Cyclists need more situational awareness and training

No more learned an authority than Lord Alan Sugar recently proclaimed that cycling infrastructure is unnecessary because cyclists simply need more situational awareness and training.

I realise now that the noble lord has a point. We could save the tiny number of very important people like Lord Sugar who drive into London minutes on their journeys if we just train everybody to be more situation aware.

There’s just one thing I’d have to add to Lord Sugar’s training programme: it’s not just the cyclists we’d have to train.

Because these signposts also need more situational awareness.

These traffic lights need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This guardrail needs more situational awareness.

This utilities cabinet needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This street lamp needed more situational awareness.

These stands needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This 20mph sign needs more situational awareness.

This bollard bottom right needs more situational awareness.

This utilities box needs more situational awareness.

This stand needs more situational awareness.

This bin needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This lamp post needs more situational awareness.

All of this needs more situational awareness.

These signs need more situational awareness.

This stuff needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

This zebra crossing needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

These 20mph signs need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

And this bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

All of this shit needs more situational awareness:

This railway needs more situational awareness:

This underground railway needs more situational awareness:

This lake needs more situational awareness:

This “Let’s look out for eachother” sign needs more situational awareness:

This sign needs more situational awareness:

These bollards need more situational awareness:

This sign for cyclists needs more situational awareness:

This photographic representation of a cyclist on a phone box advert needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian guardrail needs more situational awareness:

If we can train the cyclists to have more situational awareness and we can train the road signs and the bollards and the bridges and the pedestrian refuges and the zebra crossings and the traffic lights and the fences and the bell bollards and the utilities boxes and the bins and the railways and the lakes and the phone boxes and the guardrail to have more situational awareness… then we’re 👌. Lord Sugar will once again be able to do whatever the fuck he likes.

Oh, except we’ll also have to train all the houses, and some of those are quite old and set in their ways…

Cycling probably isn’t in decline in Bristol, but the city still has complacency issues

This popped up in my Tweetdeck saved searches column:

It caught my eye because I’m quite ready to be critical of Bristol. And I will be.

But first, some reassurance. These numbers are (a) just a levelling off after years of growth, (b) probably not representative of the real situation in Bristol, and (c) probably a load of rubbish.

The numbers come from the Department for Transport. Here’s how they look when plotted as an index relative to 2000, alongside motor vehicles (beware, truncated y axis):

image

So this “decline” should be seen in the context of cycling journeys still being higher in number than in the last decade.

But actually this probably isn’t the right data to even tell you whether there has been a levelling off. You might get a clue from the fact that this data puts cycling’s mode share at 1-2% in a city that claims several times that much cycling.

It’s because this is Department for Transport traffic count data, and the DfT only count on main roads. Roads like these:

roads

The biggest, busiest and fastest roads in the city, including several where cycling is not even legal.

But Bristol’s strategy for cycling has largely neglected the main roads. (That is itself one of my criticisms of the city, but we’ll get to that.) Bristol’s rise as a cycling city is built on the foundations of its off-road routes on post-industrial corridors — the Railway Path, harbourside, greenways and towpaths. And in recent years its main policy developments have been slower speeds and filtered permeability on residential streets and in the city centre, as well as the development of additional joined-up off-road arterial routes.

So one could almost hypothesise that a fall in DfT main road traffic counts are what you’d expect to see in a city where the policy has been about creating alternative routes to the main roads.

Finally though, even for the dataset that it is, these numbers need to be taken with a big pinch of salt, because they are DfT traffic counts. The clue is in the fact that the line for cycling is really all over the place. These are based on a single day per year sample, probably collected by folk sat by the side of the road with pencils and paper, and so subject to big sampling noise.

That doesn’t mean Bristol’s doing alright

In 2012, we took the Cycling Embassy to Bristol to admire the Railway Path, the Living Heart Campaign for city centre filtered permeability, the then newly completed Concorde Way arterial route and the harbourside. Since then there have been some developments.

Bristol had just voted to replace its ineffective council-led model of local government with the mayor-led model, and there were high hopes that the city might start seeing some progress after years of plodding along. Hopes were higher still when independent George Ferguson was elected later that year with a mandate for improving cycling in the city. Ferguson’s policies even promised to finally start addressing the main roads, and thanks to the volunteer-run Bristol Cycling Campaign, there’s even a network plan ready prepared to work through.

So three quarters of the way through his term, what have we got?

The Baldwin Street cycle track and the Clarence Road cycle track (2 years late and with the council instantly pandering to incompetent motorists by reducing its defences). Two very welcome schemes. But that’s three years for a kilometre of tracks, not even fully connected to the wider network. At this rate it will take centuries to complete the network.

But far more worrying than what hasn’t happened is what has. Bristol is still designing crap like this — and building it, despite the countless warnings they’ve received:

brt

Busy, narrow, discontinuous shared use footways of the kind that should have been consigned to Crap Facility of the Month 15 years ago. This is not the stuff of a “cycling city”.

Bristol is still doing far better than — and doing nothing quite so embarrassing as — the likes of Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester, of course. But that should go without saying. That should go without saying. Bristol is expected to be better than Birmingham and Leeds and Manchester. But it’s certainly not exceeding expectations. It’s not moving forward or graduating from the low-hanging fruit of greenways to the hard work of fixing main roads. When London is building the NS/EW superhighways and many more kilometres of good stuff besides, nothing Bristol is doing looks exciting anymore.

And I think that’s because Bristol doesn’t appreciate what it has got, or understand how it got it. It has fallen for its own myth that it is an alternative city, and takes it for granted that the cool, green, self-reliant people of Bristol have a cycling culture. In fact, that culture arose alongside its off-road routes, and it could disappear just as quickly.

Worse even than the crap facilities on new roads is closing the Ashton Bridge for a year, severing greenway routes, to build a busway — diverting anyone who is left willing to cycle onto a dual carriageway. Or closing the Railway Path for months with similarly inadequate diversions. Over the past few years the city has variously proposed destroying the Railway Path entirely, destroying the riverside “chocolate block” path, and destroying part of the harbourside, all in the pursuit of mediocre bus systems serving the outer suburbs.

It is clear that council officers in the city have no appreciation of how absolutely critical these kinds of routes are — how dependent the growth in cycling modal share has been on them, how much they contribute to the city’s mobility, and how easily and how totally the city can be set back by allowing such routes to be destroyed. But outside the council there’s a complacency too. I don’t think many people quite appreciate just how critical the harbourside routes are, for example, because they exist by default as spaces left behind by industrial decline, rather than as something that had to be fought for, paid for, planned, designed and built. Yet they tie together the city’s radial routes in the centre — a vital function that other cities can struggle with immensely.

I could go on.

Bristol is still far better than Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester. But it’s not radical. And it needs to start taking its cycling infrastructure seriously. Because mode share can go down as well as up — and the fall can be faster than the ascent.

A picture of a corpse

I saw a corpse on the street on the way to work this morning. Not for the first time, and, well, traffic violence is hardly worth commenting on these days. But a corpse is still enough to mark a day apart.

According to people on twitter, passers by were taking pictures of the corpse. People on twitter thought it distasteful, not right, undignified. Best move on, let the police and TfL clean up, nothing to see, nothing to share, nothing to comment on.

I didn’t get my camera out, but I took away a picture.

A line of cones and the blue folding “Police Road Closed” sign, gently swept traffic into a neat turn down a residential side-street towards the Clapham Road. The four lanes of the Brixton Road were incongruously empty. People walked in it and their comments and conversations could be heard. You don’t normally hear what anybody says on a London street.

Four red double-deck buses and one large tourist coach were all that was left of a queue that I guess must have been much longer. A TfL man must have worked his way down the queue, turning the buses back to send them around the diversion, and he was waving the coach through a three point turn. Beyond the police tape, empty and silent, the bus at the front of the queue sat at an angle, frozen in the middle of pulling out from the bus lane.

Beyond that, some way, a small pile lay in the middle of the northbound traffic lane. A jacket, leather I guess, and some other scraps of clothes. A few little pieces of rubbish left from where the paramedics and air ambulance trauma surgeons tried to resuscitate the corpse in the road. Perhaps they tried to replace lost blood. Perhaps they cut it open where it lay in a final attempt to get it started again. But they weren’t part of the picture, just a trace in the scene some time after their departure.

And then there was the corpse. Moved to the footway, just placed on the kerb, perfectly parallel to the northbound bus lane. Just lying there, out on its own in an empty stretch of street. They’d spread a crumpled greying-white sheet — too small — over it, and a bare, pale, very pale left arm and shoulder lay uncovered on the kerb, one of those old, broad, dirty stone south London kerbs. Not muscled, not skeletal, not obese, not hairy, a fairly typical arm for a fairly typical corpse.

And some way further on still, a motorbike stood on its stand where it had been wheeled onto the footway, out of the way. I don’t know motorbikes. Something dark, modern, clean and not obviously seriously damaged.

I only glanced over for a second, from behind the railings far away on the diversionary path, and I turned away and I kept walking but I took away a picture.

On the way home, the road was as it always is. Swept clear and back to the gushing open sewer of traffic it always is. Two kerb stones were perhaps a little cleaner. And flowers had sprouted beside where the corpse’s feet lay.

It’s not right to take pictures of corpses. It’s distasteful, undignified to share pictures of corpses. When people see pictures of corpses they’re liable to think there might be dead people behind the corpses, and they’re liable to become curious about who the people are and why they are dying. When people see pictures of corpses, looking human, looking humdrum, perhaps lying on boring kerbs, their own boring kerbs, in their own mundane streets in front of their own ubiquitous red buses, like they do every other day somewhere in this city, perhaps they might question why there are people dying on their morning commute, and why we keep just sweeping them away.

Show some respect, eh. No pictures. No front pages.

DSC_3693

Motorists are welcome to the roads they pay for

So George Osborne has decided that the money raised from Vehicle Excise Duty — “road tax” — should for the first time in 80 years be ringfenced for spending on roads, through Highways England (the recently rebranded Highways Agency). CityMetric think this sends a message telling motorists that they own the roads, and the Guardian Bike Blog is worried that it will increase the already prevalent sense of entitlement to bully other road users.

You can have your motorways

I think it’s brilliant. Osborne has “given” motorists the roads that they already own — those roads that sane people long ago stopped using with anything but a motor vehicle. And that makes it a perfect time to take back the rest of them.

This is the Highways England road network. Motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name.

highwaysSo if this tax sends a message it’s exactly the right one: you pay for the motorway network. Want to own the road? Bugger off to your motorway. The county A roads, borough B roads, city streets and country lanes are not yours.

By ringfencing the tax for Highways England, Osborne has made it much plainer that motoring taxes don’t come close to paying for the costs and harms that motoring accrues, and has emphasised that because streets and lanes and other lesser roads are run by the local council, motorists outside the motorway network are actually being subsidised by the rest of us.

His message fits neatly with a related one: “roads were not built for cars”. Because this tax is largely going to roads which were built for cars. The two combine to say: these motorways are the roads for cars; everywhere else you’re a guest benefiting from the generosity of local council tax payers. Motorists can take the motorways. In return, they need to start giving something back.

Sleight of hand

By giving the Highways Agency greater autonomy as Highways England and at the same time setting it up with an income stream, the worry for many is that Osborne is creating the conditions for a motorway building boom that can’t be traced back to government decisions when it inevitably proves to be extremely unpopular.

But I’m not sure we should be so worried.

It costs Highways England just under £4 billion per year to run the motorway network, including the small number of capital projects — junction rebuilds, carriageway widening, new technology, and the rare new length of road.

Very neatly, the road tax is expected to raise just a little over £4 billion per year for Highways England. CJZJJWKUwAAYjcO

Previously motorists paid £4 billion into the Treasury, and £4 billion found its way from the Treasury to Highways England via the Department for Transport. Now motorists will pay £4 billion into Highways England. There’s a bit less democratic oversight but otherwise nothing has changed.

It seems unlikely that Highways England would be able to greatly increase the scale of its road building activity without either borrowing money or, if a chancellor is feeling brave, receiving additional specific grants — either of which would further emphasise the extent to which motorists fail to cover their costs, the expense of road construction, and look embarrassing when repeatedly referred to in the inevitable backlash.

The clever thing Osborne has done, though, is delay the official introduction of this system until 2021. And even then it will take time for the new system to get embedded. So it will probably be a decade before those petrolheads expecting Osborne’s road tax announcement to lead to a massive road building boom realise that they’ve been had and that the tax only just covers the existing annual expenditure.

What really matters

You might have noticed that I’m not taking this thing all that seriously. I don’t think it will make much difference. Petrolhead pricks who need to dress in a metal shell to bully people will bully people regardless of whether they can cite some tax-based sense of entitlement in the sentences they attempt to string together. And a road building boom remains as dependent on the political will to be seen borrowing and spending on such unpopular projects as it ever did.

But the announcement perhaps isn’t entirely irrelevant. It creates another opportunity to make the serious point: there are some motorways for accommodating through motor traffic, and there are some streets and lanes that clearly aren’t. But at the moment most of our roads fall somewhere between the two, and aren’t fit for purpose because we’re trying to make them be too many things at once.

Osborne has decided, correctly, that motorways are for motoring. Now we need to look at the rest of our roads — the ones that belong to us all — and decide for each of them how best to make them do their job, because right now they aren’t working.

The user experience

With our street designers discovering some new technical terms and with budgets to commit before the end of the financial year, spring 2015 is shaping up to be a period we’ll look back on as one of the great waves of Crap Facilities.

Bus stop bypasses seem to be a big favourite of the bollocks cargo-cult imitations of infrastructure right now, from the weirdly, needlessly difficult:

Through the plain bizarre:

To the just bafflingly, utterly unusable wastes of money:

And from a quick scroll through @AlternativeDfT‘s timeline, I see junction designs that coroners have judged to be deadly — and which we know from extensive experience render the infrastructure simply unusable — are still the in thing:

Obviously robust and relevant design guidance and standards would help avoid this rubbish. And obviously short-term and unstable funding regimes with inadequate oversight have contributed to the madness. And obviously political pressure can sometimes stand in the way. But those alone can’t excuse professionals from squandering their budgets on quite obviously unusable, and quite plainly unused, bollocks.

I used to think it was sloppiness. That underpaid, underresourced and underappreciated council officers had understandably given up caring that their work is a waste of time where the product will be so shit nobody will use it.

But then you find them defending the rubbish…

…even trying to argue that the users are wrong…

And you realise these street designers don’t know the process of design.

The examples above, and the designers’ responses even more so, indicate that our streets are being designed with barely any understanding of people or how people use streets. No attempt has been made to understand what users need, or the experience of using the infrastructure they’ve designed.

This field has a problem with its attitude to users. From an understandable exasperation with users’ green ink suggestions, and mixed experiences with the statutory consultation process, officers can develop a general disdain for the user. Proper designers, though, are fine with the fact that users don’t always come up with sensible solutions. But proper designers know that what matters is users know what the problem is. And the users know what the experience of using the product is. And proper designers try to understand the problem, and proper designers try to check what the experience of using their design will be.

Proper designers don’t blame the user when their products turn out to be unusable.

I don’t blame the individuals who are given no time, training or support to do a proper design job. This is just another failure of the system.

We need the right design guidance, and we need the right funding framework, and we need the right political will. But we also need a proper user-centric design and consultation process. Safety audits? How about usability audits?

River crossing would be ‘discriminatory’ says councillor

A new bridge over the Thames in East London would only benefit ‘former Tory MPs’, a Newham councillor has claimed.

Councillor Airdrie Dalden is objecting to plans from Transport for London which include a bridge between the borough and the Royal Borough of Greenwich on the south of the river.

Quoting the example of journalist Matthew Parris, councillor Dalden said: “The vast majority of people currently crossing the Thames here are former Tory MPs in swimming trunks. Women of any ethnic group who wish to wear modest clothing, and I count myself in that category, are not going to put on a swimming costume and cross the Thames. Swimming is a discriminatory form of transport.”

Parris was criticised by the Port of London Authority in 2010 after writing about his experience of being swept a mile upriver when swimming across the busy commercial waterway at night.

Mayor Boris Johnson claims that the new Thames Gateway Bridge across the river would link the transport poor Thamesmead estate and Woolwich development area in Greenwich with residential and redevelopment areas around Beckton and the Royal Docks in Newham, creating opportunities for one of Britain’s most deprived boroughs.

But Councillor Dalden told AWWTM that the money Johnson proposes spending on the bridge would not “benefit every aspect of Newham, which is an ethnically diverse borough.”

“You look around and of the people who are crossing the Thames here, they do not belong to wider ethnic groups. The majority of swimmers are former Tory MPs like Matthew Parris and Boris Johnson. Fact.”

Transport for London are now considering a compromise solution which will involve building half a bridge.

Repost: The definition of madness

So TfL have produced a short advert once again asking everybody to calm down, play nice, and share the road. I figured it might make a good excuse to post again this thing that I scribbled a couple of years ago.

On the Guardian Bike Blog, Tom Richards points out that “while we’d all love better cycling infrastructure, there is neither the money nor the political will…” Therefore we should focus on easier and more populist things — like conquering human nature and legislating to re-educate 30 million people.

Now, leaving aside the fact that the effects of changing driver education (if there are ever any effects at all, and it’s not a very robustly researched field) have long lag times — as long as street lifecycles. And leaving aside the fact that there is no evidence that this sort of intervention would ever actually have any significant effect on the sort of issues we’re concerned about, such as occurrence and severity of motor vehicle/cycle crashes (but if Richards were to propose a randomised controlled trial…). And leaving aside the fact that it could have, at best, only a small effect on the arguably more important issue of barriers to cycling, which are more about subjective assessment of the comfort of the environment than about raw injury statistics, and so can make no significant contribution to solving the wider issues which cycling is tied to. Basically, leaving aside the fact that this is, at best, a mediocre proposal. The interesting question is, why do people keep clinging to these kinds of ideas?

The idea that somehow physical engineering is difficult and expensive and unpopular, while changing human behaviour is quick, easy, cheap and effective, is one that the British are remarkably strongly attached to. It is manifested in a wide variety of rarely very effective campaigns and initiatives, from marketing the unmarketable to the bizarrely widespread belief that obscure details of insurance law are a significant influence on behaviour. One of my favourite examples of the attitude was caught by Freewheeler a couple of years ago, from “3 feet please” campaigner and now ex LCC trustee David Love:

This provoked a response from David Love in the Comments, who among things writes:

Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there’s no room and no money so it’s not going to happen.
Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now

And there you have the ‘realism’ of a man who is LCC Trustee and Vice Chair.

But the British tradition of soft measures goes far wider, deeper and further back than this. Motorists may moan about having been the victim of a “war” that restricts their freedom, polices their movements, or sends campaigns of severe punishment for accidental and unavoidable infringement of petty rules, but the reality is that right from the start, when the red flag acts were repealed, this country’s response (and that of much of the English-speaking world) to the problems that motorists create on the road has largely been light touch and libertarian, in which the children are simply asked again and again to play nice, even as they become ever greater bullies, and only if they’re really bad might they have their pocket money docked. We encourage and raise awareness, appeal to the legendary British sense of fair play, and still believe that the ideal road is within reach if only we can persuade everybody to get along through courtesy, good manners, and communicating our intentions clearly to one another.

Joe Moran has an entertaining history of this English approach to road safety in the chapter “please don’t be rude on the road” in On Roads. Amongst others he tells the story of Mervyn O’Gorman, who argued against introducing a driving test because all that a motorist should require is a natural “road sense”, and who acted on his belief that the cause of road accidents is poor communication by inventing the Highway Code, a list of mostly legally baseless customs and courtesies, explaining that “is is just as ungentlemanly to be discourteous or to play the fool on the king’s highway as it would be for a man to push his wife off her chair at the Sunday tea table and grab two pieces of cake.” Perhaps most entertaining is his coverage of the period in the 1930s when “courtesy cops” went around with megaphones politely asking errant drivers to behave themselves. He concludes:

Underneath this appeal lay an uncomfortable truth: many members of the respectable middle classes were incompetent drivers who were to blame for fatal road accidents. Rather than turning them into criminals through putative legislation, British traffic law relied on appeals to their sense of fair play. It was always better, went the mantra of the time, to cultivate good habits than propose bad bills. [Sound familiar?] So the courtesy cops did not prosecute motorists; they offered friendly advice to the careless. The Times blamed accidents on what it called ‘motorious carbarians’ — the few bad apples hidden among the vast majority of gentlemanly drivers, who could be relied upon to break the law sensibly. Motoring correspondents railed against excessive regulation in the 1930s in a way that eerily echoes today’s campaigns against speed cameras and road humps. ‘Regulation after regulation pours from the Ministry of Transport in a never-ending flood,’ complained the Daily Mirror in 1934 … but ‘courtesy and good manners may be cultivated easily enough by everyone.’

They say that the definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. For eighty years or more the answer to motorists playing nice has been just a little bit more education and awareness raising, and look where it has got us. It’s time to call off the search for the British sense of fair play and abandon the naive idea that meaningful and worthwhile change on the road can be achieved with a few gentle nudges.