Thursday, January 26, 2012

Euston - We Have a Problem

You know that thing where your partner comes home and you know s/he's had a haircut, but you can't tell the difference? Or it looks a little bit worse than it did before, but you know that a lot of expense has gone into it so you don't like to whinge too much?

Well, it's a bit like that with TfL's latest 'improvements' to Euston Circus, where Tottenham Court Road meets the Euston Road. Currently, this is about the busiest, most complex junction you could imagine. It has a lane for every day of the week in each direction.

TfL are taking out lanes at the junctions, widening pavements, and simplifying the junction for pedestrians. What they're not doing is making it any easier or safer for cyclists. In fact, if anything it's worse.

Let's take a quick look through the blurb:

"Euston Circus is dominated by road traffic..."

No shit, Sherlock.

"...and with increasing numbers of pedestrians and cyclists using the area, these designs will provide a significant improvement for existing users and for the anticipated growth in the number of users in the future."

By users, presumably you mean drivers? Cuz there ain't nothing new here for cyclists, beyond a couple of advance stop boxes that will a) be full of cars most of the time and b) be difficult to get into because two of the three have no approach lanes, and c) there's the same amount of traffic crammed into fewer lanes than before. How does that add up to an improvement?

"The Mayor’s vision for improving public spaces in London will ensure that our streets, squares, parks and green and water spaces are fit for a great world city, are enjoyed by everyone who visits them and most importantly, help improve the quality of life in the capital."

Enjoy? Quality of life? You can't use those phrases in the same sentence as "Euston Road". This is the most polluted place in the most polluted city in developed Europe!

"The key objectives of this scheme are to deliver improved facilities for pedestrians and cyclists, whilst minimising the impact on motorised traffic including buses."

Ah yes. I thought there was a catch. Now there's some improvements for pedestrians. The pavements are wider, so they can be lonely as well as depressed. There are fewer crossings, so they can get away from this brutal assault on the senses a bit quicker. They'll be able to get to University College Hospital more conveniently to get their lung conditions treated. But for cyclists, there isn't anything worthwile...because of the overarching priority of traffic flow.

Remember Kulveer Ranger's words, calling for "a step change in the way engineers think when planning road layouts. Historically our roads have been designed with motorists in mind. But that must change and the Mayor intends that with thousands more Londoners taking to two wheels their needs be given greater consideration than ever before."  That fell on deaf ears then.

Nothing short of proper Dutch-style paths will attract new cyclists to Euston Circus. But if that's not on the agenda then at least there should be measures to ensure cyclists who do use the junction are safe? Well, there aren't any. Bear in mind that a cyclist has to cross the Euston Road at some point if they are going north-south, and there aren't a lot of options. If you work in let's say Fitzrovia and you live in Kentish Town, that would be an ideal cyclable distance. But the prospect of Euston Circus will be enough to put  Lance Armstrong off cycling. Is it that unreasonable to expect to be able to cross a junction - a junction that is impossible to avoid without taking an unreasonable detour - by bike in safety? TfL think so, which is why they come up with crap like this, and they justify it with their usual bleating about traffic flow (cyclists aren't traffic you see, they just get in the way). Crap that is supposed to cope with "anticipated growth" in cycling, but whose only effect will be to crush London's aspirations for healthier, greener and cheaper transport between two lanes of fast-moving traffic.

Let them know your views.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Parliament Square

Gosh, it's all about Parliament Square at the moment. The protesters have been kicked out, and according to Colin Barrow, Westminster's soon-to-be-ex leader, it's great that everything's back to normal:

"For too long local people and tourists have been unable to fully enjoy the square. This is a tragedy and the sooner this historic site can be enjoyed by the public the better."

And Boris chimed in:

"I think it was high time that a world heritage site was properly protected from what was basically vandalism, and it had become an eyesore... you can't have the continual desecration of a world heritage site."

"Historic, world heritage site": this poetic language conjures up images of medieval castles, moats, tranquility, children buying wooden swords and plastic helmets lovingly made in a Chinese sweatshop. In short, exactly what the Gothic-revival architects had in mind.

And now the area has its own bike hire docking station.  Councillors overruled their own officials, who had suggested that the blue bikes would be harmful to the "character and appearance of the Westminster Abbey and Parliament Square conservation area and to the setting of the Palace of Westminster and Westminster Abbey world heritage site."

Hang on. Am I missing something? Heritage? Character? Setting? Enjoyed by the public? Is this the same place described by the Hansard Society in its report "A Place for People" as "a national disgrace"  in which  "the public appears only to be tolerated?" The report goes on, "what should be one of the world’s greatest civic spaces is a noisy, polluted, inaccessible place, seething with traffic and pedestrians and pockmarked by fortress-like security."

Goodness. You'd never have thought it. And it's nothing new.

"Parliament Square has never really been an open, accessible, public space. Its size and
shape has altered over the years but the prioritisation of traffic over people has been a
constant theme..."
In the 1930s, the police opposed taking down the railings around the square, suggesting that an "open square would only be useful for vagrants and, ‘in my view, the removal of
these railings would attract a most undesirable, unclean person to this spot’. In addition,
he feared children might treat the square as a playground."

Bloody hell!

"As the Square was largely used as a crossing point some police officers were concerned that when guiding traffic, it would become difficult to manage pedestrians crossing at new points if access was more open. Others expressed fears about the prospect of large numbers of people being able to
congregate outside Parliament, thereby causing a nuisance."

Ah, but that was the 1930s. Attitudes are much more enlightened today. It's not all about guiding traffic's about traffic flow. Boris Johnson rejected the redevelopment of Parliament Square because of "the potential impact on traffic." Thank goodness we have a Mayor whose commitment to a World Heritage site is such that he continues to let visitors enjoy it in the comfort of a car. The last thing we want is our precious heritage being taken over by a large number of undesirable, unclean pedestrians, smelly cyclists and children. They'd probably bring tents and folding chairs and stuff, and then we'd be back to where we started with those protesters. This kind of thing is exactly what would happen if the World Squares project went ahead and pedestrianized the south side of the square and brought traffic restrictions on Abingdon Street, which our dear Mayor has fought against. Thank God for St Boris, for saving this England, this green and pleasant land!

[All stand for the National Anthem]

Monday, January 23, 2012

West End Commission

Contrite Conservative councillor Lee Rowley - who declared War on the Motorist in Westminster and lost - is desparately trying to surrender whilst hanging onto his job, and the Standard has very graciously given him a platform to plead his case. "Getting parking right in the heart of London is difficult...we have listened", he wheedles. In the same way that you listen when someone threatens to punch your lights out for taking their parking space, rather than the open-minded, democratic consultative type of listening. Strangely enough it's this latter type of listening that the newly spot-free leopard Rowley is now proposing. About bloody time, you might say.

"We have announced a new beginning - the West End Commission. We want groups, business owners and individuals, for and against our parking plans, to join us in an honest, open debate...[to] give a strong, fresh and independent perspective. We will invite a range of people, from the Standard's editor" (aha! No wonder they've given him a column) "to representatives of London's cabbies, to help us with that work." Cyclists as well perhaps? Strangely, cycling seems to have slipped Rowley's mind, as the word doesn't appear once in his article. Thankfully he hasn't forgotten cabbies though - which is a good job seeing as they're responsible for a very substantial contribution to central London traffic. I'm sure they'd be happy to see congestion reduced as long as they continue to have free rein on the West End's streets. Unfortunately though, it's going to be rather difficult to address congestion and improve the public realm without reducing the number of cab journeys.

On the other hand, retailers would like to see more car-free days because they boost sales. But of course if you close roads you create congestion...unless you have a strategy to reduce demand - something Westminster has never been good at. Does this mark a turning point? I very much doubt it. I don't think they want to learn lessons from European cities that manage their roads for the benefit of all, not just a small number of drivers. Westminster want to reduce congestion, but only because it is a symptom of their failure to manage the roads properly. But they're still trying to figure out a way of reducing congestion without limiting car use. Have you spotted the flaw yet? Their only hope is the closure of the Straits of Hormuz sending oil prices skyrocketing...and with supreme irony, HMS Westminster is on its way to stop that happening.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Westminster Parking and Congestion

When Westminster Council first proposed their scheme to charge for night-time parking, this blog commented that they were doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. They were hiding their fiscal acquisitiveness under a fig-leaf of concern for congestion - and bear in mind they opposed the original London congestion charge.

Westminster has now backed away from the proposal, following a storm of opposition. This shows both the best and the worst sides of democracy: on the one hand, the ability of people to influence politicians even in safe constituencies, and on the other hand, the failure to get to grips with problems whereever the solution threatens vested interests. In China, they can do this kind of thing.

Westminster now say "a commission will be set up to look at new ways of tackling congestion". There have been people suggesting that congestion isn't a problem in Westminster at night. Well, I was there at 10:30PM on Friday, and there was gridlock in Chandos Place and traffic backed up all along the Strand.

It's pretty clear that trying to tackle congestion by limiting supply is going to be politically problematic: that's why all political parties (with the notable exception of the Greens) are shy of even discussing road-pricing. That's partly because the media won't allow a sensible debate: they always reduce the issue to the lowest common denominator, the short-term effect on the individual motorist, and ignore the fact that the current situation is hardly ideal for anyone.

What Westminster have done wrong is their proposal looked like the persecution of ordinary people to subsidize the council tax of Westminster residents. Poorly-paid night workers who couldn't afford to live in Westminster, paying a huge stealth tax. That was the narrative, anyway. And the West End would supposedly have become a ghost-town at night, theatres and restaurants empty because people couldn't afford the parking charges. So poor workers, rich business people and middle-income customers were united.

However, none of this changes the fact that while cars may bring people and business into central London, but they also damage business and make the city a much less attractive place. There are many London cafes and restaurants with tables outside. Those tables aren't a very attractive proposition if you're breathing in diesel fumes, shouting to make yourself heard over the traffic noise, and getting bumped from time to time by pedestrians who are squeezed onto a narrow strip of pavement. The pavement has to be narrow so the cars have enough space to park while allowing free traffic flow.

Meanwhile, we have London's most under-used asset: the bike hire scheme. It costs £15M/year to run, but only brings in less than £3M. Most people don't use the scheme because they don't think cycling is safe in London. But here's something a little surprising: only 15% of those who actually use the scheme think it's safe, according to a leaked TfL internal document. It seems that people like the concept, they like the idea of a fun, healthy, fast way of getting around. They report niggles to do with poor software and unavailability of bikes and docks, but the main downside is the lack of safety and the fact that "London is not a cycling city" (only 21% of cycle hire scheme members think it is, nearly 4 years into a Cycling Revolution). That's because it's a motoring city - or it would be if the roads system wasn't so manifestly unsuitable for motoring: it's a city that aspires to be a motoring city, but will never make it.

If Westminster want to develop a credible plan for tacking congestion, they first need to acknowledge the problems that traffic brings to the area.  They need to focus on the positive things that less traffic would bring to the city; on the benefits for business, employment and quality of life. Or the increased transport choice for the vast majority who don't drive in the centre of the capital: faster buses, unhindered by congestion, and cycle hire being a realistic choice for those without nerves of steel. B But such concepts are anathema to the Tories, who don't like the idea of any restraints on motoring, from bus lanes to speed cameras. They are ideologically wedded to the motor car and they don't like the idea of cycling becoming more of a problem than it already is.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pyramid Schemes

A pyramid scheme is a non-sustainable business venture that although it promises participants something of value, doesn't of itself generate any value and instead relies on new entrants to the scheme to provide the value to those already enrolled. So the goal is to recruit new members rather than to generate value, although some business activities may be performed along the way.

Some schemes rely on recruits to sell things like kitchen products or water filters to their friends, and if they recruit their friends as sales people, they get a commission on the sales of people they've recruited. This works pretty well for people at the top of the pyramid, who get a percentage of all the layers below them, but the people at the base of the pyramid make at best a small amount of money, and depending on how the scheme is structured, may even lose money. The reason pyramid schemes don't deliver the promised benefits for the vast majority of participants is because the pyramid needs to grow and each layer is much bigger than the layer above, following a geometric progression. Very quickly, the number of new recruits needed becomes larger than the number of people in the world. But a successful pyramid scheme has to hide its unsustainable nature and the costs to most of its participants behind a compelling business proposition offering prospectively great benefits.

Pyramid schemes came to mind when I heard about the Silvertown Link tunnel. Boris is trying to recruit us: Lots of jobs! Less congestion! Easier, faster journeys! Sounds great - gimme some of that! Except of course one of the benefits - easier, faster journeys - will also mean more journeys. Which will mean that the roads feeding the tunnel will need to be widened to accomodate the tunnel traffic. Which is good! It'll mean more jobs! Less congestion! Easier, faster journeys! Sounds great - gimme some of that! Except, of course, for each of these widened roads, we'll need to widen the roads that feed them, and build new ones, to accommodate all those easier, faster journeys. Good! Yet more jobs! More journeys! Less congestion! Until you run out of land. You can't build any more roads. Then all those journeys aren't easy or fast any more. And there's nowhere to park at the end of your journey. And all the motorists who've paid into this massive pyramid scheme and voted for the politicians who promised them easier, faster journeys, have lost their money and are really no better off - and a lot are worse off if they live by one of the new roads and have to suffer the noise, danger and pollution. The only people who've benefitted are the road-builders (so we got the jobs at least).

As with the kitchen product/water filter schemes, what's amazing is how gullible people are. Decades after it was clear that if you built a new road, it would just require more roads, we still have politicians promising to solve the problems of the roads by...building new roads.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Bow Roundabout - Again

The Grumpy Cyclist points out that TfL's description of its Bow Roundabout redesign doesn't quite match the video they've produced to illustrate the idea (above). They talk of an 'early start' green phase for cyclists, but the video shows that motor vehicles and cyclists set off at the same time - and in addition there is a separate cycle-control light that goes red, stopping cyclists who are not already in the advance stop box from proceeding into it when motor traffic has green. Grumpy Cyclist also suggests that this is no different to a normal advance stop box. In a sense it is different because there is a separate set of lights before the advance stop box, meaning that crossing the stop line would feel rather more like busting a red light than it usually does (although legally there's not much difference, and as I'll point out later, not much difference in the way the box fills up with motors). The fact that the first and second sets of lights turn green at the same time is not in itself important as time and distance boil down to the same thing: what matters is whether the last cyclist can get past the A12 exit before the first motor vehicle tries to make a left turn across them. Will TfL allow a sufficient combination of time and distance to make sure that happens. If they do, then in theory, there should be no left-hooks, because cycles will either be in the advance stop box safely in front of the motor traffic when the lights go green, or they'll be held at the red cycle-control light, and therefore will never be in the dangerous position of being alongside left-turning motor traffic.

In practice, there are a couple of reasons why this won't work, and one compelling argument that it is cynical and disingenuous to suggest it increases cyclist safety.

It won't work because at busy times, motors will continue past the first amber light and be held in the advance stop box at the second light which will be red by the time they reach it. This will mean there are left-turning motors in the advance stop-box alongside cycles, so when the signals turn green, we'll have exactly the situation we have at the moment, only worse because cyclists have already been forced to the left side. With motors in the advance stop box, there will be limited space for cycles, so they will tend to queue if there are enough of them. This will be intensely frustrating and will tend to encourage cyclists to avoid the controls. They could do this legally by walking across the stop line at the cycle-control light, or illegally by riding across it. Some cyclists will simply take the general traffic lane on the basis that it's quicker and safer than the alternative - you can't be left-hooked if you take the left-hand general-traffic lane.
At quieter times, imagine the following scenario: a slow cyclist arrives at the cycle-control light just before it changes, and proceeds into the advance stop box. Meanwhile, an HGV arrives at the first lights just as they change to green, still rolling at about 30MPH. The HGV catches the cyclist but doesn't see him, and makes the left turn, getting both of them into the next day's Evening Standard.

Why is it cynical? We've got to the point where TfL have been forced to take action because there is an increasing number of cyclists and too many deaths caused largely by dangerous driving. Rather than increase safety while preserving the speed and convenience of cycling (remember they're supposed to be encouraging cycling as a transport mode), they've come up with a solution that means cyclists have two sets of lights to go through, thus slowing their journeys. Motor traffic, by contrast, is only minimally affected, because although it has two sets of lights to get through, they are synchronized so there's only one stop necessary. And if cyclists react to this increased delay by jumping the cycle-control light or taking the main traffic lane, TfL can sneer and throw their hands up, saying that cyclists are just ignoring the safety scheme, and no doubt a judge would find contributory negligence in the case of a cyclist involved in a collision. In effect, this scheme is likely to end up criminalizing cyclists. It is hardly, in Boris's aide Kulveer Ranger's words, "a step change in the way engineers think when planning road layouts". It's the same old car-centric crap we've had for decades. Of course, a small delay would be a reasonable trade-off for safety if it were not for the fact that reasonable tradeoffs between cyclist safety and motor traffic journey speed almost never get made. Iinstead, along entire routes cyclists are continually forced into the same dilemma: either accept delays whose root cause is too many motor vehicles monopolizing the available roadspace, or take risks, and more often than not, it's a case of choosing which risk is the least. At most junctions, the road is designed to stack motor traffic and there's no space set aside for cyclists. You could wait at the back of the queue; in which case you'll have impatient motorists trying to pass you when the lights change. Or you could try to filter to the front of the queue so you're more visible and get away first: in that case you risk not making it to the front before the lights change. Filter on the left and you'll be in a blind spot squeezed between the kerb and vehicles. Filter on the right and you're at risk from oncoming traffic.

So, anyway, I digress. How to fix the Bow Roundabout design? To stop the advance stop box filling up with motor vehicles, there will need to be an 'advance red' phase at the first set of general-traffic signals. That will go red first, and the second signal will stay green for as long as is necessary for traffic already in the advance-stop box to drain out of it (under normal conditions). I don't think that will actually affect traffic flow compared to the scenario where all drivers correctly anticipate the lights. Or do TfL model assuming that vehicles ignore advance stop boxes?

Next, there's the problem of how to eliminate left-hooks during the green phase. That's impossible to do if you have cyclists on the left going straight on, and motors trying to turn left across them. Which is why the LCC design uses toucan crossings. You simply cannot fix this junction to be safe for cyclists without changing the way motor traffic uses it. Limiting cyclists to a short green phase is ducking the problem, and is what Kulveer Ranger describes as "designed with motorists in mind", rather than designed for a cycling revolution.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bow Roundabout Redesign

Transport for London has proposed two alternatives for the Bow Roundabout, following the two fatalities of cyclists at the junction last year.

I won't go into the detail here as you can read about it here and officially here; suffice to say that the first and preferred plan involves on-carriageway cycle lanes with some physical separation from the main traffic lanes, and junction signals incorporating an 'advance' green signal enabling cyclists to set off before other traffic.  It only seems to cover one approach to the roundabout and one quarter of the roundabout itself.

What immediately jumps out is that this approach will protect cyclists against left-turning HGVs only if:
1. they manage to get to the front of the traffic queue before the lights change;
2. the advance stop box isn't blocked by motor traffic;
3. they get away smartly. How smartly they have to get away will depend on the light timing of course, but remember traffic flow at these junctions is very sensitive to signal timings so TfL will likely be setting them more for Eddy Merckx than your granny.

If you arrive at the junction with the lights green, the blue lane guides you to the left of the general traffic lanes and you emerge into the roundabout in the most vulnerable position. Ideally in this situation, if you're going straight on, you should be staying in the middle of the left-hand general traffic lane.

The other proposal is to remove one general traffic lane from the flyover and replace it with a cycle lane, separated from the motor traffic by islands at 40m intervals, described rather chillingly as "to deter motorists from using the cycle lane to undertake" . While this option has the obvious advantage that you don't have to negotiate the roundabout, there is the problem of getting onto the flyover, which requires crossing a couple of traffic lanes. They've quite neatly solved this by having what's basically a signalised crossing, allowing cyclists to cross the lanes from left to right while motor traffic is held at a red signal. (This is what they haven't done at Stockwell on the CSH#7, where to get into the cycle lane taking you round the gyratory you have to cut across two lanes of moving motor traffic at your leisure.) Again the question is timing: long phases will slow cyclists and encourage them to take the riskier option of the general traffic lanes instead. So TfL would need to allow frequent cycle phases. That combined with the removal of one flyover lane I imagine would have a significant effect on traffic flow. Will TfL go that far?

Of course, the flyover is no use if you want to to turn left or right up the A12. However, this is unlikely for most cyclists: the A12 is an unappealing prospect (and apparently cycling is prohibited, although there don't seem to be any signs prohibiting a cyclist from turning onto it at the roundabout).

LCC's proposed an alternative involving off-carriageway lanes and toucan crossings. This would seem safer (less danger of the HGV left-hook) and likely no slower than TfL's roundabout option. It might also be no slower than the flyover option, as that route would involve the same number of signalised crossings. It also has the advantage of facilitating pedestrians who fancy visiting the Bow Flyover Muccy D's.

Which option is best? I suspect it's a little early to tell, but so far I'm thinking the flyover option is the best of the TfL offerings, providing the light phasings are right, but I suspect they won't be. On the plus side, both schemes are a lot better than almost any other junction in London, but then the bar is pretty low. Let's not let two deaths be in vain: we should be insisting that conditions are as good as you'd get at Dutch junctions.

Remember to write to TfL to make your views known: looks like there's no formal consultation at this point but there's a contact page at the bottom of the scheme page.

The Mayor - Still Idling

Boris has been moaning about idling again. Unfortunately, his commitment to reducing engine idling stops short of actually enforcing the law. He's now launching a publicity campaign. Remember, this is the same Boris Johnson that criticized the previous Mayor for spending too much on publicity. And Johnson's campaign is as likely to work as it was last time he mentioned it about a year ago, since when I've noticed no discernable change in driver behaviour, and I've seen no sign of the promised taxi rank marshals. It's taken decades to get cigarette smoking rates down, and it's taxing and banning smoking has had a lot more effect than simply talking about it. But with smokers, it's only their own health they're affecting. Should we stand idly by (geddit?) and allow lazy motorists to put other people's health at risk, while spending scarce public money on advertising? It might be fair enough if Boris's publicity was warning drivers that they'll get fined - and actually recouping some of the advertising spend by fining the polluters. Instead, it's the rest of us Londoners picking up the tab both for the publicity campaign and for the health service bill resulting from air pollution.

The Age of Consequences

"Families forced to follow green zealots' new recycling diktats", froths the Daily Mail in a typical article about the supposed 'trash fascism' (should that be trascism?) sweeping the nation. "...the scheme is too complex and homes simply don't have the space to deal with the myriad bins, bags and boxes ...strict regulations have been introduced as councils come under growing pressure to cut the amount of household rubbish they send to landfill...threat of European Union fines if they fail to hit EU targets...bin police who can impose £100 on-the-spot fines...increased penalties of £1,000 and criminal records..."

Mail readers, of course, have far more important things to think about than to bother their heads about recycling ...such as  Demi Moore's gaunt frame, whether Kelly Clarkson's dress can contain her ample curves, and Christina Aguilera's fluctuating weight.

These dietary issues are, as it happens, an apt metaphor. When Kelly Clarkson eats cake, it doesn't simply disappear, and it's the same with rubbish, as the residents of Gilberdyk, East Yorkshire are finding out. They've got a curvaceous mountain of rubbish next door, and it's surprisingly causing one or two problems..."the smell from the tip has become unbearable and is affecting house sales, the vermin (rats, not estate agents), the litter...Up to 100 wagons per day - large wagons, eight wheelers - are running through the village spreading litter, dirt and muck." Who'd have thought it? Certainly not the Mail readers who'd rather chuck the considerable detritis of their over-packaged, fragranced, disposable lifestyles in a big, big bin and have it collected once a week and dumped as far from their net-curtained suburban abodes as possible.

In the modern world, there are now so many degrees of separation between an action and its consequences, it is easy to see restrictions like compulsory recycling as infringements on our liberties. When we buy a new phone or pair of jeans say, we don't see the sweatshop conditions it's been made in; we don't see the communities whose water supply has been poisoned with mercury from the mining that yields the raw materials that end up in our new gadget. When we chuck our old phone in the bin, we don't see the cadmium gradually leaching out of the battery into the river where swims the trout we'll eat in that nice gastro-pub next week. As nice middle-class folk, we can afford to live in nice places where most of the consequences of our actions don't actually affect us. We don't like the idea of battery hens or crated veal calves, but we do like cheap eggs and meat. In other words, wilful ignorance.

The separation of actions from consequences happens on three dimensions: firstly, along the value chain from production to destruction, as we've seen above. The second dimension is scale. If we drive to the shops in our Range Rover, that's not going to make a blind bit of difference to the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. But multiply all those trips up over a lifetime, and by a population of hundreds of millions of drivers, and pretty soon you're talking big numbers. The third dimension is time. We have trouble associating the cigarette we just had with the lung cancer or heart attack in 25 years' time. We have as much trouble imagining our great-grandchildren blaming us for climate change as plantation owners imagining their offspring a few generations hence being embarrassed by their ownership of a couple of well-treated slaves.

When people drive, they can put to the back of their mind all the consequences of doing so. One journey doesn't make any difference, and if I answer my phone while driving, I'll be careful. Oh no, a bloody traffic jam. God, this air smells pretty foul (coughs). [1 clutch-pumping hour later] Finally, foot down at last. It was an accident caused all that chaos. Why can't people be more careful? Need to really push on now, b*gg*r the speed limit I'm in a hurry...80...90...get out the bloody way you dozy old codger! And you behind me - quit tailgating me - back off you nutter! [phone rings]...

Maybe some people don't like cyclists because they make them think about the consequences of driving; the consequences they like to deny or bury at the back of their mind. They are the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. The danger, the pollution, the climate can ignore it all if everyone's driving - it's like there's no choice, and everyone and no-one's to blame.

For the last ten or twenty years, we in the West have been pushing the growingly significant and unpleasant consequences of our increasingly profligate lifestyles further and further away from us. We've been consuming more and more, without regard to the impact of our consumption on the planet and its people, and also without regard to how to pay for any of it. Finally, the market - that wonder of capitalist economics that gave us all the excess in the first place - has called time on the orgy of consumerism, and governments and people all around the world are starting to wake up to the idea that actions do have consequences after all. The credit card must be repaid. We have to live within our means.

Unfortunately, this consequence thinking hasn't quite spread beyond financial debt to the other spheres of human activity just yet. Andrew Neill introduces his new Sunday Politics show in this blurb. He boasts of his prescience in forecasting in 2008 that "the Age of Plenty was over and that we were about to move into an era dominated by the Politics of Debt". He continues, "It would mark the end of debt-fuelled capitalism, debt-financed socialism - and debt-drenched consumer spending", and promises his new show will "test what [politicians] have to say against the new rigours of the Politics of Debt".

This will be interesting, because if Neill is right on this (and I believe he is), then it follows that institutions, services, policies, laws, and even values, that were forged while we were still partying in the Last Chance Saloon are likely to be ill-adapted to the post-consumerist Age of Consequences. Yet there's little sign of this concept gaining currency amongst politians or most of the media: the terms of debate remain the same. The Westminster parking restrictions are greeted with hysterical opposition, while the Tories are promoting weekly bin-collections regardless of the effect on recycling rates. The world has changed, but we haven't: we're still reading from a script that says there will be a short delay before normal service is resumed.

As I haven't mentioned cycling yet, let's have just a taste of what the post-consumerist world might look like. With the real-terms erosion of take-home pay, fewer people can afford cars, and those that can are counting the rising cost of fuel. Maybe we should be tuning our road layouts to favour cycling a bit, so that people can spend less of their hard-earned on oil and more in the local economy? Maybe we should be reducing packaging, so that local authorities can spend less on collecting rubbish? Maybe we should be encouraging and enabling people to live closer to where they work, so they don't have to travel as much, and can use active travel modes more? With people cancelling unaffordable gym memberships, maybe we should enable people to get excercise for free, by cycling and walking more? In short, should we be encouraging lifestyles with less negative consequences and more positive ones?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Kings Cross Protest

A new group called Bikes Alive organized a protest at Kings Cross last night. The protest was relatively small, but very effective in bringing the junction to a halt, and causing what TfL would call 'considerable queueing' in the roads feeding into the junction. There were a number of police on cycles present, and the atmosphere was fairly orderly based on what I witnessed. I saw a taxi driver driving so close to one of the riders at the back of the bunch I thought there would be a (very low-speed) collision, but there wasn't, and there was a free and frank exchange of views between one protester and a police officer when the police tried to shoo the group forward.

Does this kind of thing work? Well, it's more effective than sitting at home watching the telly, and it's got some news coverage. And the group is planning repeats of the event. One perspective is that TfL claim the junction has to be the way it is to ensure traffic flow. If the junction is regularly blocked by protests, that won't be working too well, and it's difficult to see how the Mayor won't suffer politically.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Wimbledon Broadway

My last post was  a critical look at Exhibition Road, where you can see what happens when politicians throw money at roads hoping they'll turn into civilized places, putting expensive granite surfaces as if they were doing a bathroom makeover. And with roads as with bathrooms, if you don't address what flows through them, they remain very unpleasant places.

Unfortunately, the idea that you can create attractive streets where people feel relaxed and want to linger simply by tinkering around with road designs and without addressing through-traffic has currency in many authorities, including Merton. Wimbledon Broadway has recently had a lot of money spent on it, widening pavements, installing benches and the odd tree, and removing 'clutter'. The result of all this is cyclists have less parking (less railings, you see), pedestrians are a bit less cheek-by-jowl on the pavements , but it's still a very 20th century experience with multiple traffic lanes, and long delays if you wish to cross from one side of the road to the other. In short, not the best shopping experience.

For cyclists, conditions are somewhat improved (but then they could hardly have got worse).

Above: outside the station concourse there is a single lane heading southeast, compared to the two lanes previously, so there is more room to filter past the traffic. Also, some of the central perch-points, like the one in the centre of the picture, are flush with the road surface so it's possible to ride over them to overtake stationary traffic.

Above, between the station concourse and the Prince of Wales pub, there is a loading and parking bay. This says a lot about the priorities of the road designers. This space could have made an ideal cycle lane.

 Above: opposite Next there used to be an advance stop box. That's gone, and there are now two narrow lanes making filtering difficult and dangerous.

Above, opposite the Prince of Wales, there's a taxi rank.

Above, still two lanes northwest opposite the station concourse, but the flush perch-point enables overtaking of queues, and the removal of the sheep-pen crossing seems to have widened the road. There's an advisory cycle lane between here and the Alexandra Road junction, and at that point there are two rather than the previous three lanes. However, the cycle lane brings you inside of a lot of left-turning traffic, which is a significant hazard.

However, this is still a decidedly car-centric place. Most parents wouldn't let their kids cycle in these conditions, and remember - this is the only place it is possible to cross the railway track without going a mile out of your way. So if you live, say, in the Ministers area with your kids and want to visit Wimbledon Common by bike, you have a choice - lug your bikes up a couple of flights of steps over the pedestrian bridge at Alt Grove, or this. Or you could ride down to Lower Downs Road, making a detour of well over a mile.

Merton Council have spent a lot of money bringing the Broadway up-to-date, and yet it's still behind the times. Successful high streets are pedestrianized, and in an area like Merton the town centre should have safe access for cyclists - a lot of people live within easy cycling distance. There are a lot of relatively quiet residential streets leading up to Wimbledon Town centre, but Merton aren't interested in leveraging this asset and giving residents safe cycle routes - there remains the intimidating barrier of the one-way system, which like all gyratories is a relic of a bygone era.

It is very clear that the facelifted Broadway has been designed without cycling as a priority. The improvements (such as they are) for cycling are coincidental rather than by fiat. But even with the improvements, conditions are still bad. Cyclists are still expected to mix it with two lanes of motor traffic, and drivers are changing lanes often, adding to the hazards. There is no roadspace given over to cycling.

Although there are some excellent individual bits of infrastructure in Merton, my overall verdict is there are not many similar boroughs in London that are worse for cycling (Westminster is the bottom of the barrel). That's because Merton don't consider cycling when they design schemes like the Broadway. Even though Merton is supposedly a Biking Borough. Cycling is not a transport mode at Merton, otherwise it would have been considered in the Broadway redesign. Cyclists are considered when there's a cycle scheme (which isn't often) but ignored most of the time. In fact, for most of the places in Merton that you'd actually want to cycle to - town centres, leisure centres - routes are discontinuous, illogical, or just plain absent. At Merton, cycling and road schemes are two different things. To give you an idea of how seriously Merton takes cycling, look at the cycling part of Merton's website. There's no nominated cycling officer. If you look at the Cycle Network link on the website, two of the 'proposed' schemes, Green Lane and North Road, have actually been in place for two years - which means no-one's bothered to update the website for at least that time. (The Green Lane scheme is crap by the way - see here for Cycalogical's take on it).

Exhibition Road

Well, it seems the shared space to end all shared spaces has finally been completed, and it's the partial success that we predicted. Groups representing residents and the disabled have been complaining that it's difficult and dangerous to cross the road. Unsurpising given that there are still significant traffic volumes. Many drivers still assume they have right of way, again unsurprising given that this is still a through road where motor traffic dominates. If the point of a shared space is to blur the boundaries between road and pavement, and have some semblance of equal rights to the space between motors and pedestrians, then Exhibition Road has failed. In effect, this is expensive - very expensive - eye candy. It's not a shared space - it's a motor road with granite instead of tarmac. You could have improved the aesthetic experience much more cheaply just by making it an access-only road.

A council spokesman commented "Clearly pedestrians must exercise caution as they would when crossing any road." The council clearly don't get it. As a pedestrian, you exercise caution at a zebra crossing, but you have right of way. On Exhibition Road, the cars aren't giving way. The spokesman also claimed "traffic is restricted to a maximum speed of 20mph". That's a lie. There's a speed limit of 20MPH, which is a very different thing. Westminster cyclists report "Motorists are not slowing down or taking care as the planners intended, as well as going over the speed limit."

The most telling sign of failure (literally) is the council have had to put out signs saying "give way to pedestrians". Remember, the point of shared space is supposed to be that there is sufficient ambiguity as to who has right of way that drivers allow people to cross the road. So you don't need signs like this cluttering up your world-class streetscape. This clearly isn't happening on Exhibition Road, but this sign won't change anything.

Lastly - don't let anyone forget this cost in the order of £25M. That's the all-in cost of a 6-lane motorway of similar length.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Dangerous Sport or Mode of Transport?

Dangerous sports and activities are pastimes indulged in by people who have the attitude that excitement and achievement are more important than simply living a long but possibly dull life.You know the kind of thing: swimming with sharks, canoeing up the Amazon, lion-taming, climbing frozen waterfalls, off-piste skiing.

Dangerous sports are characterized by the following:

1. Participants are very brave, in fact, bordering on the reckless or foolhardy.
2. They know what they are doing. They know the risks.
3. In dangerous sports, it's down to you to look after yourself. If you don't have the necessary level of skill, you shouldn't be doing it. Don't expect anyone to feel sorry for you if you come to grief.
4. You need special clothing and protective equipment.
5. You do it for the thrill. De-risking it will take away the excitement.
6. You cannot take away the risks. The sport is risky by nature.
7. Parents are regarded as irresponsible if they let their children take part.
8. The participants tend to be young men.

Regular readers will know already where I'm going with this one.

In European cities where cycling is a normal, popular mode of transport, it is as integrated into peoples' everyday lives and it has none of the above characteristics of a dangerous activity. and the authorities have gone to considerable lengths to protect cyclists from hazards.

In the UK, cycling by and large has all of the characteristics of a dangerous sport. Even though cyclists face risks that other road users don't, most of the time they are not considered worthy of any special consideration. That's because it's a dangerous sport: you know it's dangerous and it's down to you to look after yourself. Consider the most dangerous junctions in London. Cycling facilities are inadequate at best, and continue through badly-designed and non-existant and terminate at worse-than-useless. The attitude is that cyclists are simply there by choice on roads that are dangerous by nature. Cycling is risky, and just because there's the odd token cycle facility here or there doesn't change that basic principle. Roads exist for motor traffic; if you don't like it then choose a quiet route or better still get a car. Just don't come crying to us when you get run over. Especially if you're not wearing a helmet or a yellow jacket.

Boris Johnson's attitude and the Tory attitude in general come from the 'dangerous sport' school of thought. They are happy for people to cycle, as long as they look after themselves and don't expect any special treatment. For Boris, cycling is jolly good fun and he's keen for more people to enjoy it - but it's the attitude of the mountaineer evangelizing about his sport, rather than the attitude of someone formulating transport policy.

The 'dangerous sport' approach to cycling is most apparent in how cycling funds are allocated. Training is usually high up the list. Why? Why are cyclists expected to have a higher level of skill than other road users? The answer's pretty obvious: you wouldn't expect to go climbing the Matterhorn if you couldn't use ropes.

While it's true that you need to pass a driving test to get behind the wheel of a car, it's clear that this hardly a stern test of your ability or disposition to use the road safely. Traffic engineers are falling over backwards to protect motor vehicle users from themselves, and from others. Pedestrians aren't expected to have any special abilities, and are provided with segregated pavements and crossings. That's because pedestrians and drivers are expected to be just ordinary people with ordinary abilities trying to get around. Cyclists aren't. They are deliberately taking calculated risks, or else being reckless. Rather take responsibility for the external risks of cycling, the authorities want to put the responsibility for risk reduction on the cyclist, in a way they don't with pedestrians or motorists. Look at the discussions around the recent M5 pile-up, which was much less about drivers going too fast for conditions and failing to react to hazards, and much more about blaming external factors such as a nearby fireworks display or the weather. Contrast that with the victim-blaming that often accompanies reports on cycling fatalities. Then the questions are: what was she doing on the inside of an HGV? Was she wearing a helmet? Would better training prevent this from happening? And even when the cyclist has done nothing wrong, the death is often described as an unavoidable accident. The unstated assumption underlying all of these attitudes is that cycling is inherently risky, so accidents happen if you are irresponsible, or even if you're not.

It's got to be said that vehicular cycling campaigners aren't doing much to convert cycling from a dangerous sport into a trasport mode. Their attitude tends to be one of risk-denial (it's not statistically that dangerous and the benefits outweigh the risks), or risk management (the Cyclecraft view that by cycling skillfully and integrating with traffic you can stay safe). That approach is fine for people who want to cycle in today's road conditions, but it cements the idea that as a cyclist, risk is your problem and not the responsibility of traffic engineers. Another vehicular cycling argument is that better enforcement of traffic law would fix the problem. This implies again that there's nothing systemically wrong - it's just a few bad drivers causing the risk.

Cycle campaigners, traffic engineers and transport policymakers need to accept that cyclists are not the problem. And indeed motorists are not particularly the problem. It's the infrastructure, stupid. Everyone is behaving  pretty much exactly as they do everywhere else in the world, and the results are exactly as you would predict. Motorists with average skills, sometimes in a hurry, sometimes impaired or distracted, sometimes reckless, and cyclists with average skills, sometimes in a hurry (but a lot slower), sometimes impaired or distracted, sometimes reckless: put the two together and see if you can figure out who comes out worse. It's hardly rocket science.

So if cyclists and motorists aren't the problem, what is? In any other situation involving systemic risk, there's a lot of effort made to reduce it. At a ski resort, the beginners are on the nursery slopes, the experts are on the black runs. At the zoo, the penguins aren't in with the lions. But on UK roads, there's little or no risk reduction for cyclists, especially at the most dangerous junctions where it's most needed. At work there's a whole raft of health-and-safety legislation to protect you. If you take a train or a plane, you can relax in the knowledge that there are multiple expensive fail-safe systems in place for your protection. In a car you have more airbags than you can shake a stick at, and armco barriers to gently guide you away from the trees should your concentration wander. Why then nothing for cyclists? Is it because they like risk? That's why the public think cycling is risky, and it's only when the authorities address the lack of consistent, continuous and visible commitment to safety that cycling will lose the status of a dangerous sport.