A Tower Hamlets councillor has called for barriers to be placed on the north side of the Greenwich Foot Tunnel to stop cyclists “zooming through” the historic river crossing.
Labour’s Abdal Ullah made the comments as the east London council passed a motion voicing worries about long-stalled plans to allow cycling in the tunnel, which runs from Cutty Sark Gardens to the Isle of Dogs.
Greenwich Council controls the foot tunnel but it is jointly owned by the two councils. A similar arrangement applies to the Woolwich Foot Tunnel, which crosses into the borough of Newham.
Both tunnels originally served south Londoners walking to work in the docks, but the 121-year-old Greenwich tunnel has since become a tourist attraction in its own right as well as a route for shoppers and those travelling to work at Canary Wharf.
Byelaws ban cycling, but the maximum fines were last set at forty shillings – £2 – in 1912, the wage for a skilled labourer’s 56-hour working week at the time. With little enforcement and few alternatives for cyclists trying to cross the Thames, the tunnel is frequently used by riders despite the ban.
In July 2017 Greenwich approved plans to lift the ban at quieter times, with electronic signs being tested in the tunnels. However, the plans need to be approved by Tower Hamlets and Newham first.
Peter Golds, the Conservative councillor for Island Gardens, told a Tower Hamlets Council meeting last week that there was “huge popular support” in the area for his motion calling for “rigorous” health and safety checks before any ban was lifted.
“We constantly get issues of families going through the foot tunnel and suddenly finding people coming towards them, shooting through at speed on bicycles, frequently blowing whistles to expect people to get out of the way,” he said, adding that Greenwich residents had contacted him about the issue too.
Referring to a former councillor, he added: “I’m quite sad Andrew Wood isn’t here this evening because Andrew, who is a technological genius, will be able to hold up his phone and produce a picture of not just a cyclist going through the tunnel, but one of the irritating little Deliveroo little pop-pop-pop bikes shooting through the tunnel and trying to shoot people out of the way. It’s not acceptable.”
Nathalie Bienfait, the Green councillor for Bow West, said Golds’ motion gave “unhelpful airtime to the false narrative that cyclists are fundamentally irresponsible and lawless” and called for the Silvertown Tunnel to be turned into a link for public transport and cyclists.
She added: “The Greenwich and Woolwich foot tunnels are used daily by hundreds of commuters who are, for the most part, respectful of the safety of pedestrians. The idea that cyclists are fundamentally unsafe for pedestrians is simply untrue and has to be challenged.
“Enforcement of byelaws prohibiting cycling in the tunnel is definitely important, but the protection of a quick and convenient route is something that I would like to support.”
But neither Labour councillors nor those from Aspire – the party led by the borough’s elected mayor Lutfur Rahman – supported her call.
Ullah, who represents St Katherine’s & Wapping, said the tunnel was “difficult and dangerous” for those with children.
The councillor added: “Some think they’re not breaking the law by only putting their foot on one pedal and zooming through. They think they’re being clever. It is still breaking the law.
“If we put barriers along our path, hopefully Greenwich will follow suit in putting up barriers that would stop people zooming across from one end of the tunnel to the other. So I would really urge that we, as a council, write to the relevant people in Greenwich and say, look, meet us halfway.
“It’s not an attack on cyclists, although one killed my father I have no grudges against cyclists. But it is dangerous, especially now with more and more people wearing headphones that you can’t hear the noise. You can’t hear the bell.”
The councillor also called for volunteers to work in the tunnel lifts. Attendants were removed in 2010 when the tunnel was refurbished.
Another Labour councillor, Mufadeen Bustin, said that views in her Island Gardens ward were split on allowing riders but said the “joy” of using the tunnel was “taken away when a cyclist whizzes past almost knocking you over”.
Kabir Ahmed, the cabinet member for regeneration, referred to the rows over low-traffic neighbourhoods in the borough, which Rahman has pledged to remove. “I think this is a serious issue,” he said. “I’m quite surprised how a motion regarding dangerous cyclists zooming across pedestrianised areas suddenly becomes an attack on all cyclists. That’s not the case.
“If cycles need to be taken, they can walk with the cycles in their hand and carry it along just like all the other pedestrians. Now for me, it feels like the shoe is on the other foot because so many times we’ve had support regarding LTNs and blaming all drivers for dangerous driving and bad drivers. And now the shoe is on the other foot. We’re talking about dangerous cyclists running people over.”
Ahmed claimed that the death of Ullah’s father was “a real life example from someone in this chamber”. Alhaj Jain Ullah died in 2009 while crossing the course of the London Triathlon in Wapping. Organisers and a subcontractor were later fined for breaching health and safety regulations after it was found barriers had not been erected and staff had not been trained.
The tunnel has been the subject of gripes from both pedestrians and cyclists since 2010 when a botched refurbishment programme ran years late and millions over budget, leaving the link with lifts that frequently broke down.
A users’ group for both tunnels was disbanded two years ago, with members frustrated at the lack of progress in resolving the cycling issue and the lift problems. Last year the heavy glass doors were replaced with half-glass doors in the hope that they would be more reliable.
Greenwich Council has been contacted for comment.
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