Tuesday 19 July 2011

Cycle infrastructure: fighting over scraps

I have mentioned before the work that Westminster and Transport for London are doing which will return two-way working to Piccadilly and Pall Mall. LCC's Westminster group have been doing what they can to get the best cycling deal out of this, in the face of both Westminster and TfL's well-known reluctance to provide cyclists with road-space. Here is the correspondence that has resulted, courtesy of Colin Wing.
Westminster CC: Why are advance stop lines not provided for cyclists at all signal-controlled junctions?
Westminster: The City Council's policy is to only provide advanced stop lines along signed cycle routes at junctions with conflict turning cycle movements. There are also some safety concerns associated with HGV drivers' blind spots.
Westminster CC: Why are the traffic lanes not wide enough to allow a bus to overtake a cycle safely and vice versa?
Westminster: With the existing site constraints and to achieve a balance between pedestrian and vehicular traffic with the provision of central medians to provide perch points for pedestrians to cross along the whole length of these roads, it means that the ideal lane widths could not be achieved.
Westminster CC: Why is the lead-in lane to the advance stop line at the exit from Old Bond Street on the left when most cyclists will want to turn right immediately after the compulsory left turn into Piccadilly?
Westminster: The lead-in lane for cyclists in Old Bond Street is correctly positioned on the left hand side of the road to assist cyclists to turn left in the bus lane in Piccadilly and to use the right turn lane into Duke Street St. James's.
Westminster CC: Will westbound cyclists be able to reach Piccadilly directly from Shaftesbury Avenue? 
Westminster: There is insufficient capacity in the bus lane between Shaftesbury Avenue and Piccadilly, and also at the signalised junction at Piccadilly Circus, to permit cyclists to use the westbound bus lane.
Westminster CC: Will cyclists be able to turn right from Marlborough Road into Pall Mall? 
Westminster: Cyclists are prohibited from turning right into Pall Mall from Marlborough Road, along with all other traffic, due to the expected volume of traffic wishing to turn right from Pall Mall into Marlborough Road and the conflict this would cause. The residents and businesses in the area are concerned that allowing this turning movement would increase 'rat running' traffic. There would be safety concerns if cyclists were given an exemption to this restriction.
Westminster's re-constructed Piccadilly in an artist's impression. Westminster will not retreat from the total lack of cycle facilities planned.
Now I don't want what follows to be taken as, in any way, a criticism of Colin Wing, who has been doing fantastic work campaigning for better cycle provision is a very unrewarding political set-up in Westminster for more years than I can remember, and, additionally, organising rides and all sorts of events to keep a good profile for Westminster Cycling Campaign. But I think this "little list" shows a good example of a problem that cycle campaigning in the UK urban environment tends to get into. It tends to become a fight for little scraps of road-space: an advanced-stop area here, a lead-in lane there etc. We often just seem to be spending all our time fighting for poor scraps dropped from the Big Man's table – the Big Man, being, of course, the hegemony of the motor car. Here is a huge scheme of digging and completely rebuilding a large area of road in central London costing, according to Westminster, £14 million (and I bet it is really going to turn out to be far more than that) – the type of scheme that, in a more enlightened country, could not conceivably be carried out without at the same time building in comprehensive cycle facilities. But here, LCC has to fight for a few token bits of paint on the road that it looks like we aren't going to get anyway – in Boris Johnson's "Cycle-ised city".

And the actual efficacy of some of these "scraps" I have my doubts about anyway. I used to think, 15 years ago, when we had very little cycle infrastructure in London, that advanced stop areas were a great thing, but now I have come to see them more as the symptom of a problem – the problem of this mad, nerve-wracking rush of all road-users to get ahead of each other in the same space the moment the lights go green, or slightly before even – rather than a proper, civilised solution to how cyclists should be treated at junctions. I've not seen advanced stop areas in the cycle-friendly cities on the continent. In the British context I think they can sometimes lure the inexperienced vehicular cyclist into more danger. I often hang a couple of places back in queues at lights rather than risk an unexpected move up the left into an advanced stop area, when things could start moving at any moment. This is also the problem with lead-in lanes on the left. The idea of having a lead-in lane to the right of lanes of motor traffic to facilitate a right turn by cyclists is also, I think, not a very advanced idea. As David Hembrow explains in this post, the Dutch used to do this sometimes, but now they have, in general, progressed to better solutions which don't involve cyclists having to cross-over potentially fast-moving lanes of motor traffic in order to make a right (left in The NL) turn.

It may be that lobbying for some of these "less advanced" or "intermediate" cycle engineering solutions for UK roads is still a good idea, however, if they represent some improvement on what we have, and are politically achievable (though, judging from Westminster's replies, nothing is a achievable there). I have certainly done my share of lobbying for small-scale, "scrap-type", improvements to London roads, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, and, again, I am not criticising anybody for following this approach.

Nevertheless, it is very hard to enthuse people about campaigning for these scraps which will only ever make a marginal difference, at best, to the experience of cycling in heavy, aggressive, London traffic. Therefore I think campaigners also should never loose sight of a bigger picture. They should have a much grander vision as well. They should also be thinking about, and working on, designs that would completely transform our roads.

In this blog I have written a lot about the London Borough of Camden's segregated cycle tracks. This is partly because no-one else had done so, and partly because I think they represent a very good example of this alternative approach in cycle campaigning. The designs for these very successful schemes did not come about from Camden Cycling Campaign's members responding to designs foisted upon them by local government, and making a few tweaks to them here and there to ameliorate their car-centredness. They did not come about through the "fight for scraps". They came about through taking a step back from the "immediately achievable", or the "politically prudent", and considering: what do we really need, not just for ourselves, but for the many people who would like to cycle, but refuse to do so on these roads as they are now? If we assume we can re-design this entire road-space, what is the optimum solution for cycling?

I know that, on the other hand, it is going to seem pointless, and a frustrating waste of effort if campaigners spend a lot of effort producing beautiful plans for completely re-designed, cycle-friendly roads, if there seems not a bat in hell's chance that such designs will ever be realised. I think something Ken Livingstone, ex-Mayor of London and Labour candidate to be the next mayor, said recently is worth considering in this context. Livingstone mostly seems to be thinking about trams here, but I think we should consider it more broadly, as an expression of a principle:
"At my first meeting with Ed Miliband after he got the leadership and I got the mayoral nomination, his opening question was 'What will you do if you win?'
"I said: 'We'll start working on infrastructure projects and housing plans so that when you're elected and we get the go-ahead to do them, the plans are all ready.'
"From the moment the election is over we'll get officials at Transport for London starting to work up the [Cross River Tram] scheme again, so we are ready to go as soon as a Labour government is prepared to start a programme of investment in public works. Clearly both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls see that as the plan B."
Livingstone, an old-hand at the political game, is saying that you have your big plans prepared in advance. You use your time in the political "wilderness" to formulate them. The day might come when, quite suddenly, the landscape of the "politically possible" changes. On that day, somebody in power might just say: "We've got money to do stuff. And we agree with you now – we should be building a people-friendly city. What do you think we should do?" If, at that stage, you already have your plans ready, you have a compelling vision for how the streets could be made far better, and, additionally, if you have already shown that vision to lots of other groups, including those nothing to do with cycling, and enthused them for it as well, because you have had plenty of time to do so, then you're in there. But if you're still running around saying, "Well, we're not sure, we need to spend a lot of time discussing it", then you're not. And if you just say, "Lets have an advanced stop line there, there and there," nobody is going to be very impressed.

Agreed, it is a tall order for cycle campaigners, who are often only small groups of people, to be thinking about the immediate, small-scale "possible" things, plus the big, remote picture. People have a limited amount of time, they do what they can. But the ambitious stuff should not be neglected. There are plenty of clever cyclists with computer design skills, cyclists who are graphic artists, designers, architects, even traffic engineers! They may be people who do not like sitting in meetings discussing how many centimetres of bus lane width TfL is prepared to give. They may be people with no interest in producing a newsletter saying how many community festivals such-and-such cycling campaign has attended, or in teaching the lads on the local council estate to mend punctures. But they may be just the people to be radically re-designing the streets of London from scratch, in their spare time. I think they should be producing state-of-the-art cycle, pedestrian and public transport designs for Blackfriars Bridge, for Piccadilly and Pall Mall, for Elephant and Castle, for Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street, for Oxford Street, for Swiss Cottage, for Brent Cross, for wherever we can think of.

For one reason for all his forward-planning is merely contingency, as suggested above: to be prepared. But another, of course, is that planning for a change of culture  itself helps to bring about that change. The more commonplace and widespread these "alternative" ideas about how to organise the city's roads become, the more people who see them and are involved with them, the less whacky they will start to seem, including to politicians. The radical idea can become the obvious one, the lunatic fringe can become "just common sense".

And it doesn't have to be perfect, it doesn't have to be faultless, there are always going to be problems with any design that are not immediately obvious, and nothing is ever going to be implemented exactly as campaigners wanted. The Camden cycle tracks certainly were not. But if the thinking is not radical enough at the start, the ultimate compromises that will be necessary will probably land you with something that isn't worth having. So one should be bold, and not worry about every detail, because it's not the responsibility of campaigners to get everything right. Campaigners are not government, and so do not have ultimate responsibility. They should be thinkers who "push the envelope".

Ten years on, I still think the Camden cycle route schemes were the most successful ever implemented in the capital, because they were the most radical: the biggest departure campaigners in London ever made from "fighting over scraps" and responding to other peoples' agendas.

One other episode of cycle campaigning from Camden comes into my mind as well, from much further back. From before the London cycle Network was started – I think it must be getting on for 20 years ago, and it was one of the first campaigning events I attended, long before I knew anything about Dutch cycling infrastructure. It was a day-long meeting on cycling organised by Camden Council in the Town Hall. It was one of those events featuring lots of sandwiches and drinks, with cyclists and officers and councillors all being terribly polite to each other, and so full of sufficiently vague promises or expressions of intent that, depending on mood, you could easily think "We are getting somewhere here", or, "What a farce". And I remember one man who I didn't know, but I think he was the editor of a cycling magazine. He was a small man with, I think, long hair and a beard. What I recall is that at a certain point, having had enough of all the polite non-discussion of the real issues, this hitherto quiet man sort of exploded, saying something like, "You people have no idea. You are just not in the right ballpark. I have seen what the have in Holland, and you just haven't got a clue about the sheer scale of the changes you need to make here if you want to get people cycling."

I never saw that man again, and, as I don't know his name, I don't know if he had any subsequent influence on cycling in the UK. But he made an impression on me, and, I suspect, some of the councillors present, who, some years later, approved the segregated Somers Town Cycle Route and Seven Stations Link.

So I think the main lesson cycle campaigners in the UK need to learn is to stop being too diplomatic, and to ask for what we really need to make cycling a mass phenomenon, not for what they think is politically achievable in the short-term. They need to learn to shift the culture more, to move the goal-posts. Otherwise, as in Westminster, they will keep asking for scraps, and keep getting told: "No."


  1. David,

    couldn't agree more with this. At Newcastle Cycle campaign we have civil engineers, chartered surveyors, graphic designers and more.

    I recently got agreement from a Tory cabinet member for transport in North Tyneside that if we start putting forward detailed infrastructure ideas they will look at them.

    Money is tight but sometimes road resurfacing, regen plans and other local issues combine to make building something possible. If you don't have the ideas documented you'll miss the boat.

    Get out your colouring pens, graphics software or OS maps and get on with it.

  2. I agree with the sentiment. I put together a report, including photos, of the hazards to cyclists and pedestrians caused by cars parking within a mile of a hospital plus junctions where cyclists are bullied by speeding motorised traffic. I lobbied local councillors and presented the paper at a public meeting and there was ready acceptance of the need.

    The highways authority has found the budget for improvements. No Dutch style segregation unfortunately, but a series of measures that will reduce traffic speeds and flows, making the routes less dangerous for cyclists and pedestrians.

    My view is that we managed to get a foot in the door and a dialogue under way. We can use the language and processes of government (evaluations, reviews and reports) to influence further changes.

    Interestingly, within the local 'cycling lobby' there was dissent - one cycling champion argued that the money would be better spent on cycle training and funding led rides 'to promote safety in numbers'.

  3. Great post. In fact , following the Assembly vote, now would be a really good time for LCC to put forward a better plan for Blackfriars, on the Dutch model..

  4. Azor_rider

    Regarding your dissenting cycling lobbyist: Such things as training, publicity and attention-raising events, and even, on a larger scale, subsidies such as the Cycle to Work scheme, are dangerous pitfalls. Every such activity could, in principle, be funded from another source. But government - local or national - is the monopoly provider of roads. Once public money earmarked for the promotion of cycling is diverted away from road infrastructure spending to such sidelines, it cannot be replaced from any other source.

  5. Really good post. Also worthwhile remembering that "new" money doesn't need to be found for creating great cycling infrastructure. There is already budget/money available for road maintenance / resurfacing etc.

    If the vision is there, then when roads are "maintained" they can also be re-designed. You are right in saying that we have to show them what really good infrastructure can look like.

    Poor facilities will not get people out of their cars and onto bikes. Great cycling facilities and safer roads will encourage those people who currently don't to give it a go.

    Twitter: jon_events

  6. You just followed up one of my posts by saying that you think the man who said " just haven't got a clue about the sheer scale of the changes you need to make" might have been the author of this. This could have been the case. Clearly he had a good sense of what was required.

    Not having a remote idea of the size of what needs to be done does appear to be a common thread in cycle campaigning, and amongst councillors and road designers in the UK.