London’s new railways – Crossrail, Thameslink – will not only improve journeys from the suburbs, they will also massively improve short journeys in the centre of London. The new, high-frequency railways will allow fast journeys across the centre, particularly east-west, but also create a new high-frequency link north-south. The effect should be large enough to take traffic off some of the central roads, notably Upper & Lower Thames Street and Farringdon Street. The big question is how do we use the space that this frees up: let the traffic build up again, or put the space to better use? Perhaps we should use the situation to make a step-change in the function of these routes, while we have the chance?
A lot of traffic is necessary in central London, but that does not mean that all of it is necessary. Around three-quarters of the motor traffic on the Embankment and Thames Street is cars/taxis and motorcycles. The route has relatively few junctions, and is undoubtedly attracting through traffic, despite the congestion charge. The overall level of traffic is high, at around 50-60,000 motor vehicles per day. The North-South route is less busy – about 27,000 at Blackfriars Bridge and 20,000 elsewhere. Again, cars/taxis and motorbikes account for about three-quarters of the motor traffic.
So how roughly, do we want these streets to function in future? There seems to be an opportunity to turn the north-south alignment, particularly New Bridge Street and Farringdon Street into a “city street” – wide pavements, some retail frontage, 20mph, single approach lanes at junctions, fairly easy to cross on foot, using medians and formal crossings at junctions. The typical arrangement for cyclists in such a street would be painted cycle lanes, kept clear by provision for loading.
The east-west alignment is likely to remain busier, though we could perhaps be aiming to reduce traffic by enough that a single lane in each direction is sufficient between junctions. There is a fair amount of office frontage at the eastern end of the route, but the number of pedestrians is relatively low (partly of course due to the current volume of traffic). The exception is the area by the Tower, where there are a lot of pedestrians. There is little by way of frontage along the Embankment, though the trees and the river make it visually attractive. The section in the middle is a 250m tunnel with buildings on top, and no frontage at all.
The most appropriate street type for the Embankment is “city boulevard”. This isn’t a common street type, so it’s a bit hard to say what that means. I think the main aim would probably be to widen the pavements, reduce the road to one lane each way, and generally slow the traffic down, both to reduce noise, and to reduce the barrier between the city and its river. Ideally, pedestrians should be able to cross at frequent intervals, with a median and lots of zebra crossings. Given the lack of junctions, the road is likely to remain fairly fast, so there would be an argument for separate cycle tracks, for general comfort, to support right turns, and to avoid conflicts with parking. Internationally, the normal arrangement would be to have one-way cycle tracks on both sides of the road.
The route through the City is trickier. The frontage would suggest it becoming a “city street” but there is likely to be too much traffic for that. The best that can probably be achieved is a version of the “city boulevard” treatment. The basics are that there should be one lane each way, between junctions, and that the fence on the median needs to be removed.
How does this compare with the current proposals for a “Crossrail for Bikes”?
By starting with the Roads Task Force street types (city street, city boulevard), we reveal the choice that exists between providing for traffic and making city streets. So instead of trying to minimise the impact on traffic, we ask how much the traffic needs to be reduced to deliver one of the preferred street types. There needs to be a definite reduction in traffic, and the advent of Crossrail and Thameslink provides the opportunity for this to happen. In some ways, the half-hearted approach is just asking for trouble: people will still think of Thames Street and the Embankment as a through route, and it will just be more congested. Instead we need to make a definite leap to something different.
The second main difference is that the international norm is to provide for cycling on each side of the street, rather than a two-way track on one side. The international approach relies on tight geometry and advance positioning to create safety at junctions, rather than complicated arrangements of signals. The current proposals require a very large number of traffic signals, and seem more in keeping with a high speed high traffic route. This is unnecessarily complex. Two-way tracks make sense when carving a route around a gyratory that can’t be removed, but they create too many problems to be used routinely along normal streets.
The two-way track comes from a desire to fully signal the cycle route, to allow it to cater for the widest possible audience. This assumes that it is purely the form of the infrastructure that is keeping people from cycling. Cycling in central London is peculiar, by international standards, in that it is dominated by quite long trips – the average bike commute to the City is over 6km, which is about double the Dutch norm. The reality is that this length of trip is only ever going to appeal to cycling enthusiasts, and while the demographic could be broader than currently, the real problem with the infrastructure is that it is in the wrong place. If we want to normalise cycling, we have to provide for shorter trips closer to home. Making these routes in central London 100% conflict-free is unlikely to affect cycling numbers, and just adds lights, islands and complexity.
I’m certainly not going to object to the Crossrail-for-bikes plans as they stand. Compared to the current situation, they are a substantial improvement. However, I think there’s a risk that they will produce more congestion, and not provide the scale of improvements for pedestrians that ought to be achieved. We need a Crossrail for everybody.