It’s noteworthy that the North-South and East-West Superhighway schemes, which (while not perfect by any means) are the most ambitious and inclusive designs for cycling currently on the table in Britain, barely use any Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs) on the length of their route. The Superhighways are good because they do not use ASLs, among other reasons.
Indeed, more generally, good cycling schemes don’t involve ASLs.
That’s because ASLs are lipstick on a pig. They are a tokenistic attempt to provide something a bit ‘cycle-friendly’, a veneer of legitimacy, while doing next to nothing to address objective problems of safety (and, as we shall see, often creating problems of safety), or to create an environment that feels safe and comfortable to cycle in.
Good cycling schemes separate cycling, temporally and/or spatially, at major junctions, or they involve lowering motor traffic levels to a point at which ASLs are redundant. The reason why ASLs are disappearing from the Netherlands is that the maximum motor traffic threshold for their use is roughly equivalent to the point at which traffic signals can, and should, be removed. That is – Dutch guidance only recommends using ASLs at a level at which traffic signals shouldn’t even be being used.
Earlier this year, I cycled for about 300 miles across the Netherlands, and I only encountered three sets of ASLs. Two sets were at objectively bad junctions –
The other set was at either end of a new Fietsstraat in Utrecht. It’s questionable whether they are even needed.
Everywhere else, I was moving through junctions that had so little motor traffic, they didn’t need traffic signals at all –
Or through junctions where signals were required, and cycling was separated from motor traffic.
Advanced Stop Lines are almost entirely absent in the Netherlands because they are a deeply mediocre approach; an attempt to accommodate cycling in an existing motor-centric template.
Why are they so dire?
Even if Advanced Stop Lines do work, they only do so on a part-time basis. When traffic signals are green, they offer absolutely no benefit at all – they’re just a large painted area on the ground. There’s no point them even being there.
When traffic signals are red, anyone who doesn’t want to find themselves in a potentially dangerous situation has to run through a complex assessment process, adjudicating the risk of attempting to reach the ASL. This flowchart from Magnatom summarises this process brilliantly.
The problem is that human beings are fallible, and they will make poor decisions and mistakes about whether to attempt to reach the ASL, or to wait safely. Impatience can’t be designed out of us; we will always want to make progress. ASLs represent a very poor way of attempting to deal with that human fallibility, especially as they may encourage poor decision-making, and do nothing to prevent dangerous outcomes.
The thunderous main roads in Horsham have recently received some tokenistic green paint at three major junctions. Many of these ASLs are often difficult (or even impossible) to access.
Even when these ASLs are apparently accessible, considerable danger is presented, as in this instance, from just the other day.
Note here that I have highlighted a young child on a bike, completely ignoring this new ‘infrastructure’, and cycling on the pavement – entirely sensibly. These ASLs have done nothing to ameliorate the hostility of these roads; even for those people who evidently want to cycle, like this young boy.
An HGV is waiting at a red light, and a nice tempting ASL is within easy reach. But (because I am reasonably clued up about these matters) I know of the lethal danger posed by this kind of situation; I don’t know where the truck is going (it isn’t signalling, at this point, and even that shouldn’t be relied upon) and I also don’t know how long the lights have been red, and thus how long that truck is going to remain stationary. So I hang back.
As it happens, only a matter of seconds later – barely enough time for me to get on the footway and photograph what happens – the truck sets off, turning left, the driver signalling now, as he turns.
This is precisely the kind of situation in which people can and do get seriously injured; attempting to reach an ASL, they find themselves on the inside of an HGV that starts to move, and get caught up under it. Indeed, UCL academics who undertook a rigorous study of the causes of cycling deaths in London came to the following conclusions –
That is – if you want to stay alive, or avoid serious injury, do not do what the paint is telling you to do.
What kind of ‘cycle provision’ is that?
Unfortunately there isn’t a great deal else, beyond ASLs, in the toolkit for designing for cycling at junctions. Our current guidance is woefully short on genuinely safe infrastructure at major junctions, and steps are only just being made to address this serious oversight. So it’s partly understandable why ASLs are still being painted out.
But their continued presence in manuals, and in new schemes, affords highway engineers, planners and (in particular) politicians a degree of complacency; it allows them to to avoid thinking about the ways in which cycling should be designed for at junctions, and to continue ignoring the serious safety problems, both objective and subjective, that these junctions present.
This is just the latest egregious example –
Not the least bit ‘cycle-friendly’, despite the copious amounts of green paint. ASLs are an easy and obvious option, when you want to pretend you’re doing something tangible.
So stripping out the ASL from the toolkit – halting the march of the Advanced Stop Line – might just force us to think a bit more carefully about how to design properly at the kinds of junction pictured above, rather than adding in those green boxes and hoping for the best. We need to be forced to think about alternatives.