The quick, the cheap, and the inadequate

At the last Street Talks, a panel presented on the theme of “The quick, the cheap and the temporary: Speeding up the transformation of London’s streets and public spaces”. Hannah Padgett of Sustrans talked about projects that get communities to suggest and try out improvements to their streets and places; Brian Deegan talked about Royal College Street and the research that has gone into Transport for London’s new Cycle Design Standards; and Ben Kennedy from Hackney Council talked about their trial de-motorification of the Narroway.

It was all very encouraging to hear how transforming our streets to reduce the blight of traffic and enable walking and cycling doesn’t necessarily have to take decades and hundreds of millions of pounds, and so I look forward to Boris and the boroughs making some rapid progress rolling out this kind of flexible “segregation lite” around the city. It’s good to have it spelled out and spread far and wide: budget cuts are not an excuse.

Except I’m a little worried about the quick and the cheap. Sometimes I just can’t quite see how it can do the job. Take the proposals that TfL are currently consulting on for the A21 in Lewisham:

A21 Bromley Rd Canadian AvThere are two elements to this scheme: the long straight link, and the crossroads node. A mandatory cycle lane is proposed for the link — dedicated space found for cycling within the existing carriageway, but protected only by a stripe of white paint. This cycle lane looks like exactly the sort of place that Royal College Street-style segregation could be quickly and cheaply implemented. It would be far from perfect — minimal separation from passing trucks, and only on one side of the road — but it would at least be a quick and cheap interim solution that could be in place on the street within days of a consultation ending.

The junction is the problem. Perhaps I just lack the imagination but I can’t picture any amount of the quick and the cheap segregation-lite making a safe, inviting and effective crossroads — especially one in which cyclists have to get past a long dedicated left-turn lane. And fixing the junction is the main issue, since it is junctions that are the least safe and least inviting part of our streets.

The best way to solve crossroads — and perhaps the only proven way, since Danish and German junctions don’t have such a great record for cycling safety and convenience — is the Dutch way: providing good, direct, high-capacity dedicated space with plenty of separation — in space and, where there are signals, in time — from the jostling and turning motor traffic. And that can not be done with a wheelbarrow load of armadillos.

@AnoopShah4 has already reached for the crayons box and sketched out a basic idea for the sort of things a junction like this needs. Carriageway narrowing, removing the left-hook lane, and putting in dedicated tracks set back from the carriageway:

Suggestion_A21_Bromley_Rd_Canadian_AvThe fact is, the carriageway on the A21 is in the wrong place. It’s the wrong shape and size. Fixing it, to make it the right shape and size, will require at least digging up the road to move the kerbs, but probably also moving some of the things on the street (like lamp posts) and under it (like rainwater drains). That’s not cheap and easy (well, not compared to Royal College Street; it’s still a bargain beside the M74), which is why in TfL’s plans, there is only some minor tinkering with the kerbs to tighten up the turnings in a couple of places, while absurd abominations like that left-turn lane are untouched.

It’s not cheap and easy, but without digging up the road, I just can’t picture how this junction could ever match the Mayor’s promise for TfL schemes:

Timid, half-hearted improvements are out – we will do things at least adequately, or not at all.

The current plan out for consultation is inadequate; to do things at least adequately here would require the mayor to spend some money correcting the carriageway.

The Dutch had carriageways that were the wrong shape and size too, but they’ve slowly worked their way through them correcting that, adding their cycle tracks as they go.

This junction is far from alone amongst London’s main roads — the ones which require dedicated space for cycling — in being a place where I can’t see how the quick and easy could work, and it’s not just junctions where this is a problem. A great many of our streets seem to have been assembled quite clumsily, with carriageway and lane widths bouncing around erratically according to the space available between buildings, obstructions strewn across footways without thought, and decades of added and moved and sometimes removed buildouts and islands, stacking lanes, bus stops and loading bays. They’re a mess, and trying to retrofit them for cycling could only make them an even bigger mess. To do things adequately, you’re often going to have to sweep away the accumulated mess, cast off the constraints of the motor-centric streets we’ve inherited, and do things properly. But we managed to put the money and effort in to install all of those ill-conceived left-hook lanes and junction stacks in the past. We should be able to find the same to now fix those mistakes.

9 thoughts on “The quick, the cheap, and the inadequate”

  1. I do hope that the quick and cheap doesn’t become a substitute for doing a proper job (and more expert heads than I would no doubt attest that junctions, which after all pose the single biggest hazard to cyclists, are largely immune to quick/cheap treatment) but there is one sense in which we should embrace it, which is to test out concepts and establish that they work – not just for cyclists but for all the surrounding non-cyclists who may think that it works against them and won’t believe otherwise until it has been shown to be otherwise.

    Seems to me that much of what New York City did under Jeannette Sadik-Khan was conceived with that idea in mind – no doubt you have seen her TED talk where she shows how coloured paint, plant pots and bench seats can be installed almost overnight and at minimal cost to change the profile of a street – remove an entire lane, block a rat-run, provide a cycle lane sheltered behind a car-parking zone etc.

    Much of what Jon Irwin is campaigning for in Tooting has the same aim – he wants to close various residential side streets off to through traffic to remove rat runs, make them safe back-routes for cycling and return the streets to their residents. Naturally some residents will be concerned that this disadvantages them in terms of their own directness of access by car to their homes, and planners will be concerned that it will cause gridlock on the nearby through routes or on other side streets which have not had the treatment. Put down a few planters and a park bench or two for a six-month trial, most people will accept that, if grudgingly, and the sceptics will then likely see either that the inconvenience they expected doesn’t materialise, or that it is well worth the price for a quieter, safer street outside their front door, and the planners will see that the predicted gridlock elsewhere does not, in fact, materialise. Win win, and move on to making it permanent – quite possibly leaving the planters where they are until the money is available for more permanent solutions.

  2. Britain has been waiting for too long to continue to fiddle around the edges. It is precisely this lack of actually getting on with what is required that has led to cycling languishing for decades. But as you you show quite clearly above, half measures are still all that are being offered. This is very disappointing.

    Paul: I know which presentation you’re referring to and it does indeed look really good. But that’s the problem with presentations – if made by someone with a talent for presenting, they all look good.

    I think we do need to keep our skepticism with regard to where inspiration comes from. For all the hot air coming from the place, they may have given many people a different impression, but the official figures from New York show that they still have one of the lowest cycling modal shares of any place on earth.

    By any measure, New York is doing much less well even than London. It is surely by their degree of success that the value of what they are doing should be measured, not by how well they present it.

    There’s certainly something in the idea of using temporary objects to mark out different ideas to test them and I certainly like the idea of a few planters and seats, at least in places where people might able to stop and look at and smell the flower, and might find it pleasant to sit down. Temporary infrastructure made in this way is not new in New York of course. This has been done all around the world for many years, including here in NL. On one Study Tour last year we rode through an area in Groningen, just a hundred metres or so long, where a through road had been made suitable for cycle access only by a similar temporary solution. Don’t let temporary become permanent, though.

  3. A blanket policy of spending as little as possible and as much as necessary on cycle infrastructure would probably result in lots of cheap projects, some medium-expensive ones and a few that would look eye-wateringly expensive until one calculated the costs of moving the same number of people by any other mode and the expensive projects started to seem rather less expensive…

    To my mind the quickest (and possibly also cheapest) interventions are not the ones made with armadillos and planters and paint (worthwhile though these may be) but the ones made in legislative chambers and police stations. Firming up the law on dangerous overtaking to make it much easier to enforce and having a serious police crackdown on it would make most cyclists feel safer. Legislation could also be used to create city-wide 20 mph zones. City limits signs could be deemed to have the same meaning as speed limit 20 signs, and then the exceptions (the roads where higher speeds are legit) could be posted individually.

    At least until such time as we get high-quality segregation everywhere it’s needed, we should pull out all the stops to make mixed traffic environments safer and more pleasant places to cycle.

  4. @sarah I don’t care how well behaved lorry drivers are, very few people are going to want to ride in front of one, let their children cycle in the same lane as one. Segregation is the only policy which has worked anywhere in the world to increase cycling numbers and safety. What makes you think physics and psychology work differently in the UK?

  5. I keep looking at those armadillos and to me they look like a hazard. What happens if your front wheel hits one seems like it might end badly.

  6. The planters and armadillos on Royal College street have received a proper pasting by incompetent drivers. Two planters have been knocked completely out of shape and removed, most of the rest have been dented. Two armadillos have been lost at the entry point on the A5202, with just the bolts sticking forlornly out of the tarmac, and have yet to be replaced.
    What is needed is a wider version of the segregated lane that was previously on the western side of the road.
    Some traffic policing should help but in Camden the police have no appetite for it. This is a borough where a barrister can drive their car into a traffic island on Brecknock road with sufficient force to flip two tonnes of metal and not be charged with anything.

  7. I think the interesting thing about what has happened in New York is firstly that, while from a very low base, there has been a rapid response to the changes made. NYC may still have a modal share even lower than London, but in many ways it is catching up fast, and that is through a pull factor rather than a push factor – conditions becoming more attractive whereas in London is driven by commuting costs, overcrowding on public transport etc, with an occasional shove from major incidents like strikes or bombings.

    Secondly, it is widely said that the increase in cycling in NYC has seen a transformation of the dominant cycling motif – no longer is cycling defined there as reckless and aggressive cycle couriers, but as a more “normal” population of people just going about their business by bike. This may not much resemble a continental European culture yet, but the growth in cycling in London hasn’t seen a similar move, in our case away from the helmeted vehicular road warrior.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: