Category Archives: Uncategorized

Be nice to the ASA

I am sure that if you have not already, you will soon be reading an account of the Advertising Standards Authority’s embarrassing adjudication on complaints made about Scotland’s “Nice Way Code” series of “won’t everyone just play nice on the roads?” adverts. Briefly, of all the things that the ASA could have picked up on in the Nice Way Code, the offending footage ruled to be irresponsible by the ASA are (a) showing a roughly realistic proportion of people riding bikes with and without helmets, and (b) showing somebody riding a bicycle more than 0.5 metres from the side of the road. Other people will give you the full story.

I’m not an expert on advertising regulation, but I guess the first ruling sets a precedent against any future advertising featuring helmetless cycling. Things like TfL’s Catch Up With The Bicycle campaign. A depressing but not entirely unpredictable result of the lazy fact-free assumption on helmets that seems to have put down deep roots in this country (and started growing the fearsome thorns of shouty emotional anecdote). The second ruling is the more interesting and hilarious of the two. This one effectively precludes any future advertising of the standard long-established government guidance on road positioning, as taught in the official “Bikeability” cycling proficiency training. Like the advertising TfL and the DfT (under the Think! brand) are currently running on buses and billboards in London and several other English cities. But again, others will have more time than me to explore the amusing implications of the decision.

No, I only really popped into the discussion to say one thing, in the spirit of the Nice Way Code: be nice.

Obviously someone at the ASA has made a spectacular cockup, and they deserve a day’s mockery and ridicule for such an achingly absurd, side-splittingly ludicrous joke of an assessment.

But, occasional slapstick stupidity aside, I’m sure the ASA are not bad people.

Clearly some junior adjudicator got out of his or her depth, read one document they didn’t entirely understand, and remained ignorant of the actual relevant research and guidance in the field. Sure, there should have been processes in place to prevent errors of such a preposterous magnitude from ever getting so far as publication, but I have no doubt that with the blunder now evident to all, the ASA will be working fast to fix the mistake, and will ensure all is put right before the DfT and TfL are forced to put their adverts on hold while more time and money is wasted formally challenging it.

I’m sure they’re good people, and I’m sure they’ll have this one under control in no time. So be nice to them.

By all means clog up their system with satirical reports intended to mock, and with serious test cases designed to force contradictions, but do be nice.

That’s the Nice Way Code, after all.

Filtered permeability: a campaigning instructable

In a recent post, David Hembrow introduced the fifty bollard game: a practical exercise for campaigners to look at how a few strategically placed bollards could solve problems on their streets. A few bollards to create filtered permeability — closing off streets and country lanes to ratrunning, forcing motorists to keep through journeys to the main roads — can be a cheap and quick to implement solution to reclaiming those places from traffic.

Last week I talked to my neighbour @Jon_events, who has some practical experience with turning this game into reality, and we thought we’d try making a quick guide for other campaigners who want to fix their streets:

So, if you want to turn the fifty bollard game into reality, you should (a) set out your demands to the council exactly, so that they can’t mess it up or fob you off with excuses about how it would be much more complicated and expensive and bogged down in red tape than you think; and (b) get your neighbours to join you in a petition making those exact demands. (Exactly how many of your neighbours you need to support you will vary according to the pre-existing political will in your local council.)

The key part of Jon’s approach, though — necessary both to cut through the red tape, and to get sceptical neighbours on side — is not to ask for bollards at all. At least, not to begin with. Jon asks for flower planters, and — here’s the important bit — an Experimental Traffic Order. While almost everybody recognises the problem of ratrunning, some people have concerns about the proposed solution. But it’s difficult for them to say no to a reversible trial.

The time consuming bit is treading the streets, knocking on doors, explaining the proposal and getting signatures. So we made another guide, this one for our neighbours:

On van dependency

I found this post in my drafts, from way back in october 2010, when this blog and my thoughts on transport policy were young. I thought it was really time to chuck it out and get it out of the way. I think it was probably waiting for another illustration I’d had planned but never shot, or something…

Private cars (including taxis and minicabs) for transporting people make up perhaps only a half of the inappropriately used vehicles clogging our city centres on weekdays. Nor are they the most polluting of these vehicles. Fighting car and taxi dependency and fighting for support for alternative modes of transportation for people will not alone make our cities liveable again.

This week, because somebody drove into me last weekend, I have mostly been catching up with the pedestrian and bus passenger’s experience of central London. On Monday morning, already late (I always forget that a half-hour bike commute takes an hour on public transport) and not up to hobbling even the short distance from Cannon Street to Grays Inn Road, I waited outside the station for a number 17. I could see the number 17. It was just down the end of the road at Monument Station. But it took a while for it to arrive on account of the long line of vehicles parked along Cannon Street’s double yellows, beside the “no loading” markings. Vehicles like Thoroughshred‘s DU02OVK.  (This van’s hazard lights of course indicated that the vehicle had temporarily broken down, and the driver was visiting a nearby friendly office building who helpfully supplied the box of old documents that fixed the van’s immobility.) Note that Thoroughshred care for the environment by using “low-emission vehicles”. As my bus was finally approaching, Office & General Cleaning had an unfortunate incident on the opposite side of the road: the driver quickly braked and pulled in on the double yellows, firing up his hazards. What were the chances, two vans broken down on either side of the road, blocking the busy bus routes of Cannon Street? All counted, there were seven unfortunate van drivers who had broken down on the yellow lines of Cannon Street that morning, and twenty three on the two miles to Grays Inn Road.

(Office & General Cleaning, it should be noted, use low-sulphur vehicles, and make the bold and scientifically illiterate claim to have eliminated all chemicals from their cleaning “regime”. This makes their business “environmentally sustainable”.)

Here on the recently remodelled Long Acre, with its fabulous dedicated bicycle contraflow, private mail van EU57OKC makes vital deliveries of toner to Rymans.

One particularly worrying breakdown had occurred on Ludgate Hill, where Eden Springs were stopped, hazards flashing, on the double yellows in the eastbound bike lane just below St Paul’s. In an attempt to get the vehicle working again, the driver was bravely unloading large bottles of water onto a trolley, and an adjacent office must have selflessly agreed to store them for the company. Eden Springs are clearly doing important work in London: as they point out, water is vital to the health of office workers, and it’s not like you can just turn a tap and expect it to come pouring out like magic. Eden Springs have a philosophy: to be an environmentally responsible partner. (After livetweeting my bus journey, I discovered a new follower: Eden Springs. Somewhere somebody is living their PR career dream.)

Elsewhere, on New Change, a van sat at the lights full of towels and tablecloths that it had collected from restaurants to be cleaned on an industrial estate on the north circular. On Exhibition Road they delivered paper cups and single-use wooden spatulas to the museum cafés. On Great Queen Street a lorry swapped around the furniture between conferences at a hotel. All over Soho, bars took deliveries of ice cubes.

Everywhere people were delivering blank paper and printer cartridges, stepping over the bags of paper recycling strewn across the pavements. Everywhere people were delivering disposable cutlery while the council swept up the disposed of cutlery. And everywhere people were delivering water. Water. A substance that is available on tap in every London building for a negligible cost.

Whenever one suggests that the price of the congestion charge should be vastly greater than it is, that there should be stricter limits on the vehicles that are allowed into city centres, or that a significant proportion of zone 1 roads should be closed to vehicles entirely, one is asked what one would do about all the people who simply have no choice but to drive into Central London: the businesses who need things delivering. Vans are essential and the costs they’re already asked to bear are hurting, we’re told.

Well if businesses in the centre of the city are choosing to have ice cubes and water driven to them in vans instead of turning on a tap and buying a £200 ice machine, having contract cleaners cart mops around instead of investing in a broom cupboard, and sending their laundry to a barn on the orbital instead of putting it in the washing machine, I say the costs aren’t hurting enough. Or rather, businesses are not paying their bills. Because, as is amply evident on any journey through central London, the main reason such ludicrous operations manage to survive is by breaking the rules and dumping the consequences on the rest of us.

Business is one of those fields that I’m really not competent to begin to comment on — and christ can I think of nothing I’d like less than to be so. But I’m happy to speculate wildly anyway — content that on this topic I don’t really care if I’m spouting embarrassingly simplistic crap — about how Britain, and London especially, built itself into its unhappy van dependency. This situation appears to be the outcome of the pursuit of an extreme outsourcing. The vans of companies specialised in simple everyday tasks, like freezing water and washing tablecloths, serve asset light and asset stripped “enterprises” — owners of nothing, investors in little, employers of nobody, constructing products and services entirely out of the leased and the subcontracted.

Whether that’s clever responsible responsive flexible capitalism or dangerous short termist profiteering that contributes nothing of any real value to the lives of our cities is too far outside of my field even for my wild speculation. All I know is that it only works by dumping its costs on society in the form of the traffic in our towns: the vans that we are reminded are so essential.

Motoring needs role models

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

Lewis Hamilton models the latest fashionable motoring wear

The shocking death of 9 year old James Quackenbush has reopened the debate on whether flame-retardant motoring overalls should be compulsory. Stars from the world of motoring should stand up and take a lead on the issue.

James Quackenbush is, of course, just one of several people to have died on Britain’s roads in recent weeks while not wearing a full fireproof motoring bodysuit. Margaret Blanshard we now know died of a cardiac arrest after her Ford Fiesta collided with a lorry on the A90 in Fife; the 72 year old was too old fashioned to update her wardrobe to include a simple set of motorist’s aromatic polyamide fibre coveralls. Meanwhile, charges of causing death by dangerous driving have been dropped against 24 year old Wayne Acocks of Essex after it emerged that the driver of the Skoda Octavia that was hit by the stolen Audi R8 Acocks was driving had not been wearing motoring overalls — the Skoda driver died in hospital from multiple major trauma hours after being airlifted from the scene of the horrific high-speed smash.

But it is the case of James Quackenbush that has renewed the urgency of calls for a change in the law. It is one thing for a grown adult motorist to choose to throw away their life by not taking the simple step of donning a set of motoring overalls, but to allow a child passenger motorist to go without is quite another. AWWTM phoned grieving mother Kate Quackenbush — who left Queen Elizabeth Hospital in a wheelchair this morning — to ask how she felt as the woman responsible for the death of her own son, but the child killer declined to comment. As has been widely reported, the boy was not wearing motoring overalls when he died instantly from serious crushing injuries as the single mother’s 1998 Peugeot 205 was impacted on the passenger side by a construction waste lorry whose over-hours driver had momentarily lost concentration at the busy crossroads.

As a motorist myself, I can’t see any reason why you would not wear a flame-retardant motoring suit. I can tell you, I was very grateful I was wearing mine when I got into trouble recently. Luckily it only turned out to be a minor prang — a smashed light and a scraped panel — but I dread to think how differently it could have turned out had I not been wearing my lifesaving overalls.

Naysayers point out that most car crashes do not involve a fire, and that those which do are usually of such a severity that a flame-retardant outfit is unlikely to be of much use. To those critics we say: you’re free to make that irrational choice to go and kill yourselves if you like. For now.

And yet still many of the youngsters newly attracted to the pastime are not making the right choice. Until such a time as the law is updated, there is undoubtedly a role here for top stars from the world of motoring to set an example. Fireproof overalls have, of course, been compulsory in the professional sport for many years now. But amateur motorists need leaders to look up to. It was gratifying to hear Lewis Hamilton state his support for a change in the law in a recent press conference, but why isn’t Hamilton doing more to encourage youngsters and to help show that flame-retardant boilersuits are not just cool, they’re an essential part of any motor to school or weekly drive to the supermarket.

Our sporting heroes have a simple duty: to set an example. They must do the right things, and let people copy those right things. And one of those oh so simple little things is wearing full body flame-retardant overalls at all times behind the wheel.

Not hard, is it?

The tragedy around The Commons

I did a video, because I was too lazy to think about and research and write up a topic properly, and because I needed something for testing editing software. It’s about shared use foot/cycle paths in parks. I know! Super exciting, right?

This means that I now not only hate the sound of my voice, I hate my mannerisms generally. I was not entirely unaware that smiling/grinning/laughing doesn’t look good on me, but, damn, I do all those other things as well?

But in a fit of reckless impulsiveness I thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.

It starts with an apology, but I’m really not sure that one is ever enough.

For more on the topic, see Jon’s post at Traffik In Tooting. The London Cycling Campaign discussion referenced is here.

Railway safety doesn’t need scare quotes: it works

Do you get annoyed, when it rains or there are autumn leaves on the ground, that your railway station becomes polluted by so many posters and announcements advising you to watch your step, and warning you about the “event of weather”?

I imagine Simon Jenkins must get very irritated. In his latest drivel for the Guardian, Jenkins tells us that it’s impossible to make travel “safe”, and we shouldn’t try. He cites the example of the Santiago de Compostela train crash, in which 79 people died last month. An accident, which nobody intended to happen, and for which it would “not be sensible” to “seek fault”.

We must accept that accidents will happen, Jenkins tells us. Slips, trips and falls and catastrophic high-speed train crashes are inevitable, and if we try to stop them, we might merely make the problem worse. The same is true on the roads, he says, where reducing regulation, sharing space, and replacing instruction signs with ambiguity empowers road users to take more care.

But, as seems to be a habit, Jenkins rather picked the wrong example to prove his point. There’s a reason why I mentioned those apparently inane announcements about being careful not to trip over, and there’s a reason why our stations have become polluted by them. Slips, trips and falls now account for a majority of the serious injuries to staff and passengers on Britain’s railway, and resulted in half of the deaths in the 2012/13 operational year.

PassengerInjuries

Think about that for a moment. A transport network carrying 1.5 billion passenger journeys at speeds now up to 140mph in vehicles with stopping distances measured in the kilometres under high-voltage power lines on complex tangles of steel rails over thousands of bridges and viaducts, all of which requires constant maintenance by a massive workforce using huge arrays of heavy machinery. And the biggest cause of serious injury and of death (aside from suicides and trespass) is falling over.

Four passengers died on the railway in 2012/13, and two members of staff died — though as with the single workforce fatality in the preceding year, one of those was in a motorway car crash on the way to a work site. The passenger fatalities were two trips, an assault, and one death at the “platform/train interface”. That is, two thirds of the fatalities on the railway had nothing to do with actually being on the railway, and could as easily have happened on a walk in the park — in fact, are probably more likely to happen on a walk in the park.

EuroComparisons

The fact is, far from accidents being inevitable, the Santiago de Compostela crash couldn’t happen here. Our signalling systems alone, not to mention the wider railway system and culture of safety, would not have allowed a driver to let his high-speed train travel so vastly overspeed into such a bend. That’s the exact sort of signalling that automatically protects and stops trains that Jenkins warns us against. And it works. Far from the 79 or more fatalities that Jenkins’s “safety systems are dangerous” thesis would predict, last year was the sixth consecutive one without a single fatal train crash. Zero people have died in a British train crash since a Glasgow-bound Pendolino came off the tracks at ill-maintained points in Cumbria early in 2007, resulting in an impressive back-flip by the lead car and a tumbling slide down the embankment by those following. And, astonishingly, just a single fatality of one elderly passenger, thanks to the strength and safety engineering of the modern carriages.

And as is always the case when there’s a British train crash — or even just a (not so) near miss — a thorough investigation followed, lessons were learned, investment was made in new technologies and working practices were revised to ensure that nothing like it could happen again.

Stopped clocks and even Simon Jenkins are right sometimes. We can learn a road safety lesson from a train crash. It’s just the exact opposite of the one Jenkins suggests. Accidents don’t just happen. We can stop them if we have the will.

Riskbymode

Don’t treat obesity as physiology or physics

I have a whole bunch of draft and outline blog posts from winter and spring that I was never able to find the time to finish off. To clear them out of the way, I’ve bashed out some half-hearted conclusions, and will post them this month.

Flicking through the pile of Natures that never got read properly, ready to be rid of them, I alighted on Gary Taubes’s opinion piece: Treat obesity as physiology, not physics. Bear with me while I appear to be completely off-topic talking science for a while.

Taubes argues that:

…obesity is a hormonal, regulatory defect… it is not excess calories that cause obesity, but the quantity and quality of carbohydrates consumed. The carbohydrate content of the diet must be rectified to restore health.

Taubes set out his case that it is not useful to think of obesity as a straightforward energy in/out imbalance that causes weight gain, but that it’s in understanding that specific forms of that energy — carbohydrates, and sugars doubly so — activate our body’s own fat accumulation systems (through the well understood insulin process) where solutions lie. You’ll be familiar with it from all that “Atkins diet” and “glycaemic index” stuff: energy in the form of carbs bad; energy from dietary fat not so much.

Taubes thinks this is important stuff because:

…the overeating hypothesis has failed. In the United States, and elsewhere, obesity and diabetes rates have climbed to crisis levels… despite the ubiquity of the advice that if we want to lose fat, we have to eat less and/or move more.

There is an obvious response to this, but Taubes pre-empts it:

Yet rather than blame the advice, we have taken to blaming the individuals for not following it ‘properly’.

Suggesting that Taubes thinks that if only we change the advice from “eat less and exercise more” to his “don’t eat high glycaemic index foods”, the advice will be followed and we will then succeed in defeating obesity.

I imagine any “advice” we give will be useless, whether it’s based on physics or physiology.

Because while obesity is about physics and physiology — and psychology and genetics and half a dozen other fields of science — none of those things explain what is important: why there is more obesity now than in the past, and how to make there be less of it in the future.

The laws of physics haven’t changed in fifty years. Physiology, and the genes that underlie it, can change — but only by evolution over the course of hundreds of generations, not a few decades. Sure, our bodies have a mechanism for turning carbohydrates into fat stores. But they always have.

The focus is on the quantity of energy in and the quantity out because that is what has changed during the rise of the obesity crisis. By all means refine that to a specific focus on an excess of high-glycaemic index foodstuffs and a deficit of burning off specific sugars, but the problem that really matters remains fundamentally not one of physics or physiology but of our environment.

Taubes is right to treat those who “blame individuals for not following the advice properly” with contempt. But not because the advice is wrong. Because any “advice” — right or wrong — is going to be useless. This is not a problem that individuals have created for themselves, and it’s not a problem that individuals can be “advised” to solve for themselves. This is a problem of the environment that we live in: the types of food that are available to us, and the opportunities for an active healthy lifestyle that have been taken away from us.

Taubes later uses an analogy with smoking and lung cancer, and the analogy perfectly describes what’s wrong with the idea that obesity should be treated as a physiology problem. We know a great deal about the physiology of smoking-related lung cancer. We know how all of the many different carcinogenic chemicals within cigarette smoke flow through the lungs and pass through membranes into the cells. We know the chemical reactions that they participate in and how those reactions cause damage to the cells’ DNA. We know exactly which pieces of DNA damage result in the harmful mutations that transform them into cancer cells, driven to grow and divide. We know exactly how those mutations — to genes with names like RAS and RAF, and EGFR and a dozen others — change the shape of the proteins that those genes encode, and why that change of shape causes those proteins to misbehave. We know how these things result in the tumour evading the body’s inbuilt defences, how they hijack the blood supply to allow their expansion, and how they go on to invade and destroy neighbouring tissue and eventually escape and metastasise.

And knowing these things about physiology makes not the slightest difference to solving the smoking problem. Smoking-related lung cancer, like obesity, is a process of physiology. But it’s a problem of environment. And the most important lesson from smoking for obesity is that you can’t solve a problem environment with advice alone. Bad lifestyle choices are not an individual failing. Good lifestyle choices need an infrastructure to support them.