Thursday, 26 November 2015

Victoria Park

Victoria Park is a large public park which opened 170 years ago and is located entirely within the borough of Tower Hamlets, although everything immediately north of the Park (including the two pubs that have beer gardens which occupy the park) is located within the Borough of Hackney. For over a mile and a half the southern edge of the Hackney border runs along it and so it's the local park for many residents of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets and is a popular place to travel through if moving by bike or on foot. As a local resident I'm in the park most days, either riding my bike to work or the shops or with my daughter enjoying either of the two excellent playgrounds. It has won the Green Flag award for the best UK park for the previous two years and I have to agree; I love it and think it's the best park in London.

It has a large lake (with boats for hire) in the western half of the park, where the magnificent Pavlion cafe dish out hundreds of breakfasts and cups of Square Mile Coffee to people sat alongside, especially at the weekend. They also own the Pavilion Bakery on Broadway Market and bake lovely bread in premises near London Fields station (as you may be able to tell I'm a fan and visit both of their establishments frequently). It also has two large playgrounds, a splash pool open through the summer, a skate park, tennis courts, football pitches, a running track, fishing platforms in the East Lake, a model boating lake, cricket nets, a bowling green, an old English Garden  as well as acres of land for people to relax, jog, walk their dogs, and like many green spaces in London, lots of people cycling.

From people just learning how to ride a bike

To those that have been riding for years

Traffic free conditions where both young and old can safely cycle in comfort

where people can cycle with their children on the back of their bikes

or up front

or up front and at the back

conditions that make it safe enough for children to cycle alone

where families can cycle together

people cycling on hire bikes

and a place where you'll find lots of cargo bikes

As you can see from the pictures that unlike Hyde Park there are no narrow cycle paths in Victoria Park; the internal roadway is wide enough for people to cycle, walk and jog in the same space. The main internal roadway runs for nearly three miles all around the edge of the park, with several other wide roadways crisscrossing the park linking all 19 entrances and different areas of the park together.

It is also easy for people to access Victoria Park on their bikes from communities outside the immediate area due to a variety of traffic free routes that lead to it. Hertford Union canal runs along the southern side of the park and the Regent's canal runs along the western side. Whilst I live in the very east of the borough in Hackney Wick my daughter goes to nursery right on the western edge of the borough in Haggerston but in the summer I'm able to cycle in comfort all the way to her nursery from my home, a distance of over two-and-a-half miles, something I would never feel safe to do on Hackneys roads. Families wishing to visit Victoria Park on their bikes from the East can do so along the Hertford Union canal which links up with the Olympic Park, where there are plenty of traffic free routes. Take the river lea north from the end of the Hertford Union canal and you can cycle up to Tottenham and well beyond along the river. The Greenway also starts near to Victoria Park and travels as far out as Beckton, via West Ham. Once the East West superhighway is open I'll be able to cycle from Victoria Park down Regent's Canal to Limehouse Basin, and then onto Cable Street to the Embankment. For the first time ever I'll be able to cycle with my daughter right into Central London from Victoria Park without having to share the road with motor traffic.

Victoria Park is similar in many ways to Vondelpark, a large park to the Southwest of Amsterdam city centre, which opened 20 years after Victoria Park opened. It's actually slightly longer than Victoria Park, but also a lot narrower and therefore just over half the size overall. However it has many similarities and cycling through the internal roadway in Vondelpark feels very comparable, except perhaps more cyclists of all ages and significantly less helmets and Hi Viz.

Families on bikes is something you'll see continually in Vondelpark and most will not be arriving by car, as is the case for a lot of Victoria Park visitors

The biggest difference between the two parks though is that, unlike Victoria Park, Vondelpark isn't somewhere people need to go in order to be able to cycle in comfort, because the rest of Amsterdam is also a safe, comfortable and pleasant place to cycle. You don't need to carefully plan your route along narrow canal paths or on top of Victorian sewers to be able to reach Vondelpark.

In order to exit Vondelpark after cycling West away from the City Centre you first cycle through this wide gate (note the three rising bollards here to allow park maintenance vehicles to enter the park)

Dedicated separate cycle and pedestrian crossings then take you across a major road, the Amsteleveenseweg

Along a bicycle only road, over a bicycle only bridge and then onto a road which has been converted into one way for motor vehicles in order to provide a two way cycle track (roll back streetview a few years and you can see how this cycle track replaced car parking here)

This continues for a while and here is @amsterdamized using it

we then get to this junction, which through my British eyes this looked great, however Marc referred to it as "an over-engineered piece of shit". He has a point, no one is going to sit in the middle of the track and give way, people on bikes don't interact with each other that way

turn left to continue into the suburbs of Amsterdam West, turn right to go north into Rembrandtpark.

Back in East London and in order to exit west out of Victoria Park and head into Central London then most people will tend to use Bonner Gate to get to Hackney Road; first you have to hop onto the pavement to get out of the park

Where you can either continue straight ahead, or if like most people you would rather take the direct route to Hackney Road then head to the right for a bumpy ride past the trees, sharing with people walking

then another bumpy ride over this junction

and into Bishops Way, a truly horrific road that links Victoria Park with Hackney Road. It isn't actually too bad cycling west away from the park due to the layout of the one way system resulting in little traffic, at least for the first half of it until you get to Bonner Road. Cycling East from Hackney Road towards Victoria Park though and it is a very different story. Firstly there is normally a large group of cyclists waiting in the ASL at the traffic lights by Cambridge Heath station at the end of Hackney Road who then head off together on a green signal with a line of traffic behind them. Bishops Way is less than half a kilometre long yet has six horrible pinch points along it so you have this constant sound of traffic right behind you either overtaking in between two pinch points or, quite often, overtaking just before a pinch point, forcing you to brake. This road is also used by concrete mixing lorries all day long due to the presence of concrete suppliers in the Fish Island and Hackney Wick area. I've had a few who have taken a chance of killing me in order to get a little closer to the next traffic queue. This is despite them being located right next to the A12; so they could be forced to use the A11, with its under construction segregated cycle facilities, and the A12 where bicycles are excluded but instead use this route, as there is nothing stopping them from using it and they use it for the same reason people cycling do - it's the shortest and quickest route out to Hackney Wick.

Meanwhile back in Amsterdam and to exit the Eastern end of Vondelpark there is once again a dedicated crossing over a main road, the Stadhouderskade (although I'm looking back towards Vondelpark when I took this picture)

this then leads over a cycle and pedestrian only bridge

and then a bicycle only road through Max Euweplein, a square containing mostly bars and restaurants

Back in London and to exit Victoria Park heading East there are three choices; Molesworth Gate in the north east area of the park which brings you out of the park and onto a four arm junction and a four lane Wick Road. You then have to use three pedestrian crossings to cross the road, where you are meant to dismount from your bike, if you don't the police will sometimes stand here and ticket people, as they know it is easy pickings. Once you've used the three pedestrian crossings to get to the other side of Wick Road you can use the dual carriageway to navigate past various motorway slip roads whilst cycling among buses and lorries travelling at high speed, to where there used to be the sanctuary of segregated cycle tracks to look forward to at Eastway until Hackney Council ripped them out a few years ago. This obviously used to be very different area when Victoria Park was built in the 19th Century but that was before they built a motorway and demolished the pub and houses alongside Molesworth Gate to widen Wick Road.

Cadogan Gate is another popular route located about halfway along the eastern side of the park and marks the border between Hackney and Tower Hamlets (you can tell you're leaving Tower Hamlets and entering Hackney as the speed limit increases from 20mph to 30mph as you do so). From here cross over Cadogan terrace to divert up and over a hooped  bridge which crosses the A12, not the worst route to take but it was clearly a much better route before the 1960's arrived.

Looking down Wallis Road from Cadogan Gate in 1958 and the modern view, via Chris Dorley-Brown on Flickr

In the bottom South East corner of the park is St. Mark's gate, which is probably the most popular gate for people heading East from the park, as it leads onto the Hertford Union Canal. People cycling have had to go up onto the pavement to exit this gate for a long time and there did used to be a ramp to drop back down to roadway level directly on the other side until this street was reconfigured, like most were in this area, just before the Olympic Games. Three  ramps from the kerb to the roadway were installed but these were intended for the bin stores of the apartments built here in the 1970's to replace the demolished St. Marks church, not for cyclists exiting the park

An issue arose soon after the street was reconstructed as a lot of cars, being driven here by people who wanted a walk in the park, would often park in front of the ramps forcing people cycling to stay on the pavement

which was unfortunate as the Montessori on the park nursery is located alongside these buildings, so people cycling on the pavement were coming into conflict with children and their parents coming out of the nursery. After complaints to the council they installed some horrible, very tight barriers at the park exit  which obviously didn't actually solve the problem in any way whatsoever as people continued to park their cars up against the ramps so it only served to stop legitimate park users from being able to exit the park

After I talked with Councillor Joshua Peck on twitter and Councillor Marc Francis outside of twitter both of them promised to look into alternative arrangements. It took a few months but the main gate has now been opened up so as people cycling large cargo bikes can now once again use this gate to access the canal

the speed bump is totally unnecessary but it is nice to be able to use this gate without having to go onto the pavement anymore. Credit where it is due to the two councillors who took time out to find a solution and they should be congratulated for taking action; I haven't seen a single person cycling on the pavement since this was installed. It is a shame that all the other gates in the park have restrictions in some way; on some occasions, such as during the lovebox festival, or when people driving in forget to close them, the gates are left open and it makes it so much easier to access the park

One of the main gates at the Royal Gate was left open recently so I stood here for a few minutes watching. Every single person cycling used the main gate whilst almost all pedestrians used the pavement gates so there was no conflict between people cycling and those on foot. Stand here on a hot summers day and there are normally queues of people walking, cycling and jogging all either politely giving way to each other or occasionally getting annoyed with one another as they all exit and enter the park through two narrow gates whilst the two larger gates remain locked
Surely it would make sense to just leave all the gates open like this all the time, just as they do in Vondelpark, with barriers in place to stop motor vehicles using them

a gate in Voldelpark

I'm sure an argument that would be used against this is the issue of teenagers on mopeds using the park. This is already a problem so clearly making the gates narrow has not solved the issue. Anti social behaviour from young people on mopeds is an issue in East London but crappy barriers that restrict so many people does not solve it. Besides Amsterdam is full of idiots on mopeds but I've never seen one in Vondelpark.

Another similarity between Victoria Park and Vondelpark is that a main road carves through the centre of both parks. The road in Amsterdam is elevated over the park (which can't be right as we all know the only reason people cycle in Amsterdam is because it is flat) so this is how park users navigate it

Meanwhile Grove Road does physically slice Victoria Park into two separate parts and people have to cross the road to use both sections of the park. The route they want cyclists to take is difficult to navigate as you have to hop onto the pavement to exit the park at the crown gate, navigate through tight gaps between barriers and guardrail onto the road, cross the road and then head back onto the pavement through barriers and guardrail to enter the park again. You also have to give way to cars and buses twice whilst crossing and it is located right on the exit and entry of the roundabout, rather than being set back from the junction so can be risky to navigate as a lot of drivers do not indicate as they exit the roundabout.

It is far too dangerous for me to use this crossing when I'm with my daughter so like most people who regularly cross between the two parts of the park on a bike I use the Zebra crossing just a little further north, which may be illegal but it is so much safer, plus the policeman who stopped his patrol car to wave me and my daughter across a few weeks ago clearly agreed with me and it would be nice if all police officers were this sensible

However at some point within the past week they've installed yet more bloody barriers here

these barriers are not as tight and restrictive as the ones installed at St. Marks Gate were but they are still a pain to navigate and totally unnecessary. I've cycled over this crossing hundreds, probably thousands of times, and conflict with pedestrians has never been an issue for me or others that I have seen. It would be interesting to hear the reasoning as to why they felt the need to install these barriers but I'm sure it is no coincidence that Winterville, which opened this evening (Tower Hamlets will open parts of the park at night if you pay them to), is taking place right alongside this entrance. I've not yet seen a large bakfiets use this gate so unsure if these barriers are so tight that it restricts people from using this safe crossing to transport their children to the pools playground or not. Surely a better way to deal with this crossing would be to install a tiger crossing here so there is a clear separate crossing for people both on bikes and on foot, minimising the risk of any collisions

The most substantial difference between Victoria Park and Vondelpark is that whilst Vondelpark is open 24 hours a day Victoria Park closes at night and at this time of year the closure time is at 4.15pm, which makes it pretty useless for a large proportion of people cycling home from work, never mind cycling back home from any after work activities that people may have planned.

The route I took through Vondelpark at midnight on a Sunday in September. Lovely and peaceful.
As I was explaining my predicament of why I have to use the bus to get my daughter home from nursery during the winter to Marc he was totally shocked that the park closes at night and said they would "burn City Hall to the ground" if they tried to close Vondelpark at night. This is despite that if Vondelpark did close then there are many other safe and attractive alternatives, including the next major cycle link located just a couple of streets further south which allows you to cycle through the centre of a museum, all night long

the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam
Back in East London and we're not quite as lucky with alternative routes should you want to get home after 4.15pm in November. Assuming you belong in the small percentage of the population willing to lead the dance and cycle among the lorries and buses of Hackney Road and the cement mixer pinch point hell of Bishops Way you then have two options to continue East once the park is closed; south of the park (the route I used to take most often) via Tower Hamlets or North of the park (the route I tend to take more these days) via Hackney. Naturally both are shit and a million miles away from the carefully planned, safe routes that the Dutch build to enable people of all ages and abilities to be able to cycle in Amsterdam.

From Bonner gate you can either cycle south along Sewardstone Road to reach Old Ford Road, traffic almost always queues the whole length of this stretch, thankfully I only had the three cement mixers to deal with when I went this way last week

Navigating along here is difficult due to various pointless pinch points

or car parking on both sides of the road. Astonishingly according to open cycle map this is LCN route 13, an actual cycle route. Madness.

Turn left onto Old Ford Road, the main road running East - West south of Victoria Park, which has car parking on both sides all the way along it.

A solution could be to keep car parking on the Southern side of the road where the houses are and then run a nice two way cycle track (built to the same high quality as the one pictured in Amsterdam earlier) along the north side of the road where the car parking currently is. There would be no conflicts as there are no side roads to negotiate and this would also be an opportunity to make an improved crossing of the awful roundabout at Grove Road by the crown gate which I mentioned earlier. Whilst I can avoid this roundabout during the day and use the Zebra crossing further north this is obviously not an option when the park is closed. The roundabout is very similar to the roundabout at Victoria Park Road, half a kilometre north of here where Shivon Watson was killed whilst cycling five years ago. It's not quite Elephant and Castle territory but you still have to 'keep your wits about you'

Old Ford Road crosses the Hertford Union Canal a little further on from here, the bridge is exceptionally narrow and two vehicles can just about get past side by side, it even has a sign saying "oncoming vehicles in middle of road" as you approach the bridge. If you're cycling then take primary position here and hope that the vehicle behind does not overtake as they cannot see if vehicles are coming the opposite direction until it is too late. Some drivers take a gamble and overtake anyway, risking a head on collision rather than being stuck behind someone cycling for a few seconds. Crazy that traffic is allowed along here in both directions on a bridge as narrow as this

The last section of Old Ford Road is more of the same really and I hope you can now understand why my daughter and I get the bus instead of cycling along here during the winter

Yet again the A12 creates a barrier here so you either cycle over the footbridge (which has bike / pedestrian lanes painted onto it) into Fish Island or onto Jodrell Road and Parnell Road, which are planned to be part of the quietway cycle network, overlooking the mere trivial matter that these roads are currently a cement mixer and lorry superhighway.

I used to use this route all the time during the winter but after too many close passes I now mostly use another route which is marked out on a map in Hackney Councils 2014 - 2024 cycling strategy as "West End – Old Street – iCity/Olympic Park Cycle Corridor" linking Central London and the Olympic Park by bike. After arriving at the Bonner Gate Entrance to Victoria Park at the end of Bishops Way you'll actually find this gate is open 24 hours a day as there is a road, open only for bikes and people walking, running right through the middle of the eastern section of Victoria Park. All lit up with the park locked up either side of it.

Why they can do this in the western part of the park but not in the eastern part is beyond me. It runs for less than 300 metres and leads into Gore Road in the borough of hackney, a very nice residential road with large houses overlooking the park but it has no restrictions for motor traffic and due to Victoria Park Road being one way is used by a lot of through traffic wanting to access Grove Road. It is nowhere near as busy as Old Ford Road but could do with through traffic being removed

Want to drive from Broadway Market to the car park at Victoria Park? Google Maps (and presumably other sat navs) directs you to drive down Gore Road
Cross over into Wetherall Road which isn't too bad to cycle on as it is one way only at the end so isn't used by through traffic as it would just push you back to where you started. Hackney needs more one way residential streets with two way routes for people walking and cycling in order to stop through motor traffic using these roads. At the end of Wetherall Road a sign directs you onto a "shared footway"

with barely enough room to cycle on, never mind share it with people walking as well, despite the space available here to have car parking along both sides of the road and a large grassed area to the south

I didn't initially realise it as I took the picture below but these two gentlemen jogging are having a go at the man cycling on the pavement. It wasn't until they passed me and said "Yeah you take a picture of that c**t on the bike" that I realised what was going on. I was going to inform them that he was doing nothing wrong and they should be directing their anger towards Hackney Council for providing such crap cycling facilities but by the time I had formulated these thoughts in my head they had jogged on

Nothing illegal about cycling here, this is a signed cycle route on a shared footpath
Occasionally idiots park on the pavement along here too, forcing you to cycle on the road head on into oncoming traffic

Victoria Park Road desperately needs some proper cycling infrastructure. That does not mean turning it back into two way and expecting people to cycle in front of lorries though!

A mother and her two children using the pavement whilst on Victoria Park Road, despite cycling the correct way along it, as would I if I was cycling here with my daughter. Children should not be expected to cycle among motor traffic on roads like Victoria Park Road, whether one way or two way 
Once you get to the end of Victoria Park Road you end up back outside the Molesworth Gate entrance of Victoria Park and the very busy Wick Road. The only other option is to cycle along the canal but that is pitch black and bloody terrifying. Oh, and it is closed until April 2016 

Victoria Park closes at night due to a law created in 1872, times have changed a bit since then so perhaps we can look at changing this law? Let's install lighting and open Victoria Park up, along with other Royal Parks, all night so people have safe alternatives to use. TFL should also take control of the planned West End - Olympic Park cycle route and start construction rather than waiting for the various councils to get their act together. It could involve creating the Clerkenwell Boulevard, segregated cycle tracks along Old Street and Hackney Road, turning Bishops Way one way for motor traffic to create two way space for cycling and keeping Victoria Park Road one way for the same reason, rather than letting Hackney Council and their fixation with restoring two way roads make it even worse than it currently is.

Victoria Park closing times during the second half of 2015

June - 9.30pm
July 1st - 9.15pm
July 15th - 9.00pm
July 21st - 8.45pm
August 3rd - 8.30pm
August 10th - 8.15pm
August 17th - 8.00pm
August 24th - 7.45pm
September 1st 7.15pm
September 14th - 7.00pm
September 21st - 6.30pm (thanks Harry)
September 28th - 6.15pm
October 5th - 6.00pm
October 12th - 5.45pm
October 19th - 5.30pm
October 26th - 4.30pm
November 2nd to January 2016 - 4.15pm