Instead of blaming individuals, fix the system

Doubtless many of you will have seen this video of a ‘near miss’ on the A38 in Bromsgrove, in which a child narrowly escapes serious injury, thanks to the quick reactions of a driver – a fireman, Robert Allen.

I wasn’t the only one to notice that the way this incident was framed – both on social media, and in the media more generally – focussed entirely on human actions. On the one hand, the quick thinking, forward planning and skill of the driver, and on the other, the mistakes and foolishness of the children.

Framed in this context, the only way to prevent near misses (or even serious injuries and fatalities from occurring in future) is to ensure that all drivers are as quick-thinking and careful as this one, and also to ensure that children don’t behave impulsively, and don’t make mistakes and misjudgements.

But unfortunately both of those things are actually very difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Children, especially younger children, have serious problems judging the speeds of approaching vehicles, due to their difficulty in perceiving visual looming (HT AndyR_UK). On top of that they will inevitably be impulsive, fail to concentrate, or become distracted. Equally, drivers won’t be paying attention 100% of the time. They will also get distracted. They are fallible. They will not all be as cautious and as quick to react as Robert Allen. Because they are human beings, not robots.

So the only realistic way of preventing these kinds of incidents from happening in the future is to design the danger out of the crossing. We can’t rely on human beings not do stupid things, or to not make mistakes, because it’s not who we are. The only rational response is to minimise the chances of collisions occurring in the first place, and to minimise the severity of those collisions if they do happen. The alternative – attempting to get children to behave properly in the context of this type of crossing – is nothing more than applying the flimsiest of sticking plasters to a gaping wound.

If we look at the location, it’s a little bit ambiguous whether the posted speed limit is 60mph or 70mph, because the crossing is at exactly the point where two lanes (60mph limit) become a four lane dual carriageway (70mph limit).

But whether it’s 60mph or 70mph doesn’t really matter – as Ranty Highwayman observes, either way, these are still very high speeds for children to be processingespecially where drivers will be distracted by the process of merging back down to one lane in the in the oncoming direction, or focused on accelerating up to 70mph as they move into two lanes from one in the facing direction.

On top of that, we have the pedestrian barriers – presumably installed with the intention of stopping people from cycling straight out into the road – acting to steer anyone cycling up to the crossing into a position parallel to the road, where any oncoming motor traffic will be directly behind them. 

Rather than naturally facing that oncoming traffic, children (or anyone else cycling here) will have to look right back over the shoulder to process it. Frankly the entire layout is a recipe for casualties, which the ‘Sign Make It Better’ warning does nothing to fix (not least because it’s only about 50 feet from the actual crossing – not a great deal of help when it comes to alerting drivers of the potential danger).

I’m not sure when this road was built, and the period in which it was thought this was an appropriate type of crossing for a road of this context – but it’s far from unique.

There are several similarly lethal crossings of 70mph dual carriageways in West Sussex, usually the result of existing routes or lanes being severed by the construction of new roads and bypasses, with absolutely no consideration given to the safe passage of people walking and cycling across them. I can think of at least three on Horsham’s northern bypass, which was built in the late 1980s. Below is just one of them.

There’s housing behind the trees on the left hand side of this location, and a railway station a couple of minutes’ walk down the lane to right. It’s not only the danger that is infuriating – it’s the fact that people could be walking and cycling, easily, to and from these locations, but have these horrendous barriers put in their way. The road simply shouldn’t have been built like this – it should have had underpasses integrated into it during construction, to allow people to cross it freely, and in safety.

The Bromsgrove example is perhaps even more pressing, however, as the road is a clearer example of severance – with housing on both sides of the road. If the A38 were a Highways England road, then under the IAN 195/16 standard (which I’ve covered here) a grade-separated crossing would be a mandatory requirement for a 60mph limit. If that’s not possible, then the speed limit should be lowered, the motor traffic lanes should be narrowed significantly, and the crossings should involve clear sightlines, with only one lane crossed at a time. Something like this kind of thing, which I saw on a distributor road in the city of Zwolle.

There are no signals; this is just a simple priority crossing, with cycles having to give way to motor traffic. However, only one lane has to be crossed a time, motor traffic speeds are much lower, and the visibility is excellent, for all parties. This really isn’t rocket science.

If the council wish to retain a 60mph limit, or four lanes of motor traffic, then that obviously means that human beings should be separated entirely from the road, to insulate them from the increased danger that attempts to cross such a road at-grade would involve. An underpass is the obvious answer in that traffic context.

That would plainly be an expensive undertaking, but really there’s no other safe way of addressing the severance posed by a multiple lane road with such a high speed limit.

Obviously I don’t know the local situation, but I suspect it may be much more appropriate to ‘downgrade’ the road to an urban distributor, with single lanes in each direction, separated by a median, and with a much lower speed limit. That would allow the ‘Zwolle’ type of crossing to be employed, and safely. But there are many other places where that is impossible, or at least undesirable. The Horsham example is one location where the traffic volumes and road context – an explicit bypass – should really necessitate grade separation.

To a large extent, we’re reaping the harvest of decades of road-building and planning with little or no thought for the safety and convenience of anyone who wasn’t in a motor vehicle – people cycling and walking along these roads, or attempting to cross them. It’s going to be difficult and costly to undo that damage. Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that we all reach for the superficially easy option of attempting to change human behaviour, rather than changing the system, when we’re confronted with incidents like the one in Bromsgrove.

Posted in Safety, Subjective safety, Underpass | 17 Comments

You don’t solve design problems with bells

There’s recently been some silly-season noise about making the use of bells compulsory in our newspaper of record, The Times.

This story seems to have been based entirely on five written questions from the MP Julian Lewis.

The non-committal response from the Minister has been spun into a story; the Minister in turn dismissed it.

But let’s (charitably) take this seriously, just for a moment. What does ‘mandatory use of bells’ actually mean? Am I supposed to ding every time a pedestrian hoves into view? In a town or a city, my bell would be ringing relentlessly. Let’s also bear in mind that plenty of people will object, often quite aggressively, to the ringing of a bell, interpreting it as akin to the honking of a car horn. A basic starting principle – before any of this nonsense ever gets anywhere near legislation – would have to involve getting some basic agreement and consensus about what people actually want and expect, when it comes to a form of audible cycling warning (or even whether they want people making a noise at all). It you can’t get the general public to agree, which I would imagine is more than likely, then there’s no point even embarking on legislation in the first place.

In any case, the general issue of bells, warnings and ‘silent rogue cyclists’ is symptomatic of basic design failure. I’ve probably cycled at least 500 miles in the Netherlands over the last five or six years. Not a huge amount, but enough to get a good flavour of the country. In all that distance – in cities, in towns, through villages, across the countryside – I can’t honestly remember ever having to ring my bell to warn someone walking that I was approaching. Not once.

A large part of that is probably down to the fact that people walking in the Netherlands are – understandably – fully aware that they will encounter someone cycling quite frequently. In general, it’s unwise to assume that, just because you can’t hear anything approaching, nothing is approaching – and this is especially true in the Netherlands. Being aware of cycling is just an ordinary part of day-to-day life, because everyone cycles themselves, and because they will also encounter cycling extremely frequently.

However, I suspect my lack of bell use is also due to the fact I rarely ever come into conflict with pedestrians, because of the way cycling is designed for. Unlike in Britain, where walking and cycling are all too frequently bodged together on the same inadequate paths, cycling is treated as a serious mode of transport, with its own space, distinct from walking.

No need for bells here, to warn people you are approaching

I don’t need to ring my bell to tell someone walking I am coming up behind them because we’re not having to share the same (inadequate) space. There are of course many situations in the Netherlands where walking and cycling are not given separate space – a typical example below.

However, these will almost always be situations where the numbers of people cycling, and of people walking in particular, will be relatively low. In practice, these paths function as miniature roads, marked with centre lines, and used by low amounts of low-impact traffic. Pedestrians treat them as such, walking at the sides, and the dynamics of path use are obvious and well-understood. If demand for these paths increases, such that people walking and cycling begin to get in each other’s way, separation of the two modes becomes a necessity. It is all blissfully rational.

Contrast that with Britain, where ‘cycle routes’ will often be nothing more than putting up blue signs to allow cycling on existing – often quite busy – footways.

It isn’t hard to see why people walking will not be expecting cycling in these kinds of environments. It looks like a footway; feels like a footway. It is a footway. So users who are cycling then have to decide how best they approach someone from behind.

  • Do they ring their bell?
  • Do they try to make a noise with their bike?
  • Do they call out? And if so, what do they say?
  • Do they try to glide past without any noise at all?

Bear in mind that there is absolutely no consensus on which of these techniques is preferable to people walking. Some people hate bells, because they think it implies they are being told to get out of the way. Some people don’t like noises, or calls, and apparently prefer the clarity of a bell, and what it signifies. Some other people might be deaf.

As you cycle up behind someone, there is obviously no way of knowing how that particular person will react, and what they will prefer. It is entirely guesswork.

My own technique is usually to approach, slow down a bit, and hope that the person gradually becomes aware of my presence. If they don’t, then I usually say ‘excuse me’. My bell is reserved for occasions when someone is stepping into the road without looking, or similar situations where I can foresee a potential collision occurring.

A short snippet below, on a path I use on a daily basis.

I can see that the two girls are aware that I am approaching, but I slow down in any case, until I am sure. The woman is not aware, so again I slow down, and have to use a verbal ‘excuse me’ to let her know I am there.

This probably isn’t perfect. Maybe there is a better way. But really, I don’t think there even is a ‘perfect’ way of dealing with these kinds of minor conflicts. They are all flawed. You are going to startle someone; you are going to do the wrong thing without even realising it; you  are going to annoy someone. It’s unavoidable.

But the solution to this problem is not MOAR BELLS or MANDATORY USE OF MOAR BELL. The basic issue here is crap cycling and walking environments. Every single location where people are being expected to use bells (or some other form of audible warning) will be one where cycling is not expected; where someone cycling is having to share the same space as someone walking; where there is not enough width for the two modes to peacefully co-exist. Bells are not the solution to this problem. Better design is.

The path in my video above is only a couple of metres wide, and has to accommodate cycling and walking in the same space. That’s just a straightforward recipe for conflict. If you think the answer to that conflict is bell legislation then you don’t care about cycling, and frankly you don’t really care about walking either. I don’t want to be cycling at little more than walking pace, having to ring my bell every few metres. I doubt people walking want to be having to deal with that either. I certainly don’t when I am on foot.

Let’s stop dribbling on about bells and instead ensure that our walking and cycling environments work for both modes, with clarity about where people should be and about expected behaviour, and with comfortable space for everyone.

Posted in Inclusivity, Infrastructure, Social safety, Subjective safety, Walking | 20 Comments

Westminster Bridge bus stop bypass, revisited

In case you had forgotten, Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust spent over £10,000 of NHS funding in an attempt to prevent ‘floating’ bus stops being built on Westminster Bridge (a detail uncovered by Tom Kearney).

This was part of an orchestrated campaign against the bus stop bypasses from hospital management. They sent out press releases to the Evening Standard, with quotes from their chairman –

Sir Hugh Taylor, chairman of Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS trust, said: “We believe that TfL’s plans for cycle lanes and so-called ‘floating’ bus stops on Westminster Bridge pose risks to both pedestrians and cyclists. We are particularly concerned about the impact on patients and carers, especially the elderly, disabled, and families with children in buggies and wheelchairs coming to Evelina London Children’s Hospital.”

They started a petition against the bus stop bypass design – garnering just over 1,000 signatures. They added news items on their website. They organised protest events.

Further FOI requests revealed this entire strategy may have originated with the local MP Kate Hoey, who wrote to the Trust in April 2016 suggesting a campaign against the bus stop bypasses would be

‘a great opportunity’.

Those same FOI requests contain a hilariously revealing admission from the Trust’s Secretary and Head of Corporate Affairs –

‘I don’t think we’ve any evidence [floating bus stops] are unsafe – even though we think they are’

Despite not having any evidence, this same individual was simultaneously claiming that 

‘The Trust is very concerned that Transport for London’s plans for the cycle super highway and “floating” bus stops on Westminster Bridge are dangerous’

The whole curious affair is covered in detail by both Cyclists in the City and by Paul Gannon.

Fast-forward a year to 2017, and it turns out that Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Trust…. aren’t actually opposed to bus stop bypasses at all, and drop their high court challenge. Construction started in the summer of that year, with zebra crossings across the cycleways at the bus stop islands. The official opening of this southbound section (in front of the hospital) was in the autumn.

That means these bus stop bypasses have been running more-or-less normally for around eight months now. Has the predicted danger and chaos ensued? To give a flavour of how these stops operate at busy times, I filmed them earlier this month, at 5pm on a Wednesday. I stood here for forty minutes (until my phone battery ran out). The following video shows every single person who cycled (or scooted) past the bus stops between 5 and 5:40pm – around 100 people. The cuts don’t hide anything – they’re simply those periods when nobody was cycling past.

As you’ll see if you watch the entire video, it is very, very mundane. The vast majority of people cycling past do so without any interaction whatsoever – when interactions do occur, they are at slow speed and involve negotiation. This is hardly surprising. People cycling have an interest in not colliding with other human beings – they will injure themselves in doing so. While filming these clips I kept on having to remind myself that an NHS trust objected so strongly to something that is frankly pretty boring.

Nevertheless there are some moments that are worth commenting on.

  • The very first clip (0:13) shows someone overtaking someone slower, by using the bus stop island. There was nobody standing on the island at the time, so nobody was put in danger, and I doubt this manoeuvre would have been attempted otherwise. This is, however, one reason why I think it was a mistake to build the cycleway so narrow (1.5m, and with high kerbs) – it prevents overtaking, and more importantly it removes ‘negotiation space’ as people step onto the zebras, or accidentally step into the cycleway. In a misguided attempt to slow people down, I think the narrowness of the cycleway here actually makes matters worse.
  • From 4:38 onwards there’s a good example of some interaction on the zebra crossing.
  • 7:14 – probably the fastest cyclist of the clip.
  • At 7:25 a woman looking at her phone accidentally steps into the cycleway and stumbles. The man cycling seems to have anticipated this happening and is already steering around her.
  • From 9:16 we see an elderly woman in a hospital chair being wheeled across the zebra, to the island, to a waiting taxi. (Incidentally the Licensed Taxi Drivers Association claimed in their consultation response that “segregated cycle lanes will make it difficult to load people in wheelchairs and other mobility impaired people – this will be a particular problem outside St Thomas’ Hospital.”)
  • From 9:26 there is a minor near miss, as a woman steps into the cycleway without looking. A collision is avoided by the man cycling anticipating, and stopping. (There were a number of other minor incidents like this with people stepping into the cycleway without looking, but none were anywhere near as close as this).

I don’t think we can learn too much from all of this because I was only here for forty minutes. I know that Transport for London have been conducting more extensive rolling video surveys of the new zebra crossings on CS6 and on CS2, which will provide much more comprehensive analysis. However, this was a busy period of the day, at a time when lots of people were coming and going to get on buses. Just under a hundred people cycle past in this period too.

The design is not perfect. As I’ve already mentioned, I think the cycleway is too narrow, which will create problems. The bus stop islands seemed to cope with the number of pedestrians at this busy time, but they could (and should) be wider. To my mind the road here is still ridiculous wide – four lanes, with hatching, and an island – and I really think some serious consideration should have been given to narrowing the road to three (or even two) lanes, and indeed restricting the types of motor traffic allowed to use the bridge to buses and taxis only, which already dominate the traffic composition in any case. That would have allowed much more space for pedestrians, for people cycling, and for bus users.

But even with these problems, it is hard to see what all the fuss was about. My video shows forty minutes of pretty benign interaction (or non-interaction), and even when things go wrong and people behave badly or make mistakes, there are no consequences. Perhaps most importantly of all, the whole video shows buses and cycles flowing freely, without coming into conflict with one another, or impeding each other. Both modes benefit. It’s a stark contrast to the previous situation, where anyone cycling on the bridge had to mix it with these large vehicles.

The footway on the left here was also ‘shared use’, with people allowed to cycle on it, so the new arrangement is yet another improvement in that respect, clarifying where people cycling should be, and where they are expected.

It does seem extraordinary to me that these proposals received so much attention and outright hostility, while the road network across London remains such an unpleasant, dangerous and pedestrian-hostile environment – where ‘green man’ pedestrian signals still do not exist at busy junctions (and are blocked (in 2018!) on the grounds of modelled delay); where zebra crossings are so scarce; where people face massive delay and staggered crossings trying to cross even one arm of a junction. My hope is that as more and more of these types of bus stop are built, so the evidence base will build too, and we (and NHS Trusts) can start to focus our attention on the more pressing problems instead.

Posted in Uncategorized | 9 Comments

Complacency

The Netherlands is a wonderful country to cycle around, with a dense cycle network made up of motor traffic-free paths, low motor traffic access roads, and protected cycleways, all of which allow you to make door-to-door journeys in complete comfort and safety. That doesn’t mean, however, that everything there is perfect. There are many streets and roads across the country which are still poor. Dutch cycling infrastructure did not fall out of the sky; it had to be built, and many places are still waiting, even in the centre of famously cycle-friendly cities.

An unpleasant cycling environment in the centre of Amsterdam

In other places, there are compromises – clearly inadequate cycling environments, that are difficult to resolve. Again, just as with the UK, there are competing demands for road space. While in most Dutch urban areas those demands are resolved in favour of cycling and walking, there are streets where it is genuinely difficult to fit walking, cycling and major bus routes into the same space.

A major bus route into the city centre of Utrecht has to briefly share space with cycling

These poor streets should not to be used as examples to copy simply because they are ‘Dutch’. While thousands of people cycle every day on the street shown in the photograph above, even though it is shared with a significant number of buses, that does not mean that this is a good situation, or good practice that should be transferred to the UK. In reality this is a serious gap in the network. People are only cycling here because the rest of the network across the city is so good, good enough for them to tolerate sharing with buses (and some private motor traffic) for a few hundred metres.

The Dutch are also capable of making mistakes. It’s not always perfect, and sometimes it’s very silly – just as bad as anything in the UK.

A cycleway with a right-angle bend that then joins a bus corridor, again at right angles, in a new development in Delft

Again, this is simply bad. It’s an obvious mistake, made by someone who hasn’t considered how people cycling actually move about.

But worse than all these kinds of poor examples are the new designs in the Netherlands that take cycling for granted. The Netherlands has a tried-and-trusted formula for ensuring that cycling is a comfortable, safe and pleasant experience, with standard design templates that work extremely well. However that template sometimes get jettisoned, with depressing results. Like at this roundabout (or ’roundabout’) in Winschoten, in the province of Groningen in the north of the Netherlands.

Roundabout design that works well for walking and cycling in the Netherlands is well-established. One of the basic principles is that cycling – whether with priority or without – passes on a cycleway that is at a larger radius from the annular ring for motor traffic. This means that there is a waiting area for motor traffic to enter the roundabout, while keeping the cycleway clear, and also that motor traffic can exit the roundabout, and yield to cycle traffic, and pedestrians crossing on zebras, without blocking the roundabout.

A ‘standard’ Dutch roundabout with perimeter cycleway, with priority

These principles have been abandoned with this design. Motor traffic completely blocks the passage of people walking and cycling as people queue to enter the roundabout.

More dangerously, drivers exiting the roundabout are not meeting people walking and cycling at a perpendicular angle, as they are forced to do with the conventional, established Dutch roundabout designs. Instead they have to look sideways, or backwards over their shoulder. As people observe in the video, this is hazardous.

These drivers are having to look sideways to see if their passage off the roundabout  is clear. With a conventional Dutch roundabout any potential conflicts would be directly in front of them.

This roundabout design also fails to separate cycling and walking, lumping them together on an unclear shared paving surface. Walking and cycling are different modes with different requirements, and should be treated separately, especially at such a busy urban location. Pedestrians also lack the clear unambiguous priority of a zebra crossing.

In short, the design is ambiguous, dangerous, and unpopular. As the councillor observes in the video, it is better that ’roundabouts look the same. Because then you know where you stand.’

So what has happened here? This is an enormous space, with clearly enough room for a perimeter cycleway, and for separate walking space, with zebra crossings. Indeed, this new layout – built in 2014 – has replaced a roundabout with perimeter cycleways (albeit not very good ones). To my mind, it looks like a classic example of style over substance – an unusual hexagonal design with ‘shared space’ motifs like reduced delineation between modes appears to have proved more attractive to the town than the tried-and-trusted (yet rather mundane) basic Dutch roundabout.

There’s even a rather depressing comment below the video in Dutch, roughly translated as

… in the UK they are testing free junctions, just a whole lot of space and no signs and all … what has happened is that everyone drives more calmly and in percentage terms the number of crashes has fallen sharply

 This commenter is apparently unaware that in the UK, ‘shared space’ – with limited signs, clutter and delineation – arrived as a sexy, foreign concept… from the Netherlands itself! 

There are similar problems with sections of this recent road re-design in Oost-Souburg, in Zeeland – right at the opposite end of the country.

Photo from here

While parts of the road have excellent new cycleways, this section appears to have designed for cycling with shared use footways with no clear priority at side roads – the kind of awful approach we see all too often in the UK. Just as with the roundabout, cycling has effectively been ignored in the design, lumped in with walking, with both modes designed for in an ambiguous way. Again, there’s no shortage of space, but aesthetics appear to have been more important than functionality.

But although cycling levels are high in the Netherlands – certainly compared to the UK – cycling there doesn’t ‘just happen’. People can and will change their mode of transport if it becomes too difficult, too dangerous, too inconvenient, or too unpleasant.

Although the story of cycling in the Netherlands is partly a historical accident, the current levels of cycling in the country simply would not have been maintained without serious, concerted action, action that made it a viable mode of transport for everyone at a time of rapid expansion in the use of the private motor car. As David Hembrow argues, cycling should not be treated with complacency. It is not ‘in the blood’, or innate to the Netherlands, just because everyone cycles, or because there is a long history of cycling in the country. It can, and will, decline if it is not cared for.

While older parts of the Dutch road network are still waiting to be redesigned to make cycling safe and attractive, and while mistakes in designs can happen, it’s troubling to see cycling effectively being ignored in new Dutch road designs, and well-established, proven principles of road design being ignored or abandoned.

Posted in placefaking, Safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands | 8 Comments

From the specific to the general

Imagine a grim, appalling, but unfortunately all-too-common scenario. A primary school is under attack from a deranged gunman. Shots have been fired, and the gunman stalks the school corridors, looking for children to kill. In one of the classrooms, a nine-year-old child is cowering under his desk with his teacher, both hearing the approaching footsteps of the gunman.

As the gunman opens the door to their classroom, we freeze time, and imagine two possible alternative scenarios. In the first, both teacher and pupil are unarmed and defenceless. In the second, the teacher has a firearm, which he has in a holster.

Given these specific circumstances, I’m sure most of us might consider it would be better – at that specific moment – for the teacher to be armed with a gun, than to be unarmed and defenceless. With a gun, he might, at least, be able to surprise the gunman, leaping up from his hiding place and firing several rounds at him, incapacitating him. That would certainly be better than the alternative of being effectively powerless as the gunman enters the classroom.

So, given these specific circumstances, we could reasonably think that is a good idea for a primary school teacher to be armed with a gun.

But would any of us then draw the conclusion that it is a good idea to arm primary school teachers in general? Just because our particular teacher might benefit from having a gun in the specific circumstances of a gunman approaching him down a school corridor, do we then think it makes sense to for all primary school teachers to be equipped with an easy-to-access handgun, throughout the school day?

That – to me at least – actually sounds like a pretty dangerous idea, even if I might have agreed that it would definitely be better for the teacher to have a gun, than to be unarmed, under the specific conditions of our thought experiment. I certainly wouldn’t be easily persuaded that the ubiquitous arming of primary school teachers is consequently a good idea, and I would also be resistant to accusations of being inconsistent.

This is because there are lots of reasons why arming primary school teachers is a bad idea. Those reasons don’t become any less compelling if a primary school teacher might benefit from a handgun in a classroom when the school and its pupils are actually under attack.

To make this even clearer, we could go further and imagine the nine-year-old child is alone in the classroom as the gunman approaches. Again, we might agree that the child having easy access to a handgun at that specific moment might be a good idea, while being appalled at the notion of all nine-year-olds arriving at schools equipped with handguns.

Anyone who is arguing that arming primary school teachers (or nine-year-old children) is a good idea in general, based on a specific, isolated scenario like the one outlined here is effectively performing something amounting to sleight of hand.

Logic.

It’s a pleasingly simple argument that unfortunately misses out all the reasons why arming nine-year-olds with guns when they go to a school might not be a good idea (negatives), and that also misses out all the other ways we can potentially stop nine-year-olds from being shot (positives).

But of course many people in the United States do actually think like this, at least when it comes to arming teachers. Many schools think it’s a good idea for teachers to be armed. For these people, the potential negatives of teachers being armed aren’t being considered, or are outweighed by the persuasive argument that teachers would then be able to protect themselves once an attack is already underway, something they would not be able to do without a gun. Likewise one powerful way of reducing the likelihood of children being at risk of being shot at in the first place – gun control – is completely unthinkable for a large swathe of American society.

We wouldn’t employ this kind of logic in Britain, would we? Perhaps the closest analogy might be knife crime.

Logic.

Unpersuasive, right? While we might agree that a teenager being attacked with a knife would – in those specific circumstances – benefit from a stab-proof vest, we wouldn’t think that all teenagers should therefore be walking around in stab-proof vests, or even just those teenagers in areas with particularly high knife-crime. The correct response would be to take positive steps to prevent teenagers from being stabbed in the first place, rather than fitting them all with cumbersome protective equipment – while also taking into account the direct negative consequences of having to wear that protective equipment.

The examples don’t even have to involve violence.

Logic.

Just because we accept that a pedestrian directly under a falling brick would be better off with a hard hat, we shouldn’t then be compelled to accept that all pedestrians should therefore walk around wearing hard hats. We’ve missed out all the other potential ways we can stop bricks striking people on the head, and all the potential negatives of compelling people to walk around with hard hats on.

And yet. And yet. It is precisely this form of argument that is, unfortunately, extremely common in discussion and debate around cycling safety in Great Britain (and indeed across much of the world).

Logic.

Certainly, if I was cycling along and I found myself confronted with a motor vehicle heading unavoidably towards me, I may think that – under those specific conditions – some polystyrene might lessen my chances of injury. But as with all these examples here, that would be a poor basis for arguing that anyone cycling around should always wear a helmet. Doing so misses out all the positive ways we can stop people being hit on the head by motor vehicles, and all the negative consequences of forcing people to wear helmets when they want to cycle somewhere.

The problem with all these forms of argument is what Jack Elder calls – in this excellent Twitter thread that inspired this postthe conflation of the specific with the general. (Click to expand the thread)

 

Something might be a good idea under specific, exceptional circumstances, but that’s not a sound basis for suggesting it’s therefore a good idea in general. The aforementioned sleight of hand involves removing that distinction.

This photograph from a recent academic conference on emergency medicine managed to attract 129 retweets, and was shared many more times, by doctors, nurses, students and paramedics, all agreeing with the expressed sentiment that cyclists should definitely wear helmets, at all times, on the basis of the statistics shown in the chart.

Doubtless, in the specific circumstances of people suffering an injury serious enough for them to be admitted to hospital, those injuries could well have been less severe if they had been wearing protective equipment. But is that a sound basis for arguing that all people should wear protective equipment at all times? It most certainly is not. It ignores all the sensible ways we should be preventing injuries from happening in the first place, and ignores all the negative consequences of compelling people to wear protective equipment at all times in an attempt to mitigate serious but rare injuries.

It would be reasonably easy to draw up a similar chart showing the proportion of people admitted to hospital after being injured by falling objects who suffered various forms of head injury, split between those people who happened to have been wearing a hard hat at the time of their injury, and those who weren’t. The ‘hard hat’ group would likely have suffered a smaller proportion of the listed injuries than those people who hadn’t been wearing hard hats. It would be ridiculous, however, to draw the conclusion from that chart that people in general should always wear hard hats. We would have made the mistake of  thinking that because personal protective equipment might reduce the chances of an injury occurring among the population of people who have already been admitted to hospital, personal protective equipment should therefore always be worn – without asking any reasonable questions about

  • how those injuries occurred,
  • how they could have been prevented,
  • whether compelling people to wear protective equipment might have negative unintended consequences,
  • or indeed whether compelling people to wear personal protective equipment has any effect on injury rates at a population level.

We can speculate about why it is helmet-wearing among people cycling that is repeatedly subject to this superficial level of argument. My hunch is that – among other possible explanations – it originates with a failure to conceive of ways in which we can prevent, or lessen the severity of, head injuries to people cycling around, beyond strapping helmets to them. We simply can’t imagine a world in which people cycling around don’t suffer the risks posed by motor traffic, or a world in which cycling could be a genuinely low-risk activity.

Consequently, if we think exposure to motor traffic danger is somehow inevitable, immutable, our responses to cycling injury are inevitably going to be limited to protective equipment. In this sense, our response is analogous to the gun control debate in the United States, where for some people the idea of reducing or even removing access to guns among the general population is effectively unthinkable. Consequently, for these people, guns and the danger posed by them are also inevitable, so much so that arming teachers becomes the only logical response. We shouldn’t be constrained by our failure to imagine alternatives.

Posted in Helmets | 26 Comments

Putting inclusive cycling first in new infrastructure design

Between 2013 and 2015, a section of the bypass skirting the town of Horsham was widened from four lanes to eight lanes, to incorporate a system of slip roads for access to a new development.

Before

After

This meant that the bridge I stood on to take the ‘before’ photograph had to be replaced – a new bridge with a wider span was required.

The old bridge was no great loss. Although it was ostensibly a ‘walking and cycling’ bridge, it was built at a time when nobody really thought about cycling, and consequently it was barely wide enough for two people to walk side-by-side, and obviously not sufficiently wide to accommodate cycling in a comfortable way.

So… we got a new bridge, with a longer span. Is it better?

The good news is that it is indeed wider, and has come fitted with dedicated street lighting, although unfortunately I doubt it will be wide enough to accommodate future demand, and it doesn’t separate walking and cycling.

The really bad news is that the bridge has come accompanied with a whole series of obstacles that either deliberately or accidentally make cycling inconvenient.

The deliberate measures are a series of slalom metal barriers, built into the bridge itself, presumably with the intention of slowing down people cycling on one of the access ramps.

In addition, rather than smoothly curving around to join level ground, the end of the ramp has a pair of tight zig-zag bends, designed to minimise the footprint of the bridge (and therefore – surprise surprise! – to avoid the loss of any car parking spaces). These bends are just as awkward to negotiate as the barriers.

Earlier this year, Horsham District Cycling Forum tried out a range of adapted cycles that West Sussex County Council provide for use on the nearby running track. It was an ideal opportunity for seeing just how difficult – or indeed impossible! – it might be to negotiate this bridge, and its obstacles, on non-standard cycles.

Before we starting using them, my instinct was that it may indeed be impossible to negotiate the bridge, especially with the Van Raam wheelchair transport bike, shown in the photograph above. The bends and the barriers would simply prove too tight.

However – and to my slight surprise – it did turn out to be possible. But only just. The turning cycle on the Van Raam is actually pretty good – the front wheels steer at the same time as the front part of the bike pivots, and that allowed me to steer around the bends, and through the barriers – although with only millimetres to spare. You can see my experience in the video below.

Both the bends and the barriers are extremely tight, requiring a great deal of precision to negotiate. Although it is just about possible, we really shouldn’t be making life so difficult for people who might be using non-standard cycles.

I was, of course, using the Van Raam without the weight of a passenger. Repeatedly having to come to a near stop to manoeuvre around the barriers and bends will make it pretty hard work for anyone with that extra weight, especially given the gradient of the ramp.

The start of the video also shows the difficulties presented to users of these cycles by conventional ‘shared use’ footways. These arrangements might be relatively easily negotiable (at least at slow speed) by people on standard cycles, but it was pretty tight for me on the Van Raam. The dropped kerbs, bumps, slopes and tactile paving – as well as the relatively narrow width, shared with pedestrians – all make for unnecessarily hard work. It’s an important reason why the ‘shared use footway’ approach isn’t particularly inclusive.

Designing properly for cycling should start with the basic assumption that it must be fully accessible for the full range of cycling vehicles that are available today. If we aren’t designing for that standard, then we risk making it extremely difficult or impossible for those users who are already at a disadvantage.

A cycling bridge – over a much smaller road – in the Dutch city of Den Bosch, that has a smooth gradient, and no barriers or unnecessary obstacles. It is possible.

Posted in Horsham, Inclusivity, Infrastructure, West Sussex County Council | 13 Comments

A Waste of Space

In London yesterday evening, I approached Parliament Square along the cycleway at Great George Street.

Good job TfL.

In front of me was perhaps the classic stereotypical scene shared by taxi drivers, and other people hostile to new cycling infrastructure in London (and other British towns and cities). A large expanse of empty tarmac loomed in front of me, contrasting starkly with the clogged road on the right. You might say the cycleway is ‘causing’ congestion and pollution, if you were so inclined.

In the distance – on the ’empty’ tarmac – two cyclists (maybe three? who cares, really) are waiting at a red signal. On the right, frustrated drivers are needlessly spewing out fumes, and doubtless fuming themselves, at the waste of space on their left. Valuable space that – if it were used properly for important motor traffic, not for some silly hobby – would have sped them to their destination about half an hour ago.

Surely, a superficial observer might think, it would make a great deal of sense to ‘free up’ that tarmac, using it to move all those motor vehicles more efficiently. It’s just obvious, surely? The cycling infrastructure is just a waste of space.

But of course things aren’t that simple. How many people are actually waiting at the lights on bikes? It doesn’t look like many, but it turns out that when you get close there are… five. All tucked together in a small amount of space.

How about that queue of cars and taxis? How many people are waiting there? Must be loads, surely?

Well, one of the taxis in the queue – the white one, three from the front – is carrying… nobody at all.

The taxi at the front of the queue, waiting to enter Parliament Square is also carrying… nobody at all.

A further quick survey of the queue revealed that the other four vehicles in the queue – a Range Rover behind this black taxi, a red taxi behind the white one, the Ford people carrier, and the small hatchback, are all only carrying… one person. (the red taxi has one one passenger). So that means that in my original photograph –

 There are more people being moved somewhere on the cycleway (five), than on the road (four).

I think this is an extremely common way of misreading traffic flow, and hence misdiagnosing problems. Even I felt instinctively uneasy at what appeared to be a very long queue of motor traffic, apparently being ‘held up’ for the benefit of ‘just a few’ cyclists. It was only when I found out how many people cycling were actually waiting at the lights, and closely examined how many people were actually in the motor vehicles, that I got a objective answer that directly contradicted my instinctive impression. It’s such an easy mistake to make.

Motor traffic seems big, and important. All the noise, the size of the vehicles, the (occasional) speed – it seems like it’s conveying lots of people, and fast. But in reality it’s an extremely inefficient way of moving people around urban areas. Cars take up lots of space, and clog up roads, precisely because of this intrinsic inefficiency. It’s also why photographs are a very poor way of attempting to demonstrate that cycling infrastructure is pointless – it rarely manages to capture the genuine volumes of people being moved on it, relative to the road. What really matters are actual figures on flow, not photographs that are all to easy to misinterpret (or indeed photographs that are used to mislead).

Private motor traffic is the real waste of space. Not cycling infrastructure.

To repeat the ‘experiment’ of the first junction, I also stopped at the next two junctions at CS3, and counted vehicle occupants. Here’s ~20 people on the left, versus five on the right.

And again. Fifteen people on the right; six in the motor vehicles in the same length (and more width!) on the left

Posted in Uncategorized | 43 Comments

A spontaneous cycle trip from Rotterdam to Delft

BicycleDutch’s post yesterday about his unexpected 55km cycling journey reminded me that I had also made an unplanned cycle trip in the Netherlands, due to a railway being out of action. Unlike his journey, however – which was long, and in the dark, and in the aftermath of a storm – mine was a good deal shorter, and took place on what turned out to be a glorious, hot, sunny day.

Last summer, I was heading home from the VeloCity conference in Arnhem and Nijmegen. My initial plan was to cycle towards Arnhem on the fast cycle route from Nijmegen, and then spend the day cycling around in Utrecht and Rotterdam, before finally catching the train (with my bike) to the evening ferry crossing back to the UK.

The initial part went to plan – I cycled towards Arnhem, before getting on a train at Elst (about two-thirds of the way between Nijmegen and Arnhem). This was a typically impressive new station, with a cycling underpass directly under the tracks (although I was a little bit surprised there was no walking-specific provision here).

A change at Arnhem took me and my bike quickly to Utrecht, where I discovered a problem. All the trains to Hoek van Holland (where the ferry departs) were not running, because the train tracks were being dug up and replaced. As I saw for myself when I arrived, some time later.

I hadn’t spotted this when I arrived in the Netherlands, because I had cycled directly off the ferry towards Rotterdam and Gouda.

So I decided to change my plan, aborting my visit to Utrecht, and heading straight to Rotterdam, from where I could at least think about the best way of getting to the ferry terminal (either by cycling, or by public transport).

Rotterdam Centraal station – and the area in front of it – is tremendously impressive, and I spent some time here taking photographs of the hordes of people cycling and walking to and from, and past, the station. The area is dominated by active travel and public transport, with the only sounds being conversation, the dinging bells of passing trams, and the occasional motor vehicle using the access road, some distance away.

As I was doing this, and still musing about what to do, I spotted the standard Dutch cycling signposts beside the cycle path in the photograph above, which indicated that the city of Delft was only 15km away (about 9 miles). I’d never cycled between Rotterdam and Delft, but I had cycled between Delft and the ferry terminal many times, a journey of about fifteen miles. Adding the two together and I’d have a journey of about 24 miles, with the first part being completely unfamiliar.

Without really knowing what I would encounter, and with the added problem of no data roaming on my phone – but trusting that the infrastructure would be of a good standard – I quickly decided to head off in a northwesterly direction, cycling towards Delft, straight under the railway station through the cycling and walking tunnel, under the platforms.

This brought me out on the north side of the station, an area which has also undergone tremendous change. When I last visited these streets in 2011, the road here only had painted cycle lanes, but there was now a wide two-way cycleway, running beside the station, with a wide kerb and parking protecting you from traffic, and new trees that will offer shade and shelter.

You can read more about how this area is changing – with improvements for cycling – on Mark’s blog.

I followed this route as it wound northwards, with priority over side roads.

A quick check of the signs at the next junction (remember, I had no real idea where I was going!) and I found myself on a low-traffic service road next to the main road. Although there are plenty of parked cars here – both accessing the supermarket on the right, and presumably belonging to residents – this felt very safe.

My route then took my beside one of the main roads heading out of the city centre, towards the A20 motorway, which skirts Rotterdam. I encountered a woman riding a horse along the road here, in the suburbs of the city.

As I cycled further and further out of Rotterdam, the environment became increasingly dominated by motor traffic, but the conditions for cycling remained entirely safe and attractive. A petrol station beside a major road was completely bypassed by the cycleway.

I then came across an enormous ‘Spaghetti Junction’-style mess of roads and slip roads layered upon each other.

This turned out to be where two motorways meet, the A20 and the A13 (which connects Rotterdam and Delft). Needless to say my passage through this area involved absolutely no interaction with motor traffic whatsoever – a network of cycleways passed under (and over) all these roads, and with clear signposting was a breeze to negotiate.

This area was a vivid reminder that while the Netherlands does have high cycling levels, it also builds roads on a massive scale, with a dense motorway network connecting the major towns and cities.

A cycle path then took me through a wooded area – note the street lights for social safety –

… before I emerged in a suburb of Rotterdam.

Navigation would now be very easy, because I would be following the motorway (the A13) all the way to Delft. You can see that it is shielded behind noise barriers here, in an attempt to mitigate noise pollution.

Although this was direct, and easy – cycling on a very low-traffic service road, next to the motorway – it quickly became quite boring.

It was also pretty hot now, with the sun beating down, so I was quite relieved when two women on e-bikes overtook me. With a little bit of effort, I was able to get into their slipstream, and draft them all the way to the outskirts of Delft, some five miles away.

This would have been quite relentless without being able to coast along behind them, so this was a real blessing. (And I definitely don’t think it counts as cheating if the people I’m slipstreaming have power assistance!)

If I had planned my route between the cities, instead of just heading out spontaneously, I’m sure there would have been more attractive routes available, rather than just plodding along beside the motorway – as safe as this was. Perhaps that’s something for the future. In any case I soon came across an underpass, back under the motorway, that I had used before in Delft.

This path leads to Delft University, and from there it is only five minutes or so, right into the picturesque city centre, where I was able to cool off and get some refreshment!

Here’s my map of the route – just under ten miles, from city centre to city centre.

My trip may not have been anywhere near as hard as Mark’s (the weather was certainly far better, although perhaps a little too hot!) but it does demonstrate, in a similar way, that it is possible to spontaneously set off and cycle from one Dutch city to another with minimal planning, without worrying about traffic conditions or other difficulties.

Postscript

Jitensha Oni has kindly provided a template of the ‘cycling infrastructure types’ used on this trip.

Jitensha Oni - Cycle Infrastructure Types

Posted in Uncategorized | 7 Comments

Strategic

What does the word ‘strategic’ mean?

The Oxford English Dictionary on ‘strategic’

Identifying long-term aims and interests – and working out how to achieve them. That sounds quite sensible, doesn’t it? Who could argue with that?

Yet I found myself having to look the word up, after Transport for the North – the organisation formed to ‘transform the transport system across the North of England, providing the infrastructure needed to drive economic growth’ – used it in a way that implied active travel is outside the remit of ‘strategic’ transport.

This might have just been some clumsy wording from the person running their social media account, but this attitude is reinforced not just in the imagery Transport for the North uses, but also in the reports it produces.

Planes, electric cars, trains, motorways – but not much sign of active travel here –

Spot the missing modes of transport

Or indeed here –

Container shipping, airports, motorways, trains, and people using a travelator, instead of active travel.

Equally, as Carlton Reid has spotted, Transport for the North’s new Strategic Transport Plan contains essentially no discussion of active travel, choosing instead to focus on road and rail connections between urban areas. This is despite Transport for the North’s remit covering journeys ‘within the North’, which will obviously include all those short trips that could be walked and cycled – in fact, the majority of the trips we make. 68% of all British trips are under 5 miles; 23% are under 1 mile.

From the latest National Travel Survey.

So what’s going on here?

I think it’s indicative of a belief – one that’s widespread across Britain, and not just limited to the North – that only certain forms of transport, and certain types of journeys, are worthy of investment, and serious consideration. Only motorways, roads, railways, airports and shipping can be thought of ‘strategically’ (whatever that actually means). The mundane ordinariness of walking and cycling for trips under 5 miles in length isn’t apparently something that deserves to be thought of ‘strategically’.

Closely tied to this belief is an assumption that walking and cycling will just happen by themselves, with words like ‘encourage’ and ‘promote’ featuring prominently alongside soft measures that history has shown will have very limited effect without the kind of investment, planning and engagement we conventionally apply to other ‘strategic’ modes of transport. This is why the person who composed the tweet for Transport for the North – the one that bluntly stated their focus on ‘strategic’ transport excludes walking and cycling – was evidently happy to suggest that local transport authorities ‘do a great job promoting walking and cycling’. (That ‘promote’ word again).

In reality, it’s pretty obvious to most campaigners that local authorities – with a few honourable exceptions – really do not do ‘a great job’ on walking and cycling. Quite the opposite. They’re hamstrung by a combination of limited budgets, limited political will, and limited expertise, or a combination of all three. These problems plainly won’t be solved if organisations like Transport for the North continue to treat walking and cycling as someone else’s problem.

And even if Transport for the North only want to define ‘strategic transport’ as inter-urban trips, that still doesn’t excuse a lack of consideration for walking and cycling. Not only will cycling in particular still form an important connection at either ends of journeys on public transport, as well as a way of making journeys of 5-10 miles into towns and cities (increasingly likely with the widespread prevalence of e-bikes), any new road and rail infrastructure should consider opportunities for developing walking and cycling links as part of that development. All too often new projects can impose barriers on these modes of transport; failing to think ‘strategically’ will fail to deliver important new connections for walking and cycling.

A ‘by-product’ underpass for walking and cycling in Nijmegen – a useful direct route, delivered as part of a junction upgrade

A new cycling and walking underpass under a motorway on the outskirts of Delft, providing a direct route into the city centre.

A new cycling and walking suspension bridge, spanning a large new turbo roundabout near the Hook of Holland

A cycling suspension bridge, providing a direct route across a large junction on the outskirts of the city of Zwolle

In the Netherlands, not only is cycling catered for ‘strategically’ in planning – in other words, it is taken just as seriously as other modes of transport – but it is also embedded in road and rail projects too, ensuring that cycling actually benefits from schemes that deliver other aims.

With the increasing importance of improving public health, and the importance of ensuring that – with more and more of us living in urban areas – we make journeys by the most efficient, healthy and sustainable modes of transport, a failure to think genuinely strategically about walking and cycling would be truly disastrous. We need to make those short, sub 5 mile trips as easy, as safe and as convenient as possible, by walking and cycling. That won’t happen if it these modes get ignored by the organisations with power and responsibility.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Why so angry

Take a look at this short video [language warning].

It’s a woman attempting to cycle along Upper Thames Street, and having to come to a stop as two HGVs barrel past her, at speed. You can actually hear the fear in her voice.

This was of course back in 2011. This section of road looks very different now.

The lane in which the two HGVs thundered past the frightened woman has been replaced by a protected cycleway. The post box where she was forced to come to a halt is visible in the photograph above, with a father and his young son cycling past it, side by side. It’s precisely the same location. There is an HGV in the background of the photograph, but it won’t come anywhere near these two. The contrast is total.


There is a cliché of cycle campaigners being angry, or aggressive. That we froth, won’t compromise – that we are fanatics, or ‘militant’. While I tend to resist these kinds of lazy stereotypes, I think the juxtaposition between the scary video and the present-day situation on Upper Thames Street goes a long way towards explaining why we might come across this like this.

We are scared. We are frequently put in intimidating or dangerous situations, not through any fault of our own, but through the indifference of highway engineers and politicians, and (very often) the people driving motor vehicles that we are forced to share the roads with. It doesn’t take much searching to find these kinds of incidents on social media.

Even as I write this now, similar kinds of incidents are popping up in my timeline.

Near misses are an everyday experience for people who cycle, and – tellingly – they are experienced more frequently by women, and people who cycle more slowly.

Cycling speed is the main factor affecting near miss rates: those who reach their destination at an average speed of under 8 mph have around three times more near misses per mile compared to those who get there at 12 mph or faster.

So we are scared. And we want that this fear to go away. We don’t want our journeys to be punctuated with near-death experiences, or fraught with danger and hostility. We’d also like to see our friends and family able to accompany us when we travel around, and not see their horizons limited. We’d like them to experience the freedom we enjoy, and not be forced into using less convenient (and objectively more dangerous) modes of transport because of fear.

So when we seem to get angry, or ‘militant’, with people who oppose engineering schemes that would replace danger with safety, it’s not for the fun of it, or because of any inherent flaw in our nature. It’s because that opposition has consequences. It means people trembling at the side of the road, swearing uncontrollably, as vehicles thunder past them. It means people continuing to be seriously injured or killed on these roads. It means our day-to-day trips are much more scary and unpleasant than they need to be. It means that people who want to cycle can’t. That’s why we’re angry.

We don’t tolerate it with other modes of transport. We expect to be able to use buses or trains without visceral fear, or having to glance over our shoulder as someone pilots a vehicle that could easily maim or kill with a minor error or misjudgement, within inches of us. We shouldn’t tolerate people having to give up using a mode of transport because of fear, or people not being able to use a mode of transport they enjoy, because of fear.

So if you think that we’re angry, at the very least reflect for a moment on why that might be the case.

Posted in Uncategorized | 17 Comments