According to Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner, Transport for London has been working up detailed plans for a ‘substantial upgrade’ to Cycle Superhighway 2 since late April. This is good news. Cycle Superhighway 2 is not fit for purpose; it’s probably the worst of the Superhighways, which so far are at best of variable quality.
The A11 (along which Cycle Superhighway 2 runs) is a busy main road, with two or three lanes of motor traffic in each direction. In 2012, motor traffic levels stood at 22,586 vehicles per day. Following national guidance (LTN 2/08) – let alone the higher quality standards used in some European countries – this should signal that cyclists need demarcated space. What they instead have along most of the way is a blue ‘ghost lane’ – paint covering half of a bus or general traffic lane, offering no legal or physical protection from the constant stream of motor traffic (including over a thousand HGVs per day).
Over the past twelve years, cycle traffic has increased five-fold on the Mile End Road part of the A11. It now stands at over 2,000 per day. So far, the service provided has been poor, but – if people want to get from Mile End to City – they have little choice but to use Cycle Superhighway 2, or to stop cycling. (Many residents still won’t have even considered cycling, but if they had excellent, safe infrastructure on their local main road, perhaps they would.)
The obvious answer to ‘how should we upgrade CS2’ would be ‘do what the Dutch [and increasing numbers of other European countries] do’. As Ashok Sinha, Chief Executive of the London Cycling Campaign puts it: ‘Building high-quality segregated bike tracks with safe passage through junctions is perfectly possible here, and is the type of measure the Mayor committed to when he signed up to our Love London, Go Dutch campaign in 2012.’
Currently, 2,200 cyclists per day may equate to a peak hourly flow of as many as 350 cyclists (for motor traffic, dividing by 10 is a standard rule of thumb for converting daily flow to peak hourly flow, but bicycle traffic is more tidal than motor traffic). Planning for growth means starting from the 2.5-fold target increase in cycling (= perhaps 800-900 cyclists per hour, at peak times). In a commuter corridor like this, leading to and passing many large workplaces and educational establishments, and given better infrastructure, we might hope to see bigger rises. Planning for thousands of cyclists per peak hour is not unrealistic – after all, numbers have already increased five-fold in twelve years despite the poor infrastructure provision.
Providing good infrastructure in place of ‘ghost lanes’ won’t be cheap, although it’s small change compared to price tags for many Tube and rail projects. It needs to be carefully planned, with minimum disbenefit for bus users, pedestrians, disabled people, and local businesses, including the excellent Whitechapel Market, whose £1 bowls of fresh veg helped keep me healthy as an impoverished student. But this is possible. And the great thing about providing for cycling is that – done well – it doesn’t just benefit people who cycle. Here’s just three (of many) arguments as to why building good quality, separated cycle tracks would be a good thing for local people (not just cyclists):
1. It will benefit the local economy.
Currently, up to several hundred cyclists an hour are riding along the A11, and – with good quality infrastructure – this could increase substantially. That will be good news for local businesses. Evidence from New York shows the dramatic impact that good cycle provision can have on local shops. A protected cycle lane was installed in 8th and 9th Avenues in Manhattan, and not only were there substantial safety improvements, local businesses saw increases in sales of up to 49%, against a background rate of only 3%.
Currently, the cycling environment on the A11 is so hostile that cyclists are unlikely to be able to stop easily. Continuous conflicts with motor vehicles, from left hook hazards to having to negotiate stopped buses and parked and loading vehicles, force cyclists to concentrate hard on the road ahead, blocking out the stores they pass. A wide and comfortable cycle track, with space for overtaking, would provide the conditions to (a) notice local shops and stalls and (b) be able to stop in safety.
But the benefits could be much more far-reaching, as good cycle provision enables more local people to cycle, more often. Tower Hamlets is an economically deprived borough, with many low-wage workers and an unemployment rate more than 50% higher than the English average. Almost 8 out of 10 residents live in areas classified as being amongst the fifth most deprived areas in England. 63% of households in Tower Hamlets don’t have a car. Many people with and without car access are struggling to get by, spending money they don’t have on transport (car insurance, fares, petrol…) We know that the main barrier to cycling is perceived danger; and that current and potential cyclists all say they’d cycle more if it was safer. Improving cycle infrastructure makes cycling more attractive, which can enable local people to spend less on transport (maybe even by giving up their car, which has started to happen in Inner London). They then have more money in their pocket which is more likely to be spent locally, given the nature of cycle journeys. Benefits for all.
2. It can help reduce local air pollution, improving public health.
Mile End Road keeps failing to meet the EU limit values for nitrogen dioxide levels, being 50% over in 2012 (with similar levels measured so far this year). This will be largely due to exhaust fumes. Nitrogen dioxide can cause human respiratory problems at high concentrations, affecting individuals with asthma particularly badly. This is a heavy burden for a borough where people tend to have worse than average health to start off with; and it seems unjust given the low levels of car ownership. The borough also has pressure on housing, meaning that residents may be more exposed to air pollution; they’re relatively unlikely to have gardens and children are more likely to use the streets as play space.
Unlike motor vehicle trips, journeys cycled don’t generate any air pollution, so a shift towards cycling can contribute to better health outcomes for all residents, whether they cycle themselves or not. And of course, for those who do take up cycling, there will be substantial health benefits from physical activity – particularly important in a borough with high levels of obesity. (For more on health impacts of the road network in London, see this important TfL document).
3. It will increase the effective capacity of the A11.
London’s transport system is short on capacity, and the city’s population is predicted to carry on increasing. More efficient modes – like cycling, or buses – effectively increase capacity. Tower Hamlets, like other Inner London boroughs, faces substantial pressure on road space in this context. The proportion of Tower Hamlets residents who drive to work decreased by around 50% between 2001 and 2011, an encouraging sign of the potential for greater modal shift to the bicycle. However, because of a large increase in population, the absolute numbers of residents driving to work rose slightly, while cycling rates remain several times lower than those found over the border in Hackney. Unlocking the suppressed demand for cycling in Tower Hamlets could help address the need to move increasing numbers of people.
Let’s imagine an urban main road with space to fit in two lanes of motor traffic in each direction. According to the Highways Agency’s Design Manual for Roads and Bridges, providing two wide (4.5m each) general traffic lanes rather than two narrow (3m each) lanes increases hourly motor vehicle capacity from 900 to 1,530 motor vehicles, on a ‘variable standard road carrying mixed traffic [mostly private cars]’ (UAP3). How many people is that? Let’s use the Mile End Road figures: assuming the London average bus occupancy of 19.3, cars and taxis at 1.2 (average car occupancy for commuter journeys), and all other motorised modes at having an occupancy rate of 1.0, the current transport mix carries around 1.9 people per motor vehicle. So, let’s say allocating that 3m to wider motor vehicle lanes would mean an increase in capacity from around 1,700, to around 2,900 people carried.
But if, rather than facilitating more motor vehicle traffic, we allocated that 3m to bicycle traffic, 3,500 bicycles per hour could be carried, alongside 900 motor vehicles. In other words, people-carrying capacity would be 5,200 (assuming one person per bicycle) against 2,900 if the extra space was allocated to the motor vehicle mix.(Obviously the carriage of goods is also important, but as the Freight Transport Association recognised in their response to the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, shifting personal travel to bicycles can benefit freight transport).
For some reason, the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges has little to say about increasing capacity through providing for cycling. Luckily, in London the question is forced upon us, because of a combination of factors: severe capacity constraints, the growing prevalence and policy focus on cycling, and falling levels of motor traffic for a number of years. Motor traffic on the Mile End Road is only 60% what it was in 2000, yet the potential for further rises in cycling is being blocked by inadequate infrastructure.
Now is the time to provide additional, high-quality capacity for cycling: residents, local businesses, existing and potential cyclists all have much to gain.