Super cycling in Peckham

In April 2012 I joined 10,000 soggy cyclists in the rain to call for a big change to our streets, so whoever won the imminent Mayoral elections would ensure our streets would be safe and pleasant for cycling.

In response to months of fantastic campaigning, and not wanting all the cycling votes going to the Green Party, Boris Johnson duly signed up, telling cyclists: “I am fully committed to meeting the three key tests of LCC’s ‘Love London, Go Dutch’ campaign”.

Eight months later, TfL began to consult on the plans for Cycle Superhighway 5, from New Cross Gate to Victoria via Peckham, Camberwell and Oval. Here was a golden opportunity for Boris to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, one of those three key tests he signed up to.

Months of consultation and roadworks later, this is what we got:

Super cycling in Peckham

Does that look fun to you? Does Boris really think lots of people are going to rush to buy a bicycle to enjoy that?

This road has a 30mph speed limit. TfL refused requests from Southwark Cyclists and Southwark Living Streets to reduce it to 20mph, given how many homes, schools and shops front this busy road.

It’s gets worse, though. Here’s a before-and-after photo of a stretch of Peckham High Street:

Super cycling in Peckham

That’s right. TfL removed an advisory lane that ran the whole way across the junction, and replaced it with a couple of blocks to indicate cyclists might be expected.

It’s not as though Boris and TfL were unaware of problems with their designs. Last October, Jenny Jones, with whom I work, brought one example to the Mayor’s attention and asked him to look again:

In that exchange, if you can’t make it through, Boris promises to look at the plans again and to do his “level-headed best to make it as safe as [we] possibly can”.

Here are TfL’s plans for the relevant stretch of the Cycle Superhighway, with a big red arrow pointing to the junction Jenny was talking about . You can see how the route going each way along this stretch of Peckham Road changes from a mandatory lane (dark blue) to an advisory lane (mid blue) then no more than a bit of blue paint as you go past a junction:


Here is what that junction looks like now that the ‘super’ highway has been implemented:


On the left, there is finally some good news, with a nice wide mandatory cycle lane painted onto the road. Before that soggy day in April 2012 I would have described that as a very good bit of provision for cyclists. But the ‘Go Dutch’ campaign the Mayor signed up to raised the bar, and that lane no longer clears it. There is no segregation – no protection from the traffic – and no attempt to route cyclists around the back of the bus stop so they don’t get squashed or held up by buses.

In the middle and right-hand photos we can see the promised unbroken line of blue paint replaced with a couple of squares. There is absolutely no protection here for cyclists against motorists cutting across to head north on the rat-run Southampton Way. Nothing.

And there we have it, folks. Two years after our “cycling Mayor” signed up to “make sure all planned developments on are completed to Go Dutch standards, especially junctions”, we have more millions spent on another bungled Cycle Superhighway that would embarrass any qualified Dutch road engineer.

Theatre Peckham take two

Six months after the Royal Court brought two quite brilliant new plays to the Bussey Building in Peckham, V-Day London put on an equally exemplary performance of the Vagina Monologues and an accompanying play written in 2009 by the same playwright.

Yes, I know, visiting four plays in six months hardly makes me the connoisseur of a thriving theatre scene, but I hear the Royal Court are bringing their Theatre Local project back at the end of May with two brand new plays and more workshops which I won’t want to miss.


The Vagina Monologues performance was all the more impressive given that it was performed by a mix of trained actors, amateurs and doubtless all shades in between. I went to the wrap party on Saturday with my friend Bob – a source of fun for some of the actors given a certain monologue concerning a man called Bob – to talk to some of the actors. I spoke to one who lived locally and had never really acted before, chatting with another trained at Brian Timoney (at least I think that’s what she said!)

Since watching the play on Friday evening I feel as though my preconceptions have been unfolding in reverse; I arrived as a blank slate but left feeling surprised, as though I expected something more monotonous or strident. Today it struck me that the monologues were part of a common project with Theatre Local’s two plays, revealing the intimate thoughts of ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.

The fun thing about the Vagina Monologues is that the people and their lives sounded deeply ordinary, but by becoming emboldened to talk frankly about their vaginas they became quite extraordinary. In Truth and Reconciliation, people who had been through extraordinary terror and pain spoke in a context that suddenly made them seem quite ordinary.

It’s a refreshing contrast with the more neatly structured narratives of plays that are out to tell you something in the voice of the playwright. I’ve high hopes for the next two plays.

Southwark’s cycling revolution

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.

The manifesto for a revolution

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.

Peckham Rye west, heading north

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.

Peckham Rye east, past Scylla 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.

Peckham Rye east, heading south

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.

Apparently most people supported this

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.

It’s council policy, so please change it

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.

Theatre takes root in Peckham

It was probably the Peckham Pavilion at the Venice Biennale that cemented Peckham’s place in London’s art scene. Since then there has been a steady flow of journalists, hipsters and artists dropping in to study contemporary sculpture and relax in a trendy campari bar. But this art world has made little effort to reach out to, and integrate with, its host community.

So it was with some scepticism that I made my way to the brilliant Bussey Building for the launch of Theatre Local Peckham, the Royal Court’s second outing into a south London community to stage plays and theatre workshops. They’re hosted by Mickey Smith’s CLF art cafe, an unkempt converted factory normally home to drum and bass nights, community meetings and art fairs.

But I was wrong to be sceptical. The Royal Court’s artistic director spoke before the play of their Sloane Square theatre being exclusive, a place that many people might enjoy but would never visit because of its location. This emphasis on place ran through his talk: he wants the project to build a relationship in the community that will extend beyond the run of the two plays; the plays themselves being about how people live together.

Truth and reconciliation

The play we saw, by Debbie Tucker Green, was an unforgiving series of quiet – but sometimes explosive – confrontations.

A Rwandan woman repeatedly threw pleading questions at the man who killed her husband, challenging him to respond while he remained silent, shifting his body at first in unease, then in defiance, then unease. Three generations of a South African family waited for their enemy to appear, caught in a loop of concern about the hard chair while the mother stood apart, unable to sit until she got answers from the man who killed her eldest daughter twenty years ago. These and more stories wove around a dark, bare set of chairs and spotlights in the middle of the room.

This was not a play about the process of reconciliation so much as the pain and agitation that would form its backdrop.

I spoke after the play to Ivanno Jeremiah, who played the accused Rwandan man, about his background, the play, and what he thought it might mean to a Peckham audience:

Taking root in Peckham

I also managed to speak to Ruth Hawkins from the Royal Court, who had found my blog and invited me along to the launch. She put to rest any lingering doubt I had about this theatre landing in Peckham. Sorry about the sound quality, it was a noisy evening!

What I particularly like is the work with local schools. I spoke to a couple of local teachers – unfortunately the video is too noisy to be watchable. One, a drama teacher, told me her pigeon hole is “full to the brim with marketing from touring companies, theatre companies and site projects” trying to sell her tickets or workshops, so “it takes quite a lot to persuade us”. What sold this to her? The free writing workshops for kids being put in in their local area, connected to a play put on by a top notch theatre company.

Get down there yourself

The two plays are running until the 19th November, and you can pay what you like to see them. It would be great if this project was a real success, both for those putting the effort in and for the impact it might have on other arts groups looking to use Peckham’s cheap space.

What’s wrong with Peckham?

A new BNP presence mobilised local anti-fascists in Bermondsey recently by delivering a spiteful leaflet warning that immigration might lead Bermondsey to “end up like Peckham and Camberwell”. A picture showed a west African shop front. Having surveyed nearly a thousand households in Peckham in the past six months, I can see the power of this appeal because the character of Peckham town centre was by far the most frequently raised issue. But how to respond to the BNP whipping up racial explanations?

Southwark Green Party have recently published our action plan for Peckham, detailing 17 ways that we could improve the town centre. I hope that this positive and practical response to peoples varied and valid concerns, very few of which seemed motivated by racist or xenophobic views, is exactly the kind of thing that can help counter the BNP. Like it or not, a lot of people are unhappy with the way that Peckham has developed in the past decade, and the most visible change is the growth in West African churches, nail bars, hairdressers and food shops.

Just labelling “concerned of Peckham” as disgusting racists (which the BNP hardcore are, of course), or laughing them off, won’t convince those hundreds of people who feel that they have lost their town centre to traffic, litter, shops that don’t serve their needs and unwelcoming roads, in a city where housing and public transport is becoming ever less affordable.

We need more anti-fascists to come forward with local proposals and action plans to respond to local concerns. They should put, at their heart, the idea that a supported local community can revitalise and take control of their local area. This surely must be the best way to win people back to positive politics, and away from the politics of hate.

Growing the Cossall Estate

After a week speaking at a digital rights demonstration, a free map meeting, a 600-strong Critical Mass and lots of electioneering capping off days at the office it was quite a relief to complete the weekend with a spade, wheelbarrow and several tonnes of soil. Growing Southwark, who I first came across last September, have been running a community food growing project on the Cossall Estate in Peckham.

I planted my broad beans at the event in February – here’s a pic of me with my pots – but this time the work was much more heavy going. Residents, Growing Southwark volunteers and a team from Veoila with 2 master carpenters worked together from Thursday-Sunday to erect a 18×1.5×0.6 meter raised bed. When I got there on Sunday they were filling them up with 16 tonnes of organic soil and soil improver.

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

Volunteers and residents filling the raised beds

After a couple of hours lugging large quantities of soil around in wheelbarrows, including racing back with kids giggling away in the empty barrow, I finally got to plant my fledgling broad beans. They look a bit sad here because I didn’t have any stakes to tie them to, or water to cheer them up, but I’m assured by growing legend Lesley that they “are looking good”.

My slightly sad looking broad beans

My slightly sad looking broad beans

Back home, after a lengthy phone interview with Benjamin Mako-Hill about my involvement GNUPedia (one of the predecessors to Wikipedia), I added the raised bed to OpenStreetMap, bringing my week full circle.

Getting OpenStreetMaps out in London

How could the Greater London Authority, Southwark Council or tenants on estates use OpenStreetMap? I regularly use it to get around, but of course I’m an OSM nerd. Most people have never heard of it, which is a shame because they could really benefit from it.

This evening I introduced the Southwark Group of Tenants Organisations to the project, handing around some printouts showing how OSM has many estates much better mapped than Google, and how we have nice (but very incomplete) public transport and cycling maps which are much more useful for your average tenant than a map for car drivers.

Everyone seemed really enthusiastic, which was lovely! One lady thanked me for getting the name of her estate right; it changed in 1979 but lots of maps still have the old name.

So I’m going to do some workshops with tenants on a couple of estates to get them started, probably using Walking Papers, and we’ll see where we go from there.

In a different world, I’ve been talking with Emer Coleman who heads up the London Datastore, a fantastic Open Data initiative. She’s enthusiastic about making public data available for OpenStreetMap, about entering OSM data sources in the Datastore, and collaborating where public authorities struggle to gather information like cycle parking stands or building accessibility.

On Tuesday evening Emer and I met up with Gareth who leads on GIS in the GLA, Christopher Osborne from ITO, Muki Haklay from University College London, and Harry and Shaun from OSM, to discuss all this. We aren’t gunning for paradigm shifts overnight, but it’s good to start developing a relationship and talking about how to get those ideas right. Gareth is also going to broker us into the world of London Council GIS bods.

That’s quite enough OSM for one week. Now back to getting elected and holding down my job!

Can the community regenerate Peckham?

Can a local community pay for its own regeneration instead of relying on developers with tall blocks of flats and massive government grants? I got thinking about this again after reading a jargon-fuelled paper on urban rights and renewal sent my way by local hero Eileen Conn. The author writes about communities owning, or controlling, their urban environment, and being able to determine how to spend “surplus value” (Marxist terminology for capital that rich people and governments accumulate off our backs). How could local people in Peckham, for example, decide how money is spent in the area?

Here are two quick steps that are decidely practical compared to the ivory tower academic paper.

First, give people more control over the property and land in Peckham. At the moment you either buy a home and the land it sits on, or you rent from a landlord, or you rent from the council/a housing association. So you’re either wealthy, or at the mercy of somebody over whom you have little control. If all new housing in Peckham was built by mutual housing associations – where the association builds the house on a corporate loan, and as a member you pay a monthly amount to buy equity in the association so it can service the loan – we’d have the choice of gradually building up equity (like owning a house) in an affordable way (like living in council housing) and have the advantage of having a direct voice in how the co-op runs the homes. To seal the deal, the co-op could own the land through a community land trust, making it permanently affordable.

Second, enable people to invest their savings in local improvement schemes rather than abstract bank accounts. Use Southwark Credit Union and community finance co-ops like the Wessex Community Assets to directly invest local people’s money in good schemes, like helping shop keepers do up their shop fronts, investing in new mutual housing schemes, or helping Peckham Power bring renewables to our buildings.

We’ve plenty of money in Peckham. Not the mega-bucks that big developers could bring, or major government regeneration schemes shower on consultants. But enough to revitalise the local area, if we take more control over our local area.

Democracy in Peckham’s schools

I wasn’t surprised to read that the Harris Academy at Peckham has taken an injunction out against Jacqui Fergus. Faced with the undemocratic nature of Academy schools, Miss Fergus took the only route available – protesting about exclusion with parents outside the school. Figures last year revealed the Academy has a temporary exclusion rate that is three times the national average.

Labour have sold us into a Faustian pact, letting a Tory Lord buy up community schools in the hope that standards will improve. Never mind that we hand over control of the school to unaccountable governors, selected by a man with an estimated wealth of £285m.

Southwark has been pretty gung-ho for academy schools, in contrast to Lewisham where Greens have helped keep schools in the hands of local people. In August I added my vote to the new Green Party education policy, which includes a freeze on expansion of Academy schools and an immediate change to the unaccountable Board so that the sponsor’s appointees are limited to 25% voting rights.

In the meantime, parents in Peckham can only hope that the Harris Academy finds a way to tackle bad behaviour without resorting so quickly to temporary exclusion, and without gagging concerned parents. It’s not exactly the best way to teach young people about democracy!