bikebritain Says October 30, 2011

London Cycle 'Super Highways' - Tested Here!

As I was saying.........

I was looking forward to the unchartered territory of the CS3 though. It took me out to Barking and the interesting thing about this route is that the quickest way to do this, or the reverse, is along the A13. The A13 is a busy arterial route in and out of the capital and about as compatible with cyclists as I had been with saying ‘no’ to that seventh pint the day before. The solution is a full and frank division of the pavement on the westbound carriageway side, with the obligatory meandering nonsense at the outset.

For the first time since the early roundabout fiasco, as I tracked the Docklands Light Railway alongside the River Thames, I was stumped. The blue path disappeared, and not just for a few yards. With my cricketing appointment looming large, now was not the time to have to weave between buses and Sunday walkers looking for blue paint. Eventually, I noticed a series of tiny blue marks on the pavement... was this it? Had they had a paint shortage? Were they adding an element of orienteering to the process? Where the people in charge big fans of Hansel & Gretel? I know I am.

It was, of course, it, and I was once more on my way, soon enough cycling right alongside the A13 like a knife through the butter of east London. As I whined earlier, the hazard with combining the cycle path with the pavement is the insistence of the general public of playing the exciting new game where they give the impression of sticking their defined part of the surface, only to step into the blue abyss as you get close. Thank heaven for my little bell. The further out of the centre of London you get, the more side roads and junctions you have to deal with, which means more stopping at traffic lights and bouncing up and down kerbs, but I was making good progress and looking forward to arriving in the bustling centre of Barking, and grabbing a bottle of water. 

Then it ended. Not in Barking, but at a miscellaneous point by the side of the A13 probably with the same longitude as Barking. I found this quite odd. It occurred to me that when they came to paint the route, they probably couldn’t work out how to get to the other side of the A13, so just gave up. I’d like to think it was that, anyway. Odd or not, the cricket would wait for no man, so I set off (initially retracing my steps (wheels?)) and then joining the A13 when it got less dicey, following it all the way to Limehouse before turning left into the Rotherhithe Tunnel.

The Rotherhithe Tunnel was built between 1904 and 1908, the work displacing nearly 3000 people. Designed by Sir Maurice Fitzmaurice, a new entry into my ‘Top Ten All-time Names’, it links Limehouse and Rotherhithe by burrowing under the River Thames at a depth up to 23 metres. If I had been displaced by it, well, I’d be at least 106 for a start, but I’d also be quite miffed. These days it is not the most enticing route, but for some reason the fact that bicycles are not outlawed has meant that I have been determined to cycle through it at some point. This was that point.

The narrowness of the tunnel means that you are safe to cycle in the middle of the lane, away from the crumbling tarmac at the edge, without stopping anyone from passing, but this comes with the responsibility of keeping up with traffic, which is problematic when you are breathing in several tonnes of carbon monoxide every minute. The long, awkward 23 metre incline out of the tunnel was punishing after the best part of 4 hours on the road and, when I arrived home shortly after, 90 minutes after setting off on the CS3, I was ready for a nice sit down and a couple of aspirin.

So, what had I learned? It’s probably only fair to judge the Cycle Superhighways by their own criteria – “safer, faster and more direct”. Are they safer? Of course. No driver can reasonably claim not to be aware of the unambiguous blue stripe, and the chance of allowing your vehicle to reposition itself too close to the side of the road is reduced. The concept of tracking the likely progress of cyclists around buses and parked cars is also an astute move; again it is nothing more than mitigation, but these are commuter routes and awareness will gradually be raised amongst drivers using these roads on a daily basis. There are some innovative ideas to negotiate junctions, and although I have poked fun at some of the means of avoiding roundabouts, the fact that such lengths have been explored to provide a solution to something which has clearly been identified as a hazard too far for a scheme designed to encourage widespread participation, cannot be criticised in good conscience. As far as the CS3 goes, taking cyclists off of the A13 and providing an alternative direct route to east London is safer for all parties.

Are they faster? Not in the sense that they are always the quickest route between A and B, between the City and Colliers Wood, between Aldgate and Bow, not at all. As mentioned, some of the meandering solutions are extremely indirect. However, if you are merely trying to get from A to B, from Westminster to Wandsworth, from Tower Gateway to Barking, then you can knuckle down and follow the blue yonder without having to resort to maps, smart phones or passers-by and save time that way. I’ll give them a partial credit on this one.

Are they more direct? Again, it is yes and no. But credit has to be given for building the Superhighways around the main routes between each of the pairs of destinations, rather than trying to plot a route through the backstreets. Of course, this isn’t a foolproof method, particularly when navigating your way across the multiple junctions of the A13 and jarring your lovely tyres up and down kerbs, but you could easily find fault either way.

I’ll add a fourth criterion – are they fun? The answer is unequivocally no. Make no mistake, these Superhighways provide effective passage between the City of London and commuter outposts and very little else. They are only rarely enchanting and even then, it is by accident rather than design. This is not a criticism, merely a recognition that London can only cater for so much cycling revolution, and perhaps we should be grateful for what we can get. I have enough murderous thoughts about ‘Boris bikers’ as it is, the opportunity to cultivate more might lead to a different sort of cycling revolution altogether, and this is probably best avoided for the time being.

Words, Thumbnail and Slider - Lukey
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