Interview: Peter Murray, chair of New London Architecture and organiser of the London Cycle Summit

Peter Murray's a man with many hats. Not only is he chair of New London Architecture and organiser of the recent London Cycle Summit, he organised the fact-finding Portland to Portland ride and also  founded the annual Cycle to Cannes ride. Among other things, Tom Bogdanowicz asks him about cycling infrastructure and modern living cities.

Peter Murray chats to Janette Sadik-Khan in New York

You’ve just completed a ride from Portland, Oregon to Portland Place in London with fellow architects and designers looking at 12 major cities (Portland, Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indianapolis, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, New York, Bristol, Oxford and London) and how they cater for cycling. What have you learned? 

We were very impressed by the speed with which US cities have implemented new cycling infrastructure and how they have changed the culture around cycling. Minneapolis received its first funding in 2005 and has since then built a comprehensive network of cycle routes, shared 'Bike Boulevards', traffic-free trails and the Midtown Greenway which brings suburban cyclists into the heart of the city along a redundant rail track. There has been a substantial amount of new building along the Greenway as developers realise that younger occupiers are attracted to apartments with good cycling links into the city — London developers please note! 

In New York the cycling revolution started in 2007 with the publication by Mayor Bloomberg of PLANYC (the equivalent of the London Plan); the key aim was to make New York the US’s most sustainable city. While there are still major gaps in the system, what has been achieved in just six years is impressive. The Hudson River Parkway which runs up the west side of Manhattan is the most brilliant piece of infrastructure and shows what could be done along the Thames with a bit of imagination; the bike routes which carry cyclists across the East River bridges, threaded into these giant pieces of engineering, are a great example of simple designs that could make the idea of upper level routes over existing road and rail a reality in London. 

Janette Sadik-Khan, Bloomberg’s inspirational Commissioner for Transport, has not only been responsible for improving the conditions for cycling, she has done so in the context of creating better public spaces across the city, providing greenery and places to sit out by more efficient and imaginative use of roadways. Her method of delivering such radical change is well worth emulating —first carry out a temporary solution, paint the streets, separate it with planters, put out the seats. If it works then put in the permanent landscaping. If it doesn’t, it can easily be reversed. In most cases it works.

In Philadelphia timber decking has been extended over canals to provide wider paths to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians: we could do this along large sections of London’s canals and still allow two narrowboats to pass. 

In Portland people talked about ‘Active Transportation’, putting cycling alongside walking and public transport as a part of an integrated policy. I like that. It avoids the silos that occur when you separate out the different modes. 

One of our lasting memories of cycling across the States is the consideration shown to us by other road users. Car drivers and truckers gave us the sort of clearance I only expect in mainland Europe. A 3ft rule is now law in 21 states (Pennsylvania has a 4ft rule). While cyclists complained that the rule was not enforced, the legal ramifications in the case of an accident clearly had an impact in the US’s highly litigious environment. 

I guess it’s obvious but we found that the key ingredients of change were strong political leadership and money! While London may have support in City Hall some boroughs still need convincing. Change was also driven by strong competition between cities to move up the rankings of best cycling city — perhaps LCC could encourage London councils to compete to become the Best Biking Borough.

You live and work in London where thousands of cyclists want to see radical change to improve cycling conditions. What do you think are the priorities for our capital?

Where to start? A blanket 20mph limit across the Central Activity Zone — this would, at a stroke, deliver safer cycling and also humanise large tracts of the city like Euston Road, the Victoria Embankment and Park Lane. This should also be applied to all residential areas and town centres in the suburbs. 

We need more protected cycle lanes, we need continuous lanes and we need consistent signage and junctions right across the Greater London area. Boroughs doing their own thing is just not acceptable. 

We should have Green Waves on traffic lights so that vehicles travelling at 12mph don’t have to keep stopping. We need to change the relationship between the different road users and cyclists should do their bit to improve relations. I find the quality of cycling in London often very poor, while there is a need for more training in schools, this above all requires a change in attitude. 

Janette Sadik-Khan started a programme in New York called ‘Don’t be a jerk’ to encourage more considerate cycling. I get cut up by other cyclists as often as I do by taxi drivers. 

From the architect’s perspective — is cycling becoming an essential ingredient of a liveable modern city?

Very much so. It fits in with overall strategies for delivering more sustainable buildings and cities. In calculating the energy efficiency of developments using the BREEAM assessment method points, are scored by providing facilities for cyclists. Developers are requiring more parking and showers for their occupiers as they realise it's essential if they are going to let the buildings, and planners are demanding increasing amounts of cycle parking — the City of London planners are doubling their requirement in regulations due to come into effect next year. They could all do more but cycling is certainly on all their agendas now. 

What was the message on cycling that you were getting from politicians in the US?  

That it ticks a lot of boxes. It is healthier for a society where obesity and Diabetes 2 are at epidemic levels. It also improves air quality — two of the cities we visited, Pittsburgh and Cincinatti, were in the top ten of the US’s most polluted cities. In New York Mayor Bloomberg promoted cycling and walking as a way of improving the quality of public spaces in the city as well as a means of transport. 

In Portland cycling is seen as a key part of the local economy supporting tourism, as well as local jobs and manufacturing. The bespoke bicycle business is growing exponentially. Chris King of Chris King Precision Components advises President Obama on how the bike industry can boost employment and regeneration. Rapha, who provided us with some great kit for the ride, have opened up their Club and email HQ in Portland. I rode across the US on a bike I had made in Portland by John McCaffrey of Kesho — a very comfy steel randonnée bike — because I’m very interested in the whole idea of making and manufacturing renaissance. John painted ‘Hand made in Portland Oregon’ across the frame. 

When we rode through Bristol we were joined by the new Mayor George Ferguson who was excited by the success of the Bespoked Bristol exhibition and the lessons that has for the local economy. 

As part of the preparation for your Portland to Portland ride your group visited Copenhagen, Rotterdam and Freiburg — what elements of what is being done in these cities would you like to see applied in London? 

From Copenhagen: one-way separated bike lanes and bike lanes located on the near side of parked cars rather than on the off side, so that the cars create a buffer; motorists who, when turning across a cycle path, will wait for riders to go past rather than trying to push in.

In Rotterdam: standard junctions where the motorists’ stop line is always in advance of the bike route so that there is no fear that cars will shoot out in front of you. 

In Freiburg: although most of the infrastructure is white line, the consistency of design and the continuity of lanes is such (and drivers so considerate) that cycling always felt very safe. 

Architects and planners shape our cities, for better, for worse: vast gyratories like Elephant & Castle or Swiss Cottage that were once considered progressive now blight parts of London — what can architects and planners do to make London a sustainable city? 

It is interesting to compare the images produced by architects and planners of new developments today with those of the 1960s. Fifty years ago architects would do renderings showing developments with wide roadways and speeding cars; today their computer-generated images show pedestrian areas, people sitting out in pavement cafés and a bike route or two teeming with cyclists. That is the dream, yet it is often hard to deliver. 

In terms of wider sustainability The London Plan sets out a robust policy for creating a denser city where new development takes place in locations with good public transport provision. This strategy was initially set out in The Urban Task Force Report by Richard Rogers. Rogers’s work is currently on show at the Royal Academy and his ‘London As it Could Be’ includes plans to turn Victoria Embankment into a park. This is a great example of blue sky thinking going back to the 1980s which I hope one day will happen (Ken supported it, but Boris, so far, hasn’t). Rogers shows how architects can provide a vision of how much better cities can be if we control the motor vehicle and make places for people. 

Do you think architectural practices are now committed to integrating cycling into their designs or is it still a case of simply fulfilling the minimums required by the planning regulations?

Architects respond to the demands of their clients and increasingly developers of offices and housing projects are realising they need to accommodate the needs of cyclists. What office developers are failing to take into account is the scale of the increase in demand so that the provision for cycling in buildings is insufficient before the buildings are finished. At a recent Cycling Forum run by the City of London, officers highlighted pre-let office blocks where tenants were demanding more cycle space even before they had moved in.

How can we avoid situations like London Bridge where a billion pound plus development is being built, but the outcome for cycle users is that cycle routes will be significantly worse (one route is being removed because of the development) rather than better? 

Andrew Gilligan has admitted that bike provision in London still largely reflects the old idea of cyclists as a tiny, irrelevant minority; this attitude is changing but too slowly. We need to speed up the cultural change that is taking place; politicians and transport engineers must understand the exponential growth in demand for cycling and design for it. 

Returning from America to London I had forgotten how dense cycling is here; despite the lack of infrastructure London cyclists continue to pour onto the streets. Cycling is an incredibly efficient use of road space, it is non-polluting, it is good for your health — it is essential that it moves up the pecking order of road users.

You’ve worked with developers associated with the Cycle to Cannes ride to improve lorry safety and driver training. What more can be done to reduce lorry danger? 

Because the C2C riders are all involved with architecture and development in some way [they ride to a big property fair in the south of France each year in March], the charity has been developing an additional clause to the normal building contracts that requires sub-contractors to use lorries with close-proximity sensors, full safety mirrors and prominent signs warning cyclists of the danger of undertaking. Without these safety features vehicles would not be allowed on sites and contractors wouldn’t get jobs. It is a very effective way of changing corporate habits. 

We found a high level of professionalism among truckers in the States, a realisation of the responsibilities that driving big bits of kit brings in contrast to the impatient revving and tight overtaking that is too often the norm in the UK.

We were interested in studying what is happening in the States because it is the land of the automobile — and if it can change its culture towards cycling, so can everywhere else. To paraphrase HG Wells: "When I cycle through the bike trails and cycle lanes of Portland, of Minneapolis, Philadelphia or New York, I no longer despair for the future of the human race."