Monday 30 April 2012

Boris Johnson is not sincere in his commitment to "Go Dutch"

On the eve of London Cycling Campaign's "Big Ride", Boris Johnson's campaign team finally told LCC that he would commit to meeting the demands of the Go Dutch campaign, joining the Jenny Jones (Green), Brian Paddick (Lib Dem), Ken Livingstone (Labour) and Siobhan Benita (independent) in that commitment. What all these have actually committed to is the following:
  1. Implement three flagship Love London, Go Dutch developments on major streets and/or locations. 
  2. Make sure all planned developments on the main roads that they controls are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions. 
  3. Make sure the Cycle Superhighways programme is completed to Love London, Go Dutch standards 
In the case of Johnson, the commitment leads to a bit of puzzle. In fact, to a whole lot of enormous puzzles. Because he could have been doing any of these things for the last four years, but has most strikingly not been doing them. The "flagship developments" that LCC have suggested include Blackfriars, where he insisted on a design that had cyclists up in arms, protesting, for most of last year, and where he refused even to impose a 20mph limit, to do the bare minimum he could have done to make it more cycle-friendly. The suggested Go Dutch developments also include the Olympic Park, which would have been, to a considerable extent, within Boris's powers to make genuinely cycle-friendly, but in which he seems to have taken not a jot of interest, leaving it to a clueless (on the subject of cycling) Olympic Development Authority, recalcitrant boroughs, and irresponsible developers, to make a general hash of cycle provision in the area. And the suggested developments include Parliament Square, which Boris has made clear he sees continuing as the ugly and polluted traffic maelstrom that it has long been, with poor concessions to pedestrians, and none to cyclists.

Boris has made some other changes to major roads and junctions in his mayoralty. Completed examples include Piccadilly and Haymarket, and Henlys Corner in Barnet. Ongoing examples include Kings Cross and Euston Circus. These are all locations where extensive rebuilding has taken, or will take, place, and where he could have had an ongoing programme of improvements to the cycle network as part of these huge works, at no extra cost. But they either have included no cycle facilities (Piccadilly and Haymarket), or very poor ones that cyclists are unlikely to use (Henly's Corner and Euston Circus), or even made things actively worse for cyclists (Kings Cross and Blackfriars). So by committing to point 2 of the Go Dutch campaign, Johnson is committing to a complete about-turn in the way he has been approaching road infrastructure projects. Is he sincere in this?

And of course, he could have built the Cycle Superhighways that he has created so far, at massive expense, to proper standards, giving cyclists their own dedicated space on the roads 24/7, with safe, properly-signalised passage through junctions, on Dutch or Danish or German models. But he did not. He splashed blue paint all over the place and left cyclists to fend for themselves amongst the buses, taxis, lorries, boy racers and white van men. So why would he start doing something radically different with the Superhighways in his next term? It's not as if cycling groups have just come up with the idea, this week, that the Superhighways could, and, should, have been done far better. LCC has been protesting about their hideously compromised designs for three years, getting thoroughly ignored by TfL and its chairman, Boris Johnson.

So it's all a bit strange. Ken Livingstone, as I have freely admitted before, has a fairly poor record on cycling as well. But that was in different times, for politics, cycling, and for cycle campaigning, when cyclists were perhaps not so clear, or vocal, or united, in what they were asking for, and so he has a lot less explaining to do on his new commitment to Going Dutch than Boris has.

The Big Ride on Saturday was indeed the biggest cycling demonstration ever seen in the UK, as predicted, with over 10,000 participants turning out in terrible weather. It has been nicely covered on the ibikelondon blog and Cyclists in the City, so I'll not add much, except to say how lovely it was to see all those tiny children cycling though the middle of London, just loving being on their bikes. Some of them will remember the day for the rest of their lives, I have no doubt.

Cyclists with a mission pack a damp Piccadilly on The Big Ride
Gone to the dogs – he had three on one bike
One of the many tots having a roaring time

So Boris had some explaining to do on his conversion to Going Dutch, but I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, and let him do that explaining, if he so wished, at The Times cycling hustings in Westminster on Monday. Indeed, the whole of the packed hall was agog to see how the candidates would interpret the "cyclesafe" agenda that the newspaper has so pro-actively and admirably been promoting in recent months.

Scene at the entrance to the hustings, appropriately at the Institution of Civil Engineers in Great George Street

The platform

Others who were there will give their own opinions on the meeting, and there is a complete report available through The Times. I won't say much about the "other" candidates. Jenny Jones was true to the form that we all know, a tireless promoter of safer streets for cycling. 

Brian Paddick came across as sincere, honest, and clued-up about the whole issue, understanding why few people are prepared to cycle in London as conditions stand (he freely admits he finds it worrying and stressful), and clear about what is required: an  end to policies designed to "smooth the flow" and put motor vehicle throughput above all other objectives for the roads, with pedestrian and cyclists safety moved to top priority, significant and meaningful reallocation of roadspace to cyclists, lower speeds, and sane junction designs. He condemned the attitude that regards dead and injured cyclists as "collateral damage" to be tolerated in an environment of rising cycling levels but static infrastructure, comparing Boris Johnson with a First World War general who just throws the troops (cyclists) into the slaughter (traffic), knowing there are enough of them, and that some of them will survive without assistance.

Siobhan Benita, whom I had not seen before, also came across as honest, clear and open, with a real agenda for change towards safer streets, as a mother who wants her children to be able to cycle without fear, noting the vast gap between established politicians' rhetoric on cycling, and the situation on the ground.

Ken Livingstone never appears all that comfortable talking about cycling, preferring to major on "getting people out of their cars" by whatever method, and talking a lot about long-term investment and long-term plans for transport in general, without giving too much detail on what he thinks a future, cycle-friendly London would actually look like. His main commitment is a tangential, but significant one: to install Jenny Jones as his cycling supremo, with authority to "do what ever is necessary" to reduce danger and achieve high levels of cycling. He was talking about cycling becoming 15% of road traffic, but this is actually is not much, and has probably been exceeded in many places already. He was also talking about re-starting the London Cycle Network, which, as I have mentioned before, failed so badly when he was Mayor last time. He sounded to me something like a manager trying to steer a middle course between competing expensive demands: tube, bus, tram, cycling, rather than someone who had a radical new vision for the streets. But he was clear that he thought the London of the future needed to contain far less motor traffic. And I have no reason to believe he would not, or that he would not allow Jenny Jones, as his cycling deputy, to implement the Go Dutch demands.

It appeared to me that Boris made no concessions to the campaigns of the last year at all. He did not admit that his Cycle Superhighways have been very poor and have not lived up to the initial promises he made for them. He did not agree that cycling casualties per mile are increasing. He several times referred to people who want a cycling infrastructure "ideal world" which is unachievable, implying that talk of giving cyclists proper, protected space on London's main roads, in other words, Going Dutch, is not really possible. Towards the end of the meeting he seemed to be implying that the cyclists in the room were all greeny unrealistic lefties, wanting to see the back of all motor traffic in London, saying, in a bizarre improvisation on words, that it was not possible to "Pasturise [or should that be Pasteurise] London". He also annoyed the meeting by dwelling on the law-breaking of some cyclists. Well, we all know about that, and it is a complex phenomenon with context and causes. But Paddick hit the nail on the head by remarking that comparing the law-breaking by cyclists with law-breaking by motorists is failing to compare like with like, for the totally different potential for damage that such actions carry. Again Paddick struck me as having common sense and humanity. Boris faffed and blustered and joked. He constantly resorted to attacking Livingstone by claiming that the latter would have no money to do anything because of his fares cut pledge.

Boris failed to get it. He failed to understand why The Times, a right-wing newspaper, had been pursuing its campaign. He failed to understand why LCC is calling for London to Go Dutch. He failed to understand why all the people in the room were there, not appreciating that they were all just normal people, of all political persuasions, all professions, all backgrounds, all types, who wanted to use bikes to get around the city without fear. He failed to acknowledge that as a legitimate aspiration, preferring to come out with some stupid stereotypes about the type of cyclist that he is not (brown skinny legs, or some such cobblers – it doesn't matter, it was irrelevant nonsense). He wanted to tell the audience that cyclists were not "morally superior" – when nobody had claimed they were, merely that they needed to be made safe. He failed to engage with practical, realistic arguments, referencing places like Holland and Demark, and German, Italian, Swiss, Swedish and South American cities, where it has actually been done, about how a city could and should be progressively, but radically, remodelled to favour people over cars, or at least to give pedestrians and bikes more equal priority with cars. He seemed to think people who thought like that were head-in-the-clouds eco-extremists who wanted an end to civilisation as we know it.

I don't think Boris much cared about how people at this meeting felt, in the end. That's the only way I can explain his behaviour. I think he believes he has this election in the bag. I think he intends to serve another four years as Mayor pursuing exactly the same policies as he has pursued for the last four. That seemed to be very clear from what he was saying. I expect he will then not stand for the mayoralty again in 2016, but will go back into Parliament and attempt to win the leadership of the Conservative party whenever David Cameron relinquishes it. I think his calculation is that none of this, not The Times, not this hustings, not LCC's campaign, nor anything that bloggers like me say, will make any difference to this. I think his calculation is that he can continue to treat the cyclists of London with contempt, with no undue long-term harm to his political career.

It follows that his endorsing of Go Dutch is a cynical and dishonest ploy. It was clear from all that he said that he has absolutely no intention of carrying out the three Go Dutch pledges in the way LCC means them, and has clearly defined them. No intention at all. He is taking us for a ride. A Big Ride, one might say.

So I'd like to think again, at the end of this piece, about those young children enjoying their first taste of cycling freely, and without fear, on the roads on Central London on the LCC Big Ride on Saturday. They will remember that day. Will they remember it, in twenty or thirty years' time, as the start of something big and new, themselves in the roles of an unwitting, innocent, advanced guard of a revolution that started that day? Or will they think of it, sadly, as a brief, elusive, glimpse of how things might have been, had history been different? Will they be able to send their own children on bikes, on their own, across their city, in near-certainty they will come to no harm, as the parents of Amsterdam, Copenhagen and Helsinki can do today? Or will they have to fight the same battles again, go on the same protests for the same basic rights once more? 

Time will tell. I don't know. At the moment it doesn't look good.

Friday 27 April 2012

One week to go

A week is, of course, a long time in cliché land, but there really has been a tremendous lot going on in London cycling in the last week: as befits the run-up to the mayoral election, just one week away now.

Attempts by unscrupulous Addison Lee boss John Griffin to get his minicab fleet into London's bus lanes by means of bullying, lawbreaking and cajoling and bankrolling politicians – he doesn't care what he has to do to get his prize, so long as he gets it – went centre stage with his quasi-order to his drivers to break the law, and drive in London's bus lanes, adding to the hazards that cyclists face in those spaces. (Let it be said that his drivers, often criticised, rightly, for their poor driving, are not the basic problem. They are poorly-paid, exploited, often foreign, victims of his selfish business model that incentivises their careless driving.)

Cyclists, unusually, found common cause with black cab drivers, who of course also do not want minicabs in the lanes they are privileged with access to. Transport for London promptly took the matter to court, and on Thursday the High Court decided that it remains illegal for minicabs to use bus lanes, and ordered Addison Lee to withdraw its promise to indemnify its drivers against fines. But what really got cyclists angry was John Griffin's inflammatory and ignorant anti-cycling diatribe in his house magazine, in an article which came to light last Thursday, which seemed to blame cyclists killed or injured on the roads for being there at all.  This lead to a petition for Addison Lee's operating license to be removed, a call for a boycott of Addison Lee, and a "die-in" protest outside the company's headquarters in Camden on Monday.

The die-in outside Addison Lee's office
Griffin's selfish, tabloid views on cycling (which are held by many other less prominent people in this country, of course) chimed very badly indeed with the mood generated in the run-up to the London elections by the London Cycling Campaign's Go Dutch campaign, the Londoners on Bikes campaign and The Times's Cities Fit for Cycling campaign, and generated huge anger. But I don't feel like wasting too many words on John Griffin. He's a danger to London's cyclists, yes, but not so much of a danger as those politicians who don't "get" cycling. For bus lanes, whatever non-bus vehicles they may or may not contain, are basically not appropriate places for cyclists. As I have written before,
There is nothing like having to share space with buses for reducing the feeling of subjective safety for cyclists. The constant "swapping over" game when you have to overtake a bus at a stop, judging whether or not it is suddenly going to take off again, then it does, just after you have passed it, and it overtakes you again, and stops in front of you again, all this is deeply tiresome and offputting to all but hard-core cyclists. Particularly on routes where there are large numbers of buses, or they where can travel fast, buses and cyclists need to be separated to create an attractive cycling environment.
There is no point in going for half-measures. If we want a "cycle-ised city" we need the proper thing. We need separate bus lanes and cycle tracks. If there's not room on a street for that, we need wide combined (separated but unsegregated) lanes where buses can overtake cyclists with good clearance, staying on the outside of them all the time. If there is not room for such wide lanes, then there should be a cycle lane only, with, again, cyclists passing behind stops. Or a lane of general traffic can be removed to make space for one of the other solutions.

Combined bus and cycle lane turns into cycle track as it passes behind a bus stop: Assen, Netherlands (This facility on Overcingel has been upgraded since this Google Earth picture was taken, but the principle remains applicable.)

Cycle track passes behind a bus stop, Royal College Street, Camden Town

Wide combined bus and cycle lane on Waterloo Bridge, but the stop is done wrong. Cyclists have to pull out into a fast general traffic lane to get round stopped buses: better than having no lane, but very poor.
Bus lanes in London and other UK cities (but most of them are in London) have always been a very poor compromise at the best of times, and cycle campaigners should not be afraid of condemning them and calling for far better provision. For one thing they are rarely operational 24/7, but only work at peak hours, so for most of the week they do no good to bus passengers or cyclists. For another, they have never been run through junctions. They give up on the approach to them, giving place to a left-turn general traffic lane. This offers no help to cyclists trying to go straight on (or indeed turn right). For a third thing, on some roads which are decreed to be too narrow to have bus lanes on both sides, they occur on only one side. An example is that choked, angry, fuming corridor that separates the boroughs of Camden and Brent, otherwise known as Kilburn High Road. Here, the wider sections of the road have bus lanes on both sides, but where the road narrows, one or both lanes disappear.

Wider section of Kilburn High Road: bus lanes both sides, but they give up near junctions because "junction capacity" (for private traffic) is considered more important than bus priority and cycle safety.
Narrower section of Kilburn High Road: bus lane (intermittent) on one side only

This is all a pathetic compromise. If bus lanes are worth having on a road, they are worth having on both sides all the way along. If that means getting rid of the general through-traffic, or making general traffic one-way in order to accommodate adequate bus and cycle lanes on both sides, then that's what needs to be done. If not, why bother? I once said to a Camden traffic planner that the best "Dutch" solution to the problem of Kilburn High Road would be to make it one-way, except for buses and bikes. He thought for a while and then said, "But what do you do with the other direction of traffic?" But worrying about the other direction of traffic, most of which shouldn't be there anyway, is part of the problem. If we really wanted bus priority, we would just do it. Bus priority in London, even separating it entirely from cycling considerations, has always been hideously compromised and ineffective. Trying to incorporate cycling on this flawed network doesn't work well at all. We need to re-think it all along Dutch lines.

The thinking behind bus priority in London was always insufficiently radical to really make much difference to anything. There was never any concept of the lanes being truly dedicated and continuous. It should be realised that the modern move towards extensive bus lanes in London started before the establishment of the GLA and TfL – in fact, under a Conservative government in the late 1990s. I remember this, as I was involved with LCC campaigning at the time. Representatives of the Livingstone administration in City Hall tend to claim bus priority as his achievement, and he always was quite committed to buses, but he only extended a trend that was already occurring when he took office, financing it with his congestion charge revenues.

At the last Street Talks meeting, at which Ashok Sinha, and Richard Lewis of London Cycling Campaign talked on the Going Dutch campaign, in questions from the floor, Livingstone's one-time Deputy Mayor, Nicky Gavron, who clearly has little grasp of cycling issues, seemed to want to claim the bus-lane installing record of the Labour London administration as a great achievement for cycling. She was quickly disabused of this idea by the cyclists chiming in to say how unpleasant they found it to cycle in the bus lanes on London's main roads, and how they would not let their children do it. Yes, bus lanes are sometimes better than congested general traffic lanes because they are sometimes less full of traffic. But they are no basis on which to build a Dutch-style "eight to eighty-year-old" cycling culture. Let us be clear, if we want that, we will have to do some surgery to London's bus lanes, and in some places we will have to get rid of them: particularly where they don't work well anyway.

So I think cyclists should be less worried about Mr Griffin and his bus lanes campaign, and more concerned about the politicians who are supposed to be protecting cyclists, and who are failing in that duty. Like the minister for road safety, Mike Penning, and the minister for cycling, Norman Baker. The Commons Transport Select Committee interviewed them on Tuesday, in a session closely watched by campaigners and journalists alike, in the wake of the huge publicity for the "cyclesafe" agenda created by The Times. But the hearing was an abysmal affair, in which it became entirely apparent that this government has no strategy on cycling, no programme to make it safer, and actually no understanding that there is a serious problem – so serious that it has caused a traditionally conservative newspaper to embark on a "crusade".

The contents of the ministers' statements were accurately predicted beforehand on the brilliant blog At War With The Motorist, that very predictability and repetition of decades-old orthodox political mantras on cycling ("cycling is booming", "the answer is more cycle training" etc. etc.) a sure sign of these ministers' failure to set the UK on a new, successful cycling policy course. Even that perspicacious blogger, Joe Dunckley, could not have predicted, however, such idiot comments from ministers as those from Baker and Penning, who both claimed that the the UK is "doing safety [for cyclists] better than they [the Dutch] are", in defiance of all known statistics and even the opinions of their own department, which stated in its May 2011 Strategic Framework for Road Safety (page 16):
For cyclists we are also seeing in an improvement in the fatality rate per mile travelled, but, in comparison to overall road safety casualty data, in this area we are behind many other European countries.
How extraordinarily far behind we are is demonstrated by statistician Jim Gleeson in this tremendously important blogpost, where he shows that the chances of a cyclist receiving a serious or fatal injury in a collision with a motor vehicle is, per km travelled, 8.3 times higher in the Netherlands than in the UK.

Graph by Jim Gleeson

There were some brilliant contributions to the select committee hearing from witnesses, particularly from CTC President Jon Snow, who stressed that paint on the roads is not infrastructure, that UK cycle infrastructure is not developing, that there is simply no leadership from the state on cycling policy, that cycle training is not enough, and that it is essential, through planning law, to make the provision of cycling infrastructure compulsory as part of new developments. But the standard of the committee itself may be judged from the fact that the chairman did not even know that the Dutch organise their streets on completely different lines to the British. And the ministers came across as uncaring, complacent, visionless, arrogant, and ignorant of the most basic facts related to their own portfolios. As @citycyclists tweeted,
"I thought Penning's comment on Dutch success showed sheer contempt for the lives of UK cyclists".
I think that's not too harsh. Penning has shown appalling ignorance of his brief before, when he appeared not to know that he was in charge of roads (trunk roads) that cyclists legally use – in some cases, have to use, because of a lack of more suitable alternatives. He has, in his past political life, been associated with the far-right anti-EU Tories who had the whip removed by John Major. He is therefore not one likely to look to continental Europe for solutions to problems. I would have expected a bit more sense from Lib Dem minister Norman Baker, but this was conspicuously lacking. In another comment Baker gave us the self-fulfilling prophesy, comparing British towns to Leiden, with 13,000 bikes parked at the station, that "We're never going to get to that situation", prompting the retort from @citycyclists "Because of you, minister".

Both Penning and Baker plumbed a new low of indifference to those for whose safety they are responsible. In the national media, apart from The Times, the select committee on cycling was largely eclipsed by the Leverson enquiry into the doings at News International, and speculation about the position of Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary. But if there are any politicians who should have been disgraced enough to lead to resignation on that day, it was Penning and Baker. For while nobody has died as a result of the News International affair, avoidable cycle deaths happen weekly. The most recent occurred in Bedfordshire on Sunday. The only consolation I can think of is that ministers like Baker and Penning rarely remain in their jobs for more than a couple of years. They really are, to quote Sir Robin Day, "Here today, gone tomorrow".

So where does all this leave us? It looks unlikely that, unless there is an irresistible public upsurge of sentiment demanding it, this Con-Dem coalition government will ever adopt a worthwhile cycling policy. Perhaps The Times campaign will achieve even that eventually, but it still appears a remote possibility. As a result of the newfound zeal of campaigning organisations, and the real upsurge in cycling in inner London, and perhaps even the negative publicity arising out of the Addison Lee affair, more of the mainstream media is starting to understand what the real differences between UK and Dutch roads policies are, as demonstrated in this broadly excellent piece by Jasmine Gardner in the London Evening Standard, clearly inspired by LCC's Go Dutch campaign. But with central government intransigent, the only hope of progress lies with the devolved administrations in London, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and possibly some of the large English unitary local authorities like Manchester and Bristol. These administrations and authorities have big enough budgets, and have enough freedom, and strategic control, to start to set a new direction for their roads and streets policies, even if Westminster keeps its head in the sand-bucket.

So the focus goes back to the campaigns in London and Edinburgh, both coming to a head with mass actions by cyclists on Saturday: The Big Ride and the Pedal on Parliament respectively. Thursday's big news in London was that Ken Livingstone has announced he accepts the demands of the Go Dutch campaign. That means that he agrees to these three clear commitments:

  1. Implementing three flagship Go Dutch developments in prominent locations
  2. Building all planned developments on the TfL main road network to Go Dutch standards
  3. Completing the Cycle Superhighways programme to Go Dutch standards

The Lib Dem and Green candidates for Mayor, Brian Paddick and Jenny Jones, have already agreed to these demands. Boris Johnson, the independent candidate Siobhan Benita, and the UKIP and BNP candidates, have not.

LCC's detailed analysis of the policies of the mayoral candidates gives highest marks to Jenny Jones, and second to Ken Livingstone. They can't recommend for whom cyclists should vote for, because they are charity that cannot be overtly party-political. But Londoners on Bikes can make such a recommendation, and they recommend cyclists give their first preference vote to Jenny Jones, and their second to Ken Livingstone. I concur with their judgement, which also has hard words for Johnson:
Unless he changes his opinions sharpish, Boris Johnson will continue to be a disaster for London cycling. Statistics on cycling casualties show falling casualties between the year 2000 and 2007. In 2008 Boris came into office and casualty rates started climbing. It’s no coincidence. His policy of ‘smoothing traffic flow’ has made roads agressive and more dangerous... At last week's Sky Mayoral debate, Ken and Brian made valid points about cyclist safety, and Boris made a joke.
And the Go Dutch petition now has nearly 40,000 signatures, corresponding to 2% of those who voted in the elections last time, less than the difference between the two main candidates in some polls. It's all to play for, this week has been a long one in London cycling politics, and next week could be even longer. If you are within reach of London, do your bit and turn up for The Big Ride tomorrow, Saturday, demanding London's streets be made safe and inviting for cycling as they are in Holland. Organised start points from all over London are given on this map. Tips on how to "survive" the ride are given by ibikelondon. The Vole will make the long journey from Edgware, and will see you there.

Sunday 22 April 2012

More Brent pavement parking, and Exhibition Road

A correspondent living in Australia (it's nice to get an outside view from another Anglo-Saxon country), commenting on my last post, said:
I cannot believe the state-sanctioned dystopic practice of car parking on pavements.
That's a good way to put it. Parking on pavements is "dystopic" because it produces an ugly street environment, it damages the pavements, making them hazardous for pedestrains, it messes up the distinction between roadway and pavement, eroding, in the minds of motorists, the principle that the carriageway is the place for parking and the pavement (or sidewalk) the place for walking, and it leads to a chaotic situation where, in a place like north Brent, where parking pressure is very high, because of the urban density and the poor quality of non-motorised transport alternatives, people start parking their cars everywhere.

We see this in the euphemistically-named Village Way in Neaden NW10. This is the "spine" road in the rather un-village like residential area sometimes referred to as Neasden Village, a group of streets isolated from the rest of the borough by the North Circular Road to the east, the underground lines and depot to the south, the A4088 to the north, and the River Brent and the Grand Union Feeder Canal to the west. It is, as I pointed out recently, a deeply inaccessible place for those not using a car as their main mode of transport. This is another road in which Brent Council have designated on-pavement parking space using white lines and small blue signs.

Village Way, Neaden
Parking has only been permitted on the right-hand pavement in this view, but motorists have started parking on the opposite pavement as well. Parking is explicitly marked out on the roadway on the left-hand pavement, but they are parking on the pavement and the roadway as well, creating two lines of parking alongside one another. On the side-road off here, West Way, parking has been permitted on both pavements, so maybe that is why the motorists are thinking that they are allowed to park on all pavements in this group of streets.

West Way, Neaden
I think that when councils start down this "dystopic" road of confusing pavement with car-parking space, it just leads to a general erosion of respect for all pavements by motorists. It is analogous to that other shoddy, cheap practice councils employ, of creating "shared use" areas on pavements for cycling, which also erodes the sanctity of the pavements for pedestrians, leads to confusion and cycling on pavements where it has not been permitted, and fails to provide safe conditions for cyclists as well (particularly at junctions). That subject has just been covered nicely by the At War with the Motorist blog.

When I was active in Camden Cycling Campaign, we had regular meetings with councillors and officers in a forum called the Walking, Cycling and Road Safety Advisory Group. Being advisory, this group did not create council policy, but it had the potential to influence it. It was (and I presume still is) dominated not by cyclists, but by pedestrian and local amenity groups. There were always some conflicts of opinion between cycling and walking representatives, but one thing that all could agree on was the undesirability of parking on pavements. The view that this group consistently put to councillors was that, though the conversion of pavement to parking space was generally undesirable, should it be that certain streets really did have an unnecessary excess of pavement, and there was a politically impossible-to-resist local demand for more parking, then it would be preferable to rebuild the kerbs to transfer pavement space to the road, rather than marking parking on pavements.

I do not know whether this idea was ever formally accepted as Camden Council policy, but it seemed to have an effect. To have such a policy would immediately put a big damper on moves to transfer pavement space to parking, because to do it properly in this way would be far more expensive than painting lines, and officers would certainly think hard before recommending it. It does seem to be the case that Camden has far less pavement parking than Brent, and other boroughs, to this day, despite the huge inner-city parking pressure, so kudos should go to Camden Council for resisting the easy option of allowing motorists to take over the pavements. Camden also was the only council in London ever in a significant way to transfer road space to cycle tracks. Again, this was because Camden Cycling Campaign insisted that it did not want cycle facilities to be created at the expense of pedestrian space.

One road where parking on pavements is impossible, because the pavements, in the sense of footways raised above road level, have been abolished, is the newly-rebuilt Exhibition Road in South Kensington. I paid a visit there this week to see how it is working. The results are rather different to what I expected. When it was being built, I expected the central line of pointed lamp columns to define the northbound and southbound carriageways all the way from Hyde Park to Cromwell Road. What has happened, rather, and I don't know if this was intended by the original designers, or was a later modification, or has just evolved, is that the road is in two parts, north of the junction with Prince Consort Road, and south of it. (I am ignoring the stub of Exhibition road south of Cromwell Road, which is effectively pedestrianised.)

There is a funny kind-of-roundabout at the Prince Consort Road junction, and, north of this, the two directions of traffic go on opposite sides of the lamp columns. South of it, both directions of traffic are on the east side of the columns. On this stretch, the west side is occupied with diagonal parking, Boris Bikes, and benches, with the space between all that and the building line acting as pavement. On the east side of the road the effective pavement all the way down is defined by the drainage grating and tactile surface, plus some trees and bollards. Though these features are present on the west side, they are only functioning to establish the effective pavement north of the roundabout.

Exhibition Road west side looking north from the Science Museum

Exhibition Road west side looking south from the Science Museum

Exhibition road east side looking south from the Henry Cole wing of the Victoria and Albert Museum

The whole thing seems to me to be complex, cluttered, and, well, pretty much as far from a "naked street" as it is possible to get. There clearly is still "carriageway" and "footway" here, they have just been marked off in an unconventional way. There is no "sharing" between pedestrains and motorists, to speak of, and the normal relationship between motorists and cyclists prevails, though the street is more pleasant than it used to be because of the 20 mph limit. The funny roundabout where the road-use changes, but without the lining and signing one would expect, causes drivers a lot of doubt about what they are supposed to be doing here. Such confusion is held to be a good thing by some of those arguing the Shared Space line. This thinking however, as I have pointed out before, as well as having a "black is white" quality, is at variance with the European road safety mainstream, as summarised in the EU's PRESTO Cycling Policy Guide (p 18):
Creating recognizable and comprehensible traffic situations is essential for safety. Consistent design solutions on roads with similar functions (in terms of road hierarchy) makes potential conflict situations more predictable for cyclists and other users, while also inciting everyone to behave more predictably.
Of the many blogposts to appear commenting on the new Exhibition Road, one of the most memorable was that by Londonneur, who compared the paving to "a giant Argyle sock laid down in the road". The price of this Argyle sock, and oddly placed benches and parking, was around £30 million. I reckon that should have been enough, alternatively, estimating at £7 million a mile, for one high-quality, capacious, safe, segregated cycle highway right across central London from Paddington to the City: just what Camden Cycling Campaign proposed 14 years ago, with their Seven Stations Link idea, the only part of which that was ever implemented (in badly compromised fashion) being the cycle track through Bloomsbury. Think how that scheme would have transformed London if carried out in full.

Then again, the Dutch built the longest cycle bridge in the world, the Nescio Bridge (to British designs, ironically), in 2005, for less than £10 million at today's prices. So we could have had three of those across the Thames for the price of Exhibition Road. Think of what that would have done for cycling in London. We continue to wait for a proper cycle route across London, and for safe river crossings for cyclists, while extraordinary sums are spent on odd, bodged public space "transformation" compromises like Exhibition Road, Piccadilly and Haymarket (£14 million), and the next one the Mayor intends, Euston Circus (cost unknown).

Next Saturday, thousands of London cyclists will congregate in the middle of London to tell the next Mayor that they want Streets as safe and inviting for cycling as those in Holland. It's pretty obvious that we have both the money and the space in London to achieve this aim, and in a relatively short time too. As always, we await only the political vision.

Friday 20 April 2012

A damp but colourful Spring Clean, and pavement parking in Brent

I am sure Climate Rush's Spring Clean protest against London's filthy air quality, and against Boris Johnson's policy of trying to conceal the problem by gluing the pollution particles to the roads by treating them with calcium magnesium acetate powder near monitoring stations, would have attracted a much larger crowd, had not London been deluged with heavy rain for most of the day on Thursday. As it was, a small but spirited and colourful crowd marched from DEFRA in Smith Square to Parliament Square waving feather dusters and banners, to make the point that obeying the UK's legally-binding international treaty obligations on clean air should not be regarded as optional by the government and the Mayor of London. The lives of those who die because of our polluted air (estimates range from between 19,000 and 29,000 per year for the UK) should not be treated so lightly.

Spring Cleaners at DEFRA in Smith Square

Feather dusters to the fore at Pasrliament Square. The police would not allow an occupation of a lane of Westmister Bridge, so a picnic was held in the square instead.
Another group who seem to think that obeying the law is optional are some of Brent Council's drivers. Here I witnessed not one, but two of Brent's vehicles parked on the pavement in Stag Lane NW9. The more distant one is clearly making the footway impassable.

Brent Council minibuses on Stag Lane
Perhaps the drivers of these vehicles have become confused about the function of the footways because of the way in which Brent, along with many other authorities, is now designating parts of them, in many places, for parking, as here, not far away, in Church Lane, Kingsbury NW9.

Church Lane NW9
I have looked up Brent's criteria for deciding where the designation of footway parking is appropriate.
It says here:
Brent Council has the power to exempt certain streets from the regulations to enable drivers to park either partially or fully on the footway to maintain the safe flow of traffic. At the same time, the conditions must be right to protect pedestrians, so where exemptions are granted, there is sufficient access for pedestrians without being forced into the road. There are certain criteria which have to be met before a street is granted exemption and they have been approved by Brent Council's Highway Committee.
So it's to do with maintaining "the safe flow of traffic". But here is a wider view of the street in question.

This pavement parking exemption is clearly just here to allow parking outside this small parade of shops to be doubled up, both sides of the service road, and still allow space for a car or van to get through. There is in fact pavement parking allowed on both sides of the service road.This has nothing to do with maintaining a "safe flow of traffic". The flow of traffic on the road is unconnected with this, being maintained by the presence of double yellow lines. And note how the word "traffic" is here being used implicitly to mean "motor vehicles", not pedestrians or cyclists. And note, again, the enormous total width available on this road, as so often in suburban north Brent, but that clearly there is not seen to be the space available for any sort of cycle facilities. Well, there are "cycle facilities", if you include cycle parking stands with that phrase. The part of the pavement that remains after the chunk taken out of it by the car parking has also been used for these curious, newly-installed stands by the "Biking Borough".

But that's not what I mean by "cycle facilities". For Church Lane is a difficult and intimidating street to cycle along, being a rat run, with high speeds, intermittent blocks of parking and stopping buses which a cyclist needs to pull out around into the 30+ mph traffic stream, wide lanes in both directions encouraging these high speeds, with occasional pinch points at the pedestrian islands where drivers tend to try to overtake cyclists dangerously, and prevalent poor driving standards, the norm in north Brent. By "cycle facilities" I mean space in which to cycle with a measure of subjective safety, which would mean cycle lanes or cycle tracks. The space is clearly there, but the street would need some rearranging to accommodate them. At present, it is arranged to allow lots of parking, and excess space on the road, which leads to speeding. Note how none of the several cycle stands are in use, in the middle of a working day. This is a measure of how little cycling there is here, itself a measure of the bad environment.

But to go back to Brent's pavement parking "exception criteria", we read:
  • Exemption to be granted only where parking of vehicles wholly within the carriageway reduces the carriageway width to less than 3 metres.
  • A minimum footway width of 1.2 metres be available for pedestrians.
  • Roads in shopping and other busy pedestrian areas not to be considered.
There are more criteria, you can read them if you wish. But note that the first three have all been disregarded here. The parking of vehicles wholly in the carriageway would not reduce the width of the carriageway to less than 3 metres, even if it were allowed on both sides, because the carriageway is the main road, not the service road. And even if you interpret carriageway as the service road, which I think is technically wrong, you could still have more than 3 metres width, with parking, if you put double-yellow lines on one side. There is no law, national or local, which says you need parking on both sides of a narrow service road.

The second criteria is also broken: there is not 1.2 metres available for pedestrians on the outer pavement. Look at the placing of the tree in the first picture of the row of parked cars. And, clearly, this is a shopping area, so the third criterion is violated.

I would like to know why Brent's traffic planners are ignoring the council's own criteria for allowing pavement parking. Of course, I know why. It is due to political pressure. There is a recession on. There are lots of small local shops going out of business. There is a prevailing public feeling here, in the outer suburbs, that trade for small shops is inextricably linked to the availability of car parking, and that parking restrictions, and even parking charges, are a contributory factor in businesses going under. There is a feeling that these shops cannot compete with supermarkets, with shopping centres like Brent Cross and Westfield, and with the retail sheds, for the want of the practically unlimited free parking that these provide. I have encountered this view at the Brent Council local Consultative Forum for this area. The alternative view, that of course I have tried to put, that most shoppers, even in these car-dependent suburbs, do not actually arrive by car, and that dedicating the streets to cars in this way produces an uninviting shopping environment for those using bus, foot, and bike, gets very little shrift.

The truth is that shops are having a hard time irrespective of parking regimes, and they would be having a hard time if there was not a recession. People don't have to go to shops now. I rarely do so. There is the on-line alternative, for everything. The more unpleasant the streets are made, to try to pack in more parked cars, the less shopping I will do in small local shops like these. I suspect I am not alone in this. To compete with the internet and the shopping malls, the small parades of suburban shops need to be able to provide something better than this inconvenient shabbiness on the fringes of a dangerous rat-run. And that's down to local authorities having a bit more backbone, and planning vision, than this.

Thursday 19 April 2012

Brent scoops the pollution prize in time for the Climate Rush "Spring Clean"

Brent has the most polluted location in London, it is revealed by the Brent & Kilburn Times:
According to the London Air Quality Network (LAQN), Neasden Lane reached the maximum of 36 Bad Air Days per year on Tuesday (11).
This means any further days could be breaking legal requirements on pollution levels.
It is claimed that the poor quality of air is due to waste transfer activities at Neasden Goods Yard and the proximity of the North Circular Road.
Last year the maximum amount of pollution allowed was exceeded 77 times, more than double the acceptable level.
Simon Birkett, founder and director of campaigning group Clean Air in London, who work closely with LAQN in their attempts to combat pollution said levels were ‘dangerously high’. 
He said: “This is not dust these are invisible and dangerous airborne particles including some which are toxic or carcinogenic. 
“The Neasden Lane breach is the latest evidence that there has been a failure to address the biggest public health crisis for decades.” 
Brent council confirmed that a monitoring station which had been set up on site showed that standards for air quality were ‘repeatedly breached’.
So, as we are only one quarter of the way through 2012, and Neasden Lane has already had more days over the "safe" limit than are "allowed" for a whole year (I am not sure why any days over the limit are "allowed" at all, but there you are), it appears that pollution in Neasden Lane (which I often cycle on) is twice what it was last year.

As I have discussed before, this is one district of London where cycling for practical journeys is to all intents and purposes impossible, because of the severing of the whole area by infrastructure that is almost impossible for cyclists to negotiate: the North Circular Road barrier (creating much of the pollution), the appalling huge gyratory junctions around Neasden, which force cyclists to take extremely circuitous and inconvenient ways round (and walk), or else take on motorway-style slip roads and the terrifying "Death Valley" underpass, plus the barriers of the railway corridors: the Chiltern Line, with no bridges between the North Circular and Wembley Hill Road, a distance of 1.5 miles, and the Metropolitan and Jubilee Lines, with no bridges between the North Circular and Bridge Road, Wembley, again a distance of 1.5 miles, plus the nasty lorry-filled one-way roads of the Wembley Park industrial estate, should one manage to get across the North Circular, and into that impassible triangle of land between the diverging railway lines that separates Neasden and Willesden from Wembley (only possible via the North Circular itself, and Great Central Way).

The situation of Neasden Lane, courtesy of Google maps

"Death Valley" for cyclists, at Neasden (A4088 underpass beneath North Circular)
North-south journeys through Neasden are restricted to Neasden Lane (the B453) or Dudden Hill Lane (the A4088) because of the North London freight line. Both these roads take you inexorably to the Neasden gyratory mess, unless you use the pedestrian footbridges illegally. Neasden lane itself is a very unpleasant road to cycle on, being quite wide in parts (but always one lane) and narrow in others, particularly by the tube station, and where the road passes under the North London freight line. Here, cyclists are squeezed between the constricting kerbs of the pavements, aggressive "Titan" kerbing which has been used for central traffic-calming islands, and cars and lorries roaring up from behind.

Here's the view I got when I called up Neasden Lane on Google Earth. The Google camera got it spot on: typical conditions: narrow lanes dominated by heavy industrial vehicles, with no space for cycling.
The part of Neasden north of the North Circular, totally divorced from the southern part, is sandwiched between the vast Underground railway depot, the River Brent (a tiny stream, but one with strangely few crossing points), and the Brent Reservoir. It would be lovely if there were a connection for pedestrians and cyclists from the north to the south side of the reservoir in Neasden, other than the deeply unpleasant race-track of Neasden Lane North, and I discussed the possibility that such might be created with Brent Council and British Waterways (who own the reservoir and land around it) years ago, but British Waterways kiboshed the idea because they thought it would be a "security risk" to have pedestrians and cyclists near the dam, and nobody at Brent Council was prepared to push the idea. (Why it would be a security risk uniquely here, when pedestrians and cyclists use dams for access all across the rest of the UK and Europe, I have not a clue).

The end result is that Neasden and Wembley are the most cycle-impermeable suburbs you are likely to find anywhere in Britain, and travel on foot here is also awkward, inconvenient and unpleasant. It is not in the least bit surprising that, for almost everybody, the only practical means of transport here are the car, bus, and train. It is not in the least bit surprising that Neasden Lane is the most polluted place in London. The record has no doubt been worsened by the low rainfall we have had this year. Some of the pollution is due to the waste transfer station adjacent to the road. Some may be due to the Chiltern Line, which has some diesel units, though I expect not much. Mostly it will be the traffic, particularly the diesel lorries. Neasden Lane is actually in a slight valley, into which the pollution from the North Circular will sink.

And all this is little more than a mile from Wembley Stadium, the national sports stadium, the biggest of the six stadiums hosting the 2012 Olympic Games. Wembley however only will host two Olympic events: men's and women's football. That's probably just as well. We don't want too many of the athletes of the world to be given asthma at the London "greenest Olympic Games in history". As to our own teams that play there regularly, well, they are British, they must be used to it by now: lungs of steel, and all that.

If you are seeing the Olympic football, or any other match, or any other event at the stadium or concert arena, my advice is not to try to get to Wembley by bike. Unless you live in the part of London to the north of Wembley, which you probably do not, it would be a major challenge. There was a plan, about five years ago, to create "greenway" cycle and walking routes to Wembley Stadium from all directions, in time for the Olympics. Sustrans was involved. It was called, cleverly, the Wembley GOAL project, standing for Greenways for the Olympics And London. Of course, as usual for these things in this country, there was no funding for it, beyond the initial studies, and nothing ever happened, save for employing consultants for a few weeks, and wasting a few days of LCC volunteers' time. Pretty coloured maps were produced, residential streets and parks were cycled around, "stakeholders" were consulted, and the project then vaporised. I could write a whole long post just on this scandal – it is a story that has not yet been told – but I will not do so today. Little enough has been done for cycling and walking access to the main Olympic Park in East London, as many other bloggers have mentioned, but at least something happened there. At least a new platform was constructed to allow the route along the Lea canal to be continuous, even though it looks like that route, crazily, will be closed for the Olympics themselves because of, again, the absurd "security" obsession. But precisely nothing happened in Wembley, or in Brent.

The fantasy "greenways" conceived for the Sustrans Wembley GOAL study of 2007, never built

Here is a newer version. Sustrans still propose (or was still proposing in 2009) this contorted Greenway "network" for Brent. Apart from the fact that it has made practically no progress, in my view, this entire concept is wrong, of attempting to push cyclists onto obscure, un-useful byways. Large-scale popular cycling will only ever be achieved by giving people on bikes direct, convenient, safely segregated routes on main roads, as they have done in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany.

So pollution in Boris Johnson's London continues to spiral out of control, killing 2,200 people per year, according to the latest research reported by the BBC. This is about ten times the number of people killed in road crashes in London. And of course everybody's health must be affected, not just that of those who die as a result of the pollution. Johnson's "solution" is to put pollution suppressants in front of air quality monitors, so reducing the number of occasions on which the PM10 value is reported to be breached and reducing the number of smog alerts, both preventing the public from being warned of the dangerous conditions, and attempting to circumvent the discovery of legal breaches, and application of fines. This is what the Campaign for Clear Air in London, a non party-political organisation, condemns as "public health fraud on an industrial scale". And as the MP for Brent North, Barry Gardiner, said in a Tweet yesterday: "Boris's pollution suppressors near air quality monitors is like putting breathing apparatus on the canary in the mines!"

Those living or working on or near main roads like Neasden Lane and the North Circular Road are the ones at the sharpest end, the ones who will pay the heaviest price for this truly criminal public health fraud. But its all connected, and we all suffer, from the failure to control motor traffic in London, the failure to provide decent routes for walking and cycling, the failure to live up to the spin of "the greenest Olympics ever", the failure to arrest the degradation of the environment.

If you can, support the Climate Rush Spring Clean walk and cycle march, rally and direct action, today, Thursday 19 April, at 6:00pm outside DEFRA, 17 Smith Square, London SW1. And of course, come on the LCC Big Ride, calling for "streets as safe and inviting for cycling as they are in Holland", on 28 April. Most importantly, do vote in the London mayoral election on 3 May for a candidate who does not think the best way to combat pollution is to try to glue it to the road.

Saturday 7 April 2012

Something for cyclists in Barnet

I noted in a previous post how parts of one of the few pleasant traffic-free routes for cyclists in the Borough of Barnet, the path along the Dollis Valley in Finchley, marked on earlier editions of the Transport for London Cycling Guides as open between Waverley Grove, off Hendon Lane, and Dollis Road, and on the current guides as running not so far north, up only to Hendon Avenue, had been closed to cyclists by Barnet Council, apparently at the behest of local residents.

In exploring the Brent Cyclists route to the Great Divide Ride starting point at New Southgate, I was able to confirm that at least one small good thing has happened for cycling in Barnet recently (which I had already read of in newspaper reports): the stream-side path from Hendon Lane to Hendon Avenue, through Windsor Open Space,  has been re-vamped, and given new (rustic, wooden) signage, and the signs banning cycling are gone (though I did not see any specifically encouraging cycling either).

The new path, seemingly intended for cyclists and pedestrians, alongside the Dollis Brook through Windsor Open Space
It would appear that this is now intended to be a cycle route, and it appears that this aspect of the Open Space improvement works was pressed on to the normally cycle-indifferent (to put it charitably) Barnet Council by Boris Johnson. According to the Hendon & Finchley Times,
The bulk of the money for the scheme came from a £400,000 grant from the Mayor of London, with £250,000 was also secured from Transport for London for cycle and footpath improvements.
The plan won a competition for funding from the mayor back in 2009, in which the public were asked to vote on-line. The cycle route was mentioned at that stage, when the relatively enlightened Cllr Andrew Harper was Barnet's environment chief. I am certain of that, despite the fact it is not mentioned in the newspaper articles, because I recall that cyclists on the internet were mobilised to support the plan, which is possibly why it won. It fell to a new (or back in the job again) Barnet environment chief, the notoriously anti-cycling Cllr Brian Coleman (also London Assembly Member for Camden and Barnet) to finish the job, and I can only assume that Boris must have leant on him, for, in spite of a vociferous anti-cycling lobby in the area (in reality probably only one or two bigoted people, as usual), he did so, though the quality of execution of the work, and its state of completion, remain locally controversial. So it is curious that perhaps the best bit of cycling in Barnet has been put in place, against the wishes of some of his constituents, by a man who once wrote:
I consider cycle lanes to be an unnecessary obstruction to cars, for which of course, roads were built.
But they say there is more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner that repenteth...

The new shared path is only half a mile long, and there is some merit in the arguments of opponents, to the extent that it is not actually wide enough for sharing. Beyond Hendon Avenue the path continues but has not been resurfaced, and is un-cycleable, so one must return to the road. The cycle path could, in principle, with sufficient investment and political will, be made to go the whole four miles or so along the stream from Totteridge in the north to Hendon in the south, or even to Brent Cross, and link in to another path, now banned to cyclists, east-west along the Mutton Brook from Hendon to East Finchley, which would give cyclists a nice route parallel to part of the North Circular Road. But such grander "Greenway" plans have never made much progress in this part of London, despite some abortive efforts by Sustrans. (Ken Livingstone is promising £10 million for Greenways should he win the election.)

There is another cycleable section of the Dollis Valley, in Totteridge, where, surprisingly, Dutch-style separate paths for cyclists and pedestrians were provided, years ago. To connect between the two off-road sections one is supposed to use a quiet "back street" route that runs to the east of the brook, between Dollis Road and Whetstone, marked as part of the London Cycle Network. Dollis Road itself, unfortunately, is a particularly nasty piece of narrow rat-run where it runs under a constricting arch of the Northern Line (Mill Hill Branch) viaduct. This has always been the problem point on this route. I have seen signage indications that an off-road route may have been provided here as well as part of this work, but I have not tested it. The on-road LCN route north of Dollis Road is not bad, as it is not a rat-run, though has a difficult crossing of Argyle Road, which is a rat-run, as it forms part of one of the few east-west routes for motor vehicles across the middle part of Barnet, along with the famous Partingdale Lane, over which Brian Coleman successfully battled environmentalists, residents, judges and cyclists to open it to through-traffic, and subsequently widened it. I have encountered several conspicuous examples of motorist aggression on this route.

At its intersection with a path called Lovers Walk, the LCN route also sports one of the most ludicrous anti-cycling barrier constructions I have ever seen. Cyclists are require to dismount and wiggle through two caged sections to get between Gordon Road and Brent Way. And what all that extra barrierage adjacent to the footpaths is for, I haven't a clue. When I first saw this, I was incredulous. I could hardly refrain from shouting out loud "Bananas! Absolutely bananas!" as I remounted and cycled away from the spot.

Candidate for Cycle Facility of the Month? Junction of the Dollis Valley route with Lovers Walk, looking towards Brent Way, Barnet.
Remember, there is no road running through here. This is just the intersection of two paths. That somebody in the council office, with a drawing board, though that all this steelwork was necessary to protect walkers using Lovers Walk from cyclists using the Dollis Valley route is quite incredible. It is probably more evidence of a local hostility to cycling. Only in a nation completely clueless about utility cycling could something so absurd exist. Barmy Barnet: I rest my case, m'Lud.

Friday 6 April 2012

Great Divides

The Great Divide Ride on 25 March, highlighting the brutal severance of north London for cycling by the barrier of the North Circular Road, attracted about 80 cyclists from Barnet and adjacent boroughs: quite a turn out for a cycle protest in the outer suburbs. A special mention should perhaps go to Mustafa Arif, Campaigns Coordinator of the London Cycling Campaign, and his wife, for cutting short their honeymoon to come on the ride: true dedication – though it was in Mustafa's patch. A splendid planning job done by the organisers, Toby Jacobs and David Shannon of Barnet LCC, the work of the ride leader Charlie Holland (of Kennington People on Bikes) and the marshals (particularly memorable was Patrick Field racing up and down the side of the pack like a bullet on his recumbent, telling motorists "We'll only hold you up for two minutes") meant that the event went off safely and largely free from stress. Cycling on the roads and junctions tackled on this ride is not normally so stress-free. None of them have anything resembling satisfactory facilities for cycling, except possibly the first, and most easterly, crossing of the North Circular we used, Pegasus Way, a new, largely traffic-free, bridge, part of a new housing development in New Southgate.

Ride gathers at New Southgate Station, in a car-park graced by a strange, out-of-place Victorian ironwork relic
(picture by Shaun McDonald)
As a resident of Brent, and previously of Camden, only closely familiar with the western part of Barnet, the thing that struck me was that the crossings of the North Circular are in fact a lot less bad on the eastern side of Barnet. There are several bridges and underpasses in this area that allow one to cross the road without negotiating mega-junctions. As you go west, things get steadily worse, with the newly rebuilt Henlys Corner junction with Finchley Road (which Boris Johnson, bizarrely, in his current transport manifesto (page 35) seems to claim as an improvement for cyclists) creating a severe test of vehicular cycling confidence, with its new left-turn only lanes, that few would like to see their child or grandparent attempt. And this is but a taster for the true spaghetti-junction awfulness of the Brent Cross interchange with the A41 further west, the Staples Corner East roundabout, the start of the M1, and the Staples Corner West junction with the A5, on the Brent border. This latter was tacked by the mass ride from every possible direction, going round the roundabout, over the flyover (taking both lanes), and round the peculiarly pointless West Hendon gyratory system.

In the Hendon area: not the Tweed Run (picture by Shaun McDonald)
Staples Corner East roundabout (picture by Shaun McDonald)
The ride did not go further into Brent. Perhaps that is for another day. Suffice it to say that Brent is even worse than Barnet, with no, legal, practical crossings of the North Circular for cyclists for two and a half miles west of Staples Corner, until you come to Harrow Road. That junction is hardly a dreamy place either, but at least it is a simple signalised crossroads, or pair of crossroads, with no badly conflicting traffic movements. Between Golders Green Road, the last "easy" signalised surface-level crossing of the North Circular in Barnet, and Harrow Road, is a distance of four miles: four miles of a Berlin Wall like curtain across the borough of Brent that demands great determination by cyclists attempting to cross it, either by tackling the dangerous junctions head-on, or negotiating an indirect, slow, illegal way via pavements, pedestrian overpasses and underpasses. This Berlin Wall explains very largely the extraordinary drop-off in cycling rate in Brent between the southern wards, like Queens Park, where it is up to 4% of trips, to the northern wards, like Kenton, where it is down to 0.5% of trips. A fall-off would be expected anyway, or course, when going out of easy commuting range of central London, but the collapse of cycling in Brent at the North Circular barrier is visible and sharp. No other borough has such large differences in cycling rates between wards.

"Taking the lane" on the A5 flyover at Staples Corner West (picture by Shaun McDonald)
A game young rider. Shouldn't he be able to get about this area on his bike without all these people to protect him? (picture by Shaun McDonald)
The Great Divide Ride finished with a picnic in a huge grassy open space, the centre of the Staples Corner East roundabout: a spot that can be made to look, strangely, almost idyllic in a photo, when you cannot hear the roar of motor vehicles from all around and above you, and taste the particulates in the air. It takes a lot of walking on very narrow footbridges and paths to reach.

Not a bad spot for a picnic: Staples Corner East
Gathering on the hill for the final photocall
Video of the ride compressed into 7 minutes, by Shaun McDonald

There are many Great Divides. There are physical Great Divides like the North Circular Road, that isolate communities. Then there are attitudinal Great Divides, such as those between cyclists and non-cyclists, in how they perceive the road environment. And there are Great Divides between cultures, between how different societies approach similar problems and come up with radically differing solutions.

The Great Divide Ride pre-publicity attracted the attention of Dutch cycle blogger Mark Wagenbuur, inspiring him to put up a post Huge roads do not have to be huge barriers, contrasting the junctions on the North Circular with a comparable trunk-road/motorway junction, Goyplein in Utrecht, built about the same time (1971). Ample, comprehensive and direct cycle path provision, fully separated from the roads, was part of the original Dutch design even then, and this was before the Dutch became really keen on cycle infrastructure, in the 80s and 90s.

At this time, the thinking of the UK government seems to have been that cycling was an old mode of transport that would disappear over time naturally, and that it should not be facilitated, as to do so would create a dangerous mix of slow cyclists and fast motor vehicles on the roads. So nothing was constructed for cyclists when the North Circular junctions were built, and, despite a change of rhetoric since then, there is nothing now: save for a few pathetic "shared use" pedestrian facility conversions – conversions of facilities that are inadequate even for pedestrians on their own, as Charlie Holland has pointed out.

Mark Wagenbuur wrote:
I recently came across a video of a crossing of London’s North Circular Road. The way cyclists have to maneuver through traffic, some of which heavy goods transportation, is shocking to anyone I believe. But if you are familiar with the situation on Dutch roads even more so.
So a Dutchman thinks that the conditions cyclists have to endure to make what should be simple journeys in the North London suburbs are "shocking to anyone". Here is a cultural Great Divide. For they are clearly not shocking to most British people. If they were really shocking to them, they would be changed. When British society became shocked at the exploitation of child labour under terrible conditions in the 19th century, things were changed. Why is it not shocking to most British people that children, like the boy pictured above, cannot (normally) cycle between adjacent suburbs of North London without having to cycle through junctions that have 40 mph design speeds, and actual speeds often in excess of this, full of motor vehicles including heavy lorries, where their risk of getting killed will be very great indeed? This shocks me, it is a scandal to me, as it is to Mark, but not to most British people. Why?

The violence of motor vehicles evident on the infrastructure on the Great Divide Ride. Pedestrians clearly need these barriers, but cyclists are given none. Cyclists are trapped on the wrong side of the barriers, given training and helmets and told to "keep their wits about them". (Picture by Shaun McDonald)
Physical barriers are used to separate one lane of motorists from another, because of safety, but the same consideration is not applied to cyclists. (Picture by Shaun McDonald)
To understand the lack of shock about the shortage of safe provision for cycling in the UK we need to consider separately two sections of British society: the 1% who cycle, and the 99% who do not. The former probably are shocked, or have been shocked, in the past, but it has worn off to an extent. It is hard to go around permanently shocked by the daily reality you see around you. It is not a very sane state to remain in for long. Cyclists in Britain have to adapt to survive, or they give up cycling, and become part of the non-cycling 99%. They become used to the conditions, and many come to believe that these conditions are natural or inevitable in some way, and cannot be changed. This is just a standard human mental coping strategy.

Dissatisfied cyclists may lobby by writing to their representatives, or writing to newspapers, but they discover, maybe over years and decades, that this results in little change, and it becomes dispiriting to keep on at such an apparently lost cause. They may join and support the activities of cycling organisations, but they find that even such organised lobbying has little effect on government, when it is on behalf of a widely-despised 1% of the population. They may also find that such lobbying efforts are often partially undermined by differences of opinion on appropriate solutions between different cyclists and groups. This is because the mental effects of the brutal road conditions are pernicious: they create their own mindset, where cyclists have to become hardened, to adapt, to survive – they have to transform into that mythical beast, the "vehicular cyclist", and in some cases they start to imagine that this is what cycling, fundamentally, is all about, this adaptation and hardening process – that is is a thing any cyclist must go through, and that, fundamentally, protection from motor traffic is not what cyclists need. This is another coping strategy. It is the one adopted by our cycling mayor, Boris "keep your wits about you" Johnson. So many people who start by wanting to "change the world", in cycling terms, end up by concluding either it is unchangeable, or does not need changing.

Then we have the 99% of the population that does not cycle. If they think about the problem at all, they mostly think, I suspect, that there is some "other way round". Many think, incorrectly, that cycling is legal on pavements. Others think, incorrectly, that it is legal to cycle in parks (it is not in any Brent parks or in most Barnet ones). Others may think that there is a "cycling network" that works, but they don't know about it because they have never looked for it. They may think that cycling on minor roads for the whole length of a typical cycling journey is practical, and that cyclists don't need to be on the major roads and junctions at all. They may have seen the bits of cycle lane around the place, and, because they haven't actually cycled, not discovered that the routes are not practical, they don't go where people need to get to, and that they are massively discontinuous and flawed.

Often some people in power, and some people in power who sometimes cycle, have similar ideas. A week after the Great Divide Ride I was at a Barnet Cyclists meeting at which the MP for Chipping Barnet, Theresa Villiers, spoke. She is a Minister of State for Transport, and she regularly cycles, or did until a recent accident in which she broke her collar bone (I wish her a speedy recovery). In discussion on the Great Divide Ride and the North Circular junctions, particularly Henly's Corner, though she expressed some sympathy with the points raised, and admitted that we need big improvements to London's cycling infrastructure, and that we could usefully learn lessons from other places (the Netherlands, obviously), she seemed to think that:
1) Shared facilities, as in the new staggered sheep-pen crossings for pedestrians and cyclists at Henly's Corner, are a sensible solution for many cyclists, and,
2) That cyclists don't need to use the A41 or the A5 to get to central London from Barnet, that there are other ways.

Well, there are other ways, in the sense that it is always possible to go round three sides of a huge square five miles across rather than take the direct route, and go up and down at least 100 metres of unnecessary elevation, but is that a way to ever get people cycling to work? No, I think not. I think people will take the bus or train or car instead. This  ignorance of the physical infrastructure characteristics of "her patch"of London, from the point of view of a cyclist, was what I found most disappointing in Teresa Villiers' responses. An important point is that North London is hilly, and the straight, direct routes, the A5 and A41, are the flattest routes.

She had not actually seen the new Henly's Corner, so was not fully conversant with the issues there (but "Why not?" one might ask). But she was in favour of "cycle infrastructure", and thought the crossings at Hyde Park Corner rather good. I have to admit they are better than they were ten years ago, but regarding these constricted, low-priority, semi-shared, already grossly over-capacity crossings as decent cycle facilities just shows how low our standards are in this country.

The Great Divide Ride was one of a series of protest rides held recently in London to highlight the dire state of our cycling infrastructure. It followed on the heels of the Blackfriars flashrides and the Tour du Danger. At least it generated some new discussions with some different politicians, it created some local publicity, and it sent a message to the world (including the cycling world) that London cycling is not just the City, it is not just Hackney and Southwark, but "We are here, we are up here in the northern suburbs, and we have a terrible cycling environment, and can't we have a bit more attention please from government, TfL, media, Sustrans, and anyone who will listen, really?"

The next big event in London will be The Big Ride on April 28, just days before the mayoral election, the results of which will surely have a huge impact on how cycling develops all over London in the next four years, and there is also on that date a Scottish equivalent, the Pedal on Parliament. Be there, or there, or keep riding round three sides of that square.