The government should not encourage people to walk and cycle

If you’re a regular reader of this blog then you might think that the site has been hacked, or that I’ve gone mad, or that there’s a mistake in the headline.

But you have, in fact, read it correctly. The government should not be encouraging people to walk or cycle. They should be changing the way our roads and streets are designed in such a way that people will want to walk or cycle.

Having read today’s news reports about how 29 000 people die due to air pollution in the UK every year — most of it motor vehicle emissions — the reported solution has the right goal, but the wrong method.

The report says that the government must “encourage” people to make more of their journeys on foot or by bike.

Perhaps it is beyond the scope of the report to suggest how this might be achieved, but this word “encouragement” is dangerous. What would “encouragement” entail? A poster campaign, or maybe even a TV advert if the budget stretched that far. It might mean some sort of tax break on bike purchase, or free cycle training sessions. At best it might mean a few 20mph zones and toucan crossings.

We need to do more than this to solve this problem. For more than 60 years now the country has been designed and built with motor vehicles in mind. That is the reason that so many choose to drive even for very short journeys.

Why would somebody choose to walk the half-mile to the shops if they have to wait at three or four separate ‘red man’ lights to cross one road, while their neighbour who took the car gets to cross the same junction in one go?

A road in Leeds, with a huge central reservation which must be walked along in the middle.

A safe, convenient and pleasant walking environment? No. This is one reason why my five year old niece is driven one mile to school. (Photo: Google Maps)

Why would anybody choose to cycle on a road designed for driving at high speeds, with multiple lanes and wide-mouthed junctions designed to enable speedy motoring? It’s perfectly normal and reasonable to not want to ride a bike amongst large, fast, dangerous machines.

A man on a bike overtakes a stopped bus as cars overtake him.

Is it any wonder so few in the UK choose to travel by bike, when the conditions for it are so poor?

“Encouragement” has been tried before – indeed, we’ve had little else – and there’s been no discernible effect. So “encouragement” is the wrong thing. What is the right thing?

Walking and cycling need to be made the obvious choice for short journeys. People need to feel that walking or cycling is a safe, pleasant and convenient way to get from home to shop, work to pub, cinema to home. If walking and cycling feel like a dangerous hassle, as they very often do now, why should anybody do it? It’s the environment that dictates our choices, not some wagging-finger poster campaign or motivational slogans.

If we are to bring down those 29 000 annual deaths — that’s 79 per day, one person dead every 18 minutes just from pollution, we’re not even counting all the deaths from traffic collisions and inactivity — the only way to do it is not by badgering and hectoring people into doing something unpleasant, but by making those modes of transport the obvious choice – safe, easy, attractive, and convenient.

Dutch families on bikes on a cycle path at a junction. In the foreground we can see a teenage boy on a bike, next to him is his mother with the younger brother sat in a child seat on the back of her bike. Further away is another mother with her children in a box-bike.

These families have chosen to use a bike for this journey because the dense network of cycle paths make it a safe, easy and convenient option — and not because of some poster campaign or training session. There are more photos like this here.

Active travel doesn’t need encouraging, it needs enabling.

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Armadillos: The Emperor’s New Infrastructure

Please, dear non-London readers, I apologise for covering the capital so much! But while this blog post may have originated with a London street, its influence is spreading so it should concern you too, wherever you may be.

It’s no secret that I’m not entirely keen on the new Royal College Street design. I’m clearly not alone in thinking this, either.

The whole idea of these “armadillos” – as the currently-fashionable little plastic blobs are called – is to provide cycling infrastructure on the cheap. But as my dad always said, “if you buy cheap, you buy twice.”

While Royal College Street isn’t the best example of cycling infrastructure, I admit that it isn’t a complete disaster. The cycle lane does work most of the time (in the places it’s actually there, and when there’s no bus passengers, and when no car has driven over the armadillos – though that’s quite a few caveats, mind).

But the only reason that armadillos even work at all on Royal College Street is because they don’t stand alone, but are interspersed with large protective planters, and because the street has a relatively low level of motor traffic.

That level of traffic is not low enough, in my opinion – if there is a level of traffic at which armadillos are suitable, I’d say Royal College Street still exceeds that, which is why earth-filled planters were included as part of the design. But even they are not enough either.

Recently bollards have also been added to the mix – or should that be ‘added to the mess’? The bollards are there to protect the planters, which are there to protect the armadillos, which are there to protect people on bikes. And people have won awards for this nonsense!?

It might have been easier to just do the job properly in the first place.

Royal College Street in Camden, showing a planter, bollard and armadillo to protect the cycle lane.

Armadillos and planters and bollards – oh my! (Photo: Joe Dunckley)

(Though I must say I was pleased to see the parking bays also recently moved away from the edge of the cycle lane, to give some safety from the door zone.)

Meanwhile, outside the M25…

In Manchester, the council have been experimenting with armadillos alone to separate cycle lanes, which hasn’t been a resounding success, shall we say. “Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester” has been covering it thoroughly, but essentially they’ve discovered that armadillos aren’t made of some sort of magic car-repelling material after all.

An armadillo which has been smashed by motor vehicles.

This is not quality cycle infra. (Photo: Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester)

TfGM are wanting to use armadillos on Oxford Road, where taxis will be pulling over to pick up and drop off passengers. Will taxi drivers be fearful of crossing these low plastic humps? I can hazard a guess that they won’t.

Shrinking armadillos

They’ve also shrunk over time. When people first started banging on about how Seville had massively increased its cycling rate, we were seeing pictures of these big concrete things:

A protected cycle lane in Seville, which uses much bigger blobs, made of concrete and much closer together.

This is what was originally promoted – large, concrete armadillos (Photo: Claudio Olivares Medina)

But somehow they’ve shrunk in the meantime, and become tiny plastic things which many drivers don’t even notice:

Though the Seville “Tobys” are much better than the frankly pathetic armadillos, I’m still not a big fan. They’re simply not high-quality infrastructure. They reduce the usable width of the cycle path as they’re essentially an intermittent high kerb. They should, at least, keep the cycle path clear of motor vehicles.

(Apparently Bristol have rejected armadillos on their Clarence Road project, in favour of Tobys.)

The same is true of the planters, by the way. I don’t know where the idea first came from, but check out these examples from Vancouver. They’re about twice the size of the Camden ones, much closer together, and are themselves protected by a concrete kerb. Suddenly it’s clear why the Camden ones are failing…

In conclusion: Armadillos are rubbish.

Like painted lanes in the 1980s and ASLs in the 1990s, some cyclists imagine that armadillos may alleviate some of the problems they face and welcome them as a positive measure.

But like those other half-hearted attempts at cycling infra on the cheap, they are not the high-quality infrastructure that is needed to increase cycling rates in Britain.

These little plastic blobs are currently very fashionable in transport design circles and they are already starting to spread around the country as yet another way of doing cycling on the cheap instead of doing it right, once and for all, by doing what is proven to work.

Make no mistake – armadillos are popular because they’re cheap, not because they’re effective.

I’ve been trying to think of a situation where armadillos might be suitable, but I can’t. The nearest thing I’ve seen in the Netherlands have been at roadworks or on temporary routes, and even there they’ve been much larger, heavier, concrete blocks – and even they don’t provide protection against a badly-controlled car. So what hope does a little plastic blob have?

Even as a  temporary measure to try out a cycle route before committing it in concrete, I don’t think they’re good enough. And the schemes where they are being installed aren’t temporary. These projects are intended to last for decades. Remember how Enfield council thinks they could be used?

Laughably awful visualisation by Enfield council, showing narrow bike lanes in the dooring-zone, and bus stops on the wrong side of cycle paths.

If this is Dutch, then I’m a Dutchman’s uncle.

So be careful what you wish for, my dear cycling campaigners, and be careful what you welcome. You may be about to praise the next great nationally-adopted cycling failure.

 

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As Turbogate trundles on, people wonder what is being done in their name

This is my third, and hopefully final, post in the Turbogate saga: Part one is here, and part two is here.

It seems that few people are happy about the Bedford ‘turbo’ roundabout, and the fact that cycling organisations gave it (and other rubbish) their seal of approval.

Some CTC members understandably feel let down by how their representatives seem to have been played by the DfT’s, as are some members of other cycling forums.

I have read the official CTC response by Chris Peck (it’s worth reading the comments), and Cyclenation’s response by Simon Geller, and I have to say I’m not massively impressed by either of them. I’ve not seen anything from British Cycling or Sustrans on the matter, yet. (And I’ve no idea why the Campaign to Protect Rural England even had a seat on the group, but that’s another thing.)

Both responses make the point that the DfT’s funding method was very poor – there was a fixed amount of money which had to be spent in areas with higher collision rates within a very short space of time. Add to that a group of people who are physically in different locations having to make judgements for plans in towns they know nothing about.

Fair enough, that’s rather a crap situation for the DfT to set up. But why did the cycling organisations play along with this? Chris Peck says there was a risk that if this £20m wasn’t spent, they might not give us any crumbs in the future.

Oh no, perish the thought! No more badly-planned pittances to be spent in a hurry? Cycling in the UK might end up in the doldrums.

Old news

I hate to gloat (actually I love it) but in November 2012 I wrote a scathing article about a £20m cycle funding announcement from the DfT, as did David Arditti (though I think both articles were about a slightly later £20m crumb than the one which funded the Bedford turbo, the principle is the same). Chris Peck himself even pointed out that £20m was not enough, but then apparently continued to play along with the DfT’s game anyway.

At the time I said I was disappointed that every one of our prominent cycling organisations had said that the £20m was “welcome” rather than slamming the government for failing to invest in cycling in any real way.

The £20m was intended to shut cycle campaigners up, generate a few positive headlines, and make it sound like the government was doing something while doing nothing. The cycling lobby fell for it, and the DfT’s plan worked brilliantly.

Screenshot of road.cc article titled 'CTC and British Cycling welcome extra £20 million for cycling announced by Norman Baker'

The moment that UK transport policy turned the corner. Everything was different from this point on. Oh, hang on, that’s complete nonsense isn’t it?

Back then I said that “£20m spread across the country is going to do nothing for cycling, except maybe the installation of more of the same kind of crap we’re used to getting.” The Bedford turbo roundabout (plus many more, including the “scandalousCatholic Church Junction in Cambridge) has proved me, and others, to be right.

As long as cycle campaign groups “welcome” this kind of rubbish and then play along with the resulting mess, cycling will continue to receive the same kind of dismissive treatment.

If the process was no good, if the timescales too narrow, if the proposals too weak, then CTC, Cyclenation, Sustrans and British Cycling should have all told the DfT that this was the case, rather than enabling them to push this rubbish through and create poor designs seemingly “approved” by the cycle lobby.

Even older news

The thing is, this is nothing new, it’s been happening for years.

While I was researching a different article, I came across this comment on a Road.CC article from February 2011:

“Here in Plymouth we get sub-standard “cycle facilities” passed off AFTER consultation with Sustrans & CTC. The council flatly refuses to acknowledge that anything could possibly be wrong, as both CTC & Sustrans have “signed off” on what was delivered.”

So it seems that, as ever, nothing has changed in British cycle campaigning circles.

Dutch driving infra cynically hyped as Dutch cycling infra

Finally, I have to come full circle and must have another go at those behind the turbo scheme.

Let us put to one side the cycling organisations approving this design. Let us say we disagree with their decision, but it was a tricky situation and they did what they felt was best at the time. Let’s say fair enough.

Let’s even pretend for a minute that the turbo roundabout was the only option available to the designers, that the UK’s road design standard prohibit a better solution, and that this sub-standard bodge was the best solution for this location.

I still have a beef with Bedford council, and it’s this: Why was this design presented as being a piece of tried-and-tested Dutch cycling infrastructure?

Turbo roundabouts in the Netherlands are for motor vehicles only, but the bid document strongly suggests otherwise (though note how it has been cleverly worded, so it’s not an outright lie):

“Turbo-roundabouts are now the standard roundabout design in the Netherlands where traffic capacity does not allow a compact (continental style) roundabout to be installed. In essence they function like compact roundabouts, where cyclists take primary position in the lane but vehicle speeds will be reduced to under 15mph. The evidence is that they have the same very significant safety benefits of compact roundabouts, compared to other junction styles…”

Where is this “evidence” that turbo roundabouts offer “very significant safety benefits” to people on bikes? (And this must surely be about bikes, considering this is a bid for £300k of Cycle Safety Fund money.)

I’d very much like to see this evidence, because as far as I know the Dutch have never routed bicycles over this type of infrastructure. (In fact, David Hembrow had to go to some lengths to reach his nearest one by bike.)

They even admit as much, though try to couch the inconvenient fact in vagueness (in the ‘background information’ document, available at the bottom of Chris Peck’s article):

“Dutch “turbo-roundabouts” … have a proven vehicular safety benefit (though cyclists are nearly always off-road in these Dutch designs).”

“Nearly always”?! Please, defenders of this scheme, show me which Dutch turbo roundabouts are intended for use by people on bikes. If you cannot do this then the whole project is surely based on a lie.

And here we also see that the “safety benefit” mentioned in the bid document is “vehicular safety benefit” – great evidence for £300k of Cycle Safety Fund money!

Note also, the photographs of turbo roundabouts on page 5 of that document show no cyclists using them, only cars and lorries. The only cyclists to be seen are in the computer-generated image on page 4 which shows people on bikes using separate cycle paths.

Call it Dutch, we’ll buy it

This is cynically misleading language, used to suggest that the turbo roundabout is one of the designs which the Netherlands has used to achieve mass cycling. This has resulted in headlines such as “Council goes Dutch to improve cycle safety at busy roundabout” and “UK’s first Dutch-style roundabout gets underway in Bedford“.

As if to prove the confusion created by this language, that second article is complete with a photo of a real cycle-friendly Dutch roundabout, being trialled at TRL.

Unfortunately, the word “Dutch” is being tacked on to almost any design to imply that it’s proven Dutch cycling infrastructure, when it’s nothing of the sort. (This is what annoyed me when the second-rate Royal College Street revamp was described as “truly Dutch”.)

Once this Bedford turbo roundabout is installed, provided nobody is killed or injured in the first few months you’ll see local authorities up and down the country wanting to install them, calling them ‘Dutch’ and therefore great for cycling. As it’s a cycling roundabout, they will be paid for with money intended for cycling projects, of course.

And if you have any problem with that, they’ll tell you that the designs have been approved by your favourite cycling campaign groups.

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This isn’t a Cycle Safety Fund, this is Space for Motoring

This is part two in a series of three posts about the Bedford turbo roundabout and the funding behind it (AKA “Turbogate”). You’ll find part one here, and part three here.

So what have we learned since Tuesday’s article about Bedford council spending £300,000 of Cycle Safety Fund money installing a design intended to speed motor traffic?

Well, David Hembrow got in touch with Sustrans to ask what the hell they were thinking to support such a scheme. Their reply was mealy-mouthed but also illuminating.

Paul Hilton of Sustrans is essentially saying “don’t blame us, we only recommended spending £300,000 on a turbo-roundabout.” But he did point the finger at various other individuals who apparently share responsibility for this decision.

You can read the full exchange here, in the comments of yesterday’s post.

Franklinstein’s Monster

For me, the most surprising thing was that John Franklin – yes, that John Franklin – is part of the team which decides on which schemes the DfT’s pot of Cycle Safety Fund money will be spent.

This is the John Franklin who wrote, amongst other things, that:

Photo of a young girl (aged about three?) riding her bike without any fear as there are no cars around, with John Franklin quote: "The extra care enforced by the presence of motor traffic, generally results in the safest cycling environment overall."

If only there were more vans and taxis around here, this toddler would be truly safe from all those cycle paths!

That’s right: a man who believes that you’re safest cycling while surrounded by cars, vans and lorries is making decisions about how to spend millions of pounds of Cycle Safety Fund money.

I was surprised at this because he is Cyclenation’s representative on that board, and I’d previously been told that John Franklin didn’t have anything to do with Cyclenation these days beyond looking after their website.

I mentioned this on Twitter and then the following short but hilarious conversation took place between Cyclenation and Mark Treasure:

A Twitter conversation. Cyclenation says: 'Actually John Franklin no longer manages our website or membership database. The only connection between ourselves and JF is that he is a member of Cheltenham Cycle Campaign.' Mark Treasure says: 'But - just to clarify - he is your representative on the Cycle Safety Stakeholder Group?' Cyclenation says: 'Yes, sorry had overlooked that.'

Oh, that guy? He just speaks on our behalf when deciding where millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money will be spent. Apart from that, there’s no connection.

As Cyclenation is not just one body but a federation of local cycling campaigns across the country, it really does need to explain the reason for this bizarre situation to its members.

For a group which is a leading part of the national roll-out of the Space for Cycling campaign, it makes no sense to give such a position of influence (and thus power) to someone who believes that the only place for cycling is on the road mixed up with the cars and lorries.

Luckily, some conscientious Cyclenation members are already asking the right questions.

They Named Names!

Other members on the Cycle Safety Stakeholder Group include Chris Peck of CTC, Tony Russell of Sustrans, Ruth Jackson of British Cycling, Ralph Smyth of Campaign to Protect Rural England, and Robert Semple of TfL.

Now I don’t know the views of everyone on this panel – I have no idea of Ralph Smyth’s stand on urban roundabouts, nor whether Robert Semple gets involved in decisions about places outside London – but I would suggest that members of CTC, Sustrans and British Cycling should contact these bodies and demand to know what their decision was, and their reasoning for it. (Indeed, it seems some CTC members understandably feel this way already.)

Update: Chris Peck of CTC has written an article explaining his side of the story. I think it was written before this one was published, as he refers to Patrick Lingwood’s explanation as if it’s a good one (see below). I appreciate that the whole funding situation is far from ideal, but I’m still not convinced that they took the best course of action by approving such projects. At least Chris Peck has taken the time to respond, however flawed it may be – but there has been word as yet from Cyclenation or British Cycling.

Out With The Old Rubbish, In With The New Rubbish

The more I find out about this turbo roundabout scheme, the less sense it makes that cycling organisations should support it.

One of the architects of this scheme, Patrick Lingwood, Cycling Officer for Bedford Borough Council, defended the turbo-roundabout on Mark Wagenbuur’s blog last year.

His main justification for it seems to be that what is currently there is awful, which he spends a lot of time explaining in detail. This may well be the case, but it’s irrelevant as nobody is suggesting that current layout is great. We’re criticising this specific new design, not defending the existing layout, so trying to re-frame the debate to be about old versus new is distracting and false.

He sounds like a dedicated believer in the supremacy of Vehicular Cycling, just like John Franklin and John Forester. His language is typical of those who see “cyclists” as some special breed which excludes most of the population. He believes in the failed “dual network” concept of providing for two classes of cyclist. He clearly sees his job as being to cater for the few existing cyclists rather than provide safe cycling transport conditions that everybody could use.

For someone who is a cycling officer, he has designed a scheme which increases motor vehicle capacity at this junction by 40%. Rather than create something which is suitable for all users, this is a design which only the confident few can use efficiently, and which will be slow and awkward for others. He’s taken a Dutch concept which is intended to speed large volumes of motor vehicles on trunk roads (and which cycle routes are intended to bypass altogether) and has applied it to an urban location with high pedestrian flows.

And the cycling lobby has waved it through in your name.

And There’s More…

Finally, for now, it seems that this isn’t the only dubious project that Cycle Safety Fund money has been spent on. Cycling campaigner Alex Ingram has begun to compile a spreadsheet of Cycle Safety Grants so we can see where the money has gone.

Pretty quickly, he found this £70,000 Cycle Safety Fund scheme in Hereford:

A diagram showing a roundabout in Hereford, with eight cycle symbols painted on the road

A bargain at only £8750 per cycle symbol painted on the road.

It seems that all a council planner has to do is drop a few cycle symbols into their latest design (or simply claim there’s something “Dutch” about it) and Sustrans will recommend that money intended for cycling will pay for your motor-centric scheme.

As Private Eye would say, trebles all round!

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Bedford Borough Council traffic department, you are a bunch of cretins

This is part one in a series of three posts about the Bedford turbo roundabout and the funding behind it (AKA “Turbogate”). You’ll find part two here, and part three here.

I have one word to say to the people who chose to spend cycling infrastructure money on a “turbo” roundabout – resign.

Please, resign now, and let somebody who knows what they’re doing take your job. For the good of those who live in the areas you control, leave and never go back.

That might sound like an extreme thing to say, but I cannot comprehend how anybody with even the most miniscule knowledge of Dutch traffic design can describe a turbo roundabout as “a significant improvement in cycling provision.”

There are only two possible conclusions. Either you know what you’re doing and are installing a design which was never intended for cycling and is dangerous, or you have no idea what you’re doing and think you’re actually installing something useful.

Neither option shows those responsible in a favourable light.

(I’m sure that not everyone at Bedford Borough Council traffic department is responsible for this, so this is only aimed at those who made the decision to install this thing. The rest of you aren’t cretins. If you had to work on this under pressure from your bosses, this isn’t aimed at you.)

What’s wrong with Bedford’s plans?

Firstly, turbo roundabouts were never meant for cycling on. The purpose of a turbo roundabout is to get motor vehicles through a junction as quickly and efficiently as possible. Part of the fundamental concept of the Dutch turbo roundabout is that cycling is kept away from it. It would be like allowing cycling on a motorway.

(If you want to know more about turbo roundabouts and why they’re not cycling infrastructure, then read these excellent posts: “Turbo Roundabouts: Be Careful What You Wish For” and “When ‘Going Dutch’ Doesn’t Mean What You Think It Means” by David Hembrow, and “A Modern Amsterdam Roundabout” by Mark Wagenbuur, also inspired by this dreadful decision.)

Secondly, this design which benefits motor vehicles is being paid for with £300,000 of money from the Department for Transport’s Cycle Safety Fund.

That’s so insane that I can hardly believe it. It’s like the Church of England investing in arms manufacturers. It’s completely inappropriate and goes against the whole spirit of everything that money is meant for.

In a further bout of insanity, Sustrans – fucking Sustrans, the sustainable transport charity! – are actually supporting this thing (see this Word DOC) making bold claims that turbo roundabouts in the Netherlands “function like compact roundabouts, where cyclists take primary position in the lane”. What the hell, Sustrans? This is blatantly untrue, and you’ve used it to get £300k from a cycling safety fund. What’s next – are you going to suggest that London’s 1960s Ringways urban motorway scheme is implemented as shared space?

And all this at one of the busiest junctions in the borough!

Aerial-view design of Bedford's turbo roundabout

The clue is in the name, you jerks!

Failure designed-in

The worst thing is that they’re hyping this scheme as being good for cycling, yet go on to say that “cyclists will also have the option of using new shared paths around the roundabout leading to zebra crossings” (see this PDF).

If the turbo roundabout is so great for cycling, why would they need to install a shared-use footpath alongside it? (Also, what good are zebra crossings to someone riding a bike, which they cannot legally use without dismounting?)

What we have here is another case of the disastrous “dual network” concept, a proven failure. So the roundabout is meant for fast, confident cyclists taking the lane in front of lorries, and anybody not willing to do this can meander slowly along the footpath getting frowned at by people on foot. What we end up with is infrastructure which is no good for anyone.

They claim “Studies and experience in other countries have shown that this type of junction can improve pedestrians and cyclist provision while also reducing potential safety issues.” But if there is such a study, they have not provided a link or reference to it. I’d love to see these studies, especially with regard to people cycling on the roundabout, as that is not how it is done in the Netherlands, the world leader in mass cycling.

And yet they can’t come up with any convincing reason why a turbo roundabout is safer for cycling on than a regular roundabout, except the claim that “cyclists will find it easier to cycle through the roundabout due to the reduction in vehicles making last minute lane changes” which is rather weak, to say the least.

And anyway, if a driver really wants to change lanes where they shouldn’t, it’s still entirely possible. Look at the diagram. Imagine you’re in the straight-on lane and want to go right. It’s perfectly possible to cut across where you shouldn’t.

Designing for cycling, or designing for cyclists?

I also note that they’ve mis-typed the DfT’s Cycle Safety Fund as the Cyclist Safety Fund. I reckon this is a Freudian slip, which shows that rather than thinking about designs which the whole population can use to cycle on, they are thinking about the needs of the few “keen cyclists” who are the only ones brave enough to cycling in the UK right now.

This whole way of thinking is a throw-back to the past. It ignores the massive benefits that everyone from every section of society would gain if our roads were designed so that anyone could use a bike as a fast, direct and efficient mode of transport, as they do in the Netherlands.

Cycling isn’t just for enthusiasts, it should be for all of us. Designs like this are the reason so few children cycle to school. They’re the reason so many more men cycle than women. They’re the reason so few elderly people cycle. They’re the reason so few people cycle at all.

So while this new roundabout might slightly improve conditions for existing cyclists, the idea that Bedford’s design is good for cycling is absolute nonsense.

A montage of six Dutch cycling scenes: two young ladies, an older man, a woman with a child in a box-bike and another child riding alongside, a group of teenagers, an older woman, and two young children.

Will Bedford’s new £300,000 cycling roundabout enable people like this to cycle?

What now?

Bedford, it’s not too late to stop this and design something suitable. The work has not started. Do not spend £300,000 of taxpayers’ money on this.

Also, stop designing for cyclists and start designing for cycling. Ask yourself if you’d be happy for young children, or your parents, to use your completed schemes.

I’d also request that you stop cynically dressing up motor-centric designs as being good for cycling. If motor vehicle throughput is your main concern, just admit it.

But most of all, please resign, for the good of the nation. Quit your job now, as you clearly are either 1960s motor-centric relics, dedicated vehicular keen cyclists who can’t comprehend ‘normal’ people riding bikes, or clueless incompetents.


PS, added at 3pm: If you want an example of the real thinking behind this project, look no further than the new sign that Bedford wants to install at the zebra crossings:

A blue roadsign which says "CYCLISTS GIVE WAY or dismount"

This, apparently, is how Bedford council chooses to encourage cycling.

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Transport Poverty

Note: I’m really struggling to comprehend the number of comments I’m getting along the lines of “ah, well I once had to carry three hundred melons up Mount Everest, so you are wrong”.

So for the purpose of clarification: This article isn’t suggesting that every single journey made by everyone in the whole world should be made by bike. Of course buses, trains, cars and taxis all have their uses, I use them all myself.

What I’m saying is that Britain’s infrastructure over-encourages the use of buses, trains, cars and taxis and massively suppresses the use of bikes, especially for short urban journeys (which make up the vast majority of journeys that people in the UK make every day, and for which the bike would make most sense for many people).

Last week I went to an event 2.7 miles away from where I live.

My journey was entirely urban, through London’s central financial district, AKA “the City”.

There was a tube strike on, so that wasn’t an option. As a result, the buses were packed and the roads congested too. (Actually, the roads are always congested, but still.)

So I walked.

I walked past where my bike is locked up, and kept on going.

It took almost an hour.

At that time of day, the bus would have taken nearly as long – probably 45 minutes or so. But I’d have been paying for the privilege of being squashed into a crowded space for the duration.

Even if the tube had been running normally, it would have taken me 30 minutes at least, if the walking at either end was included. And again, I’d have been paying to cram into a tiny underground train with hundreds of other people.

The distance could easily be covered by bike in under 15 minutes, and yet I chose not to cycle because the conditions on the roads in this country are so awful. (As I walked along, I saw that I was right not to cycle.)

I call this Transport Poverty.

I’m not the first to use this term, but I’m going to talk about what I understand it to mean.

Choices, choices…

What are the options to British people today?

There’s public transport, which for most British people means a bus. Outside of London, buses are usually expensive (here in London it’s £1.45 for a bus journey of any length, in Leeds it’s usually £2 or £2.80 depending on distance – how does your town compare?). They can also be infrequent, especially in smaller towns or on Sundays, whereas here in the capital they are at least fairly cheap and pretty reliable.

But we’re still paying £1.45 to sit on (or stand in, or squeeze onto) a great lumbering beast of a vehicle which almost certainly doesn’t even go exactly where we want it to, and even if it does then it may not take the most direct route.

Photo of a crowded bus with steamy windows. An unhappy-looking woman looks out of the window.

Yeah, this is a great way to travel two miles. (Photo: Simon Ingram)

As Mark Treasure pointed out, a BBC News report about the tube strike showed crowds of people waiting to get on a bus whose entire route is only six miles long – and most bus passengers don’t travel from the first stop to the very last. Even if every passenger was going to the final stop, the whole journey would take only about 30 minutes by bike – and the bike takes you right to the very place you’re going, there’s no walking at the other end.

The same goes for the tube and trains. Rail travel is great over long distances, but for a huge number of shorter journeys it’s terribly inefficient.

Another down-side to public transport is that not only do you have to walk the first and last legs of your journey, but you have to wait for the bus/tram/train to arrive!

You know, now I’m describing the actions required to make a short journey by public transport, the more insane it seems.

You have a walk from where you are to the stop or station, then you have to wait for the bus/train/tram. When it does arrive it may be full to bursting, and it will stop several times at places you don’t want to go before it gets to your stop. Even then you still have to walk to your final destination.

And that’s when everything is running perfectly – when there’s some unforeseen delay it can increase the total journey time massively, and surely we’ve all missed the last train or bus at least once?

Hundreds of people cram onto an underground train

That millions of people choose to do this every day rather than cycle for half an hour, even on a perfect summer’s day, should tell you something about the conditions on the surface. (Photo: Steve Chou)

If you’re very rich then a good (almost-) door-to-door solution is a taxi, but these do cost a lot of money and are often no faster than a bus, as they have to sit in the same traffic as everyone else while you watch the meter run up your final price. It does also seem rather mad that in London we have a huge army of people driving thousands of empty cars around such a densely-packed city, looking for people who need an expensive lift somewhere.

Then we come to the private automobile – usually a car. This option is very space-inefficient as just one person can take up so much room. Wherever these vehicles are found in great numbers in urban environments, you’ll find them going nowhere fast at all. The sheer bulk of the things means that they can never be a mass urban transportation solution, as our villages, towns and cities soon fill up with them, and the freedom these vehicles supposedly represent seems bitterly ironic. Given the massive cost of owning and maintaining these vehicles, many people have to spend a good chunk of their earnings on keeping one.

A still from one of TfL's traffic-cams, showing traffic at a crossroads. One road has three lanes, the other has five. The traffic flows are blocking each other, leading to gridlock.

What London really needs is more space for bulky, polluting, dangerous vehicles. (Image via.)

I should also insert motorbikes into my list somewhere, but this is one option I don’t know much about. But while I’m sure they have their uses, and they don’t take up anywhere near as much space as a car, I’d say that they’re overkill for the vast majority of urban journeys (which are only a few miles in length). They make far more transport sense than cars in some ways, just for the space efficiency (and surely they’re more fuel-efficient, too?). I expect that, for most people, motorbikes also suffer from a poor safety image – which brings us to the humble bicycle.

The right tool for the job

For my journey today (and for a vast proportion of journeys that British people make on a daily basis) a bike would have been easily the best mode of transport. It’s certainly much cheaper than the competition (except walking), and in central London – where the cars and vans barely move at all – it would have been much faster than any other transport, too.

There’s no per-journey cost, it can take me from door to door, and it’s fast enough to make journeys across town quickly. It poses almost zero risk to other people, it doesn’t take up lots of space, and it doesn’t pump toxic fumes into the air. What’s not to love?

People using bikes for transport in Utrecht

Wow, it’s the perfect vehicle for urban journeys! What could go wrong?

But the way that Britain’s roads have been designed means that the best tool for the job is also the scariest. (And remember, they were intentionally designed that way – they’re a man-made construction, not a natural phenomenon.)

So what do millions of people do when they need to make a short journey of just a mile or two? They walk to a bus stop and wait. They flood into a tube station and wait. They sit in the traffic. Some of them even walk along the narrow footpaths and cross all those vehicle-priority minor side-streets!

Very few of them even consider using a bicycle even though it would be the fastest way of making their journey, and cheaper than everything except walking, too. But given the dreadful conditions for cycling in this country, I understand that decision completely.

Kingsland High Street in Hackney, London. A bus is stopped, and a lorry is overtaking it. A cyclist dressed in high-visibility clothing follows the lorry, and a bus follows the cyclist.

The luminous person is cycling despite the conditions here, not because of them. (This road has apparently been described as “perfect for cycling”.)

So because using the easiest, most direct, cheapest and cleanest mode of transport involves high levels of stress and fear, the vast majority of people choose to pay to sit in queues of cars belching fumes, or herd into trains and buses.

Cycling in Britain today really is that awful.

There’s a whole country outside of London

And outside of my little central London bubble, the form of transport poverty that many are locked into is that of dependence on motor vehicles.

In Leeds, where I’m from, people are locked in to car ownership, and most people feel they have no option but to drive. The buses are infrequent and expensive, and despite the acres of space available the conditions for walking and cycling are dire. I myself have felt the panic of having no car to rely on, back in what now seems like a former life. I have friends who still live there who really do feel the pain of car ownership yet feel there’s no alternative. Even for very short journeys, the car is seen as the only sensible option.

A road in Leeds which is incredibly wide. Wide enough for 8 lanes of traffic at least, even though there's only one lane each way. Most of the huge expanse of tarmac is painted with various stripes and parking areas.

Leeds could accommodate space for cycling, but it’s a matter of finding space in those narrow streets.

In any Dutch city, even in the busiest parts of The Hague, Amsterdam or Rotterdam, most people would choose a bike to make such a journey. I’ve spent a fair amount of time in that country, and I’ve covered many hundreds of miles through countryside, villages, towns and cities, without any of the stress and fear which is the norm when riding a bike in the UK.

We don’t have to live in transport poverty

If we didn’t live in a state of transport poverty, we wouldn’t even have to think twice about how to travel a mere 2.7 miles.

Dutch families on bikes on a cycle path at a junction. In the foreground we can see a teenage boy on a bike, next to him is his mother with the younger brother sat in a child seat on the back of her bike. Further away is another mother with her children in a box-bike.

This is the opposite of transport poverty. Transport affluence? Transport ease? Transport abundance? Whatever it’s called, I want it.

 

 

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Tell me lies, tell me sweet little lies

I wish I could believe everything the Mayor and his team tell me. If there’s one thing that Boris Johnson is good at, it’s making promises.

TfL have recently produced this video about their vision for cycling in London. And it sounds wonderful. Oh, the things they say!

Doesn’t it all sound great?

The Mayor plans to transform provisions for cycling … Investing in cycling makes life better for everyone … We’re spending almost a billion pounds … In London, 4.3 million trips made every day could be made by bike … The streets of central London will be opened up to cyclists as never before … A network of cycle routes will cover central London like a grid … In outer London the vast majority of journeys by car are less than a mile and a half … The idea is to make [the "mini-Holland"] boroughs places as good for cycling as their Dutch equivalents would be … An 8-to-80 cycling culture throughout London … A city where people feel safer cycling, feel confident cycling, and choose to cycle because they really enjoy the experience … London will be a city with a world-class transport and cycling network … Cycling is hugely important…”

And such inspirational music too!

Unfortunately, I don’t believe them. It’s nothing but propaganda and hype, and the cracks are already visible.

Despite these fine words, the plans are already failing to live up to the promises made.

The biggest let-down is the proposed Central London Grid – it’s rubbish. It’s not even a grid!

If you read David Hembrow’s articles on the grid concept, you’ll see that what’s required is a dense network of cycle routes, enabling anyone to cycle from anywhere to anywhere else. That isn’t what we have here.

The grid that isn’t

What TfL have done here is design a network patchwork that affects motoring as little as possible. (In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the wording of the design brief.)

It includes Hyde Park (which closes at midnight) and Kensington Gardens (which closes at dusk!), and includes bits of canal towpath (which are narrow, and dark at night). This isn’t a grid, it’s a joke.

Don’t kid yourself – the reason Gilligan loves the “quietways” concept so much is not because they’re great for cycling, but because they don’t get in the way of all-important motor traffic.

It’s been tried before, and is proven to be a failed concept. How is this convoluted patchwork of back-streets any different from the half-hearted LCN?

TfL's joke of a Central London Cycling Grid

I’ve updated the Royal Parks to reflect their part-time status, and changed a canal route to grey to reflect the lack of social safety.

You’ll note that motor vehicles remain on the straightest, most convenient and most desirable routes, which TfL directly control. This so-called grid for cycling shows only convoluted back-street routes on borough roads, and you know that Westminster will do all they can to prevent any real change for the better on their roads.

And remember: this is their opening gambit! It’s not going to get better from here, only more and more watered down. If this is their dream plan, then the bold promises made in the video have already turned to ashes.

Why are TfL expecting the borough councils to handle all the cycle traffic on these back streets? What about Euston Road, a TfL-controlled 6 lane-wide motorway which cuts across the city from Paddington to Angel? Why is nothing being done there, or on any of the other multi-lane direct roads under TfL’s control?

You can send TfL your thoughts on their grid attempt until 14th of February using this email address: grid@tfl.gov.uk.

London is very, very far away from Holland

I’d also like to touch upon the “Mini-Holland” proposals. I can’t claim to have read all of them in detail, but I have been through most of the shortlisted ones, and I can say this: Andrew Gilligan’s promises are already broken. 

This is because even the best of these “Mini-Holland” proposals will not in any way create conditions “as good for cycling as their Dutch counterparts” – every one of them falls short in some major way.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the proposals do include some positive changes which should be welcomed. But they’re all piecemeal solutions. Not one of them proposes doing “everything, everywhere” which is required to make these places “every bit as cycle-friendly as their Dutch equivalents.”

All of the proposals are at least a little bit disappointing in their failure to really understand what makes Dutch cycling conditions so safe and inviting.

All the proposals feature brand new ASLs as some sort of solution. Many of them misinterpret Dutch practice and apply it to unsuitable roads. Some of them focus largely on leisure routes. All of them bang on about soft measures such as bike maintenance classes or poster campaigns. The London borough councils really need to go on a Hembrow Study Tour, as they clearly only have the vaguest idea of what Dutch cycling infrastructure actually is.

Maybe I’ll write more about the Mini-Holland proposals once the final decision is made about which boroughs have won the mini pot of gold (as there’ll be less waffle to wade through once they’ve chosen the winners).

But for now, I’ll leave you with Enfield’s vision of good-quality Dutch cycling infra, which is so awful that it probably warrants a blog post all of its own:

Laughably awful visualisation by Enfield council, showing narrow bike lanes in the dooring-zone, and bus stops on the wrong side of cycle paths.

If this travesty is Dutch, then I’m a Dutchman’s uncle.

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