Superhighway for Tower Hamlets cyclists

Cyclists try out the new superhighway on Royal Mint Street. Photo: Steven Hampson.

This week London Mayor Boris Johnson launched what he has labeled the ‘cycling revolution,’ with the unveiling of the first cycle superhighway in East London. The CS3 route links Barking and Tower Gateway via Tower Hamlets.

Johnson said cycling accounted for 2% of journeys in the capital and he wanted to improve this figure to 5% – ‘a huge leap.’

“You have got to have a powerful and visible sign on the roads that asserts to every Londoner, whether on two wheels or four, that the capital is a cycling city,” he added.

According to Transport for London, by Summer 2015 there will be six cycle superhighways across East London, providing cyclists with a comprehensive and effective system of routes. But there is some concern that, with a £23 million price tag for just two superhighways, they will siphon money from the recognised and established London cycling network.

The Mayor’s transport adviser Kulveer Ranger says that schemes like the London cycling network – a series of routes spanning the city – were good, but they didn’t look strategically at where people needed to go.

The aim of the CS3 is to attract those put off by accident statistics and direct them towards a continuous, well-marked and maintained commuting route. “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,” said Ranger.

The cycle superhighways will be accompanied by a city-wide bike hire scheme, a new cycling police unit, 66,000 extra bike parking spaces by 2012 and improved strategic planning, in the hope that more Londoners will switch to the bicycle.

The cycle hire scheme has been delayed and, by its start next week, only pre-registered cyclists will be able to use the reduced number of bikes available. The full scheme is expected to be running by the start of September.

Another cyclist on the new blue-painted route. Photo: Steven Hampson.

But is the cycle superhighway a revolution, a useful service to London’s cyclists, or is it part of a PR war by Transport For London? Many cyclists have already branded the superhighways dangerous.

While it is possible that these routes will encourage beginners, it is unlikely to be the safest or the easiest path for them to take. The lanes appear wide, but they are advisory, and often shared with lorries, buses, and more experienced cyclists – which can be scary for newcomers.

Irem Hughes, 25, a veterinary student, lives in Mile End. “I’ve found the signs useful today as I’m not used to this area. But as a casual cyclist, I think it may be best to stick to the pavements in future. It’s very fast on the blue roads!”

Oliver Schick, chair of London Cycling Campaign policy committee,  said: “We welcome the increased cycle parking, clear marking of routes, provision of cycle training, and workplace initiatives associated with the programme.

“However, we’re disappointed at the lack of progress on large junctions and one-way systems such as Stockwell, Kennington and Tower Gateway.

It has been suggested that rather than attempting to unite the flow of cars and bicycles, we should look to the Northern European cities which have segregated cycle routes from main roads and achieved cycling rates sometimes as high as 30% – compared to London’s 3%.

Yet despite the predictably negative responses coming from a city driven by petrol, there are many plus points associated with the new scheme.

Andrew Webb, 37, an IT Consultant, lives in Limehouse. “I don’t know if it’ll make my journey much quicker, but I reckon it might be a bit safer with these clear markings. So I’m pro it.”

As TFL explains on their website, the routes are clearly marked and easy to follow. The addition of new signs, road markings and information about journey time and links to other routes makes traveling across London on a bike as simple as currently possible. Improved road surfaces and minimised obstructions along the routes mean a smoother ride.

TFL believe the new superhighways to be the safer option for cyclists, with lanes at least 1.5m wide which continue through junctions. There are advanced stop boxes at traffic lights to help cyclists get ahead of traffic, and changed junction layouts create more space for bicycles.

The criticism that the new cycle lanes will hinder traffic is seen as an advantage by some. If the lanes did eat further into car users’ space then perhaps the rush hour standstill would be enough to encourage motorists to switch to a bike, as they watch even the slowest cyclist pass them by.

And furthermore, if the superhighways manage to deliver the promised improvements of increased road comfort, roomier routes, and priority over traffic, then they may raise the profile of the humble cycling lane, possibly leading to improvements across the network of cycle routes.

Regardless of the negatives, East Londoners now have access to an – admittedly glorified – cycle lane, of considerable length, in a purposeful direction, stripped of street furniture and not finishing abruptly without explanation – and this is surely a step in the right direction.

And even one London taxi driver has a good word for it: Rich Greene, 51, of Finchley was driving through the East End. He said: “If it keeps cyclists out my way, I’m happy. In my experience it’s best to keep cars and bikes separate.”

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