Removals of “pop-up” cycle lanes: a national concern

By Kezia Saunders

ELF receives enquiries from all over the UK, so we often identify pulse-points of recurring environmental concerns. The issue-of-the-moment seems to be the removal of cycle lanes and related themes of de-pedestrianising. 

Since late 2020, ELF has been supporting local group Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea in their campaign to re-instate a safe cycle lane on High Street Kensington, located in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) in London. ELF sent a pre-action protocol letter in December 2020 regarding RBKC’s decision to remove the lane and then a second and finally a third pre-action protocol letter in May 2021 in response to RBKC’s decision not to re-instate the lane. Just last week, Better Streets issued their claim papers in the High Court following the council’s decision. We await their response.  

ELF has been proud to support this determined group as they work to protect essential sustainable infrastructure, but have been dismayed to see similar stories appearing in our enquiries and in the news.

The Background

Boris Johnson’s ‘Gear Change’ of 2013 wanted to make England a “great walking and cycling nation”. It claimed an ambitious objective: to revolutionise England’s streets so that cycling became a mass form of transit and the “natural choice for many journeys, with half of all journeys in towns and cities being cycled or walked by 2030.” This aim to make a “truly walkable” nation seemed to be backed up by TFL’s ‘Healthy Streets Approach’, which promised direct investment in walking and cycling infrastructure and urban design that put people above vehicles. However, a decided lack of ambitious movement towards achieving these aims, meaning that we’re still debating their merits many years on, renders these statements somewhat hollow.

However, early last year, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions throughout the UK, the government announced emergency funding for “active travel”, launched to help councils introduce cycle lanes and safer traffic junctions. TFL introduced its Streetspace scheme to implement the schemes across London Boroughs. Many councils took the government up on the offer, however, over the last months, there has been a rush by local councils to remove these so-called “pop-up” cycle lanes. 

The U-Turn

As Covid-19 restrictions have lifted and car users have demanded a return to the road, local councils seem to have been influenced by a small but noisy minority and a rash of cycle lanes have been removed. In the news, Harrow, Croydon, Hounslow, Shoreham, among so many others, have all set to work in a flash. In many of these cases, the cycle lanes have been removed even while the decision-makers raved about the success of the schemes and the positives they brought to the local environment. Arguments that the lanes were only temporary and meant to be a test, seem to miss the point entirely – why get rid of a happily functioning community resource? 

Recent reports by ITV have also flagged the huge amounts of public money invested into these schemes that will be lost when the lanes are removed, and, even more worryingly, the staggering costs of removal! West Shoreham County Council will have spent a whopping £781,000 to install and then remove their cycle lanes! For the removal alone, Kent County Council will spend £33,741.98 on lanes in Dover, Ashford, Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge. Why has this public money, spent on public interest resources such as cycle lanes and footpaths, been thrown away by hasty decisions with limited community-involvement? 

The Outcry

ELF has witnessed from afar, as well as first-hand, the outpouring of dismay from local communities facing the removal of cycle lanes that have allowed them to live more active, healthy and safer lifestyles. Better Streets for Kensington & Chelsea, for Enfield, for Ealing, and for Newham, Shoreham-By-Cycle, and York Cycle Campaign – to name just a few community groups standing up for their right to safe and healthy environments. 

A recent enquirer highlighted Harrow Council’s decision to remove their cycle lanes and Low Traffic Neighbourhoods installed through Streetspace’s public funding. However, community group Healthy Streets for Harrow cite serious issues with the consultation process. In a blog post, Healthy Streets for Harrow suggest that Harrow Council’s feedback system was flawed, didn’t achieve an acceptable level of scientific objectivity to reflect a “general population opinion”, and allowed general negativity to drown out all other voices. This reflects a recurring concern, as shared by Cycling UK, that “councils appear to be ripping out cycle lanes in response to objections from a vocal minority rather than based on consideration of the evidence and benefits of the schemes”.

The Next Steps

Concerns about regressive removals of low-traffic infrastructure are justified, when the government continues to proclaim support for cycling and greener transport, and when the UK’s climate goals will be put under the spotlight at the Glasgow-based COP26 this year.

This year saw the UK’s first official air-pollution-related death, prompting a coroner’s report that underscored the need to reduce particulate matter targets inline with WHO guidelines and ensure they are met. At the same time, Covid-19 highlighted the real impact of air quality on the public’s health and got decision-makers talking about ways to clean up the UK’s air. Keeping all that in mind, it seems almost unthinkable that any local council should choose to remove cycle lanes and prioritise getting cars back on the roads.

Here at ELF, we are committed to supporting communities fighting for their low-traffic resources and encourage locals to gather together and raise their concerns as a group. There is power and visibility in numbers; the growing number of campaign groups has caught our eye, so almost certainly has caught the eye of the councils and decision-makers!

Get in touch if you are concerned about a cycle lane or low-traffic scheme near you. 

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