|The famous Crown in Cricklewood Broadway, today gone quite up-market. John Betjeman praised its "terracotta shade".
It almost makes you like planning, doesn't it, for the lack of it. Look! They've put a car park on the site. They needn't have taken it down at all!(on the destruction of the Metropolitan Pace of Varieties, a Victorian music hall). He recorded his nostalgic view before the building of the concrete flyovers and gyratories on the A5 at Staples Corner, that destroyed the Old Welsh Harp pub and definitively ended the quasi-rural seclusion of the Brent Reservoir. The sign of the times that he did witness was the then brand-new office block Merit House, Colindale, from the top of which he viewed the vestigial Middlesex countryside. It is still there, a drab, unloved monument to its decade and to "planning" that dumped huge, isolated blocks in the middle of a low-rise decaying industrial suburban hinterland.
|The Merit House office block that Betjeman visited in 1968 interrupts the car showrooms on the A5 in Colindale. Opposite is a building site that will soon be high-density housing.
|A view of the A5 at Burnt Oak, looking south. This is motorland; nearly every block is occupied by some motor-transport-related business. Note the vast, unused pavements and lack of space for cycling.
Notionally designated as the LCN+ (London Cycle Network Plus) 5 route by ex-Mayor Ken Livingstone's cycling development team, there is absolutely no meaningful cycling infrastructure along the whole length of the road in Greater London (unless you regard the very part-time and discontinuous bus lanes that cyclists can use as "cycling infrastructure"). There are a few blue signs giving mileages, and a few bike logos painted on the road in odd places. I spent a day, with other cycling representatives, some time about 2008, going up and down the A5 with consultants for the LCN+ and council officers, assessing what could be done to make the road better for cycling. None of our suggestions were ever acted upon. The money was wasted, or disappeared, and the project was abandoned. After Boris Johnson announced his replacement Cycle Superhighway programme, it was suggested that Cycle Superhighway 11 should be on the A5, but this was later changed to the A41 (and we still await for it to actually happen there).
The "high street" sections of the A5 are classic examples of the kind of chaotic UK street environment where everything is attempted to be fitted in simultaneously: shopping, parking, loading, pedestrian movements, bus stops, cycling, plus heavy through-traffic including freight, and it doesn't work very well.
There was a Street Talks meeting organised by the Movement for Liveable London in April on The roles of place and movement in creating successful high streets in which one of the contributors, Louise Duggan, of the Greater London Authority, spoke of the conflicts between the "place and movement" functions to be managed in London's high streets. I asked if there should not be, in preference to the permanent toleration of poor public spaces and a continued stream of pedestrain and cyclist casualties, a long-term policy to remove these conflicts as far as possible. I was thinking of streets like Kilburn High Road and the other"high street" sections of the A5, where local authorities' intermittent attempts to create a better environment always seem to meet a sticky end because they cannot resolve the fundamental conflicts between the arterial, business and social functions of the road. In short, if the road continues to carry masses of heavy traffic, it cannot be a nice place to be. Ms Duggan responded that she did not think it was possible to separate out the functions of roads and streets (so she has obviously a limited knowlege of how they do things in other places), and, even more startlingly, stated that conflict that was one of the things that people liked about cities and attracted them to them. This caused some amusement, or amazement, in the audience.
|Kilburn High Road (Google Earth photo) at a quiet time. The cycle logos do a lot of good.
Needless to say, that suggestion went no-where. The A5 is a big road for through-traffic. That's how it is, and nobody but me could conceive that that could ever be changed, within the bounds of political reality. Strangely, though, some years back, Kilburn High Road was actually completely closed to traffic for about six months (I may remember this wrongly, but it was for a substantial length of time) for reconstruction of the bridge across the West Coast Main Line. And, strangely enough, it became a pleasant, thriving and bustling place at that time (apart from the difficulty pedestrians and dismounted cyclists had with passing through the narrow gap in the building work that was left for them), and the economy of the area did not collapse. In fact the shops appeared to do well. Most of the time there actually seem to be utility excavations on Kilburn High Road which reduce the number of lanes or cause alternate working using temporary traffic lights. Yet the idea of permanently severing the general through-traffic artery of the A5, and forcing that traffic to use the six lane A41 (which was purposely widened in the 1970s exactly to make it that principal traffic artery through north-west London), seems to be inconceivable.
So we just have an endless succession of minor schemes down the years to tweak a very ugly, and dangerous, borderland environment, that never tackle the central issue: that if we want proper town centres, if we want vibrant commercial districts and good public, social spaces, then most of this traffic cannot remain here. We get tree planting, we get benches, we get weird new lamp columns designed by the art students, we get more bollards, we get railings put in, then railings taken out (according to the fashion at the time), discontinuous, ineffective bus lanes put in, bus lanes taken out again (according to the political fashion of the time), and the environment of the A5 remains as it always has been: noisy, dirty, dangerous, shabby, and unappealing.
purpose of our city streets. We can't have critical streets which have so many functions in conflict, and putting in the sort of cycling infrastructure that will support mass cycling, in the Dutch sense, requires that we tackle this issue of purpose first of all, determining where the priority cycle network, the priority bus network, and the general traffic network will be, and separating them by route in places where separation on the street is not possible, as in Kilburn High Road.
In Maida Vale it is a different story. The road has excess width, and, since Kilburn High Road is the bottleneck, space here could easily be reallocated to cycling, were the political will to do it present in Westminster Council. General traffic does not need more than one lane in either direction, as it will just come to a grinding halt again on Kilburn high Road, going north, or on Edgware road, going south. Maida Vale and the Westminster Edgware Road suffer, like all roads in Westminster, from a stupid excess of signalised junctions, which make a journey down them, by any mode, extraordinarily inefficient and tedious. The Dutch only use signalised junctions as a last resort; they close far more side-roads off than we do, to restrict and rationalise the through-traffic network and make it more efficient, with fewer delays. Westminster puts traffic lights everywhere, to cause maximum frustration to all road users and create the least efficient surface transport network possible.
|Broad and elegant, the long series of traffic light delays known as Maida Vale, City of Westminster
|Looking northwards up Edgware road towards the Marylebone Flyover. No space can be found for cycling here, obviously. The Cycling Grid proposes an impractical "Quietway" detour round the junction.
Five miles to the north-west, the A5 beyond Staples Corner West, the flyover-equipped intersection with the North Circular Road between Cricklewood and Hendon, is a very different kettle of fish again. Frequently very wide, with huge acreages of excess wasted pavement filled with clutter or used for car parking, unnecessarily wide vehicle lanes, and service roads used mainly for even more tiers of parking, it could in most places easily accomodate high-grade Dutch-style cycle tracks, were the road to be totally replanned and rebuilt between the building frontages. The Space for Cycling Campaign asks by Brent, Barnet and Harrow LCC groups for the wards adjoining the A5 are uniformly, and rightly, for protected cycle tracks on the road. But with division of responsibility between the three boroughs, Brent and Harrow Labour-controlled, Barnet Conservative, what chance of such far-reaching change being achieved? It would have to be energetically driven by the Mayor and TfL to have any chance of happening. In fact they would have to take control of the process, and probably take control of the road, to ensure any uniformity of execution. There is nothing in the history of the Cycle Superhighways, TfL's recent attempts at priority cycle routes on main roads, or the Mayor's Vision for Cycling that indicates this might happen. But there is the space; it could be a show-case of what London might achieve for cycling.
Londonneur tells you.
Bow Roundabout in East London has received huge publicity for its terrible design that has resulted in three cycling deaths on Cycle Superhighway 2. Staples Corner West doesn't get this publicity, though it is a very similar design of intersection, with much the same problems, because there's no cycle superhighway here, nor is there ever likely to be one, and cycling levels are very low, suppressed by the barrier of the North Circular that the video speaks of. There are few casualties, because there are not the cyclists here to get killed and injured. It is so dangerous, cycling is almost non-existent in the suburbs from here outwards. I am statistically certain of this. I often cycle into the West End on the A5, a journey of 10 miles from my house, and I place the game of counting how many other cyclists I see. In the middle of a weekday, it is usually between 12 and 20 cyclists in 10 miles, and some of these will be on pavements. Probably 17 of the 20 will be seen on the five miles of the A5 that I cycle south of Staples Corner. There's no sign of a cycling revolution in these parts, and it's easy to see why.
Road Danger Reduction Forum, but at that time representing the West London Division of the British Cycling Federation, now British Cycling.
The letter and map above were sent by Robert Davis to the then Secretary of State for Transport as part of correspondence following the death of Eileen Leane in 1984. She was killed at Staples Corner trying to cycle between her work in Colindale and home in West Hampstead on the only possible route. It is seen that the Department of Transport, which at that time controlled the North Circular Road and the junction (now controlled by TfL), showed no interest, and refused even to attend a meeting at the site. Davis comments:
Essentially we were told to work this out with the Boroughs, and that new crossings (I don't know which ones they meant) across NCR would make things safer for cyclists.Such new crossings were never built, neither did the boroughs of Brent or Barnet ever do anything. Precisely nothing has been happening here for 30 years. Something is on the cards today, but it's not what anyone, apart from mega-developers, asked for. Hammerson, owners of the Brent Cross Shopping centre, are pushing for the "regeneration" of a vast area of Cricklewood/Hendon south of the North Circular and east of the A5, connected with plans to enlarge their shopping centre just north of the North Circular. To get as many cars as possible into this without backing-up in large queues on the approaches to Staples Corner, they want TfL to build a huge new gyratory system uniting the Staples Corner East junction (the start of the M1 and intersection of the North Circular with the A41) with Staples Corner West. Those few cyclists who today brave Staples Corner West either cycle illegally on the tortuous pedestrian footbridges, or they use the low-level signalised roundabout that interchanges with the North Circular, or they use the Bow-style flyover on the A5, braving the high-speed merging traffic on the slip roads linking to the roundabout. Most seem to do the latter, as the most efficient option.
Brent Cyclists have pointed out, the plans to create this mega-gyratory junction at Staples corner will make a terrible situation even worse, and will even further suppress cycling in outer north-west London. The possibility to take the lower-level route on the signalised roundabout when cycling southwards will no longer be present, that route will lead into the mega-gyratory interchanging with the M1, and no other credible method has been thought up by the developers or TfL of getting cyclists from one part of the A5 to the other. It will be "flyover or die" on the A5 flyover... or maybe both. Brent Cyclists wrote to the Development Director Jonathan Joseph earlier this year suggesting some possible solutions to the problem, including signalising a cycle track at surface level through the junction, tunnelling, or new clip-on cycle flyovers attached to the A5 flyover.
Brent Cyclists' concept for a cycle flyover to bypass the slip roads at Staples Corner West, and clip on to the central section of the A5 road flyover. This may not be the best, or a viable solution, but it is a constructive suggestion.
Jonathan Joseph's dismissive reply said the following:
We agree that your second suggested solution of signalling the cyclists through this junction at the lower level would not be viable due to not only the resulting significant delay to other traffic... but also lack of space at this level.
...Segregated flyovers would be less convenient for a longer distance cyclist than simply using the current road flyover. Those cyclist [sic] who are on leisure trips could leave the A5 north of Staples Corner and travel along new north south routes within the Development and re-join the A5 to the south, or vice-versa. So there is likely to be limited use of the new flyover structures which could only be provided at significant cost.
Perhaps some form of segregation over the flyover could be considered by TfL working with the London Boroughs of Brent and Barnet who share responsibility for this route and the existing road flyover.Let's leave aside the Develpment Director's complete failure to understand the need for safe and convenient infrastructure to allow ordinary people to use bikes to undertake short utility trips: for a child attending a school in Hendon to cycle there from a home in Cricklewood only two miles away, for example. It's not his job to understand transport. He has people to advise him on that, but, when it comes to cycling, they clearly do a bad job. The main point is that, once again, as for the last 30 years, those campaigning to for safe cycling on the A5 are pushed from one authority to another, from pillar to post, no-one takes responsibility, and nothing is done. In February there was some publicity from an announcement of Boris Johnson promising to "rip out 33 gyratories" including Elephant & Castle and Swiss Cottage. A closer look at the announcement shows that it is not actually a clear commitment to "rip out" anything, merely to "deliver substantial cycle infrastructure improvements at 33 locations", which could turn out to mean anything, or nothing. I'll believe any of it when I see it. "ripping out" the Swiss Cottage gyratory, on the A41, has been talked of for at least 20 years in my memory, but there has never been enough agreement between all interested parties for anything to actually happen. Meanwhile, there has been no publicity for this plan to create a huge new gyratory on the A5, that will further cripple cycling across north-west London.
If cyclists used this new gyratory, they would not only be taking a very convoluted way round, compared to using the direct and almost flat A5 flyover, they would be mixing with traffic getting on and off of the M1 and the six-lane A41 on a multi-lane system that would probably make Elephant & Castle, London's most statistically dangerous junction for cycling, look tame by comparison. The routes through the new development, mentioned by Joseph, will not work either, as they will involve convoluted ramps to get over the North Circular, they will be very indirect compared to taking the straight line of the A5 that the Romans gave us, and they will have sections mixing cyclists up with pedestrians (yes, these are the cycle infrastructure proposals for a brand new development on brownfield land where many of the roads will be rebuilt from scratch). These alternatives will not work, and cyclists will not use them; I can guarantee you that, from having looked at the plans. Neither TfL, nor the Cycling Commissioner, nor the developers, nor the boroughs, have any credible plan by which ordinary utility cyclists will be able to cycle along the line of the A5 after this development is built. It is appalling.
Appalling, of course, if Brent Cross Cricklewood is actually built in the way now envisaged. Again, redeveloping this area has been talked of for decades, with no action. The current plans have been "called in" by Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Local Government, so he has the final say over what happens (though this might not be significant). I've heard talk in the GLA of "re-masterplanning" the area again, so the developers may not get what they expect at the moment. It is quite strange that TfL seem to have been so accepting of the proposals thus far, considering they will not only block cycling, but mess up the bus routes up and down the A5 (a very major bus corridor), by forcing the buses to waste minutes going round this new mega-gyratory as well. It's almost as if TfL haven't really studied the implications of what they are being asked to build. I don't expect anything to happen here in the near future.
What is happening now, however, is a huge expansion of housing on, and close to, the A5 north of Stapes Corner. Colindale and Burt Oak are earmarked in the Mayor's London Plan as major areas where new housing growth is expected, and at the same time much of West Hendon is being rebuilt, and areas of north Cricklewood along the A5 (seemingly unconnected with the "regeneration" plans). Much of the length of the A5 between Colindale and Burnt Oak town centres is currently a building site, and what is being built is huge blocks of flats, on the site of old industrial and warehouse land. This area of London, which previously consisted mainly of areas of semi-detatched housing with large gardens separated by extensive industrial and brownfield areas, is going to have a far higher population density than ever before, and yet the transport infrastructure is not changing. The Northern Line (Edgware Branch), which provides the main service for these areas into town, also known as the "misery line" because of its bad performance, low capacity, slowness, and outdated equipment, surely cannot be improved enough to cope with a greatly increased demand. In any case, it only provides for radial journeys; orbital journeys have to be made by car, bus (very slow) or bike. There seems no chance of trams or light rail coming to North London, following Boris Johnson's cancellation of Ken Livingstone's Kings Cross tram restoration scheme (which was not on this axis anyway), and campaigners have so far fought in vain to get orbital light rail included in the Brent Cross Cricklewood regeneration plans.
|Huge new housing blocks currently going up on the A5 between Colindale and Burn Oak town centres: on the left, redevelopment of the former Wickes site, on the right, of the former Boosey and Hawkes warehouse.
|Drawing of what's being built on the site to the left of the picture above
How are all these people who are going to move in to the area going to get around? Even more polluting buses on the A5, stuck in the queues? More cars in jams at each signalised intersection? With no meaningful space for cycling planned, despite the obvious wasted space on the A5, and no cycle-friendly junctions, I can't see cycling growing to make any significant contribution. There's a housing plan, but no transport plan to go with it, that I can detect. We are currently building to European inner-city densities here, but without providing European-style transport solutions. The A5, axis of all this redevelopment, remains as grim and shabby as ever, a monument to borderland neglect, split governmental responsibility, market forces short-sightedness, public authority issue-avoidance, community disengagement and mis-planning.
As John Betjeman said 46 years ago,
It almost makes you like planning, doesn't it, for the lack of it.