Westway route ruled out, where is the alternative?

Andrew Gilligan , Former Cycling Commissioner for London

Sadiq Khan is to cancel the extension of the east-west superhighway from central London via the Westway flyover to White City, Shepherds Bush, Park Royal, the Old Oak Common development area, Wembley, Acton and Ealing.

The cancellation will probably mean that no segregated cycle route from central to west London is delivered in this mayoral term. It was confirmed by Sadiq’s deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, at a meeting with British Cycling’s Chris Boardman earlier this month.

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Image: TfL visual of the proposed Westway cycle scheme

There was better news about the other two routes we consulted on in February: Shawcross said they would be delivered “on the same routes as originally consulted,” though there is still no word about whether the gate closures on the Outer Circle – the crucial element of the CS11 (Regent’s Park) proposal – will survive. The gates really are a key test for the mayoralty’s seriousness about cycling – but then, so is the Westway.

The Westway cancellation will be presented as a rerouting: Shawcross told Boardman that the extension “will not be routed on the Westway. We are looking at alternative routes that will be better.” In practice, though, and whatever the (doubtless genuine) intention, it probably spells the death of any meaningful cycle route through the area.

An elevated motorway does at first hearing sound like a weird place for a bike route, but it got 71 per cent support in the consultation. There was almost no opposition, apart from the Westfield shopping centre, which was reportedly worried about delays to car passengers. (The actual maximum delay to any car-borne shopper’s journey to or from Westfield, by the way, would have been 2 minutes. There would be longer delays from Westfield to central London in the morning peak, but nobody visiting the shopping centre would be driving in that direction at that time.)

And the flyover is in fact the easiest place to put a route. There are none of the usual issues with residents, pedestrians, buses, parking, loading, or junctions. There were even benefits for motorists – several westbound journeys would have been quicker. The Westway is also, crucially, the only mayoral-controlled road into a large chunk of West London. The surface roads are owned by a borough, Kensington & Chelsea, which does not want segregated tracks on them.

The Westway is also, crucially, the only mayoral-controlled road into a large chunk of West London. The surface roads are owned by a borough, Kensington & Chelsea, which does not want segregated tracks on them.

We could have had the Westway superhighway by next year. But a rerouting will mean perhaps two years’ delay for new designs, new traffic modelling, and a new consultation that will make the row with the local nimbies over CS11 look like a child’s tea-party.

Shawcross and Khan will have to exercise truly miraculous powers of persuasion on K&C to get them to accept segregated tracks – and then to keep them on board through the inevitable nimby tsunami during the consultation.

Shawcross and Khan will have to exercise truly miraculous powers of persuasion on K&C to get them to accept segregated tracks – and then to keep them on board through the inevitable nimby tsunami during the consultation.

It’s not totally impossible, I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely. There is little constituency for cycling among the elderly, wealthy party members who control safe council seats in K&C, and not even an active LCC group (its blog has not been updated since 2014). In a perfect world, I too would have wanted to put the superhighway on the surface – but you have to make the best of the world you’ve got. I could have told Team Khan all this if they’d asked – we actually did think this stuff through – but they didn’t ask, and I’m not convinced they’ve yet given it the same amount of thought.

Under the “alternative and better” plans, then, what we will probably finish up with is either nothing at all, or another essentially pointless, old-style, paint-on-road scheme.

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.

Most people support the idea of a more cycling-friendly city

This article was originally published in the Evening Standard

Andrew Gilligan, Former Cycling Commissioner for London, writes:

One of the things about the people who oppose making London less dominated by cars is that they believe, often quite sincerely, that they speak for the majority.

The main group against the “mini-Holland” street closures, cycle lanes and pavement-widening in the borough of Waltham Forest calls itself “E17 Streets For All”. The opponents of a similar scheme in Palmers Green, Enfield, claim that it will benefit only “one per cent of the population” and is “deeply unpopular”.

Well, the consultation results for that scheme are in — and it turns out that it’s not “deeply unpopular” at all. Almost 1,650 people responded, incredibly high for a local consultation.

Of these, 39 per cent opposed the plans and 60 per cent supported them. Given the level of misinformation and playing on people’s fears deployed against the scheme, it’s a fantastic result.

On thousands of leaflets and posters the people of Palmers Green were told that “cyclists will have priority over ALL other road users”, “local people wouldn’t be able to park to use their local shops” and “businesses wouldn’t be able to receive deliveries”. Not one of these claims is true. Parking for Palmers Green shoppers will in fact rise under the plans.

And of course, if the schemes only benefited “one per cent of the population” — the proportion of Enfield residents who cycle now — they would not have been so well supported. Nor would the plans in the other two mini-Holland boroughs, Waltham Forest and Kingston, which got similar levels of backing.

Residents in all these areas, the vast majority of them non-cyclists, want these schemes because they know almost everyone will benefit. The mini-Hollands will transform traffic-swamped town centres into places where people want to be, whether or not you are on a bike.

Take Enfield Town itself, the next scheme in that borough’s mini-Holland. It currently has the eighth highest retail vacancy rate of any London town centre. But you can see what vast potential it has. There’s a cobbled market place with a market cross and the 14th-century church tower behind. There’s an old water pump and a coaching inn.

Right now, for most of the week, the market is a car park. The centre is an all-day traffic funnel, buried under a double lane of trucks and cars, most of them just passing through. Our proposals take out traffic, except buses and bikes. We want to restore something of the lovely old country town that Enfield once was.

Until now, bluntly, many traditional town centres such as Enfield, Walthamstow and Palmers Green were playing in the wrong game, trying to compete with out-of-town retailers on ease of access by car — a contest they can never win. The only way they can prosper is to play to their strengths; to compete on the quality of the shopping experience. By, for instance, turning an historic shopping street from a noisy, fume-filled traffic pipe into a pedestrian-friendly space. By turning a market place from a car park into somewhere you can sit and have a coffee.

Everywhere else this has been tried  businesses complained it would cut trade. Everywhere it has done precisely the opposite. In Herne Hill, a road closure caused trader fury. The Herne Hill Society website now says it “has been crucial to the continuing regeneration of Herne Hill” and is “such a success that it now seems strange that it attracted so much controversy”.

“Most of those who gain from the street closures, pavement widenings and new public spaces will actually be pedestrians”

These schemes work economically. But they also work democratically. The key political fact about traffic reduction schemes — forgotten by too many politicians — is that in most of London, the majority, often the vast majority, of journeys are not made by car. In the centre, only about 10 per cent of journeys are by car or taxi. Ninety-three per cent of Londoners, according to a YouGov poll, seldom or never drive in central London.

That is why the congestion charge didn’t produce the mass political backlash that so many predicted. It is why the chauffeur-driven and taxi-using classes from the City and Whitehall found themselves relatively isolated in opposing our new cycle superhighways (which got 84 per cent support in the consultation and 67 per cent in an independent YouGov poll.)

Even in Enfield, 52 per cent of trips to the town centre are already made by public transport, cycling or walking. In Walthamstow it is about 75 per cent.

And if we’ve been guilty of anything, I think it’s been not making it clear enough that these schemes aren’t just for cyclists. Pedestrians sometimes feel overlooked in the battle for media and political attention. But most of those who gain from the street closures, pavement widenings and new public spaces will actually be pedestrians.

None of that means we don’t care about people who drive. We changed the superhighway plans to keep more traffic capacity. Most (I admit not all) of today’s delays are temporary, caused by the building works. And this may sound weird, but even drivers, in the end, will benefit from these schemes.

With London’s population growing by 120,000 a year, there are only two ways to stop the place coming to a halt. The first is to build more roads, which is politically (and physically) impossible. The second is to encourage more people on to vehicles such as bikes, which take less space.

Amid recent anti-cycling noise, a slight note of equivocation has crept into both main mayoral candidates’ statements about the issue. Sadiq Khan supports the superhighways “in principle” but says they have been “a disaster… for those who need to use their cars”. Zac Goldsmith has said: “I wouldn’t want to row back on the cycle superhighways. But where I would put the emphasis now is on the quietways” — backstreet routes with minimal intervention.

Well, cycling schemes often do create a lot of noise. But the lesson from Waltham Forest, Enfield and indeed the superhighway is that noise is not the same as numbers.

Quite often, our opponents accuse us of not listening. We should, and we will, always listen to objections to make sure we get the details right. But we — and our opponents — must also listen to the majority who say these plans are a good thing and want them to happen.

Originally Published in The Evening Standard: