Whether you call them Advanced Stop Lines and Advanced Stop Zones or prefer the more casual-sounding ‘bike box’, they all amount to the same thing: a piece of crap.
I believe that the real reason for their existence is not to make cycling safe, as you might think, but rather to get cycling campaigners to shut up. Neither of these goals has been achieved, of course.
ASLs make sense in that perfect, ideal world where the Highway Code is set. There, humans can all be trained and/or forced to behave perfectly at all times – a bit like North Korea, or Stepford.
The Highway Code’s idealised version of the UK. There are more people on bikes in this image than there are in the whole of West Yorkshire.
But here in the real world, inhabited by imperfect and fallible human beings, people on bikes still get killed when the traffic lights change, and an ASL does nothing to help a bike user who arrives while the traffic is already flowing. They’re often ignored by drivers too, the police don’t enforce them. Unfortunately, all this means that ASLs have become another endless battle in the War On The Roads™ and some cycling activists spend a large amount of time trying to convince drivers – and the authorities – to respect them.
It does annoy me when I see drivers pull up across the ASL. Of course, I have no problem if, say, an ambulance causes the flow of traffic to stop and the lights change to red leaving a car stranded there. But so many people drive up to a red light and over the first white line right into the bike area. Some drivers even drive across both white lines and into the pedestrian crossing or junction beyond!
I’d argue that if you’re unable to bring your vehicle to a halt before reaching a clearly marked position on the road, you really shouldn’t be operating such a machine at all.
This van has very neatly stopped within the ASZ, note the centimetre-accurate alignment. Maybe the driver mistook it for a parking space?
ASLs are not good infrastructure
But for all that, I don’t really care. I’ve been asked to sign petitions to get the police to enforce the rules. (Which would be nice for a change.) But really, I won’t waste my time polishing a turd, and neither should you.
Improving ASLs is not what cycling campaigners should be spending their time on. It would be like, say, environmental campaigners asking Shell and Esso to use a nicer font in a lovely shade of green. Or perhaps it’s more like a slave asking for the chains that bind them to be chrome-plated.
What I’m saying is that the ASL is a pretend friend to a bike rider. They’re there as a kludge, a poor compromise between total motor dominance and calls for cycling infrastructure. They’re rubbish. Yes, I know that drivers should stay out of them, and everybody should follow the rules, but it’s a distraction from the bigger picture. The whole argument is worthless.
Nobody is waiting for ASLs to be enforced before they take up cycling. Nobody is saying “if only there were more areas at traffic lights where I could sit in front of growling motor vehicles, I’d take up riding tomorrow!” In fact, I reckon the idea of sitting on a bike in front of a large motorised vehicle is one of the key points which prevents more people from using a bike for transport.
A rare instance of an ASZ relatively free of motor vehicles. Does this attract people to cycling? “Ooh, lovely, a painted area which allows us to position ourselves in front of heavy vehicles! Let’s do this every day!”
Don’t waste your time campaigning for this rubbish to be enforced or improved. Don’t ask for nicer chains, demand their removal!
There are very few places where an ASL is appropriate, yet the UK is covered in the damned things. There are already tried-and-tested solutions for junctions which don’t involve mixing up motor traffic with bikes – or mixing bikes with pedestrians, as is the current fashion in the UK. Pedestrianise London has a good article covering the right way to do these things so I won’t write about them here.
Sure, they have a few ASLs in Cycling Heaven – ahem! – I mean, the Netherlands. But they’re not common, and are considered an old-fashioned design. Any infrastructure geeks going visiting the Netherlands will find themselves pointing at them excitedly – “Ooh! There’s an ASL, just like at home!”
When the Cycling Revolution™ comes, ASLs will be the first against the wall
The worst thing about ASLs is that they’re designed for very low levels of cycling. Sure, one or two bikes are fine. Maybe even five or six. But what happens if twenty people were to arrive on bikes? What about fifty? Where are they all meant to go?
Is the UK ready for the Cycling Revolution® or are we designing roads for cycling shares of, ooh, say, about 2%?
The photo above shows pretty much an ideal situation for a junction with an ASL. There’s a wide cycle lane and no motor vehicles have encroached beyond the stop line. But the ASZ is already filled with about ten bikes and is overflowing into the cycle lane, where another ten people on bikes are waiting in the van’s blind spot. The ASL does nothing for these people.
Why are we designing infrastructure which cannot handle more than a dozen people on bikes? The design is so weak, it’s proof positive that the government has low cycling targets, because the infrastructure they’re putting in simply can’t handle more than a very small number of people on bikes.
But imagine if the orange van was a lorry – should all bikes wait behind it? What if the ASZ looks clear and the lights change while passing the lorry? What’s the goal of this infrastructure? Suddenly it’s all rather confusing.
Or even take a look at the Highway Code’s idealised image of how an ASL works at the top of this post. Note that even in their perfect world’s green-ticked scenario, there’s a bike on the left-hand side of the left-turning car. Even if that bike moves to the front of the ASZ, what happens when a fourth or a fifth bike arrives? The system just can’t cope with more than a few bikes.
How large would the ASL have to be to cope with the doubling of cycling which London is expecting?
So that’s why I don’t like ASLs, and that’s why I want rid of them.
If you’re not convinced by my arguments, feel free to try one of these other esteemed bloggers: the Davids Hembrow, Arditti or Brennan, and also Paul James, Freewheeler or Londonneur.
Update: And there’s more, from NI Greenways, Cyclegaz and WillCycle. Thanks to Stripymoggie, Mark Skrzypczyk and WilliamNB in the comments below for these links.
Also, I just noticed this comment which I made on David Hembrow’s blog in May 2012, making the same point. I must have been mulling this over in my mind for quite some time!