My personal view: I can’t support the current plan, because I belive it fails to create welcoming conditions for inclusive, mass cycling (and actually, I think we could do better for walking too, while maintaining good bus services). I’ve thought hard about this. I know there’s goodwill and a lot of thought and effort gone into the plan, and even the limited advances offered are contested. People whose opinions I respect disagree. But ultimately this is the bottom line for me:
If we can’t get inclusive space for cycling, in a major, four-year scheme put forward by one of London’s most progressive boroughs for cycling, in a world class university quarter with key cycle alignments: will we ever get it?
Inclusive cycling is close to my heart. With colleagues I’ve been analysing English Census data from 2001 and 2011 and I was shocked to see how limited our ‘cycling revolution’ is. I thought places with increases in cycling would see some increased diversity among cyclists. This turns out to be wrong. The gender balance of cycle commuting in Inner London has barely shifted and the age balance has tilted further towards the young. The data suggest even where cycling is rising, cycling conditions still disproportionately exclude women, older and disabled people. Rises in cycling are also skewed towards richer areas.
It’s as if, even at our best we’ve still been building cycle routes aimed at a minority of adults who are younger, middle-class, able-bodied, fit, and male. Ironically those tend to be groups with good access to alternative modes (e.g. cars) and less need of cycling’s health benefits than those excluded. So I would argue for inclusive design for equity reasons, but also, it’s the only way we will ever achieve mass cycling, with all the associated benefits for our city. And first this means space for cycling, away from fast or heavy motor traffic (although of course, not only that). I think alongside the other laudable objectives of the West End Project, building for mass, inclusive cycling needs to be an explicit priority.
What do we need to change, for the plan to be inclusive? I think the headline ask is for at least one of the two main North-South roads running down through the scheme area (either Tottenham Court Road – “TCR” or Gower Street) to be ‘safe and inviting for cycling’ for people of all abilities. To simplify: 20mph speeds and under 2000 Passenger Car Units per day OR high quality segregation (the draft Cycling Level of Service Assessment in LCDS is also useful).
As discussed below, neither TCR nor Gower will provide safe and inviting cycling under the current plans. Ways of getting there are (a) high-quality segregated infrastructure or (b) filtering to very low levels of motor traffic. My suggested compromise is (b) on Gower Street (close it to through motor traffic) while retaining bus priority on TCR. But if that’s not on offer, I’d want proper segregation from high volumes of buses or other motors, the approach the Vole argues for. Both have pluses and minuses, but I note that Vole’s and my plans both involve reducing and restricting private motor traffic. They don’t hit other sustainable modes to boost cycling, but offer more radically liveable solutions.
I say more below. But whatever you think, please find out more and make your voice heard. This is a major Central London scheme, it affects many of us directly and will set the tone for the future. Look at the proposals; go to Camden Cyclists’ open meeting about it on 30th June, 7pm – 9pm at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel, 41 Fitzroy Square W1T 6AQ. (You must book here). There you’ll hear from Phil Jones and John Futcher, the lead councillor and officer for the scheme (good people who listen and care passionately about sustainable transport), put forward your views and contribute to LCC’s response. You can also join cycle campaign discussions via Cyclescape and respond to the official consultation.
What’s good and bad about the scheme, and why I’m not supporting it
Current conditions for cycling on TCR and Gower Street are terrible. I’m too scared to ride on Gower Street: as the consultation site states, ‘There is a speeding problem in the northern section of Gower Street and a congestion problem in Bloomsbury Street‘.
I cycle a stretch of TCR on my route to work. On this three lane road there’s a narrow cycle lane which, although mandatory at peak hours, is usually blocked by loading motors. I sometimes walk on Gower Street and – despite the beautiful historic buildings – the severance, fumes and noise caused by three lanes of motor traffic make this unpleasant at best. So, I appreciate that Camden are acknowledging these issues and, as elsewhere, trying hard to create more liveable, people-friendly environments. I like some of the proposed permeability improvements for cycling at junctions or side streets, such as filtering Bayley Street.
There are some often very nice aspects of the plans related to public space. The Huntley Street improvements look good and will benefit patients at the local hospitals. There’s a lovely looking proposed green space at Alfred Place – where I hope some considerate cycling will still be permitted, given motor vehicle access will be allowed for loading purposes at peak times. I’ll discuss Princes Circus below – the proposals do not, sadly, look good for cycling – but the idea of turning this fume-choked hell-hole into a pleasant place to sit is great.
The proposals are as a whole clearly an improvement from the very poor current situation in this area.
BUT. And it’s a big BUT. These plans are deeply inadequate for cycling. I know there are compromises to be made. I know we are not going to get something perfect, and that we need to provide good bus services, cater for large and growing numbers of pedestrians, as well as supporting the transition to mass cycling. But while a relatively hardy commuter like me will see benefits on my journey – for which I am grateful – the improvements don’t mean facilitating cycling for all.
As I mentioned earlier, the London Cycling Campaign has policy suggesting people on bikes should not be expected to share space with high volumes of motor traffic (defined as over 2,000 Passenger Car Units per day). Both main roads, TCR and Gower (both the A400), will fail this under the proposed scheme, and both are likely to score poorly on the draft LCDS Cycling Level of Service tool. This issue will come up again and again in London. And there will be many cases where policy-makers say ‘sorry, we’re prioritising buses, so we can’t provide space for cycling’ and cycle advocates have to accept this. We won’t get space for cycling on every road. Sometimes it’ll be ‘sorry, pedestrian priority means we need to re-route buses’. It’s hard. If it was easy there would be children and grandparents riding everywhere now.
But especially as Gower St and Tottenham Court Road are alternative alignments on the Central London Cycle Grid, surely one of them should be good for mass, inclusive cycling. That shouldn’t be an unreasonable thing to hope to see, in 2018, which is when it’ll be built, surely?
TCR, the wider road, will fail the PCU test on two-way bus traffic alone – there may be around 900 buses daily each way, which would equate to 3,600 PCUs. On top of this there may be substantial numbers (thousands daily) of private motor traffic able to join from side streets (taxis will be able to access most of Tottenham Court Road this way during the restricted hours), along with full private motor vehicle access on Sundays, before 8am and after 7pm, and access for loading (which will be allowed at peak times, when cycling levels are highest).
Even without this though, the numbers of buses involved are too high for mass, inclusive cycling. While both roads will be in Camden’s 20mph zone, this on its own, while welcome, does not compensate for the high volumes of motor traffic that will remain on both.
What about Gower Street? With full two-way access for motor vehicles, levels will be far too high for sharing (currently it sees 15,000 motor vehicles per day one way). In theory segregation could be the answer here. But the proposed ‘protected lanes’ cannot have adequate effective width (for such a key corridor, we need 2m and ideally 2.5m each way). With a 9-9.5m carriageway width for most of the road, two motor vehicle lanes of 3m seems only to leave 3-3.5m for the two lanes, with the width of the segregating islands meaning an effective width of between 1.2-1.4m per lane, at most 1.5m if you narrow pavements and carriageway slightly.
And even with armadillos between us, I don’t much fancy riding in a 1.5m lane close to several HGVs a minute at peak, and I’m pretty sure those currently too scared to cycle in Central London won’t be attracted by it. Camden’s own Royal College Street is much better, offering 2m each way and greater segregation – and this at lower motor traffic flows. And while narrow light segregation could be justified as allowing scope for expansion, there is no space for that here without returning to the one-way system (and why create something so narrow in the first place, on a key alignment?) The existence of loading bays in the cycle tracks doesn’t inspire confidence either.
It’s also worrying to read in a powerpoint about the scheme (and two of the other options) that there will be big increases of motor traffic on Gordon Street, a recommended ‘quiet cycle route’ linking the Torrington track and university area with Euston. There’s a base projection of 309 motors per peak hour on Gordon St by 2016. That’s likely to mean over 2,000 PCU which – on a key route – suggests an urgent need for filtering. However, the preferred West End Project option as modelled predicts a large increase to 443 motors per peak hour by 2016 – which could well equate to 5,000 PCU per day, a long way from ‘quiet’.
Rising motor traffic on Gordon St ispredicted for all three options, but the chosen plan is a double whammy for cycling. Unlike the other two options (which, whatever their other disbenefits, offer fairly wide segregated tracks) neither TCR nor Gower Street provide good space for cycling, while an existing alternative may be lost.
What do I think is needed?
Camden Council has, to its credit, considered a range of other options, some of which would be better for cycling than the selected option (the other advantages and disadvantages vary). These are as follows:
Options 1 and 2 are both clearly worse for cycling than the current proposals, as they introduce additional motor traffic on TCR, while still expecting cyclists to share space with motors.
Option 3 involves two-way buses on TCR while also providing a segregated cycle track in each direction. It is stated that 13m is needed to fit this in without losing large amounts of pavement, and therefore it wasn’t assessed further. Option 3 could clearly meet the LCC standards, but it’s unlikely to leave enough pavement for the high and rising levels of pedestrians.
(An alternative might be to instead use a bi-directional track on the East side, which would mean more efficient use of space, as cycle flows are highly tidal at peak. These tracks are more problematic at junctions although I think we could do better than some of our existing bi-directional tracks – and I think we shouldn’t rule them out as a potential solution where there are substantial competing demands for space from different sustainable modes.)
Option 4 involves closing either Gower Street or Tottenham Court Road to all traffic except cycling. This one was also rejected early on because it ‘would lead to an unacceptable amount of traffic diverting onto surrounding residential streets and unacceptable delays to buses.’ The assumptions here seem to be (a) that rat-running would be possible and (b) that the other road would then be open to all two-way through motor traffic.
One version of 4+ would mean going ahead with something like the current plans for Tottenham Court Road, but also (a) closing Gower to through motors and (b) restricting rat-running by restricting motor access to local streets – ideally by thorough area-based filtering within the project area, ensuring full local access to addresses, but stopping drivers using residential streets as cut throughs. (Currently there are some extra restrictions on rat-running planned; a mixture of modal filters and one-way restrictions). While TCR would still not be great for cycling, Gower would then experience such low levels of motor traffic that it should meet the LCC threshold and score highly on the LCDS Level of Service tool. And personally, I’d accept that compromise, although there would still be details to be worked out on that and other streets.
Making Gower Street cycle-only (and limited access) would have substantial benefits for walking and cycling. Just imagine – instead of thousands of two way motor vehicles per day, there would be two-way cycles (and very occasional and slow use by motors as ‘guests’). Massive benefits for residents and local workers who’d have a true cycle corridor available to them. Also for the thousands and thousands of students and hospital patients who will otherwise continue to suffer from severance, air pollution and injury risk caused by Gower Street remaining a busy motorised thoroughfare. Gower Street could become part of a ‘University Corridor’, which I imagine as a direct, safe and pleasant route running all the way from the UCL buildings at Euston Square to Kings College at Waterloo.
So a reworked, more ambitious Option 4+ is, I think, my preferred option. While a shame that TCR would remain inadequate for cycling, it turns Gower Street into the true ‘place’ it should be with multiple benefits for cycling and walking, while allowing the bus priority on TCR and the gyratory removal, that Camden Council are clearly very keen on. It’s a compromise, but I think an acceptable one, whereas the current plans aren’t.
There are (what look like pretty narrow) protected lanes proposed along a major road – here part of Shaftesbury Avenue. Most riders are likely to be accessing Endell Street, but while motors have a direct and smooth route onto the continuation of Shaftesbury Avenue, it’s really not clear what cyclists do. A shared use crossing doesn’t provide them with an easy route to Endell either North or Southbound. This needs re-thinking in order to allow cyclists to safely use this important alignment: I would suggest a bi-directional cycle track on the East side of Shaftesbury Avenue would offer greater safety and connectivity than the lanes, alongside changes to the crossing arrangements to allow riders easily to get N-S between Endell Street and the Shaftesbury track.
Finally, what about Camden’s other options, 5 and 6? I think these have been too speedily dismissed, although on balance I suspect option 4+ might be more likely to gain broader support given its clear pedestrian and liveability co-benefits. Options 5 and 6 both involve keeping the one-way system, and the consultation site warns of potential bus delays.
However, both also involve the provision of protected space: either a bi-directional track on TCR, or a one-way track on each road. And providing segregated tracks is likely to provide a much higher level of service than the current plans, even though the junctions need careful consideration where off-side or bi-directional tracks are provided. Even given Options 5 and 6 are not perfect, an option providing protected space could be a workable alternative for cycling, even if compromises had to be made on space at the bottom of TCR.
At the moment, key reasons for ruling out options 5 and 6 are limited space at the bottom of Tottenham Court Road. The smallest width has been used to constrain the whole option. Not surprisingly this means that cycle safety is traded off against bus times and pedestrian comfort, making it appear impossible given the high volumes of pedestrians and buses.
Yet it might be possible to put, for example, two motor traffic lanes along most of Tottenham Court Road as per option 5, allowing bus priority on that stretch. This could substantially reduce the bus delays that would occur if TCR was only one lane along the entire length, which would mean no bus priority (as per option 5a). The Vole’s plans pick up on this, and add a segregated Southbound lane on Gower Street.
It doesn’t look like these kinds of compromises (4+ or the Vole Plan) have been considered, but I think they seem more promising than 1.5m lanes on Gower Street with little protection from adjacent heavy motor traffic. Personally, I think a filtered Gower Street may be the most promising, but there’s a good case for segregation on TCR if a filtered Gower is not going to happen as part of this scheme.
Of course, there are bike-related improvements under the current plans, but these will mostly offer minor benefits for existing ‘cyclists’. They will not encourage mass cycling by people currently reluctant to ride in Central London. On these grounds I think we – those who identify as cycle advocates, and other people who want to see the best solution for equitable, sustainable and healthy transport – need to suggest something better.
And finally again; whatever you think, find out more: let’s talk about whether, and how, this scheme could cater for mass, inclusive cycling in 2018. If you can, go to Camden Cyclists’ open meeting about it on 30th June, 7pm – 9pm at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel, 41 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 6AQ. Contribute to cycle campaign discussions via Cyclescape ; read and respond to the consultation.