The Simple Tale of a Cycle Lane: Jewel Heists to the Luftwaffe

Image above: C9, Chiswick High Rd

Guest blog by Michael Robinson on the final, final decision on the installation of the cycle lane through Chiswick High Rd

C9, the cycle way which comes through Chiswick High Rd, has has its last and final sign off by Hounslow Council. The debate surrounding its installation has caused more division in Chiswick than any other localised topic in recent memory.

Eight Conservative councillors, six of them Chiswick councillors (excluding Cllr Jack Emsley, who didn’t see the point, and Joanna Biddolph who didn’t get a vote because she sits on the Overview and Scrutiny Committee herself), made a last ditch attempt to get Hounslow’s Overview and Scrutiny Committee to make the Cabinet reconsider, but the attempt failed and the interminable  installation and the various stages of consultation are now complete.

Michael Robinson, from Hounslow Cycling Campaign, has written this guest blog for The Chiswick Calendar, documenting C9’s tortuous gestation and how it has been a political football from the get-go.

Prologue

In January 2001, 20-year old Marie Fox was killed after being crushed by a lorry when cycling on the Kew Bridge section of Chiswick High Road. Chiswick Conservative councillor Paul Lynch said:

“The tragic waste of Marie’s young life in an avoidable accident, highlights the urgency of this issue. I have therefore asked the mayor to make a quick decision on the measures and suggested that he use the borough to pilot these measures.”

It would take eighteen years before the road where Marie Fox was crushed to death was made safe.

Local politicians and clergymen would fight against the installation of a bike lane. It was claimed it would do more harm to the Catholic Church on Chiswick High Rd than the wartime bombing had done, while councillors predicted the destruction of “the village” of Chiswick.

Cycle Super Highway Routes from the May 2009 Launch

Birth of the Superhighway

The local political scene of 2009 was the reverse of today’s – a Labour government, Conservative Mayor of London and a Conservative / Independent coalition in control of the London Borough of Hounslow, led by current Chiswick councillor, Conservative Peter Thompson.

In May 2009 Mayor Boris Johnson launched his ‘Cycle Superhighway’ programme in typically bumptious fashion, saying:

“I’m not kidding when I say that I’m militant about cycling, and these Superhighways are central to the cycling revolution I’m determined to bring about. […] on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them.”

Transport for London was responsible for these planned routes. Cycle lanes were to radiate out from central London like the hands of a clock; the route to the west from Hyde Park to Heathrow was at 9 o’clock, hence ‘Cycle Superhighway 9’.

Following the launch, the then head of transport at Hounslow successfully lobbied TfL to change the planned route away from the A4 west of Chiswick roundabout to the A315 with the objective of connecting the town centres in the borough. Several years later, the planned route was also changed away from the western section of Chiswick High Road to use Heathfield Terrace and Wellesley Road.

Opening Shots

Wellesley Road and the parallel Stile Hall Gardens formed a rat run between Chiswick High Road and the South Circular, and were frequently jammed with stationary queuing traffic. In September 2016 a consultation was launched and the majority responded in favour of closing these streets to through traffic.

From 2009 to 2016 desultory conversations had taken place about the route, but Chiswick councillors had taken little interest. Now suddenly the penny dropped that these measures might make it more difficult to drive, so they demanded further investigations.

CS9 Arrives

In September 2017, a mere eight years after being launched, detailed plans for Cycle Superhighway were published. Local media immediately went into overdrive with clickbait headlines:

“Cycle Superhighway ‘Will Destroy Chiswick’ ” and “Is Chiswick’s Cafe Culture Under Threat from Cycle Superhighway?”

It would “destroy Chiswick as a community” as “fast cyclists with speedometers” sped through.

Fr Michael Dunne of Our Lady of Grace and St Edward announced that it would cause “more harm” than “the Luftwaffe managed with its wartime bombs.” His claims made national headlines. Congregants were asked to pray for salvation from the bike lane:

Spoiler alert – Prayers not answered!

London Assembly member Tony Arbour and Chiswick councillors shot a campaigning video, but their words were drowned out by the roar of passing traffic. The only phrases audible were that Chiswick High Road was “rather like a village high street.” The clip went viral.

Chiswick Councillors carried out a survey which purported to show a suspiciously North Korean level of “over 99% of Chiswick residents against.” With Council elections looming in May 2018, TfL backed away from touching what was now dubbed ‘the Holy Pavement’ outside the Catholic Church.

Image above: Can you hear me at the back?

Wait a year for a consultation and two come along at once

Fast forward to January 2019 with not one but two consultations. The Turnham Green councillors provided general hilarity by objecting to the bike lane on the grounds that it would
“increase local crime (cycles used for snatch thefts and for planned heists from high-value retailers such as jewellers)”.

Also announced was that the moniker ‘Cycle Superhighway’ was no more. The Johnsonian hype was being dialled back and now it would be referred to simply as a ‘Cycleway’.

With a new leader of the Opposition, the determined Cllr Joanna Biddolph, the Chiswick councillors relaunched their campaign. A petition containing all the tropes was launched – the cycle lane would “increase congestion”, “increase pollution”, “cause traffic gridlock”,“damage shops.”

Cllr Biddolph selflessly gave up her summer, standing outside Marks and Spencer every weekend with a banner proclaiming “Last chance to stop CS9”. As things would turn out, this wasn’t her last chance. She would fail to stop it several more times.

Image above: What they did in their summer holidays

At last, a decision!

A decision on Cycleway 9 was scheduled for September 2019 by the Hounslow cabinet. A much-vaunted “protest rally” failed to show up in any number and the prepared banners were quietly binned.

Objectors presented their case. Cllr Biddolph said that she would support a cycle lane down both sides of the High Road, although it is unclear if this was because it would allow her to complain twice as much. A petition, with 5,000 signatures from anti-cycling opponents from all over the country, was handed over. Following the presentations the decision to proceed with the project was unanimously passed.

Construction finally began in October 2019 on the spot where Marie Fox had been killed eighteen years previously.

A pandemic

The 2020 the pandemic halted construction. In May 2020 the Department for Transport launched their Cycling and Walking Strategy to deal with the challenges created by Covid. Transport Secretary Grant Shapps said:

“Pop-up bike lanes. Wider pavements. Cycle and bus-only streets.[…] fast-tracked statutory guidance, effective immediately.”

The Chiswick councillors issued a statement welcoming the new government policy, saying it was “an opportunity to move on from the controversy in Chiswick about Cycleway 9”.

However, once they realised that the new policy was actually going to be implemented they didn’t move on, instead asking Shapps to stop “the discredited Cycleway-9 scheme.” For the rest of 2020 construction continued on Cycleway 9, using the experimental traffic orders and temporary materials mandated by the government.

Onesies Assemble

As people began to realise that the government’s policies might make it more difficult to drive, protest groups sprang up under the “One” umbrella. Groups like OneLambeth, OneEaling, OneWandsworth and, inevitably, OneChiswick.

Online, people lost perspective. Simon Mabutt, once an unsuccessful UKIP candidate, announced on Next Door that councillors “who agreed the changes needed shooting. I am happy to pull the trigger.”

Chiswick resident Marlene Johnson, fundraiser for OneChiswick, helpfully told him how to find their home addresses. The police were called. Feelings ran high. Councillor Biddolph’s opinion was that “they weren’t even proper death threats”.

Meanwhile the Onesies, as they became known, bombarded councils and TfL with Freedom of Information requests, complained to the local government Ombudsman about befuddlement created by traffic schemes, and instructed their lawyers.

OneChiswick has the distinction of being the least successful of the Onesie groups. While the other Onesies all lost their judicial review claims, at least they got their day in court. OneChiswick failed to achieve even that. Having raised £45,000 they had a date for a hearing in June 2021 but chose to delay it.

As had always been entirely predictable, TfL/Hounslow issued updated traffic orders, rendering their case irrelevant. OneChiswick Ltd was dissolved in February 2022, avoiding the requirement to file accounts at Companies House. What happened to the money is not publicly known.

OneChiswick still exists as an increasingly irrelevant private Facebook group, channelling anti-cycling abuse along with anti-ULEZ and anti-Lime bike postings.

Images above: Children and adults using the cycle lane

What, another consultation?

In June 2021 Hounslow published plans to upgrade the temporary version of Cycleway 9 into permanent designs, accompanied by – yes, guess what – another consultation. We’ve lost count at this stage, but it’s around the sixth or seventh. The entire route through Chiswick was finally completed in January 2023.

Decision déjà vu all over again

The Hounslow cabinet meeting of 5 September 2023 decided to make the Cycleway 9 traffic orders permanent, a mere four years after the decision to proceed with the project. The same old objections that had appeared in Cllr Biddolph’s petition four years earlier came up again and were refuted by evidence – “reduces air quality / causes excess pollution” (air quality improved), “unsafe” (collisions are down), “empty lanes” (numbers cycling are up).

The Hounslow Conservatives indulged Cllr Biddolph, giving her one last opportunity to fail to stop the cycle lane and “call in” the Cabinet decision for review by the Overview and Scrutiny Committee. The Committee voted on 21 September that the cabinet decision should stand and Cycleway 9 is permanent bringing the story to an end.

So what was all the fuss about?

So did Cycleway 9 lead to “the destruction of Chiswick High Road” as the objectors claimed? Of course not. Numbers cycling have increased and people on bikes now often outnumber cars at peak times. Pollution has declined since 2019 and while multiple factors affect air quality, the scaremongering claims that cycling would increase pollution have been shown to be nonsense.

Cycleway 9 is becoming part of everyday life in Chiswick. Younger generations are less fixated on cars than parents and grandparents. Historians might look back on this in the same way that we now view campaigners demanding the right to smoke in the tube and in hospitals. An incredible fuss about an obvious reform.

Michael Robinson is Coordinator for Hounslow Cycling, the borough group of London Cycling.

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