Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Londoners voted for #space4cycling. The Camden West End plans miss that target by a long way. And yet they're a huge improvement on anything elsewhere in central London. Should people support the plans in the online consultation?

Royal College Street 'light segregated' cycle track. Complete with
decimated plant pots. Pic courtesy @Adh1907
This blog has been fairly silent of late, as I focus my attention on a new job.

I feel the need to get scribing again and, in particular, to make sure everyone knows what is going on over at Tottenham Court Road.

In summary, Camden council is planning to close TCR to through traffic during the day, with the exception of buses and bikes. There is a lengthy online consultation about the scheme and I'd urge you to take part.

Under the plans, Tottenham Court Road will host in excess of 90 buses (and coaches?) per hour in each direction. The taxi trade is up in arms and appealing to disability groups to protest  because they 'won't be able to access the grater [sic] part of the road'. That's not actually true. Taxis and delivery vehicles will be able to access via the east-west streets and along some parts of the road, just not drive the entire length of TCR. And there will be no less than nine taxi ranks along the length of the road. Furthermore, a whopping 7,000+ motor vehicles per day will cross TCR east to west (and drive along the central section of TCR to do so). So, the reality is that TCR will have a lot more traffic than just buses and bikes but it is misleading of the taxi trade to bleat they will be 'banned' from TCR. It is also misleading of Camden to describe TCR as a bus and bike-only street. It won't be.

That said, I'm not sure Camden council will genuinely manage to deliver a predominantly bike and bus only route along TCR and my personal concern is that the taxi trade may manage to bully the council into getting the road opened up for black cabs. That would risk turning the area into just another Oxford Street. And at night, in any case, the road will be open to all traffic. That'll be fun cycling home after work or after a night out.

Gower Street plans. Some little bumps to protect the bike lane.
Curious lack of traffic in these photos, by the way.
Meanwhile, there are plans afoot for Gower Street too. Gower Street runs parallel to TCR and is a miserable sewer of a place, rammed with throbbing motor traffic. It is horrible for cycling and horrible for walking. It is polluted, noisy, dusty and downright rubbish. A bit like most streets in neighbouring Westminster.

Under these plans, Gower Street will be made two-way to all traffic (currently one way) with 1.5m wide 'light segregated' bike tracks. Simliar bike tracks exist on Royal College Street up near Kentish Town, created by means of flower pots and little plastic armadillo humps. Flower pots which get uprooted when a lorry parks a bit too vigorously alongside (or quite often, in) the bike lane. There will be loading bays along Gower Street operating between 10am-2pm and which seem to be located inside the segregated bike tracks, which is pretty rubbish to be honest.

The Royal College Street flower pots, for all their faults, do seem to be working. Cycle traffic along the route has shot up and motor traffic speeds have shot down. Cycle traffic is up by as much as 54% on last year, which is pretty impressive.

There are also plans to make many of the side streets two-way for cycling but retain a one-way or no through road element for motor vehicles. And the insanely dangerous junction of Torrington Place (alongside Habitat) will get sorted out so you no longer have to cycle up the right handside of the motor traffic and then magic your way over to the left side of the motor traffic while crossing TCR.

Tottenham Court Road will not be looking like this, I'm afraid.
Pic courtesy @jen_keesmat
It's worth also looking at the plans for New Oxford Street (thank you to Raif S for pointing this out). This is just grim for cycling at the moment, rammed with buses and no safe space at all. As Raif points out "The consultation acknowledges how unpleasant and congested it is but the main proposal is to raise the carriageway to slow traffic and that's it. Gt Russell St would remain one-way so no way round the jams." There needs to be a better solution here. Likewise at Euston Circus where the recent re-modelling is a sheer travesty and I don't see any signs of that changing.

There is a heap of politics around the TCR scheme, however. I had the pleasure of sitting in an extremely heated senior-level and off-the-record meeting last year where one Camden politician was downright rude, unwilling to listen or compromise. I felt her over-reaction at the time was so extreme that it hinted at an underlying nervousness and lack of confidence in the scheme.

I think that lack of confidence probably stems from a whole heap of different interests coming together and lots and lots of groups picking holes in the plan. Bear in mind, this plan has to work for a balance of shop owners, corporate landlords, residents, bus users, pedestrians/shoppers/office workers, people getting about by bike, and people driving or getting a taxi through.

What I think many people would like to see here is full scale segregated bicycle infrastructure. These are very busy roads and this is the main access for cycling to and from central London from large chunks of north London. The sort of thing pictured above (standard stuff for the Netherlands) would do very nicely thank you.

I think that, in their hearts, many other people would like to see something better than this scheme.

Camden Cyclists (at the foot of a very lengthy summary of the back and forth over this scheme) conclude: "We will support the Camden proposal unless some much better alternative comes up. However, we feel that it will not do much to encourage new people to cycle, although the increase of permeability will allow those that want to to escape via the side streets." That is pretty feeble praise, I think you'll agree.

I have to admit that I think the light segregation is sub optimal. A few plant pots and a 1.5m wide bike lane (complete with integrated loading bays for lorries that will block the bike lane) aren't particularly impressive. Sharing a 4.5m wide carriageway with 90+ buses isn't a major wow either.

Yet, I also think we should acknowledge that Camden's plans are lightyears ahead of anything going on down the road in Westminster, where the name of the game is to widen pavements and (so far) do absolutely nothing to make it safer or more convenient to cycle rather than drive. The Camden scheme has many merits for people on foot and on bikes, in particular on many of streets that cross TCR east to west. It will make cycling south from Camden into Covent Garden easier than it is now and it vastly improves the east-west access on Torrington Place.

A tonne of political time, energy and capital has gone into getting the scheme this far and it has taken years to get this far. Still to come are the many and various camps lining up to attack the scheme, not least the taxi trade. And the council is going to have to hold its nerve and find supporters if it wants to push this scheme through.

I would like to see something much more impressive than this scheme. But unless Transport for London and Camden council are minded to come up with something better (and that will mean some serious banging together of heads), I'm frustratingly inclined to agree with Camden Cyclists that we should support this scheme "unless some much better alternative comes up".

I would much rather see this scheme happen than see nothing happen, as is the case in other parts of London. Space4Cycling should be better than this. But this is better than what's there and better than nothing. It's all a bit of a damp squib, really.

You can look at the details of the scheme on Camden's website and take part in the online consultation. 

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I should add that Camden Cyclists are holding a public meeting for cyclists to discuss this project. 
On 30th June 7pm - 9pm at the YMCA Indian Student Hostel, 41 Fitzroy Square, London, W1T 6AQ.