Those who are inclined to compromise can never make a revolution – Kemal Ataturk
Every day I set off on my bike for a pleasant three mile commute to work. I love cycling around London, it’s cheap and fun, and I particularly enjoy the spring when lots of “fair weather cyclists” swell our ranks along cycle routes.
Much of London is crap to cycle around, but politicians of all colours claim to support a “cycling revolution”. To achieve that, you’d need to make people from all walks of life feel safe – the number one barrier – and make cycling seem pleasant.
Southwark Council did an audit of their roads recently and found that it was impossible to get further than a few hundred metres without using a road requiring “advanced” cycling skills. You need to be happy using “busy roads” with “complex junctions and road features” to cycle to school, to the shops or to work. Not much good, is it?
For a graphic illustration, watch this BBC journalist’s video cycling around Peckham.
If we really want a “cycling revolution”, in which grannies and kids and beginners and road warriors all feel happy cycling around London, we need the right roads. Southwark cyclists have drawn up some great policy on road design. They state, right at the top, the need for:
Safe cycling on main roads, whether Transport for London’s roads or borough roads, by wherever possible, segregated and protected cycle lanes which are at least 1.5 metres wide but preferably wider; where not possible, because of road widths or other factors, maximum traffic speeds of 20 mph, well enforced by speed cameras or otherwise, or other safety features endorsed by a reliable road safety audit; and bicycle friendly junctions.
In other words, make it possible to get around on less busy roads, or to get around well protected on busy roads, with road junctions and features that an inexperienced cyclist could navigate.
So you would imagine a council committed to a cycling revolution is putting in cycle lanes, reducing traffic speeds and making sure junctions are friendly for cyclists, particularly on major cycle routes. Sadly, recent decisions by Southwark Council are making things worse.
This is a stretch of road I use every day heading north into Peckham town centre (map link). It’s not quite on the London Cycle Network route 22, but a lot of people use this main road coming up from Honor Oak, Forest Hill and East Dulwich towards town. It had a 30mph speed limit and no cycle lanes, so obviously needed some work to fit with Southwark Cyclists’ policy.
The council recently carried out some road works here. Can you spot the difference?
They have widened the pavement on the left hand side of these pictures. That’s it. The net effect is that there is less space for cars and buses to overtake cyclists.
The council’s reasoning is that cyclists should share the road with cars here, joining the main stream of traffic instead of hugging the kerb. But the road has a 30mph speed limit. Who cycles that fast? Who is confident enough to hold up a white van man on a 30mph road? Almost nobody, that’s who. Every day I see cyclists weaving through traffic jams and putting up with cars hurtling past at 30mph. My wife, a recent convert to the bike, hates this stretch of road.
As for the pavement, it’s a lightly used stretch that was already comfortably wide enough. If anything, the council could have taken the decision to introduce safe cycle lanes on this road. I would even have supported them nipping a thin strip off the common if needs be, because there is no safe and pleasant space for cyclists on this main road.
Cyclists heading south towards Nunhead and Crofton Park get to stay on the London Cycle Network route 22 the whole way down this road (map link). Cyclists heading that way used to face a useless little bypass that separated them from the stream of traffic for a few metres when the road diverged with its east and west branches. Heading west (off the right side of the picture) you’d get cars cutting across you thinking you were going east the same as them. Heading east down the little bypass you’d emerge for a few metres only to find cars cutting across you to turn left into Scylla Road (the so-called “left hook”).
The council decided to improve this by moving the bypass onto the pavement and making it much longer. For me, heading west, it at least makes it obvious that if I’m on the road I’m heading west. People heading east are probably going to use the bypass. I thought it sounded like a good solution. But…
Here you have it. They have made the bypass longer – great – but made it virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the pavement. Can you see a cycle lane? What’s worse, you now come off this lane straight onto a junction with Scylla Road with no clear priority – are you supposed to wait for cars turning into Scylla Road, or can you move off and make them wait? Every evening cyclists and cars get into a pickle with this one. You can just make out a cyclist in this photo, who had to suddenly brake as a small 4×4 pulled right across her.
Long gone is the cycle lane across the mouth of Scylla Road giving cyclists clear right of way.
This final stretch of road is just a few metres further down from the Scylla Road junction. It used to feature a nice dedicated cycle lane, breaking only for the bus stop further down the road. A pro-cycling council would have removed that car parking and put in a safe cycle lane for people heading north on this cycle route, right?
Sadly, wrong. The council have removed the cycle lane, even though there is ample space, and left the car parking intact. They now expect cyclists to head down a 30mph road without any safe dedicated space.
In their report to councillors, officers stated that 93% of people supported the changes. This is because the consultation asked for an agree/disagree view on all the positive changes. Several people – myself included – naively said we liked the proposals subject to some changes but these views were simply reported as “agree”. Their headline figures disguised the amount of disagreement with the details, and with the wider problems people experience.
I put in a Freedom of Information Request asking for the full responses, and got it remarkably quickly. Here are a few excerpts:
There is a major problem with the proposals for junction of Peckham Rye East and Scylla Road. The cycle bypass cars turn left onto Peckham Rye East and then immediate left onto Scylla Road straight across the cycle lane, without properly checking for cyclists. These proposals do not solve this. Cars should be prevented from using Syclla Road and Old James Street as a cut through to Nunhead Lane.
I believe that this is the wrong way to tackle this danger and unlikely to be effective.
I think it is worse for pedestrians that the road will be 2 way at that point with no island, as I think islands make it a lot easier to cross.
We would like to ensure that this scheme seeks to calm these sections of road to 20mph. Given the ambition of the borough for its roads to become 20 mph and especially the borough roads which it controls, we are concerned that there is insufficient calming.
The current designs could make the rat run, speeding and dangerous left hooks more common, onto a road with a church and a primary school.
The designs miss the opportunity to create a more coherent network of cycle lanes along roads that form part of a strategic London Cycle Network route. Currently they stop and start, sometimes with dashed lines and sometimes mandatory solid lines. This creates a confusing and unpleasant environment, particularly for less experienced cyclists.
The lead officer very kindly debated the merits of the scheme via email, and met Southwark Cyclists on site to make some last minute changes that improved the scheme. But the underlying problems in the area, and the tendency to compromise on cycle safety and pleasantry for the sake of cars, were never up for debate.
Since these works were carried out Peter John, the Leader of Southwark Council, wrote a blog post responding to The Times’ safer cycling campaign. He said:
I recognise that if we are going to persuade people to cycle and really increase the number of journeys made by bike, we need to make the routes for cyclists around the borough as safe as possible.
The trouble is that the council’s own Transport Plan includes the very policies that led to these crazy decisions on Peckham Rye, decisions that are being replicated in other parts of the borough. Their rejection of cycle routes and cycle lanes in the Transport Plan even led to the London Cycle Network being airbrushed out of draft local planning policy for the Peckham and Nunhead area.
Until Peter John amends his Transport Plan to reflect Southwark Cyclists’ policies, and delivers similar changes to this planning document, his pledge to “make the routes for cyclists… as safe as possible” will ring hollow. The revolution will continue to be stymied by compromise for the sake of cars.