Tag Archives: blackfriars bridge

Bonus friday photo: Blackfriars Bridge

Blackfriars

I mentioned in the first of these that all of my photos are licensed under the Creative Commons attribution-noncommercial-sharealike license, meaning that if you run, for example, a non-commercial blog or a not-for-profit club or campaign, you’re welcome to use them.

M’coblogger Dawn mentioned the other day that she has never seen Blackfriars Bridge without the builder’s hoardings.  Indeed, they’ve been up for two years now — originally, if I recall correctly (and of that I am hardly confident), unplanned, but put up with little consultation or announcement after the builders realised at the last minute that pedestrians would wander up the pavement only to discover that it simply ends at the northern junction with no crossing (and they couldn’t possibly put in a crossing for a few years during the work — think what it would do to the traffic flow!).  So they simply shut off the pavement, and to the newer members of London’s ever changing population, Blackfriars Bridge just doesn’t have a pavement on the eastern side.  There is no view of St Paul’s over the remains of the old railway bridge, no winter moonrises over Tate Modern.

So I thought I better share this one sooner rather than later, for anybody who doesn’t know what lurks behind the MDF.  And it just happens to show that cyclists infinitely outnumber cars here, at 2-0.

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The out-of-sight commuters that don’t matter to TfL

The sky lightening, I head for a bridge with a scene that would suit a subtle sunrise photograph, as Big Ben rang for four fifteen.  Bored policemen loiter beside their van, parked in the Westminster Bridge bike lane.  Tired taxi drivers inch across advance stop lines and cautiously through red lights.  A refrigerated truck of fresh Dutch imports — tulips, one must assume — obediently follows the satnav’s directions onto the Embankment.  On the pavement before the entrance to Portcullis House is a man in City of Westminster hi-vis vest, bent on hands and knees with a brush and a big barrel of hot soapy water.  Yesterday’s dirt must not be allowed to stick to the soles of our dear leaders.  And three late-teenaged blokes on BSOs head home from the night shifts, back to their mums’ flats on the housing estates of south London, weaving around the tourist-free zone that is the Westminster Bridge footway.  (And why not? The pigeons can’t call You and Yours or have their say in the Daily Mail letters pages.)

Waterloo Bridge is delightfully empty still, thanks to yesterday’s fire.  Somehow, London’s roads seem to have been coping with the reduced capacity.

Most of the traffic is simply diverting to the next bridge — Blackfriars — where, as St Paul’s announces five, they have a sufficiently uninhibited run to hit forty or more before they make it to the red lights and temporary twenty limit at the now infamous north junction.  Dawdling past them on an average hybrid bike without lights (but that’s hardly needed by now anyway), a man in an old helmet and orange hi-viz bib heads north on the pavement.  I stop him briefly to ask him where he’s going and what he knows about pavement cycling.  He can’t talk for long — he’s come from Lewisham and has to hurry on to a zone 1 tube station, I won’t say which, for an early customer services shift.

It shouldn’t surprise anybody that the reason this railwayman was cycling on the pavement is because he is terrified of mixing with vans and minicabs that are autopiloted through a cycle of rapid acceleration, flagrant speeding, and sudden stops as they tour the traffic lights of central London.  He was vaguely aware that he wasn’t actually allowed to cycle on the pavement, but since he only dared cycle in these quiet early hours, with just a sparse scattering of tired night-shifters and early-rising joggers to negotiate, he had a reasonable argument for it being a victimless crime.  He’s only cycling because the trains don’t start early enough.  He would never attempt to cycle anywhere when heading home through the bustling streets of lunchtime, road or pavement.  He isn’t crazy.

You’ll recognise these sunrise pavement cyclists from the work of Dave Horton: they are the people, often poor and marginalised, who cycle despite all of the barriers, just because there really is no alternative.

So when somebody high-up in TfL tells you that speed of motor-vehicles doesn’t matter outside of the rush hour, spare a thought not just for those who want to use their bicycle for things other than a commute, and not just for the schoolchildren whose day does not align with the normal rush, but also for the tens of thousands of Londoners who work non-standard hours, scrubbing the front steps of the powerful and making sure that everybody else’s morning trains run.

TfL directors, it turns out, are failing in their duties to their own staff on the ground.  Who would have believed it possible?

And it wasn't even worth it for the photography.  The clouds gathered for a boring grey morning.

And after all that, it wasn't even worth it for the photography. The clouds soon gathered for a boring grey morning.

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Association of British Drivers “not a bunch of fanatics”

The ABD tries very hard but is often dismissed as a bunch of fanatics and speed freaks (which it is are not) [sic]. — Honest John

The Association of British Drivers — the group that is to mainstream motoring organisations what time cube is to mainstream cults — have made the shock move of saying something that isn’t totally batshit insane: the government should scrap £5k ‘gift’ to buyers of £25k electric cars.

It’s true.  If the government wants to meet its carbon targets and make the world a nicer place in the process, there are far more effective things it can do with the money than help buy toys for the rich.  While they’re at it, instead of funding EV charging infrastructure, there’s another kind of transport infrastructure they could fund that would make a much bigger impact…

Fortunately the ABD have saved their reputation for a laugh on every page with the excellent line “leaving aside the considerable doubt that CO₂ has any significant impact on climate change…

Ah.  “Not a bunch of fanatics…”

Like most ABD press releases, the most coverage this achieved was to be churned on a couple of obscure trade press blogs.  Still, more than can be said for their previous comedy offering, which was ignored completely: 20mph too slow for Blackfriars Bridge.

Bridge Diet time

The latest from Streetfilms explains how everyone, especially motorists, can benefit from taking road space away from cars:

Boris Johnson promised to “smooth the traffic flow”.  It’s a vague policy which could be interpreted in any number of ways, and used to support a great variety of often conflicting policies.  I think when most people imagine a “smooth” traffic flow, though, they do not think of high motor vehicle speed or great motor vehicle capacity.  They think of reliable journeys.  Consistent journeys.  They could be reliably slow and consistently congested if those are the prevailing conditions.  And that’s fine.  The point of things being “smooth” is not to shove more people though the system in shorter times.  It’s to eliminate surprises.  A “smooth” flow means that deliveries leave the depot at the same time each day and always reach the shops on time; people get the same bus each morning and are never late for work.  Most people, I think, would interpret “smoothing the flow” as a move away from the impossible fantasy of solving congestion, to a new fantasy policy of reducing random one-off congestion incidents — of making congestion a little more predictable.  Businesses can plan for the predictable.

The biggest cause of unpredictable congestion is crashes.  Crashes are themselves frequently caused by excessive speed and complicated road layouts.  Road layouts that require lane-changing and lane-merging, especially.  Things like this:

Consider the southbound carriageway of this proposed TfL road design.  Vehicles from two roads feed into the carriageway and have to sort themselves into two southbound lanes and a right-turn lane.  The drivers of those vehicles will have to negotiate with buses that will be crossing all of the lanes from their left-hand-side bus stop to their own special right-turn bus lane.  They will need to be checking for the bicycles which have to share their lanes, and which may be wobbling out of the under-size bicycle lane (where it is provided); pedestrians at the crossings and islands; and bicycles which are dumped in the road from a perpendicular bike lane.  Certainly many of the drivers of those vehicles will choose to swerve around such obstacles, taking advantage of the raised 30mph speed limit, rather than slow down for them.  And after enjoying a couple of hundred yards with two lanes through which to meander, motor vehicles will all have to merge into a single lane — just at the moment that they are all racing away from a set of pedestrian crossing lights — because one of their lanes becomes a bus lane at the south end of the new layout.  All this high-speed lane changing and merging is a recipe for crashes.  Unpredictable congestion.

Indeed, even when it doesn’t result in crashes, the waves of braking that follow a lane change or merge still causes “lumpy” traffic.  (Tom Vanderbilt’s blog and book explain the phenomenon and its subtleties excellently.)

I would suggest to TfL, and to its chairman, that a road design like this could conflict with the mayor’s election promise to “smooth” the traffic flow.  But I know they would come back with the perfect solution.  They would remove the bus lane restriction on Blackfriars Bridge.

In the meantime, we have one day left to contribute to the “engagement” on this road design.

Streets versus Democracy

We don’t have to accommodate private motor vehicles in places like central London.  The world wouldn’t implode if we did not; the economy wouldn’t collapse.  We don’t have to accommodate any specific number of private motor vehicles in central London.  We could choose to accommodate twice the number that we currently do, by bulldozing great corridors through houses, offices and public buildings, or by digging multi-billion pound tunnels and paving the parks for parking lots.  We could choose to accommodate half the number that we currently do, giving what is currently road space instead to wider pavements and bus and bicycle lanes or street markets or cafes or flower pots or office blocks or docking stations or tramways or whatever we want to do with the scarce resource that is zone 1 land.

It is not necessary to increase, to decrease, or to maintain the current level of cars, taxis, or even trucks in central London.  Which one we choose is just a political decision.  Each of the options has consequences, good and bad, but London would adjust to the circumstances, whatever we decided to do with roads.

When transport bureaucrats say things like “there is not the capacity to give all road users the space and facilities that they would like“, that means that there is a decision to be made about which road users get the space.  Remember: that is a political decision.  Technocrats in highways departments can model the options and make suggestions, but it is not for them to dictate what gets built.

There are three layers of government (I would like to be able to say politicians, but government it is) making that political decision in London.  The Secretary of State for Transport, with the consent of parliament where required, has a say on whether major new roads get built, and sets a few rules and a lot of guidelines for the authorities who design and maintain roads — for example, local authorities are asked to maintain the capacity of their road network, where possible.  At the other end of the scale, the borough mayors and executives, with the consent of councilors, decide what to do with the little roads and pockets of public space — within the rules set from above.

In the middle is the Mayor, who in London is responsible for the network of main roads, and some of the public realm around them, under the constraints of central government rules, borough lobbying, and the oversight of the London Assembly.  The last mayor took an active interest in roads and streets, with election promises that led to redistribution of road space from private vehicles to bus lanes and pedestrian space, most noticeably in Trafalgar Square.  The current mayor has quietly dropped such policies — including Ken’s plans to redesign the five lane roundabout and inaccessible traffic island that is Parliament Square.  Boris Johnson’s only roads policy is to “smooth the traffic flow” — an ill-defined aim which could be used to justify any number of contradictory actions and which, given London’s transport elasticity and the chaotic nature of traffic flows in complex networks, is probably impossible to achieve.  But as an election promise, smoothing the traffic flow allows Boris to leave the unglamorous world of roads and public spaces to the highways department technocrats, who will dictate the removal of pesky flow perturbing pedestrian crossings, and the installation of fast new urban motorway junctions at Blackfriars Bridge, without so much of that wasteful and obstructive democratic oversight.

Three London Assembly members are attempting to inject a bit of that absent democratic oversight and they have put a lot of pressure on TfL to properly accommodate the needs of more than just car and taxi users at Blackfriars Bridge.  Val Shawcross (Labour AM for Southwark, leader of the assembly transport committee and Ken’s deputy for the forthcoming election), Jenny Jones (Green AM and mayoral candidate), and John Biggs (Labour AM for the city constituency), are all doing the politician’s job excellently: they are trying to make their bureaucrats do what their constituents need and want them to do.  So far as I am aware, Boris Johnson, Mayor and Chairman of Transport for London, has remained silent on the issue, despite transport and the public realm being the main part of the mayor’s remit, and this being one of the biggest road redesign projects of this mayoral term.

In his short 1978 book Motorways versus Democracy, the great campaigner John Tyme documented his battles with the Department for Transport in a series of public inquiries into the more destructive parts of the 1970s motorways project.  The motorways project could not, he explained, be considered the result of legitimate democratic processes.  The decision to focus transport planning and spending on motorway construction, to the exclusion of all alternatives, was taken by Marsham Street bureaucrats under the influence of a well organised roads lobby, with complicit secretaries of state and only token oversight from parliament.  The need for road construction was never questioned or studied or debated in parliament, and the public consultations and inquiries which were supposed to allow the public to influence government decisions were not fit for purpose.  Residents and stakeholders were denied the opportunity to question the need for new roads, only the route that they took; and they were denied the information that would allow an informed evaluation and opposition to be made.  If the department had conducted studies on alternative routes and alternative modes, or on the effects that their projects would have on traffic and future development, those studies all remained locked away in the department.  And the true extent and effect of a motorway would be hidden from stakeholders: though the department knew that a motorway would induce new demand that would require later extensions, spurs, link roads and relief roads, these would never be mentioned in proposals for the original road, so that by the time most stakeholders realised that they would be affected, it would be too late to contribute or object to the original project.  At the end of the inquiry, the motorway would be built, regardless of the personal pleas and legal objections raised.

Blackfriars Bridge shows that little has changed.  Transport and the quality of our streets and public spaces have a huge effect on our daily lives — on our health, wealth and happiness — and on the general success of a city or region.  It is the largest part of the mayor’s portfolio, and on every major road redesign in London, the buck stops with Boris.  But Boris is ducking his duty to Londoners, ignoring the needs of the majority of central London street users, and leaving the decisions to his bureaucrats, who are pushing through dangerous traffic-generating street designs in the name of “smoothing the flow”.  TfL have opened a legally meaningless token “engagement” with stakeholders — a token engagement in which, like the motorways inquiries of the 1970s, stakeholders are denied the information that would allow them to make an informed decision.  But TfL aren’t short of opinions from street users.  What they’re lacking is leadership: somebody to make the political decision when “smoothing the flow” for a minority is not worth the inconvenience and mortal danger to others.

Edited to add: I originally forgot to mention that TfL have turned down a freedom of information request for the background information on the Blackfriars Bridge redesign on the grounds that the information would cost too much to collate.  (That was actually the main inspiration for this post, but I rather got carried away and forgot why I was writing it!)  Thus, like the motorways projects of the 1970s, we are denied the information that would allow us to properly evaluate the plans and the claims that TfL have been making in support of their design.