The politics of the grand gesture

The Emirates Cable Car. Originally intended to be a pedestrian and cyclist bridge, this is now a cable car. Every time I turn around, TfL are looking at their feet in a furtive manner and saying “erm, it’s going to cost a bit more than we thought.” Originally supposed to cost £25million, entirely paid for out of private sponsorship, the cost is now an estimated £60million, with Emirates airlines paying £35million of that cost over 10 years in exchange for the two stations bearing their name and their corporate red adorning the Tube map. The remaining £25million is coming out of Transport for London’s rail budget.

The cable car will be integrated into the Oyster network. So, instead of a pedestrian and cyclist bridge which would cost a lot less than £60million and would be free at the point of use, east London is getting a cable car which is costing nearly two and a half times more than the initial estimate and will cost money to use. There is a charity in London whose aims and objectives are specifically to build and maintain bridges across the Thames. This crossing could have been built at almost no cost to London’s taxpayers and transport users.

I’m not entirely sure that it will have the regenerative effect on the area that it’s hoped. I suspect it will end up being a tourists’ plaything, rather than a useful addition to the transport options of Londoners, and I can’t see the rail service taking a £25million hit to its budget and coming out unscathed on the other side.

It also runs through London City Airport’s Public Safety Zone (“Crash Zone”) so there’s no danger of anything going wrong there at all, is there?

Cycle Superhighways. According to Cyclists in the City, these:

…routes have cost between £10-20 million each. The four routes are, respectively, 2.7, 5.1, 5.7 and 7.2 miles long. At a rough average of 5 miles each then, London’s cycle super highways cost between £2 – 4 million per mile. And they are either pieces of infrastructure that were already there five years ago or, just when you actually need them to keep you safe, nothing more than blue paint…

That’s some expensive blue paint, right there. Oh, yes, there’s a few Trixie mirrors (that are only any use when the lorry driver is in exactly the right position at the junction, and remembers to look in them), and a few Sheffield stands. Forgive me, please, if I don’t leave my beloved Pashley locked up in the open outside Mile End tube station all day. I suspect the odds are not high that when I came back she would still be in the condition I left her in, or, indeed, still there at all.

Skyrides. 50,000 people, all liberally festooned in bright yellow hi-viz covered in sponsors’ logos, cycling round a prescribed route of closed roads on one day a year. This is not the same as, for example, providing safe cycle infrastructure to be used on a daily basis by people using bikes to get to work and the shops and to take their kids to school.

This is all the politics of the grand gesture. Let’s not think about how to actually make transportation better for people who live and work in London, but let’s throw eye-watering sums of money at something which doesn’t solve the problem but masks what the problem is.

The problem is that crossing the river east of Tower Bridge is remarkably difficult. The obvious solution would be a bridge. But bridges aren’t sexy, and you can’t easily get a corporate sponsor for a project which isn’t sexy. I know, let’s build a cable car instead. It costs loads more but it looks cool.

The problem is that London’s Tube network is screaming at the seams. The solution is to get more people cycling instead, but cycling in London is both subjectively dangerous and objectively dangerous. So you propose to build “safer, faster, and more direct” cycle routes into the city, but that conflicts with Transport for London’s aim of “smoothing traffic flow.”

As an example, putting toucan crossings in at Bow Interchange, which is the easiest way of providing safe pedestrian and cyclist crossings at that junction, would “ push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic.” Taking road space away from cars in order to create segregated cycle infrastructure would also cause unnaceptable delays to traffic, and so the cylists are thrown a sop in the form of a few gallons of bright blue paint which don’t improve safety at all and for some unfathomable reason cost £2-4 million per mile. The one piece of segregated infrastructure on the superhighway network that I know of is along Cable Street, and was already there. All Transport for London did was paint it blue.

The Skyrides, and, I presume, by extension, the cycling festival that is being proposed for next year, have the stated aim of encouraging more people to see London as a safe, fun place to cycle, and encourage them to do more of it. Only they don’t. To get to the central London Skyride, people still have to cycle along streets crammed with cars and buses, and when you get there you’re practically forced to wear a high-viz vest and are marshalled along a prescribed route with people being jolly at you through megaphones. I loathe hi-viz and forced jollity makes me even more of a curmudgeonly old bat than I usually am. The route’s nice enough, but it’s not useful. The only places you can stop are at the appointed areas, where there is more enforced jollity and various places for you to be relieved of cash and personal data. You can’t actually use the route as a traffic-free way of getting to places because it’s all fenced off with crash barriers.

And as for the high-viz vest? It reinforces the impression that cycling is a dangerous activity which must only be undertaken in specialised clothing in a variety of lurid colours. The Skyride is on a route which is closed to traffic and your biggest danger is being hit from behind by a three year old on a glittery pink trike who’s not watching where she’s going because she’s too busy asking her dad for a bell “just like that lady’s bicycle please.” Why, exactly, do we need to dress up in more hi-viz than a parking attendants’ convention?

Close some of the roads to traffic for one day a year, and say “look, we had 50,000 come on the Skyride.” How many of those 50,000 people were (1) already cycling in London (2) start cycling in London and keep it up past their first punishment pass or encounter with Aldgate Gyratory?

The vehicular cyclists, those people who, like our Mayor, are happy to take their place in traffic and cycle round Elephant and Castle roundabout “with their wits about them,” are mostly already cycling. The grand gestures don’t affect them.

The people who want to cycle but are put off by the prospect of jousting with buses down the Mile End Road are affected by the grand gestures, because they take one look at the cycle Superdeathways and think “I’m not cycling in that, it’s not safe.”

£2million per mile of blue paint completely wasted because it doesn’t make its users either subjectively or objectively safer. At one end, Cycle Superdeathway 2 abandons you before the Aldgate Gyratory instead of leading you safely round it, and at the other it leads you into the most dangerous spot at the roundabout and then disappears with a metaphorical cry of “sorry mate, you’re on your own.”

I’m sick of my money being wasted on grand gestures. I’ve joined Londoners on Bikes and I will be asking pointed questions about what the mayoral candidates will be doing in order to make cycling in London objectively safer in 2012 and beyond. I will also be asking Sir Robin Wales, the Mayor of Newham, why I should bother voting for him when his hatred of cyclists means that Cycle Superdeathway 2 comes to a crashing halt at the borders of his borough, leaving cyclists to negotiate a three-lane urban motorway without so much as a token advisory cycle lane.

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One Response to The politics of the grand gesture

  1. Another good post.

    Today’s announcement really infuriated me. Boris is trying to hang on to his tag as a “cycling mayor” not through carefully thought and constructed infrastructure, but ultimately useless PR events, which, as you say, serve only to reinforce the idea of cycling as a “special event” you do once in a month of Sundays, when it is actually made safe for you to do so.

    You’ve got to wonder what the possibility of taking the politics (and sponsorship) out of transport provision in London. If TFL was wholly independent of the Mayor, would that allow designers and urban planners to really go for it and think creatively about road design? It seems strange to me that transport is so wrapped up in politics and sponsorship now. The idea of Emirates sponsoring an expensive plaything like the cablecar strikes me a little like McDonalds sponsoring a makeover of Great Ormond St Hospital or something.