Friday, 13 September 2013

Superhighway to Hell or Superhighway to Heaven?

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, proudly launched the Barclays Cycle Superhighway scheme in 2010. Armed with £50 million of corporate cash over 8 years to deliver a radial (sadly not radical!) network of cycle routes into central London, he must have thought he was on to a winner. With a modest aim to increase cycling in London by 400% and the equally modest ambition that 5% of all journeys in London would be by bike by 2026, he must have thought that he had a quicker win than kicking an ageing Ken Livingstone's mayoral ambitions into the long grass would be just two years later.

But just how transformative have the cycle superhighways been? So far four out of the planned 12 routes have been opened. Transport for London (TFL) claim that there are more cyclists as a result. They say that cycling has increased by 46% along my local route, CS7, three quarters of whom are commuters. They also claim that the average journey time has been reduced by 5%, and that 80% feel safer by using the Cycle Superhighway.

I am a daily user of CS7, which runs from Merton to the City, although I leave the 'highway' at the so-called 'Stockwell Gyratory System'. I have to say that whilst cycling has certainly transformed my life and my daily commute, and that having the Superhighway there certainly encouraged me to cycle to work, I am left somewhat disappointed by the route. 

I don't want to completely rain on the Mayor's parade. Don't get me wrong I think he has done much to promote cycling as a serious travel option, and the recent Ride London initiative was clearly a huge success. The Cycle Superhighways were a bold initiative and present London as a city that supports cycling for green and health reasons. But if I were the teacher marking Boris Johnson's school report, I would probably make the comment 'could do better.'

So why am I disappointed? 

The sponsorship by Barclays presented a great opportunity to do something really good for cycling. We are all used to corporate sponsorship for public initiatives and most of us can completely see the benefit of funding public projects in this way. But given that £80 million was never going to change the world, why stop at Barclays? Why not look at other corporate sponsors to do something really good. After all, in the depth of the recession, if Barclays could afford such large sums, why could not others be persuaded?

At the end of the day, the Cycle Superhighways are just a bit of blue paint on the road. If a car, bus, taxi or truck is going to cut me up it will do. Apart from awareness raising and perception changing, the majority of non-cycling road users do not understand cyclists and their behaviour, good or bad. I have to suffer the daily dangers of drivers trying to beat me to a left turn, pulling over for emergency vehicles without a glance in their side mirrors or pulling out from the kerb without checking to their right. Cycle Superhighways will never change this.

Secondly there seems to be no attempt to maintain the routes. On our ever potholed roads, every time a pothole is filled on the Cycle Superhighway, a bit of the Barclays blue seems to die. In one section near Clapham the blue has all but worn away. One wonders whether sustainability was ever built into the plans. Or was that left to local authorities without any advance warning.

Thirdly, I don't believe we will ever see truly safe cycling until cyclists are separated from motorised road users. Even motor-cyclists (yes I used to be one!) are an absolute danger to cyclists, especially when they use the Cycle Superhighway to get past static traffic.

Fourthly I do wonder whether the much-heralded growth in cycling in London (and elsewhere) is a result of the massive successes achieved by Team GB in the Olympics and Wiggins and Froome in the Tour de France, as well as a genuine desire on the part of the british people to be more active and green, combined with an ever-growing despondency with our failing public transport infrastructure. 

Fifthly (and somewhat more flippantly) @MayorofLondon has never once responded to my Tweets on this subject! I'll try once more when I publish this blog!

So in answer to the question posed in the title of this blog: riding down CS7 through Tooting, it sometimes does feel like AC/DC's proverbial Highway to Hell, as I am forced to skid to yet another halt by another crap driver not seeing me. Yet at the same time I feel glad to be able to be a cyclist, glad to have that option to get to work, glad that I live in a city that is commutable by bike. So yes, sometimes, just sometimes, CS7 does seem a more 'heavenly' option than the alternative, which for me is the northern Line.