Chris Boardman says that transport planners need build segregated infrastructure to take account of the 60 per cent of people who say they would like to cycle but are put off by their perception that it is dangerous – but he warns that routes need to take people where they want to go without needless detours.
The former world and Olympic champion, now policy advisor to British Cycling, was speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme to internet pioneer Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who was guest editor of the Boxing Day edition of the show.
The pair, accompanied by the National Trust’s director for London, Ivo Dawnay, undertook a journey on foot – Boardman had his bike with him too – from St James’s Park, via Horse Guards Parade and Whitehall, to the Embankment.
Berners-Lee was introduced on the programme as someone who “enjoys riding a bike and… also drives a car, but he’s not convinced that the two belong together on the roads.”
Boardman has been a regular visitor to London this year, including giving evidence to the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group’s Get Britain Cycling Inquiry and, more recently, the House of Commons Transport Select Committee.
He told Berners-Lee: “This is the first time in fact I’ve brought my own bike [to London]. But having got here and just ridden across from Euston, it’s not a pleasant experience, shall we say, everything is very tense.”
Berners-Lee asked Dawnay: “We’re sitting in St James’s Park and it’s pleasant, it’s car-free, so is one technique perhaps joining up these green spaces to make them into perhaps greenways for bikes?”
Dawnay replied: “The green parts of London are either the Royal Parks or the London boroughs. But you’re quite right, some places like Hyde Park Corner are actually quite hellish places to get over.”
While it’s true that negotiating the road layout itself there can be very daunting, there are ways of avoiding the traffic, and the reality is that the Royal Parks do offer on- and off-road routes – the latter shared with people on foot – that do provide a pleasant way of getting across a large slice of the capital.
Heading from Knightsbridge or out of Hyde Park towards Constitution Hill, for example, a prime commuting route in the morning, cyclists can use crossings to reach the island that the Wellington Arch is located on, then ride across to join the shared-use path running along the south side of Green Park.
Exiting St James’s Park, Berners-Lee and his companions crossed Horse Guards Parade and under the arch of the Horse Guards building itself – not somewhere you can normally ride through, unless you’re a member of the Household Cavalry on duty and on horseback – onto Whitehall.
“Chris, we’re on a bike, what do we do?” asked Berners-Lee.
Boardman responded: “Well, it just got more complicated, we’ve gone from that lovely quiet space over there and now we’re moving back towards the traffic.
“There’s huge congestion areas in London. Where we’ve got much faster moving traffic, as we have here around Whitehall, that also presents a danger.
“There seems to be more space, but there’s more danger from traffic moving quickly as well.”
Heading down to the Embankment and looking for somewhere safe to cross, Boardman pointed out that it isn’t just cyclists who are short-changed by the people who plan our roads.
“We’ve got to walk, what, 30, 50 metres in the opposite direction than we want to go to get across two lanes of quite fast moving traffic,” he said, adding, “I almost feel like letting this piece run unedited so people can get a feel for how long it takes to get across a single road for a pedestrian.”
Asked by Berners-Lee his thoughts about the Embankment from a cyclist’s viewpoint, he went on: “We’ve got a huge, wide road here and it’s being used at the moment by all types of traffic but there is space here, if we wanted to, to allocate it to different types of users.”
That’s exactly what will happen if Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s East-West route, running along the EMbankment then via St James's Park to Hyde Park Corner and dubbed ‘Crossrail for the bike,’ becomes reality, but the point being made by Boardman has a wider application.
“The road space at the moment seems to be all about looking after cars,” he continued. “The 2 per cent of people who ride on bikes now around the country, they’re going to keep doing it no matter what, it’s the 60 per cent who aren’t sure, probably ‘would if you gave me a nice space to do it,’ they’re the ones we should be targeting, and they want separated road space.”
But, he added, thought needs to go into the process; routes have to get people from A to B in the way they want to go there, and not take well-intentioned but frustrating detours.
He cited the example of what are termed ‘paths of desire’ – look at an edge-of-town retail park surrounded by landscaping where arriving in anything but a car involves a longer-than-necessary walk and you’ll see what he means.
“I’ve seen some beautiful infrastructure which costs millions of pounds and in some cases it will go round a piece of greenery and then across that green field there’s a muddy patch right across the middle, and right there, that is human beings,” he explained.
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.