Saturday 16 July 2011

A little bit of Amsterdam in London

The Velorution website, advertising my history of the London Borough of Camden's segregated cycle tracks, had this to say:
It is quite embarassing to show a visitor the Central London Cycle Guide and explain that the brown bits are the segregated cycle lanes. A few seconds of silence follow as the visitor scans the map, with incrudility spreading over her face: “Is that all?” she asks pointing to the Torrington-Tavistock Place stretch, the only brown bit of any significance.
Being in the Bloomsbury area last Wednesday with a little bit of time to spare, I though I would video the traffic on Torrington Place, London WC1 for four minutes. Here is the result. This was taken at 18:50, so not peak commuting time, but a moderately busy time nevertheless.

This is the junction of Torrington Place with Huntley Street, looking east. The marked cycle route, LCN+ 0, runs eastbound from Maple Street, west of Tottenham Court Road, on a one-way segregated track, on to on University Street, east of Tottenham Court Road, for one block, also on on a one-way segregated track, then southwards on Hutley Street, where it is not segregated, but this road is very quiet, to turn left, eastwards, at this junction, to join the two-way track. The westbound route runs along here towards the camera, turns right into Tottenham Court Road, where it is with the main traffic flow, then left on to another one-way segregated track on Howland Street. It hits the Camden-Westminster border at Cleveland Street, and continues unsegregated on New Cavendish Street in Westminster. Some cycle traffic also continues southward down Huntley Street right across this picture, and goes into Chenies Street and then southwards on Gower Street. Some northbound cycle traffic on Tottenham Court Road turns onto this section of track using the facility photographed below. Torrington Place is one-way westbound for motor traffic, so motor traffic on Tottenham Court Road (one-way northbound) cannot turn right.
Filter for cyclists turning right from Tottenham Court Road into Torrington Place
Torrington Place is the best-implemented section of Camden Cycling Campaign's Seven Stations Link route, because here the road was made one way for motor vehicles. Further east, looking into the video picture, beyond Gower Street, due to lobbying from the Black Cab drivers, Camden Council retreated from the original plan, and allowed two-way motor traffic in Torrington Place, Byng Place, and the section further east. This caused the track there to be built far too narrow, and allowed conflicts with traffic turning across it into Gordon Square. But here, at the Torrington Place–Huntley Street junction, there are no conflicts, as can be seen, as all the motor flows are one-way. A car in the video seen emerging from Huntley Street does give way to the cycle track, as it has to, by the design and road markings. But there is little traffic on Huntley Street anyway. In Torrington Place the track has not been messed-up by Terry Farrell, a it has been in the very short Byng Place section.

The track clearly should have been built wider here as well. There is a clear waste of space: most of the carriageway is not used or needed. Technically, parking is allowed off-peak adjacent the the segregating strip (single yellow line), although it doesn't seem to happen much. It is clearly not needed and shouldn't have been allowed. Then the track could have been built twice as wide. A certain amount of cycle congestion and conflict-cum-negotiation between the Huntley Street and Torrington Place cycle flows is apparent in the video. Where else in the UK can you find cycle congestion?

I have attempted to count the vehicles going through in all directions in this 4m14s of video. I make the totals:

Cars: 14
Taxis: 8
Vans: 1
Motorcycles: 2
Bikes: 45

Clearly, the space here that has been allocated to bikes is nowhere near their proportion of the total traffic. There is, on average, one bike every 5 seconds, but only one motor vehicle every 10 seconds. The short total distance of the Bloomsbury segregated cycle route means that it cannot have much impact overall on the cycling culture of London. Nevertheless, despite its defects of implementation and maintenance (you would not see a patchy surface like that in The Netherlands, nor such a narrow two-way track, nor, probably, those obstructing bollards) this route is an overwhelmingly obvious success. It is a hit with cyclists, and has been for nine years now. As Paul Gannon, who conceived this scheme, wrote all those years ago,
Give them the opportunity and current cyclists will vote with their wheels for segregated facilities.

Commenting (critically) on my post Cycling is dangerous, both "Paul M" and "Idle Boy" said, in more or less the same words,
We need more bums on saddles, passionate about improving their experience, pressing their elected representatives for change.
While I, of course, do not disagree with that, what they really seem to be claiming, when their critiques are read in full, is that the sequence in cycle promotion is that you first persuade by propaganda more people to take up cycling, and then you use the weight of the numbers you gain to press politically for better conditions. All my experience, not just of cycle campaigning, but of life, and I am probably more than half way through mine now, tells me that this is not how it works. This view lands you in the Catch 22 situation that the CTC see themselves in, where you can never improve the environment because you can never persuade enough people to take up cycling in a bad environment, so nothing changes. I know, from all my experience, that it works the other way round. The Torrington Place track is part of my evidence for this. To get the numbers, you have to build the infrastructure first. "Build it, and they will come", as they say. Camden Cycling Campaign persuaded Camden Council to build this facility when cyclist numbers in London were much lower than they are now. Yet they did it, they achieved this "outrageous scheme", as the Velorution website calls it.

As I keep saying, achieving high cycling levels it is a solved problem. We know what works. This is it. As Paul Gannon, when he returned to London in the late 90s, after having lived in The Netherlands, told us it would be. As the Understanding Walking and Cycling study by Dave Horton of Lancaster University has this year told us again. As the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, a newly-founded national cycle campaign organisation claims. As so many cycle bloggers agree. As the London Cycling Campaign now agrees.

What we need in our towns and cities are strategic networks of high-quality tracks like this (one-way and two-way) on direct, priority routes. Not on every street. Cyclists who fear losing the right to cycle on the roads need have no fear there is the slightest prospect of that ever happening. Such a segregated network would not, could not, exist on any but a tiny proportion of the streets. If some cyclists wish to continue cycling with motor traffic, there is really no prospect that there would ever be any shortage of opportunities for them to do so. The shortage of opportunities at the moment is for those who don't wish to cycle with motor traffic. Building a strategic network of segregated tracks would even this provision of opportunities up. Notice that a couple of cyclists in the video (a very small minority of the total 45) do chose to cycle westbound (towards the camera) in the carriageway, as they are perfectly entitled to do. But I suspect they would not have chosen to do so had the carriageway been narrowed by one car-width, and the track been built twice as wide, as it should have been.

The generation of a popular cycling culture is, in technical terms, a solved problem. If only other social or economic problems were so easy to solve. If only the solutions to unemployment, or the budget deficit, were so simple!

But of course, it's not so simple in political terms, even if it may be relatively simple in engineering terms (it's certainly not the proverbial Rocket Science). There are two other things necessary: campaigners have to convince politicians to find the money for this stuff, and they have to convince politicians to sacrifice some road space, which might otherwise be used for moving or parked motor vehicles, to fit these tracks into our streets.

Now I don't think the first of these, the money, is the significant one. We are always rebuilding roads anyway, messing about with kerbs, putting in traffic-calming, digging up for utilities, resurfacing, etc. It would be quite easy, if we could organise it, to schedule the building of cycle tracks in with these changes, just as they do in The Netherlands. It really wouldn't require much extra expenditure on the streets – so long as money were kept out of the pockets of the type of waste-of-time "consultants" who have tended to eat up most of the cash allocated to cycling provision in the UK in the past. If the money were actually spent on building stuff, rather than on producing reports (the usual UK local government way), it would go far enough.

So that leaves the problem of persuading the politicians to give a little less space to the car. This blog is doing its bit towards that. As are plenty of other people. Some politicians are listening – though not yet, perhaps, fully-convinced. But the time may soon be right for London's breakthrough as the World-class Cycling City it could so easily become. Look at the photo below, taken so near the spot the video was taken. London does have the space.

Tottenham Court Road looking south from the Torrington Place junction (with my friend Laurence). There is vast under-used road width available here potentially for a high-quality two-way segregated cycle track that would intersect with the Bloomsbury route and form the basis of a high-capacity central London Bike Grid.

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