Wednesday, 14 April 2021

#LDNCycleSafari Goes Solo: A Trip To Thamesmead - Part 2

Last week, I visited Thamesmead in southeast London, a place I worked in the late 1990s/ early 2000s. My cycle around the town ended at Southmere Lake and so this week, I continue the journey.

Most of what you saw last week was on the Greenwich side of Thamesmead whereas this week, I'm just over the border in Bexley. This split between the two boroughs has always added a layer of complexity with two planning departments and two highways departments which certainly had very different approaches during my time there.

This week, I start proceedings back at the huge junction of Eastern Way and Carlyle Road. The photograph below is looking west along Bazalgette Way with the Southern Outfall Sewer embankment to the right (carrying The Ridgeway path on the top).

If you go about 1km east from here, you will find yourself at Crossness Sewage Treatment Works which deals with a huge part of the southeast London's sewage. The complex also houses the Crossness Engines housed in the original Crossness Pumping Station which pumped effluent into the Thames as the tide ebbed (way before anyone was living in the area). The sewer and pumping station were built under the supervision of Sir Joseph Bazalgette, my civil engineering hero.

I went under the junction and turned south onto Harrow Manorway (well the residential street called the same running next to the elevated road). This area again has housing (mainly low rise) from different decades with that flanking the main road being more recent additions (below).

Then to the south, this road joins the main section of Harrow Manorway as it drops down from the elevated junction with Eastern Way. Harrow Manorway runs south to Abbey Wood, which has recently had it's railway station improved as part of the Crossrail project (more on that in a bit). The Bexley/ Greenwhich border runs down the middle of Harrow Manorway for much of its length, although parts are fully in Bexley. 

In joining the main part of Harrow Manorway, people cycling are invited to join a shared-use path via a dropped kerb. This practice makes access awkward for people on 3 or more wheels as the gradients tip you to the right as you turn. From here, I really couldn't work out what was going on. I wanted to carry on south, but the street is gradually being refitted to gain with-flow cycle tracks.

Very quickly I found myself apparently on a footway with a with-flow cycle track coming towards me (above). Given the need to access The Ridgeway to cross the sewer and Eastern Way to get to the northern parts of Thamesmead, it seems that this has been completely missed. The development to the left is on what was Binsey Walk and fronts Southmere Lake - this is the original part of Thamesmead being redeveloped.

Just beyond the bus stop you can see above is a controlled crossing currently being built (of what type we don't know yet). What I will say is that it's a 2-stage staggered affair with a narrow island. It is also paved with footway and carriageway materials which are very similar and will be very hard for some people to pick out the difference on (below). I guarantee that this carriageway paving will fail from HGV and bus loading.

The road here was always a dual carriageway coming south from the Eastern Way junction, but these days, the left lane is for buses. I crossed the road using the incomplete crossing and headed south on the southbound cycle track (below).

The break in the cycle track is for a site access to the development by Southmere Lake. The kerbnerds will have already realised that the the corduroy paving used to show the footway and cycle track sides are wrong, they should be ladder and tram paving respectively - this mistake is repeated everywhere.

A little further south and we see the general arrangement for the southbound side of the redeveloped Harrow Manorway. Footway, planted buffer, cycle track and then carriageway (with bus lane then traffic lane). On the face of it, having the buffer between the footway and cycle track is a very odd choice. Below is a sketch of the current layout.

Even though the bus lane adds some buffer to cyclists from general traffic, the obvious layout would have been to have the buffer between the cycle track and carriageway with a forgiving kerb between the footway and cycle track which I have shown below, including some tweaking of bus lane and general lane widths to give 2.3m wide cycle tracks (an extra 0.5m on the current 1.8m). This area is has a 20mph speed limit which should have given licence to the designers to really squeeze traffic lanes.

Of course, the northbound cycle track doesn't have a buffer, this is because the central reserve needs space to provide staggered crossings!

A little further south is a roundabout forming the junction with Yarnton Way and Eynsham Drive. Yarnton Way is a dual carriageway from the original Thamesmead development which used to have footbridges crossing it between parts of the development. The road used to have 2 general traffic lanes in each direction, but over the years Bexley has changed this with cycle lanes, hatched buffers and on-street parking. Surface level crossings have been provided and with the current redevelopment, the bridges are being removed.

At the western end of Yarnton Way are very different, there's a 20mph speed limit and the road has been reconfigured. The roundabout largely keeps its pre-redevelopment footprint. The southbound approach has the makings of another two stage controlled crossing. As you can see from the photograph below, the cycle track has a wall to the left (that's 0.5m of useable width gone) and the bus lane has ended to give a two-traffic lane approach to the roundabout.

From the layout, it's likely that the pedestrian crossing just north of the roundabout will mean a stop line for cycle traffic where this could have been floating. However, this is a minor issue compared to how cyclists deal with the roundabout. Essentially, northbound and southbound cycle traffic have to go right into the side roads to use parallel zebra crossings which are completely off the desire lines.

The photograph above shows the cycle track disappearing off to the left into Yarnton Way. The cycle logo and arrow into the cycle track is part of the cycle route from Eynsham Drive. In essence, Eynsham Drive has cyclists mixing with traffic approaching the roundabout. A dropped kerb is provided to get onto the cycle track, but the crossing of Harrow Manorway is via a shared crossing. The red arrow shows a dropped kerb which allows people to either leave the cycle track in favour of the carriageway if they fancy merging with traffic on the roundabout, or maybe its for people finding themselves on the roundabout needing to bail. These dropped kerbs appear on the other three "sides" of the roundabout.

Continuing my journey south across the Yarnton Way arm of the roundabout required something like an 80 metre diversion to cross Yarnton Way via a two-stage parallel zebra crossing with each stage being across two lanes of motor traffic. Just to make it even more challenging, the entire area is again paved in similar materials to the point where even the road markings are hard to see (below).

The photograph below looks back at Harrow Manorway to show how far I have had to divert;

At least I was cycling, imagine having to make this ridiculous diversion on foot, most people won't walk 40 metres to this crossing and back, they will cross on the edge of the roundabout in a position where drivers won't expect to see them. Given the roundabout's geometry which invites high speed entries and exits with the multi-lane approaches, the 20mph speed limit looks more like wishful thinking that engineering.

After crossing Yarnton Way, I headed back to the roundabout to carry on south. Again, the cycle track becomes the buffer to the planting areas. A white line is also noticeable on the edge of the cycle track. I don't know if this is aimed at drivers or cyclists, but with the latter, it does risk people thinking it a mandatory cycle lane which would lead them to hit the kerb upstand between the carriageway and cycle track.

Just south of the roundabout is a two-stage toucan crossing (for the Yarnton Way to Eynsham Drive movement (which probably means the other crossings in the area will be signalised on Harrow Manorway). 

This next section of Harrow Manorway has been widened from a single carriageway to a dual carriageway with the bus lane plus traffic lane approach to the north. The widening comes on the eastern side from land associated with redevelopment. The new layout does include floating bus stops which are pretty decently laid out.

Next we have a roundabout junction with Lensbury Way and a large Sainsbury's (built on the site of the old Thamesmead Town offices). The southbound cycling movement through the junction is a bit of a mess, but it looks like the road will be closed and redeveloped in the future as a stopping up order for this has already been made.

To the north of the roundabout the road goes back to it's original single carriageway layout penned in by the Sainsbury's and existing housing. The cycle track gives up just before Overton Road which I can only conclude is simply unfinished rather than having been designed given how people cycling have to merge with traffic in the junction (below).

For cycling, there's then a gap for about 90 metres before a mandatory cycle lane appears. Highway space is tight in the approach and maybe further redevelopment will help, but when you realise the cycle lane starts on a recently refurbished bridge over the railway here, you have to ask why a painted lane and not a cycle track (below)?

What is positive though is that the bridge here now has footways (below). Under the bridge, we have Abbey Wood station which, thanks to Crossrail, is now way more accessible. The top of the bridge has a pair of bus stops which previously used to be a very lonely place requiring people to go back to ground level. 

The footways make it easy to access the station which has an entrance on the bridge with lifts for a decent interchange point (below).

The top of the bridge used to have large bus shelters. The one on the southbound side has been retained and repurposed for cycle parking. A new toucan crossing has been provided on top of the bridge for easier access by foot and cycle to interchange (below).

Heading north back towards the Eastern Way junction, we have the cycle lane which turns into a cycle track outside the Sainsbury's with dropped kerb (a scheme dating back to the Sainsbury's being built) and a cycle track around the roundabout from the same time, although everything has been repaved and the cycle track has lost its former Greenwich green colour (below).

Of course, the crossing of the access to the supermarket is more shared-use path with awkward turns. Designed for easy driving access to and from the large undercroft car park rather than anything elese.

North again and we're back to the dual carriageway. There's no planting buffer on this side, but again, fairly good floating bus stops are provided (below).

The Yarnton Way/ Eynsham Drive roundabout is poor for walking and cycling with, although the diversion into Eynsham Drive is a bit less at 30 metres. As you can see in the photograph below, westbound cycle traffic is dropped into the carriageway at the start of the crossing exit zig-zags.

Back onto Harrow Manorway, one of the few site road junctions has been designed for cyclists dropped back to carriageway level and despite the expensive paving, pedestrians don't get a continuous footway (below at Godstow Road).

Finally, I arrived back where I started and I was given a choice. Choose left to be reintroduced to the carriageway with parked cars right in front of you and potentially drivers leaving the main road via a slip road or right into a mandatory cycle lane which drops into the bus lane which then ends before the huge roundabout above Eastern Way (below).

I chose left and headed back to The Ridgeway to cross north. I found this whole part of the trip quite depressing. Despite the huge amount of money which has obviously been invested, the walking and cycling infrastructure plays second fiddle to driving and the new layout addresses none of the complexities to get from North Thamesmead (unless it's by bus). Maybe walking to Abbey Wood is a little far, but it should certainly be possible from Thamesmead North.

I am not sure who has led on the design work, but both Greenwich and Bexley must be involved as highway authorities and there should be agreements between the two and the developers, including Peabody which controls much of the land. The roundabout at Yarnton Way and Eynsham Drive should have been a signalised junction - there would have been space for decent walking and cycling with bus priority and the gap to Abbey Wood station is just odd. Sadly, we have now baked this in for another generation.

Once over Eastern Way, I carried on north back towards the Thames and the river path/ Quietway 14, only pausing to look at the separation of traffic between the Manorway Green route to the Thames and Crossways (below).

It was great going back to have a nose around and for the various faults and issues created over the decades, it is still pretty easy to cycle around. There are four key things which really need sorting out though;
  • Create the missing walking and link between Thamesmead West/ Gallions Reach Urban Village and the town centre;
  • Redesign access between the two sides of The Ridgeway around Carlyle Way and Harrow Manorway. I am not quite sure where and what the form this should take, but the current arrangement is lonely and not accessible to all.
  • A really good wayfinding strategy is needed to help people reconnect with the area by cycle - not just signs, but other ways to help people get a mental map going of the ways round.
  • Investment in maintenance including removing barriers.
There are loads of other things than need doing, but for me, these could help revitalise the cycling networks. One thing which will remain glaring though is that the Thamesmead always was and still is very easy to drive around which will mean walking and cycling can never be fully realised. The area was pretty cut off from public transport from the start and even with Abbey Wood being a bit easier to access, it still is cut off. 

I'll leave you this week with the second video of my tour back around the place I have a soft spot for.

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