The RNIB, and why it’s irrelevant where a ‘Superhighway’ actually goes

A couple of months ago I wrote about the difficulties that have been created for cycling in London by the unhelpful use of ‘Superhighway’ and ‘Quietway’ terminology. That post looked at how the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling gave the impression that ‘Superhighways’ were places for fast cycling – confident, lycra-clad men speeding along main roads – while ‘Quietways’ were places for people who wanted a slower and calmer cycling experience. This passage, in particular, was especially unhelpful –

There will be greatly-improved fast routes on busy roads for cyclists in a hurry. And there will be direct, continuous, quieter routes on side streets for new cyclists, cautious cyclists and all sorts of other people who would rather take it more slowly.

The language of ‘Superhighways’ and ‘Quietways’, I wrote,

is actually leading to worrying problems of understanding (or, more cynically, wilful misinterpretation for political expediency), particularly by prominent members of the Conservative party in London, all describing Superhighways as some kind of Mad Max-style environment where testosterone-fuelled men in lycra go to lock handlebars with one another.

And it seems problems with ‘Superhighway’ language have surfaced again, this time with the RNIB (the Royal National Institute of Blind People), who staged a protest on Friday calling for the north-south ‘Superhighway’ to be routed away from their headquarters on Judd Street in Camden.

Fazilet Hadi, director of engagement at RNIB, said: “Hundreds of people with sight loss come to RNIB each week as staff, volunteers and visitors.

“We are extremely concerned that the dramatic increase in the number of cyclists, combined with the removal of the pelican crossing, will put many blind and partially sighted people at risk of injury.”

The problem here is that, even if the ‘Superhighway’ gets routed somewhere else, Judd Street will still remain a desirable road to cycle on, even more so if the changes that Camden are proposing – independently of TfL – go ahead, both to the northern end of Judd Street, and to Midland Road, which lies directly across Euston Road from Judd Street. Let’s briefly look at those changes.

The desired proposal is to completely close the junction of Judd Street with Euston Road to motor traffic, leaving a small cycle-only access road in and out of the junction.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 22.36.54

This will be a huge change, given that this junction (looking north from Judd Street) currently looks like this.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 22.39.30

Judd Street itself will be converted into a much more pleasant environment, with substantially lower levels of motor traffic. That’s better for all the users of the street, whether they have visual impairment or not. So this change should happen, independently of where a ‘Superhighway’ ends up going.

And across the junction, Midland Road, which is currently a fast one-way road that broadens out to four lanes at the junction with Euston Road, will be narrowed, with cycling infrastructure added in the form of stepped tracks on either side of the road.

Screen Shot 2016-04-17 at 22.43.46

Again, this is something that should happen, regardless of where a ‘Superhighway’ ends up going. It would represent a substantial improvement for pedestrians and people cycling on this road, as well as simplifying the junction for people driving.

The current state of Midland Road - a fairly horrible motor-centric race track

The current state of Midland Road – a fairly horrible motor-centric race track

If these changes go ahead – and they should, regardless of how you feel about cycling – then plenty of people will still want to cycle on Judd Street, even if it isn’t a ‘Superhighway’. Judd Street itself will be a much more pleasant cycling environment, and it will connect up Bloomsbury with the roads north of Euston Road, thanks to the improvements to Midland Road that will allow cycling northbound.

In short, the RNIB’s protest about ‘routing’ is a bit of a pointless one, because it doesn’t matter where the ‘Superhighway’ goes. It could be sent down streets 500m to the east, or 500m to the west, but whatever route is chosen for it, that won’t have any effect on the numbers of people cycling using Judd Street, because what matters are the changes Camden are proposing to make their streets and roads more attractive, not an arbitrary ‘Superhighway’ designation. The RNIB seem to think that shifting the ‘Superhighway’ onto a different street will stop people cycling on Judd Street, but that simply isn’t going to happen when Camden are proposing changes that will make a huge difference to the quality of Judd Street and Midland Road, a much bigger difference than where Transport for London draw a squiggly blue line on a map.

What I am driving at here (in case it isn’t obvious) is that the ‘Superhighway’ label is pretty irrelevant. What should be happening to roads and streets in London are the kinds of changes that Camden are proposing, and they should be happening to every single road and street, not just to a handful of routes drawn on a map. The future for London – and towns and cities across the country – has to be a dense network for cycling, composed of protected cycleways on main roads, and access roads without any visible cycling infrastructure, but with low levels of motor traffic, kept low through the use of interventions like bollards, one-way flow, and so on. The entire city should be a cycling network, a network that will inevitably include the headquarters of organisations like the RNIB.

So the RNIB have a fairly stark choice. They can either argue for maintaining the motor-centric status quo, keeping roads like Judd Street and Midland Road places where only a small number of people will be willing to cycle, in dense, fast flows of motor traffic. To be clear, this would involve actually opposing the proposals to close Judd Street to motor traffic at the northern end, and to improve Midland Road, regardless of where a ‘Superhighway’ eventually goes. It’s regressive, but it would at least keep cycling levels on Judd Street relatively low. (I note, in passing, that it hasn’t actually been specified by the RNIB exactly what amount of cycling on Judd Street, in terms of numbers per day, they might be happy with).

Or, alternatively, they can support the changes that Camden are proposing, and wider proposals to improve conditions for walking and cycling, on all streets, everywhere. Forget about the ‘Superhighway’ term, because it is misleading, one that I suspect will start to disappear completely as the density of routes in central London increases. (Hopefully). Cycling isn’t going to go away, and the best policy has to be one of constructive engagement, rather than a vain hope that it can somehow be routed away or even prevented on roads and streets that people want to use, whether they are on foot, a mobility scooter, wheelchair or cycle.

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21 Responses to The RNIB, and why it’s irrelevant where a ‘Superhighway’ actually goes

  1. Pingback: RNIB Judd Street issues – Cycling ‘Superhighway’? Essential component of a network to enable all-inclusive cycling?

  2. The stepped cycle track itself is the only concern I have. Provided that the kerb (When talking about British things, do as the Brits do) is an angled one between the footway and the cycle track, blind people should have absolutely no trouble. Also, why are the blind people that concerned with cyclists? Why aren’t they angry at all of the electric cars that don’t have a sound generator in them, which really would be silent and deadly?

    Also Mark, do you have any posts about puffin crossings and how they should operate, a guaranteed green light for cyclists and pedestrians within 5-8 seconds and maybe a waiting time indicator and a guaranteed straight through crossing?

    • check the facts says:

      It’s not a conspiracy against cyclists, they are angry at silent cars:

    • Notak says:

      I don’t know which Edmonton you’re in but I presume it’s the Canadian one, so regulations are different there. In the EU, electric vehicles are to have an “Acoustic Vehicle Alerting System” to give audible warning of their motion at all speeds up to 30km/h. Over that speed, tyre noise and wind noise dominate engine noise on most internal combustion engined vehicles so it’s been decided no AVAS is necessary. I don’t think the regulations have come into force yet though. It’s largely through lobbying by organisations for the blind that this has come about.

  3. Paul Luton says:

    Agree about the unhelpful nomenclature especially as the initial design of superhighways was far from super.
    The distinction between quietways and superhighways implies that cyclists will have a choice between two routes between A and B. That would be nice but it won’t be happening any time soon. Out in leafy Richmond we have no scent of a superhighway and the effective definition of quietway is “something that can be done cheaply”.

    In reality both types of facility will have to suit all types of cycling – possibly except the most “confident, lycra-clad men” who will continue speeding along main roads irrespective.

    • Barney says:

      Good cycle infrastructure will be fine for the “confident, lycra-clad” men as well as everyone else, although if its popular people who want to go really fast may have to choose less busy times of day. There are lots of cycle tracks in The Netherlands that are good enough to hold road cycling races on.

      • Paul Luton says:

        I did say “possibly” and “most confident”. Agree that all cycle routes should be fit for everybody – but getting a comprehensive network will take a while.

  4. s says:

    It is also worth noting this consultation which was run at the same time as the Judd Street/Midland Road (and CSNS) one. Not as sexy, but with the similar desired outcome of reducing the amount of through traffic in Bloomsbury :

  5. tfoxglove says:

    I understand their concern.

    Blind people with sticks & guide dogs are trained in the current ‘binary’ urban environment of roads & footways separated by a kerb with a vertical upstand. It is a hostile environment but one that is relatively consistent all over the country.

    Protected cycle infrastructure, shared use pavements, at grade junction treatments introduce new and unfamiliar infrastructure with no consistency from street to street, let alone in different towns and cities.

    Comes back to the point that there should be national standards which would give consistency, rather than let Local Authorities make it up as they go along.

  6. bikemapper says:

    I entirely agree with the general thrust of your argument. However, I must take issue with you on one point. You write (actually in bold letters): “It doesn’t matter where the ‘Superhighway’ goes.” I understand the point you are making, but the case is, it very much matters where quality cycling infrastructure goes. For example, have you ever seen anyone using the new segregated cycleway on St. George’s Road?

  7. Notak says:

    So what does the term Superhighway indicate? I understood it to indicate a route on which a certain level of cycling-specific infrastructure has been provided, with the intention that those routes do or shall link up to form a network covering pretty much every part of London. An equivalent of arterial roads or primary routes for cycling. In which case, their actual routes surely do matter. And if that’s not what the term is intended to mean, someone – Johnson, TfL, Boardman, Geffen or whoever – should explain.

    • Paul Luton says:

      The term Superhighway seems to imply a route formed mainly by segregating parts of main roads. This will tend to make them more direct than the alternative of traffic-restriced back road routes. I am sure we will need both to provide a comprehensive network so the idea of a different category of user is probably meaningless. As long as they link together and get close to prime destinations there will be some flexibility as to exactly where they are installed.

  8. Notak says:

    “The entire city should be a cycling network, ”
    Yes, it should! And this would make life better for everyone, even those whose only mode of transport is car (and I’d think some blind people are far more dependent on cars and taxis than a lot of sighted people). In fact, this is way too restricted. The whole world should be a cycling network! But the key word here is “should”; this is an aspiration not a reality. As we work towards it (like a toddler, two steps forward, one step back, five sideways) there are going to be endless conflicts like this between those whose needs might be better met by this goal but whose current situation is disturbed. While your dream house is being built, everyone curses the builders.

  9. check the facts says:

    I’m with the RNIB on this one to be honest. I am in favour of anything that increases cycling infrastructure, but the above line of argument isn’t helpful and provocatively aggressive. Rather than setting up a dichotomy for RNIB where they’re either “reasonable” or anti-cycling infrastructure completely, maybe just try and empathise with them a bit. It looks like nothing they’re saying is anti-cycle infrastructure itself . It strikes me it’s more just saying there’s a choice of where to put it, and outside the offices of the biggest blind people’s charity in the country is maybe not the best place. And despite what you make out in your blog they aren’t trying to ban cyclists from Judd Street. They seem to be mainly focusing on keeping the pelican crossing which seems very sensible and I can’t see why it would reasonably be objected to. I was pleased to see LCC working with the RNIB on this and supporting them, if vulnerable road using groups could work together like this a bit more and understand each other’s needs then maybe we’d make more progress in achieving a cycling friendly city for everyone.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Which pelican crossing is that? There’s a pelican crossing between the junctions of Hastings St and Bidborough St, but the plans on the Camden/TfL link given above only go as far south as Bidborough St – so you can’t tell if that one is scheduled to be changed or not. However, it does look as though the pelican by the west entrance to St Pancras on Midland Rd is planned to become a zebra. That does look like a poor decision, and not just for the blind.

      Otherwise, as far as I can see, there seem to be no plans for infrastructure on Judd St (unlike Midland Rd), and only a loss of motor traffic for the 40 m north of Bidborough St. Finally I’m not sure who is promoting the idea that a street without protected bicycle infrastructure will see huge increases in bicycle traffic, but I find that difficult to believe.

    • Please try and respond to something I’ve actually written here.

  10. Garmon says:

    Exactly right about the unhelpful terminology. In London Fields, some of the opposition to filtering the streets are in favour of a quietway but against the wider filtering. But what use is a single safe route for people who can’t get to that one route safely? What we have to achieve is safe cycling provision on all roads (whether segregated or low motor volume and speed) , and of course safe pedestrian provision for all.

  11. In its response to the consultation the RNIB makes a number of reasonable points. First, it is quite understandable why people who are blind or have restricted vision can be adversely affected by bicycle traffic. Unfortunately, a small proportion of cyclists have adopted their style of cycling from motorists and it must be quite frightening to experience a near miss with someone jumping red lights or other action. I can quite appreciate how this might affect someone’s confidence and consequent ability to enjoy the freedom to get around the urban realm, something the rest of us take for granted.
    Second, I think we can have common ground with the RNIB that ‘shared space’ in various forms, shared pedestrian and cyclist paths, and other mixed facilities are exactly what all of us do not want. Clarity of use is important to us as cyclists and also to all who walk, and most especially for those of restricted vision and the blind.
    Third, I think the RNIB’s points about consultation have some merit and it would be good to see a consultative framework linking both the RNIB and the Council, and also the RNIB and cycling lobby organisations to work on how we can jointly address the RNIB’s concerns.
    I do think this must work both ways and it is not just the Council or cycle lobby groups that have to take the initiative. It is surely the task of special interest groups to alert wider society to the needs and concerns of those special interests (just as cycle groups have alerted and lobbied about the dreadful conditions forced on cyclists under standard UK street conditions). I hope that such consultations could allow for plans to encourage cycling on Judd Street to go ahead on the basis that ways will be investigated and implemented that address the RNIB’s concerns, such as the silence of bikes.
    Fourth, the noiselessness of bicycles is a valid point for the RNIB to raise. I wonder if there is some technological fix to this problem (in a similar vein to the noise generators that are going to be needed for silent electric motor vehicles), perhaps via the road/cycleway surface or via sensors and some form of speakers. This may not be practicable, but I think we do need to address the concerns.
    I would also say to the RNIB, as a campaigner for urban cycling for many years now, it is clear to me that cycling is going to become more and more important and prevalent in our urban areas. Indeed, this is a wide international development affecting not just London or the UK. Globally we face pressing questions of climate change, air quality, the excessive cost of motor-based infrastructure, and increasing congestion and immobility in urban areas. These pressures are even leading cities that have held cycling at bay for many decades, such as London, to change course. In the short term the RNIB may see changing a cycle route as a small gain, but unless we manage to work together to ensure that cycling can be made compatible to those of restricted vision and the blind, given that cycling levels will increase, a massive opportunity will have been squandered. In other words, RNIB, don’t resist cycling’s growth but try to get cycling to adapt in ways which address your valid concerns.

    • Mark Williams says:

      I didn’t spot anything much about walking or cycling on public highways in the first five pages of their transport campaign web site, so perhaps the `charity’ hoppers ought to work on their communications skills a lot. Starting statements with words like `we are extremely concerned that the dramatic increase in the number of cyclists’ does not bode well. Yes, it would be nice if RNIB could work constructively with cycling campaigns. But they will have to accept that they have been tarred, possibly unfairly, with the same brush as Guide Dogs’ recent spiteful anti-cyclist campaign. They will also have to be careful not to further provoke any anti-RNIB counter-protests or calls to move their HQ to somewhere it cannot possibly inconvenience any cyclist!

      RNIB’s protest about one single solitary street in `that London’, if accurately reported here, comes across as very parochial and special pleading.* They would do well to up their game considerably and try to come up with a campaign which works across the whole UK and doesn’t depend on restricting or removing anyone, as a minimum. Of course, with genuinely accessible cycle infrastructure (i.e. motorists kept well away at all times), some blind people can ride bikes using SONAR! I notice that they don’t mention `risk of injury’ from motoring or diverting motorists away from their HQ—so maybe they are already aware of a strategy which could be extended/ re-purposed for cycling?

      * You should have heard the ‘wigging I got from some of the useful idiots at CTC when I mentioned riding through Guildford on the A3 from London to Portsmouth, though…

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