Here at ibikelondon I've been cataloguing the cycling culture around Broadway Market for nearly four years. From the cycle chic riders who braved the winter and kept riding in January 2012 and February 2011, to the football teams who pedal to practice on Hackney Marshes (not forgetting autumn and the long hot days of summer as well of course!). There's the "cycle chic wall" outside Lock 7 cafe, not to mention the "bicycles-only road" where two wheels rule. Noticing how the sun brings out the best in cyclists using Hackney's canal-side paths, to documenting the change from early adopters to everyday and ordinary cyclists, when it comes to London's bicycling borough I've really seen it all.
And, being both an observer and a contributor to the borough's cycling culture, I've often thought about what makes Hackney tick, and why so many people choose to ride bikes here. Unusually for an inner-London borough it doesn't have an Underground station (although it did gain a handful of Overground stations in 2010), meaning the fastest way to get around is on two wheels, with the 2nd and 3rd fastest means of transport - buses and cars - being prohibitively slow or expensive. It's also always had a strong cycling 'scene', with specialist shops and bike polo and grass track racing groups for example. With a strong creative class stationed in the borough there is also a lot of local area and home working, meaning distances between home and the office are eminently cycleable for many. What's more, the borough benefited from the introduction of the Congestion Charge in its southern corner since 2000, and more people now cycle to work in the borough than drive. But that's not all that has made Hackney an inviting place in which to ride a bike...
The Hackney branch of the London Cycling Campaign have been working with the borough very closely for many years, encouraging the Council to consider the bicycle in all that they do; from approving planning applications, to which bin lorries they procure. And where they've had the most evident success on the ground is with their programme of "filtered permeability" interventions; making one way streets two way again, using bollards to make streets no-through-roads for motorised traffic, hence becoming a handy cut-through for cyclists and pedestrians. Clever short-cuts and links, made with little more than a dropped curb or a handy bollard, have allowed cyclists to avoid the busiest and most unpleasant roads, whilst efforts to unwind all of the biggest gyratories in the borough continue. Long-serving Councillor and former cabinet member Vincent Stops has a long list on his blog of some of the interventions done in recent years to encourage more travel by bicycle, which is well worth a read.
But is this over-egging the pudding? Is Hackney a popular spot for cycling simply by lucky coincidence, a chance concurrence of beneficial elements? It is worth remembering that although 14.6% of trips to work might be by bike, the modal share for all journeys by bicycle in the borough remains low compared to other means of transport. And not everyone agrees that Hackney is exactly a cycling paradise. Much missed cycling blogger, the famously venomous Crap Cycling in Waltham Forest had this to say of the borough back in 2010;
"East of Mare Street I quickly became lost in a labyrinth of one-way streets and hideous gyratories... After an hour cycling in Hackney I sobbed nostalgically for Waltham Forest. It's that bad."
Even self-described vehicular cyclist "Buffalo" Bill Chidley of London bicycle courier scene fame is keen to point out that there are really big changes needed to some of Hackney's biggest and busiest roads;
"I agree that there remains a lot to do in Hackney. I live right by the A10 Kingsland Road, on which 3 cyclists have been killed in the last 10 years. This road desperately needs some redesigning, but not just for cyclists, for pedestrians as well."
And every time I ride west along the throbbing, thronging Hackney Road I curse the absence of a separate cycle path on this busiest of arterial routes that seems to have been left as a festering free-for-all where anything goes.
And this is where things start to get really strange... Because the Hackney branch of the London Cycling Campaign - the LCC group for the most bicycling bicycley biking borough in biking Boris's London - is staunchly anti-cyclepaths and segregated cycling infrastructure. So convinced are the lead members of this group of the potential damage that can be done by cycle lanes that they proudly write on their website how they have managed to block TfL from installing cycle paths on Old Street, a busy transport corridor in the borough; "We do not see any advantage in cycle lanes here" they opine. On the At Home in Hackney blog, Hackney Cycling co-ordinator Trevor Parsons talks of lessons to be learnt from the greatest cycling nation in the world;
"[in] the Netherlands people are compelled to ride on separate cycle tracks and paths where they exist and Dutch police shout at people for cycling on smooth, empty carriageways. We don't want that over here... ..we want to take the 'permeability' approach".
And this perhaps rather odd approach has trickled down to the borough Council with Vincent Stops asking on Twitter "How many miles of trip hazards is Boris going to install?" after the Mayor's recent announcement that he will build a 15km substantially segregated cycle track across central London.
How many miles of trip hazards is Boris going to install. I'm sure Hackney will continue to focus on what's important for cycling and peds.
— Vincent Stops (@VincentStops) March 7, 2013
So is Hackney a bicycling valhalla, or merely a lucky fluke? Are its bicycle campaigners on the right track, or is their exclusion of separated cycling infrastructure as a useful, available tool holding back the two wheeled potential of the borough? And if you had next to no cycling levels in your borough, what could London's most successful cycling borough teach you? Should we even be looking to this unique and unusual corner of inner London as an example for other locations to copy at all?
All these themes and more will be explored at the June Street Talks, next Tuesday the 4th of June in the upstairs bar at The Yorkshire Grey pub. As usual the bar opens from 6PM for drinks, food and networking before the presentation at 7PM which this month will be given by Hackney Cycling Campaign co-ordinator Trevor Parsons and Hackney Councillor Vincent Stops, who will explore the challenges they feel their borough faces, the success they have won, and what they would like to do differently to bring about more people on bikes. See the Movement for Liveable London website for more details.
And if that's not enough Hackney in one month for you, spaces are still available for the Hackney Cycling Conference 2013, taking place on the 6th of June at Hackney Town Hall, and featuring key note speeches from the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan and the author of the Get Britain Cycing report Professor Phil Goodwin. Get your tickets here.