The road to Hell is paved with ASLs

Whether you call them Advanced Stop Lines and Advanced Stop Zones or prefer the more casual-sounding ‘bike box’, they all amount to the same thing: a piece of crap.

I believe that the real reason for their existence is not to make cycling safe, as you might think, but rather to get cycling campaigners to shut up. Neither of these goals has been achieved, of course.

ASLs make sense in that perfect, ideal world where the Highway Code is set. There, humans can all be trained and/or forced to behave perfectly at all times – a bit like North Korea, or Stepford.

Image from the UK government's Highway Code, showing ideal use of a bike zone at a traffic light junction. So perfect!

The Highway Code’s idealised version of the UK. There are more people on bikes in this image than there are in the whole of West Yorkshire.

But here in the real world, inhabited by imperfect and fallible human beings, people on bikes still get killed when the traffic lights change, and an ASL does nothing to help a bike user who arrives while the traffic is already flowing. They’re often ignored by drivers too, the police don’t enforce them. Unfortunately, all this means that ASLs have become another endless battle in the War On The Roads™ and some cycling activists spend a large amount of time trying to convince drivers – and the authorities – to respect them.

It does annoy me when I see drivers pull up across the ASL. Of course, I have no problem if, say, an ambulance causes the flow of traffic to stop and the lights change to red leaving a car stranded there. But so many people drive up to a red light and over the first white line right into the bike area. Some drivers even drive across both white lines and into the pedestrian crossing or junction beyond!

I’d argue that if you’re unable to bring your vehicle to a halt before reaching a clearly marked position on the road, you really shouldn’t be operating such a machine at all.

A van is stopped at a red light, completely within the 'Advance Stopping Zone' for bike users.

This van has very neatly stopped within the ASZ, note the centimetre-accurate alignment. Maybe the driver mistook it for a parking space?

ASLs are not good infrastructure

But for all that, I don’t really care. I’ve been asked to sign petitions to get the police to enforce the rules. (Which would be nice for a change.) But really, I won’t waste my time polishing a turd, and neither should you.

Improving ASLs is not what cycling campaigners should be spending their time on. It would be like, say, environmental campaigners asking Shell and Esso to use a nicer font in a lovely shade of green. Or perhaps it’s more like a slave asking for the chains that bind them to be chrome-plated.

What I’m saying is that the ASL is a pretend friend to a bike rider. They’re there as a kludge, a poor compromise between total motor dominance and calls for cycling infrastructure. They’re rubbish. Yes, I know that drivers should stay out of them, and everybody should follow the rules, but it’s a distraction from the bigger picture. The whole argument is worthless.

Nobody is waiting for ASLs to be enforced before they take up cycling. Nobody is saying “if only there were more areas at traffic lights where I could sit in front of growling motor vehicles, I’d take up riding tomorrow!” In fact, I reckon the idea of sitting on a bike in front of a large motorised vehicle is one of the key points which prevents more people from using a bike for transport.

Two people on bikes wait in the ASZ at a red traffic light. Immediately behind them are buses and cars.

A rare instance of an ASZ relatively free of motor vehicles. Does this attract people to cycling? “Ooh, lovely, a painted area which allows us to position ourselves in front of heavy vehicles! Let’s do this every day!”

Don’t waste your time campaigning for this rubbish to be enforced or improved. Don’t ask for nicer chains, demand their removal!

There are very few places where an ASL is appropriate, yet the UK is covered in the damned things. There are already tried-and-tested solutions for junctions which don’t involve mixing up motor traffic with bikes – or mixing bikes with pedestrians, as is the current fashion in the UK. Pedestrianise London has a good article covering the right way to do these things so I won’t write about them here.

Sure, they have a few ASLs in Cycling Heaven – ahem! – I mean, the Netherlands. But they’re not common, and are considered an old-fashioned design. Any infrastructure geeks going visiting the Netherlands will find themselves pointing at them excitedly – “Ooh! There’s an ASL, just like at home!”

When the Cycling Revolution™ comes, ASLs will be the first against the wall

The worst thing about ASLs is that they’re designed for very low levels of cycling. Sure, one or two bikes are fine. Maybe even five or six. But what happens if twenty people were to arrive on bikes? What about fifty? Where are they all meant to go?

A birds' eye photo of a UK road junction with an ASL. All vehicles are positioned perfectly, no motor vehicles have entered the ASZ. But the ASZ can only hold around ten bikes, and there are twenty in shot, overflowing up the left-hand side of motor vehicles waiting.

Is the UK ready for the Cycling Revolution® or are we designing roads for cycling shares of, ooh, say, about 2%?

The photo above shows pretty much an ideal situation for a junction with an ASL. There’s a wide cycle lane and no motor vehicles have encroached beyond the stop line. But the ASZ is already filled with about ten bikes and is overflowing into the cycle lane, where another ten people on bikes are waiting in the van’s blind spot. The ASL does nothing for these people.

Why are we designing infrastructure which cannot handle more than a dozen people on bikes? The design is so weak, it’s proof positive that the government has low cycling targets, because the infrastructure they’re putting in simply can’t handle more than a very small number of people on bikes.

But imagine if the orange van was a lorry – should all bikes wait behind it? What if the ASZ looks clear and the lights change while passing the lorry? What’s the goal of this infrastructure? Suddenly it’s all rather confusing.

Or even take a look at the Highway Code’s idealised image of how an ASL works at the top of this post. Note that even in their perfect world’s green-ticked scenario, there’s a bike on the left-hand side of the left-turning car. Even if that bike moves to the front of the ASZ, what happens when a fourth or a fifth bike arrives? The system just can’t cope with more than a few bikes.

How large would the ASL have to be to cope with the doubling of cycling which London is expecting?

An altered photograph showing a junction with an extremely long (20m or so) ASZ, to demonstrate why ASLs aren't compatible with large numbers of people cycling.

Mmm, roomy.

So that’s why I don’t like ASLs, and that’s why I want rid of them.


 

If you’re not convinced by my arguments, feel free to try one of these other esteemed bloggers: the Davids Hembrow, Arditti or Brennan, and also Paul James, Freewheeler or Londonneur.

 

Update: And there’s more, from NI Greenways, Cyclegaz and WillCycle. Thanks to Stripymoggie, Mark Skrzypczyk and WilliamNB in the comments below for these links.

 

Also, I just noticed this comment which I made on David Hembrow’s blog in May 2012, making the same point. I must have been mulling this over in my mind for quite some time!

About these ads

30 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

30 responses to “The road to Hell is paved with ASLs

  1. ASLs are nothing less then a tacit admission that our existing road system forces cyclists to choose between what is legal and what is rationally safer. They are legitamised red light jumping in effect. Some bouroughs use them some do not so there is no consistency as one crosses London by bike. A kludge of the first order.

    -L

  2. If the Highway Code was a reflection of real life, local councils would all be Trumpton!

    ASLs – one for a debate in the office I think – local campaigners often want ASLs at junctions and perhaps they need to have a think as well.

    What we get on the street is a result of the leadership – without a plan of what we will do on our network, engineers reach for the books and in London, it is TfL’s design guide from 2005 – ASLs a-plenty.

    Actually, the real issue is junction capacity. If TfL will argue that an ASL have an affect on junction (car) capacity, then what will they make of Dutch-style separate cycle phases? Too much to think about in a reply here, but I will have a think about a post on signalised junctions with a bit more technical information on how signals work and are phased.

    The conclusion will always be that to cater for those who don’t cycle, we need to remove motorised traffic at junctions…

    • (those who don’t cycle – yet) I should proof read more

    • My experience is that Dutch traffic signals are more efficient than British counterparts even with dedicated lights for cycles and pedestrians.

      It’s because unlike here, they separate each movement flow into a separate phase for all modes rather than allowing vehicles from one direction (or two directions) to make any movement within their phase and then having a separate pedestrian phase while all vehicles are held on red.

      I’ve written about this in more detail http://pedestrianiselondon.tumblr.com/post/27284356735/traffic-controlled-junctions

      Of course these then require more dedicated traffic lanes for turning traffic or to limit the allowed traffic movements at the junction.

    • Ah, Trumpton, of course! It also reminds me of the Peter and Jane books I had to read at primary school, where everybody was lovely and had a nice day.

      From my (pretty reliable) source, I’ve heard that TfL are terrified of causing more traffic jams – one of the reasons why the Vauxhall CS plans couldn’t be more bold was because they’re obsessed with keeping the gyratory flowing.

      I think campaigners who ask for ASLs can’t possibly know about the real possibilities, maybe they think they’re the best they can get? They have a tendency to aim low, to try to fix the small annoyances that confident cyclists face, rather than to ask for something bigger.

  3. We used to have them in 1980s Netherlands, but they came with their own cycle traffic lights, clearing the junction of bicycles before other traffic started moving.
    ASLs only make sense with a separate phase for cyclists.
    And where road traffic was heavy, the Dutch kept the flows completely apart and never bothered with ASLs.
    The ASLs I knew as a teenager have all been redesigned as “shared space” junctions, with slow traffic speeds and traffic lights removed.
    Please look up http://nigreenways.wordpress.com who recently wrote on the subject too.

    • Thanks for the info – it’s interesting that the Netherlands still had a separate traffic light phase for bikes even when not physically separated.

      One of the big problems in the UK is that ASLs are used almost everywhere, regardless of traffic speeds, volumes and whether there’s likely to be many HGVs, etc.

  4. Chris Juden

    Echoing stripymoggie, the first time & place I saw ASLs was in the 1980s on cycle tours in the Netherlands. Admittedly they don’t make cycling much more pleasant – only a little bit more pleasant – but they do make it more convenient and that is also a big part of why people do – or might – ride bikes. I think they made sense in the Netherlands in the 1980s for the same reason as they make sense here and now.

    It’s taken the Netherlands 40 years to get from where they were in the 70s to what you see there now. The ASLs of the 1980s were a interim measure, because complete separation is more expensive to build. Given the size of the problem that now confronts us in the UK, with even less already-built infrastructure than NL had in the 70s, even if our politicians undergo a road-to-Damascus conversion and order a massive Dutch-style cyclepath building programme, we’re going to need interim measures for many more years.

    And another thing. Until drivers can be motivated to respect ASLs, what hope do we have that they’ll respect the priority that segregated cyclepaths need to have across side roads?

    • I think that cycle path priority is more a matter of designing it correctly – slowing motor traffic, clear marking, etc., whereas ASLs can only ever be some paint, flat on the road surface.

      Maybe they can work for a time as an interim measure (I don’t know enough about how NL got from there to here) but I’d argue that for most of London’s busier junctions that time has passed and it is now time for proper protected cycle paths and signals.

    • Also, looking at Stripymoggie’s comment above yours, he claims that in the Netherlands back in the experimental 80s, bicycles got a separate light phase, which would make a huge difference!

      • Chris Juden

        Absolutely, the separate light phase is key. Another example of how UK always does bike stuff on the cheap, missing out a vital factor, so it doesn’t work properly.

        If UK traffic lights had that feature I’m sure that most of London cyclists’ notorious red-light ‘jumping’ (actually creeping in most cases) would no longer happen, since most of it is little more than an attempt to clear the junction and get somewhere safer before the motors begin to move.

        • davidhembrow

          If you put a sticking plaster on a turd, it’s still a turd. A separate phase is merely a sticking plaster on an ASL. It’s still an ASL and it’s still not world class infrastructure which will lead to everyone cycling.

          ASLs are one of the things that was found not to really work very well over here and they’re relatively rare now in the Netherlands. For instance, we don’t have any ASLs in Assen these days.

          If campaigners in the UK set their standard for best practice in the UK so low that it consists largely of things discarded in the Netherlands then the country will remain 40, 50, 60 years behind forever.

          • Perhaps I should update my post from January:

            “I know of a country which added a light,
            So all the bike riders could scatter in fright”

            David is absolutely right here. Why would any cycle campaigner ask for something which is proven not to work, both here and abroad? Why this attachment to ASLs? I really don’t understand it.

            The early start is a kludge upon a kludge. Drivers would soon learn that the green light for bikes means their own green light is due any second and this means they can start moving forward earlier. Then campaigners will be calling for the police to enforce the early start, etc. etc. etc. It’s because conflict is built in to the ASL design, whereas good infrastructure design removes conflict permanently.

            I wonder if the love for ASLs is due to British cycle campaigners’ tendency to focus on being anti-car more than they do on being pro-bike.

            I’m not even sure that the few remaining Dutch ASLs have an early start light any more either. I can’t remember any, but then I only encountered about two ASLs in the space of four weeks. Maybe I was so used to having bike-specific lights that I didn’t notice!

    • davidhembrow

      Chris, you must stop with the “40 years ahead” nonsense. I used to be told that the Netherlands was 20, 25, 30 and 35 years ahead. None of it helps. It’s not the Netherlands that is ahead, but the UK that is behind. When you’re forty years behind you have the benefit of other peoples’ mistakes and you don’t need to copy them in order to catch up.

  5. One issue I have with ASLs which you sort of alluded to is the pathetic nature of the feeder lanes that lead into them – giving drivers a false impression of how much space they need to give cyclists. Of course there will be those who digress and regard narrow feeder lanes as acceptable – but just because something will “fit” doesn’t make it a comfortable or ideal solution.

    Three people can quite comfortably lie in a normal double bed, but that wouldn’t make it acceptable for a hotel to advertise a room with such a bed for three people. Likewise, just because a cycle lane can be squeezed in along the edge and the other lanes shifted over slightly, that doesn’t mean it is a comfortable solution, and this is especially unacceptable when designed from scratch. If there are too many people in the bed, the little one can roll over onto the floor. If too much is crammed into a restricted road cross section, the big one can squash the little one.

    In response to Chris Juden, whilst I use bike boxes throughout Bristol (which given the nature of some of the roads they are found on, are typically a box ticking exercise) and appreciate it when drivers do leave them clear; I sincerely doubt that motorists could ever be motivated to consistently and willingly allow space for vehicles that are generally slower to wait in front of them at traffic lights; just as I am loathe to use toucan crossings on a bicycle where large groups of pedestrians are crossing in front of me. One may as well say that fit young people like me should stand back from the kerb when waiting to cross the road to allow the elderly to wait in front of me. With cycle path priority, I would regard it as being a problem of markings and engineering, so that the road is “seen” to cross the visually dominant cycle path, rather than vice versa.

  6. Not sure if you where aware but the Met Police’s Roadsafe unit recently sent out a letter to some of the hemlet cammers (I suspect, it was most people who have submitted footage previously) in regards to ASL infringements. It covered what evidence they would need and how to legally use them. CycleGaz did a post on them on his blog (Croydon Cyclist).
    They key points where they needed to actually SEE the vehicle pass the first stop line, simply arriving at an ASL and finding it blocked (such a common occurrence!) wasn’t sufficient evidence to prove the driver hadn’t been “stranded” when the lights changed. Personally to combat this I’d suggest ASL’s are treated like yellow box junction where you simply DON’T enter them UNLESS you can clear the other side….

    The second more interesting point was how cyclists are meant to legally use them. The only way you should enter an ASL is through a feeder lane which will include a break in the first stop line, This is significant as that is how cyclists DON’T break the law by proceeding past the first stopline as they don’t have a stopline. Now this raises some other important points such as it being (strictly speaking) illegal to enter the ASL by any other route which involves crossing a solid [stop] line. This can easily happen when filtering down the right hand side as there are normally only feeder lanes on the left.
    The day after getting this letter I thought I’d do a few checks and found that quite a few of the ASL’s in my area are legally useless as they don’t have a feeder lane! The second set that I found was particularly amusing as I arrived and [illegally] used the one for the straight ahead lane as whilst I was sat admiring the equally hopeless one to my left a bus pulls up completely blocking it. Given this is a supposed professional driver I think it shows how little respect other road users have for ASL’s and how bleein’ hopeless they are.

    • Thanks for the info Mark.

      I thought the rules had been changed recently so a person on a bike could enter the ASL even without the feeder lane? Or maybe I imagined that!

    • Chris Juden

      I am sure that a lot of ASL blocking by drivers is deliberate, so as not to be delayed by any slow, wobbly cyclists starting off in front of them.

      The vital feature, that continental ASLs have but UK lacks, of a separate light for cycles that goes green a bit before the main one and lets cyclists clear the junction before drivers can start, also removes the incentive for drivers to block the box.

      • If we have a separate traffic light phase which allows bike users to clear the junction then what’s the point in the ASL? Why not have the bikes on a separate phase altogether?

        It seems to me that while ASLs are cheap they clearly don’t work, so then there’s this suggestion that we should spend money on improving them – early-start signals, trixie-mirrors, enforcement…

        Why not just do it properly in the first place? Why this resistance to best practice? We know what works, and making minor tweaks to ASLs isn’t it.

  7. I blogged about ASLs here: http://willcycle.blogspot.co.uk/2013/02/a-broken-law-is-no-law-at-all.html
    My argument was not that ASLs are good or bad, but I came at it from a different angle. See, most of what cyclists may report to police (short of an actual collision) is pretty much ignored under the excuse of it was too subjective. With ASLs, however, there are clear laws.
    With this in mind, to prove the point the the police does NOT enforce laws that supposedly should keep cyclists safer, I tried to find a single instance nationally where just ONE driver was ticketed for having violated an ASL.
    Predictably, despite several FoI requests by me and others, no such instance was found.
    My blog post is not to be confused with campaigning for ASLs. Instead, it was meant to demonstrate clearly how little support cyclists receive from police.

    • Ah, I knew I’d seen some FoI requests about ASLs somewhere! I’ve linked to your article and the two in the comments too.

      I see the police drive into ASLs at red all the time. They should be held to the highest standards of driving to set an example to the rest of us, but unfortunately they seem to bend the rules just as everyone else does, but with impunity.

  8. Simon Burrell

    You certainly make some interesting comments and this is excellent food for thought. I certainly agree that with adequate cycle infrastructure there should be no need for ASLs. However that is when the argument starts to unravel a little.

    It took the Dutch about 40 years to get where they are today and with the best will in the world we are not going to get to that point in a generation. In the mean time we are in transition at best.

    I cycle in central London and ASLs where used properly do give some measure of protection. I see no reason why some energy couldn’t be put to education and enforcement while we have these things.

    The police will not enforce so why not get enforcement shifted to local councils who can treat breaches like parking offences and increase their income? Wardens or cameras could be used to make life just that little but safer on our rides while we campaign for the long term solutions we know are required.

    Great good for thought – thanks.

  9. Chris Juden

    And my reply to David and the Cat’s replies is…

    If British drivers won’t respect ASLs and our police seem reluctant to make them do so, why should they respect segregated cycletracks when THESE cross their path?

    To pick up ibikelondon’s witticism: building Dutch infrastructure without Dutch traffic laws and enforcement is like selling mobile phones to rural Africans without already erecting the masts.

    • You may as well be a pedestrian campaigner asking “if British drivers park on pavements and this isn’t enforced, why build zebra crossings as people will drive straight through them?”. A superficially plausible but ultimately non-sequential argument.

      And what aspect of “Dutch traffic law and enforcement” is it that had to be implemented before the Dutch actually built infrastructure? It certainly wouldn’t be strict liability, which made its introduction some time after the bulk of the current infrastructure grid was implemented. As far as I am concerned, if a cycle track is constructed so that the markings indicate that other traffic must give way to it (these do sometimes exist in the UK), and other road users fail to do so, than that would already count as an offence; and quite possibly a less ambiguous one in enforcement terms than with ASLs (as a driver has to be observed driving into the ASL when the light is already at red – the simple presence of a vehicle is insufficient because the driver may have been in queuing traffic.

      Any issues with the police, CPS, or judiciary not taking such an incident seriously could happen just as easily within a vehicular context. These issues need to be continuously and rigorously pursued but must not be allowed to hinder the construction of infrastructure.

  10. Pingback: The new Mornington Crescent junction design is an insult to us all | The Alternative Department for Transport

  11. Hey S.C., researching my latest blog, Doing it quicker, I came across this comment from Charlie Lloyd, which rather suggests conventional ideas about HGV blind-spots might be wrong. Thought you’d be interested to know. – Simon

  12. Do you differentiate between ASLs and bike boxes? Because there are some accidental bike boxes here in San Diego, and they work quite well.

    The roads are quite different with nearly every road having a right turn only lane which means that the cyclist would be blocking right turning traffic if she stays to the right.

    Or she could queue up behind or in front of the middle lane. Or she could sit in between the two lanes which in my mind is safest.

    Is it awesome? No. It sucks but it sucks less than the alternatives.

    Until they build the cycle track between my house and my job which will happen in my lifetime.

    Until then I like bike boxes where appropriate despite the fact that I do despise mixing with motoring traffic.

Leave a reply...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s