The cycle lane trial on Kensington High Street ends after two months.

Today the second lockdown ends – as well as the Kensington High Street cycle lane trial

Today, Wednesday 2 December, is not only the day when the second national lockdown ends, but also the day when the council begins to remove the temporary cycle lanes from Kensington High Street, which were introduced in October. The removal of the many metal “wands” will be done at night time and is expected to take five days.

After the first lockdown, from 23 March to 3 July, the government was faced with a dilemma, as it also wanted to discourage use of public transport because of the difficulty of social distancing and the risk of infection. The government therefore made an attempt to square the circle by issuing ‘statutory guidance’ to councils, asking them to make arrangements as soon as possible to make it easier to walk and cycle while keeping social distances.

A raft of measures was suggested, including widening busy pavements to make it easier for pedestrians to pass each other; “pop-up” cycle lanes using temporary barriers; introducing “low traffic neighbourhoods” to which vehicular access is limited; and more 20 mph limits. It was emphasised that speed of implementation was of the essence. Apart from cycle lanes, to which the government gave special priority, all of these measures would be introduced by “experimental traffic orders”, which allow a measure to be put in place for a maximum of 18 months without having to go through the normal lengthy consultation procedures. After that, they have to be removed, unless there is a full consultation with residents on making them permanent. For London boroughs, funds would be provided by central government via TfL.

Using these experimental orders, the RBKC council increased the number of traffic-free school streets and closed most of Portobello Road to vehicle traffic on market days. They also accelerated their plans for a 20mph limit across the borough, which was eventually introduced on 13 November.

The RBKC council was under particularly intense pressure to do something for cyclists, so people could cycle to work rather than go by public transport. In response to the statutory guidance, Hammersmith and Fulham council had taken quick action to create a pop-up lane from Hammersmith roundabout to Olympia; and Westminster council was planning to do the same for the road between Queen’s Gate and Knightsbridge. 

The pressure was all the greater on Kensington and Chelsea, as it has the reputation of being the least cyclist-friendly inner London borough, having not a single dedicated cycleway. The council therefore proposed pop-up cycle lanes in Kensington High Street and Kensington Road, to join the Hammersmith and Knightsbridge cycle lanes and give cyclists an uninterrupted run from Hammersmith to Knightsbridge.

In late September, one lane in each direction was set aside for the cycle lanes, which meant that buses and taxis lost their bus lanes and had to stay in the remaining single lane in each direction.

During low traffic periods the scheme worked decently well, but during rush hours the queues of slow moving private cars, vans, lorries, taxis and buses grew to painful lengths, while the temporary cycle lanes were only used by a handful of cyclists – and emergency vehicles found it increasingly difficult to get through.

On 4 November, the day before the second lockdown began, the problem became unbearable, with traffic basically coming to a standstill for several hours on Kensington High Street as well as all streets feeding into it, as there was a drastic increase on cars on the roads with people doing frantic last minute shopping.

Already before then, local residents associations – which hadn’t objected when the trial was originally presented to them – had begun to question the scheme. And although the drop in traffic during second lockdown lessened some of the problems, the traffic mayhem before it began made it obvious that the very long queues would come back with a vengeance when the lockdown ended at the same time as the Christmas shopping period would begin. Kensington’s business organisations were of the same view.

At a Kensington Society trustee video meeting on 19 November, the attending trustees (all but one) unanimously agreed to ask the council to end the trial as soon as possible, preferably when the lockdown ended. So did a number of local residents’ associations as well as disability groups and business organisations.

On Sunday 30 November, the council announced that the trial would end on 2 December, and in a letter to businesses and residents’ associations, Councillor Johnny Thalassites – who is the council’s lead member for planning, place and environment – explained:

In the spring, different layers of government instructed the council to build a ‘pop up’ route “within weeks”. We had hoped that a scheme might help local businesses attract shoppers to the high street; and that residents would regard as useful an east-west path.

Alas – more than two months after installing temporary ‘wands’ on the road – it is clear that large majorities of local businesses and residents do not think the experiment has worked.

Kensington Business Forum and Kensington and Chelsea Chamber of Trade and Commerce have asked the council to take out the lanes, so that they can make the most of a busy holiday season; as have our resident associations across the high street, due to increased congestion.

We understand this ask is supported by disability groups, such as Action Disability K&C, who are anxious about impacts on their members (including visually impaired people); as well as by Felicity Buchan MP and Tony Devenish AM, who ran a local survey on the subject.

We want to listen to local businesses and local people. That is why we have acted to get the high street moving again.

Nonetheless, we know there are some residents who liked the project. We will continue to promote cycling and walking in the borough. To that end, we want to build on popular actions – from upgrading quiet bike routes on side streets, to a trial closure of Portobello Road on ‘market days’.

We expect work to take the lanes out will last five days. Some of the work will depend on weather, but I have asked our engineers to progress as quickly as it is safe to do so. I have also asked for non-emergency highways and utilities works along the road to be suspended in December.

While the former bus lanes were largely unused by the cyclists, all the buses and taxis had to queue with all the other traffic in the only lane remaining for motor traffic.

The government and TfL’s cycling entusiasts had hoped that the cycle lanes would be filled by eager cyclists, but most of the time they were unused while cars, buses, taxis and lorries queued in the only remaining lane.

Published 02/12/2020