When I arrived in St Albans on a Saturday morning earlier this month, I encountered a long, completely static queue of motor vehicles. It turned out they were all waiting to enter the Christopher Place car park in the city centre, which has 180 spaces, but was already full.
The queue snaked around the corner, winding for several hundred metres around the city centre streets.
As far as I could tell, this was completely normal for the drivers and passengers inside – nobody was getting angry, they were just patiently waiting for other people to leave the car park so they could move up one slot in the queue. The sort of thing that probably happens every Saturday. And of course they are paying for the privilege.
I rarely drive, but when I do what immediately hits me is the frustration of being ‘caught’ in this kind of situation – having to queue, having to wait, often so far back in the queue you have no idea what’s causing the hold up, and with no way of finding out. Driving in urban areas is frequently a dispiriting, painful experience, made so because everyone else is doing it.
Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, these kinds of problems are going to get worse. More and more of us are going to be living in towns and cities, a function of increasing population, and a continuing trend away from rural dwelling to urban dwelling. 53 million of us already live in urban areas. That is going to increase pressure on the existing road network, if we continue to travel around as we do now.
There are two long-term solutions to this pressure – the first is to ‘spread out’, to redesign our towns and cities to accommodate even more motoring. What could be called the ‘Milton Keynes’ solution, or perhaps the Lord Wolfson ‘flyover’ solution.
If you don’t like the look of that, the only other solution is to change the way we move about in urban areas, to reduce pressure, by maximising the efficient use of road space. That means prioritising walking, cycling and public transport, policy that will require sustained investment in redesigning the way our existing roads are laid out, to make them safe and attractive enough for people to switch away from car travel for short urban trips.
The reason I say our problems are going to get worse is that we aren’t prioritising these kinds of sensible solutions. The vast majority of the ‘investment’ announced by government continues to be spent on major road schemes that will worsen congestion in urban areas, by pumping more and more motor vehicles into them, instead of focusing that investment on solutions within them. Towns and cities will not cope, and congestion will be worsened, as a direct consequence of these policies.
Amazingly these kinds of announcements are presented as ‘benefiting’ ‘towns and cities across the country’, when quite the opposite is true. Building a massive road scheme between Oxford and Cambridge is not going to be helpful for congestion in either city, because it really isn’t very easy to drive around within these cities already – funnelling more cars into them is completely counterproductive.
Energy and investment should instead be focused on enabling space-efficient alternatives within both of these cities, and on prioritising rail links between them, which can deliver large numbers of people right into the city centres in an efficient way. And these solutions are far more cost-effective than massive road building schemes.
We seem locked into repeating the mistakes of the past fifty years, assuming that people want to drive in vast numbers because so many of them are doing so already, when in fact these individual decisions are largely a function of the poor quality of the alternatives, and of the way that motoring has been prioritised by the way we have designed, built (and rebuilt) road space in urban areas. But worse than that, there is a curious failure to recognise that these ‘solutions’ will no longer work, not without urban rebuilding on a massive scale.
The people queueing to enter that car park in St Albans certainly do not need major road schemes pumping more cars into their city centre. They need sane alternatives within the towns they are travelling, alternatives that will allow them to make the same short trips they are making, but in a way that is more efficient, and that actually frees up road space for the people who will still need (or want) to drive.
We need the kind of engagement on the actual issues shown by Northern Ireland’s Infrastructure Minister, Chris Hazzard –
When looking at the economy… we continue to talk in the House and on the public airwaves about moving cars. We need to talk about moving people. Moving people in and out of Belfast city is good for business; moving cars is not.
What are we to do after York Street? Are we to bulldoze half of Great Victoria Street because we need two extra lanes in Great Victoria Street? Are we to demolish Belfast City Hall because we need a bigger roundabout at Belfast City Hall? We need to talk about moving people, not cars, in and out of Belfast.”
Exactly right – we aren’t going to solve our problems any other way.
As a general rule, cycleways in urban areas in the Netherlands are marked distinctively. If they are two-way, they will have a dashed centre line. If they are one-way, that centre line will obviously be absent.
I think this is actually tremendously important – it lets you know exactly what to expect when you are cycling along a piece of infrastructure. You will know, from looking at it, whether to expect ‘traffic’ coming in an opposing direction. It also tells other people navigating these environments exactly what to expect – a dashed centre line will tell people walking that they should expect cycles from two directions. And the same is true for drivers, when they cross this infrastructure.
Unfortunately (and it is early days) we don’t seem to have the same level of consistency in Britain, as yet. While plenty of new two-way cycleways do have clear centre line markings –
Others don’t – even the on the same ‘route’.
I think this can cause problems for pedestrians in particular. The photograph above just looks like a one-way stretch of path, heading away from the camera. There isn’t anything to tell someone wanting to cross to expect cycling in an ‘unconventional’ direction, on the right hand side of the road. I suspect this lies behind the small number of minor collisions between people walking and cycling on this stretch of road – people are crossing without looking in the ‘wrong’ direction. This has nearly happened to me on a few occasions – I can clearly see pedestrians not looking for me as I approach.
A centre line marking would make it clear that this is two-way ‘road’, for cycles, and make it more likely that people will look in both directions. It won’t eliminate this inherent problem with two-way cycleways, but it will at least mitigate it.
I think the lack of centre line marking is also a problem for people cycling. There are no centre line markings in Blackfriars underpass, despite this being one of the narrower sections of new two-way cycling infrastructure in London, narrow enough to resemble a one-way cycleway.
This lack of marking may have been a contributory factor in the largest (and most serious) pile-up seen so far on new cycling infrastructure, captured on video by 4ChordsNoNet.
Just before the collision occurs we can see people overtaking well over onto the ‘wrong’ side of the cycleway. Because there is no centre line, there is no clear, constant visual reminder that, if you are overtaking, you may well be in a section of ‘cycle road’ where you should expect oncoming cycle traffic, which will result in complacency and the kind of incident seen in the video above; especially when people are cycling in the ‘conventional’ direction, on the left hand side of the road.
I suspect consistent centre line marking will also mitigate the problems experienced by people cycling against heavy tidal flow, where (without a centre line) people tend to spill well across the cycleway in the dominant direction. This can be intimidating for people heading in the opposite direction. A centre line would reduce this problem – people can still cross it to overtake, of course, but they would be reminded more clearly that they are going against the flow, rather than simply claiming more space for their direction of flow.
It’s not clear to me why centre lines are absent on so much of London’s new cycle infrastructure, but I think it’s an obvious mistake that is resulting in problems of understanding and (at the moment) minor collisions. The good news is that it would be very cheap and easy to remedy!
On November 15th there was a ground-breaking event: The Road Danger Reduction Forum gave its first ever award since inception in 1994. More importantly, the award – to West Midlands Police for their “Give Space: Be Safe” operation targeting close passing of cyclists by drivers – heralds (we hope) an exciting new approach by police services towards danger to cyclists. As well as WMTP, we heard from Camden Metropolitan Police Service on their operation based on the WMTP initiative. Both are characterised by recognising:
(a) The fundamental difference in the effects on others of errant behaviour by drivers on the one hand and cyclists on the other, and accordingly focusing on the driver misbehaviour.
(b) That behaviour which is intimidatory and deters potential cyclists from cycling – in this case close passing/overtaking – is worth addressing even if it is not the biggest cause of Killed and Seriously Injured casualties.
In other words, both approaches take a “harm-reduction” – or as we would say, danger reduction – approach. The award event at the House of Lords was packed out by campaigners, transport professionals and police officers. Cycling UK have referred to “Give Space: Be Safe” as “the best cyclist safety initiative by any police force, ever”
Below I try to describe some of what seem to me to be the key features of a crowded two- hour event: the two policing initiatives and some of the points raised in discussion.
You can see the WMTP in action on this extract from “The One Show” (alert: you have Phil Collins being a prat at the end of the extract) and read accounts in the press of “Give Space: Be Safe” (GSBS) here . You can read an account of the Camden MPS policing here . Also take a look at the in-depth discussion by Bez
Background and introduction
The RDRF has not given any awards before (apart from a virtual wooden spoon to West Sussex Gazette for the story “Wisborough Green tree collision; Emergency services were called to Wisborough Green after a collision involving a car and a tree on Tuesday January 31.” in 2012.) It had been suggested that we react more positively when encouraging news comes through. Of course, that doesn’t happen often, but we heard of GSBS, and it seemed to be positive enough. We are not going to be like the other award events where awards are given come what may: we hope that the rarity of this event will give it the added value that something as encouraging as this deserves.
The evening was introduced by Baroness Jenny Jones. As a Member of the London Assembly she was behind the Mayor’s “London’s Lawless Roads” report as part of an initiative for more roads policing. She commended the West Midlands police on their achievement, remarking that in 3 years in the House of Lords she had found it hard to achieve anything. She called for much more road traffic law enforcement to reduce danger.Dr. Robert Davis, RDRF; Baroness Jones; officers of West Midlands Police “Be Safe: Give Space”
(You can download the presentation here: houseoflordspresentation) I borrow from Bez’ account in Singletrack below:
One crucial aspect of the conception of Operation Close Pass was careful consideration of evidence beforehand. WMP looked at the STATS19 data for the area and came to some interesting conclusions, which are summarised in a seminal blog post, “Junction Malfunction and a New Dawn” (a fascinating read — as Bez says, “it is something of a tectonic shift in aligning the police’s view with a number of points that most cycling and walking campaigners have been making for many years”).
The basic point is that the evidence suggests that, in terms of public harm caused by cycling casualty collisions, little is due to environmental factors, little is due to the behaviour of people on bikes, and much is due to behaviour of people in cars. This is unsurprising when you consider the principle of road danger: the cause of it is not so much poor behaviour itself, but the combination of poor behaviour and a vehicle which allows that behaviour to pose great danger. It’s why we let children ride bikes but not drive cars.
The major casualty risk manifests itself at junctions by way of drivers’ failure to observe people on bikes. As PC Hudson says in his blog:
“75% of KSI RTCs involving cyclists in the West Midlands from 2010 to 2014 occurred within 20 metres of a junction, involving a cyclist and another vehicle. Further analysis (I won’t bore you with the figures, tables etc.) showed that the majority of KSI RTCs in the West Midlands involving cyclists occur when a car has pulled out of a junction in front of a cyclist that is mid- junction because the car driver has failed to spot the cyclist.”(RTC – Road Traffic Collision. KSI – Killed or Seriously Injured – Ed.)
So why the focus on close passing?
One reason is that it is something which can, unlike poor observation at junctions, be detected and proven relatively easily (using video evidence) and without waiting for a collision to have occurred. Another is that it cements in drivers’ minds the need to look for people on bikes, which may well improve observation at junctions. The fact that this is a covert operation is important: WMP understand that the risk of being caught is the most powerful aspect of traffic enforcement in terms of behaviour change, and key to that is the feeling that being caught could happen anywhere. But the third reason is perhaps the most interesting.
If you ask anyone who cycles what they are most concerned about, the majority will say “close passes by drivers” (in the blog it is cited as “the most common complaint we receive from cyclists”). If you ask anyone who has given up cycling why they gave it up, many will say the same, as will many when asked why they never even started cycling. Certainly WMP seem to have found that to be the case, and this has influenced the prioritisation of the operation: a major part of the aim is to foster an environment in which more people feel able to cycle.
But how does this fall within the remit of the police, who are there primarily to reduce crime rates and reduce public harm? Even though it’s a commendable objective for all sorts of reasons that are in the wider public interest, getting more people on bikes may not be an obvious police goal.
PC Hodson’s explanation to Bez was that: the police should be involved in any situation where the general public feel unable to do certain things because of fear arising from the behaviour of others. To use a somewhat stereotyped analogy: if elderly people felt unable to walk to the local shops on their own because of groups of youths behaving threateningly, the police would apply the law to reduce the threatening behaviour and create an environment where people felt safe doing what they wanted to do. Tackling one group’s imposition of fear on others, inhibiting their ability to live their lives freely, is a community policing matter. The fact that it happens to involve the highway is really of no significance: it merely means a different piece of legislation is referred to when dealing with the threatening behaviour.How the operation works
The operation, which has been deployed nine times so far, involves an officer cycling in plain clothes on a bike equipped with both front- and rear-facing cameras. When they experience a close pass, two uniformed officers further up the road (one on foot, one on a motorcycle) are notified, and will pull the driver over and explain why they’ve been stopped.
The explanation is not merely “a quick word”. It is a 15-minute demonstration of how and where people should cycle (i.e. well away from the kerb) and the dangers not just of close passes, but of passes at particularly problematic locations such as at pinch points, on pedestrian crossings and when approaching parked vehicles. In all, 130 drivers have so far been through this process, and WMP report that only one of those reacted negatively to it. (Note that the police frequently cite The Attitude Test: fail this and you’re suddenly rather more likely to be prosecuted than educated).
The explanation involves a few props, central among which is a mat which shows a road layout with distances marked on it. WMP were keen to point out that these distances are illustrative only, and that the discussion is really about more humanly recognisable metrics: the width of a car door and the length of an outstretched arm are both used to illustrate the discussion. It’s worth noting that the officers unanimously saw the idea of a distance-based passing law as actively disadvantageous, on the basis that it actually provides more opportunity to undermine a prosecution. Much mention was made of the standards expected in the driving test: drivers are, for instance, required to leave sufficient clearance for a fully open car door when passing stationary vehicles.
Driving that would fail the test is equated with failure to meet the standard that is “expected of a competent and careful driver”, as specified in the definition of careless driving. This is, essentially, the yardstick: would you pass your test driving like that? The officers didn’t believe that the UK would ever introduce a legal minimum clearance when passing cyclists, but said that nonetheless it’s easy to prosecute close passers under the careless or inconsiderate driving law 88. This is what’s used against tailgaters and middle lane hogs on the motorway, so the level of danger that has to be proven is fairly small. (If, however, you do want to consider the issue of what exactly is shown by footage, this article here might help).
The operation has also brought numerous other offences to light, including several seatbelt violations and instances of mobile phone use, but also one of a driver who—even with his prescription glasses—could only read a number plate at 7.5 metres. This shows that the operational model is not excessively specific: it is a good way to catch a variety of dangerous behaviours. This can, of course, include people jumping red lights on bikes, or riding at night without lights. (Bez has discussed this here , and we have here and here ).
One of the key operational features of the initiative is that it is cost-neutral. This is not to say that it is zero cost, but that it is simply a new area on which to focus existing resources: there is no additional spend on either materials or manpower, and no reduction in visible policing. The mat used for education was paid for by Birmingham Cycle Revolution. They also provide the lights given out by WMP to unlit cyclists; as part of Birmingham City Council’s programme to get 10% of all journeys made by pedal cycle by 2033.
Not needing external funding gives officers more control. The question was raised from the audience that fines could fund the operation: however, the police officers here suggested that funding with fines results in claims that revenue-raising is the purpose of the operation.
However, it’s possible to adapt BSGS to reduced levels of resourcing. The approach taken by Sgt Nick Clarke in Camden is an example of that: it uses no mat, and it is deployed on a relatively opportunistic basis, at times when other demands on the officers on the street are low. It also serves as a demonstration that whilst an understanding of cycling is important, there is no specific need for traffic police: in Camden the work is done as community policing..
As PC Hodson remarked, the lowest-resource option would be for a plain clothes officer to cycle around with a pair of cameras on their bike, process the footage and then send out NIPs to anyone shown to be driving below the expected standard.
Of course, there is an even lower-resource option. There are plenty of ordinary people already cycling around with cameras on their bikes. WMP made some illuminating comments on this subject. The most notable was that everything they’d received via public video submissions was indeed evidence of prosecutable driving. The public, they said, appeared to use the same criterion that they did when considering whether to take action: simply, “was this obviously bad driving?”Section 59
One point raised in the evening by an officer from the Greater Manchester Police was the use of Section 59 of the Road Traffic Act 2002 which can be applied to any driving “causing or likely to cause alarm, distress or annoyance to the public”. Both WMP and Camden MPS thought that was an idea – and Camden MPS seem to have started using it already. Road.cc reported with rather dramatic headlines here: . As Sergeant Clarke said after the event and at his presentation – I borrow from the account by Laura Laker in road.cc:
“I’m repeatedly told this is why people don’t get on a bike – that this is causing alarm and distress to other people.”
He said his officers will use a “graduated response” and only use prosecution at first on the worst cases of bad driving, such as “punishment passes”. “We don’t just come in with a sledgehammer,” said Sgt Clarke, “so just like the start of the close pass stuff we initially didn’t do any reporting, we were just explaining why we are doing this stuff, saying: ‘you could kill someone’.
“Then we said: right, let’s start looking at people digging their heels in, and now we are at the point where we are reporting everyone.”
He said the same process will apply for s59 reports – only the worst cases will be reported during the initial education phase.
“When I hear the engine rev behind, and the person perhaps cuts me up I pull him or her over and they will be reported and will get a section 59 saying: if you do this again in your vehicle or anyone else’s, that vehicle will get crushed,” said Sgt Clarke.
After the initial warning from officers, Clarke said video evidence from a third party would be sufficient to take a driver to court under section 59.
Clarke has run the operation five times in the last month or so, with no additional budget. Clarke sends officers out on the roads for a couple of hours in the morning rush hour when most criminals aren’t operating. The Camden initiative involves a plain clothes officer on a bike, and several others at key points around a figure of eight loop. Officers target mobile phone driving as well as those who pass too close to the cyclist. Clarke says writing up evidence for driving misdemeanours also provides good training for newer officers.
Rolling it out
As said in my introduction to the evening, the RDRF’s aim is not just to give an award, but to generate good practice and get good examples taken up elsewhere. We’re pleased that a number of police services have shown interest to WMP. But why is only one London Borough MPS service acting at the moment?
Sergeant Simon Castle, from the Met’s Cycle Safety Team (officers on bicycles), said they had trialled the scheme, but with slow traffic speeds in London cyclists were overtaking traffic, rather than the other way round. It would be necessary for his superiors to allow an operation in outer London where there are faster motor vehicles speeds and more unpleasantness with close overtaking, but fewer cyclists KSIs.
This is the critical point for the road danger reduction movement – the absence of “sufficient” cyclist KSIs may mean there is no problem for officials using traditional “road safety” guidelines. For us, there are often fewer KSIs precisely because there is more danger or intimidation from motor traffic, so people are less likely to cycle in the first place. Even if there are other reasons for low amounts of cycling, the fact remains that there is a problem of road danger from close overtaking (and perhaps excessive speed) which needs to be tackled.
Sergeant Clarke, who runs his operation on Parkway in inner London, feels it is replicable by other ward sergeants, and that it can have wide-reaching effects on driver behaviour across London.
He said: “It can be replicated in London, it’s just the locations that you choose. While High Holborn, for example, has a high KSI rate (killed or seriously injured) it isn’t possible to run a close pass operation there. However, by targeting drivers on major roads into High Holborn, those drivers will still be looking out for cyclists when they reach dangerous junctions.”
“They get to the point where there’s someone on a Boris Bike on High Holborn who’s at risk of collision; by targeting them three or four miles up the road you’re reducing the risk of that happening. The Think! campaign has a limited impact; people watching it aren’t the target audience. The fact you may have your car crushed is a powerful motivator for people to drive safely.”
Some reactions: where now?
The key points made by all the questioners in the audience were praise for both the initiatives described, and requests for similar types of police operation to occur elsewhere.
Roger Geffen, Cycling UK: “This is a fantastic initiative – there needs to be a formal process to spread the word on this kind of good practice. Good evidence of effectiveness would greatly help with this – perhaps another force could do some before and after monitoring of a similar operation. Has there been negative feedback?”
WM police: “About one negative response per two positive ones. 75% of the negative responses have no merit, and the other 25% are mostly claims about prosecuting marginal offences, or criticism that the police should be doing something more important. Overall, the response has been very positive, helped by Mark Hodson’s Blog.”
David Maloney, TfL: “(1) Any plans to evaluate the operation? (2) Could a 3rd party do the driver education?”
WM police: “(1) Reduced KSIs are the most obvious indicator, but also increases in cycling and feedback from cyclists. (2) Yes – drivers reported by 3rd parties are invited to go on a commercially-run course. A police uniform is only needed to stop a driver.”
Martin Porter, solicitor, explained why his private prosecution of a driver who endangered him failed: he went for a more serious offence, requiring better evidence of incompetence, and convincing a jury. The defence was able to say that the offence couldn’t be that serious, as the police never bothered with it.
Sgt Nick Clarke of Camden: “This work needs to be brought to outer boroughs. Reports of bad driving can be lost in processing – cases that go to court must be watertight, so careless driving is a good option, as it’s easier to prove.”
WM police: “We got plenty of negative feedback – but we want to upset certain parts of the population, as that’s how behaviour change is achieved.”
Mark Strong of Transport Initiatives: “The web reporting portal in Sussex works well, and drivers are visited if 3 complaints are logged against them. More co-operation and dissemination of good practice is needed – perhaps RDRF could help with this.”
Duncan Dollimore (Cycling UK): “Some forces are considering or planning similar programmes, but there have been comments that it might not be appropriate elsewhere.” WM police: “The answer is to operate on quieter roads – the same rules apply, and safe overtaking is a matter of choice. We wouldn’t have been able to do the work if it was hard. Non-traffic officers could do similar work just with cameras.”
Adam Coffman of the All-Party Parliamentary Cycling Group asked the WMP how they felt about the Road Safety Minister’s recent comment that “Road safety is about people taking responsibility for themselves”. I’m pleased that the WMP officer responding took the road danger reduction line in saying that he disagreed with him. Road danger reduction takes what we think is the basically civilised view that your responsibility is to reduce your danger towards others.
But not all was optimism. Amy Aeron-Thomas of Roadpeace said that we should comment on the London Police and Crime Review, a mayoral consultation document that contains little or nothing about traffic law enforcement. As Brenda Puech of RDRF added, London police have to follow the mayor’s policing priorities, so this document is important.
This is not about any kind of patronising initiative “for cyclists”. It is the implementation of road danger reduction – reducing danger at source from inappropriate driving. It is done through policing and education as part of achieving necessary cultural and behavioural shift. It was started by an individual police service, and is being taken up by others and road danger reduction campaigners (none of the “road safety” establishment seem to have shown any interest).
So where do we go from here? It’s quite likely that we will run a follow-up conference in a few months’ time – possibly to coincide with alerting London government to the need for a policing strategy which takes in to account the sort of anti-social behaviour targeted by WMP and Camden MPS. In the meantime do feel free to contact RDRF with any queries and information to help start a similar programme in your area.
At the weekend I went along to the Cyclenation/Cycling UK Campaigners Conference in St Albans, where I was one of many people making presentations to a large audience. My one was on Sustainable Safety, and afterwards I chatted briefly to TfL’s Brian Deegan about the Dutch approach to road and street design. He mentioned in passing how he gets complaints about people cycling jumping lights, at certain junctions – the implication being that these ‘bad’ users need to start behaving, and need to be punished more, to make them behave.
But Brian’s response to the problem was, and is, completely different – he told me that he replies
‘If so many are jumping lights, what is wrong with the junction?’
This is a core element of Sustainable Safety – it seeks to tackle ‘bad behaviour’ not at a personal or individual level, but by seeking to understand what actually lies behind so many people breaking the rules, and then examining how the environment can be changed to reduce rule-breaking, or to eliminate it altogether. To take a ‘red light jumping’ example, it might be that people are having to wait two minutes to cross a simple junction. A sensible way to solve that problem would be to reduce wait times. It might also be the case that people are jumping lights to turn left, because they know they can do so safely. Again, a sensible solution to that ‘problem’ is to formalise and legalise this behaviour through design.
This doesn’t just apply to people cycling; it applies to all modes of transport. For instance, if lots of people are breaking a 20mph speed limit, then the long-term answer isn’t enforcement and punishment, but, instead, addressing the design of the road so that 20mph becomes the natural speed for the vast majority of drivers to travel at.
I don’t think this kind of approach has really taken hold in Britain, at all. We remain focused on individual actions and behaviour, and on ‘personal responsibility’, rather than taking a more systematic approach, one that is centred on the role of authorities in designing environments that keep us safe in the first place, even when some of us continue to behave badly. Just last week, the Secretary of State for Transport responded to a question about the rising toll of road deaths in Britain as follows –
A trend in the wrong direction is an unwelcome one. The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend Andrew Jones, who is in his place alongside me, has responsibility for road safety. He is actively engaged, and will continue to be actively engaged, in looking at measures we could take that will improve things. We will look at different investment measures and different ways of educating motorists and those using the roads
And, more explicitly from the junior Minister –
“Road safety is about people taking responsibility for themselves” says @AJonesMP
— APPCG (@allpartycycling) November 2, 2016
This is what a primary focus on ‘education’ is really about – a shifting of responsibility for safety onto the people negotiating unsafe environments, by those responsible for the design and functioning of those environments. Simply looking at ‘different ways of educating’ all the people using the roads (which seems to carry with it an admission that current ‘education’ isn’t really working) avoids this fundamental responsibility to build safety into our road and street environment, by making them forgiving, predictable, and without exposing human beings to large differences in mass, speed and direction. ‘Education’ is not, and cannot ever be, a substitute for safe environments.
This failure to ask the right questions, and come up with the right solutions, is epitomised not just by a focus on ‘education’ but also on what I would call ‘trinkets’ – things like helmets, lights, reflectives, clothing, and so on. In much the same way as with ‘education’, the process involves shifting responsibility onto the user, and ignoring basic environmental problems. Instead of examining why Road X is unsafe to walk along in dark clothing, we urge people to wear reflectives. Instead of examining why pedestrians wearing ordinary clothes can’t negotiate the streets in your urban area safely, we hand out lights to them.
We're handing out winter lights for walkers at 5.30pm outside Westminster City Hall, 64 Victoria St. Pick up a free one for Road Safety Week
— Westminster Council (@CityWestminster) November 21, 2016
Perhaps the most powerful example of trinket-based logic is the paper helmet which has recently hit the headlines, because it has won an award.
The man who awarded the award – James Dyson – says that this helmet
If the problem is ‘how do we make something that looks a bit like a cycling helmet, but is really cheap, folds down completely flat so it goes in your bag, and can then be thrown away’, then yes, this is a solution to that ‘obvious problem’.
But it clearly isn’t a solution to the actual problem of prevent people riding bikes from coming to harm or being seriously injured. How can it be? It’s some folded paper, loosely attached to the top third of the head.
If we really care about keeping people riding hire bikes safe ‘anywhere they go’, we need environmental solutions, infrastructure that keeps those people separated from fast and/or heavy moving motor traffic, wherever they choose to cycle. Not paper hats. And the same goes for handing out tiny reflective bits of plastic to children.
These are not structural solutions; they are not even actual solutions. They are a distraction. The wrong questions are being asked, and the wrong answers are being given.
Imagine if your town or city had just one suitable driving route across it, or just one suitable walking route – a line drawn on a map from A to B.
How many trips would be driven, or walked, in your town if this was the extent of the driving or walking network?
The answer is clearly ‘not very many’ – only those trips that happen to start or finish at some point along the line of the route, or reasonably close to it. A very small proportion of the overall number of existing or potential trips.
So we shouldn’t be at all surprised that that cycling levels remain low when the full extent of a ‘cycle network’ in a town or a city is this kind of line, drawn on a map. Even if the quality of the route is high (and very often it isn’t) the use of cycles will be limited because the vast majority of people simply can’t get anywhere near that route in safety, or in comfortable conditions.
So as impressive as the initial amount of use of the new cycling superhighways in London might appear, especially at peak times, the use of this cycling infrastructure is undoubtedly suppressed because there is so little of it. The people using it will mostly be the small minority of people already willing to cycle on the hostile roads and streets across the rest of the city, that need to be cycled on to access the superhighways.
This partly explains why use is relatively low outside of peak times. Non-commuting trips like, amongst others,
will all rely to a much greater extent on a dense network that takes people from A to B in comfort and safety, and not on a specific commuter-focused route. In addition, these kinds of users – particularly, children and the elderly – are of course much more sensitive to hostile road conditions, the kind of conditions that will have to be tolerated to get onto ‘the superhighway’.
This explains the marked contrast in cycle use during the daytime on a typical cycleway in a Dutch city centre, compared to the superhighways in London.
Unlike London, Dutch cycleways will still see heavy use during the day. However, that use is dominated not by commuters, but instead (unsurprisingly) by all the people who aren’t at work. The reason for this is not some difference in Dutch character or behaviour; it’s because a typical Dutch city has a high quality network that connects up all the start and finish points of the journeys these people are making, not just one ‘route’ that goes from A to B.
This is why it is so important not get bogged down on drawing ‘a cycle route’ and agonising in great detail over where that ‘route’ should go, because the long-term goal has to be a dense network of routes that go everywhere.
I was reminded of this by some of the reaction to the news yesterday of the cancellation by Mayor Khan of the proposed route for the ‘East-West Superhighway’ extension, along the Westway, into west London. Much of the discussion focused on whether the Westway was actually the appropriate location for such a ‘route’; whether there might be better alternatives at ground level nearby; whether Kensington and Chelsea might be persuaded to allow protected cycleways to be built on parallel main roads within their borough.
My own view is that, if we are indeed focused on building ‘a route’, the Westway is (or was) the best option, given Kensington and Chelsea’s intransigence in refusing to allow cycling infrastructure on its roads, and the generally poor quality of back-street ‘Quietway’ routes that have been delivered in London so far.
But this kind of discussion is really missing the bigger picture. There should be a ‘cycle route’ on the Westway and cycle routes everywhere else. Not one or the other.
Westway is 2km from High St Ken. TFL knows we need cycle tracks every 400m so deliver both routes. No excuse for cancelling pic.twitter.com/H5qjxSGKnL
— Tom Harrison (@TomBHarrison) November 15, 2016
Why should there just be one route into west London from central London? To take just one example, how many people will cycle from Hammersmith (in the bottom left of the map above) into central London if there are no cycle routes in Kensington and Chelsea apart from one on the Westway, some 2km or more north of the direct route? Quite plainly, there needs to be a cycle route on the Westway, and on Kensington High Street, and on Holland Park Avenue; and on all the roads that people will use to get from A to B.
This is why the logic of cancelling the Westway scheme, and coming up with an alternative somewhere else, is flawed. Not just because the Westway scheme had been consulted on, and was ready to go, and because devising an alternative route will inevitably result in years of delay. It’s because the Westway scheme is needed alongside many other east-west routes in Kensington and Chelsea, and alongside north-south routes. Everywhere.
So, regrettably, it appears that the Westway decision betrays a failure to understand how cycling should be planned for. Cycling doesn’t just require ‘a route’; it requires a network, of which the Westway should have been just one component.
The N470 is a main road that runs east from the Dutch city of Delft, connecting it with the city of Zoetermeer. It is 12 kilometres long between the junctions with the A13 motorway (bypassing Delft) and the A12 motorway (which runs between The Hague and Utrecht).
As can be seen from the map above, it is, effectively, a bypass of the town of Pijnacker, bending south around it. Before this road was opened in 2007, a large proportion of the motor traffic running between Delft and Zoetermeer would have passed through the town. Now all that motor traffic is far away from human beings. This applies both at the large large scale – the way the road is built away from urban areas – and also at the scale of the road itself, where, as well shall see in this post, human beings are kept completely separated from it.
This modern road has been built according to the principles of Sustainable Safety, or Duurzaam Veiling – the Dutch approach to road safety. This programme was only developed in the mid 1990s, so it is relatively recent, but it completely underpins the way roads and streets in the Netherlands, both old and new, are designed and built to maximise the safety of human beings. The N470 is an excellent example of these principles in action, and this post will look at them in turn.
Perhaps one of the most important principles of Sustainable Safety, ‘Functionality’ means that every road and street in the Netherlands should have a single function – mono-functionality – and that every region should classify their roads and streets accordingly, either as a
Quite clearly the N470 falls into the ‘through road’ category. It is a road for transporting people from A to B; it is most definitely not a road that people will be exposed to in any form. There is only one junction on the 12km length of the road between the two motorways, and that is a turbo roundabout which human beings cannot go anywhere near. There are absolutely no access points anywhere else along this road. It is effectively hermetically sealed away from the environment it is travelling through – walking and cycling are entirely separated, via underpasses, and even other roads are again grade-separated.
This principle applies to the mass, speed and direction of road users. Heavy objects should not share space with light ones; fast objects should not share space with slow ones; and objects should be travelling in the same direction. Differences in mass, speed and direction should be minimised as much as possible.
We can see these principles clearly in operation in the design of the N470 road. Perhaps the most obvious application of homogeneity is that light objects – human beings – are completely designed out of this road. They go nowhere near it. In fact the photograph below is about the closest you can get.
The three junctions on this stretch of road – two at the end, and one in the middle – are all turbo roundabouts, and all have total separation between human beings and motor traffic.
The roundabout at the Delft end of the N470 has signs explicitly banning walking and cycling from the roundabout – but really nobody would choose to negotiate the roundabout at surface level on foot, because of a fast, convenient cycle road to the side, that bypasses it completely.
The roundabout in the middle is another turbo roundabout, again negotiated by an underpass – or, perhaps more specifically, where the road has been built up on an embankment with a bridge.
And the final roundabout at the Zoetermeer end is exactly the same, with two underpasses allowing people to negotiate the arms of the the roundabout, complete with noise barriers. As with the previous example the roads and roundabout have been built up high so that cycling remains at ground level, at the same level as buildings in the neighbourhood. These are bridges, more than underpasses.
I did manage to scramble up the bank here to take a photo of the roundabout – narrow lanes with hard physical dividers, combined with heavy, fast traffic, means that this is not somewhere you would want to be on a bike.
Especially when you can bypass it, completely oblivious to the traffic overhead.
But of course Sustainable Safety applies to all users of the road network, not just people cycling. The road is designed in a way to keep motorists safe too.
Perhaps most notable is the median between the two lanes, that prevents any attempts at overtaking. The speed limit on this road is 80kph (about 50mph) and that applies uniformly to all vehicles, from HGVs right down to small cars. Quite sensibly, if everyone is travelling at the same speed, there can be no justification for overtaking, and the design prevents people from even attempting to do so.
A couple of years ago the DfT raised the speed limit for HGVs on single carriageway roads from 40mph to 50mph, partially on the grounds that it would (allegedly) reduce the temptation on the part of some drivers to indulge in dangerous overtakes. But the Netherlands has solved this problem at a stroke by equalising the limit for all users at 80kph, and by simply banning overtaking altogether on this category of road (and physically preventing overtaking in new road design).
Overtaking presents an unacceptably high level of danger – it involves vehicles occupying the same space but travelling in completely the opposite direction, at great speed. The opposite of homogeneity! It is much safer to ban it, and to simply design it out of these roads altogether. On the N470 all vehicles are travelling in the same direction at all times, and at approximately the same speed. Overtaking conflicts have been removed, as have any turning conflicts, with no motor vehicles crossing the paths of other motor vehicles – because there are no junctions.
Another implication of the principle of homogeneity is that mopeds (which aren’t capable of travelling at 80kph in any case) are banned from these roads, and instead placed on the cycle path, alongside people walking, cycling and jogging. This makes sense according to the principle of homogeneity – their mass and speed is much closer to that of pedestrians and cyclists than it is to the vehicles on the road.
Another principle of Sustainable Safety is ‘forgivingness’, which implies pretty much what you would expect from the title. Essentially, mistakes by road users should not result in death or serious injury. Road and street design should account for the fact that human beings are fallible, and will inevitably make mistakes.
We see this principle reflected in a number of aspects of the design of the N470 road. The road lanes themselves are narrow, to help ensure that people do not exceed the 80kph limit, but there are large overrun areas on either side of the road, composed of a concrete mesh.
Probably not very enjoyable to drive over, but if you do drift off the road, you won’t die.
Naturally, forgivingness also applies to people cycling. It lies behind the systematic removal of bollards from Dutch cycle paths, where at all possible. Bollards are not good things to crash into, and can cause serious injury and death. It is definitely preferable to have the occasional driver venturing (either mistakenly or deliberately) onto a cycle path than it is to have a permanent hazard on it, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It also means that kerbs and other elements of cycling infrastructure should allow mistakes to happen, without serious consequences.
And, of course, at a higher level, the fact that there aren’t any human beings outside of motor vehicles on the N470 road, or even near it, means that cycling is very safe. The fact that Britain persists with accommodating cycling on busy 60 or even 70mph roads is extraordinary by objective comparison – the consequences of errors and mistakes when you have such enormous differences in mass and speed in the same space will be deadly.
A better way of expressing ‘predictability’ would be ‘instantly recognisable road design’. The users of a road or a street should understand how they are expected to behave, from the appearance of that road or street. The design should be unambiguous. For instance, if you want motor vehicle users to travel at 20mph, the road or street should look like that, and it should make the majority of users travel at no more than that speed.
From the photographs in this post you won’t need me to tell you that the appearance of the N470 will obviously inform its users that it is a through road! There are no junctions; no interactions with non-motorised users; a median; and a design that suggests a speed of 50mph or so. As already mentioned, the design of the N470 should make users travel at or around this speed – the speed limit should be self-enforcing. Design should lead behaviour – we should not expect people to do unnatural things.
In a nutshell, Sustainable Safety is really about a strategic separation of fast, heavy objects from slower moving, lighter ones, across an entire country, both along roads like the N470, passing through rural areas, but also in urban areas. It is universal.
It is noteworthy that there are multiple cycle routes between Delft and Zoetermeer, all of them completely separate from the road network. Some parts of these are shown below. These cycle routes pass through the places where people actually live and work, while the motor traffic is shielded away from human beings. All these routes are more direct than the N470, or alternative driving routes on the motorways.
So despite the name, Sustainable Safety is not just about safety, but also about creating more attractive and more pleasant places for people to live, work, shop, and relax. People can still drive, of course, and with great ease, but their journeys will be separated to the greatest possible extent from human beings. It is a bold and ambitious project, but one that, despite only being a few decades old, has had dramatic and impressive consequences. We should be paying close attention.
You can read more about Sustainable Safety in a number of places –
Pedalling into the Dutch city of Delft last Tuesday I went past a branch of Albert Heijn, which is (approximately) the Dutch version of Waitrose – or at least, a supermarket at the slightly higher end of the Dutch price scale.
Naturally enough I stopped to have a look at was occurring, an easy thing to do given that the cycleway along this road runs right the supermarket entrance.
At about 10:30 in the morning, the front entrance was heaving with bikes – people shopping in ways that they would do in the UK, but loading their goods onto those bikes.
There was a mum loading a trolley full of goods (and her children) into her cargo bike.
And other people loading the contents of trolleys and baskets into their panniers.
What was fascinating to me was how all the space in front of the supermarket was completely dedicated to people arriving on foot, and by cycle. There was no parking for motor vehicles anywhere in sight.
But that, of course, isn’t quite the whole story! There is car parking at this supermarket. It’s just that it is hidden from view, on top of it, with an entrance around the back.
And it’s free, all day long.
This is despite this supermarket being in a city-centre location. There isn’t anything to stop you driving to it and parking above it, at no cost (save for your fuel).
So in many ways this supermarket is actually a microcosm of the Netherlands in general. You can still drive to the supermarket, with ease. There probably won’t be a queue to get in and out of the car park, because so many other people will be cycling to it. The parking itself will be free, even at peak times. In these respects driving in the Netherlands is actually easier and more ‘available’ than in Britain. If you wish to drive your car, your journey will be more attractive, and cheaper, simply because so many other people aren’t driving.
What does make the difference is the way that cycling to the supermarket is extremely painless. The people arriving here by bike will have started their journey on quiet, access-only streets, and then pedalled along the main road in comfort, safely separated from motor traffic.
Planning is also a factor here, in that the Dutch does not really have out of town supermarket shopping, which would clearly make cycling more inconvenient, adding distance to ordinary shopping trips, and making the car relatively more attractive. It also makes smaller (more cycle-friendly) shopping loads an easier prospect, if your supermarket is close at hand. Daily shopping, for instance, is much easier when your supermarket is not out of town. Dutch supermarkets have to be within urban areas – but at the same time that doesn’t stop them from offering free car parking to their customers.
Mainly, however, people choose to cycle in the Netherlands not because driving has been made inordinately difficult – it certainly hasn’t in the case of this supermarket – but because cycling has been designed for, has been made a safe and easy mode of transport, so much so that it naturally becomes an obvious choice. It’s simply easier and more convenient than driving, right down to the way you can arrive at the front door and park, rather than having to take your car around the back, and upstairs. It’s very much carrot, rather than stick.