It might surprise you to know, given Transport for London's less-than-stellar record on cycling, that its current Commissioner, Peter Hendy, rides a bike. Hendy recently delivered a lecture to the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics about cycling, which was part of a launch of a resource for planners on cycling called The Hub. The Hub is apparently largely stuff looted from the now-defunct Cycling England.
I'm going to take a quick look at some of the things Hendy said in his lecture:
"London has undoubtedly been the engine of growth in Britain and is where cycling has really taken off – up 150% since 2000. Nearly 150,000 people per week cycle on the 6,000 hire bikes through the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme. But while it's one thing to pedal round Hyde Park Corner or the Vauxhall gyratory in the rush hour, in outer and suburban London, there are plenty of quiet roads and routes that could be developed to help people leave their cars at home."
Well, that pretty neatly sums up the problem in London, where very few people cycle in comparison with Holland, Germany or Scandinavia. Hyde Park Corner and the Vauxhall Gyratory both figure in the Top 10 most dangerous junctions for cyclists, which is testament to TfL's failure to get to grips with the problem of cycle safety on main routes. Meanwhile, 'quiet' routes are still dominated by motor vehicles which is why people don't cycle there either - they desperately need 'development'.
"...The Biking Boroughs Scheme to really try to develop local cycle hubs in places where the potential for a shift to cycling is greatest and resources can be targeted. These cycle hubs will become beacons of cycling excellence in outer London and act as catalysts for change in these areas. In pursuit of this, earlier this year, thirteen councils across London made successful bids for a share of £4million funding after pledging to put cycling at the heart of their local transport plans."
That's right. Money being dished out to boroughs like Merton, which really has very little clue about cycling. And of that already cheese-paringly small £4M slice of London's massive transport budget, Merton will receive £100,000. Over 3 years. To put that amount in perspective, one Government department, the Treasury, spent nearly £100,000 just on taxi fares last year.
So what's the £4M going to be spent on?
"more cycle lanes and other cycling infrastructure"
Ah yes - no doubt the kind of lanes that are usually blocked by parked vehicles and stop abruptly when TfL decide that 'traffic flow' is more important that cyclists' safety.
"This growth [in cycling] is driven by a number of factors. Across London, there are many more cycle lanes than there were 10 years ago and measures such as cycle zones at traffic lights together with safety mirrors give cyclists more confidence "
Confidence?? Gimme a break! Hendy obviously doesn't cycle in London very often, or he wouldn't be able to say any of that with a straight face. 'Cycle zones' at traffic lights are more often than not blocked by motor vehicles, assuming you can get to them in the first place. Quite often there is no lead-in lane, at other times the lead-in lane is blocked, and you can end up in the most vulnerable position on the left side of a queue of vehicles, any one of which may left-hook you without warning.
"Here in London, the London Cycle Network has carefully paved the way for today's cycling environment for over a decade."
That's about right - today's cycling environment is a pretty good indication of why so few Londoners cycle. The London Cycle Network is a random collection of difficult-to-find small blue signs directing you down roads where little or no effort has been made on cyclists' safety or reductions in motor traffic. There is almost no segregation from motor traffic. The routes are full of hazards just to make a cyclist's life interesting - pinch points created by pedestrian islands, speed cushions that cause traffic to swerve around whilst trying to overtake you, lines of parked cars that make you risk a 'dooring', or alternatively, the brave decision to 'take the lane' may elicit a friendly musical accompaniment of blaring horns from your fellow road-users. Hendy is obviously under the impression that the LCN is the reason more people are cycling in London. This is nonsense. The Wife used the LCN to take the kids to Wimbledon Park and was scared out of her wits by the behaviour of drivers, as a result I'm under strict instructions to avoid that route. The reasons more people cycle in London are: 1) Osama Bin Laden; 2) Sweaty, unreliable, expensive public transport; 3) 4 years of recession squeezing household budgets. LCN has improved conditions on parts of some routes, but as a network it sstill falls well short of what an average person would judge 'safe enough to cycle'.
"Safety is improving too: casualty rates are falling, from 60 per billion kms in 1980 to less than 25 today - still too high of course, but moving in the right direction."
Interesting use of statistics there. 25 is 41% of the 1980 figure (60). Comparing the total fatalities across all modes, in 2010 - 1857 - is 31% of the 1980 figure of 5953. So cycling has got relatively more dangerous compared with other modes. And what's worse, the absolute numbers of cycling casualties have gone up over the past two years, not down, despite the 'safety in numbers' effect that should be making cycling safer.
"In short, while more can and is being done to encourage cycling and
improve provision, cycling is truly a serious mode that offers real
benefits for the 21st century travel planning."
I guess by 'improved provision' he means schemes like Blackfriars Bridge? Anyway, let's cut to the meat and potatoes of the speech, which is where Hendy sets out a series of steps that could make this a 'Century of Cycling':
"1. Further improvements to cycle safety such as cycle lanes and traffic safety mirrors, cycle zones at traffic junctions;
2. Much more cycle training not only for cyclists – adults and children - but also PCV and HGV driver training to help reduce the 40% of cycling accidents that involve a heavy goods or passenger carrying vehicle;
3. Investing in more cycle parking conveniently located in towns and near bus and railway stations and providing easy to access journey/route planning information for cyclists;
4. Workplace and school travel planning to get the cycling culture ingrained into daily commuting and school runs;
5. Making cycling itself more attractive means overcoming come challenges such as: improving its 'reputation'; removing barriers to cycling; challenging misperceptions of 'danger'; using more green spaces to make more attractive cycle ways to encourage people to use the bicycle for leisure and commuting; and increasing the understanding of cycling design considerations amongst professionals and ensuring these are adequately reflected within scheme designs – particularly in road schemes.
6. Continuing with Sky Rides and similar schemes, not just in London but on a localised basis across the country to introduce and encourage cycling – around 400,000 people have taken place in these since their introduction in 2009."
Here's why none of the above will work. Cycle lanes and advance stop boxes don't work if they're of the low quality that's typical in London. Lanes need to be segregated - a word that Hendy doesn't use once. There's not much point in training people who aren't going to cycle - and the reason they don't is fear of traffic...which Hendy dismisses as a 'misperception'. That's right - when you get cut up at a junction, or a car passes you a cigarette paper's width away, you're deluded - it's actually perfectly safe. School travel plans? We've already got those, and they don't work, for the simple reason that most parents won't let their kids cycle to school when they've no choice but to mix with fast-moving traffic. Using green spaces? Great idea - until you consider what happens in Richmond Park at the weekend. People are perfectly happy to cycle in large numbers on the quiet segregated paths, but on the busy roads nearby that are devoid of decent cycle facilities, the numbers unaccountably fall off. And it's the same story with Sky Rides. People love cycling when there's not the constant threat posed by motor traffic. But if they cycle back through the Victoria gyratory system, they get a taste of the reality that commuting cyclists face every day - and they don't like it. So the bike goes back in the shed until next year's Skyride.
"Britain has a reputation for being a laggard in cycling in international standards: the Dutch, Danish and Germans are certainly well ahead of us at least in ridership for local journeys, but in at least two of those countries, their topography and quieter roads greatly incentivise cycling."
This is completely disingenuous. London is mainly flat, and the weather in Holland and Denmark is no better than in Britain. The UK really has no excuse for being behind other North European countries. As for quiet roads - the reason they're quieter is because people cycle. In any case, with segregated paths, traffic isn't the massive disincentive to cycling that it is in the UK. Segregation really is the elephant in the room that Hendy's very careful to avoid eye-contact with.
Hendy does have a parting shot:
"cycling is now part of transport planners' 21st century lexicon of solutions for improving urban spaces - giving town and city centres back to the people as shared and green space, instead of more roads for more cars, 'bringing the village back into the city'. "
Wow. Gimme some of that. I hope he's told his underlings at TfL. Maybe we can look forward to Parliamemt Square being pedestrianized?
Now I don't want to be too hard on Peter Hendy. The state of cycling in London can't be blamed on one person, even if that person is the head of the organization in charge of - er - the state of cycling in London. Hendy has political masters who are scared stiff of upsetting the status quo with any bold moves. On the other hand, if you look at Blackfriars Bridge, at King's Cross, or at any of the other cycling causualty blackspots, you see a pattern of cyclist safety being pushed aside to make way for more, faster motor vehicles. Even TfL's best efforts for cycling - the Superhighways - are in a different league to facilities on the Continent (the Blue Square Premier league, perhaps?), with little attempt to provide safe passage past side roads or through junctions, or even to consistently keep cyclists out of the traffic flow. Hendy's attempts to take credit for increases in cycling are particularly wince-inducing. I don't know anyone who's started cycling because they thought it had become safe. Some people feel safe on the Superhighway blue lanes, but that's in comparison with other cycling conditions in London, and the blue lanes disappear when you most need them, and only operate 6 hours a day, in what is increasingly a 24hr city.
I have no reason to believe that Peter Hendy is not a perfectly charming person - but he's in charge of an organization that has proved itself to be institutionally anti-cycling. Until we see signs that TfL takes cycling seriously, I won't be taking seriously anything Peter Hendy has to say about cycling.