London's new cycle superhighway could be stymied by a giant new sewer

Like this, but with the pavements torn up and the vague smell of sewage. Image: TfL.

Hey guys, remember that plan for two amazing new segregated cycle routes across London? The ones that'll allow you to cycle across town without needing to compete for space with cars buses and HGVs? The ones we all said were gonna be brilliant? Those ones? Well:

“Sections of Boris Johnson’s flagship cycling project – the £48m east-to-west cycle superhighway – will have to be removed within a year of its 2016 completion to make way for construction work on London’s supersewer, the [Evening Standard] can reveal.

“Key central stretches of the two-way segregated superhighway on the Victoria Embankment and Blackfriars Bridge will have to be taken out for up to three years.”


This, if the Standard's unnamed source is correct, sucks. Assuming the build timetable runs to plan (and when does that ever happen?), cyclists will have just a few months to enjoy their new segregated cycle route before Thames Water comes along and starts tearing it up again to build something else. And not something cool, like a tram or giant slide or a ladder to nowhere or anything: something horrible.

Spot the difference. The proposed route of the new Thames Tideway Tunnel, or "supersewer"...

Nonetheless, there are reasons to think that, if it does come down to a battle between cycle highway and supersewer, it's the tunnel of fun that's going to win out. For one thing, the Thames Tideway Tunnel actually has planning permission, which is more than the cycle lane does.

For another, though, London currently (this is a good bit) flushes at least 39m tonnes of raw sewage into the Thames every year. Much of this travels through the sewer that once upon a time ran above ground as the River Fleet, before being ejected into the river under Blackfriars Bridge. On a hot day, CityMetric can attest, you can smell it. (Think about that, before you go swimming in the Thames.)

So the city does need to do something about its ageing Victorian sewer system – though whether the correct “something” is this particular plan is a matter of fierce debate.

...and part of the route of the new East-West Cycle Super Highway. 

At any rate, it does look horribly like the new cycle route plan might have been hobbled before it even begins. The new route is intended to have the capacity to carry 3,000 cyclists every hour. Close it, and there not really anywhere else these guys could go, meaning that they're likely to find themselves fighting with cars and buses and HGVs all over again.

Other opposition is mounting, too. Motoring groups have come out against the plan, which is entirely predictable because it involves taking space from drivers and giving it to cyclists. But there’s been criticism from the Corporation of London, too. That organisation – which effectively governs the City, London’s financial district – has taken a more nuanced line. It claims to support the idea in principle, but suggests the whole thing needs to be planned more carefully to prevent it from snarling up traffic; it also described the six-week consultation period as "insulting".

At the time, some in the cycling community interpreted this opposition – especially the faintly silly claim that cyclists were being given priority "to the disadvantage of other users" – as a sign the Corporation's real concern was the interest of the motorist. Maybe it is. But the sewer thing suggests that it might have had a point about the ridiculously short consultation period, after all.

Images courtesy of Thames Water and Transport for London. 


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.