The trouble with our physical environment

A device that offers mobility to people who have great difficulty walking, that is limited to a maximum speed of 8mph, and poses little or no danger (at least relative to other forms of transport like the private car) should never be framed as a problem. Yet somehow the BBC contrived to do so on Wednesday night, with a programme entitled The Trouble with Mobility Scooters.

The tone was set from the very beginning, as a terminally ill lady with chronic lung disease, who could not walk for more than a few paces, slowly reverses her mobility scooter out of the garden, the presenter asks ‘do I need to be worried?’

Throughout the programme the visuals, music and editing strove to create an impression of uncontrolled, reckless or ‘lawless’ behaviour on the part of scooter users. Statistic-free statements like ‘few mobility scooter users give way to pedestrians’ (really?), or that ‘pedestrians on pavements are a common victim of scooter users’ (well, how common?) were a repeated feature of the programme.

Indeed, this was just one of many parallels with the way the media often frames debates about cycling – in this case, presenting a form of transport that in truth poses very little objective danger to other people as some kind of terrible risk that needs to be legislated against. While cycling faces continual debates about ‘road tax’, licensing, and number plates – absurd over-legislation in the face of the actual danger posed, and the benefits accruing from cycling – so the agenda of this programme was clearly one of increased regulation and training,

The other striking parallel – an unsurprising one, given that both mobility scooters and cycling are minority modes of transport, that are not catered for properly on our roads and streets – was in the way mobility scooters are seen as a problem, wherever they are.

They are a problem on the pavements. They are a problem on the road. As one of the people interviewed suggested, mobility scooters are ‘technically alien, whichever environment they are in, because they are not motor vehicles, and they are not pedestrians.’

Sound familiar?

And just as the British ‘solution’ to the problems posed by ‘cyclists’ as a group typically involves MOAR TRAINING in an attempt to get us to behave, so the BBC programme would have us believe that the ‘problem’ of mobility scooters can be solved with – yes – training.

At no point in the programme was it suggested, or even hinted at, that the physical environment of our roads and streets could be adjusted, to minimise conflict between pedestrians and scooter users, and between motor traffic and scooter users. The obvious answer to the ‘alien’ issue – that mobility scooters aren’t at home on pavements or the road – is to give mobility scooters their own space, one that could be shared with cycling (fancy that – two problems solved for the price of one). But despite the issue being framed so plainly (if accidentally), the programme didn’t stop to consider it.

The problem, as with cycling, lay with the users and their behaviour, not with the physical environment, or with the danger posed by motor traffic itself.

Witness the patronising ‘red light’ test, as a trainer says ‘well done!’ to a man stopping for a red light in a test centre, which had me wincing with recognition. The absurdity of this kind of test – given that mobility scooters aren’t really a vehicle, and can use the crossing themselves – didn’t appear to occur to the trainers. Screen Shot 2014-06-19 at 15.05.56

The police officer is then filmed stating that ‘I wouldn’t say that they [mobility scooters] are lethal weapons, but they can cause serious injuries.’

But how many? There are 330,000 users in Britain – at what rate are they injuring people? The programme didn’t supply any answers, merely content to create a vague impression of a ‘problem’, stripped of context, without even the merest hint of a comparison between the genuine danger posed by motor traffic in our towns and cities, and these small, slow vehicles.

Later there was the pitiful sight of an 84-year-old man effectively being admonished for wishing to have some independent mobility, despite his failing eyesight. The idea of making our streets safe for people like this was not considered by this programme, which viewed this man as a danger, showing him ‘jumping’ a red light. Nor did it consider the consequences of denying him the use of a mobility scooter – the prospect of being housebound.

A strong presence in the programme was a campaigner for a compulsory test for mobility scooter users. Her son had been knocked down by a mobility scooter user. Intriguingly, just as (apparently) everyone seems to have been ‘nearly knocked down’ by a cyclist on the pavement, so this campaigner claimed that nearly everyone she knows ‘knows someone who has been hit by a scooter’. Ah, precious anecdote.

This isn’t to deny that collisions can, and do, happen, and can be serious, but the single-minded focus on training, at the expense of any context about the actual statistical danger being posed by scooters, or even more importantly the adjustment of the physical environment so that scooters and pedestrians aren’t forced to share the same absurdly narrow pavements, struck me as completely absurd. In describing the incident in which her son was hit, the campaigner argued that the person on the mobility scooter ‘shouldn’t have been on the pavement’ on a one-way road, which of course hints at the real underlying problem – but the programme failed to address it, or indeed even to recognise it.

The campaigner also argued that scooters travelling at 4mph in a pedestrian precinct were ‘too fast’, apparently because ‘we don’t walk at 4mph’. I suppose that’s a claim that technically can be made, but the difference between this speed and a fast walking speed is so marginal a sensible programme would have asked her what speed she believed to be acceptable, or indeed raised why scooters are limited to 4mph in pedestrian environments in the first place. This programme didn’t.

The problems with our physical environment were even presented to the programme makers on a plate as they followed a mother with multiple sclerosis. It was painfully obvious – to me at least – that her problems with getting about on her scooter were principally due to the awfulness of the physical environment, not due to any lack of training, but again the programme chose to focus entirely on the latter.

Most tellingly of all, a moment when she struggles to bump her scooter down off of a high kerb at a typically hostile British side road -

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is framed by the programme as some kind of demonstration of her incompetence, a dashcam filming her wobbling about, out of control.

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The programme makers evidently have no idea that junctions need not be designed like this – that they could be easy to traverse for people with mobility problems. Instead they choose to segue into a piece about this mother realising she needs to… get some training!

‘She’s not the smoothest of drivers’, the narrator tells us, ‘so she’s signed up for a course.’

On the matter of whether or not mobility scooter users should be insured, the programme is content with the unchallenged opinion of… the managing director of a mobility scooter insurance company! Clearly someone in a position to offer impartial, considered advice, he tells us that ‘this form of insurance should be made compulsory. The public need protection. And certainly the users of scooters need protection.’

Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? Unfortunately this is all the programme has to say on the matter, a farcical treatment of the issue.

Solemn music then ensues as the programme talks about the risk users face on the roads. Just as with the failure to appreciate that the problems scooter users face (and cause) on pavements are almost entirely a symptom of our crap streets, rather than a result of bad user behaviour, so, again, the programme makers skip deftly away from the real issues, choosing instead to focus on training. This reaches a peak of absurdity as, following a voiceover about the number of deaths of mobility scooter users, over a montage, including this lingering image

Clearly a lack of mobility scooter training to blame here

Clearly a lack of mobility scooter training to blame here

… we go straight back to our compulsory proficiency test campaigner, who uses the deaths of these people to argue her case, which is more than slightly distasteful, given that there is no analysis of how these deaths happened, or whether compulsory training would have made any difference at all.

She has, however, received a response from the Secretary of State for Transport to her petition for scooter users to be given compulsory testing, which she reads out -

We have no immediate plans to make [testing] mandatory, because we lack comprehensive evidence that the use of a mobility scooter vehicle as a whole is a major public safety concern.

This is the only evidence-based piece of discussion in the entire programme.

The campaigner is infuriated that the Department for Transport, rather than using her anecdotes and small petition as a basis for policy, have chosen instead to rely on actual evidence – but the silliness of her position is, again, unchallenged. Her concerns are presented as well-founded and serious, with silence, followed by solemn music.

A programme like this could have been a genuine opportunity to assess the problems of mobility in Britain for those who can’t drive a motor vehicle, or who choose not to. But instead we were served up dross, a patronising programme that ignored the serious issue of how a poor physical environment needlessly creates conflict, causing huge problems for a vast swathe of the population who are forced to choose between crap pavements and highly dangerous roads. Rather, it chose to ridicule some of its subjects, adding ‘wacky’ music to their attempts to get about safely, while striving, transparently, to present them as some kind of serious problem.

The parallels with attitudes to cycling were unsurprising, given the similarities between these two modes of transport – ‘problematic’ only by virtue of the fact that they have been neglected and ignored.

Posted in Absurd transport solutions, Road safety, The media | 24 Comments

Perspectives on Poynton

The Poynton ‘shared space’ scheme has attracted a large amount of attention, both in the UK, and abroad – attention driven principally by this seductive video, produced by Martin Cassini, an advocate of the removal, or reduction, of priority seen in Poynton.

With the best will in the world, it is hardly likely to be an objective presentation of the scheme, especially given that the councillors and designers responsible feature so heavily in the video. The only sceptics who feature are locals, who having initially voiced concerns then admit they were wrong.

The only ‘neutral’ assessment of the scheme that I am aware of is this rather good piece by Urban Movement’s Oli Davey, who raises concerns and issues, as well as outlining the benefits. So I couldn’t stop myself from taking a brief diversion to Poynton on a trip recently, to see for myself what the new scheme looks and feels like.

Now, like Oli, I had never been to Poynton before, so I can only really guess as to how much of genuine improvement the scheme represents. But I have to say that while I had many of my expectations confirmed, I was pleasantly surprised in other respects – about which more below. The scheme does seem to work quite well for drivers and pedestrians, although (as we shall see) it completely ignores cycling as a serious mode of transport.

The biggest (unresolved) problem - and one which is perhaps unfair to tie together with the redesign, since no redesign can deal with this problem – is the extraordinary volume of motor traffic passing through the town. It is still a very busy and noisy place, regardless of any benefits that might flow from the new arrangement. 26,000 vehicles a day pass through the main junction in Poynton (the one that has been changed). This is hardly a civilised environment, regardless of the way the junction is arranged.

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The visualisations of Poynton (and to a certain extent the video produced by Martin Cassini) seem, to me at least, to wish away this motor traffic.

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These are very busy roads, and there is certainly none of the ‘mingling’ in the carriageway by pedestrians that might be expected with the employment of the term ‘shared space’. In particular, while I wasn’t able to make counts, the proportion of traffic composed of HGVs seemed quite large.

Vehicles queuing on the approach to the centre of the town

Vehicles queuing on the approach to the centre of the town

While I am not able to make a comparison between the current situation, and the ‘before’ Poynton, there is still considerable congestion here. It may be slightly better, it may be slightly worse, I don’t know, but there were long queues on the arms of the junction, even in the middle of the afternoon.

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It’s a slightly different form of queuing, in that, rather than being completely stationary, followed by bursts of movement, the traffic is just trundling along very slowly, at less than walking pace.

This does have benefits (which we’ll come to), but from a cycling perspective, this trundling, combined with the road layout, is just one of the ways in which the scheme is pretty awful. There’s nowhere to go, and you are left stuck, standing, in the fumes of the queuing traffic. This is particularly frustrating in the context of the wide footways that have been created.

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Cycling as an inclusive mode of transport really hasn’t been considered at all in this scheme. The narrow carriageways block your progress on the approaches, and they are really quite intimidating on the exits, as you are forced to adopt a strong ‘primary position’ in the middle of the narrow lanes, to prevent overtakes. It’s not really for the faint-hearted, at all, especially given the nature and volume of the traffic. It was actually a relief for me to get back onto the ‘conventional’ and unadjusted tarmac road, where I could at least move over and let traffic past.

DSCN9924 Indeed, it was particularly telling to observe how distinctly the people cycling here fall into two types. Those using the road were, without exception, wearing helmets and lycra, and were almost all male.

DSCN9837 DSCN9852 DSCN9856 DSCN9936Meanwhile, those cycling like pedestrians on the pavement looked like… pedestrians.

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This kind of division is precisely the kind you would expect to see when you fail to design for cycling in its own right. People will fall into one or other of the available options – cycling like a motor vehicle (hardly an attractive option for all), or cycling like a pedestrian (not attractive for those who want to make progress, or indeed for pedestrians). Indeed, Poynton is almost a classic example of the poverty of the ‘dual provision’ approach. Both forms of provision are unacceptable.

To that extent, whatever the overall benefits of Poynton, it is worrying to see it being lauded from a cycling perspective. Indeed, it features in several places in Sustrans’ new ‘Handbook for Cycling Friendly Design’, which is quite troubling. Cycling has been completely ignored here, and any benefits are marginal and incidental. This is simply not what anyone interested in better cycling provision should be aiming for; this should be obvious from the types of cycling that have been produced by the scheme.

While the roundabouts (or ’roundabouts’) themselves seem to work well, with motor traffic slowly merging and moving smoothly on and off of them, the very reason they seem to work unfortunately acts to make them quite hostile from a cycling perspective. The lack of delineation and priority means drivers are not quite sure what’s going on, and slow right down – but that same lack of clarity also means that it is a bit of a free-for-all.

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In the picture below I am making a right turn on the roundabout, while the driver of the Mini overtakes me through the roundabout. Unsettling.

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On such a large expanse of paving, there really isn’t any way to control driver behaviour when you are cycling (taking a ‘strong position’ is meaningless). While nobody is driving especially fast, it is quite intimidating, and certainly not an attractive environment.

Another slightly irritating feature are the raised ‘pimples’ that mark out the ’roundabout’.

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Fine to drive over if you are in a car, but not very good if you are on a bike, especially one with small wheels, or thinner tyres; one of these nearly caused me to come off my Brompton.

Another issue is the disintegration of parts of the carriageway (something else which gave my Brompton an almightily jolt). While the main roadways seem to be holding up acceptably, the paved areas that mark out the informal crossing points are crumbling under the weight (literally) of motor traffic -

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And the areas around the drains also seem to be suffering, in particular.

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Given that the scheme cost £4 million, I think questions have to be asked about whether corners have been cut on quality, and if not, whether spending that amount of money on this kind of road surface, when it carries such a high volume of motor traffic, is wise.

Coupled with this damage, there is of course the issue of roadworks and utilities. A large area of the scheme was being dug up when I visited. DSCN9876
This raises the question of how well the surfacing can be ‘made good’ after these roadworks, and how much extra expense is involved in doing so.

That said – despite all these negatives – I did find some surprising positives about Poynton. Two in particular stand out.

The first, and most important, is that the previous signalised junction, with two queuing lanes for vehicles on each arm, has been replaced with a new junction with just one vehicle lane on each approach. The amount of space required by vehicles on each harm has been halved, with no (alleged!) increase in congestion or delay.

DSCN9916The lesson that can be drawn is that if you manage your junctions properly – for instance, as at Poynton, replacing signal control with roundabouts – there is no need to have such a huge amount of space allocated to queuing vehicles. That space can be reallocated. In Poynton it has been given over to pedestrians, but I see no reason why in other locations it couldn’t be reallocated to cycling as well. If a junction that handles 26,000 vehicles a day can cope with just one queuing lane on each arm, this is an approach that can surely be tried elsewhere.

The other important positive I took from Poynton is the importance of physical design in influencing driver behaviour. Poynton suggests to me, clearly, that British drivers are not idiots, or exceptionally dangerous, or more badly behaved than continental drivers. While I think it fails almost entirely from a cycling perspective, Poynton illustrates how the design of the environment can be used to make people behave in ways you want them to. The informal crossing points illustrate this well. Some examples below.

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I have to say, I really didn’t think these would work. I didn’t think drivers would stop or give way; that they were just too ‘informal’. But they were working. Not just, I think, because of the way they look like an extension of the pavement across the road (this is an important detail to get right) but because the road has been designed in such a way that drivers lose nothing at all by giving way. They are already travelling very slowly, so it makes little difference to them whether they give way to pedestrians, or not. (Exhibition Road suffers badly in this respect because it still resembles a road, with no crossing points, and with nothing to slow drivers down.)

This is a lesson that can surely be transferred to cycling infrastructure in Britain. Our drivers are not badly behaved; we just have a road environment that encourages bad behaviour. If – as with Dutch roundabout and junction design – drivers are forced to travel slowly, and to think about the kinds of crossing movements they should be expecting, then they will behave just as well as their Dutch counterparts.

DSCN0149Poynton demonstrates this, with the way in which the drivers treat crossing pedestrians – the design of a scheme matters. Design for the behaviour you want, and people will respond to it, even if you think they are stereotypical British drivers who just won’t behave.

Given that Poynton is about to get a relief road, one that will (or should) remove the huge volume of motor traffic travelling through it, conditions there look set to change dramatically. Conditions would certainly be more cycle-friendly, if traffic volumes fall to those corresponding to access-only driving (although I would question how cycle-friendly the Poynton design is, even at low traffic levels).

It’s certainly an interesting experiment – albeit an expensive one – from which positive lessons can be drawn, despite the negatives I have attempted to describe here.

Posted in Uncategorized | 154 Comments

‘Critical mass’

Over the last few years it has seemed (to me at least) that the notion of a ‘critical mass’ of riders being a key plank of cycling policy has lost its credibility. The idea of ‘safety coming from numbers’ has, quite correctly, been replaced by a more mature understanding that numbers should – and indeed have to – come from safety, and from feelings of safety.

To that extent I was quite baffled by the comments that the Labour Transport Secretary Mary Creagh came out with at the meeting yesterday in the House of Lords, to launch Bike Week.

It was a speech that could have been written five years ago, with claims that the debate about segregation is still ongoing, and an argument that cycling infrastructure can’t accommodate demand for cycling, so we shouldn’t have it. She pointed specifically to the cycle tracks along Tavistock Place as being oversubscribed, and unable to cope with the numbers of people cycling on it, as a reason why cycle tracks are bad.

To me, this missed the point spectacularly. The demand for these tracks – widely acknowledged as substandard, ever since their compromised construction – demonstrates that the principle of separation from traffic is popular.

Popular, despite the low quality

Popular, despite the low quality

That’s not an argument for removing cycle tracks and simply mixing people with motor traffic. It’s an argument for either improving the standards of poor cycle tracks so they can cope with demand, or for separating cycling from motor traffic in other ways – through measures such as filtered permeability, both of which are potential solutions for this route through Camden.

But instead, Mary Creagh appeared to think that cycling infrastructure in principle isn’t capable of coping with the ‘critical mass’ of riders on London’s roads. Where 20mph limits exist, she argued, separation isn’t required. That ‘critical mass’ of riders is sufficient.

Firstly, this begs the question of how she imagines Dutch cities – which have cycling levels ten times higher than London, a genuine ‘critical mass’ – manage to function. Do they simply mix people with motor traffic? Absolutely not. On main roads they separate, employing the measures that Mary Creagh seems to think can’t cope with demand.

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Secondly, the very notion of a ‘critical mass’ on London’s roads is deeply questionable. I suspect it is easy for MPs to convince themselves such a thing exists when they have been on a large group ride, with a police escort, through central London at rush hour. It feels as if there are lots of people cycling, and indeed this is genuinely true for many roads in central London, at rush hour.

But this phenomenon is very localised, both temporally and spatially. Spatially, it is limited to central London. There is no critical mass, at all, in vast swathes of London. Cycling is essentially non-existent in many boroughs. And just as importantly, the ‘critical mass’ is limited to a short period of the day. Outside of rush hour, cycling returns to being non-existent in central London.

Just after we had finished listening to Mary Creagh, @lofidelityjim and I pedalled from the Houses of Parliament to Kings Cross. I didn’t keep an exact count, but it’s safe to say we saw no more than a dozen people cycling on this four mile trip.

DSCN0715DSCN0718DSCN0721DSCN0725Where is the ‘critical mass’ of riders in these photographs?

I then had to head off to Farringdon area, visiting Old Street along the way. Again, cycling is non-existent here in the middle of the day, on routes that are informally famed for the high levels of cycling on them at peak times.

DSCN0731DSCN0740DSCN0743A ‘critical mass’ isn’t an effective way of making cycling more attractive, when its existence is very shaky indeed.

But much more importantly, it’s not even an acceptable way of ‘catering’ for cycling in its own right. When I look at large numbers of people cycling amongst trucks and buses, weaving their way through, or fighting for space, I don’t think to myself that that is a reasonable way forward for cycling. Quite the opposite – I’m horrified that we are essentially forcing people to cycle in this way; refusing to give them safe conditions that prioritise them as a distinct mode of transport, in their own right. This is what happens when you pour lots of people cycling onto busy roads. [Video by CycleGaz].

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Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 11.22.46Espousing ‘critical mass’ as a way forward for cycling is, in truth, an abdication of responsibility. It says nothing at all about how you get a ‘critical mass’, and nothing at all about how that mass should be catered for, if it arrives.

Whether you have significant numbers of people cycling already, or none at all, it simply won’t do to employ it as a concept, in place of strategic thinking about the quality of the cycling environment. It’s high time it was put out of its misery.

Posted in 20 mph limits, critical mass, Subjective safety | 27 Comments

Fears about ‘kamikaze’ motorists put Cambridge road scheme on hold

News just in.

A road scheme in Cambridge, which would involve giving motorists ‘priority’ along a road, has been put on hold due to concerns about the behaviour of a minority of motorists.

Plans for a new Cambridge road scheme involving ‘junctions’  have been put on hold amid fears about safety and “kamikaze” motorists.

Members of the county council’s economy and environment committee had been due to sign off on the £1.8 million project for Hills Road and Huntingdon Road today but instead deferred their decision, calling for revised plans to be put before them in July.

They voted to defer by a margin of nine five despite a warning from officers that the Government money had to be spent by May and that there was a “risk” a delay could torpedo the whole scheme.

Several councillors’ concerns focused on the roads and the junctions, which would allow motorists to continue pass unimpeded, but would force pedestrians to cross the road.

The proposals were criticised by disability groups, who described them as an “accident waiting to happen”.

Councillors were unmoved by the suggestion of raising the ‘driving lane’ through the junctions and making it narrower, which would have slowed drivers and made it easier to cross.

Cllr John Williams, who represents Fulbourn, said: “I can’t tell you how often I see motorists disobeying red lights and not stopping at pedestrians crossings and pelican crossings.

“I don’t have any confidence motorists will give way to pedestrians moving across the junction because of what I see going on in this city with motorists. Unless we make pedestrians the priority at these junctions, I have serious concerns there will be an accident.”

The junction designs were backed by about 60 per cent of respondents in a consultation which received nearly 1,700 responses, but more residents of the streets concerned were opposed than in favour.

Cllr David Jenkins, who represents Histon, told the meeting: “I’m concerned about motorists’ behaviour. It’s only a small minority, but it’s a significant small minority of ‘kamikaze’ motorists in the city and they are intolerant of other road users, and there has to be some way of policing them. Simply allowing them to have priority means less confident pedestrians will be stranded as these motorists go past.”

Other councillors spoke in favour of the project, including Castle’s Cllr John Hipkin, who argued pedestrians could make sense of the junction.

He said: “No traffic scheme can entirely discount common sense and every traffic scheme relies on common sense to make it work. I think this is a project which, on balance, I support. I full support some of the misgiving of my residents but on balance I shall support it.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 13 Comments

Transferring responsibility

A building in town is being renovated. There is scaffolding around the exterior, and around that is some wooden boarding, protecting the public from the building work inside.

There’s an entrance door to the site; it has a warning to the public on it – BEWARE OF DOOR OPENING.

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But interestingly, on the other side of the door, the inside, there is no warning to the builders, cautioning them to beware of the public that might be on the other side of the door, when they open it.

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So the warning sign here is directed at the innocent members of the public who might get hit by someone swinging a door open. Conversely, there is no warning not to do harm for the people swinging the door open in the first place.

The passive party, not posing any risk, are being told to watch out; the active, causal party, with the potential to do harm, receive no such warning.

This is, of course, deeply familiar stuff for anyone who pays close attention to the way ‘road safety’ in Britain typically works. The people at risk – pedestrians, people on bikes – are told to ‘look out’, to make themselves visible, to get out of the way, to ‘stay back’, while the warnings for the people actually posing the danger are negligible or non-existent.

Against this background of transferred responsibility, ‘balanced’ road safety messages start to seem reasonable – what could be wrong with asking both parties to be responsible? – until you actually dig down into the detail.

What do I mean by ‘balanced’? Well, this kind of thing -

That’s the Commissioner of Transport for London there, suggesting that ‘road sharing’ relies upon people on foot, or on bikes, looking out for lorry drivers (drivers, note, not lorries).

In a similar vein, Kent Police seem to think that road safety is merely a matter of ‘playing your part’, regardless of the risk you pose.

California Police chose to launch ‘Bike Safety Week’ by suggesting that people on bikes had ‘the same responsibilities’ as motorists -

South Yorkshire Police chose to opt for a message of ‘mutual respect’, while Sussex Police – like Peter Hendy – evidently feel that the ‘look out for each other’ angle was the most appropriate. Preposterously, the news story for ‘looking out for each other’ is illustrated with this photograph.

Screen Shot 2014-05-26 at 22.14.42That’s a man cycling on a slip road on a 70mph dual carriageway, ‘looking out’ for the man behind the wheel of the lorry bearing down on him.

All these messages amount to the same thing, memorably described by David Arditti -

The message is that “There are two sides to every story”, and its up to lorry drivers and cyclists equally to take responsibility for preventing crashes by understanding one another’s needs and behaving with appropriate caution. It implies everyone’s equally to blame when things go wrong, and the solution is shared understanding.

This completely false ‘balance’ amounts to a sloughing off of responsibility, a shifting of blame to parties who cannot possibly ‘look out’ for motorists, in the sense of preventing harm. And I suspect the ‘look out for’ message is spreading precisely because it is conveniently ambiguous.

Namely – ‘look out for’ means both ‘take care of’ as well as ‘watch out!’ (If I were to yell ‘look out for the lorry’, it’s probably quite obvious I’m not asking you to take care of it).

When Peter Hendy or Sussex Police urge cyclists to ‘look out for’ motorists, they are not urging a duty of care for motorists by those who happen to be cycling (because that would be silly) – in fact, they are simply stating that those who are cycling should ‘watch out’.

So while ‘drivers and cyclists looking out for each other’ sounds all lovely and harmonious, it actually conveys two very different messages with the same words, while simultaneously presenting an impression of ‘balance’ that resonates with the general public as one of equal responsibility.

It’s a horribly slippery concept.

Posted in Uncategorized | 21 Comments

The unanswerable case for pedestrian helmets

From the Bristol Post -

Hanham mum: My son’s pedestrian helmet saved his life after crash

WEARING a pedestrian helmet was a choice that saved one 12-year-old boy’s life.

Charlie Baggot was walking to Hanham High School when he was hit by a car. He fell into the road and was left with a broken nose, as well as serious bruising and grazing to his face, arms and legs. But had he not been wearing a pedestrian helmet he may not have survived.

Paramedics, and a policeman who rushed to the scene, all told the Year 7 pupil that wearing his helmet – which bears a dent where Charlie’s head could have hit the road – had saved his life.

After the accident, which happened in Creswicke Avenue in Hanham on Friday, May 9, keen pedestrian Charlie was taken to school in the car by his mum because he was struggling to walk. It was then they both noticed how many children – and adults – were walking about without pedestrian helmets. His shocked mum Tracy, 40, has now begun a campaign to encourage all pedestrians to wear helmets.

She wants people to see her son’s injuries and to understand how much worse they could have been.

“After what happened to Charlie I was left completely shocked when we noticed how many pedestrians were walking without helmets,” she said.

“I can’t believe that some parents don’t enforce this with their kids – for Charlie it was always no helmet, no shoes.”

Charlie was crossing the road on foot when he says a car came around a corner very quickly, knocking him to the ground.

He rang his mum but as she couldn’t reach him, he managed to get to school, where an ambulance was called. It was after he was taken to hospital for stitches that paramedics and a policeman broke the news that he may not have survived if he hadn’t been wearing his pedestrian helmet.

He said: “Since my accident my friends have realised how important their helmets are. One of my friends who never wore one has had it on every morning.”

His mum’s campaign has already got the backing of his head teacher at Hanham High School, Phil Bevan, who told the Bristol Post: “The incident highlights the need for safety to be a top priority. It is absolutely vital that every student should wear a pedestrian helmet – the fact that Charlie was wearing his means that it might just have saved his life.

“I would compel every parent to make their children wear a pedestrian helmet when walking.”

And who could possibly argue with that, if it saves just one life?

Posted in Uncategorized | 47 Comments

The connection between walkability and high cycle use

Figures for cycling in Bruges are a little hard to come by, but from this Fietsberaad document [pdf], cycling in the city seems to form between 15-20% of all trips.

It’s certainly the most ‘Dutch’ place I’ve visited outside of the Netherlands, in terms of the amount of cycling, and the types of people riding bikes – broadly, a representative cross-section of the population at large.DSCN0327 DSCN0297It’s also a very walkable city. It feels safe and comfortable, and easy to get about on foot.

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I think this connection between walkability and high cycling levels is more general. I found Strasbourg to be a very pleasant city to walk around – this is a city that has some of the highest levels of cycle use in France.

DSCN0067And of course Dutch towns and cities – with their high cycling levels – are almost always a joy to walk around, compared to their UK equivalents.

DSC_0373I don’t necessarily think there’s any causal connection here, but certainly there are reasons why having a high cycling modal share makes it easier to walk around cities.

Principally, it means that fewer trips are being made by car, which has several obvious advantages for those walking. It’s just easier to cross the road when there are fewer cars and more bikes. Bikes are far smaller, they travel more slowly, and the person on them has an interest in avoiding you.

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A street with a high volume of people cycling. If these people were travelling by car, the street would be practically impossible to cross without traffic controls

Similarly, with high levels of cycling use, and low levels of motor vehicle use, the need for traffic control at junctions becomes unnecessary. That means no push buttons to cross roads, or multiple staggered crossings. Junctions are easy to walk across. The level of signalisation in Dutch towns and cities is far, far lower than in Britain, even in places with high levels of ‘traffic’.

Screen Shot 2014-05-20 at 12.40.53Less directly, towns and cities with high levels of cycling are safer for pedestrians (there are simply fewer motor vehicles which have the potential to harm you), and they are also more attractive, and quieter.

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We need to move beyond the notion that cycling is something antagonistic to walking – something ‘extra’ that needs to be accommodated in the streetscape alongside walking and driving – and realise that it is a crucial way of improving the experience of walking itself.

Posted in Car dependence, Infrastructure, Strasbourg, Subjective safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands, Walking | 17 Comments

Crumbs

At the Leeds Cycle City Expo, the keynote speech was given by Robert Goodwill, the Under Secretary of State for Transport, with special responsibility for cycling.

It was full of pleasant soundbites and encouraging noises, but when he had to depart from his script – printed out on A4 pieces of paper that he was reading from – the detail was worryingly absent.

Goodwill seemed keen to boast about the record ‘£270 million’ the current government had spent on cycling – a figure that was questioned immediately by people on the stage next to him. But even if we take this figure at face value, it pales into insignificance compared to the sums being announced for road upbuilding and upgrading – tens of billions. It’s even dwarfed by the extra sums of money being employed to promote electric cars – the mode of transport nobody seems to want to buy.

How far does ‘£270 million’ – about £50 million a year – go towards actually addressing the significant barriers to the uptake of cycling in Britain a year? Even assuming, that is, that it is spent wisely – a very generous assumption, with hundreds of thousands of pounds currently being spent on schemes of dubious benefit.

By way of example, here is an issue in the town where I live, Horsham.

Screen Shot 2014-05-09 at 17.19.50The railway line, in purple, cuts the town in half. I’ve marked five - the only five – crossing points between the east and west side of the town.

Let’s take a look at these in turn. Number 1 is a level crossing.

DSCN9718This is Parsonage Road, which has some truly dreadful cycle lanes that definitely should not exist.

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Yes, that’s a cycle lane

There isn’t actually a shortage of space here, but sorting this road out will require serious investment, to adjust the kerb lines and put in cycle tracks. It’s entirely unsuitable for mass cycling as it stands.DSCN9721Your next option for crossing from one side of the town to the other is the North Street railway bridge – crossing point Number 2.

DSCN9717As you can see, it is very busy, narrow, and effectively unusable for all but a tiny minority of the population by bike. This bridge, and the embankment, will have to be adapted, or rebuilt, to make this crossing point suitable for cycling. Probably quite a lot of money.

The next crossing point - Number 3 – is a pedestrian-only underpass. You are not allowed to cycle through here, and there are barriers that attempt to stop you.

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The sight lines are not good, it is narrow – and the ceiling is too low to safely cycle through, in any case. So as with the previous examples, for this railway underpass to be a crossing point for mass cycling, it will need to be widened and deepened. Another substantial project.

Crossing point Number 4 - the Queen Street bridge on the A281.DSCN9710Like the previous road crossings, this a busy road, carrying tens of thousands of vehicles a day, including buses and HGVs (it is not surprising these crossings are busy, as there is no discouragement to driving across Horsham, despite the presence of a bypass, and these crossings funnel motor traffic). The A281 itself is, in my opinion, the most hostile road to cycle on in Horsham, with a combination of pinch points, parked vehicles, side roads with limited visibility and a narrow carriageway all contributing to an unpleasant environment that requires constant vigilance. Totally unsuitable for most people to cycle on. It might be possible to create some form of protected space for cycling under this bridge without substantial re-engineering of the bridge itself, but again work will have to be put in adapting the carriageway.

The final crossing point, Number 5, is actually acceptable; a reasonably quiet residential street that does not carry much motor traffic, because it doesn’t really go anywhere. The low bridge also effectively acts as a form of ‘modal filter’, keeping out HGVs from this route, because they can’t pass under it.

DSCN9725The problem, however, is that this crossing, number 5, is (as you can see from the map) at the very southern edge of the town, and not at all useful for anyone who doesn’t live near it.

So. The main point here is that the town is severed for most ordinary people who might wish to travel by bike. There are no reasonable crossing points over or under the railway line that are in any way attractive to the general public. It is effectively impossible for them to cycle from one side of it to the other. And when you consider that the town centre lies on one side of the railway line while majority of the population lies on the other, that is a serious issue.

I haven’t even mentioned here the fact that every single one of the main roads in Horsham is totally unsuitable for inclusive cycling. They are not environments that most people would even dream of cycling in.

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Cycling is designed out of Horsham. That is why – despite the town being essentially flat and only 3 miles from one extremity to the other - it is practically non-existent here, probably around 1% of all trips. The 2011 census revealed that even for trips to work (usually a higher mode share than trips for other purposes), just 1.6% are made by bike in Horsham, a decline (for what it’s worth, given these are very small numbers) on 2001.

As I understand it, the entire West Sussex budget spending on cycling in the last year was around £30,000. This for a total population of around 900,000 people. The only other funding stream is Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF) money, which WSCC successfully bid for. About half a million pounds is being spent in Horsham, but – despite some good intentions – none of the systemic problems I mention here are being dealt with, and it will almost certainly be frittered away, in the most part, on ‘infrastructure’ that nobody wants to use, or signing circuitous routes on back street that people are using already.

To deal solely with the severance problems created by the railway line detailed here will require, at a low estimate, more than a million pounds, spent properly. This is just one issue, in one town, of 55,000 people. Scale this across England and Wales as a whole – villages, towns and cities with very similar problems to Horsham – and it is quite obvious that the current sums of money being ‘invested’ in cycling just aren’t going to cut it.

What is depressing is that congestion is primarily an urban problem, yet the huge sums of money the government is throwing at the road network are missing the target, going on large road schemes between urban areas, rather than addressing the prime issue of mobility within urban areas.

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Towns like Horsham have a dysfunctional road network, clogged with single occupancy vehicles at peak times. The necessary conditions that will enable people to opt for sensible, painless alternatives – attractive, safe, direct cycle networks – are not being created, even though doing so would solve these congestion problems at a stroke.

The solutions to urban congestion are being ignored. So as far as I can tell the only purpose of the occasional announcements of tiny sums money ‘for cycling’ is to create the illusion that this government actually cares, rather than an actual serious engagement with the issues. They are crumbs, and not even comforting ones at that.

Posted in Cycling policy, Horsham, Infrastructure, Transport policy, Uncategorized, West Sussex County Council | 22 Comments

Do you hate humans? Take it out on them through design

Last week I was staying in Leeds for the Cycle City Expo, and the Space for Cycling campaigners conference. My hotel was quite convenient – only half a mile from Leeds Town Hall where the Expo was being held, and about the same distance from venue for the Space for Cycling Conference. (Indeed, it is formally described as the Leeds City Centre Premier Inn.)

Despite this proximity to the centre, the layout of the hotel, and the surrounding roads, is quite extraordinary if you are trying to get to it on foot.

The hotel entrance doesn’t face onto the street; you can only access it from the car park at the rear.

A hotel next to a road. But no entrance.

A hotel next to a road. But no entrance.

This meant that I cycled straight past it while I was trying to find it.

If you are attempting to walk to this hotel from the north, the direct route – of just a hundred metres or so – becomes an extraordinary meander, thanks to a combination of bizarre building design and enormous roads with limited crossing points, that force you take a hugely indirect path.

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The blue arrow – the direct path. The red arrow – the actual walking route.

But this isn’t even the worst example of this kind of ‘design’ I’ve encountered. An even more preposterous example can be found in Crawley in West Sussex, right in the centre of the town.

Central Sussex College is adjacent to the main shopping centre of the town, separated from it only by College Road. You can see it, only a matter of tens of metres away, when you step out of the County Mall shopping centre.

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There it is. So close. And yet (as we shall see) so far.

But just try to walk there.

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Again, blue the direct route. Red, the designed route.

Six (yes SIX) separate crossings, followed by an infuriating diversion all the way around the building to enter it from the car park.

What is amazing is that this is (amongst other things) a college for 16-18 year olds – so a considerable proportion of the people attending it can’t even drive. Yet the obvious and easy way to access the building – on foot – has been simply been ignored, and made about as difficult and circuitous as possible.

Let’s take a closer look. The corner of the building that faces the town centre – where the entrance should be – isn’t even being used. It’s somewhere to stack chairs and tables.

Could this be the actual entrance? Obviously.

Could this be the actual entrance?

There should be an entrance here, facing the town, but evidently that was just too obvious. Some opaque windows combined with dead space are plainly much more important.

Here’s another view of where that entrance should be, through a sea of pedestrian guardrailing.

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Incredibly – once you manage to cross the road – you will find that the building is further protected against attack by pedestrians, with armco barriers. ARMCO BARRIERS. Presumably in case a ‘car loses control’.

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This ring of crash protection extends right around the building, right around to the car park entrance to the north east (top right in the aerial view). Note where it lies in relation to the pavement – pedestrians are expendable.

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They even had a spare bit left over – it’s been put to good use, protecting another bit of the building from speeding vehicles.

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The final insult? There isn’t even a footway through the car park to the main entrance. You have to find your own way through the motor vehicles.

The rear. The entrance is in the corner.

The rear. The entrance is in the corner.

Amazingly, this building was opened in 2006. 2006. Hang your heads in shame.

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Plain evidence of design failure, right in front of those responsible.

 

Posted in Absurd transport solutions, Car dependence, Town planning, Walking | 29 Comments

The possible versus the acceptable

North Parade in Horsham is a fairly busy distributor road (running north – unsuprisingly) out of the town centre. It has a 30 mph limit, and very narrow cycle lanes, which give up at a couple of awful pinch points.

IMG_3890The local cycle forum are quite rightly pressing to have these sorted out – in fact the picture above shows us with a representative from West Sussex County Council. A good interim solution would be to have the pinch point removed, and replaced with a zebra (this is an important crossing for pedestrians, with access to the park on the left).

Long term, this road desperately needs cycle tracks. There is absolutely no shortage of space here, as you can see, but obviously their construction would involve investment – adjusting the kerb line and drainage, and so on.

The problem is that councils like pinch points. They make it relatively easy for pedestrians to cross roads, without them interfering with ‘traffic flow’ (i.e. motor traffic flow) in ways that zebra or toucan crossings would.
Screen Shot 2014-05-06 at 08.30.31And it is on this kind of issue that Sustrans’ new guidance is really quite unhelpful, because it doesn’t challenge councils’ inclination to continue employing pinch points (or ‘central islands’) like this, at all.

The handbook simply says ‘avoid gaps of 3.1 – 3.9m’. Going by a standard bus width of 2.5m, the pinch point in Horsham probably falls outside this recommendation, and is therefore acceptable, by the terms Sustrans set out. Even if it didn’t, ‘avoid’ is hardly strong enough – likewise the suggestion that a cycle lane of 1.5m ‘should’ continue through the pinch point. [EDIT - I've now got around to measuring these pinch points, and they are exactly 3m wide.]

Councils will want to take the easy path, that of least resistance, and do as little as they can. They can paint a bicycle symbol in the middle of the pinch point, and by Sustrans’ terms, that’s acceptable – indeed, even recommended.

I think this is the issue that many people have with the Sustrans’ guidance. It’s not that it doesn’t contain good recommendations (there’s plenty of good stuff in there) – it’s just that it is far, far too weak in opposing the stuff that we all know councils will only be too happy to build, if it means they can get away with doing things on the cheap. This is a real problem if you are presenting your handbook as best practice.

This isn’t a matter of asking for the (currently) impossible, or for those aspects of Dutch or Danish design that would be difficult to implement in the UK, or that are alien to UK highway engineers. It’s about demanding quality where it would be easy and obvious to achieve it. I would like a Sustrans manual that says 3m wide pinch points on a road with a 30mph limit and about 10,000 vehicles a day are completely unacceptable, not one that says ‘consider’ painting a cycle symbol in the middle of the pinch point.

If councils come back and say we can’t build a cycle route to those standards? Nothing has been lost; the road will remain as crap as it was before. And no time and effort has been wasted in half-arsed efforts to present it as a ‘route’.

 

Posted in Infrastructure, Pinch points, Sustrans, The Netherlands | 26 Comments