Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Blackfriars: have we run out of democratic options?

I have been following on this blog what I have called the Battle for Blackfriars, though not so extensively as has the wonderfully-industrious Danny on his Cyclists in the City blog. As I wrote before:
The "Battle for Blackfriars" has become totemic of the struggle to establish decent treatment for pedestrians and cyclists in the way that major roads in London are engineered. If the campaign on Blackfriars fails, TfL will probably try to impose the same engineering style on all the Thames bridges, and, by extension, all other major road junctions in London under their control.
The state of play now is that the London Assembly has finally managed to take a vote on the Blackfriars plans. The first attempt to debate the issue, on 8 June, using a motion proposed by the doughty Green Assembly Member Jenny Jones, which called for retention of the existing 20 mph limit, was scuppered by a Conservative walk-out in protest over an unrelated issue. The fury this aroused from transport campaigners seemed to take the Assembly Conservatives by surprise, with their spokesman, Andrew Boff, forced on to the defensive. The result was, last week, an even better outcome than could have been predicted in June. Jones re-tabled her motion for 20 July, but Boff negotiated a re-wording as follows:
This Assembly notes the decision to revert to a 30 mph speed limit on Blackfriars Bridge. We also note the recent decision of the Corporation of London to consider plans for the whole of the City of London to become a 20mph zone, and understand that if they take this decision they would be likely to ask Transport for London to agree to make TfL roads 20mph. This Assembly asks that the Mayor instructs TfL to implement a full review investigating the practicalities, advantages and disadvantages of a 20mph limit on Blackfriars Bridge . The review should include previous TfL reports, such as that on 20mph speed limit on London's Thames bridges and also the effect of such a change on all road users (including pedestrians) north, south or on the bridge itself. Meanwhile, TfL should keep under review the decision to revert to a 30 mph speed limit on Blackfriars Bridge. We also urge the Mayor to revisit the plans for the bridge with particular attention to cyclists making right turns when exiting the bridge at either end.
Amazingly, in a tremendous victory for people-power, a vindication of a determined campaign by the London Cycling Campaign and others, the assembly voted unanimously to support this motion. Andrew Boff came up trumps by bringing all the Conservative AMs with him in supporting the motion. Though the motion only mentions cyclists at the end, the press release issued by the Assembly, in quotes from Liberal Democrat spokeswoman Caroline Pidgeon, and Boff, lays heavy emphasis on the desire of the Assembly to see a new Blackfriars that caters properly for cyclists. Pidgeon:
A third of the peak time traffic across Blackfriars Bridge are cyclists and we already know that they are at significantly more risk when travelling across bridges than they are on similar city roads. That’s why we want Transport for London (TfL) to take a robust look at the safety of all users on Blackfriars Bridge and for the Mayor to use the facts to put safety first.
And Boff:
I am staggered that so many cyclists use Blackfriars Bridge, if it was on my commuting route I wouldn’t because it is too dangerous. I hope a full review of the new layout and speed limits on the bridge and the publication of all the relevant data will result in a sensible solution that will address the needs and safety of all users.
Boff is a cyclist who clearly understands how the danger issue is at the base of the problem we have in promoting cycling to Londoners. His reworded motion, that was passed, is perceptive in its recognition that there is not only an issue with speed, but with the fundamentals of the engineering of major roads like this, and their junctions. Dr Clare Gerada, Chair of the Royal College of General Practitioners and an experienced cyclist, was badly injured attempting the right turn at the northern junction even with the current 20 mph limit in force. So clearly 20 mph, though perhaps a convenient campaigning rallying-cry, cannot be the main solution for making our main roads and junctions cycle-friendly. As I have argued before, cyclists need to be campaigning clearly for a total physical re-design of the road space and junction arrangements in places like Blackfriars, preferably on Dutch models, not asking for painted scraps of space.

While the Assembly has no power to make the Mayor do anything on this issue, it would seem to be hard for him to ignore the wishes of all his party in the Assembly. Only a couple of weeks ago, Johnson was arguing, incredibly, that since average peak hour motor vehicle speeds were already below 20, a 20 limit is not needed – totally missing the point that it is out of peak hours when the traffic speeds up that cyclists and pedestrians need the most protection. But in the same speech, Johnson also hinted, delphically, that he did not think everything was fine with TfL's current plans, stating that his observation as a cyclist using Blackfriars was that:
more work needs to be done on cycling over Blackfriars Bridge and the accessibility of cycling over Blackfriars Bridge.
So that would seem to be opening a space for a rethink, and the vote by the entire assembly, including his party members, for just such a rethink would appear to give him exactly the opportunity he needs for calling the plans in again, while in no way losing face.

So that was the relatively rosy way things looked up until Monday, 25 July. At least rosier than they had looked for some time. Until a press release appeared on TfL's website. This talks about the large increase in pedestrian traffic expected from the opening of the rebuilt Blackfriars Station, and the goes on:
The new design accommodates the huge increase in demand from pedestrians whilst improving facilities for the estimated six per cent of people who travel through the junction by bicycle.
That has been achieved without severely affecting other modes of travel, such as the bus and taxi passengers who will account for around a fifth of those using the junction (11 per cent and eight per cent respectively).
Analysis by TfL shows that usage by cyclists through this junction is predominantly for travelling to and from work and is therefore concentrated during traditional 'rush hour' periods, particularly in the morning heading northbound and in the afternoon heading southbound.
Vehicular speeds are predicted to be at their lowest through the junction during peak time, at an estimated speed of just 12mph, creating a much improved and safer environment for cyclists to pass through.
From the evening of 29 July to the early morning of 1 August one lane northbound and one lane southbound will be restricted, with work continuing throughout the night to complete the works as quickly as possible.
So TfL really are not listening. Really. They are not listening to anyone but themselves on this. They are not listening to the Mayor, who is their boss, they are not listening to the London Assembly, they have not listened to the 600 people who have written in to complain about their plans, mostly from a cycling perspective, they have not listened to a peaceful physical protest by cyclists on the bridge itself, and they have not listened to the LCC's petition presenting photos of 2000 cyclists.

Despite the fact that Conservative Assembly Member James Cleverly, a particularly close colleague of Johnson, having been his Ambassador for Youth, has said that it will now be “very difficult” for the Assembly motion “to be ignored or thrown out by TfL or the chair of TfL (the Mayor)”, that is exactly what Johnson seems to be doing. He is doing nothing, despite his statement of 13 July that "more work needs to be done on cycling over Blackfriars Bridge". What the hell is going on here? Does Johson think that that "more work" should be done after TfL have changed the bridge according to their current plans? If so, he is being utterly neglectful of his duty to ensure public money is spent responsibly and efficiently. 

What appears to be going on is that while Johnson vaguely, and in the briefest manner, hints on this issue in directions to please all parties, while, as Cycle of Futility points out, he is probably much more taken up with the extent to which he could be mired in the police–News of the World affair, as effective chief of the Met as well as a peripheral member of the Chipping Norton Set and
once a dodgy News International journo himself, being fired by The Times for manufacturing a quote
as well as more vexed by the increasing competing pressures of satisfying the International Olympic Committee and keeping London moving in 2012 – while all this goes on, TfL's bureaucrats are just getting on with what they wanted to do all along at Blackfriars, as fast as they can, working all night over this coming weekend, in order to make the whole job a fait a complet before anything else can happen.

I have a part-remembered quote in my head, from Shakespeare, I suspect, about bad things happening under cover of darkness, but I cannot authenticate this now. Anyway, this is the point: on Blackfriars we seem to have run out of time, and run out of democratic options. What are we going to have to do? Lie in front of the bulldozers? Have one last protest ride on Friday? Lay some wreathes on the bridge in memory of dead cyclists?

I really don't know.  I hope that whatever happens, there will be two things in the future: firstly, a new-found unity in political campaigning in the cycling community, and secondly, a realisation that getting lower speeds is not necessarily the politically easiest nor the most effective thing to do for cycling. I think many cycling campaigners are a bit fixated on 20 mph because they see it as an "easy win". Just stick up some signs saying "20", OK – what could be easier? But perhaps it is not that easy. As Cycle of Futility says:
Unlike Tower Bridge, the road layout at Blackfriars lends itself to driving much faster than 20mph, which people will do. Enforcement of the limit will be rare, and as I saw today, consequences in those cases where it is enforced minimal. We need to stop devoting our energy to tinkering around the edges like this and start campaigning for proper infrastructure – yes segregated cycle lanes, but this as part of a package of properly designed streets, not huge urban motorways.
I note from both the comments of Boff and Johnson that, interestingly, some cyclists on the right of the political spectrum seem to have an inkling that this is correct. They are not convinced that campaigns on speed in itself, in isolation, will take the wider public along. They can see that the real issue is road design. Redesigning roads to re-humanise them should be a campaign that can win the favour of pro-cycling politicians of all parties.


  1. This demonstrates just how unaccountable Transport for London really is (and what a waste of time it is for the public to respond to their consultations), and their contempt for the London Assembly... unless of course they have been given a behind the scenes nod to proceed.
    I'd like to see independent scrutiny of the gap between policy and scheme expenditure/benefit by transport mode.

  2. "Labour spokeswomen Caroline Pidgeon"

    I think she's Lib Dem.

    The Labour ones who fought hard in the battle are Val Shawcross and John Biggs.

  3. I worry that you are right. The only thing that could even postpone TfL intentions would be to lie down in front of the diggers.

  4. Danny 'Cyclists in the City' Williams is trying to persuade people to join Friday's Critical Mass and for the Mass to loop Blackfriars and London Bridge. Danny doesn't normally involve himself in CM but feel action here is needed urgently. This may be a way to do it. I would join the CM if I could.

  5. Quite right. It is utterly inadequate to have lower theoretical speed limits without redesigning road space to encourage / force drivers to slow down to those speeds; too many drivers exceed the speed limit, and nothing is done about that most of the time!

    I don't see why all, or at least almost all bridges couldn't have separate - completely separate - cycle lanes with a kerb between the cycle lane and the motorists. Only a couple, unfortunately including Tower Bridge and the suspension bridges, are probably too narrow.

  6. Spot on. Espeically your final paragraph

  7. Members of BJ's own group on the Assembly admit, in private, that TfL is a law unto itself. (Just think back to "yes, Minister", which was a pretty accurate depiction of civil servicedom). That is not the same as saying that BJ doesn't support their stance on Blackfriars, but it isn't unreasonable to suppose that he doesn't, entirely.

    While no doubt there are some sceptics in the Tory group (Coleman, perhaps?) a number of them are quite supportive and are active cyclists themselves (Andrew Boff and James Cleverley, for example). If you can get past their typical modern Tory libertarian instincts (personal freedom, choice etc) I think they do actually support pro-cycling measures as long as they don't also appear to be anti-car. You have hit the nail on the head with design.

    Direct action has to be the way forward. If it stays good-natured and (broadly) within the law, so assembly members of all groups are not embarrassed by it and "ordinary" cyclisst not deterred from taking part, it might be pretty effective.