Are London’s cycle lanes literally on the wrong side of the road?

A satisfied user of a London cycle lane shows his appreciation to then-mayor Boris Johnson. Image: Getty.

A couple of months ago, I was cycling to work when the bus in front of me slowed. I peered to one side of it, then the other, and looked over my shoulder before pulling out to overtake – a glance motorbike instructors refer to as “the lifesaver” – only to find another cyclist charging into the space I was about the occupy. “Choose a line!”, screamed my fellow road user, who had obviously mistaken the Walworth Road for Herne Hill Velodrome, as they pedalled frantically past.

After I’d finished fuming – and, obviously, overtaken the Lycra lout in a tiring and unbelievably petty commuter chasse-patate – I began to wonder why I’d been thinking about which side of the bus I was going to overtake.

With the increased popularity of cycling in London, the flow of cycle traffic seems to have changed, becoming more opportunistic. Like many cyclists I now filter either side of the motor traffic, and I think I do it more than I used to. While the cycle superhighways are great – especially where they’re physically separate from the road – they often put cyclists in the position of being faster than the motor traffic and on the wrong side of it. On the CS7 from Collier’s Wood to Kennington, for example, cyclists share the road with motor traffic but are forced by the position of the lane to break the most dangerous taboo of urban cycling – passing up the left-hand side of a lorry.

I have never been able to use a lane like this without feeling like I’m in the wrong place, relative to the traffic. So, why aren’t cycle lanes on the other side of the road?

For one thing, given that Britain drives on the left, it makes sense to arrange traffic so that the fastest vehicles are on the right, so that overtaking happens on the right-hand side of the slower vehicle as happens on dual carriageways and motorways. In central London, the average car speed is 7.4mph, while the tracking app Strava – which, admittedly, is likely to be used by faster cyclists – says the average speed of cyclists in London is just under 14mph. This difference grows in rush hour, when cyclists pour around slow-moving motor vehicles.

Secondly, and most importantly, a cyclist on the right-hand side of the cab of a heavy goods vehicle is more visible to the vehicle’s driver. Lorries comprise five per cent of traffic in London but 45 per cent of cyclist fatalities. Many, if not most, of these occur when a lorry turns left and does not notice that a cyclist is in the large blind spot on the far side of the vehicle from the driver. If cycle lanes were on the right, their occupants would be more visible to vehicles; and cyclists could be physically discouraged from occupying the most dangerous areas around an HGV, such as to the side of the cab at a junction. 


London also has a particular hazard for cyclists who are unlucky enough to be hit by a vehicle, in that many streets have guard rails to protect pedestrians from traffic. Fatal accidents have occurred in which cyclists have been crushed against these rails by vehicles, rather than being thrown onto the pavement. But while some have said this is a reason to remove or not install the rails, there is also strong evidence that they protect pedestrians. Again, a better measure might be to move cycle traffic to the other side of the lane, away from the danger zone.

In other accidents, cyclists on the right-hand side have fallen or been shoved by a vehicle into the path of oncoming traffic. If the first lane of oncoming traffic on the other side of the road was a cycle lane, this might make this scenario less dangerous.

It would remove the problem, too, of the many miles of cycle superhighway that are used as generous new parking spaces by drivers, causing cyclists to weave in and out of traffic. 

A lot of drivers would almost certainly be annoyed by the idea of cyclists sauntering past them in what they might consider to be their fast lane. But let’s face it: those people are going to be annoyed by any cyclist, or indeed anything, they see on their journey because they’re in a car, in London, perhaps listening to LBC, which is enough to ruin anyone’s day.

And this, too, might be a reason to put cyclists on the right. The psychologist Tom Stafford has suggested that drivers see cyclists as “free riders” in the traffic system, because they don’t follow the same rules as cars – even if they’re generally aware that they’re following the rules of the road. Dr Rachel Aldred, Reader in Transport at the University of Westminster, has said that cycling is seen by drivers as “playing in the street, and getting in the way of the traffic”. One way to overcome these psychological barriers to accepting cyclists on London’s streets might be to give them a less subjugated position on the road.

 
 
 
 

How US planners experimented with “the iron hand of power” over colonial Manila

Manila in ruins, 1945. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

In 1904, Manila must have appeared to its new overlords a despairing prospect. Racked with poverty and disease, it was still recovering from years of war, epidemic and a fire that had left 8,000 homeless.

For architect Daniel Burnham, it was an opportunity to put to work the radical ideas he had dreamed of in America.

He was among those asking how America’s unprecedented wealth at the turn of the century could be reconciled with the lives of the country’s poorest. Like many, he admired the ideas of harmonised city-planning articulated in Edward Bellamy’s bestselling science-fiction Looking Backward (1888).

At the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Burnham constructed the “White City”. Built across 686 acres of parkland, boulevards, gardens and neoclassical structures rendered a spray-painted plaster vision of the future – all laid out to one comprehensive plan.

It was impressive – but implementing grand designs where people actually lived meant laborious negotiations with citizens, businessmen and politicians.

Instead, opportunity lay in America’s new overseas territories. As Daniel Immerwahr describes in How to Hide an Empire: A Short History of the Greater United States, “They functioned as laboratories, spaces for bold experimentation where ideas could be tried with practically no resistance, oversight, or consequences.”

An architect’s dream

The US had gone to war with Spain in 1898, taking advantage of an empire-wide insurrection. It ended up controlling the entire Philippines, along with Guam and Puerto Rico.

As a “territory”, the Philippines existed outside the protections of the constitution. Congress could impose any law, proclaimed the attorney general in 1901, “without asking the consent of the inhabitants, even against their consent and against their protest, as it has frequently done.”

Which is how Burnham, upon invitation by the Philippine’s new rulers, came to wield what the Architectural Record called “the iron hand of power” over Manila.

 Burnham’s plan for Manila. Click to expand.

Where Burnham’s Chicago plan was complex, took years and entailed collaboration with hundreds of citizens, Burnham spent six months on the Manila plan, and just six weeks in the Philippines. And with no voters to persuade, there seemed little reason to register Filipino input in his designs.

In 1905 Burnham submitted his Report on Improvement of Manila. It described filling the toxic moat of the Spanish fortress Intramuros and developing a rectangular street system modelled on Washington D.C., with diagonal arteries which even Chicago lacked.


Central to his plan was the city’s beautification through monumental buildings, waterfront improvements, and parks – “wholesome resorts” to “give proper means of recreation to every quarter of the city”

Burnham charged William E. Parsons as the omnipotent “Consultant Architect” to interpret his plan, who relished its authority over all public building as an “architect’s dream”. When concerned with the extent of his purview, he also chose to standardise a number of public buildings.

“I doubt if this method would bear fruit in our own city improvement plans, in which everything depends on slow moving legislative bodies,” reported the Architectural Record’s correspondent.

Despite Burnham’s colonial sentiments his biographer concluded his plan was “remarkable in its simplicity and its cognizance of Philippine conditions and traditions.”

His plans did not shy from asserting the colonial government’s authority, however. The Luneta, a favourite park, was to become the nuclei of government. The city’s avenues would converge there, for “every section of the Capitol City should look with deference toward the symbol of the Nation’s power.”

Unusual monumental possibilities

Burnham also worked on a summer palace for US administrators at Baguio, 150 miles north in the mountains. On land inhabited by Igorot people, Burnham saw an opening “to formulate my plans untrammelled by any but natural conditions”.

Baguio’s “unusual monumental possibilities” were facilitated by a road whose construction employed thousands, risking death from disease and falling off cliffs. Civic buildings would “dominate everything in sight” and a golf course would rival those of Scotland.

“Stingy towards the people and lavish towards itself,” griped La Vanguardia, the government “has no scruples nor remorse about wasting money which is not its own.”

As enthusiasm for US empire soured in the States, local power was relinquished to Filipinos. Parsons resigned in protest in 1914. He was replaced by Manila-born Juan Arellano, whose rebuke to imperialists was the mighty, neoclassical Legislative Building which hosted the elected Philippine Legislature. Arellano upheld Burnham’s plan, producing a beautified city bearing resemblance to Burnham’s White City.

But the Legislative Building, along with Burnham’s great edifices and almost everything else in Manila, was levelled as US troops recaptured it in 1945, this time ousting the Japanese in a brutal battle. “Block after bloody block was slowly mashed into an unrecognizable pulp”, recorded the 37th Infantry Division as they exercised their own “iron hand” over Manila.

American artillery had transformed Manila into ruins. “It was by far the most destructive event ever to take place on US soil,” writes Immerwahr, even if few soldiers realised they were liberating US nationals at the time. Burnham’s expansive vision was lost in the debris, and though some buildings were rebuilt a majority were replaced. Today, Manila’s pre-war architecture is remembered with fondness and nostalgia.