DLR tunnel vision leaves cyclists in the lurch

A right royal row is brewing in the London Borough of Greenwich as the local council prepares to close the 107-year-old Greenwich Foot Tunnel under the Thames to undertake essential maintenance, giving cyclists the option of taking a 10-mile detour to cross the river at Tower Bridge, or leaving their bikes at home and using public transport instead. The tunnel is due to close next month, with works expected to last ten months.

According to the London Cycling Campaign, some 400 cyclists a day use the tunnel, which links the Isle of Dogs, home to the Canary Wharf office complex, to Greenwich, the birthplace of Henry Viii and his daughters Queen Mary and Elizabeth I. Used by commuters from South East London, where many of those working in Docklands live, it also provides a vital link for cyclists from further afield in London who want to cross the Thames without having to venture into the centre.

The heart of the problem is that while there is a variety of nearby routes crossing the river, these are impossible for cyclists to use for a variety of reasons. As a result, local LCC groups Greenwich Wheelers and Tower Hamlets Wheelers are both concerned about the lack of progress made by their respective local authorities in finding an alternative such as a ferry service, although Greenwich Council, which is responsible for the tunnel, claims that it has held talks with riverboat operators.

The Docklands Light Railway, which has a station close to both ends of the tunnel, would seem to provide an ideal alternative, at least at off-peak times, but it currently bans all bikes other than folders, and there seems to be little prospect of it adopting a more flexible approach while the tunnel is closed.

The LCC points out that non-folding bikes are allowed on some London Underground lines – mainly those running overground, or where tunnels lie just below street level – outside peak hours, but the DLR asserts that bicycles present a safety hazard, although wheelchairs and pushchairs are permitted on its trains.

Tower Hamlets Wheelers has enlisted the help of London Assembly Member John Biggs to try to persuade Transport for London to overturn the ban, and while the DLR claims that it is “extremely supportive of cycling and has launched a policy to encourage people to cycle to and from stations, and is improving facilities for cyclists across its network," this is one instance where actions would speak louder than words.

Meanwhile, the three chief road routes crossing the river in the area all prove unsuitable, with Charlie Lloyd of the LCC saying that “the Woolwich Ferry takes a long time and is unreliable. You're not allowed through the Blackwall Tunnel – and Rotherhithe Tunnel, I've cycled through and it's dangerous with fumes”.

And while there is another foot tunnel at Woolwich, three miles to the East, also operated by Greenwich Council, in a forehead-slapping piece of integrated transport planning, that too is scheduled to be closed for maintenance at the same time as its Greenwich counterpart.

With just weeks to go before the tunnel closes, there seems little prospect of a viable solution being reached. But if any pedalo operators reading this are wondering what to do with their fleets once the summer seaside season is over, I may have an interesting business opportunity for you, and you wouldn’t even need to provide your own staff to power the craft…

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.