Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Additional thoughts on Blackfriars

There are many reasons why it was a mistake to have increased the speed limit and the number of traffic-lanes on Blackfriars Bridge, but to mention just a few, it encourages the irresponsible use of the motor car, and is therefore an appeal to the worst instincts of man, and not the better; it will make no discernible difference to the smooth flow of traffic, or to the easing of congestion on journeys in and out of London (considered in the round, it may even make things worse: as Glen Heimistra noted, 'Adding lanes to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve obesity'); it can't possibly make London a better place to live in (Londoners are already breathing in some of the most polluted air in Europe); and it is in conflict with several worthy targets (including one to generate an extra million journeys by bike by the year 2026).

There was a time when the route over Blackfriars Bridge was part of the London Cycle Network (LCN). Then there was a time when it was part of the LCN+, a network 'characterised by high quality routes'. Not that long ago, Ben Plowden, TfL's Director of Better Routes and Places, said that the LCN+ is 'a core element of TfL's commitment to invest in cycling.' But now?

Over the years, I have discovered that TfL commitments on cycling are worth about as much as the Zimbabwean dollar, so it is no surprise to me to learn that things like 'core elements' can be discarded on a whim and without explanation. I think a major part of the reason that TfL are able to behave in this way is that they are, to a very large extent, unaccountable.

When Mark Ames from i b i k e l o n d o n made this point on BBC London Radio, Paul Ross (the presenter) was quick to jump in: 'They are accountable, with respect,' he said, 'they are accountable to the London Assembly.' Now I am not sure that this is correct, and I have written to the BBC asking them to confirm whether or not this is the case. According to Wikipedia, 'TfL is controlled by a board, whose members are appointed by the Mayor of London.' But were it true that TfL are accountable to the London Assembly, then why are they being allowed to proceed with their plans for Blackfriars Bridge, given that Assembly Members recently passed a unanimous motion demanding a re-think?

Talking of re-thinks, it wasn't that long ago that Ben Plowden had his wages paid by the Pedestrians' Association (now Living Streets). More recently, of course, he's started working for TfL, and so nowadays he finds himself obliged to say things like, 'The only reason you'd put in a permanent 20 mph speed limit' on a bridge like Blackfriars would be if there was a 'history of speed-related crashes.'

A 20 mph speed limit reduces noise and air pollution and improves the sociability of our streets. Accident rates go down. If you are hit by a car at 35 mph your chance of survival is 50:50. Heads or tails? What do you call? Not heads, surely. You wouldn't want to have to wear a helmet, after all. Might even discourage you from cycling, I dunno. Could be that you're one of those people who thinks that wearing a helmet makes you look stupid.

Every schoolchild knows that speed kills. The case is, if you are hit by a car at 20 mph your chance of survival soars up to 97%, so why should you even need to wear a helmet? Indeed, with a 20 mph speed limit, accidents are less likely to occur in the first place, because drivers would have more time to respond. In these circumstances, I think a lot more people would be prepared to give cycling a go. This can lead to a virtuous circle: more cycling, fewer cars, better quality of alternatives.

Normal people understand this, of course. Indeed, every time I see a survey about this sort of thing the result is always pretty much the same:

'Several surveys have specifically measured the acceptability of measures to reduce car use. Politicians and technicians are more timorous than any other group of persons questioned, including motorists, perhaps because they confuse their own mobility requirements with those of the average citizen. But the public is in fact ready for a change of attitude from the authorities, and it is the latter who are lagging behind public opinion. Even the British Automobile Association sees the bicycle as as asset not to be neglected.' (Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, EU, 2000)

Another thing to say is that, contrary to the impression given by TfL's traffic engineers, a 20 mph speed limit smoothes the flow of traffic. Traffic travels much better when it's going slower. By reducing bunching at junctions, the traffic is able to merge better, and this means that motorists get out of junctions faster.

Just think about it for a moment. If you could travel at twenty miles an hour in London, then you should be able to make a five mile journey in fifteen minutes, which in my experience you can rarely do. When I first started this, I worked as a mini-cab driver out of Kingston. The best jobs were to and from the airport. The journey-time was reasonably predictable - about 40 minutes in the case of Heathrow - and this meant you could relax, and have a decent chat on the way. The worse jobs were the trips to the theatre. Normally they would want to eat first, so this meant taking them in for about 6 - 6.30pm. That wasn't so bad, but then you had to come home again, with all the rush-hour traffic. To be quite honest with you, the journey back used to take for-bleedin'-ever. The only plus side was that you would usually pick your theatre-goers up again at the end of the evening, and normally that meant a tip.

Cycling: the way ahead again:

'In all European countries, the majority of the population believes that, when there is a conflict between the needs of cyclists and [those] of motorists, it is cyclists who should benefit from preferential treatment [...]. [Not that such a strict distinction is usually required.] Very often, measures which promote cycling will not in fact penalise private cars. A reduction in the maximum authorised speed, for example, affects the average speed only slightly; it even improves the fluidity of the traffic and reduces the hazards to which motorists themselves are exposed. Similarly, opening one-way streets to cyclists not only presents no objective danger - except in some situations where the introduction of facilities will be necessary - but it also in no way obstructs the normal circulation of cars.'

Now, it simply cannot be the case that the advice outlined above and the advice that TfL's traffic engineers recently gave to the Mayor are both correct. They're saying different, contradictory things. One of them has to be wrong. They can't both be right. TfL's secretive nature leads me to the conclusion that they have something to hide, like a lack of evidence. Does anyone know if Jenny Jones received the letter that the Mayor promised her?