Monday 20 June 2016

The new East - West Cycle Superhighway in London: before & after pictures

Almost exactly a year ago I took a walk from Tower Hill to the Houses of Parliament. Transport for London had just started construction on the new Cycle Superhighway along here and there were three construction sites; on Lower Thames Street, outside Somerset House and alongside Westminster Pier. I came to have a look at how progress was coming along and to get an idea of how wide they were going to be. I also took the opportunity to photograph the rest of the road where work was not taking place to document what the road conditions were like at the time.

It being a Sunday afternoon it was fairly quiet along most of the stretch

so these photos probably did not reflect the usual conditions you would get when cycling here at peak times on a weekday

with the exception of  where the carriageway was restricted due to the Superhighway construction works, where there were queues

There were also very few lorries using the route, whereas had I taken the pictures during the week I'm certain I would have captured many images of lorries 

Before the Cycle Superhighway arrived I'd never seen any children cycling on this road, either on their own bike or sat on an adults bike, aside from when the freecycle events were taking place or the London Cycling Campaigns Space for Cycling Big Ride in 2014

I did see a couple of people on bikes with children on this day but both were on the pavement

Since the Superhighway has been completed I've seen children here every single time I've visited at the weekend, either with adults

On their own

or young friends cycling together in groups

I have also cycled along the entire stretch of this road with my four year old sat on my bike, as have many other parents 
None of this would have been possible along this road before the Superhighway appeared. What little cycle infrastructure did exist here was advisory, narrow and would simply vanish at various locations. It would be unthinkable to see groups including elderly people cycling along this road using the "cycle infrastructure" that did exist a year ago

It amuses me when anyone makes the arguments that 20mph speed limits on main roads will increase cycling levels in any significant way. Would this road have a higher cycling rate had these 30 signs been replaced by 20 signs instead of the cycle track being built?

Conditions now exist where people do not have to cycle filter through heavy motor traffic with inches to spare

People do not have to "keep their wits about them"

A relaxing and safe cycling environment where people can safely ride side by side whilst having a conversation

Conditions have improved for pedestrians as well as with the superhighway in place there are no more narrow shared space pavements

or rubbish painted cycle lanes slicing pavements in half

Motor traffic is also now further away from the pavements leading to less traffic noise for people walking along the Embankment

and more pavement space has been created, along with new pedestrian crossings and improved public realm

The cycle track can also be used by people on mobility scooters too of course, a common sight in the Netherlands

This new Cycle Superhighway wasn't built particulary because the authorities wanted to provide safe cycling facilities or significantly increase the share of cycling trips in the Centre of the capital; people had to fight for it. Back in 2011 Transport For London consulted on changes at Blackfriars, proposing a motorway interchange style junction comprising of multiple lanes of traffic, an increased speed limit, removing pedestrian crossings (directly outside a tube station entrance) and a few narrow advisory cycle lanes
Under these plans had you wanted to turn right approaching this junction on a bicycle from either direction then you'd have had to cross two lanes of fast moving traffic to do so. The plans were totally unacceptable for a junction with such a high casualty rate in the heart of the City. A lot of people protested, there was a mayoral election with "Love London, go Dutch" commitments from all mayoral candidates and then, to cut a long story short, the new Superhighways were built and some others upgraded

Five years on from the Blackfriars consultation and there is no need to manoeuvre past two lanes of fast moving traffic to turn right here; anyone, no matter what their age or ability, can now navigate this junction.
There has been a lot of nonsense written recently about reducing the capacity of road space in Central London for the superhighways. Victoria Embankment was opened in 1870, reclaiming acres of land from the River Thames. Designed by Joseph Bazalgette its main purpose was to accommodate a low level sewer with the added benefit of space for a new underground railway alongside and a new road on top, creating a new link from Parliament to the City and relieving the heavily congested Strand of some of its horse drawn traffic. Tram lines were added some 30 years later and these ran until the 1950's before the space taken up by trams was given over to more space for motor vehicles right up until this year when roughly the same space the trams took up was converted into the Cycle Superhighway.

Top: Embankment in 1952, via Rob Baker on twitter

As for the route from Blackfriars to Tower Hill much of this did not exist until the 1960's when acres of the City were obliterated to make way for the Blackfriars underpass and the Upper Thames Street tunnels

Picture via Alex Ingram on twitter

The remaining section of Upper and Lower Thames Street has been a street transporting Londoners for centuries and was first mentioned over a thousand years ago with all buildings on the street destroyed during the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Below shows Thames Street (as it was then known) in 1965, shortly before all buildings to the left were demolished to widen the street

original 1965 photo © Copyright David Wright and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

London Bridge, which spans the road here was also demolished (and sold to an American where it continues to be used to this day in Arizona) before a widened bridge was constructed between 1967 and 1972 (lets hope that the plans for cycle tracks on it also becomes a reality).

The photo below is of Lower Thames Street in the 1950's at the end of Monument Street. The Old Billingsgate Market on the right survives as a well used events space but again all buildings on the left were demolished to make way for a wider road

Original photo via A London Inheritance
The building on the left with the colonnades in the 1950's photograph was the London Coal Exchange and a large campaign was fought to save this building from demolition with the Victorial Society and John Betjeman heavily involved. MP Tom Driberg made a speech in parliament where he said "The coal exchange is a national monument in the fullest sense of the phrase, and its destruction would be unforgivable". Despite becoming a Grade 2 listed building in 1958 it was demolished in 1962, the same year the Euston Arch was demolished, both to much public outcry. The determination to plough a four lane road through the heart of the ancient city won the day. The only surviving remnants of the Coal Exchange are the Dragon statues, which were relocated to the Embankment to mark the boundary of the city with replicas then erected elsewhere in the City

Below is a post war map of the area. The coal exchange can be seen on the left side of this image. Despite some "ruins" on the map following the blitz many more buildings were destroyed to widen Thames Street, which now runs North East once it passes Harp Lane to join up with Byward Street to continue north of The Tower of London, creating an artificial hill as it climbs over the District Line tunnels (requiring a change of gear if you ride a heavy Dutch bike like myself).

The former Chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel Lawson recently commented in the House of Lords that the Cycle Superhighways were "doing more damage to London than almost anything since the Blitz". This was following claims from Lord Higgins that the cycle tracks were "causing pollution", an argument I have heard far too many times. What short memories these men have of great swathes of the capital being demolished in the 1960's and 1970's to make way for the motor car, acts which contributed to the congestion and pollution we have today 
London was far from alone in doing this of course, it happened in cities all over the world. Slowly though, many are now undoing this damage and giving space back to people. The creation of the superhighway along the Embankment and Thames Street is a huge step forward in making London a more liveable city. It has transformed some of the streets of London and allowed many children, tourists and just about anyone who wants to get about by bike in Central London to do so. The London Mayor Sadiq Khan promised to continue the cycle superhighway program with a focus on segregation, trebling the length of them and promising to make London a "byword for cycling". This is alongside other measures such as pedestrianising Oxford Street, at long last. With three cyclists and two Oxford Street pedestrians killed since Sadiq became mayor lets hope he sticks to his promises and Londoners put pressure on him to do so.


  1. Brilliant post on a brilliant bit of infrastructure; it turns out there may be some hope for the human race after all! ;) Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you! This is inspirational for those of us in cities across the world. It can be done!

  3. It's extraordinary how much safer this is. I now commute from Hampshire up to Vauxhall and in my first six months witnessed at least 15 accidents at Vauxhall Junction, some very serious and always thought you'd have to be mad cycling here. Since the SuperHighway is in place I haven't witnessed any issues - even saw a cycling proficiency class from a local primary school out there.

    It can be a bit precarious if pedestrians aren't paying attention, but it's good to see something has been done.

  4. Do you know if there are any plans by TFL to review the traffic light timings, particularly at Blackfriars bridge? It's lovely not to be squashed by lorries, but very, very frustrating to be held at three separate red lights while motor traffic either sails through, or queues in traffic with a green signal (or indeed is nowhere to be seen!). Bike journey times through the junction are easily above 2 minutes, forcing bikes to break red lights or rough it on the carriageway like back in the bad old days...

  5. Thanks for info & analysis, keeping pressure/ helping Mayor Khan to deliver safer places, like Oxford Street!

  6. This is a great post. Thank you. As you've demonstrated nicely, the E-W Cycle Superhighway proves that a combination of political will and public pressure can motivate significant change in a very short time. This example gives me great hope that the Mayor's pledge to make Oxford Street traffic-free doesn't have to be just another campaign promise.

  7. Whilst I agree the East/West Cycle Route is wonderful - I refuse to call it 'super highway' which implies speed and isn;t how the Dutch see it at all - where I live in the West provision is paltry, still based on how much it might hold up traffic, has very little money spent on it and is generally too depressing for words. The latest Kingston provision being an example, the Shepherd's Bush disaster and waste of money on the Uxbridge Rd and Goldhawk Rd and the widening of pavements everywhere leaving even less room for cycling. Also - and I cycle some 100s of miles a week the length and breadth of London and the surrounding Chilterns and areas of Surrey - traffic speed is still far too high, not enough entry treatments on side roads and ludicrous cycle paths which simply disappear when the going gets tough. So I'm not too impressed I'm afraid and don;t feel there will be much proper improvement in my lifetime sadly.

  8. Re the road capacity issue...the cycleway has increased the capacity of the road as it can carry many more people than the ordinary traffic lane it replaced.

    Bike traffic is part of "traffic".

  9. Excellent blog celebrating a major move forward for cycling as a transport mode in London; let's hope it is the start of an on-going process of making our capital city a place where people can choose to cycle. Any chance you could do something similar for Tavistock Place (given that the consultation is just opening today)?

  10. I don't even know how I ended up here, but
    I thought this post was good. I do not know who you are but definitely you're going to a famous blogger if you aren't already ;) Cheers!