Tuesday 17 May 2016

Riding into the sunset

So there it is. 39 years working in central London. 33 of those around Fleet Street. 30 years commuting into Waterloo from South West Surrey. The First 20 walking the final stage, the final 10 on a bicycle. Prior to 2006 I would not have contemplated the journey by bike. The section from Waterloo to Blackfriars Rd either via Belvedere Rd and Upper Ground, or through the back streets via Roupell St was OK, even if the surface on Belvedere Rd is utterly crap and the loading vehicles and buses coming at you on the wrong side of the road can be tiresome – the pavement is mainly on the same level so you can escape if necessary. However the shit-sandwich which was the cycle lane between two lanes of fast motor traffic on the northbound carriageway of Blackfriars Bridge, with buses crossing from left to right, and vehicles crossing from right to left to zoom down the large-radius turn onto the Embankment slipway, was quite enough to put me off. I would just as soon have swum across the Nile.

It took a death, actually the second death, of Physiotherapist and Guys/StThomas Trust employee Vicky McCreery, majorly contributed to by this road layout, although I recall the bus driver who killed her was convicted of something as a result. (Ironic then that her employer is now whipping up a petition to oppose floating bus stops on the south side of Westminster Bridge on spurious and evidence-free pedestrian-safety grounds).
With what qualifies as lightning speed for a local authority building a cycle lane, the layout was radically altered. The pavement was widened, three traffic lanes were reduced to two, and a cycle lane was made with the difference along the kerb line. Traffic lights were installed on the sliproad and its turn geometry was tightened to cut the speed at which vehicles could take the turn. For a while, I counted how any cyclists passed me in the time it took me to walk from Doggetts pub to the traffic lights on the other side of the bridge, at virtually the same time every morning. I noted the numbers treble before I bit the bullet, dusted off my vintage Brompton, and started to ride.

I still managed to suffer three left hooks on this junction, each and every one being a taxi, each and every one racing to beat the traffic light as it went amber. “Amber-gambling” with my life. The third time finally hospitalised me, albeit months later when the shoulder injury didn’t respond to physio or drugs.

But I think Blackfriars Bridge galvanised the cycling community, and it contributed to a change of emphasis at LCC, moving it in the direction of greater activism and the eventual “Go Dutch” campaign. The bridge saw more than one flashride which attracted four-figure numbers of cyclists.

Now we have the two new cycle superhighways, one north-south across Blackfriars Bridge and the other meeting it along the embankment under the Blackfriars underpass. The sliproad down to the embankment where I suffered my three left hooks is now for cyclists only.

And it is not just cyclists who have benefitted, despite the City of London's whining about them in their submissions to the consultation.  We have a pedestrian crossing over Stamford Street, scandalously absent in all the years I previously walked that route. We have crossings of Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill at Ludgate Circus, also previously non-existent. We have re-instated a crossing at Blackfriars Junction which existed for a few short years before being removed again in the remodelling of the road layout last before the current changes.

None of these developments has made, in my anecdotal experience, any measurable difference to traffic congestion. Perhaps it has improved it but I am sure it hasn’t made it any worse. The loss of the third lane back in 2005 or so certainly didn’t have a noticeable impact, possibly because all that lane-changing was mightily disrupting the flow before.

We can thank Boris Johnson, in almost every other respect a complete disaster for London, a very clever but shallow, lazy, not-into-detail and self-absorbed individual, for the installation of the superhighways. We can applaud Andrew Gilligan for persevering in his part-time role as cycling commissar, proving that not all journalists are hacks. But frankly, would any of this have happened without active agitation by cycling campaigners, both individually and collectively via LCC? Would Boris, personally an active utility cyclist but one who is apparently content to use ordinary roads “as long as you have your wits about you”, have responded so positively without the 150 or more large London corporations, including my own (for one more week) employer, Deloitte, who supported the campaign? In some cases clients or suppliers of one well-known nay-sayer who, rumour has it, have been exposed to and shrugged off not-very-subtle threats as a result?

Whatever, I am glad that I have lived and worked to see these cycle routes finally opened officially for use, even if I only get about a dozen days of usage before I retire back to the Sussex borders.

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