As I’m sure most of you already know, the Department for Transport recently made a decision to increase the speed limit for HGVs on single carriageway roads in Britain to 50mph.
One of the arguments made for this policy was that of safety. The intention is to reduce the speed differential between HGVs and other motor traffic from 20 mph (the difference between 60 mph, and 40 mph – the previous limit for HGVs) to 10 mph. It is asserted that this will reduce the temptation to overtake HGVs in dangerous situations.
The Department for Transport states that
The change to the national speed limit on single carriageway roads will modernise an antiquated restriction, which is not matched in most other European countries, including some of the other leaders alongside the UK for road safety (eg the Netherlands and Norway)
It is true that this change will bring the UK more into line with the Netherlands, which has a higher speed limit for HGVs of 80km/h (~50mph) on single carriageway roads.
However, I would like to argue that this change – this reduction in speed differentials between HGVs and other motor traffic – should form just the start of a comprehensive approach to road safety that reduces danger for all road users, based on the Dutch system of Sustainable Safety, or Duurzaam Veilig. Rather than just one isolated measure, the UK should bring its entire road network, and the way it is designed, into line with the Netherlands.
Sustainable Safety is all about prevention - preventing crashing from occurring, and, secondarily, reducing the risk of serious injuries when collisions do occur.
One of the core principles of this approach is homogeneity – equalising, as much as possible, the mass, speed and direction of vehicles, to reduce collision risk. In particular, fast objects should not share space with slow ones; and vehicles travelling at speed should not be travelling in opposing directions, without separation. Likewise measures should be taken to separate bodies of unequal mass; for instance, heavy vehicles like buses and lorries should be not be sharing the same space as pedestrians and cyclists. The basis for this approach – and other Sustainable Safety measures – is that human beings are fallible, and that the environment we travel in should respond to that fallibility, rather than expecting us to not make mistakes, ever.
Although this approach is only a few decades old – launched in the early 1990s in the Netherlands – the Dutch have made great progress in applying Sustainable Safety to their road network. They have removed speed differentials, reclassified road types, and improved the forgivingness of their roads and streets. SWOV estimate that, from 1998 to 2007, Sustainable Safety measures had reduced the number of deaths on Dutch roads by 30%, compared to a situation in which these measures had not been implemented.
Meanwhile Britain languishes far behind, with a road network totally unsuitable for the few vulnerable users who are brave enough to venture onto it.
The contrast with the Dutch road network – open to all users, of all ages and abilities, regardless of their mode of transport – could not be more stark.
As it happens, in raising the HGV speed limit on single carriageway roads to 50mph, the DfT has, accidentally or otherwise, made a tiny, tentative step towards applying Sustainable Safety on Britain’s roads – the speed limit differential between HGVs and other motor traffic has been reduced.
But this is, plainly, nowhere near enough. Sustainable Safety principles should instead be applied comprehensively and consistently across Britain’s road networks, ensuring that all road users are travelling at similar speeds, and that if they are not, that they are provided for separately.
What would this mean in policy terms?
Naturally enough, I am coming at this issue from a cycling perspective, but I hope it is clear from the above proposals that these measures would benefit everyone who uses the road network, either on foot, on horseback, on bike, or at the wheel of any kind of motor vehicle.
It would make journeys by foot or by bike considerably safer, and far more pleasant, but just as importantly the same would apply for journeys being made by motor vehicle. The stress of having to deal with overtaking slow-moving agricultural traffic, or people cycling, would be removed. Journeys would be smoother, safer and more predictable. It would also genuinely reduce any (legal) incentive to overtake HGVs in situations where specific overtaking opportunities have not been provided – all motor traffic would be travelling at approximately the same speed on these roads. Only on roads designed with safe overtaking opportunities would different categories of motor vehicle have different speed limits.
We would have a humane road network, that is safe for all, rather than the current one that effectively excludes the vast majority of users who aren’t travelling in motor vehicles. In addition, it would make the journeys of people in motor vehicles safer, and more straightforward.
This needs to happen. That’s why I have started a petition calling on the Department for Transport to develop and implement these policies for Britain’s roads.
*In some limited circumstances, a 60mph limit for all motor traffic could be retained on single-carriageway roads (for instance, long distance routes where higher speeds might be justified), provided design measures have been put in place to eliminate the danger of head-on or crossing conflicts.
Yesterday Transport for London announced their plans for Elephant & Castle, which had been out to consultation earlier in the year. There are some good elements here, but there’s a worrying amount of inconsistency. Attractive conditions for cycling aren’t continuous through the scheme.
This is most obvious on the Link Road, the bit of road that connects the main roundabout with the junction to the south – the junction where Abdelkhalak Lahyani was killed in May.
A cycle track runs northbound on this stretch of road, at bottom (the TfL plan is oriented with north to the left). This bypasses a large bus stop. There is no reason why this won’t work, providing it is designed properly.
But curiously, in the opposite direction – southbound – there is no cycle track at all. Instead we have a cycle lane running outside of a long bus lane/stop, sandwiched between stopped, or moving, buses, and general traffic lanes.*
At both ends of this cycle lane there are problems. At the northern end, buses and cycles will be moving across each other’s paths, at the point where the protected cycle track ends.
And at the southern end, we have similar problems -
People cycling straight on (south) will have to deal with motor traffic (including HGVs) wishing to turn left cutting across them, and buses moving out in the opposite direction. And this at a junction where someone has recently been killed by a left-turning HGV.
It’s a mess. And, more importantly, a needless mess, when there is sound design on the other side of the road that could just be copied across. There should be a cycle track here, running behind the bus stop. There is little to no point attempting to do something properly in one direction, and giving up in the other.
There is plenty of space to play with here. You can see on the diagram above that a median (in yellow) is being retained between the two carriageways, which is 1.5m wide. It has a fence on it, in an attempt to stop people crossing the road; presumably this is why it is being retained.
In addition, it seems that space is going to waste, due to some familiar (pervasive) ‘dual network’ thinking. TfL write that they will be implementing
additional improvements for cyclists who wish to remain on the carriageway such as, widening the carriageway northbound on the Elephant and Castle Link Road to allow for 4.5m bus lane to offer space for cyclists to overtake buses, and introducing a new cycle feeder lane on the approach to St George’s Road to offer better protection to cyclists approaching the junction [my emphasis]
So rather than doing things properly, and providing cycle tracks away from the carriageway that anyone – fast or slow – would naturally want to use, a 4.5m wide bus lane is being implemented in parallel to the northbound cycle track.
This is a waste of everyone’s time. As David Arditti argues -
There is no question of us having a network of roads for “less confident drivers” and a different one for “fast and advanced motorists”, and this is how the places that get cycling right also treat cycling. They build cycle lanes, paths and tracks that work of all types of cyclists and all abilities at the same time, and have sufficient capacity to cope with all, taking the attitude that if it’s not safe enough for young children, it won’t be safe enough for anyone, and if it’s not convenient enough for commuters in a hurry, it won’t be an attractive option to anyone. They build up to a common standard that works for all, and don’t say “If you don’t like it, there’s always the busy, dangerous main road”.
But this is what TfL (and doubtless most other councils in Britain) are still doing. Indeed, quite explicitly, in this specific instance. In response to requests in the consultation for wider cycle tracks in the scheme, TfL respond [pdf] -
The proposed cycle lane will be two metres wide, which is the same width as the segregated cycling facilities that are being introduced elsewhere. This is wider than many cycle lanes in London, and because cyclists will also have access to the 4.5m wide bus lane there is in effect greater capacity.
In effect – we don’t need to do things properly, because we are fully expecting a large number of people to continue cycling with motor traffic on the carriageway.
The logic is circular – the low quality of the cycle tracks will hold up people who want to cycle faster, and these people will opt for the main carriageway; those people opting for the carriageway are then used to justify the low quality of the cycle tracks. It’s insane.
No country that does things well designs for cycling like this. Instead, they employ high quality, inclusive networks that anyone is happy to use, because they are fast, direct, safe and continuous, for everyone.
Can we really not achieve this here? Can we not build two wide cycle tracks, in each direction? Or are we going to waste space continuing to attempt to cater for two different kinds of cyclists simultaneously?
*It’s not entirely clear from their response whether TfL will be employing this ‘cycle lane outside bus lane’ design – which appears on their updated design drawing, showing the new changes – or a a wide bus lane, with no cycle lane at all, which is mentioned in their changes. Either way these conflicting movements will still exist.
In Horsham, there’s a street where people cycling consistently break the law. South Street is a one-way street in the centre of town; stand here for any period of time, particularly in the morning or the evening, and you will see people cycling ‘the wrong way’ – either on the footways, or in the carriageway itself.
Why is this? Well, South Street has to be seen in context.
South Street forms part of the one-way route through the centre of the town; you can only drive through the town from the roundabout to the south-west, to the junction at the north-east – not in the opposite direction.
There were good intentions here – the centre of Horsham has very little motor traffic, and it travels at low speeds, thanks to a (self-reinforcing) 20mph zone with humps, sharp corners, and a cobbled surface. The idea is (and was) to make through traffic take the inner ring road, that loops around the town centre, and this generally works. (I’ve covered the background in this previous post).
However this policy has made it very difficult to negotiate the town centre by bike, because the one-way route through the centre has no exemptions for cycling. It makes it difficult – indeed next to impossible – to cycle across the town from east to west, and (for our purposes) from north to south.
Looking again at South Street, it’s quite easy to see why people are cycling through here; it forms part of a direct link between the Park to the north (where it is legal to cycle), to the routes through to the southern parts of Horsham.
There isn’t any other alternative if you want to head from the north of the town, to the south, except for the inner ring road itself, which is a dual carriageway carrying around 20,000 motor vehicles a day, at 30+ mph.
The additional detail – as well as the outright hostility of this road to cycling – is that it would be a lengthy detour to use this road, rather than taking the direct route. Fine if you are driving, which doesn’t require any physical exertion, not much fun if you are cycling.
So the ‘problem’ of cycling the wrong way on one-way streets is really a problem of failing to design safe, attractive routes for people who wish to cycle – indeed, ignoring cycling completely in the design process.
The obvious solution here is to make South Street two-way for cycling – that is, simply legalising the illegal behaviour. I think this could be achieved quite safely without any physical alteration to the street, beyond changing the no-entry signs to include an exemption. There’s not much traffic travelling through here, and people are already cycling the wrong way, without the world ending!
Long-term, it would be more appropriate to emphasise two-way cycling with this kind of design -
But in the meantime a simple exemption would work.
I think it’s worth considering these kinds of problems with two important principles in mind -
It seems that these kinds of ideas are, sadly, completely alien to most people. The associate editor of the Irish Sunday Times, John Burns, had this to say in response to a comment of mine about ‘fixing’ the problem of cycling the wrong way on streets -
— john burns (@JohnBurnsST) August 16, 2014
Presumably this was an attempt at a reductio ad absurdum, but it falls flat, because yes, this is precisely what we should do doing. If people are cycling on footways, there’s a problem with the street. If people are cycling through red lights, then there’s a problem with the junction. The problem lies not with the behaviour; it lies with the street itself.
I’ve already described how pavement cycling does not exist in the Netherlands, as a phenomenon. There simply isn’t any reason to cycle on footways, because the alternative is better.
And the same logic applies to jumping red lights. In the vast majority of cases, there’s either too much unnecessary delay, or there is no need to hold people cycling at a red light, when they could safely proceed. More generally, urban areas in Britain are bloated with traffic signals, a result of a failure to restrain motor traffic, or to redirect it to more appropriate routes. Dutch town centres have vastly fewer traffic signals, and hence vastly fewer lights for people to jump.
Earlier this year, a video of ‘bad cyclist behaviour’ in York went viral, featuring in the Daily Mail and a number of other national newspapers. The original YouTube video now appears to have been withdrawn – but you can view it here, in BT’s ‘motoring’ section.
Nearly every single example of ‘bad behaviour’ in this video would not exist in the Netherlands, because roads and streets there are designed to make cycling easy and painless, rather than throwing up pointless obstacles in their way.
The video opens with people bypassing a red traffic light to turn left, on a well-used cowpath.
Junctions in the Netherlands are designed to accommodate this behaviour. There is no reason to hold people cycling at red traffic signals unnecessarily – people in York have worked this out for themselves.
This is followed by a sequence of people cycling the wrong way on one way streets (being admonished by the dayglo finger of shame) -
This is behaviour that should simply be legalised, and made safe. Towns and cities should not have these kinds of restrictions on movement in these directions by people cycling.
Next up, someone cycling straight on through a red signal at a T-junction -
Again, streets should be designed to allow this kind of behaviour; there’s no need for people cycling to come into conflict with motor traffic while performing this manoeuvre.
Then a sequence of people jumping traffic lights that – judging by the locations – shouldn’t exist at all -
The video is rounded off with some people trundling on footways alongside some pretty dreadful-looking roads.
Rather than shaming and blaming, a more constructive (and more importantly permanent) solution to illegal cycling would be to design the problem out of existence. In doing so would we make our towns and cities vastly more attractive places.
Short version – it’s as preposterous to attribute characteristics to ‘cyclists’ as it would be to attribute them to ‘trainists’, ‘busists’, ‘planeists’, ‘tubists’ or ‘pedestrians’. A ‘cyclist’ is just a human being who happens to be travelling by bike, just as a ‘pedestrian’ is a human being who happens to be travelling on foot, and a ‘trainist’ one who happens to be travelling by train.
About halfway through the programme, a number of tweets from the audience were read out, presumably in the interests of ‘balance’. That ‘balance’ being that on a programme arguing we need to do more to keep ‘cyclists’ safe, we need other people arguing that ‘cyclists’ need to do more for themselves.
Among these tweets, read out to an audience of millions, were the following statements -
cyclists have no spatial awareness
bike riders are irresponsible
There are, I think, only two ways these comments – and countless others like them – can conceivably make sense.
1) It’s possible that a ‘cyclist’ isn’t a normal human being, but rather some variant of the species that lacks spatial awareness, or that is more irresponsible than a standard human being.
2) Alternatively, a ‘cyclist’ is a normal human being – but there is something about a bicycle that immediately removes their spatial awareness, and makes them more irresponsible; or, that a bicycle appeals uniquely to that subset of humanity that is lacking spatial awareness, or is irresponsible.
The first is obviously absurd; the second bears slightly more serious consideration, but not much.
But I think that the first (absurd) explanation does actually correspond to the way plenty of people think, reflexively. Perhaps it is what the word ‘cyclist’ conjures up in the popular imagination – a skinny young male, dressed in lycra, wearing funny shoes and a funny helmet. This person isn’t ‘one of us’. They’re a bit alien.
A clear example of this phenomenon came on a Radio 4 comedy programme last night – The Show What You Wrote, on which the ‘ensemble’ perform ‘the best’ listener submissions, chosen from thousands of entries. The very first sketch of this programme – indeed the first of the entire series – was remarkable, for what it says about these kinds of attitudes.
It starts with the sound of a car being driven, followed by a loud crashing sound, and a squeal of tires.
Man: I think I’ve hit something! Oh, I can’t believe this. A nice, country drive, and this happens. I feel awful.
Woman: Poor little thing. Do you think his little family are wondering where he is?
Man: Oh my God it moved! It’s still alive!
Woman: Well we’re going to have to put it out of it’s misery. Here – use this stick.
[Sound of a beating]
Man: Oh, that wasn’t nice.
Woman: Okay, now you get rid of his body, and I’ll stick his bicycle in the boot.
The ‘humour’ here – such that it is – relies upon the audience believing that the man and the woman are discussing hitting and dispatching something not-human, when it turns out they hit and dispatched a human, or a sort-of-human. Presumably the image the audience have in their mind is of a kind of skinny, lycra-clad, helmeted ‘species’, like in the picture above.
The ‘joke’, however, would be preposterous if the word ‘cyclist’ conjured up these images in the popular imagination.
So – as ridiculous as it is to think of ‘cyclists’ as a different kind of human, or not-human, this is unfortunately the instinctive reaction of plenty of people. Radio 4 comedy programmes would not run segments like this if it were otherwise.
The other explanation – that a bicycle itself somehow transforms an otherwise ordinary human being into an irresponsible one, or that bicycles uniquely appeal to those that lack spatial awareness, or variants thereof – is almost as ridiculous.
People who ride bikes use plenty of other modes of transport; they all walk, they almost all drive motor vehicles (except, of course, children), they take the train, the tube, and the bus. For it to be true that ‘cyclists’ have particular characteristics of lawlessness, or of irresponsibility or cluelessness, that other transport users don’t have, these characteristics must suddenly appear when they sit astride a bicycle, and then just as suddenly disappear when they dismount.
Is this likely? Can ‘spatial awareness’ suddenly come and go, according to the mode of transport someone is using? Obviously not; someone’s spatial awareness is a constant. Likewise ‘irresponsibility’ is a constant; an irresponsible person will be irresponsible regardless of their mode of transport.
A man who pushes you out of the way while cycling will undoubtedly be the same kind of person who pushes you out of the way while walking, or while trying to get onto a train, or who will use his horn while driving. But this kind of behaviour – equally likely across all modes of transport – is never used as an attribute of ‘pedestrians’, or ‘trainists’, or ‘motorists’.
A moment’s reflection will show that it makes absolutely no sense to attribute characteristics to people who happen to be using a particular mode of transport.
‘Motorists have poor hearing.’
‘Trainists are sweaty’.
‘Busists lack a sense of direction.’
All utterly, utterly preposterous; yet BBC presenters are quite happy to read out precisely these kinds of statements on air, to millions of people.
Think about what you’re saying.
A couple of recent things got me thinking about the question in the title – is it always unacceptable to reallocate footway space, to provide attractive conditions for cycling?
The first is this passage from the draft London Cycling Design Standards (page 212) -
In general, it is not desirable to take space from pedestrians to provide for cycling, nor to create cycling facilities that resemble the footway. However, there may be examples of very wide or little used footways that may be suitable for reallocation or shared use.
I don’t see a great deal to disagree with here, apart from the suggestion that wide pavements could be employed for ‘shared use’ rather than reallocation (and, by implication, that it’s acceptable to create cycling facilities that resemble the footway, which isn’t acceptable at all). Shared use, I would argue, is very rarely appropriate in an urban context, and shouldn’t have any place in a design manual for London.
Nevertheless the rest of this paragraph rightly argues that while it is undesirable, as a general rule, to reduce pedestrian space, there are circumstances where it might be acceptable – where pavements are wide, or little used by pedestrians, or a combination of both.
And the second thing that got me thinking was a vivid demonstration, by Andrea Casalotti, of how the space on the bridge over the railway line at Farringdon Station could be used differently.
This road is one of the most heavily-used cycling routes in London, yet there is no clear carriageway space; people cycling are stuck in stationary motor traffic, as shown in this picture of the same location, again by Andrea -
Handily enough, Transport for London already have a pedestrian comfort guide [pdf], which could be used, in this context, to establish whether it might be acceptable to take space from footways. It is based around the number of pedestrians, per minute, per metre of width. It’s found on page 13, but here’s the most relevant bit -
Grade A+ comfort corresponds to 3 pedestrians, per minute, per metre of width. So if your footway is – for instance – 3m wide, 9 pedestrians travelling along it, per minute, would be extremely comfortable; 24 pedestrians per minute would still be comfortable (although with restricted movement), and 33 pedestrians per minute (B+) would be the recommended maximum on a 3m footway in London.
Guidance like this could be employed at places like Farringdon to assess whether taking pedestrian space could be achieved without reducing comfort (my instinct is that, at Farringdon, it wouldn’t).
Obvious other locations include Superhighway 2 (the dreadful bit), which runs alongside some very wide footways, parts of which are effectively unusable thanks to clutter; clutter which could be rearranged, to provide cycling space, with minimal impact on pedestrian comfort.
This would have the added benefit of freeing up carriageway space for bus lanes – genuine bus lanes, for buses only, unimpeded by slower cycle traffic.
I suspect this approach won’t get employed, however, when CS2 comes to be upgraded in the near future, because adjusting kerb lines is much more expensive than tinkering around with the existing carriageway. Indeed, I suspect this is why ‘shared use’ pavements are employed so often, despite plentiful carriageway and footway width which could be reallocated specifically for cycling – doing the latter would involve serious engineering work to rebuild the way the street is set out, whereas putting up a blue sign on the existing footway is very, very easy.
This is a pity – we should be able to think imaginatively about the building to building width of our roads and streets, and how it can be used most profitably, while ensuring that pedestrians retain A+ levels of comfort. It might cost more, but we will save in the long run.