Manchester recently unveiled its Beelines cycle network. London has its superhighways – but, despite first being announced a decade ago, construction on some of them has yet to begin, and others have been scaled down or cancelled.
Bike infrastructure in London is patchy, especially when it comes to the gold-standard segregated bike lanes. This is despite the fact that, where segregated lanes have been built, such as along the Victoria Embankment, they have led to large increases in cycle traffic. So why is it so hard to get good cycle lanes built in London?
One reason is that Transport for London owns just 5 per cent of London’s roads. The remainder are controlled by a patchwork of the London boroughs, the Royal Parks, and Highways England. Getting a cycle network routed across the city requires the agreement of tens of organisations, any one of whom could block part of it.
Indeed, that is exactly what some have done on many occasions over the past 20 years. Here are five times that London’s boroughs and other organisations have tried to block new cycle routes.
When Kensington and Chelsea won a battle of wills with City Hall
Cycle Superhighway 9 was supposed to connect Hyde Park to the suburbs of West London, travelling through the boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Hammersmith & Fulham, and Hounslow.
But that version had to be scrapped – because the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea refused to have a segregated cycle lane on its streets. Emails from 2013, released as a result of a freedom of information request by cycle campaigner Alex Ingram, show the borough being so stubborn that the mayor’s staff simply give up: “[the mayor’s cycling commissioner] said…he knew that he couldn’t get segregation on our stretch so has dropped it”.
The same emails show that the borough’s councillors are suspicious of any road change to accommodate cyclists. About the cycle scheme proposed for central London, one wrote with relief: “The Central London Grid will not mean any significant interventions, and certainly no segregation, on RBKC roads.”
It is not that the borough is against cycling on its roads: it says it’s made the nearside lanes on Kensington High Street wider, to allow cyclists to overtake buses without changing lane. But it is out of step with the push to emulate Dutch-style cycle tracks, which has recently been prominent in plans for cycling in London and Manchester. These are tracks which are physically segregated from cars on busy streets, by kerbs or other barriers. Cycle campaigners say the enhanced sense of safety this gives makes it possible for people who are not the traditional middle-class man in lycra to cycle – a prerequisite to cycling becoming a serious transport mode.
There are currently no plans for a segregated cycle route crossing Kensington and Chelsea. Although TfL has claimed to be investigating an alternative, at present the planned superhighway route goes up to Kensington Olympia, on the edge of borough, and stops dead.
When Westminster and Camden had different ideas about what a cycle lane looks like
The segregated cycle tracks of Bloomsbury disappear abruptly a few blocks west of Tottenham Court Road. It is no coincidence this point marks the border between Camden and Westminster boroughs.
The precursor to the route was built in the early 2000s. Campaigners proposed testing the feasibility of Dutch-style infrastructure in London by building a route from Paddington to Liverpool Street Station which would join key rail stations.
The activists started with Camden Council. Despite sympathetic councillors, “[it] took many years really to even get about less than one mile of cycle track built,” said David Arditti, a campaigner who was involved in the campaign. However, Camden did build a segregated route – which was later upgraded to the today’s version, with two different lanes.
Oooh, bikes. Image: Getty.
For the route to work as a cross-London station link, however, it had to run through several boroughs. “It was up to the boroughs to build what they could… Though Westminster [councillors] said they were supporting the idea they seem to think that painted cycle lanes on the outside of parking would suffice. So it was never implemented in Westminster beyond putting up the signs … and it’s pretty much stayed the same to this day,” recalls Arditti.
Westminster Council is widely regarded by cycle campaigners to have blocked multiple schemes, he adds, often killing them quietly by repeatedly stalling. “It’s pretty easy spur a politician to say ‘oh we’re all in favour of cycling’, but then every scheme that is actually proposed is the wrong scheme according to them… There are always competing priorities which they rank higher in. in terms of the decisions that are taken such as preserving the parking or acceding to taxi drivers’ demands.”
When the Royal Parks said a cycle lane would block access to their ‘leaf yard’
It took City Hall six months of negotiations with the Royal Parks to achieve a cycle route through St James’s Park and Green Park. The parks first refused to route the cycle lane in front of Buckingham Palace, perhaps because they thought the traffic would lower the tone – although they do not seem to think that about the busy roundabout there.
They also objected to plans for a route along the edge of St James’s Park because “the proposals impede access to the works/leaf yard and cleaning/tree maintenance operations”.
Andrew Gilligan, who was at the time London’s cycling commissioner, says, “The Royal Parks was always one of our most difficult and puzzling partners. They would object to tiny changes, such as the installation of a bollard, on aesthetic grounds – while themselves trashing the aesthetics of their parks in a far greater way, erecting massive walls across enormous parts of them for months on end for pop concerts, funfairs and the like.”
What’s more, they would object to cycling facilities on the grounds of disadvantage to pedestrians – “while being much less bothered about the vast volumes of motor traffic disfiguring their parks, which were and are significantly more dangerous to pedestrians.”
The stand-off was finally resolved when the chief executive of the Royal parks changed. It seems incredible that whether or not Londoners get a cycle lane through a park can be decided by the tastes of a chief executive rather than the elected officials, but Gilligan says this is typical of his experience in planning cycle lanes for London.
“Individuals are of paramount importance in this and probably other policy areas,” he says. “When you have individual leaders who support things and are prepared to push for them, things happen.”
When Westminster council decided to block improvements for cyclists in a completely different borough
Westminster council last month launched a judicial review in an attempt to stop building work in Swiss Cottage, which is designed to make a dangerous junction safer for cyclists, and is part of a new cycle superhighway. This is despite the fact that the building work would be in Swiss Cottage, which is in the neighbouring borough of Camden.
Westminster has argued that, as it doesn’t agree to the sections of the superhighway which are on Westminster’s roads, the rebuilding of the Swiss Cottage gyratory should not go ahead either.
A source from the mayor’s office told the Guardian that, “The idea that Westminster council think they can hold the rest of London to ransom is totally unacceptable.” The borough also recently blocked City Hall’s plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street.
When a hospital trust spent £10,000 blocking a cycle lane
Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Trust might not have launched a campaign against segregated cycle lanes across Westminster Bridge were it not for MP Kate Hoey, who emailed to suggest it was “a great opportunity to just say they [TfL? Londoners?] can’t have a cycle lane disrupting the bus stop”.
The lanes were opposed by the trust on the grounds that they would include bus stop bypasses, so that people getting off a bus have to cross the cycle lane to get to the pavement. The trust argued that this would put pedestrians visiting the hospital in danger. It seems to have decided this based on no evidence in particular – although it did send its chairman to observe a similar cycle track for 45 minutes.
The east-west cycling superhighway across the river. Image: Getty.
Internal emails released due to Freedom of Information requests by campaigners Tom Kearney and Francis Gaskin show the trust launched a campaign against the cycle route, despite internal opposition and despite being unsure that the lanes were problematic. The phrase “floating bus stops…are unsafe” was removed from a press release, as, “I don’t think we’ve any evidence that they are.” In fact, they have a good safety record and work well in Brighton and the Netherlands.
The trust also asked their patients to sign a petition, contemplated a judicial review, and engineered a stage-managed community protest. One email said, “We need to make sure we have at the front of any photo those we think will be most affected – wheelchair user, blind person, mother with lots of children including a buggy etc – have you any of these you could field?”
The campaign was eventually dropped – and the cycle lane is now in place – but not before the trust had spent over £10,000 of NHS money on it.
A lack of power
Time and again, boroughs and other organisations have blocked or tried to block cycle tracks in London. Central boroughs in particular can block infrastructure which could be used by the hundreds of thousands of people who travel through Central London every day, but do not live and vote there.
David Arditti’s experience in trying to get the cycle route built through Westminster showed him that it was difficult to have influence where it mattered: “Cyclists, or people who want to cycle, are a relatively dispersed group so they’re not going to have that kind of influence on the individual councillors… We may represent a huge constituency of opinion across London, but we’re not the majority in any particular street where the problem is.”
Londoners also have no way to influence the Royal Parks authority, and Andrew Gilligan thinks this is why the Royal Parks have resisted cycle infrastructure: “They have some accountability to the mayor, but not enough – and as a result are several years behind the latest thinking about urban spaces and transport and are behind developments in other comparable cities.”
David Arditti also feels that the mayor is weak. “You’ve got all these funny authorities, and most of the roads are controlled by the boroughs – and yet the mayor is supposed to be in charge of transport in London. It’s hard to see how he can do that when most of the road belongs to these boroughs who don’t have to do what he wants and he doesn’t have much sanction against them.”
Despite their popularity, the segregated cycle tracks built in London so far required extensive negotiation with the boroughs and Royal Parks. Until something changes, cycle routes in London will continue to be at the mercy of organisations which are not accountable to the majority of Londoners.