Wednesday 17 December 2008

London, Boris, the dropping cycling budget, and infrastructure which doesn't work

London: A bridge over a cycle-path which you can't cycle under
for risk of losing your head. 2016 Sustrans/NCN route in London
Through velorution I've learnt that Boris Johnson is behind a sharp reduction in cycling funding in London.

It's another of those stories which actually creates a fog rather than making anything clear. There are various large figures being bandied about, but the LCN+ network funding has been cut in half.

What is Boris thinking of ? Not long ago I pointed out that Boris' transport advisor announced that there "should be no hierarchy of transport users but instead everyone should have the opportunity to use the roads.", when it comes to encouraging cycling.

London: A dead end cycle-path
It sounds very democratic, but decisions that people make on how to travel are based on the infrastructure around them. When the infrastructure which exists has been primarily made to suit driving, as is the case across the UK including London, it should be no surprise that driving is the most popular way of getting about. It's just no good to pretend to be "modally agnostic" while supporting a continuation of current policies which favour motoring.

A diversion of £10M from the cycling budget this year to improve traffic lights simply serves to continue to make driving more popular than cycling.

London: Dismount often
For all the bluster about it, and claims that vast amounts are being spent, funding of cycling in London is really not very high. The recent decision halves the funding for cycling infrastructure to just £10M for this year. There are 8M people in greater london, so that is about £1.25 per person. About €1.50. Is this really enough to transform London into a "true cycling city." ?

London: Dismount here too
London currently has around 500000 cycle journeys per day, which might sound like quite a lot. However, around 8 million people live in the city. Given that the average number of journeys per person per day is a little over 2 in most places, this suggests that around 3% of journeys are by bike in the city.

Assen is a very small city by comparison, with just 65000 people. However, they make between 70000 and 80000 cycle journeys per day. Between 35% and 40% of all journeys are by bicycle. Assen takes cycling seriously and builds good quality infrastructure for cyclists. The cycling infrastructure budget is around €27 per person per year, or £23, and that's for a place which benefits from 30 years of investment.

London: Anyone heard of social safety ?
The photos on this blog post were taken in London two years ago on a ride from Cambridge to the Thames and back. We found these paths were quite popular, but as they don't provide an efficient way of going anywhere in particular and they are not really very high quality, they can only have a very limited effect on modal share. If you want to make journeys in directions other than along the Lee valley you will in most cases be riding on busy roads.

This is why London's cycling rate remains low. The level of subjective safety on routes suitable for making real journeys is too low, and the practicality of routes like this one is also far too limited. Cycle routes need to be both direct and safe. People shouldn't have to choose between safe or direct and it certainly should not be as in London, where the "safe" routes are not really safe and the "direct" routes are not as direct as they could be.

Sadly, the design of transport infrastructure across the English speaking world emphasises driving above other modes. This is why English speaking countries share some of the lowest modal share for bicycles at around 1% of journeys.

2013 update
It had been a while since I looked at this post but the article on the Guardian website which it links to makes a little more sense now. The announcement of the "largest ever" £168m funding package was of course referring in the main to money made available for the "Boris Bikes" bike sharing scheme. This has gobbled up a huge amount of money but of course has failed to make London into a "true cycling city" because as I wrote two years after this post, "a shortage of bikes was never the reason for the low cycling rate of London".

The problem all along was the poor infrastructure and five years after this blog post, London has again been fobbed off with inadequate plans by Boris. The 2013 plan still does not offer enough. It again does not have enough money allocated for it, again much of what is allocated is destined to be consumed by the hire bike scheme, and the target set is for just 5% of journeys to be by bike.

In June 2006 my friend Terry and I cycled from Cambridge where we then lived to the North bank of the Thames in London and back again. It was a practice ride for our Land's End - John o'Groats tour a month later. The photos all come from that ride, and show various aspects of infrastructure which really needs some money spent on it on what is mostly a Sustrans route in London. In order they show a 5' (1.5 m) headroom sign on a cycle route, a dead end, a barrier around which it was impossible to take a bicycle without lifting it and which follows on to a path which is difficult to cycle on, is narrow and shared with pedestrians, a corrugated surface by a canal which provides excellent traction for horses but is painful on a bike and another lack of headroom with a barrier. The alternative route was composed of busy roads. It's pretty obvious that there is a lack of quality here. Sustrans are not helping the UK by rubber-stamping junk.

Ten years later, @seanlondonandon took a photo of the same bridge as at the top of this blog post. It's been "improved" - a metric sign has been added...


spiderleggreen said...

Nice job. It's a wonder there isn't a blood stain on that low ceiling.

Anonymous said...

I've been down some of those bike 'paths'. I think people plan them, and then someone panics that the bikes might actually go - gasp - fast and knock over a child, so they put obstacles all along them - this is one of my favourites...

Still - with a lower budget, maybe they'll have less money to spend putting up mad gates along bike routes?

Anonymous said...

I've been along the route in your photos - it's just round the corner from my friend Dr Seth's house. He was cycling, while I was running, and I've gotta tell you that the facilities were unsuitable for either activity.

I am genuinely torn in two on the issue of cycling facilities though - on the one hand, there's the experience you so obviously have in Assen, while on the other, the fear that the UK government with its cock-eyed view of cycling, would then use the provision of such facilities as an excuse to ghettoise cycling off the roads.

cocosolis said...

As always, spot on... but this idea of 'let's all share the road' is not just something daft politicians say: I have heard it from a supposedly (cycling) campaining organisation in my area. Behind it there is a certain amount of revenge-ist feeling ("Let's make them motorists share the road with us") rather than the practical matter of getting from A to B. Or maybe it's due to very low expectations (if cycle lanes are always going to be like this...).

David Hembrow said...

Spiderleggreen: We came close to making that stain ourselves !

Town mouse: Given how small the budget is in the UK, and how many obstacles and dismount signs come out of it, I've often wondered what proportion of the UK's cycling budget actually goes into things to stop cyclists.

Karl, Coco: I can understand both your feelings. The best conditions anywhere for cycling are here (not just in Assen, it's spread across the whole nation).

Having a proper budget for cycling facilities means there can be a much better experience for cyclists than sharing the roads, both for directness and convenience as well as for safety of cyclists.

However, I can understand why British cyclists find it hard to believe this. In Britain the roads are (sadly) as good as it gets for cyclists.

You really need to come and see it for yourself. To see how efficiently more cyclists than you've ever seen in your life, with a mix of demographics that you never see in the UK, are getting about with the minimum of fuss.

It's worth campaigning for, and it's what any cycling campaign worth the name should be asking for.