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In the 1990s I became involved in campaigning for better cycle facilities in London, as a member of the Camden Cycling Campaign (part of the London Cycling Campaign). We made some significant gains, especially with the opening of the immensely successful cycle tracks in Camden and Bloomsbury in the late 1990s and early 2000s.

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Opening of the Royal College Street cycle track in 2000

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Cycle track in ‘Bloomsbury’ district of central London

After those initial successes the pace of progress dropped for a number of reasons and the position of cycling in London, despite increasing numbers of people cycling on the city’s streets, continued to suffer from official incompetence, indifference and often outright hostility.

However, the growth in the number of people wanting to cycle has countered the official approach and an active and effective campaign is being waged in London in particular by a range of groups and individuals. The question of cycling is now firmly on the agenda with all sorts of major businesses and employers giving their backing to proposals to start developing a cycle network in London.

I thought it might be useful for those campaigning today to see what we did in Camden 15 years ago to get some proper consideration of cycling as a serious option for travel in London.

We persuaded Camden Council at that time to share our vision that high-quality cycle networks were essential to attractive more cycling in London. The Camden and Bloomsbury tracks are now among the capital’s most heavily used cycle routes and generate great support from cyclists. Camden Council has continued to hold onto the vision and has extended the original network links and at the time of writing this blog it is consulting about northern extension of the Camden (Royal College Street) route.

This posting is intended to explain the context at the time and aims to illustrate how we argued for the Camden cycle tracks and how we won support from cyclists, councillors and the public. The posting is developed from a slide show presentation I made to Camden council (and many other organizations) from 1998 to the early years of the new century. The passage of time and the different technologies now in use, make it impossible to recreate exactly the presentation (which was in any case adapted for different audiences). I have also updated some sections to explain what happened after the initial implementations.

The education of a British cyclist

In the mid-1980s I spent three years living in the Hague and then, in the early 1990s, another three years in Brussels. For someone used to cycling in Britain, the cycle networks provided all over Holland and in some places Belgium were a revelation.

The greatest turn off about urban cycling – sharing road space with speeding motor vehicles – was minimised. You could cycle into a city to work, to shop or for leisure in the evenings without having to place your life in someone else’s hands every few seconds. Cycling was natural and nearly everyone did it.

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When I returned to London in the mid-1990s | had completely forgotten what it was like to cycle in Britain. The pleasure to be found in cycling was ripped away. Instead it became a hassle – and all too often a very frightening hassle. This is such a great a shame because London is potentially a superb place for cycling. And cycling is a mode of transport which could answer many of the city’s needs.

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Yet cycling was paid only lip service. Cycle facilities were dire – always useless and often dangerous.

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As I cycled about in London I tried to see how Dutch and other continental cycle engineers would provide cycling facilities by better use of road space. Cycling up and down my local cycle route between my home in Kentish Town and central London I began to draw some firm ideas for improvements.

Early 1990s – Camden & the London Cycle Network

The London Borough of Camden is a narrow slice of densely populated ‘Inner London’ joined, along the Euston Road, to a chunk of ‘Central London’ housing the University College of London, British Museum, British Library, and major railway stations: Kings Cross, St. Pancras and Euston. ‘Bloomsbury’ is rather inaccurately used as a name for the area south of the Euston Road – properly it applies only to the western area, however, it makes a convenient name for an area that lacks a single label and that is how I have used it in this posting.

In the early 1990s Central Government – which had abolished the Greater London Council in 1986 and directly managed London’s traffic and transport – backed the introduction of a ‘London Cycle Network’. However, implementation was the responsibility of local boroughs. An anti-cycling borough such as neighbouring Westminster could get away with doing little or nothing. A somewhat more open council, such as Camden, was willing to attempt to introduce some cycle facilities, but it lacked engineering and planning skills, as well as real political commitment from the ruling party’s senior councillors, needed to do a proper job.

The London Cycle Network route introduced in Bloomsbury (running East-West across the borough) was implemented with painted green cycle lanes – and they were only ‘operational’ during rush hours (that is, for just over 10% of the time). And, anyway, painted lanes did nothing to stop the parking, loading/unloading, taxi pick-up/set-down and other kerb-side activities which made the lanes useless even in the rush hours.

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Above and below – the painted London cycle network

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The lanes served as a totem for local and central government politicians who wanted to point to something they were doing to stimulate cycling, but without upsetting the motor vehicle lobby. In fact, the painted lanes made no difference at all in reality.

The painted lane routes in Bloomsbury were treated with derision by cyclists and there was an intense desire for effective solutions to the hazards of cycling in London.

The London Cycle Network also envisaged a North-South route through the borough of Camden. In part such a route already existed. Known as the ‘Somers Town route’ it had been introduced in the early 1980s by the Greater London Council. It followed a fairly direct route via back streets, from Kentish Town, via Camden Town and Somers Town, to cross the Euston Road and then link in with the Bloomsbury London Cycle Network route. Some small parts of this North-South route were quite reasonable, though its overall design was pretty shoddy. All the same, it was fairly popular with cyclists given the horrifying main road alternatives.

Nearly all those alternative routes through the borough of Camden had been incorporated in the 1960s into a ‘gyratory’ or network of one-way roads designed to encourage high speed motor driving. Cycling on such roads was dangerous and extremely unpleasant (and still is). This was also true of the Euston Road, which separates Inner London Camden from Central London Camden but which remained two-way. The Bloomsbury route ran parallel to the Euston Road on its southern side.

One of the factors that propelled me to get involved was that Camden Council initially planned for part of the London Cycle Network to run along my road in Kentish Town, linking directly to the Somers Town route. However, one year before that was due to happen the council removed parking restrictions on the both sides of the road, thus removing any possibility of its use as a cycle route. Whether this was deliberate sabotage or simple bungling, it was typical even of a supposedly supportive council such as Camden – and made me determined to contribute to changing things.

Cycling in London – an unattractive option

The most compelling argument for the lack of attraction of cycling in London is the state of overcrowding on the public transport, especially the tube. Quite often it is impossible during the rush hour to get on to a tube train at a station such as Kentish Town as train after train would be already be packed full of passengers. Surely no more unpleasant form of travel could be contemplated than being tightly compressed into in ageing trains running on a crumbling infrastructure.

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People choose the tube over cycling

Nothing could be worse – except cycling on London’s streets given that many thousands times more people chose the tube over the bike.

The deliberate policy of successive post-war British governments to ignore cycling in road design was intended to hasten its decline. In that it was highly successful. Cycling levels fell continuously, whereas in continental Europe, where different policies were implemented, the numbers of people cycling have increased since the mid-1970s.

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‘No Cycling’ – the traditional official British approach to cycling

Here, then is the core of the argument. British street design discourages cycling. Continental street design encourages it. British traffic engineers and politicians often argue that Britain’s city streets are too narrow to allow for cycle provision, but continental practice shows this is not true, rather it is an excuse for carrying on wasting road space in order to speed up motor vehicle traffic to give the illusion of improvement.

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There are plenty of roads in London with space for cycling – it’s all a question of priorities

Cycling in London – a brief history

In the early 1990s the Government was securely bound to a ‘Great Motor Economy’. But by the middle years of that decade, even Conservative ministers were beginning to wonder whether cycling deserved some attention in policy. This was the period of the great environmental protests against the Government’s programme of road building. Opposition parties took up the argument, offering support for ‘green transport technologies’. The ‘London Cycle Network’, using painted cycle lanes and small scale ‘permeability’ measures, was the result.

Surprisingly, the painted lanes in Bloomsbury were actually much better than many of the London Cycle Network ‘facilities’ put in by other London boroughs.

The amateur quality of cycle facilities in Britain generally has a number of causes. Putting up a few signs is easy. Council officials and elected representatives alike make it appear that they are doing something, without generating opposition. Residents, motorists and the immensely influential black cab lobby are unlikely to get upset by a few signs and bits of paint – as long as the signs and paint can be ignored with impunity and nothing actually changed in the deadly power relationships played out on the roads.

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For several decades there has been a culture of not providing cycle facilities within the British road planning and engineering professions. This is not surprising. In a country which has no funds or policies for cycle facilities, the professions will not bother to train engineers and planners. As a result generations of British traffic engineers and planners are, at best, ignorant of cycling needs or, at worst, hostile to cycling. This has led directly to the dire quality of virtually all cycling facilities that have been introduced in recent years in Britain.

Why is cycling so unpopular in Britain?

Why is cycling limited to few people in Britain, while considerably more people cycle in countries just across the Channel? Getting the right answer to this question is critical if cycling is to become more popular in Britain.

Cycling offers many advantages – it’s healthy, creates minimal pollution, is very cheap and in Inner and Central London is by far the quickest way to travel. The reason cited by most people for not taking up cycling is the ‘danger’. The same reason is cited by cyclists who decide to give up cycling, despite otherwise enjoying its clear benefits.

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This is reflected in the way that the British cycling ‘population’ is heavily biased towards ‘yams’ (young adult males) who are more willing (sometimes eager) to take risks which most people reject.

This severe age and gender imbalance in the cycling population can be seen in the photos in this posting, where nearly all the cyclists in photos from British streets are ‘yams’, while those in the photos from continental Europe show all ages and genders. This anecdotal evidence is backed up by reliable figures from the OECD as shown in the graphs below.

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The evidence from the continent is absolutely clear – where there is widespread provision of high-quality cycle networks, there are also high levels of cycling. And, crucially, the cycling ‘population’ is balanced, with roughly equal numbers of women and men cyclists and a much better age profile with more younger and older cyclists.

The major challenge of increasing cycling among the general population demands that this issue is tackled and the only way that will happen is by providing safe, high-quality cycling networks that can attract new cyclists. This means that main (or ‘backbone’) cycle networks need to be given physical protection from encroachment (‘segregated’ or ‘dedicated’ or ‘protected’ cycle tracks). But it is also essential that such network links are continuous, tackling all danger spots. This is, of course, the reverse of what usually happens in Britain, where cycle facilities are short, discontinuous and all too often disappear in difficult situations, such as major junctions.

The OECD is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development; one of its major tasks is to publish statistics which offer reliable international comparisons. These graphs shows that In Britain and Australia cycling is dominated by young adult males, while in countries such as the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Finland there is a balance of genders and many more younger and older cyclists. These graphs show how cycling infrastructure determines the number of cyclists and their age/gender profile. Note that the graphs are adjusted for the level of cycling numbers in each country (left hand scale) – if this were not done the Great Britain graph would be unreadably tiny.

These dangerous cycling conditions are reflected in the cycling injury statistics. The Times recently (March 2012) reported “the latest published statistics show that overall cycle casualty rates rose in 2008, 2009 and 2010. The number of casualties also rose in each of those three years from 859 in 2007 to 960 in 2008, 1,073 in 2009 and 1,255 in 2010 on the TfL (Transport for London) network. The number of cyclists killed or seriously injured (KSI) fell from 147 in 2007 to 133 in 2008 but then rose to 136 in 2009 and 150 in 2010. The KSI rate measured as a proportion of journeys taken by bicycle has fallen in each year since 2007.

Cycling in continental Europe – a normal, everyday activity

In many continental European countries high-quality cycle networks have been provided by local, regional and central governments with the express aim of making cycling more attractive, thus boosting cycling levels. This has been carried out most systematically in the Netherlands, but other countries, including France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and Poland, have also introduced high-quality cycling facilities.

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One of the objections to cycle networks that comes from British traffic engineers is that British city streets are not suitable. But this is a fallacy – or perhaps more accurately it is an excuse. There are many examples of the implementation of cycle routes in inner cities in many continental European countries. In several places segregated cycle tracks have been introduced by reallocating space for the dedicated use of cyclists.

This technique is suitable for dense, inner city use. The inner-city environment is not dissimilar to many streets in British cities and towns. The key is the effective use of road space and the balancing of demands of motor vehicle users and others.

Two-way tracks are not always an ideal solution, and careful attention must be paid to design and implementation, especially of junctions. There can be dangers at ‘uncontrolled’ junctions for cyclists going the ‘wrong way’, but this is corrected by the use of traffic lights at junctions with heavy motor traffic.

The photos on this page show the variety and the continuity of one route in the Hague. Another objection, raised for example by the anti-cycling Westminster borough council, is the claim that cycle tracks separated with kerbs prevent deliveries and servicing of addresses alongside the track – as the first photo below shows this is nonsense.

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Things can only get better

In 1997 the Conservative Party was replaced as the party of Government by the Labour Party. Environmental concerns played only a small part in the shift of public mood, but the Labour Party (and other opposition parties such as the Liberal Democrats and Greens) had played up the environment as an issue in their campaigning.

‘Things could only get better’ was the theme of the new government. Its promise to introduce a Green Transport Strategy was central to its programme, we were told. John Prescott – the deputy prime minister no less – was put in charge of developing the Strategy and he certainly talked the talk about a great shift in priorities.

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This talk influenced the Labour Party in Camden, which controlled the borough council. A newly elected councillor, Gerry Harrison, was appointed as chairman of the council’s Streets Committee and he took seriously the new Government’s publicly vaunted commitment to cycling. He set up a liaison committee for cyclists and pedestrians to be able to put their points of view to the council to counter the dominance of the motor lobby over the council. Thus, when we as Camden Cycling Campaign took our proposals to the council, we found a sympathetic hearing from within the council and from others.

The political backing given by Gerry Harrison and a number of other pro-cycling councillors was the critical factor in the success of our campaign.

Unfortunately, the sentiment of the Government soon changed and this was reflected in the local Labour Party. Prescott’s much vaunted Green Paper on the Green Transport Strategy was a complete flop. This was obvious at its launch, when it became apparent that the Green Paper itself was only a ‘framework’ and that there would be a series of individual papers on different parts of the transport system. This was bureaucratic code for Prescott having lost the battle within government. It was back to the traditional policy of not attempting any serious change on Britain’s roads.

The changed mood affected the Labour Party in Camden. Also, Gerry Harrison lost his influence within the local party when he resisted Government plans to minimise the role of committees in local councils, replacing them with ‘Cabinets’. The Streets committee was subsumed into Environment, with one less than fully sympathetic Cabinet member now taking decisions on his own and on a  much wider range of subjects.

However, the consultative committee survived and by that time sufficient work had been done on the first phases of the cycle tracks for them to go ahead and, despite all sorts of obstacles, the basic track proposals were implemented in the short ‘window of opportunity’ when people believed that things could indeed be made a bit better. Some of the difficulties that were encountered will be detailed in the ‘Support and resistance’ section of the next posting which will also look in more detail at the Royal College Street and Bloomsbury cycle tracks and the latest developments.

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