Wednesday, 21 September 2011

How I cycled to Westfield and how I cried

Now I admit I can't get too excited about shopping centres. I have no moral objections to them, but the idea of spending at least half a day in some building full of shops and overpriced cafes doesn't entice me at all. So this was never going to be a neutral 'Which?' style test.
However Westfield Stratford is apparently Europe's biggest urban shopping centre and it's on our doorstep. So it's hard to ignore. Given all the hoo ha over the grand opening on Tues 13 Sep I thought I ought to have a look. Not least because as an urban shopping centre next to London's Olympic site (the greenest Olympics ever) this should be a model for sustainable transport. Moreover I live a comfortable 20 min bike ride away, so I really had little choice other than using the most sustainable mode of transport there is.
Of course I didn't just go. I had to have a look at the Westfield website to find out 'how to get there'. It's clear what comes first - the car. Given that Westfield has 'sold' this development as having 4 million potential shoppers within a 45 minute drive away it's not really a surprise. It is built for driving. But I'm not disheartened, cycling is not the last option on the list for a change.
And there you have it. 1180 cycle parking spaces and an on site repair service - cool. Cynics might say that given the size of the development 1180 spaces is simply what they had to do according to planning guidelines. But OK let's give them that. Hang on a minute! Free cycle training provided by Newham and Waltham Forest council!? Surely Westfield doesn't want to claim credit for that? I paid for that thank you very much. It seems somebody thought cycling is a bit thin on the website and added some random feature that has nothing to do with Westfield or with 'getting there'. Although given there is no information on cycle routes you do actually need the cycle training as I was about to find out.
Pavements for only one (slim) person at a time.
Of course for the most part my journey took me along the usual routes in my borough from Walthamstow to Leyton. It has nothing to do with Westfield. But I would have hoped the presence of Westfield and its likely impact on our streets plus some Olympic money (the greenest games ever) would have resulted in a decent route. How wrong I was.
My journey was full of rat run minor roads, gyratories and the all too common miniature cycle lanes. Admittedly they may still change the cycle lanes. But given what we have seen on Ruckholt road and other nearby road schemes I won't hold my breath.
Who is this cycle lane for?
Once past Leyton tube station we are within walking distance to Westfield. So I thought conditions for pedestrians would be half decent. After all we are so often told that we can't improve streets for cycling because we need to cater for pedestrians. But I found incredibly narrow pavements and pavement parking, so gladly took to my bike again.
18 parking spaces yet to be filled
At Crownfield road I find the first sign for Westfield - good. It's quite a nice ride from here as the streets were surprisingly quiet. Just why do we still need mini cycle lanes on the inside of left turning vehicles on roundabouts. Any highway engineers out there please explain. To me this is exactly the place you don't want to be, particularly when exiting a roundabout where drivers tend to just focus on their right.
We are clearly not welcome
Following the next couple of Westfield signs I find myself on what looks like the car park access road. I did look for cycle route signs but couldn't find any. So now I try and spot cycle parking signs. I can't find those either, so I continue to the entrance and hey, there are about ten racks, most of them unused. So that was easy; I wonder where the other 1160 bike racks are though.
I only tried my route from the North. But my onward journey took me to central London. So I exited to the south and I am faced with with 'no pedestrians' and 'cyclists dismount' signs; not a great statement of supporting sustainable transport. It turns out the 'no pedestrians' is there to make way for an off road cycle track. This doesn't make me feel too good and I stay on the carriageway. As I was riding along I thought maybe I'm a bit silly here. Am I riding on the carriageway just to proof a point? After all both pavement and road are virtually empty. But not long after it became clear I instinctively made the right choice. A concrete barrier across the cycle track and bit further on the track spits you out onto the carriageway just before a roundabout, you couldn't make it up.
Cycle track blocked by concrete barriers
At what point did I cry you might ask. Of course being the male of the species I didn't really cry, or I certainly wouldn't admit it. But I did feel like crying as soon as I hit the newly built roads around the shopping centre. Here we had a blank sheet of paper and all the money we needed. No old medieval streets or just £2.50 in our pockets, which are usually the reasons given for poorly designed streets.
Now I don't actually blame Westfield. They are just a business. They have a model, they helicopter it into London and now they have to make money. Once you have built a car park for 5000 cars your job is to fill it.
No comment
No, what made me (nearly) cry is that yet again our elected representatives have failed us and we let it happen. We, the boroughs of Waltham Forest and Newham have watched all this being built knowing full well that everything around it is designed for driving. The problem is not that people will drive from far and wide but that people will drive from Leytonstone and Walthamstow, a mere 2 to 4 miles away. People will drive not because they don't care or because they are so silly. They will drive because we have built streets where driving is the most inviting option and all others, particularly walking and cycling, are designed out.
So we may well read in all our strategic documents that so many car journeys are under five miles and could easily be cycled or walked. But it feels to me that on the ground we couldn't have made it more difficult if we tried.

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