Tag Archives: street design

The DfT’s crap cycling manual

No sooner had I posted a list of things for Norman Baker and his colleagues to be doing — to prove that they were doing things that will actually make a difference, rather than just passing the buck to under-resourced and poorly supported local authorities — than they acted. Baker and road safety minister Mike “Petrolhead” Penning have written a letter to local authorities, encouraging them to, er, look at their junctions and invite businesses to sponsor cycle lanes.

I don’t think many people have fallen for this charade. There is little point in simply suggesting that local authorities rebuild junctions. If they did — and they’re not going to on any significant scale unless and until they find the money from somewhere (and that’s unlikely to be from sponsorship), but suppose they did… — they would go through the normal design process and, er, the instructions would tell them to build the same cycling hostile crap as before.

There are reasons why we have atrocious junctions and crap cycle facilities. Our engineers and lowest-bidder contractors have been trained to build these things. They are also told explicitly not to build the sort of high quality infrastructure that we need. If we are ever going to make any significant advance, the government — central government — needs to do something to help our engineers into the 21st century. The first and most obvious step is to revise the guidance — the manual — that makes local authorities build crap.

The Department for Transport have, over the years, produced a number of guidance documents that tell council officers and consultants how to build roads and streets. Things like the “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges”, which tells you how to build a motorway… or city streets, if you like your streets to look and be used like a motorway. Better streets are built according to the principles of the more modern and civilised “Manual for Streets 2″.

“Cycle Infrastructure Design” (PDF) — commonly known by its serial number, “Local Transport Note (LTN) 2/08″ — is the document which sets out the principles for building for cycling, and all the technical details of the government’s recommended facilities. The devolved administrations in Scotland and London have produced their own manuals which vary slightly from LTN 2/08.

Some cycle campaigners are fans of LTN 2/08 and think that if only it were strictly followed things would be better. In their briefing to The Times last week (PDF), for example, cyclenation say:

DfT publication LTN 2/08 (Local transport note no. 2, 2008) is generally good at setting out guidance for cycling provisions, but frequently goes unheeded.

I understand where cyclenation are coming from, and I think no ill of them for writing this. Because most British main roads and cycle facilities are even worse for cycling than LTN 2/08 recommends. Following the manual would be an improvement. But not much of an improvement. Saying that LTN 2/08 is good shows just how abysmally low our expectations have sunk.

The manual largely consists of guidelines rather than strict rules, and the guidelines are frequently broken. Certainly there are, as the cyclenation briefing says, cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with crap cycle facilities. But there are also cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with something far better than would have be provided had it been followed: some of the best (and yes, in this country “best” is hardly “great”) examples of on-street infrastructure — the tracks on Camden’s Royal College Street, for example — break all of the rules of LTN 2/08. And all too often — through a combination of poor training in how to use the guidance, competing political demands like “smoothing traffic flow”, and the many fundamental failings of the guidelines themselves — the guidance is heeded, and the result is still a crap cycle facility.

Because LTN 2/08 isn’t good. It frequently endorses the wrong things. It recommends against international best practice infrastructure and omits almost every detail of it. And it fails right from its first fundamental principles, which is why anybody can “heed” the guidance and still build whatever crap they like. I think that LTN 2/08 is a greater hindrance than help for cycling and that replacing it is a necessary step.

The introductory section of LTN 2/08 is the most widely endorsed. It contains a series of underlying principles for designing for cycling. Some of it is very good — the need for “convenient, accessible, safe, comfortable and attractive” space for cycling, for example, and the need to think at the level of the network, not just streets and routes. There is something of a disconnect between these principles and the rest of the guidance, and the good principles rarely shine through in the built designs. But it is also far from the case that the underlying principles are all good.

The first problem that leaps out while reading the introduction is the Hierarchy of Provision. I’ve written before about why the Hierarchy is the wrong approach to the problem, so I won’t here, except to reiterate that the Hierarchy is not fit for the role that it has been given — that of central formula for deciding which solution is appropriate — which is one reason why so many inappropriate solutions have been implemented.

The second fundamental problem is that LTN 2/08 endorses “dual networks”. It correctly identifies that different cyclists have different needs and abilities, but from this fact it draws some very wrong and damaging conclusions. “Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others. In order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to create dual networks offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority.” That is, new, nervous and child cyclists will be grateful for a crap facility that gives way to every side road, or a winding backstreet route, while confident cyclists will want to be in their natural place — on the road, with the traffic, riding in the vehicular style. Indeed, the former category are expected to eventually cast off their training wheels and graduate into the latter  category.

I would have hoped that “dual networks” could have been the one thing that might be able to unite cyclists in opposition. As cyclenation say in their briefing to The Times, crap cycle facilities can do more harm than good when other road users get indignant at your refusing to use them. But I know there is one cycling campaigner and consultant who is proud of his dual network, and just in the past few weeks LCC’s Go Dutch campaign has also taken a turn down the dual network path. I think this is the wrong path: when you stop designing infrastructure that’s good enough for everybody, you tend to end up with stuff that’s good for nobody.

The effect of the “dual networks” principle in LTN 2/08 is that neither “network” is satisfactorily designed. The low-traffic “network” can be designed down: it can concede priority, take circuitous routes, share busy pedestrian spaces, and even advise dismounting — yes, LTN 2/08 says elsewhere that those solutions are undesirable, but, hey, this is just the training network, they’ll soon graduate onto the road so what does it matter? And when it then comes to fixing the main roads and busy junctions, engineers will “take into account the type(s) of cyclist expected to use it”, conclude that the inexperienced and nervous cyclists will be usingthe other “network”, and design the roads and junctions accordingly. You can see the wretched result of the dual networks principle all over our cities — famously on the Euston Road, where the cycle route leads you along “a sort of fiddly thing”, while Real Men like Boris Johnson prefer to “scoot down the underpass“.

Theoretically the dual networks don’t have to be substandard, of course. But if you design infrastructure that isn’t substandard, there’s just no need to think in dual networks. The Dutch also recognise the variety of cyclists. Their engineering manual recommends designs of sufficient quality to accommodate that variety. Their designs work. The idea that cyclists will want to graduate on to vehicular cycling — that it is aspiration rather than a survival strategy — is perhaps one of the reasons why LTN 2/08 entirely omits quality separated infrastructure… except where it gives spurious reasons not to consider it.

The authors of LTN 2/08 have obviously not looked at Dutch solutions or the Dutch manual. There are a total of three references to the Netherlands and three further references to the continent in the document. Three of those references are about cycle parking. One is in an aside about roundabout geometry. A Dutch study measuring overtaking distances — probably irrelevant to current British conditions — is mentioned. Finally, the authors have this to say about modern European cycle track design:

“As a result of concerns over the safety of parallel cycle tracks crossing side roads, it is becoming common European pratice to reintroduce cyclists to the main road in advance of a junction. Cyclists pass the junction on the carriageway and then rejoin the cycle track.”

It’s just bonkers.

The final fundamental conceptual problem with LTN 2/08 is not explicitly stated, but is written right through the guidance. Despite being the cycling-for-transport infrastructure guidance, despite being introduced with a reminder of why cycling should be supported, the document just doesn’t treat cycling as a serious form of transport. That’s not a problem specific to LTN 2/08, obviously, and it will take more than just revisions to a document to change the entrenched culture of the nation’s highways departments. But it’s especially dissapointing to find the document so riddled with it. It is clear that the authors are stuck in the car-centric paradigm and lack imagination for how things could be.

“Advisory cycle lanes,” for example, “are not recommended where they are likely to be blocked by parked vehicles.” Not, “car parking should be restricted in cycle lanes.” We’re told that we like cycling in bus lanes: “They are preferred over off-road facilities as a result of the advantage of remaining in the carriageway and therefore having priority at side roads” [my emphasis]. This is the guidance for providing for bicycles and it can not even imagine a world in which bicycles might have priority over turning vehicles. This is especially bizarre given that, technically, pedestrians have priority over turning vehicles — though pedestrians bold and brave enough to take it are ever rarer. To me it seems so blindingly obvious that the natural arrangement would be that anybody continuing straight would have priority over those turning, regardless of the means of travel of either party. The authors of LTN 2/08 can’t imagine that world — can’t imagine that there could be any alternative to our might makes right of way world.

What of that top-of-the-hierarchy solution, “reducing traffic volume”, if highways authorities can’t even imagine a cyclist having priority over car parking or motorists leaving their driveways? This is a problem that obviously goes far wider and deeper than this one document — Karl’s experience of the LTN 2/08 in practice illustrates the cultural problem we face. But replacing this document has to be one of the first steps to changing that culture. This is the document that Norman Baker says “provides comprehensive good practice advice on a range of practical infrastructure measures to help cyclists,” when he tries to shrug off the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. It doesn’t. It’s part of the problem, and it’s his problem.

These are just the problems with the fundamental underlying principles. Just wait ’till I get around to listing the ridiculous details — the crap facilities it recommends and the almost complete absence of of best practice solutions from this “comprehensive good practice” guide…

Street Talk #7: People first – putting the public back into the public realm

I am in the land of civilised streets and truly super cycle highways, but I might be persuaded to get on a boat on Monday in time for Tuesday’s Street Talks, in which Oliver Schulze, director of the Gehl Architects’ design studio, will talk to us about how to make civilised streets:

The public realm is the social heart of any city, but social activities of all kinds continue to be squeezed out by efforts to accommodate rather than reduce traffic growth. When cities put cars before people the social and economic life the city suffers and no one has the option to opt out of the environmental impacts.

Join us and Oliver Schulze from Gehl Architects at October’s Street Talk for a journey from Copenhagen to the bike lanes of LA – via taco trucks, snowball fights in Times Square, surface parking lots, Starbucks and Disneyland – as we consider how to put the public back into the public realm. What needs to be done to ensure walking down the street or pausing to chat in a local square is a pleasure rather than a chore? What lessons can London learn from recent efforts to prioritise pedestrians in cities across the world, including New York and even car centric Los Angeles?

Usual time and place: upstairs at the Yorkshire Grey on Theobalds Road, doors open for food and drink from 6, talk at 7ish.

Friday photo: a handsome Raleigh tourer

On the urban motorway that is Whitechapel.  Whitechapel should be the quintessential neighbourhood High Street: it has the tube station, the bus stops, the shops and pubs and library — sorry, “Idea Store” — and the street market that these vans supply.  As Andy Cameron would put it, Whitechapel has a very high “place status” — it is not an anonymous transport route but a destination, somewhere people go and things happen.  It’s not a part of London that I frequently have reason to visit, but every time I do it is packed with people living their lives.

And yet the powers that be have for decades put Whitechapel the place secondary to Whitechapel the A11, TfL trunk road.  This is a High Street on only one side of the road; the other has withered and died because crossing the four to six lanes of traffic has been deliberately made as difficult as possible with the use of metal barriers and cages to supplement the barrier of fast moving rivers of traffic.  There are a few official crossing points, where crowds gather as the signal timings make it clear how much their time is valued relative to the other road users’.  The High Street and street market is being prevented from reaching its full potential, as growth is limited not by lack of interest from businesses or customers but by lack of space — space that is currently given to the movement and storage of cars.

Isn’t it interesting how we always manage to find room for the storage of cars?

What I don’t understand is why the bicyclist chose to chain to a signpost, instead of the excellent cycle stands nearby?

Looks like the signage has suffered from some strong winds...

If you’re interested in the colourful transit van, check out this week’s Spitalfields Life for an explanation.  The vans are essentially storage for the market traders, who seem to be subverting the fact that society tolerates using the streets as free storage, so long as you’re storing a vehicle-shaped object.

More photography and prints for sale at my photography site.

The man who crossed the road

Brian Haw had a few weird ideas amongst the good ones in his head — in that he was not unusual.  But the weird ones do not mean that we don’t all owe him thanks for the good ideas and the way he acted on them.  For ten years he sat in his deckchair, inches from the trucks and taxis, staring across the road, a constant reminder for the Members of Parliament who were battling their own consciences and their own constituencies to take us to war.  Every once in a while one of our representatives would catch a glimpse in the corner of their eye as they walked past a window or raced across Bridge Street from Whitehall.  They knew they were being watched.

He deserves our thanks for something else, something unintended.  Brian Haw made Parliament Square a place again.  For five decades before Brian Haw pitched his tent, Parliament Square was not a place.  The early newspaper reports on his protest, and on the attempt in 2002 to prosecute him for obstruction of  the pavement, call it what it is: a traffic island.

At its narrower points, Parliament Square is four lanes of traffic.  At its widest, five lanes guide us to various parts of the city.  They multiply and slew off, and whisk us around the sharp corners of the square, stop start through the traffic lights, quick accelerate to be the first to join the back of the next traffic jam.  Sometimes the lanes simply disappear completely and you are pushed into a clear wide expanse of cracked and patched tarmac, taxis to the left of you, articulated trucks to the right, all eyeing up that same middle lane at the next set of lights around the corner.

In 2008 I worked in an office in Fitzrovia, and so Parliament Square was on my morning roller coaster ride from South London — and what a roller coaster ride it is.

Parliament Square is a traffic island not a place.  Churchill looks out from behind the now apparently permanent mess of crowd-control barriers not upon the inheritors of his seat, but down upon the brave new world that rushes past him all day and all through the night, isolating him from human contact.

When, in autumn 2002, Westminster Council attempted to prosecute Brian Haw for obstructing the pavement, the judge threw them out.  Who is he obstructing?  Nobody is trying to walk on this pavement, the judge pointed out, for there is no pedestrian crossing into Parliament Square, and nobody walks out across five lanes of heavy traffic.

But over time the newspaper coverage slowly changed.  The references to Haw’s pitch as an isolated traffic island faded.  Perhaps the authorities actively encouraged this change in perspective, recognising that the Square’s image problem was hindering their campaign against Haw.  It’s difficult to work up opposition to man sat out of the way on a traffic island.  Perhaps it just came naturally, as the Square slowly, occasionally, became a place.  People began to make the crossing — it can be done, so long as you’re fit and fast, most easily from the south-west corner, if you know the square well and learn the cycle and timings of the lights.  They crossed to talk to Brian and bring him food.  Or they crossed to take a closer look at the statues, or to walk amongst the flower borders and trees.  Local office workers even started using the square for lunchtime picnics on sunny days, if they could tolerate the noise and the smog.

But it was still strangled by the vast old-fashioned urban road system.  When the Democracy Village camp moved in and pitched a couple of dozen tents, they were quickly jumped upon for killing the grass.  But what is remarkable is that there was grass there to be killed.  The great squares of the great cities of the world are not turfed.  They are paved, because great squares in great cities draw great crowds, who walk and run and play and dance and march — the things that people do at the other end of Whitehall, unseen by our parliamentarians, in Trafalgar Square.  Grass does not grow in the great city squares of the world, but for sixty years it grew in Parliament Square.

Parliament Square was not designed to be a great city square.  Its turf and lack of crossing points indicate that its designers were deliberately designing out people.  The purpose of Parliament Square was to move motor vehicles from Whitehall to Westminster Bridge, Victoria Street to the Victoria Embankment — as many as possible in as little time as possible.  It was not intended that people would walk amongst the statues or picnic beside the flower beds.  Not only would they disturb the hard-working politicians, they would disturb the traffic.  And until Brian Haw made his camp, people knew that.  Nobody ever made that crossing.  The tourists probably assumed that it was illegal.  This was a traffic island, and that’s what the newspapers called it.

For ten years parliament, Westminster Council, and both our former and current mayors spent an inordinate amount of time trying to evict Brian Haw from his spot on the pavement opposite the palace.  They charged him under every law they could find, and when they ran out, they started passing new ones especially for him.  It became an obsession, with the thought of Haw sat there, staring at them, inciting great vitriol from the members.  Tom Harris (lab) of Glasgow South described Haw’s tents and banners as an eyesore, while Malcolm Rifkind (con) of Kensington went so far as to say that Haw’s camp (and the others who had followed his lead) was an international disgrace.  Both of them felt that the mayor was not acting fast enough in having Haw evicted.

Finally, three weeks ago, as Brian’s protest quietly ticked over its tenth anniversary, the man himself now absent and dying, Westminster Council took the last action that was available to them — action that they had clearly spent nine years desperately hoping to avoid having to take.  They began plans to install a pedestrian crossing onto the Parliament Square traffic island.  The crossing would be in the south-west corner, the option closest to the camp.  With tourists finally able — encouraged, even — to cross the road, protesters could finally be prosecuted for obstructing the pavement.  Westminster Council did not even attempt to disguise their reasons for proposing the crossing.  If it were built, and the protesters successfully evicted, how long do you think the crossing lights would last before quietly being wrapped away behind orange plastic in the night, a lonely “pedestrian diversion” sign left gathering dust on the pavement?

Now that Brian Haw is dead, Westminster might be saved ever having to install a crossing at all.  The Member for Glasgow South can finally stop worrying about being watched and return to the tasks that the people of Cathcart elected him for.  And Parliament Square can go back to being a non-place, a transport corridor sat between church and state.  With a World Heritage Site on one side, and a heaving tube station, the river, and iconic architecture on the other.  In the middle, our little international disgrace.

How to make a great street — and why we’ve built so many awful ones

This evening Andy Cameron, an engineer who advised the last government and has written standards for transport and urban design, will join us in the pub to talk about making streets for people.  That’s upstairs at The Yorkshire Grey on Theobald’s Road at 7pm (bar open from 6 with excellent food available).

If you can’t join us, the slides and audio will be online sometime later.  But in the meantime, you can see a talk Andy gave to CABE — not quite the same audience as a pub, so presumably not quite the same talk, but entertaining all the same.  Most interesting, perhaps, is a little insight into why local authorities have been turning our high-streets into hostile motor roads: they mistook the Highways Agency motorway design manual for an instruction book for city streets.

If you’re not familiar with CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, they were a Department for Culture Media and Sport quango full of architects whose main purpose was to understand the ways that architecture and the built environment impact on our lives, and to apply that understanding to reviewing nationally-significant construction projects and planning applications — iconic new buildings, large developments, important public spaces.  Created in 1999, they are partly to thank for the more positive trends of the last decade.  They did their best to hold back the worst excesses of out-of-town barn retail sprawl, and to establish a fashion for new public spaces and squares and streets and bridges that prioritise people over the movement of vehicles, as in the redevelopment of the old industrial waterside areas of Bristol, Glasgow, Manchester, and Gateshead.

CABE was cut in the bonfire of the quangos, and, in the name of economic growth and people power [er, are you sure it can be both? -Ed], Eric Pickles and George Osborne have relaxed government control over development.  But people rarely have the time, money, resources, or expertise to exert much power over development decisions, and even when they do, are easily stepped over by better-resourced councils and corporations.  A new wave of cheap corrugated-sprawl-and-car-park development is on the way.

Street Talks 4: how to build a better street

I’m on the road for a few weeks (don’t worry, I’ve prepared a few posts in advance and instructed my cobloggers), so before I go, here is your reminder of the next from Street Talks a few weeks early: Andrew Cameron will talk about designing streets for living in — how to has been done wrong and how it should be done right.  Andrew is director of urban design at the architecture and transport engineering consultancy WSP, and contributor to modern street design guidelines, like the recent Manual for Streets.  As you can imagine, there will be some amount of nerdy details, and slides depicting things like cycle path design.  But it’s about more than that.  You should find out why council highway engineers have spent five decades building absurd race tracks through our neighbourhoods and city centres.

It’s on Tues 14th June — make a note, set a reminder (or join the mailing list for one) — at the usual time and place, upstairs in The Yorkshire Grey on Theobalds Road / Grays Inn Road.  Bar open from 6 for good beer and good food, talk around 7ish.

If you missed the previous ones, the audio and slides are available here.

State intervention

In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture.  The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.

The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle.  Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.

The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been.  Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury,  to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight.  People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment.  Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.

Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle.  Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures.  Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state.  Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it.  You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here.  Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting.  Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.

There is nothing natural about this state of our streets.  They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes.  Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”.  The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices.  Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle.  It is not state intervention.  It’s providing a level playing field.

We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership.  Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened.  People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse.  Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.