Super Duper Highways

Finally London gets some cycling infrastructure it deserves. Simon Munk reports on the new North-South and East-West Cycle Superhighways

Iconic cycling boulevards that stretch for miles through London - from Elephant and Castle in the south to Farringdon in the north, and from Hyde Park in the west to Tower Bridge in the east. Safe, largely separated space for cycling which connects to routes that head out as far as Barking and pass close to other Cycle Superhighways (such as the upgraded CS2 to Stratford, CS1 to Tottenham and CS5 to Oval). Yes, the much heralded East-West and North-South Superhighways are finally (mostly) open.

It’s been a long, hard fight to get them in. They faced serious opposition from the London Taxi Drivers Association, Canary Wharf Group and London First. And there has been widespread pushback on social media from those angry at congestion caused by roadworks, with critics panning the empty tracks - when they were still under construction. But they’re finally here. So are they any good?

North-South Superhighway

The Route

Running from Elephant and Castle roundabout in the south, N-S avoids London Road to take a detour, via St George’s Road and Lambeth Road, to reach St George’s Circus. This appears to be about the bus lanes on London Road and maintaining traffic capacity. This initial section is awkward and involves narrow tracks, on-road sections and two junctions that need much more design work to make them better.

The design at Elephant and Castle remains very problematic. The diversion (which most ignore, staying in the bus lanes on London Road) likewise. And some of the specific design elements at St George’s Circus retain hook risks and remain hostile to cycling. LCC and local group, Southwark Cyclists, remain in dialogue with TfL and key stakeholders at City Hall about potential improvements.

Thankfully, things get a lot better north of the Circus. Along the length of Blackfriars Road, across the bridge, and up Farringdon Street is a truly international-quality, wide, smooth, two-way track. It rarely forces those cycling to stop, and where it does (at major junctions) the signal designs eliminate left-hook risks and design-in safer left and right turns, enabled by lights and ‘pockets’ (safe areas before turns).

Although some work is still in progress the numbers using these facilities are clearly through the roof - and there’s a sudden and noticeable shift towards ‘everyday’ cyclists - those wearing non-technical clothing, often without helmets. Some of this may be due to curiousity, as well as interest from campaigners, engineers, etc.  taking a peek at the new infrastructure. But the signs are very encouraging.

North of the bridge, N-S currently stops on Farringdon Street north of Fleet Street but before the Holborn viaduct and Smithfields Market.

The Links

Phase two of N-S has been consulted on. It proposes a split from two-way tracks into two ‘with-flow’ tracks on either side of the road south of Charterhouse Street, and then shortly further on, at Greville Street, the tracks diverge further. 

Northbound, the track becomes a Quietway equivalent route along Herbal Hill, ending up via Tavistock Place on Judd Street. The idea is it will then link to a track on Midland Road.

Southbound, the track runs downhill from Ray Street but it features interruptions for bus stops. Worryingly, this proposal is far less high-quality than the first phase of N-S. 

The existing N-S also intersects with the E-W Superhighway at Victoria Embankment on the north side of the Thames. And from there, eastbound, it’s a short stretch to reach CS3 at Tower Hill. However going 'east' does initially involve going west down the old Embankment slip-road before turning east at the bottom.

What doesn’t work is the link to the upgraded CS2 where poorly-designed, semi-segregated measures have been removed around the Aldgate gyratory, and there remains little done to the Tower Hill area to facilitate any link to CS2. 

On the southern bank, N-S intersects with the Central London Cycle Grid of Quietways at Upper Ground, at Union Street (Q14 ‘Jubilee Quietway’, Blackfriars Road to Tower Bridge Road) and again at Webber Street (Q1 Waterloo to Greenwich). And just before Elephant & Castle N-S crosses one of the few passable bits of CS7 that then continues as far south as Merton, but only using ‘blue paint’.

The Good

Incredibly high-quality continuous section of track running from St George’s Circus to beyond Fleet Street - with all major junctions featuring signals that remove hook risks. The track is largely wide, flat and already very popular for good reason.

The Bad

The initial southern section - the design at Elephant and Castle, the detour via St George’s Road, the remaining issues at St George’s Circus - and some of the other minor design details remain a problem. Some examples include:

  • the sets of lights at the northern end of Blackfriars Bridge that are overly delaying: you face three sets of lights in quick succession
  • the weak link to Queen Victoria Street
  • the left-turn pockets out of the Cycle Superhighway that don’t feel safe

Often turns into the Cycle Superhighway aren’t great either.

East-West Superhighway

The Route

The E-W runs from Tower Bridge in the east (directly linking at the end into CS3 on Royal Mint Street) to Westbourne Terrace in the west, near Paddington. But the section from St James’s Park westwards is not set to be completed until October. As yet there’s little sign of the tracks promised along Birdcage Walk, around Spur Road in front of Buckingham Palace or along Constitution Hill.

For now, either way, the effective route runs from Great George Street (between St James’s Park and Parliament Square) in the west, to Tower Hill in the east. This is three miles of riding on wide, continuous two-way track right through the heart of London (compared to barely over a mile on N-S).

Running just north of the river, the track runs on the south side of the road until just west of Blackfriars Bridge, then switches to the north side until the eastern end at Tower Bridge.

The Links

E-W links with:

  • the North-South Cycle Superhighway at Blackfriars Bridge
  • the start of CS7 at Southwark Bridge
  • the Central London Cycle Grid north of that point via Queen Street

Another Central London Cycle Grid link supposedly joins to CS2 although there’s little sign of that so far. And at the western end (for now), Horse Guards Road is the start of another Grid route.

What’s missing entirely is any link onto Tower Bridge in any meaningful manner.

TfL also consulted on an extension of E-W. This continues the track up Westbourne Terrace and onto the Westway itself, the famous urban flyover. There, a vehicle traffic lane is given up for a relatively narrow two-way track protected by a screen from the huge volumes of motor traffic.

The plans get worse as E-W heads further west: the Westway section features nowhere near enough entrance/exit points; and the A40 section after that sees cycling on an often narrow shared-use path with little or no protection from the traffic thundering past. Although it will be useful for some cyclists, it’s not a fitting design to feature as a Cycle Superhighway.

CS3 to the east is also potentially due an upgrade: an innovative scheme on Cable Street proposes to remove through traffic and sees cyclists riding in the road ‘with flow’ with very light traffic, and turning the existing, narrow, two-way track one-way. If this scheme works and is rolled out to Royal Mint Street also, then CS3 will be a more suitable link to E-W.

The Good

Multiple miles of largely wide, high-quality two-way cycle track, with few interruptions. The quality may not be to the same standard as on N-S, but the sheer quantity wins out here.

E-W takes in even more landmark tourist locations - from the Tower of London, Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, to the Royal Parks and Buckingham Palace. Hire cycles along here will be in high demand for active tourists.

The Bad

The link to Tower Bridge is non-existent and this will remain a hostile area for cycling. Likewise, the lack of a proper link to join to CS2 is a massive missed opportunity so far. Throughout, designs to link to other routes are not up to scratch.

And again, design details often need more thought, from the ludicrously steep, raised tables at pedestrian crossings on some sections, to the narrower sections, and some of the overly complex junctions.