London cycling: pedestrians, congestion and learning from mistakes
The Guardian, 13 October 2016
As Sadiq Khan and his deputy for transport Val Shawcross assess applicants for the role of cycling and walking commissioner, it is becoming ever more apparent that much must be learned from the failings of the previous mayoral regime. Shawcross herself seems fully alive this, observing in a recent interview that cycling policy should not only be about servicing the existing (and rather narrow) commuter and otherwise committed cyclist demographic but properly recognising others’ interests too. “The way some of the previous schemes have been consulted on and designed has led to some residents, who don’t see themselves as cyclists, feeling disadvantaged,” she correctly observed. “I think it’s important that everybody sees that the cycling and walking agenda is for all of us”.
That pointer to a broad, consensual approach, seeking to harmonise and give equal weight to the needs of cyclists and pedestrians and to introducing new infrastructure with the greatest possible consent, suggests that Khan will appoint a very different sort of person from Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner, his long-time media champion Andrew Gilligan.
There had been rumours that the new mayor would retain Gilligan’s distinctive services, but there was never any chance of that. Shawcross’s measured and mature approach to re-fashioning London’s streets is being welcomed at Transport for London (TfL), where some very senior figures have long held that the implementation of Johnson’s vision for cycling was made more troublesome by a high-handed “Lone Ranger” at City Hall.
It is no secret that there were transport professionals at the agency who thought the superhighway programme was railroaded through to detrimental effect. “I think that the generally-held opinion of the speed with which the last tranche of cycle superhighways was delivered is that it was sub-optimal,” was how TfL’s director of road space management Alan Bristow delicately put it to the London Assembly transport committee on Tuesday when contributing to its investigation into congestion.
One consequence of the past approach appears to have been making that problem worse, although the policy is meant to help reduce it. Some of this has been temporary, brought about by the lanes’ construction, but a report to the City of London Corporation’s policy and resources committee, which was considered last week, said that “areas of traffic congestion can frequently be found on those roads affected by the [superhighway] scheme” and their “primary alternatives”, and that there is less flexibility for re-routing traffic to cope with road closures for construction and utility works and so on.
The report records that some of the information being gathered by TfL as it monitors the impact of the superhighways is shared with City officers “on a daily basis” and largely supports their observations. But it also stresses that these are early days for “definitive conclusions”, and that is surely right. The impact of the schemes needs to continue to be followed carefully.
Also for the longer term is the matter of how much they are being used. TfL is encouraged by increased numbers of cyclists on the superhighways during peak hours, but outside of those it is possible to stand for several minutes next to CS2 at Mile End or to look down at the east-west CS from the footbridge by Embankment station and never have more than one two-wheeled traveller, if that, within view.
Will taxpayers’ money turn out to have been spent to best effect on Johnson’s “cycling vision”? Shawcross and the future cycling and walking commissioner should give that question plenty of thought.