It is nearly ten months since Sadiq Khan won the London mayoral election for Labour, defeating the Conservative candidate Zac Goldsmith. As readers are likely to know, he promised to meet the demands of the London Cycling Campaign, most importantly including building more cycle Superhighways to triple the provision of segregated space on London's roads in four years, and extending the mini-Holland programme to every borough. Since then, it's all been very quiet. There was no immediate replacement for the last Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, and, other than an announcement that the (largely back-steet and non-segregated) extension of Superhighway 6 towards St Pancras planned under Gilligan would go ahead, there have been no announcements of any definite new plans for cycling. A new bridge across the Thames from Wapping to Rotherhithe, promised by Khan during the campaign, has been mentioned by him often (along with pedestrianisation of Oxford Street, the effects of which on cycling cannot yet be predicted), but other than that, cycling affairs seem to have been in deep-freeze. Of the other two Superhighway schemes consulted on just before the election, there have been non-commital statements on CS11 to Swiss Cottage, which received public approval in the consultation and so is a scheme that was 'ready to go', while the plans for CS 10, the extension to the East-West Superhighway from Lancaster Gate to West London have vanished without trace, with not even any report on the consultation ever published.
|Missing in action, presumed dead: the plans for the westwards extension of the East-West Cycle Superhighway
So we had finally a development last week, when the new Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Will Norman, took up his post, having been appointed in November, and started making public pronouncements. When Andrew Gilligan became the first Cycling Commissioner in 2013, his views were already quite well known to cycling campaigners due to his press articles, and he had also met many of us and asked our opinions before taking up the job. Not so with Will Norman, who came on this scene as a totally unknown quantity. No-one I have met had ever heard of him before he was given the job. We were told by the Mayor that:
Will specialises in increasing levels of physical activity and participation in sports around the world, working with a range of international organisations... [including the] UN, European Parliament, G8, World Health Organisation and International Olympic Committee...
Will, who cycles every day in London, has a strong background of working with private and public partnerships, and a wealth of experience in getting people from a wide range of backgrounds active. Before joining Nike in 2013, Will set up a successful social research consultancy and was also Director of Research at The Young Foundation, where he was responsible for delivering multi-million pound European programmes and established a youth leadership organisation...
At Nike, Will has spearheaded a programme to make physical activity a global policy priority... Among his work has been a partnership with UNESCO and the German Development Agency GIZ to successfully reform physical education in South Africa, bringing activity and sports to thousands of primary school children for the first time since the 1990s.Others who had applied for the job had been leaders in local government, campaigners, journalists, architects, planners and engineers. The choice of Will Norman was a surprising one, given a slight nebulosity of his connection to the subject in hand, that is, as I would characterise it, physically planning better walking and cycling conditions in London, and working politically to put such plans though the labyrinth of relevant controlling bodies. Still, Andrew Gilligan was perhaps no more obviously fitted to the role when he started, and yet he did achieve quite a lot.
So we were all very excited to hear that, soon after being appointed, Will would speak to a meeting at which we could attend and ask questions. Even better, he would do so with Val Shawcross, the Deputy Mayor for Transport. The meeting was part of the Street Talks programme, started by Bruce McVean and colleagues in a Holborn pub, and later taken over by Sustrans London. It took place last Wednesday at Look Mum, No Hands café. It was completely booked out, and I am sure a much larger venue could have been filled, such was the level of interest. Virtually everyone known for their interest in cycling in London was there, including Andrew Gilligan, the last commissioner, and another transport expert who many thought might get the Commissioner job, Christian Wolmar.
|Such was the high level of interest in this meeting people were queueing in the street.
|In a packed Look Mum, No Hands
So far I've learned that cycling and walking is healthy and it would be good if more people walked and cycled #streettalks
|The Healthy Streets slide you've probably seen before
I asked Will Norman for some details. What schemes would he be bringing forward first? He said he wouldn't make announcements on the programme, as the was going to be a process of analysing where the most demand was in order to prioritise the next phase of cycle network development. He was prepared to say that CS 4 and CS 9 would be consulted on this year. This means that construction on those could begin in 2018. (It is widely believed that CS 9, an East-West Superhighway running through Houslow and Ealing, and Hammersmith & Fulham, will just have to stop at the boundary of Kensington & Chelsea, as the Royal Borough won't allow Cycle Superhighways on its streets.)
The sharpest interest from the audience was on the future of CS 11 and its proposed associated part-time gate closures at Regent's Park. A question on this received the reply from Val Shawcross that Regent's Park was a dangerous place for pedestrians, and so the solution for the Superhighway needed to take this into account. So, you would have thought, she would be jumping at the opportunity to remove rush-hour through-traffic from the park by selectively closing gates. But, no, bafflingly, she uttered these words:
Gate closures will happen if that's what we need to do, but we are looking at alternatives for a safer park.What could that possibly mean? It seemed that she was considering a segregated track for cyclists. Now, I am one of the world's leading supporters of segregated cycle tracks, as the whole of this blog testifies, but I can't really see how one on the Outer Circle of Regent's Park would solve the problems there. It might reduce traffic speeds slightly, by restricting space for motor traffic, but it would not reduce traffic volume in the park as closing gates selectively would. Of itself it would not facilitate pedestrians crossing the roads. It would not provide the space that the sports cyclists need for their circuits; it would be a disaster for them, as they would be squeezed on to the narrowed road space. The only way to make a track wide enough to cater for utility, commuting and sports cyclists of all types would be to make it the width of the whole road (minus the car parking) – in other words, to go back to the idea of having an unsegregated road, with no through motor traffic on it.
|The consulted plan for CS 11 with the proposed part-time gate-closures
Other questions came on development issues such as the Olympic Park, where the cycle infrastructure built on this blank slate site has been highly disappointing, and Old Oak Common, which is another stalled mayoral development project. Again there were no details forthcoming. I don't suppose Norman has had time to look at any of this yet, so it is not surprising. But what I might have expected, reasonably, I think, from him and Shawcross was some more strategic indication of where they would be going in relationship to how cycling had been left by the last administration. What did they think of the facilities that have been built? What did they think had worked, what had failed, and why? What should be improved, what, specifically, are the next steps in making 'London a by-word for cycling', as Sadiq Khan has promised? We really didn't get this. We did get a statement from Shawcross that the Santander hire scheme (AKA Boris Bikes) would not be expanded, as it is too expensive to do so. We didn't get any commitment to review the rather modest target of achieving 1.5 million cycle journeys a day by 2021.
There were some stranger thing in the meeting. One questioner referred to the high-pollution days we have been experiencing in London, and asked, 'Rather than tell people not to go out and take exercise, why can't you tell people not to drive instead?' All the audience understood what this was about, having seen tweets along these lines from TfL, and applauded the question. But Shawcross bizarrely misunderstood, despite lots of people trying to should out to explain it to her. This was a question about messaging, but she interpreted as a question about closing roads locally, or more widely, for 'car free days'. She seemed to be quite against these, cv claiming that 'the science is not behind' trying to reduce pollution by closing roads. There was a ruckus. There was more disbelief in the audience when it transpired that the Chair didn't know what mini-hollands were. It was like being at a debate on medical ethics where the chair had never heard of stem cell research, or something like that.
Shawcross and Norman merely putting to the meeting a broad view on making streets better for cycling and walking, without any firm proposals for particular locations, might have been seen as fair enough, except that the problem was (and I have Shawcross more in my sights here than Norman, as she has been in post for much longer, and is an experienced politician) that they were talking as if they were starting from nothing, as if the last administration had not also had strategy on these things, and had not done quite a bit of good. They were not acknowledging this. They were talking as if an active travel agenda had to be created for the first time ever, and not as if the main issues had been gone into already, and many problems found, particularly with realising such a vision with the fragmentation of authority between the Mayor, the boroughs, the Corporation, the Royal Parks, the Canal and River Trust, other bodies, and opposition from powerful versed groups. They were not telling us how they hoped the new administration might overcome issues that the old one could not, such as the blockages caused by the critically-placed anti-cycling councils in Westminster and Kensington & Chelsea.
I had already asked Val Shawcross about CS10, the extension west of the E-W Superhighway, at a meeting last year. She had said then that TfL were 'looking at different options to decide a way forward'. We all know however there are no options other than the plan which was consulted on, to create a cycle track on the elevated Westway, as all the other roads west out of central London are, at least in part, controlled by the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea. We got no more information on this, leading one to suspect she and TfL have no more clue about it. The Superhighway has now been built as far as Westbourne Terrace. This is where it was meant to join the Westway. It is now just going to end at the huge, awful junction of the A40 and Harrow Road, where cyclists will have n-where further to go. I am genuinely fearful about this. The Superhighway from the parks will attract many hire-bikes and tourists, who will end up at this point and be abandoned. I really fear bad things will happen at the end of the Superhighway at Westbourne Terrace. Coming up with no solution here is a dereliction of duty on the part of Sadiq Khan and Val Shawcross.
|The existing plan for CS3 and CS10, the E-W Superhighway. It now ends in Westbourne Terrace
|Nice new cycle tracks in Hyde Park will now deliver cyclists like this...
|...to here, Westbourne Bridge, where the Superhighway should have gone on to the flyover, but now will just run out.
The Heathy Streets agenda that Shawcross and Norman were promoting sounds good in theory, but how will it collide with the political reality of the opposition they will get to any attempts at reallocating space on the roads or changing the functions of roads, demonstrated so clearly by the totally unreasonable opposition to CS 11 and the Regent's Park gate closures, and the numerous failed Quietway schemes around London, where councils didn't believe their residents would support the closing of streets to through motor traffic? It sounds as if the Healthy Streets initiative could easily descend into a programme of uncontroversial prettification. We could easily get the benches, more trees, nice paving, a few extra crossings, and no reduction in motor traffic, and no more high-quality space for cycling. Sadiq Khan has made a much bigger 'thing' than his predecessor of tacking the life-threatening air pollution we suffer from in London, in his speeches, at least. But what has he actually announced after 10 months in the job? He has announced a higher rate of congestion charge on a rather small number of the most polluting cars entering the very small area of the central charging zone. The response so far has not been in proportion to the problem, or the rhetoric, and Shawcross's comments on the undesirability of closing roads as 'Not supported by science' indicates such 'big talking' coupled with political timidity is likely to be the pattern for this administration.
|The Quietway routes promised three years ago: only Waterloo to Greenwich has happened in any meaningful sense.
A change from the previous Mayor's policies would be, Shawcross told us at the Look Mum, No Hands meeting, that there would henceforth be a 'hierarchy' of consideration for the streets. Pedestrians would be at the top of this, followed by people on bikes, followed by bus users, followed by taxi users, with private motorists last. I'm afraid I'm not impressed with this talk. I've been listening for a quarter of a century to statements along the line of 'It is the policy of the London borough of Brokenham to priorities the need to pedestrians and cyclists above those of motor traffic'. These empty 'hierarchy' promises are easy to make to rooms full of active travel experts and enthusiasts, and always have been, they but don't often translate into reality in terms of space and junction time allocated on the streets for pedestrians and cyclists. They don't prevent you having to press a button and then wait two minutes before you can cross the road, and they don't prevent cycle lanes being ruled impossible due to a 'need' for parking. In practice, for nearly every real decision about priorities on the streets taken in authorities which have these stated hierarchies, the hierarchy, when it meets other, sharper political realities, suddenly gives way to a need to 'take into account and balance the needs of all road-users'.
I am told, and someone can correct me if it is not true, that there is a room in Transport for London's headquarters (or maybe in City Hall), somewhere at the top of the building, were there are lots of screens and lots of controls. This is the traffic control neve-centre for London. For TfL controlled roads, operators are monitoring traffic and queues, and they are trying to optimise traffic flow. This means the flow of motor traffic, not the flow or pedestrians or cyclists. They are making adjustments to signal timing all the time to try to keep the motor traffic flowing. They are reducing timings for pedestrian crossings where they feel it is necessary to reduce queues of motor traffic. They are explicitly prioritising cars over people. If all this is true, then I expect Shawcross and Norman to go to these people, and tell them, in future, they are going to have to do something different. If they don't, or can't, I am afraid I think we are being told fairy stories about this Mayor's approach to transport.