We are in the midst of the peak of the construction of the London Mayor’s Cycle Vision. In the centre we see the East-West superhighway under construction on the embankment. To the east the upgrade of Superhighway 2, to the south the radical overhaul of Elephant and Castle and to the north the construction of Superhighway 1 nears.
Meanwhile in west London there is… not a lot happening. Indeed it doesn’t even appear on the map. The East-West superhighway has yet to even be consulted on further west than Paddington with construction pencilled in from January 2017. Superhighway 8 has had a pretty awful new junction proposed but Superhighway 9 was cancelled at the end of 2013.
The original plan for superhighways prior to the Cycle Vision was to have a “clock face” of twelve radial routes. Each providing a radial corridor primarily for commuters from places about 30-40 minutes cycle outside the centre. The ambition, design and execution of these plans was so flawed that the plans were halted part-way and the process that led to the Cycle Vision began.
I made a series of requests using Freedom of Information laws to try and piece together how Superhighway 9 fell down and who said what when. Other campaigners and journalists have also done similar. What follows are the edited highlights. The superhighways were first announced in February 2008 (at the end of Ken Livingstone’s second term), at which time Cllr Daniel Moylan of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) said:
“The capital’s boroughs are responsible for 95 per cent of London’s roads, so it is frankly appalling that they were not consulted on this new strategy.”
InJuly 2010 in a meeting of the Public Realm Scrutiny Committee of RBKC Cllr Paget Brown stated:
“borough was not over-enthusiastic about the proposed cycle superhighways as it was questionable whether the funnelling of cyclists into one or two routes, when there are already capacity issues on many central London roads, would be practical”
So there were clearly two key objections to the superhighway from RBKC at this stage – that they hadn’t been properly consulted and that they felt there wasn’t capacity on the roads.
At the start of 2013 TfL were telling boroughs in London that they expected to consult on completed designs for Superhighway 9 in September 2013, seek approval in January 2014 and complete by November 2014. At that stage they noted they would need to reflect upon consultation responses on Superhighway 2’s extension to Stratford (the trial section with segregation) and Superhighway 5.
At this time the intent for Superhighway 9 was still to create a route much like the original designs of Superhighways 2 and 7. Blue paint appearing intermittently along a busy road to try and prioritise and encourage cycling but no continuous facility and no segregation. In Hounslow the cycle lanes were set to be 1.5m wide. A key sticking point for RBKC became that blue paint, which they did not want to see on their streets as they rather loved their streetscape.
Elsewhere in London at this time cycle campaigners were protesting against narrow lanes and paint only superhighways. Hounslow’s officers protested to TfL that they wanted a clear direction on how they and the mayor would handle the then “go dutch” demands that had been signed up to by Boris Johnson (albeit rather grudgingly). It was also made plain by Hounslow that a lack of a consultation on the basic principles of superhighway design or a clear updated design manual were an issue.
By March of 2013 officers in RBKC met with Andrew Gilligan ahead of the announcement of the Mayor’s Cycling Vision (essentially authored by Gilligan). They noted then:
TFL will drop CSH9 along Ken High St (and implicitly, drop the whole of the route) ‐ Gilligan said they are going to do fewer, but better superhighways, and he knew that he couldn’t get segregation on our stretch so has dropped it
And so Superhighway 9 along Kensington High Street was lost and with it the entire route. It’s clear that there had been conversations between TfL, Gilligan and RBKC for some period before this minute on the topic of making a segregated Superhighway.
Somehow though, the door didn’t quite close at this stage. Other boroughs continued to chase TfL on Superhighway 9 as the timetable lagged. In June of 2013 Gilligan remained publicly positive that some accommodation could be found with RBKC and in late July of 2013 a meeting was held between Gilligan, Cllr Coleridge and some officers. It’s clear from the tone of those anticipating this meeting that they expected the superhighway to finally be cancelled at it. However, at that meeting the councillor said to Gilligan that they should “continue the conversation” and asked for further visualisations.
At Andrew Gilligan’s request some even better images were then to be produced. It appears a pair were made to show the potential views from a point overlooking High Street Kensington tube station. It’s astonishing to see just how polished the visualisations had become.
The best detail on why RBKC turned this plan down comes in a letter from an officer to then local MP, Malcolm Rifkind in October 2013. The letter came in the wake of the serious spate of fatal collisions at the end of 2013 and it is clear that minds had been focussed somewhat by them.
Somewhat only however, as the letter was a series of objections, which boiled down to:
- Loss of capacity from losing a traffic lane in each direction, and consequent (feared) impacts on journey time and air quality (in that order!)
- “Specific concerns about how the segregated lane would work at the junctions, particularly the Kensington Church Street junction” (far distance in the mock-up above)
- “But our biggest concern about the scheme is that it would change quite fundamentally the experience of using the street for pedestrians. Pedestrians value the ability to cross the High Street at virtually any point along its length, by taking advantage of the central reservation strip”
Although no mention of it is made in that letter, to a local newspaper RBKC also said:
“We remain unconvinced about ‘floating bus stops’ in very busy roads, which introduce potential for conflict between bus passengers and cyclists”
The objections rather make clear the case that will need to be made when the need for segregated lanes on Kensington High Street is looked at again, perhaps during the term of the next Mayor of London elected in 2016. I can well imagine the residents of West London asking their candidates where their segregated Cycle Superhighway is when the rest of London appears to have one (even though the network will be very loose).
As of today the plan for the remains of Superhighway 9 appears to be for some form of a route along main roads (probably called a quietway yet looking partly like a superhighway) will go from Hammersmith to Hounslow, possibly as far as Heathrow. Though even to this day nothing has yet been consulted upon my spies do inform me that Mr Gilligan has been seen in the area lately.
Given the timetable at which it may proceed there is an opportunity for the section through Kensington High Street to be consulted upon in the light of experience with completed segregation elsewhere in London. At the earliest this would perhaps depend upon a consultation in the autumn of 2016 and construction in 2017 – a delay of three whole years. This to me seems inexcusable.
West London was presented with a clear chance to be a part of the Mayor’s cycling vision, and the intransigence of Kensington and Chelsea blocked that for everyone. The (effectively) alternate routing for the East-West superhighway along the Westway has some benefits. It may be useful in relieving the Grand Union Canal, serving White City, Acton and beyond along with new developments. However, it is plainly no substitute for routes further south. We know that the links into the Central London Grid from West London will be poor and fragmented:
It’s plain that higher quality cycle links are needed in West London. The numbers commuting into central London are striking. Even RBKC acknowledge that, but they show no interest in reducing the dangers and widening the demographic to whom cycling can be a viable, safe and appealing option.
Instead the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea have succeeded in exacerbating the issues of congestion and air pollution they cited (perhaps wholly genuinely) as reasons not to make a step change in cycling provision.
Without a number FOI requests none of the information in this post would be public. I hope that we can in the years to come use that information to conquer these objections and get space for cycling on Kensington High Street.
If you’re keen to read further the four FOI requests that contributed to this piece are:
- Request to RBKC for correspondence on Superhighway 9
- Request to TfL for correspondence on Superhighway 9
- Details of proposed cycle routes in Kensington and Chelsea
- Visualisations of Cycle Superhighway 9 produced for discussion with RBKC
The last two in particular provide further images and plans for the since cancelled cycle routes on Kensington High Street and in Holland Park. Please note that I have watermarked the full mock-up of the Superhighway on Kensington High Street to acknowledge the copyright held in it by Transport for London.