Tour du Danger: Waterloo

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?

8 thoughts on “Tour du Danger: Waterloo”

  1. A good article Joe, but I am sorry that you cannot resist the opportunity to erect your favourite man of straw: the mythical British cyclist, who overlooks the many ways that the Dutch control behaviour through engineering and conclude that their laws must be beating everybody into good behaviour.

    I do not think it is possible to overlook the role of well-designed facilities in supporting mass cycling in the Netherlands. There are there, concrete, for all to see. What is overlooked by most observers, and actively dismissed by Joe Dunckley, is the role played by laws and their enforcement in supporting that engineering.

    Let us take the advance stop facility for example. In Britain, drivers frequently disregard it. As Joe says: “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”. In the Netherlands they just don’t do that. According to Joe, the Dutch engineer out such mistakes by making things obvious and predictable. So what isn’t obvious about a London advance stop box? There are lots of them all over London. They all have a big white drawing of a bike in them. Exactly the same, in fact, as a Dutch advance stop box. The reason London’s drivers don’t respect advance stop boxes is they know they can get away with it. And the reason Dutch drivers do respect them is the real possiblity of a real on-the-spot fine if they don’t.

    But we don’t really want to be on big busy main roads like that in the first place, do we? We want a segregated cyclepath built to Dutch standards of width, smoothness and continuity. And continuity – in Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, etc. – means not giving way to every little side road, turn-in and driveway. In those countries, the cyclepath has the same priority over side traffic as the road it parallels. In Britain, on the other hand, it takes a very courageous highway engineer to give a cyclepath priority over a side-road. For as we have seen: British drivers cannot even be trusted to keep out of advance stop boxes. So British cyclepaths oblige the cyclists to give way to drivers, which we can be relied upon to do for fear of injury.

    To say it’s all about engineering is just as silly as to put all your faith in laws and their enforcement. Plainly we need both. But legislation has to come first, because without it the engineering does not work.

    1. “your favourite man of straw: the mythical British cyclist, who overlooks the many ways that the Dutch control behaviour through engineering and conclude that their laws must be beating everybody into good behaviour.”

      You’ve never read the Cycle Chat forum, have you?

      “And the reason Dutch drivers do respect them…”

      Dutch drivers don’t respect Advance Stop Boxes because they’re bad engineering, which is why the Dutch stopped building roads that way years ago and why there aren’t many ASLs left in NL.

      (Video still via AmCamBike, who obviously draws a different conclusion than I would from the video.)

  2. Personally, I’ve always had an okay time with this bus station approach thingy. True, you have to keep to the left when you arrive at the lights and perhaps because I tend to use it outside of morning rush-hour, that’s been easy.

    The point about sharing with buses is very true and it’s frustrating to see valid research misrepresented so horribly, but at least there are only buses to compete with up to the bridge. Worse, perhaps, is the bus stop on the bridge which the newly-departed buses want to swing into and which negates the careful left-hand positioning by forcing you to cross their path.

    I prefer Waterloo northbound to most central London bridges, except perhaps Southwark. But that’s like preferring a kick in the teeth to a variety of other abuses.

  3. I think Chris’s argument is quite illogical. He believes “legislation has to come first, because without it the engineering does not work”. Sorry, but if the engineering requires legislation for it to work, and, further, it requires that legislation to be obeyed for it to work, then it is poor, ineffective engineering, that requires changing. Chris has it all the wrong way round. Yes, there is better legislation in the Netherlands and slightly (only slightly) better enforcement, but that was brought about by the weight of political opinion in a mass-cycling culture that was primarily generated by engineering. The legislation did not come first.

    The belief that the legislation should come first seems to have caused CTC to fail to campaign for proper cycle infrastructure down the years, leading to the situation we find ourselves in now. The fact is that Dutch infrastructure does not work because of Dutch legislation. Dutch-style infrastructure works in the UK too when it is built to satisfactory standards. There are working examples of this, which give cyclists full priority. They did not require any changes to UK law for their implementation. There is no connection between the application of priorities to cycle tracks and the lack of compliance with Advance Stop Lines in the UK.

    Chris’s choice of example of the Advance Stop Line actually proves the falsity of what he is saying. The Dutch have abandoned the Advanced Stop Line. They don’t do them any more, because they didn’t work there, just as they don’t work here. They are not considered best-practice cycle engineering any more. CTC really needs to update itself on what modern Dutch practice is. Chris’s example suggests that they don’t have much idea.

    Readers can judge for themselves who is erecting the Straw Man here. Chris claims that the role of the law in the Netherlands is “overlooked by most observers”. Not in my reading it is not. British cycle campaigners, particularly those in the CTC, are always on about the supposed effects of the differences between UK and Dutch (or European) law, particularly the Strict Liability law and its supposed magical effects on driver behaviour. Joe offers a welcome corrective to this, explaining the much larger role of the less-obvious aspects of Dutch infrastructure in controlling danger. The idea that civil liability (i.e. insurance) law is a significant influence on the moment-to-moment decisions that people make while driving in any country is fanciful.

    I believe that concentrating on the supposed effects of laws (do traffic laws really work that well in any country?) is a tactic that many UK cycle campaigners use to distract from their actual lack of understanding of how cycle infrastructure works in the Netherlands and elsewhere. Yes, of course there is an interaction between legislation and engineering, but if you are waiting for the legislation before even attempting the engineering, you will probably be waiting for eternity.

    Vole O’Speed

    1. David: of course we are not waiting for legislation. CTC actively campaigns for separate cyclepaths beside the roads that most need them. However it is very difficult to be enthusiastic about such campaigns when the implementation is so often so poor. So you can be forgiven for not realising that we really do campaign for separate facilities.

      The loss of priority at side roads is one of the greatest defects of British cyclepath engineering. Why does Britain build them like that? Because traffic engineers believe that if cyclists were given priority at those junctions, British drivers would not respect it.

      Until British drivers CAN be expected to give way to cyclists, we are stuck with a situation in which any segregated cyclepath that actually gets built here, WILL give way to every side road.

      Side turnings, fortunately, are relatively few and far between on the most dangerous roads for cycling in this country, i.e. rural trunk roads. Although no cyclist likes it, out there it’s easier to live with the loss of priorty, of momentum and the effort of getting going again. It’s a given, it’s a waste of effort and credibility to even try to do anything about it, so we concentrate our effort on trying to get a decent width, surface and sightlines. If we fail, it’s not for want of trying.

      On urban main roads however, the turnings come thick and fast and stopping every few metres makes segregated cycling an unbearably miserable way to get around. Often the planners even make cycle paths give way to private driveways. Of course we object to that most vigourously, but still they do it, because they reckon drivers will not stop for us to pass, so more of us will get squashed if we are given priority. And perhaps they are right? Do we have any proof they are wrong?

      So wherever there are lots of side turnings, we campaign for on-carriageway cycle lanes. The Dutch would build a proper segregated cyclepath by a lot of those roads, and of course we would much rather have that. But proper Dutch cyclepaths are not even on the British urban planner’s menu. When the only options are how would you like your white paint, on the pavement or on the road: which would you choose?

  4. Back on point:
    For my daily run between Blackfriars and Waterloo, I used to take Stamford Street in preference to the NCN 4 route along Upper Ground, largely because I didn’t have to deal with the jaw-shaking surface on my Brompton’s little wheels. Then they closed Stamford St for roadworks, and when it reopened I found I no longer had the nerve to use it.
    Heading east, you really need to be way in front of the line at the lights where York Rd joins the Imax roundabout, ready to sprint ahead of the traffic which races for the gap to head straight on or right onto Waterloo Rd. Briefly one lane becomes two, before narrowing to one again at the Stamford St exit. Here, it is best to hope that the pedestrian crossing is on Green Man so that you don’t have to jockey for position as you pass through this pinch point.
    Heading west, exiting Stamford St onto the roundabout can be uncomfortable as the road is pinched by a pedestrian refuge in the pelican crossing there. If you were heading for Waterloo Rd it wouldn’t be too bad because there is a cycle lane of sorts but to continue around to York Rd requires a sprint across the exiting lane, or a wait until the pelican crossing at the waterloo Rd exit goes Green man and the traffic is stopped.
    Further round, I somehow always manage to be fooled by the slip into the bus lane – you see the lights red on the main lane and green on the bus lane, so you go for it, but by the time you get to the bus lane lights, they have gone red!
    Finally, the exit to York Rd. As I am heading up the station approach this isn’t too bad but otherwise you have to contend with buses and in particular taxis passing and then cutting straight across you to turn left. Having recently had a spell in hospital following a hit&run in similar circumstances on the north end of Blackfriars Bridge, I am only too painfully aware of the dangers.
    Upper Ground may have a crappy surface and can be trying with the unloading trucks, but it is a lot less scary.

  5. Has anybody noticed whether the traffic light phasing has changed on the IMAX roundabout lately? Travelling North to South on Waterloo Bridge, it used to be clear of traffice as you reached the r/bout and you could cycle straight over to Mepham Street no problem, now you invariably have to stop as traffic starts coming from York Way (?I think). This means you have no idea when/whether the stream of traffic has stopped and just have to pitch yourself out when you see a gap in the hope that you’ll get across before anything comes speeding round the bend. Can anybody else confirm or verify this? I’d like to report it to TfL but I want to be sure that it has changed and is not just my imagination .. Thanks.

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