Sunday, January 5, 2014

Burghley Road Ballsup - How Not to Do Traffic Calming

Burghley Road in the affluent Wimbledon Common area of Merton is usually a quiet road. There is some through traffic but generally speaking it's as quiet as most of the surrounding streets, which is pretty quiet. It's usually a nice peaceful neighborhood in which to ride your bike. However, word has it that at school run rush hour time, it gets a lot busier with local parents dropping their straw-boater-clad Jocastas and Ptolemys off at the local prep schools. Some drivers are a little, shall we say, enthusiastic, with the 85th centile average speed at a scarcely-credible 39MPH.

So Merton have put in some pinch-points to try to restrict "excessive traffic speeds and safety".

At the top of the hill at the Wimbledon Common end, there is a reasonably well-constructed sinusoidal road hump. This is a good, cycle-friendly start. The road slopes downhill with a considerable although not Alpine gradient.

Above: Near the bottom of the hill, there is a pinch-point with a cycle bypass. Motor traffic must give way to oncoming traffic approaching the camera's viewpoint. Nothing too much wrong with this at first glance, you might think. Now look closer at that cycle bypass.

You'll notice that it's already starting to accumulate a lot of debris, but let's look even closer and see what's under that particularly dense accumulation of crud:

Yes, it's a cast-iron rainwater drain, the kind that will throw you off if you ride over it with your front brake on in the wet. And your brakes will almost certainly be on, given that you've just come down a steep hill. What is less obvious from the picture is that at the edge of the drain is a fairly wide groove that could also play havoc. So the safe area to the right of the drain is only about 2 1/2 feet (750mm) wide. The separating island by contrast is a generous 6 feet (2m) or so. There's also a significant camber in the narrow cycle lane to complicate the rider's life still further.

This arrangement has introduced another potentially lethal hazard. Above you see the end of the cycle lane and on the right, the junction with Calonne Road. If you're planning to turn right into Calonne Road, the site of the pinch point (whether the camera is positioned) is about where you'd be signalling and moving into the centre of the lane to position yourself to make the turn. Which, by the way, is a tricky manoeuvre, because of the adverse camber: take it too fast in the wet and you could end up unstuck. But anyway, because the pinch point forces you left at exactly the wrong point, you now have to signal, do a rear observation, slow down and position right, all in a distance that really doesn't allow for it. The alternative of course is to take the lane early, exactly at the point where motorists will be expecting you to take the cycle lane, which puts you at risk of a rear hit from a yummy mummy in a Range Rover. There's a lot of them round here.

Now onto the final hazard.

Ignore the pool of water, that's not relevant. Look instead at the buildout of the left pavement, which narrows the pinch point to a width making it impossible for a car to safely pass a cyclist. But of course that won't stop some drivers from trying. And that is exactly what happened when I was taking these photos. A motorist in a large BMW SUV approached two cyclists from behind just as they entered the pinch-point. Luckily one of them had the presence of mind to take the lane in time, forcing the driver to brake, and probably avoiding a dangerously-close pass. While many drivers will react to the traffic calming in the way the designers intended, there is a small but significant number who won't be able to cope with the combination of road humps, give-ways and their own impatience, and will simply put their foot down to try to beat an oncoming driver to the pinch-point, then realize (too late) that there's a road hump in the middle of it and brake unexpectedly. And cyclists are by design forced into conflict with this kind of driver.

So, once again in Merton we have engineers who have spent a lot of money trying to control motor traffic, but because of their lack of understanding of the dynamics of cycling, they've unwittingly created new hazards for cyclists. It doesn't fill you with confidence in Merton's competence to create a Mini-Holland, should the borough win funding for their bid.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

How to Fix the Northern Line

I have a friend John (not his real name) who has a bike (or had, until it got nicked a few months back). He's talked in the past about cycling to work but never quite got round to it.

John lives in Tooting. A couple of weeks back, he was walking back from the tube station, and happened upon the aftermath of a cycle collision, on CSH#7. An ambulance was in attendance. "The guy wasn't moving", he told me. "It didn't look good".

John is exactly the kind of person TfL are desperately trying to encourage to get on a bike to relieve congestion on the Northern Line. The BBC reported "Travellers are being asked to avoid getting on the Northern Line between Tooting Bec and Clapham North between 0800 GMT and 0845."  They are advised to walk or cycle instead.

Unfortunately for TfL, their advice to cycle might be heeded more if they hadn't made such a mess of implementing CSH#7 - which closely follows the Northern Line for much of its route. CSH#7 is exactly the wrong way to encourage anyone to cycle: almost everyone I know who uses CSH#7 has witnessed a collision on it.

CSH#7 follows the same basic design principles as the first phase of CSH#2, recently described "as an accident waiting to happen". Those principles can be summed up as follows. "Paint a blue stripe, and don't worry too much about major or minor junction safety, and don't do anything that might impact car parking or traffic flow. (Motor traffic,of course, is there any other kind?)"

The cheapest way to increase Northern Line capacity is to get people off it and onto other transport modes. Unfortunately, the most obvious alternative - buses - are already creaking at the seams. Val Shawcross wrote in the Guardian:

"Over the past 10 years, London's population grew by 80,000 a year and the number of bus kilometres by 109m. But over the coming decade, the population is forecast to grow by 100,000 a year while bus kilometres covered will increase by just 20m. This means more overcrowding on buses, and more people left behind at bus stops. London's buses are already frequently overcrowded. A quarter of those responding to our passenger survey said their bus was overcrowded and yet TfL has no plans to significantly increase services."

The underlying problems are twofold:
1. Failure to manage road congestion. Congestion slows down buses, making them an unattractive, slow, unreliable option, and forcing people to take the tube.
2. Failure to prioritize cycle safety. Failure to prioritize cycle safety ensures that most people don't consider cycling as a transport option.

What this all boils down to is that on the roads, TfL treats every road journey with equal priority: the least necessary journeys and the least efficient transport modes in terms of passengers per square metre of roadspace (private cars and taxis) have the same priority as the most important journeys and the most efficient modes. In the congestion charge zone the incentives are a little more logical but the fact that taxis and private hire vehicles are exempt from the congestion charge means that those vehicles are prevalent, and congestion is still widespread.

TfL also treats every road user as if they had equal safety requirements. TfL behave as if there were no such thing as a vulnerable road user, and as a result would-be cyclists are scared off the roads. (And it's not cycle campaigners or bloggers scaring people off cycling: surveys have been listing fear of traffic as the #1 reason people don't cycle for many years.)

So if people felt safe cycling, how many bikes could you accommodate on roads if you actually tried? Studies show the saturation flow for a single 1-m (3.3 ft) to 1.2-m (4-ft) bicycle lane appears to be between 1,500 and 5,000 bicycles/hr with a majority of the observations falling between 2,000 and 3,500 bicycles/hr. So for two-way flows based on a 10-hr day at maximum capacity, that works out at about 18M journeys per year. The London Underground Major Regeneration Scheme aims to add capacity of 500M extra journeys per year, at a cost of £39bn (2008). The pro-rata cost of 18M journeys per year (our nominal numbers for a 2-way cycle lane) works out at about £1.5bn. The segregated CSH#2 extension cost £2M/mile, and the refurbished, segregated CSH#2 about £20M. CSH#2 currently only carries about 400 cyclists/hour at peak times, which works out at maybe 1M journeys/year, but that's because it's currently unsegregated and therefore reflects the London-wide 2% cycling modal share. Continental infrastructure should bring Continental levels of riders: 2% modal share could turn into 20%, so you can see how levels of 10M journeys/year are not out of reach on CSH#2.  And at costs per journey getting on for 2 orders of magnitude lower than the tube upgrade. As a side benefit, more people would use London's under-used cycle hire scheme, bringing more revenue to TfL.

Now, you'll notice that the above numbers are very rough indeed, but even if you water the assumptions down to very conservative levels, they still indicate that cycling capital investment is incredibly cheap compared with upgrading train capacity. They also indicate the opportunity cost associated with the lack of investment in cycling in London. The Mayor is proposing to spend £913M over the next 10 years on cycling, averaging £91M/year. That is nowhere near enough to built a significant amount of infrastructure to the standard required to actually attract significant numbers of users, and as a result, London will have to spend far more accommodating those users on other forms of transport. Additionally, health experts recently told a parliamentary enquiry that "the NHS spent about £5 billion a year on obesity-related services could make £4 of savings for every £1 invested in cycling".

Instead of forecast numbers, lets instead consider some real ones. Since 2006 Seville has increased the number of daily cycling journeys from 5000 to 72,000, bringing modal share from  0.5% to around 7%. The cycle network cost €32m. Compare that with the city's underground system which cost €600 million and carries 40,000 people daily. It's interesting that Seville appears to have spent so little ( €400K/mile) building 80 miles of decent-quality infrastructure in so little time (the first 50 miles built in less than a year), compared with the CSH cost of £2M-£4M per mile, for what can charitably be described as dangerous crap.

If ever there was a cast-iron business case, it is to invest in cycling. Unlike the shaky, wildly-optimistic and naive economic cases that are used to justify road and rail investments. On the plus side, Boris seems now to understand that segregated, decent-quality, Continental-style infrastructure (as opposed to blue paint) is needed to get cycling modal share out of the doldrums, and is finally proposing and planning such routes. Unfortunately, London government (and here the blame falls partly on local government and City Hall, but mainly on central government) have not collectively realized that the massive benefits to be had from cycling - including health-related savings, air pollution reduction, displacement from far more expensive transport alternatives, a more liveable city - cannot be done on a shoestring. Until they realize this, we'll instead be spending far more on massive taxpayer subsidy of public transport that also has some of the highest fares in the world.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Operation Safeway - Waste of Money ?

In the wake of the recent cluster of cycling fatalities the Met Police - accountable to Mayor Boris Johnson - has launched Operation Safeway, which involves the deployment of up to 2500 officers at the capital's most dangerous junctions (not supermarkets, despite the name). It will be reviewed at Christmas.

When I see a bunch of public servants standing around not doing much, which is what I've witnessed so far during this "safety" operation, my first instinct is to wonder to what benefit my road tax is being put. Oh I forgot - I'm a cyclist, so I don't pay road tax. Except I do because I have a car. But it's a low emission car so I don't pay much more than it costs the Government to collect it. Oh, but the Met isn't paid for out of road tax, it's council tax and I do pay a lot of that. Well, anyway...paying highly-skilled crime-fighters to hang around on street corners like a bunch of high-visibility hookers doesn't strike me as a particularly good use of public funds.

Apparently, they've dished out 2000 fines in three days, which is a bit less than 700 a day. That is less than 1 ticket a day per officer. If the intent is to deter, this operation is clearly failing. But maybe finding lawbreaking road users is harder than we expect. To test this theory yesterday, I went for my usual lunchtime stroll around the West End, and in 15 minutes I saw 2 drivers entering an advance stop box illegally, 3 drivers using handheld mobile phones, and one cyclist on the pavement. So maybe my comparison with hookers was a bit unfair - there's clearly plenty of business out there to be done, but the police are unaccountably shy. According to some reports, they've been acting a bit like Gok Wan, advising people on what not to wear.

The Met budget is £4bn/year, and employs around 32000 sworn police officers. So the cost of 2500 officers half-time for 4 weeks works out at around £13M. They don't seem to be doing this full-time, but even for 2 hours in the morning, another 2 hours in the evening, plus the logistics of getting them to and from the relevant locations still adds up to a good chunk of a working day. The Met claim the operation isn't costing extra money, but that's false economics - if they weren't doing this, they would be doing other things, which presumably do have value. The question is, whether this operation has significant value. In my opinion it doesn't, because it is starting from the position that the main cause of cyclist casualties is lawbreaking, which is a false premise. There is nothing uniquely lawless about British drivers or cyclists. People have an equal tendancy to break road laws in other European countries, but the Continental approach has been to build quality cycling infrastructure - infrastructure that removes incentives for cyclists to break the law, and keeps them away from lawbreaking drivers. If all drivers and cyclists respected the law all the time and never made mistakes, the roads would be safer, but I cannot see how a short, localized operation with little deterrent effect is going to reverse the effects of decades of complacent tolerance of motoring offences. With the exception of drink-driving, we simply don't regard traffic violations as "real crime". According to the RAC, 21% of drivers admit to using mobile phones at the wheel, 65% break the motorway speed limit, 36% break 20MPH limits, yet 92% of us consider ourselves to be law abiding drivers!

So I doubt very much if this operation will have any lasting effect. There is clearly no real appetite at any level of government to permanently ensure better compliance with traffic laws. Whereas, if you were to spend that £13M cost on decent segregated infrastructure or quality would permanently protect cyclists from the consequences of bad driving and cycling.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Vauxhall St Lane Blocked - Lambeth Fail Yet Again

Yes, another story in my Lambeth Fail series. Sorry to other London boroughs for favouring Lambeth again, you'll just have to try less hard.

Now, you really couldn't make this one up. Up until recently, the contraflow lane on Vauxhall St (which is one of the few examples in London of that critically endangered species, the segregated cycle facility) was blocked along with the pavement, and there was a "pedestrians please use other footpath" sign.

At that time, my fearless and redoubtable fellow-blogger Charlie (Kennington People on Bikes) sent a pic of the blocked lane to Lambeth's cycling officer. who responded thusly:

I have been sent the attached photos of Vauxhall Street. They show that the contraflow cycle lane is completely  fenced off, forcing people on bikes into the narrow lane of oncoming traffic. Not only is it dangerous, especially to children using the route,  it is also inconvenient and increases journey times for people cycling.
Given our road user hierarchy, our approach in this situation should be to maintain the pedestrian and cycle routes and close the road to motor vehicles except for access to the supermarket and estate. 
We've been criticised in the past for our lack of consideration of cyclists at roadworks (Akerman Road; Baylis Road; Greyhound Lane) but I thought we had begun to remedy that. There are lots of examples of good practise regarding cycling at roadworks  across London which we could learn from, for example recently on Union Street outside Palestra.
Will you look into this urgently? It is important that we sort it out quickly as the current situation is unacceptable and I expect we will receive many more complaints.

A week later, the lane's still blocked, and - get this - a "cyclists dismount" sign has been added. So, Lambeth's idea of remedying danger and inconvenience to people cycling stop them cycling. Perfect. No doubt soon they'll have a police officer ticketing cyclists having the temerity to ignore the dismount sign and ride around the obstruction.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Roads Crackdown - If Only...

The head of traffic enforcement for London's police defended an operation in which officers have been stopping dozens of highway engineers and politicians to advise them on safety, in the wake of a recent cluster of cyclist casualties.

"If I'm truly honest, what we're trying to do here is our best to save lives and keep people safe, both from serious and more minor injuries. Quite honestly, some of these traffic engineers haven't got a clue. They have no idea how to design safely. It's high time they were registered and made to take a test. "

"Some of the cases that we've seen in the last few days really make your heart bleed because you can see that politicians have taken decisions that really did put road users' lives in danger. While deaths are not always the designer's fault, if they don't follow the rules there's no amount of good behaviour by cyclists that is going to save people's lives".

In the operation, 2,500 officers are being deployed to enforce good road and junction design in the capital's most notorious accident blackspots.

There is evidence of a high level of offending by highways engineers in terms of design defects. In one previous operation, 99% of designs were found to have at least one serious defect, including the failure to separate HGVs from cyclists.

Politicians are also being warned not to wear headphones. "This kind of behaviour can only isolate you from the reality of the road environment in a dangerous way...Call me illiberal, but it makes me absolutely terrified to see them bowling along completely unaware of Continental good practice and disconnected from reality."

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Oval Barriers - Lambeth Succeed - Sort Of

Well, yesterday evening, the controversial new anti-cycling barriers at the Oval, lambasted in my previous post, were gone.

So thanks are due to whoever acted swiftly to get rid of them.

I dare say Lambeth taxpayers won't be so grateful when they realize they've paid for barriers to be erected and then taken down again, but it's one way of stimulating the economy.

Unfortunately this minor victory is massively overshadowed by the fact that 4 cyclists have been killed in the last 8 days in London. If only those in charge would act to prevent the carnage from continuing with a similar degree of alacrity to Lambeth's action on these barriers...

Friday, November 8, 2013

Cycle Hire - Is it Safe, Really?

Sir Peter Hendy, recently-knighted Transport for London big cheese, has suggested that Boris Bikes are super-safe because they are big, slow, and have flashing lights.

Firstly, are they actually that safe? Well, the first year produced 6M journeys and 100 collisions. That works out at a rate of slightly less than 17 collisions per million journeys, compared with a rate of a bit more than 20 collisions per million journeys for general cycling in London in the same year. So the safety of the Boris Bikes appears a bit better than the background numbers, but not spectacularly so, and the difference could be explained by many factors, such as user demographics, journey time of day, routes, the hire journeys being shorter and concentrated in the central London area. Another possible explanation is that drivers assume you are clueless if you're on one and make allowances.

It is certainly a stretch to say that a big slow bike is safe. While riding slower may help you avoid some types of collision, it will make you more vulnerable to others. When pulling out into a stream of traffic, you are best advised to accelerate to the speed of the other road users, which is difficult on an under-geared bike weighing 23kg. Riding slowly makes you more vulnerable to left-hooks and badly-timed overtakes by impatient motorists.

The other factor Hendy won't be telling you about is the brakes on the blue barges are crap. Dangerously so in some cases, in my experience.

As for flashing lights, most riders in London use such lights after dark. The lights on the Boris Bikes are quite low-powered and mounted low down at the back. They are better than nothing for sure, but of very limited benefit in daylight, and a lot worse than a well-positioned modern high-powered set-up at night.

The one fatality involving a cycle-hire bike was on TfL's CSH#2, recently branded "an accident waiting to happen". And that fact pretty much sums up cycling safety in London. It really matters very little what kind of bike you ride, when the roads are as woefully dangerous as they are. London cyclist KSIs rose by 18% last year, a number that clearly indicates TfL is not doing its job properly. To suggest that it's the fault of cyclists not using lights is a bit of an insult really. Ironically, the one solitary factor that likely has benefitted cycle safety over the past 15 years is the invention of the high-intensity LED light, but the failure of TfL and London boroughs to implement safe cycle routes, the cynical prioritization of traffic flow over safety, and the failure to police the roads properly has more than offset any benefit and meant that KSIs have resumed an upward trajectory.