Monday, 18 May 2020

Environment Monday - Solving the Borough of Barnets transport problems

Ever since I started to write this blog, back in October 2008, there has been one given that has been accepted almost universally across the political spectrum in Barnet. That has been that there is no solution to the Transport problems of the Borough of Barnet. There are several major challenges. Barnet has several major A roads, the A1, The A41, The North Circular A406, as well as the M1. Each of these have many nightmare junctions that are congestion hotspots and for cylists pose a threat to life and limb. Then there is the woeful lack of any policy of provision of sensible east-west public transport links across the Borough. I got a fascinating insite into this when I used the TFL journey planner to tell me the quickest route on public transport from New Barnet to Mill Hill Broadway.

As you can see the quickest way, if you don't have a car, then a bicycle is the quickest way. The public transport option is a rather bizarre and circuitous route from Barnet to Elstree station and then on a Thameslink train to Mill Hill.

Despite the appalling cycling provision in the Borough of Barnet, cycling is the fastest route between two of the main rail stations in the Borough. I was intrigued by this proposition, so I delved further into the TFL instructions.

This recommends two routes. The quicker is the one via Totteridge and the A5109. This is a route I know quite well, as I walk my dogs around this area on an almost daily basis. The directions send you around Mill Hill Circus, a very busy and not a pleasant roundabout to cycle. Such roundabouts should be made cycle friendly, with safe cycle space ahead of cars and a fourth signal on the traffic lights to allow cyclists to get across. The argument is always that 'there are no cyclists, so it will simply waste motorists time'. This argument misses the point that the lack of cyclists at such junctions is because they are not safe. The vast majority of this route is a fairly pleasant cycle. Sadly over the last few weeks, I've seen some awful driving and awful cycling on the A5109. People seem to have trouble with anger issues when cars mix with bikes. From what I have seen, there is equal responsibility for the trouble on many occasions. Bad cycling inflames bad driving and dangerous manouvres. Equally bad driving has put cyclist behaving perfectly reasonably at risk. Motorist just have to accept that bikes travel more slowly than cars and that if you want to overtake, you have to do it safely. Often when cyclists swerve in front of you, it is to avoid potholes. That is why you should not overtake too closely or when you may have to swerve back to avoid an oncoming car on a blind bend. Equally, I witness some suicidal cycling, where a 251 bus, stopped at a stop, was overtaken by a bike on a blind bend. Fortunately the oncoming car was travelling slowly. The fact that the cyclist gave a finger to the motorist, who was driving sensibly for having the audacity to be on the road, was a classic example of why some motorists do get irate. I have come to the view that the cycling proficiency test should become compulsory for road users and that cyclists should have driving licences. As we want to encourage cycling, I'd provide these free of charge, but for cyclists who break the rules of the road, I would remove them. I also think cyclists should be insured. Given the amount of money many spend on Lycra, I'm sure a few quid could be spared. I would also like to see annual MOT's for bikes. This is for the safety of the cyclist. I came to this view after my sister had a major accident whilst cycling, when a bike she had hired literally fell to bits. She suffered brain damage and would have probably died if her husband wasn't an A&E doctor and able to provide first aid on the spot. As it was, she had eight hours brain surgery.  Getting people to have their bikes checked on an annual basis would help establish a better network of bike shops. I would set the MOT fee at £5. I am sure that this would be affordable for all and it would generate trade for the shops as people would get the accessories that they hadn't had time to pick up. For areas without shops, regular pop up stores, with other activities would help improving the awareness of safe cycling. I know that much of this is unpopular with the cycling lobby, but safety really should be paramount.

Where cycleways are taken seriously, we see  a massive uptake.  I worked for several years in an office on Victoria Embankment. New Bridge Street had a cycle superhighway on it in the period I was working there. I had mistakenly thought that people would be very reluctant to cycle in central London. I was wrong. After seeing some ignorant statements, claiming it wasn't used, I filmed a short video on my daily commute. The safe spaces for cycling have transformed London and every one of those bikes is potentially a car off the road, less pollution and a healthier human being. That was just an ordinary day, filmed around 8am on may 31st 2017. 

Prior to the installation of cycleways, virtually the only cyclists you'd see would be bike couriers and the odd Boris bike. The safe routes transformed the use of cycles. Such changes in Barnet would likewise make a huge difference. There is a fallacy that there is a motorist vs cyclist divide. Most adult cyclists I know also own cars. The more bikes on the road, the less congestions, the less pollution and the less  heart disease for the NHS to deal with. As a motorist, that has to be good.

The worst congestion in Barnet is caused by the school run. It is verging on tragedy that so many children are not walking or cycling to school. Parents should be building healthy habits in children from a young age. I don't blame parents from caring about the safety of their children, which is why we need safe zones for cycling around schools, on the main routes.  I'd set a network of safe cycle routes to and from all schools for a distance of 1.5 miles. 

But cycling is just part of the picture. The Borough has great public transport links into central London. The Northern line is quick and efficient. There is room for improvement. The service to Mill Hill East is appalling. Not only that, but there is scope to extend it to Copthall, over an existing disused trackbed. This would make access for Saracens and the other sports complexes far easier. There are also two large schools in the area. I cannot understand why that is not a priority. Another plan that will improve public transport is the West London Orbital railway, that will link Hendon, Brent Cross and Cricklewood with West London and specifically Old Oak Common for Crossrail and HS2. I would like to see this extended to The RAF Museum and possibly Mill Hill Broadway. It appears to me that there is space next to the existing lines.

As to the bus network. I find this bemusing. It would make sense to ensure proper bus links between transport hubs and places people need to get to. When Edgware General A&E was closed, people on the West of the Borough found that they had to travel to Barnet Hospital. Surely a bus route between Edgware and Mill Hill and Barnet Hospital is a no brainer. The route should follow the 251 route from Edgware to Burnt Oak, to Mill Hill, then go up the A1 to Apex Corner, to Stirling Corner, on to Barnet Hospital and terminating at Barnet Station. This would make the hospital far more accessible.

Barnet is the largest Borough in London in terms of people, we overtook Croyden a couple of years ago. Croyden has adressed their issues with Tramlink. Barnet are still stuck in the 1960's, beleiving car is king.

I have a radical proposal, one that I am sure everyone will hate. I would resurrect the plan to link the A1 and the M1 at Stirling Corner. The roundabouts are in place, all that is required is a short spur of road. The M1 is very underused between Edgware and Brent Cross. For many motorists, this would be a far better route to the North Circular etc. I hear the green lobby scream "not more roads!". Well this would free up capacity on the A1 and A41 all the way between Stirling Corner and Brent Cross. I would use this opportunity for the extra capacity in one of two ways. The first would be to make space for a tramway, from Barnet station to Edgware. This would follow the bus route I mentioned, but from Mill Hill to Edgware would reuse the old track bed. I would also or alternatively convert one lane of the road into a dedicated cycle superhighway from Stirling Corner to Brent Cross. I would also open a rail distribution depot for freight at Scratchwoods. With access from the M1 and A1, this would be a quick way of getting freight in and out of London. There is much work being done on small palletised freight. If we could get a few HGV's off Londons roads, that can only be a good thing. I think that more bikes and  cars into London diverted down the M1 will make a huge difference to congestion. For the record the M1 is at the bottom of my back garden, so I am not going to be a winner if this is done, but it will be better if we can get those safer cycle routes in

As I said, I am sure there will be howls of derision from all. But we need to think in a different way if we are going to make London and the Borough of Barnet a truly people centric city. The route to this is better cycling, better public transport, less freight in HGV's and reusing and repurposing what we already have. I am not against improved road developments, if they result in safer cycling provision, but that should be a first priority.

I'd be interested to know whether people agree with these suggestions or what their alternatives are. The bottom line is that 1960's 'car is king'policies don't work.

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