The appointment of London’s Walking and Cycling Commissioner, Will Norman, is a welcome development that could potentially be very significant.
Both walking and cycling have been sidelined in London (and the United Kingdom generally). This is despite two decades of promises by politicians, of all political stripes, that they would encourage use of these cheap, non-polluting, non-congesting transport modes.
Unfortunately, the actual implementations of walking and cycling schemes throughout the UK have, on the whole, been poor to abysmal (with a few honourable exceptions, such as the London boroughs of Camden and Waltham Forest, showing that things can be done differently if the political will exists).
Conditions for pedestrians and people cycling are all too often atrocious especially for the old, young, more vulnerable. It is a situation which is all too easily ignored. Any attempt to tackle it is characterised in the pulp press as a ‘war on the motorist’.
Pedestrians and people cycling often face atrocious conditions – and a lack of will by the authorities to do anything serious about it
The core problem has been the reluctance of politicians and the UK transport engineering profession to embrace the need for effective, as opposed to eye-candy, solutions. It’s encouraging to see recent signs of change among transport professionals, but progress among local authorities remains extremely slow.
When it was first announced that the Mayor was intending to add walking to the cycling commissioner’s job description there was some concern among cycling campaigners that it would dilute the success shown by the previous incumbent, Andrew Gilligan, in pushing effective Cycleway schemes through against the opposition of some parts of TfL as well as the black cab lobby.
One person asked on twitter, why the commissioner needed to take on walking as well as cycling, on the grounds that pedestrians already have a ubiquitous network of dedicated space in London, the pavements, while cycling desperately needed its own safe infrastructure. These contrasting needs were, it was suggested, necessitated separate champions.
I disagree. There are of course many differences between the needs of people cycling and of pedestrians, but they also have much in common, most especially in the existing social structures which accord motor vehicles a much higher priority in transport planning and implementation. As ‘vulnerable’ road users (a fact attested by the very poor injury rates for pedestrians and people cycling in the UK compared to our partners in Europe) there is a common interest in tackling the power balance (or more accurately the power imbalance) on our roads.
One area of commonality between cycling and walking is the predominance of injuries being inflicted at junctions – accounting for between about two-thirds and three-quarters of injuries to walkers and people cycling.
Though it is true that pedestrians have access to a network of pavements, like people who cycle, they face serious problems crossing the road at junctions.
According to the Highway Code motor drivers should give way to pedestrians crossing the road into which the driver wants to turn his or her motor vehicle.
As everyone knows, this rule is universally ignored and motor vehicles always take priority at junctions (even at driveway and car park entrances etc.). If there is no specific set of traffic lights giving pedestrians a ‘green phase’ to cross the road, then they must wait until there is a gap in the motor traffic and then cross the road as fast as they can manage.
Even at key tourist sites, pedestrians are all too often left with no help in crossing the road except for a gap in the motor traffic. This is replicated at thousands of junctions daily throughout London and is largely ignored as a problem.
There is a fantasy world in which official road safety organisations remind people on twitter of pedestrian priority at junctions, but life rumbles on totally disregarding this injunction not to run people down.
To cross the road in London, wait for a gap in the traffic and then run for your life
Some local authorities recognise there is a problem and have eagerly adopted variations of so-called ‘shared space’. But these schemes have all or nearly all been failures. They don’t tackle the underlying problem and sell the idea that fancy design paving slabs can be effective, when they can’t. The most notorious example is the multi-million pound flop of Exhibition Road in Kensington where thousands of visitors on foot flock to world class museums, only to be squeezed into inadequate, ill-designed pavements and forced to yield to motors at every minor junction.
The multi-millon pound resurfacing of Exhibition Road has not altered the traditional hierarchy of priority to motors; this van driver could easily have slowed slightly and let the pedestrians cross the junction, but chose not to.
The key policy objective for anyone who wants to stimulate walking levels in our towns and cities must be to change priorities at junctions.
This can be achieved by a change in the law to give greater legal force to the stipulation in the Highway Code (which is only advisory and is not the law) as recently proposed by British Cycling and Chris Boardman. It’s not clear whether the walking and cycling commissioner and the mayor have the power to effect this legal change and it is unlikely that the present central government will be sympathetic to such sentiments (that would no doubt be reported by the UK’s mainly foreign-owned national press as a ‘war on the motorist’).
Another way to achieve the objective is to re-design junctions, providing ‘continuous footways’ at junctions where physical design of the junction which requires motors to slow right down to cross the raised pavement combined with appropriate give way markings/signs.
This approach is certainly within the power of the mayor and, if the walking and cycling commissioner wants to stimulate walking, the best approach would be to plan a rapid and widespread roll out of installation of continuous footways on TfL roads and to encourage boroughs to adopt the same approach on their roads.
There is a connection here with high-quality cycle infrastructure, as installing such safe cycling space offers the opportunity at the same time to install continuous footways at junctions alongside the Cycleway across the junctions. This would be an appropriate policy for a true walking and cycling commissioner rather than a walking or cycling commissioner. The coming of the Cycleway would also bring significant benefits to pedestrians. There’s a marketing person’s dream combination.
For encouraging people to venture into cycling, too much effort has been focused on marketing and training as a substitute for implementing safe cycling space. Painted cycle routes are also popular with local authorities but make no effective difference in conditions for people wanting to cycle but fearing the mad chaos of the present system of mixing with motors going at much higher speeds.
London’s failing new largely painted ‘Quietways’ are yet another example of how the real issue has been dodged. They contrast, however, with the much higher quality of some of the new ‘Cycle-super-highways’ (unfortunately, with an absurdly over-hyped name). These are in fact near bog-standard ‘Cycleways’ of the sort that have been standard in places such as the Netherlands, Denmark and elsewhere. There’s nothing ‘super highway’ about them, rather they are just good old effective every day design.
And, they have had the same result here as in those other countries: more people cycling. Those on bikes now account for 70% of traffic on Blackfriars Bridge and all the high-quality Cycleways have seen big increases in use.
The previous mayor and his commissioner made real achievements – will their successors have the same political will?
However, the mayor, Sadiq Khan, has been less than enthusiastic about Cycleways, preferring to put some of his ‘eggs’ (his word) into the ineffective (because politically unchallenging) Quietways and rolling back, or currently appearing to roll back, on some of the Cycleways in the planning pipeline.
Will the new walking and cycling commissioner throw his weight behind more Cycleways? Or will he fall in line with TfL and the mayor in promoting projects that do not engender Nimby opposition from the decaying black cab trade and a few local people who claim that any provision of safe cycle routes would, for example, prevent them from getting from Swiss Cottage to ‘Theatreland’ (they apparently being unable to conceive of using the tube, bus or bike). Will he be able to take on the forces of stasis within TfL, who can call on all sorts of bureaucratic tricks to stymie any progress, and it looks likely, from the Mayor’s office too? Or will he cave in to the loud Nimby lobby?
The Nimbys loudly proclaim Armageddon if any tiny sliver of road space is not devoted exclusively to motor vehicles. But when Camden Council consulted on its proposal to upgrade the Tavistock Place cycle scheme, it received a record number of responses to a consultation, some 15,000 in all or which 70% supported the scheme. People like Cycleways because they can imagine themselves cycling on such cycle tracks when most would shrink from cycling on roads mixed with motor traffic.
Support was expressed by 70% of respondents, in a record 15,000 responses, to Camden’s consultation on upgrading the Tavistock Place cycleway
The intellectual argument in favour of Cycleways (and progressive filtering projects such as the successful ‘Mini-Holland’ scheme in Waltham Forest) has been won. We don’t need another round of Paintways (as the Quietways mainly are) in London, just more safe cycling space.
We must all wish the new commissioner well. He is undertaking a formidable task and must find the intellectual and organisational wherewithal to overcome some of the fiercest resistance to be encountered in any public role in London today.
The commissioner’s public CV suggests he has a strong background in the marketing of getting people to be active. No doubt this will have its uses, but he will need to grasp that he can succeed in his job only by concentrating on what he can influence, namely infrastructure.
Fortunately, safe attractive infrastructure just happens to be the best, most effective means of achieving more cycling and more walking. If he adopts the right policies and effectively stimulates cycling and walking in the traditionally hostile environment of London’s roads, truly tackles the barriers to change, Will Norman will make an international reputation for himself (equivalent to that of Derek Turner who was in place when London’s congestion charge was introduced and became a global consultant on congestion charging).
More importantly, for Londoners the prize would be a more liveable city – a city fit and prepared for the sustainability challenges that it will face in the next few decades.
I must publicly acknowledge that when Andrew Gilligan was first appointed as Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner I was highly sceptical that a mere journalist would have the heft and guile needed to overcome the tenacious opposition to Cycleways that I knew existed within TfL. Well I’m delighted to say that I was wrong.
I wish Will Norman the same success. Get to it Will and the best of British luck – you’ll sure need it.