Love London, Go Dutch - 3) Cycle tracks and civility

This is the third in a series of four posts on LCC's Love London, Go Dutch campaign - the first two are here and here, the last is here

A surprisingly common response to the idea of creating Dutch-style cycle tracks on some of London's roads is that the construction of those cycle tracks stands, somehow, in conflict with the goal of civilizing our city streets.

This view is characterized in a variety of ways, all of which have something in common.

The first notion is that cycle tracks represent a ‘surrender’ to motorized traffic; they are apparently designed to keep cyclists out of the way of vehicles, which can then continue to speed dangerously through our cities. They do nothing to address road danger; indeed Richard Lewis, although an adherent of the provision of cycle tracks, has recently made a comment to this effect on my first piece about Go Dutch -

Give drivers their own segregated space “unpolluted” by cyclists, then they will drive faster and with less due care and attention. Putting in cycle tracks and then banning cyclists from the carriageway is like putting in guard railing.

Another view is that cycle tracks represent a ‘carving up’ of public space; the creation of yet another stream of traffic, taking up yet more room in areas of our city that could and should become ‘places’ instead of straightforward transport routes. At best, this space is taken from the private motor vehicle; at worst, it is taken from pedestrians.

And a final argument maintains, broadly, that cycle tracks miss the point; what we should really be aiming for is a civility of environment. We should be ‘taming the traffic’ by removing gyratories and flyovers, and creating spaces that can be shared safely by everyone, without having to segregate vulnerable users away. The creation of cycle tracks alongside roads, or around these gyratories, is, in the long view, a pointless distraction from this fundamental goal of motor traffic reduction.

The broader thrust of all these arguments seems to be –

  1.  that cycle tracks won’t be necessary if we calm the environment and reduce motor traffic, and
  2. that civilized environments in our cities – places, instead of traffic routes – are incompatible with the construction of cycle tracks, which simultaneously create routes for lycra-clad warriors to bomb down, and do nothing to tame or calm the flow of traffic on the road itself.

Of course, in a London stripped entirely of motor vehicles, cycle tracks would not be necessary. The space on our streets could be shared equitably between cyclists and pedestrians. Indeed, putting in fast cycle tracks on some of these pedestrianised streets would doubtless encourage some rapid, anti-social cycling incompatible with a civilised street environment.

But this is, to put it bluntly, fantasy land. London is a thriving city, and large vehicles, however much we can dream about their removal, will still need to move around in it. Buses are perhaps the most obvious example. Likewise, deliveries will still need to be made, and the size of those delivery vehicles can only be reduced so far before it becomes uneconomic. Nor do I think it is feasible to ban the private car from London - some (note, some) car journeys are essential, and will remain so.

We can, of course - over the long-term - unwind the transport mistakes of the last half-century; for instance, removing flyovers when they start to crumble, instead of rebuilding them. We can also turn many of our streets that are currently horrible routes for vehicles into civilised places, by closing them off to through traffic.

But although they may, ideally, be greatly reduced in number, routes for vehicles around London will continue to exist; indeed they will have to, if people are still going to get around by bus, and shops, factories and offices are still going to need to be supplied. To take one example, the route of the LCC's Big Ride on Saturday 28th April ran along Piccadilly.

It is not conceivable - to me at least - that this road could ever become motor traffic-free. Buses will run continue to run along it, into and out of the West End. Likewise lorries and vans will continue to use it, in order to access buildings in central London. This is not a road that could, realistically, be civilised by the simple expedient of removing the traffic.

Cycle tracks will be necessary along this road for subjectively safe cycling. If you want to argue that, with traffic continuing to run along this street, then the Mall (for instance) could be closed to vehicles, I wouldn't try and stop you, and nor would I argue against you when you suggest that cycle tracks would not be necessary there. But streets like Piccadilly - those streets which will have to continue to carry vehicles, unless we are proposing some kind of utopia - will need cycle tracks.

There is plainly plenty of space here. It just needs to be reallocated, away from vehicles, and given to pedestrians and cyclists. Doubtless, with fewer private motor vehicles making journeys into central London the capacity of the road could be reduced, down to a single carriageway in either direction. The civility of the road would be increased, with wider pavements and a smaller road.

If you make the bicycle a pleasant and safe alternative to the private car, doubtless this reduction in road capacity would barely be noticed, because more people would be riding bikes, in addition to those using the tube and buses.

And of course putting in cycle tracks does not mean that the road space itself has to be 'surrendered'; there are plenty of measures that can be put in place to calm motor traffic, without necessarily having to keep cyclists in the same space. Putting in zebra crossings, creating narrower traffic lanes and removing the central reservation are all potential measures, among many others, for keeping traffic speeds and behaviour under control.

On other streets - those streets that may not be necessary as routes - it is of course possible to tame vehicle traffic in other ways, principally by street engineering, or by making them difficult to use as through routes, or by banning their use by certain categories of vehicle, or indeed removing vehicles completely. This has already happened on many streets in London, and in other British towns and cities.

One suitable treatment for these kind of vehicle-reduced streets is 'shared space', broadly defined as the removal of delineation between carriageway and footway, and of 'standard' street furniture such as signs, with the aim of mitigating the sense of ownership felt by any particular road user, and consequently creating a greater civility of behaviour. Naturally enough, shared space would no longer place cyclists out of the motorists’ way; drivers would have to interact with cyclists, and with pedestrians. Likewise, it is quite the opposite of the ‘carving up’ of public space represented by cycle tracks. All road users share (or are supposed to share) the same space, on an equal footing; there would be none of the compartmentalization of ‘pavements’, ‘cycle tracks’ and ‘road’. The message that should be sent out by these kind of designs is that the street is no longer a route, but a place.

I have written quite extensively about shared space before, principally making the point that it is only an appropriate solution on a particular category of street, one where motor vehicle traffic is sufficiently low. We should not become confused into thinking that shared space, simply because it works in some low traffic environments, can be transferred and applied to any street in London. This is the mistake that has been made in Byng Place in Bloomsbury, and on (the northern section of) Exhibition Road in Kensington, where the extent of genuine sharing is minimal, principally because the volume and speed of motor traffic is still high, and there is very little in the open space that necessitates restraint in the way that vehicles are driven.

Daniel Moylan, the now outgoing Deputy of Transport for London, apparently believed that shared space was applicable as a treatment on nearly every single road in London as a 'civilising' force, an opinion which flies in the face of how the current shared spaces in London work. But unfortunately, because shared space is a Dutch concept in origin, it might prove remarkably easy to crowbar it in as a Go Dutch 'solution' on streets that remain busy with vehicles, and not just on those quieter streets where genuine sharing is much more likely to work. In other words, applying the 'Moylan' solution to civilising streets, instead of taking a genuinely Dutch approach.

This is not an idle concern. I note that Forster Communcations - who have worked on promoting the Go Dutch campaign for LCC, have got completely the wrong end of the stick -

It’s all about encouraging respect and shared use. For the London Cycling Campaign, we’ve promoted ‘Go Dutch’ -  again focusing on shared space. The idea is that all road users have equal priority. The goal is not just the improvement of road safety, but greater thoughtfulness, inclusivity.

Similarly, some prominent London cyclists have been presenting shared space as an alternative to segregation -

I think [segregation] misses the huge amount of work they can do in shared spaces... I like the idea of just having shared space corridors maybe connecting different squares in the centre of London

Shared space is actually rather rare in the Netherlands, and where it is found on slightly busier streets it is deeply unpopular with Dutch cyclists. This is not to say the shared space cannot be a part of 'Going Dutch', merely that it should not be seen as a 'solution' on the main roads that were the focus of the LCC's campaign.

The LCC have broadly got it right in their own principles -

The principles that must be adhered to involve segregated bike tracks where motor traffic is heaviest, and in other areas removing through-traffic and creating shared-space.

and in this article by the LCC's Mike Cavenett. 

Shared space also featured in Richard Lewis's Street Talk, where he showed us this slide -

And said

Of course we don't always need dedicated infrastructure... Shared space is all the rage at the moment, or shared surfaces, or naked streets, or all of those things, are all the rage at the moment, and actually, looking at that picture, I can see why.

The picture is quite obviously a very low traffic environment, somewhere where shared space can, and should, work. But I don't think Richard made sufficiently clear that this is a very different class of street to that which would require infrastructure. Shared space is not a substitute for cycle paths.

Those busier streets that will still carry buses and commercial vehicles are not an appropriate environment for 'sharing', and the LCC should hold firm to the principles they have outlined of segregating bicycles on these main routes. As I have argued, such a policy can go hand in hand with civilising these environments, and does not stand in conflict with the goal of motor traffic reduction, or removal, on those quieter streets that can be turned into 'places' where cycle tracks will not be necessary.