Cycle war? It’s only just begun

·5-min read
On your bike: a cyclist using Kensington High Street’s short-lived cycle lane  (Elliot Wagland)
On your bike: a cyclist using Kensington High Street’s short-lived cycle lane (Elliot Wagland)

Betrayal, bullying and humiliation. This isn’t the Borgias in 1500, this is Kensington and Chelsea in 2021. It’s the story of a cycle lane gone so badly wrong that the courts are getting involved.

The cycle lane in question ran along both sides of Kensington High Street and was segregated from cars. At roughly a mile long, it was infrastructure small fry. And yet it’s become the focus of a battle the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) is fighting on multiple fronts.

Blink and you’ll have missed it. For seven weeks last autumn, Kensington High Street had a segregated cycle lane, then the council took it out. Ever since, campaigners have been fighting to return it. Now RBKC is pleading with ministers not to be put in “special measures”, which would limit its powers, as campaigners argue it’s failing to deliver on its legal obligation to ensure cyclists can ride safely. It’s battling Transport for London and the Department for Transport, which have threatened its future funding for the council’s premature removal of the lane.

RBKC, led by Elizabeth Campbell, has always maintained it removed the lane for residents, businesses and charities who disliked the lane for causing congestion. The dispute has drawn myriad people into its vortex: protesting schoolchildren, TV presenter Jeremy Vine, who filmed himself using the cycle lane, countless local politicians, campaign groups, local business groups, disability activists and even an adviser to the Prime Minister. Almost nobody is happy. But how on earth did it end up like this? 

Rewind to a cold night in December 2020, an evening when the bitterness that has come to infect this row crystallised. As dusk fell, protesters from Extinction Rebellion and Stop Killing Cyclists scaled the vans of workers who, on the council’s instructions, were removing the cycle lane that had been erected just seven weeks earlier. Removal efforts were halted for 24 hours, but the protesters’ victory was short-lived: the workers soon resumed their task and the cycle lane was removed.

High Street Kensington cycle lanes (Elliot Wagland)
High Street Kensington cycle lanes (Elliot Wagland)

The battle was over but the war was just getting started. Mayor Sadiq Khan accused the council of a “knee-jerk” reaction and suggested he might seize control of the road to reimpose the lane. Cycling campaigners called in lawyers. RBKC remained defiant. Councillor Johnny Thalassites said the protest was “nothing more than another PR stunt”.

Can all this drama really be about cycling? The short answer is yes. “Without wishing to over-dramatise it, it is a matter of life and death,” says Justin Abbott of campaign group Better Streets. He claims the council sees the cycle lane “as a thing for ‘cyclists’, as though it were some other subspecies or sub-genre”. RBKC “rejects this completely” and adds it is “disappointed” in the suggestion. It’s not hard to see where Abbott is coming from when he talks about life and death. The name of the group Stop Killing Cyclists reflects how desperate and angry campaigners feel.

A press release from Khan’s office this March claimed data shows Kensington High Street “is one of the borough’s worst casualty hotspots for cycling, with 15 people killed or seriously injured while walking or cycling over the past three years”.

Yet feelings ride just as high on the other side of the argument. Tony Devenish, the Tory London Assembly member for the area, is bullish. “There’s nobody in Kensington and Chelsea who wants it,” he says. “We’re keen on cycle lanes, we’re not keen on this cycle lane”. Kensington MP Felicity Buchan says: “I am very in favour of active travel but schemes must be in the right place. The majority of residents were very clear in their correspondence to me that the cycle lane on Kensington High Street did not work and caused huge congestion.”

Cyclists joined a protest to save the High Street Kensington cycle lanes (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)
Cyclists joined a protest to save the High Street Kensington cycle lanes (Daniel Hambury/Stella Pictures Ltd)

There’s history here. Previous attempts at a segregated cycle lane have all failed. A decade ago, then mayor Boris Johnson and his cycling czar Andrew Gilligan were blocked by the council as they tried to set up a lane on Kensington High Street. A scheme on the Westway didn’t come off. An attempt to create a lane along Holland Park Avenue saw the council pull out mid-consultation because it was worried about congestion and air quality. Jeremy Clarkson even got involved, bemoaning the fact that trees would have to be cut down to make way for the cycle lane. The council always seems to find reasons to say no.

But the pandemic changed everything. Khan’s StreetSpace plan to “transform” London’s streets and “accommodate a possible tenfold increase in cycling and fivefold increase in walking” post-lockdown arrived in May 2020 and led to councils widening pavements and installing pop-up cycle lanes. Pressure was on councils to improve their cycling provision. In October 2020, RBKC agreed to put in a segregated cycle lane along Kensington High Street. Ten years of conflict was over, surely? Not so. On November 29, the council cited opposition from two business groups and a disability charity for its decision to remove the cycle lane. A TfL poll this year also showed a majority of residents supported “protected cycle lanes on main roads”.

The RBKC’s apparent volte-face presaged a breakdown in personal relationships. “They obviously have a different agenda to working in a trustworthy, pragmatic structure,” Abbott says. The council counters: “The opposite is true. We want a long-term solution to barriers holding back active travel, with full and proper consultation”.

Maybe it’s RBKC which should feel let down. It was “bullied” into trialling the cycle lane by the Government, the Mayor and TfL, argues Devenish. There is, though, no escaping the ill-will with campaigners, as Devenish concedes. “We have got into a series of silos… I’d love to break down those barriers,” he says. But he’s also uncompromising. “I can assure you there isn’t going to be a segregated high street, [the campaigners] aren’t not going to win their case.”

Now RBKC has launched a consultation to try to move forward. The campaigners’ request for a judicial review of the decision was knocked back by the High Court last Friday, but they have appealed. The issue of DfT-TfL funding is still up in the air and may force RBKC’s hand. In the meantime, this old culture war looks as intractable as ever. Things may get worse before they get better.

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