Tuesday 31 January 2012

A policy a day...

About a year on from the first meeting of the organisation, and six months on from its official launch, members of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain gathered in fashionable Kensington last weekend for some serious business: to bash out the optimum policies for an organisation dedicated to making riding a bike in Britain for everyday purposes as easy as possible – an organisation truly and seriously aiming to make mass cycling a reality here, as it is already in many other countries. Some preliminary information about the discussions constituting the "Policy Bash" is available on the CEoGB site here.

For those not familiar with the story, I give the background. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain was founded by Jim Davis, now the chairman, early last year. Its early members were mostly cycling bloggers who had often used their blogs to criticise the standard of cycling provision in the UK and the lack of safety for cyclists on the roads. Some were, or had been, active in existing cycling campaign organisations, some not. Apart from being highly critical of government policy towards cycling, they were all rather dissatisfied with how existing cycling organisations had treated the "infrastructure issue". All had noted the increasing information and evidence available on how high cycling levels have been achieved in many European towns and cities through deployment of cycle infrastructure that has no real parallel in the UK, and all were dissatisfied with the response of the existing UK cyclists' organisations, which tended to either to ignore or downplay the role of quality cycle infrastructure in creating these cycling cultures, preferring to concentrate campaigning around issues of cycle promotion, cycle training, law-enforcement and road user behaviour.

Ride round Manchester at the second Embassy meeting
The founder members of the Embassy believed, and still do, that networks of effective infrastructure for cyclists that separate them safely from motor vehicles, on the European pattern, are the absolute keystone of the arch in generating mass cycling, without which all the other measures and campaigns will always fail. Because no other campaign was prepared to state this position clearly, a new one had to be formed: the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. The name was intended to draw a parallel with the Cycling Embassies of Denmark and the Netherlands, which are quasi-official bodies that aim to export cycling know-how from those successful cycling cultures. The British Embassy is different: it is an entirely voluntary organisation that aims to import good and proven ideas that really increase cycling, from wherever they can be found, and campaign for their deployment in the UK.

So a group of bloggers acquired a collective website, a constitution, a mission statement, a committee, and a bank account, and started meeting both virtually and physically to make plans. They were then no longer a group of bloggers, but a real campaign. There is still no membership fee to join the Embassy, though donations are requested. "Members", or "Ambassadors", are those who have registered an interest on the website, and there are no tangible benefits of joining, in terms of insurance or any of the other usual inducements. The Embassy is thus not in direct competition with other cycling membership organisations; rather, it seeks to augment their efforts.

After the formal launch of the Embassy, with participation from the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands (a real embassy!), the next major event was the study tour to Assen and Groningen in the Netherlands, in company of David Hembrow, for members to get vital direct experience of how the Dutch engineering solutions actually work. This experience was documented in many photos, videos and write-ups.

The Embassy launch, September 2011
Around the same time, late last year, other significant developments occurred. The (claimed) largest urban cycling organisation in the world, the London Cycling Campaign, held a vote to determine its headline campaign demand for the 2012 London mayoral election. The winning option, by an overwhelming majority, was Go Dutch: Clear space for cycling on London's main roads. LCC subsequently published the objectives of its Go Dutch campaign, focussing on the need for quality separated cycling infrastructure on busy roads to create a real "cycling revolution" in London. So now the LCC and the CEoGB were singing from the same hymn-sheet, both referencing clearly the Dutch infrastructure example as the one to be particularly emulated. The LCC also started organising large protest rides to demonstrate the anger of cyclists over the Mayor's lack of progress in changing London's dangerous, anti-cycling street and junction designs. Other cycling protest organisations arose in London, and a campaign was launched to get cyclists to vote en-masse in the elections purely on the cycle safety issue.

Forward to this week, and the Cycling Embassy has had its Policy Bash. The policies can still be commented-on and influenced by any member – see the Embassy's Forums. Some of the many topics covered were cycle helmets, shared space versus separation by mode, one-way streets, pedestrianisation, permeability, roundabout and junction design, purpose of roads and streets, and character of networks. Also under discussion was strategy of the organisation: how to build alliance, and with whom, how to leverage funding for cycling infrastructure, how to create a resource of design expertise, how to best influence politicians and civil servants, and so on.

Bashing out policy at Kensington Town Hall
If I need to choose one thing to mention, perhaps most important for me were discussions around the DfT's Hierarchy of Provision for Cyclists, and how this should be reformed. All were in agreement that the Hierarchy, which suggests the order in which various streets interventions for cyclists in the UK should be "considered" by planners, does not generally deliver effective cycle engineering solutions. This is because it starts from an incorrect premise, that all roads on which cyclists are allowed, from country lanes to urban cult-de-sacs to inter-urban trunk roads, can be regarded in the same way, and be subject to the same mono-dimensional "hierarchy of solutions", which they clearly cannot.

There are clearly roads that are not suitable for cycling on, where parallel provision must be made, and others where parallel provision is not necessary, but other changes are. A clear consensus crystallised that the primary considerations must be the desired functions of different roads and streets, to be established first, before decisions can be taken on how cycling should be accommodated on, or adjacent to, those roads and streets, and, also, where the cycling through-route network is supposed to be, and how those streets relate to this – are they part of it, or are they not, but giving perhaps access to homes, shops or workplaces. Answers on priorities, and sharing versus segregation, must be related to these questions.

Bashing Milngavie roundabout into a more Dutch shape
A lot of time was devoted to junction design, and there was detailed consideration of one example roundabout – the one that Magnatom nearly came to grief on in Milngavie, near Glasgow. We looked at what the ideal Dutch cycle path solution to this dangerous roundabout would be, and how that might be introduced in stages, phased to reflect the importance of different routes for cyclists and the danger that they faced trying to use them, with each stage representing an incremental improvement in conditions for cyclists and pedestrians.

It is clear that the work of the Embassy has only just begun. But a solid start has been made, and, just as importantly, other organisations are taking notice, and some are following a similar path. These the Embassy is very keen to work with. Cycle campaigning in the UK has now got serious.

Monday 23 January 2012

Events and campaigns

The Bikes Alive protest goes again at King's Cross today (Monday) at 6.00pm. It's for pedestrians, cyclists and animals. Peter Hendy, Commissioner for Transport for London, thinks the protest is "stupid". If you think it is his roads policies that are stupid, then join the demo, or a future one.

Another tack on the politics of the roads is taken by another new organisation, Londoners on Bikes.
They are asking all Londoners who use bikes to commit to voting in the mayoral elections on the cycling safety issue alone, as "transport is the one thing the Mayor really controls". The formation of an identifiable and substantial "cycling voting block", the theory goes, will influence the candidates' policies more than they have been influenced before by the diffuse cycling lobby.

This goes along of course with London Cycling Campaign's Go Dutch mayoral election campaign, which will be formally launched on 9 February, asking that each mayoral candidate pledge to "Make London more liveable for everybody by making our streets as safe as inviting as they are in Holland" . So far there is little evidence of positive response to this from the current City Hall administration. TfL's proposed new designs for the killer Bow Roundabout are just more half-hearted concepts that bear no resemblance to anything that the Dutch would do in such a location, and do even less for pedestrians than for cyclists (nothing to be precise). I am not holding my breath that Boris Johnson's "step change in the way engineers think when planning for cyclists" (which is, suspiciously, a commitment we have not had from his lips, but only from those of his Director of Environment Kulveer Ranger) is going to amount to anything but more huff, quarter-measures, and refusal to confront the real issues of priority on the streets. We shall see.

On a more positive note, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain holds its Policy Bash this weekend, an intensive two-day workshop in London where cycle campaigners will cast a fresh look at those familiar questions, "What do we really need to make cycling a mass activity in the UK?" and "How can we best campaign to get it"? If you cannot be there, you can take part at a virtual level: use the hashtag #CEoGBBash to take part on Twitter. In addition, you are invited on the pre-Bash Infrastructure Safari, a two-hour cycle tour of good and not-so-good cycle infrastructure in central London, to inform the following days' discussions, which will start from Euston station at 6:15 pm on Friday.

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Brent Cross Cricklewood regeneration scheme "dead"

The Standard reports that the Brent Cross Cricklewood regeneration is very unlikely to go ahead in the form previously envisaged:
Mr Johnson met key figures at Brent Cross last week and one source told the Standard that the wider Cricklewood regeneration scheme was now "dead in the water". The Mayor is now thought to favour concentrating efforts on what would be dubbed Brent Cross "town centre", the mall, which opened in 1976, and the retail park on the opposite side of the North Circular, in the face of competition from Westfield.
The huge "regeneration" scheme, the biggest in London, championed by Barnet Council, attracted more than 500 objections: amongst them being those of Brent and Barnet LCC groups, many other local environmental groups, and all Barnet's surrounding borough councils: Brent, Harrow, Camden and Haringey, who were all very worried about the generation of more traffic on their roads – Barnet's own (unrealistically conservative) estimate was for an extra 29,000 cars per day. Cyclists were most concerned about the developers' plans to make Staples Corner even more of a cycling barrier, by creating a giant dumbbell-shaped gyratory linking the Staples corner east and west roundabouts, through the Midland railway viaduct, and forcing cyclists on the A5 either over the flyover, with its terrifying motorway-style slip-roads, or onto a slow, convoluted, ramped cycle path (the original developers' idea was that this cycle path should actually use lifts!!).

The developers' 2008 plans showed this incredible proposal for the Staples Corner junction of the A5 Edgware Road, an LCN+ route and an important (unavoidable) commuting route for cyclists, with the North Circular Road, replacing the current roundabout (shown grey underneath). Cyclists were supposed to go south by taking a cycle path with lifts at either end, but no option was provided for going north!
The Broken Barnet blog has an interesting take on the curious fact that news of this collapse happened to come out on the same day that Boris Johnson visited Barnet. It may be that Johnson, facing re-election, realised that many Conservative voters in north-west London opposed the heavily car-dependent scheme and the waste incinerator (AKA Combined Heat and Power Plant) that went with it. It may just be that everybody knows that, with the collapse of retailing, there would not now be enough money from the shopping centre development to finance it. Whatever, the supposed forthcoming wider regeneration of the Brent Cross Cricklewood area has been used for years to block proposals to improve the A5 and Staples Corner for cycling. Now this regeneration looks unlikely to go ahead, this should no longer be an excuse.

The nastiness of Staples corner for cyclists and pedestrians as it is now
Personally, I am not opposed to shopping malls. They have considerable advantages in usability over a traditional high street for many, including the disabled. I am even not opposed to a further development of Brent Cross, if the developers think they can make it pay in this age of internet shopping. Shopping malls are not intrinsically bad – but what is key is to get the transport planning around them right, to make it easy for people to use alternatives to the car, an area where this development plan fell far short. And north Cricklewood could do with a certain amount of regeneration. But what it did not need was a huge land-grab by one consortium, in unholy hoc with a local council, determined to build a new high-rise city based on a nightmare 1970s concept of car-based urban planning, with pedestrians relegated to walkways in the sky, no sensible routes for bikes, a bus station made less convenient for the shopping centre than the present one, and no orbital rail or tramway. Hopefully that concept really is dead. There was, anyway, obviously never any milage in the idea of trying to create a "new town centre" straddling the North Circular Road. Such urban motorways can only ever divide.

The developers' vision of their new city on the North Circular
Barnet LCC now have an active campaigns group. They will be having a meeting this Friday at Middlesex University in Hendon – see their website for details.

Monday 9 January 2012

Bikes Alive demonstration today

I have received the following, which I merely pass on, without much comment, save to say that I do not find it surprising that when we have the situation, which we do, in London, where cyclists are being killed and seriously injured on a regular basis at known blackspots, and it is widely acknowledged by most parties that a large part of the problem lies in the bad road designs, which are known about, and have often been commented on even by professional engineers and consultants employed by various bodies, and yet these designs are not changed, over years and decades, even when the same type of serious incidents are occurring in the same places in the same way repeatedly, whether at King's Cross, or at Bow, or at Elephant and Castle, or at Blackfriars, or at Edgware, or numerous other locations across the capital, where the solutions are known but simply not applied, because other priorities are prevailing, then many cyclists will feel that there is no alternative than to take this sort of action, and that this sort of action is justified.

PRESS RELEASE – Friday 30 December 2011
Issued by Bikes Alive
Cyclists and other non-motorised road users suffer death and injury (not to mention being delayed, poisoned and terrorised) by the selfish, anti-social (and frequently illegal) behaviour of motorists – despite the fact that much of the traffic in urban areas like London is completely unnecessary. In the case of private cars, much of the traffic is there for no other reason than the selfishness of the drivers concerned.
The situation on major roads and at major junctions in London is exacerbated by the policy of Transport for London (TfL), which prioritises the speed and volume of motor vehicles above the safety and sanity of everyone else.
Since polite meetings and symbolic action are having, on their own, too little effect, some cyclists now plan to take non-violent direct action to defend themselves and other vulnerable road users.
The first such (publicly announced) event will be at the lethal junction outside Kings Cross station (where York Way meets Pentonville Road and Euston Road) at 6pm on Monday 9 January 2012. Bikes Alive is calling for cyclists and pedestrians to take steps to forcibly calm the traffic there for one hour; if there are enough participants, the Kings Cross one-way system will be closed down from 6pm to 7pm that evening.
Unless TfL agrees to change its priorities as a result, Bikes Alive will endeavour to organise regular road closures, with the aim being to completely close down Kings Cross for at least one hour every week until TfL comes to its senses.
For more details of this plan, see bikesalive.wordpress.com; or e-mail bikesalive @ london.com
Albert Beale, on 020-7278 4474, has agreed to deal with media enquiries about this for Bikes Alive.

Tuesday 3 January 2012

Sustainable safety, Dutch and British-style

David Hembrow and Mark Wagenbuur have announced their intention to "call it a day" on their famous and influential cycling blog View from the cycle path, which, perhaps more than any other journal or piece of work published either electronically, or in print, has encouraged supporters of cycling in the English-speaking world to start to think differently about utility cycling, and has spread understanding of how the Dutch have actually achieved the safest cycling environment and highest transport share for cycling in the world.

I can understand why David and Mark should want a rest. Writing an accurate, high-quality blog for a long period is extremely demanding and time-consuming. Their new posts will be much missed, but their archive of posts will continue on-line as an invaluable resource for cycle advocates, transport planners and engineers around the world. Their last post to be written (though not, apparently, last to be published) is one of the best and most important of all. Entitled Campaign for Sustainable Safety, not Strict Liability, it again busts one of the great international myths about the Dutch cycling culture, explaining the true nature of Dutch liability law and its true influence on cycling conditions in the Netherlands (which is slight), before explaining the Dutch policy that needs to be understood and campaigned for elsewhere, the real basis of the Dutch road safety record: Sustainable Safety. I urge you to read it, and to pass it on to all those interested or involved in the area.

I've mentioned Sustainable Safety here before. It's based on five principles, that Wagenbuur goes into in detail in the second part of the article:
  1. Functionality of roads
  2. Homogeneity of mass, speed and direction of road-users
  3. Predictability of road course and road-user behaviour
  4. Forgivingness of the road environment and the road-users
  5. Awareness of the road-user
Of these, the one that perhaps needs most absorbing outside the Netherlands, because it is so foreign to the way things are done on the roads in most other places, is the second principle: that of homogeneity of mass, speed and direction of road-users. In simple physics terms, homogeneity of mass, speed and direction of road-users means that the chances of crashes that have serious consequences are minimised because, in a given space, all the "vehicles" (and that term includes, here, pedestrians) have similar mass, speed and direction, therefore little kinetic energy relative to one another, and they therefore cannot do much damage to one another if they come accidentally into contact. Sustainable Safety, is, in a way, the simple, common-sense acceptance of the facts that humans are fallible, and that accidents do happen, but that it is possible to engineer an environment in which those accidents are rarely disastrous.

The desire for homogeneity of traffic is thus the basis for the Dutch bias towards separating out the classes of road-users, motor vehicles, bikes, and pedestrians (and in some cases buses, trams, lorries, motorcyclists and mopeds) in their own spaces, to minimise the damage they can do to one another in the event of a crash, and, where such separation is not possible, to ensure that no road-users have enough energy (through their speed, energy being proportional to speed squared) to risk serious damage to others. The homogeneity requirement essentially determines what the vast majority of Dutch roadscapes, streetscapes and townscapes actually look like.

But, strangely, straightforward as this all is, there is a huge amount of misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Dutch traffic safety principles in other counties. There is something of a propaganda campaign in the UK, and possibly elsewhere, by some people, to try to convince others that the basis of Dutch road safety is precisely the reverse of what it actually is, that it is actually about mixing up different types of road users as much as possible. Consider this, from the blog of Angela Saini, a science journalist who has just made a programme for BBC Radio 4:
For the last few months I've been asking traffic engineers and scientists whether it's possible to rebuild the streets in a way that might make us safer, happier and generally nicer people. The linchpin of this idea is an increasingly popular (if controversial) concept known as Shared Space, which is a way of designing streets without segregating road users. Essentially, everyone is encouraged to use the same street at the same time... there are no pavements as such. Pioneered in Holland, it seems to be working over there by slowing down drivers and making all road users more aware of each other. And it's since been imported all over the world.
And this is from the BBC webpage on the programme, to be broadcast today Tuesday 3 January at 21:00 and tomorrow, Wednesday 4 January at 15:30:
The early roots of this innovative concept lies in the work of the late Dutch traffic engineer, Hans Monderman. A passionate advocate of shared space, Monderman and colleagues started small - more than twenty years ago, converted an intersection in the northern Dutch province of Friesland from a conventional signal-controlled intersection to a brick-paved street, giving equal priority to cars, people and cycles. The idea was that people would use their own minds in navigating the streets, building their own informal traffic rules. Research has shown that these kinds of shared spaces automatically reduced traffic speed to under 20 mph - the threshold at which the chances of being severely injured in a road accident plummets. This highly counterintuitive approach - increasing risk decreases accidents is finding favour (albeit slowly and not without opposition) all over the world.
Today, Monderman's vision can be experienced throughout his Dutch province of Friesland, no where more so than in Drachten, an unassuming town that until recently was famous only for being the home of the Dutch electronics giant Philips. Drachten's shared space schemes (and those of its near neighbours) now attracts a regular pilgrimage of engineers and planners, from all parts of the world - Australia, Japan, Britain, South Africa, India and even Colombia.
Now this is all a load of cobblers – except perhaps the statement about the "centre of pilgrimage" – insofar as an impression is being given that shared space is quintessentially Dutch, a significant part of Dutch thinking on planning, an expanding movement in the Netherlands, or a thing that the Netherlands is actively exporting. In fact, shared space has been a very limited experiment in the Netherlands that runs contrary to usual Dutch practice, it has not been popular there, and it is not much known or discussed in the Netherlands. Drachten is a small place (population 45,000), and only a small area of the centre of the town has received shared space treatment.  Other Dutch examples of shared space consist of the odd street, square or precinct, set within the normal Dutch mode-segregated street environment. (And by the way, another thing wrong in the quote is that Drachten is not "home" to Philips, Philips' HQ is in Amsterdam).

Interest in Monderman's ideas has come very much from outside the Netherlands, not within. Marttijn Sargentini, the bike cheif in Amsterdam, and thus a very important Dutch traffic planner, far more important than Monderman, told CTC's Cycle magazine (October 2007):
I'd never heard of Hans Monderman or "shared space" until all these foreign visitors came here and kept telling me about them. Here in Amsterdam we are very clear – for safety, for speed, to give an advantage to the bike, we aim to separate wherever possible.
The Dutch are always experimenting with urban design, and shared space has been a minor experiment there that is getting blown out of all proportion by foreigners who are not seeing the wood for the trees, they are not observing basically what normal Dutch street design is about. The answer Angela Saini's opening question is, obviously, "no", it's not possible to rebuild streets in a way to make us generally nicer people – what a silly idea. Sustainable safety is not about making people "nice". People are as people are, they are human, but design can minimise risks by taking their frailties and real behaviours into account.

Shared space in the UK has been mostly promoted by the architect Ben Hamilton-Baillie, who seems to have made it his trademark. According to a BBC news story on shared space in Ashford, Kent, where pedestrians have complained that the new design leaves them feeling exposed when crossing the shared space roads:
Ben Hamilton-Baillie, the architect behind the scheme, said the point of the shared space was so that pedestrians and drivers interacted and negotiated for space and right of way.
He said that although that may not be easy or comfortable for the pedestrian it did appear to work.
"So far it looks as if there has been a significant drop, particularly in more serious accidents, maybe as much as 75%," he said."That doesn't necessarily translate into how people feel when they cross the street, but the reduction in speed has been the most important single element in transforming what was an unattractive concrete collar surrounding Ashford into a civilised part of the town centre itself."
I beg your pardon? Shared space "may not be easy of comfortable for the pedestrian"? I though that it was supposed to benefit pedestrians! I though it was supposed to give them more freedom! I thought that was the whole idea of it, Mr Hamilton-Baillie!

I can't understand what the point of shared space is supposed to be. The benefits claimed for it seem to be illusory, as Hamilton-Baillie's words, if accurately quoted, seem to confirm. What are the actual better outcomes of shared space as opposed to segregation? Hamilton-Bailie here seems to retreat from any idea that shared space should feel pleasant for vulnerable road-users, to a claim about merely reducing casualties, and a claim that what he has created is somehow more "civilised" than what used to exist. I have heard this word used before by a shared space adherent, it is a favourite word of theirs: geographer John Adams used it once in Camden. It is meaningless, an expression of mere personal aesthetic preference or prejudice. How is this Ashford design "civilised"?

If pedestrians feel uncomfortable and unsafe, as they seem to feel in the Ashford shared space, then they will avoid it, and they will avoid crossing the road there (and particularly vulnerable people like the blind, disabled and elderly will avoid crossing the road there), and so casualty figures might well go down. But that's the easiest way to reduce casualties, and the worst: just frighten the vulnerable away, those who are most likely to have accidents, just exclude the non-motorised, not by law, but through intimidation. That seems to be the British version of Sustainable Safety: a kind of quasi-voluntary apartheid.

You see this in UK cycle route engineering as well: you build something so fantastically dangerous that few people on a bike will ever use it, so there cannot be many cycling casualties, because there are few cyclists, and the safety record for cyclists looks good. Something like this, a crazy cycle crossing of a motorway-type road in the Bikeless Borough of Barnet, North London, which has only ever killed one cyclist, and frightened most of the rest of them away. A good safety record: British-style Sustainable Safety in action.