Saturday, 30 July 2011

London cycling, last Friday of the month

The last Friday of the month is the regular slot for Critical Mass, when hundreds, possibly thousands of cyclists converge on the South Bank, setting out around 7.00pm on an unplanned and highly disruptive route around central London. Disruptive to traffic, that is. The message is not overtly political, it's just a reminder that not only cars and lorries use the streets. It's interesting to see how safe the whole thing is: there are seldom collisions, and as a pedestrian you can just walk out to cross the road and the bikes weave around you, although a few people clearly think they have to wait for the whole thing to pass.

This month there is a flashride at 6.00pm to protest about the traffic proposals for Blackfriars Bridge, starting at the south end and heading back down the other side, which causes an effective traffic jam for half an hour each way. Most of the riders then head en masse down to the National Film Theatre to join the main ride. You can tell it's summer because numbers are down from usual, but it's still a decent road-filling slow-moving crowd. On the narrow streets behind the National Theatre the procession goes at a snail's pace, perhaps not the most visible use of numbers when we could have used the main road. Blackfriars Bridge is blocked again on the northbound side, but not for long. Self-sacrificing (or foolhardy) types stop their bikes in front of cars to stop them pushing into the route and needless to say this can annoy the drivers, who sometimes get out to argue, but it's reasonably clear that there is no point trying to pass when the entire road is completely full of bikes. The taxi drivers hate this and lean on their horns, van drivers inch forward aggressively, motorbikes try to weave their way through the mass of bicycles, but it's actually a short wait and most people wait calmly, some are even amused. The police are relaxed, waving stragglers through red lights to keep the group together.

Thursday, 28 July 2011

Folly under the flyover

Under the twin flyovers where the A12 road crosses the River Lea navigation canal, in what was a nasty, litter-strewn dark space that you would normally pass by quickly, there is now an unusual and imaginative structure built of scaffolding poles, rope and wire, and thousands of recycled wood blocks, like a gigantic Jenga set. Located in Hackney Wick just outside the Olympic site, this is a temporary cinema that popped up only a few weeks ago, and sadly it is already coming up to the end of its last week. It was built by a group calling themselves Assemble, with some help from architects Muf (it's complicated), using partly voluntary labour and mainly recycled materials. The auditorium is made of scaffolding and scaffolding boards, but more intriguing is the construction of the adjoining cafe (pictured) where the walls are made of blocks of recycled wood threaded on to ropes, so it looks like brick from a distance, but clearly wood when you get close. There is even a children's play area with a huge selection of the same wooden bricks - I saw some six-foot skyscraper towers which may perhaps have had adult help. It's lively even in the daytime with an inexpensive cafe attracting canalside walkers and cyclists.

More at the Folly for a Flyover website

More text and photos about the area around the new Olympic Park at the E17 Art Trail blog

Saturday, 23 July 2011

Blackfriars Bridge and cycling safety - a test case

The London Cycling Campaign has been pushing hard for a review of proposals on Blackfriars Bridge. For those who get the bridges mixed up, which is probably most us, that's the one that runs next to the twin turrets of Blackfriars Station, via a major traffic snarl-up where the Embankment runs into Queen Victoria Street, and running parallel to Blackfriars railway bridge and the abandoned piers of Thomas Cubitt's original railway bridge. 

London's bridges are traffic bottlenecks and can be dangerous with impatient rush-hour traffic and high speeds at non-peak times. London Cycling Campaign has been pushing for the temporary 20 MPH speed limit to be kept in place on Blackfriars Bridge, but Transport for London want to change back to 30 MPH to keep the traffic moving. Last time the matter was raised at the London Assembly there was a walkout by all the Conservative members, for completely unrelated reasons. That did give LCC a chance to collect 2000 photographs and email addresses to make a graphic form of petition - a composite image of a 20MPH sign, a message somewhat  compromised by repeating some of the photos for graphic design reasons, but still a strong indication of support from cyclists.

This week the Assembly did debate the motion, and all parties came out in favour of the lower speed limit and a review of proposals. TfL have previously proposed a lower speed limit on all London bridges, and there are proposals from the Mayor to make the whole City of London a 20MPH zone, but there are conflicting interests: despite the strength of feeling that London should be moving towards a safe and pleasant environment for people and cyclists, the traffic lobby has considerable clout. And of course a significant part of the public thinks cyclists are a menace.  A temporary  win then, not a permanent one. 

More details and links are on the London Cycling Campaign website.

Thursday, 21 July 2011

Borough High Street bridge

Not quite new, this tubular steel truss bridge went up over the Easter bank holiday weekend. It took several months to build, of course, but the engineers worked out that they could build it on top of the newly-constructed viaduct alongside, where it could be worked on without disrupting traffic. The new railway viaduct has caused a lot of disruption to Borough Market, but that's another story. The original plan was to construct the whole thing some way down Southwark Street, and transport it up the road to its final position, where it takes two lines into London Bridge station. That plan fell foul of the network of underground services and tube lines that could be damaged by imposing such a heavy load on the road surface. So, the bridge was assembled high up on the viaduct, on temporary rails that would allow it to move to the final position. Over the holiday weekend 22 to 25 April the road was closed and the structure inched across at a snail's pace, supported on hi-tech motorised platforms, and then lowered into position. Too slow to stand around watching really, but Network Rail have put a time-lapse video on YouTube. The bowstring truss is just the public face of the bridge: the other side is hard up against the old railway bridge and it's just a flat girder, albeit massive. The aggressively muscular truss side is designed for effect, and not everyone will love it.

It comes as a surprise to find that no trains will use the bridge until work on London Bridge station is complete, some years hence. When everything is in place, though, this will be a vital part of the new Crossrail link currently under construction across central London.

Monday, 18 July 2011

Camden Lock on a rainy Sunday afternoon

A street vendor, blowing enormous bubbles in Camden. The bubbles came in clumps, each one more than a foot across, too big to be perfectly spherical, but glistening with rainbow colours. Nobody paid much attention. The bubbles burst against passing cars or got punctured by raindrops. Then the rain set in for real and the crowds dispersed into shops and doorways. An afternoon of sunshine and violent showers, spent dodging from one bit of cover to another. The object of the expedition - to find churros, the elongated doughnuts with a caramel centre. Elusive in Spain last week, where the churrerias always seemed to be closed, but right where you want them on the Lock.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Dalston goes high-rise

The new CLR James Library
The week before last this was a building site, but suddenly the hoardings are down and we can see the new Dalston Square. Sitting next to the well-known Dalston mural and the mainly Georgian buildings in Kingsland Road and Dalston Lane, this is certainly a change of scale, dragging the area into the twenty-first century with buildings up to 20 storeys (approximately), new shop units, a three-storey shell to replace the 1950s prefab that was the CLR James Library, and about 500 new flats. The centrepiece and original rationale for this large-scale redevelopment is of course the resurrected Dalston Junction station, derelict for many years and opened last year as one end of the East London Line. It must be welcome for connecting Dalston to rest of London. Across the road is the newish Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, a low-tech but stylish green oasis located on a section of railway track that was not needed for the new rail links. It's hard to tell what effect this modern district will have on the rest of the area.

From my point of view as a passing cyclist, Dalston Lane remains narrow and in the morning rush hour, the queue of cars and lorries blocks the single lane completely. Cyclists, I'm sorry to say, are resorting to using the wrong side of the road to get up to Kingsland Road, ducking in between vehicles when there is oncoming traffic. It would be good to see this addressed properly - and not just by putting up signs telling cyclists to use a different route.