We ask the new Mayor to support our calls for reducing danger at source, for the safety of all road users as part of implementing a sustainable transport system:
NOTES FOR EDITORS AND MAYORAL CANDIDATES:
“We need to go further than highway engineering to look at law enforcement and other ways of reducing danger at source, ” says Lord Berkeley, RDRF President, ”We also need to have a new way of measuring road danger, and include the other threats to human well-being from road traffic as part of the Mayor’s commitment to a healthy and civilised transport system”.
Way back in 2003, the north side of Trafalgar Square – the portion in front of the National Gallery – was pedestrianised, with the road running in front of the gallery, that severed it from the square, removed.
Before the scheme was even implemented, it was ‘feared’ that gridlock would result, and indeed gridlock in the area continues to be blamed on the closure of this small stretch of road, particularly by cab drivers.
But even before this section of square was pedestrianised, gridlock still occurred.
Trafalgar Square has always been clogged, even as far back as the 1940s.
If this short stretch of road in front of the National Gallery were to be reopened to motor traffic, perhaps motor traffic in the area might flow more freely for a short period, but after a while the ‘extra’ road space would inevitably fill up again, returning the square to its previously clogged state.
This is the nature of demand for road space in central London; demand for driving in London outstrips the amount of road space available (or that ever could be available), so whatever amount of road space that is provided, large or small, will just get filled.
The problem is that drivers in London don’t see things this way; the congestion they are sitting in must have been ’caused’ by this or that closure; that subtle change to the way the roads are arranged; that extra bit of pavement that’s been created; or, pertinently, that new bit of cycle infrastructure.
2) Every queue of traffic once the Cycle Superhighways have been complete will be credited to them. After all, there were no queues before.
— aviewoflondon (@sw19cam) September 4, 2015
This applies outside London too, of course. The inner ring road in Horsham has recently been subject to roadworks – minor changes to install a better pedestrian crossing – reducing its four or five lane width to just two lanes, in places.
This overlooks the fact that roads in the town are regularly congested, even in the absence of roadworks. Again, demand outstrips supply, so people driving on roads in Horsham have in a sense ‘adapted’ themselves to the available supply of road space. We are seeing the temporary effects of some reduction in that supply. I say ‘temporary’ for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, these roadworks are on a road that didn’t even exist until the mid-1990s. It was bulldozed through, demolishing buildings, to bypass an existing two-lane road, and to open up access to a new Sainsbury’s supermarket. So it’s entirely possible to argue that traffic capacity – even with the roadworks – is still greater than it was in 1995. The new, wider road, has just been filled up in much the same way as the old one was; the difference is that this new road is four lanes wide, rather than two lanes wide. The roadworks – which are visible from your car, as you sit, stationary, in congestion, appear to be the proximate cause of your delay, but in reality motor traffic congestion is inevitable in urban areas. The number of people who might want to drive outstrips the amount of space we can give them, or at least should be willing to give them, without destroying the fabric of our towns and cities.
Secondly, people are rational. They will not sit in congestion, day after day, month after month; they will adapt. (Or at least, many will – and that will be enough). They will choose a different time of day to make their journeys by car. They will choose a different route, by car. They may even choose a different mode of transport (heaven forbid).
Problematically, this kind of behaviour is not addressed by modelling of road- and junction-changes. For instance, the ‘delay’ forecasts produced by Transport for London for the new Superhighways – which generated alarming headlines – assumed that people’s behaviour was fixed. That they would not change their time of travel, their route, or even their mode of transport.
Short-term increases in congestion caused by lane closures due to roadworks, or permanent reallocation of road space, will inevitably smooth out over time as people adapt, even if at the time it is apparently ‘obvious’ that those changes have created a ‘gridlock’ that would exist anyway.
I remember David Arditti once describing the experience of viewing pictures of Dutch cycling infrastructure, while sitting in a British conference a few years ago, as like seeing scenes beamed back from another planet – such was the difference between the road- and streetscape that we were seeing on the projection screen, and the familiar British roads and streets that we had encountered outside the venue, and indeed in the places where we live.
Much as I am now reasonably familiar with the Dutch city of Utrecht, every visit I make there has the a similar astonishing impression. Despite only being a mere 200 miles or so, as the crow flies, from south east England, the difference in the nature and character of the cycling environment in this city, and the nature and character of cycling in it, is so mind-bogglingly different to towns and cities in south east England, it really is like being on another planet. Indeed, as I write this, I’ve noticed a new piece by Andrew O’Hagan for the LRB which contains descriptions of London cycling so utterly at odds with nature of cycling in Utrecht – as we shall see in the pictures that follow – that the two places really could be on different spheres.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Utrecht is, of course, the staggering volume of people cycling, especially in rush hour, but also throughout the day. I have observed before how the ‘boom’ in cycling in London is essentially a commuter boom, limited to central London, and to the rush hour; cycling disappears from central London after 9am. This isn’t the situation in Utrecht; cycling is omnipresent, with what seem like continuous flows along the main routes throughout the day.
This is the case both on the main roads – which naturally have separate cycleways – and also on the streets which form useful routes, but have low motor traffic levels.
At peak times the flow becomes a flood, a dense mass of people on two (or more) wheels.
As is clear from these pictures, the other reason why cities like Utrecht feel like another planet is the character of the cycling itself. People who are cycling are dressed just like pedestrians. Helmet-wearing, and hi-viz clothing, are totally absent. As Chris Boardman puts it in this wonderful video –
I’ve spent a couple of days riding around the streets of Utrecht, and I’ve seen tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of bikes, but I haven’t seen a single cyclist. I’ve just seen normal people, in normal clothes, doing normal things, dressed for the destination, not the journey. The bicycle is a simple, fun and inexpensive way to get from A to B.
Indeed, the only hi-viz clothing I saw in five days in the city was worn by police officers, and by the construction workers directing people cycling at the temporary junctions through the construction site by the railway station.
Apart from racing cyclists, heading out of the city in lycra of an evening, helmet wearing amongst adults was non-existent; amongst children, a tiny minority of those perched on their parents bicycles had been given a (usually far too large) helmet to wear. Children riding independently, however, were also entirely unhelmeted.
The behaviour of people cycling is also ‘pedestrian’. By that I don’t mean that they travel at walking speed, but that they engage in activities they would be engaging in, if they were walking. Chatting side-by-side; listening to music; eating; carrying objects; talking on phones; travelling along with a dog beside you; and so on.
This behaviour, and this absence of safety equipment, isn’t because of any innate rebelliousness, or lack of concern for safety. People are just responding to the environment they find themselves in. Cycling in the city looks and feels safe – principally because, thanks to the design of the environment, it is safe. Interactions with motor traffic are minimal, or non-existent. On the main roads you are clearly separated from it, as in the photograph above; on side roads, design ensures that the only motor vehicles using these streets will be doing so in order to access properties on it, meaning motor traffic levels are very low. People can relax, everywhere, and that is reflected in how they behave.
Likewise, a good sign of a safe and attractive cycling environment is that children who are old enough to ride a bike do so themselves, rather than being ferried about on their parents’ bikes. Perhaps this wasn’t quite as common here in Utrecht as in a city like Assen, (this may have something to do with slightly longer trips in Utrecht, it being a larger city) but nevertheless young children riding independently was a common sight.
My impression was also that women formed a distinct majority among people cycling in the city – certainly during the day. Rush hour was more balanced, but it was not unusual for me to arrive at traffic signals and find myself the only male queuing at the lights.
Cycling here is a mode of transport for everyone. Nobody is excluded from cycling. From what I could see ethnic minorities were cycling around just the same as everyone else, on exactly the same types of bikes, in the same way.
For those with mobility problems who can’t ride a conventional bicycle, the city is far, far easier to navigate than a British one – an environment designed for cycling is equally suited to hand cycles, mobility scooters, assisted trikes, and powered wheelchairs.
Law- and rule-breaking by people cycling is at a very low level, mainly because there are few laws to break, and because the city is set up in favour of people cycling and walking. The environment supports you in where you want to go, in safety and comfort; you don’t have to choose between bending rules and avoiding danger, or avoiding inconvenience, because safety and convenience is built into a ubiquitous network. Where there are rules that people can break, people generally obey them, because the rules makes sense, and because there are reasonable alternatives. (There are, of course, anti-social idiots on bikes, but they are drowned out by the mass of everyday people behaving normally and sensibly).
To give just one example, cycling is banned on a busy shopping street during the day, and from a short period of observation, I would estimate that around 90% did comply with the rules, and dismounted.
But this isn’t because Dutch people are any more compliant with rules than Britons; if you are travelling in this direction by bike, there is a parallel route just yards away where cycling is allowed, so naturally people travelling through will use that route instead. The people dismounting on this street are happy to do so because they are only travelling a short distance to shops on it. This contrasts with the typical British situation, where cycling bans are implemented on pedestrianised streets which are very often the only attractive and safe route from A to B. If you want people to obey rules, they have to make sense.
Admittedly this ubiquity of cycling (and of mobility aids on cycling infrastructure) does present some problems. The huge flows can be mildly irritating for people on foot at rush hour; there were some occasions where I had to wait 30 seconds or more to find a suitable gap to cross a cycleway safely, as did others.
To be clear, this is only a problem that exists for a short period of the day, and even at these times natural gaps do present themselves, and the wait is, of course, much shorter than one might expect at signal-controlled crossings of a road carrying around 50,000 people per day (on buses and on cycles). But I did find myself wondering if there are ways of resolving this issue.
Other problems present themselves in the volume of bikes parked on some streets – especially the narrower ones that still serve a through-function. Voorstraat, in particular, is not a brilliant pedestrian environment. A genuinely narrow street has one-way flow for all traffic, including cycles, a protected cycleway running in the opposite direction, and ungenerous pavements. Notably, a supermarket on this street had at least 100 bicycles parked outside it.
The pavement on the other side becomes increasingly narrow, with bicycles leant against buildings; buses thunder through on the road, heading towards the centre of the town, combined with access motor traffic. On an earlier trip a few years ago, I saw children cycling on this road, being tailgated by one of these buses.
It’s a far from brilliant cycling or walking environment. But the problems with this street would be much, much worse without the levels of cycling in the city. That supermarket would have cars coming and going, clogging the street. There would be most likely be two-way flow for motor traffic, presenting more danger and difficultly to people walking on the pavements.
Indeed, in general, the minor irritations and inconveniences one experiences on foot are vastly outweighed by the benefits cycling brings. Mass cycling goes hand-in-hand with a highly pedestrian-friendly city. The entire ‘old’ city centre of Utrecht is effectively an autoluwte, or ‘nearly car free’ area.
You can drive here, either to car parks, or simply to access properties; but from the way the streets are arranged, you won’t be driving through. Motor traffic in this red area is therefore at a very low level, meaning roads that at face value are ‘shared’ with motor traffic aren’t really shared at all.
It’s very easy to wander from one side of this area to the other without encountering a single traffic light. Indeed, there are only a handful of junctions with traffic lights within the ‘zone’. That means there is little or no delay to journeys on foot or by bike within this area. It’s cycling that allows mobility into and across it, that provides the viable alternative to the car, and that means, consequently, it is such an attractive environment. It is ubiquitous cycling infrastructure, allowing easy, comfortable and painless door-to-door journeys, that actually contributes to ‘placemaking’.
It should be stressed that this is a city of some 340,000 people, not some minor town. Utrecht ranks just outside the top ten English cities in terms of population. Yet it feels extraordinarily calm, peaceful, and civilised. Sitting at a bar of an afternoon, you can see people travelling past spotting each other, waving, saying hello, or stopping for a chat. Transport here brings people together, rather than separating them.
There was a typical August ‘silly season’ story last week – the idea of women-only train carriages, prompted by some comments from a Labour leadership candidate that were seized on and used to generate ‘news’ at a typically quiet time of the year for the media.
Without wishing to re-hash that story, there was an interesting comment on it, in relation to cycling design, from @accidentobizaro –
If we agree solution to drivers harassing cyclists is segregation, why shouldn’t solution to men harassing women on trains be same? #thought
— Andromeda (@accidentobizaro) August 26, 2015
This is a thought-provoking point; it implies that people who are in favour of separating cycling from motor traffic (at least on busier roads) should also be in favour of separating women from men on trains (if women want to be separated).
But I don’t think the analogy quite stands up. ‘Harassment’ is of course one reason why separation of modes makes sense. Walking on footways greatly reduces any harassment you might receive from drivers. So, with an equivalent separation of cycling from driving, harassment from drivers will diminish in the same way.
But, with train passengers, I suspect most people don’t think women and men should be separated on trains, because the behaviour that is causing the problem should be addressed in the first place. Men should not harass women; if they do, they should be dealt with, rather than providing a separate (and allegedly safe) space for women.
But harassment is not the only reason why separation of the kind shown in the photograph above is provided. Even if we could stop drivers harassing people cycling, separation is still vitally important. We can see why by entering an alternate reality, one where ‘train separation’ is being argued for. But this is an alternate reality designed to resemble the situation on British roads.
Let us imagine a situation in which a good number of people in train carriages are in the habit of… throwing and catching bricks. Not all, but a sizeable proportion. You could say, it’s what the British do, on trains. (A bizarre situation, but bear with me).
The vast majority of people throwing and catching these bricks are doing so with regard for other people. They’re doing it carefully, and trying their best to ensure their bricks don’t hit other people, be they brick-throwers, or non-brick-throwers.
But of course a tiny minority will throw their bricks recklessly. These are the anti-social minority, who don’t really care about other people, and are just lobbing their bricks, willy-nilly, without thought for others.
Let us imagine Britain has clamped down on this behaviour, over a period of decades. There are stiff penalties for reckless and anti-social brick throwing; repeat offenders are banned from trains.
This policy has been a success for a long time. Dangerous brick-throwing is almost entirely eliminated. The only people throwing bricks on trains are doing so carefully. You will almost certainly never encounter a reckless brick-thrower on a train. Only considerate, thoughtful ones.
Despite this success, let us now suppose that people have lobbied – successfully – for train carriages where you won’t encounter brick-throwers.
Would you choose to carry on sitting in the carriages with brick-throwing, or would you now opt to sit in these new carriages?
We might go further and even imagine that all brick throwing in train carriages will – at some point in the near future – only be carried out by robots, highly advanced robots, who will never make a mistake with their brick-throwing, and will never hit a fellow passenger. You would be perfectly safe to sit in one of these carriages.
Again – would you choose to sit in this brick-throwing carriage? Or would you instead opt for the carriage without brick-throwing?
The answer to both these questions is surely quite obvious. Faced with a choice between a environment in which potentially dangerous objects are occasionally coming close to you, and an environment in which these hazards are absent, nobody would opt for the former environment – even if those objects are being thrown by human beings who are carefully considering your safety, or by perfect robots.
This is why separating cycling from motor traffic is important. While bad behaviour and harassment by drivers is undoubtedly an issue, the bigger problem is that cycling in motor traffic is de facto needlessly stressful, regardless of how well or badly motor vehicles are being driven around you. The experience of cycling in motor traffic may not strictly correspond to sitting in a train carriage where bricks are occasionally being thrown – benignly, and competently – but the reasons why people might want to avoid such a train carriage correspond closely to the reasons people want to avoid cycling with motor traffic.
It’s the knowledge that you might come to harm; the visceral sensation, rational or irrational, that your safety lies in the hands of other people. It’s the uncertainty and stress of having to negotiate your way through environments where heavy objects are travelling at different speeds, and angles.
These problems might be ameliorated by perfect behaviour, but they will still remain to a large extent, even if motor cars were driven by robots. It’s why we don’t stand close to the platform edge when a train is arriving, even if it might be perfectly safe to do so – the human body instinctively flinches away from heavy objects that are travelling at greater speed, and that have the potential to injure you.
We also want some leeway of our own to engage in less than perfect behaviour. It’s stressful having to maintain constant vigilance, and ‘correct’ technique. We’d like to be able to look around at our surroundings; to pay a little less attention to ensuring that we don’t come to grief. To lower our guard.
The Dutch cycling environment (when it is done right, of course – the Dutch still have problems, and still make mistakes) removes these kinds of stress from everyday trips. It makes ordinary journeys a relaxing and painless experience, free from concern or worry, from door to door.
This is what I enjoy so much about cycling in the Netherlands, wherever I go, be it countryside, suburbs, or city centre – it’s the total relaxation, the complete lack of stress.
There are exceptions, of course. What might actually be relatively comfortable environments, by British standards – low speed roads, with quite low traffic levels – leap out jarringly from the smooth, comfortable background experience.
Nobody was misbehaving, or driving badly, on the road in the picture above, but cycling along it felt so much more unpleasant than the rest of my journey that day. The uncertainty of worrying about parked vehicles potentially moving in and out; whether drivers were going to turn across your path into side roads; whether the cars, buses or lorries behind you were going to get too close, or attempt to overtake inappropriately. The ‘concern load’ was so much higher here, I simply wasn’t able to enjoy myself. But this is pretty much the everyday experience of cycling in urban areas in Britain.
While I can tolerate cycling on these kinds of roads, it’s precisely these raised stress levels that put the vast majority of people off, entirely. I can adapt, and put up with it; they simply won’t cycle, at all. That’s why cycling levels are so pitifully low in Britain. Mass cycling depends on low-stress environments; streets and roads that invite cycling, and make it as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.
An interview with the founder of housebuilder Redrow has been floating around in my drafts as a potential basis for a post for a while. It caught my attention because it touched upon residential streets and they should be designed – and in particular, how we should address the issue of designing motor traffic out of residential streets (through traffic, that is – motor traffic should still be able to access residential properties).
To the Dutch the most ideal situation is when roads and streets have only one single purpose. To achieve this mono-functionality a hierarchy of roads was introduced.
All Dutch streets and roads have been classified (under a legal obligation) and are or will be re-designed to the Sustainable Safety principles by the road managers. This led to areas where people stay (residential areas and areas for shopping/sporting/theatre etc.) and designated space used for the flow of traffic in order to transport people from A to B. Under the Dutch vision these functions cannot be mixed.
It is this approach that explains why Dutch roads and streets work so well for all users. In particular, access roads are designed to have low levels of motor traffic, meaning they are safe and attractive.
Strangely enough, it is this detail that is touched upon in the interview with Steve Morgan of Redrow. I’ve highlighted the relevant passage in bold.
House builder Steve Morgan has hit out at housing designed to meet the “urbanist” principles promoted under New Labour’s now defunct Richard Rogers-inspired planning guidance.
In an interview with BD’s sister publication Building, Steve Morgan, the founder of Redrow who rejoined the business in 2009 when it hit difficulties in the credit crunch, said that the housebuilder’s adherence to PPG3-style design was one of the main problems with the firm and hailed the return of the cul-de-sac.
Redrow had been building high-rise flats available at low cost but Morgan has subsequently completely redesigned the firm’s product range around traditional homes with arts & craft movement-inspired detailing, arranged in cul-de-sacs.
Morgan told Building: “We’ve got to start producing the type of housing that people want to live in, not some theoretical designs with ‘permeability’ all over the bloody place, which actually means traffic. Who wants tarmac all over a development? I want cul de sacs, green spaces, safe spaces for children to play in – not permeability, that’s just bullshit jargon.”
PPG3 was introduced under the tenure of deputy prime minister John Prescott and was inspired by the conclusions of Rogers’ Urban Task Force. It recommended higher-density developments to make public transport viable and create street life based around “walkable” neighbourhoods. But house builders said it resulted in building a large number of developments of flats without gardens which became very hard to sell when the credit crunch hit.
Morgan added: “It seemed to take forever to convince planners that PPG3 was history and we had to get on and build traditional housing again. It probably took the best part of three years. They have got the message now. Absolutely nobody’s doing PPG3-type development anymore but it took a while to get that through.
“We had highways engineers quoting the manual for streets and all the rest of it. [I] said, ‘Bollocks, bring the cul de sacs back, bring the type of housing that people want to live in back’.”
This is, I suspect, some fairly self-serving rhetoric from a developer with an interest in building low density (and therefore more expensive) housing, rather than higher density (and therefore more affordable) flats and housing. And it also comes from the perspective of someone who it seems can only imagine people moving around by car; permeability can work (and indeed should work) in residential areas, provided it is permeability of a specific kind, for walking and cycling.
But the passage I’ve highlighted is revealing – it shows that housebuilders are more than aware that the general public don’t want to live on traffic-clogged streets. They want to live on streets where their children can play safely; where there isn’t a huge amount of tarmac required to facilitate the through-flow of motor traffic; where there is green space.
Popular streets to live on are those that are quiet and safe; unpopular ones are those that are noisy, polluted, and dominated by motor traffic.
Given all this, it is surprising why proposals to close residential streets to through traffic often meet with such vociferous opposition from the people who live on them, on the grounds that the journeys they will make by car will become marginally longer – perhaps only a few hundred metres or so.
Because, with a free choice, the vast majority of people will choose to live on a street that is (effectively) a cul de sac to motor traffic rather than a through route, even if that means their car journeys are slightly indirect. The benefits of living somewhere nice outweigh the benefits of straight-line car routes.
So what’s going on? How do we explain this discrepancy between the choices people actually make, and the difficulties in ‘converting’ a poorly-designed street into an environment people would choose to live on in the first place?
My guess is that the benefits of a street being closed to through traffic can’t easily be appreciated – residents can only imagine their street as it is now, but with a bit of extra inconvenience for motoring trips, rather than imagining a safer, quieter and more pleasant street, one they easily would have chosen to live on, given a blank slate.
An interesting way of tackling this issue might be come at it from the opposite direction – to conduct a survey of streets that (by accident or design) only serve an access function in a given British town or city. My idea would be to ask the residents on these streets whether they would prefer their street to be opened up as a through route – ‘filtered permeability in reverse’. To ask them whether they would be prepared to trade off the attractiveness of their street for more direct car journeys, but with a (potentially large) increase in motor traffic on their street.
Maybe there aren’t any easy answers though – human beings are fundamentally conservative, and dislike change, even if the benefits can be presented in an attractive and easily understandable way, and even if the benefits come to be appreciated by residents who were initially opposed. I suspect the only concrete way of making progress is councils taking bold decisions, in the form of trial closures of a suitably long duration for the benefits to appear.
It goes without saying that the crash of a plane onto the A27 on Saturday was a terrible tragedy, an incident in which at least 11 people died, and many more were seriously injured. Rightly, the crash is being investigated thoroughly, and undoubtedly measures will be taken to greatly lessen the chances of any similar kind of incident ever occurring again.
But what has happened following that crash on Saturday afternoon? On the same day – the 22nd August, shortly afterwards, a motorcyclist died in Manchester, a pedestrian was killed in Solihull, and a driver died on the M1.
On Sunday 23rd August, 3 people died in a car crash in County Down, a motorcyclist died on the A82 near Loch Lomond, a cyclist died in Essex, a motorcyclist died in the Peak District, a driver died in Lincolnshire, a motorcyclist died on the A40 in Cheltenham, and a driver died in the New Forest.
On Monday 24th August, a teenager died in a motorcycle crash in London (with another teenager seriously injured), and a motorcyclist died on Anglesey,
On Tuesday 25th August – two people died in a car crash in Doncaster – with one (and maybe two more) seriously injured, a driver died in Camarthenshire, and a driver died (with another driver seriously injured) on the diversion route from the A27, closed following the Shoreham crash.
This means that in the three and a half days following that dreadful air crash, 18 people have died on Britain’s roads, in crashes that, because they occurred in isolation, and because they are so appallingly ordinary, won’t make any headlines, or any lasting impact, beyond a fleeting mention in a local newspaper.
No lessons will be learned; nothing will change. All part of everyday life in Britain.