Jonn Elledge: Transport for London’s cycle route map doesn’t cut it

Jonn Elledge: Transport for London’s cycle route map doesn’t cut it

On a trip across north London the other day, somewhere on the western side of Clissold Park, I noticed something exciting. Green Lanes now has a cycle lane! Two of them, in fact! Separated from the rest of the traffic! By plastic wands! “Looks like Green Lanes has acquired some..green lanes,” I chuckled to myself, or would have done if only I had thought of it sooner, and it wasn’t also incredibly lame. 

On a trip across Central London a few days later, I noticed something depressing. The Euston Road cycle lanes, installed to much fanfare and wailing and gnashing of teeth last spring, have been partially ripped out. The eastbound lane remains – bus stops have even been repositioned slightly in a manner that suggests its permanent. But it still begins and ends at ostensibly random points and the westbound lane has been removed altogether: if you don’t know this, and decide to use those segregated cycle lanes you heard about last year, you’re going to find yourself unexpectedly hanging out in several lanes of terrifyingly busy road traffic.

Now. Leave aside for a moment your strongly held views on whether cycle lanes are good or bad, whether cyclists should wear helmets and pay road tax, whether drivers who drive dangerously should be publicly shamed and/or executed and so forth. Consider instead the fact that I – a person who spends more time thinking about London infrastructure than any sane man really should – had no idea about either of these things. That’s because Transport for London isn’t doing a great job of talking about them.

TfL does maintain a map of sorts of the city’s cycle routes. But it’s a pretty basic sort of affair, showing completed sections of the new generation of signposted routes but making no attempt to suggest safe cut-throughs or quiet streets that night turn the fairly random selection of routes into something resembling a city-wide network.

It’s also incomplete – the Green Lanes lanes do not currently feature (the closest is the non-segregated CS1, a few hundred metres to the east). The Euston Road one does feature, as it happens, but the map doesn’t bother to mention that it’s only half there and that if you try to go in the other direction you’re rapidly going to find yourself fighting for road space with several tonnes of bus. This map is pretty much useless when it comes to journey planning.

TfL’s line on this is that this doesn’t matter because it isn’t for journey planning. There’s an actual journey planner for that, which has a cycling mode that directs cyclists down quiet back streets and so on. Spokespeople say that one reason the agency is keeping things simple is because new cycle routes are being rolled out so fast: it’s just easier to keep track of them through the cartographic equivalent of attacking a map with a magic marker pen than through a carefully designed but ever changing diagram like the Tube map.

Maybe. But journey planning isn’t the only reason for having a map. Nor is showing off how much infrastructure you’ve built. A big benefit of a cycle map would be to show users where they could go: sparking ideas for journeys and ambitions to explore new parts of town by bike. 

It can be done. The people behind the unofficial Route Plan Roll maps maintain both a Tube map style diagram of Central London, which highlights the best routes as well as a few links between them, plus a Google Maps layer which includes useful cycle routes right across London. Some of these are officially signposted routes or those separated from motor traffic; others are not, but are featured anyway, so as to turn a disconnected tangle of separate routes into something resembling a network.

There is no obvious reason why TfL, with its greater resources and better understanding of London’s roads, couldn’t do the same in-house. There are, however, clear reasons why it might choose not to. Route Plan Roll highlights the quality of different routes, showing which are safely separated from motor traffic and which involve tangling with buses and Uber drivers.

A TfL equivalent would either have to do the same, thus highlighting problems with the network as it stands, or consciously choose not to, thus potentially misleading users. Add that to the fact that a comprehensive map would remind everyone that certain boroughs just don’t want any cycling infrastructure and there’s not a lot TfL can do about it – hello, Kensington & Chelsea – and you can see why the agency may have decided it just isn’t worth the bother.

That feels like a mistake. If London’s transport authority really wants to get more people on their bikes, it isn’t enough to offer them a journey planner: it needs to show them where they might go. The current map doesn’t cut it.

Jonn Elledge is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter

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