Heads must roll at TfL over Blackfriars

Last year thousands took to protesting on Blackfriars Bridge, arguing that the designs proposed there by Transport for London would lead to the north junction of the bridge becoming much more dangerous for cyclists.  The plans proposed increasing the speed limit on the bridge from 20mph to 30mph, increasing the number of traffic lanes from two to three and removing a key pedestrian crossing.  Thousands of concerned cyclists and pedestrians took part in a series of three 'flashrides' on the bridge, the London Assembly passed a motion condemning the plans, members of every political party joined the protests and even Mayor of London and Chair of TfL Boris Johnson stated his belief that the designs needed "more work."  But unelected, unaccountable TfL and its team of highway engineers went ahead with their plans regardless.

Blackfriars Bridge cycling charge! from ibikelondon on Vimeo.
1000s of cyclists stream over the bridge at rush hour in March 2011.

Now, the bridge plans are complete and cyclists - who make up the majority user group of traffic here at peak time - battle their way through a junction which is now more dangerous than before.  And a new interim safety audit of the site by none other than Transport for London has been published which slams the new designs installed by... ..Transport for London. 

The report states "The potential for conflict between cyclists and other traffic is perceived to be significant" at the junction with Queen Victoria Street.  It continues, in respect of the removed pedestrian crossing "The lack of [a] pedestrian crossing facility at what appears to be a significant desire line increases the risk of conflict as users cross between traffic with an increased risk of being obscured.  The potential for conflict is exacerbated..."
And there's even problems for people in cars and risks to them too; "...the alignment between the ahead lane into Queen Victoria Street and lane 2 exiting Queen Victoria Street are aligned in a way that they could be perceived as leading towards one another. During the site visit various users were hesitant at this location and one user inadvertently travelled the wrong side of the traffic island towards approaching traffic. An increased potential for ‘head on’ type conflicts may occur." (Emphasis my own)  You can read the report in full here (PDF) as well as read further analysis of it on the Cyclists in the City blog and on Road.CC

Politicians of every colour at the third flashride on Blackfriars Bridge.  The Mayor's own Conservative "cycling champion", Andrew Boff, is somewhere at the back.

Yet one year ago, in the run up to the third and largest flashride, I went head-to-head with Ben Plowden of Transport for London on BBC London Radio.  During that exchange, which is recorded here, Ben assured cyclists that all would be fine at the new junction: "...we think, having responded to several of the concerns raised by people during the consultation, we’ve managed to do [this] in a way which allows pedestrians to use the station in vast numbers, but also everybody else who has to go through that junction, particularly in the rush hour, to do so safely and easily." (My emphasis)

My response was unequivocal; "I don’t see how increasing the road lanes from two to three, and increasing the speed limit are beneficial to all those thousands of pedestrians who are going to come out of Blackfriars Bridge at all. In fact their exposure to road danger will be increased, so it won’t be as safe for them as Ben makes out."
Ben Plowden shot back: "Sorry, that’s simply not true..."

But today this audit report shows that Ben Plowden and Transport for London were severely misguided in their belief in this scheme, and that the protestors who believed the junction would become more dangerous were right all along.

And when a vulnerable road user dies here - and die here they almost inevitably shall - this report will be a toxic paper trail of liability leading directly back to the desks of the highway engineers at TfL.

Sadly, cyclists have been here before.  In 2004 Transport for London did what they thought best and installed a bike lane between two lanes of fast moving traffic down the middle of the bridge.  The London Cycling Campaign was in uproar at the potential danger that was being designed in to the road, but their concerns were blithely ignored.  It was only when a cyclist was killed there by a bus, Vicky McCreery, a 37 year old physiotherapist, that TfL admitted the need to change.  The terrifying bike lane was removed overnight.

I genuinely hope that it won't take a death on the bridge for positive change to be forthcoming here this time.  But Transport for London should take a long hard look at the way in which it conducts itself when criticised, and how it engages with our city's concerned stakeholders.  It seems to me that Ben Plowden was, on this occasion, being put forward as a mouthpiece for designs which he had not even been involved in creating.  Instead, this designed-in danger had come from an anonymous road engineer who thought they knew best in the face of thousands of voices of criticism ranged against him.

At the recent Love London, Go Dutch conference Ben Plowden admitted that although from the outside the pace of change at TfL must seem glacial, speed is relative and within the organisation itself the change towards being more cyclist-friendly felt break-neck.  It's encouraging to hear that change is perceived to be happening, but I wonder if the same poor excuse was also offered up after the bridge deaths in 2004?

You tell me, TfL?

If Transport for London want to really be seen to be decisive they should announce what steps are to be taken to immediately ameliorate the danger that has been created here (I'd start with the LCC's superb proposals), and ensure that the highway engineer who has created this shocking, dangerous place - at a cost of millions to London tax payers, no less - is removed from their responsibilities at once.

Perhaps from the lofty perch of TfL's HQ on Blackfriars Road all these angry cyclists and shrill campaigners might seem a frustrating distraction from the work of engineering roads.  But we're not doing all this jumping up and down in anger just for the fun of being itinerant cyclists.  We're doing this because we know that not only is there a better way, but that the existing design is downright dangerous.  When the potential outcome of that situation is another life erased and another family destroyed, TfL would do well to listen, and act, for once.

Now that their own reports are agreeing with what we've been saying for over a year, what more will it take for change to happen on the road here and for change to happen within TfL?

Share |


Paul M said...

When I penned my own email of feedback on the original proposals for Blackfriars Junction, I am sure I was by no means the only person to comment adversely on the issues it raised for cyclists and also for pedestrians, especially those not entering or leaving the station. Although I pass through this area almost always on a bicycle, the arguments about cycle facilities have been well rehearsed by others, and I am sure will be repeated, so I’ll just make an observation about the pedestrian aspects.

For 20 years, from 1988, I worked in Tudor St, close to the southern end of New Bridge St and the location of the light controlled pedestrian crossing recently removed as the station re-opened. This crossing was in fact only created at the start of the station redevelopment, due to the closure of the underpasses by which people used to access the underground station. It had been intended that these underpasses would be closed for good, as the new entrance to the Tube would be at street level, and they were always pretty scuzzy and people didn’t want to use them if they could avoid them. Hence there has been an observable desire line across the street since 1988 at the least. Pedestrians would indulge in a game of chicken to get to the central median, wait for a gap and start clucking again for the second half of the crossing – quite possibly reciting that children’s story “We’re going on a bear hunt” – “We can’t go over it, we can’t go under it – oh no! We’ll have to go through it!”

I objected on the grounds that (a) there was clearly a desire line there, (b) elderly or less agile pedestrians and wheelchair users etc who wanted to cross here would now have to go all the way around via the teardrop traffic island and the station, a 270-degree circuit where a quarter-circle would suffice. TfL’s response? Re-open the underpass – well, that ought to do it for all those disabled or elderly pedestrians, shouldn’t it?

I raised the matter again at the Castle Baynard Wardmote (ie public meeting of the City electors and councillors) and while the response was supportive, they felt that it was not viable to tackle TfL about this immediately as the response would be “you haven’t given it time to work”.

Now I understand that the members of the Streets & Walkways Subcommittee of the Planning & Transportation Committee were not best pleased when they were presented with the safety survey at their last meeting. I await developments from that direction with interest.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks for the background on the site Paul, most interesting. As you state, those disgusting underpasses are not going to help anyone with any kind of mobility issues. The entire situation is unacceptable to all users by all accounts.

Thanks for the update on the City's position, they must be furious. As must be Unilever who are the key tenant at the site and are probably most concerned about their staff using the crossing. The ball is very much in TfL's court now. Of course we will keep piling on the pressure but it'll be interesting to see what their next move is.

Dave H said...

The fact clearly visible from the risible 'design' of the Queen Victoria Street Junction is that the right turn for Northbound traffic points directly towards the Westbound (emerging) traffic lanes from Queen Victoria Street, with nothing save a painted line or two (which naturally 'disappear' under traffic or in poor visibility conditions). I'd reckon that the worst scenario will be a vehicle coming West and turning head on into traffic heading North. It will only be a matter of time.

TfL might actually convince us that they observe what happens in the real world by sorting out Bow Roundabout with the simple measure of formalising the way that around 70% of cyclists get past this dangerous junction by cycling over the flyover, and avoiding the crazy road layout that has motor traffic driving contra flow on both slip roads, and 2 cross-over lanes - frequently abused as short cuts to get to the front of the queue at the main roundabout. From observations easily made from the comfortable location outside the Three Mills Cafe, it soon becomes apparent that most motor traffic is heading for the A102 via the roundabout, and there are perhaps more individuals crossing over the flyover on bikes. Westbound the outer of the 2 traffic lanes as been closed off with hatched lines, when closing off the left side traffic lane would have delivered a cycle lane. Eastbound, during the Games just one lane was open and cyclists enjoyed a coned off cycle lane across the flyover. I suspect even more cyclists would use the flyover if the arrangements to get in to the centre lane to ride up and over, on both sides - and ditch that crap hop on-off the footway on the Bow side Westbound.

Jono said...

Totally agree Mark. But this sort of behaviour is completely in keeping with TfL. The paid for some research into 20mph zones a few years back. It was published in the BMJ, and stated a 42% reduction in KSI. Yet TfL are one of the principle objectors to a reduction in speed limits on roads they control. TfL receive advice, warnings and reports, but just sit on them in favour of fast moving traffic. Without wishing to be too pointed, it is on Mr Plowden's watch that we have seen year on year increases in deaths to both pedestrians and cyclists in London. Crossings have been removed entirely or re-phased to make life worse for the elderly and disabled. Not really good enough from an organisation which is entirely paid for by taxpayers

Anonymous said...

The junction was never actually redesigned. The junction was altered to allow the station expansion to progress. It was then "put back" to the original layout with a number of changes to cope with increased pedestrian flows (pedestrian crossing in New Bridge Street being removed, was done so to allow the pedestrian crossing across three tear dropped shaped island).

Another common misunderstanding is that the works were paid for by Network Rail, not TfL

Jerry said...

@ Anonymous. Didn't Blackfriars Bridge used to be part of the LCN+? Aren't cyclists the majority user group during rush hour? Why was the opportunity to reconfigure this junction wasted? Why does it matter that Network Rail paid for these works?

Mark said...

With these schemes, the engineer who designs it (or engineers) rarely design in isolation - there will be a committee or board with a senior member or staff sign-off. If those signing off do not challenge those designing because they don't understand, they are not competent people. If they do understand, but not challenging, they are not competent. Finally, the scheme promoter is rarely pushed to agree a brief with he designer (often the promoter has no idea) and so the designer does what he thinks is wanted - the system is flawed. Engineer gives architect a design for a tunnel under a river because he was asked to design a river crossing and the architect wanted a bridge. A bit silly, but you get my drift.

Anonymous said...

@ Jerry. At this junction specifically the funding is very relevant. Where a developer (in this case Network Rail) proposes a development that will significantly impact the highway, they must fund the alterations to accommodate their development. As part of this agreement the highway authority is not allowed to "better" the junction.

Equally relevant is that the design proposed by LCC would in all likely hood have added at least a further £5m to the cost of the project (major structural alterations to accomodate the design - coupled with the likeky closing of Blackfriars Bridge for a significant period to undertake the works).

An opportunity to save £2m on the total cost was certainly missed.

The issue, certainly at Blackfriars, was funding being in place to properly develop the junction to a standard that meets a safe cycling criteria. Which it wasn't.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks to you all for your insightful comments - it never ceases to amaze me just how switched on and engaged people are about issues such as this which at first glance seem to be just a simple question of road design.

@Anonymous (please do use a name, even if it is a false one, in order to keep the chain of comments clear) We all know that the developer was Network Rail and that's why TfL had to be seen to push their work through as quickly as possible. If they'd missed the deadline of the opening of the new station they'd have been liable for all sorts of late penalties. However, your comment regarding the cost of the existing scheme vs the cost of LCC's scheme doesn't really measure up when you consider how much it is going to have to cost to re-do the junction (and in light of their own damning report and the liability issue it creates how can TfL NOT re-do the junction?) Furthermore, the price difference pales in to insignificance really when you consider the cost of what is at stake here. Campaigners have been saying from the start that the new junction will literally end up being responsible for someone being killed, and they're not joking.

You're right, of course, that the new junction isn't just the work of one individual or signed off by one person. In which case I'd argue that more than one head should roll and TfL will need to have a long hard look at their systems.