Tuesday 30 August 2011

The IAM's worthless "research" on accidents

The Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM), which styles itself, disingenuously, as "the UK's leading road safety charity",  has produced a report called Licensed to skill  (funny-punny-groan-groan) on the contributory factors in road accidents (or what us more enlightened/PC people call "crashes").

The Telegraph breathlessly calls this piece of work "startling" (they must be easily startled), continuing:
Using data gathered by police and spanning 700,000 accidents from 2005-2009, the Institute of Advanced Motorists (IAM) has analysed, in breathtaking detail, the anatomy of a road accident.
Analysis? Breathtaking detail? Anatomy?? Well what this sorry affair is all about soon becomes clear:
Unexpected findings emerged, not least the relative unimportance that speeding plays in road accidents that kill six people each day in the UK, leave 68 others seriously hurt and 535 with less serious injuries. 
"It has been an eye-opener," says project manager Neil Greig, of the IAM. "Not just in terms of what causes an accident but in terms of dispelling some of the popular myths. For instance, if you look at Government campaigns they seem to say that speed is the number one problem. But illegal speeding – when drivers exceed the posted limit – accounts for only 13.9 per cent of fatal accidents. A bigger cause [15.9 per cent] is going too fast for the conditions – entering a bend too quickly, for instance – when you might well be under the actual speed limit."
So it's not about speed then. What is it about? The answer comes (with my emphasis):
The statistics are quite clear on this and it's "driver error or reaction". It's listed by police as a factor in more than 65 per cent of fatal crashes and the heading covers a multitude of driving sins many of which you're probably on first-name terms with. Topping the charge sheet is failing to look properly (the Smidsy factor – "Sorry mate, I didn't see you', relevant in 20.5 per cent of fatals involving driver error), followed by "loss of control" (34 per cent) which, says Greig, often means leaving yourself with "nowhere to go" after entering a bend or other situation, too quickly. Other errors include "poor turn or manoeuvre" (12 per cent) and "failed to judge other person's path or speed" (11.6 per cent.).
Second biggest cause of fatal accidents, to blame for 31 per cent, is the "injudicious action", an umbrella term for "travelled too fast for the conditions' (15.9 per cent of those labelled injudicious), "exceeded speed limit" (13.9 per cent) or "disobeyed give-way or stop sign" (2.1 per cent)?
Third culprit in the daily gamble on who lives and who dies is "behaviour or inexperience" (28 per cent), which covers faults such as "careless, reckless or in a hurry" (17 per cent), "aggressive driving" (8.3 per cent) and "learner/inexperienced" (5.3 per cent).
So it goes on. So what's the purpose of all this? What's the IAM's purpose, and what's The Telegraph's purpose in their presentation? 'Cause on my reading of this, they are starting out by telling us that the role of speed in "accidents" is a "myth", and then as it goes on, as my emphasis shows, it turns out, it is mostly about speed.

So what the heck are they trying to tell us? All this amounts to saying is that crashes occur because drivers make mistakes that their speed or another's speed makes it impossible for them to correct before they collide with another road user. Amazing. Big deal. Who would have thought it?

One good thing about The Telegraph is that the readership is quite intelligent, so the comments on the story are mostly worth reading, many of them making more intelligent points than the article itself. And Telegraph readers know the difference between "their", "there" and "they're", and think it worth pointing these errors out.

As busmanj comments:
Instead of delivering "evidence on the causes of road traffic accidents" the problem is simply restated. You might as well say accidents are caused by errors. Or accidents.
This is so far behind safety-industry norms - notably, airline risk management - as to be depressing, given the richness of the statistical data. One no longer speaks of 'pilot error', because it is so vague as to be meaningless, implies culpability, and is essentially a truism... but instead seek[s] to get away from obvious proximate cause to underlying, often obscure fundamental causal factors, including (but not limited to) organisational and environmental factors which combine to put the human 'software' we all of us run in a position where it comprehensively fails. 
Exactly. "Organisational and environmental factors", i.e., relating to the way the way our society is run. The IAM's "research" is worthless. As britishbastion notes:
After each injury accident the police fill in STATS 19 report form which lists a set of possible causes of the accident for the officer to chose from. It is their opinion of what has caused the collision.
While there is a wide range of causes of collisions, the injuries that we suffer and the damage to vehicles and property is 100 percent attributable to the speed and energy of collision.
All this work by the IAM seems to be is an aggregation of the STATS 19 data collected by police officers. We know that the amount of time and money spent by the police investigating each collision is grossly inadequate – according to Amy Aeron-Thomas of RoadPeace, they spend typically £2,200 on fatal crash investigations, £250 on serious injury crashes and £60 on slight injuries, compared to £20,000 on a typical homicide. And there are no national standards for crash investigations, so 43 local police forces do their own thing, and it's rare to get accurate speed estimates. So this data is all just based on assessments of which of a set of fixed options on a form best correspond to the causes of an accident as it appears to a possibly ill-trained (for this job) and ill-equipped police officer doing a rushed and often superficial and inadequate investigation of a crash, in a manner that is not even nationally standardised. Just aggregating this published data hardly amounts to real research on the "causes" of "road accidents".

One suspects a "political" motive. One suspects the IAM started by knowing what they wanted the message of their report to be before they looked at any data, and that this was the whole purpose: to put the message out that "speed is not the problem". One may view it in the context of the coalition government's and the right-wing media's campaign against speed enforcement, and Transport Secretary Philip Hammond's declared "end to the war on the motorist". As Amy Aeron-Thomas also points out, the only references to "speed" in the Department for Transport's Business Plan, under the heading "Switch to more effective ways to make our roads safer", are:
i) Stop central government funding to local bodies for new fixed speed cameras
ii) Work with local authorities to publish speed camera data
whereas in fact the contributory factors to road deaths, in terms of enforceable offences, in 2009, looked like this:

Contributory factors to UK road deaths in 2009

The apparent DfT/police argument indicated here about exactly how many crashes are due to drink driving highlights the subjectivity and doubt inherent in all these statistics. But the simple message many motorists will take from the IAM's work and The Telegraph's reporting of it, the message they are intended to take, is that "Speed does not cause accidents, so it's OK to speed".

But as britishbastion and other commentators on the Telegraph story note, the real issue is not "accidents". It is the damage done to people. And that damage is of course closely related to speed, whatever "causes" are attributed to the crash. Accidents will happen, people will come into collision with fast-moving masses of metal, or the fast-moving masses of metal will come into collision with one another, and then it is the speed that counts. As Forlornehope tell us:
The energy dissipated in a collision increases as the square of the speed so at 30 mph you will do more than twice as much damage as at 20.
Unfortunately fake "studies", like this IAM one, and propaganda in the right-wing media, conspire to create the atmosphere that "killer" Hammond and his road safety minister Mike Penning ("Minister for the Slaughter of Vulnerable Road Users" as Freewheeler called him) exploit in their tilting-at-windmills easy-political-win-campaign against the tabloid fantasy of the "War on the Motorist". In response to the 7% increase in the number of cyclists killed and injured in 2009, Mike Penning commented that the Government was "looking at how we can improve cycle safety" – at the same time as ordering local authorities to publish accident and casualty statistics at speed camera locations (a move which the police opposed), using this language:
We want to stop motorists being used as cash cows. For too long information about speed cameras has been hidden in the shadows. This data will end that by clearly showing whether a camera is saving lives or just making money.
(Penning is also trying to push longer lorries on to our city streets, but that's another story.) And, as Amy Aeron-Thomas further points out, the DfT's 2011 Road Safety Strategy states:
We intend for the action we take [on road safety] to be seen as acceptable and proportionate to the majority of motorists.
My (and her) emphasis: it's the majority of motorists, not the majority of people. And here's David Cameron launching the UN Decade of Road Safety:

He's flanked by two racing car drivers. Not many vulnerable road users get killed on the racing track. So that proves it, as the IAM wants us to believe, it's not about speed, it's about skill. It's about being an "advanced motorist". With an institute specially for you. To tell you there's no problem with your speed so long as you are skilful enough. In a nation where everybody who wants to use the roads needs to get into metal boxes filled with airbags and crumple zones to protect them from all these other skilful drivers.

And what if you want to walk or cycle? God help you, because accidents happen, and when they do, it's their speed that kills you.

Sunday 28 August 2011

It's not unthinkable for cycle facilities to have priority in the UK

This post comes about, in part, due to a correspondence on another blog. This correspondence is on this page: The extraordinary claims of an anti-infrastructuralist, on As Easy As Riding A Bike. I am not going to go into anything that is there, apart from the fact that one contributor, Grahame Cooper, had this to say:
think I would probably be pigeon-holed as “anti-infrastructuralist” (if there were such a word), but I am not actually against infrastructure per se.
However, there are three key points: (1) I will certainly be long dead before the UK has anything like the kind of infrastructure that the Netherlands enjoys, (2) the so-called “cycling infrastructure” we have here is generally rather dangerous if you use it, and (3) talking of “cycling infrastructure” without thinking about all of the other contextual issues does not make sense. I’ll say no more about (1), but will expand on the others.
Regarding (2), we do not currently have the kind of infrastructure that exists in Holland, so the only safe approach right now, based on my own experience, is vehicular cycling. Unfortunately, the pathetic cycle lanes that exists on my commuting route actually make vehicular cycling more difficult because they damage my ability to negotiate with other vehicles. This causes conflict: “you should be in the cycle lane” (i.e. the gutter).
Regarding (3), in Holland, you have Presumed Liability, which means that in a collision between a cycle and a motor vehicle, it is presumed to be the the motor driver’s fault unless they can prove otherwise. Here, the cyclist has to prove that the driver was negligent, which is difficult even though they usually were. You also have a long history of high cycle use. I think one of the consequences of these is that drivers in Holland treat cyclists with more respect. For example, it is unthinkable here that there might be a place where cycles cross the path of motor vehicles and the cycles are given priority! In our car-centric culture, that would be considered far too dangerous.
I was struck by the extraordinary pessimism of Grahame's point (1), and I will come back to that. But the only part of his message to which I replied was his statement:
For example, it is unthinkable here that there might be a place where cycles cross the path of motor vehicles and the cycles are given priority!
I wrote (perhaps unwisely):
No it’s not. I can show you plenty of photographs of this.
To which he responded:
Go on then.
So, it's perhaps a bit of a tedious exercise, but, bound as I am by my offer, I must here present a gallery of locations
where cycles cross the path of motor vehicles and the cycles are given priority!
Some of these are my own photos, and some drawn from Google Streetview. All are in London. There may be similar examples in the UK outside London, but I am not aware of them.

Junction Royal College St and Pratt St, NW1
Junction Royal College St and Plender St NW1 (plus the minor junction with service road beyond)
Junction Torrington Pl and Huntley St WC1
Junction Torrington Pl and Chenies Mews WC1
Junction Byng Pl and Gordon Sq WC1
 Gordon Sq SE corner WC1
Tavistock Sq SW corner WC1
Junction Cable St and Bere St
Junction Cable St and Stepney Causeway
Junction Cable St and Devonport St
Junction Cable St and Hardinge S
Junction Cable St and Johnston St
Junction Cable St and Watney St
Junction High Road Ickenham and Aylsham Drive (The side road was closed-off for building at this time, and when the development was completed, the road was re-instated with priorities reversed, as they are now.)
Junction High Road Ickenham and Heacham Ave
These are all cases where side roads give way way to a segregated cycle track. I said I could show "plenty" of such photos. I think that's enough.

The point is not that these are all excellent cycle facilities, or "Dutch" standard, they are clearly not. Many are far too narrow and suffer from other faults, such as the side road crossings causing the track to change level. The point is also not that the roads that give way to them have necessarily huge volumes of traffic. If they did I would not expect the road to give way to the cycle track; that would be unrealistic, and wouldn't happen in Holland, I would expect signalising, as here:

Junction Royal College St and Crowndale Rd NW1
and here:
Junction Torrington Pl and Gower St WC1
These are examples of a track being signalised where it crosses a major road, with the bicycle flow treated as a proper flow of traffic to be signalised in the standard way, not treated like a pedestrian flow (the common misunderstanding amongst UK cycle facility designers), to be given buttons to push.

The point is not that at least one of these facilities has been rebuilt wrongly since the photograph was taken. (The photos of Cable Street are from the Google Streetview survey which predate the recent Cycle Superhighway work. Since I have not been there since, I do not know if these junctions are the same now as then.) The point is also not that other junctions on these same routes, not shown here, may have been done wrongly.

My point is to disprove the assertion that
it is unthinkable here that there might be a place where cycles cross the path of motor vehicles and the cycles are given priority!
It is not unthinkable because it has been done in the past and could be done again. I know these examples are not the norm, and that the reverse is far more common. That, again, is not the point.

But this extreme pessimism, this utter disbelief that correct engineering for cyclists could ever be accomplished in the UK, is quite common amongst UK cyclists – or at least, amongst those who put opinions on these matters into print. These people are, effectively, "anti-infrastructuralists", rendered so by this fixed belief in the impossibility of things being done right, though, as Grahame Cooper implies in his comment, this may not be quite the same mindset as held by those who believe that all cycle infrastructure is bad by definition. Nevertheless, the result is the same. They say they do not want cycle infrastructure, and don't campaign for it.

So Grahame underlines this extreme pessimism with the statement:
I will certainly be long dead before the UK has anything like the kind of infrastructure that the Netherlands enjoys.
I am assuming that Grahame does not actually know that he is going to be dead within a five years or so, because he has been diagnosed with something incurable. If I am wrong in this, please forgive me for my insensitivity. But I don't see why anybody in good health and under the age of threescore year and ten should come to this conclusion.

My point of view is totally different. And it derives from experience. My experience tells me that it is possible for determined campaigns to achieve high-standard cycle facilities, but, the fact is,  very few campaigns in UK the past have actually asked for the right things – in part due to dedication to the self-fulfilling prophesy that "there's no point as it can never be done right here". The UK's "national cyclist's organisation" the CTC have often seemed to fall into this "no point" trap when tackled on the question of why they are not fighting for continental-style cycling provision. See for example CTC representitive Roger Geffen's response to the Understanding Walking and Cycling study:
However if the answer to those main roads is segregated facilities, we first need to work out how we persuade politicians and traffic planners to allocate the road-space and the funding needed for these to work well. The last thing we need is yet more of the dreadful "white-lines-on-pavement" cycle facilities which are generally a lot worse than useless, creating hazards and conflict for pedestrians and cyclists alike. Cyclists rightly avoid them like the plague, yet they get shouted at by drivers for doing so.
Yes, we all know about those "white line on pavement" cycle facilities, or, worse still, no white line on pavement "shared facilities", but those are not what the campaign for proper cycle facilities is about. They are completely irrelevant. Nobody is asking for those, and talking about them is a diversionary tactic. The trouble is, in asking for nothing in terms of infrastructure, CTC actually contributes to the vacuum that allows these to come into being.

My experience, which I have discussed before, but which I come back again to here, is that on the one occasion (to my knowledge) when a UK cycling campaign did take a clear policy decision to campaign for Dutch-style urban segregated cycle tracks (Camden Cycling Campaign at the end of the 1990s), and did so, and specifying, in full technical detail, exactly what it wanted to the local authority, it actually got what it asked for: a high-quality Dutch-style cycle track, with full priority over crossing traffic, which actually works, and which has been a success ever since: the Royal College Street track shown in my first two photos in this post. But the subsequent attempt to create a much longer east-west cycle track across central London (the Seven Stations Link), implemented parts of which are shown in my photos 3–7 above, failed, in part, because of the lack of support of other cycling campaigns. There were other factors in the failure, as I explained before, but one major one was that the neighbouring groups of the London Cycling Campaign did not really support the concept of the segregated track, and so did not persuade their councils to support it.

This brings me to my brutal conclusion – "brutal" for what it says about what one hundred years of British cycle campaigning has achieved, or not achieved: the bald fact of the matter is that, with the only exception, to my knowlege, of the Camden case, UK cyclists up until now have never asked for Dutch-style infrastructure, and that is why they have not been given it. 

As it says in the Bible, "Ask and ye shall be given..." The British cycling organisations have, nationally, never clearly referenced the Dutch-Danish model of cycle provision, nor said clearly and explicitly to government "We want that here". Instead, all too often, activists have busied themselves trying to find spurious reasons why "Britain is different" and why "It can never happen here". One favourite excuse (which I haven't heard so often recently) always used to be: "It is because of the war" – something to do with the Second World War was supposed to be responsible for why the Dutch and Danes were able to find space for cycling whereas the British could not – but how come the Swedes, Swiss, Finns and Germans have also found so much more space than we have, when these countries all had totally different wartime experiences? A more common excuse today is to say that "Our cities are old and so our streets are too narrow for cycle tracks". Richard Mann of Oxford develops this line in the discussion on the As Easy as Riding A Bike post with which I started.

Needless to say, I reject all of this manifest nonsense, and many other British cyclists are now doing so as well, in large part due to far better information than we used to have on the "nuts and bolts" of Dutch and Danish provision now available from sites such as A view from the cycle path and Copenhagenize. So things are changing. LCC members have now voted to campaign in the 2012 mayoral elections on the theme of "Going Dutch". And, perhaps more significantly, we have a new national organisation specifically set up to campaign for effective cycle infrastructure: the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.

Far from believing that I will be dead before we get to see proper cycle networks in the UK (I am now 48 and not intending to die soon), I believe that if the UK cycle community really united around the idea of pushing for high-quality facilities on the Dutch model, we could have the backbone of the network we need in less than 10 years. We could have much of it in 4 or 5 years. UK cycle campaigners so often get wrong the relative time-scales of "changing fabric" versus "changing attitudes". They often concentrate their efforts on the idea of trying to "change attitudes", when this is the hardest thing to achieve in the absence of change in the physical environment, and certainly a project that will not bear fruit quickly, if ever, in the absence of physical change. In contrast, "stuff" can be built quickly. And if it fails, it can be changed quite quickly. Our streets are constantly being rebuilt – usually badly. I firmly believe we could get a network that would transform the experience of cycling in all our cities in a very few years if we all pushed concertedly for it. But to change the typical attitudes of motorists towards cyclists will take far longer, and I am not convinced, on the experience of the past century of campaigning, that this ever happen, while cyclists remain such a small minority group, in the current physical environment.

There are extreme pessimists in every situation. I talked about Libya in my last post. In a news report on Libya the other day I heard an intelligent Libyan man, an engineer, lamenting the current revolution and saying that he wished his country had never risen up against Gaddafi. Things had not been perfect under Gaddafi, he said, but they hadn't been that bad either, and the country had basically worked. He could only see chaos and destruction in the future and things getting worse. He believed "Libyans are Libyans", and were capable of nothing more than running a corrupt, nepotistic, backwards, tribal system. He had no optimism for his people in the future at all. In every situation, there are always people who, for fear any change will be for the worse, never want to rock the establishment boat at all.

If you believe that, for some reason, analogous to what the Libyan engineer believes, there is something "wrong" with the UK which means that we are incapable of arranging a good environment for cycling, that it will never happen, no way, no how, then you will not join the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, because you will believe this campaign is totally wasting its time. You will not come along to the Embassy's official launch, on Saturday 3 September, the day before the London Sky Ride, at Lambeth Bridge in London, and you will not take part in the picnic in Victoria Tower Gardens that afternoon. Neither will you arrange you own local Cycling Embassy inaugural picnic, nor will you try to spread the word of good infrastructure practice to your local authority. You will certainly not donate any money to the Cycling Embassy, nor give any of your time to it. Because to you, the Cycling Embassy is running a pointless, futile campaign.

But some other people believe that it is worth trying to change things. They believe there is nothing fundamentally "wrong" with the UK that prevents the bike from being properly catered-for here. They believe there is just a chance that if we start to demand, loud and clear, a decent cycling environment, we could start to get it. I hope and expect they will be out in force for the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain official launch on next Saturday, 3 September.

Tuesday 23 August 2011

Libya comes out of the long night

Far from the normal concerns of this blog, I choose today to reflect on Libya because I have visited the place. I went there, with my partner and a lot of other westerners, in 2006, for the total solar eclipse that was visible from the Sahara Desert on 29 March 2006. This was only a brief visit, but I saw something of the country and its people, and I include some of the pictures I took on that visit.

Libya is not a very solid country: it is basically a green coastal strip a few miles deep fronting the vast desert that was arbitrarily divided by the straight lines of international borders set up by the western powers in the 19th century. Virtually everybody lives in the coastal strip, but the country's income comes entirely from the oil under the desert. Libya is virtually a one-road country, the road that runs along the coast, and along which the rebel army has recently advanced. I went through many of the towns that have become famous since, through the reporting of the civil war: Benghazi, Ajdabiya, Tripoli. It has been very sad therefore to experience the news reports over the last six moths of the war and hear of the suffering of the Libyan people in these places.

Looking from the hill of Cyrene across the narrow strip of green Libya to the Mediterranean
Greek ruins at Cyrene
Libya struck me as a country with huge potential, sadly strangled by 42 years of the mediaeval repression of the Gaddafi rule. The Libyans are an educated, cultured people, heirs to a great ancient civilisation. The wonderful coastline is an equivalent of that of Italy or Greece, on the other side of the Mediterranean, and could potentially be a huge tourist destination, with its exoticism, spectacular Roman remains and beautiful beaches. However, the environment is a squalid mess, as it usually is in dictatorships. The coast is a mass of plastic bags, and the desert is full of discarded lorry tyres. I saw a similar environment in Morocco, when I did a cycle tour there with a couple of other London cyclists, but Libya was environmentally much worse, and the war will have made it worse still. International isolation and lack of investment have prevented proper exploitation of the potential and resources of the country. But I think Libya now has the potential to emerge from its 42 year dark age and become a modern, successful, democratic state. There is no reason why it should not become the most forward-looking country in the Arab world, alongside an Egypt under new democratic rule.

The amazing Roman city of Leptis Magna, near Tripoli
Remains of the Roman port at Leptis Magna
The westerners I was with on my visit found the whole Gaddafi thing rather funny. In a way it was. It was even commercially exploited, with Gadaffi souvenir tea towels on sale at the tourist sites, and the maps, totally devoid of useful detail, and bearing the ludicrous official name of the state, the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arabic Jamahiriya (the longest official name of any country in the world). The absurd posters everywhere of the leader, in his many eccentrically-varied guises, often in his sunglasses, depicted as liberator and King of Kings of Africa, and his country as the rising sun of Africa, were good for photos. To the tourists it was all so funny. But really it was horrible.

One of the ubiquitous roadside posters, symbolising Gaddafi breaking the chains of Africa, with the profoundly ironic dove of peace
Gadaffi created a state where information was controlled perhaps more tightly than anywhere else in the world. All media was under his direct control. The internet was totally banned and blocked. The only thing he could not stop was the receiving of satellite TV. Gadaffi imposed a crazy economic and political system on his country based on his incoherent Green BookUnder the pretence of the Great Socialist People's Republic, citizens were forced to serve on peoples' committees that were without power. Those who disagreed with him were executed, sometimes on TV, unless they could flee abroad, where they continued to be hunted by Gaddafi's agents.

In the end, in the Arab Spring, Gaddafi could no longer hold back the new forces unleashed by the outside world of electronic information. His propaganda became impotent. But the rebellion organised using Twitter needed firepower to take on his military machine. I have to praise the decisions of David Cameron, Barack Obama and Nicholas Sarkozy over Libya. I think they got the strategy of intervention right. Intervening militarily in another state is always the hardest of political decisions, but in this case there was a coincidence of what was morally right, what was politically expedient, what was militarily possible, and what was good for the people of Libya, good for the interests of the western powers, and good for the peace and stability of the region. Gaddafi had been a destabilising factor in international relations all through his reign.

The level of intervention chosen, of supporting the uprising militarily, diplomatically and through targeted sanctions, while not putting western troops on the ground, ensured that Gaddafi would not be reinforced by a perception of a new colonialism, and things were left so far as possible in the hands of the National Transitional Council. Italy, as the colonial power with an unsavoury reputation among the Libyans, stayed sensibly on the sidelines.

There will be those who say "It was about oil", but it wasn't. Gaddaffi was on good terms with western leaders before the civil war, particularly with Berlusconi, who signed a co-operation treaty with him in 2008, and Tony Blair had chatted the monster up in his tent as well in 2004. The West could have had all the oil it wanted from Gaddafi's Libya. But, to their credit, Western leaders realised that their interests were wider than this.

It appears that the National Transitional Council have the right instincts and can, with the support of the international community, potentially lead Libya towards an open, democratic, united, prosperous and sustainable future. I hope so. As arabnews.com said today in its editorial headed End of a nightmare:
There is every reason for guarded optimism. The Libyan uprising appears deeply committed to the notion of democracy. The fact, too, that pro-Gaddafi forces, when captured, have largely been well treated is also encouraging. The basis for reconciliation is there. As to who takes over, that will be for the Libyans to decide.
Dawn over the port of Tripoli

Saturday 20 August 2011

Another discussion of Dutch-style infrastructure in Camden

This post significantly revised Sunday 21 August

On Monday I was invited to speak to Camden Cycling Campaign (Camden LCC) on the subject: Going Dutch: Let's clarify what we think this means. This followed the 54% vote for "Going Dutch"in the LCC poll on its options for its main campaign for the 2012 mayoral elections.

I was keen to avoid having a re-run of the endless "theological" argument that UK cycle campaigners can get into on the principle of whether cyclists should be integrated with, or separated from, motor traffic. That, in my book, is all very old hat. LCC has had its vote, and the result was that most members wish LCC to campaign for Dutch-style cycling. That means separation from fast or heavy motor vehicle flows. In the event it was a productive discussion that avoided the "theology" but focussed on the questions of how, in practice, politically, can we work in London to get started on building a network of high-quality segregated cycle tracks, where should we start, and what should Camden Cycling Campaign be asking Camden Council for? Jean Dollimore has written-up an account of the discussion, so I don't need to repeat it here.

Camden Cycling Campaign pioneered on-road Dutch-style segregated cycle tracks in London in the early 2000s with their designs for the Somers Town (Royal College Street) and Bloomsbury cycle routes (the latter only partially implemented), as I have covered extensively before. Now that LCC has decided that it wishes to campaign concertedly, as a whole, for this type of infrastructure, it makes sense for local groups to start working to identify which would be the best candidate roads in their boroughs.

The best candidate in Camden, the meeting concluded, is Tottenham Court Road. This is already part of, or connected with, several cycle routes of varying quality, most importantly the Bloomsbury track (LCN+ route 0 in Torrington Place, Maple Street and Howland Street), and it is, of course, a key N-S axis route for central London, with currently high levels of cycling. Moreover, Camden Council, in their 2011 Transport Strategy, already have a plan for this road. The plan proposes:
Introduction of public realm improvements and 2-way traffic along Tottenham Court Road (cycle and buses only) and Gower Street. The scheme would improve journey times for buses, the attractiveness of streets, pedestrian and cycling facilities, and help to remove the queue of buses on New Oxford Street.
Tottenham Court Road now 
Camden's artist's impression of the future Tottenham Court Road
This sounds quite progressive, if it means the removal of private cars from Tottenham Court Road and putting them all on a two-way Gower Street, as that would represent a significant reduction in space for cars. (But how will Camden's planners justify it to Boris Johnson's "capacity maintenance" freaks?)

Realistically, I can't see Camden succeeding politically in removing black cabs from Tottenham Court Road. There will also need to be lorries delivering to the shops (as seen in the "current" photo). So it will not look quite as rosy as in the artist's impression. In fact, it may be significantly less rosy. If we have large numbers of buses and black cabs directed on to a two-way Tottenham Court Road, plus the servicing of businesses, plus private cars and minicabs that go that way anyway, because nothing physically stops them, then the result could be very like Oxford Street – not a pleasant road for cycling on.

Even assuming Camden can go so thoroughly against the thrust of current TfL policy as to severely reduce the space for cars and exclude all but buses and bikes from Tottenham Court Road, according to David Hembrow, there is nothing like having to share space with buses for reducing the feeling of subjective safety for cyclists. I agree with him. The constant "swapping over" game when you have to overtake a bus at a stop, judging whether or not it is suddenly going to take off again, then it does, just after you have passed it, and it overtakes you again, and stops in front of you again, all this is deeply tiresome and offputting to all but hard-core cyclists. Particularly on routes where there are large numbers of buses, or they where can travel fast, buses and cyclists need to be separated to create an attractive cycling environment.

In the Camden artist's impression, with the space-wasting central strip in the road, there appears not to be enough space for buses to overtake cyclists with good clearance. This will result in cyclists having to compete with buses for space, "taking the lane" (as indeed the artist has shown) and potentially suffering aggression from bus drivers behind. Children, old people, the unfit, those on cargo bikes, and many other potential cyclists, do not want to, or simply cannot, adopt a cycling style that requires them to "take the lane" in order to act as human traffic calming in front of a 10 ton vehicle travelling at 20mph or more. This simply is not a quality cycling environment, however sunnily and cheerfully the artist has rendered the picture.

The way you make cycling really attractive is to allocate dedicated road space, preferably protected road space, to it. That is what "Going Dutch" is all about. In Dutch street designs, by and large, cycle space is separated from bus space. I hope Camden Cycling Campaign will be able to get the current design for Tottenham Court Road changed for a better one for cyclists, where cyclists are allocated attractive, safe, protected space in this high-profile location. The pictures suggest that one possible solution in the space could be a two-way road for buses and taxis, then a separating island, and then a two-way tack for cyclists. But this would probably entail moving the massive central lamp columns (which I recall from past discussions have always been an issue in Tottenham Court Road). Alternatively one could have two single-direction cycle tracks on the outsides of the carriageway.

This is exactly the kind of high-profile location where we need "Dutch" facilities, where there are many people passing through, pedestrians and bus users who, if this were done, would see for the first time in a British city cycling being taken really seriously in urban planning, and a good proportion of whom would then think: "Yes! I might try that". This is not a case of needing to spend loads of money on cycling. Camden are going to have to spend a tidy sum to change the road in the way they are planning anyway. To incorporate international-standard cycle tracks would probably hardly affect their calculations at all.

There are still many UK cyclists who don't see the need for segregated cycle tracks. They sometimes say to me, "We are doing fine as it is. Cycling is increasing in London; we don't need lots of money spent on elaborate street engineering".

Some graphics in the Camden Transport Plan show clearly, however, what the problem is. Yes, cycling in Camden, as measured by screenline counts, has increased quite a bit in recent years. Here is the graph.

Traffic in Camden
Cycling traffic (though not necessarily number of cyclists, or cycling mode share) has increased by 100% in 8 years in Camden. And to what level, exactly?

Mode share in Camden
To a 3% mode share, that's what. To the dizzy heights of 3% – what Freewheeler would call a "risible modal share". That's good for London and high for the UK. But it's a long way from Copenhagen's 40%, or Groningen's 50%. It's not a "critical mass" or close to any kind of breakthrough point. And looking at the trend, seeing that on aggregate there was almost no change between 2006 and 2009, it looks like the increase was due to factors in place before 2006 (the main one almost certainly being the Congestion Charge, introduced in 2003), and that it has now levelled off. There's been a huge emphasis on encouraging cycling in Camden. The new Transport Plan is full of pictures of bikes and stuff about cycling, as have been many previous Camden publications. Camden has been one of the most pro-cycling local authorities in the UK over a long period. And the result of all that effort has been that cycling has remained very marginal in Camden – a borough which includes a large part of the centre of London.

And here's the problem:

Road casualties in Camden, 2008
The 3% mode suffers 19% of the casualties, that's the problem. Cycling in Camden, as in the rest of the UK, is too dangerous. That's why more people won't do it, however you try to encourage them.

The answer is to change the infrastructure. You need to make cycling feel safe, and actually be safe, and convenient, at the same time. Quality segregated infrastructure achieves this. It gives high levels of real safety along with a pleasant environment and a high priority for cycle movement. Camden already has some segregated infrastructure, but it's very limited. It's on nothing like the scale you find in any city in the Netherlands, Denmark, or in many cities in Germany. Camden, and the rest of London, needs more and better (and better-located) segregated infrastructure to start to approach mass cycling. Tottenham Court Road would be a good place to start.

Thursday 18 August 2011

Irrational punishment

The riots showed the UK in a bad light, but it looks like the reaction of our politicians and legal system is going to show us in a much worse light.

It appears the the public disgust at the riots is manifesting itself, though some of the judiciary, egged on by politicians, as repressive sentences, for some of those convicted of very minor crimes, that would make the leaders of China or Burma blanch.

The argument I have heard politicians of both major parties put is that these riots were so exceptional and outrageous that exemplary punishments for some of the perpetrators are justified: punishments that go beyond the sentencing norms for the same offences committed in more normal times. I have heard both David Cameron and David Blunkett say this today. But this is an utterly irrational argument.

There are two possible rational arguments, it seems to me, that can be held to in relationship to the crimes committed as part of the riots.

Argument A, the consistency view, is that justice should be blind to extraneous circumstances that have no direct bearing on the actions of the defendant in question. Then they should be sentenced according to the facts of what they actually did, exactly as if their crime had been committed in isolation, with no riot taking place. This would be fair and consistent sentencing.

But there is another rational view, which I will call Argument B, or the contextual view. This is that, if one holds that the riots are to some extent explained by circumstances, that is, they are not random and accidental, but influenced by high levels of unemployment, low levels of attainment, poverty and depravation, then these factors must mitigate the individual culpability of the criminals.

It seems to me that a person who sees lots of other people rioting, breaking windows, and stealing stuff, and, being an easily influenced kind of person, takes the opportunity to lift something from a shop, that they would not have done in normal circumstances, that that person is less culpable than someone who steals the same thing in a normal non-riot circumstance, because the latter person clearly has to have more determination and more ill-intent than the "opportunist" who is swept up in the lawless atmosphere of the rioting. On this contextual view, a given crime committed as part of a riot should be punished less severely than the same crime committed normally. I hold this to be a rational view.

But Judge Andrew Gilbart QC has stated precisely the reverse:
I have no doubt at all that the principal purpose is that the courts should show that outbursts of criminal behaviour like this will be and must be met with sentences longer than they would be if the offences had been committed in isolation.
Gilbart handed down sentences of 18 and 16 months in prison respectively to a man who had been given a looted TV to put in his car, and a man who had found and walked off with a bag of clothes. These crimes would normally be punished with a community sentence.

If it is true that what we are seeing in the wake of the riots is "a distorted version of our normal system" of justice, as BBC legal correspondent Clive Coleman suggests, then this is very grave. It suggests that justice is not being done, and this is more a cause for national shame, in my book, than the riots themselves. For Britain has always held itself up to be a model of the rule of law and of impartial and fair justice above all else (though this never seems to have extended to road crimes). Some of the sentences do indeed suggest that we are slipping into a state of repression.

Comparing some sentences that have been imposed for the "Facebook"-type riot inciting-crimes, in cases where the perpetrator has not actually done anything violent, with some imposed recently for killing using a motor vehicle, may lead one to conclude that we have an utterly irrational sentencing regime that values human life very low indeed. Some examples:

Afzaal Kahn found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving in October 2009 – sentence: two and a half years in prison (plus 5 years driving ban)

Keisha Wall found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving in February 2010 – sentence: two and a half years in a young offenders institution

Tony Smith admitted causing death by careless driving in August 2010 – sentence: 100 hours community service (plus one year driving ban)

Jill Corps admitted killing a cyclist though careless driving in February – sentence: 180 hours community service (plus one year driving ban)

Aryelis Angelis found guilty of causing death by dangerous driving in June – sentence: 8 months in prison (plus 2 years driving ban)

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan admitted "encouraging crime" in Northwich by posting a Facebook message last week suggesting there should be a riot there. Neither had any other part in disorder, and there was no riot in Northwich. Sentence – both got 4 years in prison. Nobody died, no-one was even hurt, no property was stolen or damaged as a result of these two men's actions. But they have been punished far more harshly than all of the killers listed above. All they did was to type some text on to the internet; one wonders how much the judge who imposed this sentence knows about what goes on on Facebook and the rest of the internet normally.

Communities Secretary Eric Pickles has said "exemplary sentences" were necessary and that people needed to understand the consequences of rioting, looting and disorder. This argument never seems to be applied to killer drivers. But then Pickles is a man with odd views. He thinks cyclists are people who "pedal up and down in rubber knickers".

The riots have created a clamour for extraordinary and senseless, disproportionate punishments, particularly when contrasted with the permanently light-touch approach of British law to the avoidable slaughter that goes on daily on our roads. Whether our courts resist this clamour or not is a test of our level of civilisation. We are not doing well so far.

Monday 15 August 2011

Localism in the UK

Today, Monday, Radio 4's The World at One had an interview with Michael Heseltine (one of the "best Prime ministers we never had"), who had had a role in devising the strategy for recovering from the riots that took place in British cities in the summer of 1981. Heseltine's contribution to the debate on the new riots, exactly 30 years later, was refreshing. He emphasised the local dimension. Why has the BBC not been reporting the opinions of local government leaders, apart from that of Boris Johnson? It is a sign of the way local government is not considered important in Britain. This, he implied, and I agree with him, is particular British malaise. If problem localities, that breed the conditions for disaffected people to riot,  are to be tackled, the government must change "localism" from a mere slogan into a reality. And Heseltine was very honest about how difficult that would be for a government, as, he stated, Whitehall ministers would fight tooth and nail to retain all the powers they have.

We have seen this so far in the coalition government's version of "localism". It has consisted either of saying the word "localism" and then issuing new top-down guidance to local authorities to replace older top-down guidance to them from the last government that this one does not like the flavour of, as in Eric Pickles' pointless-to-misguided town centre parking policy, or of saying the word "localism" and then actually removing powers local authorities had, as in the draft new National Planning Policy Framework,  which suggests that local authorities will no longer have the power to reject locally-unpopular developments, as there will be a new presumption in favour of all development.

Heseltine is right. Genuine localism is what we need, but it is utterly against the instincts of all British governments, who all promise it and then fail to deliver it. Will this one be different? I have my doubts. I've been a bit aggressive against the United States in my last post, but I will say that a great strength of the United States is that they have a great model of localism, powerful and permanent, because it is constitutionally-backed. England, and later, the United Kingdom, has been, since the reign of the Tudors, a highly centralised state, with no constitutional position for sub-national government at all. Local government has always been at the mercy of constant and unpredictable reorganisation, abolition, recreation, adjustment and redefinition at the hands of the Westminster government. It has never had the stability or respect that would come with a constitutional framework that defined and guaranteed its role and powers.

And as I don't see anyone in British politics (apart from perhaps a few on the left of the Lib Dems, who are far from the centre of gravity of the coalition) even suggesting that the UK should have a proper constitution that guarantees the role of sub-national levels of government, I don't really see us making much progress with localism. It's just not in our national, historic DNA. In this, as in many other of my pessimistic thoughts, I hope I am wrong.

Sunday 14 August 2011

Hooray for Sir Hugh

Hooray for Sir Hugh Orde, chief of the Association of Chief Police Officers, a figure in the British establishment who is at last prepared to criticise this absurd obsession we have in this country for piloting in "experts" from the United States of America (always the United States of America) to tackle whatever problem certain politicians think is not being adequately addressed by our own people – be it public order, drugs, performance of tube trains, funding of the arts, whatever. But policing and crime are the strangest cases of all – as I commented in a previous post, how absurd that we in the UK should take lessons from the United States, of all places, the nation that finds it needs to lock up 0.74% of its own citizens! Or, as Sir Hugh says about the plans from the Prime Minister to draft in US "Supercop" Bill Bratton:
I am not sure I want to learn about gangs from an area of America that has 400 of them. It seems to me, if you've got 400 gangs, then you're not being very effective.
If you look at the style of policing in the States, and their levels of violence, they are fundamentally different from here.
What I suggested to the home secretary is a more sensible approach, maybe to look across far wider styles of policing and - more usefully - at European styles; they, like us, are bound by the European Convention.
My sense is, when we've done that, we will find the British model is probably the top.
For a figure in the UK establishment to suggest we could usefully look at how anything is done in Europe, as opposed to the United States, is truly exceptional, and I salue Sir Hugh for this.

It is my suspicion, that I can't prove, it is just a thesis, that this implicit belief in the superiority of American expertise in the minds of many (principally right-wing) British politicians is a kind of reverse-colonialism. I think it started in the early to mid-twentieth century, as the USA replaced Britain as the most powerful nation in the world, and it is associated with the decline of British influence and prestige since then, our status becoming eclipsed by the superpower status of the USA. I think a kind of romantic-nostalgic feeling about the "sundering of the English-speaking world" developed at this stage in British culture, and you can trace this trend in the writing of figures like Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, John Buchan, and, of course, Winston Churchill (as great a writer as a leader), a feeling that with the loss of the colonies, of which the United States was the first to secede, Britain had lost its "best people" – its strongest, bravest, most adventurous folk, and that Britain's greatness would be regained, not through integration with Europe, but by some kind of ill-defined future "re-unification of the English-speaking peoples". (This phrase, or a similar one, was used by both Conan Doyle and Churchill).

This romantic world-view was, of course, completely unrealistic, and ignored the true nature of the United States, which was that it was a total cultural melting-pot, with huge contributions from the Germans, Poles, Irish, Italians, Jews, Hispanics, and Africans, it was not, from the mid 19th-century onwards, "basically British" in culture, and the fact that there was a linguistic and historic bond became increasingly misleading. But still, down to this day, British prime ministers and US Presidents seem to fell duty-bound, as a sort of sacred rite, to re-confirm the "special relationship" between the UK and the USA at regular intervals, though the phrase has little meaning. The "special relationship" is in reality a confirmation of the decline of the UK in world rankings since 1900, its failure to find a new place in Europe, and of a sad, head-shaking, kindly-uncle-like attitude on the part of US politicians who feel it best to play along with the UK "special relationship" delusion, for fear of making British even sadder by telling them to go and carve their own, modern path in the world.

The "get someone from the USA" reflex to solving problems in British politicians is part of the "special relationship" delusion and inferiority complex. So far as I know there is no equivalent in other European countries. I might get corrected on this, but I am not aware that the Portuguese regularly look to Brazil for problem-solving leadership, or the Spanish to Mexico.

The reason I salute Sir Hugh is that if we can get a grip on current world realities, in this case, that the crime-and-punishment culture is totally different in the USA to the UK, move away from this Transatlantic cultural fixation and start learning lessons from the way certain things in public life are done well by our far more culturally-similar European neighbours, who just happen to speak different languages to us, then I think we stand to benefit enormously. Who knows, the next stop on this road might be getting Dutch or Danish urban planners, who actually understand how to construct an environment that encourages cycling and walking, at work in our cities. That would be truly revolutionary.

Boff on Blackfriars

I mentioned in a previous post, in passing, the lengthy interview that the Mayor of London's "Champion for Promoting Cycling", Andrew Boff, Conservative London Assembly Member, gave to The Bike Show on Resonance Radio, on the vexed issue of the redesign of Blackfriars Bridge.

What caused the debate: 1000 cyclists on Blackfriars Bridge (ITV coverage)
That interview has now been treated by another blogger, cyclerdelic, who has transcribed parts of it. He makes some good points: principally, if Boff claims, as he seems to, that it would be bad for the economy of London to do too much to facilitate cycling and de-facilitate motor traffic, like, say, giving the whole of one Thames bridge over to cycling (a "ridiculous" idea according to cyclist Boff) then really he needs to produce some evidence for it. It may seem to him to be "common sense", but "common sense" is in the mind of the beholder, and, at least half the time, it is dead wrong. According to Jan Gehl, the famous Copenhagen "Cities for people" architect and guru, as reported on ibikelondon:
The benefits [of prioritising the bike in a city] are clear on many levels, not least in terms of economy. Danish research has found that for every KM cycled, society saves 30 cents. For every KM driven, society looses 20 cents. Biking is not just about having fun and being ‘green’; it pays, too.
No wonder Copenhagen is doing so well economically. It has a 37% modal share by bike, compared to London's 1.5%.

What Boff says in his interview strikes me as very contradictory in a number of ways. He freely admits that he feels Blackfriars Bridge is dangerous to cycle on, and he wouldn't use it. It is not on his commute, but, if it was, he says he would go another way round. (Boris does commute across Blackfriars Bridge.) But then he doesn't seem to be certain that Transport for London are actually taking the wrong decisions on Blackfriars. He spends quite a lot of time proposing that the main issue is the secrecy with which TfL arrives at its decisions, and how it hides its evidence and decision-making process from the public, and from the Assembly Members. He says he thinks there is a possibility that TfL is taking exactly the right decisions, for good reasons, but the problem is secerecy and TfL not explaining itself properly.

Now, this may just be a way in which Boff is trying to be diplomatic and avoiding attacking the managers of TfL too explicitly. But it sounds very odd to me. For though having a process of secret and unaccountable decision making is very bad, what is far worse is the bad decisions themselves, when those decisions have killed people, specifically, the two cyclists killed on the bridge in 2006, and seriously injured others. After those deaths, a report by TfL itself recommended that the speeds on all the London crossings shared with cyclists should be reduced to 20 mph as a cycle safety measure. Boris Johnson has stated he disagrees with this advice and is ignoring it (or, rather, in the latest version, he has been advised by persons unknown that it is bad advice, and he is ignoring it).

What Boff is saying sounds very like what all politicians say just before they massively loose elections: "Our policies are right, we just haven't done enough to explain them". In other words, the problem is not what we're doing, its just the way we are presenting it, and the public doesn't understand our reasons. Politicians in power often adopt this arrogant attitude, and it always leads to the public giving them a bloody nose shortly after.

It doesn't seem to occur to Boff here that if he feels Blackfriars Bridge is dangerous to cycle across, then that proves conclusively that TfL have failed cyclists here, irrespective of any shortcomings of their explanations to the public or politicians. It seems that, though a commuting cyclist himself,  Boff doesn't actually believe that main roads in our cities should necessarily be cycleable, if that conflicts with the requirement, in his world-view, of allowing sufficient motorised traffic to "keep the economy healthy".

He also states that there are many people who will never cycle, however safe you make the roads for them. This is undoubtedly true, and the same argument was put to Mark of ibikelondon by Eric Pickles in his famous "rubber knickers" interview. But this argument is always over-sold in this country, and it is always pushed by those who are resisting making cycling safer and more attractive. If 37% of journeys in Copenhagen are made by bike, that shows that most people in Copenhagen are prepared to cycle for at least a few of their journeys, and many others use cycling as their main mode of transport, or for a good proportion of their journeys. If you make cycling attractive enough, most people will use it some of the time. Those who will never use it, or can never use it, under any circumstances, are a small minority. But London, at its modal share of 1.5%, is currently at the opposite pole, and the argument that "some people will never cycle whatever you do" is actually totally irrelevant to policy, and an excuse for not addressing the issues. The issue in London is allowing the majority who want to be able to cycle the opportunity to do so in safety and comfort. Nobody is talking about preventing those who need to use motor vehicles from doing so. Nobody ever says that you shouldn't invest in railways because "some people never take the train", or not invest in roads for cars because "some people will never drive". This line is transparently foolish.

Where I agree with Boff 100% is in the final section of the interview, where he strongly criticises the current political system in London (set up by the Blair government), with an executive Mayor who has an almost impossible job in being expected to manage so many separate and different technical areas (transport, policing, culture, planning), who is forced therefore to rely too heavily on unelected, unaccountable apparatchiks that he alone appoints, and who is effectively democratically unaccountable himself after he has been elected for 4 years, with a largely pointless and toothless elected Assembly that has one opportunity a year to reject or accept a budget, and then spends the rest of its time lamely scutinising decisions after the fact. This is a bad system, and it tends to bad decision-making and corruption. London deserves better.

But I come back to this point about the economics of providing for cycling as against providing for cars, as the logic is so bizarre. Why should giving over a large part of Blackfriars Bridge to cyclists (and pedestrians) impact the economy of London adversely? This is implying that somehow we just happen to have a distribution of priorities on London's bridges at the moment that is economically optimal for the city. Is this likely? Perhaps not, perhaps the economy would do even better if we gave cars more space. If this is the case, is it not wrong that we have a whole bridge across the Thames (the Milennium Bridge) devoted to walkers? Surely TfL is being irresponsible with the economy of London if it does not immediately evict pedestrians from the Millennium Bridge and hand it over to cars (those little electric cars that the government is doing so much to push as the "future of transport" might not be too heavy for it, and, if they are, then why not strengthen it?). Where does this "logic" end?

In Boff's long interview, I keep wanting to ask, "Well, OK, but what is your solution?" He doesn't seem to have one. As a just a politician, just someone who happened to get elected, he tells us, he can't be expected to be an expert on anything in particular, that's why we need the "experts" at TfL to explain their decisions better. The reasonable man, of course, believes in the authority of experts – a concatenation of famous sayings by famous people that I just invented. But no-one in this programme approached in any way proposing a solution to the "Blackfriars Problem". People seem to be too afraid of having an opinion that could be contested by "experts".

London Cycling Campaign has just voted that its future policy should be "Going Dutch". If that is the case, why didn't LCC's Charlie Lloyd, interviewed before Boff, launch this new policy in this programme by proposing a Dutch solution to Blackfriars? We know what the Dutch solution would be, as David Hembrow has helpfully told us, providing numerous examples to prove his point. And it's not rocket science, it's not something you need a great expert on transport to explain to you. The Dutch would give cyclists their own ample, dedicated, safe and separated space on the bridge, and signalise the junctions at the ends so that cyclists could go in the directions they needed to go with a minimum of delay and with no interaction or negotiation with motor vehicles or pedestrians at all. Golly, how come they can think of that when all the great experts at TfL can't? Perhaps it's living below sea-level that concentrates the mind. Now, what's the purpose of that big shiny metal thing that spans the Thames near Woolwich? Perhaps there's hope for London yet.

Wednesday 10 August 2011

Cycle campaigns in Denmark

I have not actually been to Denmark, but there appears to be a lot about cycling there that is rather good, that the UK needs to learn from: like this genuinely super-looking Copenhagen Cycling Superhighway, photographed by Marc van Woudenburg of Amsterdamize (but it does look rather deserted).

Courtesy of Amsterdamize: licence http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/deed.en
I was therefore most interested to see that the Cycling Embassy of Denmark has published a document with the appetising title Cycle Campaigns in Denmark. I would have hoped that such a document would provide information to UK cycle campaigners on how cyclists in Denmark had campaigned so successfully for the sort of fantastic infrastructure pictured above.

Alas, it turns out that this document is nothing like that. By "Cycle Campaigns", the Danish Cycling Embassy means here something totally different to what I expected, and, unfortunately, something not uniformly good either.

Their document cannot be directly quoted, not the images from it copied, due to the form in which it has been uploaded to the web, which prevents any part of it being downloaded. The intro says:
It can be hard to determine the exact effect of cycle campaigns, but the tendency in the Danish bicycle culture is clear: In cities that make a systematic effort at promoting cycling, more and more people choose to cycle. There is no doubt that cycle campaigns play a part in this success. This catalogue gives an overview of 14 concrete campaigns, their goals, how they worked in practice, and their results.
By "cycle campaigns" they mean propaganda campaigns by the authorities, for example local town councils, to persuade more people to use their cycle infrastructure. The existence of the effective, quality cycle infrastructure is assumed, and not dealt with in this document, with no discussion of how or why it came to be built in the first place.

So this is really no no use to cycle campaigners, or indeed politicians or officials, in a place like the UK. For exmple, on Page 9, "Fair wind on the cycle track" it talks about a campaign in Odense to get car drivers to switch to electric bikes, and shows a picture of a congested road full of cars, with an extremely-well separated cycle track to the left of it, separated from the road by several types of barriers. The problem here, from a UK perspective, is that, in our infrastructure, we simply don't have the whole left-hand half of this picture. We only have the right-hand half, the congested road full of cars. We are many stages back from the meaning of the word "campaign" that the Danish Cycling Embassy is using, we don't have the basic infrastructure that is the prerequisite of all that they are talking about. 

So all this is really no use to us, but I can just see the contents of this document being taken up and quoted out-of-context by many in the UK cycling world, who love nothing more than to dwell on promotional campaigns for cycling in the absence of any intention of the UK authorities to build usable infrastructure for cycling, and who will say "This kind of publicity campaign is how they have achieved a high cycling modal share in Denmark" – when it clearly is not.

There are echoes here of the misleading release put out by the Dutch Fietsberaad on the subject of cycling in Raalte, the town with "a high percentage of bicycle use without any clearly visible reasons", when actually it has very clearly visible physical reasons for its cycling success – a release which did get taken up by the UK's Cyclenation website.

Unfortunately, Cycle Campaigns in Denmark gets worse. On page 22 we read about "Promoting the helmet in a positive way" in Aalborg. I am afraid there can be nothing positive about promoting cycle helmets. Promoting cycle helmets means promoting a culture of unnecessary fear around cycling that drives people away from it, whether in Denmark, Australia, the USA or the UK. This is actually undoing the work of the rest of the "cycle campaigns" that the document wishes to tell us about (and perhaps it explains the deserted Cycle Superhighway pictured at the top of this post). Rather than read this document, watch this video from fietsya which demonstrates Dutch attitudes to cycle helmets, the attitude in a really safe and healthy cycling culture. Or, if you wish, read up on the minutiae of the evidence around helmets from War of the Motorist, in several superb posts from July 2011.

There may be lots that is great about cycling in Denmark, but I am afraid the Cycling Embassy of Denmark have rather shot themselves in the foot with this document. Perhaps it is best for them that it is not downloadable (though I am sure some wizzkid will crack that one soon enough). It would be nice if there were two spectacular, excellent examples of national cycling cultures going in the right direction in Europe, but it appears this is not the case. We'll just have to go back to looking at View from the Cycle Path for inspiration.