Saturday, June 7, 2014

Traffic Signs Consultation

I was feeling a bit bad about not posting on this blog for a while. But then I thought about how long it takes UK governments to get even simple cycle-related issues resolved, and then I didn't feel so guilty.

A traffic signs policy review was first launched under the previous government, back in 2008. Getting rid of traffic sign clutter along with some of the sillier regulations around road signage (no shortage of those) and the associated red tape has been an ambition of the current government. So, in 2011 a Policy Paper was released by the then minister, Norman Baker. But it's taken until May 2014 for the publication of a draft "Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions". You will notice - this is still just a consultation document. You'll have to wait even longer before the new regulations actually see the light of day.

Given that it's taken this long, you'd expect all the stupidity that prevents decent cycling infrastructure to be swept away in one go. So what exactly are the changes that favour cycling proposed by the document ?

  • 'Trixi' mirrors 
  • 'No Entry Except Cycles' signing 
  • Cycle filter signals 
  • Use of a red cycle aspect on cycle-only traffic lights 
  • Cycle route branding - for example, wider national use of Transport for London's Cycle Superhighways branding, and the new 'Quietways' signing 
  • 7.5m deep Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs), to provide more capacity for cyclists 
  • New road markings to help indicate cycle routes through junctions 
  • Wider cycle lane markings 
  • The use of the square white 'elephant's footprints' markings to indicate the route for cyclists through a traffic signal controlled junction 
  • Greater flexibility in designing 20mph zones and limits 
  • Advanced Stop Lines covering only part of the width of the road - for example, across one lane only 
  • The removal of the requirement for a lead-in lane or gate at ASLs. This will permit cyclists to cross the first stop line at any point, allowing them to position themselves where they feel it is most appropriate 
  • ASLs at crossings as well as at junctions 
  • Removing the requirement for signs indicating off-road cycle routes to be lit 
  • Allowing smaller signs for off-road cycle routes
  • Allowing zig-zag markings at pedestrian crossings to be offset from the kerb by up to 2m, to allow cycle lanes to continue through the controlled area 
  • Where pedestrian zone signs include the “no motor vehicles” sign, the zone will now be referred to as a “pedestrian and cycle zone”. This will help people's understanding of the difference between the “no vehicles” and “no motor vehicles” signs 
  • Remove the need for a traffic order from various cycle facilities where possible. These could include with-flow and contra-flow cycle lanes and exemptions for cyclists where an existing restriction is in place (e.g. adding 'except cycles' to an existing 'no entry' restriction).
Not exactly earth-shattering, is it?

Some of these changes are already being used, but it is safe to say that none of the above represent any more than tinkering with discredited approaches or slowly adopting measures that have been common on the Continent for a decade or more. ASLs, for example, are no longer regarded as good practice in European countries with high levels of cycling. To give you an idea how far behind the game the UK is, 'No Entry Except Cycles' signs are everywhere in Brussels, which is near the bottom of the international cycling league table with 2.5% modal share.

Before you get too despondant and try to hang yourself with an old inner tube, there are a couple of more promising changes:
  • Shared-use pedestrian/cyclist crossing...a new form of crossing, similar to a zebra crossing, which would allow cyclists to ride across it.

Unfortunately, the design doesn't look very good - the zebra stripes only cover the pedestrian part of the crossing, not the cycle part, so you can imagine dozy motorists failing to stop at the intended stop line. But it does follow a Continental pattern, so maybe it'll work.
However, the regulations still seem to require belisha beacons. This makes such crossings expensive to install; in France and elsewhere crossings do not require expensive electrical work. Plus, the zig-zag markings clutter the street and displace the crossing from where people actually want to cross. The document really should have got rid of zig-zags altogether - which is a pretty damning indictment of the lack of vision or ambition displayed. (For a detailed survey of what is wrong with British zebra crossings, head to AsEasyAsRidingABike). The document later states, confusingly: "zig-zag controlled areas will still be a requirement...however, the requirements for zig-zag layouts at crossings will be simplified where possible". What that means in practice is anybody's guess, and it doesn't change the fact that Europe seems to do crossings that work just fine without zig-zags.
And finally - almost unbelievably - the document states "we have been unable to authorise a trial of such a [shared-use] crossing". Is it really that hard to trial what has worked on the Continent for many years? And why is it even necessary? This is the familiar "not invented here" attitude that seems to pervade highway engineering in this country.

Next up, we have low-level lights for cyclists. "The off-street trials carried out last year proved the concept and gave us sufficient evidence to agree to authorise a limited on-street trial". Again, why is it necessary to waste taxpayers' money trialling something that is already commonplace in Europe, thus delaying the introduction of potentially lifesaving improvements?

Lastly, and potentially the highlight:

"We will be taking forward the opportunity to trial the 'Cycle Streets' concept within the revised TSRGD. This is a bold initiative, which is being considered by some of the Cycle Cities and London, possibly including a ban on overtaking on lightly trafficked roads where cycle flows are high. Subject to any scheme trial, this prohibition could be accompanied by an advisory speed limit of 15 mph"

The problem with this is it is all a bit wishy-washy: "possibly including...could be accompanied by an advisory speed limit..." What on earth is an advisory speed limit? Is it the same as an unenforceable speed limit that no-one will take notice of? And the problem with applying an overtaking ban only on "lightly trafficked roads where cycle flows are high", is that cycle flows are generally not high because dangerous overtaking of cyclists is endemic - and that of course leads to high motor traffic levels as would-be cyclists retire to the safety of their cars even for short journeys. It could be argued that we need overtaking bans anywhere dangerous overtakes are happening.

This government has taken 4 years to come up with this document. 4 years? It looks like it should have taken 4 months maximum, even if you had a 3 month break in the middle. There is nothing innovative; nothing that hasn't been done elsewhere, and usually better, already. And worst of all, this is just a document. Given this government is fond of leaving it up to local authorities to decide to promote cycling (something they are generally ill-qualified and ill-motivated to do), it could be many years before any of the more significant measures make it onto highways.

It seems that while in time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, but crap cycling is here to stay. You've been a lovely audience, thank you, and goodnight.

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