|London's Evening Standard|
and other sources added
10% to make headlines more
Competing with Amsterdam ?
At least one news source claimed that London was going to compete with Amsterdam.
Just four days ago, London's "cycling czar" used the well worn excuse of Britain being "40 years behind" the Netherlands in a weasel worded blog post which prepared the audience for plans that would have no intention at all of "turning London into Amsterdam anytime soon" but which we were still to see as representing "a real shift in our ambitions for the bike". As it happened, I'd already written a blog post this week which pointed out that the "forty years excuse" is very commonly used to excuse inadequate action in future and it seems that I was bang on target for this announcement.
The Netherlands spends €487 million euros every year on cycling infrastructure. That's over €30 per person per year to maintain and slowly grow from the existing strong base of cycling. This is a national figure, not just for Amsterdam, though Amsterdam's investment is about average. What London is being offered is £913 million. This sounds good until you realise that this is to be spread over ten years and is to serve a city which will have a population of 9 million people by the end of the ten year period. It works out as a mere £10 per person per year, or little over a third of the Dutch level of expenditure.
Once past the impressive headlines from London you see that Andrew Gilligan's and Boris Johnson's proposed solution to being "40 years behind" the Netherlands is to spend a third as much as the Dutch and to do so for just ten years. How can that possibly work ?
And of course the rest of the UK is not included in this. With just an inadequate plan for just one part of the country how can we expect Britain to be less than "50 years behind" at the end of this ten year period ?
Looks nice enough, but the video glosses over the difficult bits at either end where cyclists have to join or leave this cycle-path. Oh, and actually cycle-paths like that already go everywhere in the Netherlands but are not thought worthy of press-releases.
Hype compared with the plans
Quite apart from adding 10% to the amount to be spent in order to make a nice round "billion" for headlines, newspapers have also reported on a "15 mile segregated bike lane" which the original document refers to as being only "substantially segregated". Many sources reproduced claims without any critical analysis, including Dutch language sources. This is of course the intention of such a dramatic press release.
Many sources quote a figure of "£18 per head", but that's only for one year out of the ten, a peak in 2015 and even this is still behind average in the Netherlands. What's more, this peak implies that actual expenditure in the other 9 years will be below the average of £10.
We are told that "Timid, half-hearted improvements are out – we will do things at least adequately, or not at all". I'm sure this statement is welcome because Britain has quite enough "farcilities" already. However the document doesn't actually follow this up. Some of the proposals made within it are very much "half-hearted":
For a start, setting a target of only around 5% of journeys by bike is not very ambitious at all. Nowhere in the Netherlands has such a low modal share and Britain has been promised more than this before. The lack of a serious target shows that this is not a real attempt to "catch up".
|Assen. Four metre wide cycle-path|
behind bus-stop with cycle-parking.
The same width as the proposed path
in London. These already go
everywhere in this country, tens of
thousands of kilometres of such cycle
paths form the backbone of a network
which covers the whole country.
(Update August: a few months after this article was written, London constructed an inferior design of bus stop which creates exactly the pedestrian/bicycle conflict problem they wrote about and branded it as Dutch, even though it does not resemble real Dutch bus stop bypasses at all. Similarly, the extension of Cycling Superhighway 2 was trailed as being of "Dutch" quality but includes a ludicrous junction design never found in the Netherlands).
"Shared bus and bike lanes" are also certainly not "Dutch" and these also simply not good enough. They do not meet any reasonable standards for cycle provision and I'm not alone in thinking this. PRESTO guidelines also suggest that "buses, just like lorries, create greater hazards for cyclists than passenger cars" and that they "frighten cyclists away" and cause "additional stress and less comfort". Subjective safety is all important for encouraging a high cycling modal share.
Given the small budget it won't be possible to achieve the needed change across all of London. For that reason I quite like the idea of the "mini-Hollands" (see footnote about the name). If they truly are "every bit as cycle-friendly as their Dutch equivalents; places that suburbs and towns all over Britain will want to copy" then they could have the desired effect. However, it will only work so long as these promises are met. i.e. so long as the areas they cover are extensive enough to be useful, they genuinely have high enough quality design to attract people to cycle, and so long as there really is an intention to follow it through over the rest of the city and the entire country at a later date. That may sound like a lot to ask, but it is not an unreasonable aim. The Dutch have already demonstrated that it is possible to do this over an entire country with double the population and over 20x the area of London.
The "Central London Bike Grid" sounds positive. Joining up routes is vital. However, if this is inspired by the Dutch concept of a tight grid of very high quality routes then it really needs to be of the same high quality and density, and over the entire city, not just the centre. It's fair enough to start in the centre (and the "mini Hollands" should naturally have this as a matter of course if they're to live up to their name) but it must spread everywhere eventually. In the Netherlands, the importance of such a grid was known to be vital for attracting people to cycle so far back as the early 1980s. No cycle-route is stronger than its weakest link.
"We will grade routes so people know what to expect" is a strange thing to put into the proposal as it's a tacit admission that not all the routes proposed will be usable by all people. Dutch cycle-routes do not have and do not need, grades. Every route in the Netherlands is suitable for every person to use. If London is truly building to Dutch standard then London's cycle-routes won't need to be graded either.
Improving access to Advanced Stop Lines by providing a short length of cycle-path is not nearly enough. ASLs need to go. Yes the Netherlands also built ASLs in the 1980s and yes, some of them still survive. However, those which caused most problems have gone and the remaining few are to be found on relatively minor roads. It's just a matter of waiting for them to go, their days are numbered. New ASLs are not being built. London doesn't need to copy a mistake which causes conflict. Move on. Advanced designs of traffic light junctions do not put cyclists into conflict with cars. Why not try simultaneous green traffic lights in London. These are very successful because they remove conflict in both time and space.
Why not just be cheerful ?
For all I've written above I cautiously welcome the proposals because they do appear to offer London's cyclists more than they've ever been offered before. However, I call upon campaigners in the UK to stop behaving as if they are already victorious. There has been no success yet. All you have is a few nice mocked up photos and animations and some actually quite vague promises about how less than adequate funding will be spent. It's just possible that with enough campaigning effort this will turn into something great. However, no turf has been disturbed as yet. It is premature to celebrate or to write about "success". We must remain skeptical.
|1996's "National Cycling|
Strategy" set a target to
double cycling by 2002 and
quadruple by 2012. Cycling
nationally should already
be double the ambition
In recent years, cyclists also seen the National Cycling Plan for England come and go with barely a whisper.
Bristol was named as a "Cycling City" and several other places were named as "Cycling Towns". There was a lot of publicity, and just as in this instance many newspapers and websites reproduced the press-releases uncritically.
|2009: TfL's original concept of|
a "Superhighway". People
criticized me for pointing out
that this wasn't good enough.
London's new plans are also
not good enough.
However, publicity is not the aim. Cycling is the aim. Given past experience of promises made but not always kept, campaigners are not here to help politicians or councils make a name for themselves, they must judge their success on how much people cycle. Campaigners need to be very cautious in their support. It's important to stay focused and make sure that London delivers more than has yet been promised.
That's why the serious campaigning must start now.
Monday 11 update
Spokes point out that Transport for London's annual budget amounts to approximately £5 Billion per year and that the proportion to be spent on cycling is under 2%. They also point out that Edinburgh has committed 5% of its budget to cycling, but I suppose the smaller numbers involved don't make such impressive headlines. They certainly have not been used by a publicity machine so large as that in London.
Tuesday 12 update
I read a few other reports including one on the Fietsberaad website which highlighted some facts not reported widely which I had missed. The plans include a near doubling of the London shared bike scheme to 11000 bikes and there are to be 80000 cycle-parking spaces built. It also suggested that only a third of the headline total of £913M promised has actually been sourced. Schrödinger's Cat pointed out that the figures were in the original document on London's own website, but had been overlooked by most people.
So let's look at this in more detail. The bike hire scheme cost London £140 million pounds and operating costs work out as approximately £2500 per bike per year. Hopefully the expansion won't result in quite the same capital cost again, but clearly we need to expect it to take a good chunk out of the money already allocated and if operating costs increase in line with the number of bikes, that's £27M per year that London will be paying for a service used for 0.2% of journeys. Will it be good value for money ? As I pointed out three years ago, a lack of bikes was never the problem in London, it was just that people were scared to cycle.
|A photo of just the indoor parking|
at a Dutch railway station before
the initiative to build more spaces.
Finally, the finances. The Fietsberaad link says that just £300M has yet been allocated in London. That's enough to invest at Dutch levels in London for just 18 months. However it appears that this money is to be tapped into to pay for expanding the bike hire scheme and this may leave less than one year's worth of funding at Dutch levels.
What can I say ? These extra figures are disappointing. Unfortunately, the more we find out, the more it seems was hidden by the initial hype.
Who is the "Cycling Commissioner" ?
The language of the "new vision" is lovely of course. It has convinced many cyclists that there is a real change in the status of cyclists in London and that was of course its job. However, in reality TfL has so far committed only 2% of the transport budget for London to this project and it has done so for just three of the ten years.
So who is behind the language ? It is surely not for nothing that Boris chose to employ a journalist, Andrew Gilligan, as cycling commissioner rather than appointing an engineer to the job. If you want good headlines and to convince people without making any really large commitments then a good writer is surely exactly the person you need.
A message to TfL
I know someone there reads my blog because an expensive firm of architects that you asked to find out about Assen tried to get me to do their work for them for free. Why don't you give some credit ? More to the point, if you want to know about what you've read on my blog, why not ask me directly instead of asking someone else to ask me ? And if you want you planners to understand how the infrastructure here works, how about actually sending some of your staff on one of our study tours so that we can demonstrate everything to them. They can see it for themselves and benefit from our experience. We'd be very pleased to meet them and to show them what state of the art cycling infrastructure looks like. Take advantage of our extensive knowledge of cycling in both the UK and in the Netherlands - I'm quite sure we don't cost as much as that large firm of architects.
Update December 2013
London has sadly experienced a run of cyclist deaths and this has been followed by protests. The response from both Andrew Gilligan and Boris Johnson has been weak at best. Both have blamed cyclists for their own misfortune rather than accepting that the extremely poor infrastructure in London, which they both have responsibility for, is to blame. While both of these two continue to claim that no change to infrastructure could have saved lives, in the Netherlands people live on a day to day basis with infrastructure which achieves exactly that. Read my response to a visit to London this year or all the articles about London, which demonstrate many of the problems and dangers which the city poses for cyclists.
Please also read David Arditti's excellent response to the proposals. He's a little more positive than me, but he's still critical.
LCC, TfL: Please stop talking about "Holland". Holland is to the Netherlands much as England is to the UK. You'll have noticed that Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh people can get quite upset about parts of their countries being referred to as England. It's much the same over here. People from the 10 provinces of the Netherlands which are not either North Holland or South Holland would prefer that you refer to this country as "The Netherlands"