The Bow Roundabout is 40 years old. It was carved out of my local neighbourhood as part of the creation of an urban motorway, the A102(M)Hackney Link, and required the demolition of several residential streets. In the late 1960s the Greater London Council had been keen to create a motorway box around inner London, and the East Cross Route is one of the few sections that was ever built. At Bow an underpass carries through traffic safely beneath the roundabout, while local traffic interchanges via a series of slip roads. To the north is Hackney Wick, and to the south the Blackwall Tunnel Approach Road. In 2000 the motorway was downgraded to a major trunk road, the A12, allowing the new Greater London Authority to take ownership. Few cyclists ride this way - the dual carriageway is too scary, and the parallel Lea towpath hugely safer.
Which means that the great majority of cyclists who negotiate the Bow Interchange are travelling east/west, not north/south. That east/west road is the A11, an important artery for traffic exiting the City, which on the Stratford side becomes the A118 dual carriageway. In this direction most through traffic is carried by the Bow Flyover, a low sweeping affair which comfortably avoids the roundabout altogether. If all traffic travelled straight ahead no roundabout would be required. But instead a considerable number of vehicles turn either left or right, to join or leave the thundering A12, and it's this which introduces considerable conflict.
The Mayor's Cycle Superhighway 2 chooses to route cyclists via the roundabout, not the flyover. This involves negotiating a set of traffic lights to enter the roundabout, then crossing the path of vehicles driving onto and off the A12. The original CS2 delivered cyclists to the Bow Roundabout and left them there to make their own way forward. In October 2011, Brian Dorling rode no further. The brand new CS2 extension, opened officially last week, provides a safe segregated lane as far as the roundabout, then opens up cyclists to risk for a few crucial yards before joining up with a safer blue strip on the other side. It was in that gap, during yesterday morning's rush hour, that Bow Roundabout claimed another two-wheeled victim.
Logically it would seem more sensible to route cyclists via the flyover. The overpass is broad - two lanes wide in each direction, one of which could easily be given over to bikes. There'd be no need to interact with the trucks and lorries underneath, and safe crossing would be guaranteed. Indeed that's what the majority of cyclists still choose to do, ignoring the blue superhighway in favour of the unofficial flyover. But there is a catch, a major one, and that's joining and exiting the flyover at each end. The flyover begins on the right hand side of the road, whereas the superhighway runs on the left, and there's no safe way to cross from one to the other. Entering the flyover requires a leap of faith across a stream of vehicles, and exiting requires merging into and through the flow of traffic.
In January last year TfL proposed two possible solutions to bicycle danger at the Bow Roundabout. One was a set of cycle 'early-start' lights, via the roundabout, which was the option they eventually picked. But the other was a segregated lane over the flyover, which they ultimately disregarded. It was the entrance and exit issue which killed off the flyover option. To make an up-and-over superhighway 100% safe would require a foolproof method of transference, which could only be achieved by installing additional traffic lights at both the start and finish of the flyover on both sides. This wouldn't have smoothed the traffic flow, it would have ground it to a halt... plus most cyclists would never have waited for the lights anyway and swung out into the traffic of their own accord. A tempting solution on paper, but ridiculously impractical in real life.
So we're left with the solution that kills people - an extra set of traffic lights, the cycle 'early-start'. As I've explained before this layout ought to be safe if everyone uses it properly, but everyone doesn't. Cyclists approaching the forest of lights don't always realise that if the first is green the second will be red and they should stop. Cyclists often jump the second red because they're several metres ahead of queueing traffic so feel more confident to nip ahead. Drivers sometimes see the second set of lights and stop there, whereas they should have halted at the first set further back. And during the rush hour traffic often backs up on the roundabout itself, so the entire circuit doesn't run how it should and unusual manoeuvres take place. In short the cycle 'early-start' is over-complex, therefore inappropriately used, which can increase risk rather than cutting it back.
As a local resident I should also remind everyone, again, that the Bow Roundabout isn't just grim for cyclists. It's a nightmare for pedestrians too, with eight busy slip roads converging and not a single light-controlled crossing. Four of these are manageable, with care, but the four exit roads have almost constant unpredictable traffic, requiring a mixture of luck, judgement and faith to get across. Adding to the horror are two contraflow lanes beneath the Stratford side of the flyover, necessary for local traffic but counter-intuitive to cross. Indeed I'm amazed there hasn't yet been a pedestrian casualty at the Bow Roundabout, because that casualty has almost been me on several occasions. But all of TfL's so-called improvements, including the latest cycle 'early-start' lights, have been installed with no provision for pedestrians whatsoever.
TfL have now tweaked the Bow Roundabout several times without yet creating somewhere safe to ride or safe to walk. It seems increasingly likely that a more radical solution is required, one which involves unmaking the motorway junction installed in the 70s and replacing it with something better. That's not going to be cheap or easy, and would likely cause a massive amount of inconvenience at this key road junction. There are no alternative crossing points of the Lea anywhere nearby, so to radically rework this interchange could create months of gridlock and sever local communications. Solutions involving bridges, subways and elevated cycle rings are scuppered by the existence of an underpass and flyover. Wiping out roads and starting again might be prohibitively expensive, requiring demolition of adjacent properties, but then no outcome is perfect. Indeed if there were an ideal solution one expects TfL would already have embraced it. But with pressure mounting, and now a third death at the same blackspot, surely something has to be done.
I attended a vigil at the Bow Roundabout yesterday evening, in memory of the as yet unnamed woman cyclist who'd died earlier that morning. Hundreds of cyclists came from all over the capital to remember, and to mourn, and to demand hope for the future. For a few minutes they reclaimed the roundabout for their own, circling in protest as the police held increasingly frustrated motorists back. And then after a short speech they melted away, their point made, their silent voices heard. It would be good never to attend another vigil here at the Bow Roundabout. But I fear that's what I said last time.