Monday, April 26, 2010

Britain's most Sensible Bike Lane - Part 2

A bit more reaction in the Guardian to this story here.

Actually, I encountered a similar cycle lane arrangement when I was driving "up north" (I think it was through Lancaster) a few weeks ago. The cycle lane was wider than the car lane, and in fact the car lane wasn't wide enough for a car. As a driver I found it a little confusing, but that was because I'd never encountered such an arrangement before.  It gives a strong message about who has priority.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Britain's most Sensible Bike Lane

The Daily Mail once again show their ignorance of road safety and cycling issues and pander to the petty prejudices of their readers with this story, headlined 'Britain's Barmiest Bike Lane'.

Anyone who cycles regularly knows that bike lanes are too narrow. Drivers seem to interpret the right-hand-side of the lane as where they can safely position the left-hand-side of their vehicle, and given that many bike lanes are only 1m or 1.5m wide, and the gutter is typically adorned with debris, storm drains, potholes, the correct position for a cyclist to be is on the right-hand edge of the lane, if not outside it altogether. The Highway Code advises that an overtaking motor vehicle should give a bike at least as much room as you would a car, which is unhelpfully ambiguous but the accompanying picture illustrates the point.
Given the way many motorists interpret bike lanes, this 'barmy' bike lane is actually very sensible because it encourages drivers to give cyclists the correct amount of room. The AA spokesman quoted in the article says "[motorists] may be worried about breaking the law even though they are allowed to cross it [the line]". If only more motorists were worried about breaking the law, and actually knew and observed the Highway Code, we wouldn't need bike lanes in the first place. Or extremely expensive road humps, speed cameras, traffic police that us law-abiding taxpayers have to pay for.

What is barmy is the Highway Code and the Road Traffic Act. They are too vague to allow successful prosecution of dangerous drivers who put other road users, particularly cyclists, at risk. In respect of advisory cycle lanes, the Highway Code says "Do not drive or park in a cycle lane marked by a broken white line unless it is unavoidable", but it's advisory - it's not an offence to do so. Therefore, you can drive and park in advisory cycle lanes to your heart's content, and PC Plod will never bother you. Similarly, "give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you  would when overtaking a car" is only advisory, so behaviour which is clearly extremely dangerous and intimidatory is not a specific offence.

If you walk along the pavement. threatening and intimidating people with a blunt instrument, you'll be sent to prison even if you haven't actually hit anyone, and quite right too. But if you use a larger blunt instrument, a motor car, and propel it at high speed and in a threatening and intimidating manner, that's not an offence and you will likely never be prosecuted. Even if you killed someone, proving the offence of causing death by dangerous driving is almost impossible, which is why people like this get away scot free.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Low-Carbon Transport: A Greener Future

Low-Carbon Transport: A Greener Future - That's the title of yet another Government document on how we're going to reduce carbon emissions. And as usual it's especially short on detail about cycling. It does point out that 20% of road transport emissions are attributable to journeys of less than 5 miles, journeys that are easily cyclable.
But it doesn't point out that promoting cycling is one of the best, most cost-effective ways of reducing carbon emissions. Cycling is about as close to zero-carbon as you can get, so any increase in cycling has a big payoff in terms of carbon savings. Aside from eliminating journeys, all other carbon-reduction strategies involve switching to lower-carbon, rather than zero-carbon forms of transport such as buses and trains. Cycling also has other benefits: it improves health, reduces noise and atmospheric pollution, reduces traffic congestion and improves safety.

On Page 9, there is a picture of a happy cyclist on a segregated cycle path. P62 has a picture of a sign for the alluring 'Pebble Way' path. Sounds lovely and rural, doesn't it? P70 has another picture of a peaceful-looking segregated path. If this were representative of the real state of most British cycling infrastructure, a lot more people would be cycling.

Much is made of the Cycling Demonstration Towns. "These locations benefit from cycling funding more akin to levels of investment per head of population in other European countries". Exeter is one. From the cycleexeter website:
"For example, we have created high quality shared use cycle/walkways that give parents the confidence to allow their children to cycle to school."
All good, except that there are only 18 of these towns. If they are average-sized towns, this covers 1-2% of the UK population. What about the rest of us? What about London, which has a very high number of short car journeys, as well as 12% of the population? "We expect other towns and cities to learn from this experience and encourage cycling through their own transport plans". Oh yeah? So where's the money coming from? You just said "European levels of investment". If I'm a Councillor in Merton, why would I want to raise council tax and piss off motorists to benefit the 2% of residents who cycle? The answers to these questions isn't in this document, and it isn't in the 2010 Labour Manifesto either.

Maybe the answer is in the National Cycle Plan - "We are also committed to developing a National Cycle Plan to further promote cycling as a mainstream form of personal transport." Unfortunately there is sign of this document, and there's some indication that it's been merged into the Active Travel Strategy which I've already analysed here (it's more talk and no action in case you hadn't guessed).

I'm getting a bit sick of reading these things (and sick of paying through my taxes for them to be written). It's obvious to anyone who cycles that the lack of safe infrastructure is the main reason why people don't cycle, and this is backed up by surveys. We don't need 'Cycling Demonstration Towns' to tell us what to do: we know exactly what is needed and it's already been done in Amsterdam, Copenhagen and elsewhere.

We will never get significantly more people cycling without fixing the infrastructure problem. We might get them to try cycling, but unless they seriously restrict their journeys they'll pretty quickly figure out (after a couple of near misses) that they're safer in their cars.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Parking and Driving on the Pavement

One of the problems with allowing parking on the pavement is by implication you allow driving on the pavement. And that can be very dangerous.
Take a look at this picture of Shaftsbury Road, Sutton:

It's a relatively quiet residential road, and on such a road you would expect pedestrians, including young children, to be able to walk with safety on the pavement. Not so here. If a driver is in the silver car nearest the camera, the elderly gentleman may be in his 'blind spot'. If he chooses to reverse into the road, he may hit the pedestrian. Remember, the driver's attention may be focused much more on dangers on the road than on the pavement. If small children emerge from the gateway of a house, they may not be visible through the rear window of a vehicle - particularly if that vehicle is an SUV (Jeep/Land Rover) or a van. Like for instance the two vans you can see parked on the left-hand pavement. When you teach young children road safety, you teach them to stop at the kerb and not go into the road. The kerb is recognizable even to very young children, which is why you don't usually see kids running into the road where they would be in danger. Take away that barrier and you make life very difficult for parents. Will a responsible parent wish to let their children run (or scooter or cycle) down this street, with the constant danger of cars manoeuvring on and off the pavement?

In Sutton, the rights of children take second place to the convenience of motorists.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Middleton Road/Mitcham Common

Middleton Road in Mitcham/Carshalton has pretensions to be a cycle route, but it doesn't quite hit the spot.

Here's the view from Budge Lane looking west up the hill:

As you can see there is an advisory cycle lane on both sides of the road. It's completely useless on this side because cars are allowed to park on the pavement. If you cycle in the cycle lane, you're at serious risk of getting 'doored'. If the pavement is wide enough to allow car parking, it's wide enough for a segregated cycle lane. Cars belong on the road, not the pavement, stupid. The cheapest solution would be to have a segregated cycle lane or shared path and allow parking on one side of the road, and remove the cycle lane from the opposite side. But why do that when you can put pedestrians at risk from cars on the pavement, and endanger cyclists at the same time? You'd have to be seriously twisted to come up with this scheme, but that seems to be a prerequisite for anyone involved in designing UK transport infrastructure.
Going west, the cars-on-the-pavement theme continues.

Things get worse as you continue east, however. The cycle route sort of peters out. The Wandle Trail continues south from about this point, but it takes you past a boarded-up housing estate. I would have got a photo but I didn't fancy getting stabbed.

Middleton Road continues east and becomes Goat Road. At this point it is quite busy, narrow and there is no clue that it's a cycle route. Goat Road then joins Carshalton Road at a T-junction. Carshalton Road is busy, quite narrow, and not safe to cycle on. The other side of Carshalton Road is Mitcham Common, and you might expect cycle access to the Common at this point. No such luck.

Wandle Trail

The Wandle Trail is a truly marvellous off-road path running from Earlsfield south through Merton.

When you get to London Road, Mitcham, this is the scene:

Your way is blocked, if you're wheelchair-bound, or a parent with a pushchair. Or a cyclist. Or even if you suffer from dizziness by the look of it.
The path is not narrow - certainly no narrower than elsewhere on the Wandle Trail.
This steel structure must have cost thousands, as it's a custom fabrication. I've heard tales that it's to block access for badly-behaved youths with mini-motos or scooters. If that's true then it doesn't work, because it's easy to access the trail and Poulter Park through The Hub which is a few metres up the road. There seems a pretty curious principle at work: to block access to a right of way to a host of legitimate users because a few people break the law?
It's difficult not to conclude that this is a very expensive way of reducing the utility of the Wandle Trail for no good reason.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hit-and-run Reported in Media Shock

The BBC have given some prominence to this report of a tragic hit-and-run in which a 12-year-old girl died.

The only thing that makes it newsworthy is that it happened overseas in Gran Canaria and the victim was British.

There are similar tragedies on our roads every single day but they're not newsworthy, because they're so commonplace. If this incident happened in the UK, it would likely not have been given any prominence. After all, the story about Adrian Chiles leaving the BBC is far more important. If there's a UK roads story at all it will be probably be about parking tickets.

Maybe this media blackout over road deaths is why we tolerate the massive casualty figures. People are constantly aware of the deaths of soldiers in Afghanistan, and of dangerous dogs, and knife crime. But I bet you most people would not know that the leading cause of death of young people is car crashes, or that in many cases those deaths are preventable. In politics, we're not even having the debate about what (if anything) should be done to reduce the horrific death toll on our roads, because thanks to the media most people are unaware of the scale of it.

Missed your flight?

A quick 60-mile spin by bike out into the Surrey countryside on Sunday. Notice anything different? The great beauty of the North Downs is now silent except for the sound of birdsong (and the odd car). The usual procession of low-flying jet aircraft conveying thousands of sunburnt chavs to Gatwick is eerily absent, thanks to the Icelandic volcano. The cloudless sky is completely clear of con-trails, a sight not seen for decades.
I could go on, but Alain de Botton does it rather better.

Of course there are losers. My heart goes out to those poor unfortunates who are unable to get back to work or school and are stuck on a sunny beach until further notice.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

West End Roadworks

A recent stroll around the West End was eerily quiet. I had previously thought the number of press reports about record numbers of roadworks were the usual road-lobby grumblings, but my little circuit from Trafalgar Square to Piccadilly Circus revealed quite a lot of streets closed...

Here's Piccadilly Circus itself:
This isn't actually closed. What they're doing is the first phase of making the area more pedestrian-friendly. You can see where the old kerb-line is by the railings, and where the new kerb line will be where the temporary barriers are. Needless to say, there are no cycle facilities planned that I've heard.

Here's Whitcombe Street looking south from Swiss Court:
and again, further north, looking south from Gerrard Street:
 And here's Charing Cross Road, looking north from Leicester Square station. Single alternate line of traffic in operation:

What's interesting is that the roads seem a lot quieter with the roadworks. From a cyclist's point of view, road conditions generally seem to improve because of roadworks, because they tend to slow traffic speeds on roads that approach roadworks, and the throttling effect of road closures creates quieter roads elsewhere.
What's also interesting is that London still functions despite the effects of these roadworks. Which rather puts the lie to the idea that there's not enough roadspace in London for decent cycle routes.

Business and road organizations bandy around figures that purport to be "the cost of congestion to business" or "the cost of roadworks",but these figures are meaningless. They are comparing the notional cost of a unit of transport now with what it would be under a different, set of conditions, but they don't tell us what those conditions are. And they don't talk about how much it would cost to get the infrastructure to that second set of conditions or who would pay.
On the 'cost of congestion', we know from experience that if you attempt to reduce congestion by freeing up roadspace (or creating more roadspace), this simply attracts more traffic volumes, creating more congestion. So you have to look at how else the congestion problem might be solved. A free-marketeer might suggest a congestion charge, because this creates a market for roadspace. But that puts extra costs on businesses, and means that some businesses will be priced off the roads.
On the 'cost of roadworks', you cannot compare with a scenario where there are no roadworks, because that cannot exist (at least, not with the road and utilities networks that exist today). Roads need to be dug up for a variety of reasons. You might as well accept that the capacity of the roads network is in fact less than you would predict from the total area under tarmac. It's bad science to assume a 100% efficient system in the face of evidence to the contrary. Of course, that's not to say that roadworks couldn't be scheduled more effectively, but that appears to be a problem that is a lot harder to solve than politicians like Boris Johnson like to think. On that topic, you'll notice in each of my photos above, there are men in fluorescent jackets, which is at odds with the picture that some like to portray of deserted roadworks where no actual work gets done.

What would be a lot more useful, instead of the roads lobby complaining about the fact that the world is not as perfect as we'd like, would be to try to improve the efficiency of road use. Every day, there are thousands of vans, trucks and cars running around empty, taking up valuable roadspace and burning fuel. If the 'load factor' of transport could be improved by even a few percent, that would reduce congestion significantly. With the mobile technologies available today, I don't see any reason why that can't happen, and indeed it already does to an extent, with courier companies.
Also, cycles are a lot more efficient at using roadspace, and can use quiet residential routes without causing problems of congestion, danger, noise and pollution. A lot of journeys could be displaced from cars to cycles, with consequent reductions in congestion, but only with investment to make cycle routes safer. But of course the whingeing road lobby like to pretend that cycles are a problem rather than part of the solution, and pretend instead that a magical kingdom exists where unlimited traffic can flow freely and the streets are paved with gold.

LibDem Manifesto - Cycling

Let's see what the Lib Dems have to offer cyclists.

"We want to improve the experience for the traveller and cut carbon
emissions. We will:
• Include the promotion of safer cycling and pedestrian routes in all
local transport plans."

That's a little more than the other parties, but no target numbers or tangible commitments. Like the others, no acknowedgement of the good cycling could do in reducing congestion and improving road safety and health.

There is at least talk of changing the economics of motoring:

"Undertake preparations for the introduction of a system of road
pricing in a second parliament"

However, a second parliament is likely more than 5 years away.

That's the last of the parties that could form or have much influence in the next Government, and it's pretty clear none of them believe cycling issues are worth more than a passing mention. It's a shame, because the next government will have to get to grips with climate change and a rising oil price. By 2020, the economics of travel may look very different, so we need to start now to be in with a prayer of having a transport system by then that doesn't rely on cheap oil. At least Vince Cable is named after a bicycle part.

Tory Manifesto - Cycling

Sad to report, not much from the Tories either in their 2010 manifesto.I guess there's not enough votes in cycling to merit it.
"We will support sustainable travel initiatives that work best for local communities by:
giving the concerns of cyclists much greater priority..."

Nice words, but no tangible commitments there.

"We will stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras, and switch to more effective ways to make our roads safer, including authorising 'drugalyser' technology..."

The fact is, speed cameras work rather well. Fair enough if it's a move to mobile cameras or average speed cameras, but that's not spelt out, and the implication I detect is they don't take speeding seriously and are after the votes of the many 'victims' of speed cameras. If the Tories think they can do better on road safety with other technologies, they've got to tell us how.

Perhaps the 'big society' initiatives could benefit cyclists, if it enables residential communities to enforce speed limits and cut down on rat-running and antisocial driving. However, it seems likely there won't be any money for infrastructure measures. And of course it could work the other way - there could be communities hostile to cycle infrastructure and cycling that could cause problems.

One last thought: Cameron is a cyclist, as is Boris. My guess is that the rank-and-file Tory party is st best ambivalent and at worst hostile to cycling, but having cyclists at the top of the organization might just make a difference. I used to think that Labour would be the natural party of cycling, but after 13 years there's very little evidence of it.

Commuting - Birdwatching

On my commute ride this morning I saw a yellow wagtail, a lesser spotted woodpecker and a jay; all flew up from the path in front of me. I wasn't on the A24 today in case you were wondering...

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Labour Manifesto - Cycling

What's in the Labour Manifesto for cyclists?

Not a lot.

The word "cycling" doesn't appear once, although the word cycle does - "trebling
the number of secure cycle storage spaces at rail stations". There's a whole chapter entitled "A Green Recovery", but this concentrates on insulation, power generation and recycling. There's no strategy for greening transport; indeed no mention of transport in that chapter beyond "protecting rural bus services".

Chapter 1 addresses transport. It says "Britain needs to invest in modern, high-capacity and low carbon transport infrastructure". However, there is an almost complete disconnect between that sentence and the rest of the chapter. Congestion is tackled by "extending hard-shoulder running on motorways" and "targeted motorway widening". National road pricing is ruled out. Roadworks are targeted by "increasing tenfold the penalties on utilities who allow work to overrun". And of course "we support a third runway at Heathrow" although "we will not allow additional runways to proceed at any other airport". There is a plan "to promote the rapid take-up of electric and  low-carbon cars, we will ensure there are 100,000 electric vehicle charging points by the end of the next Parliament".

As a cycling campaigner, I would be interested in any measures that promote cycling or reduce car-dependency, of which there is an almost complete dearth. In terms of transport, high-speed rail is a good thing but is very long-term. Apart from that, I can't see any measures that promote greener transport. Motorway widening is very expensive; this and hard-shoulder running on motorways will increase traffic levels and ultimately lead to more congestion. I'm not sold on electric cars because they are still cars and don't solve the problems of congestion and road safety. Also, at this point the electricity they run on is in large measure fossil-fuel-generated, so they're not much greener than internal combustion engined cars. If there were a wholesale shift to electric cars, we would need a massive increase in renewable electricity generation to make the cars low-carbon. Charging points isn't enough.

This blog is about cycling so I'm not going to launch my own manifesto here. It does seem a shame that the potential for cycling to reduce congestion, reduce carbon emissions, and promote health has been completely ignored. The government published an Active Travel Strategy, in which it recognises all these benefits, but it doesn't have a plan in its manifesto to realise the vision. Labour has had 13 years in which to demonstrate commitment to cycling, and they've not done anywhere near enough. What are we supposed to conclude, other than that they don't take cycling seriously?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Peak Oil - again

It's interesting to observe the 'Peak Oil' debate, because it is a concern that unites both environmentalists and capitalists. See my previous posts here .

The latest organization to weigh in on the debate is the US Military, who say “By 2012, surplus oil production capacity could entirely disappear, and as early as 2015, the shortfall in output could reach nearly 10 million barrels per day.”

Maybe they're more concerned about the cost of fighting wars than the consequences of climate change, but the consequences of oil shortages on the world economy are very real.

Of course, the usual response in the UK to high fuel prices is to whine about the amount of tax on petrol and the effect on the poor put-upon motorist. This is counter-productive. Reducing the amount of tax on petrol simply puts off the evil day when we're actually going to have to address our over-consumption. It's a bit like giving a new credit card to someone who is heavily in debt.
It would be better to increase fuel taxes as it gives a clear signal to businesses and individuals that they should choose lower-emitting vehicles, drive less and choose more sustainable forms of transport.

Of course, we could wait for the market to do the job for us, but the problems with this are:
1. It takes time for the economy to adapt. If the US Military report is correct, we could have a crisis in 2015. The service life of a vehicle is 10 years plus, so the vehicles we buy today will still be in use in 2020. It will be bad for the economy to have to scrap vehicles 5 years before the end of their life simply because as a country we didn't invest in lower-emitting technologies while we had the chance. Similarly, it will take years to invest in low-oil infrastructure.
2. As the oil price increases, an larger and larger share of our national wealth will be diverted to the oil-producing countries, which are generally not the most savoury regimes.
3. The oil price may not rise in a gradual, smooth, linear manner. A sudden price shock could cause real problems for any economy that is dependent on cheap oil.