Reinventing the wheel – without the wheel

The Royal Parks’ new scheme to make one of their key cycle routes deliberately worse for cyclists is not just depressing in itself. Even worse is that it is being funded by the Central London Grid, part of the TfL cycle budget. It shows how the new mayoralty’s “Healthy Streets” policy could come to be used against cycling more widely.

The official version of Healthy Streets, published last month, is one where walking, cycling and indeed going by bus are all one united family of virtuous, green travel modes, with no conflicts of interest between them, safely mixing together in a political (and perhaps indeed physical) shared space.

But it isn’t true. Physically, as any user of (say) Exhibition Road in Kensington or Queen Street in the City knows, shared space in busy, built-up streets is a costly failure. It looks pretty on TfL slides, but it works for neither cyclists nor pedestrians. As the pedestrian group Living Streets points out in this recent demolition of the Queen Street scheme, it is particularly bad where there are large numbers of either.

Politically – though many cycling campaigners may feel uncomfortable admitting this – the interests of pedestrians and cyclists are sometimes different (though by no means always, as the common opposition to shared space shows.) The Royal Parks says it is degrading its bike route on Broad Walk specifically to benefit pedestrians, who it declares are its priority users, “even in areas designated and marked for other purposes” (alas, this stirring principle applies only to its cycle routes, and not to its routes designated and marked for motor traffic.) One objection routinely made by opponents of the superhighways was that they were against pedestrians’ interests.

Of course the Royal Parks and the superhighway nimbies exaggerate the conflict to make their case. On Broad Walk, even by the parks people’s own figures, there are all of two near-misses a week between cyclists and pedestrians – on a path used by about 35,000 cyclists a week, last time we counted.

On the superhighways, there are longer waits for pedestrians at some crossings –usually only by a few seconds – but also massive pedestrian benefits, including 22 new crossings and 35 quicker crossings on the east-west and north-south routes alone, plus thousands of square metres of new pavement.

But not all conflicts of interest are completely imaginary. My concern is that where there are such conflicts, or even claimed conflicts, the decision will go against cycling. The evidence isn’t just Broad Walk (on which Will Norman, the new walking and cycling commissioner, conspicuously refused to comment). There is also the scheme at Lambeth Bridge, rejected by me more than three years ago, to widen the pavements (in a not particularly pedestrian-heavy area) at the expense of space for cycling. There was also Norman’s first interview, in which he said that pedestrians had been “neglected” and “ignored” and that “given the statistics around pedestrian fatalities, that is something that has to change.”

This was factually wrong on all counts. The statistics in fact show that, by distance travelled, the pedestrian fatality rate is about the same as the cycling fatality rate – and the pedestrian serious injury rate is almost two-thirds lower. Both pedestrian and cycling casualties have been coming down. By last year, cycling deaths and serious injuries in London were 10 per cent below the 2005-9 average; pedestrian deaths and serious injuries were 38 per cent below it.

This, no doubt, is in part because pedestrians have not been neglected or ignored. They already and rightly have segregated infrastructure on every street in London, apart from the few shared space ones (see above). In the last eight years, massive further investment has been made in London’s pedestrian space, both within the cycling programme and outside it.

Another piece of evidence came at last month’s talk to cycling campaigners, when Norman and his boss, Val Shawcross, deputy mayor for transport, talked of reinstating the “hierarchy of provision,” which places walking above cycling in the order of transport virtue. Nor may the order of priority in Norman’s own job title be entirely without meaning.

We didn’t have a hierarchy of provision in my time. Just as in the Royal Parks, I found that it often seemed to be applied against cycling, but somehow much less often against cars. We instead tried to balance the interests of pedestrians and cyclists – and succeeded more often than not. Nearly all our schemes were strongly supported by pedestrian groups (some of the others making pedestrian-based objections turned out to be the motor lobby in disguise.)

And if we did focus on cycling more than in the past, it was for two reasons. First, because (unlike pedestrian infrastructure) cycling infrastructure barely existed. For most of the last forty years, it is of course cycling which has been neglected and ignored. A few years of relative focus and attention under the last mayor can’t make up for decades of near-total neglect. Norman’s implication that it can, that cyclists have had their quota of policymakers’ interest, and the light must now shine elsewhere, is worrying.

Second, because if you actually want to improve people’s health, increase active travel, reduce motorised travel and clean up the environment (the Healthy Streets policy’s stated objectives), cycling can do more, more quickly, than any other mode.

Perhaps the key limitation of walking is that it is only feasible for much shorter distances than most Londoners want to travel. The average passenger trip length across all modes in London is about 6 miles. The average bus trip is about 4 miles, and the average Tube trip about 9 miles. But for time-pressed Londoners, walking more than a mile or two simply takes too long. The average walking trip is currently 0.3 miles, and there is a “virtual absence of trips above 3km [1.9 miles],” according to TfL.

Cycling is feasible for much longer trips, and therefore for a greater proportion of trips which are currently taken by motorised modes. It is also feasible for some freight or delivery trips as well as passenger trips.

Of course, many more people walk than cycle, so perhaps if they all walked just a bit more, maybe as part of a longer journey involving public transport, the effect could be the same. But you’d have to change the behaviour of a very large number of people indeed – and how do you do that?

In cycling there exists a policy instrument – the segregated track – with a proven record, here and abroad, of swiftly and massively increasing the number and length of journeys made by bike and bringing about substantial shift from motorised modes.

I can think of no equivalent for walking which could have the same effect, so quickly. The policy instruments available – wider pavements, easier pedestrian crossings, lower-traffic streets – are smaller and more incremental. They don’t represent the same game-changing improvement as a superhighway represents for a cyclist.

Perhaps that is the point. Perhaps the fact that walking infrastructure doesn’t represent so big a change to the status quo is precisely why it appeals to a mayor who wants to avoid “confrontation” with the motor lobby.

One of the reasons for the audience’s slight restiveness at Norman and Shawcross’s meeting with cycle campaigners last month was, as David Arditti put it, that “they were talking as if they were starting from nothing, as if the last administration had not also had strategy on these things, and had not done quite a bit of good…They were talking as if an active travel agenda had to be created for the first time ever, and not as if the main issues had been gone into already.”

I am worried that Norman and Shawcross are indeed trying to reinvent the wheel. That quite a lot of Sadiq’s “record budget for cycling” looks like being spent on measures with no practical benefit for cycling at all – or, as in the Royal Parks, on actually making matters worse. I am worried that this may a reinvention without the wheel – the bicycle wheel, that is.

Superhighways, congestion, and selective statistics

The transport correspondent of the Financial Times, Robert Wright, has done an interesting post on his blog, challenging what he calls “the now-conventional wisdom among London cyclists that the 12 miles of new cycle superhighways in central London…have had no significant effect on congestion.” As he puts it:

Traffic volumes entering Central London fell 3.4 per cent between the June to September quarter in 2015 and the same quarter in 2016, part of a long-term decline that’s seen the volume of motor traffic entering central London decline by more than 20 per cent since 2000. Instead of increasing with declining traffic volumes, however, average traffic speeds in central London – the easiest available proxy for congestion – fell 3.5 per cent, to 7.8mph.

The figures (from the latest TfL streets performance report) are accurate, but they are also selective. The key indicator of congestion is in fact a quite different measure (also given in the same report) called journey time reliability. It’s the key indicator because it’s not merely a “proxy” for congestion: it measures actual congestion, tracking thousands of vehicles on ANPR cameras and comparing how long they take to make their journeys against how long they should take if the route were not congested.

And guess what? In the same quarter-on-quarter comparison, congestion in central London in fact fell and journey time reliability improved – by 2.1 percentage points in the evening peak and 0.1 percentage points in the morning peak.

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That’s actually better than the performance of several roads which are wholly outside central London and nowhere near any segregated superhighway – such as the Blackwall Tunnel approach, where JTR over the same period either improved by less than in central London, or indeed worsened.

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Which points to a second difficulty in blaming the superhighways for congestion – the difficulty in ascribing effects to particular causes. It does, though, seem unlikely that segregated cycle tracks totalling 12 miles can be causing more than a small portion of the congestion on a London main road network which totals around 1500 miles.

It seems much more likely that a rise in traffic bears more of the blame. For it is also true – but also selective – to say that central London traffic fell over these particular twelve months. Over the last three to four years as a whole, however, motor traffic in central London has increased quite sharply – by 4.5 per cent between 2013 and 2015 alone, for instance. The “long-term decline… since 2000” in motors entering central London stopped in about 2013/14.

Finally, it is not quite true to say, as Wright also does, that “private cars now account for only 18 per cent of motor traffic during weekdays in the central London congestion charging zone.” They account for 18 per cent of all traffic, but 21 per cent of motor traffic. If you add taxis (20% of all traffic; 23% of motor traffic) and private hire vehicles (12% of all traffic; 14% of motor traffic) the total comes to a rather trickier 50 per cent of all traffic, and 57% of motor traffic.

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It’s tricky because taxis and PHVs are even more inefficient users of roadspace than cars. A car, at least, is always taking somebody somewhere. Taxis and PHVs are often coming back empty from dropping someone off. Taxis are often cruising around empty looking for passengers.

The stupidity of all this really comes into focus with figures last month showing that though cars, taxis and PHVs comprise 50 per cent of the traffic (across the day) in central London, they now account for just five per cent of commuter journeys into central London.

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(The above two tables are from the latest TfL Travel in London stats, published in December.)

What this adds up to is not to indulge the silly argument that some (such as Vincent Stops, or his representative on earth, the Guardian’s Dave Hill) are trying to start between bike infrastructure and buses, but an urgent need to go much further in reducing what really clogs the central roads, inefficient motorised traffic. My old boss, Boris Johnson, asked TfL to look at making PHVs – the huge growth area of recent years – pay the congestion charge, and asked the government for powers to cap their numbers. Both these things appear to have been dropped by Sadiq Khan; certainly, there was no mention of them in his recent taxi and private hire action plan.

More broadly, as Wright says and as Johnson wrote in March, the recent rise in traffic badly demands a wider rethink of the congestion charge – the one policy instrument with a proven record of reducing congestion. It needs to be sharply increased, or made smarter. Sadiq ruled out increasing the charge in his manifesto, apart from a “toxicity” supplement on the most polluting vehicles (about 10 per cent of the total).

Khan hasn’t shown much sign so far of being able to take difficult decisions. But maybe, with his “most ambitious plan in the world” to tackle air pollution now outflanked in ambition by the plans of many other cities, he will find the will.

Association of British Commuters: not quite so “independent” as they say…

 

Here’s a slightly extended version of my story in today’s Sunday Times:

A group claiming itself as a “fully independent” voice for suffering Southern Rail users is linked to a hard-left organisation funded by the striking rail unions.

The Association of British Commuters (ABC) has received extensive media coverage and raised £25,000 from travellers for legal action against the government. In its fundraising appeal it claims to be “fully independent from all trades unions/ political parties.

However, it places all blame for the strikes on the government and Southern, has never criticised the unions and unquestioningly echoes much of their language about the dispute. In a letter to the rail minister, Paul Maynard, it attacks Southern for “pushing industrial relationships to a breakdown” by “preventing staff from parking at stations, and preventing rest day working.”

ABC’s Twitter feed criticised ministers for “scapegoating” the strikers.

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On 1 November ABC’s director and spokeswoman, Emily Yates, attended what she described on Twitter as an “RMT union rally… supporting [the] fight vs Southern Rail.” She had described herself as “looking forward” to the event.

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The following week Yates shared a platform with an RMT organiser from Brighton, Gary Hassell, to demand “railways for people, not profit.” The ABC posted the RMT man’s speech on its YouTube channel and placed its logo on the video. On 15 December ABC organised a demonstration attended by Andy McDonald, Labour’s shadow transport spokesman, who supports the strikes.

ABC’s only other director, Summer Dean, is a paid official photographer for the Labour Representation Committee, a long-standing hard-left group chaired by the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, and closely linked to Momentum.

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LRC affiliates and funders include, or have included, the national headquarters of Aslef and the RMT, along with Aslef’s striking Three Bridges branch. Both unions have reserved seats on the LRC’s national executive committee.

Dean said: “Our only motivation is trying to sort this mess out.”

Sadiq bottles it on Cycle Superhighway 11

The position on Cycle Superhighway 11 was announced to stakeholders tonight. It is a decision effectively not to decide on the key issue.

TfL have committed to removing the Swiss Cottage gyratory; work will begin next year. But they have not committed to the key proposal which turns this from merely a junction scheme into a route – to close four of the eight gates to Regent’s Park to stop the Outer Circle being a rat-run. (Under the proposal, you would still be able to drive into the park at any time through one of the other four gates, but it would be harder to use it as a through route.)

TfL told the meeting that closing the four gates at certain times “remains the default position,” but “consideration will be given to other options to make the park safer for everyone.” A final decision will be made next summer.

This shouldn’t have been a hard decision for Sadiq, so the refusal to commit is a pretty bad sign.

Any decision not to close the gates at Regent’s Park, in response to the shrill falsehoods of a nimby minority, would be an act of defining weakness which would effectively end any serious cycling and walking programme in this mayoral term.

If Sadiq cannot even close four of the eight gates to a park, part of a proposal with 60 per cent support, it is difficult to imagine him doing the much harder things which await – such as constructing segregated tracks on busy arterial roads. This is now the second cycling proposal with clear public support that the Mayor may go back on. (Public support for the specific proposals on the Regent’s Park section was slightly higher than the overall level of support, at 61%.)

If the Mayor does decide that one of the world’s great parks should remain a traffic-choked rat-run, his rhetoric about transforming London for pedestrians and cyclists will be shown to be hollow.

Grand announcements of millions of pounds for cycling mean nothing without the political will to spend it on meaningful schemes.

On CS11 Sadiq may be trying to have it both ways. By continuing with the gyratory removal, he can claim he is “giving something” to the majority. If he does drop plans to close the gates, he can claim he is “giving something” to the nimby minority.

If he does do this, however, he will find that he has created a dog’s dinner of a scheme which angers everybody and pleases nobody.

The closure of the gates in Regent’s Park is the only thing that makes CS11 a meaningful route. The gyratory alone amounts to less than 5 per cent of the route.

For the other 95 per cent of its length, CS11 with the gates left open would be a return to the bad old days when cyclists had to mingle with heavy traffic, protected by nothing more than patches of blue paint. This risks becoming the “new normal” of cycling provision under Sadiq.

But the nimbies, too, would hate the Mayor’s halfway house. They opposed the gyratory removal just as fiercely as the gate closures. Moreover, the gyratory removal and the gate closures were designed to work together. Doing one but not the other would mess up the balance of the scheme, and the neighbourhood.

Our proposal would have kept all the traffic on the A41 because it would have been impossible to enter the park at Avenue Road.

A hybrid proposal would still make it more difficult to enter the top end of Avenue Road – but would allow traffic to enter the park at the bottom end of Avenue Road. This is a recipe for the very rat-running through residential streets in St John’s Wood which the nimbies were against.

I wish I could say it would be fitting reward for the people whose misrepresentations helped land us in this mess, but the rest of us would suffer too.

The deeply troubling role of Westminster City Council in this saga should also be recorded. They opposed the gate closure on the grounds, among others, that it would jeopardise their scheme for two-way traffic in Baker Street.

But Baker Street is a worthless and deeply disliked scheme, with few supporters and few discernible benefits for anyone, not just cyclists. In the first consultation, in 2015, it was rejected by 57 per cent of those consulted, including 70 per cent of residents. It is opposed by many of the retailers it was supposed to benefit.

The council then did a second consultation this year which produced a higher number in favour of the scheme (though still more people against – 46 per cent against to 36 per cent in favour). In this consultation it explicitly announced that it would “exclude” representations made by cyclists (for whom the scheme contains a number of “critical fails.”) Only after excluding these responses was it able to claim that the scheme had majority support! See page 14 of this document.

It is Baker Street that should be scrapped, not the Regent’s Park scheme. TfL has the power to end it, since it is partly funding it. It should exercise that power unless Westminster stops trying to destroy a scheme that people actually want.

Sadiq Khan cycling announcement: my comment

A promised spend of £154m is not a “record” and is less than we spent last year.

But even this level of spending will not be achieved unless the Mayor actually starts building something. So far, most movement has been in the other direction, with shovel-ready schemes delayed or cancelled.

Today’s press release contains no commitment to actually build any segregated cycle route beyond the one scheme (the North-South extension) already announced. This includes only half a mile of segregated track. With the cancellation of the 4.5-mile segregated scheme on the Westway and A40, the net total of new segregated routes so far promised by this mayoralty is minus four miles.

The promise to consult on two cycle superhighway routes (CS4 and CS9) is welcome, though neither will reach central London and I note there is no commitment that they will be segregated. We need a promise that they will be segregated, and also that a consultation result which favours their building will not be ignored, as it was with the Westway.

City Hall will be judged, as we were, by what it does, not what it says. Seven months into the new mayoralty, it is time to stop issuing press releases and get started.

Cycle superhighway on Westway to be cancelled, City Hall confirms

Sadiq Khan is to cancel the extension of the east-west superhighway from central London via the Westway flyover to White City, Shepherds Bush, Park Royal, the Old Oak Common development area, Wembley, Acton and Ealing.

The cancellation will probably mean that no segregated cycle route from central to west London is delivered in this mayoral term. It was confirmed by Sadiq’s deputy mayor for transport, Val Shawcross, at a meeting with British Cycling’s Chris Boardman earlier this month.

There was better news about the other two routes we consulted on in February: Shawcross said they would be delivered “on the same routes as originally consulted,” though there is still no word about whether the gate closures on the Outer Circle – the crucial element of the CS11 (Regent’s Park) proposal – will survive. The gates really are a key test for the mayoralty’s seriousness about cycling – but then, so is the Westway.

The Westway cancellation will be presented as a rerouting: Shawcross told Boardman that the extension “will not be routed on the Westway. We are looking at alternative routes that will be better.” In practice, though, and whatever the (doubtless genuine) intention, it probably spells the death of any meaningful cycle route through the area.

An elevated motorway does at first hearing sound like a weird place for a bike route, but it got 71 per cent support in the consultation. There was almost no opposition, apart from the Westfield shopping centre, which was reportedly worried about delays to car passengers. (The actual maximum delay to any car-borne shopper’s journey to or from Westfield, by the way, would have been 2 minutes. There would be longer delays from Westfield to central London in the morning peak, but nobody visiting the shopping centre would be driving in that direction at that time.)

And the flyover is in fact the easiest place to put a route. There are none of the usual issues with residents, pedestrians, buses, parking, loading, or junctions. There were even benefits for motorists – several westbound journeys would have been quicker. The Westway is also, crucially, the only mayoral-controlled road into a large chunk of West London. The surface roads are owned by a borough, Kensington & Chelsea, which does not want segregated tracks on them.

We could have had the Westway superhighway by next year. But a rerouting will mean perhaps two years’ delay for new designs, new traffic modelling, and a new consultation that will make the row with the local nimbies over CS11 look like a child’s tea-party.

Shawcross and Khan will have to exercise truly miraculous powers of persuasion on K&C to get them to accept segregated tracks – and then to keep them on board through the inevitable nimby tsunami during the consultation.

It’s not totally impossible, I suppose, but it seems pretty unlikely. There is little constituency for cycling among the wealthy, elderly voters of K&C, and not even an active LCC group (its blog has not been updated since 2014). In a perfect world, I too would have wanted to put the superhighway on the surface – but you have to make the best of the world you’ve got. I could have told Team Khan all this if they’d asked – we actually did think this stuff through – but they didn’t ask, and I’m not convinced they’ve yet given it the same amount of thought.

Under the “alternative and better” plans, then, what we will probably finish up with is either nothing at all, or another essentially pointless, old-style, paint-on-road scheme.

 

IERA: watchdog slates extremists for “misconduct,” falsification, “reckless misleading” and “unauthorised payments”

I’ve several times covered the deeply troubling work of a body called IERA, the Islamic Education and Research Academy, which specialises in sending non-violent extremist speakers around British universities, sometimes in gender-segregated meetings. They are one of many extremist groups who have taken me to Ipso, and lost (three times, in their case: see here, here and here).

IERA is run by Abdurraheem Green, who says that a husband has the right to administer “some type of physical force… a very light beating” to his wife and advises that if a Muslim passes a Jew or a Christian in the street, he should “push them to the side.

IERA’s roll-call of stars includes, or has included, Khalid Yasin, who describes Christian and Jewish beliefs as “filth;” Haitham al-Haddad, who has described Jews and Christians as the “enemies of Allah;” plus two people banned from the UK, Zakir Naik, who has said that “every Muslim should be a terrorist,” and Bilal Philips, described by the US government as an “unindicted co-conspirator” in the World Trade Center bombing. The Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain describes IERA as a “hate group.

IERA is also linked to the “Pompey lads,” a group of young men from Portsmouth (most or all now dead) who travelled to fight for Isis in Syria. At least two, Mehdi Hassan and Ifthekar Jaman, and possibly as many as five, were members of the Portsmouth Dawah Team, described by IERA’s Mission Dawah unit as “our team in Portsmouth.” Hassan and Jaman were pictured in Portsmouth wearing IERA T-shirts.

Astonishingly, IERA is a registered charity, giving it a taxpayer subsidy in the form of Gift Aid (which allows it to reclaim tax on donations from the Government) and several other advantages. That wasn’t enough for some of the IERA trustees, however, who also paid themselves tens of thousands of pounds from charity funds, against the charity’s own rules.

This, and their extremism, exposed in media reports including my own, led to a regulatory case review by the Charity Commission, then a formal statutory inquiry, which finally concluded on Friday. The verdict is damning.

As so often with Islamist groups, IERA lied and falsified documents to head off scrutiny. A risk assessment for an extremist event

had not been carried out prior to the event to which it related, as indicated, and as it should have been. Instead it appeared to have been completed in response to the Commission’s pending records inspection.

IERA, the inspectors found, had made conflicting statements which the Commission was “unable to reconcile.” IERA had

recklessly provided misleading information to the Commission which is evidence of misconduct and/or mismanagement in the administration of the charity.

What the trustees were trying to conceal was two things. First, they were

putting the charity at risk in sharing or being perceived to be sharing, a platform for the expression of promotion of extremist views.

On the link with Phillips, the Commission

could not see how the trustees could show they were complying with their legal duties under charity law.

Second,

approximately £44,704 was made in payments to trustees which could not have been properly authorised… A number of the charity’s trustees had received payments from the charity which were considered more than reasonable costs for travelling expenses for trustee meetings and for fulfilment of trustee duties…in breach of the charity’s governing document and legal duties.

Pretty comprehensive, then. But it could have been better. First, this verdict has taken three years and eight months to deliver; the initial case was opened in March 2013. That is at least three years too long; three years in which IERA has been able to spread its poison.

Second, it hasn’t really put a stop to that even now. The Commission appears to have treated IERA as a legitimate charity which just needed to improve its financial management and “risk assessment” to avoid being a platform for extremism. But being a platform for extremism is, in fact, one of IERA’s main purposes. The real remedy for this organisation is to have its charitable status, and taxpayer subsidy, taken away.

To that extent, IERA got off lightly and should be very grateful. Instead, predictably enough, it has been using the report to bang the Islamophobia drum, decrying the “unjustified and disproportionate” nature of the criticism. For Islamists, every cloud has a silver lining.