Why rip out the £300k KHS cycle route, for a poor £600k round-the-houses alternative?

After being half-installed for less than seven weeks, the Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea’s Cllr Johnnie Thalassites decided to rip out the pop-up cycle installed on Kensington High Street (KHS).  RBKC reported that it has spent over £320,000 planning and installing the scheme.  Removing the scheme will cost another £30,000.  The Mayor of London, who chairs Transport for London which provided the funds via infrastructure programmes relating to the Covid pandemic, has said he wants the money repaid to TfL.  RBKC’s decision papers acknowledge that TfL may “not fulfil its commitment to funding the scheme”.

The KHS scheme was working.  The RBKC decision papers acknowledge that over 3000 cycle journeys were being recorded each day.  TfL’s Walking & Cycling Commissioner Will Norman reported over 4000, a doubling of previous numbers recorded on KHS.  

Cllr Thalassites, in his press statement saying he had decided to remove the cycle lane, said it was an experiment to see if the scheme would attract shoppers to local shops, but had failed.  However, most of the shops on KHS had been closed for four of the seven weeks because of second coronavirus lockdown.

RBKC has a long history of objecting to every attempt by London’s Mayors – Labour and Conservative – to create a safe east-west cycle route across the borough.  It prevented Boris Johnson when he was Mayor of London installing a cycle lane on KHS in 2014.  In 2019, local Tories led a campaign to prevent TfL creating an alternative scheme on Holland Park Avenue, running parallel to KHS a half-mile north, with the Tories running RBKC pulling the council’s support for the scheme before the public consultation was complete.  TfL did complete the consultation, reported that the majority of respondees did support it, and TfL went further by proposing changes to address concerns.  These were rejected too.

Every time RBKC objects to a well-engineered east-west cycle route on main roads which would provide high-volume capacity, it instead trots out platitudes about “encouraging cycling” and suggesting its round-the-houses quietway cycle routes are a sufficient alternative.  Cllr Thalassites stated in a letter to local MP Felicity Buchan and London Assembly member Tony Devenish on 26 November that he would “build on popular actions – upgrading quiet routes on side streets”.

RBKC has never proposed any alternative east-west cycle route that would run from the boundary of LB Hammersmith & Fulham to that of Westminster City Council.  Instead, it has pursued bits of round-the-houses cycleway, “quietway” and London cycling grid on residential back streets. However, these do not add up a functioning network, and fail to connect with major transport, commercial or cultural hubs.  Cllr Thalassites predecessor in the borough’s transport leadership role, Cllr Coleridge, reported in 2017 “how we have improved conditions for cycling in the borough and opened up new routes, without requiring major changes to road layouts” after the first quietway routes were installed.   No protected space has been created, and the new routes largely consist of Diag 1057 bicycles painted on the carriageways, or lanes painted in the death-door-zone of parked cars.

In response to the criticism RBKC received after rejecting TfL’s Holland Park scheme in 2019, the council convened a group of local residents associations, councillors and active-travel advocates to draw up another round-the-houses alternative: the Shepherds Bush to Notting Hill cycleway.  The proposed route wiggles across residential back streets north of Holland Park Avenue. It would not link to cycle route CS3 in Westminster, nor to the pseudo-CW9 scheme proposed across Hammersmith & Fulham on Hammersmith Road.

And what would the Shepherds Bush-Notting Hill scheme cost, for a route that is out-of-the-way and doesn’t get you from Hammersmith & Fulham to Westminster?  The decision papers say that it would be £560,000, in addition to the £31,000 spent on planning and consultation activities.

As noted above, RBKC councillors have often stated these back street cycleways are successful, but have never published any metrics to support their opinions.  It is certain that none of the quietway routes sees 4000 cycle journeys a day.

Due to a huge reduction in fare income, TfL no longer has the funds for boroughs to deliver these sort of local schemes.  Depending on your point of view, it may be fortunate that TfL’s dire circumstances prevent it funding the Shepherd Bush/Notting Hill scheme in the foreseeable future.

But I’m left wondering: why is RBKC ripping out a £320,000 scheme in Kensington High Street which was successful in providing a safer boundary-to-boundary cycle route, yet so keen to purse a £600,000 scheme with few of KHS’s benefits?   Aren’t Conservatives supposed to be about fiscal responsibility and spending money wisely?

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