An open letter to Aaron Rosser and TfL

I wrote this a few days ago, but I thought it might become irrelevant after the big announcement on Thursday.

But I see now that this message is actually more relevant than it was before.

To Aaron Rosser, TfL Cycle Superhighways project manager, and all at TfL who are involved with designing facilities for cycling:

Hello Aaron (and others at TfL),

We don’t know each other, but in my life as a transport campaigner I meet many people with whom I discuss transport issues. (Some of them even know my secret identity as the writer of this blog!)

Not too long ago at a road safety event I met someone who told me they’d had a good conversation with you about the Cycle Superhighways project. Don’t worry, my source was quite complimentary about you!

I’m told that you were very happy to discuss any aspect of the new CS designs, and that you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your work, which is great to hear. Of course, you have to work within restrictions beyond your control, from both inside TfL and out, which can limit your options. I was also told that you’re mildly embarrassed by the grandiose name for the project — it certainly gives you a lot to live up to!

Apparently, if you were given a blank cheque you’d go nuts with great cycling infrastructure all over London. I’m very pleased to hear this, if it’s true. You sound like a great person for the job.

But then one little morsel of information shocked and disappointed me: You haven’t been to study the infrastructure in the Netherlands?!

Please say it ain’t so! I really don’t see how anybody can be considered a suitable person to design cycling infrastructure if they haven’t studied the Netherlands, any more than someone could be considered an expert on Elvis Presley without ever having listened to his records.

Apparently, you’re planning a trip to Paris to see what’s going on there. This is good – Paris is a large city which has already begun responding to calls for better cycling infrastructure. But this, to stick with my Elvis analogy, is a bit like our supposed expert listening to the Pet Shop Boys’ version of You Were Always On My Mind without having heard Elvis’ recording.*

I’m sure TfL would like a trip to New York too – why not! As a London tax-payer, I endorse it. Please do visit New York, to see how they have transformed Times Square from a motorway into a pleasant space by removing motor traffic — then come home and do the same to Parliament Square and Piccadilly Circus. But visiting New York to study bike facilities is like listening to Gareth Gates’ version of Suspicious Minds instead of the definitive rendition.*

What I’m getting at is this: If you want the real deal, you’ve got to go to Graceland to see The King – by which I mean go to the Netherlands and see David Hembrow. I can’t recommend this guy highly enough. He’s had an enormous influence on the thinking of many UK cycle campaigners, many of them undergoing an epiphany which changed them from committed Vehicular Cyclists into dedicated Infrastructuralists (that is a word now!).

He’s had this effect in two ways. The first is his blog, A View From The Cycle Path, in which he calmly and clearly explains why Dutch infrastructure works so well. He deals with many of the myths and rumours about the Netherlands and shows why the country’s success can be replicated elsewhere. The blog has been hugely influential.

The cycling infrastructure movement in the UK would be nowhere near as strong as it is today — and I sincerely doubt that the Mayor would have been making any announcements about cycle paths — had it not been for David’s work.

Many dedicated people have been campaigning along these lines for years, some since the 1990s, but David’s blog showed thousands of us what good cycling infrastructure looks like, and how great it can be to live somewhere where cycling is a normal, every-day transport option for everyone.

The second way in which David has influenced many people is his Dutch cycling infrastructure study tours of Assen and Groningen, explaining how it all works and why it works — something which is difficult to fully understand unless you can see it in action, and see how everything joins up. Reading the blog is great, but the study tour gives you the real detail you’ll need if London’s investment in cycling infrastructure is to be spent wisely.

He is the right person to go to, because he was an active cycling campaigner in Cambridge for many years until he had his own ‘road to Damascus’ moment and emigrated to the Netherlands about five years ago. As a British cycling expert living in the world’s top cycling nation, he has a uniquely clear viewpoint which you are unlikely to find elsewhere. Like many cycle campaigners and urban planners, I have been on the tour and I can honestly say that it is time and money well-spent.**

I returned to London with a fresh set of eyes — I can see how the decades of poor design continue to harm the city, and how it could be massively improved. It would be a wise investment for TfL to send a team on a study tour with David.

Now, my source says that you’ve been provided with details of the study tour, but I’ve asked David and he says that nobody from TfL has been in touch. I have to ask: why? Is it too expensive for TfL to afford? Is the Netherlands not as glamorous as Paris?

You might think that a town such as Assen and a small city like Groningen have few lessons for London, but that would be a short-sighted view. Assen in the 1970s was just like many UK towns still are today, with streets full of parked and queued cars and “no space for cycling”, and yet it has been transformed into pleasant, safe, liveable place. With the London plans including the excellent concept of specific areas designed as “mini-Hollands” the lessons of Assen and Groningen are very relevant to London.

If you do want a big city experience with a wide river and skyscrapers, spend a day or two in Rotterdam. The conurbation stretches the equivalent of Ealing to Greenwich, and Holloway to Tooting. But this is merely a suggestion for further research, it is not a substitute for David’s thorough and information-packed three day tour.

If you’re going to do your best work then you really need to arrange a study tour with David. It’s a scandal that you hold this position and yet have never studied Dutch cycling infrastructure. That your bosses gave you the job with such a gaping hole in your CV, and haven’t even sent you to see the Netherlands, shows their lack of knowledge of what’s required in London over the next few years.

I’m not trying to be horrible to you here, I’m really not. I’m just trying to underline how much you’re missing out on. I think your own personal career, and London’s future, can benefit greatly from a few days with David in Assen and Groningen – so do it for yourself, but most of all, do it for Britain!

You can get from London to Rotterdam in under 4 hours with Eurostar via Brussels, or it’s a relaxed 9 hours or so by train then ferry, through the day or overnight, and there are flights too, of course. The Netherlands, which is #1 for cycling however you measure it, is right next door! There’s no excuse for not going to see it.

And if TfL’s really that skint, we’ll have a whip-round.

All the best,

S.C.

 


*Okay, so Elvis wasn’t the first to sing these songs, but you know what I mean. One thing I’ve learned while writing this article is how many of Elvis’ songs were cover versions!

**I hope David Hembrow isn’t embarrassed by the flattery here, but I’m telling it like I see it. I have no financial interest in selling study tours! My only goal is to improve Britain’s streets and roads.

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23 Comments

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23 responses to “An open letter to Aaron Rosser and TfL

  1. C

    A rational and reasoned article, completely negated by your glib dismissal of the Pet Shop Boys superior version of Always on my mind.

  2. Gaz

    I met with the project manager of the superhighways in 2010 and i can’t say they had the same enthusiasm as described in your post. I rode with him along CS7 and we talked about various junctions, designs and features. Although he brushed off my concerns for places like oval, which have since been highlighted as a danger zone for cyclists. Then again it wasn’t Aaron Rosser at the time.

  3. Well, visit Paris too – there’s the experience of the Mayor of Paris to be gained (a most sensible M. frog, I’m told) and the fact that the road along the Seine embankment has been modified for walkers and cyclists in a way that might inform our own.

    But, yes, The Netherlands is the clear winner: never have I seen such high quality of life at such relatively little cost.

  4. Go Dutch with David, Aaron. It will be time well spent. The guy is a legend.

  5. I think you hit on an important point where you say “You might think that a town such as Assen and a small city like Groningen have few lessons for London, but that would be a short-sighted view.”

    I think that is the view, and that is why planners from London are reluctant to go on the Hembrow study tour (in fact none have ever done so, though some have gone to Copenhagen). As you say, this is very misguided. If they went there, they would start to appreciate why it is so misguided. For one thing, the quite spacious layout of Assen, which its low urban density, shows many parallels to outer London boroughs, the very places that are proposed to be converted to these “mini-Hollands”. Then again the grid system of Groningen’s streets and squares would show useful lessons on how to treat the streets of Westminster. They would learn the general lessons like how cycling can dominate spaces in city centres and need relatively little special treatment there, but to do that it must be supported with highly-attractive and safe routes from suburbs which give a sense of social as well as vehicular safety at all times of the day and year.

    The people working on London’s new cycling plans should indeed visit a variety of towns and cities in the Netherlands to see how the general principles work in a variety of urban contexts. But the explanations from Hembrow are uniquely valuable because he understands the whole British context, the British set of assumptions on roads, planning and cycling, in a way that Dutch experts probably do not. He is therefore in a unique position to clarify all manner of misunderstandings and contextual subtleties.

  6. Damn. I cannot help myself, but I have to reply.

    I do get the post and agree with the sentiments whole-heartedly, but I wish you hadn’t named the chap at TfL. Addressed it to Peter Hendy or Ben Plowden, fair enough, they are in the public eye and put themselves in it too, this chap will not be in that position.

    In local government (and this applies to TfL), those of us at a more lowly level are not given a right of reply to certain things and in the case of this letter, the TfL chap wouldn’t expect to be able to respond direct, even if he agrees with everything (and the letter is offering positive encouragement).

    Our responses to letters always have to be respectful and factual and I am not allowed to criticise what the person has written unless of course it is offensive or defamatory. I know your letter is none of this and I am struggling to articulate my view, but it is just not the done thing.

    I have had letters from people criticising me personally for a scheme being undertaken by the council and I have had to point out that it is not my own personal agenda, it is a scheme on behalf of the council and its elected structure. Damn, this reply hasn’t come out how I wanted it.

    Anyway, you missed out the Fine Young Cannibals. version of Suspicious Minds!

    • Ah, I see what you mean. I didn’t realise it was a faux pas to name engineers, etc., in public! (Though his position isn’t a secret, either.)

      I’m not expecting a reply from Aaron Rosser personally, as I know he’ll be restricted by his position. And this letter is as much aimed at his bosses all the way up to Hendy, Plowden and even the mayor.

      It certainly wasn’t my intention to embarrass him, but I am aghast at the idea that the people designing London’s new cycle paths haven’t made the small journey to see the crème de la crème of cycle infrastructure, especially when they’re being sent to Paris, which is really only starting to develop cycling.

      Ah well, what’s done is done, it’s out there now, no point rescinding it. My source really was impressed with Aaron Rosser, and I hope that came across as a vote of confidence in him.

      Finally… I didn’t realise FYC had done Suspicious Minds! Maybe their version is Davis, California – still good but showing its age :)

  7. Paul M

    I would have thought that it was an elementary piece of advice that civil engineers should go and study “reference sites” in order to understand more fully the challenges – and opportunities – presented to others who have been down this road before.

    However, the right place for TfL’s civil engineers to turn to is not an Englishman who is a cycle campaigner by profession and a relatively recent arrival in the Netherlands, but their civil engineer counterparts, who work for the Dutch National, or municipal civil engineering departments and who may have contributed to the “CROW” design bible. These are the people who can engage with them on all the minutiaie of technical challenges (much the same I should think as they face at home) and legal/regulatory obstacles (perhaps a little different). Some of them will have been doing this as their day-job for a decade or two. They will talk the same technical, scientific, mathematical language.

    Also, Amsterdam wouild make a more appropriate reference site than Assen. It is far more comparable to London, in scale, in the full variety of activity (industrial, financial, commercial, touristic) and in the range of streetscapes from wide boulevards to narrow alleys. Possibly it is less advanced as a cycling environment than Assen or other provincial Dutch towns but TfL needs to understand the challenges which face them, not their counterparts in, say, Guildford.

    They really should also go and see other major success stories such as Copenhagen, to understand what is different there and gain an insight to how that affects Copenhagen’s relative success.

    And Paris – why not? The solutions there have so far considerably less ambitious, and so inevitably less successful, but again it is interesting to see what differences that makes.

    Finally, they really should visit Barcelona. This is a city which has come from zero to hero in a very few years. OK, a long way behind Amsterdam or Copenhagen so far, but the point is the rapidity of transformation, achieved it would appear with mainly “light segregation” measures – someone described them as “armadillos”, presumably due to their shape, but a neat term for something sufficient to prevent cars driving into cycle lanes or parking in them, if not enough to protect the lane from an out-of-control large truck. We do of course occasionally see those here – Camden has those in its planned redesign of Royal College St.

    The person who might usefully engage with campaigners abroad would I think be Andrew Gilligan, and Mikael Colville Andersen should be one of his first ports of call.

    • I’m going to have to respectfully disagree with you there Paul, I think David Hembrow is the ideal person to see (even if TfL went to see Dutch engineers and planners as well, good idea) because he has an English perspective on it, and understands the unique challenges to cycling infrastructure in Britain, in a way that it would be unreasonable to expect a Dutch person to.

      I have no objection to TfL’s planners and engineers visiting Paris (as I said in the letter), Copenhagen, even Barcelona – but what’s the point of doing all that if they haven’t experienced the best? If you wanted to learn how to make the best pizza and pasta dishes, Japan shouldn’t be your first port of call.

      I have no allegiance to the Netherlands whatsoever. It’s just a fact that that country has the best developed and most successful cycling infrastructure, so it makes sense for anybody involved in designing cycling infrastructure to go and see it. Surely this is obvious?

      I have nothing against Mikael Colville-Andersen, but I don’t understand why you’d recommend him over David Hembrow. He isn’t a “civil engineer…who has been doing this as their day-job for a decade or two” either (he’s a film-maker/photographer by trade, I think). But sure, TfL should go see him in Copenhagen too!

      If TfL are spending £900m on this project, I reckon spending some time and money on research before they begin is money well spent. But the Netherlands should really be at the top of their list. (I suspect that in Paris, New York, and even Copenhagen, they will discover what doesn’t work quite as well.)

      It doesn’t sound like you’ve been on the Hembrow study tour, but I do know people who have been – including planners and other urban realm professionals – whose eyes have been well and truly opened by it.

    • We have our own reference site now – the woonerf (Dutch-style traffic calming measures) at South Kensington where space between elements of the built environment have become just that – space to be aware, to think, to connect. I remember when this was being put in – a lengthy period of noise and pollution. I think, heroically, the teams were working within the normal (heavy) traffic flows.

      I think if I were contemplating how to do this new lot of works I’d try to get traffic flows moderated before I started:

      - prioritize emergency, maintenance and delivery vehicles and vehicles belonging to the Utilities;

      - marshall cabs better to discourage convoys of empty vehicles interrupting (and indeed damming) flows (see Park Lane);

      - discourage park and shop (perhaps with some cargobike hire);

      - encourage shops to charge a deposit (or sell) those handy plastic shopping trolleys (cf John Lewis and Waitrose) so that peeps could get their shopping home and return their trolley at the next trip.

      All relatively small changes that could help wean peeps off their MVs and onto bikes as well as their own feet – and most of all to rediscover their city..

  8. Thanks for the support. We’ve dedicated years to trying to help the UK to improve its cycling infrastructure, starting well before we left the UK and now including nearly six years of living here in the Netherlands. We’d be very happy to meet with Aaron Rosser, Andrew Gilligan, or anyone else from London or elsewhere who wants to see how things really work over here.

    Paul: I think we really do have a unique experience gained over a lot of years and we have something absolutely unique to offer: we can bridge the culture gap.

    It would be great if people from London would take advice from CROW directly, but it’s probably not enough on its own. There would inevitably be misunderstandings.

    Similar, the CROW manuals are really great. However, though the English translation is good, they are written with a Dutch audience in mind. How Dutch planner interprets the manual is through the eyes of someone who already lives with that infrastructure and knows how it works. They know what they like and what they don’t like. The books don’t give you this. They don’t tell you how the recommendations are followed nor will they show you how things actually are used. They’re also very neutral on benefits of one thing vs. another – i.e. exactly what you see if you actually come on a tour here. The minutiae discussed are in many cases not really very important points because they’re not followed to the letter in this country. A simple example: CROW suggests widths but everything here is wider.

    As for other places that you suggest as an alternative model which have either achieved considerably less or have a falling cycling modal share, I have to wonder why you would prefer to emulate that.

    • I agree – the CROW manuals are good, but the English translation (which I once went to the trouble of an inter-library loan to access a copy of) would need a greater degree of transliteration to make it more acceptable and useable as design guidance in a UK context; taking into account both obvious differences in our road systems (such as driving on the left) and more subtle differences (such as with cycle parking – most British cyclists, even if their bicycles had kick stands, would scorn the idea of a wheel lock). It would not, however, be outside the realms of possibility to repackage it for a UK audience, with some bits added (such as what to do with hills) and a nice foreword by someone based in the UK who knows what they’re talking about.

  9. You’re right, SC. DH is best because he not only knows that Dutch infrastructure is best but he fully understands how and why it works. He can also paint the reverse picture: how providing this cycling infrastructure has a positive effect on traffic congestion in that most car/lorry routes run well, too, and drivers don’t feel victimised. If and when London spends this money, that is going to be as important a lesson as getting it right for cyclists.

    • Koen

      I concur. Having lived in the Netherlands since birth, even though I saw the transition from unsafe cycling to good cyclepaths everywhere in my youth, I tend to take the bulk of it for granted. It takes an ‘outsider’s’ eyes to really appreciate it, and Davids blog posts were a revelation. I never really thought about it that much. I think for getting a hunch of Dutch provisions, and some information, most trafic engineers would do. I think David, with the advantage of a relatively fresh look at things, can add that bit of extra because he understands where Britons are coming from. That being said, one must understand it’s not likely he’ll ever get rich doing this. However, as he is a great promotor of my Dutch cycling heritage, I would wish for him to prosper and so I recommend his tours to anyone even slightly curious.

    • Can I repectfully point out that there are two ‘SCs’ commenting on this matter. Please do not airbrush out the female voice. Thank you.

  10. This is very timely for our ongoing battle over the redesign of Leith Walk in Edinburgh (http://mccraw.co.uk/welcome-to-leith-walk-video-style/).

    I’ve written to the council asking them whether their staff have had the benefit of the Henbrow tour experience or if not, how we might go about arranging it…

  11. Pingback: The language has changed – will the strategy match it? | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  12. kruidig meisje

    If anyone of TfL has trepidation because of the costs of staying, I am willing to house them (I live 20 km from Amsterdam, an easily bikable distance, we think) and lend them a bike. Brand: Challenge. No joke. They can have the one which does not keel over easily (a trike), so inspection of the tarmac will be only at their own initiative
    If they have trepidations negotiating Schiphol airport (where everybody speaks english), I am willing to help them from the airplane to their destination.

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