Merton Council Surprises South Londoners by Starting Shovelling on Sort-of-Secret Shared-Use Strolling & Cycling Scheme to Sutton

In London, we’ve got accustomed to local authorities telling us in excruciating detail their plans to tweak traffic lights, paint yellow lines, install zebra crossings and build cycle lanes. Hardly a day goes by without an angry dust-up on social media and in the letters pages of local papers about the latest proposals: residents demanding changes to parking zones in Wandsworth, taxi drivers unhappy about Bank junction in the City, campaigners arguing about the merits of pedestrianising Oxford Street, and the increasingly bizarre campaign by Chiswick’s Conservatives regarding Cycle Superhighway CS9.

But suppose I told you there’s a council in south London which is about to start an £800,000 project to build a shared-use walking & cycling path, that the plans have not been discussed at a council meeting, it hasn’t been subject to public consultation, that the decision to proceed was published as-good-as-on Christmas Eve and asking for public comments by Boxing Day, and that the roadworks notices were published three days ago on 4 January?

You might raise an eyebrow.

Well, Merton Council starts work tomorrow on the Beddington Lane shared-use path, running 600m between the middle of Mitcham Common and border with Sutton Borough Council at the Beddington Lane tram stop.  This scheme has not been discussed at a council committee (that I can find), has not been presented to the public for consultation, and the notices confirming three months of road closures were placed in the London roadworks database on last week.

Is the scheme any good?  It inherits the same features and flaws as the existing shared-use path running east-west across Mitcham Common – it solves the easy bits but misses the difficult bits that make such a scheme safe and useful.

Make yourself a cuppa and I’ll explain …

 

Remind me, where’s Beddington Lane?

Beddington Lane runs north-south across Mitcham Common, from Pollards Hill to the north, across the common to the boundary with Sutton Council, and through what is largely an industrial estate southwards to Beddington Village.

beddlanemap#2.jpg

Due to the Common, and the railways, there are only three north-south routes between Merton, Sutton and the Waddon area of Croydon whether you are walking, cycling, bussing or driving:

  1. To the west, Carshalton Road, running from Mitcham through Hackbridge to Carshalton and Wallington. Not a great road for people cycling, but arguably the best currently of the three;
  2. In the middle, Beddington Lane, the focus in part for this scheme;
  3. To the east, the A23 Purley Way, running from the Lombard Roundabout, through the Purley Way retail district to the Fiveways Junction at Waddon. This major A-road is really unpleasant for people on two wheels, and the Lombard Roundabout is on Transport for London’s and the London Assembly’s list of dangerous outer London junctions.

The current conditions for people cycling in Beddington Lane are – and I choose my words carefully – fucking awful.  They are little better for people walking.   The pavement and carriageway surfaces have been dug up and re-laid repeatedly by utility companies, leaving the lane suitable only for people riding full-suspension mountain bikes.  The lane is narrow and provides the only access to the industrial estates, bus depots, the new Viridor rubbish incinerator, and an Asda supermarket store, resulting in frequent close passes from people driving anything from cars to HGVs and buses.  In Sutton’s stretch of the lane, there is an incomplete patchwork of shared-use pavements which give way at every junction to motorised traffic.

I’m confident on two wheels, but I never cycle on Beddington Lane north of the village.

Sutton Council is working with Transport for London to improve conditions for people walking, cycling and living along its section – the Beddington North Scheme.  This went to public consultation in July 2017, and we await the final designs reflecting the consultation feedback.  So it’s not a big surprise the Merton Council should wish to address its stretch to the north.

For the next 3 months, motorised traffic will be diverted via Purley Way or Carshalton Road, as Merton’s stretch of Beddington Lane will be closed for reconstruction.

So what’s Merton’s stretch of Beddington Lane like today?

The stretch in scope for this scheme runs for just over 600m from the junction with Croydon Road in the middle of Mitcham Common, southwards to the junction with Brookmead Road.  Brookmead Road itself and the tram-line’s level crossing across Beddington Lane are in the London Borough of Sutton.

The carriageway is approx. 6m wide, badly surfaced and has poor drainage.  The narrow pedestrian pavement is similarly poor, with broken kerbstones and a poor surface, and you’re rubbing your elbows on passing vehicles.

beddlaneasis#2.jpg

So what is Merton proposing for Beddington Lane?

Starting 8 January, Merton will spend £800,000 over three months to:

  1. Widen the carriageway to from 6m to 7.5m;
  2. Build a 3m wide shared-use pavement for people walking and cycling. The shared-use pavement will run for approx. 600m on the east side of the carriageway, replacing the current poor pavement.

Full details of the scheme are in the cabinet member’s decision paper.  I expect it will look something similar to the shared-use pavement built in 2016 on Croydon Road, running east-west across Mitcham Common.  It’s a lot of money, and I guess most of the budget is going towards moving utilities, and installing proper drains to replace the simple ditch on the Common.

croydonroadasis#1.jpg

Note: the lane’s counterpart running north of Croydon Road – Windmill Road – to Commonside East and the residential areas of Pollards Hill is not in scope, and remains unaddressed.

windmillroadasis#1.jpg

So is the scheme good or bad? 

Shared-use pavements

If the Beddington Lane pavement is built similarly to the one on Croydon Road, then it will be very well constructed and smooth.

Local authorities like shared-use pavements: they’re a lot cheaper than properly segregated cycling infrastructure.  They’re used extensively across Merton, often adorned with “Cyclists Dismount” signs where the council has lacked either the imagination or cash to build continuous cycle tracks.

Shared-use pavements are a sub-standard solution for cycling.  The many scenarios set out in chapter 4 of the London Cycling Design Standards do not include shared-use pavements beside busy A-roads.   All the LCDS examples cite some form of segregation between pedestrians, cyclists and motorised traffic.  LCDS section 4.6 is explicit in recommending against shared-use pavements:

the highest levels of service for cyclists come with dedicated facilities, not footways shared with pedestrians”, “it is not desirable to take space from pedestrians to provide for cycling, nor to create cycling facilities that resemble the footway”, “[shared use footways] deter use by many people who find sharing with cyclists intimidating, including people with mobility or visual impairments, … [and] represent a low level of service for cyclists”.

Sustrans too recognises in its design idiom that “shared use routes alongside the carriageway are more likely to justify segregation between cyclists and pedestrians”.  Merton Council’s use of a 3m wide shared-use path in this scheme is narrower than the 3.5m “absolute minimum” used by Sustrans in its design guidance, and complies only with LCDS requirements for an off-road shared-use path such as through a park.

Junctions – getting on and off the shared-use pavements

The bigger issues with this scheme relate to the junctions, and how people cycling and, to a lesser degree, walking will join and leave the path.  It’s easier to explain with a look at the counterpart shared-use path on Croydon Road, running east-west across Mitcham Common.  For at least the next year-or-two, the Beddington Lane scheme inherits the same flaws.

The most significant problem is the junction in the middle of Mitcham Common where Croydon Road intersects with Beddington Lane to the south and Windmill Road to the north.  The junction currently has no signalised phase on any arm to provide a safe crossing to someone walking or cycling.  The refuge islands in the middle of the carriageway are narrower than required by current design standards.

croydonroadjunction.jpg

If you are riding a bicycle westbound on the shared-use pavement, you can either (a) wait by Windmill Road and hope for a gap in the traffic, or (b) re-join the westbound carriageway by entering the Advanced Stop Line (ASL) box, and crossing the junction on a green light phase to nip back onto the path.   Eastbound, you have to wait on the pavement alongside pedestrians for safe gap in the traffic.

croydonroadjunctionv2.jpg

Another issue is that the east end of the Croydon Road, where the path hits the borough boundary with Croydon, is poorly designed.  At the borough boundary, the pavement suddenly narrows to 1m wide.  For people cycling westbound towards Croydon, it’s not clear whether to continue on the pavement into Croydon (and hit the BP petrol station), or re-join the main carriageway, although the design provides no obvious signal to any road user that cyclists should merge.

croydonroadwestend#1.jpg

For people cycling westbound from Croydon onto the common, the problem is worse.  You are expected to cross two lanes of motorised traffic via a courtesy crossing and a refuge island to join the shared-use path.  There is little safe space on the south side of the road on a 1m wide pavement to wait for a gap in traffic.

croydonroadwestv2#1

Whenever I’ve cycled westbound, I’ve always remained on the main carriageway.  I’ve never seen anyone cycling westbound on the shared-use path.

(I’ll save for another day comment on the west end of Croydon Road – the roundabout by Ravensbury public house at the junction with Carshalton Road – and its peculiar on/off road cycle lanes).

So how is Merton planning to fix these flaws in Beddington Lane?

Croydon Road junction

Regarding the Croydon Road junction in the middle of Mitcham Common, Merton Council has asked Transport for London to model the impact of pedestrian crossing phases on two arms of the junction, (i) across Windmill Road to support the east-west shared-use path, and (ii) north-south on the east side of the junction to link the shared-use paths together.  The council papers say that the crossings will be push-button “on-demand” crossings, meaning that someone travelling eastbound on Croydon Road and wishing to turn right/ south into Beddington Lane will need cross each arm of the junction separately.  (It will be quicker for a confident cyclist to re-join the carriageway via the ASL box and turn right on a green traffic light phase).

The council paper refers to the crossings as “proposed pedestrian phases” (my emphasis).

buttonjunction#1

There’s nothing in the council papers to suggest TfL will agree to the proposals, or commits to fund the rebuilding of the junction.  If TfL do agree, it will likely be another one-to-two years at the earliest before the junction is rebuilt.  Until then, we’re left with a sub-standard scheme lacking a feature key to making it safe for all to use.

For the existing Croydon Road and proposed Beddington Lane schemes to have real value, the junction needs to have signalised crossing phases, and the refuge islands need to be wide enough to provide safe refuge for people using non-standard bicycles, or pushing wheelchairs and prams.  I would expect the design to provide clear and separate tracks for people walking and cycling, as explained in LCDS Chapter 5, and possibly use “elephant footprint” markings as set out in TSRGD 2016.

The refuge islands in the junction need to be widened.  The newer traffic refuge islands installed along Croydon Road generally comply with the standard set in LCDS Chapter 5, section 5.2.8

The [refuge] island should be at least 2.0 metres deep to allow a person in a wheelchair or with a pram to use it safely”.

Highways England’s design guidance for cycling infrastructure on the strategic road network (Interim Advice Note 195/16) goes further than the LCDS.  IAN195/16 describes how non-standard bicycles, often used by people with physical impairments, can be up to 2.5m in length, and this needs to be reflected in built infrastructure. Section 2.4.7 “Refuges at crossings” notes that:

the depth of the refuge measured in the direction of cyclists’ travel shall be a minimum of 3m; this dimension accommodates a cycle design vehicle”.

 

Boundary with Sutton Council at Brookmead Road

Regarding the south end of Beddington Lane, where Merton Council’s responsibility ends on the north-west corner of Brookmead Road, the solution is also unsatisfactory.

Merton is building the shared-use pavement on the east side of Beddington Lane, stopping at Brookmead Road just before the tram-track level crossing.  Sutton Council’s shared-use pavement starts on the west side of Beddington Lane, immediately south of the level crossing.  Anyone riding a bicycle will be expected to swap sides of the road at the level crossing.

levelcrossing#1

There are traffic lights on the level crossing whenever a tram crosses, plus a “push button” pedestrian phase on the south side to cross east-west.  But what’s the betting that people cycling north and south from the level crossing won’t bother crossing the road, but instead decide to stay in the mix on the main carriageways?

levelcrossing#2

(For the full belly laugh, look at the Merton and Sutton proposals for Beddington Lane together:

  1. Merton: from Croydon Road to level crossing, you will cycle on the east side of the road;
  2. Sutton: from the level crossing to Therapia Lane, you will cycle on the west side of the road;
  3. From Therapia Lane to Derry Road, you will cycle on the east side of the road; and
  4. From Derry Road to Beddington Village and on to Hilliers Lane, you will re-join the main carriageway.

You’ll be shocked to learn that motorised road users are not hindered in any way.)

 

So has Merton Council kept it a secret?

To be fair, the council has been dropping hints about its intentions for the last couple of years, but communication has been sparse:

  • The Sustainable Communities Overview and Scrutiny Panel received in a cycle routes paper on 24 February 2016. The paper noted that fixing the Croydon Road junction and building a better path down Beddington Lane are council priorities;
  • There was a full council discussion on Sustainable Travel on 4 April 2017, but the discussion paper’s section on cycling only discussed the east-west shared-use path on Croydon Road, and proposed quietways;
  • The Merton Cabinet papers for 3 July 2017, had a 2016/17 budget outturn paper which noted £340k for Beddington Lane improvements in 2017/18. (I tweeted this at the time, proving one sad bugger sometimes reads this stuff);
  • There was a full council discussion on Sustainable Communities on 13 September 2017, but the discussion paper’s section on cycling only discussed bike share schemes and nothing on the Beddington Lane or other infrastructure plans;
  • There was never anything on the Merton Council cycling web-pages about this scheme until the Beddington Lane roadworks were announced over Christmas.
  • The decision to proceed with this scheme was made on 20 December 2017, with a period to seek a “call-in” of the decision closing on 27 December – seven days with a weekend and two Christmas public holidays. There was little to signal this decision in advance.  The paper explains the absence of public consultation – there’s no houses along the lane, so concludes that there is no need for hold one.
  • The roadworks database entry for the works relating to this scheme appeared on 4 January 2018. The database holds records of proposed public works for up to three months in advance.  The entry for these works appeared with 4 days’ notice.  To pick another of Merton’s roadworks at random, the database already has an entry to resurface Wimbledon High Street between 5 and7 March 2018.

roadworks#1

It was quite an achievement by Merton Council’s officers and the Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Environment and Housing to land this decision on Christmas Eve, and for the call-in period to close so conveniently after the public holidays.  A cynic might think the council didn’t want anyone to know.  (My money is on an administrative cock-up rather than conspiracy).

The sparse level of communication is a reflection of the Merton Council’s culture and its administrative practices.  Every council in London does things differently.  For example, the City of London sends every proposal with lots of detail to at least 3 different committees before a decision; Westminster City Council runs a lot through cabinet and executive decisions with summary reports to committee; Wandsworth provides lots of details in committee papers (making it easy for me to tweak its tail – to Wandsworth’s commendable credit).

Merton is a lot more coy.

But Mitcham Common’s a common? What about Commons Act etc?

Yes, it is, and the council papers say it has agreed the plans with the Mitcham Common Conservators.  The Conservators are nominated councillors from the Merton, Sutton and Croydon boroughs which share the common, plus – for a quaint historic reason – the City of London.  It appears that mitigation for the common land assigned to the widened carriageway and pavement will be in the form of a bund embankment further east on the common on Redhouse Road.  I am surprised, however, that the proposal, discussion and agreement have not yet appeared in the agendas or minutes of the Conservators. The last meeting was 6 December 2017 when you might expect an imminent development on common land to be discussed.  The Conservators were clear on their requirements when the east-west pavement was planned in 2015.

Conclusion

Merton has a history of doing bits of cycling infrastructure as-and-when budget allows.  The intentions are good, but the result is scattered and incomplete interventions across the borough.  The mini-Holland submission in 2013 was weak when viewed in comparison with the successful boroughs.  Unlike other London boroughs, Merton Council submits few plans to public consultation so doesn’t benefit from the feedback which it could receive to help it make its proposals better.

Merton’s challenge is that we know what good cycling schemes can look like in 2018.  We see what Kingston, Enfield and Waltham Forest are achieving, admittedly on a larger scale with bigger budgets from TfL.  Those boroughs are designing each intervention using up-to-date design guidance and, arguably, then improving upon that guidance.  It’s no longer acceptable for Merton to drip feed bits based on a 1990’s cycling design manual and say it’s the best the council can do.  I recognise the good intentions in this scheme but it fails when judged using London’s current design standards.

It is time for Merton to make a better effort.

 

Referenced documents

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