Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Smart Motorists

From the Scottish Evening Times:

"HI-tech road signs are being installed at an accident blackspot to warn drivers when it rains...four signs, which cost thousands of pounds, are being placed on the busy East Kilbride Expressway...they will automatically flash in wet weather"

Sunday, March 25, 2012

London Travelwatch

London Travelwatch are an organization that describes itself as "the voice of London's transport users." I think you can probably tell already where this post is going...

"We want to see the best journey experience possible for everyone travelling in and around London."

they enthuse. And they've launched a  document called "Transport users priorities for the 2012-26 Mayoral term"

Let's take a quick look at what they have to say about cycling. Nothing at all. Or to put it another way, diddly squat, nul, nada. Oh, except in a section entitled "Enforcing the rules":

"The Mayor must publicise and enforce the rules if
Londoners are to travel with confidence."

Sounds good...but wait - what rules are to be enforced?

"Parking controls, bus lanes and other forms of traffic
management must be enforced consistently to
ensure that bus passengers are not delayed, and
that buses can pull up beside bus stops. Pavement
obstructions, cyclists ignoring red lights, passengers
with their feet on seats, dropping litter, and motorists
driving uninsured vehicles are all unacceptable forms
of behaviour which must be discouraged."

Ah, so they know cyclists exist. Interesting how they think that "parking controls" and "motorists driving uninsured vehicles" rank higher than, say, dangerous driving in respect of travelling with confidence. You can tell these people don't ride bikes. Personally, I don't care a whole lot if someone is uninsured as long as they don't hit me. Now it's true that uninsured drivers also tend to be dangerous drivers, but by no means all dangerous drivers are uninsured. The fact that there are so many uninsured drivers is testament to the fact that there is serious under-enforcement of traffic laws.

The document also has a section entitled "A road network fit for purpose".

"There must be no relaxation of the successful efforts
which have reduced road casualties through engineering,
enforcement and education.

Gyratory systems and some one-way streets are
problematic for all transport users and the Mayor
must speed up work to remove them."

No mention of the C-word here. OK, the last statement we can all agree on, but I'm not sure what these "successful efforts which have reduced road casualties" are. That sounds a bit like we just need to carry on doing more of the same. The same car-centric policies that have prioritised traffic flow over cyclist safety and led to increasing cyclist casualties since 2007.

So who exactly are London Travelwatch? Well, one of its board members says he " had a career in marketing in the motor industry... I am naturally keen to see that motorists get a fair share of resources". Only one, Tony Bennett,  claims to cycle, describing himself as: "someone who uses public transport extensively, but also enjoys walking and cycling and makes many journeys by car".

Maybe London Travelwatch should change its slogan to  "The voice of London's transport users. Except cyclists."

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A Lovely Ride Spoiled

A lovely spring day today, daffodils swaying gently in the breeze, the air gently warmed by the morning sun, particulates drifting lazily out of the tailpipes of stationary taxis as you zip past them through road junctions that are "perfectly negotiable if you keep your wits about you."

But then this:

 Hyde Park Corner, police and ambulance on the scene and the victim about to be blue-lighted off by the looks of it.

And then this:

Another cyclist, outside Buck House. Again 2 emergency services in attendance. The guy was on a stretcher but talking.

Hardly evidence that cycling in London is getting safer if I can stumble on the scene of two serious collisions in the space of five minutes riding. I wish both victims a speedy recovery.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Balham Station Junction, CSH 7

As promised, we've been taking a look at CSH 7 to see what the problems are at the junctions prioritised by TFL for safety review.

The first one on our list is the junction at Balham Station.

The approach to the junction has all sorts of hazards.
Above, there's a side-road junction and a petrol station, which both have vehicles emerging from or turning into them. Additionally, there's a parking space just before which will impair the sight-lines of any driver trying to turn out of the side-road.

Above: More parking bays. If you look carefully, there's a vehicle about to emerge from the filling station, and the driver's view of the cyclist is obscured by the parked car. It's an accident waiting to happen.
Above and below: The blue lane stops and starts, punctuated by parking bays.

You'll notice in none of these pictures is there enough motor traffic to occupy the two northbound lanes, even though this is rush hour. Take note, people who think there isn't enough space on London roads for segregated cycle paths. Note also that TfL won't be reviewing the hazards you can see above, because these are minor junctions that don't count.

Now onto the junction itself.
The approach, above, is in a bus lane, which is wide enough to permit overtaking at the bus stop.
Above: However, the general traffic is then permitted to occupy the left lane, and there is no approach lane leading to the advance stop box for cycles.
Above: So this kind of thing happens.
Above: You can usually rely on the advance stop box being occupied by motors when the lights are on red (if you can get to it in the first place).

Above: The blue lane doesn't continue through the junction.

Above: the southbound approach. No separate approach lane; just a blue-coloured general traffic lane, which in the evening rush will be full of cars blocking your approach to the advance stop box (which will also be full of cars, so you're not really missing out on much).

Above: A car in the advance stop-box.

Above: There's a 4-way pedestrian phase where all the traffic lights are on red.

You can see that so far there's been no attempt whatever to improve this junction for cycling. Really the minimum that needs to be done is to have a proper approach lane in both directions. An advance green phase would allow cyclists to get away in advance of the general traffic. On the exit to the junction, in both directions there is space to have a mandatory lane. The cycle lane should continue through the junction, and there needs to be some attempt to prevent 'left hooks'. During the green phase, there are particular dangers from the high vehicle speeds that arise from the motorway-style road layout to the south of the junction; this needs to be addressed.
One innovative possibility that takes advantage of the existing 4-way pedestrian green phase is to allow cyclists to wait in a reservoir in front of the pedestrian crossing, rather than behind it. They could then proceed carefully through the centre of the junction during the 4-way pedestrian green phase, and wait behind the crossing on the far side until the lights change. That arrangement would give cyclists a considerable head start on motor traffic. Or even more radically (make sure you're sitting down now), the 4-way pedestrian green phase could simply allow cyclists to proceed at will, with pedestrian priority, turning the junction temporarily into a shared space.
Of course, with TfL in charge of the redesign, we should be careful to lower our expectations appropriately.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Roads for Sale

David Cameron has dared to raise the idea of privatising roads. This is a concept that this blog suggested back near the start of the Coalition government. After all, roads are assets that have value, and we're desperate to reduce the national debt, so the whole thing makes sense. Providing you do it right of course. In the same speech, he's also proposed more airport capacity. That makes less sense.

Roads first. It's not clear how the government propose to structure any roads privatisation deal, but they've ruled out tolling - for existing roads. This blog has also pointed out that there are problems with selectively tolling roads. As the now-virtually-bankrupt M6 toll road shows, if there is a toll-free alternative, it is difficult to get people to pay for something they could get for nothing. The other problem is that selective tolls aren't fair. Why should people wanting to cross the Thames on the east side of London via the M25 have to pay, when people wanting to cross the Thames on the west side do not?

We saw with the public-private partnership (PPP) financing that governments are not good at striking value-for-money deals, and the consequences of getting them wrong can be injurious to the public purse. Presumably, any deal will have to give a good prospect for the investors of a reasonable return over a good period of time. Yet there are many factors that make investing in roads a risky business, if you're relying on income that's related to traffic levels. The oil price may increase, forcing businesses and individuals to reduce their vehicle use. Improvements in technology such as broadband communications may mean there is less need for travel. People may well choose to live closer to their work, or work from home more. And finally, the government may actively try to reduce car use for environmental reasons. If the road-owner's income isn't related to traffic levels, and the government effectively rents the road back for a fixed yearly payment, then it simply becomes a liability to the government, no different to its other debts. Lastly, there is the perennial problem of new roads: if you build a new trunk road to relieve congestion, you simply create more congestion elsewhere, in the smaller roads that feed the new road. Those roads won't be private, so it'll back to the government to spend more money upgrading those roads. Before we all sign up to a massive programme of new road-building, supposedly privately financed, we would do well to ask what the consequences will be.

Airports next. Cameron apparently now accepts the need for increased airport capacity in the south-east of England. I'm not sure I do. Some existing airport capacity could be freed up by diverting short-haul journeys to rail. Rising oil prices may choke off demand for air travel, and will also encourage a move to larger, more fuel-efficient planes like the Airbus A380, which require fewer landing slots per passenger. A third factor is that there are new communication technologies that enable businesses to replace air trips with videoconferencing. In other words, as the economy becomes more efficient in response to cost pressures, we will make better use of our existing airport capacity, and may not need any additions to service the needs of visitors to the UK and UK-based travellers.

The other justification for airport expansion is the 'hub' market, where we are supposed to be competing with Frankfurt, Amsterdam and Dubai for passengers who are just passing through on their way somewhere else. There is a problem here. Those hubs already exist. Dubai has few constraints on its expansion. It would only be worth competing with other hubs given two prerequisites: a) if London can do it better and cheaper than its rivals; b) if the market expands. I've already made the case that increasing fuel costs may limit the market for air travel. Businesses are increasingly replacing air travel with cheaper alternatives such as videoconferencing. And London land prices, construction and labour costs seem unlikely to be competitive. Lastly, do we really want to be increasing London noise and air pollution to attract passengers whose destination isn't London?

To summarise, government strategy seems to be to invest in the infrastructure needed for an oil-dependent economy, just at the time when the prudent thing to do would be trying to reduce oil-dependency. Sure, you could create jobs in the airport industry, but you also create jobs elsewhere, in renewable energy, high-speed broadband and lower-carbon transport for example. And the latter industries are more likely to make other industries more efficient, by reducing their reliance on the dwindling and increasingly-expensive oil supply. There is something fundamentally wrong with this government's thinking. They are assuming that we're going to return to business-as-usual pretty soon, and the future will be very much like the past: consumer-fuelled growth, and increased road and air travel. So if they get their way, by 2030 we could have spent hundreds of billions building roads and airports that are fit for a late-20th-century oil-fuelled economy, on the assumption that the 21st century will require much the same.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Where Did All the Money Go?

With £200M, you could make a serious difference to cycling in London. Hundreds of miles of segregated routes, safe junctions, the whole nine yards.


Well, it might surprise you to learn that Boris Johnson claims to have spent exactly that sum on "cycling safety of one kind or another" whilst in office.

Where did it all go? Even if you count the Cycle Superhighways that comes to nowhere near £200M. And they are so inadequate in terms of safety that although the blue paint has barely had time to dry, they are already subject to a safety review.  Johnson cancelled much of the remaining LCN+ work, and the CSHs to date have cost about £40M if memory serves. So what has he got to show for the other £160M? Cycling has got more dangerous over recent years, on an absolute and a per-trip basis, after a long downward trend in casualty figures (see here).

Boris has in the past accused Ken Livingstone of wasting money. In my book, Boris has wasted £200M. Not only has improved safety not been delivered in terms of casualty rates, the infrastructure doesn't feel any safer, and I'm really struggling to think of any improvements on the roads I ride that have been made in the last four years. Except the new layout of Lambeth Bridge, but that was done at the same time as the bridge was resurfaced, involved nothing more than different white lines, and therefore cost close to nothing if you don't count design costs. Well, closer to nothing than £160M, anyway.

Which leads me to one conclusion. Somewhere in London, there is a cycle lane that's paved with gold and studded with diamonds. Let me know if you see it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

On Red Light Jumpers

For the benefit of Mike Penning, and anyone else who knows nothing about the subject of people who jump red lights...

I don't jump red lights. Mainly because I don't think society works very well if people pick and choose the laws they want to obey. And I wish more drivers thought the same way. And cyclists as well, for that matter. But I also think that junctions are (with very few exceptions) not designed with safety of cyclists in mind, and that could be one reason why a significant number of cyclists choose to disregard junction signals.

Not all cyclists jump red lights, and cyclists are not the only road users that jump red lights. The Transport Research Laboratory reported in a 2007 London-based study that 17% of cyclists at the studied sites violated red lights. However, 39% of the time, vehicles encroached into advance stop boxes, which is also a traffic-light violation, and at some sites, the number of motor vehicles violating a red light and continuing all the way through the junction (as opposed to just creeping over the stop line) exceeded the number of cyclists guilty of the same behaviour.

So which is worse - a cyclist busting a red light, or a motor creeping into an advance stop box? Well obviously, it's the lawless cyclist rather than the hapless put-upon motorist making an honest mistake. At least, that's what it looks like when you have a car-centric view of the world. To most car drivers, busting a stop light is a cardinal sin, because of the obvious extreme danger it causes. Traffic engineers have spent the last 50 years designing most of the hazards out of roads so everyone can get around as fast as possible, and as a result it is clear in most situations who has right of way. If you can't rely on your right of way, then you have to drive slowly and carefully and be observant and prepared for the unexpected. Then you might have to interrupt your phone call and concentrate on driving instead.

Let me just correct what I wrote in the previous paragraph.  Traffic engineers have spent the last 50 years designing most of the hazards out of roads for motorists. Most road junctions do little to make cyclists safe, and many are downright dangerous. It therefore follows that most junctions, including light-controlled ones, are hazardous to cyclists, and that gives rise to a very important moral distinction. Let me first propose three moral principles which shouldn't prove controversial. First, it is important to respect the law. Second, it is important to respect the safety of others. Third, you have a duty to ensure your own safety. For a motorist at a junction, there's no dilemma: if you break the law by running a red light, you endanger others and quite possibly yourself. For a cyclist at a junction, if you respect the letter of the law at a UK road junction, you can quite easily find yourself in a situation that endangers you, because of the poor safety characteristics that are engineered into the junction. Furthermore, too often you encounter drivers that do not respect the law. They drive too close to cyclists, encroach into advance stop boxes, overtake dangerously, left-hook you, and so on. So it makes sense to get the heck out of this concentrated collection of hazards toot sweet, as the French have it. It's a sad fact that most collisions happen at junctions. It's possible to use the moral defence of self-preservation, provided of course your actions pose no significant danger to others: at some junctions the risks of being mixed up among a pack of accelerating motors are higher than the risks involved in carefully crossing the junction against the lights.

Part of the reason motorists don't like cyclists jumping red lights is because they don't see the moral dilemma I've described and they don't appreciate that junction signals are designed for the safety and convenience of motorists, not cyclists, and can actively endanger the latter.

Let's get back to why traffic signals exist in the first place: to ensure traffic flow by giving a clear right of way, so there is no need for each vehicle to slow down and negotiate with other vehicles at the junction. The idea of an inalienable 'right of way' is a somewhat unfamiliar one if you're a cyclist. To be safe, you have to assume that your right of way will be violated. You have to ride carefully, be observant and prepared for the unexpected all the time, because although most drivers respect the rules of the road, there are enough that don't to make the highway an extremely dangerous place indeed if you assume that all drivers will respect your right of way. If I assumed I could cross all toucan crossings when the light was green in my favour, I quite literally wouldn't be alive today.

In other ways when you ride a bike, your perspective is a little different to a driver's. The reason advance-stop boxes are there is to allow cyclists to get ahead of other traffic, in a position where they can be seen. If the box is full of cars, that becomes difficult, and cyclists can end up unable to reach the front of the queue and in dangerous positions. To a car driver, an advance stop box is a meaningless few yards of empty space. To a cyclist, it can be the difference between life and death.

There are a few differences between a cycle and a motor violating a red light. One is that if a cyclist does it and gets it wrong, many or all of the consequences - often severe ones - will be on the rider. Even a collision with a pedestrian is likely to leave the cyclist in a bad way. Because of this there is a Darwinian law that the reckless riders don't last long, so we're mostly left with riders who run red lights but are careful about it. By the way, there's no evidence that cars are crashing in significant numbers trying to avoid red-light jumping cyclists. (There's one important caveat that I'll get to later, which is that there is one road user even further down the food chain than the cyclist - the pedestrian.)

Another difference between cycles and motors disobeying signals is that cyclists have more freedom to do so. If you're in a car, you can't go through a red light if the car in front of you doesn't, but on a bike you can usually filter to the front of the queue. It's not necessarily restraint that is stopping motorists from jumping red lights, it's also lack of opportunity. If you take offences that motorists are easily able to commit, there's a high incidence - according to the RAC Foundation, 31% of motorists admit to using hand-held mobiles whilst driving, and 50% admit to speeding in 30MPH zones.

So you could summarise so far that the opprobrium directed at red-light jumping cyclists has an element of double standards about it. Motorists are guilty of many dangerous behaviours, it's just that red-light jumping isn't chief amongst them. Meanwhile, it's cyclists that disproportionately at risk from the dangerous behaviour of motorists.

Among cyclists, there's more than one kind of red-light jumper. There are reckless racers, who will barrel through a pedestrian crossing against a red light and expect everyone to get out of the way. This is clearly dangerous and stupid, and no-one should condone this kind of behaviour. Then there are the amber-gamblers, who will ride through a junction without stopping if the lights have just changed against them. Again, this is dangerous, particularly if there are pedestrians or other cyclists around. (But it's not as dangerous as motorised road-users doing it.) Next, you have a more cautious breed, who slow down or stop at junctions but proceed if the way is clear. Getting more cautious still are those who jump a light because they consider it safer to do so having made a careful assessment of the risks. And lastly, there are those Pashley riders who are, in a curiously unfathomable and sedate way, undeniably above the law.

A couple of final thoughts. There are those who say that cyclists busting red lights gives everyone a bad name and generates hatred toward cyclists. I don't really buy that argument. It implies that cyclists have to be beyond reproach, otherwise they deserve everything that happens to them. People who hate cyclists will always find reasons to justify their views: if cyclists instead of jumping lights are hanging around at junctions, they'll hate them for slowing them down and getting in the way. The fact is that cyclists should not be judged as a group. Cyclists are a cross-section of society, as are motorists (indeed most are motorists), and as such have no more or less propensity to break the law or deliberately endanger others than in society generally. The difference though is, being equipped with less hardware and less protection, they are less of a threat when they do break the law.

Tooting blog

There's a new blogger in South London, "Traffik in Tooting", covering Tooting and Wandsworth, home of two Cycle Superhighways. Should have plenty to write about then.