Over the course of the last few years, an area of Horsham – East Street and Market Square – has seen the gradual removal of motor traffic. Five years ago East Street was a conventional ‘road’, with narrow pavements, and, with Market Square, was open to motor traffic, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
East Street was given a ‘shared surface’ treatment back in 2010, and this was combined with the banning of the use of the street by motorists, except for loading and deliveries, and blue badge parking in a handful of bays. Subsequent to that change, the council went further, and removed motor traffic completely from the street, with temporary bollards, between 10:30am and 4:30pm. Deliveries take place before and after these times. Market Square – which can only be accessed legally from East Street – effectively became pedestrianised too, as a result of these changes.
There was some chuntering about these developments from many locals. The changes the council made were driven in large part by the numerous cafes and restaurants on East Street and Market Square, who wanted to put tables and chairs out on the street and on the square. This wouldn’t be possible without removing the motor traffic.
The grumbling – presumably from people who still wanted to drive down the street, during the day – focused on how Britain doesn’t really have a ‘cafe culture’, and that it would be silly to put table and chairs on the street. That’s just not for us Britons, the argument implied -we don’t really ‘do’ that sort of thing. People on the continent, maybe, but not us.
Well, of course, the tables and chairs did go out on the street, and, lo and behold, it turns out that we do have a cafe culture!
The truth is that ‘culture’ was a pretty empty causal explanation for why Britons – and people in Horsham in particular – didn’t eat and drink out and the street. Compare the above picture of Market Square with how it used to look in 2009 (from the opposite direction) -
Nobody was sitting outside here, because, frankly, it was a bit shit. Essentially a car park.
And precisely the same was true of East Street. Compare today -
with the previous arrangement -
It wasn’t our ‘culture’ that stopped us from sitting on the street. It was the physical environment. As soon as that was good enough, then our ‘cafe culture’ suddenly appeared.
I think there are important lessons here for anyone who mistakenly tries to attribute the differences in the amount of cycling between Britain and the Netherlands to ‘culture’. Yes, of course, the Dutch do have a ‘bicycle culture’, but that doesn’t explain why they cycle so much. Perhaps by a combination of historical accident, good fortune, strong campaigning and bold political leadership, they’ve ended up with an environment that allows cycling. What ‘cycling culture’ they have flows from that environment. Impose British-style conditions on the Netherlands and that ‘culture’ would rapidly evaporate.
Likewise it would be absurd to attribute Britain’s low cycling levels to any lack of ‘bicycle culture’. People don’t cycle here because – again through a combination of historical misfortune, poor planning, and poor political leadership – the environment for cycling is dreadful. Where conditions for cycling are – even temporarily – made good, then suddenly our ‘bicycle culture’ materialises.
That’s why this quote, from Charles Rubenacker -
The Dutch have created the safest and most complete bicycling network in the world, but we need to look beyond infrastructure and into their collective souls to better understand why riding a bike is so normal in the Netherlands.
is so baffling. The true explanation is grasped in the first half of the sentence, before being discarded for an explanation that is not so much genetic, as mystical.
Do we Britons need to ‘look into our collective souls’ to understand why we don’t ride bicycles? We could do, but I don’t think it would get us very far.
‘Culture’ is an empty explanation. It asserts that the way things are is due to things being that way. Arguing that the Dutch have high cycling levels because of ‘cycling culture’ is akin to arguing that Britons don’t eat out on the street because we don’t have a cafe culture – we don’t have a culture because we don’t have a culture. It’s circular and meaningless.
I’ve just spotted that Transport for London’s new Draft Cycle Safety Action Plan attempts to pull the same trick that Norman Baker and Mike Penning tried to pull back in 2012.
That is, it makes a comparison between cycle safety in London and Amsterdam (along with other cities) on the basis of deaths per head of population, rather than deaths per total distance travelled by bike (or by total time spent travelling by bike).
Here’s the graph in question, from page 10 of the Plan -
Followed by the helpful explanation -
Internationally, in terms of cyclist fatalities per million population (Figure 2), London had fewer cyclist fatalities in 2012 than many other cities such as Amsterdam and New York.
So, looking at this graph, you might think that London (in yellow) is fantastically safe! Just look how much lower the number of fatalities there are, compared to Amsterdam, per capita. London had just 1.7 cycling fatalities in 2012 per million population, where Amsterdam had 6.5 – nearly four times higher.
But of course this is an entirely misleading comparison. It doesn’t take into account the fact that, across London, cycling only accounts for around 2% of all trips made, whereas in Amsterdam cycling accounts for nearly 40% of all trips made. There is much, much more cycling in Amsterdam per capita, so comparing cycling fatalities purely on a per capita basis is absurd. It’s like concluding it’s much safer to cycle in London than in Amsterdam if you have a Dutch name, because many more people with Dutch names are killed cycling in Amsterdam than in London.
This is the same logic that led Mike Penning to argue
I think the Netherlands may want to come and see us, to see how we are making sure that so few people are killed cycling
And (more recently) Denis McShane to suggest
— Denis MacShane (@DenisMacShane) July 7, 2014
How much of this is down to stupidity or dishonesty is hard to tell. You would certainly think Transport for London and a Transport Under-Secretary (as Penning was, at the time) should know better.
The other thing that’s worth mentioning here – beyond the failure to use an appropriate rate – is that, in Amsterdam, children and the elderly (both more vulnerable groups, for different reasons) ride bikes in large numbers.
24% of all trips made by Dutch over-65s are cycled, while in London 95% of over-65s never cycle. If people that are, in general, more frail – and more likely to suffer death than a younger person in an equivalent incident – aren’t cycling at all, that will have a further skewing effect on casualty figures.
One of the principles of the Dutch approach to road safety – sustainable safety, or duurzaam veiling – is homogeneity. Homogeneity of mass, speed and direction.
Roads should be designed to eliminate, as much as possible, mixing road users with large differences in speed and mass in the same space. So, for example, relatively slow pedestrians should not have to mix with relatively fast bikes, and relatively light bicycles should not have to mix with relatively heavy buses or HGVs. Likewise road users who travel slowly should not be expected to share space with vehicles travelling considerably faster.
It appears this principle has been grasped by the Freight Transport Association, who argue
we believe there is evidence confirming that road safety will be improved if the differential between HGVs and other road users is reduced.
Except… the measure the GTA are welcoming involves reducing the speed differential by shifting lorries to a higher speed, so they are travelling at the same speed as smaller motor traffic.
Conveniently the FTA seem to have overlooked those ‘other road users’ who will still be travelling at around 15mph, or slower, for whom this move to higher speed limits for HGVs will distinctly worsen their safety, according to the logic that the FTA themselves accept. The speed differential between people walking, cycling and horse-riding, and HGVs, is being increased.
Sustainable safety – the British way!
I have already discussed the basic problem of how “road safety” measures and generally conceptualises the safety of cyclists. But a further element of this needs consideration. By looking at the people who are hurt or killed rather than those hurting or killing them, crucial issues for other road users are avoided. Consider these issues:1.Speed
“Excessive, illegal or inappropriate speed of the other vehicle involved does not appear to be a major factor in cycling collisions.” (p.16)
Speed is indeed not implicated in most cyclist Serious Injuries in London. But this is because most cycling in London is concentrated in inner London where speeds are low. Motor vehicle speeds are higher in outer London where there is little cycling. That doesn’t mean that speed is not an issue there – indeed, high speeds may be a deterrent and one of the reasons for relatively low uptake there. The suggestion would then be that speed control (or separate cycle paths on higher speed roads if speeds can’t be reduced) is indeed an issue.
But the more important issue is that excess speed is discussed solely in terms of its effects on (existing) cyclists. Speed has been a preoccupation for transport professionals concerned with safety from the beginning. Even Colin Buchanan, architect of the car-centred urban transport systems of the 1960s onwards, advocated default urban speed limits of 20 mph. Would it not make sense to be part of initiatives for speed control and 20 mph which primarily benefit pedestrians? If you look at reducing danger at source you would do that – for the benefit of the safety of all road users. If you concentrate on cyclists as casualties, you miss out on that.
2. Other law breaking
A key feature of focussing on those hurt or killed – essentially a victim-focused approach – is that it easily slips into victim-blaming. I have argued that this is a feature of the emphasis on hi-viz clothing for cyclists and pedestrians here, here , and here ,for example. Despite the lack of evidence for the value of hi-viz, we have measure 12: TfL will work with manufacturers and cycle businesses to help cyclists be safe by: challenging cycle manufacturers to increase the conspicuity of bicycles, for example building into the frame… retro-reflective equipment…, through innovator seminars.
On the same theme, there is a strong focus on lights, which are at least a legal requirement.
2007 -2011 fatalities. Fourteen of the collisions in the sample (26%) occurred in darkness or partial light, and in half of these collisions the cyclist did not have lights. Bicycle lights are a mandatory requirement and this lack of compliance needs to be addressed Page19
But how important is this issue for cyclists in London as what might be considered a cause of collisions? Firstly, the analysis I have carried out in one London borough (confidentiality required by use of official figures means I can’t name it) indicates that in no more than 1.5% of cases is contributory factor 506 (non-use of lights) a factor for all casualties (see this ). Secondly, while I might have taken an unrepresentative borough, at least some 300 casualties’ were looked at, rather than some 64.
But most important, a detailed manual analysis – easily done with small numbers – would show whether this factor was actually key to the collision occurring. Was the behaviour of the cyclist and other road user(s) exemplary apart from the non-use of lights? Was it the case that an alert driver capable of seeing unlit pedestrians on typical well-lit urban roads would be unable to see an unlit cyclist?
5. Close overtaking during 2010-12 Conflict rank Manoeuvre description Seriously injured casualties (% of total) Fatal casualties (% of total) 1 Other vehicle turns right across path of cyclist 219 (13%) 2 (5%) 2 Cyclist and other vehicle travelling alongside each other. 180 (11%) 4 (10%) 3 Cyclist hits open door / swerves to avoid open door of other vehicle. 160 (10%) 3 (7.5%) 4 Other vehicle turns left across the path of cyclist 134 (8%) 9 (23%) 5 Other vehicle disobeys junction control & turns right into path of cyclist 114 (7%) 0 (0%)
One of the key complaints from cyclists is that drivers constantly overtake without giving enough room. Conflict types 2 and 4, covering some 20% of cyclist KSIs, involve changing driver behavior here. Some of this can be solved by segregation, but since this is not going to happen on most roads in London (and would take decades to install anyway even if desired) there is clearly scope for addressing the issue.
“give motorcyclists, cyclists and horse riders at least as much room as you would when overtaking a car (see Rules 211 to 213 and 214 to 215).”. Lengthy discussion with MPS officers indicate that there are problems in addressing this without specific distances given, but there is apparently precedent with regard to cyclist “wobble-room” being required when overtaking. At the very least: Is it really too much to expect some sort of police activity in this key area when officers have been giving (misguided) advice to cyclists on helmets etc. in Operation Safeway?
And also… “16: TfL will extend the safety principles of FORS”
Given the amount of time taken to get TfL to see sense over the “Cyclists stay back” stickers and the fact that they (with a new variant above) are still around, one hopes that these principles are properly sorted out.
“Although TfL is taking the lead to make roads safer, TfL cannot achieve safe cycling for all alone. Ninety five per cent of London’s streets are the responsibility of London’s boroughs, making them essential to the success of this draft plan.”. Matters like policing are actually much more in TfL’s control than the boroughs. Also, TfL often dictates – over matters such as “smoothing the traffic” – borough behaviour, and of course allocates substantial funding to boroughs. Can it not similarly direct boroughs in the right direction on safety?
Why does it “matter” which times and places people choose to cycle, and who has the right to decide this?
We have been critical of the way enforcement is done in London, but agree with a properly resourced enforcement programme. Only some of this will involve the Cycle Task Force but “increasing the number of police officers in the Cycle Task Force from 39 to 50 “ is hardly impressive.
We have made it clear to TfL, along with the other cyclist and road danger reduction organisations, that they need to measure danger in more appropriate ways in order to properly understand safety of cyclists and other road users, and to implement measures to control road danger at source. There isn’t much evidence that TfL are listening to this message.
The draft CSAP is a fundamentally flawed document which fails in three main respects. Firstly, its idea of “safety” for cyclists is measured in a way which can indicate that having fewer cyclists and a higher cyclist casualty rate is BETTER than having more cyclists and a lower casualty rate. Secondly, it fails to differentiate between measures which reduce danger to cyclists (and other road users) and those which do not. Thirdly, it has no real way of assessing the effects of measures implemented.
Let me refer to my experience here: for some years I sat on the Cycle Safety Working group at Transport for London (then representing the Borough Cycling Officers Group) and had a role in preparing the first CSAP. Reviewing its effects in September 2012 I wrote “The above report indicates ways in which the CSAP has been inadequate. It also shows that insofar as issues are addressed and attempts made to implement necessary changes, the impacts made have been minimal or very limited. Pursuing the overall objectives of the CSAP will require substantially more commitment and resources to achieve a significant reduction in danger to cyclists (and often other road users) and a reduction in the cyclist casualty rate.”
I don’t think there has been any fundamental change since then. In fact, we seem to have gone backwards on the key issue of actually defining what the problem is. This is so basic that nothing worthwhile can really progress unless a clear definition of what the problem is has been agreed upon.What is ”Cyclist safety”? The measurement issue.
This is not an abstract academic issue. It is absolutely critical as a basis for any discussion about cyclist safety.
As far as traditional “road safety” is concerned, “Cyclist safety” is about the total number of reported cyclist casualties (generally “Killed and Seriously Injured”) per head of the population or in a given location – in this case London. It is NOT about what the cyclists’ organisations asked for – and what TfL for many years at the CSWG agreed on – namely an indicator based on exposure. This is sometimes referred to as a “rate-based” indicator, in that casualties are expressed in terms of the exposure of cyclists, for example cyclist casualties per journey made, distance travelled, or time taken cycling.
At various places in the draft CSAP the casualty rate is indeed considered as the indicator, but elsewhere it is not. For example, take this graph prominently displayed:Figure 2 : International cyclist fatalities per million population, 2012
So, the casualty rate per journey, per mile or per hour spent cycling may be far lower in Amsterdam than in London. The experience of cycling in Amsterdam may be far more pleasant and inviting because of the lower levels of danger presented to cyclists. But for TfL, reviewing this graph: “London is performing well when cycling in London is compared against national statistics” (Page 9). TfL takes precisely the opposite view that we take, and as far as we are concerned this is a fundamental problem. Unless they invert this position we disagree on what we are trying to achieve.
In fact we need to go a lot further. Even casualty rates are inadequate as measures. We should be looking at whether casualties result from a third party’s rule- or law-breaking, or from careless behaviour on the part of the cyclist. We should be stating that locations laid out so that cyclists are subjected to unacceptably high levels of road danger (gyratory systems like Bow Roundabout or Staples Corner) are just that: particularly dangerous locations for cyclists, and that this is objectively so. When actual or potential cyclists are scared to travel through such locations we don’t need to talk about “subjective safety” – these people are making a correct analysis of the objective danger presented to them.
But considering these issues systematically – as I attempted in Local Transport Today last year – is apparently not on TfL’s agenda. There is some reference (“This draft plan, taken as a whole, seeks to improve the reality and the perception of cycle safety.” Page 9) to concerns about people being deterred by their perception of safety – but this is not followed through.
This is a classic difficulty with traditional “road safety” which we have pointed out numerous times before, whether the offenders are TfL or Government ministers and where we agree with our colleagues in the London Cycling Campaign: “London Cycling Campaign has always called for casualties to be measured against exposure to risk. How risky is cycling per mile travelled compared to other ways of travel? Without such measurements the benefits of increasing cycling can be misrepresented in casualty data.”
Road Danger Reduction versus “Road Safety”: The “Who-Kills-Whom” question.
Our colleagues in the LCC correctly say: “…(we) will be assessing the 32 actions in the plan for their impact on reducing road danger. For each action we will ask:
… too few of the actions really address sources of danger.”
For us there is a fundamental issue about the difference between those road users who kill, or hurt, or endanger others and those who are killed, hurt or endangered. All road users may well have responsibilities, but there is a fundamental difference in actual or potential lethality between (broadly speaking) the motorised and those outside motor vehicles endangered by them. This difference is routinely and systematically neutralised by the “road safety” lobby. So:
“Sharing the road
Research also shows that Londoners are concerned by safety on the roads; however they tend to consider the need for change to lie with others rather than themselves. This is a fundamental barrier to improving safety at present. Even though many people acknowledge that they take risks at times, they feel that they have appropriately accounted for the safety of themselves and others and that any risks that they take are calculated and ‘safe’.”
This paragraph perfectly demonstrates the determination to deny the difference in lethality between the different modes.
In this context, Figure 3 is interesting, because it shows that casualty rates for cyclists and pedestrians vary with age (excluding the over-80s) much less than for drivers and motorcyclists. This strongly implies that it is largely the behaviour of others, rather than their own behaviour, that causes cyclist and pedestrian casualties. For pedestrians and cyclists, the ratio between highest and lowest risk ages is just over 3 to 1. For drivers it’s over 12 to 1, and for motor-cyclists 33 to 1.
Even without tackling this basic moral issue properly, there is a point about analysing the effects of interventions. “This new draft Cycle Safety Action Plan (CSAP) builds on the original, published in 2010,” (Page 4). But, as I argued in 2012, with the possible exception of resources directed at the freight industry to reduce cyclist deaths involving HGVs, there was precious little evidence for the effects of interventions. This doesn’t stop TfL baldly stating: “There are some notable successes achieved through the previous CSAP that have made cycling safer in London (Page 25)”
These “notable successes” are:
That may seem like grumbling, but I can’t help wondering whether the changes achieved so far – or even those mentioned as potentially to be lobbied for in the new CSAP – are rather less than might be pushed for with other modes of transport. For example: “TfL will lobby vehicle manufacturers and representative organisations to make vehicles safer for cyclists by pushing for:
Which is all very well, but how about consideration for systems to be retro-fitted? And what happens in the meantime while the motor industry considers these devices? To take just the example of under-run guards on HGVs which could prevent cyclists (and pedestrians) from being crushed? Is it too much to suggest that TfL could actually part- finance installation of such devices – after all, with a £6 billion a year budget it shouldn’t be too hard to find the money. (continued in next post)
From the press release, the ‘turbo’ roundabout in Bedford will now be under construction – building was scheduled to start yesterday, Monday the 21st of July.
Pretty much everything you need to know about this strange scheme and its convoluted history is here on the Alternative Department for Transport blog. (The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain also hosted a guest blog critically examining some of the claims made for this design).
Presumably in anticipation of construction starting, the local cycling campaign for North Bedfordshire (CCNB) have put out a statement justifying the design. It’s as curious as the scheme itself. Principally it clings to the sad, failed strategy of attempting to design for two different categories of ‘cyclists’ separately, instead of the proven, successful approach of inclusively designing for everyone.
CCNB believes that the dual use scheme will improve the safety of all types of cyclists (and pedestrians). Experienced cyclists will use the on-road carriageway around the roundabout while the less confident, new and young cyclists will use an off-road shared use route using four zebras is a good compromise.
For ‘experienced cyclists’ -
The tighter geometry and enforced lane discipline should slow down traffic over what it is at present. An experienced cyclist adopting the primary position should thus avoid being overtaken or cut-up and as a consequence feel much safer. The lane discipline should also ensure that most motorists know what cyclists are doing and in the same way cyclists should also know what motorists are doing.
Well that sounds attractive, on a roundabout that will still be carrying around 25,000 PCUs per day! And for everyone else -
Current regulations stipulate that cyclists can cycle across zebras if there is a dual use path on either side but unlike pedestrians must give way to motor vehicles. The zebras will be wider than normal and the design will allow easy modification to a more traditional Dutch style junction when the DfT allows cyclists to use them in the same way as pedestrians, hopefully sometime next year.
The experience of cycling like a pedestrian.
I am deeply, deeply sceptical about claims this design can be ‘modified’ to a Dutch-style junction, not only because a Dutch-style junction would have perimeter tracks, clearly distinct from footways, rather than shared use areas, but also because the zebras in this scheme cross multiple lanes on the approaches, at sharp angles, a design that is simply not appropriate to ‘convert’ to a crossing. (To say nothing of the appropriateness of cycling on these zebras while waiting for this ‘conversion’).
The CCNB response also contains this strange factoid -
The roundabout is generally very busy mainly in the short morning and evening rush hours. The area concerned is fairly small and it is not possible to have Dutch style off-road cycle tracks along any of the four roads involved. [my emphasis].
Really? Looking at the four roads involved – the four arms of the roundabout – in turn -
Tavistock Street -
In the application, the designer submitted a mocked up version of what the roundabout could look like with a ‘proper’ Dutch design, including side road priority for cyclists on fully segregated cycle tracks and tight curve radii to slow vehicles.
That’s right – the designer of this scheme presented a possible version of this roundabout, with cycle tracks on entry and exit. Here it is!
As the CTC report, Bedford Borough Council vetoed this design on the grounds that it would affect motor traffic capacity; having one lane on each of the approaches wouldn’t be sufficient to cope with current volumes of motor traffic.
So – faced with the intransigence of the council, and the ludicrous constraints of the the DfT’s Cycle Safety Fund – it would be understandable if the local cycle campaign admitted defeat, and grimly accepted this being forced on them, while grumbling about it. But to actually come out and support this dog’s dinner?
The junction outside the Bank of England is truly awful; a vast open space of tarmac, motor traffic thundering through in five directions, and pedestrians accommodated on tiny pavements. What should be a beautiful civic space is devoted to motor traffic flow.
To be fair to the City of London, they have recognised the problem, and are looking to make improvements. It seems they are examining the potential for closing off motor traffic from certain directions, or at certain times of day.
But here’s the method they are choosing to employ for examining the options -
At the moment we are establishing how wide the impact might be if we make big changes at the junction. This will give us the starting point of what we will need to look at in detail. We should complete this work by September 2014.
Our next task will be to build a computer traffic model to assess what is likely to happen if traffic is prevented from crossing the junction for example in certain directions or times of day. Information from pedestrian and cycling movements will also help to develop solutions. This is likely to be a big piece of work and will take some time to complete but it is very important to have credible options for alterations to the junction. We hope to have this work completed by early 2016.
They are building a computer traffic model to do so – in their own words, ‘a big piece of work’ that is going to take one and a half years to complete. Eighteen months. There is no word on how much this is going to cost.
I imagine the complexity here is due to the fact that we don’t really know how to model people cycling and walking, as described in this excellent post by smalltown2k. It’s really very difficult, and the City appear to be attempting to do so. Now obviously the ability to model these kinds of movements is going to be very important in the future, and it is valuable that we can start to assess what might happen to traffic flow if we acknowledge how people walk and cycle about, and how they might shift mode under different conditions.
But really, rather than just building a hugely complex model from scratch to find out what happens when a junction is closed to motor traffic, couldn’t the City just do it, on a trial basis? If the result is genuine chaos, then the trial can quickly be abandoned.
There are good reasons for thinking a trial of this kind – closing roads at Bank temporarily – would not result in chaos. The main one is that the area is ringed by major arterial roads, composed of London Wall to the north, Aldgate and Tower Gateway to the east, and Upper Thames Street to the south.
All are designed to carry large volumes of motor traffic, and all lie very close to Bank itself. These are the roads that should be carrying through traffic; the area around Bank should, realistically, only be carrying private motor traffic that is accessing the area. Certainly, the Bank junction should not be carrying through motor traffic in an east-west direction, as there are two major roads to the north and south – just a few hundred metres away – that were built for this purpose.
So – why not just try this? Try it now, rather than spending eighteen difficult months building a model from scratch. You’ll get results that correspond to the real world, and much more quickly!
The summer is the season when West Sussex County Council – and presumably many other British councils – decide to start spreading gravel on their country lanes, sticking it down with tar and hoping that motor vehicles will ‘bed it in’. This technique is apparently called ‘chip seal’.
It is simply awful to ride on, especially when it has just been laid – the gravel is still loose, and slippery to ride on. Stones get flung up, particularly by passing vehicles, which rarely stick to the 20mph suggested limit. And it’s a poor surface to ride on, even when it has been ‘bedded in’ – rough, and noisy, and far worse than a machine-laid tarmac surface.
Worse than that, chip seal appears – to me at least – to actually accelerate the deterioration of a road. Here’s an example, a mile away from where the new chip seal has been laid in the photograph above.
This road was ‘chip sealed’ in the last four to five years (I can’t remember precisely when). But as you can see, the layer of gravel has been intermittently blasted off, leaving a bumpy patchwork surface, partly composed of the remaining chipseal, and the underlying original road surface. Again, absolutely awful to ride on, but more problematically, the kind of road surface that is going to deteriorate very rapidly. Potholes are already starting to develop in the areas where the chipseal has been blasted off. The depressions are places where water is retained, perfect for the development of road damage.
I’ve cycled on country lanes in most of the countries of western Europe, including places where roads are subject to extremes of temperature – Switzerland and Sweden. Yet no other western European country appears to employ ‘chip seal’ – they seal roads properly, with machine laid surfaces. My guess is that these roads – while more expensive to lay in the short term – are much cheaper in the long term, because they last much longer than this strange ‘gravel’ approach.
Why does Britain do things differently? Is chip seal genuinely cost-effective? Answers please!
A post by Joe Dunckley yesterday – about how we keep expecting education and awareness to change driver behaviour, ahead of physical engineering – reminded me of something I’d been meaning to write about for a while. It was provoked by this sign I came across in the village of Rotherwick, in Hampshire.Beneath the standard ‘watch out for children’ warning triangle, some locals have evidently felt the need to ask drivers to ‘please’ slow down, attaching a do-it-yourself sign to the pole.
Needless to say, although the locals are asking drivers to slow down to 20mph, the speed limit through the village – and past the school – remains set at 30mph. The official limit is on the pole on the other side of the road.
But hey, drivers have been warned there’s a school here – they’ll all drive carefully, won’t they?
And there’s a similar example in the village of Partridge Green in West Sussex – again, by the village school.
A ‘kill speed not kids’ sign near the junction with the school is, of course, not accompanied by any corresponding low speed limit, or physical measures to enforce it.Although the DIY sign here has a picture of a zebra crossing, there isn’t any crossing, at all, outside the school itself – but there are some barriers to stop people crossing the road where they might actually want to.
Nice of West Sussex County Council to do absolutely nothing to make this dead straight road – just outside of a 60mph limit – safer for schoolchildren.
And it’s not just outside schools. The residents of Tower Hill – a rural road, but with plenty of housing along it, and no footpath – plainly feel that the 60mph limit through where they live is preposterous, and have made their own speed limit signs. There have been many crashes here.All this is sadly symptomatic of the British approach to dealing with traffic danger. At locations where there really shouldn’t be fast motor traffic, and where there is clear local demand for low vehicle speeds (people are making these signs and attaching them themselves) there isn’t anything to make drivers behave, or design that reduces the danger posed to vulnerable road users; only informal requests and home-made signs.
Perhaps the background assumption here is the one Joe describes in his post – that the British driver is innately well-mannered, and doesn’t really need to be told what to do; he’ll either be behaving sensibly already, and if not, polite requests will be sufficient.
the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back… Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.
But these homemade signs are symptomatic of a failure of that strategy. They wouldn’t exist if drivers responded properly to their environment; there wouldn’t be any need to exhort them to slow down to an appropriate speed if they were already doing it. Moreover, there wouldn’t be any need for barriers to stop children crossing the road where they want to, if we could rely on drivers approaching schools at a sensible speed.
What these signs demonstrate are that ‘soft’ measures – education, exhortation, awareness, and so on – don’t work. We need physical environments that make people behave, and that design in safety. If we want people to drive slowly, that needs to come from the design of the road or the street in question, not from home-made signs that plead desperately for sensible behaviour.