High Street Hazards. #1 Cycle Superhighway Disruption

This morning I tweeted a couple of pictures of a long-standing disruption on CS2. They’re the sort of striking photos that tend to do well on social media, but I received some reasonable criticism that I’d like to address at slightly greater length than Twitter allows. Here are the tweets in question:

What the pictures show is a loading bay for the building site, which has been created out of a blocked off bit of CS2. Since it’s a weekend, someone has used it as a car park. You can stay out of the way of traffic by using the shared use pavement and re-emerging on to the track past the loading bay. This building site has been going for some time (maybe 2 years?), and the disruption to CS2 was previously even worse. In May 2015, the site simply kicked cyclists back out on to the dual carriageway:

This has now been replaced by a little sign indicating for cyclists to stay in the cycle track:

This allows you to reach a ramp on the pavement, which already existed to allow cyclists to access a crossing shared with pedestrians to get over to the south side of The Greenway:

Allowing you to emerge back on to the track here, after sharing the pavement with whatever pedestrians you may encounter, and any cyclists coming the other way (probably trying to make it from the Greenway to Marshgate Lane):

It’s a difficult to think of many other ways you’d get deliveries to this site, unless you’re ready with a boat:

So, what’s the problem here? Cyclist have a traffic-free route in a tricky environment. Still, there are a few problems here:

The signage is rubbish. A big diversion sign clearly telling riders that they are allowed to use the pavement, and will be able to get back on to CS2 very soon by doing so is really important. It should do so early, and reassure riders that they are doing the right thing consistently. Otherwise riders will get lost, or end up on a road that’s basically a motorway … and when that happens they may never attempt to use it again.

It wasn’t done well first time. A single disruption can render the entire superhighway useless to someone who isn’t happy to mix with heavy traffic. Cyclists need to know that the superhighway is a guarantee that they’ll be well protected, and have a clear route to where they’re going.

It got used as a car park. To campaign for years for something and then see it used as a car park is totally infuriating. Consideration should have been given to making the loading bay part time, and reinstating CS2 during the periods that it was not in use. At no point should a superhighway be repurposed as a car park.

Dealing with disruption well

It’s inevitable that the superhighways are going to have to deal with building and maintenance work, but how it’s dealt with is crucial. There need to be a sensible set of standards (like the ones used by TfL), and they need to be adhered to by boroughs, contractors, and building sites where they disrupt the superhighways in particular. Without a process, it’ll just keep on happening, and the superhighways will be off limits to anyone not prepared to deal with unexpectedly being abandoned by untrustworthy infrastructure.

Don’t Re-zone Maryland Station: Pt. 2, Fare’s Unfair

In my last post, I asserted that re-zoning Maryland station was unfair because it spends public money in a way that benefits landowners and harms private renters, particularly poorer ones.

In this post I want to show how London has a very unfair ticketing system, and that Maryland overall gets a very good deal out of it.

Single Fares

Changing between bus and the train

If you live so far away from your nearest train station that you need to get the bus, you’ll pay through the nose. If you need to get one bus to the station in the morning and one bus back, that’s an extra £3, every day.

Residents of Maryland don’t need to get the bus to Stratford, because they have their own station. If they choose to use it, they only need to pay an extra 10p off peak, or 40p during rush hour. A bargain compared to £1.50 for the bus, if they don’t have time for the 10 minute walk.

You can be charged different amounts for rail journeys covering the same zones

It’s true! Maryland to Mile End, off peak, costs £1.50 on Oyster. Bellingham to Nunhead, £2.00! Both journeys only cover zones 2 and 3. What’s going on?

When Oyster was first introduced in 2003, it wasn’t valid on many National Rail train services. Most operators held out for 6 years, until 2009, before negotiating a deal that allowed them to charge higher fares than the London Underground.

If you do want to travel from Bellingham to Nunhead, there are only two trains an hour. Maryland gets six trains an hour at the moment, and will get 16 an hour once Crossrail arrives. The people of Bellingham pay 25% more for a service with three times fewer trains!

Re-zoning Maryland would take money that could be used for improving other services in London and put it in the pockets of travellers getting amongst the best services in the city.

Not everyone can avoid Zone 1, even if they don’t want to go there

I hope you all know that avoiding zone 1 can save you a fortune. Just knowing that can save you a lot more than having your local station’s zone changed.

Paying TfL fares any journey between zones 2 and 6 costs only £1.50 off-peak or £1.70 at rush hour. Because of the excellent London Overground services, it’s really easy to avoid Zone 1 from East London. Richmond, Watford or Hampstead Heath? No need to go through Zone 1 from Maryland.

Other parts of London, the South in particular, have much fewer options for going across London, meaning that users can face an expensive and inconvenient trip into town and then back out again. I once had to commute from Catford to Tolworth, there wasn’t a reasonable way to avoid zone 1, so I needed a zone 1-6 travelcard for a trip that could have only used zones 3-6 if there had been a direct route. Ouch.

Caps and Day Travelcards

Outer Londoners are Punished for Local Travel

For many years there used to be a Zone 2-6 day Travelcard and Oyster cap. This meant that people taking a lot of local journeys could get a reasonable, low priced fare for these travels. It was scrapped in 2010, leaving people at the mercy of caps that always included zone 1.

This means that people making a lot of local journeys are charged more the further away from zone 1 they live. If you spend all day travelling on trains in Zone 6, you will only benefit from the Zone 1-6 fare cap – which costs £11.80. If you spend all day travelling in zones 2 and 3, you’ll benefit from the Zone 1-3 cap, this costs £7.60.

This is doubly unfair, because outer London services are also likely to be less regular, more thinly spread and less interconnected than services further in. Not only do people get charged more for local journeys depending on where they live, those who get the worst service tend to be charged more.

Season Tickets

People who can pay up-front get charged much less

Some people can get an interest free season ticket loan from work, or have enough money sitting around to buy an annual travelcard. Others don’t. An annual travelcard is much cheaper than tickets covering shorter periods. The more money you can pay at once, the bigger the discount you get.

You could argue that paying for your fare up-front is a loan to TfL. If it is, it’s a very expensive one:

A year’s worth of weekly 1-3 Travelcards is about £1981.43, while an annual 1-3 Travelcard costs £1520. I make the ‘interest’ on that investment at just over 30% a year. Try getting that down the bank.

Conclusion: Looking out for Number One

I hope that this post has made the residents of Maryland feel a bit better. You’re benefiting from a massive public investment, and you really get a pretty good deal on the price, particularly if you’ve access to the money and stability needed to invest in an annual travelcard and live near enough the station not to need to take the bus to get there.

It is also clear that the fare system is horrifically broken, and the whole thing needs to be fixed. What won’t help is if, area by area, people campaign for their own self interest. Maybe Ellie Robinson can whisper in Sadiq Khan’s ear about just how good he could look if he fixed this mess.

I don’t know how this happened, and would love to read research about how it did, but I do have a theory:

Generation upon generation of politicians. As far as a ruthless politician is concerned, the fare system needs to do two things – get enough money coming in, and please enough of the right people without angering too many people who matter. Tiny change by tiny change, we end up with a fare system that rewards the strong and punishes the weak.

Remember that if a politician comes to your door promising to campaign to re-zone Maryland station.

Don’t re-zone Maryland: Part 1, Whose money is it?

Here’s a post that won’t make me popular. A lot of people, possibly well intentioned people, are campaigning to have Maryland Station moved from zone 3 to zone 2. The argument is one of fairness, why should people who live in one part of Stratford pay more for their transport than people in another, particularly when some of them are deprived? Because re-zoning would be deeply unfair, and hurt Maryland’s poorest residents the most.

Who gets whose money?

When you buy a travelcard, or use contactless or an oyster card to make a payment, your money goes to TfL, who then use that money to commission the services you use. That income from fares doesn’t cover TfL’s costs. If TfL had to live only on the money it got from fares and other operational income, like the congestion charge, it would be operating at a massive loss: £1489000000 in 2014/15 alone just to run services day-to-day.

The gap is made up by various grants from government. After these grants, it had a healthy surplus of £224 million in 2014/15, which it could plough back into the services it runs. The services that TfL runs are resolutely public, to help people live lives and conduct business in London. It has a moral duty to ensure that the services it runs serve the public good. Rezoning Maryland would not serve the public good, because it would give money to the people who least need it.

While there may be many deprived residents of Maryland right now, that could change very fast. Around 40% of residents who lived within walking distance of Maryland station rent privately. Private tenants have very little protection from rent rises, and can be booted out and replaced at two months notice. If TfL rezones Maryland Station, saving its users £224 a year, what’s to stop the landlord simply adding it on to the rent? Not much.

It’s worse than that, because a lot of people are under the impression that ‘Zone 2’ means a lot more than how much your fares cost. People post adverts looking for “a room in zone 2”. This was a big part of the reason why the stations serving E20 were rezoned, to absorb that cachet. The Centre For London Report which promped that decision stated that it’s Zone 3 status promoted the idea that Stratford was “suburban, distant and undesirable”. For this reason, I suspect that rezoning Maryland has the potential to increase rents by much more than the fare discount.

Let’s set aside how fair that decision was and restrict ourselves, for now, to the impact of a decision to re-zone Maryland. In a deprived area with a lot of private rent, increasing the overall rent burden beyond any fare saving is going to cause those people to leave or suffer. If they don’t work in Central London, they’re unlikely to even save anything in travel, given that outer london single fares are a flat £1.50.

Who gains? Property owners. If you have a property that you can rent our or sell for more you’re on to a winner. If you don’t intend to rent out or sell up, you still get a nice little fare discount … and maybe some nice trendy shops to appeal to all those people who can afford to live in Zone 2.

Fair? Hardly. Re-zoning Maryland would be a simple transfer of money from government grants and fares from other parts of London, into the pockets of people who own property near Maryland station.

In part two I’ll examine just how unfair the whole London fare system is, and how Maryland is actually doing pretty well on the deal.

Micro Update: Greenway Users Group 1st Stall

At the weekend we did a little stall on the Greenway to sign people up, and collect postcards to send directly to Thames water as a first step to setting up a lively and active Greenway Users Group.

IMG_20160319_141036_001

The response was brisk, and we collected in the region of 60 cards to send to Thames Water in the space of a few hours. It’s heartening to see that people on the street care a lot, some quite passionately, about getting the thing re-opened all the way from Beckton to Hackney Wick.

If people are interested in future stalls or other actions, either in company or autonomously, drop me a line, as I still have plenty of flyers, postcards and am continuing to borrow the folding table! I may come out some mornings to flyer the commuting crowd, or the evening to catch the dog walkers.

I also think it would be great to collect stories about how the Greenway has improved peoples lives, which would be great for getting the message out about how important it is to people’s health and wellbeing around here. Please do join the facebook group, or contact my on greenway@easternism.co.uk or via the comments thread with any questions, comments or suggestions for where to take this.

Correspondence on the Greenway

I’ve been badgering elected representatives for a while about the ongoing disruptions to the Greenway. I’m going to post a full status update and comment piece later. But for now, here’s the letter I sent, and responses from John Biggs and Darren Johnson at the London Assembly, which contain some interesting information and pointers on the Greenway’s future.

My letter:

Hi Jenny, Darren,

I'd like to take an issue up with you that I've been trying to raise, mostly to my frustration, with the London Borough of Newham.

You may be aware of The Greenway, a sort of linear park that doubles up as a (mostly) high quality cycling and walking route along the top of the Northern Outfall Sewer. I'm informed that this is a key strategic cycling route, and a priority for the Cycling Commissioner. I can see why, given that it runs through densely populated areas where cycling provision is otherwise poor, and connects at several points to the Cycle Superhighway network, as well as to the River Lea. 

While there are plans to enhance this route by installing lighting and opening it 24/7, I'm concerned that large sections of this route are often subjected to lengthy closures at critical points, with no reasonable diversions, which deeply undermine it as a sustainable piece of transport infrastructure. I have written about the current situation here, and here.

While this is probably a poor time to make predictions about the political future of projects involving the GLA, it seems to me that realising this strategically important route requires contingency planning to keep it functional in the circumstance that other critical infrastructure projects cause major disruption to it, as Crossrail, the Olympic Park and repairs to the Northern Outfall Sewer have done recently. Current planning seems to give the continuity of this route basically no priority at all, treating it as a revocable optional extra, further complicated by its status as a permissive path belonging to Thames Water, rather than any kind of public right of way.

I'm not overly hopeful, and appreciate that this sort of thing could be politically difficult, however I would be very grateful if you could outline whether this sort of effective planning is likely to happen, and on what sorts of things it depends.

Regards,
Richard Stevenson

Response from John Biggs

Good morning
Further to your email to John of the 26th January, he has now received a response from Newham Council. He has asked me to copy this to you.

Dear Mr Stevenson

Thank you for your recent correspondence regarding the closure of the Greenway.

As you are aware, the asset is entirely owned by Thames Water Utilities, with a permissive agreement with Newham Council to permit its use by pedestrians and cyclists between prescribed hours.  There is also an agreement for Newham Greenspace to litter pick the route and to open and close the gates at a number of locations daily.

Without any change to the Greenway’s current legal status and ownership, I am afraid that Thames Water are able to close it at any time ‘for operational reasons’ and neither Newham Council or the GLA can do anything about it. In fact, Thames Water are not required to suggest or sign any necessary diversions as a result of any closure they implement along the route, and it is only in the interest of public relations that they choose to do so – although sometimes their commitment to this and the quality of diversion signage implemented as a result is questionable.  But in general terms, they are normally helpful in providing advance notice and a signed diversion route.  (It should be noted that Thames Water could also close, for example, Stratford High Street for essential utility works at any time and there is nothing the Council could do other than require adequate advance signage and diversion routes to be put in place.  So when it comes to maintaining their equipment, unfortunately, as a statutory utility, no-one can prevent them from implementing a closure if it is required.  And any change in this situation is unlikely without a change in Government legislation.)

The Crossrail works for the tunnel portal at Pudding Mill Lane (and the relocation of the DLR station) have been ongoing for some time, with a long-standing signed diversion via Marshgate Lane and Stratford High Street currently in place. These works are due to end in July of this year, when this section of the Greenway will be returned.

The works at the Channelsea River bridge, by Abbey Lane, are by Thames Water’s own contractors (Optimal) and are to strengthen the bridge structure.  The works were originally intended to last for a few months, but on investigation, the bridge was found to be in a serious state of disrepair, with the Northern Outfall Sewer pipes effectively preventing the bridge from major structural failure.  As a result, the works have taken much longer than expected, and the latest estimate for completion is now April 2016.  However, Thames Water have made the decision to allow a partial re-opening as far as Canning Road, as was suggested in your blog and elsewhere. However, no addition safety measures have been implemented at the junction of Canning Road and Abbey Lane, so there will be some small risk for a period of 10 weeks before the full re-opening.  This small risk was deemed to offset the inconvenience of the existing diversion.

Unfortunately, however, Newham Council have recently heard from Thames Water that a similar structural issue has been identified with the Waterworks River bridge, in the currently closed section between Stratford High Street and Pudding Mill Lane, just north of Stratford High Street.  We will encourage Thames Water to get the work started as soon as possible so as to complete before this section is due to be re-opened in July 2016, but if the bridge is in as poor condition as the Channelsea bridge further south, there may be an extension of the closure of that section beyond July.  Naturally we are working with Thames Water to minimise this.

As you correctly point out, the Greenway is a priority cycle and pedestrian resource for the Council and for TfL, with substantial funding allocated from the Quietways programme. It is an excellent resource, cutting directly through the borough diagonally and joins the Olympic Park with Beckton via an entirely traffic-free, linear park route and both the Council and TfL have high aspirations for it as a high quality cycling and walking route  This funding will allow for much improved lighting and CCTV coverage  along the whole route from Wick Lane to Beckton, full 24 hour access and some improvements to the connections with the surface network on some of the elevated sections.  In order to allow 24 hour access, a change will be required to the existing permissive legal agreements and it is the Council’s intention to attempt to consolidate these (as there are a number of agreements for sections of the route) as part of the Quietways project.  It is also the Council’s intention to attempt to formalise a closure procedure and to ensure mitigation plans are implemented within this revised legal agreement, although this will be subject to Thames Water’s agreement.  Beyond that, legislation prevents us from being able to force any change in the current situation.

I am sorry I cannot be more helpful about the current status of the Greenway and our inability to prevent any closures that are deemed necessary by Thames Water at this time, but we are trying to revise the existing arrangements in the required revisions to the legal agreements as a result of the 24 hour access. We are therefore hopeful that some increased protection of the route in planning terms will arise from these negotiations.

Regards

Susan Jeary 
Research Support Officer to 
John Biggs GLA Member for City & East

Reply from TfL (via Darren Johnson)

Dear Rachel

Thank you for your email.

As Darren’s constituent points out, we are investing in the Greenway as part of the Mayor’s Quietways programme to improve this important walking and cycling link in East London.  The plans – including trials of lighting and CCTV as well as improvements to some of the access points – are being led by LB Newham and are in the early stages of development.

The borough is responsible for coordinating all works along the Greenway. Whilst we can encourage LB Newham to minimise disruption to users whilst Quietway works are being implemented, the borough is responsible for coordinating all works (their own and third party) and clearly communicating any diversions / temporary arrangements which might be necessary.

I hope this clarifies our position on this matter.

Kind regards
[TfL]

 

 

A Greenway Users Group

The Greenway needs a users group, let’s start one.

Why

The greenway is great, and it’s under threat.

It’s Fantastic…

The Greenway is a walking and cycling path that cuts diagonally right across the London Borough of Newham, here’s a map. It lets you cut right across Newham while barely even seeing a car:

More than that, because TfL are finally building a decent cycle network, people living near the Greeenway should soon be able to just hop on a bike and get to any of the places on this map without fearing for their lives!

…when it’s open

The Greenway gets closed, a lot, for ages, with no reasonable alternative. Two sections are closed right now. One part has now been gone for over a year, and another part since at least 2009. It also closes every night. Having a usable route to get where you want isn’t a lot of good if you can’t go back the other way when you’ve finished.

The situation is complicated by the fact that the Greenway is a permissive path, meaning that it’s private property and that walkers, runners and riders are only allowed to use it at the whim of its owners, Thames water. In the words of Newham Council, responding to a query I made of John Biggs AM:

"Without any change to the Greenway’s current legal status and ownership, I am afraid that Thames Water are able to close it at any time ‘for operational reasons’ and neither Newham Council or the GLA can do anything about it. In fact, Thames Water are not required to suggest or sign any necessary diversions as a result of any closure they implement along the route, and it is only in the interest of public relations that they choose to do so ... It should be noted that Thames Water could also close, for example, Stratford High Street for essential utility works at any time and there is nothing the Council could do other than require adequate advance signage and diversion routes to be put in place ... as a statutory utility, no-one can prevent them from implementing a closure if it is required."

There’s a lot in here. I’d like to make a few points about this:

  1. Why not change the legal status or ownership? When roads or railways need to get built, landowners get forced to sell, and homes and businesses get demolished. Why should pedestrians and cyclists have to beg to use a thing that already exists?
  2. Diversions, signage and a reasonable route need to be put in place if there’s a closure, and I don’t care who does it. However, the ultimate responsibility is with our local political institutions, not a privatised utility. Everyone should expect private companies to selfishly serve their owners, that’s what they’re for. It’s government’s job to shape the world to channel that self interest into something useful.
  3. Thames Water may well be able to close Stratford High Street for a year, but would the council simply moan pathetically that there was nothing it could do? I don’t think so.

These are the issues that a user group would need to tackle if the Greenway is to become a serious, reliable route. Greenway users need to get together to speak with a common voice to pressure Newham and Thames Water to keep the it open and respect its users.

How?

I’m going to plan this one step at a time, so I’ve only got two first steps on my list to get this off the ground:

  • Flyer people on and around the Greenway to build a contact list. I’ve created a calendar to co-ordinate any collective activity, although it’s empty at the moment!
  • Interview people for stories about how important the Greenway is to them, and then publish them on this site.
  • I’ve created a facebook group

I’ve made the most basic possible flyer. Think it’s rubbish? Feel free to make it better! Want to hand some out yourself – please do. Have any better ideas for how to organise? Skill to add? Want to be kept updated? Want to flyer, but not alone? Get in touch. If you want to get involved, leave me a comment in the thread below or email me at greenway@easternism.co.uk, or contact me on twitter.

Closing The Greenway – Pt 2 – Building a network

Nearly a year on from my last article, and on one hand there isn’t a great deal to report. Here’s a summary of the new developments:

  • The deadline has slipped. Reports from councillors now say that it’s expected to reopen in April. I suspect it will slip further.
  • After some badgering, Newham Councillors Terry Paul and John Gray went on a ride with me, and some other members of Newham Cyclists. I can confirm the that the junction of Canning Road and Abbey Lane is indeed shockingly blind. I do think that something could be done to make it safe, maybe temporary signals.
  • The closure of the section of the greenway north of Stratford High Street continues, years after it was first shut for crossrail works. I’ll update this page with a date when I get it.

This all sucks, and will further harm active travel, leisure and public health and happiness in Newham. I am pleased to have engagement with a couple of local councillors, but only to the end of making walking and cycling in Newham better. I hope we can achieve something.

In that spirit, I argue that the Greenway should be the Number One cycling infrastructure priority in Newham.

This is for two key reasons:

  1. It’s the single best investment Newham can make to encourage people to make local journeys via active travel. This is a major public health win for Newham.
  2. The Greenway allows Newham to have an active travel network, rather than a set of disconnected facilities dotted around the borough. This taps into TfLs new investments in cycle infrastructure, and the network of waterways that pass through the borough. This makes Newham a more attractive place to live and work, and better connects it to the much bigger economies of the boroughs on the other side of the Lea.

Local Active Travel

Every day I cycle about 6 miles each way to work. For me it’s easy, I’ve been riding since I passed by cycle proficiency test as a kid, I spent a few years working as a cycle courier. If I want to go somewhere, anywhere, in London I can just hop on my bike and go.

I suspect that this is completely unimaginable to most Newham residents, only 2% of whom cycle to work. Road traffic can be frightening, the distances intimidating, and navigation complex and opaque – particularly when trying to follow quieter routes. It’s a feat that most people wouldn’t be comfortable to start.

Suggesting a trip to a local centre is a much less intimidating prospect, if the conditions are good. A traffic free path with simple navigation and pleasant surroundings can make it an attractive proposition. The most amazing thing about the Greenway in this respect is that it cuts a swathe across “urban Newham”. I guestimate that it’s within easy direct reach by about a third of the boroughs population. It’s dead straight, mostly uninterrupted, easy to navigate and find, and connects up useful destinations like East Ham, Stratford and Beckton town centres. It’s an absolute gift.

Beyond that, it connects up most of the other decent quality cycle infrastructure in Newham, namely CS3, CS2, the improved cycle paths along the Lea, and the off road cycle paths of Beckton (which are nicely segregated, if badly maintained and hard to navigate) further extending its reach within the borough.

City Wide Journeys

It’s no secret that Newham has fantastic transport connections, and we’re about to see a serious improvement in the cycle infrastructure reaching Newham from the rest of London courtesy of TfL.

We already have one decent route out of the borough from TfL: CS3. It has its flaws, but does provide a mostly-segregated, mostly well-signed route to Tower Hill, and is seeing a program of rolling upgrades to address some of the issues it does have. CS2 is now seeing a major upgrade, which will provide a semi-segregated route to Aldgate. The real icing on the cake, though, isn’t in Newham. The East-West superhighway will link directly to CS3, and will give Newham a high quality cycle link directly to The City and West End for the first time, as well as connecting us to West and South London via new and existing cycle superhighways.

What TfL are finally doing is building a network by building more, higher quality superhighways and connecting them all up. Imagine a world where the tube and rail network only existed in isolated, disconnected fragments which could be closed at any time, for long periods of time, and where the only alternatives to those closures were either impractical, frightening, or both. That’s the world that cycling in London is hopefully leaving.

The Cycle Superhighways are great, but Newham needs to understand how to leverage TfL’s investment if it’s to benefit fully from them. CS2 only grazes the northwestern corner of the Borough and CS3 snakes along the south side of the A13, which can make difficult to get to. The Greenway connects both of these routes, stretching right across the borough. If Newham can keep it open (24/7/365), lit and surfaced, people can start depending on it for safe, direct and comfortable journeys into and across London.

Newham also has access to a fantastic network of waterways. I always find it surprising how many people don’t seem to know about the places you can reach along the canal network. It has it’s problems, the Regents Canal can be downright crowded, and cyclists need to be careful to share the path well with other users, but there’s no denying its importance in the absence of anything better for getting to a whole list of places. The Greenway’s connection to Victoria Park is also hugely important, because the other ways of crossing the Lea to or from Newham by bike are mostly very unpleasant!

Conclusion

TfL see the importance of having a cycle network. Newham can either benefit by taking advantage of this investment, or fritter it away. Newham has been incredibly lucky to have a historical legacy of sewage pipes (for that is what the Greenway is), canals and rivers which have given it the bones of a network almost for free. Add that to the TfL investment and it has a compelling and unique proposition. All it takes is the political will to keep it open and enhance it to invite and encourage its use.

Closing the Greenway

At the end of last month’s Newham cyclists meeting a Newham council officer told us that a critical part of the greenway, a walking and cycling path that cuts right across the borough of Newham, was going to be closed until December. A major bummer in a part of London where cycling and walking conditions are already not-great.

They're what now?

The graffitor is a little harsh to TfL, because as far as I can tell this affair has nothing to do with them. The greenway is built on the Northern Outfall Sewer, and as such we only walk on top of it by the good grace of its owner, Thames Water. Sadly, one of the bridges by which both the Greenway and a good portion of London’s sewage travels is in a terrible  state, and at risk of collapse. If it does, it would cause something that could quite literally be described as a shit storm, or, as Newham Council put it: “a London wide critical incident due to the public health risks”. So far, so fair, please, fix the bridge.

Thing is the greenway carries a lot of pedestrians and cyclists through the least active local authority in England. You’d expect, therefore, for there to at least be a safe, well signed alternative to take people to where they want to be. So, let’s take a look at the route they’ve suggested for us active travellers of East London:

This sucks! And why is the cycling diversion so long? That’s got to be about double the distance! If only they could have closed it at Canning Road, a few hundred yards along the greenway, then they could have saved us a long, complicated diversion.

They could have. I’m informed by Newham council that “Highways did consider using Canning Road but thought this too high risk and dangerous to cyclists due to construction traffic, and a nearby plant hire company.” I don’t want to understate these risks. I know that HGVs pose a serious risk to cyclists, and it’s likely that the cyclists that choose to use the Greenway are more vulnerable, choosing it as a safer alternative to the road. I want to see the risk assessment that was done where it was decided that this should be closed. I’ve a pending FoI request that will hopefully net this, and I’ll will request a copy following up the enquiries I’ve made to one of my local councillors. If it’s a matter of just installing a set of temporary lights at the junction with Abbey Lane and making sure Thames Water use banksmen, it seems a small price to pay not to murder the best traffic free path in the borough.

Still, at least we have a well signed, safe diversion … er, no. The sign above is the only indication of the diversion I found. A map. That you have to remember. At street level there’s nothing, nothing I can find at least. But It’s not just unsigned, it’s unsigned crap.

The crappiness starts before you even leave the greenway. The final exit offers two ways down off of the greenway on to manor road: a ramp and some stairs. The entrance to the ramp is quite a way before the diversion notice, which doesn’t tell you that the ramp is available. If you do remember that it exists and want to use it, you have to walk back to it, like the two ladies in this picture:

Presuming you’ve not brained yourself while unnecessarily carrying your bike down the three steep flights of stairs, when you get off the greenway you need to make a right turn on to Manor Road, a blind right, under a dark bridge, behind a pedestrian barrier:

Mmm, inviting, presuming you can remember it. I should imagine what an unconfident cyclist, previously able to use the nice, traffic free Greenway will want to do here is use the pavement. A bit further down it’s shared use, this bit isn’t signed well enough for me to know if it is or not. A bit of clarity would be nice, and extending the shared path and signage is a no brainer.

Anyway, what’s next? Once you’ve crossed the massive A road, you have to turn left … past another pedestrian barrier, and a crash barrier, presumably there because cars like to hurtle round that corner at speed. Most cyclists will have given up or got lost by now, but let’s hope that the residents of Leywick street don’t mind pavement cyclists if any hardy souls make it that far!

Mmmm, appealing. An unsigned turn that I can’t be bothered to post a picture of later, we come to Abbey Lane DLR station, where we have to cycle past a load of bollards into a tiny, narrow little path. Am I allowed to cycle on it? Nothing says so, and the default is no, so on we walk:

The rest of the route is OK, by Newham standards. It’s on road, and links me back up with CS2, albeit about half a mile away from where I wanted to be. So let’s make the obvious points:

This diversion is crap, and nobody is going to use it. Big roads, tiny alleyways, blind turns, no signs, and hugely longer than the Greenway or the pedestrian diversion. Some of the people who don’t use it will walk and cycle less. Maybe they’ll be school kids who could have picked up a good habit for life and now never will. Even when the Greenway re-opens, they’re unlikely to use it, because they’ll have just started taking the bus instead. I know other cyclists who have rerouted to skip out the greenway entirely, because it’s no longer a viable option for their commutes. You’ve taken an excellent, cross borough path and killed it.

There is a better alternative. Newham and Thames Water should let people get to and from Canning Road. They can put really good signs up, and modify the traffic flow on Abbey Road and Lane to make it safe for cyclists and pedestrians to use. That way you can make the best of a bad situation. I fail to see how a blind right from the pavement on to a busy road, a load of pavement wobbling and a walk down a dark alleyway are safer than Abbey Lane.

Or don’t, but don’t ever pretend you give a toss about cycling, walking or the health of the borough if you don’t. I’ve taken this to my councillor, you should take it to yours. Here’s the written response. I’m pointing him to this blog post as a reply:

LTDA, cyclists and red light jumping

In quick response to the videos made by the LTDA, apparently showing that just over 50% of cyclists jumped red lights at two junctions over one hour in rush hour, I have three little points to make:

  1. Their evidence is obviously statistically unsound.
  2. They want to draw the focus away from actual danger to lawbreaking.
  3. Despite what they say, they want to blame cyclists as a whole for the crazy environment we have to use, and they are using that as an excuse to keep the crazy environment.

First, this evidence is statistically unsound. The samples are way too small to even begin to help us think about what these numbers mean in the wider picture of cyclist behaviour, that can’t possibly be represented by such a tiny sample, and obviously anyone could edit together a load of cyclists jumping red lights, the same could be done for taxi drivers.

Second, the focus on lawbreaking rather than danger is wrong. The LTDA say that they’re against the “unlawful cycling brigade”, whoever they may be. I suspect they don’t have meetings. It’s obviously a response to media outrage over the recent spate of deaths in London, and the generally excellent campaigning work of the LCC. The LTDA is opposing cyclists campaigns for spaces where they can be safe, likely because they see cycle facilities as damaging for their trade. A focus on danger rather than lawbreaking probably wouldn’t serve them so well, who kills more people, taxis or cyclists? I don’t know, but I’d take a safe bet that it’s taxis. Still, we can’t deny that at two junctions over short a period of time, quite a large proportion of cyclists went through reds, and that this is illegal.

Third, cyclists are a minority, and are blamed for the crazy environment that they have to work with. This is why it’s so important to focus on infrastructure, and the people who would become cyclists in the future when it’s seen as a safe, normal activity to partake in. Cyclists who jump reds sometimes argue that they are doing so for the preservation of their own safety, and that opens them up to the dual criticisms of “cycling is really dangerous, so you shouldn’t do it if you want to be safe” and “I see cyclists do insane/illegal things all the time, so it can’t be that”. I maintain that cycling is rational for me, the risks are fairly small and well worth what I get out of it in convenience and health. Most people don’t agree, they never try it because city cycling really does look like a truly terrifying thing to do.

Only when cycling is a mainstream pursuit will we be able to defend ourselves from “minority attacks” like these.

Border seeking

(A walk with Nico Hogg and others)

Following my visit the the Olympic Park, I was shocked. It was so empty and desolate, an oppressive landscape full of half-mile wide walkways, electric fences and lamp-post mounted CCTV cameras. A place where I could stand alone in the drizzle and be watched remotely. It was all so jarring that this weekend I decided to take a walk somewhere I’d feel less surveilled, where I’d hardly be watched at all. I decided to visit some border vacuums:

Stevenage Road

A border vacuum is somewhere in the shadow of an area in a city that people can’t, won’t or don’t cross. It’s an idea thought up by Jane Jacobs, she puts it well:

“Some borders eventually behave like gangrene, gradually deadening the streets and blocks around them: “The root trouble with borders is that they are apt to form dead ends for most users of city streets. Consequently, the streets that [go to] a border are bound to be deadened places. They fail to get a by-the-way circulation of people going beyond them in the direction of the border because few are going to that Beyond. A kind of running-down process is set in motion.”

It’s a simple, powerful idea. When you start thinking with it you can see border vacuums everywhere. Next to railways, motorways, hospitals, university campuses, places that create real or imagined dead-ends casting shadows of dullness in their wake. The Olympic park is an attempt to fill such a vacuum, sitting in formerly semi-disused industrial wasteland along the border of the River Lea. The attempts to control it seemed heavy handed and unfinished, to have wiped out whatever little life was there before, leaving only crows and construction lorries. What Jacobs called the “great blight of dullness” hadn’t gone away with regeneration, if anything it had got worse.

Jacobs fought against both border vacuums and totalitarian schemes like the Olympic Park. She fought to stop Greenwich Village being flattened for a vast highway. It was a place that planners saw as a slum: a terrible, unhealthy and chaotic place. She argued that many so-called slums weren’t like that at all, that they happy, full of life, and complex. She argued  places that had been left alone by the powers that be were doing just fine and that what they needed was to be left alone. Borders weren’t like slums, though. They weren’t full enough of life, nor were there enough people to keep them interesting and safe. Border vacuums were likely to be dangerous wastelands which which were lucky if they attracted bums rather than muggers. But Jacobs was writing about a different time and place, from the stagnation of 1960’s New York City. What do London’s “Border Vacuums” look like in 2013? Lets go:

We start in Barking, there are plenty of borders here, two major highways, the rivers Thames and Roding and two railways cutting right through, we head towards the Roding, which is reinforced by the North Circular Road – a huge urban motorway. (map of the walk). The borderlands so far seem quiet, but unmenacing. A large gaggle of bored students standing smoking cigarettes in the carpark surrounding the inauspicious but modern housing of the “Millennium Academy” (I refrained from photographing them), a homeless shelter, and dead ends that reveal themselves to be tunnels under bridges. There’s a light sprinkling of families and dog-walkers.

We walk under the relief road, through a little housing estate that sits on the site of the old, slab-blocked Lintons, over the district line and through to another housing estate. This one reminds me of the outskirts of Whitstable, vast seas of green sit between tower blocks, bin alcoves and houses that look very homely in the quiet of a Saturday morning. Nico informs me that the bus drivers are only allowed to wait at the stand for 4 minutes to stop them from getting bricked, but for now it’s just quiet and empty.

We break out along a ribbed alley, each groyne harbouring a stash of rubbish. Out past the yellow self storage, and up a massive concrete bridge. The Roding valley, if it is one, is spectacular, surprising, a border vacuum filled with the very sparsest uses, gasometers, abandoned recreation grounds, horses, a mushroom farm:

East Ham

The recreation ground is odd. We squeeze through a well-maintained gap. The grass is at least waist high, growing through further high fences surrounding some sort of five a side pitch surrounded with Khanda symbols. Behind it lies a skate park, equally disused looking. It’s not the expensive concrete sculpted sort, most of the fixtures have just been bolted to the ground. Panels have been pulled off from the sides, revealing a metal superstructure, bedding and bottles of White Ace cider. People are living inside the skate ramps.

It gets me thinking. Jane Jacobs might see these borderlands as malevolent dead zones, I can see them more sympathetically. In a rapidly dividing, unequal city, and one where spaces are increasingly regulated and controlled, borders can be a haven. If nothing else is provided to you, the best you can hope for is not to be disturbed. In a city where land is worth such an incredible amount of money, maybe the future for the rest of us is in seeking out, and maybe even creating, borders to protect us.