Five times boroughs and other authorities have blocked plans to build new cycle lanes for London

Oooh, we don’t like that. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

Outdoor dining is a lifeline for restaurants, but cities don’t always make it easy

(Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images)

In downtown Toronto, café owners Toula and Peter Bekiaris were recently granted something to help them through the Covid-19 pandemic: a piece of the street outside their doors.

They got this space for their pastry and coffee shop, Filosophy, through a city-led initiative called CaféTO, created in response to the pandemic. The programme helps clusters of neighbouring restaurants want to set up outdoor patios on streets or sidewalks. As part of the initiative, Filosophy was able to expand from a two-seater bench out front to an eight-seat curbside patio, allowing it to welcome back patrons to a plot of the street separated from traffic by orange and black pylons.

“To have that little slice of pre-Covid feeling is rejuvenating for sure,” Toula Bekiaris says.


As the pandemic brings a generation of bars and restaurants to the brink of collapse, cities everywhere are seeing businesses spill out of their front doors and onto nearby sidewalks and streets. For many desperate small business owners, it’s their last best hope to claw back any business at all.

Bekiaris said the program brought her block back to life – but it also left her with a question. Toronto bylaws don’t normally make it easy for bars and restaurants to have sidewalk and curbside patios. She wondered, “My gosh, why are we not able to do this more regularly?”

Many cities have long had strict rules and steep fees that govern outdoor dining in public spaces. In places that were slow to adapt, or that haven’t adapted at all, this has caused tension for restaurant owners who are just trying to survive.

In Tel Aviv, for example, a schnitzel restaurant owner was filmed begging police to not issue him a ticket for having tables on the sidewalk outside of his shop. In New York City, businesses openly flouted rules that initially forbade outdoor eating and drinking. In the typically traffic-clogged Lima – the capital of Peru, one of the hardest-hit nations in the world for Covid – patios are scattered across sidewalks, but don’t have access to street space, which is still mainly centred around cars. “In the present-day context, the street has never been more important,” urban designer Mariana Alegre writes in a Peruvian newspaper.

As the terrasse aesthetic made famous by Paris and Montreal finds footing in cities that aren’t typically known for outdoor patronage, business owners and officials alike are finding that it’s not as simple as setting up some tables and chairs outside. The experiences of five different cities trying to embrace outdoor patios offer some useful lessons for understanding what can go wrong, and how it can be done right.

Vilnius


Vilnius was an early adopter of the outdoor dining trend. (Petras Malukas/AFP via Getty Images)

In April, the Lithuanian capital made global headlines for promising to allow bars and restaurants to use public space to set up a “giant outdoor café.”

“Plazas, squares, streets – nearby cafés will be allowed to set up outdoor tables free of charge this season,” Vilnius’s mayor Remigijus Šimašius said at the time.

There were good intentions behind the plan, but a report by nightlife consultancy VibeLab suggests the city didn’t quite pull it off. The Vilnius case study in the report says physical distancing was hard to maintain on narrow streets. There was a lack of government planning and communication. The city didn’t measure the economic impact of the initiative. Locals complained about street noise.

Mark Adam Harold, Vilnius’s night mayor and the founder of Vilnius Night Alliance, said in the VibeLab report that the “appearance of vibrancy in the streets of Vilnius led to a decrease in public support for the still-struggling hospitality sector, as people assumed the economic crisis was over.”

Still, the political will to do something radical – even if it meant mistakes were made in the process – can be a foreign concept in some places. Vilnius showed that change, often so slow in municipal politics, can happen fast in extenuating circumstances.

In July, Vilnius took it a step further, closing down some central streets to car traffic as a way to lure different kinds of people to the Old Town. “Cars cannot dominate the most sensitive and beautiful part of our city. Vilnius is choosing to be a city of the future now,” said Šimašius.  

New York City


New York City plans to bring back outdoor dining again in the spring of 2021. (Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

As soon as it was warm enough to eat and drink outside, New Yorkers were doing it. The empty streets and desolate sidewalks made it easy to claim a piece of pavement – prompting some to jump the gun on Phase 2 reopening. “I need every dollar I can get,” a Little Italy restaurant owner said, explaining his guerrilla patio to Eater back in June. “I’m hanging on by a shoestring here.”

Since those early pandemic days, New York City has moved to formalise outdoor dining, launching its Open Restaurants and Open Streets programmes. They allow establishments to set up sidewalk and curbside patios for patrons, and in some cases, even extend their restaurant’s real estate right across the street. The city says more than 9,000 businesses have signed up for Open Restaurants since June. It’s been such a success that the mayor’s office said it would do it again in the spring of 2021.

"In just two months, Open Restaurants has helped re-imagine our public spaces – bringing New Yorkers together to safely enjoy outdoor dining and helping to rescue a critical industry at the same time," said DOT Commissioner Polly Trottenberg in a news release announcing the 2021 extension.

Kristin Vincent is an owner of Sel Rrose, Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 in New York City, as well as a Sel Rrose location in Montauk. She says she already had a sidewalk patio permit for Sel Rrose in Manhattan’s Lower East Side prior to the pandemic, for which she pays approximately $25,000 annually, usually paid in three-month installments. When the last installment came due, the city waived payment.

Vincent says the city’s also been more lax about monitoring the sidewalk, which she has warmly welcomed. “They used to police outdoor seating – if you went an inch outside the zone of where you’re supposed to be, you’d get a ticket. If you stayed open for 10 minutes past when you were supposed to [close], you’d get a ticket. If neighbours were complaining that you’re outside, they’d pull your outdoor seating away. It was such an ‘honour’ to have outdoor seating,” she says.

Vincent sincerely hopes the city reconsiders its entire approach to outdoor seating even after the pandemic has ended – but she isn’t sure that’s realistic. While Home Sweet Home and Figure 19 have remained closed because of lack of outdoor space, she has had to manage a never-ending list of changing rules for the two Sel Rrose locations. Most recently, she’s had to contend with New York City’s ban on selling alcoholic drinks without food.

“Why can’t it just be drinks?” she asks. If the goal is to prevent the spread of Covid-19, she wonders why they’re still enforcing Prohibition-style rules on to-go drinks. Those little details add up, Vincent says, making it challenging for bars and restaurants to make money. Right now, the Lower East Side location is earning around 30% of the sales it made this time last year.

The nitpicking isn’t unique to New York City. At the Montauk location, she built an outdoor patio in preparation for opening only to be told it was in the wrong place. That said, that location is doing better (about 65% of sales) because the area is a phase ahead of the city, allowing for 50% indoor seating capacity.

She says allowing indoor seating will be critical to New York City bars and restaurants as summer turns to fall, and fall turns to winter. “We have to open inside – have to. We’ll even take 50%,” she says.

Montreal


Montreal reduced its usual fee for terrasse permits. (Eric Thomas/AFP via Getty Images)

Sergio Da Silva’s Montreal bar and music venue, Turbo Haüs, has been skating by on the thinnest of margins. The Latin Quarter business was closed for months, finally reopening as a terrasse-only bar in the second week of July. 

In terms of Covid measures, Montreal has pedestrianised key streets including St-Denis, where Turbo Haüs is located (for what it’s worth, it normally pedestrianises St-Denis during the summer). It also reduced the terrasse permit fee, and in Turbo Haüs’s case waived the $3,000–$4,000 it would have owed the city as reimbursement for the three metered parking spaces taken over by its mega-terrasse. But Da Silva still paid $2,000 to comply with the rest of the permitting process, including the $500 in permit fees he paid prior to the Covid discount.

Anecdotally, he says, it seems the city’s invitation to businesses to set up terrasses hasn’t been met with the kind of speed some businesses were hoping for. His neighbour across the street applied for a permit, and was still waiting even after Turbo Haüs opened. “The entire process just seemed more difficult than it was before,” he says.

It’s been a frustrating summer. It was supposed to be the bar’s time to squirrel away money for the quieter winter season. Instead, Da Silva says, he’s mostly just making enough to stay open right now. “This would have been a really, really good summer for us. We had everything in place to put a giant dent in all our debts, and we were looking forward to actually paying ourselves a livable sum. And then this kind of thing happened,” he says. He predicts this winter is when the thread that so many bars and restaurants are holding onto will finally snap.

“You should wait to see what it looks like in the winter slow season,” he says. “That's when a lot of places are actually going to be shutting down.”

Assuming most bars and restaurants won’t be able to operate at 50% or greater capacity in the winter, a small business rent forgiveness programme that gives money to tenants (rather than directly to landlords) may be the only way governments can prevent mass closures.

Tel Aviv


Tel Aviv's approach to outdoor dining left many restaurants wondering if they would be able to survive. (Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images)

Tel Aviv’s outdoor patio story has emerged in fits and starts. In May, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told people to “Go out and have a good time”.

In early July, The Times of Israel published the video of the schnitzel restaurateur pleading with police not to fine him for having a couple of tables and chairs out on the sidewalk. “Business owners give this city culture, entertainment. There’s no work and I’m even fined! I have three kids to feed, where will I get the money from?” he cried.

Three days later, the Israeli metropolis published a news release saying it was sacrificing road space for on-street dining platforms in its trendy restaurant district, on Chayim Vital Street. The city also pedestrianised 11 streets, placing chairs and umbrellas in the new car-free zones to encourage people to use their new public space. The following day, the city gave restaurants only a few hours’ warning about an open-ended closure order, which many restaurateurs vowed to disobey. They won, but within the same month, 34 restaurants were fined for serving unmasked patrons.

The backlash Tel Aviv has received from the bar and restaurant industry has been deserved. The lack of clear guidelines, ever-changing rules and unavailability of aid and support has left many businesses in the lurch, wondering if they’ll ever be able to come back from Covid.

Toronto

In pre-Covid times, Harsh Chawla says his popular Indian restaurant Pukka would routinely turn around 250 seats on a normal Saturday. Now, in a summer without tourism, nor Toronto’s Summerlicious restaurant festival, nor indoor dining, his 24-seat curbside patio has been a saving grace. “I always say, anything better than zero is a win for us,” he says.

Chawla says he helped rally his neighbours around CaféTO’s proposal of shutting down on-street parking spaces in favor of dining nooks. He came up against worries that reduced parking would mean reduced business for them – a common concern that a growing body of research demonstrates is not actually true. Eventually his stretch of St. Clair Street West came to a compromise allowing for the conversion of some parking spots.

Trevor McIntyre, global director of placemaking at IBI Group, is a consultant on the CaféTO programme. He sees the lane and parking spot closures as big wins in a city that allocates an incredible amount of space to cars, even with mounting pedestrian and cyclist deaths. “We've slowed down traffic considerably – cars slow down, the whole pace slows down. You take away the on-street parking, and it encourages people to get out and walk. You start seeing higher volumes of people,” says McIntyre.

In this experiment, curbside patios and more heavily pedestrianised areas are driving more business to areas than parking does. Chawla likes the results.

“Hopefully we do this next year, and the year after, and the year after, because I think it gives us character to the street, it gives character to the neighbourhood,” says the restaurateur. “Our summers are so short-lived in Canada, in Toronto – so why not have more spaces outside so people can enjoy it?”

Tracey Lindeman is a freelance writer based in Ottawa.