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Cycling commissioner Gilligan admits powers to seize control of borough roads were threatened on cycle superhighways

• Andrew Gilligan said delivery of cycle superhighways a "nightmarishly difficult" test of strength and came close to failing

• An unnamed borough was threatened with powers to seize control of their roads if cycle superhighways were blocked

• Gilligan warns of "deficiencies" in the network as he was unable to persuade some boroughs on cycling

• "Old men in limos" were comprehensively outfought by campaigners in PR battle, he says

• London "still in the foothills" of becoming a cycle-friendly city

• Gilligan calls on Londoners to secure specific commitments from all London mayoral candidates ahead of May 2016 elections to continue the cycling programme

• Says 5% growth in London cycling justifies continued investment

London's cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, has admitted the city's cycle superhighways came close to not happening, and that it was a "nightmarishly difficult" test of strength to overcome at times "ferocious resistance".

In a speech at the Hackney Cycling Conference on Friday, Gilligan said the threat of mayoral powers to seize control of one borough's roads was used on parts of the cycle superhighway scheme.

Gilligan praised campaigners for winning the PR battle against the "old men in limos" (OMILs), but said London is only in the foothills of becoming a great cycling city, and pressure needs to be sustained ahead of the next mayoral elections in May 2016 to ensure the work continues.

Gilligan said: "We are, as I speak, building four segregated cycle superhighways in London, we're building about 15 cycle safe segregated junctions, the first of about 50, including those on the superhighways. We've started building the first back street Quietway routes; by 2016 there will be seven of them finished."

He said: "It was at times nightmarishly difficult to manage this, and we saw some absolutely ferocious resistance, kicking and screaming, and we saw a lot more passive resistance, heel digging and foot dragging from whom Olympic cyclist Chris Boardman called Old Men in Limos; you've heard of the MAMILs, those were the OMILs. A lot of objections, which would nearly always start with the words 'Of course I support cycling...'"

Gilligan praised campaigners, particularly founders of Cycling Works, brothers Chris and Jono Kenyon, for helping win support for cycle superhighways from London businesses, to the dismay of the OMILs who, he said "were comprehensively outfought in the PR and public support battle."

He said political support from the Mayor's office also "prevented these projects from dying a dozen deaths".

"You'll have to read our memoirs, if anyone wants to publish them, to find out how difficult it all was and how close it all came to not happening."

Gilligan said the battle is not yet over, however, and though the large Transport for London (TfL) schemes on roads controlled by the Mayor, including the cycle superhighways and junction improvements, are secure, those on boroughs' roads, such as the Central London Grid, Quietways and Mini Hollands, are "in a much more mixed position".

Not all London boroughs equal for cycling

While he praised Waltham Forest for the delivery of its Mini Holland scheme, he said other boroughs "are not terribly interested", with too much cycling money in boroughs being spent on shared space, pavement cycle routes and "tarting up" of public spaces with little benefit for people on bikes.

Gilligan said: "Any deficiencies you may notice, and you may notice a few, in the network of routes on borough routes are not on the whole from want of trying by us. They are because we haven't been able to persuade the borough concerned."

"In the end I can't force them, I can't send in the troops to occupy the town hall to make them not do toucan crossings and things like that."

Using mayoral powers to ensure cycle routes are built

However he inferred some mayoral powers were used during cycle superhighway negotiations, and this same power might be required in future.

He said: "There is, in fact, a power in the GLA Act in the setting up of a mayoralty which allows the mayor to take control of any road in London, and we have to get the agreement from the Secretary of State so it's not quite the slam dunk we hoped it was."

"However we did contemplate using that power in one or two cases on the superhighways. We didn't have to in the end, the threat of it was enough.

"I wonder if it might be worth asking future mayoral candidates whether they would be prepared to use that."

Call to arms

Gilligan's speech was also a call to arms to ensure the cycling programme continues after the May 2016 Mayoral election, and to ensure specific commitments are made by all candidates as happened in 2012 as a result of the London Cycling Campaign's "Love London, Go Dutch" campaign.

Gilligan said: "I think we've made enormous progress - unprecedented progress - over the last couple of years, but I believe we're still in the foothills of making London a cycle friendly city and the task for Londoners is to make sure the progress we've made continues after May."

"There is a chance that whoever's elected next might not care so passionately about cycling. There is also a risk that parts of TfL might feel they have 'done their bit' by delivering the segregated routes they are doing now; they have ticked the box, they can get back to buses and trains."

"It's a mistake to think transport investment is a zero-sum game, in which any investment comes at the expense of everyone else. Most of the schemes we're doing for cyclists have huge benefits for almost everyone else."

He said "The need to keep investing in cycling, continue the programme, is absolutely demonstrated not least by figures yesterday showing a 5% rise year on year  cycling on London's roads." 

"You only have to look outside this building or any other building in London just to see how astonishing are the numbers of people going around on bikes."

One small section of cycle superhighway 2 (CS2) has opened - a bus stop bypass - and more will open next month, according to Gilligan. Vauxhall Cross, he says, is six weeks from opening. 

He said: "My hope in delivering these segregated routes is people realise that traffic doesn't melt down, it is not the end of the world, it becomes less difficult to do more routes like that."