Wednesday 8 October 2014

Who wants to go to Acton?

It may be that some of the people who read my blog do not read all of the London-based cycling blogs, in which case, you may have missed a debate that took place on the ibikelondon blogspot (here).

The blog's author, Mark Ames, had written that the two new Superhighways "will certainly lead to a large increase in the volume of cyclists along these routes". I replied as follows:

Evidence from the States indicates things are not nearly as black-and-white as you suggest. The likelihood is that there would indeed be more cycling along the new routes, but that about three-quarters of the "new" users would already have been using their bikes for that trip.

"We're seeing people who already bike shifting the routes they're taking," study co-author Jennifer Dill said in an interview. "We're seeing a small amount of new cycling."

According to an LCC report: "Isolated cycle paths are almost useless if they’re not connected, making a network from the beginning."

The bottom line is that protected cycle lanes can't rapidly boost bike ridership without a network. David Hembrow said as much in his interview with Jack Thurston:

"Another problem with what's happened with the Go Dutch campaigning has been people celebrating [...] the idea of having a single high-quality route. This is something which the Dutch found in the 1970s had almost no influence at all on people's cycling patterns. You actually need a dense grid of high quality routes so that people can make their journeys from A to B without any problems along the way. If you have a single route, it works only if A and B are on that route. Otherwise the majority of people in the city where the new route is are completely unaffected by it."

This brings me on to another point, as expressed recently by lludovic on the LCC website:

"Who wants to go to Acton? Not me, certainly. Has any traffic survey been undertaken? What about Hyde Park to Hammersmith and then onwards to Putney and Richmond? Those boroughs have the highest proportions of cycle ownership..."

The case is, these routes are going, not where they are most needed, but where they can be installed without causing too much inconvenience. The Mayor’s press release practically says as much:

“The routes have fewer of the usual features which can make installing segregated cycle lanes difficult. They have also seen a reduction of around a quarter in motor traffic in the last ten years. Only a small fraction of the east-west route is on roads served by TfL daytime buses, for instance, and there is little residential parking along most of the routes.”

Mark's response was nothing if forthright. "I fundamentally disagree that these routes are not going where they can be useful," he said.

He continued: "I don't know who Lludovic on the LCC website is, but it does not seem sensible to base your position on the comment of just one person."

I don't yet know how far west the A40 route is planned to go, but I do know that, as things currently stand, it is not planned to go sufficiently far east.

View larger map here

During another (but related) discussion, I suggested that, in order for a route to be useful, it must be meaningful (i.e. go to the places that people want to go to), direct, pleasant (where possible) and joined up with other routes. One of the first things to be said about the Westway elevated section (shown in light blue above) is that it doesn't properly meet a single one of these criteria.

The elevated section is very nearly 2 miles, and along this length, at least five good cycle routes pass beneath it. In practical terms, what this means is that for most of the people who live in the area defined by the red border (see map below), this new cycle route is going to have extremely limited value, despite the fact that it passes directly through the middle of their neighbourhood. This is because, as far as these people would be concerned, the new route would not be accessible and / or alternative routes would be more accessible, more pleasant, more direct, etc).

Over on ibikelondon, the blog's author stated: "If it is a difference between getting it built out to Acton and not getting it built at all, I know which I would choose."

An anonymous commentator added: "There are plenty of people in Acton wanting to go to central London. Acton is a very populous area, with no good cycling routes to central London [...]. The Westway to Acton branch (which is already delayed, apparently) will have a big catchment area, with Quietways linking it to other neighbourhoods, like Shepherd's Bush and Paddington (so I was told at one of the consultation exhibitions)."

Yes, it links to other neighbourhoods, notably White City and Paddington, but look again! nowhere in between!

Paul M suggested that the superhighways proposals are "vital" for two reasons. "Firstly," said he, "I am confident that they will prove that taking a small amount of road space from motor traffic does not mean world's end and in no time at all the result will actually be an improvement on what went before, for motorists too. Secondly, I see this proposal as the canary of cycle infrastructure planning in this country. If it dies, it is telling us that the atmosphere for cycling in the UK is irretrievably toxic.

Westway on Make A Gif
The slipway road from the Westway to Paddington
In the first instance, as I said in my comment on ibikelondon, these routes are going, not where they are most needed, but where they can be installed without causing too much inconvenience. Developing routes which have "fewer of the usual features which can make installing segregated cycle lanes difficult" does not automatically mean that a worthwhile precedent has been set.

In any case, I believe that the most important thing to be proved from these Superhighways is not whether they will add to or take away from the traffic chaos, but rather, whether they will encourage more people to cycle. In this event, the real risk with the Westway link is encapsulated in this statement from Ricardo Marques Sillero of Seville (as reported by the LCC):

"Sometimes politicians want to check first if the idea works, for instance, by making one or two isolated bike paths before making a stronger decision. But isolated cycle paths are almost useless if they’re not connected, making a network from the beginning. Therefore people don’t use them and the politician becomes disappointed."

As to Paul M's second point, if this proposal dies, I don't accept that this means "the atmosphere for cycling in the UK is irretrievably toxic". The constant factors of a thoroughly-understood cycling policy are threefold: network, training / education, and publicity / promotion. If this proposal dies, I hope it means something better will come along in its place.

Better, to my mind, would be to build on the positives, and not to keep banging on about the one big negative. People don't need reminding that cycling is dangerous. But they do need reminding about some other things, however.

The fact is that these high-profile schemes are not without controversy, and that they take time to deliver. It may also be fairly added that they are not much use without good connections. These things being so, why is it that planning, studying and then introducing a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network to the point where it functions, why is that not "on the table"?

"The network you refer to already exists," Mark Ames from ibikelondon said. "We just need to be able to get cyclists in [...] London to access it."

What does this entail?

According to a European Parliament document: "Mobility encompasses not only the activity of travel, but also, more importantly, the possibility for the traveller to decide when and where to travel, by being aware of, and being able to make use of, an information set for optimising the journey."

Good waymarking and mapping is definitely part of the solution, therefore.

"Existing cycle highways have seen increases in ridership of 30 to 40%," Mark pointed out, "and that is just with blue paint."

Replicate that across an entire city, and by jingo! you'll have a cycling revolution worth its name.

"Every network has to start somewhere," Tim said.

Yes, but what is the evidence or the rationale which says that developing a couple of high-profile routes is the place to begin? Please can you quote someone.

"Cycle routes are needed EVERYWHERE," the leisurist added.

That's my point.

"I really don't think that a one third increase is such a bad outcome," Paul M suggested.

In closing, I would like to say that I applaud the ambition that is attached to these schemes. I think the section along Thames Street and The Embankment is superb. But generally speaking, these schemes fall short because they are not connected to a wider network.

Mark agrees that hundreds of smaller interventions are needed and useful. Mark agrees that it is not an "and / or" situation. Mark agrees that we need both.

However, Mark says that only one is more likely to happen than the other. I have to ask why that is, why "the table" is relatively so bare.

According to Cycling: the way ahead, the measures needed to get a network to function may be adopted automatically, "without major risk of error or loss". If the people who wrote this are telling the truth, why do we not believe them?

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