London's first two Cycle Superhighways open today. There'll eventually be twelve, but for now there's only CS3 from Barking to the Tower and CS7 from Merton to the City. Millions have been spent rejigging junctions and laying down lane markings in a particularly penetrating shade of light blue. Will they transform cycling in the capital and make bike-commuting a genuine pleasure? Or will they lure novice cyclists out of their comfort zone and under the wheels of some passing vehicle? I followed one of them (on foot) to try to find out.
CS3: Tower Gateway - Barking
Royal Mint Street: Unlike busy CS7, Cycle Superhighway number 3 follows quiet backroads for the majority of its length. It all kicks off behind the Royal Mint, on the gyratory system close to Tower Gateway station. If you can reach this point from work without being run over, then a smooth commute home should await. It's definitely a smooth start, with dedicated blue lanes for cyclists between the pavement and the street.
Cable Street: The super Superhighway continues. You couldn't really ask for much more, with twin blue lanes firmly segregated from the narrow roadway alongside. Much of Cable Street is one way, for four-wheeled traffic at least, whereas cyclists can nip along in both directions to their heart's content [photo]. And there's two full kilometres of this to enjoy, whisking riders all the way out to Limehouse with barely a care in the world. Now you might see this as a victory for the Cycle Superhighway, except it turns out that almost all of this cycleway existed before and has been available for years. Even the bizarre switchback by Stepney Causeway, which I was all ready to slag off as a ludicrous route which no sane cyclist would ever follow, turns out to be a hangover from the pre-CS era [photo]. There have been a few 2010 tweaks along Cable Street, however. The lanes used to be green rather than bright blue, for example, and now extend across most road junctions rather than briefly terminating. There's also a new electronic sign near Shadwell station which lights up saying "Think Bike" if you're driving too fast (although I noticed that approaching bikes also set it off, which seemed a bit unnecessary). But most of the perfection here is old school, not Boris-induced.
Limehouse: CS3's first busy road crossing is negotiated via a newly-installed toucan crossing, then it's up and over the Rotherhithe Tunnel exit ramp (with a slightly-too steep angle of ascent for any weary cyclist biking westward). In Horseferry Road the Superhighway brings a true bonus - a new cyclepath against the grain of the one-way flow, cutting at least a minute off any inbound commute. And then we're in Narrow Street, where the slapping down of bright blue road markings has proved controversial. The street's not been thought suitable for separate cycle lanes, probably because there are too many parking bays, so an alternative means of marking has been used. Big rectangular blue transfers have been ironed onto the road, each labelled with a picture of a bike and the designation "CS3". They're not pretty, especially when they appear to have been slapped down at irregular (and too frequent) intervals, so local residents aren't best pleased. Whilst they do their job of reminding drivers to watch out for cyclists on this quiet backstreet, one could easily argue they're an intrusive form of visual pollution which permanently scars this conservation area. [photo]
Westferry: Every now and then, the Superhighway planners have stuck in an impractical blue-lane slalom purely to meet health and safety requirements. So it is on a quiet street outside Westferry DLR station, where eastbound cyclists are expected to zigzag up onto the pavement and then make an immediate right turn around a lamppost. Westbound riders have it worse, invited to veer off the pavement, pass between two traffic bollards, then turn instantly right along the edge of a bus lane for five metres, then left back up onto the kerb. I'm sorry, but surely no practical cyclist is ever going to do this. They're going to cut diagonally across the corner following the line of least resistance, ignoring the blue lanes completely, however briefly 'risky' that might be. [photo]
Poplar High Street: Here, as in Narrow Street, the presence of the Superhighway is marked by big blue rectangles scattered irregularly along the roadway. This shouldn't be a problem for cyclists - the traffic here is invariably light - but it means there's a full mile without the security of a dedicated blue lane. Well almost. Occasionally the lane-painters have sneaked in a ten metre blue strip between parking bays, but never ever long enough to be worth diverting into. And there's another jobsworth-style up-on-the-pavement diversion, merely to avoid a traffic-calmed pinchpoint, which only the most risk averse cyclist would ever use. [photo]
East India: Out past Docklands already, avoiding all Blackwall Tunnel congestion by following narrow Naval Row. And then the Cycle Superhighway goes very wrong. The estate round Tower Hamlets Council HQ must be private, because they've refused to allow blue lanes to carve across the lakeside piazza. Instead a few tiny blue squares have been laid down to indicate the route, sort of, should anybody notice them [photo]. Along Saffron Avenue the entire Superhighway is blocked by a security barrier(!) which a guard has to raise for you (unless you nip up naughtily onto the pavement) [photo]. The impractical lane markings at the junction of Coriander Avenue and Sorrel Lane must be the product of a delusional mind. And nobody's yet bothered to paint anything along/across the busy Leamouth dual carriageway, so here's where I'd expect pioneering cyclists to get incredibly lost this morning. Really, this whole stretch is poor, as if bicycles are still a mere afterthought rather than any sort of priority.
Canning Town: In contrast, the twin lane blue highway along the East India Dock Road bridge is lovely [photo]. Again it's nothing new, just the original cycle lane painted blue, but if the entire Superhighway were like this then far more people might use it. Unfortunately not. At the Canning Town flyover cyclists are expected to dismount and cross one... two... three... four separate light-controlled crossings, rather than risk a spin round the roundabout. No thanks.
That's as far as I walked, because I couldn't face trudging the same distance again all the way out to Barking. It might have been different on a bike, of course. But the I'm afraid this hotchpotch of a route wouldn't tempt me onto two wheels even if I lived nearby. Certain lengthy stretches are reassuringly safe, but they're linked by non-segregated streets and awkward risky junctions. Cycle Superhighways may be better than nothing, but I fear they're super only in name.
What's on this weekend? Spring Into Summer Saturday 30 & Sunday 31 May
40 free guided London walks. Purley Festival Friday 29 - Sunday 5 June
Bunting week, below Croydon. E17 Art Trail Sat 30th May - Sun 14th June
250 arty Walthamstow things.