It's a feature of writing about active travel that often, you’ll be talking about infrastructure (or lack thereof) where you are relying on second-hand knowledge – concerns raised by local campaigners, for example, local authority planning documents, or that old fallback, Google Street View – rather than on-the-ground experience.
To give some examples, I’d written numerous articles on the Bristol & Bath Railway Path before I got the chance to ride it myself a couple of years ago on a bike-packing trip from Bristol to Reading, and if anything I found it even better than I’d imagined.
The transformation of Paris under Mayor Anna Hidalgo also resonates, with the white-knuckle trips I made across the city by Vélib’ 10 or 15 years ago a distant memory and more recent jaunts on car-free streets thronged with people on bikes or e-scooters highlighting the astonishing transformation of the French capital in recent years.
And while I have visited Edinburgh dozens of times over the years, and written about initiatives such as the annual Pedal on Parliament ride on numerous occasions, I’m ashamed to say that my last experience of being in the saddle in the country I was born in was probably when I was a five year old on a trike, so while I can visualise the streets I’m writing about, I lack the lived experience of actually cycling there.
So when a series of emails about what passes for cycling infrastructure on Acton High Street in West London recently arrived in the road.cc inbox from a reader named Raymond about his problems getting Ealing Council to enforce parking restrictions on a cycle lane there, as someone who has lived locally for several years know I could immediately pinpoint exactly the problems he was encountering – been there, ridden it, got the ‘crap infra’ t-shirt.
In his letter to the council, which referred him onto its parking services department, with no resolution yet in sight, Raymond wrote:
Another failure and not enforced by Ealing Council which is the 'solid white bicycle lane' eastbound along A4020 at Acton High Street section directional opposite McDonald's, which is constantly blocked with parked vehicles thus endangering cyclist travelling along there. Its time to install these safety bollards which will prevent these illegal and dangerous parking.
The central lane markings also need to be remarked to take into consideration that no one should be entering or going into the solid lane markings which is also what drivers are doing thus endangering cyclist there too.
This is poorly maintained and enforced section of a A road.
Acton High Street forms part of a key route for cyclists heading into the city centre from Ealing and beyond, but it can be intimidating enough for an experienced rider, let alone someone new to cycling who may have decided to try commuting to work – but, in the absence of safe alternatives, may quickly give it up.
Part of the reason for that is that infrastructure on the route, where it exists, is disjointed and haphazard, and in some cases makes no sense whatsoever. Yes, there are alternative routes to the north and south – I like the C34 off-road cycleway along the A40, and Cycleway 9 is fantastic, but each is around a mile away if you’re in the centre of Acton.
Putting aside issues elsewhere on the east-west axis that includes Acton High Street – the wands, introduced during the pandemic, by Hammersmith & Fulham Council in Shepherds Bush, for example, with entrance to the protected lanes almost regularly blocked by parked cars, or the heart-in-mouth journey through Holland Park Avenue where Kensington & Chelsea blocked plans for a segregated cycle lane, let’s take a close look at this specific location.
First off, there’s a lot of motor traffic – and not much space for it to flow freely in either direction. Several bus routes run along the high street, and it also sees a lot of HGVs – whether delivering to local shops (looking at you, Savers, with your lorry parked up in the evening) or heading to the dairy depot a little further east.
When a bus stops to take on and offload passengers at westbound stop for the Old Town Hall, it is by no means unusual for traffic to queue up behind it, with oncoming vehicles meaning that it is impossible for drivers to overtake safely. That stretch of the high street heading towards Ealing has no provision for cycling whatsoever – and moreover, can be a bit of a slog given a reasonably gentle, but still lengthy, upwards gradient.
Meanwhile, eastbound, for those heading towards Shepherds Bush and beyond that the city centre, there is a short mandatory cycle lane – marked out by a solid strip of white paint – the one that Richard’s specific complaint to the council relates to.
It’s all but unusable, however, not only because of the lack of physical but also drivers ignoring parking restrictions.
The narrowness of the road means it’s impossible for two large vehicles, such as buses, to pass each other here without the one heading east encroaching on the eastbound cycle lane, and that’s not helped by cars – often owned by people working in some of the independent shops and other venues lining the street – parking there, as Raymond highlighted to the council.
That gives cyclists three options – one, ride primary on that stretch, which isn’t ideal given there’s supposed to a cycle lane there, two, ride on the footway, which is what many less experienced riders choose to do thereby risking conflict with pedestrians, or three, avoid the area altogether. It’s not an ideal situation.
So far as other cycling infrastructure in the area is concerned, a short way further east there is a small section of cycle lane protected by wands, starting outside The Belvedere pub – but that peters out at the next bus stop, and is only reinstated further on.
Heading west, there’s a short section – less than 100 metres – of bollard-protected cycle lane opposite the police station, but that finishes short of the junction outside the Red Lion & Pineapple pub, a location crying out for safe infrastructure, with the majority of cyclists continuing their journey towards Ealing along Uxbridge Road, but risking being right-hooked by drivers turning left into Gunnersbury Lane.
The strange thing is, on King Street – which heads off the High Street towards the South Acton Estate – you’ll find a fine example of kerb-and-bollard-protected cycle lane, which has been there since before I started visiting the area in 2017, but which because it doesn’t lie on a main cycle route is little-used. I scratch my head every time I go past it, and wonder how much it must have cost.
Despite local issues such as the availability of read space, it’s surely not beyond the realms of possibility that improvements can be made to cycling provision in the area, to encourage more people to ride by given them safe space to do so?
Right now, Ealing Council is inviting feedback on such initiatives in a consultation that closes on 17 May, although given everything I’ve had to say about just one location in the borough, I may need to set aside a couple of days early next week to fully cover all the points I’d wish to raise about cycling in the local area.
Still, it means there is a chance to flag those issues up to the council, and hopefully get some form of action.
Turning to neighbouring boroughs, while I sometimes use Acton High Street when heading into town, I’m more likely to head south towards Cycleway 9 along Chiswick High Road and King Street in Hammersmith, perhaps then heading along the river if time isn’t pressing so I can avoid Kensington High Street.
But in another illustration of the value of local knowledge, while many cyclists elsewhere may, with justification, envy the protected cycleway running from Hammersmith Broadway to Kew Bridge and currently being extended towards Brentford, those of us who use it regularly will be well aware that it is not without its faults.
Just last week, I spotted an Uber driver executing a right turn from Turnham Green Terrace onto the protected bike lane rather than the main carriageway on Chiswick High Road – a common mistake made by drivers when it first opened in late 2020 and thankfully less common these days, but on occasion it still happens – luckily, the driver immediately realised his mistake and reversed out of the bike lane and onto the main road.
To be fair, Transport for London, in partnership with Hounslow and Hammersmith & Fulham Councils, has listened to concerns about some elements of the route – for instance, there has been some remodelling of sections where it crosses side roads to try and minimise conflict with drivers coming onto the main road.
Again, that’s the result of people who actually ride the route identifying problems, raising them, and getting them acted upon, and it’s a positive thing that in this case, the relevant people listened.
Finally, while the geographical base of road.cc’s staffers and other contributors has expanded over the years – Bath, after all, is not the centre of the cycling universe, whatever the impression the site may have given in its infancy – and we now have people in all parts of the UK, we simply can’t pick up every story that merits attention, whether that be related to infrastructure (good and bad), cycle parking, local bans on riding bikes … the list goes on.
So as ever, we’d encourage you to take a leaf out of Raymond’s book and share your stories with us – and, when we do cover a story from your backyard, feel free to chip in with a comment if we’ve maybe missed some nuance, or you have something you want to add from your own experience riding there.
Also, please let us know in the comments below your own local situation, for better or worse, when it comes to space for cycling, and how good or bad your local council is in addressing such issues.