Thursday, 3 February 2011

Paying LIP service to cycling: Waltham Forest’s ‘Local Implementation Plan’

A substandard and poorly maintained 'advisory' cycle lane leading to a pinch point and a mini-roundabout on a dangerous bend, just after a vehicle-activated advisory speed sign which has not been working for several years. The northbound A112, the major north-south communication transport spine in Waltham Forest.

The London Borough of Waltham Forest has just published its new Local Implementation Plan (LIP), which comes into force, aptly, on All Fools Day (April 1st). The council is obliged by law to produce this LIP, which is intended to show how it intends to implement the Mayor’s Transport Strategy (MTS) at a local level. Core goals of the MTS include ‘Reducing transport’s contribution to climate change’ as well as wider, vaguer ones (‘Improving transport opportunities for all Londoners’).

The LIP covers a wide range of topics including air pollution, ‘road safety’, ‘greener transport’, ‘regeneration’ and ‘the accessibility of key centres’, which encompass a broad range of transport issues and modes. For today I want to concentrate exclusively on cycling and return to other aspects, including walking, another day.

The first thing to note is that this LIP does not have a section specifically devoted to cycling. This is quite unlike Waltham Forest’s first LIP (2005) which contained a lengthy and detailed ‘Cycle action plan’ some 38 pages long. The new LIP devotes only a handful of scattered paragraphs to cycling (2.6.2, 2.9B, 3.4.7, and 4.B), although the whole document is threaded with vague references to ‘encouraging cycling’ and ‘improvements to the cycling network’.

This new LIP reveals that things are even worse for cycling locally than has previously been acknowledged. According to TfL, modal share in Waltham Forest over the period 2006-2009 was 0.8%. That’s right, less than one per cent. By any standards this is a catastrophically failed borough for cycling. Naturally the LIP is not interested in asking why that might be.

If you didn’t live in Waltham Forest and if you had no knowledge of conditions on its streets or its transport history, you could read this LIP and easily be fooled into thinking that Waltham Forest Council was indeed a progressive local authority. For example it is boldly asserted that ‘The Council recognises that streets have more functions than simply catering for vehicular movements’ (2.7.1), which sounds progressive but in reality means the other function of streets is to provide parking for all those vehicles when they cease their movements (like here, for example).

The same section also boldly asserts that ‘It is necessary to find an appropriate balance between the different users the street caters for.’ Our old friend ‘balance’, which in practise simply means that provision may be made for pedestrians and cyclists but only when this does not significantly impede that much greater priority, ‘smoothing traffic flow’. In any case what is desperately needed in London is not a cosmetic ‘balance’ between the immensely privileged motorist and the marginalised pedestrian and cyclist but a complete reversal of the hegemony of the private car – in other words, removing the private car completely from city centres, re-allocating carriageway space on major roads for segregated cycle paths (what the Dutch know as ‘bike grids’ and which were central to the early reversal of car dependency in the Netherlands) and making car travel in residential areas circuitous and inconvenient. Although Waltham Forest has a small number of road closures, it remains very easy to rat-run through residential areas if you have local knowledge. And every lunatic speeding mini-cab driver and white van man does.

Waltham Forest has residential areas where 45 per cent of households don’t own a car, yet every single street in those areas is devoted to the primacy of motor vehicle flow and on-street car parking. If you choose not to own a car and cycle or walk all you get in return is systematic discrimination at every level, from funding and infrastructure to enforcement and maintenance. Waltham Forest Council will even steal the footway from outside your house for car parking.

It’s also the case that it is not possible to judge the claims of this LIP without very detailed knowledge. For example, in section 3.4.2 (‘Neighbourhoods’) a number of traffic schemes are described, of which number 5 is ‘Westward Road area, E4’. The LIP states that ‘The Council is proposing to implement a number of measures to improve the overall area’, measures which will result in an ‘improved pedestrian and cycling environment in the vicinity’. This is simply a lie. The fundamental motivation of this scheme is ‘smoothing traffic flow’ and it is car-centric to its bones.

The Westward Road area is one where free on-street car parking has reached saturation point, resulting in aggressive confrontations between drivers when they meet and there isn’t space to pass or pull in. In these incidents each driver believes it’s the other driver’s responsibility to reverse. The council’s traffic planners have decided to resolve such conflict not by removing the obstructive on-street car parking but by introducing a one-way street network and by allowing drivers to park on the pavement. The Westward Road area scheme is totally car-centric and comprehensively degrades the environment for pedestrians and cyclists; you can read my critique of it here. The LIP reveals that this anti-cycling, anti-walking scheme, which promotes yet more on-street car parking, parking for wider vehicles like 4X4s, and convenient motoring, will cost £360,000.

In its summary of Waltham Forest’s transport objectives the LIP asserts (2.10) that ‘The emphasis is on encouraging a modal shift from private car travel to more sustainable modes’. This is the kind of claim which successive transport documents over many years have committed the council to, while it has gone in exactly the opposite direction in practice. ‘Encouraging walking and cycling’ was at the heart of The Waltham Forest Green Charter (1996) – a charter which has now been vaporized by the council officers – as well as Waltham Forest’s Local Agenda 21 Action Plan (2000) – which has likewise joined the ranks of the disappeared. They served their historic purpose (Green campaigners vigorously wagged their tails and yapped excitedly) and can now safely be forgotten.

But wait! Section 2.4 is headed ‘Local Problems, Challenges and Opportunities’. A good opportunity to consider why cycling is doing so poorly in Waltham Forest? I’m afraid not. This section simply dissolves into blather and froth. Cycling isn’t even mentioned.

Now you might think that a council with such a mediocre record for cycling would want to understand why. It could begin, for example, by asking if the targets set out in the last LIP have been met. After all, back in 2005 Waltham Forest was prepared to contemplate the intoxicating possibility that cycling in the borough might even become ‘as popular as in Holland’ (2005 LIP, page 165). In fact even those rudimentary and non-controversial vehicular cycling measures which were proposed six years ago, such as ASLs at every signalised junction and cycle gaps at all road closures, have still not been accomplished. Something as quite basic as cycle stands outside all post offices and libraries has not been achieved (meanwhile millions of pounds have been spent on infrastructure for motorists). And whatever happened to the ‘smartcard’ bike shed which was going to be in place at Blackhorse Road station by 2007? The list of broken promises is a lengthy one.

It seems to me that if Waltham Forest is remotely serious about increasing its modal share for cycling (and the LIP aspires to 2% modal share in Waltham Forest by 2013, which on the one hand is paltry and inadequate but which in terms of local conditions is fantastically ambitious) then it needs to ask itself what’s gone wrong in the past and how this might be addressed.

To do this I think the council’s transport planners need to ask two things.

Firstly, how can non-cyclists be persuaded both to take up cycling and then to keep cycling and not give up?

Secondly, why do people prefer to drive rather than cycle, and how can this situation be reversed?

Every survey ever taken shows that people are afraid to cycle in traffic, with a large preference for segregated infrastructure. The feelings of vehicular cyclists locally are not dissimilar:

Key findings from cyclists surveyed during the 2009 Tour de Waltham Forest.

"Bad drivers" and "scary road conditions" are the biggest general barrier to cycling (to 79%).

Greenways (Epping Forest, the Lea Valley etc.) are the best thing about cycling in Waltham Forest (63%).

A hostile road environment is the biggest barrier to novice cyclists

'A hostile road environment' - cycling infrastructure like this, in other words. The westbound A503. The cycle lane shown in the first photo is then diverted around parking bays some 200 metres further west, as shown below.

However, this LIP nowhere acknowledges the core issue of subjective safety, let alone seeks to address it. Interestingly there is a glancing commitment to ‘Investigate the possibility of segregated cycle lanes on roads with higher speeds’ (p. 89) which is well worth quoting in a response to this LIP. However it is very hard to regard this as a serious commitment in view of what is currently happening on the A503 (Forest Road), where on a section of road with traffic going faster than 40 mph in a 30 mph limit the cycle lane has been seized for car parking and cyclists pushed closer to overtaking traffic. It’s also worth remembering that the 2005 LIP contained a similarly perfunctory one-sentence commitment to ‘Segregated cycle facilities’, which worked out in practice like this.

The LIP signally fails to address the issue of subjective safety. But objective safety isn’t doing all that well either. Cycling casualties in Waltham Forest were 71 in 2000, 60 in 2002, 53 in 2004 and for 2006-2008 ‘an average of approximately 62 accidents a year’ (p. 88), rising to 93 in 2009. The LIP target is 51 casualties by 2013/14 and 41 casualties by 2020. The only way these targets are likely to be reached is if cycling shrinks still further in the borough. If the LIP target of a 2% modal share by 2013 is achieved (let alone the Mayor’s, which basically require an extra 3,000 cycling trips every day for each year leading up to 2026) then cycling casualties are likely to rocket, not because of the supposed carelessness of ‘novices’ but rather because the fundamental problem is cyclists being exposed to high volumes of motor traffic where significantly large numbers of drivers behave in a dangerously inattentive or dangerously reckless way. Any planning document which purports to ‘encourage cycling’ in a vehicular environment while failing to acknowledge the widespread criminal negligence of drivers simply doesn’t understand either cycling or the scale of the problem.

All that this LIP has on offer for cyclists is ‘soft’ measures like cycle training and ‘hard’ infrastructure in the form of traffic calming and more 20 mph zones. However desirable these might be, there is simply no statistical correlation between measures like the ones proposed and increased numbers of cyclists. This is not something the LIP acknowledges, so it is theoretically flawed in its proposals for increasing cycling. Nor does it demonstrate the slightest interest in acknowledging or diagnosing the failure of past promises to ‘encourage cycling’. Instead all we get is more empty aspiration, floating free of the real world (the LIP boasts it has been developed in consultation with the London Cycling Campaign, so I suppose the strategy vaccuum at its heart ought not to be a surprise).

There is the promise of more permeability, which is particularly insolent in the light both of this and also the borough’s ongoing programme of more and more one-way streets without contraflow lanes or contraflow signing. All residential areas of Waltham Forest are gradually being turned into one-way gyratory systems, which may deter some rat-running, but are fundamentally antithetical both to cycling desire lines and comfort/safety (many drivers hate getting stuck behind a cyclist on a one-way street and will either blow their horns or overtake in an aggressive and reckless manner). Pedestrians are promised more refuges, but these frequently create pinch points that create extra road danger or discomfort for cyclists.

Depressingly, it is finally revealed that the cycling infrastructure proposed for cycling-hostile Whipps Cross Road, to be paid for with Olympic funding, is to be a ‘cycle lane’ (p. 54). No details are supplied. It will not exactly be an enormous surprise if it turns out to be 1.5 metres wide and advisory. Whipps Cross Road is precisely the kind of road where a segregated cycle path on the Dutch template is both desirable and possible; simply painting a narrow cycle lane on the carriageway is most unlikely to attract new cyclists to this unpleasant road filled with high volumes of fast moving motor vehicles.

Perhaps the most positive ‘hard’ piece of infrastructure on offer in the LIP is to be found on p. 52: ‘Ruckholt Road New Pedestrian and Cycle Bridge’:

This proposed new bridge will be introduced to improve walking and cycling facilities in Ruckholt Road across Marshall Road and the Network Rail/CTRL railway tracks.


The new bridge will provide a new 3 metre wide route for westbound cyclists and pedestrians.


The footbridge and accompanying infrastructure will be DDA compliant and offer excellent opportunities for wheelchair users who have hitherto found it difficult or impossible to get into the Lea Valley from the Leyton and South Walthamstow area.

Well this new bridge may meet the criteria of the Disability Discrimination Act but it certainly doesn’t live up to Dutch standards. In the first place cyclists need to have a gap at the side so that you don't catch your handlebars as you ride. This needs to be at least half a metre wide for safety, potentially making this 3 m bridge actually more a 2 m bridge. As a ‘shared use’ bridge the likelihood is that a continuous white line will be painted down the middle, giving 1.5 m each to pedestrians and cyclists. Contrast this with the Netherlands where unidirectional cycle paths are a minimum of 2.5 m wide and pedestrian paths are separate and usually 2 m wide. With space to separate pedestrians and cyclists, a Dutch bridge of this type would be designed to a minimum width of 6 m. So this bridge is substandard even before it is built, and if pedestrians with companions use it, the likelihood is that they will stray into the cycle path.

Also bear in mind that this fabulous piece of infrastructure will first require cyclists to encounter this.

Lastly, there is some guff about how ‘High quality cycle networks such as LCN+ and Greenways offer safe, convenient, predictable and reliable access to local destinations’ in such idyllic cycling centres as Wood Green, Hackney and Stratford (no doubt Mr Grumpy can show us some photographs of these cycling nirvanas, because as we know once you leave Waltham Forest the infrastructure just gets better and better).

Yes, Waltham Forest will be rushing to catch up on its neighbours with a delightful network of Greenways – you know, like the ones suitable for fans of Andrei Tarkovsky.

Of course if money is going to be pumped into Waltham Forest’s miserably neglected rights of way network this is A Good Thing, but the striking thing about the map of Greenways on p. 58 is that the routes are not strategic, most of them are indirect, and none of them connects to other Greenways in the borough. To access them you will first have to cycle on hostile ‘A’ roads or car-clogged backstreets, neither of which offer attractive environments for any but the most traffic-hardened vehicular cyclist.

It also needs to be noted that ‘the planned industrial growth at Blackhorse Lane and the Upper Lea Valley’ (p. 55) and the ‘redevelopment potential’ of industrial areas in the vicinity of Lea Bridge Road (p.53) are likely to result in increased numbers of lorries and commercial vehicles on strategic routes where cycling is currently being suppressed.

In short, as far as ‘encouraging cycling’ is concerned there is nothing in this LIP which hasn’t been tried in the past and which has comprehensively failed to engage the interest of the non-cycling population of the London Borough of Waltham Forest. And for existing cyclists, conditions are actually getting worse in various ways. The vehicular cycling infrastructure is getting more dangerous in lots of little ways, the proliferation of one-way streets is making cycling more inconvenient, and the huge numbers of drivers talking on mobile phones, distracted by their SatNavs or simply behaving recklessly makes cycling in Waltham Forest all too often a hazardous and unpleasant activity.

The second major theoretical shortcoming in this LIP is that there is no point at all in claiming to ‘encourage cycling’ if you are not also prepared to address the question of why people prefer to drive rather than cycle, and consider how this situation can be reversed. This is something the Dutch started doing back in 1975 but which no one in Britain is very interested in considering, least of all transport planners.

This LIP is fundamentally flawed because it is fundamentally car-centric. Let us say no more about local instances of the blazing hypocrisy of ‘encouraging a modal shift from private car travel to more sustainable modes’ while spending almost half a million pounds re-allocating street space for car parking at the expense of cyclists and pedestrians.

The new LIP contains no data at all showing the year-on-year rise in car ownership in Waltham Forest, nor (unlike the 2005 LIP) does it contain any raw data about motor vehicle flow or lawless speeds on selected local streets. It says nothing about the council’s relentless promotion of car parking at the expense of pedestrians by virtue of seizing literally hundreds of local footways for car parking, and it says nothing about the council’s relentless promotion of easier traffic flow on car-saturated local streets through the medium of more and more one-way streets, at the expense of direct cycle routes. Nor does it mention the Council's halving of the cost of a CPZ permit for local drivers.

With reference to High Road Leytonstone/Leytonstone Road E11, it acknowledges that ‘This road represents a key route into Stratford and congestion along the road impacts on the reliability of a number of bus routes’ (p. 53) but the ‘corridor scheme’ proposed remains fundamentally car-centric. The promise to ‘enhance the public realm’ simply means planting a few trees, changing the design of lighting columns and tidying up those sections of footway which are not devoted to parking bays. The corridor scheme does nothing to reduce motor vehicle traffic flow and parking, and it conveniently blots out the Council’s squalid history on this road of surrendering all its past policies about traffic restraint.

The Waltham Forest LIP is from beginning to end a totally car-centric document. It will meet the requirements of the Mayor’s Transport Strategy, because that is equally vacuous and car-centric. This LIP does absolutely nothing for cycling and it will predictably fail to get non-cycling residents of Waltham Forest on their bikes. But I very much doubt if any of the 'essential car user' officers involved in drawing up this LIP really cares.

It’s also an astonishingly slovenly document, littered with spelling mistakes and bad grammar (‘visa versa’ and numerous other entertaining howlers). The Council’s officers can’t even be bothered to attend to the English language, let alone cycling infrastructure. Their contempt for the public shines through - this is a shoddy document, obviously done in a hurry. Whereas the 2005 LIP was a meaty document 248 pages long, this new LIP is just 105 pages in length. This new LIP will serve its bureaucratic purpose and can then be put on the shelf to gather dust and be forgotten.

My favourite Freudian slip in this LIP is the one that says that an ‘improvement scheme’ is expected to result in ‘smother traffic flow’ (p. 61). Exactly. What this LIP underlines is that Waltham Forest’s car-sick, car-centric, grey fleet transport planners intend to go on smothering the borough in motor vehicles and make an area which already has one of the highest levels of ill-health in Greater London even sicker, more polluted and car-choked than it already is.