John Dales’ recent column for TransportXtra argued that the term ‘shared space’ should be quietly phased out. In fact he doesn’t even use the words in the article, replacing them with Sh… !
… the use of the term Sh… has increasingly become a hindrance to the creation of better streets for all. That’s not just my opinion; it was shared by most, if not all, of the 50+ attendees at a street design seminar I spoke at last month. It’s a term that has led to babies being thrown out with the bathwater; it has led to schemes being implemented that some people find particularly difficult to use; and it has led to streets being shunned by people who could enjoy them simply because they assume, from the description, that they won’t.
I think this is exactly right. ‘Shared space’ (or Sh…!) has become a catch-all word for street treatments that apparently solve problems, or make roads and streets better, often with little regard for the context or nature of the roads and streets in question. I’d much rather see highway engineers and urban designers looking at what works for all potential users, rather than employing ‘shared space’ in the hope that it works (or at least won’t make things worse). In particular, I’d like to see an abandonment of the lazy assumption that ‘removing things’ – crossings, signs, distinction between footway and carriageway, and so on – will always represent an improvement.
To be clear, I think some of the things that might fall out of the ‘shared space’ toolbox do work, in certain contexts. I think there can be a role for reducing the height difference between footway and carriageway in low traffic environments. For one thing, it makes it easier for people with mobility issues to get from one side to the other.
There’s also a role for reducing visual distinction between carriageway and footway, again, in low traffic streets. It makes it clearer to drivers (and indeed to people walking and cycling) that this is a different kind of environment, and different behaviour should be expected.
These are all sensible techniques that can be used to improve streets, and they work in their own right. The problems start to emerge, however, when ‘shared space’ (or Sh…) is picked up and used in an attempt to solve the problems with a road or street, ignoring the reality that some of the elements that come with it might actually be poor design solutions for the particular context.
I’m thinking here particularly of Frideswide Square in Oxford, where a ‘shared space’ design has been pushed through with little sensitivity for the needs and wishes of the users of this busy area. Cycling – a significant mode of transport here – has been totally ignored, despite vociferous objections, with no cycle-specific provision. Crossings of the roundabouts – the main route into the city centre from the train station, and from the west – are ‘informal’, which essentially means pedestrians have to make their own way across busy roads without the reassurance of a zebra crossing, or other types of formal crossing.
Lower Clapton Road scheme looks similar to recent scheme in Oxford. Not good for vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists pic.twitter.com/KiioXbnzNH
— Hackney Cyclist (@Hackneycyclist) February 1, 2016
The overall ‘vision’ – a nice-looking, symmetrical road layout, with pretty paving – appears to have been more important than actual usability. The ‘shared space’ concept trumps the concerns of users.
That’s why the term itself is a hindrance; it appears to have limited the ability of the people responsible for this road design to think clearly about what kind of road design would actually work best. And at the other end of scale – exactly as John suggests – lumping all this together as ‘shared space’ can lead to people being afraid or scared of streets that are very different in nature and character, simply because they’ve been proudly described with exactly the same term.
So the ‘shared space’ term inhibits clear thinking about how we want our roads and streets to work, and how to go about achieving the best outcomes.
A good example of this is the recent changes to Seven Dials in Bath, allegedly improvements for walking and cycling, paid for with £1.2 of DfT ‘Cycle City Ambition’ cash. Apparently the plan was to
re-establish Seven Dials as a key public space with a greater focus on cyclist and pedestrian needs through the use of shared space, which ackowledges the significantly higher pedestrian to traffic ratio. Conventional road signage is removed and perceived hierarchies between users are broken down, enabling greater freedom for pedestrians to use the space. This is encouraged through the use of surfaces and street furniture which reduces the distinction between road and footway.
Here we see the classic, quasi-religious belief in the magical properties of ‘shared space’ to break down ‘perceived hierarchies’, simply by ‘removing stuff’. This ‘ breaking down’ turns out, in the same paragraph, to be merely ‘encouraged’. It’s up to the individual to challenge the perceived hierarchy, rather than the road or street changing it for them.
On the approaches to this scheme, there are signs asking or advising us (certainly not telling us!) to ‘Share Space’.
Unfortunately, despite the flush surfaces and new paving, there was little sharing in evidence, largely because the section of road in the distance is a busy bus corridor.
Queues form behind these buses, creating ‘platoons’ of private motor vehicles too, an impenetrable stream of traffic that essentially makes it impossible to cross the road, despite signs informing you that this area is ‘shared’.
The amount of motor traffic suggested that this is a busy through-route – at least, with the way the roads are currently configured. I don’t really think there’s any ‘greater freedom’ for people to walk across this space than there was before, when the road was surfaced with asphalt, or that any ‘perceived hierarchies been broken down’. A bus is still a bus, cars are still cars, and you will keep out of their way, even if the road they are being driven on looks a bit more like the footway you are standing on.
If the council here were really interested in ‘breaking down hierarchies’, then this kind of scheme should surely involve crossings that establish pedestrian priority, rather than attempting to do so. (Or measures to reduce the amount of through traffic). But that kind of pragmatism is harder to achieve if you are setting out to build a ‘shared space’ scheme, which in John’s words can often lead to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The concept is everything; what might actually work best is in a given location is secondary. ‘Removing’ must be good, because thats’ what ‘shared space’ involves; ‘adding’ a crossing stands contrary to that dogma.
What was most interesting to me is that, just around the corner from this expensive new ‘shared space’ scheme, there are a series of streets that appeared to be genuinely shared, with pedestrians crossing when and where they wanted to.
These are streets where people are quite happy to linger in the road, even if they don’t have the design cues associated with ‘shared space’. They’re happy to do so because there are very low motor traffic levels on them; measures have been taken to eliminate through traffic.
But although there was more sharing in evidence here than in the ‘shared space’, these aren’t particularly sexy streets. The road surface is crumbling asphalt, and they could certainly do with sprucing up. In fact, they’re precisely the kind of streets that would benefit from less (or no) distinction between footway and carriageway, and surfacing and paving that would make them look more like ‘rooms’ than ‘roads’. That’s fine! These are design elements that would make the environment better, given the background context and the nature and function of these low-traffic streets.
The issue is when the same design elements are lumped together and used in the hope of fixing problems they can’t possibly solve, particularly on busy streets. Yes, they might improve things a bit, but if you are spending millions of pounds on a short stretch of road, you really need to engage with what it is you are trying to achieve, rather than supposing that a pretty street design that looks a bit less like a road is automatically going to be better for users than a design which might involve thinking outside the fixed template that the ‘shared space’ term implies. And that might be why the term itself is a problem.
This (short) post is going to look at a paradoxical situation in British road road design, one that means that a very dangerous way of dealing with turning conflicts is legal, while a much safer way of dealing with those turning conflicts is illegal.
Here’s the legal situation. Take any signal-controlled crossroads. It’s perfectly acceptable to paint a cycle lane, against the kerb, on the inside of a lane of left-turning motor traffic. We are then quite happy to release, with a green signal, both a person on a bike in that cycle lane – who might be going straight ahead – at exactly the same time as a driver turning left from the lane on that cyclist’s right.
We even do this with fairly new road layouts.
In other words, we’re completely okay with this kind of conflict being designed into new roads, as long as there’s only a line of paint separating you from the bus or the lorry waiting alongside you on your right.
But let’s say we change this arrangement slightly; change the position the person on the bike is waiting at, relative to the driver of the car, bus, or lorry. Something like this.
The person cycling is moved forward into the junction, where the driver can see them, so far forward, in fact, that if they get a green light simultaneously, the person cycling will have cleared the junction before the driver makes his or her turn. Even if they do happen to meet, they will do so at a perpendicular angle, so both parties can see that a conflict is about to occur, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. There’s even a nice BicycleDutch video explaining the advantages of this design.
But of course in Britain it’s not possible to do this, because it amounts to a ‘conflicting green’. Drivers turning left with a green must not meet someone crossing their path with a green signal.
So there we have it. It’s completely acceptable for drivers to turn left across someone cycling if that person on a bike is right next to them, separated only a bit of paint – that’s not a conflicting green. Meanwhile if that person on a bike is situated in a much safer position, more visible, and more likely to be out of the driver’s way before the turn is completed – that is a ‘conflict’, and not legal.
Such is the British approach to road safety!
What does ‘mass cycling’ mean?
It doesn’t mean everyone has to cycle, for every single trip. It’s worth bearing in mind that, even in the Netherlands, where cycling is a universal mode of transport, cycling only accounts for 27% of all trips the Dutch make. The Dutch drive, they catch buses, trains, trams, and walk, just as much as we do. Car ownership levels are very similar to Britain; the train network is extensive and efficient; and it’s easy to walk around.
These are all ‘mass’ forms of transport here, just as they are there. The difference is that, for the Dutch, cycling is essentially an optional extra that they are able to take advantage of. That 27% figure represents the proportion of all trips that cycling makes sense for. The Dutch will only choose cycling when it is the best option, not because they have any kind of innate attachment to the bike, or because they are ‘cyclists’. They have cars, and use them when they make sense; likewise they will cycle or walk, when that makes sense.
So ‘mass cycling’ simply means that everyone has the option to cycle, for any given trip, in much the same way that walking, driving and public transport are already available. It is about having transport choice; a better range of transport options to pick from.
I think this is often lost in debates about cycling, particularly in the way we refer to ‘cyclists’ and ‘motorists’ almost as distinct categories, and present binary oppositions like ‘bikes vs cars’. This is something that both cycling campaigners do, and opponents of designing for cycling, who are all too happy to point that people can’t cycle for every single trip, or that cycling isn’t a universal solution. It is deeply unhelpful – it creates the impression that to be ‘a cyclist’ you must cease to be ‘a motorist’, and vice versa.
Building cycling infrastructure isn’t about forcing everyone to be ‘a cyclist’, but about creating another transport option for people to get around, alongside walking, driving and public transport. Doing so reduces pressure on the road network for people who are driving; the same people who might be cycling for a different trip.
The problem in Britain is that this beneficial extra option simply isn’t available to most people, because of the hostility of road conditions. Cycling just isn’t a practical or easy mode of transport for the vast majority of Britons. 79% of British women never cycle.
The elderly man in the photograph below is cycling into the city of Delft, from a village about three miles away.
He could get public transport; he could drive. He has chosen to cycle, however. This isn’t an option available to his equivalent in Britain, because thunderous main roads, with HGVs travelling at 80km/h along them, do not have this kind of separated provision alongside them.
Likewise here in the town of de Bilt a couple are using the cycling infrastructure to get into the town centre – because it’s easy to do so. The cycling infrastructure happens to work wonderfully well for people who aren’t using bicycles, too. This is a trip that might have been driven, or involved public transport, but was cycled instead.
In Assen, children cycle to and from primary school in huge numbers, rather than relying on their parents to ferry them to and fro at the start and end of the day.
It’s so easy to do this that these children are actually heading home for lunch; cycling provides an extra amount of flexibility into the daily routine. Parents would have to make six driving trips every day without the presence of cycling infrastructure that allows their children to cycle independently.
Likewise teenagers can get around to after school activities, completely independently – for instance, hockey practice.
Obviously their parents could choose to drive them, but cycling creates more flexibility. Stand around in any Dutch town or city at around 4pm and you will see children and teenagers cycling around in all directions, heading off to sport, music practice, leisure, visiting their friends, all completely independently.
There is no parents’ ‘taxi service’. Children just get about by themselves, because it is easy and safe to do so. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in Britain, where over 50% of trips British children make are in cars – being driven! This is a tremendous waste of effort.
And for adults who might well have driven to and from work during the day, cycling represents a wonderful way to get in and out of town in the evening, without worrying about parking, or having a drink. Bars and restaurants in Dutch towns and cities are surrounded by swathes of bicycles of an evening; people who have driven through the day, and yet chose to cycle here in the evening, because it is their best option for a night out.
Cycling is also perfect in combination with other modes of transport in the Netherlands – it’s easy to get to train stations and find parking spots, without worrying about delays caused by congestion or having to rely on other people for a lift.
And in general the bicycle is a fantastic way to make short trips if you don’t want to have to worry about congestion or delay on the road, or paying for petrol, or finding a convenient parking spot, or hurrying back before ticket runs out. It’s the ultimate in reliability.
But, crucially, this flexibility is in addition to other modes of transport, not as a replacement for them. Mass cycling is about making life easier, creating conditions that allow everyone the freedom to choose a practical mode of transport, when it suits them. It most certainly isn’t about converting everyone into a ‘cyclist’ or expecting them to cycle for every single trip. It’s about choice.
Between 2011 and 2014, a relatively short 2.5 mile stretch of the A23 (the trunk road running between London and Brighton, on the south coast) was widened from two lanes in each direction, to three. This was a £79 million project – the plans for which are available here – which brought this short stretch of 4 lane dual carriageway into the line with the six-lane nature of the rest of the road. The A23 is now very much a motorway-style road.
Part of this upgrade included a properly separated walking and cycling route. Prior to the widening project, if you wanted to cycle along this stretch of the A23, you had to do so… on the carriageway itself.
This road carried (and still carries) around 60-70,000 vehicles a day, travelling at high speeds, so really, anything would be an improvement, compared to cycling in this kind of environment, which is only something the most hardcore nutters would even consider.
I’ve been told that the Highways Agency are proud of what they’ve done for cycling as part of this project – that they think it’s really excellent. So, my curiosity piqued, I headed out to have a look at it.
The first thing to say is, it’s much, much better than anything else I’ve seen built for cycling in this area. There aren’t any barriers along it, the path is smooth, and it looks like it’s been well-built (I guess it helps if motorway contractors are building it as part of a much larger scheme), and it’s reasonably direct. I’ve been passed comments by local cycling campaigners who have used words like ‘excellent’ to describe it, and ‘pleasantly surprised’.
To be fair, I was actually pleasantly surprised myself – it was better than I expected. But (and here’s the ‘but’) – ‘much, much better’ than infrastructure that’s been built in West Sussex is the definition of faint praise. It’s not really that hard to exceed expectations here, because the infrastructure is either non-existent, or dismally bad – even stuff that’s being built in 2015.
So while this section of the A23 is usable, and good by local standards, by Dutch standards – and by the standards we should be aspiring to – it’s pretty poor. It’s not of an acceptable width, and on the few occasions where it does have to deal with ‘technicalities’ (i.e. crossing roads and entrances) it fails dismally.
I’m reluctant to criticise the Highways Agency here. They have at least thought about designing for cycling, and done a reasonable job. But given that this was a £79m project, involving substantial engineering, basics like building the path wider than an (in my opinion, unsafe) width of two metres should really have happened as a matter of course. It would have cost next to nothing extra, in relative terms, set against the massive overall cost. But let’s have a look at it.
I cycled from south to north, and then back again; most of my photographs were taken on the northbound trip. I joined the scheme pretty much where it starts, at the ‘Warninglid’ junction, where the Cuckfield Road crosses the A23 on a bridge.
It was a little unnerving cycling down here, towards a slip road onto a massive trunk road. It just didn’t feel like somewhere you should be on a bike, given the long history of abandoning cycling on these kinds of roads in Britain. It’s the kind of environment I’ve approached in trepidation before, carefully assessing where I might need to bail out and retrace my steps. But sure enough, at the roundabout there were small cycling signs pointing in the direction of Handcross, sending me down a service road, marked as a ‘dead end’.
This turned out to be absolutely fine. The service road leads to two businesses – a car dealership, and a garden centre. That’s it. The entrances and exits to these businesses that used to exist on the A23 have been closed off, and the A23 is fenced away, on the right.
I only met one vehicle going down this stretch of road. Perhaps the road itself it could be designed a little bit better. The limit is marked at 40mph, which seemed a bit too high for a cycle route, and given the likely volume of motor traffic here it might make more sense to adopt ‘Dutch style’ cycle lane markings on either side, and no centre line. But despite that I think it works – service roads like this can be good cycling environments if traffic volumes are low, and that appears to be the case here.
At the end of the service road, there is another set of (confusing) ‘dead end’ signs. If you’re walking or cycling, again, you have to ignore these, because the ‘dead end’ is your route.
As the service road comes to an end, you are directed onto a 2m path, pretty close to the A23, but still shielded by a wooden fence. It feels okay, but (and this is my major quibble) it’s just not wide enough for a two-way path.
The path then meanders around a spill pond, presumably designed to ‘capture’ run-off from the A23 to prevent flooding. This pond must requires motor vehicle access, because the path immediately widens to 4m.
This was the best bit of the entire ‘upgraded’ route. The path was beautifully wide and smooth, and a good distance away from the A23 itself. We then meet Slaugham Lane, a minor country lane that used to have entry and exit slips onto the A23 – dangerous ones, which have sensibly now been closed, just like the direct entry and exit points for the garden centre, which is now only on a service road.
This is the right thing to do – it doesn’t make sense to have a motorway-style road butting immediately onto a small country lane, or onto businesses. There were some local objections to the loss of this junction, because they now have to drive further, but if you’re going to turn an A-road into something like a motorway, then that should also mean decreasing the number of access points. Motorways (and trunk roads) should be for long-distance trips, not for enabling short ones.
This ‘closure’ now means this country lane is completely separated from the A23 (except on foot and bike, of course), so it’s even quieter than it was before. This is definitely a positive outcome. We do, however, have to cross under the A23 (on the bridges in the photograph above), because the path switches sides and continues northwards on the other side of it, the east side.
Here we turn left onto the old entry/exit slip road leading back up to the southbound A23, which is now only an access to a farm and to the continuing cycle path beside the main road. (Annoyingly, it’s another misleading ‘dead end’ sign).
This section is, unfortunately, not as good – we’re back to a measly 2m. Meanwhile the farm has a nice and generous new 4m concrete road, as if to say, here’s what you could have won.
And it is very close to the road. HGVs come whistling past you a few metres away, as there’s no hard shoulder.
People commented on Twitter when I shared this picture that they would ‘take this’, given that it is on the correct side of the crash barrier, and that many UK A-roads don’t have anything like this, at all. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think our current low horizons and low expectations should mean being satisfied with something that is substandard. It can and should be better. In fact at this width I think this path is dangerously narrow for two-way cycling, given that this section of the A23 is on a reasonably steep hill.
This is what a path beside a major road should look like.
Wide enough to not have to worry about oncoming traffic. But clearly the people who built the path beside the A23 think, like me, that it is dangerously narrow, because there are six ‘SLOW’ markings painted on the path in the downhill direction.
It’s very easy to pick up speed here, given a continuous gradient of 6-8%. Just freewheeling on the way back down my speed quickly got up to 20mph, which felt very fast on such a narrow path. If I’d met anyone coming the other way I would have felt the need to slow down a lot more, and that’s really not good enough on a path built beside a motorway, designed for 70mph+ speeds. It’s the same basic template as the motorway – no bends, good sightlines – that should allow high speeds, but the width is so miserly ‘SLOW’ signs have had to be painted on it. That’s pretty embarrassing.
Slightly alarmingly the path is littered with debris from motor vehicles, particularly the legacy of HGV tyre blowouts. This reminds you just how close you are to the road, in case you had forgotten.
On the approach to Handcross, the northern end of this upgraded and ‘cycle proofed’ road, we encounter the one and only side road this project had to deal with. And it’s a big fat failure.
The cycleway quickly shows its true colours, reverting to footway-specific design, with sharp corners, no markings to indicate what you should be doing if you are on a bike (just like a pavement) and some tactiles to bump over.
This isn’t even really a side road; it’s just an entrance to a business, and not even a major one at that, just a chap selling vintage sculptures out of what looks like a a caravan. I suspect it would be quite easy to give cycling priority across the side road, given the very, very limited use of this entrance, and the fact it’s on the slip road, not the A23 itself. But priority or no priority isn’t really the issue. I wouldn’t have minded a two-stage non-priority cycle crossing. The real problem here is the ambiguity, and the lazy, easy (and crap) option of just designing a footway and then plonking cycling on it with a blue roundel, the kind of thing that is just so awfully typical in new ‘design’ for cycling in places that just don’t care. A two-way cycle-route crossing an entrance like this could be so much better.
So the ‘test’ of the one side road that had to be dealt with was flunked. That’s not particularly confidence-inspiring, if the Highways Agency think this a good scheme.
The path then goes up the slip road coming out Handcross village. Unfortunately the path stops halfway up the slip road, meaning you have to cross it (heading either south or north) just at the point motorists are accelerating towards motorway speeds, to join the A23.
Again, this is poor design. Cycling out of the village in the direction the photograph is taken, I have to look back through 180° over my left shoulder to see whether any motor vehicles are coming (at ever increasing speeds at this point) before attempting to cross, again on some bumpy tactiles that require 90° turns. ‘Box ticked’, in that some ‘cycle provision’ is here, but if this is the kind of thing that the Highways Agency are doing across Britain, then I think we should be concerned.
From what I’ve seen from this short stretch of the A23, ‘providing for cycling’ seems to involve putting a 2m footway alongside the road in question, designing it for walking, and then…. just allowing cycling on it. The sections of this ‘improved’ stretch of the A23 that are good – the service road, and the access road to the pond – are good simply because they’ve been designed for motor vehicles. If people weren’t going to be driving on these stretches, they would be the same 2m path as the rest of it. And of course the ‘cycle provision’ disappears at junctions, where you have to cross the road like a pedestrian. For schemes beside trunk roads – fast, arterial roads – that simply shouldn’t be happening.
The other problem – and this isn’t the Highways Agency’s fault – is that these schemes are built in isolation from the surrounding area. So while this section of cycle facilities – despite its faults – does allow people to cycle along the A23, it simply doesn’t connect up with anything else, because it is surrounded by roads and bridleways controlled by West Sussex, who are still living in the Dark Ages as far as cycling infrastructure is concerned. Really, the Highways Agency’s engagement with ‘cycle proofing’ has to extend to the surrounding network controlled by local authorities, otherwise it is pretty meaningless – you simply won’t be able to get to the roads that are ‘cycle proofed’.
So it’s a start. But there’s a huge amount of room for improvement.
For a while now, we’ve been looking for a bike for my other half. She hasn’t owned one since she was a child, but she’s started enjoying cycling again when we’ve been on holiday. We’ve hired bikes in the Netherlands, where she’s been able to ride without any difficulty at all, despite being off a bike for decades, and we’ve also hired them in Bath, where we’ve made use of the Two Tunnels path to get out into the countryside in traffic-free conditions.
She wanted something that was quite small and easy to manage, but also something that was obviously practical. A good number of modern Dutch bikes didn’t really fit with her – they looked clunky and heavy. She liked the look of old-fashioned bicycles, with more slender steel tubing. Peering at bikes as we walked around Dutch cities, we did spot some candidates – in particular, this bike we saw on the Oudegracht in Utrecht.
It was just right. Cute-looking, old-fashioned, small and nimble (and – to my eyes – practical!)
We spotted another one of these bikes in Gouda, and a bit of investigation revealed that they are Roetz bikes. It turns out that the reason these bikes look old-fashioned, despite being new, is because they are old. They are recycled bikes. The frames are second-hand, and have been restored, and fitted with new components. It’s a really nice idea – giving an old or discarded bike a new life.
So once we got back to the UK we set about ordering one of these omafiets! You can choose your frame colour, and what kinds of components you want. We opted for a basic black, and chose the ‘geared’ option (as opposed to a single speed, coaster brake version, which she didn’t feel she would be comfortable using, and is probably legally suspect in the UK), along with a practical rear rack.
It was quite a wait for it to arrive from the Netherlands, but it was well worth it, because it’s a really beautiful bike.
It looks, well, like an old bike, partly because it is (the frame being recycled), but also because the modern components are in keeping with it.
The hubs, gearing and brakes are all Sturmey Archer, and feel satisfyingly dependable. The brakes are drum brakes, within the hubs, meaning there’s no messy brake dust mucking up the wheels.
It’s a five-speed rear hub, with a clunky, certain, twist grip on the handlebars.
The chain is fully enclosed in a Hebie Chainglider, meaning there’s no need to worry about clothing getting oily or greasy.
There’s a convenient AXA wheel lock with the ability to ‘plug in’ a chain, meaning you can either take the key out and leave the bicycle parked up (but unable to be ridden), or lock the wheel in combination with chaining it to a suitable object.
The saddle is lovely and comfy, a Dutch-made sprung leather affair. The rear rack (as you can see) comes with elastic straps to hold items on the top.
All the cabling is completely enclosed, meaning it’s protected from the elements. And there are some lovely details that give this bike a real ‘vintage’ feel, particularly the shiny handlebars and bell, the laminated wooden mudguards, the cream tyres, and the cork handlebar grips.
I have made a couple of ‘upgrades’ since it arrived. It did come with a kickstand, but a single leg one that, while perfectly adequate, isn’t quite as good as the Hebie ‘twin leg’ design that’s now fitted.
The other was to change the lighting. The bike came with some really good Spanning lights, mounted solidly (and permanently) on it. They were battery-powered, and nice and bright. It wasn’t really necessary to change them, but I wanted a fun winter project, so I offered to change the bicycle over to dynamo power, meaning the lights will just come on as soon as she starts pedalling, with no need to worry about switches, or ever replacing batteries (she was worried about being forgetful!)
The change was simple enough, but did require rebuilding the front wheel with a (Sturmey Archer) hub dynamo. (I like building wheels). The Spanninga lights were switched for a B&M Secula rear light and Lumotec front light, in a ‘classic’ housing, shown below.
This is the light I’ve got on my own omafiets, and it really does the job – it’s nice and bright, with a standlight meaning it keeps running for at least five minutes once you’ve stopped, and even a ‘sensor’ system that turns the light on automatically if it gets a bit gloomy.
With the reflective strips built into the (Marathon) tyres, the reflectors in the pedals, and the front and rear reflectors, this is a nicely visible bike under all conditions, despite its vintage appearance.
It’s a modern machine, built around a classic frame.
My omafiets is larger and heavier, so on the few occasions I’ve been able to ‘borrow’ it I can say that it’s a really fun ride, a smaller, bouncier version of my own bike, but still upright and comfortable, with the classic riding position that we basically got right in the 19th century.
The only problem now is that we just need to find somewhere for her to ride it. The choices of routes in Horsham are (sadly) pretty limited (or even non-existent) for someone who really doesn’t want to ride on busy roads. It’s frustrating seeing her enjoying herself on the (reasonably) quiet residential streets around where we live, but being unable to go anywhere else in the town, without walking. It’s a bike that deserves to be ridden, on quality infrastructure.
This is a piece about the unhelpful problems Transport for London have (partly) created for themselves by developing separate ‘Superhighway’ and ‘Quietway’ concepts, but it’s more broadly about terminology, and how we should think not in terms of separate classes of provision for cycling, but in terms of a uniform network, suitable for all potential users, even if it is composed of a variety of types of treatment.
Some of these problems originate with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, which contains some curious distinctions.
We will offer two clear kinds of branded route: high capacity Superhighways, mostly on main roads, for fast commuters, and slightly slower but still direct Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
Here we see a puzzling split – that Superhighways are for ‘fast commuters’, while Quietways are for those ‘wanting a more relaxed journey’. This distinction is reiterated, in different words, in the Mayor’s own introduction –
There will be greatly-improved fast routes on busy roads for cyclists in a hurry. And there will be direct, continuous, quieter routes on side streets for new cyclists, cautious cyclists and all sorts of other people who would rather take it more slowly.
But these kinds of distinctions are unhelpful. It suggests Superhighways are unsuitable for people who aren’t tearing to work in lycra, and also that Quietways are not for people who might want to get somewhere in a hurry, but instead only for cautious types, or those new to cycling as a mode of transport. And it is actually leading to worrying problems of understanding (or, more cynically, wilful misinterpretation for political expediency), particularly by prominent members of the Conservative party in London, all describing Superhighways as some kind of Mad Max-style environment where testosterone-fuelled men in lycra go to lock handlebars with one another.
Here’s mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith arguing that Superhighways have an ‘aggressive’ nature, and that Quietways would be ‘less intimidating’. And more recently on LBC Goldsmith made similar claims, arguing that
I know plenty of cyclists who don’t like to use [Superhighways], they prefer quietways, they prefer to go down more gentle routes.
Meanwhile Conservative Assembly Member Andrew Boff has been telling the Assembly (08:15) –
We do not design London’s roads with the inspiration of Formula 1. So why are we designing Cycle Superhighways with the inspiration of the Tour de France? And that is where people can go as fast as they need to. They are… in many ways, they are seen as concessions to the testosterone-driven, lycra-clad cyclists…
… the inspiration is seen by residents as that is what Superhighways are about. Going as fast as you possibly can down those routes.
While Assembly Member Roger Evans appears to be even more confused (14:20) –
The cycling lobby seems to be full of people who want to get out there and claim their piece of the road, and mix it with the HGVs, and the buses, and the cars, and fight for that piece of space they want. I think we should be listening to the people who would cycle in quieter conditions and safer conditions, if they actually had those schemes planned. So I’ve nothing against segregation, but Andrew [Boff] is right when he says it should be for everyone and not just the Tour de France fans.
All three – Goldsmith, Boff, Evans – paint a remarkably similar picture of Superhighways. Aggressive, inspired by the Tour de France, people going hell for leather, fighting for space. Not a place for those people who prefer a ‘gentler’, ‘less intimidating’, ‘quieter’ experience. Evans even goes so far as to argue that the ‘cycling lobby’ actually enjoy the adeline-rush of mixing with HGVs and buses, presumably enjoying that kind of experience on the Thunderdome of the Superhighways too.
This is all bollocks, of course. The ‘new generation’ of Superhighways are converting unpleasant, hostile main roads into environments that will be suitable for anyone to ride in. There was not a cat in hell’s chance that I would have ventured anywhere near the Embankment, or the junctions at either end of Blackfriars Bridge, or the Vauxhall gyratory, with my genuinely nervous-on-a-bike partner, but we’re already planning cycling up and down the Thames once the weather gets a bit warmer, because the new cycleways are somewhere she will be entirely happy to ride.
Far from enabling hostility and aggression, they’re doing precisely the opposite. And even if some people using them might be doing so in lycra, or cycling fast, mixing with them is far, far more preferable to the alternative – mixing with motor traffic travelling much faster.
We can see just how silly these arguments are if we imagine that for – whatever reason – there weren’t any footways along the Embankment, and the only people on foot there were hardcore joggers, mixing it in the road with motor traffic. If Transport for London came along with a suggestion to build a Pedestrian Superfootway along the river, separating people from motor traffic, would Goldsmith, Boff and Evans argue that such a scheme would be a ‘concession to testosterone-driven lycral-clad joggists’, or that most such a footway would have an ‘aggressive and intimidating’ character, and that footists prefer gentler routes? (Or that the joggist lobby seems to be full of joggers who enjoy fighting for space with HGVs?)
Whether these kinds of arguments flow from basic ignorance about the purpose and function of the new cycling infrastructure in London, or whether they are simply a figleaf for a more general reluctance to repurpose road space, I can’t say, but they have to a certain extent been enabled by the language that Transport for London have themselves used in describing Superhighways – calling them ‘fast routes for commuters’, ‘for people in a hurry’. Almost exactly the same kinds of descriptions that are being used by Goldsmith, Boff and Evans.
But it doesn’t stop there. The problematic language used to describe Superhighways applies in parallel to Quietways, and has opened up opportunities for misunderstanding (or deliberate misinterpretation) in much the same way. Remember that the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling suggested that TfL will offer
Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
The Vision – after enthusing about London’s ‘matchless network of side streets, greenways and parks’ – states that
A cross-London network of high-quality guided Quietways will be created on low-traffic back streets and other routes so different kinds of cyclists can choose the routes which suit them.
Again, ‘different kinds of cyclists’ shouldn’t have to pick and choose a route which might suit them – anyone who wants to ride a bike, whether they are confident or experienced, or just starting out, shouldn’t have to choose. Any part of the network should reach a basic high standard of suitability for any potential user, whether it’s on a main road or on a side street.
But the bigger problem here is that while ‘Quietways’ are themselves being (wrongly) presented as some kind of attractive, gentle alternative to the cut-and-thrust of the Superhighways, the Quietway concept is itself being misunderstood, again because of this TfL language.
‘Creating routes on low traffic back streets’ ducks the central problem that most of the genuinely direct ‘back street’ routes in London aren’t quiet, at all. If they are direct, then drivers will be using them, because they’re useful. To create direct Quietways that are also genuiely quiet will actually require interventions to remove through motor traffic. So while, as Paul Gannon astutely observes, Quietways might be ‘the ideal solution for less confident politicians’, they require just as much political commitment as main roads themselves. London’s (potentially useful) back streets aren’t quiet, and they need action to change them, just as the main roads do.
Here’s just one example of how the ‘Quietway’ concept lends itself to being misunderstood. It’s a blog by a Hackney resident, opposed to the ‘filtering’ of Middleton Road in Hackney, which will (potentially) form part of Quietway 2.
my neighbour made probably the most sensible suggestion of the night. He had no axe to grind so listened intently to Hackney’s presentation. He noted that the Quietways initiative was Boris Johnson’s (not Hackney’s). And that the scheme didn’t require road closures at all – simply the routing of cycleways along roads with under 2000 vehicles a day. Middleton Road was currently 4500 a day (though the council/activists had inflated this to 6000 in their propaganda). Pushed by the activists, the solution had been to close Middleton Road when, as he quietly pointed out, if you moved the cycleway to any other road in the area, the vehicle count fell to just a few hundred. No other change was required, allowing the activists to create their “mini-Holland” without turning other peoples’ lives upside-down – or have I missed the point? [my emphasis]
This resident evidently thinks that because ‘Quietways’ should be using ‘quiet streets’, they should simply be re-routed onto the quietest possible streets in any given area, rather than requiring any kinds of interventions at all on busier roads.
The weakness of language that Transport for London have used themselves has created opportunities for what I might call a ‘double shunting’ of cycle provision. Firstly, shunting it away from main roads onto ‘gentle’ Quietways. And then, secondly, those ‘Quietways’ themselves get shunted away from routes that make the most sense, onto less direct roads that are already quiet – quiet because, of course, they’re not very useful routes for anyone. Those who are hostile to, or uncertain about, loadspace reallocation schemes on main roads can point to Quietways, and people who don’t like the idea of ‘their’ roads being ‘closed’ can point to London’s apparent ‘matchless network’ of already quiet streets as alternatives.
These problems have arisen because the terminology used in the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling has opened the door to this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ approach. It could have been avoided – and I think it can best be addressed – by starting to talk in terms of networks, rather than routes, and about high quality provision which limits interactions with motor traffic, regardless of the road or street context. Obviously this will require different kinds of interventions, but we shouldn’t parcel those types of interventions up into distinct categories of route. A typical journey from A to B in an area with a high-quality cycle network will be made up of cycling seamlessly between these interventions, without even noticing it.
I’m hopeful that networks, and network-style thinking, will naturally start to develop as the density of suitable routes increases, at least in central London. There are some obvious gaps that will present themselves, and need filling in, as the new protected cycleways on main roads are finished. But in the meantime it would be helpful if distinctions between Quietways and Superhighways could melt away, replaced with a concept of high-quality provision for all potential users.
Here is our joint response with CTC, London Cycling Campaign, RoadPeace, Sustrans, 20s Plenty for Us and Living Streets:- oLondonAssemblyPoliceandCrimeCommitteereroadtrafficcrime
Cycling infrastructure isn’t just about the ‘conventional’ design of protected tracks alongside main roads. Good cycling conditions can also be achieved with other measures, particularly through the use of roads that have very low motor traffic levels.
Typically this will take the form of access roads in residential areas, away from main roads, designed in a way that ensures motor traffic is only accessing these streets, rather than passing through to somewhere else. But there’s another form of this kind of ‘low traffic street’, one that runs parallel to main roads – the service road. While protected cycleways and filtered streets are now part of the cycle campaigning vocabulary in Britain, the service road really hasn’t featured much, at all. Which I think is a pity, as they really are an ‘easy win’ for cycling; they already exist alongside many main roads that aren’t suitable for cycling, and would only need a small amount of work to adapt them as good cycling environments.
I was reminded of this as I was sat on a (rail replacement) coach from Harwich into London, having coming back on the ferry from a visit to the Netherlands. The coach essentially followed the A12 into central London, and for stretches of the A12 in Dagenham, there are service roads alongside it.
They would be perfect for cycling infrastructure, a way to travel along this pretty horrible main road in relative peace and security. Unfortunately they look like this.
The service roads are blocked off – which is the right thing to do, in general terms, because you don’t want people buzzing along them in motor vehicles, instead of using the main road. A service road should only be used by a small number of motor vehicles, accessing a small number of properties along it – that’s why it’s called a ‘service road’, after all.
But they’ve been blocked off in a way that blocks off cycling too. The barrier should go, and be replaced with something that allows the easy passage of walking, cycling (and other mobility aids) while still preventing motor traffic from passing through.
This would really be an easy win – there’s no need for a huge amount of re-engineering of the street, and it wouldn’t present a great deal of political difficulty, because the service road is already blocked off, so motorists aren’t losing anything. And I imagine much the same is true for many, many other service roads across Britain.
We were shown a good example on an Infrastructure Safari during the Cycling Embassy AGM in Newcastle a few years back. The Great North Road (the old A1, before it became bypassed) north of Gosforth was built with a service road.
As is clear from the photograph, this is a very relaxed, comfortable cycling environment, alongside a fast (40mph) dual carriageway, composed of four lanes. Only a small number of properties (those on the left) are accessible by this road. It’s in a better condition for cycling than the Dagenham example, with better transitions between the sections of closed off service roads, although at the end it does die a death, without considering cycling. The plan was (or is!) to make it part of a cycle route running north out of Newcastle – I confess I’m not up to speed on what’s happened since we visited but, just like the Dagenham example, this would be another easy win. The cycle route is effectively already built – it just needs a little tidying.
Perhaps the best example of a service road I’ve encountered, however, is of course in the Netherlands, in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It’s the one described in this post by Bicycle Dutch, with an accompanying video.
Note that the ‘upgrade’ that has taken place is really just an improvement of the surface, and with a change in colour to make it more explicit that this is a cycle route. The basic building blocks of a good service street for cycling – smooth transitions between the sections of service road and cycle path, and filters to stop people driving all the way along the main road in parallel – were already in place.
This particular service road featured as a Good Facility of the Week. Because service roads don’t touch main roads, it’s also easy to convert them into good walking environments, with continuous footways across the side roads.
This service road transitions easily into cycle path, and back into service road again (my one very minor criticism here is that the post may not be not be necessary, given the width of the path – it’s unlikely drivers will attempt to drive down here, although I could be wrong).
Where the service road meets a major junction, drivers are prevented from continuing along the main road. The two sections of service road on either side of the junction are only ‘joined up’ for walking and cycling, which helps to keep motor traffic levels low on the service road.
The final advantage of service roads is that – because they are relatively wide – they can easily be used for two-way cycling, on either side of the road (or both sides, if there are service roads on each side). Here’s an example in Assen – two-way cycling is allowed on this service road. Note that there is also some (fairly old) ‘light segregation’ on the other side of the road, in the form of concrete blocks, which allows (one-way) cycling on that side too.
Of course the Dutch still get things wrong (or haven’t got around to putting things right yet). Here’s a fairly strange example of cycle lanes on a fairly busy road in Zwolle, when there’s a good service road on either side, going unused.
It would be better to take cycling off the main road, removing conflict with motor traffic, and placing the cycle route on the service road, which has a bumpy service at present, but could be upgraded to smooth asphalt.
I’m sure I’ve seen this same mistake being made in new UK cycling schemes – painted lanes being proposed on main roads, when there is a service road alongside – although I can’t quite remember where! Perhaps you can remind me in the comments, along with other examples of service roads that could be easily ‘upgraded’.
Service roads certainly shouldn’t be overlooked as cycling infrastructure. They are much better cycling environments than painted lanes alongside motor traffic, and most of the physical engineering – the separation from the main road – is already in place. They only require a small amount of adjustment to make the transitions easy, and as I’ve already said the ‘political’ cost is minimal, given that driving isn’t made any worse (and arguably better if encounters with people cycling on the main road are removed).
On a recent trip to the supermarket I happened to notice a driver turning into the car park at roughly the same time as me. Obviously this isn’t something you would normally dwell on, but in this particular instance I happened to notice the same driver entering the supermarket building itself some time later – when I already done a good deal of my own shopping.
What had happened? Well, I can park my ‘vehicle’ right by the entrance of the supermarket, something the driver wasn’t able to do.
They had obviously had to circulate around the car park, looking for a space, parking their car, and then walking all the way back to the supermarket entrance.
This set me to pondering on a bit of maths in an attempt to establish just how quick a car is at short trips, compared to cycling. You might think a car will ‘obviously’ be quicker at getting from A to B – after all, it just goes faster. But as my anecdote hints at, the basic problem this straightforward analysis overlooks is… parking.
Cars are big, and difficult to store. That means when you get to where you actually want to go to, you won’t actually be able to get there. By that I mean, it is very, very unlikely that you will be able to park your car right where you want to go to, either because someone else has got there first, or because there’s so much (induced) demand for parking where you are going to it has to be spread out over a large area (or on multiple levels), or because the area you are going to is somewhere that restricts parking altogether, because it’s not very nice when streets you want to visit are clogged up with cars that are either parked, or being driven around in search of parking spaces.
This isn’t the case with cycling; you will almost certainly be able to park exactly where you want to, especially if you have the kind of bike that has a built-in lock (the convenience of which I’ve written about before). So we have to factor in something ‘extra’ into the time taken to get from A to B by car – the time you are walking to or from your car, once you have parked it, to actually get to or from ‘B’.
So I came up with this rough little equation to establish the distances at which cycling time is approximately equal to driving time, adding in the extra walking time involved with driving. It equates cycling time (on the left) with driving + walking time (on the right).
Now we can plug in some values. If we take cycling speed to be 10mph, walking speed to be 3mph, and driving speed to be 20mph, we get the following –
And with a bit of rearranging, we arrive at –
What does this mean?
Well, it tells us that for our starting assumptions of speed (20 for driving, 10 for cycling, 3 for walking), cycling time is equal to driving (+ walking) time when the walking distances is 0.15 of the distance from A to B.
So – to take an example – let’s say I had to choose between cycling or driving for a short trip from A to B of 1 mile. In this case, if the walking distance from the parking to the destination is 240 metres (0.15 of 1 mile), then I can expect to arrive at the destination at exactly same time if I cycled or drove. If the walking distance is greater than 240m metres, then obviously the bike will be quicker.
For shorter trips the equation obviously tilts further in favour of cycling – for a trip of half a mile from A to B, you’d have to be able to park within about 100m of the actual destination for driving to match cycling.
How realistic is this? I think it’s fairly accurate, and if anything a little generous towards driving, for a couple of reasons –
To return to my supermarket example, I think the driver who entered car park at the same time as me probably had a walking trip of around 100m – a reasonable assumption based on the size of the car park. I’ve shown a typical ‘walk’ below, from the mid-point of the car park.
Of course the driver would have to have driven to this spot, and maybe a bit further, circulating around to look for it. That means if we both had to travel half a mile to get here, he would have gained nothing (in time, at least) by driving.
The equation tips further in favour of cycling when we examine ‘as the crow flies’ distance, rather than the actual travel distance, because driving – even somewhere as car-friendly and cycling-hostile as this town, Horsham – tends to involves longer routes than cycling. To take just one example –
Here a short car trip to Sainsbury’s of nearly one mile is significantly longer than one by bike, principally because someone on a bike can use the short cut indicated by the red arrow, but someone driving can’t. The ‘crow flies’ distance here is around 600m; the cycling distance approximates to 900m, while the driving distance is a far less favourable 1400m.
The red arrow is actually an example of filtered permeability – a residential area which drivers can access with their motor vehicles, but can’t drive through. This makes it a pleasant area to live in, and has the side benefit of making cycling and walking trips more closely aligned with ‘crow flies’ distances, compared to driving.
This whole mathematical exercise got me thinking about filtered permeability in a different way. Essentially –
Filtered permeability only ‘punishes’ the kind of car trips that weren’t worth making in the first place.
Yes, filtered permeability will make your 0.5 mile car trip significantly longer, perhaps even twice as long. But that’s the kind of car trip it really doesn’t make sense to drive, because cycling will almost certainly be quicker over that distance, once we factor in the kind of details considered in the maths here. This is, in fact, precisely the case with the example I’ve used above. A car trip from A to B (Middleton Road to Sainsbury’s) would actually be costly in time terms, compared to cycling, even without any filtered permeability in place.
For longer car trips, however, of say 2-3 miles, the effect of filtered permeability is more negligible, perhaps adding only 5-10% to the overall journey time. So filtered permeability is only really a ‘problem’ for driving for those trips that are actually more time-consuming to make than going by bike, or even walking.
Now of course I fully acknowledge that cycling isn’t an option for most people in urban areas because of the hostility of road conditions – indeed, that’s pretty much what this blog is all about. So the kinds of comparisons here won’t work for most people, simply because they have to choose between walking and driving, and the equation here isn’t anything like as favourable as a cycling/driving comparison, because of the lower speed of walking.
This might explain why new ‘filtering’ schemes attract such a great deal of opposition in Britain; it’s because people are driving short trips of under a mile, and because the only realistic alternative is walking. Cycling is the missing piece of the puzzle, one that will unlock the benefits of ‘filtering’ and demonstrate just how inefficient short car trips in urban areas actually are, compared to the alternatives.
Of course to unlock that potential cycling has to enabled, and that means constructing environments that work for all users – protected routes on main roads, and genuinely quiet routes on residential streets, which will involve (ironically enough) filtered permeability. So this is something of a chicken and egg situation – the arguments in favour of filtered permeability rely partly on the benefits of a mode of transport that people aren’t currently prepared to use, and won’t be using until these kinds of schemes are in place.
But I think it is certainly helpful to consider just how painful driving is, in time terms, for short trips, when arguments and discussions about ‘filtered permeability’ are happening.
A new bridge over the Thames in East London would only benefit ‘former Tory MPs’, a Newham councillor has claimed.
Councillor Airdrie Dalden is objecting to plans from Transport for London which include a bridge between the borough and the Royal Borough of Greenwich on the south of the river.
Quoting the example of journalist Matthew Parris, councillor Dalden said: “The vast majority of people currently crossing the Thames here are former Tory MPs in swimming trunks. Women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to put on a swimming costume and cross the Thames. Swimming is a discriminatory form of transport.”
Parris was criticised by the Port of London Authority in 2010 after writing about his experience of being swept a mile upriver when swimming across the busy commercial waterway at night.
Mayor Boris Johnson claims that the new Thames Gateway Bridge across the river would link the transport poor Thamesmead estate and Woolwich development area in Greenwich with residential and redevelopment areas around Beckton and the Royal Docks in Newham, creating opportunities for one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs.
But Councillor Dalden told AWWTM that the money Johnson proposes spending on the bridge would not “benefit every aspect of Newham, which is an ethnically diverse borough.”
“You look around and of the people who are crossing the Thames here, they do not belong to wider ethnic groups. The majority of swimmers are former Tory MPs like Matthew Parris and Boris Johnson. Fact.”
Transport for London are now considering a compromise solution which will involve building half a bridge.
So TfL have produced a short advert once again asking everybody to calm down, play nice, and share the road. I figured it might make a good excuse to post again this thing that I scribbled a couple of years ago.
On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.
Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?
The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:
This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:
Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now
And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.
But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. 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.
Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:
Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’
They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.
7 years, 4 months and 18 days ago, a train crashed in Cumbria. So it seemed like an appropriate moment to post this extract from another project that I’ve been working on. It’s all a draft so your comments and corrections on matters of style and fact are very much welcome.
Just before 8am on the 5th of October 1999, a commuter train left London Paddington bound for Bedwyn in Wiltshire. A few minutes later, just as it was getting into its stride through the inner suburbs, it approached the location where the bidirectional terminus station tracks cross over one another and organise themselves into strictly segregated “up” and “down” direction main lines in a great tangle of points. The train passed straight through a yellow warning signal without slowing, and soon after skipped the red stop signal that was all there was to protect those Ladbroke Grove crossovers ahead.
The morning InterCity from Cheltenham hit the commuter train head on at a closing speed of 130mph. The front car of the commuter train was crushed by the heavy express locomotive, which in turn shed its diesel across the tracks while its rake of coaches, full of momentum and still propelled by a second locomotive at the rear, jackknifed into the flaming wreckage. Thirty one people were killed on that occasion; more than 500 were injured.
The driver of the Bedwyn commuter train was obviously unavailable to explain why he failed to respond to the two signals warning him of the danger ahead. The front carriage of his train was completely destroyed in the impact; neither driver was available to defend against media speculation and blame. An Inquiry was ordered, and Lord Cullen was appointed to get to the bottom of the matter and find out what went wrong.
Cullen was unusually thorough in his investigations into what went wrong at Ladbroke Grove, eventually publishing not one but two reports. The first, as you would expect, looked at the immediate cause of the crash. It reconstructed the story of how the driver of the commuter train jumped the lights, but found that far from being one man’s mistake, a catalogue of errors had added up to the catastrophe. The driver had only graduated from his training two weeks before the crash, and the inquiry uncovered multiple problems with the train company’s training programme, including inadequate instruction in signal procedures. The train was equipped with an Automatic Warning System, with audible in-cab alarms to warn the driver when the train passes signals — but the system was too simple to differentiate between yellow warning signals and red stop signals, and each time the Bedwyn train passed a signal, the driver had pressed the acknowledgement button to prevent the system from automatically stopping the train, as was the correct practice for yellow signals. The signals themselves had been erected in confusing arrays on gantries over the tracks, with views restricted by nearby bridges and by the line’s newly installed overhead power supply. And the position and design of the signal lights meant that at 8am on a bright October morning, westbound train drivers would see the reflection of the sun “lighting up all the signals like Christmas trees”, as one driver told the inquiry, making it far from obvious that a signal was set to red rather than yellow. The inquiry concluded that a momentary lapse of concentration caused the driver to respond incorrectly to the first signal, while the poor visibility and reflections led him to incorrectly read the second.
The inquiry revealed that the crash on the fifth of October was just the visible tip of an iceberg. The failures that led to the Bedwyn train jumping the lights had led eight others to do exactly the same at that one signal in the previous six years, with a 67 red signals in total passed on the tracks out of Paddington during that time. So-called “signal passed at danger” events — SPADs — were endemic, and railway management had never taken the problem seriously enough. It was only by chance and good fortune on those previous occasions that there was no oncoming express train. In fact, it was later calculated that, at the rate that signal jumping was occurring at Ladbroke Grove, a catastrophic crash was absolutely inevitable in that location, and at an expected rate of one every 14 years.
In short, Ladbroke Grove revealed that there were widespread failings in the railway system that enabled mistakes to happen and to go uncorrected, and the risks resulting from these failings were accepted as an inevitable fact of life. Cullen realised that his inquiry into the one incident couldn’t ignore the much bigger problem on the railway. And he was proved right even before he could publish his conclusions. One year after the Ladbroke Grove crash, an InterCity bound for Leeds at 115mph derailed on poorly maintained track at Hatfield, killing 4 passengers and revealing the scale of the failings that would soon lead to the collapse of Railtrack, the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure.
Cullen knew that the failings on the railway were far too numerous to identify and fix in one report — he had identified a dozen serious problems in the Ladbroke Grove case alone — and besides, fixing problems would not guard against new ones creeping in. Instead, Cullen introduced the systems that would enable a continual process of identification and correction of problems, and a long-term plan for improvement. Key amongst these were the creation of the Rail Safety & Standards Board (RSSB) and the Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) to oversee an overhaul of the railway’s safety culture. RAIB, modelled on the older Air Accident and Marine Accident Investigation Branches, was created to ensure that an independent investigator got to the bottom of every incident on the railway, rooting out the failures at all levels of the industry. RAIB does for railway incidents today what Cullen did for Ladbroke Grove: the investigator makes extensive enquiries, consults the detailed operational records, and reconstructs events, leading to thick reports highlighting the lessons that are to be learned. Working practices get revised, enforcement of rules is tightened, and investment is made in new technology.
RAIB investigates incidents with the aim of preventing anything like them from ever happening again. But the one thing RAIB does not do is assign blame. It inherits from Cullen the recognition that in a complicated system like the railway, it takes more than one person to mess up. Malice and incompetence, laziness and greed, and momentary lapses of concentration are surely all characteristics that can be expected of people from time to time. But if those traits are ever allowed to lead to a catastrophe, it is the system that has failed at least as much as any individual.
As Cullen put it, describing the problem of the epidemic of jumped signals — SPADs — at Ladbroke Grove:
Underpinning my approach to these matters is the following. On the one hand the public quite rightly expects that there should be no SPADs which run the risk of causing injury. On the other hand human nature is fallible: no matter the training and experience — and they are extremely important — it is impossible to exclude the possibility of such an event. … if and to the extent that the safe operation of a train is dependent on one person it is essential that the demands which the railway system makes on him or her take adequate account of human factors.
This is a central principle of the systems that Cullen put in place. Ladbroke Grove was not the fault of one driver for failing to stop at a signal: the life and limb of 500 passengers should never have been placed entirely in the hands of one fallible human, just a single momentary lapse of concentration between him and disaster. So in Cullen’s system, the railway industry now identifies situations where one easy mistake could have terrible consequences, and it eliminates them.
Frequently, this means re-configuring track to reduce the kind of the movements that could allow a crash to happen, and introducing new technology to automatically protect trains from the minor mistakes that human drivers and signallers inevitably make. Cullen’s report, for example, specifically advised that Britain roll out technology called Automatic Train Protection (ATP). This system, coupled with other advances in modern signalling technology, makes it pretty much impossible to accidentally crash a train: the positions of all the trains on the line are automatically detected by circuits in the rails and the system keeps them apart by lengths of several train braking distances, refusing to allow the person operating the signals to put trains on collision courses; and the trains are sent information about speed limits and signal states, preventing their drivers from speeding and, even if the driver fails to do so, stopping automatically at red lights. ATP had been investigated by British Rail before privatisation, but the government at the time was not prepared to pick up the billion pound bill for installing it across the network. Once the inevitable had happened at Ladbroke Grove, it was perhaps a source of shame to some that the technology which would have made the crash impossible had been rejected on these cost grounds.
Equally important to the success of mechanisms like RAIB in building a safe system is a recognition of the Heinrich Triangle. This, remember, is the pyramid of the many near misses, minor incidents and major injuries that sits below every fatality. RAIB investigates all of these things, not just the headline crashes and fatalities. Even if nothing serious ever came of the near misses and minor lapses, understanding and eliminating the could-have-been calamities is vital if actual catastrophes are to be avoided. In 2013, for example, RAIB investigated such incidents as a part on a poorly maintained engineering train working loose, causing minor damage to track; a team of maintenance workers coming within 2 seconds of being hit by a train, when processes in place should have ensured they always clear the tracks with at least 10 seconds to spare; another in which a farmer was given the go ahead to use a manually operated level crossing while a train — which she saw in plenty of time to stand clear — was approaching; and a signal passed at danger on a minor line that had yet to be equipped with a full train protection system. None of these incidents had any consequences for life or limb — but it was only luck that there were not worse outcomes. So, rather than dismiss them as inconsequential, RAIB investigated and made recommendations for revised working practices and improved technology. New maintenance regimes were implemented for the engineering trains; the planning process for work teams was tightened; and a software bug in the signalling system for the farm crossing was identified and quickly eliminated. By tackling the could-have-been tragedies at the bottom of the pyramid, RAIB have stopped the tragedies at the top before they ever happen.
Ladbroke Grove was just one of a series of catastrophic train crashes that occurred during the short tenure of Railtrack as the privatised owners of the railway infrastructure. Before that, British Rail presided over regular train crashes — diminishing slowly in number and severity over time, but a fact of life nevertheless, from the 112 killed at Harrow and Wealdstone in 1952 to the 35 killed in a similar three train pileup at Clapham Junction in 1988. The pre-nationalisation rail companies were worse still, from the death of William Huskisson in 1830 on the opening day of the original passenger railway, through the dark decades of the late 1800s when sometimes rail disasters could be expected monthly, to the railway’s worst year, 1915, when 265 were killed in four catastrophic crashes. And these are merely the numbers for train crashes, not including the poor neglected navvies who built and maintained the lines or the men operating the freight yards. In the early years, such lowly workers were expendable labour, while politicians agreed with the railway companies — in which many owned shares — that safety regulations would be too burdensome a barrier to bigger profits. The railway was a different world.
The last time anybody died on a train that crashed in Britain was on the evening of 23 February 2007 when a Virgin Trains express to Glasgow derailed on mistakenly unmaintained track at Grayrigg in Cumbria, the lead carriage performing an impressive backflip as the trailing carriages rolled down an embankment. Thanks to the sturdy design of the modern carriages, just one person died. The Grayrigg crash happened just 7 years, 4 months and 18 days after Ladbroke Grove. It’s impossible to say “never again”, and we must always guard against complacency, but as that incident fades ever further into history, it has started to feel like train crashes simply don’t happen any more. The world changed, and it only took 7 years.
For the blog it made sense that I let this little extract stand on its own as a story by itself, but really it’s meant to be understood as one piece within a larger story that I assembled early in the year, topped and tailed with an edited version of this story. In it I try to tie together a few disparate strands that I had been thinking about, using as a theme the imagined “different worlds” that Dave Horton talked about and the real different worlds that have come about, in surprisingly short time, in the Netherlands and on the railways. And in it, the 7 years, 4 months and 18 days of fatal train crash free days are contrasted with the 27 days during that period when we can expect there to have been zero fatal crashes on Britain’s roads. Hopefully it might one day be fit to see the light of day…