Sharing and caring

The website The American Conservative has published a deeply, deeply confused piece about road design, apparently inspired by the announcement the cycle ‘Superhighways’ in London will be going ahead.

The tone is set in the opening paragraphs.

 Jacobs eventually prevailed, protecting her community and signaling a shift against the city central planners who had dug up or flattened large swaths of American cities in the name of progress, urban renewal, and the automobile age. Jacobs’s victory against the urban highway is still spoken of in almost reverential tones by many committed to healthy cities and strong communities.

Until, that is, they were offered a highway for bikes.

the effusive praise heaped on these cycle superhighways is strangely reminiscent of the rhetoric of 50 years ago used to coax cities into building the original highways urbanists so lament today.

The superficial logic here appears to be that – because highways were bad when Robert Moses attempted to drive them through Manhattan, knocking down buildings and any other structures that were in their way, any other kind of ‘highway’ must also be bad.

This is so silly it shouldn’t really merit discussion at all, but for the sake of argument let’s examine why. Moses’ highway plans involved destruction on a vast scale – it did, literally, involve flattening, along with community severance, noise, danger, sprawl, and the myriad other problems detailed in Jane Jacobs’ book.

Image from here.

But the ‘highways’ being planned in London don’t involve any destruction, whatsoever. They are merely a reallocation of existing road space, away from motor traffic, and towards the bicycle and, to a lesser, extent,towards walking).

Stopping this project wouldn’t be any kind victory against ‘the highway’, because ‘the highway’ would still exist. It would be composed of four lanes of motor traffic, instead of the proposed two or three, with more space for cycling and walking.To suggest that this kind of intervention has to be opposed by those ‘committed to healthy cities and strong communities’ on the grounds of consistency is utterly ludicrous.

Lurking behind this incoherent introduction, however, is a marginally more substantive argument – namely, that the way to get everyone to behave better, and to increase safety, is to mix everything up – to push all modes together, into the same space.

This is the broad brush argument against ‘segregation’, which makes little or no distinction between the kind of segregation employed by the motor traffic-fixated highway engineers and city planners, of the mid-20th century, and the kinds of segregation represented by London’s proposed cycle Superhighways – and indeed the Dutch and Danish national approach to urban design. (I’ve commented before on this tendency to lump in progressive attempts to separate motor traffic away from people with the ugly, hard and unpleasant designs that got people out of the way of motor traffic).

It is almost as simplistic as the argument that bicycle ‘highways’ must be bad in urban areas, because motorways in urban areas are bad. It suggests that separating walking, cycling and driving from each other is intrinsically bad, for much the same reason – because this was the philosophy of planners like Moses.

So we find the author of this American Conservative piece, Jonathan Coppage, opining that

Urbanists rightly, and often, decry [the] auto-centric legacy that yielded the streets to one mode of traffic alone. But many are also fond of their bicycle, and can’t help but be tempted by the idea of cruising along smoothly, with no cars, no pedestrians, no dangers to worry about on their commute. That is exactly what is wrong with putting highways in cities in the first place.

City streets should be in a continual conversation with the buildings surrounding them, with the people flowing in and out.

To be consistent, anyone taking this position should oppose footways, as these are, of course, a yielding of the street to ‘one mode of traffic alone’. But this isn’t what is being argued.

Instead a concurrent argument is made about ‘segregation’ being unsafe –

Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous… Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest

Likewise, consistency here would involve arguing that footways make people feel safe, and that people walking should be exposed to the ‘dynamism around them’, to ‘keep them honest.’ But no. Apparently it is only bicycle traffic that doesn’t merit its own dedicated space on busy roads.

No sane author would attempt to suggest mingling pedestrians in with motor traffic on a road like the Embankment is appropriate, either on grounds of aesthetics or safety. Because it is a thunderous road carrying tens of thousands of motor vehicles a day, including coaches and lorries. Yet this is apparently the place for people on bicycles.


People flowing in and out here?

This is the confused world of the ‘shared space’ advocate, who insists that the ‘correct’ approach is to mix cycle traffic with motor traffic, citing ‘powerful examples’ of shared space that aren’t in the least bit shared –

London already has powerful examples of the power of “shared space” on its busy Kensington High Street, which ripped out many of the protective barriers and warning signs as an aesthetic renovation that was subsequently followed by a drop in accidents. To give bicyclists their own carve-out would be a step backwards in the revitalization of the city, not forwards.

Unfortunately Kensington High Street has footways for pedestrians, kerbs, and a highly distinct road, for motor traffic.

Not shared.

And despite all the bleating about keeping people ‘alert’, and ensuring they don’t drift into complacency on busy streets, there is apparently is no consideration of how attractive it is to cycle on these roads mixed in with motor traffic, not just for the tiny minority people currently willing to do so, but (more importantly) for the vast majority of people who wouldn’t dream of doing so.

Would these people really be better off mixed in with motor traffic?

Would this family really be better off mixed in with motor traffic?

The ‘vision’ – such as it is – has no conception of broadening out cycling beyond the current 1-2% share of trips in cities like London. Instead it involves using existing cyclists as a form of sacrificial lamb, in a deluded attempt to keep drivers in check by putting hazards in their way.

It’s an approach to road safety and road design completely divorced from reality.

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18 Responses to Sharing and caring

  1. vreadhead says:

    There is a view that Superhighway is not the best name, it conjures up a ‘fast Highway’ image With this in mind, I have devised The Blue Ribbon Network, a joined up cycling network based on the Subterranean Rivers of London. In this case Superhighways are cycling ‘Rivers’ ,Quietways are ‘Riverlets’ and Home Zones or Filtered Permeable Networks are ‘Backwaters’. these could be joined up by ‘Blue Routes’ or ‘Streams’ (like Bus Red Routes without parked cars) Everything is tied together with the colour blue ( with double blue lines replacing yellow lines in the Home Zones). This concept brings together the history and Geography of London and creates a consistant theme that helps join up the DIY and disjointed current infrastructure and projects.

    • ORiordan says:

      TfL may be in a position to come up with uniform design standards for their roads, but they will have difficulty imposing these on roads they don’t control. One of the reasons that RB Kensington & Chelsea gave for opposing a CS down Kensington High St is they didn’t like the garish blue colour…. I think the Royal Palaces also mentioned the colour in the recent CS response as well. In the case of RBKC, the colour appears to be more important than Kensington High St being a congested traffic sewer.

      • Paul says:

        RB Kensington & Chelsea are just looking for an excuse to be anti-cycling.

      • Michael J says:

        Of course there’s no reason for them to be a specific colour at all – if they are protected lanes then they can be the same colour as either the pavement or the road, or that nice reddish colour used in the Netherlands (and some places here). Colouring the surface a continuous bright blue was another mistake (along with the “superhighway” name)

        • USBike says:

          Some painted and buffered bike lanes in the US are colored bright green, which in my opinion is the not the most attractive choice. I think part of that may be due to the environmental aspect. Cycling is still largely advocated as being an environmentally-friendly method of transport, which it is. But we’d probably get better results, or at least more support, if the marketing was focused more on the practicality, cost-savings and health benefits, etc.

          For the pavement coloring, I wish they would use a shade more like the reddish color common in the Netherlands-that red is also the actual color of the pavement which is another plus. The continuous blue of the superhighways in the UK also does not seem to be the best idea either. If anything, they should have just used it across junctions, as is sometimes done in Denmark.

  2. velovoiceblogspot says:

    You usually say things far more eloquently than I ever could, so I simply share/re-tweet your excellent posts. However, you’re being far too diplomatic here! Can we name and shame these incredibly dangerous people??

    I nearly put my head down on my desk in despair reading this. Which hasn’t happened in nearly a month. We’re seeing glimmers of real hope here. Why are a few selfish/deleted/privileged (delete as appropriate) people so determined to wreck things for the majority of us?

    • velovoiceblogspot says:

      By “name and shame”, I mean really seriously publicise and hold up to scrutiny. You have of course already supplied the names of the guilty.

  3. Andy Clarke says:

    I read this article a few days ago when it was tweeted by Vincent Stops, a fanatical anti-segregationist Hackney Councillor, bus junkie and mentor of the like-minded and maveric Hackney Cycling Campaign.There isn’t single example in the world of a city where cycles, pedestrians and motor vehicles share space in any concentration in harmony and in safety. Has the quality of life for all in Dutch (and Scandinavian) towns and cities improved of the thirty years, or have they a lesson or two to learn from environmental nirvanas of Kensington High Street, Exhibition Road or indeed Kingsland High Street, where zero provision for cycling is described, I kid you not, as ‘perfect for cycling’?. .

  4. Dan B says:

    ALL traffic is separated to some extent. In this country we drive on the left hand side of the available road. In others they drive on the right. This is clearly done to make the roads safer for people to use. Why do the “shared space” advocates not argue against separation of traffic by choice of direction? Or is space only to be ‘shared’ by those without the power to ensure their own safety if others don’t want to share?

  5. I’m sorry has High Street Ken has “improvements”? I’ve only had need to use it a few times and it looks pretty much like every other bloody horrid central London A-road; multiple lanes of traffic ith sod all consideration that someone may dare to ride along on their bike. The only difference I noticed was that if I wanted to park my bike up I’m forced to use the central reservation strip and so need to cross back over the same 2 lanes of traffic I as just riding in to get to the shops, not to mention when you want to ride off you have to start from the “wrong” side but then what do I expect from TFL and London councils in general?

  6. Paul says:

    I think your point about footways for pedestrians is crucial. Cyclists are as distinct from motor traffic as pedestrians and so in roads where a separate footway is regarded as essential a separate cycleway would be the logical default. Where motor traffic is very limited (eg Kingston Market Place) shared space will probably work.

  7. pm says:

    “Segregated travel lanes make people feel comfortable by separating them. They make them feel safe. And that can make them especially dangerous… Exposure to all the dynamism around them can in fact keep them aware of their surroundings, and keep all the users of a street honest”

    This sounds like exactly the disingenuous stuff the ‘shared space’ people come out with, with their talk of the lion and the lamb ‘negotiating’ what to have for lunch. Its interesting to me how closely this type of thinking seems to be linked to the political right.
    Its also interesting how the above paragraph seems to have little relation to empirical data – countries with segregation clearly don’t have ‘increased danger’.

    Yet I guess there are multiple strands to this – not all anti-segregationists are shared-space supporters, and some of them, I think, argue in better faith than others.

    • I recall John Franklin used to argue that danger enhanced safety, but people such as him come from an environment with few cyclists on the roads and don’t have the experience/insight to understand the needs of mass cycling levels and the level of attention needed by cyclists in busy cycling environments. Their understanding of cycling skill is dumbed down to being all about cycling with motors. Cycling with other cyclists gets only 2 mentions in my copy of Franklin’s Cyclecraft book, confined to ‘other hazards’ section (IIRC). The mass cycling environment is demanding of continual close attentiveness, like mixing with motors, but cycling with other cyclists is simply not as dangerous as mixing two types of mode with vastly different speeds and other technical characteristics. So basically the ‘lulled into false security’ argument really means ‘I know nothing about cycling’.

  8. Bez says:

    Why have Kensington Council started putting up signs saying “Go full screen” on traffic light poles?

  9. lorenzo3249 says:

    There’s a new ‘graphic novel’ out about Moses (it says here) ‘for those who can’t be bothered reading the 1’200 pages of Robert Caro’s Power Broker masterpiece’ I think I stopped about a third of the way through the Caro version when my second son was born and never restarted. The Death and Life of Great American Cities is a much more pleasing read of course.

  10. pm says:

    Just noticed this in the original article

    “It is why cars driving down streets with unmarked bike lanes tend to give cyclists a wider berth than those with painted lines.”

    Its those self-driving cars again! I didn’t realise they had escaped Google’s lab!

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