Thursday, November 6, 2014

Democracy - Get on-side

The BBC is doing a series of news reports on cycling. Today's focuses on New York. I wrote a post a couple of years back on how New York was starting to invest in cycling, and it attracted one comment that New York was still crap and dangerous. Well, judging by the BBC's report, it is certainly getting less crap, and that is because the NY Mayor is in a position to actually get things done. He doesn't have to negotiate with boroughs like Westminster, or the City of London. No-one it seems can slow the New York mayor down if he sets his mind to do something.

Early in the report, we had the City of London's Michael Welbank saying of the proposed new East-West and North-South Cycle Superhighways:  

"Cycling in towns is here to stay,and is going to grown, and we don't resist that, we try to accommodate it...but normally...major infrastructure, you really want years to get everybody on-side...not just one group, you want everybody on side".

So I am not sure how that works. Cyclists have never, ever been "got on-side" in any London roads project I can think of, including many run by the City of London (see for plenty of examples). So the idea that normally we get everybody on-side doesn't stand up to even the most casual scrutiny. In fact, cycling and to a large extent walking have been pushed off-side systematically over recent decades, and what is happening here is cycling is (belatedly and by degrees) being brought on-side. That is the whole point of the project - it is to bring some semblance of proportionality into the allocation of roadspace.  This is not a new cake that needs to be divided up fairly between all groups - the whole existing cake is in possession of a limo-driving royal family and a small piece of it is being given to the starved masses. Quoted in The Guardian 2 months ago, Welbank said:

"All road users should have equal opportunities. At the moment [with these plans] we believe the cyclists are having priority to the disadvantage of other users."

That's a bit like saying that in South Africa in  1994, black people were having priority to the disadvantage of whites.

Now, what you should know about Welbank and his fellow City Corporation representatives is they are not democratically elected. At least, the City is not a democracy in the sense that you or I would recognize it - while there are elections, it is largely corporations (banks and financial companies in the main) that appoint the voters  - and the rank-and-file employees within the companies don't get a say. Be in no doubt - this is a quango.

So why, in a 21st century liberal democracy, do we face a situation where a democratically-elected mayor pursuing a mandated policy (decent cycle infrastructure) can be obstructed by an undemocratic quango? To that extent, why is it that Westminster (with 150,000 electors) can obstruct the Mayor's cycling policies that serve his constituency of 6 million electors?

It seems to us here at Cycalogical that with the Scottish Referendum bringing up the question of local devolution and accountability, now is a good time to think about how London is run. There are some issues that are unique to local conditions, and need to be decided locally. But there are plenty of other services, like refuse collection, that are pretty much commoditized. Currently services are managed in theory by each of the 33 councils. That means London has 33 different organizations doing what is a very similar job...except in fact they don't anymore: some councils have already figured out there is a lot of cost and not a lot of point in this duplication and have set up organizations such as the South London Waste Partnership, which manages your old newspapers and tin cans if you live in Sutton, Merton, Croydon or Kingston. But the problem with this of course is there is no overall accountability - if you live in Merton and you think your rubbish service is -er - rubbish, your local council has only limited influence and control over the service being provided. So there is a democratic deficit, caused by the fact that London's democratic structure is out-of-date with the realities of how an increasing number of services are provided.

Transport is of course a different matter. We already have Transport for London, controlled by the Mayor, which is in charge of London's transport, only of course it is not. TfL only controls the major roads, and all others fall under local borough control. Except the royal parks and some commons, which have their own little organizations looking after paths and access...oh and of course central government, which has put in place over the years lots of primary legislation that makes it much more difficult and expensive to get perfectly reasonable transport measures in place. Another danger is that left to lots of local boroughs, there is no consistency or coherency to policy. If one borough tries to reduce traffic by restricting parking, drivers can just go to a neighboring borough that enables parking to try to revive its ailing high street.

Transport is by its very nature a cross-borough issue. It makes no sense to have great bus or cycle routes in Sutton, which stop as soon as you get into Croydon or Merton. And it is cycling that is the biggest victim of our current multi-layered approach to government: there are formidable obstacles set up by the labyrinthine bureaucracy comprised of the various bodies that have to be involved, consulted and brought "on-side" if the London Mayor wants to construct a meaningful network of cycle routes fit for purpose and worthy of a first-world city. What is most toxic about the current set-up is that local boroughs now (with the Health and Social Care Act 2012) have responsibility for public health. And the easiest way to improve public health is to get people doing more active travel - which is very difficult to do at a borough level. If you want people cycling to work and to school, you need a city-wide network of cycle routes.

Surely the most sensible arrangement for London is to have more powers for the Mayor. Mrs Thatcher abolished the GLC, leaving London without leadership. Labour then set up a Mayor who is little more than a glorified transport commissioner who is not even in full control of transport and is not properly accountable, with an assembly that is just a talking shop. We can and must do better. This city needs to be an attractive and healthy place to live in. If the Mayor wants to reduce the incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, and a long list of other common but preventable diseases, thereby saving the health service a sack of cash enabling him to hand back the savings in tax cuts or better services, and reducing traffic congestion, pollution and noise, while making better use of public space, it is not reasonable to ask that he has the power to do this?

[As a footnote: we are not claiming to have the solution for how best to run London or the UK - but we do believe that the current system has all the problems you would expect given that it dates from a time when most people didn't own cars or telephones, the net was something you went fishing with, tuberculosis rather than obesity was the disease of choice, and the NHS didn't exist. We think that a horse-drawn, quill-pen, gas-lit democracy could be a little out of step with the information age. Let alone the City of London Corporation, which dates from an era when gas light (and democracy) was the stuff of science fiction... ]

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Crossrail for Bikes - Dave Hill gets it Wrong ?

Generally we like Dave Hill's insightful and reasonably balanced journalism. But in his piece about the Crossrail for Bikes, we think he's got it a bit wrong.

"A political railroading exercise", is the picture he paints.

He starts by stating:

"some of these concerns [about the east-west cycle route] were aired for the benefit of the policy committee of London Travelwatch, the official watchdog representing all - repeat, all - transport users in the capital."

First, London Travelwatch does not have a good record of representing cyclists in the Capital, in our opinion:  they don't really 'get it' and have been laggards in the debate about what place cycling should have in the transport mix.

"[London Chamber of Commerce and Industry's] problem with the superhighway is a 'lack of almost any information at all' about its possible effects on the workings of London’s economy. "

This is a strange point. TfL are not economists and it is not their job to make economic predictions. And in any case, economists don't have a great track record of predicting macro effects, let alone effects on this small-scale level. There are all sorts of changes to traffic patterns happening on a daily basis, caused by all manner of things from events like the Olympics to roadworks and construction projects, but we don't do detailed analysis of possible effects on the economy. It is not the Mayor's job to keep London's businesses in a bubble, sealed from all possible ill effects. It is up to businesses to adapt to changing conditions. More successful businesses will take advantage of opportunities arising for more cycling. Many sectors, from the bike industry to tourism, will benefit. There will be business opportunities for freight consolidation and deliveries by pedal-powered vehicles.
And let us not forget: it is the job of businesses to serve London, not the other way around. There is no way that quality of life in this city should be sacrificed to make life a little bit easier for businesses who can't or won't adapt to what Londoners want from their transport system and street environment.

"London First has also raised the problems the superhighway could cause pedestrians."

This is ridiculous. Problems for pedestrians have been caused by fifty years of motor-centric planning and traffic-flow prioritization, not least by the current Mayor. To suggest that better cycle facilities will cause pedestrians problems is a bit like saying giving chemotherapy to a cancer patient will make them feel unwell. Cycling is a far more efficient use of roadspace than private cars or taxis, so is part of the solution, not part of the problem. And what is more, 'improvements' for pedestrians have often involved endangering cyclists, as carriageways are narrowed while no attempt is made to provide for cyclists, to control traffic speeds or volumes, or enforce against dangerous driving.

"[City of London's] Michael Welbank has described the superhighway plans as 'too narrowly focussed on the needs of cyclists' "

Well, it is a cycle scheme. And set against a background where virtually every single change to London's road system in recent history has ignored the needs of cyclists. So to take this scheme in isolation is to skip by the fact that London has an enormous amount of catching up to do in terms of cycling provision. To draw a causal link between lack of priority for pedestrians and this scheme is bogus.

" The superhighway, [Iain Simmons] thinks, could add another 20 or 30 seconds to these [pedestrian crossing wait] times."

The presence of cycle superhighways doesn't determine anything. With or without cycle superhighways, it is up to TfL how signals prioritize pedestrians- they didn't start to relegate pedestrians down the pecking order with this project, and there is no reason why they should continue to do so. The fundamental problem is that TfL have tried to squeeze far too much traffic into London's narrow streets. During the Olympics, we had reallocation of roadspace and a massive reduction of traffic. Did London's economy collapse as a result? Not that you'd notice. Which puts the lie to the idea that every journey made today is absolutely necessary. Other cities cope well with less traffic. And we certainly don't see anyone arguing that the city would be better off with more traffic - and more pollution, more congestion, noise and degradation to the street scene and urban environment.

"The common theme is that all concerned want cyclists’ lot improved, but worry that Johnson’s plans are being pushed through far too hurriedly. "

Are you sure about that, Dave? Are you sure there isn't a hidden agenda? We've spent a long time getting to the point where the debate about cycle infrastructure is settled. It is now the consensus that more cycling won't happen without decent segregated routes. So if you are against this project, you are against cycling. Period. But it isn't politically expedient anymore for organizations and lobbyists to directly oppose the plans, as to do so would associate them with continued death and injury to cyclists, so their only weapons are delay, procrastination and obfuscation. And it is not really credible for people to claim that the building of segreagated routes is a surpise. Dutch-style routes were in the Mayor's manifesto, and supported by all major parties. Businesses have had years to think through the implications, and do economic analysis if they so chose.
"Pushed through far too hurriedly?" Why not slow down a bit and let more cyclists die, you mean?

But here is the real point: London voted for this. It would be an affront to democracy for plans for decent segregated routes to be degraded into...well, the kind of crap that has hitherto been the calling card of cycling 'investment'. What's more, it would be a gross waste of taxpayers' money - the benefits - economic, public health, pollution, environment, liveability etc. etc., only come if ordinary non-lycra-clad people start cycling - and we know they won't if the routes aren't up to a consistent standard throughout.

"Arranging this triumph is the mission of his part-time cycling adviser Andrew Gilligan, a pushy media chum with no experience in transport planning."

We've had decades of transport planners making a total mess of cycling in the UK. It's not up to Gilligan to design or plan the routes - that's the job of the engineers - it is up to him to make them happen. And frankly, being 'pushy' is a required attribute, as is understanding communication and the media. At least Gilligan rides a bike, which makes him a lot more qualified than a lot of people at TfL. He is doing what he was hired to do - and the general impression is, he is doing a half-decent job.

Sorry, Dave. We think that better cycling provision will be good for London, for its people, its economy, its businesses, its health and its environment. And there is plenty of evidence for this. It is up to businesses to adapt to the changes and opportunities this positive change will throw up. Sure, there are details that need to be worked out, but the fact is that roadspace must be reallocated to cycling, and there will be consequences (both positive and negative) to that. For example, on the plus side of the ledger, Victoria Embankment will go from being an urban motorway to having the cycle track as a buffer between the riverside pavement and the motor traffic. The riverside will go from being an unwelcoming, unattractive, noisy and polluted place to somewhere people might actually want to linger. Yes, some journeys may take longer. On the other hand, a whole new transport mode, cycling, will be opened up to people who currently aren't prepared to mix it on a bike with heavy traffic. People might take a Boris Bike rather than a taxi, and their journey could well be quicker. Don't forget that taxis are responsible for a lot (about 30%) of central London pollution (according to Darren Johnson based on TfL figures).

"The 'Crossrail for bikes', is scheduled to be complete just before the mayor’s second term is due to end in May, 2016. It would be hailed as the crowning glory of his much-trumpeted “cycling revolution”....TfL would like the time to do its job with the thoroughness this ambitious project merits. That, though, might clash with the career interests of the mayor - and they, of course, must always come first".

Again, this project can't come quickly enough. The idea that the Mayor shouldn't push ahead with a great scheme because that might be perceived as good for his career prospects is completely illogical. There are very few projects that wouldn't benefit from a bit more time and a bit more money, but in case you hadn't noticed, we have a public health emergency in this country. The consequences of sedentary lifestyles is threatening to bankrupt the NHS. Decent cycle infrastructure can't come soon enough, and making Boris look good is surely a price worth paying.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brazil - Developing World Cycling Infrastructure?

Brazil isn't all about football. With the blanket coverage of the World Cup, on some of the on-beach punditry footage in Rio de Janiero, you may have been able to see in the background some half-decent cycling infrastructure:

Above: cycle crossing at Av. Atlantica

Above: Semi-segregated lane on Rua Figueiredo de Magalhaes

Above: Segregated beachfront track, Copacapana Beach (Av. Atlantica)

You can even get from an airport to downtown on a segregated path.

According to riouncovered: "There is a decent network of bike lanes connecting the various neighbourhoods. The Mayor’s office has been keen to highlight Rio’s green credentials before the World Cup and the Olympics so new cycle lanes have been sprouting up all over the place. They are all pretty well connected and are strategically placed to enjoy some of the most famous locations and spectacular scenery."

Of course Rio is not Amsterdam - much of it is traffic-choked, hostile and dangerous if you're on a bike. But there seems to be a will to change this, although there is the usual lineup of motorized opponents.

In London, we can only aspire to have developing-world cycling infrastructure. Head over to voleospeed for a summary of London's almost complete lack of cycle infrastructure that is our Olympic legacy.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Traffic Signs Consultation

I was feeling a bit bad about not posting on this blog for a while. But then I thought about how long it takes UK governments to get even simple cycle-related issues resolved, and then I didn't feel so guilty.

A traffic signs policy review was first launched under the previous government, back in 2008. Getting rid of traffic sign clutter along with some of the sillier regulations around road signage (no shortage of those) and the associated red tape has been an ambition of the current government. So, in 2011 a Policy Paper was released by the then minister, Norman Baker. But it's taken until May 2014 for the publication of a draft "Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions". You will notice - this is still just a consultation document. You'll have to wait even longer before the new regulations actually see the light of day.

Given that it's taken this long, you'd expect all the stupidity that prevents decent cycling infrastructure to be swept away in one go. So what exactly are the changes that favour cycling proposed by the document ?

  • 'Trixi' mirrors 
  • 'No Entry Except Cycles' signing 
  • Cycle filter signals 
  • Use of a red cycle aspect on cycle-only traffic lights 
  • Cycle route branding - for example, wider national use of Transport for London's Cycle Superhighways branding, and the new 'Quietways' signing 
  • 7.5m deep Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs), to provide more capacity for cyclists 
  • New road markings to help indicate cycle routes through junctions 
  • Wider cycle lane markings 
  • The use of the square white 'elephant's footprints' markings to indicate the route for cyclists through a traffic signal controlled junction 
  • Greater flexibility in designing 20mph zones and limits 
  • Advanced Stop Lines covering only part of the width of the road - for example, across one lane only 
  • The removal of the requirement for a lead-in lane or gate at ASLs. This will permit cyclists to cross the first stop line at any point, allowing them to position themselves where they feel it is most appropriate 
  • ASLs at crossings as well as at junctions 
  • Removing the requirement for signs indicating off-road cycle routes to be lit 
  • Allowing smaller signs for off-road cycle routes
  • Allowing zig-zag markings at pedestrian crossings to be offset from the kerb by up to 2m, to allow cycle lanes to continue through the controlled area 
  • Where pedestrian zone signs include the “no motor vehicles” sign, the zone will now be referred to as a “pedestrian and cycle zone”. This will help people's understanding of the difference between the “no vehicles” and “no motor vehicles” signs 
  • Remove the need for a traffic order from various cycle facilities where possible. These could include with-flow and contra-flow cycle lanes and exemptions for cyclists where an existing restriction is in place (e.g. adding 'except cycles' to an existing 'no entry' restriction).
Not exactly earth-shattering, is it?

Some of these changes are already being used, but it is safe to say that none of the above represent any more than tinkering with discredited approaches or slowly adopting measures that have been common on the Continent for a decade or more. ASLs, for example, are no longer regarded as good practice in European countries with high levels of cycling. To give you an idea how far behind the game the UK is, 'No Entry Except Cycles' signs are everywhere in Brussels, which is near the bottom of the international cycling league table with 2.5% modal share.

Before you get too despondant and try to hang yourself with an old inner tube, there are a couple of more promising changes:
  • Shared-use pedestrian/cyclist crossing...a new form of crossing, similar to a zebra crossing, which would allow cyclists to ride across it.

Unfortunately, the design doesn't look very good - the zebra stripes only cover the pedestrian part of the crossing, not the cycle part, so you can imagine dozy motorists failing to stop at the intended stop line. But it does follow a Continental pattern, so maybe it'll work.
However, the regulations still seem to require belisha beacons. This makes such crossings expensive to install; in France and elsewhere crossings do not require expensive electrical work. Plus, the zig-zag markings clutter the street and displace the crossing from where people actually want to cross. The document really should have got rid of zig-zags altogether - which is a pretty damning indictment of the lack of vision or ambition displayed. (For a detailed survey of what is wrong with British zebra crossings, head to AsEasyAsRidingABike). The document later states, confusingly: "zig-zag controlled areas will still be a requirement...however, the requirements for zig-zag layouts at crossings will be simplified where possible". What that means in practice is anybody's guess, and it doesn't change the fact that Europe seems to do crossings that work just fine without zig-zags.
And finally - almost unbelievably - the document states "we have been unable to authorise a trial of such a [shared-use] crossing". Is it really that hard to trial what has worked on the Continent for many years? And why is it even necessary? This is the familiar "not invented here" attitude that seems to pervade highway engineering in this country.

Next up, we have low-level lights for cyclists. "The off-street trials carried out last year proved the concept and gave us sufficient evidence to agree to authorise a limited on-street trial". Again, why is it necessary to waste taxpayers' money trialling something that is already commonplace in Europe, thus delaying the introduction of potentially lifesaving improvements?

Lastly, and potentially the highlight:

"We will be taking forward the opportunity to trial the 'Cycle Streets' concept within the revised TSRGD. This is a bold initiative, which is being considered by some of the Cycle Cities and London, possibly including a ban on overtaking on lightly trafficked roads where cycle flows are high. Subject to any scheme trial, this prohibition could be accompanied by an advisory speed limit of 15 mph"

The problem with this is it is all a bit wishy-washy: "possibly including...could be accompanied by an advisory speed limit..." What on earth is an advisory speed limit? Is it the same as an unenforceable speed limit that no-one will take notice of? And the problem with applying an overtaking ban only on "lightly trafficked roads where cycle flows are high", is that cycle flows are generally not high because dangerous overtaking of cyclists is endemic - and that of course leads to high motor traffic levels as would-be cyclists retire to the safety of their cars even for short journeys. It could be argued that we need overtaking bans anywhere dangerous overtakes are happening.

This government has taken 4 years to come up with this document. 4 years? It looks like it should have taken 4 months maximum, even if you had a 3 month break in the middle. There is nothing innovative; nothing that hasn't been done elsewhere, and usually better, already. And worst of all, this is just a document. Given this government is fond of leaving it up to local authorities to decide to promote cycling (something they are generally ill-qualified and ill-motivated to do), it could be many years before any of the more significant measures make it onto highways.

It seems that while in time the Rockies may tumble, Gibraltar may crumble, but crap cycling is here to stay. You've been a lovely audience, thank you, and goodnight.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Burghley Road Ballsup - How Not to Do Traffic Calming

Burghley Road in the affluent Wimbledon Common area of Merton is usually a quiet road. There is some through traffic but generally speaking it's as quiet as most of the surrounding streets, which is pretty quiet. It's usually a nice peaceful neighborhood in which to ride your bike. However, word has it that at school run rush hour time, it gets a lot busier with local parents dropping their straw-boater-clad Jocastas and Ptolemys off at the local prep schools. Some drivers are a little, shall we say, enthusiastic, with the 85th centile average speed at a scarcely-credible 39MPH.

So Merton have put in some pinch-points to try to restrict "excessive traffic speeds and safety".

At the top of the hill at the Wimbledon Common end, there is a reasonably well-constructed sinusoidal road hump. This is a good, cycle-friendly start. The road slopes downhill with a considerable although not Alpine gradient.

Above: Near the bottom of the hill, there is a pinch-point with a cycle bypass. Motor traffic must give way to oncoming traffic approaching the camera's viewpoint. Nothing too much wrong with this at first glance, you might think. Now look closer at that cycle bypass.

You'll notice that it's already starting to accumulate a lot of debris, but let's look even closer and see what's under that particularly dense accumulation of crud:

Yes, it's a cast-iron rainwater drain, the kind that will throw you off if you ride over it with your front brake on in the wet. And your brakes will almost certainly be on, given that you've just come down a steep hill. What is less obvious from the picture is that at the edge of the drain is a fairly wide groove that could also play havoc. So the safe area to the right of the drain is only about 2 1/2 feet (750mm) wide. The separating island by contrast is a generous 6 feet (2m) or so. There's also a significant camber in the narrow cycle lane to complicate the rider's life still further.

This arrangement has introduced another potentially lethal hazard. Above you see the end of the cycle lane and on the right, the junction with Calonne Road. If you're planning to turn right into Calonne Road, the site of the pinch point (whether the camera is positioned) is about where you'd be signalling and moving into the centre of the lane to position yourself to make the turn. Which, by the way, is a tricky manoeuvre, because of the adverse camber: take it too fast in the wet and you could end up unstuck. But anyway, because the pinch point forces you left at exactly the wrong point, you now have to signal, do a rear observation, slow down and position right, all in a distance that really doesn't allow for it. The alternative of course is to take the lane early, exactly at the point where motorists will be expecting you to take the cycle lane, which puts you at risk of a rear hit from a yummy mummy in a Range Rover. There's a lot of them round here.

Now onto the final hazard.

Ignore the pool of water, that's not relevant. Look instead at the buildout of the left pavement, which narrows the pinch point to a width making it impossible for a car to safely pass a cyclist. But of course that won't stop some drivers from trying. And that is exactly what happened when I was taking these photos. A motorist in a large BMW SUV approached two cyclists from behind just as they entered the pinch-point. Luckily one of them had the presence of mind to take the lane in time, forcing the driver to brake, and probably avoiding a dangerously-close pass. While many drivers will react to the traffic calming in the way the designers intended, there is a small but significant number who won't be able to cope with the combination of road humps, give-ways and their own impatience, and will simply put their foot down to try to beat an oncoming driver to the pinch-point, then realize (too late) that there's a road hump in the middle of it and brake unexpectedly. And cyclists are by design forced into conflict with this kind of driver.

So, once again in Merton we have engineers who have spent a lot of money trying to control motor traffic, but because of their lack of understanding of the dynamics of cycling, they've unwittingly created new hazards for cyclists. It doesn't fill you with confidence in Merton's competence to create a Mini-Holland, should the borough win funding for their bid.