Tag Archives: London

Visual Priority

Today I’d like to discuss something which is often done wrong: priority.

I’m not talking about the legal sense, but the visual sense. We need to change the way we think about minor junctions.

You see, you can have all the laws and paint you want, but if a junction looks like the cars have priority, then drivers will take advantage.

Here’s an example, on Cable Street in London:

A junction on the Cable Street cycleway in London. The cycleway has priority, but everything suggests otherwise: the kerb and yellow lines cut across the cycleway, creating confusion.

This is really poor. (Photo: Google Maps)

Let’s ignore the many, many failings of this poor-quality cycleway (we’d be here all day) and concentrate on how the junction is arranged.

The cycleway has priority here, but so many things suggest otherwise. The kerb-line, for example, curves around and across the cycleway. The yellow lines do the same, creating vagueness in priority.

Note how there’s no kerb running along the edge of the cycleway as it crosses the junction, either – the carriageway is constant, while the cycleway is interrupted. This is a confusing mess.

Considering that many, many more people will walk across this junction than drive across it, it’s crazy that the footway isn’t also continuous.

These conflicting signals are often designed in by whoever draws up these plans. Perhaps the belief is that people will follow the rules like robots, ignoring things like kerb lines and parking restriction markings. But people don’t work like that, and this junction is unclear and dangerous as a result.

Further along the same road, a different junction is much better. Yes, it is still flawed, but the priority is much clearer:

A different junction on Cable Street, this time the cycleway is unbroken by kerbs or painted lines, and priority is clear.

Note the unbroken surface of the cycleway. (Photo: Google Maps)

Note how the surface of the cycleway is unbroken by kerbs or painted lines. (This junction would be much better with a continuous footway too.)

Here’s a poor example from Berlin:

A junction in Berlin where bikes have priority, but there's only two broken white lines on the tarmac to suggest so.

Technically, bikes have priority here, but I really wouldn’t trust that paint. The cycleway simply ceases to exist across the junction. (See it on Google Maps)

People cycling along this road have priority at this junction, but does it really look like they do? The asphalt surface of the carriageway is unbroken, the sweeping kerb (designed for fast turns by car) cuts across the cycleway, and the footway and cycleway both drop down to carriageway level.

There’s no inconvenience at all for people in cars. There’s nothing but two fading, broken white lines to suggest to drivers that they should give way. Can those lines even be seen in wet weather? What about when it’s dark?

This isn’t sustainable safety. It’s paying lip service to cycling and walking, and it’s the reason so many cycle campaigners believe cycleways to be dangerous at junctions.

They’re right – badly-designed infrastructure can be dangerous – but that’s not an inherent flaw with cycleways, it’s simply bad design. Well-designed cycleways are proven to be safe.

The junction above could – and should – look like this:

A cycleway and footway continue, unbroken, with clear priority across a minor junction

This is clear. There’s no mistaking who has priority here. (See it on Google Maps)

This is real cycle infrastructure, and real walking infrastructure – genuine, proven to be safe, tried-and-tested design, quite unlike the type of tokenistic rubbish we’re used to getting.

Here, the whole area doesn’t look like a road, it looks like footway, with a cycleway running through it. It’s clear that this isn’t the domain of motor vehicles. Nobody is “on the road” when cycling or walking through here – quite the opposite, it’s motor vehicles that are guests “on the path”.

The whole junction area is raised up to footway level (rather than people on bikes and on foot having to drop down to carriageway level) and motor vehicles must mount a ramp to enter the junction.

This ramp, plus sharp corners, slows cars right down. It also provides better visibility between drivers and those whose path the drivers are crossing – nobody needs to look back over their shoulder. It works in all weather, 24 hours a day.

At the risk of pushing the point too much, here’s another example:

A junction in Berlin where the cycleway has priority. The cycleway continues across the junction with priority, but it is still broken by a sweeping kerb line and change in surface.

Better, but still not right.

This is better than some of the other examples, but still flawed. The kerb line cuts across the cycleway, so the surface is broken. The surface of the cycleway is different as it crosses the junction. The corner radius is too large. The footway should also have priority across the side-road.

Here’s what it looks like from a driver’s point of view:

The junction shown previously, but from the view of a driver exiting the side road.

Not as clear as it could be.

It’s better than the paint-only examples, but the kerb still guides your eye around the corner. It’s good that the surface is different across the junction, but it still looks like the road has priority.

It could be much clearer, like this:

The view of a minor road junction, from the minor road. The footpath and cyclepath both sever the minor road's connection to the main road, and therefore it's clear that vehicles leaving the minor road do not have priority.

Much clearer.

To a driver leaving the minor road, it’s clear that they do not have priority here, that the road is severed by the footway and cycleway. People driving have to drive up a ramp and over the cycleway and footway in order to pass through this area the main road.

Anyway, I hope I’ve made the point. Failure to make priority clear and obvious is a design flaw which I see all the time, both in Berlin and back in the UK. To create truly inviting conditions for walking and cycling, highways designers must change the way they think about how junctions should look, and make a positive decision to make walking and cycling a clear visual priority.

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Pretend infrastructure

Dieser Artikel wurde auch auf Deutsch veröffentlicht.
This article has also been published on my German blog.

Bicycle streets! Don’t you just love them? Put up a few signs, a bit of paint, and voilà – instant Groningen.

Except it doesn’t work like that at all, though not everyone has figured that out yet.

For a bicycle street to work, it needs to have very, very low levels of motor traffic. It needs to form no useful through route for motor vehicles. Bikes needs to greatly outnumber cars and vans.

In Berlin, the highly-paid experts responsible for the roads think that signs and paint are enough to create a great cycle network. Just put up signs to tell drivers that a road is a bicycle street – or a home zone, or no entry – and they’ll behave differently, right? They’ll stop using that street as a rat-run, no?

Here’s Choriner Straße in Prenzlauer Berg:

Funny, the signs and paint don’t seem to be working.

Does it look like bicycles dominate there? Does that look suitable for young children? (And don’t be fooled by the low speeds, drivers are going slow because a double-parked car has narrowed the carriageway just off-camera to the left.)

This is pretend infrastructure – something which makes it look like the authorities are considering cycling, while they’re actually doing nothing. Other modes of transport don’t have this (with the possible exception of walking). There’s no airports without runways, or motorways with grazing sheep designed-in.

It’s not just Berlin that does this. When I lived in London, Lambeth Council painted bike symbols on Hercules Road to try and pretend it wasn’t an awful rat-run. That particular street is soon to be part of London’s forthcoming network patchwork of Quietways, so the green blobs of paint which taxis speed over will instead be purple blobs of paint which taxis speed over – more pretend infrastructure.

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road

A nasty pinch-point on the rat run that is Hercules Road



Here’s another bit of pretend infra, a moment’s walk away from the first video, at the junction with Oderberger Straße (look at it on a map and you’ll see it’s clearly a rat-run to cut the corner of Eberswalder Straße and Schönhauser Allee – no traffic lights, either).

This junction is signposted “no vehicles, except bikes and emergency vehicles” yet there’s nothing at all to stop anyone driving through here. So what happens?

More pretend infra. There’s even a “no through route” sign at the end of the street, but the local drivers all know this is nonsense!

The most profitable form of pretend infrastructure at the moment is shared space. If you’ve strolled along London’s famous Exhibition Road recently, you’ll be aware of the magnitude of bullshit at work here.

Lots has been written about the failure of Exhibition Road and other examples of shared space so I won’t go into detail here, but unfortunately the on-trend placemaking street architects’ marketing teams are still busy selling snake-oil, as can be seen here on Hackney’s lovely new Leonard Circus, where white van drivers share safely with anyone lucky enough not to be in the way:

Would you want your loved ones wandering around there when he speeds through this pretend infrastructure again, or would you prefer some tried-and-tested, proven-to-work sustainable safety?

 

(If you have any examples of pretend infrastructure, please leave a comment!)

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You wait ages for a bus, and then three casualties come along at once

Bus drivers are miserable gits, aren’t they, eh? All they do is sit there, driving around under pressure from a system that puts unreasonable demands on them, encourages them to drive dangerously, working unreasonable hours for low pay. Why don’t they just smile?

Or, if they have concerns or complaints, why don’t they report them?

Which leads me to the thrust of today’s post: There is no independent reporting system for bus drivers.

You should know that for almost 20 years, train drivers have had anonymous access to an independent system called CIRAS, which addresses concerns in a no-blame way. The goal of the system is to investigate concerns and eliminate the danger before something bad happens.

This is one of the reasons why Britain’s railways are so safe – drivers feel free to report concerns about safety, dangerous practice, unreasonable hours, or whatever. They can report to CIRAS, who will discuss with management and staff to resolve the problem.

The CIRAS scheme is clearly of use – Network Rail are members, as are TfL’s Underground, Overground and light rail services.

But for some reason TfL doesn’t use it for their buses. Why is this?

  • The scheme already allows buses, it’s not just for trains.
  • TfL already value the scheme, as they pay for their rail networks membership.
  • Adding the buses most likely wouldn’t cost any extra – what TfL pays for the trains would cover the buses too, as it’s one organisation.
  • And – probably the most important reason – is that TfL’s bus system is dangerous:

Every single day there are on average over 60 (yes, sixty) collisions involving TfL’s buses. (See this FOI’d data.)

A TfL bus is involved in someone being killed or seriously-injured on average more than three times every day in the first six months of 2014. (See TfL’s own bus data here.)

The number of incidents sharply increased when Mayor Johnson introduced bus performance contracts, and has been increasing ever since.

How many of them could be prevented by listening to the drivers?

If we listened to the bus drivers – and the system was changed so that they didn’t have to work over-long hours, so that they weren’t under pressure to complete routes in short timespans – then maybe we would all have reason to be more cheerful.

 


Thanks to Tom Kearney for most of the information here. If you don’t know about Tom, he was hit by a red-light-running bus on Oxford Street, was expected to die, woke up after two weeks in a near-death coma, and left hospital after ten weeks, to piece his life back together. He later discovered that TfL and the Metropolitan Police had failed to investigate the case (some might even say it was covered up).

This should come as no surprise, as the branch of the police which investigate bus crashes is funded by TfL – who are also responsible for the bus system! Talk about the fox being in charge of the hen-house…

Here are some links to articles on Tom’s blog, where you’ll find much more information and detail about TfL’s killer bus system:

How the police and TfL looked every which way they could to avoid investigating Tom’s near-death

Tom forced TfL – against its will – to publish bus collision data

The head of CIRAS tells us that TfL could add buses to the system

TfL and bus companies: Ignoring safety for profit

Guest blog post from a bus driver describing the system in which they work (there’s more of these, from various drivers – they’re in-depth but worth reading)

Finally, for now, can anyone tell me why the mainstream media has ignored this issue? It seems that Tom has uncovered dangerous practices which result in thousands of casualties every year, and yet few seem interested.

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How Southwark can spend less to do more on their Quietway

After my last post about Southwark’s pointless plans to waste cycling money on their section of Quietway 2, I’ve had a think about what I’d suggest.

Some of the route is already fine, but the bits that aren’t fine have too many motor vehicles on them. While Southwark want to throw money at fancy paving and plants, what this route really needs are modal filters to remove motor traffic while allowing bikes to pass through.

This is cheap because it’s just bollards and a few signs. Politically it’s trickier because car-owning residents often want to drive out of their street at both ends, but I’d be amazed if car-free households aren’t the norm in this area by quite a large margin. The added bonus of more greenery, safe places for their children to play, cleaner air and quieter streets should be enough to get most residents’ approval, I should imagine.

And the nice thing is that this can be trialled easily and altered or removed if it doesn’t work, saving any “place-making” for when the changes are proven to work.

In this scheme, for example, I can see the plaza on the corner of Webber Street and Great Suffolk Street being expanded across the existing junction. This sort of thing should come later, though there are plenty of firms willing to sell their expensive designs for fancy paving without actually changing the nature of the traffic passing through.

Anyway, here’s my suggested plan:

Re-worked map of Southwark's Quietway plans, showing modal filters at various points to remove through-motor-traffic, while retaining motor access for residents and visitors.

Click to see full-size version

It removes through-motor-traffic from the entire route, while keeping motor access for residents and visitors. (In addition to the filters here, all of which are in Southwark Council’s area, I’d add one further west on Webber Street too, near the junction with The Cut.)

Suddenly, and for a bargain price that can’t be beat, the whole of Webber Street and Great Suffolk Street will now carry so little motor traffic that they’re safe to ride.

Further east, the northbound rat-run on Tabard Street is removed (vehicles currently enter from Great Dover Street via Becket Street, turn left up Tabard Street, then right along Pilgrimage Street), while full access is retained.

Most importantly, Law Street is no longer a rat-run. This is currently an awful street to cycle on due to vehicles avoiding the major Bricklayers Arms junction in both directions, just off-image to the south-east. In fact, the filtering in this area improves the entire block between Great Dover Street and Long Lane, as all rat-runs are now prevented. (I think – can you see any?)

The filtering at the top of Law Street also makes safe the turn into and out of the Rothsay Street cycleway, which under the current plans looks awfully dangerous.

I’ve gone no further because I’m not familiar with the area from this point, I always went up Wild’s Rents from here on a complicated, meandering route towards Tower Bridge.

So, that’s it!

The consultation on this section runs until the 5th of September (with the western-most section until the 15th), so there’s a few days left to respond now.

It’s probably worth responding so that when Southwark ignore all our suggestions we can at least point the finger at them when the plans fail. (Cynical, me?)


Addendum, 2nd February 2015: One of the hot debates along the route is the awful restrictive gateway on Trinity Street. Having thought about it, the simplest solution is to move it so it’s to the south of the Globe Street junction. It will still perform its motorbike-filtering purpose there, but not interfere with the Quietway. Ta-da!

Trinity Street SE1, with motorbike barrier that hinders cyclists too. Simple solution is to move it.

 

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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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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 about 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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