Tuesday, 20 November 2007

A price too high

In an article for The Independent dated 21 August 2007, James Daley said, 'During [Ken Livingstone's] time in the post, he's invested millions of pounds in the capital's cycling infrastructure, reduced the amount of traffic on London's roads, almost doubled the number of people using their bikes to get around––and yet also presided over a fall in the number of cycling fatalities.'

1995: 15
1996: 20
1997: 12
1998: 12
1999: 10
2000: 14

Tot. 83
Av. 13.8

2001: 21
2002: 20
2003: 19
2004: 8
2005: 21
2006: 19

Tot. 108
Av. 18

I have twice written to James asking him to tell me how he came to report a fall in the number of cycling fatalities. He has chosen not to respond.

James also reported that the number of people using their bikes to get around had almost doubled. Not true. Actually, it is the number of people cycling on the TLRN (red routes) that has almost doubled.

The long and short of all this is that since the Mayor took office (or thereabouts), the number of people riding their bikes on London’s busiest roads has risen by a significant amount, and, correspondingly, cycling fatalities have also risen by a significant amount.

How did this state of affairs arise?

You may recall that before Ken Livingstone was first elected he promised to complete the London Cycle Network (LCN) by 2004.
On 2 January 2001, David Rowe wrote to me to say: 'TfL intends to work with the Boroughs, and other interested organisations, in completing the LCN by 2004 in accordance with the wishes of the Mayor.'
This is what the blurb in the LCN map 2001 says: 'The Mayor is committed to completing the London Cycle Network by the year 2004.'
And this is what the blurb in the LCN map 2002 says: 'The Mayor is committed to completing the London Cycle Network by the year 2008.'
If we were to put ourselves in TfL's position, it seems to me that basically there would be just two options available to us: either we could reduce the extent of the cycle network, or we could reduce the level at which the network functions.
Which option would you choose?
On 28 September 2001, the Mayor wrote to Lynn Featherstone with his answer. ‘Please be assured,’ he told her, ‘that CCE is now investigating radical measures to raise the profile of cycling in London.’
Sure enough, in a paper entitled ‘Review of Provision for Walking, Cycling and Area Based Schemes’ and dated 5th February 2002, a very radical measure indeed was announced: ‘There will be a change of approach in taking forward the London Cycle Network based on a slimmed-down network focused on direct, high demand, high quality routes reflecting key strategic commuter routes. The revised network will be re-branded as LCN+. It is estimated that the LCN+ network will be about one-third of the length of the planned full LCN.’ (The italics are mine.)

On the one hand, the Mayor clearly stated: 'Although cycling may not be appropriate for some journeys, there is a real potential to increase the current low levels of cycling in our Capital. Half of all trips currently made in London are under two miles, easily within cycling distance' (London Cycle Guides). On the other hand, all the effort went into providing for commuter journeys (i.e. journeys in excess of two miles). Why? Fourteen million journeys a day in London are less than two miles. Why did not the LCN+ also target this sort of journey as well as commuter journeys?

Well, one of the reasons must surely have been because TfL felt unable to deliver a more comprehensive cycle network within a reasonable timeframe. And so, learning from what they called ‘world best practice’ (London Cycling Action Plan, 2004), a much reduced ‘spine’ network was launched.

Interestingly, the London Cycling Action Plan referenced only one publication which was produced outside of the UK , namely, Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities (European Commission, 2000).

The Europeans point out in the chapter entitled HOW TO START?, in bold print, ‘The level of Minimum Functioning is a prudent course to follow.’ Had TfL taken this advice on board––or even considered it––there’s no evidence they discussed it as a possibility––they would surely not have found it necessary to abandon two-thirds of the LCN.

Minimum Functioning requires only that, in the first instance, the barest minimum be done to make the network functional.

As Adam Bows, a former Cycling Officer at the London Borough of Brent, remarked in an email to me dated 14 January 2003:

'A dense network of signed routes covering a large area of London picking up all the rail and public transport interchanges and town centres has much to be said for it. A comprehensive study of signing costs for such a low-engineered but meaningful route structure, serving local journeys, would indicate to the Boroughs and TfL where the best value for money lies. This is particularly relevant in terms of meeting the needs of those journeys currently under one or two miles for which, after all, we are trying to encourage a transfer to cycling. It seems a reasonable argument to suggest that a more comprehensive network will be in a better position to serve these journeys than the current LCN+ concept; no matter how high quality these routes are, they will still serve a lower number of journeys.'

He concludes:

'Brent is at all times looking for the Best Value for Money in any scheme, and a more geographically extensive network of low intensity, signed cycle routes could be a way to ensure Best Value in cycling.'

Roger Warhurst, the Cycling Officer at Greenwich, echoed these views in an email dated 17 January 2003:

‘I would also support a study to ascertain whether a denser but less heavily engineered network across London, comprehensively signed, would attract more people to use their cycle for short and medium length journeys, and be a better use of limited resources than the current LCN+ concept, which concentrates resources on a few routes aimed largely at commuter cyclists to Central London […] I know a number of Boroughs are uneasy about the LCN+ concept.’

Richard Ambler at Lambeth summed everything up in his email dated 15 January 2003:

‘The main advantage of [Minimum Functioning] is that a more extensive, but less heavily engineered cycle network can complement, rather than replace the current LCN+ proposals.

‘In the absence of complicated engineering works and controversial consultations, a network could easily be implemented that would cover every corner of London . All that is really needed are the signs.’

These views, I have to say, are fairly typical. They counted for naught at TfL.
This was probably because they were 'committed' to doing something else. On 18 February 2002, for example, Mark Watts, a policy adviser at the Mayor's office, wrote to me to say: 'Both the Mayor and TfL are committed to developing a realistic five-year programme for London that will make a substantial change in conditions for cycling and walking.'

By the way, you may recall that James Daley also told his readers that Ken had invested millions of pounds in the capital’s cycling infrastructure. ‘Do you know where?’ I asked him. No answer.

It takes time to develop routes to the high levels of engineering that the LCN+ demands. Conversely, the Borough Cycling Officers do not even need planning permission to develop routes to the level of Minimum Functioning.

Before I bring this blog to a close, there are two basic questions that still need to be answered.

1. For whom is the London Cycle Network being designed?
2. What purpose would be served by its completion?

1. For whom is the London Cycle Network being designed?

First and foremost, I believe, the LCN should be designed for existing cyclists. I say this because, since the Mayor has taken office, more than one hundred people have been killed whilst riding their bikes in London.

So that there is no doubt about this, my number one priority, clearly stated, is to reduce cycling fatalities amongst existing users.

Now this might seem a rather obvious thing to say: after all, we can hardly reduce cycling fatalities amongst people who don’t yet cycle! But why is it then that TfL seem to be so keen to develop a cycle network for people who don’t yet cycle?

'The Mayor's vision is to make London a city where people of all ages, abilities and cultures have the incentive, confidence and facilities to cycle whenever it suits them.'

I share this vision; but it is easy to forget, perhaps, that this is a long-term aspiration. In the short-term, there is a much more pressing requirement.

Indeed, in the final analyis, it all comes down to a question of priorities.
If TfL's priority is to reduce the number of cycling fatalities, then they will develop a functioning, comprehensive, city-wide cycle network at the earliest opportunity, and no more messing about. But if their priority is something else--glory, let's say--then of course they will want to finish off what they started.
The idea for the LCN+ was launched in February 2002. It was initially due for completion in 2007, then 2009, then 2009/10, and now 2010.
But when will cycling fatalities start to fall, I wonder? At the end of 2010, when the LCN+ is 'finished'? Who would dare to believe such a thing?
In any case, if the last six years is anything to go by, another sixty people will be killed between now and 2010, and I can’t believe that anyone would regard that as a price worth paying.

As a minor aside, we know that most cycling fatalities involve HGVs. There are two obvious responses to this situation then.

The first was enunciated by TfL following the death of a cycle courier, Sebastian Lukomski. 'The best solution,' they said, 'would be to create an environment where both goods vehicles and cyclists can safely share the same road space.'

HGVs are big and dangerous. Cyclists are small and vulnerable. Getting them to share the same road space is an accident waiting to happen.

My response to the danger posed to cyclists by HGVs is not to create an environment where they can both 'safely' share the same road space, but to try, wherever and as much as possible, to keep the two apart.

Thus the routes on the LCN largely avoid the routes that HGVs would use.

Incidentally, the same TfL web page which pointed out that there are literally thousands of short cuts and roads that only bikes can use, further remarked that the capital's eccentric and unique streets, scattered parks and network of waterways are some of the best in the world for cycling.

Suffice to say, there is a significant resource here, and it would make an awful lot of sense to exploit it to the fullest of its potential.

In my first letter to the Mayor dated 6 September 2000, I said:

'Redesigning the LCN is more akin to piecing together a mammoth jigsaw-puzzle. The trick to solving jigsaws, as I am sure you know, is to find the corners first--Wandsworth Common and Hyde Park, for example--then all the borders--mainline stations and certain Tube stations--and fit these together. This provides your framework. What you are left with, of course, is a jumble of pieces all of a similar size, colour and shape. Picking the right one out is very often a process of trial and error. Sometimes, despite looking hard, it takes an awfully long time to find it; but once it is discovered, you are always amazed you didn't spot it sooner, so obvious is it.

'In one other regard, however, our jigsaw is different to most others: not all the pieces fit together. A back street can easily be made to join up with another, but unless these two can be joined to a third or these three to a fourth, and so on, sooner or later you end up with a route that ultimately goes nowhere. This is probably quite acceptable at a local level, but such a feature has no place on a strategic network'

2. What purpose would be served by the LCN's completion?

The London Cycle Network is a strategic network in the same way that the Main Bus Network is a strategic network. It is, truly, the London Cycle Network.

I used to live in South Wimbledon, and sometimes I would catch a bus from Wimbledon Station to my home.

The bus I would catch was engaged on a strategic journey--it was going from Kingston to Clapham Park, for example, or from Putney to North Cheam--but I was only making a local journey.

Still, it served me just as well, thank you. Not quite door-to-door, you understand, but quite good enough for my needs.

In my first letter to the Mayor I also wrote:

'The LCN should have greater substance at its core. The LCN should be grid-like. The LCN should be the bedrock around which local schemes--kids to school and mums to shops--are built. The LCN should be safe, pleasant, direct, comfortable, joined up, meaningful, sympathetic, well publicised, well marked and realistic. The LCN should be able to be used by an unaccompanied twelve year-old child. Indeed, it should be our very earnest desire [to ensure that] that no one is killed or seriously injured whilst using it.'

If I was writing that list again, I would say that the LCN should be:

Stage I

Pleasant (where possible)
Joined up

Stage II

Well signed

Stage III

Well publicised

Stage IV


I would argue that, as a rule of thumb, a route which is not meaningful and direct now will never be meaningful and direct; but a route which is not seamless, smooth and safe now can, in time, be made seamless, smooth and safe.

In a similar vein, a route which is not pleasant now is unlikely to be pleasant for some time, if ever, and because cycling very often gives pleasure, this feature is also highly placed; wherever and as much as possible the routes on the London Cycle Network should be (safe and) pleasant.

However, this should never be to the detriment of the first two-listed factors. After all, a route may or may not be pleasant and still be useful; but a route which is not meaningful and direct has extremely limited value on a strategic network, no matter how scenic it is.
To be clear, identifying routes that are meaningful, direct and pleasant can only be done during the planning phase (Stage I). Joining them all up to form a coherent network completes this phase.
So what’s next? Do we say at this point that the routes on the LCN should, to quote the LCN+ business plan, 'be characterised by high quality routes'?

Well, no. It takes a long time to develop routes to this level; a very long time, in fact. And whilst this process is ongoing, other more immediate work may be undertaken.
In any case, by its very definition, the LCN+ should serve in addition to the LCN and not instead of it.
Let me quote Richard Ambler again: ‘The main advantage of [Minimum Functioning] is that a more extensive, but less heavily engineered cycle network can complement, rather than replace the current LCN+ proposals.'

Robert Gifford is the executive director of the Parliamentary Advisory Council for Transport Safety. Writing in The Independent recently, he said that the provision of cycle routes ‘must be consistent and comprehensive.’

If we should accept this advice, and if we should also accept that Rome wasn’t built in a day, as the saying is, who could then deny the utility of Minimum Functioning as a means towards a common end?

Establish the network! Get it up and running! No matter that bits of may not yet be safe enough for an unaccompanied twelve year-old child to use; that day will come. But get the network functioning!

Peter Wright is a vehicle safety expert whose daughter, Rosie, died in a cycling accident earlier this year.

On 17 July 2007, he took part in a phone-in on cycling for the Radio 4 programme You and Yours. I would like to leave the last word to him:

‘Round about the start of the Tour de France, Ken Livingstone was saying how he hoped that this would encourage cyclists to come out, the six out of seven people who own cycles and don't use them on the road ... I think we have to build a [network] that is safe for these people before we encourage them to come and make their contribution to reducing global warming. I think that's all correct, but we have to make it safe for them.’

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