Human Streets : Progress requires action

Andrew Gilligan, Former Cycling Commissioner for London, writes:

I’ve thought it for a while, but now it’s in the open. Even as two cyclists in a week are killed on London’s roads, it looks like there’s a campaign to roll back the progress London’s made in cycling and reclaim space for the car.

Right-wing tabloids tell us no-one uses the segregated superhighways. Hampstead nimbies say they “cause pollution.” Part of the Health Service fights a cycle track which will make people healthier. And last month, to “tackle congestion,” the London Chamber of Commerce openly called for the segregated lanes to be ripped up.

This is, quite simply, post-truth politics of the kind best left to the speeches of Donald Trump. Official TfL counts show that across the six busiest hours of the day, the Embankment cycle superhighway that no-one uses is in fact being used by an average of 1,200 people an hour, one every three seconds.

If you wondered how pollution can be caused by the only form of transport that emits no pollution at all, puzzle no more. That claim, too, is false. Data from the superhighway routes, published on the “London Air” website, shows that pollution since they opened is, if anything, less.

As for congestion, there’s only two ways to reduce it. Either you build more roads – physically and politically impossible – or you make better use of the roads you’ve already got. Thanks to the superhighway, 52 per cent of all traffic on the Embankment is now bicycles. Just one lane of that four-lane road, which is what we took out to create the cycle track, is now carrying more traffic than the other three lanes put together.

‘the job of the roads isn’t to move cars – it’s to move people.’

Car journeys on the Embankment are taking a few minutes longer. But the job of the roads isn’t to move cars – it’s to move people. Thanks to the superhighway, TfL figures show, the Embankment is already moving about 5 per cent more people than it did before the bike lane went in. If all those now cycling there switched to cars instead, it would put an extra thousand cars an hour on that road alone. Then we’d see what congestion looked like.

These are, I think, quite strong factual and rational arguments for carrying on doing what we’ve been doing. Yet we’ve learned recently that factual and rational doesn’t always cut it – and some surprising people have succumbed to the disease.

Take St Thomas’s Hospital, in Waterloo, which is campaigning against a “dangerous” new cycle track at a bus stop outside its building, though it admits there is no evidence of any danger at all. Similar tracks have been used at bus stops outside other London hospitals for around a year without incident.

Hospitals are meant to promote health and evidence-based science. But this hospital is against something which will help thousands to be healthier – and save dozens from becoming patients in its own casualty unit – on the basis of no evidence at all. What’s next for St Thomas’s – the return of leech-based medicine?

Take the London Chamber of Commerce itself – a sober enough bunch, you might think. But as well as destroying the bike lanes, its other suggestion for reducing congestion is – scrapping the congestion charge!

Those charge of St Thomas’s, the London Chamber and the other anti-cycling bodies know, I’m sure, that their arguments are pretexts. What they really mean, but dare not say, is something like: “People in cars and taxis, such as myself, are more important than people travelling any other way, and I don’t want to suffer the slightest inconvenience or expense for their sake.”

‘Car and taxi users in central London may be more vocal, but they are not more important.’

As well as being politically incorrect, though, this is arithmetically incorrect. Car and taxi users in central London may be more vocal, but they are not more important. In fact, they are a small minority. Of the 1.3 million people a day who commute into the centre, only 65,000 do so by car. The Embankment is far from the only road where they are outnumbered by cyclists.

Yet motorists still dominate the streets and the air we breathe. Perhaps that explains why they have overreacted to the tiny – literally tiny – reallocations of roadspace we’ve done.

‘The road lobby may not succeed in ripping out the existing lanes – but the real aim is probably to block any new ones’

The road lobby may not succeed in ripping out the existing lanes – but the real aim is probably to block any new ones. There are signs it’s succeeding. My old job, London cycling commissioner, has been vacant for six months. There’s been no-one in the mayor’s office to rebut the nonsense or hassle TfL. Despite Sadiq’s promise to triple protected cycle tracks and “significantly increase” spend, the cycling programme has, for now, all but ground to a halt.

The last big gap in the first phase of the east-west superhighway, along Birdcage Walk and past Buckingham Palace, was supposed to have been finished last month. It hasn’t even started, though work has begun on Constitution Hill.

Only one of three other superhighways we consulted on nearly a year ago has the go-ahead, and even this will not start construction until next summer. Another, on the Westway, may well be scrapped, and a third – through Regent’s Park – be watered down to pointlessness. Segregated tracks on South Lambeth Road have been cancelled. My successor will work only 11 hours a week on cycling, and sit much further from the mayor than I did.

Team Khan has been claiming we rushed things. But the superhighways took three years; only in England could that be called rushing it. Sadiq hasn’t got much more than three years himself before he faces re-election.

I fear City Hall also thinks there’s some magic formula on cycling which can keep everyone happy. You should, and we did, build as much consensus as possible. But meaningful cycle improvements will never have unanimous support, no matter how long you consult on them. I soon learned that for some, no compromise could ever be great enough, any consultation period was always too short and the real aim was to filibuster everything out of existence. I do hope Sadiq doesn’t waste too much time finding that out.

Because we need factual analysis of progress,  a group of us who’ve lived this stuff for years – the well-known blogger Danny Williams, and others – are starting a new initiative, Human Streets, to keep a close eye on cycling and pedestrian improvements, push back against the antis and hold the mayor to account. We’ll know soon how serious Sadiq is about human streets. Because it’s difficult, perhaps it’ll also tell us how serious he is as a mayor.

7 thoughts on “Human Streets : Progress requires action

  1. I’m much encouraged by the Embankment Super Highway – I love it!
    Andrew Gilligan says 52 per cent of all traffic on the Embankment is now bicycles. Is that a calculation based on the number of vehicles or the estimated number of people travelling on that route? 1 bus can carry the equivalent of 50 cycles as we know.
    When talking to cynical car drivers I like to be clear about my facts!

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    1. There are no bus routes along the Embankment, so the question is moot. In addition, TfL estimates on average its buses run at much less than 100% capacity – in fact it’s about 19 passengers per vehicle.

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  2. Khan said the safety evidence was clear, and he felt obliged to “take bold action” to better protect cyclists and pedestrians. “I’m not prepared to stand by and let dangerous lorries continue to cause further heartbreak and tragedy on London’s roads,” he said.

    Just do it now then idiot

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  3. An excellent summery of where we are. I wonder how many of those complaining about cycle routes have visited Barnet where many cycle routes were removed years ago by the current council. You will be unsurprised to learn that traffic flow and congestion is no better as a result.

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  4. I welcome the setting-up of HumanStreets and hope the momentum in new and better cycle lanes is maintained under Sadiq Khan’s period of office. But let’s remember it’s not just about infrastructure. Cycling training is important too and needs ongoing investment- there’s still a lot of ‘bad habits’ out there by a lot of cyclists, albeit a minority of the overall total.

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  5. Hmm Sounds like another politician telling voters what they want to hear to get his foot in the door.. I wonder what proportion of voters were pro-cycle friendly?

    Why don’t we give any of them a probationary period with kpi goals?

    Time for change! Doesn’t make sense in anyone’s world to have a 1600kg vehicle transporting a 80kg person.

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  6. St Thomas’s Hospital encourages driving to work by providing car parking for doctors. It also has cycle parking (now in front of the main entrance) but without sufficient posts so it is often impossible to secure your bike there.

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