For a while there, London was taking great strides in building some very good cycle infrastructure. Much of what was put in, and what is still going in, was begun by former London mayor, Boris Johnson, and his cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan – albeit only after years of planning and consultation and argy bargy with opponents of road space reallocation.
The current mayor, Sadiq Khan, began at a slower pace. But when I met his new deputy mayor for transport Heidi Alexander last week, she talked about “supercharging” the cycling programme. So – what’s being supercharged?
What the now former foreign secretary Boris Johnson – a cyclist himself – started was effectively a two tier network of routes. The headline projects are the superhighways – originally 12 direct, often kerb-segregated routes on main roads, for the faster commuters. These are numbered broadly on a clock face alignment, so CS6 runs south from the city centre, CS2 runs north east, and so on. These were mostly on the 5 per cent of London streets controlled directly by Transport for London (TfL), and so were easier to complete.
The original proposed cycle superhighways. Click to expand. Image: TfL.
Seven of these were built, and plans for three more are in the offing, albeit in some cases with severe delays, thanks to push back from boroughs. These are the three – CS4, CS9 and CS11 – that Alexander and her team have their “supercharging” eyes on.
Then there are the Quietways. These are largely un-segregated routes on lower traffic back streets. They’re often less direct, but are oftentimes on less polluted roads, and are intended for less confident (and some would read, female) riders.
Simple enough, right? If only there weren’t so many exceptions.
For one thing, the Quietways are on the 95 per cent of London’s roads run by its 32 boroughs, which take a variety of very differing view on cycling. The result is an at times notional mixed bag of routes: some are little more than signage and painted bike stencils on roads, but they’re interspersed with good interventions, dependent largely on which borough boundary you just crossed.
The 2016 proposals for Quietways. Note how the numbering scheme bears no relation to the cycle superhighway one. Click to expand. Image: TfL.
The good ones, like Q1, include “modal filtering” – blocking rat-running traffic but permitting cycles and pedestrians through. (Q1 also features an excellent new bike path alongside Millwall FC’s stadium.) The bad ones pit those “less confident” cyclists against one way traffic on narrow roads head on.
Then there are the ‘blue paint’ superhighways – sections of seriously busy roads painted blue and given over to cyclists. These were Boris’ early stab at main road cycle routes, painted as far back as 2010 to match the bike hire scheme’s original sponsor, Barclays Bank. However, many lacked even white lines to indicate dedicated cycle space, instead sharing existing bus lanes with heavy, and at times irate, bus traffic. Some were fatally poor, and deaths on CS2 helped make the case for improvements.
That route was one of the first to be re-built as a segregated route. But although many more have since been upgraded to include kerb protection and first-in-the-UK infrastructure like cycle-specific traffic lights, some blue paint cycle superhighways still remain.
Then there’s the anomaly of CS1 – a Quietway in all but name. Built largely on Hackney and Islington roads, the route follows residential streets, some of which also happen to be popular driving rat runs. Although these are heavily used by bikes, some sections are also heavily used by vans, cars, taxis and so forth, making it fairly unpleasant for cyclists in places. The one bit of planned kerb-protected cycle lane, where the route runs briefly on the busy Balls Pond Road, has not yet been built, despite winning support in a consultation back in 2015.
More Quietways and Superhighways are being planned, and built – but Khan and his team are a long way from meeting his pledge to triple the length of bike lanes Boris built. The last mayoral administration completed 41km of main road TfL physically-protected cycle tracks and a further 39km from borough schemes. That of Sadiq Khan has built just 14km of cycle tracks since becoming mayor: he’s got two years left before his first term runs out. It’s a tough ask but, to be fair, it took Boris until his final two years of eight to really get going on decent protected routes.
London’s boroughs are in some cases hindering progress, and Heidi Alexander, and walking & cycling commissioner Will Norman have a challenge on their hands. Take CS11 (West End to Swiss Cottage), planned and consulted on under the former mayor, but now stuck in a quagmire of opposition from Westminster City Council. The borough, one of the least bike-friendly in the city, recently launched a legal challenge against the route, at the same time as going back on plans to pedestrianise Oxford Street. CS9 in West London also faces opposition, from local politicians, businesses, residents – even a church.
So can Heidi Alexander really “supercharge” the city’s cycling programme? Her strategy, she told me, is to work collaboratively and “condense the development phases, so do things in parallel around the consultation and the design”. The proof will, as always, be in the pudding. For now, though, there’s a way to go.