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The following is a guest post by Alex Jenkins of the Tower Hamlets Wheelers, which represents a number of cyclists in the borough and which held a hustings for the mayoral candidates last week. All but one of them turned up. As happened at the Wheelers’ last hustings in 2014, the sole exception was the Lutfur crew.

Unlike me, Alex and and the Wheelers are a polite group and said that Ohid Ahmed (the de facto leader of the Tower Hamlets Muppets — or Aspire, as they prefer to call themselves) sent his apologies.

In case anyone needs to know the mind of Ohid on cycling, here’s a Tweet from him:

How radical.

In any case, enough of me. Here is Alex’s report of the Tower Hamlets Cycling & Walking Mayoral Hustings.

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Five Tower Hamlets mayoral candidates faced residents’ questions for the first time this election season on Thursday evening, appearing at the Cycling and Walking Hustings arranged by the borough’s cycling campaign group Tower Hamlets Wheelers. The current Mayor, John Biggs (Labour), was joined in Limehouse Town Hall by Anwara Ali (Conservative), Elaine Bagshaw (Liberal Democrat), Ciaran Jebb (Green) and Rabina Khan (People’s Alliance of Tower Hamlets). Ohid Ahmed (Aspire) was invited, but was unable to attend.

The organisers opened the event by explaining why it makes sense to deal with cycling and walking together: making London work well for cycling is increasingly being recognised by City Hall and Transport for London as naturally going hand-in-hand with making it good for walking too. This is reflected in the fact that the 32-borough London Cycling Campaign ask for the borough elections, called “My Liveable London”, is being made jointly with its pedestrian equivalent Living Streets.

The candidates each made a short opening statement. Anwara Ali, a GP in the borough, spoke passionately about the public health benefits of increasing active travel. Elaine Bagshaw offered a personal perspective, talking about how her experiences as a relatively new cyclist in Tower Hamlets had opened her eyes to the need for greatly improved cycling infrastructure, as did John Biggs, who mentioned that one of his first acts upon election had been to give up the mayoral car in favour of walking to engagements across the borough. Ciaran Jebb said that Tower Hamlets – a borough where almost two-thirds of households do not have a car – was far too dominated by motor traffic. Finishing up the introductions, Rabina Khan expressed a strong desire to get many more people, especially teenagers, cycling in the borough.

Questions from the 50-strong audience included the extent to which candidates would be willing to push through schemes that would remove space from cars to provide infrastructure for cycling; how they would undertake to stop rat running; how they would improve conditions specifically for walking in the borough; how cycling and walking improvements would be funded; and how – in the light of recent attacks, including “bike jackings” – social safety on off-road walking and cycling routes could be improved.

Candidates’ answers were generally well-informed and positive. A negative note did come in relation to privately-run dockless bike-sharing schemes, such as Ofo, where all five candidates expressed scepticism as to their value – although no candidate went as far as to rule out their arrival in Tower Hamlets over the coming four years.

IMG_20180411_081038One questioner asked if Victoria Park park could be kept open at night; its current closure at dusk is a long-running problem for cyclists, particularly on short winter days, given that there are no low-traffic or off-road alternative routes. Ciaran Jebb wanted to keep the park open, suggesting that the borough could implement an innovative solution such as solar-charged motion-activated lighting, but the other four candidates were non-committal, citing reservations about the cost and visual impact of installing lighting. There was, however, some support expressed for improvements to cycling provision on parallel roads.

Overall, all five candidates spoke very favourably about improving conditions for cycling and walking, to such an extent that perhaps the main complaint on social media and in the room was that too little distinguished them from one another!

There were, however, a handful of tangible differences in commitments and focus. Anwara Ali was alone in opposing the planned Canary Wharf to Rotherhithe walking and cycling bridge, citing value-for-money concerns, and John Biggs conspicuously did not quite go as far as to commit to asking TfL to complete Cycle Superhighway 2 past Whitechapel Market. And, in response to a question about how to stop inconsiderate cycling causing discomfort to pedestrians, Ciaran Jebb was notably the only candidate to make the well-received point that installing high-quality cycling infrastructure would not only reduce such conflict directly, but also indirectly, through greatly broadening the demographic of people who cycle (thus increasing the numbers of slow, casual cyclists).

The Wheelers had asked all candidates to sign up to their Tower Hamlets Cycling Manifesto, which comprises a set of 12 principles and three deliverables (five strategic new cycling routes, low-traffic neighbourhoods for half the borough, and a significant increase in secure bicycle parking for residents). Anwara Ali, Elaine Bagshaw, and Ciaran Jebb had signed up beforehand, and John Biggs and Rabina Khan signed up there and then: a clean sweep of the candidates who were present.

DSC_3406It was heartening that all five candidates seemed to genuinely understand many of the issues and appreciate the widespread benefits of improving conditions for cycling and walking in the borough. However it is, of course, just four weeks before an election, and candidates in full-on vote-winning mode are unlikely to be inclined to say “no” to anyone. Perhaps the toughest question came right at the end: how highly would walking and cycling rank among all the pressures that the Mayor would face and, if pushed by competing priorities, which of Cycling Manifesto asks would the candidates drop? The candidates all struggled to give a clear answer to this, with the consensus appearing to be that the asks were sufficiently reasonable it should not be necessary to drop any.

The three asks to which the candidates signed up do, however, go significantly further than the candidates’ pre-existing commitments. To take the most easily quantifiable of the three, the Cycling Manifesto requires 300 on-street bike hangars to be installed by 2022 (which would, incidentally, still leave Tower Hamlets with slightly fewer bike hangars in 2022 than Hackney has today); this represents a major increase on John Biggs’ and Rabina Khan’s previously-stated commitments (100 and 120 hangars respectively). And the other two asks (low-traffic neighbourhoods for half the borough, and five strategic new cycling routes) would, if completed to a suitably high standard, be even greater undertakings for the incoming borough administration and – given the extent of the interventions involved – also be likely to attract a degree of controversy in some areas.

The proof of the successful candidate’s commitment will, of course, come with delivery. If one of the five candidates who has signed up to the Cycling Manifesto wins the election, we should be able to expect Tower Hamlets to be a significantly better place for cycling and walking in 2022 than it is today. The Wheelers will look forward to working with the incoming administration over the next four years to support the implementation of the promises which were made in Limehouse on Thursday.

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I think I’m right in saying that of all the London boroughs, Tower Hamlets has been in the news more than most regarding cycling fatalities in the past few years. Three people have been killed at the notorious Bow roundabout alone since 2011.

A number of others (some can supply the exact figure) have also lost their lives along Bow Road, Mile End Road, Whitechapel Road and Aldgate High Street. All those deaths occurred on the Cycle Superhighway 2 (CS2).

There are also accidents waiting to happen on the CS3 in Limehouse, particularly by the junction of Branch Road and Horseferry Road where motorists are given little chance when cyclists are directed their way, against the flow of traffic, in a one-way street.

To be fair to John Biggs, he has been campaigning at City Hall on these issues for years.

Following the latest Bow Roundabout deaths last November, Mayor Lutfur Rahman weighed in, saying:

Boris Johnson has repeatedly ignored demands to make Bow roundabout safer for cyclists and pedestrians. Today I am asking to meet Mayor Boris Johnson and demand he act immediately to make the Bow roundabout safer and undertake an urgent review of the Cycle Superhighway in Tower Hamlets.

So, despite his love of chauffeured Mercs, you’d fully expect him to accept an invitation from the group representing cyclists in Tower Hamlets for a hustings in Bethnal Green tonight.

Here’s the email sent out by Tower Hamlets Wheelers:

For the first time in London’s political history, a campaign group is aiming to lobby 6000 local election candidates to help make streets safer and more inviting for everyone to cycle.

With the mayoral elections taking place on May 22nd, local cycle campaign group, Tower Hamlets Wheelers have arranged a Q&A with election candidates. With the majority of candidates confirmed to attend, we have a unique opportunity to put forward our questions and influence future decision makers on why cycle safety needs to be a priority.

We are inviting local Tower Hamlets residents to come along – ask questions, share their views or simply hear what the candidates have to say:
When: Wednesday 14th May at 7.00pm
Where: St Margaret’s House, Old Ford Rd, E2 9PL

The borough council controls the vast majority of roads in Tower Hamlets and the mayor is in a uniquely powerful position to influence and implement cycling friendly policies. This is our chance to let the next mayor know how important Space for Cycling is.

Tower Hamlets Wheelers tell me the following people have confirmed their attendance:

John Biggs (Lab)

Reetendra Banerji (Lib)

Nicholas McQueen (UKIP)

Hugo Pierre (TUSC)

Chris Smith (Green)

Chris Wilford (Con)

They’ve emailed and called Lutfur Rahman’s office several times, including an email to his agent, Cllr Alibor Choudhury (on an email address I know he monitors).

They’ve not had any reply.

So it looks like he’s ducking another Q&A with residents.

 

UPDATE: 2.15pm

Seconds after I published this blog (and after having checked with Tower Hamlets Wheelers), they emailed me to say that at 2pm today, Lutfur’s office had replied. Lutfur won’t be attending tonight, but they say Alibor Choudhury will attend in his place. They provided no reason for Lutfur’s absence and I wonder whether the other candidates will even accept this.

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