Monday, February 28, 2011

Insurance, the Oil Price and Speed Limits

Various news sources report that insurance companies will be prevented from offering lower premiums on grounds of gender. Statistically, young women are safer drivers than young men, so females will lose out most, although the addtional uncertainty may mean premiums rise across the board.
Is this good for road safety? Making driving cheaper for the more dangerous drivers must make the roads a more dangerous place, if it means that drivers who were previously priced off the roads due to being a bad risk can now afford to drive.

However, there are other ways for insurance companies to offer lower premiums. Encouraging advanced training could make for safer drivers, lower risk and lower premiums. The use of 'black box' technology to monitor driving, speed and compliance with the law would make it much easier to sort the careful, law-abiding drivers from those who have simply been lucky not to have crashed. 'Black boxes' would also enable blame for crashes to be determined more accurately, putting an end to criminal 'crash for cash' schemes and reducing the number of 'knock-for-knock' or '50-50' claims where there simply isn't enough evidence to establish blame. As far as I can see, none of the media have reported these possibilities - you would think at a time when motoring costs are spiralling, the public (particularly the safer-driving public) would be interested.

Meanwhile, other reports say 'Killer' Hammond is looking at raising speed limits on motorways to 80mph, on the grounds that quicker journey times may boost the economy.
The economic case cannot be very clear-cut. A higher speed limit may simply mean that vehicles get to the bottlenecks quicker and wait longer, particularly at peak times. A higher speed limit will lead to increased national spend on oil and make the economy more oil-dependent - just at a time when the economy is looking vulnerable in terms of energy security. (That's why Spain is going to cut its motorway speed limit - and cut train fares by 5%). Speed, and in addition the speed difference between vehicles is correlated with higher crash rates and increased severity of injuries. Crashes cost the economy a fortune both in the effect of delays, and in the cost of deaths and injuries.  Lastly, coming neatly back to the first theme, more crashes means higher insurance premiums for all!

At least we should be thankful that Philip Hammond isn't (yet) trying to pretend that this isn't going to affect road safety - according to the Telegraph, he said :
"safety might no longer be the sole consideration in judging how fast cars can go and that gains to the economy from shorter journey times should also be taken into account".

Friday, February 25, 2011

Blackfriars Bridge

Not an area I use much, but there's an awful lot of noise being made about changes to Blackfriars Bridge, which is, like most London bridges, an intimidating and dangerous place if you happen to be on a bike. Ross Lydal sums it up hereCyclists in the City says:

"My reading of this plan is that it's designed to allow cars to travel faster through the junction on more lanes. To make it less convenient for pedestrians. To make cycles part of the traffic flow, where they have to leg it across multiple lanes of relatively faster moving traffic than now."

This has the sniff of yet another scheme where TfL have been blindsided by their failure to understand cycling, or road safety. There are cycling people at TfL, but either they've been asleep on the job or they've not been consulted on a scheme covering one of London's most dangerous junctions. Frankly, this is negligent. According to Cyclists in the City TfL have been forced to extend consultation on the scheme, which means a whole tranche of public money has been wasted getting the design wrong in the first place. It's rather hard to avoid the conclusion that TfL is not fit for purpose when cycling is in the equation - and in central London in 2011, cycling is in the equation everywhere. I suggest this is a governance issue. One gets the impression that TfL is dominated by highways engineers schooled in a car-centric mindset, and public transport people for whom cycles simply get in the way. The Mayor needs to take the bull by the horns and restructure TfL so that the perspective of the cyclist is properly represented in road scheme design. After all, cycles represent 30% + of peak-hour traffic over this particular bridge. As someone commented on the Evening Standard article, perhaps the TfL management and engineers should 'eat their own dog food' and cycle the bridge themselves.

A final thought. Pretty much every London bridge is and intimidating and dangerous place for cyclists. I can't think of a single one that has anything other than a nod in the direction of accomodating cycles. Vauxhall at least has some attempt on the south side to help cyclists across the junction but it's some way from being satisfactory, and the southbound cycle lane is dangerously narrow. Lambeth Bridge has dangerous gyratories at both ends and a pathetically narrow cycle lane that's often blocked. Westminster is not too bad once you're on the bridge (barring the usual ice-cream van blocking the lane) but both north and south ends have problematic junctions. Waterloo is usually blocked on the north side in morning rush, and the Aldwych is a scary place, while the southern gyratory is lethal if you're southbound. For many cyclists, there is no choice but to use one of these bridges. Given the appalling record of cyclist injuries at every one of these bridges, you would think that improving the safety record of at least one would be a priority. But for TfL, cycle safety always seems to get trumped by traffic flow.

Cycle Superhighway 8 - Progress

An update on part of CSH#8.

This is Macduff Road, Wandsworth, near Battersea Park:

As you can see, no continuous blue lane here. Just the blue "elephant's footprints". Is this likely to improve conditions for cycling? It's really the bare minimum they could do: I suppose it might make motorists a little more aware of the presence of cyclists. They could have made the road access-only for motors and blocked off the junctions you can see on either side. Currently, there's danger from cars emerging from these side roads, and danger from overtaking motors (although to be fair this is a fairly quiet road).

Above, at the end of Macduff Road, you need to make a right-turn onto Prince of Wales Drive. They could change the priority of the junction so that the Cycle Superhighway has priority over vehicles on Prince of Wales Drive, but they haven't done. So it remains a dangerous junction, especially bearing in mind that cars can turn right into Macduff Road.

Above, once you're on Prince of Wales Drive, there are these speed cushions. Speed cushions do a poor job of traffic calming, distract both drivers and cyclists and encourage both drivers and cyclists to take an incorrect or unsafe line. As a cyclist, you're likely to get squeezed into the 'dooring zone' by an overtaking vehicle. Will TfL/Wandsworth be replacing these or lowering the speed limit? Call me cynical but I suspect not.

Above - Prince of Wales Drive. Again, TfL have elected for the blue CSH logos, rather than put in a proper lane. They could have made the road one-way for motors and given the other lane to the CSH. Oh well. Bear in mind that traffic is generally a problem in morning commute time - you'll usually see a long line of eastbound traffic, so cyclists will be forced either to filter to the left of the traffic (in the 'dooring zone') or on the right, into oncoming traffic. Hardly confidence-inspiring for the novice cyclist, and not safe.

To sum up, hopefully TfL aren't done yet and will remedy all the safety defects on this part of the CSH#8 route...but if CSH#7 is the benchmark, I somehow think they aren't going to bother.

Trouble with the Law

Riding in today, I got off my bike in Storey's gate, and walked it along the pavement, as the road is currently blocked by roadworks.

There were two PCSOs walking in the same direction. As I passed them, one of them stopped me and said, "You can't ride on the pavement - you can get done for that". "I am aware of that", I replied. "You just jumped off," he responded. This was untrue. I'd got off at the start of the pavement. He couldn't have known whether I had or hadn't, as he'd had his back to me.

It so happens I'm not in the habit of breaking the law. I don't think society works too well when people pick and choose the laws they obey, and people doing that is one of the reasons the roads are as dangerous as they are.

This is not an anti-police blog. I think most police do a difficult job under difficult circumstances. But I don't appreciate being accused of something I haven't done. Unfortunately, minor though this incident was, it's illustrative of a pattern of behaviour in law enforcement that is not helpful. As a cyclist the perception is that on the one hand the justice system is very obstructive and dismissive when you're a victim of a crime (see Martin Porter's blog or this for details), and on the other hand you're disproportionately targeted for minor infractions (between January and November 2010, the Metropolitan Police Service and City of London Police together issued over 10,500 FPNs to cyclists) and in my case unjustly accused. I have no problem with the police ticketing cyclists, as long as the enforcement is not selectively targeting one group of road users over another, and the behaviour of all road users is subject to an equal degree of scrutiny. This appears not to be the case.

Law enforcement depends in no small part on the trust of the community. It's pretty easy to lose that trust if you don't treat every member of the community in an even-handed way. When that trust is lost, people are less likely to come forward as witnesses or co-operate with the police for fear of being accused, and they're perhaps more likely to take the law into their own hands. Those in charge would do well to remember that.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Cycling is Bad for You

The Mail today trumpets "Why cycling to work is one of the biggest causes of heart attacks".

This has to be one of the worst pieces of pseudo-scientific misreporting ever written. It's bad, even by Daily Mail standards. Hang your head in shame, Jenny Hope, go to the back of the class and write out a hundred times, "Myocardial infarction".

The study they are referring to studies the trigger, or 'final straw' that brings on a heart attack, not the cause of it, duh. The underlying cause likely to be lack of excercise and poor diet,  in some cases in combination with genetic factors, which is why cycling combined with a healthy diet massively lowers your risk of a heart attack.  The study identifies triggering factors such as stress, pollution and excercise.The summary of the study here does not even mention cycling. The Mail makes an assumption that because cycling involves excercise, and can expose you to pollution and stress, it is therefore risky. If you spent your life binging on burgers and beer, watching telly and smoking and then took up cycling just before your arteries finally clogged up for good, it could bring on a heart attack, but it's a heart attack you would likely have had anyway sooner or later.

It is worth pointing out that the study identified air pollution as a significant factor, adding to the existing evidence of health effects. I hope Boris is taking notice.

The Guardian has picked up on this story. I wonder if they read this blog?

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Another Hard-to-Reach Docking Station

Below is the Cycle Hire docking station in Lower Marsh, near Waterloo.

Lower Marsh is a nice, quiet road ideal in many ways for cycling. Unfortunately, there is a no-entry further down the road at the junction with Frazier Street. If you are cycling from the Waterloo end, you have no choice but to cycle down Frazier Street, and turn right (a tricky manoeuvre) onto Baylis Road. Baylis Road has a decent cycle lane, but it leads to a junction with Westminster Bridge Road and Kennington Road, which has to rank among the scariest in London. Not only that, but right-turns are banned. (There's an exception for buses, but no mention of cycles, so I think technically you'd be breaking the law by making a right turn there). ns

So if you want to return your bike to Lower Marsh, you're forced to continue into Kennington Road and make a dicey right turn into Hercules Road. Forget about turning right into Centaur Street, that's a no-entry, so continue to Virgil Street. You might not fancy Virgil Street at night by the way, because it is effectively a narrow dark tunnel. If you don't get mugged then you'll turn right into Carlisle Street. This will take you back to Westminster Bridge Road, which you cannot cross to get back to Lower Marsh (unless you dismount). Realistically speaking, you will dismount and walk across the pelican crossing, however let's stick with the rules and say we have to cycle within the law rather than walk, which means you have to turn left into Westminster Bridge Road, go all the way round the York Road gyratory (a truly pant-wetting experience) and back up Westminster Bridge Road the way you came, and make a left into Lower Marsh. (Perhaps you could make a U-turn on Westminster Bridge Road, but that would be difficult and dangerous to accomplish).

So, in order to cycle legally, instead of cycling 100 metres west down Lower Marsh, you've had to take a detour of 1.5km. Is this a record? Remember, all these one-way restrictions are only there to stop motor vehicles getting in each others' way and keep the city from gridlock. There's no merit in applying them to cycles. Having introduced the Cycle Hire scheme, it really is time the Mayor faced up to the fact that London won't be a cycling city until the road system is designed as though cyclists exist.

UPDATE: I'd previously suggested there were no one-way signs on Lower Marsh - these seem to have been added since the Google Streetview pictures were taken. There's now a pair at the junction with Westminster Bridge Road.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Fatal Collisions

A recent question to the Mayor of London:

Andrew Boff
‘In light of the recent tragic death of Gary Mason in Sutton, should we be concerned by the recent statement from a leading barrister that “excuses of not seeing cyclists seem to be too readily accepted by the police and the CPS”?’

Written answer from the Mayor
No. The police take all fatal collisions investigations seriously. In every fatal collision investigation the police gather all the available evidence so that if there is any culpability by a third party, then the police would be in a good position to mount an effective prosecution.

Oh really?
The following is not a cycling case, but it's fairly typically of the treatment of vulnerable road users by the justice system. Look at what happened when Kristina Sporbeck was run down and killed in Knightsbridge. Witnesses said the driver Ali Megerisi was driving at "high speed", "It was like when you have a police car chasing someone. What struck me as well as the speed was the sound of the engine going into another gear." The driver was charged with careless driving but the case was dropped. The coroner described the case as "simply a tragic accident".

Does this sound like effective prosecution to you? If you're the family of the victim in a case like this you will likely be left with a deep sense of injustice that the killer didn't even need to appear in court to account for his actions.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Middle East Unrest and Petrol Prices

With news of more unrest in the Middle East and particularly Libya, the Brent Crude future price benchmark has jumped 5.6% to over $108/barrel.

So now would be a good time for the Government to give some relief to hard-pressed motorists by postponing some of the upcoming fuel duty increase, right?

Probably not. Because although it would give a short-term reduction in petrol prices, what we're seeing today is likely to be only a prelude to a decade of increasing oil prices. Reducing fuel duty, as well as making a big hole in the public finances, would give the signal that the current troubles are only a bit of choppy water, and in a few months we'll be back in the calm seas of cheap oil again and we can go out and buy more Range Rovers. While $108/barrel is a recent high, and UK retail petrol prices are at record highs, crude itself is still some way below the historic price high and many observers believe it will go significantly higher.

The Government really needs to get the message across that although a rising oil price is not a certainty, it is a good bet, and there are serious downside risks if we fail to prepare adequately for it. The simple fact is oil-dependency is bad for the economy. The best way to defend against the damage high oil prices will bring is to become less dependent on oil - to use less of it, by buying more economical vehicles and by driving less. If we do so, we'll have a competitive economy. If we don't, oil will be a millstone around the neck of the economy, depressing consumer demand, sucking wealth out of the country and saddling industry with increased costs. A government that can claim to good economic stewardship would not be afraid to give the message that people don't want to hear - that petrol prices will carry on going up and we'd better get used to it. The Government are quite happy enough to impose pain in the name of deficit reduction. Unfortunately, they've nailed their colours to the 'war on the motorist' agenda in pursuit of short-term political gain. They've protrayed motoring as a benign freedom to be enjoyed without Government interference. Right now however we're finding out that motoring has the power to sink the economy, as people stuck with long commutes in thirsty cars have to cut back their spending to fund their oil dependency.

Cycle Superhighway 7 - Cycle Numbers

Here's a couple of pictures of CSH #7 on a weekday morning around 8am, near Oval station.

Notice a couple of things about these pictures. First, you'll see cyclists don't restrict themselves to staying in the blue lane, partly because there are so many cyclists they don't all fit. So if this were a segregated lane, you'd get problems with cyclists trying to overtake. Second, and relatedly, there are a lot of cyclists compared to motor vehicles. A brief count revealed that there are indeed more cycles than motor vehicles (ignoring powered two-wheelers).

So when TfL talk about 'balancing transport modes', they need to realise that cyclists are not a tiny minority, and the current balance in terms of roadspace, safety and spending is skewed towards motor vehicles in a way that is totally disproportionate to their numbers, on roads such as this one. Why is it that TfL allow a single parked vehicle to jeopardize the safety of a large number of road users - the most vulnerable - on this road? Why do TfL design junctions with the needs of only one section of road users in mind, and ignore the safety of the others? At peak times, why does TfL think 'traffic flow' matters most for the vehicles that have the most deleterious effect on traffic flow, and doesn't matter at all for everyone else?

Southampton Street Docking Station

Near to Covent Garden, this new docking station is one of the continuous program of additions to the Cycle Hire network.

Unfortunately, there is no program of making the neaby streets safer or more usable for cyclists. From this docking station, there is almost nowhere you can legally cycle. You cannot cycle onto The Strand (although you could dismount and wheel the bike across the pavement). You cannot turn left into Maiden Lane or right into Tavistock Street, which means you have to continue to Covent Garden, where you are forced to turn left into Henrietta Street. This means that if you wanted to cycle to the London Transport Museum, a mere 100m away, the shortest legal route (without dismounting) is 1km long.

That's partly because Westminster Council would rather no-one cycled, and partly because Boris is seemingly more concerned with the headline effect of his policies rather than how well they work in reality.

Pavement Parking Blitz ?

Various news sources have Norman Baker announcing action against pavement parking. The Sun characterizes this as a 'blitz', but true to the 'localism' agenda all the initiative does is makes it easier for local authorities to enforce against it by making the laegal situation more consistent across the country. Whether they will or not is another question.

The Sun has it wrong it its report, which says "Pavement parking is already banned in London."  The reality is pavement parking is allowed in many London streets, and in others, councils such as Merton have a policy of tolerating it, even though it can damage footways and services underneath them. In addition, it makes walking less pleasant, can cause an obstruction, and has the effect of urbanizing the public realm and making streets less attractive for communities. It's a shame that local councils don't take pavement parking more seriously, and evidence from London is that Norman Baker's measures won't get them to take action.

Cycling on the South Bank

It appears the 'no cycling' signs on the South Bank will be removed, according to LCC.

Lambeth Council reportedly said:

we have decided to replace the 'No Cycling' signs with the following: 'Pedestrian Priority. Considerate Cycling Welcomed'

 This is likely a step forward, because it legitimises the previous arrangement where cycling was legal but due to the absence of signs and pedestrians' ignorance of the law, conflict could arise between cyclists and pedestrians who thought they shouldn't be cycling. Hat-tip to everyone who lobbied for the change, and to Lambeth for taking an enightened view (albeit belatedly).

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Record London Transport Use

The number of people travelling on London's Tube and bus service will hit an all-time high of 3.4 billion a year, the Standard reports.

Which raises the question of how the public transport network will cope, given funding constraints.

One way the network can cope better is by making more efficient use of roadspace. Right now, congestion charge aside, it's a free-for-all, and the congestion on the roads is caused by low-occupancy, large-footprint vehicles, by which I mean vehicles that takes up a lot of roadspace relative to passenger numbers. A bus, assuming a good load factor, makes good use of roadspace because although it is large, it has a lot of passengers. The same is true of trams. Although a cycle is a single-occupancy vehicle (most of the time), it requires relatively little roadspace, so again, it is efficient. At the other end of the spectrum, you have cars and taxis. A fully-loaded taxi carrying five passengers is a reasonably efficient use of roadspace, but typically the load factor (i.e. number of passengers) for London taxis is close to 1, making them low-occupancy, large-footprint. Cars are the least efficient: again the typical load factor is close to 1. (I'm only considering passenger vehicles here: goods vehicles are another discussion).

A good business person will strive to do more with less: to make more efficient use of their assets, and to deploy them more effectively. In road transport terms, to do more with less means increasing the average occupancy per unit of roadspace, while not increasing journey times.

If road congestion is reduced, buses run faster, and each bus can make more journeys, increasing revenue, average fuel consumption goes down and the passengers get to their destinations faster. Happy days! Buses can't get around quickly if the bus lanes are full of stationary taxis, which is the case on The Strand pretty much every day. To make bus journeys faster and more efficient, you need to get the low-occupancy, large-footprint vehicles out of the way: in other words, prioritize buses over them.

Cycling also makes very efficient use of roadspace. Not only do you get around 7-10 times as many cycles per square metre of roadspace than motor vehicles, but cyclists can use backroads without causing noise and air pollution or significantly intimidating pedestrians. When motors use backroads, it's called rat-running, and it significantly degrades neighborhoods, causing noise-nuisance and danger. It damages businesses too - no-one wants to have dinner at a cafe where there's noise and diesel fumes. Cyclists can get through bottleneck junctions much more effectively than motor vehicles.  You could increase the number of cyclists on central London streets by an order of manitude using existing roadspace: it would be impossible to increase the number of motors without massive cost, and at the price of degrading Londoners' quality of life and making the city a lot less pleasant for visitors.Therefore, it makes sense to encourage cycling as a way of leveraging existing roads more effectively: however, this is difficult to do when the presence of motor traffic pretty much everywhere is discouraging people from cycling.

There are some pretty stark choices facing us in London. Right now, there are few controls on low-occupancy, large-footprint vehicles, and London is a congested city because of them. The ubiquitous presence of motor traffic is sufficiently intimidating to force many people not to cycle, which puts a greater burden on the bus and tube network. But buses are made slower and more expensive by congestion. In an ideal world, with unlimited space and money, we could build more roads and everyone could drive everywhere. In the real world, we've got a choice between allowing the choices of a very few people to damage the smooth, efficient running of the city's transport, or to start making the best use of the resources and roadspace we've got.

Boris Bike Blues - Part the Second

For a lunchtime thrill, and to blow away the cobwebs accumulated by sitting at a desk all morning, I ventured out for a quick Tour de Londres astride a hire bike. At the William IV Street dock, I had a couple of 'refusals', the red light coming on, before successfully releasing a bike. Then off round Trafalgar Square, through Admiralty Arch and onto the well-hidden off-road route along The Mall and up Constitution Hill. Then across Hyde Park Corner and intoHyde Park itself, again along the lovely off-road path. There are lots of hire bikes being ridden here, and indeed lots of docking stations - 11 or so, with more immediately outside the park itself. Unfortunately, with the last sands of my 30 minutes trickling away, all the docking stations were full - Kensington Gore, Queen's Gate, Queen's Gate North, Palace Gate. At the Palace Gate dock, I tried to push the 'Docking Station Full' button on the docking station computer screen, but it was greyed-out. I imagine the docking station didn't think it was full, perhaps because someone hadn't docked a bike properly. This is quite simply poor software design. The display should have indicated which docking points were free, or at least displayed a message indicating that there were free docking points, instead of leaving the user to guess what was going on. I didn't have time to check sixteen bikes so I rode swiftly (well, as swiftly as is possible on a 23kg bike) back to Queen's Gate, where the docking station was more agreeable and gave me another 15 minutes. I docked the bike finally at Albert Gate, and walked down to Hyde Park Corner to pick up another for the return journey. Again, I got four 'refusals', before a fellow-rider docked a bike that I was able to take back out.

From my experience over the last few days, there is a definite problem with 'stuck bikes'. I don't think there's a problem with my key. Why does this problem arise? Maybe the bikes or docking points are faulty and not being fixed. I can't believe significant numbers of people are maliciously reporting the bikes faulty when they are not. Whatever the cause, it's a significant annoyance, confusing for the newcomer, and if you're relying on the bikes to get you around, a real problem.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Pedal While You Work?

The BBC reports:

Portable pedal machines could be used in every office to improve the health of workers, according to scientists in the US. 
Charity Weight Concern said improving the health of workers would also benefit employers' bottom lines.
Now researchers at East Carolina University are investigating mini exercise bikes, which can be used while sat at a desk.
The researchers said: "Portable pedal machines may serve as a tool to reduce sedentary times in the work environment without necessarily influencing the sitting time necessary for performing computer-related tasks."

Meanwhile, the Chief Scientist at the Cycalogical Institute for the Bleedin' Obvious reported that:

"Pedal machines could be used to improve the health of workers, and can be used while travelling to their desk in the morning! They can be used as a tool to reduce sedentary time, without influencing the sitting time necessary for performing computer-related tasks."

Maybe researchers at East Carolina University should get out more...

Boris Bike - First Time Lucky

After yesterday's kerfuffle, getting the finger from four docked cycles and two docking stations before finally releasing a blue steed, today's cycle hire ride in from Oval was a lot smoother. I arrived earlier, and at 8:05am there were a good ten bikes still at the Kenningotn Road docking station. Spoilt for choice, I squeezed the tyres and spun the wheels on a few bikes before selecting a mount, which released first time. I discovered a previously unnoticed feature on the bike - a kickstand. The stand is made out of the kind of steel normally used for scaffolding poles, which it needs to be to support the massive bulk of the bike. It's rather handly and avoids trying to support the bike upright while trying to juggle your cycle hire key , bag and any other personal possessions, while adjusting the saddle to the correct elevation. On that subject, some of the bikes are starting to show their age. The seatpost on today's model had the scale completely worn away, so it took a bit of guesswork and trial-and-error to get a comfortable level. I discovered that if you set the seat a little lower, the shape of the saddle allows you to sit a bit further back on the bike, which I prefer.

I am really starting to enjoy riding the bike, with all its faults. The beast weighs more than a Barclays banker's wallet at bonus time. Shifting the considerable bulk gives you a really good workout. Pedalling over Lambeth Bridge, a relatively gentle slope I would sail over on my old MTB (which tips the scales more like  Frank Bruno than Frankie Dettori), is a real lung-buster on the Boris Bike. The gears are a real pain - you can't easily operate the shifter while using the brakes, shifting under load is hit-or-miss, and first gear is completely useless, giving you two usable ratios. The front brakes seem to be a toss-up: yesterday's bike would stop fine given a good squeeze on the lever, but today's displayed a considerable reluctance to slow down. The drivetrains seem to be universally noisy. But despite all that, it's fun. It's not really like conventional cycling, and there's a sense that you don't get treated like a cyclist by other road users.

When I arrived at Charing Cross, at an empty docking station, a be-suited 'vulture' was waiting to pounce, helmet in hand. "Do you usually get a bike here?" I enquired. "No. Very rare," he replied. "Usually have to walk down there, " he lamented, pointing towards the Northumberland Avenue dock. So I made somebody happy.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Boris Bike Blues - Fifth Time Lucky

I wanted grab a hire bike at the Oval today, so I strolled up to the Kennington Road docking station. Empty. Darn. So, on up Kennington Road to the Kennington Cross dock. One solitary 'blue barge'. Stick in the key...the dreaded red light. Try again...same thing. Give up on that one, so down to Sancroft Street. A good few bikes here. First bike - again the red light! Second bike - a brief green flash and then red. Third bike - finally, the green light: success!

The 'traffic light' system on the docking station is not very well-designed. There's no information as to why you get the red light. It could be your key is faulty, your account is locked out, the bike is faulty, the docking station is faulty or out of just have to try again with another bike. I've seen stories that you get a red light if the bike has been reported faulty. However this seems strange - you would think there would be a flashing red light so you don't bother trying that bike. I've logged an enquiry (the web site spells this 'enquery') - we'll see what the response is like...

Within a couple of hours I got a phone call from the Cycle Hire people. The representative said that getting a red light could mean there was a fault with the docking station, or the cycle could be 'stuck in the system'. Hmmm...not sure what to make of that.

Cycling in the City

Ross Lydall reports on the demand for cycling in the City. He reports the City of London Corporation saying the area is short of 27,000 bike parking spaces. In other words, more people would cycle to work if there were more bike parking. Office buildings have waiting lists for bike parking. The Cyclists in the City blog reports that cycle traffic over London's bridges exceeds car traffic in peak hours going into the city, which is something this blog had previously remarked on in respect of other parts of London.

It seems that demand can only go one way: as public transport prices increase, more people will turn to cycling. And that's only half the story, as there is another massive tranche of unmet demand from people who would cycle if safer infrastructure were provided.

Meanwhile, there are reports that increasing obesity levels, fuelled by sedentary lifestyles, could bankrupt the NHS. You would think that politicians eager to cut public spending would jump at the chance of reducing NHS spending and improve public health into the bargain, but cycling seems to have wrong-footed them. They and their transport planners are stuck in a "roads-are-for-cars" mindset that belongs to the last century. They don't know what to do. They have previously been insisting that there must be a balance between different transport modes. It's clear that the balance is all wrong - it favours a transport mode that is dangerous, polluting congesting, and discriminates against a transport mode that is largely benign and offers a much more efficient use of roadspace. Now clearly you can't get rid of all motor traffic. Businesses need to move goods and equipment, and there are some journeys that need to be done by car. But there's also an awful lot of car and taxi journeys that could equally well be done by public transport - or indeed by cycling.

An enlightened government would see an opportunity here to create a city that values the health and quality of life of its citizens, that prioritizes the free movement of the maximum number of people and goods, while balancing the need to tackle air quality and noise pollution. Unfortunately, looking at the LIPs that have been produced by the City and other boroughs, there are optimistic targets for cycling, which aren't matched by political commitment.The LIPs do very little about the free-for-all on the roads, where cyclists are intimidated by larger, faster-moving vehicles, and unable to park when they reach their destination. Car-centric ideology continues to hold sway over evidence-based policy making.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Cycling in Sydney

Sydney is a city with a temperate climate. It's motor-dominated, and has a low cycling modal share (less than 2% of total trips in 2006). Like London, 80% of survey respondants cited traffic danger as a reason for not cycling. In cycling terms, Sydney is a lot more like London than Amsterdam.

The Sydney authorities though have big plans:

  • Increase the number of bicycle trips made in the City of Sydney, as a percentage of total trips, from less than 2% in 2006 to 5% by 2011, and to 10% by 2016;
  • Increase the number of bicycle trips between 2 and 20 km made in the City of Sydney, as a percentage of total trips to 20% by 2016;
  • Achieve a minimum 80% good level of confidence and comfort for cyclists that ride in the City of Sydney by 2016; and
  • Measure and monitor the number of collisions and injuries involving bicycles and achieve a reduction in the number of incidents.  
 Unlike London, Sydney's targets are more ambitious (compare 20% of trips by 2016 with Boris's 5% modal share by 2025). Unlike London, they have a prayer of actually achieving the targets, because they are building 55km of segregated cycleways. Sydney is not spending a huge amount of money ($76M (£48M) over 4 years, for a population of 4.5M), but they are spending it wisely, on segregated cycleways like this one:

The path below looks good, but it's a shared path and in rush hour there's a significant amount of foot traffic. But the key is that would be cyclists are afraid of cars, not pedestrians.

There's problems of course. Hard-core Lycra cyclists aren't over-keen on the shared paths or the segregated cycleways. The junctions have separate cycle lights, slowing progress, and left-turning traffic has to turn across the cycle lane which can cause crashes (see below). And the 'war on the motorist' lobby is kicking against the strategy.

So why doesn't London do this? We've spent £23M - that's half Sydney's budget - on the first two Cycle Superhighways. It's pretty clear that the infrastructure you see above is much more likely to get parents cycling with their kids than blue lanes with parked cars on one side and fast-moving traffic on the other. Sydney isn't directly comparable to London of course, but it is proof that a car-dominated city can turn over roadspace to cycling.

My bet is a city that has a can-do attitude to promoting cycling is a lot more likely to succeed than a city that pussyfoots around the anti-cycling lobby.We'll see in a few years how successful Sydney's approach is compared to London's.