Monthly Archives: August 2014

How to get from Waterloo to Greenwich the hard way

So the plans for Andrew Gilligan’s much-discussed “Quietways” are starting to appear.

Here I’ll look at the plans for the part of the route with which I’m very familiar, east of Waterloo in central London. (If you have knowledge of the route beyond Law Street, please do let me know your thoughts in the comments. The Kennington People on Bikes blog has covered more of the route here though I must say that the suggested changes are rather milder than I’d want to see.)

I’ll say now that I’m not impressed by these plans. They seem to consist of nothing but signs on a route which is already fairly quiet, although not quiet enough in my experience, as much of it needs modal filtering to prevent motor vehicles using it as a through-route.

But these weak plans seek to solve none of the problems that exist along the route, they are mostly just window dressing of the existing infrastructure.

Assault-course cycling

For example, the planned changes on Globe Street offer nothing new for those cycling – quite the opposite in fact, as they introduce four new points at which people riding bikes must give way, while providing no benefits over the existing arrangement.

Here’s Globe Street as it is today:

The existing layout of Globe Street SE1. Simple but effective cycling infrastructure.

Globe Street today.

It works pretty well already (despite the incorrect signage, and even with a lorry parked on the street).

The junction mouths could be wider to allow cycling two-abreast, and there’s a superfluous island (I assume it’s left over from before 2010 when the street was one-way for motor traffic with two-way cycling, before the junction became bikes-only, hence the now-oddly-positioned arrow), but it does work fine. In fact Pilgrimage Street, on the other side of Great Dover Street, ideally needs the same bikes-only junction treatment.

Now here’s the new Quietway plan for Globe Street:

The over-engineered design for Globe Street.

Southwark’s over-engineered plans are a waste of money and energy, and offer no improvement over the current layout.

My question is: how does this make cycling easier or safer?

It feels like a desperate attempt to spend the Quietways money somewhere – anywhere! – rather than admit that the plans are nothing but some signs and paint and spend the money on something useful.

Cycling north-east, one will enter a narrow channel, then mount a hump up to footway level, before dropping back down and reaching the junction. As the foot crossing leads to a locked back gate, I’m not convinced of the need for it. (Perhaps Southwark Council really do expect higher foot traffic than pedal traffic here…)

Don’t get me wrong, if foot traffic is high then we should consider giving it priority over other modes. This is a design I’d love to see on some of London’s other, car-filled roads, by the way. But that wouldn’t ever be considered – it’s only where bikes are concerned that we can tame the roads, it seems.

Cycling in the other direction, THREE new give-way points for people on bikes are to be installed. The first is just before the raised pedestrian crossing, the second is just before the car park exit, and the third is just after the car park exit. I have absolutely no idea what the third give-way is for, other than to punish people for riding a bike.

Why is there even an entrance/exit to the car park on Globe Street? There’s another one to the south side of the car park, surely that’s enough capacity for one apartment block. (Blocking off the exit to Globe Street would mean there’s capacity for a few more car parking spaces for residents, too – win-win!)

No wheelchairs or trikes, please – we’re British highways engineers

After negotiating all that, there’s a fourth give-way to a dead-end carrying no motor traffic at all. Why the priority can’t be changed in favour of bikes on the Quietway, I have no idea. The number of other vehicles using that part of Trinity Street must be almost zero.

Talking of Trinity Street, there’s this lovely bit of ironwork:

A fence bisecting the road, with a gap in the middle for bikes, but with two more fences covering the gap, making it hard to actually cycle through.

Yes, you are actually meant to cycle through this. (Photo: Google Maps)

This particular test of stunt-bike skills is designed to stop people using the street as a rat-run by motorbike – and kudos to the residents for preferring to have a quiet street instead of the dubious pleasure of being able to drive out of it at both ends (unlike the residents of Gilbert Road in Cambridge who value saving a few minutes’ driving over clean air, quiet roads, and safety).

But surely there are better ways of preventing rat-running by people on motorbikes without reducing the cycling capacity to almost zero? And it does massively restrict cycling capacity, as it takes so long to negotiate safely. Many mount the footway to get by, though my favoured solution was simply to use the parallel Cole Street, which features no such restriction. This isn’t designing for mass cycling, it’s a bad joke.

I’m not even sure that the anti-(motor)bike fence is needed any more anyway, as Trinity Street’s junction with Great Dover Street has been blocked off now. It would be simple to extend the new plaza to separate Trinity Street from Falmouth Road, meaning that Trinity Street would be a dead end and of no use to rat-runners.

However, the only planned improvement to this ridiculous bottleneck is to move the two central fences away from the gap, by 30cm, “to comply [with] current cycling design guidelines and ensure cyclists of all abilities can negotiate this feature”. This is paying lip service to the concept of cycling infrastructure which is suitable for all ability levels – no such worries seem to have occurred to the designers elsewhere on this route.

Lipstick on a rat-run

Webber Street, Great Suffolk Street and Law Street are all currently used as rat-runs by people driving motor vehicles, and under these plans they are to remain so. This is not designing for all abilities.

A person on a bike rides out of the junction and has to pass between two large white vans waiting at traffic lights to do so.

The Google Streetview camera catches a typical scene at the junction of Webber Street and Great Suffolk Street.

There are only superficial changes planned at this junction, so the scene above will continue to occur. What if the lights turn green just as you start to pull out, do you trust the drivers not to move forward? Can you see if there are more bikes coming from the left, hidden behind the van? Can you imagine members of your family making this manoeuvre?

A few bollards and entry restrictions would fix this in no time, making the junction bikes-only by blocking off the end of Webber Street as well as Great Suffolk Street to the west. So why are no such improvements included here? They genuinely would improve the roads for people cycling, while keeping access for residents and businesses, and would cost very little too.

Law Street has the same problem. It should be a quiet residential street, but stand there at rush hour and you’ll see it’s mainly used as a speedy short-cut by people driving cars. If a cycle route isn’t suitable 24/7, then it’s not a cycle route.

The cycle Quietway plans for the junction of Law Street, Wild's Rents and Weston Street in London SE1, with dangerous right turn highlighted.

I’ve highlighted the Quietway right turn in a lovely shade of official Quietway purple. Can you imagine a young child waiting there while cars were passing around them on all sides?

Put some bollards on the junction at the end of Law Street and the problem is solved. The right turn along the Quietway can then be made safely, rather than waiting in the centre of a maelstrom of taxis.

Two other points about Law Street: Firstly, you’ll see a pedestrian-priority crossing of the cycleway at the end of Law Street. Why isn’t the same pedestrian priority being installed on the carriageway?

The truth is that motor vehicles are far more dangerous than bikes, so people on foot need more help to walk where there are motor vehicles than where there are bikes. And yet I keep seeing designs that suggest the opposite, that the very concept of a bike is toxic and lethal while all cars are made of marshmallow and driven by kindly vicars.

Secondly, the “bikes right turn” painted symbol could lead drivers to believe that all bikes indicating right are turning onto the Quietway cycleway, whereas some will be turning onto Wild’s Rents instead, potentially leading to dangerous under-taking on the junction.

Protected cycleways where they’re not needed

The plans for Tabard Street are over-engineered, with a short length of unnecessary cycleway that looks too narrow, and bike symbols painted in the door zone of parked cars (this particular intervention seems to feature throughout the plans).

Plans for a segregated cycle path on a quiet back street.

This is just daft.

Regular readers will know that I’m an advocate of high-quality physically separated cycleways, but this ain’t it. We need them on busy main roads, not on quiet back streets! I thought the whole point of the Quietways project was to use cheap measures to reduce motor traffic on a string of roads to form a safe cycling route. So I don’t understand the need for the pointless cycleway here.

Tabard Street is long and straight and vehicles drive too fast along it (hence the speed humps). Why not simply block it off to motor vehicles at the Quietway’s entry and exit points, thereby removing through-motor-traffic while preserving access for residents? (That way, we won’t even need the bike symbols painted in the parked car door-zone, either.)

Money to spend on whatever

Furthermore, I’m concerned that footway and general carriageway improvements appear on the plans. I’m all for improving the footway but surely this should not come out of the cycling budget (especially removing old, redundant driveway drop-downs as seen here on the ‘plan I’ PDF, surely property developers should pay for this when they remove the garage or driveway?).

And what to make of the fact that in only 2.4 miles, there are apparently a grand total of 41 humps along the length of Quietway 2 in Southwark?

I get the impression that the scheme has some money behind it that must be spent, but as the designers are unwilling to add filtering to remove routes for motor vehicles, they don’t know where to spend it. Hence the ridiculous over-engineered stuff on Globe Street and Tabard Street.

I’m still not convinced that the Quietways concept is even a good one. It seems to be a continuation of the failed dual network approach, where some people are expected to put up with inconvenience while others put up with danger.

Who are these people who currently won’t cycle, but will happily leap onto a bike once Andrew Gilligan installs some signs along an already existing, convoluted, twisty-turny route full of humps and rat-running drivers, where they have to constantly give way to everyone? I’m not sure that these people exist.

The whole idea seems to be designed to shut cycle campaigners up while not upsetting the all-important drivers by making any actual changes to the roads. The Quietways don’t seem to form a network, and they’re definitely not the fine grid of interconnected cycling-friendly routes which are needed to enable mass cycling.

It feels a lot like we’re repeating the mistakes of the recent past by creating yet another version of the failed London Cycling Network, with isolated scraps of strange infrastructure, fading paint, and neglected signs scattered around the city.

It doesn’t even live up to its branding, as many of the roads that should be “quiet ways” are, in reality, speedy rat-runs which are to remain exactly as they are.


If you’re minded to take part in the consultation – and given the result of recent consultations I’m not sure it’s worth the bother – then you can submit comments via Southwark Council’s website here.

 

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Hand me my gun, I’m cycling to the shops

Note: This is a post that was mostly written while I was still living in London, but have only just got around to finishing.

Two lethal weapons – one is accepted and commonplace, the other is not.

If I had a licence to own a machine that can be used as a dangerous weapon, would it be acceptable for me to use it to threaten people who are in my way as I travel?

Would it be fine and normal for me to threaten to use this machine to injure or even kill people, to bully them into submission so they will kowtow to my will and get out of my way, sharpish.

Could I get away with this behaviour on a regular basis, openly flouting the law by using this deadly machine to exert dominance over other human beings?

The machine I’m talking about is a motor vehicle, and I do in fact own a license to use one. What I certainly don’t do is use it aggressively.

But some people do use their motor vehicles in this way.

Unpleasant incidents while cycling were a regular occurrence when I lived in London. It could be something minor, such as someone pulling out of a junction despite seeing me approaching. Or it could be something major, such as someone intentionally driving directly at me. This sort of thing happened often enough that I decided to leave London and emigrate.

These incidents happen because a car is a powerful machine which is capable of injuring or killing people, and some people use this potential for harm to threaten others, to bully them out of the way.

Now, allow me to hypothesise: To balance the deadly potential of motor vehicles, it should be legal to carry a gun while riding a bike.

Think about that for a moment (though it clearly is a ridiculous suggestion). Why should people in cars hold all the power?

Once upon a time

Let me tell you a true story. I was riding along a narrow street in London, too narrow for overtaking, so I was in the hallowed “primary position“. I could hear the Mini far behind me being driven aggressively fast on these residential streets, then as the car approached, the driver started honking his horn and revving his engine at me because there wasn’t enough room for him to overtake.

What an upstanding citizen! I asked what the hell he thought he was doing, and he shouted back that a police officer had told him he should beep at people on bikes if they’re in his way. Then he trotted out the usual “I pay road tax” bullshit, at which point I told him to educate himself about what VED is. “I’m a student!” he replied.

So here we have a young man (who as a student won’t be paying any income tax, irrelevant though that is) who is using a car to transport himself around central London. He’s speeding around narrow back streets to avoid traffic lights on the main roads, and feels that paying £200 a year vehicle tax entitles him to act like a thug, bullying people who he considers to be slowing him down.

(Why is it even possible to use residential streets in this way? Lambeth council, despite claiming to prioritise walking and cycling, have consistently failed to civilise their roads. The car is clearly still king in Britain.)

I wonder how he would feel if he saw me walking along the street behind his mother, shouting “MOVE” at her and telling her that she should get out of my way because I pay more tax than she does and therefore believe I am entitled to push her around.

I’m sure this man finds himself in such situations, stuck behind someone slow while walking down the street. And I’d bet my life that he doesn’t shout at them to move, or push them out of the way, but waits until there’s space to pass. It’s because he was in a motor vehicle that it is socially acceptable for him to threaten someone in a way that he wouldn’t do on foot.

Now let’s bring in our cyclists-with-guns hypothesis. Surely if I’d been in possession of a gun that would have evened things out between us somewhat? He had his deadly machine to threaten me with, why shouldn’t I have a deadly machine to threaten him with?

I’m not saying I’d have actually needed to fire the gun, merely wave it at him, point it at his car to show that we both had dangerous machines, to signify that it’s surely the best for everyone if we proceed calmly and according to the rules of the road.

But I didn’t have a gun, so instead the person with the deadly machine was able to threaten me unilaterally.

It’s another true story

Another location, similar story.

Cycling down a street which is one-way except for cycles. A white van is coming towards me, well above the 20mph limit. Despite the massive width of this road, the driver is actually aiming for me. He’s flashing his lights and as he approaches I can see him waving his hand and mouthing “what are you doing?” at me.

It seems he hasn’t realised that the street is two-way for cycling (or, indeed, noticed the 20mph speed limit on this long, straight wide road that invites fast driving) and has decided to take the law into his own hands and punish me himself.

Luckily for me, he decides that merely threatening to hit me is enough, and swerves away at the last moment, narrowly missing the front of my bike.

It’s not as though I was even in his way – it’s a wide road which could easily handle one motor vehicle in each direction. Had I been driving a white van like him, he might well have let me pass without comment. But because I was on a bike that means I’m suddenly fair game for threats and abuse.

So yet again someone feels that they have the right to intimidate and threaten other people who are going about their lawful business. (And again, I wonder how he would feel if I was shoving his grandmother aside in the supermarket, or barging in front of her at the checkout queue?)

Back to our gun hypothesis. Had the driver suspected that, because I was on a bike I was likely to be carrying a firearm, I expect that he would have thought twice before intentionally driving a large white van at me.

That’s the beauty of the gun idea. The gun doesn’t even have to be used, it merely evens out the threat. We would both have the potential to abuse the deadly machine we are in charge of and injure or kill the other. We would both have to respect each other as a result.

But, of course, I don’t have a gun, so the threat was entirely one-sided, and only one of us was able to throw our weight around.

Back to reality

I’m sure most people who ride a bike in the UK have at least a few stories like this of their own. Some get used to this aggressive behaviour and see it as normal.

But I don’t see it as normal. It’s an injustice that riding a bike marks you out as a member of an underclass that can be abused at will by others.

This behaviour is backed up – even encouraged – by the government in the way they’ve designed our roads and streets, and in the way the justice system favours drivers and frequently seeks to blame the victim.

They’ve created an environment (both physical and legal) where driving a polluting vehicle around residential streets at high speeds is seen as normal and acceptable, but riding a bike carefully around those same streets is seen as abnormal, deviant and questionable.

Should we be surprised at the attitudes which have been bred from this environment?

If I were to carry a gun or a knife or even a baseball bat around the streets, pointing it at anyone who was in my way, shouting at people to move aside, would that be acceptable? Even if I was trained in to use it safety and never actually harmed anyone, would that be okay with you? If you’re a reasonable person, I’m sure you’ll say it’s not.

So why is it normal and acceptable to use a motor vehicle in exactly that manner?

Motor vehicles are frequently used to threaten and bully (it happens all the time), and those people that do so usually get away with it. Even when the police do become involved, the end result is often very lenient.

Even genuinely careless driving with no ill-intent is threatening to those people outside a protective metal box. Motor vehicles are not seen as the dangerous machinery that they are, and they are often operated without the care they require. That they’re frequently marketed as fun toys can’t help this public perception.

If even an experienced, senior lawyer with clear video evidence of a death threat has to go through years of legal wrangling to eventually achieve a slap on the wrist for the thug that threatened to kill him, what hope is there for the rest of us?

The cycleway is the only way

So what’s the solution? Well, in the short term our police and justice system needs to treat threatening driving with the same severity that they would treat knife or gun threat. I fail to see much difference between them.

Secondly, the idea that cycling is a mode of transport used only by a strange minority of people, will not go away until a large number of people are cycling. And we do know what must be done to get that large number of people cycling.

We should not be discouraged by the fact that it may take great political courage to create such conditions. We need to continue to push and protest to grow the political will required.

 

Footnote: If you’re about to start furiously commenting about guns, please understand what a hypothesis is. I’m not actually advocating liberalising gun laws, that’s patently ridiculous. Of course, the only purpose of a gun is to threaten or kill, whereas motor vehicles are primarily intended for transport. I’m merely using the parallel to point out how a motor vehicle in the wrong hands becomes as deadly as a gun. Like guns, motor vehicles can be used as dangerous weapons capable of murder, yet unlike gun violence, traffic violence seems largely accepted by British society today.

 

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