Trying it out

Last year I wrote about the stalled attempts to improve Bank junction in the City of London. The problem appears to be the time it is taking the City to model the effects of potential changes to the junction – in fact, the City are developing a new model from scratch, which is taking eighteen months, meaning results won’t even be in until Spring 2016.

Our next task will be to build a computer traffic model to assess what is likely to happen if traffic is prevented from crossing the junction for example in certain directions or times of day. Information from pedestrian and cycling movements will also help to develop solutions. This is likely to be a big piece of work and will take some time to complete but it is very important to have credible options for alterations to the junction. We hope to have this work completed by early 2016.

As I wrote then, this is a very time-consuming and expensive way of finding out something that could be established by trial arrangements, on the street itself; this could involve closing or restricting some of the streets in the area to motor traffic. Such a trial could be temporary, meaning that if genuine chaos did ensue, then the layout could be reverted back to normal very quickly, with alternative arrangements tried at a later date. The results of such a trial – given that they correspond to the real world – would also be much more accurate than those provided a model, even a very expensive one.

Of course tragedy struck at this junction last month, with the death of Ying Tao. If action had been taken more quickly to try out arrangements to improve Bank, rather than waiting years to develop and test a model, then improvements could already have been in place by now.

In a similar vein, in their response to the consultation on Quietway 2 in London, Transport for London rejected closing parts of the Quietway as a through-route to motor traffic, for the following reason –

Some respondents to the consultation felt that closing Calthorpe Street and/or Margery Street to general traffic would be a more appropriate intervention. The changes proposed at this junction are due to be delivered this year, in line with the opening of the new Quietway route. These suggestions would have a wider impact of LB Camden and LB Islington’s road network and would require much further investigation. It is considered this would not be deliverable within the timescale, as investigation would be needed of the impact on adjacent streets.

Such a measure would apparently require ‘much further investigation’, because of the impacts on the surrounding road network.

As it happens, I was passing along this very road – Calthorpe Street – earlier this week, and was amazed to discover that it was actually filtered, in the way respondents to the consultation had been calling for.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.23.59Well, not in exactly the same way – people cycling were bumping up onto the footway to get around the closure. But the effect is the same. What look like some water main repairs have seen the total closure of this street to motor traffic.

Was there carnage on the surrounding streets? Total gridlock? I didn’t come across any, at least nothing out of the ordinary for London. At the very least a simple trial closure like this could be implemented for, say, six weeks to genuinely investigate whether such a closure would cause gridlock elsewhere. It would also give residents (who, by the way, are in favour of such a closure on this street) a chance to experience the benefits in terms of quieter and safer streets for a short period, buying-in support for a permanent closure.

What seems to be at play here, both at Bank and with TfL’s response to closure requests, is what Rachel Aldred has recently called

The terrifying spectre of delays to motor traffic

Fear of holding up drivers, even for a few more minutes, seems to be crippling, to such an extent that rather than just trying out closures we will spend years developing models, or carrying out ‘much further investigation’, to establish what we could find out quickly and easily by on-the-ground trials.

To be fair, some local authorities are much bolder, and are keen and willing to experiment with reducing routes and capacity for motor traffic. Last year Camden coned off a lane on the entry to Royal College Street, just to see what happened.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.36.26Answer – nothing happened. Traffic still flowed.

That means there’s a whole lane’s worth of space that can be (and is now) being re-allocated to cycle provision on St Pancras road, in the form of a stepped cycle track.

And this week Camden announced plans to trial reallocating an entire vehicle lane along the Tavistock Place route to a westbound cycle lane, restricting this road to one-way for motor traffic, in opposing directions (which should mean a large reduction in through motor traffic too). The existing two-way track, grossly over-capacity, will become a one-way track. More about this in a future post.

Waltham Forest are also keen to experiment; their bold mini-Holland scheme of closures to through traffic is now becoming permanent.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.43.24And in Leicester – were the Cycling Embassy spent last weekend for their AGM – the council is apparently keen to trial lane closures in advance of building cycling infrastructure. This cycle track on Newarke Street, built on a vehicle lane, was preceded by a coning off of the lane in question, to examine the effects on motor traffic.

Spot the lawbreaker.

Spot the lawbreaker.

And a similar ‘coning off’ was recently performed by Leicester City Council on the nearby Welford Road – a lane was deliberately taken away to see what happened.

Screen Shot 2015-07-03 at 11.48.01Again, we were told that the impacts on motor traffic were minimal – and presumably some cycling infrastructure is now planned for this pretty scary road.

Finally, CycleGaz spotted another recent temporary trial arrangement on Norbury Avenue – this one for three months.

These kind of trials don’t really require that much boldness; they’re cheap, quick to install, and can be reversed at the end of the trial if they prove to be unpopular, or if genuine gridlock does actually result.

Why can’t other councils and transport authorities break out of their paralysing fear of effects on motor traffic, and emulate what Camden, Leicester, Waltham Forest, Croydon and other councils are willing to try out?


Another example!

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20 Responses to Trying it out

  1. I think the reason is a distinct lack of imagination. Like you say, how much does it cost to put in a few bollards and barriers? Why spend 18 months building a theoretical model when you can just try it out in reality in a much shorter time and probably at a fraction of the cost. Over those 18 months they could have tried out 6 different configurations for 3 months each if they wanted. Perhaps some of these planning departments could try getting out where the sun shines, rather than keeping their heads where it doesn’t! (I am of course referring to inside their offices)

  2. Paul M says:

    I rather wonder whether it reflects where local councillors actually take their instructions from. Sure, there is usually an almighty fuss from motorists about their journeys being delayed by a few secons (possibly, though they don’t really know), and the Croydon blog you link to comes up with much of the usual guff spouted by petrolheads in these circumstances, but I remain convinced that the true influencers are the people within the councillors’ circles, the people they socialise with in the golf club or wherever.

    This isn’t definitively a party-political issue as such, but it is noteworthy that the three cases of deliberate permeability trials you quote above were in Labour-controlled councils, while the worst of all, Westminster, is bluer than blue, and the City, which stands somewhere in between, is ostensibly entirely non-party-political.

    The crap about models reeks to me of long grass for kicking into.

    • Har Davids says:

      The movers and shakers don’t want to upset the status quo and just pay lip-service to the need of change, totally ignoring long-term benefits of decisions taken. There are plenty of examples of cities where things are really done, but that may have something to do with there being less pandering to the motorist in general: ideology over pragmatism.

      • Dan B says:

        People don’t like change – “better the devil you know than the devil you don’t”. Even if the devil you know is horrible, is poisoning the air we breathe and causing traffic jams, and the new devil helps your kids walk or cycle to school in safety, play in the street and live somewhere nicer.

        The Waltham Forest “Mini Holland” scheme trialled some stuff for a couple of weeks, and most of the feedback was pretty positive, and included people on the edge of the trial area wanting their road to be included.

        We need to find a way to coordinate utilities works and cycle infrastructure trials in a way to test the advantages and disadvantages in particular areas AT NO COST TO THE COUNCIL, except for monitoring. Any ideas?

        • Har Davids says:

          Maybe it would be a good idea to look at the average speed of the car in certain areas and close them for private cars during parts of the day, allowing cyclists and pedestrians more space and safety. Car ownership is still growing and short-term accommodation isn’t going to work: more grid-lock, pollution, obesity etc. As long as motorists expect others to do the right thing, so they can keep on driving, nothing will change.

          And the costs are already there, it’s just that money is wasted on the (im)mobility of cars.

  3. Rob C says:

    I think there is probably an element of job justification within local councils. If the approach taken were just to implement simple things on a trial basis a lot of people within planning/roads departments would be left twiddling their thumbs. All this talk of “models being developed” serves as a justification. If you need a better illustration, watch the clip from Yes Prime Minister where Sir Humphrey explains to Bernard how local government would be a bad thing. The phrase “months of fruitful work” seems particularly apt for all this talk of traffic modelling

    ps: long time reader of your blog and your tweets, you do a top job and I’ve pointed many a sceptic to your writings.

    • Al says:

      Very few people employed by local authorities are actually traffic modellers, that work is often done by consultants

  4. joel_c says:

    This sort of trial and error approach is nothing new – it seems to be “rediscovered” every decade or so. Check out these pictures of Glasgow’s Buchanan Street on the “Urban Glasgow” forum:

    In particular, compare and contrast “Buchanan Street (1967)” versus “Buchanan Street@St Vincent Street” and “Buchanan Street at St Vincent Street – May 1974” – you can see the use of temporary barriers and planters to close off the ends of the road. Now, Buchanan Street is arguably the best shopping street in the UK, in no small part due to it being almost entirely traffic free (east-bound motor traffic still crosses at St. VIncent Street and Nelson Mandela Place) – I doubt many Glaswegians are even aware it had motor traffic on it at one time or would want it back if offered

    Also, according to a post from the same forum, the pedestrianization of Argyle Street* was apparently due to an accident of circumstance. Part of the road was shut off in order to re-develop the old Argyle Street low-level station (which had been mothballed in the late 60s) and when people liked it, they never re-opened it to traffic. Bearing in mind that Argyle Street was once THE major East/West traffic route across Glasgow (a status interrupted by the building of the M8 motorway mind you), would this have happened if they’d spent years making traffic models?

    (*) subsequently, the shops have suffered a relative decline, but that’s more to do with the opening of the nearby indoor St. Enoch Centre and the Buchanan Galleries.

  5. Phil Jones says:

    Good post Mark. I’ve always pushed for trials, but councils often resist them because of the significant public relations challenge they bring. It can be cheaper (and easier to manage) to just do a quick study on the quiet. The problem is that the assessments normally assume a fixed trip matrix (same traffic, before and after) whereas in reality motor traffic in the area often goes down as people retime or reroute, change mode or just don’t travel. “Traffic Evaporation”. Sometimes the proposals are too hard to model though – wholesale changes to traffic management across an area, say, so we will always need to model some things.

    The good news is that trialling is becoming more common, certainly across London. Andrew Gilligan likes it…

    • Joel Cooney says:

      What bothers me is how often accidental, temporary infrastructure trials are overlooked. Councils and Co should attempt to take advantage of these serendipitous events to gather data.

      At a busy junctiom on a street near me (Cathcart Road), for several years some temporary roadworks sat at the head of the junction, reducing two lanes to one (I think there was some dispute over works in the road or who was responsible for carrying out repairs). Traffic flow wasn’t unduly affected, given that the road in question becomes a virtual car park during morning rush-hour.

      One day, the roadworks just vanished and the junction regained it’s second lane, with no attempt to either build out the pavement or similar interventions to make it a permanent fixture.

      More recently, a large section of Broomielaw was sectioned off for a segregated bus way which wasn’t used for about 6 months – it became a de facto two way cycle path but (it would appear) no one at the council noticed.

  6. Great post as usual Mark. It’s not just local councils that are reluctant to engage in trials – for almost 20 years now the Royal Parks Authority (RPA) has refused to implement a key recommendation of the Dame Jennifer Jenkins 1996 Royal Parks Review that, subject to surveys, Richmond Park should be closed to through traffic at busy weekends. The surveys were subsequently done and showed that over 95% of weekday traffic is rat-running straight through the park; at weekends this only drops to 80%.

    No-one can pretend there would be traffic chaos if cars were banned because the park closes its gates to motors at dusk throughout the year, well ahead of the evening rush hour in winter. And the park closed for several months in 2001 for foot and mouth disease – as Phil Jones writes above traffic soon adjusted, or “evaporated”.

    Richmond Park is a National Nature Reserve and also a designated Site of Special Scientific Interest, but NOT part of the highway system. Why does the (unelected) RPA show no interest in a trial car-free day?

    • I’ve wondered this for ages, have asked questions but never really got anywhere. Just why are the Royal Parks people so keen on having rat-runs cutting through them? What do they get out of it?

      There must be some maintenance grant which they receive, or something. There just has to be a financial angle to it. I can’t think why they’d be so defensive of these roads otherwise.

      • Paul says:

        I suspect that Royal Parks just like to have good relations with the adjacent borough councils and the flack flying from motorists that have journey times lengthened would be considerable.

  7. There are three long-term street closures in my neighbourhood – why reopen them I ask in a blog post:

  8. rdrf says:

    Some points:
    1. You always have to remember what Phil Jones says above the assumptions involved in the modelling – if the overall ideology/practice is to attempt to accommodate as much motor traffic as possible, then you end up defending the status quo. An argument for trialling.

    2. It is not just local Councils, TfL has in the past been locked into resistance to reducing motor vehicular traffic capacity.

    3. “Trialling” is to some extent involved in most highways projects. There is an assumption that if something goes wrong, the scheme can be re-engineered or taken out altogether. A willingness to experiment has always been there – except it has to been to accommodate more motor traffic (and often more careless) drivers.

    • Mark Williams says:

      On point 1: I think you’ve got the cause and effect back-to-front. It’s more plausible that most/ all models have been rigged to reliably deliver the ideology even in the hands of the sorts of clowns who work for councils and their `consultants’ (no offence intended in either case)—i.e. are examples of `policy based evidence making’. It would not come as a surprise to find that running such models is effectively compulsory. Of course, the internal workings of these models are jealously guarded proprietary secrets, thereby denying tax payers the opportunity to inspect them, locate any rigging (or verify its absence!) and identify the culprits who put it there…

      On point 2: TFL are still doing this right into the present and future—notice how little cycle infrastructure is proposed/ built anywhere near TLRN and the different set of excuses which are trotted out when they can’t use another highway authority as a smokescreen. All quite shameful.

  9. Al says:

    Isn’t the problem partially that if you reduce capacity and don’t believe in traffic evaporation (as many/most LAs don’t) then you are left to redistribute those trips elsewhere on the nearby network, if this is close to capacity then you would be fearful that everything would fall over were you to reduce capacity. Modelling is thus a more safety-first approach.

  10. rdrf says:

    Al, for “safety-first” (interestingly, a slogan of the “road safety” movement) read “keep accommodating more – and careless – driving”.

    Now, it may well be the case that capacity reduction does not always lead to (motor) traffic evaporation. That is an argument for measures which would reduce the amount of motor vehicle traffic:

    1. a higher cost of motoring (through carbon rationing, petrol price raising through restoring fuel duty (and increasing it), road pricing.
    2.Enforcing road traffic law and using power to ban drivers who persistently offend, plus deter bad driving.
    3.Reducing parking spaces at origins and destinations. And also
    4.genuinely support cycling.

    those measures would reduce motor vehicular traffic.

  11. Marcus says:

    They are building new speed tables on Shepardess Walk at the moment (part of a quietway program), which has necessitated closing a portion of the street. Its been going on for over a week now with no discernable impact on traffic. I am going to propose to Hackney they permanently filter the road, as the speed tables they are installing will have a negligible effect on traffic volume or speed for that matter.

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