Wednesday 5 April 2017 07.00 BST
There have been some tense moments in the battle to bring protected cycle lanes to London, but one of the most volatile took place one crisp Saturday morning last October, when protestersfaced off beside a huge road junction in Swiss Cottage, north London.
One group, mostly well-heeled retirees from the neighbourhood, were against the proposed new CS11 cycle superhighway. They held up “Stop CS11” signs and told passersby that changes to the busy gyratory would bring congestion, pollution and rat-running drivers to their leafy streets.
Just metres away stood a group of Lycra-clad cyclists and some young families – including a pregnant couple who held up a sign saying they wanted their bump to cycle to school. They supported the new cycle route, which they argued would provide a safe, healthy alternative to car travel.
Around the corner, meanwhile, was a group from the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association, parked up with a large billboard demanding “Roads for all”.
London Taxi Drivers Assocation demonstration against congestion caused by cyclists
— paul gannon (@paulgannonbike)
To begin their march, the “Stop CS11” protesters had to squeeze, single file, past the CS11 supporters – one side chanting “No to congestion, no to pollution, no to CS11”, the other “Bikes don’t pollute”. They might as well have been speaking different languages. What was a cordial conversation had turned toxic.
With London’s population growing by 10,000 people every month, if everybody drove, nobody would get anywhere
Into this charged atmosphere has been thrust Will Norman, London’s first walking and cycling commissioner. Norman is the man tasked with placating both sides – those angry about the introduction of cycle routes and pedestrian space to London’s crowded streets, and those impatient for change.
To make matters worse, his first day on the job, in February, came in the wake of three cycling deaths in the capital within four days, and the death of two pedestrians in the same week. In 2015 it is estimated that 66 pedestrians were killed on London’s roads, while in 2016 seven cyclists died in collisions with other vehicles in the capital.
And he has big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Andrew Gilligan, was known as a firebrand, but the controversial journalist nonetheless got the job done with then-mayor Boris Johnson. The city built 38 miles of cycle superhighways during his term, remodelled several major junctions and started the Quietway and mini-Holland projects that are still under construction.
Gilligan’s position on the CS11 debate was typically confrontational: he said “made-up claims” meant people had “fundamentally misunderstood” what was being built – which he said was essentially a protected cycle route from Swiss Cottage to the West End. He more or less pushed through the plans: work to transform the Swiss Cottage gyratory – returning it to two-way traffic, introducing a large public space and the protected cycle lane – will now start this autumn. (Discussions over another part of the route, through Regent’s Park, are ongoing.)
But Gilligan and Boris Johnson are gone. In the run-up to his election last May, Sadiq Khan promised to build 120 miles of cycle superhighways, 20 “liveable neighbourhoods” (rebranded mini-Hollands with a focus on walking, cycling and public transport) and more low-traffic, back-street Quietway cycling routes.