Closing routes to motor traffic is uncontroversial if it has already happened

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.

Cull Lane, indicated by the red arrow

Cull Lane in the late 1950s, indicated by the red arrow

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.

The present-day layout. Cull Lane has been 'severed' in three places, indicated by the red circles

The present-day layout. Cull Lane has been ‘severed’ in three places, indicated by the red circles

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.

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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).

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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) –

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The ‘severed’ middle section, where what was once Cull Lane has become a pedestrian path, with bollards to stop drivers –

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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) –screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-00-19-49

… 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.screen-shot-2016-09-22-at-00-19-59

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.

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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.

The outline of the two Cull Lane cul-de-sacs in red, with the sole motor vehicle entry point indicated by the red arrows.

The outline of the two Cull Lane cul-de-sacs in red, with the sole motor vehicle entry point indicated by the red arrows. Walking access is also available, indicated by the green arrows.

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.

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A typical estate agent advert for Cull Lane properties

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.

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The problem with Puffin crossings

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.

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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.

Standing at the crossing, looking back the way i have come from

Standing at the crossing, looking back the way i have come from

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?

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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 –

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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 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.

Amazingly, this crossing has two different sets of lights for each part of the crossing

Amazingly, this crossing has two different sets of lights for each part of the crossing. I nearly got hit stepping into the road with a green at the far side, without realising there was a red for the nearside section of road.

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.

A very wide crossing of multiple lanes in Rotterdam, crossed by both people walking and cycling in one go.

A very wide crossing of multiple lanes in Rotterdam, crossed by both people walking and cycling in one go. No need for Puffin boxes to remove ambiguity.

Another problem with Puffins is that the signal box is easily obscured, because (with good reason) people stand right next to it.

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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.

The Ranty Highwayman has covered similar ground to this post here – do have a read!

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Moving beyond commuting

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.

Midday on Regents Street. While cycling might become more visible on these kinds of streets at peak times, it is essentially completely absent during the day

Midday on Regents Street. While cycling might become more visible on these kinds of streets at peak times, it is essentially completely absent during the day

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.

Midday on the A10 in Hackney. Again, not much cycling happening here.

Midday on the A10 in Hackney. Again, not much cycling happening here.

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

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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. The latest National Travel Survey presents these results by gender –

In both cases – and for women in particular – commuting is clearly a tiny fraction of all the trips people make.

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.

Saturday morning in Gouda. No commuting here.

Saturday morning in Gouda. No commuting here.

Lunchtime in Utrecht. Different kinds of trips.

Weekday lunchtime in Utrecht. Different kinds of trips.

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.

5pm in Utrecht

5pm in Utrecht.

 

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.

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Horsham People Cycling

I’ve started a photo blog, consisting simply of people cycling in the town of Horsham.

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.

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.

‘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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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Side by side

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. Screen Shot 2016-08-21 at 22.27.03They 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, really, is 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. Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 07.05.44

It happens everywhere – not just on cycleways and cyclepaths, but also on roads.

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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 –

Screen Shot 2016-08-25 at 08.52.13… But not on these streets.

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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 roads where good quality cycling infrastructure has been built. All the examples below are on the new Superhighways in London – CS6, CS3, and CS5.

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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.

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Institutional priorities

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.

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We can see this more clearly by zooming in on this bottom left section.

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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?

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.

Amongst other things, it has been used for road safety announcements –

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… and, amazingly, even for an announcement of Local Sustainable Transport Funding.

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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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-16 at 16.08.16This 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.

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A visit to the Leeds-Bradford Cycle Superhighway

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.

 

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Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.24.07So, 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.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.24.52The 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.

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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.

Yes, that is a two-way cycleway

Yes, that is a two-way cycleway

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.

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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.

That's just one lane of motor traffic on the right, heading away from the camera. The 'bypass' is at most 18 inches wide

That’s just one lane of motor traffic on the right, heading away from the camera. The ‘bypass’ is at most 18 inches wide

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.

The rain earlier in the day was at least helpful in showing up surface deficiencies

The rain earlier in the day was at least helpful in showing up surface deficiencies

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.

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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.

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Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.33.39This 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.

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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.

Double yellows, the green paint and the kerb line all remove any visual continuity and priority for cycling

Double yellows, the green paint and the kerb line all remove any visual continuity and priority for cycling

The same problem again. Note that this is an exit-only side road

The same problem again. Note that this is an exit-only side road

Other mistakes point to a lack of experience in how to design for cycling. One stood out for me, shown in the photograph below.

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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.

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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!

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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!).

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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.

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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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 22 Comments

Barriers to cycling mean doing more, not less

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.

My bike and a hill, Wageningen, NL

My bike and a hill, Wageningen, NL

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.

It might be flat, but you won't see people cycling here.

It might be flat, but you won’t see people cycling here.

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.

Enabling cycling in Utrecht

Enabling cycling in Utrecht

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 wealthier 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.

Posted in Uncategorized | 18 Comments

The helmet on the handlebars

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.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.34.21

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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.
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Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.35.37
Or the helmet was tucked onto a rack.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.40.09Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.35.48Even children could be seen cycling around with their helmets visibly discarded.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.23.27
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.28.03Including ones who were passengers.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.31.49 Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.32.21This discarding of ‘safety equipment’ extended to the hi-viz bibs too, which were taken off and wrapped around handlebars…
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.30.36… or pushed into baskets.
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Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.40.28
Or maybe not even worn in the first place.
Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.36.46By 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).Screen Shot 2016-07-31 at 21.44.26Maybe 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.

Posted in Helmets, Infrastructure, Subjective safety | 29 Comments

Why they hate you

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.

This man is hated not for who he is, or for his mode of transport, but because he is in the way.

This man is hated not for who he is, or for his mode of transport, but because he is in the way.

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. Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 15.33.44

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.

Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 15.53.37

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.Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 16.01.49And 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.

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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.

Posted in Infrastructure, Subjective safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands | 38 Comments