London’s cycling Quietways are a mess. And they’re about to get a whole lot messier

Oh what a tangled web we weave. Image: Getty.

As part of my clichéd dive into premature midlife crisis, I’ve taken up cycling. But one thing they don’t tell you when you first don a cycle helmet, is just how complicated it is to navigate London’s labyrinth of cycle-paths. To the uninitiated, the capital is currently a mixed collection of backstreet Quietways, Cycle Superhighways, informal lanes and everything in between.

So why is cycling in London so complicated? What separates your Quietways from your Cycle Superhighways? And why does it matter?

For many Londoners cycling is defined by the collection of segregated cycle superhighways built under Boris Johnson. Following in the time honoured tradition of stealing the ideas of whichever mayor came before you, this scheme was actually first suggested by Ken Livingstone, but we’ll ignore that for now.

After a tentative beginning, filled with cancelled plans and safety hazards, Boris Johnson created tens of miles of paths on his two tier system of cycle superhighways and a backstreet alternative.

Under Sadiq Khan, the main focus has been these “Quietways”, a name that sounds like it took a PR team an unhealthy amount of time to come up with. In essence these cycle-paths escape the bustle of main road-adjacent superhighways, and are situated on quieter (get it) side streets. The hope was this would make them more appealing to less confident cyclists.

Both Transport for London (TfL) and the mayor’s office have made much of the roughly 100km of Quietways built over the last three years. When you look into it more closely, however, things become a little less inspiring.

The central London cycleway network, such as it is. Superhighways are blue, quietways are purple, rebranded cycleways are green. Image: TfL.

As it turns out, the word “built” has very little actual meaning anymore; simply renaming existing cycle paths counts. That’s what happened with both East London’s Greenway and the Thames Towpath, both existing routes that now make up 26km of these “new” cycle-paths. All in all, over half of the routes were rebrands of existing cycle lanes, whilst those bits that were “new" frequently face their own problems.

On Islington's cramped Quietway 2 a faded line of paint is the only thing that marks the line between cycle lane and road. There’s barely room for two bikes to pass each other on the bumpy, ageing tarmac of Quietway between Wimbledon and Raynes Park. Across the network riders frequently face crossing busy road at open, unmarked junctions. The lack of markings, protection and signals that define many of these routes stretch the meaning of the word “built” even further, and put cyclist’s safety at risk.


This is not exactly ideal for a project that chewed up a sizeable chunk of the £86m spent on cycling last year. While this does show some will to improve London cycling at City Hall, good intentions fill no potholes: indeed, it’s a damn sight less than the £214m a year previously promised by Will Norman, Sadiq Khan’s walking and cycling commissioner. Suffice to say, the Quietway programme is a mess.

Complicating things further is the recent news that all London’s cycle routes would be merging into a whole other scheme called “cycleways”. But only one of these new cycleways is finished, C6 (formerly CS6) from Kentish Town to Elephant and Castle, so we’re currently left with a mix of systems across London. Oh – and many of these new cycleways will be getting their third set of new signs in recent years, despite little to no construction work.

Why exactly we suddenly need this integrated mesh of differing cycle paths is still a mystery. According to TfL, people were being put off by the excess “brand names” and that “their experience on the routes do not always match their expectations” of current paths. But none of these problems seem to be solved by just re-organising existing cycle-paths. Indeed if the idea of Quietways was to provide a backstreet alternative for less confident cyclists, I’m not entirely sure how merging them with busy superhighways achieves that.

In many ways this very concept of a Quietway highlights everything wrong with London’s current cycling policy. Meekly they navigate old paths, side roads, and pedestrianised areas, inoffensive and inconvenient. It entertains the idea that you can radically improve cycle paths and encourage cycling without even slightly inconveniencing drivers – or even in this case, your own bottom line. In reality, however, not every policy can be liked by everybody. You can only entertain both sides for so long before you run out adequate space, money and support to deliver your ideas.

Not only can we do better but we need to. From reducing air pollution and emissions to relieving pressure on a tube system that is frequently overcapacity, well-funded cycling is in best interest of all Londoners. Something more radical is needed than underfunded side streets and a mix-mash of cycle lanes barely different from the superhighways Ken Livingstone suggested over a decade ago.

Popularity is hardly a question anymore: just look at the never ending piles of dockless bikes, so popular that boroughs like Hackney are actually having problems keeping streets clear of them. Indeed since 2000, there’s been a 154 per cent increase in cyclists in London, according to TfL.

Nor is feasibility the bar: cities like Amsterdam, Antwerp and Copenhagen have not only invested substantially more but trialed new schemes like subsidised bicycle parking and wide scale pedestrianisation. Thanks to this work each city ranks on the Copenhagenize Index for the world’s best cycling hubs.

The last time London featured on the list was in 2011. Even here, however, “mini-Holland” infrastructure schemes in Enfield, Kingston and Waltham Forest have managed to encourage cycling and improve the local environment, and set a precedent for the rest of the city.

What does remain the question, though, is when political promises will translate into real action.

 
 
 
 

In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 


The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.