Tuesday, 9 April 2013

London's cycling commissioner sets out in detail what he expects to see happening on London's streets over the next three years. All the right noises but now the questions are all around delivery.

The room votes for the motion that "cycling is getting better", at least
getting better than it was looking this time last year.
Picture courtesy Rachel Aldred
Last night I chaired the first London Cycling Campaign Policy Forum, a meeting organised by Rachel Aldred  of the University of Westminster who is also leading a new informal academic cluster, the "London Cycling Research Group".  Lead speaker was London's new Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan.

The last time I sat in a room with a lot of cycling folk and a range of political folk was in April 2012 at the London Mayoral hustings where Boris Johnson put in an angry and bellicose defence of his cycling policies  and Ken Livingstone provided some pretty weak bluster that showed he had just about (but only just) grasped some of the strategic issues. The mood in the room was very definitely a mood of anger.

The mood last night was extremely different. I asked the audience at the end of last night's discussion whether they felt things since that date were looking up for cycling in London or whether they felt things were about the same (or, worse, going nowhere). I reckon 95% of hands shot up to say they felt things were getting better. All good stuff.

We learned quite a lot last night:

Gilligan was keen to stress that we are still going to see a lot of rubbish coming off the cycling production line; projects like the Olympic Park, which were agreed six to seven years ago and, he warned, will be way below standard in terms of cycling provision. It is a pretty tragic admission that the Olympic Park regeneration is going to be a cycling failure. But I can understand how he can't be held to account for a major piece of urban planning that was agreed well before his, or the current Mayor's, tenure.

Some more classy bike infrastructure at Vauxhall Cross.
Mixing it with buses.
If that's the case, what should we measure Boris Johnson's delivery on?  Boris set out his updated vision for cycling back in March. It consisted of a number of specific new measures and Gilligan provided a good deal of detail on some of these.

Gilligan made clear that he expects to see a much improved Cycle Super Highway 5 through Camberwell and out to New Cross in place this year as well as the Cycle Super Highway 2 Extension to Stratford. As he points out (and he's right to say this), Super Highway 5 is not going to be at the levels of international best practice. But it is going to be a darn sight better than the utterly hopeless designs that were first touted for this route and which I reviewed a couple of years ago (original plans available here). He indicated quite clearly that several of the planned Cycle Super Highways will be re-aligned (including Cycle Super Highway 5, for which the final route is still not decided) but wouldn't be drawn on details.

The first genuinely new deliverables are still a couple of years off; the first "Quietway" routes will launch in 2014 with a focus on orbital routes. One of those, he hinted, might be a route parallel to the south circular. Boris's headline-grabbing segregated bike track from west London, along the Westway towards Tower Bridge is not likely to be in place before 2016, he confirmed. Gilligan also provided some updates on the plans for "Mini-Hollands" - creating cycle-friendly boroughs in outer London. He stressed that "Not all of the outer boroughs are interested in cycling; some are actively hostile," but confirmed that he is expecting to award funds to between one and three outer London boroughs from a pool of seven that have confirmed they want genuinely to embrace cycling as a form of transport.

Cycling in the Netherlands. I can't see this being reality
in London for decades to come, I'm afraid. Source
AsEasyAsRidingABike blog
The topic of outer London merged seamlessly into discussions about the fact that children won't and don't cycle to school and a blunt admission that cycle to school rates are tumbling: "We spend a lot of money on cycle training", he pointed out, "yet the proportion of children cycling to school in London has fallen". Compare and contrast with the Netherlands where Dutch kids (and especially teenagers) seem to have been granted massively more independence than their UK counterparts, in part thanks to safe, easy-to-use bike infrastructure. Still, I think Gilligan's admission is important in itself - it is the first time I've heard a senior political figure (if that's a fair description?) admit that the policies of encouraging children to cycle to school in London and the rest of the UK have largely failed due to lack of safe routes to schools.

Two things worried me, though, and both are inter-related. It's extremely clear that Transport for London is going to be hugely dependent on local boroughs to implement London's new cycling vision. TfL has the cash and, to some extent, has a big juicy carrot with which to attract the boroughs. As Gilligan kept pointing out, they run 95% of the roads. He explained how the boroughs have formed a senior level working group that will coordinate the planned central London "bike grid" and some of the Quietways. It sounds good but Gilligan consistently repeated one slightly worrying mantra: "touch car parking and you die". He wanted to stress that the boroughs, as a rule, are loathe to move or remove car parking. In places like Westminster, where cars are free to park the length of the Waterloo Bridge bike lanes; along both sides of most of the borough's very poor quality bike routes, and where the borough is encouraging more and more car parking, this could be a real barrier to success. That said, boroughs like Camden are already demonstrating a clear ability to think more pragmatically about this sort of stuff, by simply moving car parking so that it's slightly more out of the way, rather than abolishing it entirely. Some of the parking schemes in Camden and Hackney are really grappling this problem and taking positive incremental steps to improve things. More of this across London would be a good start.

Hopeless cycle infrastructure in the City of
Westminster on one of its London Cycle
Network routes. I mean, why even bother?
Can design standards change this, though?
Gilligan's final piece of news was a confirmation that London will finally get its new London Cycle Design Standards this summer. This is significant. stuff. London's first Cycle Design Standards were published in 2005. And then consigned to the rubbish bin. They were weak standards and have been entirely ignored ever since. Gilligan is promising a significant upgrade when the new Standards are published. But the important thing will be whether those standards are followed through.

And that's where I worry that an organisation like Transport for London has a long way to go. Over 3,000 people work in the Surface Transport team at TfL, delivering changes to London's streets. Inculcating a real understanding of what London needs to make it a great city to cycle in will take time. We need cycling to pervade the thinking of every single one of those 3,000+ people. Cycle Design Standards are just the start of that process. What really needs to happen is that people within TfL have to feel a responsibility for making London a cycling city. And they need to push that responsibility into the boroughs. If cycling is treated as just a niche for a couple of years, that's not going to happen.

Things do genuinely seem to be on the move as far as cycling in London is concerned. And as one member of the audience from Cambridge Cycling Campaign put it, big noises coming from London can help change the debate all across the country. The real challenge now, though, is that we need to move from debate to implementation. That alone is what matters at this stage. Everyone can play a role in helping make London a better place for cycling. We need to be extremely vigilant to borough developments and to flag them loudly and clearly to Transport for London and the cycling commissioner, especially if things look like they're going wrong. And, importantly, we also need to keep tabs on the Mayor and his cycling commissioner as well to make sure that these good vibrations turn into good things on the ground.