One of the nicest things about cycling along the Embankment (apart from the new cycling infrastructure, of course) is… the greenery.
This is particularly obvious as you approach the Houses of Parliament from the north. As the bend of the river unwinds, the Palace of Westminster gradually reveals itself through a lovely forest of trees as you near Parliament Square. And you really notice the trees as this happens.
I have to say I wasn’t too aware of this on the few occasions I dared to cycle here before this cycling infrastructure had been built. Frankly, I was probably too busy worrying about drivers, and working out where the next potential hazard was going to come from, to properly engage with the scenery. Now, every time I cycle along here, I can relax and fully appreciate the difference these trees make to the urban environment. They are a softening, calming and sheltering presence that add greatly to the beauty of the city.
The Embankment is, unfortunately, something of a rarity for London though. Far too many roads and streets are not this well-endowed with trees, or indeed have no street trees at all. Blackfriars Road is also lovely to cycle on, thanks to a similar combination of cycling infrastructure and greenery.
But you don’t have to look very far in London to find streets and roads that are barren.
They’re usually barren for a reason – most of the street width is being used to accommodate the flow of motor traffic. Trees literally don’t fit, not without some repurposing of street space.
But even roads and streets that have recently been rebuilt are devoid of trees.
This is even true for roads that now have cycling infrastructure. For instance, it looks like a big opportunity has been missed to plant trees as part of the rebuild of Farringdon Street.
By contrast, it strikes me that trees are an integral part of new street layouts and roads in Dutch cities like Utrecht. They are planned for, and it just happens.
Indeed, reviewing my photographs of Utrecht, I’m struck by how universally green the city is. All of my photos have trees in them, without me even noticing at the time.
The city centre is full of trees.
New developments have trees in them.
New street arrangements carefully retain existing trees, and make a feature of them.
Older cycle paths are, of course, accompanied by street trees – you can usually date them by the age of the trees. A few decades old, in the examples below.
And, naturally, cycle paths in the countryside around Utrecht are framed with trees.
There’s a practical, pragmatic reason for much of this effort – trees help to shelter people walking and cycling from the elements, be it wind, or rain, or sun. A dense line of trees really does make a difference if you are battling a crosswind, and it can stop you getting sunburnt, as well as keeping the worst of the rain off you.
But within urban areas this greenery is vitally important for aesthetic reasons, to soften the urban environment, and to make it calmer, more pleasant and attractive. I’m wondering why opportunities to include them in new road layouts in London – and perhaps elsewhere – are still being missed. Is it cost? Is it an unwillingness to allocate street space away from motor traffic, for these purposes? Or is factoring in greenery something that simply doesn’t appear at the design stage?
We seem keen enough on greenery that we’re apparently willing to spend £180m putting trees on a bridge in the middle of the river – so why are we failing to incorporate greenery into new roads and street designs whenever the opportunity presents itself, as well failing to add it to existing roads and streets?
Unlike previous books reviewed on www.rdrf.org.uk , this is by someone who has come from within the transport establishment – currently a Professor of Transport Studies, David Metz was formerly Chief Scientist at the Department for Transport. As such you don’t find the intrinsically anti-establishment views of Christian Wolmar (in an earlier book in the London Publishing Partnership series) , still less the radical critique of mainstream transport thinking made by John Whitelegg .
For example, in discussing “peak car” – and also peak air travel – his approach is based on analysing trends: forecasting what could happen based on where we have been. A more radical approach would start out by asking what we want in the future rather than trying to extrapolate from the past.
But perhaps that is what makes this book valuable. Time and again, Metz shows how, as he puts it: “Conventional transport economics has reached a dead end”. He demonstrates that substantial spend on transport projects should not be increased and that “modelling and forecasting need to be rethought to include both changes in land use and the changes in behaviour that are taking place as we have transitioned from the twentieth century to the twenty first”. If someone with a non-radical approach is arguing that the status quo is a “mess” which has come about “because policy has focused on big construction projects and time saving, instead of the part that people and places play in economic development”, then perhaps we have another powerful argument against that status quo.
But how much will another, albeit well-reasoned, argument that we “cannot build our way out of congestion”, actually help? My view is that there are deep seated ideological and psychological forces at work which need to be addressed. Reason alone may win an argument, but have relatively little effect on what happens in the real world.
However, this book is packed full of sensible points made against the dominant official transport orthodoxy, and is as such required reading for students of transport policy.
It seems that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust are still pushing their extraordinary petition to block safe cycling infrastructure design on Westminster Bridge, apparently on ‘safety grounds’.
Concern is obviously fine, but the problem here is that GSTT are arguing against bus stop bypasses – even going so far as to threaten legal action – while conspicuously failing to suggest any reasonable alternative design to the one being proposed by Transport for London. And there’s a very good reason for this.
There isn’t any reasonable alternative.
If you don’t build bus stop bypasses – putting the bus stop on an island, with cycling routed between that island and the footway – you are left with two options.
The first is what I would call ‘business as usual’; mixing people cycling with buses and heavy traffic on the road.
This is far from acceptable even for existing users, let alone for the non-cycling demographic that we should be building cycling infrastructure for – children, the elderly, and so on, the kind of people you rarely see cycling in London, because the road conditions, and because of the lack of cycling infrastructure like that being proposed by Transport for London on Westminster Bridge. The people who want to cycle, but can’t, because of conditions like those shown in the photograph above, and who do when infrastructure is provided.
— Lambeth Cyclists (@LambethCyclists) July 1, 2016
Just for clarity, three people have been killed or seriously injured cycling on this eastern section of the bridge since 2006, including a woman in her fifties, who was killed in January 2006.
The other alternative, if we don’t build bus stop bypasses, is simply mixing cycling with walking on the footway. As it happens, this is currently the existing situation on the footway outside Guy’s and St Thomas’.
I don’t think this is acceptable at all; it’s not acceptable for people with visual impairment, or indeed for anyone walking or cycling along here. It’s not good enough. People walking and cycling should be separated from each other, on the grounds of both safety and convenience.
And that’s it. Those are the only two alternatives, if you refuse to build bus stop bypasses. You either expose people cycling to unacceptable levels of danger on the carriageway (while simultaneously limiting cycling as a transport option to the existing narrow demographic willing to cycle in hostile conditions), or you mix them with pedestrians on the footway. There is no magic solution that is waiting to be discovered.
This is why Guy’s and St Thomas’ posturing on this issue is deeply silly. There is no alternative. So instead of trying to block bus stop bypasses altogether, they need to work constructively with Transport for London on ensuring that the design of the bypasses is as safe for all potential users as is possible.
For anybody who needs convincing that the official “road safety” establishment is part of the problem of danger on the roads, look no further than SUPPORTING SAFE DRIVING INTO OLD AGE: A National Older Driver Strategy . Allegedly addressing the problems of older drivers, this report – as so much of official “road safety” does routinely – accommodates them to the detriment of their actual or potential victims.More older drivers?
A key assumption of “A National Older Driver Strategy” (I’ll call it NODS) is that there will be far more elderly drivers. While there may indeed be an increase, or even an increase with a sensible transport policy, the kind of numbers discussed are essentially a version of “predict and provide”. Rather than see the current transport mix as problematic, and attempting to change it towards the more sustainable modes, NODS embraces a non-sustainable future where motorisation rules.
According to former transport Minister Lord Whitty (Chairman of the authors, the Road Safety Foundation) “Being able to drive is a key part of maintaining independence, looking after oneself and the personal well-being that keeps older people healthy and fulfilled. Giving up driving can trigger decline, reliance on others and expensive public services.” So never mind walking or cycling, it’s driving that keeps you healthy!
There is a brief mention that older people should have access to alternatives. NODS doesn’t consider that many older people may, unlike the authors of the report, actually prefer to live in a less car-dominated society. But the assumption is that the alternatives would only be taxis. There is one brief reference to public transport (presumably one of those “expensive public services”), and none at all to cycling.
What’s the problem?
There is a reference to walking – but as a problem:
“It would be easy to solve the “older driver problem” by keeping older people off the road and making it far more difficult for them to renew or obtain a licence. However that could not be justified by the limited risk they pose to themselves and others as drivers, and the significant risk they would then run as pedestrians…”
Quite apart from the mealy-mouthed avoidance of tackling dangerous behaviour, here we see a staple of “road safety” ideology. Simply walking about is seen as problematic because of the vulnerability to danger from the motorised. In the ideal world of NODS (and the “road safety” establishment) the aim is to get people coddled into crashworthy cars, and endanger those still left outside them, rather than reduce danger at source and support the healthy and environmentally benign modes. The problem is what happens to you, rather than addressing your responsibility for others’ safety.
The danger of older drivers
This – what happens to older drivers rather than the threat they pose to others – is the phenomenon lying behind this report. Obviously older drivers are frailer and more likely to suffer when crashes occur. But for us the issue is what kind of threat they pose to others. NODS is keen to suggest that there is no special reason to single out older drivers, but looking at the research they quote (p.23) we see that over-70s do 9% of car miles and are involved in 7% (a similar proportion) of pedestrian deaths. Also: “As you get older you are more likely to be at fault after middle age”.
Obviously there are greater dangers from the under-25s, and the older age group should not be singled out as the problem. But that means that the problems of danger from elderly drivers should be addressed as well as other problems, not minimised. There is recognition that there can indeed be greater problems for other road users, with the CEO of the insurance company funding NODS saying: “…it is right to show a greater interest in preventing accidents among the over 75s. This does more than merely protect their safety: it also helps vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists of all ages whom we fear, based on our own claims data, are more likely to be seriously injured by an older driver” (my emphasis).
In addition (under “Is action needed?”), we learn that: “Older drivers have reduced ability to judge and adapt to speed, and to read complex driving situations. Vision, reaction times and skills in executing manoeuvres decline with age”. Also: “As the population ages and the number of people with cognitive impairment increases (the Alzheimer’s Society estimates that more than 850,000 people have dementia diagnoses), the risk to drivers, passengers and other road users is increasing.”
From the above, the Road Danger Reduction movement would argue that there needs to be a realisation that danger from older drivers needs to be tackled, alongside danger from other age groups. But what do we get from NODS? Apart from ignoring the sustainable/healthy transport agenda, we have no real attempt to address the issue.
The one measure we have in place is the laughable self-declaration of fitness drivers make at age 70. This is, of course, hopeless: NODS notes that “Self-declaration of medical conditions has been shown clearly in one study not to be reliable…”. But their answer is to – raise this age to 75! Apart from that, we have the suggestion that older drivers should have taken an eyesight test, and the usual “road safety” demands for more crashworthy vehicles and road environments where signage and junctions are easier to negotiate for people who are less capable of doing so. Other than that we have “driver appraisal” schemes to encourage older drivers to drive properly –voluntarily, of course – more research, and a Minister for older drivers.
I – and by the way, I am 64 – haven’t mentioned the usual solutions that are proposed. Partly this is because even a compulsory re-take of the driving test could just be another pseudo-control of road danger, with drivers behaving properly for 20 minutes before going back to their bad driving.
But in a sense that’s not the point. The point is that the agencies of the “road safety” establishment simply don’t genuinely see danger from motorised road users as a problem in the first place. And that’s why, whether the drivers are young or old, what we get are polite suggestions to drive better, combined with a commitment towards more motorisation. Until we replace “road safety” with road danger reduction – reducing danger at source – that’s what we will continue to get.
I started an only slightly facetious petition: Build safe bus stop bypasses on Westminster Bridge. Please do sign it and share it.
Facetious because it’s a tit-for-tat response to Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust’s* petition against bus stop bypasses on Westminster Bridge. I felt just slightly bad resorting to such childishness in a week when more than ever I felt the need for the world to sit down and resolve its differences through mature dialogue, compromise and understanding rather than mobs lashing out for all-or-nothing outcomes.
But only slightly facetious, because Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust set the terms for this game, shunning attempts at engagement and instead spreading misinformation to frighten people into opposing a scheme with little understanding of the proposal. If that’s how we’re playing this, bring it on.
What TfL have proposed
TfL want to continue their long-overdue modernisation of London’s roads, and next on their list is Westminster Bridge. Following established international best practice, the modernisation will provide clear space for cycling that is separate and protected from the carriageway and footway, making cycling a safe and attractive option while removing conflicts with motor traffic and pedestrians. Obviously these will also be separated from bus stops, with so-called “bus stop bypasses”:
Readers in London will be familiar with these tried-and-tested designs from the Cycle Superhighways. Readers in a number of European countries will be so familiar with them that they’ll wonder how they could possibly provoke a second thought, let alone how something that’s such an established part of the street furniture could lead to tit-for-tat petitions and blog posts.
What Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust propose
But in Britain we really are that far behind, and therefore bus stop bypasses are still alien enough to some people that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust have been able to spread fear and misinformation about them — enough to gather 972 signatures for their petition, which calls on TfL to “consider the alternatives”.
GST don’t elaborate on the what the alternative is, and have declined to answer questions or engage on the subject, but we know what the alternative to separating modes is — it’s mixing them. GST have, at least, clarified that they are not opposed to cycle tracks, only to the bus stop bypasses. So the only possible conclusion is that rather than bypassing the bus stops on clear separate space, cyclists mix with bus passengers in the bus stops.
Obviously that’s an insane idea, and it’s difficult to find examples of such a thing being built. But this is Britain, home of the insanely badly designed cycle facility, so it’s difficult — but far from impossible. Here’s a bus stop on Royal College Street without a bypass**:
Guess how well that works?
This is on a relatively quiet street, with just one relatively lightly used bus route and a trickle of pedestrians and cyclists. On busy Westminster Bridge this would be carnage, and it’s utterly irresponsible of GST NHS Trust to advocate for such dangerous designs.
A serious point
Shared bus stop/cycle tracks are undeniably the logical conclusion of GST NHS Trust’s stated positions, but I’m not seriously suggesting that’s what they’re campaigning for. It’s clear they have no idea what they’re campaigning for, and not much better idea what they’re campaigning against. They are the latest in a line of organisations to make knee-jerk reactions to unfamiliar ideas — and threaten those ideas by spreading fear and misinformation about them.
So the serious point is that we need to actively stand up to the bikelash if we are to ensure that Go Dutch, Space For Cycling, and the progress that we have seen these past two years do not lose momentum.
We must engage with such organisations, when they are willing to engage, understand and address their fears when there are genuine fears, and keep plugging away at spreading understanding of best practice.
And we must laugh when such organisations become laughable, and mercilessly mock the likes of “Stop CS11” from the moment they lose all credibility.
And we must keep reminding TfL that we’re here — that the 10,000 who turned up in the rain to ask them to Go Dutch have not gone away. Which is why you should sign the stupid facetious petition.
* and for once on this occasion I’ll celebrate the NHS Trusts’ refusal to waste money on brand consultants who would advise them to name themselves something that means something and appeals to the public — say, “hospitals” — and instead always insist on being referred to as cold, faceless, bureaucratic, and eminently petition-against-able “NHS Trusts”.
** though for bonus weirdness, look carefully at the far left and you can see it does have a bus stop bypass — but for cars on a service road!
The best of the new cycling infrastructure in London is almost entirely composed of bi-directional cycleways, placed on one side of the road. This includes pretty much the entirety of CS3 and CS6 – the former running from Parliament Square to Tower Hill, the latter from Elephant and Castle to just north of Ludgate Circus.
Bi-directional cycleways are often not the best design solution, but the decision to go with bi-directional cycleways is not an accident. Undoubtedly people at Transport for London have thought long and hard about the best way to implement cycling infrastructure given current UK constraints, and have plumped for two-way as the most sensible approach.
To be clear, bi-directional cycleways do have serious downsides – they can lead to more conflict at side roads as cycles will be coming from unexpected directions, and pedestrians in particular may find them harder to deal with. Head-on collisions with other people cycling are also more likely. On ‘conventional’ streets – one lane of motor traffic in each direction – uni-directional cycleways are clearly preferable, all other things being equal.
However, bi-directional cycleways do also have advantages, and one in particular that has probably swayed the decision-makers in London. It’s touched upon in this excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of bi-directional and uni-directional approaches by Paul James –
Depending on the roadway in question you could have less junctions to deal with, if you have many turnings on one side of the road, running a bi-directional cycleway on the opposite side so as to save on conflicts might be a good idea.
This is clearly the reasoning behind putting a bi-directional cycleway on the ‘river’ side of the Embankment. There are no junctions to deal with, cycling in either direction, so even though people are cycling on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, heading east, that’s a lot safer (and also more convenient) than having to deal with all the side roads that do exist on the non-river side of the road.
But this isn’t the only type of conflict-avoidance that explains why bi-directional cycleways have been chosen in London. Bi-directional cycleways also reduce conflicts at junctions that have to be signalised, by ‘bundling up’ all the cycle flows on one side of the road. This is actually very important, thanks to the limitations of current UK rules, and it’s the subject of this post.
In all the countries in mainland Europe (and also in Canada and the United States) it is an accepted principle that motor traffic turning right (the equivalent of our left) with a green signal should yield to pedestrians (and people cycling) progressing ahead, also with a green signal. Here’s a typical example in Paris; the driver is turning off the main road, with a green signal, but pedestrians also have a green signal to cross at the same time. The driver should yield (and is).
This approach actually makes junctions very straightforward, and efficient. A complete cycle of the traffic lights at a conventional crossroads requires only two stages to handle all the movements of people walking, cycling and driving. In the first, walking, cycling and driving all proceed north-south (with all ‘turning’ movements yielding to ‘straight on’ movements), and in the second, the same, but in the east-west direction.
Compare that with a typical UK junction, which will have three stages (if it takes account of pedestrians at all) and ignores cycling altogether, lumping it in with motor traffic. First, motor traffic (with cycling included in it) going north-south; then, motor traffic heading east-west; then pedestrians finally get a go on the third stage, with all other movements held.
This arrangement obviously doesn’t allow any turning conflicts (apart, of course, from motor vehicles crossing each other’s paths) – pedestrians don’t get to cross the road until all motor traffic is stopped, with an additional third stage. (This is, effectively, a ‘simultaneous green’ for pedestrians, although we are rarely generous to give pedestrians enough signal time to cross the junction on the diagonal).
And this gives us a clue to the problem when it comes to adding in cycling, when these kinds of turning conflicts aren’t allowed. You either have to add in stages where motor traffic is prevented from turning, or you have to stop pedestrians from crossing the road while cyclists are moving. Both of these approaches would add in a large amount of signal time, and would make for inefficient junctions.
One possible answer is including cycling in the ‘simultaneous green’ stage, but with sensible design – cycles moving from all arms of the junction at the same time as pedestrians have their green, and pedestrians crossing cycleways on zebra crossings. For whatever reason (from what I hear, DfT resistance) this kind of junction is still not appearing in the UK, forcing highway engineers to improvise within the constraints of the current rules. As Transport for London have done.
If we are trying to build uni-directional cycleways, those UK rules effectively mean we either have to ban turns for motor traffic, or we have to employ very large junctions indeed, to handle signalising different movements. Take the Cambridge Heath junction on Superhighway 2, which has to use three queuing lanes for motor traffic in each direction. One for the left turns (which have to be held while cyclists and motor traffic progress ahead), one for straight ahead, and one for right turns (which have to be separate from straight ahead movements, otherwise the junction will clog up).
That’s an awful lot of space when you add in the cycling infrastructure – space not many junctions in urban areas will have.
In an ideal world – and with sensible priority rules – these junctions could just be shrunk down to two queuing lanes in each direction. A left turning lane combined with a straight ahead lane, and a right turn lane. All these lanes would run at the same time as cycle traffic progressing ahead (as well as pedestrians), with the left turners yielding.
Unsurprisingly this is – of course – how the Dutch arrange this kind of junction.
This is much more compact than the kind of ‘Cambridge Heath’-style junction that we are forced to employ in Britain.
But, given that we unfortunately can’t do this, and that we rarely have the kind of space available that there is on Superhighway 2, bi-directional cycleways are the most obvious answer. As I hinted at in the introduction, this is why they’ve been used by Transport for London – they’re not stupid!
Let’s take one of the junctions on the North-South superhighway, at Ludgate Circus. Space here is much more limited than on CS2 – we can’t add in multiple turning lanes – so that means, given the constraints of UK rules, a bi-directional cycleway is the most sensible option.
Only two queuing lanes for motor traffic are required, in each direction, making this arrangement much more compact. It helps, of course, that a bi-directional cycleway is more space-efficient than two uni-directional ones, but the main win here is the fact that all the potential conflicts are ‘bundled’ on one side of the road. That means motor traffic flowing south doesn’t have turning conflicts on the inside.
Clearly, as I’ve outlined early on in this post, bi-directional cycleways will, more often than not, be less desirable than uni-directional ones, in urban areas. But they are currently – thanks to UK rules – probably the best way of building inclusive cycling infrastructure when space is genuinely limited, as they are the simplest way of side-stepping around British priority rules. (An additional benefit is that they will typically only involve converting, at most, a single lane of motor traffic, which helps when it comes to persuading reluctant local authorities worried about retaining capacity for drivers.)
Perhaps the way forward is to continue building bi-directional cycleways, but keeping in mind the possibility of adapting bi-directional designs into uni-directional ones, if and when UK rules become more flexible, or if and when ‘simultaneous green’ arrangements start to appear.