Wednesday 5 July 2017 06.15 BST
Do you remember that Blackadder scene where General Melchett proudly unveils a map representing the territory gained by his troops? Dimensions: 17 sq ft. Scale: actual size. London mayor Sadiq Khan’s cycling programme – formerly Britain’s bike flagship – is starting to feel a bit like that.
More than a year since he took office pledging to “make London a byword for cycling”, “accelerate” the existing programme and “triple” to 36 miles the length of segregated cycle superhighways, the mayor has by my count built and opened 80m (260 ft) of new segregated lane. Work is progressing, extremely slowly, on another half-mile or so. And that is about it.
I had hoped that Khan’s recently published draft transport strategy, published 10 days ago, would finally begin keeping his promises. The press release certainly sounded good, speaking of the mayor’s “bold plans” to reduce car use through the “transformation of London’s streets” in favour of an “unprecedented focus on walking and cycling.” Journalists were told that drivers faced Britain’s first pay-per mile road-charging system in Khan’s “war on polluting vehicles”.
The strategy itself, however, does not match the sales pitch. There is an interesting proposal to make central London zero-emission by 2025 (though it is almost certain that buses, construction vehicles and deliveries could not meet this deadline). But on pay per-mile charges, all it says is that “in the longer term” they “may be … worth considering,”, so long as it can be done without “unduly impacting the road user.” Sorry, wasn’t that the point?
On cycling, the mayor’s stated aim is for “70% of Londoners to live within 400m of a high-quality, safe cycle route by 2041”. This feels a little like Clem Attlee coming to power after the war and promising us the National Health Service by 1970.
A few days after the strategy was published, TfL launched rather mediocre plans to remodel two major central London junctions, at Waterloo and Lambeth Bridge, and to create what it says are some segregated tracks on parts of Nine Elms Lane (though the consultation maps show them as painted lanes). The proposals have some good points, but have been watered down from those prepared under Khan’s predecessor; they also create new dangers for cyclists.
These schemes are simply not consistent with the previous week’s big talk of “transforming streets” and discouraging cars. The aim seems to be to preserve motor vehicle capacity, even if it brings cyclists into conflict with motors. At Lambeth, indeed, the consultation documents explicitly said that a better scheme for pedestrians and cyclists had been discarded because of its “impact on journey times for other road users”.
If Khan wants to cut traffic and promote cycling in 2017 – rather than 2041, 2025 or similarly unlikely dates in the far future – he has two highly effective policy instruments, left him by his predecessors Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson, with proven records in achieving those things.
The first is the congestion charge. Both Livingstone and Johnson (for whom I was cycling commissioner) increased the charge by more than inflation; traffic in central London continued to fall almost throughout their terms.
Khan has pledged to freeze the congestion charge, except for a very small number of high-polluting vehicles, and its effect has waned. Within months the mayor could, if he wanted, increase it, extend its hours, or apply it to the fleets of new Uber and other minicabs choking central London, all of which are currently exempt.
The second policy instrument is the segregated cycle superhighway. The one I helped deliver on the Embankment brought about a 54% rise in cycling in just its first six months. One lane of that four-lane road, which is what we took out to put in the cycle track, is now carrying more people in rush hour than the other three lanes put together.
However, Khan has stalled or scrapped most of the superhighway and segregated junction programme. Eight such schemes – left to him by Johnson, designed, publicly consulted-on and approved – should have started building by now. Only two have.
Whenever Khan or his deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, are asked what’s happening with the superhighways – and they are asked quite often – they start talking about “quietways” instead: a sorry Potemkin programme that largely consists of taking the existing, unsegregated, mostly inadequate routes of the 1990s-era London Cycle Network, erecting new signs along them, then claiming them as new cycle routes. Nobody’s buying it.
No new superhighways have yet been proposed, and the word does not appear once in the mayor’s transport strategy. The 298-page document’s sole reference to segregated or protected bike lanes, other than in new high-density housing developments, is in a caption to an illustration listing 16 nice-to-have things in the “healthy street” of the future. It comes in at No 9, below “using art and lighting installations to make walking routes more interesting”.
Khan has spent most of his time so far behaving like a leader of the opposition, handed easy opportunities to look good by the general Brexit meltdown and scoring easy points by blaming all London’s problems on other people.
But he is not in opposition: he is in office. If he actually does want to cut traffic and promote bikes, he has all the powers he needs, and should get on with it.