed main roads, 'reflecting key strategic commuter routes.'

So you can see that in terms of who the cycle infrastructure was designed for, we went from one extreme, the unescorted pre-teen, all the way over to the other extreme, the boys and girls in lycra. Anyway, be that as it may, the two networks, when combined together, work very well, I think.

This takes us nicely to consider the second question, what purpose would be served by its completion? 'The endgame,' said a former Chief Executive of the LCC, 'is the prioritisation, completion and signage of an effective London Cycle Network.' Hear, hear! My primary concern at this stage is to enable easy navigation on this network. My work is premised on a number of assumptions:

(i) that you have a local knowledge;

(ii) that you wish to travel by bike beyond your local area, using safe, pleasant routes wherever and as much as possible; and

(iii) that you get easily disorientated when using routes which are poorly signed and with which you are not familiar.

The main point, actually, of marking the route on the main road is, as the Mayor himself has said, to let motorists know that this is a place where they're going to encounter cyclists. It is in this regard - this and the smoothness of the journey - that the Cycle Superhighways are so effective. [Note 17/3/12: I no longer regard this point as entirely valid.] But the route markers themselves are not useful for wayfinding, particularly, except where the route diverts away from the main roads and onto the back streets.

To be clear, then, if you're cycling on a main road and you don't know where you're going, then seriously dude, what are you doing? What's going on in your head? Where can I get some? But if you're cycling on a back street and you don't know where you're going, then absolutely, I know what that feels like.

The good news is that the boroughs did not give up on the LCN. You know how it is when you see someone again after a long break? Perhaps they have put on a bit of weight. Probably this is more noticeable to you than it is to those around your friend because it is more of a step-change for you than it is for them. It's the same with me and the LCN. It's been about eight years since I last cycled in London, and to my mind things have moved on, in some boroughs more than others, of course.

Probably the only place where I haven't seen any change is Westminster. It's a bit of a shame, really, because Nigel Butterworth, the Cycle Officer at Westminster for quite a long time, was a bit of a fan.

I'll just quickly explain the 'how', then. Back in 2002, TfL basically had two options before them: either they could reduce the extent of the cycle network, or they could reduce the level at which the network functions. The first option, according to TfL, was informed by world best practice. The second option, according to an EU publication, Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, was informed by European best practice.

What this document actually says, in big, bold letters, on page 2 of the chapter entitled 'How to Start?', is that to begin with, developing the routes to a minimum level of functioning is 'a prudent course to follow.' Essentially it is the same as the old permaculture idea of making the minimum change for the maximum effect.

The shame is that if TfL had chosen to adopt European best practice - either in 2000, when the EU published their guidance - or in 2002, when TfL launched their 'realistic five-year programme' - or in 2003, when the boroughs sought to study the feasibility of a low-engineered network - or in 2005, after a GLA report concluded that the LCN+ project was failing to deliver - or in 2006, when the boroughs tried again to undertake a feasibility study - or in 2007, with 2 012 days to go to the greenest ever Olympic Games - then the network would be much further advanced than it is now. That's the shame.

Get the network up and running! Do as much as possible at least cost first! That's the message I want heard. That's the major part of my proposal.

The Dutch and the Danes have been taking little steps every year for 40 years, with the consequence that there is a fantastic difference between what it was then and what it is now. The boroughs have been taking little steps as well, in the time that I have been away, probably on what is quite a tight budget. Nigel Butterworth at Westminster was prepared to take little steps, as long as they were going to be taken within the context of a city-wide programme of works. What his bosses were not prepared to do, evidently, was take big, lunging steps. Kensington & Chelsea, who felt the same way, let their no be no. But the two cycling officers there, Kathryn King and Crystal Quadros, assure me they would be interested in taking part in a trial of my proposal if it covered central London at least.

Developing the cycle network to a minimum level of functioning is the first significant action that the authorities should take. But it ought not to end there. According to research carried out by Lancaster University, 'In order to create a mass cycling culture in English cities we need to segregate cycling from motorised traffic along main roads. Combined with a range of other measures, very high quality segregated cycle routes could push English city cycling from its currently marginal status towards a mass phenomenon ...' (Quote taken from Vole O'Speed again.)

Could push English city cycling towards a mass phenomenon? No, would. No doubt about it. As I have blogged elsewhere, as many as one in three journeys in London were made by bike in the years after the war. In those days, of course, there was a much more effective way to segregate the cars from the bikes, but that would take us back to Paul and his veganism. Hmm, I wonder ...

Where the routes go - what course they take - will have to wait for another time. So that just leaves the 'why' question.

I am not going to tell you why cycle; that's a question best answered by the imagination in any case. No, the question I wish to address is, why is there so much disunity among cycle campaigners? As Vole O'Speed explains towards the end of his blog, 'We cannot hope to win politicians around while we are divided.' A former MD of Raleigh said the same thing at an LCC conference in I can't remember when - a few years ago.

Vole O'Speed relates how the segregated cycle facilities in the London Borough of Camden came to be built. (Respect is due to Paul Gannon, Paul Gasson and Gerry Harrison, it seems.) At the time, 'there existed relics in Camden from an earlier phase of cycle facility building [...]. One such was the Somers Town Cycle Route, which connected King's Cross and Bloomsbury via a crossing of Euston Road [...]. This was mostly on very quiet roads, and some of it was quite good, with some segregated parts [...]. The fact that some short segregated sections already existed inspired Gannon with the idea of connecting them with a longer segregated track along Royal College Street.'

Now, the thing I don't understand is, why cycle campaigners would disagree with this approach? According to Vole O'Speed:

'The London Cycling Campaign overall was never united, and is not united today, on the desirability of engineering like the Royal College Street and Torrington Place cycle tracks. CTC never supported this project either. Islington Cyclists Action Group (ICAG), our neighbouring LCC group, did not support the principle of a segregated route, and some prominent campaigners in LCC, such as Rik Andrew of Kingston, felt CCC's designs were "too expensive" and "over-engineered". So it was easy for opponents of cycling in Camden Council (and there were many of these), and others, to say, "These people in Camden Cycling Campaign are extremists. What they are asking for is not what most cyclists want. Other cycling groups do not accept their solutions." '

I want to conclude with this transcript from a radio interview which was aired on Radio Five Live at the start of June. The subject was London's failure to meet EU standards on air pollution.

Let's have a final chat to Andrew Davis, Director of Environmental Transport Association. Andrew, really you're into sustainable travel, so you would presumably say that part of the game would be to tackle air pollution by just stopping using so many petrol-driven cars.

Well, yes, it... On the face of it, the difficulty is we're starting from here, and we as an organisation for twenty years have been pointing out that we're going to have a problem if we don't address things earlier. If you're dealing with these problems in a recession it's always very difficult for people to make changes: people are up against it, and so this is the last thing on their agenda, quite understandably, and that's why we've been warning, let's do it early, let's do it slowly, let's see what the targets are, and aim for them. It's ... the difficulty is in the big cities is probably the mix of how we travel is wrong. We need to encourage people to cycle and therefore we need to make the roads safe, and to do that you have to plan, not just one year, it's year on year, it's decade on decade, and other cities manage to do it, and we could do it too. It's very difficult to change the road layout for cyclists in a matter of months; it does take a long time planning, and it can be done, and it's done effectively across Europe.

So that's the first practical step you would take, just to try to encourage people to get out of their cars and onto bicycles?

It only needs people on the margin: the people who are more likely to do it, to encourage them. Of course there are people who won't do it whatever, but if enough people do it, it does make a change. We're talking about things on the margin. Another one which is done in some cities -- not in others -- is to reduce the speed limit to 20mph. Now that might seem quite drastic in a way, but in fact traffic travels much better when it's going slower, because it merges better, people get out of junctions faster, congestion drops, and where cities have done it across the whole city -- except for main roads, I might add -- it's meant that the congestion has improved, or it's got better in the sense that there's less congestion, the air quality's improved, the accident rate has gone down and more people are prepared to cycle. So it's not as if we're stopping anyone doing a journey they might otherwise do. We're saying if we drove more gently, the evidence is quite clear that we would reduce the things that frustrate motorists as much as anything else.

Yeah, so we could really do it, couldn't we, if we were serious? I've always really thought this about car use. If it were a war and suddenly said, 'Well there isn't any more petrol and you're just going to have to do without,' then we would do without. It's a matter if we want to, almost.

The problem is that we are up against a war. If we took action twenty years ago it would be very gentle, but the later we leave it, the worse it's going to get for everyone, and we'll be dragged there screaming and kicking. The European government decision was made with us as a party to it -- you know we could have stopped it, other countries could have stopped it -- it was agreed as a long-term target, a difficult one to achieve, but with positive action it could have been achieved before. And this idea that we can always move it on another five years, and in four years' time, you know, say, 'Can we have another three years?' We've got to bite the bullet at some time. And it's not just better for the environment, it's better for our own health, it's better for our children's health, and it's better for the movement of traffic generally in a city. It's a long-term plan, and it's not about being anti-cars, because our members are car-drivers, you know, we're not anti-car. It's having the right form of transport in the right place and at the right time. And we need to do it, and we can do it gently and purposefully, that's the point. You know where you're going to go, and you tell everybody this is why we're doing it, and you bring them on board. If you make swingeing changes, no one likes that, it's quite understandable. A change of ramping up petrol prices or blocking roads is not on. It's got to be saying, 'This is where we're going in our cities, and we're going to do it purposefully, and we're telling you why we're doing it.' That's the main thing.

First published 19 July 2011

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