Open Letter from our patron Christian Wolmar to Cllr Nick Forbes

Dear Nick

(cc Chi Onwurah MP and Catherine McKinnell MP)

christianWolmarI am writing to you as patron of Newcycling, Newcastle’s cycling campaign, with the hope to give support and confidence, and to inspire positive action. I have been carefully briefed by the Newcycling Committee of recent road building plans for Newcastle. There are opportunities.

If there were any remaining doubts that good facilities attract people to cycle, what has happened in London over the past few weeks will allay them. The opening of several major sections of the Cycling Superhighways has transformed parts of central London into safe places to cycle and consequently attracted thousands to use them.

Photo courtesy Mark Treasure
Photo courtesy Mark Treasure

The situation around Blackfriars Bridge where the two main routes, one north-south, the other east-west, intersect is quite remarkable. Ignore St Paul’s in the background or Parliament with Big Ben and the Thames underneath, and one could imagine being in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. Already, cyclists make up some 70 per cent of traffic at peak times over the bridge.

Photo courtesy @RantyHighwayman
Photo courtesy @RantyHighwayman

The east-west route, now stretching from east of Tower Bridge to Parliament Square and through to Hyde Park, has become a major cycling thoroughfare. Many people, myself included, have changed their journey patterns in order to make use of the route, not only because it is safe but also because – an interesting and rarely quoted side effect – it is quicker. I save  5 minutes on my route to Westminster from Holloway on what used to be a 30 min journey. The route offers a true alternative.

Using these facilities is a fascinating experience. It is, at times, like being part of a Space for Cycling demonstration ride as there are so many people using them. In fact, there are already concerns that part of the network will become so heavily used that people will spill onto the roads or cause such delays that people will be deterred from using them. The civilising effect of cycling will become a reality in London.

Photo Courtesy Mark Treasure
Photo courtesy Mark Treasure

A key lesson from this experience is that it does not pay to be fainthearted. The original Cycle Superhighways, introduced at the cost of tens of millions of pounds in the first Boris Johnson administration which lasted till 2012, were a total failure. They consisted of little more than blue paint of various hues with no attempt at continuity or protection. They resulted in several deaths and were mostly shunned by cyclists.

The second version of the Cycle Superhighways however is completely different: Long continuous sections of protected cycleways, properly signalled and extremely comfortable to use, and safe. They are, quite simply, world class. They are a decisive engineering solutions to a social transport problem and have already become a strong presence in London, showing that the city is serious about cycling. They were pushed through, against considerable opposition, by a mayor who had learnt the lessons of the initial failure of the first Cycle Superhighways with the help of his cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, who was, quite literally, evangelical about the need to boost cycling in the city, having himself taken it up at a relatively late age and consequently lost considerable weight. The combination of the politician and his adviser proved fruitful.

Photo courtesy Alex Ingram
Photo courtesy Alex Ingram

The lessons for cities like Newcastle are clear.

First, change can happen if there is the will. It is only a generation ago that cycle paths were ripped out by some London boroughs who maintained the argument that cyclists got in the way of the traffic. Now, cycling is totally accepted as part of the transport picture.

Secondly, it showed that if there is real political desire, and a clear vision, it is possible to push through a radical alternative in the face of opposition. No one is going to tear up these new routes, just as, for example, no one is going to reinstate cars in Leicester Square or on the north side of Trafalgar Square, both pedestrianised despite many objections.

Don’t hesitate. Do it now!


Christian Wolmar