Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Who Killed the High Street ?

I love shopping. Doesn't everybody? I love expressing my individuality by buying goods mass-produced in Chinese sweatshops in characterless, mass-market outlets.

Whenever shops and roads are in the news, the subject being reported is usually car parking. Not enough of it, or too expensive. But the reality is that shopping and cars do not mix. The New West End Company, who represent 600-odd central London retailers, know this, which is why they're campaigning for car-free days and pedestrianised streets. Shopping areas need to be places where you can linger, move around freely, maybe stop and relax with a coffee at a pavement cafe. And look - there's a friend or neighbour! Stop and have a chat? Why not!

Sadly, this idyllic vision is somewhat spoiled when you're squeezed onto narrow pavements, forced to run the gauntlet of multiple lanes of traffic or wait interminably at sheep-pen crossings. The roar of traffic doesn't make for relaxing conversation, and even if there were room for cafe tables on the pavements, who wants a serving of diesel smoke with their skinny latte? These kind of noisy, polluted conditions are probably what those Chinese workers making those shoes you just bought have to put up with. They probably don't even have lattes there, let alone skinny ones. In the words of the Mary Portas Review of high streets:

"Out-of-town centres create an environment where the shopper comes first, with wide footways and pedestrianised streets, and good public transport links such as free buses. This has taken business away from our high streets. In order to be places that people want to visit, high streets need to be accessible, attractive and safe...badly planned transport infrastructure can make high street shopping an inaccessible and unpleasant experience for pedestrians. And small and cluttered pavements, as well as busy roads, can make high streets unsafe for family shopping."

Yet councils don't seem to understand this. Their idea of a high-street makeover is to do anything rather than address the fundamental problem. I've posted before about the 'new' Wimbledon Broadway, in which the pavements are slightly wider, the station concourse is now car-free, but other than that the experience is unchanged in all major respects. In fact, the only compelling evidence of change is the sizeable bill for digging up the roads.

Is Richmond council any more enlightened? They have a proposal to "improve Twickenham Town Centre and reduce the impact of traffic". How are they going to do that? Clearly, people have to get to the town centre. According to the oxymoronically-titled Action Plan, "all new developments, environmental and transport improvements are designed to be sustainable" and "transport proposals positively enhance the street scene". Which can only mean better cycle facilities, right? Wrong. According to the Action Plan leaflet, there will be "limited widening of eastern footway in London Road through removal of cycle lane". You read that right - they were intending to remove cycle facilities, not make them better. That is the only occurrence of the word 'cycle' or 'cycling' in the whole document.

Unsurprisingly, the people who cycle around Twickers weren't too happy about the removal of their cycle lane, crap though it is, and objected. This prompted the Council to put out a statement saying they were "considering installing advisory cycle lanes", but then decided that they wouldn't bother.

You're not going to reduce traffic levels if you treat cycling as an afterthought, or if under all the greenwash is the telling statement "Transport proposals will be subject to further detailed testing to ensure that they do not have an unacceptable impact on the highway network." It is quite clear that Richmond Council are quite happy for Twickenham to be somewhere to drive through on the way to somewhere else.

Yet, if you look at the 'artists impression' on Page 6 of the Action Plan leaflet, it looks like they've reduced 4 lanes of traffic down to 2 on King Street. Separating the two lanes, there is a wide central area with cycle stands. This width could be used to provide a separate cycle track, but that idea obviously didn't occur to the Council. They're evidently happy for people to park their bike here,  as long as they don't want to take the piss by, say, riding it there in the first place.

This is the worst kind of local government profligacy: spending huge amounts of taxpayer's money putting lipstick (expensive paving slabs) on a rather unattractive pig. Sustainable transport strategy? That's filed under 'unachievable'. And these are the people that the Coalition are trusting to deliver on cycling: people who clearly have no interest in it or understanding of it. Let's end this post with a quote from Richmond Council's cycling champion:

"Sometimes campaigning to improve safety is counter productive. It puts potential new cyclist off. Is that what you want to do...Can we please have RCC [Richmond Cycling Campaign] encouraging people to cycle not putting them off." 

Put people off cycling? Richmond Council are clearly doing a much better job of that than Richmond Cycling Campaign ever will.

Monday, September 24, 2012

DfT Think! Campaign

The DfT have launched a campaign aimed at cyclists and drivers, to try to improve the UK's dismal record on cycling's the advice aimed at drivers:

  1. Look out for cyclists, especially when turning - make eye contact if possible so they know you’ve seen them
  2. Use your indicators - signal your intentions so that cyclists can react
  3. Give cyclists space – at least half a car’s width. If there isn’t sufficient space to pass, hold back. Remember that cyclists may need to manoeuvre suddenly if the road is poor, it’s windy or if a car door is opened
  4. Always check for cyclists when you open your car door
  5. Avoid driving over advanced stop lines – these allow cyclists to get to the front and increase their visibility
  6. Follow the Highway Code including ‘stop’ and ‘give way’ signs and traffic lights

I'm going to suggest another one:

7. When you're planning to make a right turn at a junction, don't accelerate towards the amber light, making the turn too fast, collide with a bollard and flip your car on its side.

This might seem obvious, but it happens with alarming regularity at the junction between Worple Road and Wimbledon Hill Road. As I have said before, I really, really hate being an 'I-told-you-so': I've already blogged about this particular bollard twice before, and it seems the message STILL isn't getting through to some Wimbledon drivers. Local residents report this kind of thing happens at least once a month.

It is clear that drivers and bollards are equally responsible for these kind of accidents, so by way of balance, here is Cycalogical's advice to bollards:
  1. Position yourself positively, decisively and well clear of the kerb – look and signal to show drivers what you plan to do and make eye contact where possible so you know drivers have seen you
  2. Avoid getting on the inside of large vehicles, like lorries or buses, where you might not be seen
  3. Always use lights after dark or when visibility is poor
  4. Wearing light coloured or reflective clothing during the day and reflective clothing and/or accessories in the dark increases your visibility
  5. Follow the Highway Code
  6. THINK! recommends looking like a policeman's helmet, and being securely fastened to a traffic island that conforms to current regulations

Remember, Bollards and Drivers - Let's Look Out For Each Other!!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Electric Car Update

I really hate to say "I told you so". And I really hate to say I told you "I hate to say I told you so".

In 2011, in a post that started with the words I hate to say "I told you so"I wrote:

if the average EV buyer is a typical 2-car household, the good old taxpayer giving massive subsidies to help some of the wealthiest, most car-dependent and most polluting households continue pretty much as they are but feel less guilty about it. Is this really the Government's idea of progress in reducing our national carbon footprint? Oh - and I nearly forgot - an EV is just as bad for congestion as a fossil-fuelled car.

And guess what, the Transport Select Committee has spotted that my prediction has come to pass:

So far, Department for Transport expenditure on plug-in cars - some £11m - has benefited just a handful of motorists.
"We were warned of the risk that the government is subsidising second cars for affluent households; currently plug-in cars are mostly being purchased as second cars for town driving."
"Far more work is required to ensure that this programme is a good use of public funds."

Far more work? The thing is broken. People are using the electric car to pick up the sun-dried tomato hummus from Waitrose, then getting in their Range Rovers and driving to their second homes in the country.

Here's an idea the Transport Select Committee and the Government might want to get a hold of. Instead of this socialism for the rich, spend the money on decent Continental-style cycling infrastructure instead. That has a proven, positive rate of return in terms of health benefits, reducing transport costs/subsidies, congestion, and environmental damage. It benefits people from right across the social spectrum, and will reduce CO2 emissions far more per unit of investment than the electric car scheme ever will. It'll also generate British jobs.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

CSH 2 Extension

LCC reports TfL as promising that CSH #2 will be extended to Stratford, and will *gasp* take account of Go Dutch principles.

TfL have seconded a Danish infrastructure expert to share knowledge with UK counterparts.

Just one problem: the language barrier. Although no doubt this Dane will speak good English, there are no English equivalents in TfL's vocabulary for the following expressions:

"god cykel infrastruktur" - the nearest equivalent would be 'blue paint'.

"segregeret cykel lane" - the nearest equivalent would be 'car parking'.

"cykel prioritet" - the nearest equivalent would be "motor traffic flow".

"cyklist" - the nearest equivalent would be "highway obstruction".

 However, we live in hope.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Ride London

Ride London is the latest post-Games legacy wheeze from Boris Johnson. He enthuses, "I urge every Londoner and cycle fanatics from all over the country, if not the world, to mark the weekend of 3 August 2013 in their diaries for what I believe will become one of the world’s number one cycling events.”

Other bloggers have questioned the value of such an event. It is true that two days of limited traffic-free routes a year is no substitute for proper infrastructure. However I'm quite confident that sport-cycling does convert into commuting and utility cycling (and vice-versa), helps rescue cycling from a "wierdy-beardy knit-your-own-hummus" image and ultimately helps generate favourable political winds for cycling. However, a festival such as Ride London needs to get it right.

Ride London consists of four events. The first is the "Freecycle". This is basically indistinguishable from what was known as the Skyride and before that Hovis Freeride. (They'll run out of names soon.) It's a short circuit in central London, free of motor traffic, but absolutely chock-a-block with cyclists. If you're unlucky and the weather is fine, it's ridiculously busy. Iit is painfully slow, but also quite dangerous, as there are lots of kids weaving around. If you've been on one, this will sound familiar. It's nice to experience London free of motor traffic, but that apart, it's one of the least pleasant rides I've ever been on. Also, no roads are closed apart from the central circuit, so to get there and back you'll be going through less lovely experiences like Victoria or the Vauxhall Gyratory or the Millbank Roundabout, just to give a contrast and remind you what cycling in London is really like. This is the Disneyfication of cycling: an enclosed, controlled area in which there are crowds of happy kids, crowds of less happy parents, nothing is real, the rides aren't too scary, and you're reminded that (feel free to sing along)
somewhere over the rainbow there's a land that I heard of once in a video:
where bike safety counts for more than traffic flow.

The second Ride London event is the Ride London 100. This is a Sportive-style event on a 100km closed-road circuit. Sounds great eh? There are just three catches. The first is the event is limited to 20,000 riders. "It is anticipated that the event will be over-subscribed and that a ballot will be held to allocate places in the event," says the website. The second is the £48 entry fee although you may get a free entry if you raise minimum sponsorship for a charity. Now there is nothing wrong with charity fundraising, but why, in an event that should be encouraging more people to ride bikes, are these barriers to entry being put up? For less than £48 you could join a club like Kingston Wheelers or London Dynamo and get a year's cycling, instead of just a day's. And you won't  be queueing up behind 20,000 other cyclists at every hill. Unless I miss my guess, 20,000 sounds far too many for a sportive, and it risks turning into something like the London to Brighton. But if it's a cycling carnival rather than an endurance challenge, why charge £48 and why restrict the numbers at all?
The third catch is: you may have to start the event at 6:00AM - which for a lot of people will mean getting up at 4:00AM. This is only necessary because they are trying to cram the Ride London Classic race on the same course on the same day.

To complete the Ride London programme, there is a 'Classic' professional one-day race run on the same circuit as the Ride London 100, and in addition criterium racing which will "showcase the Olympic cyclists of the future at a series of junior events, celebrate the capital’s Paralympic legacy with hand-cycle racing and offer a superb opportunity to witness and support professional women’s cycle racing". Sounds great - although the problem with a 1.3-mile criterium circuit is it won't have much room for spectators.

In summary, it is certainly a lot better than nothing, and it's more ambitious than the old Skyride. I'm sure it will attract lots of people and be a success. But  it could be a whole lot better. It is more like preaching to the converted than evangelising. That's because Freecycle needs to address the problems of actually getting to the centre of London: most parents will be wary of letting their kids make the journey into town even with a led ride. The solution (of course) is to have permanent low-traffic/segregated routes that could be used by commuters as well as for a once-yearly event. Also the Freecycle circuit needs to be a lot bigger than it is, to reduce the sardine-tin feel. To that extent, it would make more sense to open the Ride London 100 route to all cyclists.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Boris - Pie in the Sky?

You gotta love Boris. He really is the master of the improbable, not to say stupid, vision. Airports in the sea. Roads underground. And now, cycle lanes in the sky!

The Times reports that Boris "is considering proposals for a raised cycle network between mainline stations in London" similar to the High Line in New York. The difference being, High Line is a linear park along a disused railway (and interestingly, the park rules prohibit bicycles, skateboards, skates or scooters), whereas Boris is proposing putting cycle paths alongside existing, working, extremely busy raised railway tracks.

Now, unless I miss my guess, there isn't a huge amount of spare room on the elevated tracks in London. It's not like they were built with a wide strip of surplus land on each side. (That's the great thing about railways - they are extremely compact in terms of space used per passenger journey.) You can't have cyclists riding a foot away from trains whooshing by at 60MPH, for the same reason you're advised to stand back from the platform's edge at a station, although Boris would probably tell you that it's perfectly negotiable if you keep your wits about you. I suppose you could have some kind of cantilevered arrangement to hang a cycleway off the side of existing viaducts and bridges, but that would be very complex and cost a fortune. Some parts of the railway do have enough spare land to form a cycle track, but there are so many bridges and points where the spare width isn't sufficient. A further problem is that you will need regular points of access, so that people can join and leave the railside paths. If the track is elevated by, say, twenty feet, you would need ramps of 400 feet in length to give a reasonable 5% gradient.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm all in favour of original ideas and creative solutions. But wouldn't it be a lot easier and cheaper to stay at street level most of the time? Building cycle flyovers or tunnels to take cyclists safely through junctions wouldn't be a bad idea, connected to proper segregated cycle paths, of course. Or we could just do what the Dutch do, which is proven to work and is (now this really beggars belief) mainly at street level. If there's one thing the Olympics has proved is that London's road network can carry essential traffic plus lots of extra Olympics cars and still be fairly empty. In other words, TfL's standard excuse for doing nothing for cyclists - that every motor journey is essential and traffic flow is paramount - has been shown to be a lie.

But where could you put segregated lanes at street level on London's busy streets, where we are continually assured there is no space?

How about here, on Victoria Embankment (below):

 As you can see, there is a wide central reservation, whose main purpose is to enable motorists to exceed the 30MPH speed limit in safety. Reallocate that space and you have a decent cycle lane.The road also has parking for coaches, which could quite easily be reallocated to nearby streets - there are plenty that are wide enough. This embarrassment of under-used and misallocated space runs all the way from Westminster Bridge to Blackfriars Bridge and would yield plenty of room for a good segregated lane,  even without reducing the number of  general traffic lanes.  Why doesn't Boris do this? Perhaps because it's a lot more boring than putting cycle lanes in the sky?