London's floating cycleway would be used by tourists, not commuters

Great for views of Westminster, not so great for commuting. Image: chensiyuan.

Last week, plans for a new £600m “floating” cycle route along the edge of the River Thames in London were announced. It is expected to stretch for around seven miles from Battersea, west of the city centre, to Canary Wharf, the financial district to the east. The idea has been put forward by the River Cycleway consortium, a group of architects, engineers and artists.

The construction is expected to rise and fall with the river tides and to have a number of access points along the route. The “motion” of the cycleway will be used to generate energy to power lighting. It is expected that at least some of the funding will come from private finance – a charge, expected to be £1.50 per trip, will be used to cover ongoing maintenance costs of the infrastructure.

On the face of it, this sounds like a great idea: in a large, congested city, the Thames stands out as an under-used transport corridor and local authorities want to encourage cycling. Such an expensive and high-profile scheme would help give the idea that cycling is being treated seriously as a mode of travel. 

The proposal, however, raises a number of issues, which the plans as published do not seem to adequately address. There does not appear to have been any serious attempt to study demand – who would use it and what sorts of numbers might be expected on a daily basis? In practice it seems the main focus may be on leisure: tourists and Sunday trippers who wish to see the sights of London from an unusual perspective. Will it really appeal to the daily commuter cyclist, especially given the costs of use?

There is a major question mark over the cost; £600m seems very expensive for just seven miles of cycleway. Road-based cycleways typically cost significantly less than this and arguably give far greater value for money.

A rendering of the proposed deckway.

London is already a growing cycling success story. The capital has more cyclists than ever and has received considerable investment in cycling infrastructure, a public bicycle scheme (the so-called “Boris Bikes”) and support for cycling goes right to the top of City Hall. Focusing investment once again on the capital isn’t really the best and most equitable use of such a considerable sum of money. Compare the £600m with the £77.2m invested by the government in eight cities outside of London (with a further local contribution of £45.4m) through the Cycle City Ambition grants.

The £600m might be better spent elsewhere in the country, or even perhaps in London’s suburbs, areas where fewer people cycle and where dedicated cycle infrastructure is poor or non-existent. In the UK, aside from a handful of urban areas which perform as well or better than London, much of the country has lower levels of cycling and could benefit from investment.

In any case, is this the kind of infrastructure cyclists really want? Recent research has clearly shown that cyclists do not fit neatly into a single category and that their views and ideas for what works best for them cover a wide spectrum. A single, expensive and very geographically focused piece of infrastructure is unlikely to appeal to large numbers and, more importantly, is unlikely to be of practical use to many cyclists.

Perhaps the proposers should start to talk with cyclists and those who currently do not cycle (but might be persuaded to do so) to gain a better understanding of what they want. The answer is likely to be rather more mundane: better cycle paths, lighting, signposting and possibly further controls on aggressive driving.

This isn’t to argue against thinking big – major investments of this type could have a huge and positive impact for many people. But they would have to be focused on something that helps many people, not just the lucky few who fancy a scenic trip to Westminster.

The Conversation

Miles Tight is a Professor of Transport, Energy and Environment at University of Birmingham.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


What's actually in the UK government’s bailout package for Transport for London?

Wood Green Underground station, north London. Image: Getty.

On 14 May, hours before London’s transport authority ran out of money, the British government agreed to a financial rescue package. Many details of that bailout – its size, the fact it was roughly two-thirds cash and one-third loan, many conditions attached – have been known about for weeks. 

But the information was filtered through spokespeople, because the exact terms of the deal had not been published. This was clearly a source of frustration for London’s mayor Sadiq Khan, who stood to take the political heat for some of the ensuing cuts (to free travel for the old or young, say), but had no way of backing up his contention that the British government made him do it.

That changed Tuesday when Transport for London published this month's board papers, which include a copy of the letter in which transport secretary Grant Shapps sets out the exact terms of the bailout deal. You can read the whole thing here, if you’re so minded, but here are the three big things revealed in the new disclosure.

Firstly, there’s some flexibility in the size of the deal. The bailout was reported to be worth £1.6 billion, significantly less than the £1.9 billion that TfL wanted. In his letter, Shapps spells it out: “To the extent that the actual funding shortfall is greater or lesser than £1.6bn then the amount of Extraordinary Grant and TfL borrowing will increase pro rata, up to a maximum of £1.9bn in aggregate or reduce pro rata accordingly”. 

To put that in English, London’s transport network will not be grinding to a halt because the government didn’t believe TfL about how much money it would need. Up to a point, the money will be available without further negotiations.

The second big takeaway from these board papers is that negotiations will be going on anyway. This bail out is meant to keep TfL rolling until 17 October; but because the agency gets around three-quarters of its revenues from fares, and because the pandemic means fares are likely to be depressed for the foreseeable future, it’s not clear what is meant to happen after that. Social distancing, the board papers note, means that the network will only be able to handle 13 to 20% of normal passenger numbers, even when every service is running.

Shapps’ letter doesn’t answer this question, but it does at least give a sense of when an answer may be forthcoming. It promises “an immediate and broad ranging government-led review of TfL’s future financial position and future financial structure”, which will publish detailed recommendations by the end of August. That will take in fares, operating efficiencies, capital expenditure, “the current fiscal devolution arrangements” – basically, everything. 

The third thing we leaned from that letter is that, to the first approximation, every change to London’s transport policy that is now being rushed through was an explicit condition of this deal. Segregated cycle lanes, pavement extensions and road closures? All in there. So are the suspension of free travel for people under 18, or free peak-hours travel for those over 60. So are increases in the level of the congestion charge.

Many of these changes may be unpopular, but we now know they are not being embraced by London’s mayor entirely on their own merit: They’re being pushed by the Department of Transport as a condition of receiving the bailout. No wonder Khan was miffed that the latter hadn’t been published.

Jonn Elledge was founding editor of CityMetric. He is on Twitter as @jonnelledge and on Facebook as JonnElledgeWrites.