Wednesday 28 November 2012

Baker's crumbs

It would be easy to carp and and be negative about the extra £20 million announced for cycling infrastructure across the UK by Transport Minister Norman Baker today. So let's do it. After all, who doesn't want to do what's easy? (Except for President Kennedy. And look what happened to him. And to add insult to injury, now a high proportion of Americans don't believe they ever went to the Moon at all.)

And, facetiousness aside, "doing what's easy" is the point in all this. People cycle in large numbers where you make it a really easy thing to do. People cycle in small numbers in the UK because we've made it a really, really hard thing for people to do. The many ways we have made it hard are well-described in sociologist Dave Horton's excellent blog series Cycling Struggles, based on research he conducted for the University of Lancaster's Understanding Walking and Cycling project. As I've argued before, telling people how good it is for their health to cycle, or that "gardening is more dangerous than cycling", or some such blather, is utterly useless as a strategy for getting more cycling. The only strategy that we know works is to make cycling easy, convenient, safe, pleasant, and fun.

Guidance from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) issued today makes the health case for more walking and cycling, as both travel and recreation, again, but actually we have had guidance from NICE saying
Ensure pedestrians, cyclists and users of other modes of transport that involve physical activity are given the highest priority when developing or maintaining streets and roads.
Plan and provide a comprehensive network of routes for walking, cycling and using other modes of transport involving physical activity
since 2008. Perhaps I have been looking in a different direction when it has all been happening, but I haven't noticed much evidence of any level of government following that guidance. And, overall, the actual policy guidance in this latest NICE paper seems to be rather less clear and concrete than that from 2008, if lengthier, with rather a lot of emphasis on "encouraging" cycling, and no real analysis of the infrastructure problem. So perhaps those pinning big hopes of a shift in policy in response to NICE's current paper need to prepare for a let-down. Again.

And I'm afraid "a let-down" is what Norman Baker's announcement must be viewed as. Part of the trouble is, of course, that the sum is just too small, spread across the whole of the UK, to make a difference. In the London Borough of Brent, where I operate, the Transport for London-declared "Biking Borough", with a 1% modal share of travel by bike, I could easily tell you how to spend that £20 million, just in my borough, tomorrow. You could, with that money, maybe fix a couple of major physical barriers to cycling, and you'd probably succeed in increasing cycling in the borough by between 50 and 100%, I'd guess (my guess based on comparisons with comparable London boroughs which have slightly fewer physical barriers to cycling). But that would be just for Brent, for 300,000 people. That's 0.5% of the UK population. So this money, spent in that theoretical way (which it won't be) would at the very best achieve a 0.5% increase in modal cycling share in the UK, from around 1% to around 1.005%. That's not a measurable difference.

Of course this money will actually be spent in much smaller lumps than I am proposing, on small projects all over the country. Norman Baker and many others would therefore argue that my analysis is totally irrelevant. There may be, or there are, they would say, many small barriers to cycling all over the country which could be fixed with small applications of cash, and that fixing these would have incrementally have much more effect than I am calculating. But I don't think so. I think the reverse, based on everything I have seen of the barriers to cycling in the UK and of what works and what doesn't work. I think the more you subdivide small funds using the traditional "scattergun" approach used in the UK for cycle investment, the less bang for your buck you get. You need to create consistent, widely-useful networks in towns to get people cycling as a matter of habit, as the Dutch showed in the early 1970s. If you've got little money it's better to do one "demonstration town" than waste it all through "evaporation" across the nation. Unfortunately this money is a drop in the ocean compared to what we need, and through being a minutely subdivided drop, its benefits will entirely disappear.

The DfT's press release shows that there is no departure here from the traditional scattergun approach:
Projects could include better cycle facilities at railway stations, improved cycle links, or projects to improve the layout of road junctions to make them more cycle-friendly. Previous investment has seen some great projects making a real difference in communities, including better cycle routes from residential areas to schools to encourage the next generation of cyclists to cycle more regularly.
It sounds like this money will be used for a few more cycle stands at stations (but lack of cycle parking really is not the reason people don't cycle, it's lack of subjective safety of the cycling experience, so this part of the money will achieve little), a few improvements to Sustrans-style routes between towns, and possibly junction changes, though that these will be done well enough to work is unlikely given the terrible nature of current DfT guidance on cycle infrastructure (more good reading on that subject here).

It also sounds from that press releases as if the DfT doesn't really know exactly what it wants done with this money. I think it's important to note that other areas that DfT funds are not treated like this. For major road and rail (and I guess aviation and maritime) projects, the government first decides exactly what it wants. It then costs it, and decides if and how it can be done. It then gets it through the planning mechanisms, if necessary bypasses them by executive decisions or new Acts of Parliament, and sees the project through, spending as much money as is needed to finish it and make it work. By contrast, cycle projects are rarely completed to the standard to actually make them work optimally.

I think today's announcement is undermined not only by the smallness of the sum involved, but also by the continuing lack of a coherent strategy from the DfT for cycling, and the lack of decent standards written into DfT guidance to Highway Authorities to tell them exactly how to build for cycling. The point about the Netherlands is not just that they spend at least 20 times as much per person as the UK on cycling infrastructure, and not just that they have been doing this consistently for decades, but also that from 1989 they had a clear national plan (the Dutch Bicycle Master Plan).

There have been various announcements about funding relating to cycling from the government over the past year. It's been hard to keep track of them, as the same money tends to get re-announced over and over again. In March £15 million was announced for cycle-rail and Sustrans projects, and in June £15 million for junction improvements in London and £15 million for the same in the rest of England were announced. If we add these to today's money it looks like the DfT is putting about £65 million into cycling infrastructure for England, about £1.30 per person, this year. This may be compared with the budget that Cycling England had from the last government: £60 million. But that money was spent in only a few towns, in a more concentrated way, to try to demonstrate the effect of doing a lot (by UK standards) in one place (a more effective strategy, though it still didn't amount to the creation of the whole-town quality networks that the Dutch showed were necessary). A scattergun £65 million is not worth anything like as much as Cycling England's more concentrated £60 million. And there has been inflation since the days of Cycling England, abolished in the "Bonfire of the Quangos" as one of the first acts of the Coalition government.

The bottom line seems to be that the funding for cycling in England stays about constant over time, whoever is in power. And the cycling level stays constantly low, as you'd expect. You keep doing the same thing, you keep getting the same result. There's no shift from the historical pattern here, there's just not the gear-change we need present in today's announcement, or the announcements over the past year.

The constant low level of cycling in England due to constant low investment
We need a billion a year, just to start to get the momentum up, just to start to catch up with our more advanced continental neighbours. And we need proper standards based on international best-practice and a hard, scientific analysis (that people like Dave Horton should be in the front line of advising on) as to what really works (and that, by the way, is, in one word, in case you were in any doubt, segregation, not the deeply-misleading  "mix if possible, separate where necessary" mantra that everybody seems to have gotten hold of suddenly.) And the catching-up would still take decades.

A billion is getting on for 10% of the DfT's budget, after the recent cuts, of £11.6 billion. The direct costs of obesity to the UK are estimated by the Department of Health at £5.1 billion a year. On that basis, the request for a billion for cycling is rational and reasonable, given its potential for solving the problem, as detailed in today's NICE report, and its potential for solving many other problems as well, that we all know about. Could any UK transport minster, or even the Chancellor, possibly deliver a billion for cycling? In political terms, not easily. But posterity thanks politicians who decide to do things that are hard.

Sunday 25 November 2012

While Boris so far fails to "Go Dutch", Camden quietly gets on with it

I stated quite clearly in April my belief that Boris Johnson's commitment to the London Cycling Campaign's Go Dutch principles was not sincere. However Johnson won the election fair and square, so the LCC needed to take him on his word, and just keep monitoring the situation and reminding him of his commitment in every possible way. He had a bit of a breathing space over the Olympic period, when one would have expected less focus on such long-term issues as safe streets, but that's well behind us now.

After his fist 100 days into the new term, LCC issued an assessment, which in my opinion was already a bit too charitable even at this stage:
The good news is that the mayor has made one big pledge along the path to meeting his promises to Go Dutch, namely identifying the locations of his first two flagship schemes. He also appears to have set the ball rolling for TfL to move towards adopting international cycling best-practice for Superhighways and other streets. The not-so-good news is that we still don’t have a plan, and with developments on London’s roads continuing to show little sign that the mayor’s promises have taken root, our optimism remains guarded.
True we are still only a few months into the Mayor’s four-year term, and much of that time he has been focusing on the Olympics and the Paralympics, which is a massive PR opportunity for him and the city. But by now he should have done more to convince Londoners that he has given the backing to TfL that it needs to press full steam ahead with measures to make London as safe and inviting for cycling as it is in Holland. The verdict? Boris has been saying enough of the right words to get a pass mark at 100 days, but nothing tangible has actually changed yet.
It's now six months after the election, and there's still no real plan to put the Go Dutch commitment into action in any way, shape or form. As Cycalogical has noted, the review of 100 junctions to make them safer for cycling, the most concrete commitment on cycling to come out of this administration, seems to be running into the usual buffers of outdated, poor, unimaginative thinking at TfL, with its blocking obsession with maintaining peak traffic capacity at all costs.

At the fascinating Love London, Go Dutch conference in Westminster on 18 October, sponsored by the Dutch Embassy and Royal HaskoningDHV, it was proved quite conclusively how one of the highest-profile junctions under review, the Lambeth Bridge northern roundabout, could indeed be rebuilt to a Dutch pattern, in the space available, and within the requirements of UK regulations.

Dutch design for the northern Lambeth Bridge roundabout produced at the Love London Go Dutch conference
(More details in the Royal Hashkoning report)
 But TfL's actual proposals fall massively short of this. They go for the classic, permanently-failing, UK "two track" approach to cycling, splitting cyclists up into the "confident" ones who are expected to joust with motor vehicles on the carriageway, and "novice" ones who are believed to be happy with rubbishy shared pavements, long ways round and no priority.

Rachael Aldred of Westminster University's Department of Planning and Transport (and now also a newly-elected Trustee of LCC) analysed it perfectly in her response to TfL:
My concerns about the current design centre around providing two sub-optimal options, rather than one better option. Cyclists using the road will have less space than at present, due to the carriageway narrowing, potentially increasing conflict. (Motorists may also expect them to use the pavement). However, cyclists using the pavement facility may (a) have trouble leaving the road at a sharp angle, (b) then come into conflict with pedestrians, and (c) experience problems crossing using the zebras, including conflict with motor vehicles.
At the Waterloo IMAX roundabout, another well-known blackspot, the junction review has produced "interim proposals" (why are they bothering with these – why not do it right once?) that amount to slight changes of kerb geometry and a fair amount of green paint on the road, in one place producing a cycle lane between a straight ahead vehicle lane and a left-turn vehicle lane, all completely unprotected of course. Those who know this traffic maelstrom will appreciate how inadequate all this is. (My friend Paul Gannon, ex of Camden cycling Campaign, always used to say "The faith that UK traffic engineers place in paint is truly touching"). It's more or less as far from a Dutch roundabout solution for motor traffic and cyclists as it could possibly be.

TfL's "interim proposals" for the Waterloo roundabout
On another recent consultation, on the A24 in Morden, As Easy As Riding a Bike notes the same stalwart commitment of TfL to absymal quality solutions, a chaotic mixture of shared pavements and intermittent, interrupted, narrow, unprotected on-road lanes, on a road where there is manifestly space to provide a high-quality protected cycle track for a long distance.

On to other subjects, and the Mayor still has not told us clearly where or what the three flagship Go Dutch schemes that were part of the election commitment will be. He has not made good his promise to appoint a cycling "czar" or commissioner, and we have no idea what powers or influence such a figure would have, when appointed. He has spoken of some sort of new cycle link across central London to join the dangling ends of the Superhighways, which appears, from a limited press report, as if it will use the Embankment. It's being called a "super-corridor".

All we know about the "super-corridor" (hyphenated for some reason) is what is on this plan, published in the Standard
Now, every time Boris or TfL use the word "super" to describe anything to do with cycling infrastructure, my heart sinks. Because we know, we know, from experience, that the use of that adjective indicates the triumph of PR spin over engineering competence. And the word "corridor" is a discredited one in UK cycling policy. It tends to indicate a bodge-up, as in Edinburgh. Will a "super-corridor" be better or worse than a Superhighway? I fear it will be be some kind of poor fudge. We'll see, as according to the Standard article, Boris is going to publish some sort of a "Cycling Vision" document this month, which will explain all.

I remain very pessimistic. At every stage I have been proved right about Boris's lack of real commitment to Going Dutch. In a letter to LCC dated 3 October, he wrote:
Following my commitment during the election campaign, I asked Transport for London to review the London Cycling Campaign’s Love London, Go Dutch to ascertain how the principles it establishes can be incorporated into the design and implementation of cycling schemes in London, taking into account the UK legal framework and regulations, the physical characteristics of London’s streets, and the needs of all road users.
Those clauses: "taking into account the physical characteristics of London's streets and the needs of all road users" sound again like a cop-out. It sounds like nothing much will happen, because he has always  used this language of "taking into account the needs of all road-users", from Day One of his administration. That language has always meant a reinforcement of the motor-dominated status quo in London, with cyclists being squeezed in grudgingly, with appalling road-user experience and declining safety. The "physical characteristics of London's streets" are, of course, just a red herring. They are much the same as the physical characteristics of the streets in any major world city. And even New York seems to be doing better for bikes now, not to mention the leading cycling cities of the world, like Tokyo, Amsterdam, Berlin, Munich and Copenhagen.

Boris's language: "Following my commitment during the election campaign, I asked Transport for London to review..." sounds passive and uncommitted. Boris likes Americanisms. Well this doesn't exactly sound like what the Americans would call "kicking ass". But "kicking ass" is clearly what he needs to do to bring the entrenched, conservative and isolationist TfL culture to the point where it treats cycling seriously. More concretely, Boris approves TfL's budget. The excellent London Assembly Investigation into safer cycling in London published this week notes:
Spending on cycling remains low relative to other modes and other parts of Europe. By allocating less than 1 per cent of its budget to cycling, TfL’s current business plan does not reflect the Mayor’s commitment to have a cycling revolution. The new TfL business plan should signal TfL’s intent to prioritise cycle safety in line with the Mayor’s objective to increase cycling modal share.
and recommends that TfL spend 2% of its budget on cycling, £145 million per year. Of course, it's not just about the quantity of money. It's how you spend it. The same report is damningly clear on this:
TfL’s cycling budget has not been spent on the type of cycling facilities used in leading cycling cities that maximise safety for vulnerable road users.
Unless this "Cycling Vision" document contains some quite stunning stuff, and TfL's next business plan, due in December, contains a commitment to a significant hike in the funding for cycling, in line with the Assembly recommendation, and we see in the next few months, certainly before May 2013,  rapid, manifest  progress towards implementing the "vision",  I think LCC is going to have to declare that Boris has reneged on his Go Dutch promise: for its own credibility as an organisation. We'll see what political fall-out that has. We've had "visions" from Boris before, and this rhetoric is getting stale. Remember his "vision" of how "on these routes the bicycle will dominate and that will be clear to all others using them"? That was the Superficial Highways, £206 million wasted on blue paint between 2008 and 2013. We've had enough "visions" while the streets of London remain much the same, year after year, or even get worse and more dangerous for cycling. We need a practical plan based on international best practice. In other words, we need to Go Dutch.

Meanwhile, meanwhile....  away from the glare of publicity of the junctions review, the Assembly investigation, the superhighways and super corridors and super whatever nonsense, apparently ignored by the Mayor and TfL, Camden Council, which pioneered Dutch-style cycle infrastructure in London a decade ago, quietly is bringing in plans to improve and extend its network.

As reported on the Camden Cyclists site, Camden Council plans to implement one-way segregated cycle tracks in both directions along the entire length of Royal College Street, Camden Town. This will mean modifying the existing two-way cycle track between Georgiana Street and Crowndale Road on the west side of the road, making it northbound only, and adding a southbound track on the other side.

Width alternatives
Options for the new layout of Royal College Street (more details on Camden Cyclists' site)
I was initially skeptical that this would be a sensible expenditure of money, as the existing track was already one of the best facilities in London, if not the best, and seemed to work well. However, there had been a number of injuries to cyclists due to motorists emerging from the side roads, Pratt Street and Plender Street, failing to look in both directions for cyclists on the track (i.e. not seeing the contraflow southbound direction of cycling) and failing to give way.

I now believe the proposals will be an improvement, as:
  • All cyclists will be on the expected side of the road, making junction conflicts less likely
  • Cycle space will be increased from the current total of 3m for both directions to 2m each way under the "light segregation" option, meeting Dutch standards of 2m for flows of up to 150 bikes per hour, which is probably the expected level, and, most importantly,
  • The protected route will be significantly lengthened as it will at last go from "somewhere to somewhere" (recalling Jon Snow's words on opening it in 2000 that it went from "somewhere to no-where"), running through the Camden Road junction up to the Kentish Town end of Royal College Street, where the road is two-way. So at last there will be a subjectively safe route all the way from Kentish Town to Euston Road.
The current two-way Royal College Street cycle track
The proposals are at an early stage of consultation, and not all details are clear as yet. If you wish to put views on them, you can do so through Camden Cyclists. (Incidentally, I met the engineer of this scheme at the Love London, Go Dutch conference in October, and was impressed). The proposals will need approval from councillors. But it it great that at least in one London borough there does genuinely seem to be a willingness to concretely, permanently reallocate road space from motor vehicles to cyclists, and make it work technically. I guess it helps that TfL seems to have little involvement in this project.

The big issue that Camden needs to address with its cycle tracks, however, is the absurdly congested Bloomsbury Route (Torrington Place, Tavistock Place etc.). This urgently needs to be re-implemented as it was originally designed by Camden Cyclists, at twice the current width, with one direction of motor traffic removed. 

Congestion on the Bloomsbury track during the Olympics, photo by Rob Hayles
Even better than doubling the width of the track of course would be to remove both directions of motor through-traffic and make the corridor into a "bicycle road", a true Cycle Superhighway. This is what has been done with the Weimarsraat route in the Hague, which was the original inspiration for the Bloomsbury or Seven Stations Link route a decade ago. Weimarstraat had a two-way segregated cycle track then (wider than the Bloomsbury one), but today, in line with the Dutch practice of continual improvement on popular routes, the segregation is gone, and cyclists have the entire road. This has been made possible by the removal of the road from the through-route network for cars; cars can still gain access, as the Streetview image shows.

Weimarstraat, Den Haag, the inspiration for the Bloomsbury route, now a second generation of cycle route where cyclists can have the whole street because through motor traffic has been eliminated
I hear from Camden contacts that the Bloomsbury route may well be revisited in the forseeable future. I hope so. Ands I also hope for a Road to Damascus conversion from Westminster Council, to allow the route to be extended at similar quality through its streets all the way to Paddington, which was Camden Cyclists' original plan. We can but hope. We certainly need at least two east-west priority routes for bikes across central London, and this relatively northerly route would still be needed  to complement the "super-corridor" along Embankment, even if that turned out to be really good.

It's critical in the coming year that LCC and all cyclists in London intensify the pressure on Boris Johnson to do what he has promised. The Assembly, with its report, has been very helpful – surprisingly so since it was issued by a committee that included all parties, including Conservative Members. Camden Council's work provides a small but useful spur, a demonstration that the quality we need can be achieved, in Boris's words, 
Taking into account the UK legal framework and regulations, the physical characteristics of London’s streets, and the needs of all road users. 
We need this quality rolled out on a much larger scale, and that will not happen without TfL driving it, and that will not happen without Boris Johnson doing far more.