TfL’s planned Westway cycle route shows better than anything why the Mayor should be given control of more of the boroughs roads. A red-route network intended for “strategic” traffic looks increasingly out-of-date in an age of cycling.
On current trends cycles will soon outnumber cars entering central London in the morning rush hour. Already cycles make up half the traffic on some central London roads. The road network needs to adapt. TfL has responded, spending heavily on segregated cycling routes, and encouraging the boroughs to introduce quietways.
And there lies the problem, because TfL does not control most of London’s roads. When the GLA was set up in 2000, the boroughs fought hard to keep control of their local roads, and so TFL inherited only the strategic network of “red routes” handed down from the Highways Agency. This includes major roads, dual carriageways, and former motorways.
From the perspective of car traffic, these make sense as strategic routes, but looked at from a cycling point of view, many of London’s most strategic routes remain “local” borough-controlled roads.
TfL’s latest consultation is for a cycle superhighway from Acton to Paddington. That’s a very cycleable four miles, and for most people the obvious route is the Uxbridge Road and Bayswater Road. But that route is controlled by four different boroughs. So instead TfL have had to resort to a route over the Westway flyover, which it controls throughout its length.
I’m not against the idea, with its current network TfL has little choice, and it’s certainly better than nothing. But I worry that if the route does not succeed it could make much-needed future investment more difficult. Cycling on a windswept flyover 30ft up is not for everyone. It has long, steep access ramps, and for nearly two miles – half its length – there is no way on or off. The route flies right over North Kensington without ever connecting to it.
A more logical and attractive route, connecting through west London rather than sailing over it, is currently split across four boroughs. The relatively modest interventions planned by the boroughs for the Quietways suggests the only way to introduce strategic cycle routes through London is for them to be planned by a strategic body, TfL.
If we’re serious about cycling in London, it’s time TfL is given control over the roads that are strategic to cycling, not just those strategic to motorists.
There’s an interesting background to this story. It was here, on the Western Avenue that Britain’s first segregated cycle path was built, in 1934, alongside the new dual carriageway. Belisha’s bright new motoring future, unimpeded by slow bicycles.
Most cycling groups were strongly opposed to the cycle path, partly because the route was not an attractive one, but even more because of fears that this was a first step towards cyclists being banished from the road and relegated to the sidelines. These fears may well have been justified, but it could also be argued that the battle fought here against a cycleway set back the delivery of dedicated cycling infrastructure in England by three generations.
Update – 19/05/16
It’s rumoured that Sadiq Khan may drop the previous London mayor’s planned Westway cycleway. That may be good or bad news depending on whether it signals plans for a better alternative, or a retreat from ambitious cycling infrastructure.
The biggest stumbling block is Kensington & Chelsea (RBKC), which has a decades-long long opposition to cycle lanes, and can block any route westwards out of central London. I’ve now taken a look at how the Mayor might force through an alternative Bayswater Road alignment.
Under section 14B of the Highways Act 1980 (as amended by the GLA Act 1999) the Mayor can direct that TfL take control of any road “where expedient”. The catch is that if the borough objects, then the order needs to be signed off by the Secretary of State.
The Transport Minister would be reluctant to overule their Conservative colleagues in RBKC, so the mayor would need to embarrass them into it. Publishing a route, consulting on it, confirming final designs, and getting backing from other boroughs like Hammersmith and Fulham, could create some momentum. It’s just possible that the threat of a Highways Act Order to take over the road could then be enough to force RBKC to back down.
Or if not, then the mayor could issue the order, highlight the safety and air quality issue, and try make it politically difficult for the Secretary of State to be the one that blocked London’s cycling infrastructure.
Not easy, but perhaps preferable to a poor Westway route that fails to attract enough cyclists and undermines chances of any futher cycleways.