Turbogate: Bedford and beyond

It’s difficult to know where to start when writing about the Bedford turbo-roundabout and everything that surrounds it. The whole scandal – and it does deserve that word – goes well beyond that one scheme, extends through the cycle campaign industry, right up to the government.

At one end of the scale, the finished Bedford turbo-roundabout has been scrutinised and has come up sorely lacking, and clearly falls into the “farcility” category that the CTC is apparently so keen to reject.

For a full picture of what we got for our £490,000 you can read this PDF report written by John Meudell (former CTC National Council member for the South East) and Graham Smith (who now holds that same role). It contains lots of photographs, so you can see for yourself how poor it really is.

Suffice to say, it’s not a glowing report: “Arrangement of cycle crossings maximises possibility of conflict between cyclist and pedestrian” … “Elimination of raised lane divider does not deter lane changing, undermining safety benefits” … “Cyclist trapped onto transition kerb” … “Incompetent!”

A photo of a zebra crossing, with a bicycle symbol on the path next to it. The bicycle symbol is next to a raised kerb, and is useless.

Remember, this is from a design approved by Sustrans, Cyclenation, British Cycling and CTC. It looks like the worst kind of “fiddly pavement conversion” to me.

The hype around this dreadful scheme is so intense that Patrick Lingwood was nominated for a “Smarter Travel Professional of the Year” award, which makes me truly despair, as one of the boasts of this so-called cycling scheme is that it has made journeys by motor vehicle much more convenient.

Lingwood is also giving talks about how great it is, as is Alasdair Massie who is proud of a similarly poor design on Perne Road in Cambridge (see here, here and here for more about Massie’s folly).

The level of delusion is massive. At 20 minutes 45 seconds into the presentation, Lingwood excitedly speaks of “children cycling across a very busy road” while the photo clearly shows a family who have dismounted and are walking across the road. Is this wilful blindness or blatant lying?

Photograph of a mother and three children walking with bikes on a zebra crossing.

“Children cycling across a very busy road” says Lingwood. Surely walking with a bike doesn’t count as cycling? Also, the central waiting area looks narrow to me. (Source: this PDF)

So nearly half a million pounds of public money intended for cycling was spent on a design where people feel it’s necessary to stop cycling in order to use it, but the man responsible considers this a success. Great work there, Pat. Nice emperor’s new clothes you’re wearing.

(As an aside, Lingwood also reveals that what gave the Motorcycle Action Group so much clout was that they have “friends in high places” – I assume this means that MAG head and former MP Lembit Opik was friendly with his fellow Lib Dems in governmental transport roles, and called in a favour.)

The bigger picture

But then at the other end of the scale, there’s the questionable way in which the Department for Transport funded this scheme. Why does cycling infrastructure receive such small amounts of occasional investment? Why are such tight timescales placed on these projects? Why was the money given to a charity to distribute, which then passed responsibility to an unaccountable group of individuals who rubber-stamped such poor designs?

Does the DfT fund motorways in this manner?

The Bedford turbo isn’t the only dubious project that was funded as part of this programme. Highlights include:

Brand new roundabout in Cambridge, where people on bikes are expected to mix with people walking. The footway has road markings painted on it.

Perne Road roundabout in Cambridge. £360,000 was wasted on this project, an incompetent design by Alasdair Massie, who was warned of the dangers years before. (Photo: Chris Rand)

I don’t have time to go through all of them, but were there any – with the possible exception of the short length of cycleway on Baldwin Street in Bristol – which could be considered money well spent?

But with such a ridiculous funding model – limited funds, short timescales, etc. – perhaps failure was built-in from the start. I can understand the view that that CTC, Cyclenation and co. were right to make the best of a bad situation, but I still feel it would be best to reject these hopeless crumbs outright. Getting involved with such dubious projects lends them a legitimacy they don’t deserve, and gives the campaigns a reputation for approving rubbish.

It seems that the whole episode is a good example of Britain’s failure to treat cycling as a proper mode of transport, and of how the major cycling campaigns are complicit in this cycle.

Every year or so, the DfT finds some loose change down the back of the sofa and throws it at the craven cycling lobby who then write a press release about what a great step forward it is and how the government is finally starting to take cycling seriously. Cycle campaigners are then sated for another year, until they’re given some more crumbs to shut them up again.

It’s the same story, time and time again. Crap is built, excuses are made, then a year or two later more crumbs are announced under a new name, and we all rinse and repeat.

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20 Comments

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20 responses to “Turbogate: Bedford and beyond

  1. *sigh* even when we get some funding, we end up trying to plan and design in one go. I am always saying can we just stop for a couple of years and do some serious planning, but capital budgets (for these big schemes) never seem to have enough time in the planning stage. The fault lies with the system and the politicians which have the power to change it. I will keep saying this until I am blue in the face.

    My profession needs also needs to stand up in a more wider way and say it is not acceptable because at the end of the day “we” engineers get much of the criticism as easy front-men. Individuals also need to stand up for what they feel which I know is really, really hard.

    • Mark Williams

      No, as I have previously alluded to, `you’ engineers get much of the criticism because you are the ones actually wielding the CAD software which endlessly produces this drivel—i.e. it is unambiguously, directly, `your’ fault. Quite why you keep feeling the need to set yourselves up in this way is another matter entirely.

      Of course, there is plenty of blame left over for all the other actors in the scene, too. If the system constrains you, get noisily involved in changing the system (or withdraw your labour from any scheme while the system remains broken). If politicians are calling on you to do anti-cycling things, loudly name them in the interest of transparency (or just tell them where to get off if you are determined to cling to opacity). If SUSTRANS, CTC, CCN, etc. endorse rubbish, tell them they are rubber-stamping your worst efforts [for cycling].

      Exhortations of `a bigger boy made me do it, therefore we merely need better marketing’ ring a little hollow.

  2. davidhembrow

    Sadly, this isn’t a new problem at all. Britain has been handing out awards for terrible cycling infrastructure for a long time. Around the turn of the century, York built the appallingly badly designed “magic” roundabout, which made similar spurious claims to be “Dutch” or “continental” as the awful Bedford and Cambridge designs. Naturally, this awful design was given an award…

  3. Sir Velo

    Hats off to you guys for your tireless efforts at campaigning on behalf of all cyclists but where is the cycling industry in all of this? Why aren’t the likes of the bike manufacturers; the retailers Halfords; Evans: Wiggle etc lobbying strongly for more and better quality investment? Can you imagine the motor industry keeping quiet if spending on roads was cut? Forgive me if I’ve been missing something but so more could be achieved if the industry used just a fraction of its financial muscle to press for better conditions for cyclists. Not only that, the extra take up would generate greater profits. A real no brainer from every angle.

    • MJ Ray

      Some of them pay into the bike hub scheme to help find cycle campaign groups, although mine has seen little of the money. Half odds don’t even do that. Current retailers and manufacturers are happy with cycling being confined to a leisure pursuit, aren’t they? Most wouldn’t know how to service a mass market if they had one!

  4. Yes, there are a whole slew of problems here. Whilst most poor cycle infrastructure is the result of ignorance or not caring much by the designers, plus poor funding, the cases of Bedford and Perne Road roundabouts were both the products of designers who are committed cyclists of an old-school mentality that holds that ‘cycling is best, safest and most efficient on the road’. They therefore designed for that and only grudgingly, and badly, for those (the vast majority) who don’t want to share space with motor traffic. Their designs essentially paid lip-service to the possibility of separation, while trying to deliberately force cyclists to mix with motor traffic because the designers believed ‘that is what is best for them’.

    This mentality is hopefully dying out, but it is still allowed to be influential by the lack of proper professional standards in the field. The designers are allowed to be be guided by their own personal prejudices because there is no accepted manual telling them what they should do. This is a situation unique to cycling infrastructure: it does not seem to pertain in motorway, railway or airport design. Here, people do a job they are trained for, they do not indulge their own eccentric transport-leisure intersection concepts.

    There are some signs of the DfT now stepping up to the plate on this, but we will have to see. The funding is not that relevant, it seems to me, while the knowledge is so lacking. More money would be spent on more crap as things stand. Politicians should be in favour of the government reforming the standards now, not committing them to immediate expenditure, but laying a future foundation for efficient investment in cycling.

  5. MJ Ray

    Cycle nation has held its representative accountable belatedly and changed organisation policy so this shouldn’t happen in its name again. Our federation’s representatives have to follow http://www.cyclenation.org.uk/policies now.

    Locally, we’ve far worse being built, ignoring our objections, blamed on “lessconfidentcyclists”. See https://www.facebook.com/groups/493892980634926/permalink/1008436795847206/ if you can, or wait a few days for republication on our website.

    • And actually, that brings me to another thing: Cyclenation has fixed this accountability problem with our representation (it’s up to CTC and so on to do the same with theirs) but that’s like one member of something like seven, so the “most popular” flawed projects would still have gone ahead no matter what happened in our name in that review panel. Similarly, locally, dangerous crap keeps getting built even when we reject the designs, tell planners that it’s dangerous crap and tell them what we feel they should be building instead. Even when we’ve told them the bare minimum needed to make their folly safe (but still crap), they did less than that.

      So what could we be doing to actually stop this dangerous crap being built or get past dangerous crap replaced? Must it wait until so many people are being injured unnecessarily that it changes election results on its own?

  6. This may come as a surprise, but there’s a lot in what you’ve said here that I’d entirely agree with.

    In particular, you’re absolutely right to question why DfT’s funding for cycling comes in mini-spurts of cash, which councils are then expected to spend in ridiculously tight timescales.

    Nor should CTC, Sustrans, British Cycling and others have to do the job of scrutinising a programme like this – again in ridiculously short timescales. My admirable ex-colleague Chris Peck spent a vast amount of time wading through 2000+ pages of documentation on the 140 schemes submitted to the fund – as did John Franklin. They did an incredibly dedicated job of checking out the views of CTC’s and Cyclenation’s local campaigners and campaign groups respectively. Regardless of whether or not you agree with their decisions, they undoubtedly deserve medals for their efforts.

    Neither of them liked the Turbogate scheme. However they also felt it was one of the best of a bad bunch. This is a key point that the critics of Turbogate have largely missed. Virtually all of the other 139 schemes they considered were worse – even the schemes they ‘supported’. As for those they rejected, these consisted overwhelmingly of paint-on-pavement ‘farcilties’ of the worse-than-useless variety.

    So you are right to question whether CTC and our allies should have rejected the whole of the Cycle Safety Fund. Indeed this was an option that the working group considered very seriously – and I fully respect the views of anyone who feels that we should have done so. It was certainly a finely balanced decision.

    The reasons why I feel the working group’s decision was probably right (albeit narrowly) have more to do with the politics of the situation they faced – it’s not because the schemes themselves were particularly deserving.

    Two years earlier in 2011, the then Transport Secretary Philip Hammond wiped out Cycling England (in the so-called ‘bonfire of the quangoes’). At a stroke, this decimated even the small amounts of funding that had started to flow into cycling after CE was set up in 2005.

    After he was reshuffled, and the Times began its ‘Cities Fit for Cycling’ campaign, Norman Baker MP (then the junior minister for cycling) and the cycling team at DfT once again started to find small pots of funding for cycling. They, and we, worked crazily hard for every penny of this.

    The Times too had played its part in securing the Cycle Safety Fund, Their original 8-point Cities Fit for Cycling campaign manifesto included a call for action to improve cycle safety at the 500 ‘most dangerous junctions’. When they asked me how to identify these, I said there wasn’t a sensible way to do this using casualty data. The junctions with the most casualties might simply have the highest numbers of cyclists, while junctions with no cyclist casualties might be places that cyclists avoided like the plague. So I suggested they crowd-source the data, using an online map. 10,000 people responded with their suggestions, proving that the demand for action was there!

    This helped strengthen the hand of Norman Baker and the DfT cycling team in securing £20m to tackle the problem. But the Treasury insisted that the money should be bid for and then spent in a crazy rush. Worse still, DfT at that time hadn’t even begun thinking about the need to change various traffic regulations and signing guidance, to make it possible (or easier) to give priority to cycle tracks over various kinds of junction. this is one area where we’ve made quite a bit of progress in teh meantime, though there is still a long way to go.

    Anyway, we immediately protested at the time that the timescales attached to the funding would inevitably result in lousy schemes. Sadly, we were proved absolutely right.

    So, should we have recommended that it should be handed back? Arguably, yes…

    The counter-argument though is that this woudl have made it incredibly difficult for Norman Baker and the DfT cycling team to obtain any further funding. If we’d rejected that £20m, we almost certainly wouldn’t now have the funding that is now going into the 8 cycling ambition cities.

    Admittedly some of this funding will doubtless also get spent on poor schemes. However this is probably a necessary learning process. Dutch experts remind us firstly that we can’t necessarily expect things that work in the Netherlands to immediately work in the UK too. There are differences in both traffic regulations/signing and road user behaviour that will take time to change. The Dutch also remind us that they too made mistakes, and that we must expect UK local authorities to do likewise.

    The important thing is making sure we learn from them – and that we rapidly incorporate whatever we learn into some new national design standards. CTC has long been arguing that these are vital to ensure that whatever funding is allocated to cycling is well spent – and more importantly, to prevent it being mis-spent on worse-than-useless ‘farcilities’.

    Unfortunately, DfT has so far resisted the idea of setting design standards – saying that this would be an infringement of the principle of ‘localism’, based on the underlying belief that ‘local authorities know best’. I’m sure you and other readers of your blog will readily see the gaping flaws in this argument!

    In short, you’re right to critique the process that led to Turbogate – and we’re not proud of our role in it. We don’t want to have to judge a rushed programme of scheme bids like that ever again. We continue to campaign for serious long-term funding for cycling, and for the design standards and professional training needed to ensure it is well spent.

    • So let me summarise this comment for those of you who don’t speak PR bollocks.
      “This scheme is crap but we helped secure funding for more crap schemes in the future. You should be patting us on the back not subjecting us to ridicule and opprobrium”

      Yep well done everyone at CTC, especially the notoriously vehicularist John Franklin for this dangerous and expensive crap.

  7. Dave: I have to say you’ve done a remarkably poor job of summarising my comment!

    No: CTC has no wish to see more money spent on crap. Nor do we ever want to be asked to endorse the kind of hastily-designed crap of which there was a great deal among the 140 Cycle Safety Fund scheme bids.

    That’s why CTC continues to campaign for (a) the funding, (b) the design standards and regulations, and (c) the professional training needed to ensure consistently high standards of cycle-friendly planning and design in all highway and traffic schemes, new developments and planned maintenance work. And perhaps more importantly, to prevent any more crap designs from seeing the light of day in the future.

    Yet you seem to be saying you’d rather we’d not secured any funding than have some of it spent on crap? If so, let me put this counter-argument to you. Without funding, the UK’s traffic planners and engineers would have neither successes nor failures to learn from. And I do now expect to see the Cycle City Ambition Grant (CCAG) programme to deliver at least SOME really good schemes (even though it will doubtless deliver some crap too). And it’s very doubtful that any of this would be happening – neither the good nor the er, ‘less good’ schemes(!) – if CTC and its partners had flatly rejected the whole of the DfT Cycle Safety Fund programme (though as I said, we did seriously consider this option).

    You might think: can’t we just learn from the Dutch? Well, yes, to some extent. But as I said in my last message, one of the things that Dutch cycling experts keep telling us is that we can’t simply copy their solutions and expect them to work in the UK – at least not straight away. They also keep warning us to expect some mistakes to be made.

    In the meantime though, I’d strongly argue that Cameron’s ‘cycling revolution’ needs some consistent long-funding commitments to get it rolling – even though it’s almost inevitable that some of this funding will end up being mis-spent!

    Cheers – Roger

    • Mark Williams

      Roger; a word to the wilfully unwise: when in a hole, stop digging!

      Then, while I’ve still got the line open, a question. How do we go about getting you sacked—is it just a question of [re]joining the CTC and voting you out?

      • I doubt he’ll thank me for pointing this out, but Roger is staff rather than an elected member, so I think you’d need to elect someone who pledged to redirect the campaigns director. I think employment law basically prevents “Fire Fred” style election campaigns, but as Boris Johnson showed with Ian Blair, there may be ways. The democracy should be able to do almost anything, unless an organisation has been captured by its executives.

        • Mark Williams

          There is no chance of Roger being sent to the house of lords—the seat for passive obstructionism to cycle infrastructure has already had Baron Gilligan’s name carved on it. We might be able to swing another `promotion’ to the UCI, though…

          As you rightly point out, there is more than one way to skin a ‘crat. A more comprehensive approach would be to keep him very much where he is and seek the wholesale blackballing of CTC and SUSTRANS from future DFT misappropriation committees instead.

    • Roger,

      According to your own account, the focus of CTC’s campaign efforts is to increase the amount of funding available for cycle schemes, and to improve the design standards and regulations.

      I heard a progamme on Radio 4 the other day, which I think you might be interested in:

      Campaigner 1: We all thought that this was of such significance – of national significance – that it shouldn’t be left to the district council to come to a decision on, so we wrote to the Secretary of State asking for him to call in this application for his determination. Now what that would mean – if he called it in – is that there would have been a public inquiry, where all the issues surrounding this would have been properly discussed, and the Secretary of State ultimately would have made a decision. What happened then is that the Secretary of State decided not to call it in. He felt it was of no more than local significance.

      Minister: It is quite unusual for us to call things in. Government rarely does call in planning issues because they are decisions that are made by local authorities, and we do what we can to make sure they are made by those local authorities: that’s a matter for them and their planning office.

      Campaigner 2: We can’t just leave it solely to local authorities to account for and make these decisions with a system that’s this dysfunctional. Nowhere else in north-west Europe tries to organise itself solely at this local level, and our view is that localism is great, and neighbourhood planning is fantastic, but you can’t abandon communities to work just on their own: you have to set a framework for them that allows for their sustainable development.

      Minister: The reality is that local authorities have that ability to look at what is right for them locally with their local plans. They have a duty to cooperate, to work across local authorities as well, and that system is delivering the planning applications we need, with a growing level of support for development in those areas that have gone through that process. I trust local people to work out what is right for them locally: I think we have to do that if we want to see acceptance and support for development continue to grow.

      The subject under discussion here is building houses on Green Belt land and in AONB. I don’t doubt that you would have tremendous sympathy for the views expressed by the campaigners, as indeed do I, but as you point out upthread: “DfT has so far resisted the idea of setting design standards – saying that this would be an infringement of the principle of ‘localism’, based on the underlying belief that ‘local authorities know best’.” We might not like it, Roger, but that’s how it is.

      In addition to which, both Patrick McLoughlin and Robert Goodwill have said: “If we begin to see the increases in cycling that we all wish for, it is likely we would want to reconsider our guidance in general, and specifically our position on segregated cycle routes and cycle priority at road crossings.”

      Under this government, therefore, getting DfT to improve the design standards and regulations is unlikely to be fruitful until either the government changes, or until such time as cycling numbers start to increase.

      This aside, it’s not even a good strategy. What do you think of this: “a coordinated and properly managed city-wide core network of cycle routes which reflect the main routes that cyclists want to use and which are designed to a standard of journey quality likely to attract increased use”? Does that sound good? It’s from February 2002, and it was called the LCN+ (source). Part of the plan was to “make London’s town centres, residential areas, business areas and interchanges attractive, safe and secure, encourage more people to travel on foot or by bicycle and enhance the quality of public space”.

      In November 2005, Darren Johnson oversaw a review of the LCN+. It had become apparent by this stage that the LCN+ was floundering, and that “without a change of gear” the whole project might ultimately fail. Amongst the review’s several recommendations, it was suggested that TfL should identify a small number of key routes across London, and prioritise their early completion. “These routes should encompass ‘difficult’ areas such as Parliament Square,” the review added, “and be of a standard for other schemes across London to emulate” (source).

      Thirteen years after the LCN+ was launched, the first “showcases of good design” are starting to appear. Thirteen years! Worse, as Andrea Casalotti reports, because “the fight” to install these high profile schemes was much more demanding than anticipated, “insufficient effort” was devoted to the Central London Cycling Grid, “with the consequence that no progress has been made on the core of the Vision”.

      We’re drowning in minutiae! You report how Chris Peck and John Franklin “spent a vast amount of time wading through 2000+ pages of documentation on the 140 schemes submitted to the fund”. Strike a light, Roger! Counting all those trees one by one, it’s little wonder that nobody can see the woods!

      The simple fact is, as David Hembrow blogged recently, “the most important enabler of mass cycling” is a very fine grid of efficient cycling routes. “For a grid of routes to enable cycling,” he explained, “it must be high density and go everywhere.”

      We could plan and introduce such networks within a year or two, and without any need for changes to the design standards. Just work within the regulations that are already in place, roll up our sleeves and get busy. With a functioning cycling network up and running, there would then be a framework in place within which more highly engineered schemes could be developed. (This, of course, is the true meaning of Going Dutch)

      But no, we love better to talk about it. That, we say, is our mission. And though the evidence of the last twenty years and our own good sense assures us that we are going about things in the wrong way, the pride of our heart deceives us.

      Simon

  8. paulc

    Wall’s Roundabout in Gloucester has recently been re modeled to include spiral style lanes and on roundabout traffic lights… (mad, why the bleep didn’t they just remove the roundabout and make it a big four arm junction with lights…)

    It won project of the year as it was completed under budget and ahead of deadline!!!
    http://www.gloucestercitizen.co.uk/C-G-Walls-roundabouts-win-Major-Project-Year/story-26047127-detail/story.html

    Anyway, the sole sop to cycling was to basically force cyclists to use shared use paths and double stage offset toucans on three of the arms and do a mad dash across the road to a middle pedestrian refuge before trying to cross the next lane to get to the shared use path… all with speeding traffic putting their foot down coming off the roundabout and hell bent on not stopping (I’ve had an amazing number of red light jumpers there who go through across the crossing even when the green man and bicycle are showing.)

    google street view shows it under construction and effectively shows the old shared use paths and crossings and the new ones… beforehand, you could interrupt the flow of traffic, now you end up pushing a placebo button on the left hand ones that gate traffic onto the ’roundabout’ the lights remain in strict sequence depending upon traffic sensors and pressing the button does not advance your green…

    https://goo.gl/maps/88lsi

  9. Andy R

    This design was still being touted as part of the future at the Cycle City event on 26th June.

    However, I got the impression that the applause he received at the end of his talk was simply out of politeness. Particularly after he kept saying that the people he had spoken to (one can only assume lycra wearers with beards?) actually wanted to stay on the carriageway and used the phrase either “the right to the road” or “reclaiming the road”. After that I got the impression VC is strong in Bedford Council.

    • Mark Williams

      Why no booing? Audience full of motoring lobby lackeys?

      The people who incant those phrases most unabashedly are usually all mouth and no trousers. Try inviting them to continue along the A6 to Leicester after inspecting said `turbo’ roundabout—including the A14 through Kettering where the A6 disappears and cycling appears to be in the process of being banned.

      BTW, that `turbo’ roundabout itself is practically deserted during the day: a small number of motorists and <2% as many cyclists. In other words, an expensive anti-cycling `safety’ solution in search of a non-existent motoring capacity problem.

  10. When will the ctc realise that they have been used? Partial powers are dangerous situations for any campaign or campaigner. It seems ctc have fallen in that trap with the dft, minister and officials. The ctc campaign/policy department either steps up, or gets off the pot and makes way for new advocacy style.

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