Monday, 9 January 2012

Streetscape Study

Warning: this posting contains strong language.

I worked on a streetscape study during the summer, the purpose of which was to finalise the design of a revitalised London Cycling Network, to my satisfaction at least. This required me to get on my bike – generously donated by Pearson Cycles – and have a look. I spent about four months doing this, and clocked up over 1400 miles during this period. In all I had six ‘incidents’, the details of which I would now like to relate.

The first one was down to me. I was on my way to a meeting near Russell Square and in a bit of a rush. I was coming from the east, using LCN Route 0 for the ‘final approach’. When I got to Tavistock Place, I didn’t see the segregated cycle track on the right-hand side, didn’t see the marker to point me in that direction, and had forgotten that this was the point where the segregated cycle track starts and ends (it was eight years since I last used it).

So I was on the ‘wrong’ (left-hand) side of the road, making my way inside a long line of queuing traffic. At the junction with Marchmont Street, a white van suddenly turned left as I was alongside it, leaving me no other option than to follow him around the corner. Having negotiated the manoeuvre successfully, I banged on the side of his van. It stopped. “Did you see how close you were to hitting me?” I asked the driver, showing him with my finger and thumb what I thought the distance to be. “Sorry mate,” he said, shrugging his shoulders, “I didn’t see you.”

But that one was my mistake, okay? I ought to have been on the segregated cycle track. A lot of people went to a lot of trouble to install it, and it was an oversight on my part – or undersight – not to have used it.

The second incident took place at about 11.30 one night, at Swiss Cottage. I approached the junction from Belsize Road, wondering if maybe it might make a decent cycle route (it doesn’t – not yet anyway – there’s steps at the top). Anyway, I was on my way to Belsize Park. I crossed the A41, and was heading up towards Fitzjohn’s Avenue, when for absolutely no reason whatsoever, South Hampstead’s answer to a question that nobody asked piped up. “You’re not allowed to cycle on the pavement,” he said. It was nearly midnight, I really wasn’t riding that fast – I was going uphill, for one thing – and the pavement, which is plenty wide enough, was otherwise empty. Why did he feel the need to say something?

I pointed out to him that there are five, six lanes given over to the motorist around this junction, not all of which they actually need – two lanes to approach Belsize Road, two lanes to approach Avenue Road, both of them B roads – and nothing (to speak of) for the cyclist. I explained that as a cyclist I am a particularly vulnerable road user – over the last fifteen years a cyclist has been killed in London once every 24 days on average – and that the traffic proceeds very quickly at this time of night. What else was I supposed to do? Quick as a flash the guy comes back. I should push my bike through these junctions so that I might enjoy more the pleasure of riding on the quieter routes. Ah, such wit.

Things quickly went pear-shaped after that. He tried to push me off my bike (I was stood astride it by this stage). He threatened me. If I ever showed my face around here again he’d kick my head in. “Do it now!” I kept telling him. “Go on, do it now!” Having thought we had finally reached an understanding of sorts, I cycled away. After I’d got about 20 yards up the hill he called me a cunt. Wearily I turned the bike around. “Look me in the eye and say that,” I growled. He wouldn’t, of course. He said the comment was directed at himself. “Fucking right,” I said to him.

The third incident took place on the A40. TfL plan to upgrade this route as part of their planned programme of works, and I was keen to have a look. CS10 has a dog-leg, just at the point where things start getting really difficult, and this obliges users who were heading east from Park Royal to now go south.

What we’re looking at then, is two half routes rather than one complete one. The first section takes you in an easterly direction from Park Royal to more or less in the middle of nowhere (if such a place exists in London), where the Westway joins with Wood Lane (oh yeah); and the second section takes you in a southerly direction from this junction to Kensington Olympia via Shepherd’s Bush.

On the first section, west of the junction at Perryn Road and The Approach / Long Drive, the cycle path is of a good standard (for a bit), but east of it there is what is known here as a shared-use path, and in places like Holland and Denmark as a pavement. I imagine that TfL are thinking of spending a lot of money converting this shared-use path to something like the Go Dutch model – a lot of money knowing TfL – but to what purpose? If you’re going to head north when you get to Wood Lane, you’re as well using Du Cane Road. And if you’re going to head south, Old Oak Road / Uxbridge Road would probably serve you better (the journey distance to Shepherd's Bush is over a quarter of a mile less). The only reason that I can see for going all the way down the A40 to the junction with Wood Lane would be if you worked for the BBC. Thus, unless TfL change their plans, and extend the route at least as far as the junction with Latimer Road – thereby enabling cyclists who are heading east to keep going east – they might as well stop at Old Oak Road / Old Oak Common Lane.

Anyway, I was using the shared-use path on Western Avenue, south-side, heading east. A guy up ahead was parked across the path, on his mobile. He was looking to his right, I was approaching from his left. I had my wits about me, of course, but what, I wondered, about him? Where were his wits? Just as I was about to pass him by he pulled forward, the phone still pressed to his ear. He saw me, but not before I had swerved onto the main carriageway a bit to avoid contact. Fortunately there was no oncoming traffic.

The fourth incident happened in Hyde Park. I was having a look at Route R1a. I entered the park at the junction with Upper Grosvenor Street, and was heading towards the Royal Parks offices, west of which is a cycle path that takes you on to West Carriage Drive.

Now, it seems absurd to me that there are any No Cycling signs at all in Hyde Park, let alone between these two cycle facilities. And as I say, I was just having a look, so it wasn’t like I was in a hurry. When I got to within a stone’s throw of the cycle path near the Parks buildings, this man took the trouble to inform me that cycling was not permitted here. (How could anyone not have known that already? Hyde Park is full of  No Cycling signs.) I took the man for a Royal Parks employee, and naturally I was curious to know in which way he thought the quality of this particular environment is diminished by people on bicycles. In other words, what was so sacred about this place that it needed to be a no-go zone for cyclists? “It allows us to get away from people like you,” he told me. I asked him why he would want to do something like that: was I more smelly than the traffic on West Carriage Drive then? I can’t remember his reply – it might just have been a grunt – but I do recall pointing to a woman on a Boris bike, also riding illegally, tut, tut, whatever next? and asking him if he wanted to avoid people like her.

The fifth incident occurred on the one-way southbound section of Rectory Road (A10), in Stoke Newington. I was approaching the junction with Evering Road, when some guy in a Jag cut me up. Now somebody please tell me: why do they have to overtake you? Haven’t they heard there is simply no need to keep driving like that? The traffic is flowing smoothly now.

I was close enough to him to be able to bang on the rear wing of his car with my fist. In so doing I lost control of the bike, fell off and grazed both of my palms. To be fair the guy did stop. I think he thought he had hit me. (I hope he did anyway. That was the point of thumping his car at any rate.) He wanted to take me to the hospital. Very apologetic, he was. Nice bloke actually. Crap driver, but a nice bloke.

The last incident happened on Lowndes Square. I was heading north towards Hyde Park. There’s a cycle crossing at the junction with the A4 that takes you into the park, the first to be installed in London I believe. Lowndes Square itself is part of LCN Route 5 (or LCN+ Route 244 ). I was occupying the primary position, as every book on cyclecraft tells me to do, when the driver of a black cab came up behind me and honked his horn. I turned around, told him to fuck off, and carried on. He honked his horn again. By this time we were heading around the top of the square and I felt safe to pull over to my left.

Within about 50 yards of this point is a set of traffic lights. (They were on red, of course, as the cab driver must have known they would be. Lowndes Square is a back street, you know. Der.) I caught up with him again there.

“You got here before me then,” I said. “Well done.”

“Yeah, and you shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road.”

What?? But this is an official cycle route.” (I thought it best not to mention the primary position. Nobody outside a very small clique has even heard of it. Just keep it simple, I told myself.)

“You shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road.”

“Fuck you! This is an official cycle route.”

“You shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road.”

“Fuck YOU!

“You shouldn’t have been in the middle of the road.”


And so on, until the lights changed.

So that was it, more or less. 1400 miles, four months, six incidents. And what conclusions can be drawn from this? That cyclists are unnecessarily being put into conflict with both pedestrians and motorists, and that a thoroughly car-centric culture can turn thoroughly decent people into arseholes and make a thoroughly pleasurable experience like riding a bike ‘a little bit off-putting’.

The incidents with the pedestrians are particularly galling, since there is absolutely no reason why they should not be able to get along with cyclists perfectly well. In the case of the parks and other such public spaces, the message has to be that considerate cycling is permitted.

We really should try to make the public realm as inviting to bicyclists as possible (within limits, of course). It’s in society’s interest to do so. The more people ride bicycles, the more cyclised it becomes, the more civilised it becomes, the more healthier, happier people get, the more sustainable our lives are, the more mobility people have – you too, kids! – and the more tightly our communities knit together.

Where there are inevitable conflicts with pedestrians, as on most High Streets for example, we ought to look at the idea of shared space much more closely and with far greater imagination. Where there are inevitable conflicts with motorists, as on most busy roads, the only practical solution is segregated cycling. These are my final words on this blog.