A group of residents and cyclists held a demonstration yesterday at the northern end of the River Lea's Olympic towpath closure. They were concerned, nay angry, that the towpath has been sealed off well before the Games, and are demanding it be reopened (or at least its closure postponed until later in the month). 50 or so protesters turned up, initially in driving rain, to hassle the recently-installed soldiers sat in their makeshift plastic tent. The Metropolitan Police responded by sending down six officers to stand in front the temporary metal barriers to ensure that no-one would pass, so no-one did. No long-term change was effected, but appropriate noise was made, and the media duly noticed.
Whether or not it's right to seal off the towpath for security reasons is a matter of some debate. But there is a very important additional issue, and that's the lack of a decent alternative route. TfL and/or LOCOG have had a go, and have devised a cycling diversion for use during the next two months. But that diversion turns out to be unutterably awful, appallingly signposted, and in at least one place astonishingly dangerous. And it doesn't even go anywhere near the Bow Roundabout. In fact, that's the problem...
You might think it'd be easy to direct cyclists down alternative roads to bypass a mile and a bit of closed river, but no, round here in E9 and E3 it's not. On one side is the impenetrable Olympic Park, and on the other there's a whopping great dual carriageway. You can't possibly redirect cyclists (or pedestrians) along the motorway-standard A12, so the alternative route has been forced to head even further west. Plus, it seems, someone in their infinite wisdom has decided that the official diversion must follow only quieter roads. In particular this means the detour ignores Cycle Superhighway 2, and avoids the Bow Roundabout, as if in recognition that a blue-painted stripe isn't especially safe. All of which makes the official towpath detour ridiculously unnecessarily long.
And to make things worse there isn't one official towpath detour, there are two. One route appears on the the official "London cycling guide - Olympic park and surrounding area guide - Summer 2012 edition" map (get your free copy here). A different route appears on the official "Orbital Cycling Routes - Olympic Park" map. You could click and play spot the difference if you like. The first route is a little more straight-forward but longer. The second route is a little less circuitous but incredibly twisted. And it's the second of these routes that's actually been signposted on the streets of Hackney Wick and Bow for cyclists to follow.
I don't know who's responsible for designing the yellow diversion signs for the towpath closure detour, but they clearly had a very limited budget. All the signs are made of some fairly light kind of plastic - one step up from cardboard - and are attached to various posts using a thin black cable tie. This means the signs aren't especially stable, and several are no longer facing in the direction they ought to be. Maybe they moved in strong winds. Maybe they've been deliberately knocked by miscreants' hands. Whatever the reason, so many of them are incorrectly positioned that if you attempt to cycle the official diversion route, you will definitely get lost.
Let's have a go at heading south from Eastway to Three Mills following the yellow signs...
The diversion leaves the towpath one junction too early, at the former Matchbox factory. [right, left, right] It follows Eastway west, which is infrequently signed. [straight on] It passes beneath the A12, negotiating a major road junction. [right, left] It enters Victoria Park, where there's no sign indicating left or right. [left] It passes what will be the Games-time cycle park where there are a couple of signposts, but one yellow sign's fallen to the bottom of the post and now both signs point in opposite directions. [straight on] It exits the park across the canal, although the yellow sign points straight on. [left] It follows Parnell Road, but only to the traffic lights, where there should be a sign but isn't. [right] It then ignores the direct route in favour of a diversion down a parallel residential street. [left] It reaches Roman Road, where there's only a yellow sign in the opposite direction. [right, left] The map then says to follow Ordell Road on the right, but the signed route wiggles left to follow Mostyn Grove instead. [left, right] It ducks beneath the railway, where someone has spun the "Victoria Park" sign through 90° to point the wrong way. [left] It diverts annoyingly round three sides of Caxton Grove, where one sign has been turned to point incorrectly into the community centre. [right, right, left]. It reaches Bow Road, where there are no yellow signs at all. [left] It follows the Cycle Superhighway for 50 metres only, before turning off down Tomlins Grove. [right]
This is the astonishingly dangerous turn. The route could continue to the Bow Roundabout along CS2, but no. The route could turn right into Campbell Road at the traffic lights slightly further along, but no. Instead cyclists are expect to perch in Bow Road's outside lane waiting for a break in the traffic and then turn right across the A11. Whoever included this turn in the official route was fixated on "quiet streets", not "avoiding right turns." Whoever included this turn in the official route clearly isn't a cyclist.
The diversion route continues down Tomlins Grove where there isn't a sign at the end. [left] It crosses Campbell Road, where you should watch out for busier traffic. [straight on] It enters the revamped Bow Cross estate, where the new road between the tower blocks is currently blocked by metal barriers. [straight on] It's supposed to turn left, but the sign here has been knocked and points into a house. [left] It heads off down an unwelcoming alleyway, although the turn isn't signed. [right] It wiggles through Stroudley Walk, which is nobody's idea of a pleasant location. [right, left] It's supposed to turn right into Edgar Road, but the yellow sign points back the way you've just come. [right, left] It follows a tiny bit of St Leonard's Street, where a yellow sign points directly into my doctor's surgery. [right, left] It arrives at the side of the A12, where the yellow sign entirely fails to make it clear whether the right turn is down the subway or straight past it. [right, down the subway, left, left, right] It heads past Tesco to rejoin the towpath, finally! [right]
It won't surprise you to hear that the signed diversion is considerably more complicated than the towpath route it replaces. [straight on, over the bridge, straight on]
It won't surprise you to hear that there could be a much simpler alternative route, if you're not a complete wuss and can cope in traffic. [from Victoria Park... straight along Parnell Road, left into Tredegar Road, right into Fairfield Road, left along CS2 at Bow Road, cross the Bow Roundabout, head down the ramp to rejoin the towpath] And yes, that is me recommending that cyclists cross the Bow Roundabout. It may not be entirely safe, but it's safer than an entirely unnecessary zigzag safari through the housing estates of Bow, negotiating several additional junctions including a very nasty right turn.
Because the biggest problem isn't that the towpath along the side of the Olympic Park is closed, the biggest problem is that there's no safe alternative. And that's especially the case when the official signed detour is completely inept, frequently incomplete and entirely ineffective. If this is your project, hang your head in shame.