Friday 27 May 2011

Blog posts that have impressed me today

Mr C at MCR Cycling of Manchester has written a piece which thoughtfully draws parallels between the promotion of waste recycling and the promotion of cycling, showing "the limits of elective behaviour change".

Over in Copenhagen, unfortunately, they are suffering from a new bout of "road safety promotion" – that strange phenomenon which seeks to place the responsibility for avoiding crashes squarely on people trying to negotiate the roads without being encased in a metal box, rather than attempting to mitigate the source of danger, the fast-moving and carelessly-operated metal boxes themselves. This is what Mikael Colville-Andersen calls classic "ignoring the bull messaging", i.e. the car as the "bull in society's china shop". That latter post is a "classic" and worth a read if you have not read it before.

Finally, if you are familiar with the documentation that has gone with cycle campaigning in the UK in recent years, you will likely have seen before the photograph that Freewheeler of Waltham Forest, in his usual brilliant fashion, looks into closely, establishing its vital true context. It turns out, it was really quite misleadingly used, and this sheds a light on CTC's understanding of cycle facilities and safe cycling conditions. Another great public service done by Freewheeler.

I am off for 5 days to Geneva now, to see CERN. I will leave any readers with something almost as remote from cycling in the borough of Brent as it is possible to get, though in fact the picture was taken from Brent.

This is the North America Nebula, NGC 7000 (the only NGC number I can ever remember), with the Pelican Nebula (IC 5070) to its right, some 1800 light years away in the constellation of Cygnus, taken early on Wednesday morning. I am very pleased with how this image has turned out, as it was taken with relatively cheap equipment: an ordinary 66mm ED refractor, focal reducer, and a Canon EOS 400D DSLR (astro modified by removal of the IR filter) and with internal light pollution filter, that I bought 2nd hand for £350. Plus of course the mount – that was the expensive part. Also it was taken with only 28 minutes exposure in 2 minute subexposures from highly light-polluted Edgware with the sky already lightening towards dawn. Yet it is the best picture I have achieved of this object, which just shows how good the commercial DSLRs are now: almost as good as CCDs.

You can see the full-size image here if you wish. My other astrophotograhy is on this site.

Thursday 26 May 2011

MP talks sense on cycling

MP AND keen cyclist Martin Horwood has hit out at "rubbish" cycle routes around Cheltenham.
He said the worst were in Albion Street and Lansdown Road which he said were so ridiculous they were virtually impossible to use.
He said: "My all-time favourite is in Albion Street which allows you to cycle around in front of a bush for three seconds and then lands you straight in front of oncoming traffic.
"I work round the corner and have never seen a cyclist daft enough to use it.
"A close runner-up is in Lansdown Road where the cycle lane, if you can make it out at all, invites you to leave the road, scythe through the middle of any unfortunate pedestrians, nearby bus shelter or pedestrian crossing and then sends you shooting straight into a traffic junction."
He said areas which are for use by cyclists should be paved differently and separated from the road by a kerb instead of being marked by paint.
He said: "I would like to start building the core of a real cycle network across Cheltenham and abolish the pointless collection of painted lines that everyone ignores.
"Even though this will be expensive enough to limit us to a few new cycle lanes a year, in 20 years' time we will have a decent set of cycle lanes instead of exactly the half-baked rubbish we have now."

I am amazed. This is the first time I have read such an accurate and coherent critique of standard UK "cycle infrastructure " (otherwise known as "cycle difficilities") from such a high-profile person. For "Cheltenham", read any town or city in the UK. Our cycle infrastructure is a national disgrace and an international joke. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, as I have mentioned before, has been set up to try to address the root causes of this. It is ridiculous that the nation that once gave the world railways and tar macadam cannot arrange a sensible bike path in the 21st century. Many in the UK cycling world, however, react differently to the failure of our authorities to create usable dedicated infrastructure for cycling. Rather than press for it to be done properly, they insist that it will never work (contrary to all the international experience), that therefore cyclists should not ask for it in the first place, and that they are better off without it. The codicil to the Cheltenham story is that the treasurer of Cheltenham Cycling Campaign is the famous John Franklin, author of Cyclecraft and similar works, and perhaps the UK's leading opponent of cycle infrastructure (amongst cyclists).
He said: "Cyclists don't want cycle routes. The best thing is the general road network which should be made more suitable."
This is no surprise to those who know anything about Franklin. He claims to speak for cyclists, but he does not. He has not been elected by anyone (except perhaps Cheltenham Cycling Campaign). He has not analysed the opinions of cyclists nationally, and his viewpoint is an extreme one, but one that has exercised a bizarre authority and hold in the UK cycling world over the years. Franklin's views and influence, and what is wrong with them, have been analysed extensively here, here, here, and here (and probably other places that I haven't spotted as well).

Back to the poor cycle facilities of the UK, and how they could be made better. Here is an example from near my house, in the London Borough of Brent.

Kingsbury Road, north Brent
Actually, this is quite a good example, by UK standards. It is quite attractively done. It is a decent attempt to re-use an unnecessarily wide stretch of pavement (probably deriving from the filling-in of a service road at some time in the past) in a shopping street by reallocating it to cyclists. It is a reasonable distance from parked car door-opening, it leaves pedestrians with enough space, and trees and necessary street furniture have been usefully retained. Now, this facility did make Warrington Cycle Campaign's Facility of the Month page once, but that was because the phone box seen in the distance here had not, at first, been moved off the track, which it now has.

No, the problem with this bit of cycle infrastructure, as with most in the UK, is that it is too small-scale and incoherent. It is finished almost before it is started. It only runs for a couple of hundred yards, at most, before we meet the famous "Give Way" markings and tactile paving so familiar to all UK cyclists as indicating the limits of each disconnected, unsatisfactory bit of infrastructure. In this case, this is the view looking the other way.

More of the Kingsbury Road cycle track
The pavement continues on from here, just as wide, for anoher 300 yards, with no change of character. It would have been perfectly possible to continue the track as far as Kingsbury underground station (which would have been very useful), or further. But that was not the intention of the planners. For reasons I cannot fathom, their intention was that cyclists should be re-directed at this point on to the road, at this pelican crossing. Here the road is typically a congested channel of moving cars with only a small gap between them and the parking. Now most seasoned urban cyclists can handle conditions of this type quite easily, as I can, but the point is, that, if you are going to do so, you might as well do so for the whole length of the road, and get into the mode and mental state of controlling the traffic in the "primary riding position"for a good length of time, rather than schizophrenically diving off the road for a hundred yards to share the pavement-level track at slow speed with shoppers, prams and old people who wonder (forgivably, but unheedingly) onto it and into your path, before giving yourself more unnecessary danger by riding unpredictably (to a motorist, who probably is unaware of the cycle markings) off it again into the road and changing mental mode again totally to one of "controlling the traffic". It is this bittiness, this schitzophrenic "we're part of the traffic, no we're not, were mixed up with the pedestrian flow, no, now we're a fast vehicle again" issue that is the main failure of typical UK small-scale and incoherent cycle facilities, and what brings them into disrepute. It is the problem underlying most of what is seen on the Warrington comedy site. My friend Paul Gannon, who had lived in The Netherlands for a time, used to refer to this as "toytown infrastructure".

The Kingsbury track has pedestrians on it most of the time because they are, understandably, not expecting cyclists. That's because there are few cyclists on it, because the facility doesn't work well. And so it goes, in circular fashion, reinforcing the design failure. Better cycle tracks, of which there are one or two examples in London, lower the track to a level below that of the pavement, thus clarifying the pavement/cycle track distinction.

Walkers on the Kingsbury track

A better-designed example, Royal College Street, Camden Town
The Royal College Street example is much longer, about 500m of continuous, uninterrupted track. This is long enough to work and to make a difference. Sadly, this is the longest continuous high-quality cycle track in London. To make a big difference to the cycling experience, such tracks need to run for miles.

Here is another example in my area, but just over the border in the Borough of Harrow. This is a supposed cycle bypass facility for a very fast and dangerous roundabout, Queensbury Circle.

Cycle track by Queensbury Circle, Harrow
This cycle track is only a few dozen yards long. There are five such, on all the corners of the five-armed roundabout. Each little bit on each arm ends either at a pedestrian crossing, or just ends with nothing. They do not connect up with any other cycle facilities on the roads. What is this supposed to do?? I have talked to Harrow Council officers about this, and they (non-cyclists, of course) think that it is a good facility. But I have never seen any cyclist use it (there are very few cyclists in this area anyway). It is totally unusable. To use it a cyclist would have to become, effectively, a pedestrian. But to do this is to abandon the advantages of having a bike (speed and efficiency), and not gain the advantages of being pedestrian (small footprint, manoeuvrability, better attitude on average from motorists, and not being encumbered with a bike). Cycling can never be made to work by making cyclists hop on and off their bikes ever few yards, dodging on to the road and off it all the time. Having to get back onto the road typically creates more danger from motor vehicles than staying on it all the time. The other unsatisfactoriness with these attempted "solutions" is that they take the cycle space away from pedestrians, not motorists, who already have most of it. At Royal College Street the space for the track was taken out of the road. But in the Queensbury example above it is seen that the pavement has been completely replaced by the cycle track. So where do the pedestrians go? They are actually supposed to be behind the cars on the left, on the pavement behind the service road. Which means they have to keep crossing service roads to get round the junction, which makes it more dangerous for them. They prefer to occupy, of course, the space that has been painted as the cycle track. But it doesn't matter, because the cycle track is meaningless, being unused by cyclists, being unusable. And yet the (non-cycling) officers and councillors think this is a good cycle facility. Unfortunately, they lack the most basic clue about how a good cycle facility would actually work.

It is possible to satisfactorily resolves the conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles at roundabouts. The Dutch have been working on this for decades: see this post by David Henbrow for the details. It is not very expensive and does not require huge engineering. It does require some engineering, and it would also require changes to the UK's Highway Code and possibly legal changes as well. You can see how it needs to work from this video of a roundabout in The Netherlands.

Note how the Dutch solution is smooth, large-scale (or maybe "appropriate scale") and continuous for the cyclists, not bitty and start-stop like the British attempts. Note also the important point that the Dutch track operates one way only, in contrast to the Queensbury one, in the direction of flow of the motor traffic, for logicality and predictability of movements for all road users. Note the carrying into effect of a simple principle that the slower road user is always to the right (would be left in UK), so, counted from the right, we get pedestrian space, cycle track, road. Predictable and logical, unlike the illogical mix-ups usually invented by UK planners when they attempt to get to grip with bike and pedestrian flows.

The need for legal changes before we can get this sort of thing here arises because it is necessary to establish, as seen in the Dutch video, and explained in the Henbrow link, clear legal priority for the cycle track where it crosses the arms of the junction. UK law on this point is currently muddy. Most experts think, however, it does not allow priority for cycle tracks over roads that they cross. But this is critical to making cycle tracks work, both at roundabouts and other types of junctions. Which is where we come back to our MP for Cheltenham. He clearly has some understanding of these matters. Can he start to persuade his parliamentary colleagues that local authorities need more help to create workable cycling solutions? They need the correct guidance, the correct standards, and they, and cyclists, need the support of the Highway Code and the law in making the facilities work. We are about 50–60 years behind the Dutch at the moment in this field. They could save us a lot of effort and give us, er, a crash course, to use an inappropriate phrase, if only our national politicians would let them. But if we go on thinking, with John Franklin, that we know all the answers in the UK, we'll keep getting further behind.

Monday 23 May 2011

No cycling in lift

My partner Helen captured this on her phone in a lift in Coventry station. The sign in the middle says "Riding of Cycles Prohibited". Cyclists here in the UK are used to encountering "No Cycling" signs everywhere, but this really takes the biscuit. If you are not allowed to cycle in a lift, where are you allowed to??!

It reminds me of the developers of the Brent Cross Cricklewood Development who, in early discussions with Brent Cyclists and others, proposed the idea of a cycle route through their site that would be linked to the road (the A5) via a lift. The general ridicule which ensued from this cased them to back down and propose a spiral ramp (another poor solution). But that they could even conceive of such a thing shows how unbelievably far from understanding utility cycling many of the most powerful people in Britain are.

Then this also puts me in mind of Boris Johnson's ludicrous Thames cablecar project, that, unbelievably, looks as if it might really be built (I'll believe it when I see it). This has been well-critiqued here. Boris finds it too difficult to get the tubes to work well (they operated without problems on all lines for only one day last year), or to build cycle highways that bear the slightest relation to that name or are of the slightest use, but thinks it is a good idea to spend more money than it would take to fix these problems on a techno-folly on an epic scale that will do nothing for the basic transport needs of Londoners. Unfortunately it looks as though construction will be started this year, so it would be too late for Ken Livingstone to stop it, were he to be re-elected in 2012.

Cycle campaigning moving up a gear – flashmob and the Cycling Embassy

It has been an interesting couple of days in cycle campaigning for me, having attended two unique events.

The first, on Friday, was the "Flashmob" protest at Blackfriars Bridge. Accounts of this event have been published on ibikelondon, Dave Hill's Guardian blog, and Cycalogical.

In what may be a significant change of tactics, London Cycling Campaign organised this quick-response protest against the intransigence of Transport for London's highway engineers, who seem determined, under Boris Johnson's direction, to make life worse for everybody who walks and cycles in London. The issue has come to a head in repeated attempts to re-design Blackfriars Bridge and the junctions at either end of it. A temporary scheme, corresponding to the redevelopment of Blackfriars Station, has been in place recently, with a 20mph limit on the bridge. Cyclists have now become the majority of the traffic on the bridge in peak hours. TfL's proposed redesign takes the speed limit back up to 30mph, gives cyclists paltry 1.5m painted cycle lanes, and makes the right turn towards the City at the north end very difficult, amongst numerous other backward steps for non-motorised road-users. The issue has been treated extensively here.

The London Cycling Campaign has previously adopted an extremely conciliatory, kitten-like attitude to the Johnson administration, which has been systematically making London's roads worse places to walk of cycle, with its policy of "smoothing the flow" (of motor vehicles) and generally bowing to the motoring lobby. This is despite Johnson being a cyclist, and introducing the Hire Bikes (which were an idea of the previous mayor). Johnson's flagship cycling policies, the inaptly-named Cycle Superhighways and the Biking Boroughs, are both scandalous, confused and mis-conceived wastes of public money.

A young participant on the flashmob ride: emphasising the demand for London's streets to be made safe places for all to cycle
Pushed, I rather suspect, buy the harder attitude of some of the cycling bloggers mentioned here, LCC on this occasion, for the first time, exploited both its own channels and social networking ones to mobilise cyclists for a one-off street protest. Cyclists took up a whole carriageway and cycled at snail's pace across the bridge and back before a brief demo at TfL's HQ Palestra House on the south side. The event was not unlike the long-standing Critical Mass rides that occur once per month in London and similarly obstruct normal traffic flow, but this was an obstruction with a more specific purpose.

In my opinion, LCC, despite being quite clear about what it does not want in places like Blackfriars, is still a bit ambiguous about what it does want on busy roads like this, and this is not helping its campaigning. I don't think the focus on the 20mph limit ("Keep it twenty" was a chant head at the flashmob) is the right one. Even with low speeds, large volumes of aggressive motor traffic tend to push cyclists out unless they have protected space. I don't understand why the first chap interviewed in the video on Dave Hill's Guardian blog (who is not a spokesman for LCC, but an independent blogger) pointedly avoids endorsing the interviewer's suggestion of "segregated lanes for cyclists", preferring the vague formulation "space for cyclists". Space for cyclists needs physically protecting if it is to have the level of subjective safety necessary to attract more of the type of traffic shown in my photo, whether the limit is 20 or 30. Generous segregated cycle lanes (more correctly termed "cycle tracks") are exactly what this bridge would have in any city in The Netherlands or Denmark, and in many other cycle-friendly cities in Europe.

Continuing this theme, on Saturday I attended the second meeting (and the first outside London) of the newly-formed Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (CEoGB). This curiously-named embryo association of like-minded people is the start of something I have long believed we needed in the UK: a national campaign for high-quality, effective cycle infrastructure.

Now we do have many national organisations that advocate for cycling already in the UK, such as the CTC, Sustrans, British Cycling, and the Cycle Campaign Network, also known as Cyclenation, as well as LCC, which, despite being "local", is large enough to have a national influence, so why the need for another one? Basically, because none of these have ever campaigned consistently for what we really need to achieve high cycling levels in the UK: high-quality cycle infrastructure. That cycling will never move beyond its current totally marginal position in the UK transport landscape without serious engineering measures to facilitate it, separating it from the fast and heavy motor traffic that intimidates most potential cyclists off the roads, is utterly obvious to me, but seemingly not to most who have made policy in these organisations in the past. A new organisation is necessary because these organisations have failed to perform this vital function over a long period (more than 120 years in the case of the CTC), and they probably will not start to do so without some external pressure. In trying to represented the interests of their members, who are, broadly, touring cyclists in the CTC, sports cyclists in British Cycling, and commuters in the LCC, these organisations have lamentably failed to capitalise on the potential for utility cycling to be made mainstream in the UK with the right conditions.

The CEoGB is to be a group:

free from the burden of history, legacy and ties, created to work in partnership with fellow organisations and charities in Great Britain, mainland Europe and around the world trading ideas and experiences in how to promote cycling and make cycling infrastructure work in urban and rural contexts

Its purpose is to research internationally-proven, effective cycling solutions and lobby for them to be introduced in the UK. It has to be a campaign at a national level, because efforts to improve cycling conditions at a local level in Britain are so often stymied by inappropriate national traffic standards, laws and regulations that are ill-adapted to creating an attractive cycling environment. The CEoGB's focus will be, distinctively, on high-quality infrastructure as the key to achieving increases in cycling, not on training, regulation, and behaviour-change, the areas that have been favoured by previous cycle campaigns. The failure of these campaigns is sufficiently indicated by the modal share that cycling has in all journeys made in the UK today: about 1%, compared to 30–40% for the highest cycling countries.

The CEoGB started as ideas on the web, and in blogs. These ideas are not new. Many of them were propounded in Camden Cycling Campaign (CCC) when I was involved with it in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The CCC at that time successfully campaigned for some of the best cycle infrastructure ever introduced in London, but political will ran out and, stymied by the local administrative disconnects in London, it was not extended far enough to make a great difference. The CEoGB has now come off the web and is a real pressure group, a determined group of intelligent and informed people. It seeks not to supplant any existing cycle campaigns or organisations, but to add something new and essential to the cycling landscape. I think it represents an idea whose time has come.

"Ambassadors" from the CEoGB gather at Manchester Piccadilly on Saturday before exploring the local cycle facilities