At War With The Motorist

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The UK government has declared that they are "ending The War On The Motorist". These are our correspondents' dispatches from the front lines of their policies.
Updated: 4 hours 37 min ago

Gloucester’s crap cycle facility and the ambition for active travel

22 February, 2021 - 12:42

Gloucestershire lost out on funding in the latest round of DfT active travel grants. Instead of wasting everyone’s time appealing the decision, they should reflect on why.

So the Department for Transport (DfT) have been delivering on their promise to withdraw funding from any council-led active travel projects that don’t meet minimum design standards. Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) are reportedly appealing against one such decision. But the DfT were absolutely right to turn Glos down, and GCC should instead try to learn why. Let’s have a go at that together — there might be something we can all learn from their experience.

The inadequate facility

The proposal in question is for a cycleway along the route of the B4063 between the edge of Gloucester and the outskirts of Cheltenham (Google Map). It’s the old main road between the towns — many decades ago bypassed with a fast dual carriageway, but, as is the British way, always retained as a through route itself.

The plans (PDF) are a mix of cycle tracks — narrower than the design standards require — and shared use pavements, some of them as narrow as 2.0 metres, others with bus shelters in them. There are a few half-hearted attempts at priority crossings of side-roads and property accesses, perhaps an amateurish attempt to fool the DfT into thinking Glos have taken on board the modern design standards, but which instead stand out for their fundamental failure to understand the geometry of cycleways, as they attempt to bend the kerb-hugging cycle track around the vast splays of the side roads. Of course the DfT’s feedback described this as “inadequate”. The DfT’s claim to be turning down councils who waste funds on crap facilities would have zero credibility if they’d given money to this rubbish.

The way to fix this is screaming out from GCC’s own annotations on their designs. They say things like “existing layby to remain”. They mark multiple turning lanes for stacking motor vehicles at signal-controlled junctions. They retain bus stop laybys — deciding that allocating the limited available space to motorists so they can easily overtake buses is a higher priority than allocating it to designing the cycleway well. In a stretch where they deemed there was sadly not enough space to separate cycling and walking, providing only a 3.0m shared pavement, they mark on the adjacent carriageway 3.32 metre wide central hatching!

As the DfT feedback says: the space is there, the council just need to show the political will to reallocate it from motor capacity — on a road, remember, that has already been bypassed by a high capacity parallel route.

Are there any critical fails?

Extensive use of shared use paths in inappropriate areas, poor and indirect provision at junctions. Could seek to maximise pedestrian and cycling space through carriageway narrowing etc. …

Designs as shown are heavily motor centric and could provide higher quality cycle and pedestrian infrastructure in line with LTN 1/20,(e.g. indirect crossings, no side road priority and so on).  Optional aspirations marked on the drawings provide suitable interventions, however the design approach presented could have shown greater ambition to address carriageway space and motor capacity/dominance.

The DfT are saying: be bold. Forget motor capacity, that’s what the bypass is for. Design a fantastic cycling and walking route, and then see what you can fit in for motoring around that. Can’t fit in a proper 3.5 metre cycleway with separate 2 metre footway and fit in 2 motor traffic lanes? Then don’t fit in 2 motor traffic lanes. Have a single lane pinch point with one direction of traffic giving way. Put in a bus gate to remove through private motor traffic if you have to. There’s no shortage of ways you can make this road great for cycling and walking, you just need to accept that the cycleway is a higher priority than the central hatching on a road — I don’t think I can say this enough times — that is already bypassed by a high capacity parallel route.

Sympathy for the councils

It’s hard not to feel just a little bit of sympathy for GCC. For decades they’ve been told to design rubbish, and suddenly they’re being chastised for it. They’ve got a highways department conditioned to expect cash for any old crap, and suddenly they’ve been told they’ve actually got to work for it. The reality of the situation must be terrifying — no wonder they’re in denial. If the DfT really are going to keep up seriously enforcing the new standards, it’s going to be quite the rude awakening for those councils who have found active and sustainable transport funding an easy target for something they can use to keep their highways departments busy, or covertly channel into motor-centric schemes.

You can also perhaps feel a little sympathy for a council that has designed something that, until the introduction of LTN 1/20 just six months ago, was largely what the government’s own design guidance was telling them to do. The designs GCC submitted are classic LTN 1/08 stuff.

Most of all though, I felt genuine sympathy for GCC when I read in the news coverage that the designs were largely drawn up for them by Highways England — an agency of the Department for Transport.

In 2013, Highways England committed to “cycleproofing” the interfaces between their network of motorways/trunk roads and the local road network, and said some genuinely encouraging things about what they do to overcome the severance caused by their roads and junctions. Alas, the sense I get is that policy effectively died long ago. (It’s a fate that awaits many policies: the people who championed it move on in their careers, those who are left to implement it aren’t enthusiastic enough, empowered enough, or qualified enough to make it live up the original vision or to then push it through to its next phase, and so it withers.) The B4063, it seems, is Highways England’s solution to cycleproofing the A40 — that high capacity route which bypasses the B4063 — and its junction with the M5.

From GCC’s perspective, they’ve submitted the DfT’s designs to the DfT for funding and the DfT have come back and said they’re not good enough.

How much initiative would you like us to use?

In their feedback in the designs, the DfT make it clear that GCC should be bold and use their initiative:

B4063 could potentially be more than a local distributor road as the A40 provides a bypass to this corridor and access toward the city centre via roads with more overall highway width available for corridor improvements; there are clear opportunities for network level interventions to help progress more ambitious schemes on the local road network

They’re saying what I said above: if they need to find more room to do the cycle track properly, GCC should take away central hatching, turn lanes and laybys. They should make traffic wait behind the buses at stops if necessary. They should put in single lane pinch points. If it comes to it, filter out through private motor traffic. If there’s too much traffic, enable modal shift and send any remaining excess elsewhere.

The problem is that GCC are at the same time being told not to do that. Mid way along the route is a large industrial estate, which continues to grow. The B4063 therefore has to be a distributor road — it’s the only available route for HGV traffic to service that industrial estate. The council are obliged to accommodate HGV access.

It’s hardly surprising that GCC’s highways department are rather attached to all the turning and stacking lanes at junctions along this road. They’ve spent five decades incrementally producing these motor capacity “improvements”, one by one, as and when developer contributions from housing and industrial estate expansion allow, as central government guidance has advised them to do. As central government still advises them to do. It must be exasperating to be told to fix these mistakes by the same government department that had told you — is telling you — to make them in the first place.

Ideally, perhaps, the industrial estate wouldn’t be where it is. It would be alongside the A40, or the A417, so HGVs could hop straight onto a main road without having to wind through villages on a road shared with cyclists and local buses. But it’s not, and in the past decade central government have been further eroding what little power local councils and local people have to determine where developments like these happen in their areas.

Perhaps, when the DfT say GCC should be ambitious and seek “network level interventions”, they are inviting GCC to bid to the Active Travel Fund for funding to build a whole new HGV access road direct from the industrial estate to the A40 that will enable through traffic to be removed from the B4063?

So I have some sympathy for councils, even the ones who still haven’t got it on active travel. GCC should go back and revise their B4063 plans, they can do much, much better. But they are given all of the responsibility for delivering on a central government vision and none of the power. They must juggle the demands of multiple, contradictory instructions and policies from different branches of central government — even from other teams within the same department.

On balance, at this stage in the Active Travel Fund it’s a good thing that the DfT are micro-managing the bids to prevent the money being wasted. But if this is ever to scale up to something that really delivers for active travel, central government need to fix their own policies that push councils to keep preserving and reinforcing motor dominance, and then empower the local authorities who are expected to do the work.

Categories: Views

Defund road safety awareness campaigns

8 February, 2021 - 18:20

Everyone on twitter is* dunking on embarrassingly bad road safety awareness campaign tweets. But we should abolish all social media-based road safety awareness campaigns — including the ones which target genuine causes of danger on the roads.

Kent County Council’s Road Safety Campaigns Team are the latest in a long line of road safety twitter campaigns queuing up to get ratioed

Cyclists, if you are using your bicycle for essential journeys, please remember to still wear appropriate clothing, footwear and a helmet, we need to reduce the strain on the NHS as much as possible.

— Kent Road Safety (@Kentroadsafety) November 10, 2020

Twitter now has a whole army ready to dunk on road safety awareness campaigns that are so incompetently designed they don’t even understand the road safety problem that they’re supposed to be addressing — that people get injured on the roads not because they aren’t visible, but because drivers don’t look properly, don’t pay attention, or don’t give a shit. They show up a lot on my feed when, in reply, they cite my own road safety campaign for greater visibility on the roads.

It’s especially cathartic to dunk on the one that uses photos so old that they obviously lack the dynamic range of human eyesight and look totally unlike how we actually see the world.

I don’t understand why this photograph that looks like it was taken in France in the 1960s has suddently been cropping up on social media here. Seems to have something to do with UK police forces. @AndyCoxDCS care to comment?

— David Arditti (@VoleOSpeed) November 10, 2020

But sometimes something unusual happens, and a road safety awareness campaign puts out a tweet that gets some commendation:

Actually a good message here from the Sussex road safety campaign (unlike that abomination from the Kent equivalent)

— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) November 10, 2020

The thing is, all road safety awareness campaigns on twitter are bad and should be stopped.

Introductory Communications 1.01

Every governmental, academic, charity or advocacy organisation has at least one director whose understanding of digital communication strategy is “you can just put a tweet out about this thing that I care about.” And they all have a communications team who will then have to try to explain the basics of comms when they say ‘no’ to wasting everyone’s time with a tweet that they know will flop. Or, if that looks like too much effort on this occasion, they will sigh to themselves as they put out a tweet that they know will flop.

Communications strategy 1.01 is: know your audience. Who do you need to reach in order to achieve your organisational goals? Where will you reach them? What do you need them to do? What will motivate them to do what you need them to do? What will they need from you in order to do it?

A road safety awareness campaign needs to reach people who are not aware of how to use roads safely. And it will not reach those people with an organic social media profile. Organic social media is people choosing to follow topics that are of interest to them. It works for engaging people who are already warm to what you have to say. If your goal is preaching to the converted — and using that to motivate them to do something — then organic social media is great. But nobody who needs to change the way that they behave on the road is following a road safety awareness campaign on social media.

Look at who is following those Kent Road Safety and Sussex Safer Roads accounts. It’s just a bunch of other road safety professionals and campaigners, plus a load of active travel campaigners who enjoy dunking on bad road safety tweets. Nobody who actually needs to hear their message will ever even know they exist.

Take the message to the audience

To make road safety awareness a little bit less of a total waste of money, you’d need to use suitable media for actually reaching the target audience.

The quickest way to do that might be to replace organic social with paid social adverts, for example. You can be very targeted with them these days. Pay for these messages to appear to everybody who has shown an interest in high-powered German cars or gaudy wankpanzers. Have them appear to young men who join “car meet” groups on Facebook. Target them at anyone who follows Jeremy Clarkson or has ever posted a message about speed cameras.

Maybe one of these campaigns already is and I just never see the messages because I’m not any of those things.

Understand the problem

Let’s take a step back though. Before jumping into designing an awareness campaign, and certainly before jumping to the conclusion that a social media profile is the solution, an organisation really needs to understand the problem it is actually trying to solve.

Most road safety awareness campaigns follow a very simplistic information deficit model: people are doing the wrong thing because there is a piece of information they lack. All we need to do is give them the missing piece of information and they will behave differently.

Maybe there are a few rare cases where that is partly true — particularly when it comes to driving around cyclists, equestrians, and other people that a motorist who isn’t also those things has difficulty identifying with. Many motorists still fail to understand why a cyclist would be leaving a buffer between parked cars or debris-filled gutters instead of hugging the edge of the street (though of course, even in the cases where it is true, lack of information is not sufficient to explain why a motorist would be motivated to drive psychopathically dangerously in such a situation).

But in most of the scenarios, road safety awareness campaigns are trying to correct a deficit that surely doesn’t exist. Do motorists really not know that they shouldn’t be looking at their mobile phones while driving? Do they really not know that they shouldn’t be breaking the speed limit? That rain and ice and fog merit adjustments to one’s driving? That seat belts are compulsory and you shouldn’t park on a zebra crossing? Or do they know all these things, but also know that enforcement is so overstretched these days that they will probably get away with it?

I mean, having seen what British drivers manage to do on the roads, I can easily believe that many are really as dim witted as the information deficit model of road safety awareness portrays them. But the evidence of these Safer Roads Partnership social media accounts itself surely points to other explanations.

Browse through the content of these profiles and you’ll find them full of reports from police stops and accident aftermaths. There are the cars which have been seized for multiple offences from uninsured drivers with previously revoked licenses — people who are well aware how to drive safely, but know the odds are good they can get away with doing what they like instead. There are the motorists who crash in the rain while doing 90 on the motorway, who weren’t lacking awareness of road safety information, only the self awareness to accurately judge their own ability.

And there are the people who run out of petrol while driving, who it’s tempting to dismiss as genuine idiots who lacked the awareness that drivers are responsible for keeping their vehicles fueled. But they are maybe better understood as a demonstration of the fact that all people are inherently flawed and they do things that are unimaginably stupid because life is complicated and amidst it all sometimes you overlook something obvious. Operating a vehicle in traffic is complex and difficult; mistakes are inevitable when we build a world where people who aren’t very good at such things have no choice but to keep doing it.

What motivates change

When you understand the problems, you can start to think about what might be the relevant motivations of your target audience. And who, of all the people who need to hear road safety messages, is going to be motivated by any of them?

Will the upper middle class straight white man with no self-awareness of his own dismal driving abilities, but all the confidence of his privilege and a sense that he is somehow the victim of political correctness and interfering jobsworths, be motivated by a hectoring slogan from a local council? Will the young person from the car meets, deeply socialised into a sub-culture that fetishises the very behaviours that a road safety campaign is trying to counter, be motivated by a branded twitpic from a Road Safety Partnership? Will the sort of person who drives without a license, without insurance, with frosted windscreens, bald tires and unsecured loads, have an epiphany when a police tweet informs them that actually such things are against the law? Will the average, normal person be motivated in the slightest by an official tweet telling them not to do the things that they see all of their peers doing and getting away with every minute of every day? Will road safety awareness do anything to motivate a change in those people’s behaviour?

I started writing this post to argue that we should defund social media-based road safety campaigns. But you know what? Defund all road safety awareness campaigns. Spend the money on interventions that work.

*I started writing this in November and then got distracted before I could post it, in case you’re confused by the now incongruous use of the present tense…

Categories: Views

Beware ministers bearing targets

5 February, 2021 - 16:49

The Transport Secretary says the government “want half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030.” But targets are useless if you don’t have a plan to make them happen.

In 1996 — 25 years ago this July — a tired Conservative government, wounded from a broad backlash against its road building programme and fearing a rejuvenated Labour party promising progressive transport policies, launched the National Cycling Strategy (NCS). It set a target for mode share: 10% of journeys in the UK would be cycled by 2012.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about this policy was that it didn’t need the government to do anything.

I recall transport journalist Christian Wolmar demanding Sir George Young, the secretary of state for transport, to tell us where the money was.

Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development.

The NCS ran for the best part of a decade, giving us a load of advance stop lines and little bits of “cycle facility” that looked like conceptual art installations. But, adrift from the rest of transport policy and national and local planning, with little in the way of action, money or plan to back it up, it made absolutely no discernable impact on modal share — in fact, Britons were making fewer journeys by bike in 2012 than in 1996.

The NCS is just one of many pledges, “ambitions”, “visions” and targets that have been made by nearly every government, devolved administration and major party over the past quarter of a century, each declaring that they would like to see X% mode share for cycling by Y date. Councils pick up these numbers and write the same empty promises into their Local Transport Plans. And as the date slowly creeps close enough to start feeling real, while zero progress has been made, the target is quietly forgotten — or, if campaigners are persistent enough, history is rewritten so that the target was never a literal target, but a representation of our aspiration.

Like setting climate emissions targets to keep atmospheric warming below a set level, we set a 10 year target, procrastinate for 10 years, discover that the problem is now even worse than it was, and we need to set a correspondingly bigger 10 year target.

Visions are important… and dangerous

And so to Grant Shapps, who some readers will be surprised to learn, while others will be surprised when they remember (though none more so than he is himself) is the Secretary of State for Transport. Reports that he has confirmed the government have a “vision for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030″ got top billing in the active travel sphere this week, and a few people even got excited about it.

Much of the response has been that a vision is great, but it’s pointless without the action and money to back it up. And they’re right. Visions are great, they get everyone on the same page, and enable them to design and plan the right policies to deliver it. And they’re right, a vision alone is a waste of everyone’s time if you just wish for it without working for it.

But visions and targets can also be dangerous, when they create the illusion that the situation is under control. Consider this example from 2017, in which Sustrans commissioned a study into air pollution so that they could press release the results and use them to raise awareness. Here’s how it was reported:

Death from air pollution would be cut if UK hits walking and cycling targets

If the UK hits government targets for walking and cycling more than 13,000 lives and almost £10bn would be saved over the next decade, according to a new report.

The UK isn’t hitting government targets for walking and cycling, of course, it is failing again and again to hit targets for walking and cycling. But that’s not what a casual reader hears from this story. To the casual reader it looks like air pollution is a problem, but the government has the problem in hand. They have targets. They must be doing something about it, and this story says that good things will result from the government’s target. Good on the government! If Sustrans’s intention was to increase political pressure on the government to deliver by raising public awareness of the problem, this is surely a flop.

Beware of visions and targets. A vision without a plan for a delivery is just a fantasy. But if you let it, it can delay and diffuse pressure until the clock ticks down and it’s time to reset the target.

You can’t plan the mode share of one mode anyway

The other big failure of targets for cycling and/or walking mode share, even when they are backed up with some kind of plan or policy or funding, is that you can’t plan the mode share of individual modes in isolation. Mode share is by definition a proportion of all journeys, it is dependent on the forces acting on all the available modes, a tangled web of economic, cultural, social and personal pressures. Ministers love to say that they want more cycling and walking, but they’ll start getting nervous when asked to actually engage with what that statement inevitably means. “I don’t want to give the impression that somehow cars are bad,” Shapps was quick to add to his vision for walking and cycling.

Changing mode share means engaging with what trips people are currently making and identifying which ones you think are currently not walked or cycled, but should be. The Tory line on this is that their vision can be achieved simply by encouraging walking and cycling, just by making those options more attractive — that there is no need to look at the broader transport system. But they don’t want to look into that assumption in case it turns out not to be true.

If you started looking at what is actually generating trips, motivating modal choice, and considering transport policy as a whole, you might discover that the government’s own policies are pushing against cycling. They might discover that their cut-back, laissez-faire planning system is further exacerbating the decline of town centres in favour of ring-road business park sprawl. They might discover that their infrastructure funding for pump-priming new house building is creating more car-dependent neighbourhoods. They might discover that they are spending £27 billion to encourage more driving. They might discover that they are permanently severing cycleable journeys with other new build transport infrastructure for the sake of saving a few thousand pounds on a multi-billion megaproject.

That’s not to say that the carrot is in any way not the right thing to do. The carrot is essential, we need it desperately and we need lots of it. But there are only so many journeys that it will enable to be walked or cycled. You can not say it’s a vision for increasing mode share when at the same time all your other policies and actions are also going to increase the number of journeys that will inevitably be driven, erecting new barriers to active travel and encouraging trip generators to move beyond reach of walking and cycling. Transport policy can not consist of a series of siloed visions for individual modes and some Treasury-friendly discrete projects.

Support the people at the coal face

The NCS failed because it was expected that a national policy would be delivered by local authorities, but those authorities weren’t given the support that such a task needed.

Half of them simply weren’t on board with the policy, and there was little oversight to ensure that they seriously engaged with it. At best, they made token gestures, and at worst, they misappropriated what little funding there was into old-fashioned motor capacity schemes with a veneer of cyclewash. There are signs that the current government might have learned this much from experience, and is expecting councils to meet standards, under threat of losing funding.

But even those councils who claimed to be on board with the aims of the NCS completely failed to deliver. They were naive about just how big the task was, and how radically things needed to change. They lacked technical expertise, design guidance and best practice examples. There wasn’t nearly enough money available to make any kind of meaningful impact. And every system, rule and process they had to operate under, from consultations to funding analysis, was stacked against delivering the government’s professed policy. Some of those have been fixed. Many of them haven’t.

We now have several councils and metro mayors who genuinely and dearly want to deliver on a vision of more of the journeys in their towns and cities being made by walking and cycling. But if they’re going to succeed in delivering on a central government vision, they’ll need central government to smooth the path for them. Councils are the ones getting the flak from opponents, the motoring lobby, and knee-jerk reactions. Councils are the ones getting their time and money wasted with legal reviews over technicalities. 

Not only does this vision need the plan, the legal framework, and technical guidance and the money to back it up, it needs central government to stand up for it, and to stand up for the councils delivering it — including by tackling those misunderstandings, misconceptions, and outright lies propagated by their own party’s councillors and activists.

How many journeys are even cycled and walked in towns and cities now?

So I went off on this rant, and then it occurred to me: I don’t know exactly what the current modal share for walking and cycling in towns and cities is these days, so I don’t actually know how ambitious a target of half of all journeys even is. But I knew the National Travel Survey would have the answer, so fired up the spreadsheets

It’s 30%.

(Caveats: NTS is a survey of a sample, the data is far from perfect, especially once you start slicing it up, but it’s the best we’ve got, and good enough for a rough idea.)

So we’re talking about shifting 1 in every 5 of the trips that are currently not made by walking and cycling. Another way of looking at these big numbers is what that would mean for a typical individual, assuming this modal shift falls equally across the population.

In the NTS’s sample of residents of “urban conurbations”, the average for each person was 254 walking trips and 14 cycling trips per year. They also made 486 trips per person as a driver or passenger of private motorised modes; and 141 on public transport.

So, assuming we’re not expecting each person to make 359 entirely new trips a year that will be walked or cycled, and we’re not simply eliminating 359 trips altogether from those that are currently not walked or cycles, we’re talking about the typical person switching 179 trips per year from other modes.

If those trips all come from cars, that’s more than 1 in 3 car trips. (If they all come from public transport, we’ve completely wiped out public transport.) If they all go walking, we’d be increasing walking by 70%. If they all go cycling, we’d have nearly 14 times as much cycling as we do now.

None of this has told us anything new, and yet thinking about the big numbers in this way helps to bring home the fact that a vision of 50% of urban journeys being made by walking and cycling within just 9 years, when currently only 30% are, needs to be backed up with a pretty damn radical plan to implement it, some serious changes to other government policies which currently work against it, and some pretty serious money. It needs diggers in the ground fast, and capacity building to ramp up construction. It needs politicians who are capable of being clear with councils, Highways England, house builders, and other delivery partners about the scale of what is required of them, and capable of being honest with the public about the need for a third of their car trips to change, of selling the benefits to them and bringing them along during the inevitable disruptive transition that will come with making this change in just 9 years.

I swear, if after this they announce that the vision will be achieved with bikeability training, workplace travel plans, and another tiny pot of funding that councils can fight for…

The amnesia cycle

Transport is one of the unglamorous government portfolios that rarely gets ministers with any genuine interest or expertise, and over the past decade, austerity has left the department barely capable of functioning at all, so it’s best not to expect too much. But we’ll no doubt be back here again soon enough. Ministers come and go fast, but the problems stay the same, so each one will discover anew that walking and cycling is the solution, each one will set a 10 year target, each one will discover the same cheap and politically easy policies, and each one will find out for themselves that actually modal shift is more difficult than that.

Unless we find some way to break the amnesia cycle and say that a vision is not enough.

Categories: Views