Thursday, September 29, 2011

80MPH Limit

Philip Hammond's crowd-pleaser for the Tory conference is a proposal to raise the motorway limit to 80MPH.

"the motorway speed limit nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology"

Unfortunately drivers abilities or reaction times haven't advanced much, and the laws of physics haven't changed. If you raise the limit to 80MPH, those drivers who are doing 80 today will be doing 90 instead. That's 30MPH more than that HGV that just pulled out into the middle lane...oops! Hammond had previously indicated that the 80MPH limit would be rigorously enforced, but somehow I can't see that lasting long, especially with the Government's police cuts and war on speed cameras.

"Increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times. So we will consult later this year on raising the limit to get Britain moving."

Let's see if we can tease out the flaws in that argument. Businesses value predictability of journeys rather than duration. HGVs will still presumably be doing 60MPH, so they won't benefit from the higher limit. But a lot of congestion is due to collisions. A higher limit will likely mean more collisions, and collisions between faster-moving vehicles will tend to be more severe. So any economic benefits from some faster journeys may be neutralised by increased congestion, less predictable journeys and the costs of more casualties.

Even ignoring collision-related congestion, faster journeys won't necessarily result from a higher limit. It may simply mean that drivers get to the next bottleneck quicker and spend more time queueing. That after all is why the M25 variable speed limit works - if people drive slower, they actually travel quicker. Traffic flow may suffer from the increased speed differential between vehicles - drivers wishing to pull out into another lane will have to allow a bigger gap, and drivers will need to keep a greater distance behind the car in front to be able to stop safely (something not all drivers bother much about). If the prospect of faster journeys attracts more drivers, that will mean more congestion.

Then of course there are the environmental considerations. Higher speeds mean considerably higher emissions. Philip Hammond pointed out on BBC TV news that transport emissions must be reduced but there's more than one way to do that - and suggested that rolling out ultra-low-emission cars would solve the problem. Maybe he's not been reading this blog, which has pointed out that the public are for good reasons about as enthusiastic about electric cars as the Pope is about gay marriage. And an 80MPH limit would actually make electric cars less attractive, as 80MPH in an electric vehicle will drain the battery faster than you can say 'lithium ion technology'. It's those outdated laws of physics again, you see. Maybe Philip Hammond should change them, which should be easy enough as he seems to spend a lot of time in fantasy-land.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

How to Reduce Congestion

Here's a poser. You have to reduce traffic congestion, but you're not allowed to build any roads or introduce road pricing. That's the question that's been asked of the all-party Commons Transport Committee. Let's see what they've come up with.

But first, a couple of thoughts. Building roads generally leads to more congestion, not less, as removing one bottleneck makes driving easier and, quicker, attracting more motorists until the dynamic equilibrium of the system is restored and you're back where you started. So that won't work. Road pricing by contrast seems to be the one solution that experts agree would ease congestion. It's only politicians that don't fancy their chances in convincing the electorate, which is why they've kicked it into the long grass.

The first idea the MPs have put forward is a tougher driving test.

"The overwhelming view from the evidence we received was that aspects of poor road user behaviour led to increased directly causing incidents and accidents, often linked to safety issues; and secondly, by inappropriate road use, which is not necessarily unsafe, but which adversely affects the flow of traffic."

Quite right. Only problem is that if you make the driving test tougher, you don't tackle the bad habits of existing drivers. Instead you make it harder - and therefore more expensive - for young people to get a license. On the one hand, this is grossly unfair on a generation who is expected to pay massively more for their education, for housing, and now will be able to get fewer jobs that require them to drive, thus adding to the already large percentage of them that are unemployed. On the other hand, in terms of outcomes it's a great idea. Transport habits are cemented at a young age, so giving young people who aren't on a footballer's wage no option but to take the bus or use a bike would be a good thing for congestion and for the environment. And young people (young men in particular) are in general dangerously crap drivers, concerned with impressing girls, recklessly exploring the outer limits of their cars handing and speed capabilities, and generally learning by trial and error. So the fewer there are of them behind a wheel the better.

So what about those older drivers who passed their test when it was as difficult as scratching your butt and know as much about the Highway Code as Wayne Rooney knows about Baroque counterpoint?

"The MPs said motorists did not always keep up with updates to road signs and the law after they had passed their tests."

No kidding? Astounding!

"Changes to the Highway Code could also be placed more clearly on the DVLA website when motorists renewed a driving licence and be included in a leaflet with tax disk or licence renewal letters... "

I can see that going straight in the recycling...

"A free Highway Code mobile phone application is another way standards could be improved."

What, like Angry Birds?

Sorry, but improving your driving takes time, effort and commitment, and most people think their driving is good enough thanks very much and have no aspiration to make it better. The only thing that will change that, I suggest, is financial incentives and other rewards. For example, an advanced driving test, with the study and examination fees subsidized. An advanced test would likely lead to lower insurance premiums, and the Government could require professional drivers working in the public sector and all its suppliers to hold the new qualification. Other incentives such as the right to use the outside lane on motorways, differential speed limits (i.e. non-advanced drivers limited to 60MPH), and so on could be extended to advanced drivers.

Another suggestion the MPs made was this:

"the government to publish an assessment of traffic flow on the M4 in London since the bus lane was scrapped last November...the bus lane should be reinstated if evidence showed that, taking into account all travellers, it contributed to faster traffic movement."

About a year ago I predicted that closing the M4 bus lane would make journey times worse.

Roads Minister Mike Penning said "We will consider the committee's report carefully and respond in full in due course." We can't wait!

Friday, September 23, 2011


I got a lovely email from Boris Johnson today, informing me of his new initiative to tackle badly-managed roadworks, including a website where you can snitch on the contractors that are making your life hell.
He says (with grammar not befitting a journalist):

I have just introduced new, tighter standards for roadworks and making it easier for you to tell us when you spot sloppy examples so we can take action to sort it out. You can report sites that don’t come up to scratch at

This rather smacks of the failed 'cones hotline' from the 1990s, and it's a rather desperate last throw of the dice by a Mayor that promised to sort out roadworks and, like everyone before him, has found out that actually doing it is a lot harder than talking about it. But at least it's a pleasant surprise to see that TfL have actually considered pedestrians and cyclists: the blurb at the website pledges that roadworks should:

Be tidy and safe with a clutter-free site so it is safe for pedestrians, cyclists and other road users 
Take up as little road/pavement space as possible with a compact working area and eliminating the unnecessary use of cones, safety barriers and storage of materials 

Crikey. It's a bit of a shame that TfL's own roadworks don't come up to scratch rather too often. I wonder if TfL are aware of how much contractors rely on cycle lanes as a repository for signs, cones and materials. They're probably expecting the website to get most of its traffic from taxi drivers and other important road-users, rather than troublesome cyclists whose journeys don't really matter. Browsers at the ready, folks!

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Today's serious collisions

Two crashes involving cyclists and large vehicles today, a bus and a refuse truck, at two of the most dangerous locations in London.

Reports say the first was at Vauxhall Bridge, and involved a cycle courier being rear-ended by an HGV. Police closed roads for investigation purposes (causing widespread chaos) which indicates it was serious, and the victim was initially described as in a critical condition.

The second was at Aldwych, where reportedly a cyclist undertook a bus that was pulling into a stop. The injuries were described as 'life-changing'.

What these locations have in common is  large, multi-lane road system with relatively high traffic speeds and vehicles jostling for position - and poor provision for cycles. At Vauxhall, there is some off-carriageway provision but it's fairly unsatisfactory - you can end up in conflict with pedestrians as there really isn't enough space allocated to pedestrians and cyclists, and there are many crossings which make your transit a frustratingly slow experience.

Aldwych has a toxic mix of a one-way set-up, between three and five lanes, a bizarre taxi rank right in the middle, and four roads on the left. With all the roads leading onto it, the many lanes and the bus stops, vehicles are always changing lanes. Speeds can be high, and there really is no safe line for a cyclist, and no cycling provision whatsoever.

You might choose to draw your own parallels between these locations and the new, redesigned Blackfriars Bridge.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cycling is Fashionable

Well, judging by the new Debenhams advert, which contains 10 seconds of jolly-fun-looking flowery Pashley-type action in a 40-second ad. No helmets, lycra or sweaty armpits in sight.

Friday, September 16, 2011

National Planning Policy Framework

I was going to write a post lambasting the government's latest U-turn-in-the-making, the National Planning Policy Framework. But the Telegraph (along with countless others from right across the political spectrum) has already done a pretty good job, pointing out that with weak planning laws the UK could end up with urban sprawl like Ireland or Los Angeles.

And with urban sprawl you get more car-dependency because public transport doesn't work with low-density housing. It's bad enough in subsurban areas like Merton.

Paradoxically, it's car dependency that also eats up prime development land in towns and cities. In central Wimbledon there are two large Council-run car parks, plus ones at Centre Court and Sainsburys. The council car parks would be worth millions as development sites, and could provide housing located ideally for the town's public transport links.

The other effect is car-dependency creates areas where people don't want to live. Busy roads not only consume land for the carriageway, they also form a blighted corridor where noise, road danger and pollution mean people don't want to live or shop there. That's why the urban motorway of central Morden is such ghost town.

Yet a lot of the time car parking isn't even used. Above is a picture of the Kenley Road car park in Morden, taken on a Monday lunchtime. A handful of cars. Yet the council, rather than looking at under-used assets like this, want to extend Dundonald School onto a much-loved local park (Dundonald Recreation Ground), into the teeth of local opposition, in an area hardly blessed with a surfeit of green space.

Councils and the government need to wake up to the fact that there is usable urban land, but it can't be wasted on cars to the extent it is. It would be great if we lived in a country where there was plenty of cheap land and plenty of cheap oil, on a planet where a bit of CO2 would just warm things up nicely without causing extreme weather events, famines, and so on. Then we could build enough houses and lots of roads and drive everywhere. Unfortunately we live on a small, crowded island where land is in short supply, where oil is expensive, on a planet where climate change is a grave threat.

With that in mind, we have to ask ourselves whether we put housing first or cars first. Car parks do not pay their way in social terms, or even in terms of narrow economics: given the potential market value of a central Wimbledon plot, drivers are being massively subsidised.

The alternative is pretty simple. Communities that rely on public transport walking and cycling and less on cars enjoy a better local environment, have higher housing density yet feel less cramped and less urbanised, and are greener than car-oriented developments. Plus they are safer and healthier places because people get more excercise as part of daily life, and are exposed to less road danger and pollutants. They are also likely to be stronger communities.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Wimbledon Station Redevelopment

Merton Council have an ongoing project to tart up the streets around the mainline station.

Let's be clear: this development was not undertaken to make Wimbledon cycle-friendly. Merton don't see cycling as a transport mode so it doesn't get much if any consideration in these kinds of schemes. That's why the revisions contain nothing for the less confident cyclist and won't attract new cyclists.  won't make it easier for local people to cycle to local shops, and anyone wanting to cycle with their kids to central Wimbledon won't find conditions improved. It would make a lot more sense when planning expensive street-scene  developments like this to take an holistic view of transport, and plan for the next 15 years - which is after all the duration of the LIP2, and a period in which Merton claim they hope to increase cycling. And 'hope' is the operative word - there's no strategy.

However, within the limited scope and terms of the station forecourt development, there are worthwhile improvements for active modes of travel - mainly pedestrians, but also for cycling. I hope with the above rant your expectations have been set at a low level, but you might want to lower them a couple of notches further just so you aren't too disappointed....

(Above) Cycling past the station towards Centre Court (south-east-bound), you notice the two narrow lanes that were there before have been reduced to one wider lane. There's no cycle lane marked, but it's a lot easier to filter and the traffic is likely to be slowed although TfL think there should be no.impact on traffic flow. There's a layby with parking spaces just past the station forecourt.

 (Above) In the other direction on the same piece of road, there's a central island, but the kerb is flush with the road surface and the island has a gentle camber, so this will enable you to cycle over it and filter past on the right-hand side of the queue of traffic. There's a kerb at the crossing however so you have to cut in at that point.
(Above) More of the same; the 'virtual island' enables you to overtake the queue on the right, and on the left at this point there's a lead-in lane. (below)

(Above) Continuing north-west up Wimbledon Hill Road, there's a single lane rather than the previous two lane arrangement (you can still see where the previous markings have been erased). Hopefully this setup will calm the traffic somewhat.

(Above) The cab rank has been moved to the side of the station together with the disabled bays...

(above) ...and the station forecourt has been completely pedestrianised, with a bank of sheffield stands on the left there, which on a Saturday was loaded with a full complement of bikes (below). In other words, there's not nearly enough of them.

What else? The pavements have been widened and there's going to be a diagonal crossing (Oxford Circus-style) at the Alexandra Road junction.

In summary, the new road layouts do make it a bit easier to get through this area of central Wimbledon on a bike, but you still have to be a confident cyclist. You've still got large volumes of fast-moving traffic going past you in close proximity. There's more chance of snow in hell than of more girls cycling along this road to get to the nearby Ricard's Lodge school. And bear in mind this might be the last major work done here in the period up to 2026, by which cycling should have increased 400% to meet the Mayor of London's decidedly under-ambitious target. What's more, Merton's LIP2 aims to more than triple cycling over 2010 levels by 2015. You might have spotted the disconnect between Merton talking a good game on cycling, and what they're doing on the ground...

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Lambeth Bridge

Lambeth Bridge has just been resurfaced, and they've re-marked the bridge so it's actually rather better for cyclists. So, credit where credit's due, TfL have done two things right: 1. they've taken the opportunity of the bridge resurfacing to consider whether the layout could be improved (rather than re-marking it as it was and then later having to change it); 2. they've seemingly taken some notice of what cyclists are saying.

The main change is the northbound carriageway is wider, and the cycle lane is also wider. This has two effects: the northbound motor traffic tends to stay further away from the cycle lane, and there is more room in the lane. You can just about overtake other cyclists within the lane now.

Southbound they've removed the cycle lane, but I never found that much use anyway - there's still a bus lane and there's usually not much southbound traffic anyway so taxis can give you a wide berth.

Below you can see how it used to be:
...barely enough room for the double-red lines, and vehicles very close indeed.
Above you see the new lane, which is wide enough to accommodate the Darwin's Deli trailer, and the motors are rather further away.
Above, another view of the new lane.

Above: it's not all good news. The start of the bridge is still as dangerous as it was, and the cycle lane doesn't start for a few metres (I think they've actually moved the start point forward, which is a retrograde step). At this point, there's still a risk of a cyclist getting squashed under a left-turning HGV. However, to be fair, all they've done is resurfaced the bridge, and fixing the approach to the bridge will require some re-engineering of islands and pavements. And of course both the southern and northern roundabouts are problematic. So we're left with a reasonable-quality link between two very dangerous and intimidating junctions. The fact that I'm highlighting this as an welcome and unexpected improvement is indicative of how low the standard of progress is elsewhere, for example on Blackfriars Bridge, where the environment is actually being made worse for cycling.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Funding Future Railways

The latest rail fare increases are predicted to average 8%, and over three years this rate of increase will compound to over 20%, leading to massive season ticket prices for commuters.

One of the advantages of private enterprises is they can borrow money off banks to invest in projects that will make them money in the future. By contrast, a enterprise in public ownership borrowing money will add to the national debt. In business, you borrow money so that you can invest in improving your products or services. Why would you borrow money? Well, assuming the business doesn't have enough cash to fund the investment, you need to. If you put the price of your current services up, they would no longer be competitive, so you'd likely go out of business before you could get the improved service to market.After all, why should your existing customers care about services they may not want or need in the future?

So, when the railways - which are private enterprises - need to invest in improved services for the future, they should be borrowing money. They should be able to get pretty good rates of interest - the railway sector is effectively a monopoly guaranteed a stable or increasing business, and with the price of motoring rising and other pressures, the future prospects are good (after all, increased passenger capacity is why they're investing). Yet the railways are doing precisely what a private enterprise shouldn't do - making their existing customers pay for future services that they may not even benefit from. The only reason they can get away with this is because there is no effective competition. Which rather begs the question: what is the benefit of having private companies running the railways, if they behave to all intents and purposes like a public monopoly?

If you are going to indulge in centrally-controlled cross-subsidy - which is what this government is doing by getting today's train users to pay for tomorrow's services - it would make far more sense to treat the whole transport sector as a holistic entity - which is what it is. By singling out railway users to pay a tax to pay for future transport investment, you create a perverse financial disincentive to use the most environmentally benign transport mode. Motorists should also pay this tax. That way, the playing field would be levelled in financial terms. There isn't a wholesale flight from the train to the roads is for two reasons:
1. it so happens motoring costs are currently also rising. But that's not guaranteed to continue.
2. there is nowhere near enough road capacity to absorb significant numbers of additional journeys.

However, if motoring costs were to go down, that could quite easily result in a significant displacement from rail to road - and with it, an increase in congestion, with its attendant costs on businesses. In that case, you would have reduced fare revenue denting the train companies' ability to invest, and additional congestion-related costs  that aren't being used to invest in anything - skilled workers sitting in traffic jams is simply lost productivity.