Having some spare time in London yesterday, I went over to Bow to see how the new junction design on the roundabout is working.
The Superhighway (CS2) on the approach to the roundabout is deeply unimpressive. Blocked intermittently with queuing vehicles, it might as well not be there.
As we approach the roundabout, there is a warning sign for drivers, alerting them to a ‘new layout ahead’.
Drivers need warning, because it is very new. And unique. There is no other junction arranged like this in the UK.
The whole point of the redesign has been to attempt to eliminate conflicts between left-turning vehicles and cyclists wishing to proceed straight on at the roundabout. It was these conflicts that resulted in the deaths of Brian Dorling at the location of the redesign, and Svetlana Tereschenko, heading west on the other side of the roundabout, where there have been no changes at all.
While the intentions are good, the final result is a bit of a grotesque muddle. The untried nature of this junction design is immediately apparent from a few minutes observation, watching how bicycles and motorists move through it.
The big headline recently has been the removal of a section of kerb separation, which was so long that vehicles were bumping over it as they moved onto the roundabout. You can see where the section used to be (the darker section of tarmac) in this photograph.
This removal isn’t actually all that big a deal for cyclists. It doesn’t affect the way the junction works – or should work – for them, nor should it affect their safety, if it is working as it is intended. Nonetheless, I think it is slightly symptomatic of the way this redesign has been implemented that a kerb was built which was obviously going to get in the way of turning vehicles.
With the old kerb in place, I can’t see how it would have been possible for a large vehicle to pass safely through the junction with a vehicle alongside it. The positioning of the kerb was a cock-up; it was just too tight for drivers of large vehicles to get around, going straight on while the two lane junction flows left onto the roundabout.
Amazingly, the real issue is that space at the mouth of this junction is constrained because of a drive-through entrance to a McDonalds on the left hand side.
The pavement can’t move left because of the drive-through, so the cycle lane can’t move left, and so the kerb separator can’t move left. That’s why it’s had to be removed – McDonalds has made the junction too tight.
As I say, the removal of the kerb is not an issue in and of itself; the stop line for bicycles still lies behind the end of the kerb, as does that for motorists. These two lines should not, theoretically, be crossed simultaneously.
The real problems – the manifold problems – with this design have nothing to do with the kerb. They all stem from the fact that there are four virtually identical traffic lights in a row, with different meanings.
My initial concern was that cyclists would not stop at this light while motorists had a green light beside them. This concern was well-founded. I didn’t see a single cyclist stop at this light while I was at the junction, and the Met Cycle Task Force police officer I spoke to said he had only seen three stop there all day. This was confirmed by a TfL chap who had been on site, on and off, for five hours that same day, doing counts.
This isn’t suprising, because the ‘main’ lights for the junction are green, and it seems obvious to progress through with the rest of the flow. The result, however, is precisely the same left-hook conflicts that the new junction design sought to eliminate. Here is what happened while I was standing at the junction.
A cyclist ignores the initial ‘ASL’ red light, joining the flow of vehicles, and is promptly in a ‘left hook’ conflict with a van turning left.
Similarly, these cyclists have passed through ‘their’ red light (two of them evidently want to turn right at the roundabout, and give up, heading across the pavement). The consequences are again dangerous, and I have to say it’s surely only a matter of time before there’s another serious, and all-too-familiar, accident here.
These cyclists are not necessarily law-breakers – they’re most likely confused. A light signal to enter another small section of road, just a few yards ahead, is unheard of, and just a bit weird; likewise, the idea of being held at a red light when you can see the ‘safe’ blue paint extending ahead of you, and vehicles progressing beside you, is odd.
Another problem – one which I had not anticipated – is that cyclists are interpreting the two ‘green’ bicycle lights on the traffic lights for entry to the ‘ASL’ as green lights to progress across the entire roundabout. Incredibly dangerous. A local PCSO at the junction – a lady who was actually present at the aftermath of the Svetlana Tereschenko incident, and described to me her horror at the scene – told me that just before I had arrived, a young lady went straight on across the roundabout, narrowly being missed by a fast car coming around it and taking the A12 exit. I saw the same innocent mistake being made by one cyclist as I stood at the roundabout; she rode straight down the separated lane and onto the roundabout, progressing on a ‘green’ bicycle signal that in reality only meant it was safe for her to enter the ‘ASL’, not the roundabout. Fortunately there were no vehicles moving around it.
There is more ambiguity. These cyclists, shown below, went through the green ‘bicycle’ lights, but then stopped at the first red light beyond it, instead of progressing all the way up to the stop line at the final set of traffic lights.
The same again with this lady, stopping at the first set of the two ‘vehicle’ lights.
This means that when the lights go green, cyclists are setting off adjacent to the vehicles. Another source of left hook conflicts.
Drivers were also confused by the double/triple/quadruple set of lights. They should be stopping at the first solid white line, but a further solid white line, and a final set of lights, without any indication that the area in between is ‘for bikes’ (like with a traditional ASL), meant that many just rolled up to the final set of lights. It’s hard to see because they are shielded, but they remain green after the first set have gone red. This van driver was evidently driving to the second set.
Naturally when a vehicle is positioned like this, cyclists have no positional or temporal advantage to get them through the junction safely.
Here’s another driver driving to the final set of lights.
The whole concept of having two stop lines for vehicles, with two different sets of lights that go red and green at different times is, to me, utterly baffling, and it is proving to be so for drivers. There should just be one stop line, the initial one, and one set of lights. That would remove the ambiguity at a stroke, and also ensure that vehicles are held back. The final set of lights should be for bicycles only, although it is hard to see how this could be shielded to prevent confusion. Another problem. Finally, some confused drivers were stopping well short of the junction, at the red light for bicycle entry to the ‘ASL’.
The timings, as things stand, are not generous either. The final set of lights – which, remember, should be for bicycles only, and not for the vehicles that through confusion have ended up at the final line – turn green only about a second before the ‘vehicle’ set.
With such a small difference, vehicles that accelerate quickly will surely get into just the same left-hook conflicts with slow-off-the-mark cyclists as existed before.
It’s nice that TfL have attempted something here, but unfortunately it’s a bit of a mess. There are too many signals, too many lines, and far too much ambiguity. The exact same turning conflicts that gave rise to the deaths that prompted the work still exist.
The most sensible solution would, of course, be a dedicated, clear, phase allowing bicycles to progress east across the roundabout, and pedestrians, likewise, to cross the A12 sliproad, with left-turning vehicles held explicitly at a red light. Those left-turning vehicles could then move off while bicycles and pedestrians are themselves held at a red light. This is not rocket science – it’s how the Dutch have safely designed large junctions for bicycles and pedestrians for decades.
What we currently have at Bow is a sorry compromise that isn’t really going to work safely, a compromise that has been wedged in because junction capacity for motor vehicles seemingly cannot be reduced, even marginally. Until that changes, pedestrians and cyclists will continue to be treated shabbily.
One thing I forgot to mention in my post is the difficulty of conventional ‘filtering’ through the traffic here.
This is a basic problem across much of London; filtering is difficult and unpleasant when vehicles are jammed up against each other. A couple of motorcycles decided to use the cycle lane, and were swiftly told off by the police.
To my mind, this makes an unanswerable case for space for cycling, protected space that cannot be invaded. ‘Primary’ position is all well and good, and is almost certainly quite a safe way to cycle around if you are confident; however in situations like this it is almost always far quicker and more pleasant to use cycle tracks and lanes, even for experienced cyclists, as well as being less unnerving.
The issue then becomes one of how to plonk cyclists into a primary position at junctions, when you have delivered them there at the side of the road. I don’t think that is ever going to work, not least because the vast majority of people don’t want to plonk themselves in front of buses and HGVs around a busy roundabout. The solution must surely involve keeping those cyclists separated from fast and heavy traffic in the junction, as well as along the roads leading to it. This is what has been proven to work; a way of allowing people riding bikes of all ages and abilities to negotiate junctions like this one.
Unbeknownst to me, the excellent Diamond Geezer has also visited and blogged about these very same ‘improvements’, reaching pretty much the same conclusions, and in more detail. Well worth a read.