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Evening Standard's George Osborne comes out against Embankment Cycle Superhighway as newspaper appears to nail its colours to the mast early for next year's London mayoral election

Former Chancellor joins fellow Tories in blaming infrastructure for pollution and congestion and calling for re-routing of CS3

Former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has claimed that Cycle Superhighway 3 on London’s Embankment is to blame for “choking gridlock at the heart of our city,” in another sign that the protected route is likely to be a key campaigning issue at next year’s mayoral election as battle lines are drawn between the Conservative and Labour parties.  

It follows similar comments made recently by the Tory candidate for mayor, Shaun Bailey, and the Conservative peer Baroness Brady in a recent opinion piece in the London Evening Standard, which Osborne has edited since May 2017, shortly after he stepped down as Member of Parliament for Tatton ahead of that year’s general election.

> Tory candidate for London mayor ridiculed over Cycle Superhighway 3 comments

Writing today in his capacity as editor of the newspaper in reply to a reader’s criticism of the route, the former cabinet minister claimed that some Cycle Superhighways “are ill-conceived, causing near-permanent congestion and pollution,” singling out the east-west route along the Thames “the most obvious mistake.”

He was responding to a letter from Standard reader Jocelyn Seligman, who expressed disagreement with an article published in the newspaper last week written by London’s cycling and walking commissioner, Will Norman, who under the heading Cycle lanes are the solution to congestion not the problem refuted the points Brady had raised.

The letter to which Osborne was replying said, among other things: “There have to be some decent through roads to allow people who live in London to move around by car.

The writer, who appears to be a Mayfair-based hedge fund manager, said: “By all means charge a fortune to use them, but undersupplying necessary transport routes is obviously not a practical solution.”

He continued: “The Embankment runs parallel to the Thames, which is not only woefully underused as a transport resource but also provides room to create cycle bypasses.

“A bit of imagination in transport would leave us all better off.”

Although the letter – or at least the version of it published by the newspaper – did not go into detail about how the Thames could help solve the problem, in 2015 proposals were unveiled for a £600 million floating cycle path called the Thames Deckway.

> Would you use a floating bicycle toll road along the Thames?

The Thames Deckway Twitter account remains active, and newsletters are published periodically on its website, the last being in summer 2018.

In his full response to the reader’s letter, Osborne said:

I agree with you. Much has been done to make London one of the more bicycle-friendly cities in the world, and that is to be applauded. 

But some of the cycle superhighways are ill-conceived, causing near-permanent congestion and pollution. The one running along the Embankment is the most obvious mistake. Legitimate objections from local businesses and central government were overriden; traffic studies that predicted the ensuing jams were ignored; other routes were disregarded because they would require City Hall to involve local boroughs more.  

The result is a choking gridlock in the heart of our city. If the Mayor, Sadiq Khan, started again with a better design on the Embankment, he would win plaudits and support for the further work to make ours a capital of cycling.

The route was devised and built during the mayoralty of Khan’s predecessor, Osborne’s sometime fellow Conservative MP, Boris Johnson.

In late 2015, as he neared the end of his second and final term as mayor, and when Osborne was still Chancellor of the Exchequer, Johnson said: “I can’t think of anything I’ve ever done that’s provoked such direct remonstrances from everybody.

“Virtually every senior government minister in one way or another has ticked me off in one way or another for the Cycle Superhighways.”

Last November, Khan insisted that Cycle Superhighways, criticised by representatives of the black cab trade and in particular the Licensed Taxi Drivers’ Association as well as some businesses such as the Canary Wharf Group – although many more major employers have publicly backed such infrastructure – did not cause more congestion or air pollution.

Instead, he maintained that it was increasing numbers of private hire vehicles from the likes of Uber as well as more delivery vans on the road, particularly ones carrying goods ordered online to people’s places of work in Central London, that were to blame.

With Bailey, Brady and now Osborne backing a re-routing of the Embankment Cycling Superhighway, and with transport being one of the two main areas for which the Mayor of London is responsible – the other is policing – it seems legitimate to conclude that party politics are at work here.

In May 2016, the Standard endorsed Zac Goldsmith against Khan as mayor just one day before that year’s election, in which the Labour candidate scored a resounding win.

It seems that the newspaper may have nailed its colours to the mast rather earlier ahead of the May 2020 vote.

Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.

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