Friday 10 June 2011

Impossible journey in the Bikeless Borough of Barnet

This long blogpost starts by not being about its actual subject, which is a real journey, but by connecting it to recent events. But, be patient, and all will be revealed.

According to BBC news, Andrew Boff, Conservative London Assembly Member, who was mentioned here in the previous post as one of those who walked out of the chamber thus preventing the debate on 20mph on Blackfriars Bridge, has claimed:
The walkout had nothing to do with the issue of Blackfriars Bridge or air pollution.
This is part of ongoing action that the group is taking in response to the Labour, Lib Dem and Green party groups voting en-block to prevent Conservatives from taking up the proportional number of committee chairmanships, thus depriving the 40% of Londoners who voted for us a voice.
He also told the Evening Standard:
The walk-out was in protest at the refusal of the Greens, Labour and Lib-Dems to share committee chairmanships. It's not that we don't care about the 20mph limit- we spend a lot of time talking about it. My instinct is that it should be 20mph.
If Boff thinks we should have a 20mph limit, it would be nice if he hadn't prevented the Assembly from taking a vote to send that message to the Mayor. The Conservatives on the Assembly seem to consider their little strategic war on the committee chairmanship issue (and note that these committees are purely advisory and have no power over the Mayor) to have a higher priority than discussing the vital life-and-death issue of danger faced by vulnerable road-users on London's streets. Readers can decide themselves how reasonable they think this position is.

It is certainly not the case, however, that the other Conservative AMs agree with Boff. Gareth Bacon and Victoria Borthwick have sat on the fence in their replies to constituents asking about 20mph:
Clearly the key is to ensure a balance for all road users. Just as it was important to protect the bridge for cyclists, it is also important to ensure that all traffic flows at a reasonable rate.
(Note that that this reply shows they understand nothing about the relationship between traffic flow rates and speed limits in a congested environment: slower top speeds normally lead to better flow.) On the other hand, Brian Coleman (aka Mr Toad) is characteristically clear in his view:
The speed limit is a matter for tfl not me but I do not support 20mph zones they are unenforceable but anyway traffic cannot get anywhere near that speed at this junction
Now Coleman, as is well-known, sees London from the passenger seat of a black cab, paid for by Council Tax payers (he has given back his free Oyster Card as he never uses it), from which the speedometer would not be visible. So clearly he has no idea what speeds actually are anywhere. But we know that Coleman has no concerns bout the safety or convenience of non-motorised road-users. He never has had. As well as being the AM for Camden and Barnet, he is on Barnet Council (representing one of the wealthiest and most car-centric areas in London, Totteridge, in the far north of the borough), and is now its Cabinet Member for Transport & Environment. Putting Coleman in charge of that portfolio may be fairly likened to putting Ratko Mladic in charge of race relations.

Coleman's career is objectively documented on Wikipedia. As it says there, without distortion, he has "built up a reputation as an outspoken supporter of car driving". One of his actions as head of Transport in Barnet was reported in the Hendon & Finchley Times earlier this year as being the axing of school crossing patrols. More generally, the themes of his tenure of this office have been the removal of traffic-calming measures, the removal of on-road cycle lanes and banning of cyclists from off-road paths, removal of bus lanes, the widening of roads and junctions, increasing of parking and narrowing of pavements in Barnet. Despite all this excellent work, there are signs now, however, that he may now be falling out of favour with the car-loving voters of Barnet, as he is finding the need to support the extravagant recent hikes in allowances to Barnet councillors, in the context of the cuts in general council funding, by raising money from increased parking charges.

Be this as it may, long before all this, cyclists in his GLA constituency of Camden & Barnet knew all about him. In response to an e-mail from Paul Gasson, then co-ordinator of Camden LCC, in 2001, Coleman wrote:
Thank you for your e-mail of 8th November regarding London Cycle networks.
It is true that the Transport for London budget for the year 2002/3 does not include a budget for the London Cycle Network.
I am not, however, prepared to make any representation to the Mayor over this for the simple reason that I consider cycle lanes to be an unnecessary obstruction to cars, for which of course, roads were built.
I do not intend to be facetious over this matter, however  many motorists are thoroughly tired firstly of the delays caused by the building of cycle lanes, followed by the further delays when the completed lanes encroach on road space, coupled with the fact that they are so drastically underused that they regularly provoke outrage at the pointless wastage of public money.
I hope that this is an adequate expression of my views.
Yours sincerely,
Brian Coleman
On another occasion, in response to a similar lobbying letter from an LCC member, he wrote something like (I cannot now find the actual text) "Hell will freeze over before I support spending money on cyclists".

So that's our Brian. Who is, let it be said, is very good to his mother, making her Lady Mayoress during his spell as Mayor of Barnet. I hope she stays safe on the roads, so well managed by her son. Her chances are not good, however, as Barnet now has the worst road safety record of any London borough.

There are, as readers may know, so-called "Biking Boroughs" in London. I have criticised this empty, woolly, underfunded Johnson concept here before. But Barnet was clearly never going to be one of those. Barnet, as a consequence of Coleman's policies and those of his Conservative colleagues and predecessors, is now a a Bikeless Borough.

OK, there are cyclists in Barnet. Some of them are in the local LCC group, Barnet Cyclists. As may be judged for their website, however, they are mainly a leisure-riding group, not a campaigning one (uniquely within the groups making up LCC), and most of their riding is, sensibly, in the countryside and not in the Borough of Barnet. There is also an annual "Bicycle Rally" in Barnet, called the Greenacre Bicycle Rally (why "bicycle", not "bike" or "cycle", the more normal UK terms?) Brent Cyclists is taking part in this event this year, and in consequence of this, I happened yesterday to be cycling from Kingsbury to Finchley, trying to chart a west-east course through Barnet that would be suitable for inexperienced riders, families and children, cycling from Brent to the Greenacre Bicycle Rally. I have to say I failed, because what I was trying to do is impossible. There are no safe, attractive routes suitable for inexpert cyclists through Barnet. That is why this is "The Impossible Journey". Everywhere one attempts to find a route in Barnet, with the the aid of the TfL London Cycling Guides, one is stymied by major infrastructural problems: lack of suitable crossing points of linear barriers (motorways, railways and trunk roads), fast and dangerous roads with cycle-unfriendly junctions, and petty and pointless bans on cycling in non-motorised spaces (note that I was trying to make my route completely legal, so as not to bring LCC into any possible disrepute).

If you cycle from Kingsbury to Finchley the major linear barriers in the urban fabric that you have to traverse are the A5, the Midland Main Line, the M1, the A41, the Northern Line (Edgware Branch), the A1, the Northern Line (Mill Hill Branch) and the Northern Line (High Barnet Branch). That's eight linear barriers. O these, six these have no satisfactory crossing points, "satisfactory" meaning without heavy, fast traffic, and legal to cycle on or across. (The Northern Line (Edgware Branch) and Northern Line (mill Hill Branch) do have reasonable crossing points).

I decided to approach the first of these barriers, the A5, from Kingsbury on Cool Oak Lane, which is a London Cycle Network route. It is slightly scenic, with a narrow, signal-controlled bridge across the Welsh Harp Reservoir. Unfortunately, it is also a narrow race-track rat-run with blind corners: a quite intimidating environment for inexperience cyclists, but the best I could find. It would be nice to be able to turn right into Park Road off the A5, meeting it from Cool Oak Lane, but that potentially quiet route for cycling eastwards and crossing the railway and motorway is rendered impossible by a barrier in the middle of the A5. A gap in the barrier for cyclists to turn right would be quite possible, but it is one of those trivial oversights that make cycling in these suburbs a headache that such has not been provided, despite being suggested many times to uninterested Barnet traffic officers.

Barrier in the A5 at the Park Road junction, from Google Streetview
Since Park Road is actually two-way, it is possible to cross the A5 on foot (taking your life in your hands) and continue to cycle east on Park Road. But if you stick to cycling in a totally legal fashion, you have to go north up the A5 to the A504 Station Road, do a right there, then a dangerous right off this fast road and a back-street left-right-left to Park Road – a circuitous route, and a nasty rat-run, as lots of cars and vans do this, particularly kamikaze minicabs, zooming round the tight corners. When I have attempted this legal route I have been harassed by them. This is supposed to be another LCN route: another LCN failure.

Back to Park Road: if you continue eastwards the route is satisfactory and you can cross the railway and motorway, but then you come to the next barrier, the A41 dual carriageway with its big barriers.
The A41 at Park Road/Beaufort Gardens
There is a dingy and menacing pedestrian underpass here, as you might expect – standard UK pedestrian environment – as a minimum. But no cycling allowed.
A41 underpass, no cycling, but the red ring on the sign has faded out. Sympathetic background of storm clouds.  
The TfL London Cycle Guides mark places like this, labelling them as "no cycling allowed". On earlier editions, in Ken Livingstone's time, they were marked as "please walk your bike on this section of the route". So, a politically-motivated change, but same difference. Funny how the road network for motor vehicles doesn't have crucial gaps where you're not allowed to drive. That would be just stupid, wouldn't it?

There is a failure here to understand the disbenefits of forcing mixed mode journeys. Walking is a different mode to cycling, and walking a bike is different again. When Dr Beeching, scourge of the British railway network, closed all the branch lines, he thought people would still use the railways in the same numbers as before; he thought they would just use a different method, bus or car or taxi, to get to the nearest mainline station. He didn't realise that if you force mixed mode journeys, they become far less convenient, and people won't do them anymore. They will go by car so they can go all the way by the same mode, because one mode is always much more convenient than two. So it is with telling people they have to dismount from their bike. They loose most of the benefits of going out with a bike in the first place. Trying to use the bike becomes a pain, and they choose another mode, usually the car. In passing, that's why TfL's attempts to get people to use the hire bikes to go to the Olympics will fail, because the nearest docking station to the Olympic site at Stratford will be at Victoria Park, 20 minutes walk away. It won't be worth mucking about with the bikes.

So, back to our Impossible Journey in Barnet. After walking through the underpass under the A41, it is possilbe to cycle via Cheyne Walk and Shirehall Lane, and under the Northern Line (Edgware Branch), to Hendon Park. Here there is a cycle route marked on the TfL guides, through the park. It isn't marked on the park at all, so it's legality is unclear to me. This can be followed northwards on to the West View path – a very narrow shared-use space. The main thing that is wrong with the West View route, however, is that whenever it meets a minor residential road, it gives way to it, and there is no concern in the design off the junctions to limit the speed of cars crossing this quite important pedestrian route (not so important for bikes as there are few cyclists in Barnet) or to allow pedestrians easily to cross. in fact, the junctions are not designed at all, they are just blocked, as we see here at Sydney Grove, where the route is blocked by railings that force pedestrians and cyclists to do a detour round and where they have to cross a fairly dangerous road with poor sight-lines due to parking.
West View path junction with Sydney Grove
At least cycling is allowed here, which is exceptional for a path in Barnet. Perhaps Coleman hasn't noticed this one yet. Since this path insn't taking me in quite the right direction to get to Finchley, however, I must divert off eastwards via Someset Road and Chapel Walk. Yes, walk again. Here  perfectly feasible W–E route is again prevented by "no cycling" roundels.

Chapel Walk. Walk!
Chapel Walk leads to Brent Street, where you can, as a pedestrian, just about negotiate a crossing into Victoria Road, an attractive little lane, on the other side. This is a "suggested route" on TfL Cycle Guide 3, but problems come where this intersects with the LCN route marked in blue, as both the N–S options, Alexandra Grove and Hillview Gardens, are marked as one-way southbound. I think this may be a mistake in the guide, and one of them should be one-way northbound. I followed First Avenue northwards, where a met an incredibly dangerous blind corner with the A504, here called Finchley Lane, and still as full of 30 limit-exceeding motorists as it was when it was Station Road. However, use it one must, as there is no other method of crossing the A1 going in the direction of Finchley. One can speed down into the A1 junction as it is in a valley. At this point on my journey, a passenger in an overtaking car thought it was amusing to shout something incomprehensible at me as he passed at high speed. No big deal, this happens all the time to cyclists in the UK: insults, spit, water from pistols, beer cans, or other material objects, hurled at cyclistsin frightening moments from the passenger seats of cars travelling at high speed. But the fact that it happens all the time must be a reason why many less hardy souls give up cycling quickly. And it happens more in places like Barnet, which are Bikeless Boroughs, than it does elsewhere.

We are nearing Finchley now, and there is a traffic-free cycle route, marked in green on TfL Guide no. 3, that goes in roughly the right direction, along the course of the Dollis Brook, through Windsor Open Space. Except that it has now been closed to cyclists. This is obviously a very recent development, as the  roundel signs look new.
Welcome to Windsor Open Space says the sign at left. But not you, you with the bike. Remember, Barnet is officially a BIKELESS BOROUGH.
So it seems Barnet has now removed the one slightly helpful off-road cycle route that existed in the borough. However, they have not removed the blue LCN signs, which still in places point mournfully to such suburban shangri-lahs as Hendon and Whetstone, now inaccessible to the cyclist who does not want to tangle with the ratrunning hooray Henry and Henrietta drivers of Barnet. So, stymied, I go back to the A504, now called Hendon Lane, and turn off at Cypress Avenue and cycle through the surprisingly pleasant "village" at Claremont Park. In this area a lady ferrying children in her little blue car tailgates me on the narrow parked-on-both-sides street, on which I occupy the centre ground as overtaking is not safe, and I am going quite fast anyway for this residential road. She hoots her horn, and eventually forces an overtake, pushing me into the dooring zone. Standard motorist behaviour in a Bikeless Borough, and she is showing the children early how cyclists should be treated. I wonder if any of them want to cycle.

On this occasion I found a better road under the Northern Line (Mill Hill Branch) than I had used before. Dollis Road, under the viaduct, is deeply unpleasant: narrow, with speeding overtaking traffic, centre islands just where you (and overtaking cars) don't expect them, and a terrible road surface (Barnet has given up maintaining it's roads in the current climate (financial as well as meteorological). Crescent Road is much nicer, but then, where it meets Nether Street, the junction layout prevents you cycling northwards into Nether Street. I got off again to do this manoeuvre. So, as so often, a piece of engineering designed to prevent residential rat-running by motorists catches cyclists, through mere thoughtlessness on the part of council officers not interested in cycling, and prevents them from finding a decent route. The Dollis Brook walk continues further north, and I lookied ito this, but again, cyclists are not welcomed.
Lovely Barnet: graffiti-covered welcome to Riverside Walk, but no cycling again. Becoming something of a theme, isn't it? If you're on a horse you're out of luck as well. "Roads for motorists, paths for pedestrians" could be the Coleman Barnet motto.
Never daunted, I then investigated a different option again for getting to North Finchley, the marked blue LCN route on the TfL Guide that runs on minor roads parallel to the Dollis Brook just east of it. But I found that has a very dangerous junction where it gives way to a particularly bad E–W rat run in Barnet, at Sussex Ring/Argyle Road. I eventually concluded the best way to North Finchley, and best way to cross the Northern Line (High Barnet Branch) was via Nether Street, which crosses the line at West Finchley Station. This road is a horrible, twisty, constricted rat-run with terrible surfaces as well, but it seems slower and therefore less risky than the straight rat-run of Argyle Road. Where it meets the A598 and the A1000 at Tally Ho Corner, there is nowhere to go except north, without tackling the giratory system, which takes the skills of a full-fledged fast vehicular cyclist used to crossing multiple lanes of fast traffic, but that is my destination, as, apparently, the Bicycle Rally will be there – at the Arts Depot, the elegantly-named Barnet Council-funded arts centre, which lurks inaccessibly (to pedestrian and cyclists) in the middle of the giratory.

So that was my Impossible Journey in Barnet, which, on Sunday, I will do, hopefully, with a group of keen Brent cyclists. Congratulations if you have stuck with this.

Brent Cyclists, through Brent and Harrow Assembly Member Navin Shah, asked the following question of Boris Johnson in April:
TfL have said that the main potential for cycle growth in London lies in the Outer London Boroughs. Some of these, for example Brent, have been designated as “Biking Boroughs”, and are eligible for small funds from TfL, while neighbouring boroughs are not eligible for these funds. Given the target for cycling mode share of 4.3% by 2026, how does the Biking Boroughs scheme in its current form aid integrated cycle provision in London?
The answer came back:
All Outer London Boroughs were given the opportunity to become Biking Boroughs at the end of 2009. Following a competitive process which evaluated the level of commitment and political support for cycling in boroughs, 13 boroughs were awarded Biking Borough status in early 2010. Each borough has since developed a Biking Borough Strategy to inform their Local Implementation Plans (LIPs).  The Biking Borough grants will supplement this.
All boroughs are encouraged to work together through their sub-regional partnerships to ensure their delivery plans are integrated with those of their neighbouring boroughs.  In addition, all boroughs are able to use their LIPs transport funding to promote cycling and deliver cycling infrastructure where this is seen to be a local priority.
So, an extraordinarily hands-off approach there from Boris Johnson, this supposed champion of cycling, in saying that boroughs will only deliver cycling infrastructure "where this is seen to be a local priority". And if it is not? No cycling infrastructure, as in Barnet. Authorities like Barnet are completely free to opt out of Boris's "Cycling Revolution". Not much of a revolution, is it, if you happen to live in one of these boroughs?

Barnet Council has created a Bikeless Borough. There is virtually nothing for cyclists in Barnet except cycling on the traffic-choked, boy-racer filled main roads and residential rat-runs. No cycle lanes, paths, parks, home-zones, nothing like that. In Brian Coleman's Barnet, there is no room for the bike. Bikes, as he said so clearly in his email to Camden Cycling Campaign, just get in the way. It will get even worse when the TfL/Barnet Council changes to the North Circularl/A41 junction at Henlys corner get built.

Well, as a final thought, I must retreat from that statement slightly. The Bikeless Borough is 95% the fault of Barnet Council, but I put the other 5% of the responsibility at the door of local cycle campaigners. Granted, they have had a particularly difficult political situation to deal with in Barnet, but, also unfortunately, Barnet Cyclists, the LCC group in Barnet, have been led for some years by a gentleman named Jeremy Parker, who though a very personable chap, I have to say has completely wrong ideas about cycle infrastructure. He seems to have got these ideas from John Forrester, leader of the vehicular cycling sect in the United States, and vehement opponent of cycle lanes. Parker did, indeed, live and cycle for some time in the States. Parker's ideas are written down here and here. As these documents date from about 14 years ago, my apologies to him if he has significantly altered his opinions in the meantime, but I don't think he has.

Jeremy Parker's most characteristic idea, that he often articulates, is that:
The entire street London street network is already the London cycle network
That is, cyclists don't need any other network, anything special. He is therefore in general opposed to "cycle facilities".

I am afraid to say that in the state of Barnet's cycling environment today, you see what happens when the councillor who believes that "cycle lanes are an unnecessary obstruction to cars, for which of course, roads were built" meets the cycling campaigner who believes that "The entire street London street network is already the London cycle network". You get the Bikeless Borough of Barnet.


  1. Barnet have recently resurfaced some of the Dollis brook pathway and opened it up to people on bikes. This is - predictably enough - leading to conflict with pedestrians who understandably don't like having to share this space with faster moving bikes (according to the Hendon and Finchley Times). As someone who is desperate to see good quality bike infrastructure in Finchley, I have to say that this is not quality infrastructure, and is not the right place for it either.