Recently I had the TfL plans for cycle infrastructure along Blackfriars Road and the Embankment, known as the North-South and East-West superhighways, explained to me in my role as an LCC Trustee. As a membership organisation, LCC will be debating its response to the plans over the coming weeks. As indeed will many other organisations. There’s a lot to take in.
Personally, I think it’s crucial these proposals succeed.
If these two superhighways go ahead as proposed or better, we’ll have proved on the streets that London can do it. Yes, I know they’re not perfect. And two routes don’t make a network.
But the hard stuff is not digging up and remaking roads, not in a transport rich city like London. And even elsewhere resources appear if something’s a priority. The hard stuff’s the politics – getting support for change.
And the imagination. I know how hard it is navigating those institutional minefields and hanging onto the vision of a city renewed. I’ve seen so many well-meaning proposals that fail to make the imaginative jump from a London where cycling’s a minority mode for the fit and the brave, to a London where cycling’s as mundane and widespread as walking or getting the bus.
If these routes are stopped, watered down, delayed, we will have proved that London can’t do it. It’s as important as that.
When I heard TfL officers present the plans, I’d gone in with some concern. To give three reasons – (a) these are both bi-directional (two-way) tracks, which makes sense on the Embankment, with the river on one side – but Blackfriars Road? (b) potential impact on other sustainable modes and (c) junctions, which – along with those drainage problems – severely let down the otherwise pretty good Cycle Superhighway 2 Extension.
So I was feeling worried, and my frame of mind hadn’t been enhanced by close encounters with London’s multi-tasking motorists en route there. After waiting so long, would the plans be another let-down? Could they actually be any good?
Yes, they’re good. Good enough that if you care about cycling, you need to say so. Respond to the consultation. Ask friends and family if they want wide, well segregated tracks along Embankment and Blackfriars. If so they should respond too. Send the links to colleagues. Encourage your employer to respond.
I think on this – and on the CS5 consultation which closes soon (please respond to that too!) – you can really see the impact that many people inside and outside organisations have had in calling for our streets to be safe and inviting for cycling.
So we need to be heard. People who don’t want space for cycling will be taking similar action right now.
There are important points of detail. There must be angled kerbs throughout, for example, to maximise cycling space and allow inclusive informal pedestrian crossing. But the broad message of support mustn’t get drowned out in technicalities, which should of course form part of detailed critical responses by LCC and others (including me.)
Officers presenting the plans weren’t just knowledgeable on specific points. On the principles behind the schemes, they were clearly thinking about people who don’t currently cycle, as well as those who do. I was particularly impressed by the focus on speed as well as safety. For so long – and still, often – we have been fighting the assumption that if you’re not a tooled up road warrior, you don’t deserve a fast and comfortable cycle route.
This on the other hand aims at inclusive design. The plans seek to provide overtaking space along most of the link sections (although they could be even wider). This is so everyone can use them, slow or fast. And most junctions promise both safe and speedy passage with designs that look better than any major British cycling scheme I’ve seen so far. Faint praise, I know! – but the designers plan to prioritise cycling by restricting motor traffic movements, proposing banning turns and point closures at many points. This enables cyclists to avoid conflict with turning motors while enjoying substantial green signal time.
At many of the more minor junctions, the designers are proposing tightening the turning space for motors and continuing segregation right up to junction mouths. This makes cycling and walking safer as drivers have to slow right down before turning off the route across the track and pavement. The bidirectional design incorporates a wide segregating strip giving space for turning drivers to wait for the cycle flows to safely pass.
So this is a serious attempt to provide cycle priority as well as protection along two major alignments.
Interestingly, the Place and Movement hierarchies that I’ve recently criticised seem to be helping in this case, as both alignments are also key link routes for other traffic. No doubt within the corridors of Palestra this makes it easier to imagine cycle priority here, in line with the dominant direction of motor vehicle flows, even if this means restricting or slowing other motor traffic movements. And in almost all cases cycles will still be permitted to make movements denied to motorists. Two-stage rights will mean some movements may take a bit longer, but I think on balance there’s enough to compensate, not just safety but also speedy through movement at all the other junctions where you’re going straight on.
So the scheme provides segregation and permeability – two key aspects of good cycle design. Meaning it will have an impact beyond its substantial specific benefits for many thousands of Londoners. Again no, it is not perfect: Westbourne Terrace lets it down, Parliament Square remains a bit of a mess, and an ‘early start’ (rather than proper segregation of cyclists from turning motor vehicle movements) pops up on Southwark Bridge. And the boroughs need to step up: the Quietways that will provide access to the routes need to see a similar step-change (see e.g. here and here).
But I feel more hopeful than I’ve been for some time. And importantly these schemes seem to have been designed to protect other sustainable modes. In many places, pedestrian crossings are being put in or improved, or pavement space will be added. And one reason for bi-directional tracks on the North-South alignment is, I suspect, the desire to obstruct bus passengers as little as possible. Having the track just on one side makes it easier to fit in the necessary bus stop bypasses. And it seems to me that potential disbenefits for cycling of bi-directional tracks are being mitigated.
A TfL Board paper from earlier this year points out that in fact, if cycling levels continue to rise, then without building this kind of infrastructure, more and more bikes will occupy bus lanes and slow the buses down. Even the limited modelling we use now shows high quality infrastructure on bus corridors (like Blackfriars Road) will stop buses getting stuck behind cyclists (and vice versa), which is otherwise increasingly going to happen in congested bus/cycle lanes.
So these plans are not just hugely promising for cycling, they seem to me to be good for sustainable transport more broadly. I hope that this is recognised in responses to the consultation.