The North / South Cycle Superhighway is finally under construction.
My last article here was about the serious attempt by the Licensed Taxi Drivers Authority to have Mayor Boris Johnson's Cycle Superhighway plans stopped. In a classic filibuster they threatened to submit the entire scheme to Judicial Review in the High Court, which would have added months and innumerable expense to getting the routes built. In the end the LTDA slinked quietly away, and the Board of Transport for London gave construction the green light. (Though not until Board members, some with shocking conflicts of interest, had gone over the proposals in minuscule detail for some 90 minutes.)
Cycle campaigners - myself included - have been saying for many years that the pace of change in London has not been fast enough when considered against the annual death toll of people on bikes and the growth in numbers riding. And yet, in many ways the pace of change has now accelerated faster than anyone could have imagined even just a few years ago.
The upgraded Cycle Superhighway 2 in Whitechapel, which is opening in sections and where floating bus stops are working well. (Picture via Twitter with thanks)
In 2010 I demanded to know if the London Cycling Campaign and the Cyclists Touring Club were even prepared to push for decent cycling infrastructure or not. There was no consensus among cycle campaigners as to how best go about creating conditions for mass cycling, and even less agreement as to whether segregated cycle paths were even desirable. The integration / segregation conundrum sparked heated debates, both online and off. Respected cycling journalist and author Carlton Reid disparaged from the comments section of my blog;
"We ain't gonna get the sort of cycle infrastructure we'd all love. Ever.But here we are some 5 years later, and construction of high quality, segregated cycling infrastructure is already underway in London. The plans are by no means perfect, but they will be revolutionary. When TfL's previous Cycle Superhighways were built - effectively little more than just blue paint - cycling levels on those routes leapt. Imagine what the effect is going to be with safe new routes, separated from traffic and useable by all abilities? We didn't just get the kind of cycle routes that people said were impossible, they're going to be game changers too.
In such a car-centric society as the UK it would be next to impossible to take meaningful space away from cars."
Aldgate Gyratory is being largely rebuilt, due for completion in September 2016. Segregated cycle tracks in Oval will arrive by next spring. Construction is underway on the North / South Cycle Superhighways from Elephant and Castle to King's Cross, also due for completion by next spring. The most contentious cycle route of them all, the East / West Cycle Superhighway along the Embankment, is currently causing a little light traffic chaos along the river and will be operational by May 2016, not withstanding gaps in the Royal Parks who continue to dig in their heels, and in so doing reveal their prejudices.
Welcome to the future! This segregated road space on terrifying Vauxhall Bridge will soon become a two-way cycle track. (via @AsEasyAsRiding with thanks)
Cycle campaigner's integration / segregation argument has largely gone away, with most (cough, Hackney, cough) now acknowledging that where traffic volumes and speeds are sufficiently high then separating cyclists is desirable. As consensus emerged, much was made of the need for any new cycling infrastructure to be as fast and direct as the experience of riding in the road, and rightly so. The internet brought us easily accessible examples of best practise from overseas, whilst popular protests in London rallied around dangerous junctions and the need for design rather than behaviour to provide safety. This spawned the London Cycling Campaign's fabulous "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign and #space4cycling which, in turn, led to the Mayoral promise to build better routes.
Charting this progress is in itself an interesting exercise. I am struck by just how far we have come; my talk at the 2012 National Conference on Urban Design detailed how design and conditions on the ground emerged as the campaigning issue of our time. This consensus has in turn led to new routes being built on the ground. Here's the audio and slides from that talk, if you fancy a lunchtime history lesson.
Design Led Cycle Safety; how the cycling community came to value urban design from ibikelondon on Vimeo.
My 2010 talk on Design-led Cycle Safety charts how campaigning has changed in London.
Once that consensus emerged, London's cycle campaigners became increasingly resilient. Lots of new faces got involved, the LCC's policy was hammered in to shape by brilliant contributors like Dr Rachel Aldred whilst activists became advisers, working as much behind the scenes as in front. Brilliantly conceived activations were put together specifically with media impact in mind, and activist's work became targeted and with achievable aims. The pop-up business campaign CyclingWorks.London was instrumental in helping the new Cycle Superhighways plans scrape through TfL Board approval, in the face of exceptionally powerful opposition from the likes of Canary Wharf and their corporate lobbyists. Without the names of the 170 company CEOs pledging their support for the plans, I am not sure we would have made it. In a recent speech the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, highlighted just how tight the fight has been:
"It was at times nightmarishly difficult to manage this, and we saw some absolutely ferocious resistance, kicking and screaming, and we saw a lot more passive resistance, heel digging and foot dragging from whom Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman called Old Men in Limos; you've heard of the MAMILs, those were the OMILs. A lot of objections, which would nearly always start with the words 'Of course I support cycling..."Gilligan went on to highlight how, with the helps of the likes of CyclingWorks, the OMILS were "comprehensively outfought in the PR and public support battle."
"You'll have to read our memoirs, if anyone wants to publish them, to find out how difficult it all was and how close it all came to not happening."
"I think we've made enormous progress - unprecedented progress - over the last couple of years, but I believe we're still in the foothills of making London a cycle friendly city and the task for Londoners is to make sure the progress we've made continues after May [2016, the next Mayoral election]."I think this is an honest assessment and shows how hard campaigners have worked to date. Gilligan has been a highly effective banger together of heads, but will he wish to continue as Cycling Commissioner when Boris Johnson steps down as Mayor next year? Furthermore, will the movers and shakers at Transport for London want to go back to playing just with buses and trains once the political drive for cycling moves on?
Work is underway on the Embankment for the East / West Cycle Superhighway (via @jonokenyon with thanks)
Despite the amount of work involved to date, campaigners cannot yet rest easy. In the short term we'll need to ensure the new segregated routes are fit for use and finished to a high quality. They'll also have to continue powerfully putting the case to the rest of London that the disruption they're currently experiencing will be worth it. Transport for London will need to ensure their spanking new cycle routes are maintained, cleaned and enforced - a cycle track with a truck parked in it is no good to anyone.
In the longer term efforts must now begin to focus on the Mayoral election in 2016. Without political will for cycling in City Hall in the future it will be too easy for TfL to draw back from their cycling responsibilities. 'Love London, Go Dutch' and #space4cycling were aspirational campaigns which captured the wider public's imagination about how London could be. As the results of those campaigns begin to take solid form, it's important to find a way to convince London that more of the same would be a good thing.
Brand spanking new cycle tracks in south London - look how smooth they are! (Pic via @AsEasyAsRiding with thanks)
Away from the cycle tracks, lethal lorries remain a chronic issue for vulnerable road users in our city, and much more can still be done on this issue to get the shocking and seemingly inevitable annual death toll down. There is only so much campaigners can do, whereas Boris Johnson has the power to effect lasting change in the last 10 months of his Mayoralty. To keep the pressure up on Transport for London he should appoint a cycling representative to their Board, an easy and much overdue move. He should also push ahead with urgent reforms of lorry safety. In doing so, he'd help to secure his long term cycling legacy and make it harder for future Mayors to unpick his good work.
For now, everyone who has attended a protest, written to the Mayor, tweeted, signed petitions and helped keep the momentum going should take a moment to reflect on how far London has come - both in terms of consensus and successes - and enjoy watching the new cycle routes being built. But there's going to be more work to do to elevate London from "the foothills" of being a cycling city. We need to get ready for what's next.