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.

 
 
 
 

The IPPC report on the melting ice caps makes for terrifying reading

A Greeland iceberg, 2007. Image: Getty.

Earlier this year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) – the UN body responsible for communicating the science of climate breakdown – released its long-awaited Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate.

Based on almost 7,000 peer-reviewed research articles, the report is a cutting-edge crash course in how human-caused climate breakdown is changing our ice and oceans and what it means for humanity and the living planet. In a nutshell, the news isn’t good.

Cryosphere in decline

Most of us rarely come into contact with the cryosphere, but it is a critical part of our climate system. The term refers to the frozen parts of our planet – the great ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica, the icebergs that break off and drift in the oceans, the glaciers on our high mountain ranges, our winter snow, the ice on lakes and the polar oceans, and the frozen ground in much of the Arctic landscape called permafrost.

The cryosphere is shrinking. Snow cover is reducing, glaciers and ice sheets are melting and permafrost is thawing. We’ve known this for most of my 25-year career, but the report highlights that melting is accelerating, with potentially disastrous consequences for humanity and marine and high mountain ecosystems.

At the moment, we’re on track to lose more than half of all the permafrost by the end of the century. Thousands of roads and buildings sit on this frozen soil – and their foundations are slowly transitioning to mud. Permafrost also stores almost twice the amount of carbon as is present in the atmosphere. While increased plant growth may be able to offset some of the release of carbon from newly thawed soils, much will be released to the atmosphere, significantly accelerating the pace of global heating.

Sea ice is declining rapidly, and an ice-free Arctic ocean will become a regular summer occurrence as things stand. Indigenous peoples who live in the Arctic are already having to change how they hunt and travel, and some coastal communities are already planning for relocation. Populations of seals, walruses, polar bears, whales and other mammals and sea birds who depend on the ice may crash if sea ice is regularly absent. And as water in its bright-white solid form is much more effective at reflecting heat from the sun, its rapid loss is also accelerating global heating.

Glaciers are also melting. If emissions continue on their current trajectory, smaller glaciers will shrink by more than 80 per cent by the end of the century. This retreat will place increasing strain on the hundreds of millions of people globally who rely on glaciers for water, agriculture, and power. Dangerous landslides, avalanches, rockfalls and floods will become increasingly normal in mountain areas.


Rising oceans, rising problems

All this melting ice means that sea levels are rising. While seas rose globally by around 15cm during the 20th century, they’re now rising more than twice as fast –- and this rate is accelerating.

Thanks to research from myself and others, we now better understand how Antarctica and Greenland’s ice sheets interact with the oceans. As a result, the latest report has upgraded its long-term estimates for how much sea level is expected to rise. Uncertainties still remain, but we’re headed for a rise of between 60 and 110cm by 2100.

Of course, sea level isn’t static. Intense rainfall and cyclones – themselves exacerbated by climate breakdown – can cause water to surge metres above the normal level. The IPCC’s report is very clear: these extreme storm surges we used to expect once per century will now be expected every year by mid-century. In addition to rapidly curbing emissions, we must invest millions to protect at-risk coastal and low-lying areas from flooding and loss of life.

Ocean ecosystems

Up to now, the ocean has taken up more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the global climate system. Warming to date has already reduced the mixing between water layers and, as a consequence, has reduced the supply of oxygen and nutrients for marine life. By 2100 the ocean will take up five to seven times more heat than it has done in the past 50 years if we don’t change our emissions trajectory. Marine heatwaves are also projected to be more intense, last longer and occur 50 times more often. To top it off, the ocean is becoming more acidic as it continues to absorb a proportion of the carbon dioxide we emit.

Collectively, these pressures place marine life across the globe under unprecedented threat. Some species may move to new waters, but others less able to adapt will decline or even die out. This could cause major problems for communities that depend on local seafood. As it stands, coral reefs – beautiful ecosystems that support thousands of species – will be nearly totally wiped out by the end of the century.

Between the lines

While the document makes some striking statements, it is actually relatively conservative with its conclusions – perhaps because it had to be approved by the 195 nations that ratify the IPCC’s reports. Right now, I would expect that sea level rise and ice melt will occur faster than the report predicts. Ten years ago, I might have said the opposite. But the latest science is painting an increasingly grave picture for the future of our oceans and cryosphere – particularly if we carry on with “business as usual”.

The difference between 1.5°C and 2°C of heating is especially important for the icy poles, which warm much faster than the global average. At 1.5°C of warming, the probability of an ice-free September in the Arctic ocean is one in 100. But at 2°C, we’d expect to see this happening about one-third of the time. Rising sea levels, ocean warming and acidification, melting glaciers, and permafrost also will also happen faster – and with it, the risks to humanity and the living planet increase. It’s up to us and the leaders we choose to stem the rising tide of climate and ecological breakdown.

Mark Brandon, Professor of Polar Oceanography, The Open University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.