Friday, 7 February 2014

The Challenge of Change in Vauxhall

Last night, at the invitation of a vocal Harleyford Road resident, I attended a meeting between a handful of residents and Transport for London about Cycling Superhighway 5 between New Cross Gate and Victoria via Vauxhall Bridge.

TfL proposes to turn one of the three lanes of one-way motor traffic on Harleyford Road, between the Vauxhall end of the cricket ground and the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, into a two-way cycling track. A number of properties face onto the road and some residents have concerns about the proposed track.

The meeting was for Transport for London to present their current plans following a previous meeting about a year ago. Members of the Cycling Superhighway design and consultation team were there, and, lest there be any doubt that TfL are taking this seriously, Andrew Gilligan, the Mayor’s Cycling Commissioner, and Nigel Hardy, TfL’s Head of Capital Development came to meet the half-dozen residents.

For those who don’t know the area, Harleyford Road is a TfL controlled strategic ‘red-route’ that runs up from the Oval towards Vauxhall Bridge. As this map, from this great resource, of 1831 shows, it has been a major road carrying people and goods between south and north London since the first Vauxhall Bridge was built in 1812.

In Victorian times I imagine it was frequently congested; noisy due to the clatter of horse shoes and rumble of wagon wheels; liberally splattered in horse poo and pee. The coming of the motor vehicle, which could do in one trip what it previously too six horses and carts to do, may have seemed a huge relief to the residents at that time.

As time went by however motor vehicle numbers and trips soared resulting in the noisy, polluted, race track that is Vauxhall as we know it today.

At first glance one may doubt the sanity of anyone who chooses to live on such a motorway, but the traffic will presumably have altered to a degree over the years (e.g. I believe the red-route controls were implemented in 1998), and the large houses are centrally located, well connected to public transport, and cheaper than ones facing onto a quieter street. And there are off-peak times

The meeting was shouty and jumped around from topic to topic quite erratically, but I will try to capture the points that were discussed and some comments and suggestions I have. It’s pertinent to note that all the residents present seemed to live on the side of the road on which the cycle track is proposed to be placed (the right hand lane in the photo above, heading towards Vauxhall). One stated that she is a fair-weather cyclist.

Loading and Unloading – At present the red-route status means that, according to a resident, you cannot load/unload between 7am and 7pm Monday to Saturday. The concern is access to hearses, ambulances, refuse trucks, fire engines, supermarket delivery vehicles, cars used by the infirm and removal lorries during those hours if one of three motor traffic lanes has been replaced by a two-way cycle lane.
TfL pointed out that the existing loading bays that have been provided for most loading/unloading in Durham Street would remain. I pointed out even if vehicles stopped in one lane that would still leave a motor traffic lane available going in the same direction for motor vehicles to use. I also suggested that an off-peak loading bay on Harleyford Road would be worthy of consideration by TfL, which they took on board as a proposal.  I took this photo in the early afternoon today and you can see that there is no shortage of space despite a broken down car.

A further concern was the ability of people to cross a low barrier between the road and cycle lane that will prevent drivers from parking on the cycle lane. I suggested some wheelchair width gaps – insufficient to get a vehicle into – would permit this. TfL seemed happy to explore this.

An additional issue was that people loading/unloading on this road (rather than in the Durham Street bay provided) would have to cross a two-way cycle lane to reach the vehicle. Apparently cyclists travel at 30mph (and presumably are impervious to injury in a collision as well as being beyond Olympic racing status) so that would present great difficulties. A TfL observation that the peak hour tidal flow tended to be in one-direction appeared to be lost in the general hubbub.

The problems that would arise in the future from two-way cycling in the future were felt likely to be the same as the current ones, where people ride their cycles against the traffic on the pavement, the difference being that  they would be riding on a separate track instead of the pavement.

Pedestrian/Cyclist Interaction – Some people are rushing from A to C, through B where some locals are pootling around. Regardless of form of transport there can be conflict in this circumstance and excellent design plays a massive role in reducing this.

The underlying issue in Vauxhall is how to successfully balance the needs of a transport ‘corridor’ with a place where people live. We must not end up with barren streets as exemplified a little further down Harleyford Road by the sullen wall along the Oval cricket ground. TfL’s urban designers have done good work in producing the draft Nine Elms cycling strategy, but there was no indication in the plans presented last night of place-making being considered here.  For example, could trees be used at places to mark the divide between the road and the cycle lane, and could a more harmonious colour than blue be used for the lane. Ultimately, can the movement of goods and people be so improved that Harleyford Road can become a quiet, pleasant, safe and spacious boulevard through which thousands of people move?

Inconsiderate road users, regardless of their transport mode, need to be encouraged to behave differently. Design plays a huge part in this, but so does education.  I hope that local primary schools St Anne’s and Wyvil will be offering cycle training, which addresses this, to their pupils this year in preparation for the gradual introduction of their new routes to school.

Access to Driveways – There are a handful of permitted driveways and residents are concerned about accessing or leaving them given a segregated cycle lane to cross. TfL said that access would be maintained.
Some residents felt it was most unlikely that there would be a gap in the flow of people riding bicycles sufficient to allow them to turn into or out of their drive and asked for proof in the form of an existing example. TfL cited Cable Street which has had such a cycle lane for over a decade.

Putting out Rubbish – I don’t know where residents are currently required to put their bins out for collection. I presume on the pavement. The pavement will remain in place, albeit with fewer people riding bikes on it. Anyway, it’s a concern that TfL and Lambeth will need to ensure is checked out.

Air Pollution – It was argued that providing dedicated space for people to ride bikes may increase air pollution because where there were three lanes of motor traffic there will now be only two. TfL said that traffic light phasing would be used to manage this. No benefits of more people cycling rather than driving or being driven and the knock on reduction in air pollution were raised.

Banned right turn from Harleyford Road to Kennington Lane – a small number of drivers currently make this right turn. To facilitate the efficient, direct and safe passage of the existing and forecast number of people riding bicycles, TfL propose that the few motorists make this small part of their journey around the existing gyratory. I think that it was to do with this point that a resident suggested it would be a better idea here to maintain the right turn for the few and a good idea if the thousands of people riding bikes dismounted and walked their bikes across the road.

My Conclusion
Residents last night didn’t cite any potential benefits such as cleaner air; the motor traffic being further away from their front door reducing noise and serious collision danger; a fitter population reducing their NHS liability; or enhanced mobility options for adults and children in the houses thanks to a child-usable cycle lane outside the front door. It seemed unlikely that any of the owners expect a cycle lane replacing a lane of motor traffic will increase the value of the houses.

Change can be threatening and it is easy to anticipate real or imaginary problems and focus on these. 

This is not to say that the matters that residents raised were trivial and of no matter. Some are real concerns and, especially at this early stage of London ‘going Dutch’, they need to be heard and responded to. A particular concern of mine is that cycle lanes do not become loading bays like the one outside Tesco on the gyratory, and so sensible loading/unloading provision needs to be designed in from the outset. 

Change is achieved incrementally – a cycling superhighway here is likely to be a step towards a much better future both for residents and for those who pass through. I am gratified that the residents are questioning the process and that Transport for London at a senior level are engaging with them.

I look forward to seeing pensioners and primary school children riding through Vauxhall alongside the ladies and gentlemen who commute to work.