Three deaths of cyclists in the space of three weeks. Grim reading, and an indictment of the lack of progress in improving safety on the highways of this city.
In general we are supportive on this blog of the Mayor's plans for improving the experience for cyclists. But the problem is that the delivery of even the first of those plans is still some way off. Even the most optimistic of observers would struggle to conclude that we won't have to wait decades before we have anything approximating to a London-wide safe cycle network. And in the mean time, cyclists have to put up with a road network that in parts is designed as if no-one cycled in London.
So it follows that there needs to be a short-term plan in place to mitigate the worst excesses of existing car-centric highway design. And one of the worst examples of this is Holborn, where Alan Neve was tragically killed on Monday.
The stretch on which this fatality took place is 4 lanes wide and one-way as you can see from the picture. The left and right lanes are left and right-turn-only respectively, so if you want to go straight on, you need to get right in the middle of the traffic. When the lights change, it's a racetrack, and you'll have vehicles passing you left and right. There is no advance stop box, no cycle lane and no bus lane. (The road is usually full of traffic of course, which you can't see from the picture. You will however notice a female cyclist, on the pavement, no doubt deciding that the chance of a fine is a worthwhile tradeoff to avoid a chance encounter with a construction lorry).
To make a bad situation a lot worse, along with the multiple lanes, the Holborn gyratory is also surrounded by a network of one-way streets. In the immediate vicinity, the following roads are one-way (working around the points of the compass from North):
Old Gloucester Street
Harpur Street (status not clear. Some signage indicates one-way).
Old North Street (has a cycle contraflow)
Red Lion Square (all sides)
Southampton Row is effectively two one-way streets at this point.
Lincoln's Inn Fields (2 sides)
St Clement's Lane
Newton Street (has a cycle contraflow)
High Holborn (west of Kingsway)
View Larger Map
In fact, it would have been a lot quicker to list the streets that aren't one-way. Unless you have a map-like knowledge of the back streets, it is very difficult to avoid the dangerous thoroughfares in this area.
Next we have to ask why all these streets are one-way. Quite simply, the area gets very congested, and to avoid motors trying to rat-run their way around the pinch-points and creating increased road danger followed by total gridlock, it's been necessary to close off the side-streets one by one precisely to make the main roads impossible to avoid. Because the planners didn't consider the effect on cyclists, who don't create congestion or significant road danger, bike-riders are caught in the same fine-meshed net as other traffic and forced onto roads that don't have any provision for cycling, and furthermore are designed in a way that presents the maximum possible danger to vulnerable road users as a side order. Only two of the 27 one-way streets listed above have a cycle contraflow and there appear to be no exceptions for cyclists.
Getting rid of one-way restrictions for cyclists is an easy and cheap thing to do. I also do not believe it is beyond the wit of man to devise a clearly-signposted set of routes along the backstreets in this area, perhaps with a couple of strategically-placed crossings to enable safe passage across the major roads. All this could be done within the space of a year, probably less if we treated the issue as a something that could result in unnecessary loss of life.
This time last year, a Westminster Council spokesman asked:
"Why should cyclists all of a sudden get investment ahead of motorists?"
The answer to this question is in Holborn. In the past, we invested in motoring to the exclusion of other modes. Not only was cycling not invested in, it was deliberately designed out and marginalized, on the basis that cycling was an old-fashioned and unsatisfactory way of getting around, obstructed the free flow of motor traffic, and everyone would soon be able to drive everywhere. That policy failed, and we need to fix the consequences. To say that Holborn needs investment in cycling is a bit like saying Hiroshima needed investment after the second world war.