Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Westminster Cycling Strategy?

The City of Westminster is working on a cycling strategy. This in itself is a step forward, because until very recently Westminster regarded cycling as an inconvenience to motorists rather than a transport mode. According to Westminster Cyclists, the election of Philippa Roe to lead Westminster Council, "marks a turning point in Westminster's transport policy".

Westminster is currently a pretty grim prospect for cycling. You're confronted with traffic-choked roads and an impermeable network of streets with lots of one-ways, no-entries and banned turns, very few of which have cyclist exceptions. It's not that there is nothing at all in Westminster for cyclists, (see here for Westminster Cyclists' list of good practice) but what little there is has been designed in a piecemeal and incoherent way. For example, Long Acre between Bow Street and Drury Lane has a contraflow lane, but Long Acre between Drury Lane and St Martins Lane is one-way with no contraflow or cycle exception, despite it having low traffic levels, as you can see in the following pic, taken on a weekday lunchtime:

Similarly St Martins Lane itself is one-way and has very little traffic going south from the Long Acre junction. It is plenty wide enough for a decent contraflow lane, but this fact has escaped Westminster's highways people. Again, a weekday lunchtime picture below illustrates the lack of traffic:

When I took this picture I actually saw two cyclists 'salmoning' up the street in the 'wrong' direction. No surprise when the alternative is the deeply hostile, traffic-choked Charing Cross Road.

The above pictures illustrate that while Westminster has made some effort to reduce the permeability of the road network for motor traffic, it hasn't been matched by a corresponding effort to increase the permeability for cycling. So the result is roads that were originally designed around cars, but are largely unused. Given that land in Westminster is more expensive than almost anywhere else in the world, this is a waste. The Tories are fond of pointing the finger at others for wasting public money. In this instance, they need to look in the mirror.

Anyways, back to the Strategy. There is some promising material in it:

Fear of injury is the most commonly cited barrier to cycling, particularly amongst non cyclists, and there are early indications that the number of cyclist casualties on Westminster's roads is set to rise (although to a lesser extent than the corresponding growth in cyclist numbers). The Council will therefore aim to deliver a range of improved routes... Dangerous junctions and sections of road will be improved and the Council will work with the Mayor to deliver his vision for a Central London Cycling Grid.

This is a good start. The acknowledgement that safety is a problem is really key.

Other encouraging snippets:

Appendix 4 is positive about the idea of  permeability - although it doesn't talk about filtered permeability, which is crucial. Without filtering motor traffic levels down, routes will not be subjectively safe to persuade the average person that cycling is a viable way of getting around.

 In Appendix 1 (Policy and Strategy Context), the following policy is mentioned:

the City Council will seek to increase the use, integration and development of public transport,cycling and walking as viable alternatives to motor vehicles and reduce the use of private motor vehicles, particularly, but not exclusively, through and commuter traffic. It will adopt the traffic reduction targets set out in the Mayors Transport Strategy and the London Plan.

Sounds good, eh? Only problem is this policy dates from the Council's 2007 Unitary Development Plan. While you can see in the pictures above there are instances where the council has somewhat reduced the roadspace that is used by motors, there has been no strategy to turn this roadspace into something usable by cyclists, and no focus on subjective safety. Not only are cyclists caught up in the maze of one-way streets and banned turns intended to control general traffic, but cyclists are also caught up at the pinch-points created by funnelling traffic onto the major roads. Take a look at this picture of The Strand on a typical weekday:

The problem with The Strand is it has very narrow lanes westbound, and a central divider, which makes it next to impossible for cycles to filter past the permanent traffic jam.

Elsewhere in the document there are sinister undertones:

The Council will therefore aim to deliver a range of improved routes for cyclists of different abilities,whilst recognising the needs of other road users and avoiding changes that place unacceptable additional pressure on the road network and kerbside. Any changes will be subject to full consultation with the local community. 

This wording implies that safe cycle routes are an additional luxury and a burden that cannot be allowed to displace the vital nature of everything else that goes on today on the roads. The fact is that today there is unacceptable pressure on the road network, and that pressure is from one source - unnecessary motor journeys. Cycling is part of the solution to that problem, not an additional problem. The local community - let alone the cycling community - were never consulted on the changes that accumulated into the current mess. However it is those who have most interest in the status quo that are likely to protest most about change. Will there been any voice in this consultation for those who are damaged most by the current setup: children who cannot cycle to school or who suffer from asthma worsened by London's polluted air, those who suffer from the diseases of a sedentary lifestyle, and of course the London taxpayer who gets to pick up the tab for treating all these preventable diseases?

Anyhow, back to the Strategy, where the reactionary tone continues:

The narrow, historic nature of many of Westminster's streets, means that providing separate space for each road user on every street is simply not feasible and a balance needs to be struck. 
Westminster's roads serve a vital function and it is imperative that congestion is minimised and access to the kerbside managed so as not to hinder the large volume of people travelling on buses and to ensure that deliveries are made in a timely fashion to maintain London's economy.


The fact is there isn't a balance being struck at the moment. The current arrangement is that most roadspace is separated for the use of one dominant mode - motor traffic. While cyclists and pedestrians are technically allowed to use the roads, they are actively discouraged by the danger and intimidation caused to non-motorized travellers by the ubiquitous presence of fast-moving traffic. If Westminster want to insist that there isn't space for segregated cycle facilities, then it needs to do something about the fact that motor traffic isn't sharing the road with anyone else in any equitable sense.

There is not much indication that Westminster intend to re-balance the dominance of motor traffic. The implication in the above quote is that cycling is a threat to this dominance. The Strategy conflates essential motor journeys - buses and vital deliveries - with all the other non-essential motor journeys into one transport mode, as if stopping a Range Rover from parking on a side-street were equivalent to delaying thousands of bus passengers.

I know a number of people who drive into work in central London. They don't need to; they are not disabled and they have access to perfectly good public transport alternatives that are used by other Londoners. There are also a large number of people who get cabs everywhere when they could use public transport. Of course there are occasions where private motor transport is needed, but those cases are a relatively small subset of the journeys we actually see in the West End today. So why should these unnecessary journeys that make extremely inefficient use of roadspace be allowed to exclude more benign alternatives? What balance is being struck there?

 The fact is that 'striking a balance' is not the same has having a free-for-all. It is about recognizing that some journeys are more important than others, and some transport modes are more benign and more resource-efficient than others. But the Strategy shows no sign of recognizing this.

Let's take a look at some typical weekday pictures of 'congestion being minimized' in Westminster:

Above: A stationary Henrietta Street.
Above: Statuesque traffic on Bedford Street.

Above: A glacial pace on William IV Street.

These pictures are typical and put the lie to the idea that congestion is minimized or that deliveries can be made in a timely fashion. The fact is, Westminster's road system is badly broken. And cycling didn't break it. Bikes are in fact conspicuous by their absence. The idea that introducing cycling facilities is going to break something that is currently working well - which seems to be the picture being painted by the Strategy - is a false one.

Cast your mind back to last year during the Olympics. We saw then that Westminster functioned perfectly well with a fraction of the motor traffic. An guess what - congestion was minimized by reducing traffic volumes, not by trying to continue to accomodate the existing unsustainable volume.

Some infrastructure designed to help cyclists, such as cycle lanes and cycle parking requires a reallocation of footway, kerbside or road space, which is not feasible in some locations due to the need to keep pedestrian and traffic flows moving. 

Once again, the Strategy portrays a battle for resources between greedy cyclists on the one hand, and everyone else. Again, it conflates traffic flows and pedestrian movements. How is a threat to 'traffic flow' a threat to pedestrians? This is nonsense. In fact, the opposite is the case. The less motor traffic there is, and the slower it is, the easier it is for pedestrians to cross roads and get around. And the less unnecessary car journeys there are, the faster buses will move. With faster bus services come lower bus running costs and a better-functioning economy as people spend less time getting around.

Alongside a renewed focus and investment in cycling, there must in parallel be a renewed focus on considerate behaviour of all road users. There is a need to encourage all road users to show greater consideration for one another and share space in a safe and responsible manner, enabling safer integration and shared routes rather than a presumption for segregation. This will be achieved through training programmes, enforcement, education and campaigns targeted at both cyclists and non-cyclists,whilst recognising that many people are now becoming more multi modal in their travel characteristicsand should therefore start to demonstrate a greater appreciation of one another's needs. 

In other words, in Westminster's view, we are all one big happy family, and have to get along together. Unfortunately, this vision of motor traffic and cycling rubbing along together is a fantasy. And it is a fantasy that is only sustainable if you ignore much of the rest of the document, which identifies repeatedly that fear of traffic and busy roads is the number one reason people don't cycle. While there are undoubtedly inconsiderate cyclists, they don't put people off driving or walking. Inconsiderate and dangerous driving by contrast, both kills and injures many people directly, and indirectly as the health benefits of cycling are denied to people who are scared off.

In summary, Westminster have produced a document that is about 20 years out of date in a lot of its thinking. However, this is actually a considerable step forward, which tells you a lot about Westminster's shameful historic record on cycling.
But let's not forget one thing: there have been many cycling documents, both good and bad, produced over the years, and none of them so far have been worth the considerable amount of paper they've been written on. This document doesn't actually matter. It is action that counts. Westminster needs to come good on the Central London Cycling Grid. It's just possible that the Mayor, supposedly converted to the benefits of investing in decent cycling infrastructure, cooperating with a council of the same political colour, could deliver something worthwhile.


  1. Great post. Totally agree that its the action that counts.

  2. I've met, and like, Phillipa Roe as a representative. I am a Westminster resident.

    The issue is the team behind Councillor Roe need to get behind the idea that reapportioning road space for cycle traffic does not slow down road traffic nor impact business negatively. Quite the opposite:

    As seen during the Olympics, when motorists who do not need to be driving through London are dissuaded from doing so, they choose other routes quite effectively and traffic flows even better than before. The general atmosphere of roads with less motor traffic is more relaxed and people spend more.

    There are very many commercial deliveries on Westminster's streets now using pedal power. Making space for cyclists will not stop deliveries taking place on time - it will provide alternatives for those who want to cycle, alternatives for those who want to be more green, alternative routes could be opened up to the emergency services, and it will dissuade drivers who simply don't need to be using the roads at all at that time. It will reduce the extra burden on the roads at the end of the school day as more children will be able to cycle instead of using the buses that clog up so much road space in Westminster.

    Cyclists are more likely to shop locally. Business in the city will thrive and it has been reported in the media that estate agents were now finding that having a local barclays bike hire docking station increased the value of nearby properties, which was a rather unexpected outcome of the scheme. I really don't think some members of the back team at Westminster council really understand the financial benefits of cycling to their tax paying businesses and their residents.

    The only thing I can imagine Westminster Council losing revenue over is car parking charges and related parking offence fines. This may be the reason they are not really interested in changing the road hierarchy.