How super? What cyclists make of superhighways
- 19 July 2010
- From the section Magazine
Cycle lanes have become a familiar feature of city streets in the UK but from Monday, London is raising its game - opening bright blue "superhighways" for those putting toe to pedal. But is this a shade of things to come, or just a route to nowhere?
Colliers Wood, on the jam-packed A24 and near a huge supermarket saver-centre, seems an improbable place to start a revolution. But just across from the Tube entrance, on the opposite side of the road, a 1.5m-wide painted blue lane has appeared.
It is labelled "CS7" in white paint and stretches for 8.5 miles along a busy commuter route from this south London suburb into the city centre.
It's one of two new superhighways to open this summer. The other goes between Barking, east London, and Tower Gateway, which is near Tower Bridge. Twelve such routes are planned in all, with details and maps available on the Transport for London website.
Along with a forthcoming city-wide bike hire scheme, a new cycling police unit, 66,000 extra bike parking spaces before 2012 and better strategic planning, the hope of Mayor Boris Johnson is that they will spark what he calls a "cycling revolution".
His transport adviser Kulveer Ranger says: "People think 'cycling revolution' and think of the hire scheme, superhighways... but it's a lot more than that.
"Boris wants to see the culture around cycling evolving - we have to look at the infrastructure, securing bikes, cyclists' safety and embed cycling in transport policy."
Schemes like the London cycling network - a range of routes across the city - were good, he says, but they didn't look strategically at where people needed to go.
The London Cycling Campaign (LCC) estimates there are 550,000 cycle journeys in London daily.
Transport for London (TfL) says that is an increase from around 250,000 in 2000 and it wants to increase it further, to help reduce pollution and relieve over-crowding on public transport and road congestion.
The city's transport body wants to make the roads safer - there were 13 cyclist fatalities in 2009 in the capital. Its aim is to attract those put off by accident statistics and direct them towards continuous, well-marked and maintained, straight-forward commuting routes.
Swarm of traffic
So what are the new lanes like to cycle and can they fulfil their aims?
An inauspicious start at 8am on a rush-hour morning signals a "no".
Before you can answer the question: "Can you cycle easily along the superhighway?" you need to negotiate another: "Can you even pull out into it?"
With congestion at its height, there are lorries, buses, cars, vans and motorbikes everywhere, across both lanes of this main road, blocking the flash new textured surface on the left hand side.
The traffic swarms under the leaden skies of an ugly summer's day. It's raining persistently and the wind gusts. Average British cycling conditions perhaps, but not the best for tempting would-be converts to the cause.
But once the traffic blockade is negotiated, and the road begins to widen out a mile further north, it's actually quite a fast route, if you wriggle round the manhole covers.
Often cyclists seek out quieter back roads for their journey, avoiding the heavy traffic and its dangers but adding "long-cuts". This, however feels like a direct A to B.
With the adrenaline pumping and that ET cycle-sequence feeling of bikers all around, it's easy to get carried away with enthusiasm. But, hold the handlebars, isn't this just a glorified cycle lane?
Perhaps, but it is a precious thing in the UK's towns and cities - a glorified cycle lane of considerable length, in a purposeful direction, stripped of street furniture and not finishing abruptly without explanation.
Dream or disaster?
At the frequent stops for traffic lights, what do the cyclists think of it?
Liza Houghton is a bold woman - cycling her one-year-old son in a child seat to his childminder via quieter roads before commuting to work on the superhighway.
"They're absolutely brilliant, anything that helps cyclists and makes it safer has to be a good thing," she says. "Cars are being forced to become more aware of cyclists. It's not that safe, you have to be really careful - the close shaves I've had have been with people on their mobile phones."
She draws comparisons with London's European capital cousins. The UK still compares negatively with the cycling "dream" of Berlin or Amsterdam, but is better than "disastrous" Paris.
Others carry their cyclists' insouciance well. Many of those gathered in the bike box at junctions - that space marked with a bike symbol that cars and vans creep into - say they notice little difference and question the benefits.
Tony Dann, a former cycle courier with 14 years' experience riding in London, "can't really see the point".
"They're on the main roads, the traffic's exactly the same as it always has been, there's nothing to stop cars from going in the lanes. I think it gives inexperienced cyclists a false sense of security."
The £23m spent to research the scheme and set up the first of the 12 lanes is "a waste of money" he believes. But, he admits, he has no better plan.
To the right, some taxi drivers say they find the extra road markings confusing, especially when they fall in a bus lane - how much room should they give?
There is no verdict from the van drivers whose windows are wound up against the pelting rain. The blurb from TfL about the lanes makes much of the fact they continue through junctions - but that does nothing to stop some trucks and vans repeatedly turning left and cutting across the cyclists.
It's here that the LCC would like to see more investment, they want the city's massive one way junctions returned to two-way traffic and speed limits reduced.
"We're disappointed it's not doing more, but investment has to continue," says spokesman Tom Bogdanowicz.
At Southwark Bridge, after 45 minutes of cycling, some success lies in crossing the River Thames into the City still in one piece.
Not without becoming lost, however - at one of London's most intimidating junctions, Elephant and Castle, the route takes a swing through the back roads but this cyclist missed the cues.
Could these routes encourage beginners? Perhaps. The lanes look wide, but they are advisory, not enforced, and shared with the lorries, buses, more experienced cyclists - many can be unforgiving of mistakes.
What cyclists hope they may provide is a highlighted and publicised route where they can come together in a critical mass - that could one day grant them equal reckoning with the bigger beasts of the road.