Andrew GilliganThu 17 Nov 2016 07.00 GMT
Will the new mayor uphold his election pledges and prove he is serious about improving cycling in the capital, asks London’s former cycling commissioner
Over the next few years, the future of cycling in Britain may depend on what happens in London, the place that has done more than any other to build segregated bike lanes.
Only six months after they opened, the new tracks have succeeded beyond our wildest dreams – the Embankment one carries an astonishing 3,000 people an hour in the peaks, according to Transport for London’s Alan Bristow.
But they’ve also been controversial, with regular (if completely false) claims made that the lanes aren’t being used, or are causing pollution. There’s now what looks like a campaign to turn back the clock and reclaim road space for the motor vehicle.
Will the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan buckle? Well, during May’s election, he made some great promises. He signed he wanted to see “more segregated cycle lanes” and “new routes”.
He promised to “accelerate” the cycling programme, “increase the pace of change” and “increase the proportion of Transport for London (TfL)’s budget spent on cycling.”
In the next couple of months, we’ll know, fairly definitively, whether he means it. Under the previous mayor, for whom I was cycling commissioner, it took us three years and two months to build London’s first 12 miles of protected, main-road cycle tracks. We are three years and six months from the end of Khan’s term. If he does want another 24 miles, he needs to get started.
So far, despite the pledge to “accelerate” work, the opposite has happened. No new projects have been announced. On existing projects, most work has stopped and one of them, on the Westway flyover, has this week been scrapped.
Officially it’s a “rerouting,” but there’s no word on what the new route will be and it seems improbable that the Tory councils who control the only alternative roads will allow a meaningful scheme.
So here are a few tests, in no particular order, of whether Khan is serious about cycling.
Will he finish the projects already open?
Work on the last central London section of the east-west superhighway – along Birdcage Walk and past Buckingham Palace – was supposed to be complete last month. It has not even started, leaving a half-mile gap, and one of London’s nastiest junctions, in the middle of the route.
To fill that gap, there’s a shovel-ready scheme: fully consulted on, fully designed, and with all permissions in place. The Royal Parks (which wanted an indirect, unusable route via The Mall instead) has been won round. It won’t even take much traffic space: Birdcage Walk already has a spare lane, unused by motors.
Other “agreed” schemes are slipping badly. An extension to the north-south superhighway was consulted on in February, approved by City Hall in September – but won’t actually start building until next summer.
Val Shawcross, Khan’s deputy mayor for transport, has said that work on the Buckingham Palace project will begin in January. Whether it does, and whether it keeps the Birdcage Walk route, will be the first test – and a fairly easy one.
Will he open the gates to the Hampstead nimbies?
In February, we consulted on a cycle superhighway from Swiss Cottage to the West End, via the Outer Circle of Regent’s Park, removing a hideous 1960s gyratory and closing four of the park’s eight traffic gates to motors for most of the day. You’d still be able to drive into the park, but it would be harder to use it as a through route.
It has 60% public support, but a minority have protested that ending their rat-run will “destroy the area”, “seal off Hampstead” and cause “a solid queue to Hatfield”.
None of this, of course, is true. In August, City Hall announced that the scheme, Cycle Superhighway 11, would proceed with “some changes”. However, close scrutiny reveals that no decision to build it has in fact been taken (see para 2.2, page 14, of the consultation report). My fear is that the “changes” will include keeping the park gates open and allowing the Outer Circle to remain full of traffic, rendering what was always a fairly modest scheme essentially pointless.
This should, again, be a pretty easy call for Khan. The entitled of NW3 aren’t his voters, their case is weak and their cause isn’t popular. Save our rat-run? I can’t believe no one ever wrote a folk song about that.
Will he announce new schemes – and stick with them?
Sadiq’s “replacement” for the Westway route may be a scheme we in fact planned, and as an addition to it – Cycle Superhighway 9, originally supposed to run from central London to Hammersmith, Chiswick and Hounslow. Before I left, I approved preliminary designs for the Olympia-Hounslow stretch, with a consultation date of December this year. That won’t happen, though Shawcross has said it’s coming next year.
To partly make up for the loss of the Westway, Khan will need to persuade Kensington & Chelsea council to accept segregated tracks on Kensington High Street, not something we managed in my time. Then – an even taller order – he’ll have to get them to stick with it after the inevitable nimby backlash. The rest of the route won’t be easy, either.
There are more than a dozen further designed-up new schemes for major accident and death blackspots, and several new routes, which haven’t seen the light of day. Whether they emerge will be another important test, and a much tougher one.
Will he control the timetable, or let others control it?
Our most sophisticated opponents were seldom overt or frontal. Their key weapon was the timetable and their key technique was the filibuster. They would agree to things, then find endless reasons not to do them. Or they’d give the impression they could be won over if only we had a few more consultations, impact assessments, stakeholder meetings or working groups. But, of course, no consultation could ever be long enough.
Team Khan risks playing into these people’s hands, talking as if there’s some process that can make cycling schemes acceptable to everyone. But while meaningful cycling schemes will almost always have majority support, they will never have unanimous support.
You must – and we did – consult, make changes where sensible, and build as much consensus as you can. But then you must decide. If you wait for everyone to be happy, you will wait a very long time. And if you try to please everyone, you will end up pleasing no-one.
Will he appoint a cycling commissioner with clout?
The support of the mayor and Isabel Dedring, the-then deputy mayor for transport, was a vital factor in delivering our programme. Valerie Shawcross, Dedring’s successor, is good news, genuinely pro-cycling. But my job was essential too. Without someone constantly monitoring the timetable and the detail of schemes, they will not happen. Without someone at the mayor’s shoulder to defend schemes, they will not happen. (Most people in the boroughs and at TfL were committed and helpful – but some were not, and regular attempts were made to stop things.)
I worked in the mayor’s office, and could see him whenever I wanted. I was in the meetings where decisions were taken. Above all, I was independent of TfL; they answered to me, rather than the other way round.
Six months on, my successor is yet to be appointed. The job description for the new post describes it as “previously part of the Greater London authority” and makes clear that the new commissioner will be “within TfL” – in other words, a middle-ranking employee of the body they’re meant to be holding to account.
What happens next
With a group of others, I’ve got together to do a new blog, Human Streets, to make the case for investment in cycling and walking. Like most people in London cycling, I was heartened by Khan’s campaign rhetoric and prepared to give him time to get his feet under the desk. After six months, though, I’m more worried. It could still happen – but time is running out.