This is part of a series gathering thoughts on what is wrong with London’s road junctions.
If the junction of the A301 Waterloo Road/Waterloo Bridge and the A3200 York Road — the BFI IMAX roundabout — were just a roundabout it wouldn’t be very interesting. It probably wouldn’t be quite so dangerous for people on bicycles, either — not that the standard British design three-lane large-radius roundabout is at all safe or inviting, it’s just that this junction is made extra special by the Waterloo Bus Station beside the railway arches:
The bus station is on the northbound side of Waterloo Road, and the northbound section of the roundabout is, perhaps uniquely, split in two, both in space and time: the buses exiting the bus station have their own phase of the lights, and their own dedicated carriageway for this quarter of the roundabout. In amongst the sprawling traffic traffic lanes and bustling bus station, a few scraps of stop-start “cycle facility” are provided.
Heading north on a bicycle on Waterloo Road, when past the left-turn into the bus station, one is given the option of a tight-left turn into a narrow fully segregated unidirectional cycle track (best illustrated by this architect’s drawing of a hypothetical bus shelter). There is no such cycle track for bicycle users entering the roundabout from any of the other arms, but they are provided with a way into this cycle track once they have negotiated the roundabout all the way past the Waterloo Road arm. Except that by then the cycle track has already run out and instead become, for the final few yards, an on-street cycle lane, within the bus station, on the right-hand side of the buses. That leads you up to the advance stop box and the traffic lights in this video.
I can’t think of any reason why anybody would use this facility, except out of cautious lack of familiarity with the road, in the mistaken belief that a cycle track will safely lead them to where they need to go. The timing of traffic lights on the roundabout and on Waterloo Road are such that if you chose to use the facility then the traffic lights for the exit from the bus station will almost always be turning red a few seconds before you reach them, and if they’re not, well, that’s even worse — you’re deposited in a narrow and soon to expire lane on the wrong side of a line of buses all racing to get through the short cycle of the lights.
And see how they race! In fact I observed a few rounds of the lights before I erected the conspicuous camera and tripod, and I’m sure the drivers must have noticed when they were being filmed, for, before the camera was set up, on every single round of the lights a bus would crawl all the way to the front of the advance stop box and the drivers, clearly intimate with the signal timings and watching the behaviour of the neighbouring traffic streams, were experts in setting off a full second before their own light turned green — every time. You wouldn’t want to be the on a bicycle directed up the narrow lane on the right-hand side of those.
There are several fundamental problems with the ideas behind this junction. One is that it’s good to put bicycles and buses together. British engineers are told by the DfT’s cycle infrastructure guidelines that cyclists like sharing with buses and so engineers should plan them into the bus spaces. But to say that cyclists like sharing with buses is either a misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the research — a survey which found that existing cyclists preferred lanes where they only had to deal with buses over general traffic lanes where they had to deal with buses and fast cars and big trucks. (The same survey also found that cyclists and bus drivers have a low opinion of one another.) Bus lanes are less awful than no bus lanes; that doesn’t mean that most people like riding bicycles in them or that they can bring about mass cycling, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a bus station, where a lot of buses are stopping, waiting, and pulling in and out of tight spaces, is a safe, sensible or attractive cycle route.
But the most fundamental issue is perhaps that both the cycle facility and the bus station is weird cheap improvised one-of-a-kind crap stuffed in where it won’t get in the way of the very important people who drive cars and hire cabs in central London. The de facto hierarchy and prioritisation of motorised modes is a familiar problem, to the point that it is barely interesting when considering this junction. Rather, it’s the cheap improvisation that makes this one stand out. These weird ad lib facilities, which stop-and-start, merge and diverge, and abandon you in unexpected places, apart from being unattractive and unlikely to be much help in bringing about mass cycling, make everybody’s behaviour unpredictable, and that leads to mistakes being made.
Certain British cyclists look at the Netherlands, see it all working smoothly, and conclude that the laws must be beating everybody into good behaviour — the fear of insurance claims under “strict liability”, perhaps. But they’re overlooking the many ways that the Dutch control behaviour through engineering — not merely physically preventing bad behaviour by designing out speed, but also engineering out mistakes by making things obvious and predictable. Roads are built differently to streets and lanes, for example, and it is therefore obvious which you’re on and what is expected of you. Roundabouts in particular are made to be predictable places: there are few designs, with minor variations between them. People on bicycles get their own dedicated space, everybody understands that this is so, and it is made very obvious where bicycles and motor vehicles could come into conflict and which gets priority in those places.
British roundabouts follow no such rules. Some of them are a single lane, some of them two, three, four, or even five or six, depending on how much space the engineers had to play with. Sometimes there are lane markings, sometimes these are concentric circles that you veer across as you proceed, sometimes they spiral around to carry you all the way to your exit, and sometimes lane markings come and go several times in the course of your gyration. Sometimes there are traffic signals on the roundabout, sometimes there are traffic signals only on the entrances, and sometimes a roundabout will have a mix of signalised and non-signalised segments and entries. Sometimes there are signalised pedestrian crossings, sometimes there are informal traffic-island crossings, sometimes there are zebra crossings set back by the statutory distance, sometimes there are underpasses, and sometimes there is nothing and nowhere for people on foot. The huge variety comes from the obsession with eking out every last drip of traffic flow capacity at the expense of safe and intelligible standardised layouts. And the result is confusing and stressful enough for users, even without their having to worry about what sort of bizarre ad hoc cycle facility hack has been woven around the edges.
If you want people to ride bicycles where there are big, fast, complicated roads like this, you need a cycle track, but a proper one, put in the right places, continuous and predictable.
Under Ken Livingstone, when street space was still being reclaimed in the post-CCharge introduction period, a new design for the IMAX roundabout was proposed. There was one of those world-of-their-own architect’s mockups, big on shared space, which imagines that a stone surface makes trucks disappear and leaves a big plaza full of happy pedestrians (and, even more bizarrely, imagines a totally new IMAX building). South Bank organisations are still promoting the plans (passively, at least, through a website last updated two years ago), but there can’t be any chance of anything changing here with Boris in city hall.
Do you have any observations of the Waterloo junction to add to the Tour du Danger dodgy junctions dossier?