On Monday the Department for Transport’s Think! campaign launched an HGV ‘safety’ campaign that has been universally panned by cycling organisations and campaigners. There’s a very good summary of the reasons why here.
The intention of the video is apparently to show the risks of ‘undertaking’ HGVs when they are about turn. But the video itself is, frankly, a mess. It initially shows an implausible situation – a lorry travelling on the wrong side of the road on a 20mph street, with a cyclist somehow managing to travel even faster on their inside.
Why is the lorry right over on the wrong side of the road, so far from the junction? I can’t think of any reasonable explanation. Most likely the driver has started to overtake the person cycling, who has then implausibly managed to accelerate and move ahead of the HGV.
This is followed by a shot, accompanied by tasteless clips of meat being chopped, of the HGV swerving across that cyclist’s path, with the cyclist still behind the HGV – which is implausible in the context of the speed difference in the (very odd) first clip.
So why is this video so implausible?
An instinctive explanation is that it is simply a cock-up, filmed by people who don’t really know how left hook incidents actually occur. The brief might have been
‘Go and make us a video of an idiot cyclist shooting up the inside of a turning HGV at speed.’
The result being this dog’s breakfast. But I think there’s more to it than that. A video that showed how left hooks actually occur would be embarrassing to the DfT.
They don’t involve lorries travelling at speed on the wrong side of the road with someone apparently attempting to ‘undertake’ them.
Instead, they occur when a previously stationary HGV has just started to move off at a junction. When someone cycling is either positioned in front of, or to the side, of that HGV, typically on state-sanctioned paint, either in the form of a crap cycle-lane, or an advanced stop line (ASL). That cyclist is either stationary in that ASL, or is arriving at the junction on the cycle lane on the inside of that HGV.
Conveniently, the DfT video doesn’t look anything like this. It doesn’t show someone who has been lulled into a making a minor misjudgement with potentially fatal consequences, thanks to negligent road design. Instead it attempts to present a scenario in which blame lies with a cyclist being an idiot, ‘racing’ an HGV and trying to shoot up the inside of it as it turns.
I commented yesterday that this Cemex video – shot from a camera on the left hand side of the lorry cab – is far more instructive about how left hooks actually occur than the DfT’s video. It’s a real-life illustration of how a combination of dreadful road design, lethal vehicles and momentary inattention can lead to death and serious injury.
At the start of the video, we see the HGV is stationary as the man cycles past it, towards the junction.
Going by the position of the cab, adjacent to a metal post, the front of the lorry is approximately 50m or so from the junction, suggesting that there are at least five cars (or equivalent) ahead of it, waiting at a red light.
The lorry driver isn’t indicating left at this point.
It might be foolish to start filtering up the inside of an HGV here, but a combination of the the fact that the traffic is stationary, that the HGV is some distance back from the lights, and the inviting cycle lane (combined with a lack of indication) all make it completely understandable.
However, as the cyclist draws level with the cab, the HGV moves off.
And then, about a second after moving off, the driver starts to indicate left.
It seems the cyclist, perhaps without even seeing the indicators, realises that he is suddenly in a precarious situation – you can see him accelerating to try and clear the HGV, to get to safety ahead of it. This is clearly not a wise decision; the best one would have been to a complete halt, to simply let the HGV go. But it’s an understandable human mistake.
The HGV driver is accelerating hard too, and soon the cyclist is back down the side of the HGV. From this point, given the speed of both parties and their intended directions, disaster is nearly inevitable.
Abruptly, the enormous lorry forms a curved barrier around the cyclist, leaving him with nowhere to go.
It is only thanks to both parties performing an emergency stop that the cyclist doesn’t end up under the wheels.
I hope it is clear that this real-life situation is rather more ambiguous than the one in the DfT video. Mistakes are made, but they are understandable ones. Particularly, can we expect people not to cycle up the inside of HGVs when there is a cycle lane there, and the HGV is stationary, some five or six cars back from the junction itself?
And much the same is true of incidents that are actually in the news at the moment, in the wake of the DfT’s campaign. Take the case of Louise Wright, killed in Nottingham in July 2014. She appears to have filtered up the inside of an HGV, and then waited at a red light, next to it. The driver failed to check his mirrors, and was convicted this week of causing death by careless driving – the same day that the DfT campaign launched.
Or, also in the courts this week, the case of Esther Hartsilver, again killed as a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
Or the case of Ying Tao, again, killed a stationary HGV set off from traffic lights and turned across her.
These cases simply do not resemble the DfT’s video. They take place almost in slow motion, the inevitable consequences of human beings making understandable mistakes in an environment why are exposed to unacceptable danger; an environment where those mistakes can, in a split second, lead to death and serious injury. Environments that even actually encourage them into danger.
We should be building environments that greatly reduce or even remove that danger. Environments that keep people cycling and HGVs separated from each other, and allow people to make mistakes without those mistakes resulting in death.
Thankfully, we are starting to see this kind of approach in a small number of locations in London; new junctions where the risk of collision between HGVs and people has been greatly reduced by signal separation of movements.
But this is only a start, and in just one city.
I see little or no indication that the same Department for Transport that is producing these videos and adverts is taking any kind of lead on safe design. Where are the national standards, guidance and advice for local authorities, so that they can replicate good examples and best practice at a local level? Where is the investment required, to reshape our roads to protect people using the modes of transport we apparently want to encourage? Frankly, where is the leadership? It’s completely absent.
The simple message of the cases mentioned here, and countless others, is – do not mix very heavy, large vehicles with limited visibility with people on bikes. Keep them separated at all costs. But, again, I see no indication that the Department for Transport is taking that message on board. The issue of cycling death as a result of collisions with HGVs continues to be framed by those with responsibility for tackling it – as with this latest campaign – as one of human failing, one of mistakes that can be remedied through ‘education’ and ‘awareness’. A totally flawed approach given that human beings will always continue to make mistakes. It’s what we do.
Beyond adverts and tokenistic measures like extra mirrors, there is no noticeable action being taken at an institutional level within the DfT to deal with these predictable deaths, that keep occurring in the same way, over and over again. That’s why these adverts are so deeply insulting.
I’m currently in the middle of writing a piece about how attitudes to residential streets being access-only for motor traffic are essentially conditioned by history. That is to say, whether people are in favour of a particular residential street being ‘access-only’ largely depends on the current nature of that street. If it’s currently a through-route, attempts to convert it into an access road will probably be controversial. But, conversely, if it’s already an access road, that status will be deeply uncontroversial.
We can take this further, and point out that attempts to reintroduce through traffic onto access roads that are currently peaceful, safe and quiet would be just as unpopular as ‘filtering’, if not more so. It’s most likely that, in the cold light of day, people are not really ‘for’ or ‘against’ filtering – they are just against change.
We’ll come to this subject in more detail next week, but in the meantime, and as a teaser to that blogpost, I thought I’d look at a specific example of ‘historical’ filtering, one that happened some time ago, and that would be controversial if it were reversed – just as controversial as if attempts were made to implement it today.
Cull Lane is a small lane in southern Hampshire, on the outskirts of New Milton. I’m familiar with it because I use it to cycle to and from my grandmother’s house, from New Milton station.
Back in the 1950s, it was just a straightforward road, running across fields.
Over time, New Milton has expanded, filling out to the orange road running east-west near the top of the map, with housing development built on other side of Cull Lane. But the way this housing has been built – and the changes that have been made to Cull Lane – are very interesting.
Cull Lane has essentially been converted into two separate sections of cul-de-sac, through a series of three closures. The first, and most obvious one, is in the middle. The other two are at the (former) junctions with the boundary roads.
The only ‘through route’ across this area is now a very twisty road, looping up and and down as it runs east-west – Holland’s Wood Drive. While it is technically possible to drive along the length of this road, its twisty nature doesn’t make that an obvious thing to do, and indeed Google Streetview tells us that is much quicker (and shorter) to use the pre-existing boundary roads.
What has happened to Cull Lane itself? Well, it is, still, a rather lovely quiet country lane, even though it is now technically part of the town of New Milton. It is rare to encounter drivers on it, and those that I do are simply going to and from their properties.
At the northern end, there is a turning area for residents. The previous connection to the main road running east-west has been ‘lost’, although pedestrian access has been retained (in the foreground).
Below, some of the new housing that was built along Cull Lane at the same time as these changes to the road network were made (note the ‘dead end’ sign on what was formerly a through route) –
The ‘severed’ middle section, where what was once Cull Lane has become a pedestrian path, with bollards to stop drivers –
The crossing of the new, bendy road in the middle of the development (again, note that the southern section of Cull Lane, visible across the road, has a ‘Dead End’ sign) –
… And the southern end of Cull Lane. This would at one time have been a straightforward junction, but now it is a turning area, with only cycling and walking access to the main road where the silver car is being driven.
These pictures were actually taken at rush hour, around 5:30pm, yet I was able to stand in the middle of the road and take them, quite happily. But without the filtering that took place here, this small little lane would actually be a busy road. It would form an obvious route from the main road to the north of New Milton (connecting with the trunk road A35) into the east of the town.
As it is, that route is not available, and this residential area is something of an oasis of calm, ‘converted’ into two cul-de-sacs.
Because all this happened at the time the development was taking place, I suspect the changes to the road were a minor detail. New residents moving into the housing would not have concerned themselves with it, because it was already like that when they arrived. But had these changes been proposed after all the development took place, it is a reasonable guess those changes would have been opposed by locals who had got used to the existing driving routes. ‘Keep Cull Lane open’! ‘No to increasing pollution and congestion on surrounding roads! And so on, with the kinds of arguments that are undoubtedly familiar to present-day campaigners.
As it is, Cull Lane is an attractive place to live, with properties for sale making a virtue of the fact that it is ‘a quiet no through road’, which may have not been the case had enlightened planners not severed it at the time of the development. The slightly longer distance locals might have to travel to exit onto main roads by car is a very small price to pay for living in a desirable, quiet and attractive area.
The only small complaint I have with these changes is that they seem to have happened at a time in British planning history when cycling was invisible. The connection in the middle, and the two cut throughs at either end, are quite explicitly signed as pedestrian routes, and I suspect I may be breaking the law by cycling along a footpath every time I visit my grandmother, travelling along the length of Cull Lane.
Nevertheless, I think this is a very interesting example of how ‘closures’ of roads can be invisible and uncontroversial if they happen under particular circumstances, and if they have been in place long enough for anyone to even remember the road being configured in any other way.
The death of a woman in Reading earlier this year – and the inquest into her death – has prompted me to write something about Puffin crossings, which to me at least seem to have been a factor in that collision.
Lauren Heath was killed on a Puffin crossing as an HGV driver advanced through the crossing. It still isn’t clear whether he moved while the signals were still red, or whether the green signal had appeared while Lauren Heath was still on the crossing. She was in the driver’s ‘blind spot’ – allegedly, because the driver had failed to properly adjust his mirror.
But one of the factors in her death appears to have been the lack of far side signal at the Puffin crossing. As she walked up the road to cross, she saw motor traffic waiting at a red signal, and started to cross in front of it, without the far side indication of whether or not it is safe to do so, as is the case with more traditional, and familiar, Pelican crossings.
Here is a similar example of a Puffin crossing in Horsham. Walking in this direction, towards the lights, as Lauren Heath would have done, I can see that they are red. But there is no far side signal – the only indication of whether or not it is safe to cross is the small yellow box on the signal post itself.
To look at this box involves rotating through 180°, looking back the way I’ve come. The signal for whether or not it is safe to cross is not in line with my direction of travel.
This is what Lauren Heath would have had to have done, but failed to do – she just assumed that the lights would stay red, and without the far side signal, she had no indication that motor traffic might be about to set off as she walked across the crossing.
We know that humans will make mistakes like this, and I don’t think Puffin crossings are designed to mitigate human fallibility. The lack of the far side signal is a big problem; it means people have to look at a small box in an unnatural position, rather than relying on line of sight in the direction they are travelling.
To be clear, Puffin crossings do have some advantages over Pelicans. For one thing, I like the way that, thanks to detectors, the signals will stay red for motor traffic while people are still on the crossing – it means people who are slower do not have to hurry, warned by a flashing red man. Puffins, again thanks to detectors, also ‘reset’ if people push the button, and then cross before they get a green man – it means motor traffic isn’t held unnecessarily at a crossing when nobody is waiting to cross.
But there are other problems with them, not just the lack of far side signal. They can be deeply ambiguous. Walking up to this crossing, it is easy to assume that the green man applies to the crossing ahead, in the background. Right?
Well, no. That would be wrong. This green man applies to the crossing 90° to the left of my field of view. This crossing, with the same box in the foreground –
Walking across the crossing in the first photo on the assumption you have a green man would actually bring you into conflict with motor traffic.
Here’s a similar (and much worse) example from Sheffield.
— The Ranty Highwayman (@RantyHighwayman) March 15, 2015
The counter argument is, of course, that far side signals can themselves be ambiguous if there are multiple crossings in the line of sight, signalled differently. For instance, people might interpret a green for the section of carriageway on the far side of the road as an indication that it is safe cross the near side section of carriageway, which may have a red. I nearly got caught out in precisely the same way at this dreadful crossing outside the Gare du Lyon in Paris, which had a green on the station side, but a red to prevent people crossing the other half of the carriageway.
But the answer to this is really don’t build ambiguous, staggered crossings! Mitigating them with Puffins – which might still be open to ambiguous interpretation – isn’t really the long-term answer. Pedestrian and cycle crossings should be straightforward, without stopping and starting halfway – design them so people can cross the road, in one go. Puffins are really just polishing a turd.
Another problem with Puffins is that the signal box is easily obscured, because (with good reason) people stand right next to it.
This is often mitigated by adding another signal box on to the same pole – but again this problem wouldn’t arise at all with high, far side signals.
And one final annoyance with Puffins is that if you are approaching them on a bike (at a Toucan crossing with Puffin signalling) the lack of far side signal means you have to stop, and look at the box, in a way you wouldn’t have to with conventional signals. They interrupt progress.
So I’m really not a fan of Puffins, at all. One silver lining is that Transport for London don’t like them either, because they prevent the use of pedestrian countdown. While Puffins do have some good features, I would really like to see them integrated into the more traditional, conventional and intuitive far-side signal design.
September 14th is Cycle to Work Day, an event which reminds me that a large proportion of the focus on cycling in Britain – and of the attempts to persuade or enable people to cycle – is on travelling to work.
This focus is, perhaps, unsurprising. For transport planners and engineers, ‘the commute’ presents the most difficult problems, given that is when peak demand for use of transport networks occurs. Fixation on commuting is understandable given that pressure on networks is much lower at other times of day, when other kinds of trips tend to be made.
Although cycling obviously doesn’t place as much pressure on the road network as motoring at peak times, it forms such a small proportion of trips in this country it only really becomes ‘visible’ at peak times, even in places like central London. Again, this makes it more likely that we will fixate on commuting – flows of cycling are concentrated at the periods when people are travelling to and from work, and that therefore seems to be the only kind of cycling that is occurring, or could occur. During the middle of the day, away from places where infrastructure has started to be built, cycling is essentially non-existent. That absence of ‘everyday’ cycling makes a focus on commuting more likely.
The ‘visibility’ of cycle commuting also derives from the fact that its levels are generally substantially higher than overall cycling mode share. The London Borough of Hackney’s much-quoted census figure of 15.4% of trips to work being cycled stands alongside an overall cycling mode share of just 6-7% for all trips in the borough.
So it is likely that cycling to work figures will be around 2-3 times higher than the general cycling mode share across Britain.
As Rachel Aldred argues, this disparity is mostly likely due to ‘route sensitivity’ –
It seems like people are fussier about cycling environments when they’re not commuting. This makes intuitive sense if you think about it. When I’m riding to work, I know my route extremely well as I ride it most working days. I’m travelling on my own, so I only have to worry about my own safety, not that of any companions. I know where the dodgy bits are, where I need to concentrate super hard. I know the timing of the traffic lights – whether I have lots of time to get through or not. I know the hidden cut-throughs I can take to make the journey nicer. As I’m travelling with the peak commuting flows there’s often plenty of other cyclists around, creating a greater sense of subjective safety.
But it’s also down to the fact that groups of people who don’t work – children and the elderly – are themselves much less likely to tolerate more hostile cycling environments than people of working age. This also applies to the fact that women – who we know are, similarly, less traffic-tolerant than men – are less represented in the working population. That working population is preferentially composed of people who are more willing to cycle.
For all these reasons, commuting is the lowest-hanging fruit of cycling trips – the easiest of all the kinds of trips to enable. But focusing on commuting is really not good enough for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the biggest one is that commuting – while high profile – only forms a very small proportion of all the trips we make. In London, it’s just the bits in blue in the chart below.
The chart clearly demonstrate that commuting or work-related trips (in dark and light blue) are a small proportion of all the trips Londoners make. For under-16s and over-65s, commuting is essentially negligible, and even for 25-44 year olds, work-related trips are only around 30% of all trips made.
The picture is much the same at a national level – I’m grateful to Katja Leyendecker for crunching the numbers in the National Travel Survey and producing the results –
Just 16% of all trips are commuting, with a further 3% ‘business trips’. So again over 80% of all trips we make are not travelling to work – they are trips to school, or for shopping, or to visit friends, or for entertainment. The kinds of trips that make up daily life. Focusing on commuting – the routes commuters take – will necessarily miss out all these other kinds of trips.
I have heard it said that designing cycleways in London will only see them becoming increasingly clogged with lycra commuters. But I don’t think that is what will happen at all. A dense, high-quality network of cycle routes will see cycling increasingly dominated by those 80% of trips that aren’t commuting.
The kind of trips that are not being cycled at the moment. Children going to school. Parents going shopping. Teenagers going to visit friends. Cycling to the pub. And so on.
Building cycling infrastructure will not mean more of the same kinds of trips by the same people we see now. It will broaden out cycling beyond the narrow commuter-centric demographic that currently exists.
I strongly suspect it will also change the way cycling looks. To take just one example, people taking their children to school, then going off to meet friends, or to go shopping, are much less likely to faff around with cycle-specific clothing and equipment than your typical commuter. While it might make sense for a commuter making a specific trip with somewhere to change and to store cycle-specific equipment, that choice of cycle equipment, and changing in and out of it, is just too much effort for a linked series of short trips interspersed with other activities.
It also means that commuting periods themselves will be more diverse – composed not just of people going to and from work, but also people going to and from school and college, going to after-school activities, going out for an evening, and so on.
Building cycleways along, say, Euston Road in London will not lead to more of the same types of cycling we see now. It will lead to these kinds of cycling demographic shifts – trips by the children who live in the area, by parents, by elderly people, by people cycling to visit friends, and so on. Genuine mass cycling.
Only a small proportion of trips are commutes. We need to examine why all the other trips aren’t appearing, and plan and design to enable them.
I started snapping these photographs about a year ago, mainly inspired by hostility from councillors to the notion of cycling in the town centre. Department for Transport funds, won by West Sussex – which could have made a small difference to the quality of the cycling environment in Horsham – were not put to any good use, and indeed were actually used in a futile attempt to keep cycling out of the town centre.
So the idea of the photo blog is to show that people getting around by bike are, essentially, just ordinary people – citizens of the town like everyone else.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149174641772
While there are what I hesitate to call ‘hardened’ cyclists in the town – the people who (somewhat understandably) dress up in protective equipment, and cycle on main roads without thinking too much about it – I have, for the moment, focused on a broader range of users, essentially to counteract the stereotype that ‘cyclists’ are an odd outgroup, whizzing around, and putting people at risk.
Cycling levels are very low here – cycling to work in the 2011 census was below 3%, and at a guess the overall cycling share will be a fair bit lower than that. But what I see is, essentially, suppressed demand. There is no group of people who are not cycling in Horsham; all groups are represented, particularly the old and the young.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149218118162
‘Cyclists’ here clearly don’t fit any neat stereotype – they are just ‘us’.
But the problem is that they are only present in very small numbers. And the reasons for this are also clear from the photographs. A large proportion of the people on the blog are breaking the law in some form. They are cycling on pavements, or in pedestrianised areas, or the wrong way down one way streets.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149694713292
These are people who are cycling despite the conditions. They aren’t criminals – they’re just people trying to get from A to B in the safest way possible. Their lawbreaking would disappear if the environment was designed to reward their choice of mode of transport, rather than ignoring it altogether.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149672037732
These are also people who aren’t really ‘cyclists’. They are wearing ordinary clothes; they are just using their bike as a tool; they are cycling for transport. Their cycling is just an extension of walking.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149669982702
In that sense, they are remarkably similar to the kinds of people you see cycling in Dutch towns and cities. They just look like pedestrians. The major difference from Dutch cities is instead the types of bike being used. Mountain bikes – really ill-adapted to urban utility cycling – dominate in Horsham, and that means people are carrying their items on handlebars, or in bulky rucksacks.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149125347422
Helmet-wearing – and hi-visibility clothing – is also notably low amongst this form of utility cycling. It’s clearly just too much of a faff for people who are meeting up with friends, or going shopping, or cycling in to town. This is a difference from commuters, who have a fixed routine and are more likely to add clothing and equipment to it.
Unaccompanied teenagers don’t wear helmets, nor do most adults.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/148876089907
The exceptions are young children, especially when accompanied by adults (young children have to do what they are told), and adults when cycling with their children, presumably because they feel they have to set a good example.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149671902222
But in general cycling looks remarkably normal. There are even small clues that the people cycling around town aren’t just cycling around for the fun of it. Cycling is a helpful tool for them, one that makes their daily life a little bit easier.http://horshampeoplecycling.tumblr.com/post/149125271872
Horsham is a relatively compact town, with around 60,000 people within two to three miles of the town centre. It’s flat and temperate, and has a high proportion of children (who of course can’t drive). My personal view is that cycling levels could, and should, be enormously high in the town. The photographs here demonstrate that potential. I see young children, teenagers, women and men of all ages using cycles to get about, despite the obstacles in their way. The environment should be designed to support them, and to reward their behaviour. Doing so would open up cycling to everyone, not confine it to the current minority willing to put up with inconvenience and hostile conditions.
The photograph below is one of a number I took on my last visit to the city of Utrecht. It’s a fairly ordinary Dutch scene – just some everyday cycling in an urban area. But in the foreground we can see quite a telling detail – two children, cycling side by side, chatting to one another. They look utterly relaxed; not worried about anything, talking without a care in the world, despite cycling on one of the busiest streets in Utrecht city centre. They don’t have to worry about motor traffic here; the only concern is really allowing other people to pass them, which is easy on a cycleway of this width.
Side-by-side cycling is, of course, a completely normal activity across the Netherlands.
It happens everywhere – not just on cycleways and cyclepaths, but also on roads.
Every time I have cycled with someone else in the Netherlands, I have been able to spend the entirety of the journey beside them, talking to them.
Side-by-side cycling isn’t a specifically Dutch trait – it’s a natural human instinct to want to be beside someone, looking at them, rather than stuck behind or in front of them, only able to talk by yelling, craning your head around. We don’t walk along, line astern – we walk side-by-side, and of course cycling should be no different. We want to be sociable, and to engage with the people we are travelling with.
The reason side-by-side cycling is so common in the Netherlands, therefore, isn’t the people. It’s that the environment allows it. Either cycleways that are separated from motor traffic, and that allow other people cycling to pass easily, or genuinely low motor traffic streets that are shared, but easily allow drivers to pass people cycling side-by-side, without inconvenience. It’s not hard to understand why people will cycle socially on a street here –
… But not on these streets.
Of course, on genuinely quiet streets, British people will cycle side by side, and we will also start to see side by side cycling on busy streets where good quality cycling infrastructure has been built. All the examples below are on the new Superhighways in London – CS6, CS3, and CS5.
Again, all these people just look relaxed, and happy. The environment allows this kind of cycling.
So perhaps the most important thing about side-by-side cycling, from a campaigning perspective, is that it is a good indicator of a quality cycling environment, be it a cycleway, or a street. If it isn’t happening, on either a main road, or on an allegedly ‘quiet’ street, then there’s almost certainly something wrong with the cycling environment.
A few months ago I attended the Hackney Cycling Conference, and heard a presentation by Robin Lovelace, entitled Cycling and transport policy: embedding active travel in every stage of the planning process.
Unsurprisingly – given the title – there was an interesting section of the talk on how weakly embedded walking and cycling is within the Department for Transport. In particular, Robin focused on the board structure of the Department, showing precisely how small a priority these important modes of transport are within it. He used the equivalent of the chart below, which has of course changed following the cabinet reshuffle.
Out of all the people shown on this chart, just one civil servant – highlighted right at the bottom – has explicit responsibility for walking and cycling.
We can see this more clearly by zooming in on this bottom left section.
Tellingly, ‘Local Transport’ is itself embedded within the ‘Roads, Devolution and Motoring Group’, and even within ‘Local Transport’ walking and cycling comes right at the bottom – not even mentioned explicitly by name, instead bundled up as ‘sustainable accessible travel’. It really is the lowest of the low.
Given this structure, is it any surprise that walking and cycling garner so little attention and such low levels of investment, despite their fundamental importance?
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) June 10, 2016
The priorities of the Department for Transport also emerge from the imagery they use. This stock photo – spotted by @AlternativeDfT – appears frequently on their website.
— The Alternative DfT (@AlternativeDfT) December 14, 2012
Amongst other things, it has been used for road safety announcements –
… and, amazingly, even for an announcement of Local Sustainable Transport Funding.
The junction shown in the photograph is Tower Gateway, right by the Tower of London. It is a particularly revealing choice, because while the photograph shows motor traffic smoothly flowing across the junction, it is a truly dreadful environment for walking and cycling.
To take just one example, let’s imagine we wanted to walk from the left of the photograph, to the right – from the north side of Mansell Street, to the Tower of London. You might imagine you could just cross the road in one go – the green arrow. But as it turns out travelling this short distance actually involves eight separate pedestrian crossings.
This is how pedestrians are expected to cross the road at a junction the Department for Transport has chosen to illustrate its role. Needless to say the cycling environment is, if anything, even worse – a vast expanse of tarmac, shared with HGVs and heavy traffic, somewhere only a small minority of people would even consider cycling in the first place. The east-west superhighway does now run across the top of this junction – with improved pedestrian crossings to the west – but that’s about it. Anyone cycling here has essentially been abandoned.
This isn’t just any junction; it’s a junction in the heart of our capital city, a place teeming with people. It’s somewhere that walking and cycling should be explicitly prioritised. But instead people walking and cycling here are treated with contempt – marginalised, and ignored. And this is the image of transport that the DfT is using.
The priorities that this junction embodies are an exact parallel of the board structure of the organisation. Cycling and walking as an afterthought, if that, the very bottom of the heap when it comes to consideration. And this is how the Department of Transport will continue to function, without institutional change. Still stuck in the past, still focused on prioritising motoring at the expense of sensible, space-efficient ways of making short trips, the kinds of trips that form the bulk of all the trips we make.
Last month I took the opportunity to cycle along the Leeds-Bradford cycle superhighway, kindly escorted by Martin Stanley of Leeds Cycling Campaign. While London’s cycling new infrastructure is hitting the headlines, there are other projects taking place elsewhere in the country, of which this is one of the more high profile (albeit for perhaps not all the right reasons).
Indeed, I did go with very low expectations – I’d seen the pictures being shared on social media and on blogs of what can only be described as very poor infrastructure. And it has to be said that the route between the two cities is not of a high quality, certainly nowhere near as high as the routes being built in London. Perhaps a lower level of quality might be expected given the lower level of expertise and investment, along with some ‘higher order’ problems we’ll come to in this post. But what was particularly frustrating for me wasn’t actually the low quality. It was the inconsistency. Some sections have been built and designed reasonably well. But other sections – dealing with identical problems – have been bodged, and bodged badly, which left me wondering why a more consistent level of quality couldn’t have been achieved.
We’ll come to these issues, and others, in the post, but all the same I did come away from the day cycling to Bradford and back feeling a little positive. This was, perhaps, just because the sun had come out in the afternoon, on what had started as a miserable day. But mainly I think it was because, despite all the flaws of this northern ‘superhighway’, I had managed to travel by bike between the two cities in some comfort, and with a reasonable degree of safety. Roads that I wouldn’t even have considered cycling on for pleasure, and would have struggled to justify cycling on for practical purposes – fast, busy roads – now have somewhere that it feels safe and comfortable to cycle, for the most part, and for all the flaws. That means cycling is a possibility, not just for more confident types like me, but for everyone else.
Despite the route only just having opened – and despite the bad weather earlier in the day – we did see people starting to use the cycling infrastructure. Not in huge numbers, admittedly, but enough to indicate that there is potential to shift and change behaviour, and the way people travel about.
So, the good news is that there is now a long route consisting almost entirely of protected infrastructure, that could open up cycling as a mode of transport for ordinary people.
The bad news, however, is that the quality is patchy, and in places actually quite dangerous. As I’ve mentioned already, the frustrating thing is the inconsistency, in that good design and build quality was interspersed with bad. I’m not sure why this was the case; it might be the inevitable consequence of having to build what amounts to quite a long route from A to B in a short space of time, with a fixed budget, starting essentially from a very low base in terms of experience, knowledge and expertise in building cycling infrastructure – a problem I suspect that is pervasive across Britain, just because there is so little good stuff, and so few people building it. It also seems to stem from what I have heard is a reluctance to impinge on driving in any way along this route, which means that compromises on quality will be inevitable.
The reluctance to give even an inch to cycling from motoring led in many places to quite comical outcomes.
The photograph shows that, alongside a six-lane road for motor traffic, not only will users have to swerve around traffic light posts right in the middle of the cycleway, they will then have to deal with a ‘door zone’ (indicated by the pale surfacing) created by new parking bays installed on the road – parking bays that didn’t exist before, and that, if in use, will actually block in people parking legitimately off the carriageway. In the context of such an enormous road this is very thin gruel indeed, especially when we consider that on the opposite side we have to put up with just a shared use footway.
The bus stop bypasses are definitely one of the more serious problems. Some of them are again just comically bad, absurdly narrow for one-way cycling, let alone two-way cycling.
At one of these stops, I heard a couple of men waiting fora bus grumbling about how ‘they hate cyclists – they’re even on the pavement now’ as we rolled past, and it was easy to understand the source of their annoyance, given that we were almost trundling on their toes, by design.
In most of these cases, the failure to design a proper bus stop bypass, with adequate space for all users, seems to have flowed either from the aforementioned reluctance to take any space from motor traffic, or to spend any money adjusting kerb lines, or both – with, frankly, very silly results.
The surfacing was also frustratingly bad. While very smooth in many places, other sections had a dreadful surface, that looked like it had been shovelled in and patted down – usually next to a beautifully smooth road surface.
Why could some parts be surfaced well, and others not? Did some contractors just not care?
Another problem with inconsistency – and a more dangerous one – is the design of many of the side road treatments, where the cycleway (either in uni-directional, or bi-directional form) crosses side roads. This was where the inconsistency was particularly stark. Some were designed reasonably well, with at least some degree of visual continuity, and the kerbs only stopping at the junction, ensuring that the geometry for drivers is reasonably tight.
But far too many junctions appear to have adopted a design technique that involves simply stopping the kerbs some 20 or 30 metres before the junction, dumping you out onto a cycle lane, which felt horribly exposed.
This is, I suspect, the dead hand of LTN 2/08 informing design, with its recommendation that cyclists should be ‘reintroduced to the main road’ before a junction, passing the junction ‘on the carriageway’. Presumably the intention is to ‘reintegrate’ anyone cycling with motor traffic before the junction, but in reality no ‘reintegration’ or ‘reintroduction’ will take place. You are just left at the side of the road with no engineering or design to slow or modify the behaviour of drivers turning across your path. It’s bad, and dangerous, we simply shouldn’t be building junctions like this in 2016. We need continuity, clear priority, and design that slows drivers, and makes them careful. Not this.
There are other (admittedly less serious) problems with visual continuity at side roads. Treatments that could work well are undermined by markings that still suggest people cycling should yield, when they shouldn’t.
Other mistakes point to a lack of experience in how to design for cycling. One stood out for me, shown in the photograph below.
Here the cycleway (on the right) could merge into the cul-de-sac, a low traffic environment that could very easily form part of the route. Yet instead the designers have opted to continue the cycleway on a tiny, thin stretch of pavement on the right, sandwiched between parked cars and fast motor traffic only a few feet to the right.
Signs telling you where to go are helpful – but not when they are positioned right in the middle of where you actually want to cycle.
Again, this points to a lack of experience in considering the specific needs and requirements of cycling as mode of transport, along with designing a cycleway that bumps up and down for every single residential entrance, leaving a corrugated cycleway!
One final, major problem is the town centre of Stanningley, about halfway along the route. Here there simply isn’t room for cycling infrastructure, so in brute terms the town has a motor traffic problem. There’s too much motor traffic on the high street, especially given the town has a bypass.
This motor traffic problem hasn’t been resolved. Instead the road through the town has been given a nice new gravel-infused tarmac surface (tellingly, the smoothest tarmac of the entire Leeds-Bradford superhighway!).
And the junctions in the town have been replaced with some very superficial hints at ‘shared space’ in roundabout form, a design that offers very little comfort to anyone cycling or walking. We saw an elderly lady hesitantly and very nervously attempting to cross the road here. To my mind a series of zebra crossings on the desire lines at the junction would be much more useful, and more beneficial to cycling too than the current half-hearted markings that are something of a free-for-all.
But really the problem is one of an excess of motor traffic – putting down nice, village-ish markings on what remains a very busy road won’t turn your town into a nice village, nor will it actually help people trying to get about within it on foot, or by bike. That motor traffic needs to be diverted onto the bypass, with access retained for residents and people visiting shops and properties.
More broadly, this fudge hints at some of the underlying problems with creating a high profile ‘route’ between two cities in a short space of time, given the inevitable problems of experience and expertise, combined with constraints imposed by councils unwilling to adversely impact drivers to even the slightest degree.
I came away from my visit to Leeds and Bradford with very mixed feelings. Positively, the route demonstrates that things can happen in other towns and cities across Britain, away from London, which attracts so much attention. Infrastructure can be built that will open up cycling as a mode of transport to people who might never have considered it. And there is at least now something established on the ground along these roads, good in places, bad in others, but something that can be improved upon.
On the negative side, the Leeds-Bradford cycleway demonstrates to me the need for clear, strong leadership in design, investment and implementation, to ensure that money being spent on cycling isn’t wasted on poor (and even dangerous) designs that will inevitably have to be fixed at a later date, as I suspect is true for a good deal of the route. It also demonstrates the need for clear political leadership at a national and local level, leadership that makes the case for modal shift, is willing to make tough choices in favour of it, and to face up to objections.
One of the most commonly heard myths about cycling and the Netherlands is that of ‘flatness’. Namely, that the reason cycling level are so high there – and so dismally low in Britain – is because the Netherlands is a flat country.
There are many reasons why this isn’t a very good explanation. In particular, it can’t account for why flat parts of Britain, areas just as flat as the Netherlands, have next to no cycling. Nor can it account for why hillier parts of the Netherlands have cycling levels far in excess of anywhere in Britain.
Both these problems of explanation point to the fact that ‘hilliness’ and ‘flatness’ are not important factors behind why cycling is so regular, everyday and ordinary in the Netherlands, and so rare and exceptional in many parts of Britain.
What really matters – and what really explains the difference – is the quality of the cycling environment. The Netherlands has a dense cycling network, of nearly universal high quality, that allows everyone to make journeys from to A to B in safety, in comfort, and with ease, almost entirely free of interactions with motor traffic. Most of Great Britain has nothing like this; it therefore has very little cycling.
There is, however, a crucial distinction to make here. In pointing out that ‘hills’ really aren’t the reason that cycling levels differ so wildly between the Netherlands and Britain, I am not arguing that hills make no difference at all. Hills are, of course, hard to cycle up. Cycling up a slope is more onerous than cycling on the flat.
So hills are a barrier, of a sort, to cycling. This is indisputable. They just aren’t a very important barrier, relative to the difference in the quality of the overall cycling environment between the Netherlands and Britain.
And much the same is true for other kinds of barriers to cycling. There are, undeniably, cultural barriers to cycling. Immigrants to the Netherlands cycle less than born there; they will often come from countries where cycling is much less normal, or even possible. It naturally takes time to adapt, to start using an unfamiliar mode of transport. Even so, immigrants to the Netherlands cycle a lot more than people from their countries of origin, and far more than people in Britain. (For instance, the cycling mode share for Moroccan immigrants to the Netherlands is 11%). So, again, it seems that this barrier isn’t particularly important, relative to the quality of the cycling environment.
Curiously, these issues are often approached from completely the wrong perspective, in that barriers to cycling are presented as reasons to do nothing. For instance, I’m sure we’ve all heard the argument that, because it’s too hilly in x town or city, people won’t cycle, and there’s therefore no point building any cycling infrastructure. Or, it’s too wet here. Or too hot. Or too cold. Some other people present different levels of cycling between ethnic groups as an argument against building cycling infrastructure – that because white people cycling more than those of ethnic minorities, cycling infrastructure cannot be that important.
By contrast, to my mind, these kinds of barriers mean we should do more, not less. In hilly areas, for instance, we should make sure that the cycling environment is even better; we should provide every assistance to people who want to cycle. If ‘hilliness’ is a problem, then it should be balanced out by a cycling environment of even higher quality.
Likewise, if there are cultural barriers to cycling, then we should strive for much higher quality cycling infrastructure in areas where these barriers exist. Painted lanes (or nothing at all) will be much less persuasive at encouraging ethnic minorities to cycle than comfortable, safe and attractive cycling environments.
When confronted with issues like underrepresentation of women in politics, or the way in which places at top universities are still disproportionately taken up by people from weather backgrounds, we don’t shrug our shoulders about alleged ‘cultural barriers’, and suggest that these ‘barriers’ are reasons in and of themselves to reduce the amount of action required. We should do everything we can to break down those barriers.
Precisely the same is true of barriers like weather, culture, and hilliness. If we think more cycling is desirable, but there are obstacles to participation, then those obstacles themselves should not be seized upon as reasons for inaction. On the contrary; they should compel us to adopt even higher standards, to make cycling as comfortable, safe and desirable a mode of transport as possible.
At the FreeCycle event in central London on Saturday, there were, of course, large numbers of people wearing helmets and hi-viz tabards – not least because the latter were, as always, being handed out to participants.
But as I cycled around the event during the course of the day, I began to notice a distinct phenomenon. Something dangling from people’s handlebars.
These were people who had set off from home with their cycle helmets, and then, on arriving in an environment which plainly felt very safe, decided those helmets weren’t necessary, and took them off (or perhaps didn’t even bother to don them at all).
Sometimes the helmet didn’t go on the handlebars. Those with practical baskets found a use for them.
Or the helmet was tucked onto a rack.
Even children could be seen cycling around with their helmets visibly discarded.
Including ones who were passengers.
This discarding of ‘safety equipment’ extended to the hi-viz bibs too, which were taken off and wrapped around handlebars…
… or pushed into baskets.
Or maybe not even worn in the first place.
By the end of the day, the amount of neon yellow in the crowds of people cycling around had noticeably diminished (at least, that was my impression).Maybe this shedding of helmets and bibs was, in part, due to Saturday being a reasonably warm summer’s day, the temperature prompting people to discard items that were making them hot.
But more importantly, all these people cycling around in an environment free of interactions with motor traffic felt safe enough to discard the safety equipment they had either been issued with, or brought themselves. They even felt safe enough to let their children do the same.
This is why I think focusing on what people are choosing to wear isn’t really an issue that cycle campaigners should get too exercised about. What they are wearing is a response to their environment. If cycling feels unsafe, then it is not surprising that people will readily adopt items of clothing that make them feel safer, be it protection for their heads, or jackets that they think will make them more conspicuous and ‘visible’ to drivers. A sea of helmets and hi-viz is not a personal failing on the part of people wearing them; it’s a symptom of a failure to provide safe conditions for people to cycle in.
Concern that individuals are making cycling look dangerous through the clothing they’ve chosen to wear is therefore totally misplaced. Don’t blame these people. Blame the conditions they are responding to, quite rationally – those conditions that they encounter on a daily basis, that make them feel that safety equipment is even necessary for what should be the simple activity of riding a bike.
When safe and comfortable conditions are provided – environments free from interactions with traffic danger – then safety equipment will start to naturally melt away. It happened in a few hours on Saturday; it will happen anywhere the same conditions are replicated for everyday journeys.
A consistent theme that you will encounter in campaigning circles – and indeed amongst the wider public – is that British people ‘hate cyclists’, or ‘hate cycling’. The explanation here must be that there is something genetic, something innate in the British character, that flares up at the sight of a bicycle, or someone riding one. That we’re culturally disposed to find a certain mode of transport annoying and irritating, along with its user.
But this is obviously a very superficial explanation. It doesn’t provide any account of the origins of that hatred and annoyance, instead, only asserts that it exists.
The reason people actually hate cyclists is, in fact, because we’re in the way. It’s that simple. Cycling is hated not for what it is, but because it causes inconvenience and hassle.
All the other complaints flow from this central problem. ‘Cycling two abreast’, ‘cycling in the middle of the road’, ‘weaving’, and so on, are all manifestations of this root annoyance at being impeded.
I was reminded of this the other day when I spotted someone expressing annoyance about cyclists in pretty much the same way.
Except, of course, that this person was himself using a bike! He was expressing frustration at being ‘held up’ by other Superhighway users in exactly the same way drivers express annoyance – the ‘casualness’ and the ‘non-helmet’ use are, as with driver complaints, merely a garnish, an attempt to reinforce the notion that people in the way are incompetent or irresponsible, and not ‘proper’ users of a road, or a cycleway, unlike the person being held up.
Nobody likes to be held up, whether they are walking along a footway that’s blocked by a crowd of people, or cycling on a cycleway where other users are getting in your way and not letting you get past, or driving a motor vehicle. It’s an innate, human characteristic.
So at root the problem of ‘cyclist hatred’ is really one of space. The reason it flares up so often, and appears to be so ubiquitous, is because cycling doesn’t have its own dedicated domain, and is consequently constantly rubbing against other incompatible modes of transport, with predictable results. This is equally true for cycling on footways, which is just as potent a source of annoyance as cycling in front of motor vehicles.
Take these people, and transfer them onto a system where they are not in the way of either motorists or pedestrians, and all the grounds for hatred disappear.
Likewise all these people here – cycling on Blackfriars Bridge – are on a separate system to drivers and pedestrians, and consequently all parties are benignly indifferent to each other in a way that would not be possible if they were pushed into the same space.And this kind of separated approach is of course universal in the Netherlands. The Dutch system of ensuring that roads without cycling infrastructure are only used by motorists for access purposes means that – even on these roads where cyclists aren’t physically separated – motorists aren’t held up, because there aren’t many other motorists to cause problems.
It is of course true that these kinds of design approaches also reduce frustration between motorists. In ensuring that these inappropriate residential streets cannot be used as through routes, we prevent rat-running and antagonism between drivers trying to battle their way, often against opposing motor traffic, on narrow streets.
So the solution to hostility between users of different modes – and indeed amongst users of the same mode – is not pleas for tolerance, or attempts to get us to ‘share the road’, or to ‘respect each other’, but one of design. We can’t engineer out basic human frustration. We can engineer streets and roads where that frustration doesn’t even materialise in the first place.
One of the nicest things about cycling along the Embankment (apart from the new cycling infrastructure, of course) is… the greenery.
This is particularly obvious as you approach the Houses of Parliament from the north. As the bend of the river unwinds, the Palace of Westminster gradually reveals itself through a lovely forest of trees as you near Parliament Square. And you really notice the trees as this happens.
I have to say I wasn’t too aware of this on the few occasions I dared to cycle here before this cycling infrastructure had been built. Frankly, I was probably too busy worrying about drivers, and working out where the next potential hazard was going to come from, to properly engage with the scenery. Now, every time I cycle along here, I can relax and fully appreciate the difference these trees make to the urban environment. They are a softening, calming and sheltering presence that add greatly to the beauty of the city.
The Embankment is, unfortunately, something of a rarity for London though. Far too many roads and streets are not this well-endowed with trees, or indeed have no street trees at all. Blackfriars Road is also lovely to cycle on, thanks to a similar combination of cycling infrastructure and greenery.
But you don’t have to look very far in London to find streets and roads that are barren.
They’re usually barren for a reason – most of the street width is being used to accommodate the flow of motor traffic. Trees literally don’t fit, not without some repurposing of street space.
But even roads and streets that have recently been rebuilt are devoid of trees.
This is even true for roads that now have cycling infrastructure. For instance, it looks like a big opportunity has been missed to plant trees as part of the rebuild of Farringdon Street.
By contrast, it strikes me that trees are an integral part of new street layouts and roads in Dutch cities like Utrecht. They are planned for, and it just happens.
Indeed, reviewing my photographs of Utrecht, I’m struck by how universally green the city is. All of my photos have trees in them, without me even noticing at the time.
The city centre is full of trees.
New developments have trees in them.
New street arrangements carefully retain existing trees, and make a feature of them.
Older cycle paths are, of course, accompanied by street trees – you can usually date them by the age of the trees. A few decades old, in the examples below.
And, naturally, cycle paths in the countryside around Utrecht are framed with trees.
There’s a practical, pragmatic reason for much of this effort – trees help to shelter people walking and cycling from the elements, be it wind, or rain, or sun. A dense line of trees really does make a difference if you are battling a crosswind, and it can stop you getting sunburnt, as well as keeping the worst of the rain off you.
But within urban areas this greenery is vitally important for aesthetic reasons, to soften the urban environment, and to make it calmer, more pleasant and attractive. I’m wondering why opportunities to include them in new road layouts in London – and perhaps elsewhere – are still being missed. Is it cost? Is it an unwillingness to allocate street space away from motor traffic, for these purposes? Or is factoring in greenery something that simply doesn’t appear at the design stage?
We seem keen enough on greenery that we’re apparently willing to spend £180m putting trees on a bridge in the middle of the river – so why are we failing to incorporate greenery into new roads and street designs whenever the opportunity presents itself, as well failing to add it to existing roads and streets?
It seems that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust are still pushing their extraordinary petition to block safe cycling infrastructure design on Westminster Bridge, apparently on ‘safety grounds’.
Concern is obviously fine, but the problem here is that GSTT are arguing against bus stop bypasses – even going so far as to threaten legal action – while conspicuously failing to suggest any reasonable alternative design to the one being proposed by Transport for London. And there’s a very good reason for this.
There isn’t any reasonable alternative.
If you don’t build bus stop bypasses – putting the bus stop on an island, with cycling routed between that island and the footway – you are left with two options.
The first is what I would call ‘business as usual’; mixing people cycling with buses and heavy traffic on the road.
This is far from acceptable even for existing users, let alone for the non-cycling demographic that we should be building cycling infrastructure for – children, the elderly, and so on, the kind of people you rarely see cycling in London, because the road conditions, and because of the lack of cycling infrastructure like that being proposed by Transport for London on Westminster Bridge. The people who want to cycle, but can’t, because of conditions like those shown in the photograph above, and who do when infrastructure is provided.
— Lambeth Cyclists (@LambethCyclists) July 1, 2016
Just for clarity, three people have been killed or seriously injured cycling on this eastern section of the bridge since 2006, including a woman in her fifties, who was killed in January 2006.
The other alternative, if we don’t build bus stop bypasses, is simply mixing cycling with walking on the footway. As it happens, this is currently the existing situation on the footway outside Guy’s and St Thomas’.
I don’t think this is acceptable at all; it’s not acceptable for people with visual impairment, or indeed for anyone walking or cycling along here. It’s not good enough. People walking and cycling should be separated from each other, on the grounds of both safety and convenience.
And that’s it. Those are the only two alternatives, if you refuse to build bus stop bypasses. You either expose people cycling to unacceptable levels of danger on the carriageway (while simultaneously limiting cycling as a transport option to the existing narrow demographic willing to cycle in hostile conditions), or you mix them with pedestrians on the footway. There is no magic solution that is waiting to be discovered.
This is why Guy’s and St Thomas’ posturing on this issue is deeply silly. There is no alternative. So instead of trying to block bus stop bypasses altogether, they need to work constructively with Transport for London on ensuring that the design of the bypasses is as safe for all potential users as is possible.
The best of the new cycling infrastructure in London is almost entirely composed of bi-directional cycleways, placed on one side of the road. This includes pretty much the entirety of CS3 and CS6 – the former running from Parliament Square to Tower Hill, the latter from Elephant and Castle to just north of Ludgate Circus.
Bi-directional cycleways are often not the best design solution, but the decision to go with bi-directional cycleways is not an accident. Undoubtedly people at Transport for London have thought long and hard about the best way to implement cycling infrastructure given current UK constraints, and have plumped for two-way as the most sensible approach.
To be clear, bi-directional cycleways do have serious downsides – they can lead to more conflict at side roads as cycles will be coming from unexpected directions, and pedestrians in particular may find them harder to deal with. Head-on collisions with other people cycling are also more likely. On ‘conventional’ streets – one lane of motor traffic in each direction – uni-directional cycleways are clearly preferable, all other things being equal.
However, bi-directional cycleways do also have advantages, and one in particular that has probably swayed the decision-makers in London. It’s touched upon in this excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of bi-directional and uni-directional approaches by Paul James –
Depending on the roadway in question you could have less junctions to deal with, if you have many turnings on one side of the road, running a bi-directional cycleway on the opposite side so as to save on conflicts might be a good idea.
This is clearly the reasoning behind putting a bi-directional cycleway on the ‘river’ side of the Embankment. There are no junctions to deal with, cycling in either direction, so even though people are cycling on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, heading east, that’s a lot safer (and also more convenient) than having to deal with all the side roads that do exist on the non-river side of the road.
But this isn’t the only type of conflict-avoidance that explains why bi-directional cycleways have been chosen in London. Bi-directional cycleways also reduce conflicts at junctions that have to be signalised, by ‘bundling up’ all the cycle flows on one side of the road. This is actually very important, thanks to the limitations of current UK rules, and it’s the subject of this post.
In all the countries in mainland Europe (and also in Canada and the United States) it is an accepted principle that motor traffic turning right (the equivalent of our left) with a green signal should yield to pedestrians (and people cycling) progressing ahead, also with a green signal. Here’s a typical example in Paris; the driver is turning off the main road, with a green signal, but pedestrians also have a green signal to cross at the same time. The driver should yield (and is).
This approach actually makes junctions very straightforward, and efficient. A complete cycle of the traffic lights at a conventional crossroads requires only two stages to handle all the movements of people walking, cycling and driving. In the first, walking, cycling and driving all proceed north-south (with all ‘turning’ movements yielding to ‘straight on’ movements), and in the second, the same, but in the east-west direction.
Compare that with a typical UK junction, which will have three stages (if it takes account of pedestrians at all) and ignores cycling altogether, lumping it in with motor traffic. First, motor traffic (with cycling included in it) going north-south; then, motor traffic heading east-west; then pedestrians finally get a go on the third stage, with all other movements held.
This arrangement obviously doesn’t allow any turning conflicts (apart, of course, from motor vehicles crossing each other’s paths) – pedestrians don’t get to cross the road until all motor traffic is stopped, with an additional third stage. (This is, effectively, a ‘simultaneous green’ for pedestrians, although we are rarely generous to give pedestrians enough signal time to cross the junction on the diagonal).
And this gives us a clue to the problem when it comes to adding in cycling, when these kinds of turning conflicts aren’t allowed. You either have to add in stages where motor traffic is prevented from turning, or you have to stop pedestrians from crossing the road while cyclists are moving. Both of these approaches would add in a large amount of signal time, and would make for inefficient junctions.
One possible answer is including cycling in the ‘simultaneous green’ stage, but with sensible design – cycles moving from all arms of the junction at the same time as pedestrians have their green, and pedestrians crossing cycleways on zebra crossings. For whatever reason (from what I hear, DfT resistance) this kind of junction is still not appearing in the UK, forcing highway engineers to improvise within the constraints of the current rules. As Transport for London have done.
If we are trying to build uni-directional cycleways, those UK rules effectively mean we either have to ban turns for motor traffic, or we have to employ very large junctions indeed, to handle signalising different movements. Take the Cambridge Heath junction on Superhighway 2, which has to use three queuing lanes for motor traffic in each direction. One for the left turns (which have to be held while cyclists and motor traffic progress ahead), one for straight ahead, and one for right turns (which have to be separate from straight ahead movements, otherwise the junction will clog up).
That’s an awful lot of space when you add in the cycling infrastructure – space not many junctions in urban areas will have.
In an ideal world – and with sensible priority rules – these junctions could just be shrunk down to two queuing lanes in each direction. A left turning lane combined with a straight ahead lane, and a right turn lane. All these lanes would run at the same time as cycle traffic progressing ahead (as well as pedestrians), with the left turners yielding.
Unsurprisingly this is – of course – how the Dutch arrange this kind of junction.
This is much more compact than the kind of ‘Cambridge Heath’-style junction that we are forced to employ in Britain.
But, given that we unfortunately can’t do this, and that we rarely have the kind of space available that there is on Superhighway 2, bi-directional cycleways are the most obvious answer. As I hinted at in the introduction, this is why they’ve been used by Transport for London – they’re not stupid!
Let’s take one of the junctions on the North-South superhighway, at Ludgate Circus. Space here is much more limited than on CS2 – we can’t add in multiple turning lanes – so that means, given the constraints of UK rules, a bi-directional cycleway is the most sensible option.
Only two queuing lanes for motor traffic are required, in each direction, making this arrangement much more compact. It helps, of course, that a bi-directional cycleway is more space-efficient than two uni-directional ones, but the main win here is the fact that all the potential conflicts are ‘bundled’ on one side of the road. That means motor traffic flowing south doesn’t have turning conflicts on the inside.
Clearly, as I’ve outlined early on in this post, bi-directional cycleways will, more often than not, be less desirable than uni-directional ones, in urban areas. But they are currently – thanks to UK rules – probably the best way of building inclusive cycling infrastructure when space is genuinely limited, as they are the simplest way of side-stepping around British priority rules. (An additional benefit is that they will typically only involve converting, at most, a single lane of motor traffic, which helps when it comes to persuading reluctant local authorities worried about retaining capacity for drivers.)
Perhaps the way forward is to continue building bi-directional cycleways, but keeping in mind the possibility of adapting bi-directional designs into uni-directional ones, if and when UK rules become more flexible, or if and when ‘simultaneous green’ arrangements start to appear.
Namely, the claim that Mayor Boris Johnson exacerbated the problem of congestion in London
by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% on key routes through the introduction of cycle superhighways [my emphasis]
Elsewhere in the report [p.26] this claim is even wilder –
… by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% through the introduction of cycle superhighways
I’m not even going to bother with that one, because it’s so plainly ludicrous (at best only 3% of roads in central London have protected cycleways) and because it is most likely the result of a mistaken omission of ‘on key routes’.
But even the former claim is mysterious. Given that there are effectively just a handful of new superhighways in central London – CS5, CS6, CS3 and parts of CS2, how on earth has a figure of ‘reducing road capacity in central London on key routes by 25%’ been arrived at?
Charitably, we might interpret the claim as being a reduction in capacity on some key routes in central London by 25%. (This is an explanation some of those who have disseminated the statistic are desperately falling back on). But if that was the claim that was being made, why isn’t the word ‘some’ actually included, anywhere in the report where this claim is repeatedly made?
Further, in the context of the passage, the implication is quite clear – road capacity has been reduced on key routes by (allegedly) 25% overall, enough to justify comment. To put this another way, if road capacity had been reduced on just a handful of main roads, why on earth would that merit comment in a passage about London-wide congestion? This attempt at an explanation is incoherent.
We then come to the problem of ‘key routes’ themselves. Funnily enough TfL were careful to avoid ‘key routes’ for buses as much as possible when they build the E-W and N-S Superhighways, as you can see from this map of key bus routes, spotted by Jono Kenyon.
These high-profile interventions barely co-exist with these key bus routes, using routes where there is relatively little (or no) TfL bus activity. If there has been a reduction of 25% on ‘key routes’ it isn’t the ones buses are using. The Embankment, which has seen a reduction in the number of motor traffic lanes (a very different thing from capacity) from 4 to 3 (a potential source for a ‘25%’ claim) is very much not a key route for buses.
So where did this dubious statistic even come from in the first place? The answer (thanks to some digging by Carlton Reid and Peter Walker) appears to be from a Transport for London presentation made by Helen Cansick to the London Travel Watch board, on May the 12th last year.
… the 25 percent statistic is not as robust as it was portrayed in the bus report. For a start, it’s not from a written source. Professor Begg told BikeBiz:
“The statistic comes from Transport for London. Helen Canswick of TfL network management gave a presentation to London TravelWatch at which she was asked what the reduction traffic capacity would be as a result of roads modernisation. She told members they had modelled a reduction of network capacity in the central area of 25 percent.”
Extraordinarily Begg himself confirms here that “the statistic” is actually about reduction in capacity due to the road modernisation programme – a programme that encompasses improvements for cycling, but also public realm schemes and improvements for walking and public transport – and, err, road schemes.
This much is plain when we look at the minutes of the meeting during which the Canswick presentation was made.
The Policy Officer asked what the total reduction in road capacity would be under the modernisation plan. Ms Cansick said that following completion in December 2016 there would be a reduction of road capacity for motor vehicles of 25% within the inner ring road.
Exactly the same statistic that Begg says he used (albeit erroneously). Who might this Policy Officer be?
— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) June 13, 2016
Vincent Stops is of course a London TravelWatch policy officer, one who was present at that meeting, and clearly the person who passed the ‘25%’ statistic on to Professor Begg.
The only remaining question is at what point a figure about 25% reduction due to TfL’s overall road modernisation programme became converted into a 25% reduction due specifically to cycling infrastructure, as the claim appeared in Begg’s report.
If by any chance you’ve missed it, do please read Paul Gannon’s forensic analysis of a report produced by David Begg for Greener Journeys, entitled ‘The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers’. I don’t really need to add much to what Paul has written; he has done a great job wading through the detail of a report that has some fairly odd things to say about cycling.
However, there is a curious case of repetition that bears further scrutiny. This paragraph appears on page 30 in the Begg report –
What is less well-known is how relatively affluent cyclists in London are compared with bus passengers. Transport for London describes the London cyclist as “typically white, under 40, male with medium to high household income”. A report by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Transport & Health Group in 2011 describes cycling in London as disproportionately an activity of white, affluent men.
It’s a passage that corresponds closely to this one in a Dave Hill piece from October last year –
A study by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) published in 2011, explores why in London “cycling is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men” or, as Transport for London (TfL), has put it, why the London cyclist is “typically white, under 40, male, with medium to high household income.”
Exactly the same two sources on class, gender and ethnicity and, more tellingly, exactly the same two quoted passages, from those two sources. These are essentially two identical paragraphs, barring some shuffling and switching of words.
Coincidence? That seems extraordinarily unlikely, given a) the wealth of material out there on class and ethnicity, b) the age and relative obscurity of both of these sources, and c) the small chance of these two identical quotes being plucked from them. The blindingly obvious explanation is that exactly the same person has supplied exactly the same two sources to these two different parties, who have both parroted it uncritically.
This wouldn’t matter if the evidence being cited was convincing. However, (and sadly for both Hill and Begg) it isn’t.
As Paul points out, these sources are being used by Begg to present ‘cyclists’ as a more influential lobby than bus users by virtue of their class and wealth; to argue that they have more ‘power’ than bus users and are hence able to twist the urban transport agenda to their advantage more effectively than bus lobbyists. The section on cycling affluence in the Begg report follows closely after this assertion –
The more affluent and generally well-educated the traveller, the more vocal and powerful a lobby they form to be able to effect change that is advantageous to their choice of mode.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they appear to be being fed exactly the same information, this is also a line of argument used by Hill.
@joelcacooney Middle class professionals dominate London cycling demographic. That's why they are listened to & bus users are ignored.
— DaveHill (@DaveHill) June 7, 2016
And this fairly explicit agenda was ‘recycled’ in an extraordinary TransportXtra piece that extends the class-based argument to Britain as a whole.
Unfortunately – at least as far as London is concerned – this ‘argument of power’ is far from persuasive. Even if we accept that the cycling demographic in the capital is ‘dominated’ by influential middle class professionals, the number of people cycling in London is still tiny relative to those taking the bus (a point that bus lobbyists are of course more than happy to point out). Around ten times more journeys are made by bus every day in London, compared to the number that are cycled. This means that the number of middle class professionals taking the bus in London will far outweigh the number of middle class professionals who cycle, given that ‘bus passengers are not primarily those on lower incomes, but are representative of the profile of Londoners.‘
What we are left with, then, is the deeply implausible assertion that the ‘influentialness’ of a middle class professional transport lobby flows not from its actual size but from the extent to which it ‘dominates’ its mode of transport. By this logic, if a town has just 100 cyclists (70 of whom are middle class professionals), and 1000 bus users (500 of whom are middle class professionals), its ‘cycle lobby’ will be more influential than its ‘bus lobby’. Make of that what you will.
We might also point out that ‘the London bus lobby’ isn’t simply composed of bus users; it’s also composed of large and relatively powerful bus companies – companies like Stagecoach (2015 revenue, £3.2bn; operating profit, £225m), Abellio (a subsidiary of the Dutch national railways group) and Arriva (a subsidiary of the German national railways group). By comparison, the London cycling lobby has… well, membership organisations like the London Cycling Campaign, and individual campaigners and bloggers. If this motley lot are more influential than bus companies, then I’m a Dutchman.
As for the evidence itself used to make the claims for the influential, well, they are unconvincing. As Paul observes in his piece, the statistic ‘only 1.5% of those living in households earning under £15,000 cycled compared with 2.2% of those living in households earning over £35,000’ doesn’t even appear in this study – it appears in another study (this one) that is merely referenced by the first LSTHM study. Paul points out how this statistic has been presented omitting the detail that, in households with an income of £15,000-£35,000, the cyclist percentage is virtually identical to that in households earning over £35,000 – 2.1%, compared to 2.2%. Even if we take these kinds of differences seriously, they really are negligible in the context of overall cycling share – see how these statistics look when they are presented as below.
Remember, it is actually being argued here that almost imperceptible differences between income groups at very low overall levels of cycling somehow makes the cycling lobby influential.
Cycling is not ‘disproportionately’ an activity of the affluent. Unfortunately, nor is it ‘disproportionately’ an activity of ‘whites’. More recent TfL research – from last year, not from 2011 – found that ‘cycling levels among BAME Londoners and white Londoners are very similar’ and that ‘there is also very little difference between white and BAME Londoners in frequency of cycling’.
The evidence that cycling is ‘disproportionately’ the activity of allegedly more influential members of society is weak or absent, and even if were present, the theory of ‘cycling influence’ fails to explain how an allegedly powerful cycle lobby is so influential despite being so relatively tiny compared to the numbers of similarly influential people taking the bus.
So here’s the thing. If bus groups want to lobby for more bus priority, they should do exactly that. They should lobby for bus lanes at the expense of private motor traffic, not at the expense of cycling. Crucially, they should be arguing for these bus lanes alongside cycleways, rather than instead of them. If you are concerned about the flow of buses, bus lanes full of people cycling are not efficient, and if you are not providing cycleways, that is where the people cycling will be. They won’t disappear into thin air; they will be in your bus lanes, holding up your buses.
So I’d like to see a bus lobby that is arguing for the right things – a coherent, fast system of bus priority at the expense of private motor traffic, rather than at the expense of cycling. I don’t want to see a bus lobby that is relying on dubious sources to launch a misguided and counterproductive class war against other modes of transport.