Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Gary Mason's 'Accidental' Death

On last week's Top Gear, the presenters went out around the test track to prove that you can do other things while driving. Clarkson attempted to drive while sewing a button onto his shirt, and May attempted to drive while in a sleeping bag. All very jocular, tongue-in-cheek stuff, and not intended to be taken seriously.

And it is true to say that the mechanical act of controlling a car - accelerating, braking, steering - is a simple one. However, on a test track, there are few hazards. There is no oncoming traffic, no side-roads, no pedestrians, no cyclists - in fact nothing unpredictable. Even in a race, where you clearly couldn't sew on a button, other drivers' line and speed are for the most part entirely predictable.

Driving safely on the public highway is a very different proposition, because it requires you to read the road ahead and behind, anticipate possible hazards. Pinch-points requiring traffic to merge. Traffic lights that may change. Junctions where traffic may emerge. Cars in front that may change course or speed. Cars behind that may attempt to overtake. Pedestrians that may step into the road. Blind corners. Bad weather. Poor lighting conditions. There's also the need to expect the unexpected: to anticipate in order to avoid collisions caused by other drivers doing stupid or illegal things. Clearly, to do all this, you would struggle to sew on a button whilst keeping the required level of awareness.

Unfortunately, many drivers behave as if they're on a test track rather than a public highway. They behave as if everything on the road is predictable. If it's a road they know, they assume it's exactly the same as last time they drove along it. Because of this, they leave little margin for error. They think that because it is physically possible to drive in excess of the speed limit, then it is OK to do so.

If you believe that when you're in charge of a potentially dangerous machine, you have a duty to do everything in your power to ensure that your machine doesn't cause death or injury, this kind of behaviour is grossly irresponsible. But the law doesn't think so. In law, if a pedestrian steps into the road and is hit by the car, it's the pedestrian's fault for stepping into the road, rather than the driver's fault for failing to anticipate and avoid the collision. In law, you have to prove that the driver was doing something illegal that caused the collision. And that is often very difficult to do.

Take the case of boxer Gary Mason, who was killed last January whilst cycling. At the inquest, collision investigators estimated the driver had been driving at between 25mph and 48mph at the time of the crash, and he had been going at between 36mph and 41mph in the lead-up to the collision. He failed a police sight test on the day of the crash. The light on his speedometer wasn't working.

The junction in Wallington where Gary was killed is a dangerous junction because of people like this driver. They turn from Woodcote Road into Sandy Lane South, and because the junction is at a gentle angle, if there is nothing in Sandy Lane South it's possible to cut the corner and make the turn without slowing down. On a test track, that would be the 'racing line' and the correct thing to do - after all, you're in a race and supposed to be going as fast as you can. Because this is a public road, you're not supposed to do this: there could be pedestrians crossing the road, or cyclists in the road, and at 40 MPH say, you would have little chance of avoiding them if you saw them. And at 6AM on a drizzly, dark morning such as when Gary was killed, you might not see them.  Especially if your sight was defective. The road markings at the junction encourage drivers to make a proper right turn and slow down, and there are hazard lines that you're not supposed to cross. The driver in this case said he would cut across the road markings “eight times out of 10”.

Gary's family, in a repeat of many similar instances of motorists killing with impunity, is not satisfied with the verdict of accidental death. His sister Paulette Stewart said “Gary was a wonderful man and father, well loved by all and was taken from us through the reckless driving of Mr Zanelli...Gary’s death...was clearly avoidable.” The family are preparing a civil action against the driver.

What will happen next? Usually at junctions where there's been a fatality, councils act. They'll perhaps put in traffic islands to make it physically impossible to cut the corner, and slow traffic down. Possibly they'll put in high-viz bollards to stop motorists crashing into the new islands. Maybe they'll uprate the speed cushions along Sandy Lane South. All this will cost money. But there will still be thousands of similar junctions where motorists behave dangerously because they aren't physically prevented from doing so, and there is no enforcement against them doing so. There's two quite close to where I live in fact, at which I've witnessed a couple of near misses.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Fuel Duty - Will Osborne Blink First Again?

You can tell it's nearly budget-time. Quentin Willson is on the telly again, banging the drum to postpone (again) the rise in fuel duty. Well, it worked last time - Osborne chickened out having first said there was no money for fuel tax cuts. There's a 3p rise due, and that's on top of the recent increase in the oil price. As usual, the BBC doesn't include any balancing opinion on what we could do instead of spending money subsidizing fossil fuel use by those fortunate enough to be able to afford a car.

Willson argues that postponing the rise (in effect reducing fuel duty in real terms) will magically create money from nothing. He reasons that if people can afford to put fuel in their cars, they will drive around spending money willy-nilly with small businesses, thus stimulating the economy and creating treasury income in the form of increased VAT. Challenged by the interviewer on where the money to fund a fuel duty cut is going to come from, he responds with an imperious final devastating sweep of logic: "the money doesn't have to come from anywhere: in the long term we'll cost the treasury no more."

Have you spotted the catch yet? Unless fuel suddenly becomes free, it's still going to cost money. Quite a lot of money: 135p - 145p/litre depending on your preferred flavour, and it could go up further in response to the expected military strike against those naughty Iranians. So if people start driving more, then more of their money is going to be spent on still-expensive car-juice - which won't generate many UK jobs, and a significant share of the money will go to the unsavoury regimes in some of the countries where oil originates. The regimes we seem to end up fighting expensive wars against - wars funded by taxes like fuel duty.

Now it's clear that people are driving less these days. Does it automatically follow they are sitting at home doing nothing and spending nothing? Is car travel a prerequisite for any type of consumption? Has Willson not heard of public transport, or internet shopping, or even local shops and restaurants you can walk to?

Meanwhile, in other news, the Association of Train Operating Companies reports that motoring is an unaffordable luxury for young people squeezed by tuition fees and youth unemployment. And fuel poverty is killing 8000+ people a year - more than die on the roads. Those two groups aren't going to benefit from any cut in fuel duty, because they can't afford a car in the first place, let alone the fuel to put in it.

So, if the Chancellor has any spare cash down the back of the No.11 sofa, should he be handing it out by lowering fuel duty? If you want to stimulate the economy, there are probably better ways that result in more of the spend generating UK jobs, and generate a long-term return on investment. Fuel duty cuts will benefit the wealthy most: those who drive high mileages in thirsty cars. If your goal is to help the hardest-hit, maybe you would like to lower transport fares for young people for whom cars are just posters on the bedroom wall. Or you could insulate homes, reducing our fossil-fuel dependency and helping those for whom cold can kill.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Cycling Safety - Westminster Hall Debate

2000 cyclists turned out on Wednesday 22 Feb 2012 to signal their support for the cycling safety debate at Westminster Hall the following day. You can read the transcript of the debate here and the second half of it here.

Other bloggers have commented favourably on the debate, on the enthusiasm and passion expressed by MPs for cycling.

Sorry folks, but I'm not persuaded. Talk is cheap. Debates count for nothing. All the major parties have had nothing but warm words for cycling for a decade and a half, but have delivered little. That's partly down to lack of investment, partly down to the wrong investment, and partly down to lack of will.

Lack of will first: Labour in its 13-year term first ignored cycling, then procrastinated about it, and then ran out of time. I think Adonis, Labour's last transport minister, would have done good things but didn't have long enough (or perhaps didn't move fast enough) at the helm. In the debate Ben Bradshaw (Lab) - who I think is very promising - warned Norman Baker of the "cultural problem in parts of the Department [of Transport] and in local government, which are still, in many cases, dominated by the road lobby". Baker countered "I do not believe that there is a cultural problem in the Department." In my humble opinion, it's likely Baker is either covering up the truth, or he's extremely naive. There is a cultural problem at TfL - we see this in sharp relief in the decisions taken that have resulted in deaths at Kings Cross and Bow. You'll see the same cultural problem in highways departments up and down the country. It's hardly likely the Department of Transport has changed its world view in the last year and a half, especially with Philip Hammond in charge.

Wrong investment next: Ian Austin (Lab) pointed out that £5 per head of population per year had been spent in London for 10 years. It's almost unbelievable that you could spend that much - let me just work it out on a ciggy packet - 8 million x £5 x 10 years is £400M - and end up with so little. Then there were the Cycle Demonstration Towns. The idea that any research needed to be done on cycling is a little ridiculous. There are plenty of demonstration towns on the Continent - they've done all the hard work figuring out what works - all we need to do is copy them. Next let's look at Boris's efforts. Cycle Superhighways have cost around £10M each. Thats considerably more than £1M/mile. You could put in segregated paths for that kind of money, instead of just paint.

Last, lack of investment. I pointed out in my post on a Norman Baker interview that the danger of getting rid of ring-fenced cycling funding and delegating which transport modes to prioritise to local councils was ill-advised and likely to lead to less funding for cycling. In that interview, Baker said, "I think local councillors want to do some of these green things. They’ve got the same objectives.” It looks like my prediction was right. Julian Huppert (LD) enthused about "a new local sustainable transport fund that is worth more than £500 million. Every local authority applied for money from that fund, and 38 out of the 39 successful bids included cycling aspects." What he didn't say is what those 38 'cycling aspects' were or what they were worth. Luckily, this information is revealed in this parliamentary answer:

11. Tim Farron (Westmorland and Lonsdale) (LD): How much of the local sustainable transport fund and the funding for the growth strategy for cycling and walking will be spent on cycle safety in the next financial year. [95959]

Norman Baker: During 2012-13, £11 million pounds will be spent on Bikeability and £8 million will be spent through the growth strategy on off-road infrastructure for cyclists. Funding to local authorities for cycling through successful local sustainable transport fund projects is at least £15 million in the forthcoming year. Approximately 40% of the measures funded relate to infrastructure or training, both of which will help cycle safety.
So there you have it. £15M, which is, if you're trying to get a nation to cycle, bugger all. It's 25p per head of population - less than 1% of what gets spent in the Netherlands. In fact I spend more than that on wiping my nether regions! Baker's Lib Dem colleague Julian Huppert does seem to get it though: he pointed out, "I want to see that [sustainable transport] fund grow and I want a clear message from the Minister that schemes with lots of cycling in them are more likely to be successful. We need to increase substantially our national spend on cycling infrastructure, and that would be one way to do it. Local authorities are investing in some of these schemes, but they need to do more." He's saying exactly what I alluded to above: you cannot leave it up to local authorities to prioritise cycling, because they don't.

In my view, the only encouraging thing to come from this debate is that the arguments in favour of cycling are well-understood by members of all political parties: the health, environmental and economic benefits were all covered, along with its efficient use of energy and roadspace. Segregation was called for and Rob Wilson (Con) said, "The main thing that will increase the number of cyclists in our towns and cities is better safety...simply painting some white lines on the road is just not good enough".  There was no clear party political line, although it's worth pointing out that the Tories who are actually influencing policy - on the London Assembly and in the Department of Transport - don't have such enlightened views.

In any case, there is a difference between the arguments being well-understood and those arguments winning out when there is competition for budgets or conflict with vested interests. We have a cycling Prime Minister and a cycling Mayor of London, but there's no sign of a new golden age of cycling. The recently departed Transport Minister Philip Hammond was totally clueless about cycling; at least his replacement Justine Greening knows one end of a bike from the other. However, she's been notably silent since she replaced the Jag-driving Hammond: is this the prelude to a change of direction, or will we get the same old pro-car policies with a softer tone?

The fundamental problem is that allocating roadspace to cycling involves tough decisions that will anger the motor lobby, who want free car parking rather than cycle paths. In the past, politicians of all colours have chickened out when faced with those dilemmas. Even though we're in a time of supposed austerity, we're still spending billions on new road schemes, and billions on extra tunnels for the HS2 rail scheme to placate a small number of electors in Tory shire constituencies. A tiny fraction of those sums would make a real difference to cycling, but only if correctly applied. You could spend lots of money on cycle lanes that are used as car parks half the time, and disappear altogether just when they're most needed. Justine Greening, if she so chooses, could go down in history as a minister who was bold enough to make the vision of mass cycling a reality, and in doing so and could bring massive savings and economic benefits to the NHS, the Department of Transport, and the wider economy. We live in hope.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Cycle Superhighway 7 Collision

Over the next few posts I plan on taking a look at the CSH7 junctions that are first up for review by TfL. You can see the priority list for all CSH junctions here; the junctions I'll be looking at are:

Balham Station
Clapham South
Clapham Common/The Pavement
Stockwell Gyratory
Oval Triangle

Because I actually ride through them, I know all these junctions pretty well . Unless I miss my guess, TfL don't, except through a car windscreen. They will either do a paper-based exercise, or they'll turn up in the middle of the day when traffic is quiet and there's few cyclists around. Their analysis will therefore be impoverished and compromised. But hey, some good may come of it, and some public money will get spent.

What they won't be looking at yet, and probably not ever, are the minor junctions, like, let's pick one at random, College Road. I was riding past this morning and what did I see? The aftermath of a minor crash, in which the cyclist was fortunately not seriously hurt as far as I could make out.

The problem with these minor road junctions is there are a lot of them, and at each one there is a chance that a vehicle will encroach over the give-way line into the cycle lane. This can cause you to T-bone into the side of the vehicle, or in trying to avoid doing so to swerve or brake, either of which could cause a crash. Alternatively, you may get left-hooked by a vehicle trying to turn left across the cycle lane from the major road into the side-road. A third possibility is a vehicle turning right across your path, either not knowing that the cycle lane is there, or not seeing a cyclist in it. There are a lot of large vehicles on the A24, so there is a good chance a vehicle on the other side of the road won't see cyclists until it's too late. Typically, a right-turning vehicle will have to wait a long time for a gap in oncoming traffic. They see a narrow gap and accelerate hard to make the turn. By the time they see there's a cyclist in the gap, it's too late to avoid a crash.

The solution is quite simple of course: ban turns into and out of these side-roads, and where that's not possible, minimise the traffic and eliminate the hazards of turning traffic: ensure that sightlines are good and there are safeguards to avoid the types of crash I've described. They've actually done this on most of the side-roads between South Wimbledon and Colliers Wood although this is not yet part of CSH#7.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Parliament Flashride

A pretty good turnout - my guess is around 500 [Update - according to Cyclists in the City, the police reckon 2000] - on a dreary but not too wet or cold February midweek evening, to show support for cycle safety in advance of the parliamentary debate tomorrow (23 Feb 2012). The ride started with slow but steady progress from The Mall towards Parliament Square.

Then over Lambeth Bridge and along Lambeth Palace Road:
Back over Westminster Bridge:

Then round Parliament Square again and along Whitehall.

The police, mainly on bikes, were a reassuring but unobtrusive presence. One I think had a minor collision when a car attempted a random U-turn having got in amongst the cyclists.

The ride was covered on the BBC TV news  in the evening with a couple of brief interviews with some of the riders.

What always surprises me is how quickly the cycles evaporate when the ride is over: riding back over Lambeth Bridge was just like any other weekday evening; no more bikes than usual.

Well done everybody; see you next time.

Bike of the Day

Make unknown.

Spotted in Covent Garden. Owner wants to hang on to it judging by the heavy-duty chain used to lock it up.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oil Prices

With oil, if it's not one thing it's another. Remember Libya? When that was all sorted out, the oil price was supposed to get back to normal, and the poor squeezed motorist would be able to get back to burning off the remaining supplies in his Range Rover. Now it's Iran that's the culprit for the oil price back above $120/bbl. The fact is, much of the world's oil originates in countries that don't have stable Western-friendly democracies. Which means that even with ordinary luck, oil supply is a bit like Tube travel - most days there is some disruption.

In an oil-dependent country like the UK, oil prices have a very real effect on the economy. We've already seen motorists driving less in response to high fuel prices and economic pressures, and there's a real danger that an oil price spike could tip the economy back into recession. I've pointed out before on this blog that a sensible move would be to aim to make the economy less dependent on oil so we're less vulnerable to the chill winds of geopolitics. In the recent past, the Chancellor has done the opposite, cutting fuel duty and giving the signal that high oil prices are a temporary aberration. Surely sooner or later they'll get the message that unreliable supply coupled with rising demand from the middle classes of China and India spell irreversable decline for any economy that's designed around cheap oil?

It would seem pretty hard to argue against the idea that to achieve economic growth we need to substitute oil-fuelled travel with alternatives, yet this government don't seem to have any policy to tackle oil dependency. HS2 benefits are too far in the future. Public transport fares are rising and some services are being cut. Electric car takeup has been disappointing despite the £5000-per-car government subsidy, with a little over 1000 sold so far compared to the 8500 grants that were available. Cycling is an alternative that could be available to a huge number of people at low cost, but for most people the lack of safe cycle routes puts them off. With the right investment, that could be reversed: we know it can be done from experience in Continental countries, and the side-benefits in terms of improved public health, lowered carbon and particulate emissions and better neighborhoods are huge. All it will take is a bold and far-sighted politician. Unfortunately, in the UK at least, that's an oxymoron.

Flash Ride Tomorrow (22 Feb)

There's another of LCC's Flash Rides planned for tomorrow (22 Feb). These have been orderly events with marshals and police in attendance, and this one should be the same. The plan is to ride from The Mall to Parliament Square and back, assembling at 6:15 and leaving a quarter of an hour later. The intention is to show MPs that the following day's parliamentary debate on cycle safety matters.

While you're about it, don't forget to sign the LCC's Go Dutch petition and The Times's campaign if you've not already done so, and get a friend to do likewise.

Remember this. There is a mayoral election this year and a national newspaper on-side: there's not been a better opportunity to make a difference for a long time.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

TfL Junction Cycle Safety Review

Boris has re-announced the junction review he was stampeded into because of the outcry last year over the fatalities at the Bow Roundabout.

The review includes junctions on the existing Superhighways, plus 150 major junctions on the TLRN (Transport for London Road Network). For most improvements we'll have to wait till after the Olympic Games, cuz after all cycle safety is a lot less important than the ability of the big cheeses and corporate sponsors such as Dow Chemical to cruise from their Mayfair hotels to the Games venues in their BMW limos without delay.

But enough carping about the timetable, time to carp about the whole misconceived process.

Currently, almost all cycle routes in London are crap. If you improve the junctions, you'll have better junctions, but still connected by crap cycle routes - intermittent narrow, advisory lanes punctuated by parked vehicles. Anyone with an ounce (25g) of sense  can see that reviewing hundreds of junctions and digging them up is going to cost a fortune if you do it properly. That's a waste of money if you end up with cycle routes that taken end-to-end are no more appealing. I'll be difficult to improve junctions measurably without impacting traffic capacity; therefore you will create a situation where you've reduced traffic capacity without providing an alternative (subjectively safe cycle routes) to tempt people out of their cars.

What we need instead is a strategy that involves more than just junctions, and it must involve more than just the TLRN. We need to end up with a network of cycle routes that enables people to cycle to work, school or the shops in subjectively safe, pleasant surroundings via routes that are easy to follow and don't take them ridiculously out of their way. This will involve all the things they do in countries that do it successfully: filtered permeability to reduce through traffic on minor roads, shared spaces, and where the route follows a major road, segregated lanes.

Next, let's look at the steering group that has the job of overseeing the junction review process. It consists of:

  • TfL
  • Freight Transport Association 
  • Living Streets 
  • London Cycling Campaign 
  • Roadpeace 
  • Road Haulage Association 
  • Institute of Advanced Motorists 
  • London Technical Advisors Group 
  • Metropolitan Police Service
So, we have not one but two representatives of the haulage industry. They have no real interest in cycling, but a lot of interest in traffic flow.

Although the Institute of Advanced Motorists does good work around safety, it is at the end of the day a motoring organization.

TfL are responsible for the mess we're in now. As I pointed out before on this blog, there is a real risk that they simply cannot make the change from thinking exclusively about traffic flow to thinking about cycle safety. They don't have the skills, the mindset or the track record, plus there's a lot of skeletons in their cupboard (like the safety reviews they've ignored for Bow and Kings Cross) that they'd rather keep covered up. In other words, will they be more concerned with dodging blame?

Metropolitan Police Service - on the one hand, they have first-hand experience of having to deal with the consequences of TfL's handiwork. If they spent less time attending serious collisions, they could spend more time cracking crime. On they other hand, the Met is a pretty car-centric organization, and there are many in the service who don't take cycling or cyclists seriously. If you don't believe me, ask Martin Porter.

Sustrans is one of the few organizations that have a creditable record in terms of implementing cycle routes, so are a welcome group member.

Roadpeace are solely focused on safety, so again it's good to see them.

Living Streets are in favour of safe, enjoyable, attractive streets, so there is a common  agenda with cycling, although they are a pedestrian organization and their strategy makes no mention of cycling. There is a natural 'active travel' partnership between walking and cycling, but we should bear in mind that TfL has recently taken a 'divide and rule' approach at Blackfriars Bridge and Euston Circus, increasing pavement widths while failing to allocated space for cycling.

London Technical Advisors Group as far as I've been able to ascertain looks to be an organization of local borough engineers. As such, they have a somewhat-less-than-sparkling track record on cycling issues (with some exceptions), and there may be hidden agendas.

Lastly we have London Cycling Campaign. While it's had a somewhat ineffectual history, mainly oriented to vehicular cycling, and failing to stand up to TfL, it's recently campaigned far more effectively and is now advocating Dutch-style infrastructure.

My main concern is this. The three 'non-motorised' organizations are all charities, and have limited resources. There appears to dearth of professional experience of implementing quality cycle infrastructure as found on the Continent (this is not disrespectful of Sustrans by the way, it's just that most Sustrans infrastructure is off-carriageway and where it's not it's often compromised by the intransigent and car-centric attitudes of the local authorities that have to sign off the designs). This is hardly a recipe for success.

I'm going to leave you with this thought. One of the junctions up for review is the Stockwell Gyratory. This is a junction that was re-engineered as part of Cycle Superhighway 7, and TfL regarded it as evidence of their generosity towards cyclists that they'd removed a lane of general traffic on one side of it and put in a cycle lane. Two years on, it's regarded as so inadequate it's up for priority review. That truly is a damning indictment of TfL's failure in respect of cycling and in respect of stewardship of public money.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

More Damned Lies and Cycling Statistics

Simon Jenkins in the Standard seems to have written exactly the same article that Andrew Gilligan did yesterday in the Telegraph. Maybe they've been hacking each others phones? Both articles sound rather like sour grapes: they're afraid that The Times' campaign on 'cities fit for cycling' may be onto something.

Jenkins starts off claiming the roads are safe, casualty rates are getting better even if the absolute numbers aren't, and, as if it were the clincher, "in 2010 the number [of cyclists] killed fell from 13 to 10." Wouldn't it be terrible if the number went up to, say, 16 in 2011? Anyway, for more detail I refer you to the answer I gave earlier.

Jenkins, like Gilligan, then goes off on in ill-informed polemic about Exhibition Road and shared space and stuff. He finishes by saying:

"Remove lights, repave crossings and 'spill the city into the street' and drivers slow of necessity. Dutch experience supports this. But it needs someone with guts to do it in London. The pity is that the regulation-loving, public-spending Times can only resort to more control. The real message of the street is that control is unsafe, that less is more."

Jenkins has forgotten something (as well as knowing very little about the subject). Exhibition Road cost £30M, courtesy of the largesse of Kensington and Chelsea council taxpayers. Removing lights and repaving crossings isn't as cheap as you think, and in any case,  it's not a solution you can use on major routes unless you really want to disrupt traffic flow. That's really getting into the realms of fantasy. If Jenkins had bothered to read the shared space literature, he would know that space only gets shared where motor traffic volumes are low enough. And if he knew anything about the Dutch experience, it's not about less control. On the contrary, there are lots of controls both to keep motor vehicles away from cycles, and to keep motor vehicles out of residential areas - the shared spaces that he seems to think are free-for-alls. In fact, as I write this I'm realising it will simply take too long to refute and correct all the nonsense in this article - it's like trying to review an article about brain surgery written by Katie Price.

Load of Bollards

There seems to be a problem with bollards at the junction of Wimbledon Hill Road and Worple Road in Wimbledon. The local paper reports:

"Bollard to blame for recent Wimbledon crashes...eight accidents happened in exactly the same way since the middle of November." 

Drivers are warned that the bollard may jump out into the road without warning. It should not be approached.

[I promise you I am not making this next bit up, but maybe the local paper did]

"Councillor David Dean...said the council needed to remove the bollard, which protects pedestrians standing on a traffic island." 

Quite right, Councillor. Pedestrians are much softer and less likely to cause damage to vehicles.

Councillor Andrew Judge said:

“This junction is very busy so we have added new road markings already to highlight the presence of the traffic island and further road markings will be provided to guide right-turning traffic safely around it."

How's that de-cluttering thing going, by the way? Naked streets, anybody?

Things to Do While You Drive - #52

Read the paper.

Trafalgar Square, 7 Feb.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Lies, Damned Lies, and Cycling Statistics

A strangely incoherent article from Andrew Gilligan in the Telegraph today. He tries to argue that cycling is getting safer in London, and this "fact" is inconvenient to those who want to blame Boris Johnson. Unfortunately, the statistics he uses don't match his argument. Whatever his argument is. See if you can figure it out, and if you can, please let the rest of us know.

Gilligan starts off:

"It’s certainly hard to think of any policy area where official interventions have been so inept."

Right there with you so far mate...

"The vast majority of British cycle lanes are either totally pointless or actively dangerous."

Sounds familiar to most go on...

"As a 100-mile a week London cyclist myself, I travel every day through places where TfL should do more."

Should do more? Is that the same as "inept and actively dangerous"?

"But 'carnage' there is not."

Maybe you'd like to define 'carnage' for us Andrew? As the Times points out, over 27,000 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the UK over the last decade. I guess that must be a teddy-bears' picnic, not carnage. But irony aside, road collisions are the leading cause of death for young people, and cycling is the second most dangerous mode of road transport, after motorcycling. Nationally, at a time when the overall casualty rate for road transport is going down, the rate for cycling is going up. How is that not cause for concern?

"to say that the deaths 'went up by 60 per cent' last year, as various bloggers and journalists keep doing, is narrowly right – but broadly misleading."

Maybe you'd like to visit the bereaved partners, family and friends of that 60% - it's only 6 people after all - and explain that they've been mislead? The point surely is, those deaths should not be in vain. It seems to me pretty callous to suggest that we should do nothing about Kings Cross or the Bow Roundabout, when those locations (among many others) are 'actively dangerous' in Gilligan's words, and have been assessed as being so by TfL's own consultants.

"Allowing for the rising number of trips, the trend [in serious injuries per 100,000 trips] is, as you can see, clearly down."

What?? Down over what period? The figures Gilligan quotes are as follows:

2002 0.36
2003 0.36
2004 0.28
2005 0.25
2006 0.24
2007 0.29
2008 0.27
2009 0.24
2010 0.26

Gilligan says it would not be valid to compare two years. He doesn't tell us what he is comparing though - he just says the trend is down. While there was a downward trend until 2006, since then (as you can clearly see) the figures have gone up and down in a pretty unpredictable manner. In fact, averaged since 2004, the injury rate on the same basis is 0.26 - so the 2010 figure is the same as the long-term average since 2004. Does that look down to you? And remember we're talking about a casualty rate per trip set against a background of rising trip numbers. In that time the number of deaths and serious casualties has climbed from 340 to 467. If those trends continue, it's likely that one in three people killed or seriously injured in London in 2025 will have been riding a bike. Would that qualify as 'carnage'?

"I’m sorry if that doesn’t help the people trying to diss Boris Johnson, but there it is."

On this blog, we're not trying to 'diss' Boris in particular (you're so 'down with the kids', Andrew. I thought the Telegraph was a quali'ee newspaper).  We're totally equal-opportunities in our dissing, y'get me? We're also not driven by statistics. We're driven by the desire to do something about the needless human cost, by the knowledge that our city could be so much better if more people cycled, and by the awareness that the reason more people don't cycle is not because of statistics but because of the all-too-obvious dangers that anyone can witness if they venture very far on a bike. And Boris has done next to nothing to alleviate those dangers (not that Ken Livingstone's record is much better).

Bishopsgate Fatality

Various sources report the first London cyclist fatality of the year (the 10th in the UK) at Bishopsgate, a man in his 60s, who in a collision with a coach on Friday 3 Feb 2012. The coach driver was arrested on suspicion of causing death by dangerous driving.

Mike Penning "road safety" minister commented,

"The year-on-year rise in the number of cycle casualties may be due to the increase in cycling we have seen in recent years but we will continue to monitor these figures closely as we work to tackle this important issue."

For those of you who don't speak gobbledegook, a rough translation is "we are watching them die". Here's a thought: instead of monitoring the figures closely, you could actually do something. You can monitor the figures until you're cross-eyed, but it's not going to change conditions on the ground. Another collision in Bishopsgate is the continuation of a depressingly predictable pattern, and the historical figures tell a very simple and stark story. You don't need to be Stephen Hawking or Nostradamus to figure it out. And in what way does "the increase in cycling" in any way make the situation less serious? The fact is that Bishopsgate has always been a dangerous road for cyclists, in common with many others, and the reasons it is dangerous are very simple and well-known: you have cyclists "sharing" space with large, fast-moving motor vehicles. The "issue" (a mealy-mouthed euphamism if there ever was one) has been successfully tackled in mainland Europe. As Cyclists in the City pointed out, no-one died on a bike in Paris last year.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Danger Denial

The cycling blogosphere is getting very excited about The Times' new campaign, "Cities Fit for Cycling". This has been coming for a while. When I started this blog, the press attitude to cycling varied from indifference to outright hostility (see James Martin). However in the past two years or so there's been an observable change. The Guardian started a Bike Blog in 2009, and Ross Lydall's regular articles in the Standard have kept cycling issues on the radar. Even papers that previously scoffed at cyclists for being arrogant, lawless loonies with questionable fashion sense have softened their line somewhat.

The Times has gone a step further, devoting most of yesterday's (2 Feb 2012) front page together with a 2-page spread to an eloquent and well-informed polemic on cycle safety. And in case anyone thought they weren't serious, today they've followed up with another front-page lead story.  The campaign is in response to the tragic serious injury to one of its journalists, Mary Bowers, at the end of 2011. Which goes to show that you can only kill and injure so many people before someone starts to notice: sooner or later someone in a position of power and influence is going to be affected.

The excellent David Arditti points out that downplaying the danger issue did cycling a disservice. He has a point. When I started this blog, some cycle campaigners were behaving rather like climate-change "sceptics", desperately searching for scraps of evidence to back their optimism that cycling was either getting safer or wasn't actually that dangerous, in the hope that if disbelief were suspended long enough, you'd get a critical mass of cyclists that would bring a 'safety in numbers' effect. However, there comes a point where optimism becomes denial, and denial becomes delusion. The release of more figures today show that cycling in London has been getting more dangerous since 2007 both in absolute and relative terms (I'll discuss why in another post).

Back in 2010 I suggested that the superhighways and hire bikes would generate media interest, and wrote:

"people will die on the Superhighways. Tourists will die on hire bikes. That will make the news. There'll be an outcry over the carnage, there'll be finger-pointing and safe cycle routes could become the flavour of the month."

Mercifully, my second prediction hasn't come to pass (yet), but my first one tragically has, with two deaths at the Bow roundabout. So in a perverse, round-about way, the Superhighways may yet lead to safer cycle routes.

However, we shouldn't assess our poultry inventory just yet. The forces of darkness will be planning how to frustrate, obfusticate and obstruct the move for better cycle routes. Much work remains to be done. Although the Coalition's red-tape reducing initiative is taking away some barriers to implementing cycle infrastructure, many still remain. I hope you haven't forgotten last week's political storm in Westminster about restricting parking. Imagine what will happen when people can't park in cycle lanes any more. Many businesses still believe that a lot of their trade is dependent on nearby free parking, and the benefits of cycling on local shops are under-appreciated. The minister in charge of road safety, Mike Penning, clearly hasn't got a clue, suggesting that the main safety problem is red-light running by cyclists (according to the Transport Research Laboratory, that doesn't appear in the top 10 collision causes attributed to cyclists).

What cycle campaigners need to do next is figure out how to trim the sails to take advantage of a following wind from the media, bearing in mind that there are choppy waters ahead and we're nowhere near port yet. But enough with the hackneyed sailing metaphors. Many Tories, like Penning, are either totally ignorant or suspicious of cycling (after all, the bicycle is a relatively new invention and you have to allow a couple of centuries to elapse to let the concept sink in). But the government tend to follow where public opinion goes, so if there's a sniff of political advantage, they may yet change horses - especially as they know they'll never win an argument against bereaved widows and children. However, public opinion is fickle, and the motor industry and other vested interests have vast PR resources at their disposal. Therefore it is necessary to get commitment now rather than allow the issue to go off the boil. Perhaps the best result would be to de-politicise the issue along the lines of a Royal Commission with the goal of getting UK cycle safety on a par with the best in mainland Europe, all parties committing to abide by its recommendations.