Transport in the era of The Head of Uncertainty

There has been much jest made of the Department for Transport advertising the role Head of Uncertainty. But the narrative around uncertainty can have a profound impact on the direction of transport policy.

It was perhaps a predictable PR risk to advertise for somebody to head up delivery of “uncertainty” for transport at a time when the nation is full of such questions as “will my train turn up today?”, “will the railway be operating on the day that I want to travel?” and “is the government’s flagship rail policy dead or not?”. And the comparisons with W1A’s Director of Better were inevitable, but that’s because W1A was such a perfect parody of modern management that it’s true of half the senior roles advertised these days.

But among the jokes, nobody seemed to pick up on the fact that the role — full title, Head of Uncertainty and Scenarios — could be very influential in the nation’s transport policy.

Forecasts and targets

Ten years ago, the Department for Transport was notorious for its “hedgehog chart” of road traffic growth predictions. Every year for decades the department had confidently predicted an imminent rapid rise in the number of car and truck journeys.

From the 1960s to the 1980s, the policy had largely been “predict and provide”. A wonk would draw a chart showing an unquestionable rapid rise in journeys, so the government would respond by providing big new roads to accommodate it all. Councils demolished entire neighbourhoods, put up multistorey car parks, and enforced car-centric design in new neighbourhoods. 

Meanwhile, the charts showed a sustained and undeniable decline in demand for public transport, so policy responded by curtailing investment.

But in the 1990s, in the wake of popular backlash against ever more destructive road projects and disillusionment from decades of false promises that they would deliver congestion relief, policy was forced to change direction. The “new realism” paradigm recognised that you can’t escape congestion by building roads. You have to enable more efficient alternative options if you want to break the spiral.

This is where the hedgehog chart era really takes off. The predictions of imminent rapid traffic growth kept coming every year, with unceasing certainty, but the traffic itself stopped materialising. Because first John Major’s government stopped building the roads for it, and then the alternatives began coming down the pipeline. Funding poured into the previously starved railways. John Prescott took control of transport in the early Blair years and supported urban public transport systems. And devolution in London enabled the rapid turn-around of the city’s long-declining public transport infrastructure and user experience, led by the Congestion Charge.

The influence of the new realism quietly waned over the course of the New Labour years, as our collective memory of why it rose in the first place faded, so when Cameron’s coalition government took over in 2010, predict and provide was ready to jump straight back in. And so the hedgehog chart era came to an end. The department made its usual confident predictions of imminent rises in traffic and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy once again.

Retrofutures and gadgetbahn vapourware

In a world of possibilities, creating a narrative of one certain future direction can have a powerful effect on policy that is difficult to resist. But creating a narrative of uncertainty can be a powerful force too.

In Traffic In Towns — the 1960s government-commissioned Buchanan Report on the future of road traffic — we were shown the future of road transport. Car and truck traffic would certainly grow immensely, and towns would need to be entirely reshaped around them. Small conservation areas might be preserved, but they would certainly need to be surrounded by dual carriageways, flyovers and car parks.

But amid all the certainty about our car-filled future, Traffic In Towns also reflects the 1960s narrative of great uncertainty about the future of transport technology. The report shows us a Parisian prototype monorail alongside Britain’s experimental “tracked hovercraft” — which “offers the possibility of very high speeds” and was cancelled and demolished just a few years after the report was published. Personal jetpacks and a cumbersome “air-cushion craft”, pneumatic tubes and “continuously operating chair-lifts” are presented as some of the wonderful possibilities in our unknowable future.

A black and white photo from Traffic In Towns showing a man in white overalls sat astride an engine on top on an approx 1.5 metre disc labelled the air-cushion craft, with various men in black coats stood watching in the background.

But Traffic In Towns explains that none of these imaginary modes presents any challenge to the “assured” future of the motor vehicle. Rather, they are reasons to doubt the future of the bus — which “does not appear to be the last word in comfort”.

Traffic In Towns has largely faded from public consciousness, but its companion — the other big 1960s government-commissioned report into the future of transport — lives on. The Reshaping of British Railways — the Beeching Report — told us that demand for rail is in inevitable decline amid uncertainty over whether it would have a role alongside the technologies of the future.

Uncertainty is an excellent impetus for inaction and driver of decline. Entire modes of transport have been dreamed up purely to impede investment in proven technologies.

Witness the discourse over investment in high speed rail in the UK and US over the past 2 decades. It might take 10 years or more to build a high speed rail line. Why would you set out to do that when, for all we know, rail might be obsolete by the time it’s finished? That’s certainly the narrative that the opaquely-funded libertarian think tanks have been trying hard to establish.

Self-driving cars, hyperloops, “autonomous pods” and gadgetbahns — often little more than vapourware, perpetually predicted to be “just five years away” from being possible — are never going to solve our transport problems. But they’re often not intended to. Their purpose is to cast doubt on investment now in proven modes of public transport and active travel.

Windows of possibility

We build narratives about the future, and our narratives, one way or another, build the future. We create scenarios and we assign them probabilities. We have windows of possibility, and we open or close those windows every time we call the future certain or uncertain. For all the jokes about the job title, the choice of who becomes a Head of Uncertainty, and the narratives the appointee shapes, might have enormous impact. Or not.

The government has no plan for decarbonising transport

There is much excitement in the transport sector, as the government has finally announced that they have published the long-awaited Transport Decarbonisation Plan. Social media is full of ministers with fancy videos claiming that they are doing something significant.

So I rushed to the Department for Transport section of and read what they have published. And I’m afraid it will be a massive disappointment.

There is no plan to decarbonise transport.

The government has not published any new actions that it will be taking to decarbonise transport. There is no plan for modal shift, there is no plan for decarbonisation of individual polluting modes and sectors. The government have made no commitments and have no policies.

For all their talk, Grant Shapps and his ministers are doing nothing at all to decarbonise transport in the UK. It’s business as usual on the Department for Transport website.

Control your message

I am, of course, being tediously faux naive for an annoying rhetorical effect.

What the DfT have actually done is follow their established and predictable media strategy of putting out a press release, fancy social media and a statement saying they’ve published something, but conveniently neglected to actually publish it until sometime much later, hoping to saturate media with their selected talking points for long enough that the story is old news before anybody has the actual substance in their hands to read, report, scrutinise and respond to.

This kind of media strategy is insulting at the best of times.

At a time when people are desperate to hear some actual substance about how we’re going to get through the crisis we face, it deserves to be treated with the contempt that it shows us.

So please, when the DfT try to use you like this, if you’re going to run with it, at least tell it like it is. The government is all talk. It has no plan to decarbonise transport.

South Gloucestershire want you to believe that building roads is the solution to climate change

South Gloucestershire are consulting on expanding road capacity, and to justify it they cite their Climate Emergency declaration and tell us that building roads will solve climate change.

As a local issue, I’ve written about it elsewhere. But it covers lots of themes that are really At War With The Motorist material: zombie road schemes, highways departments who have never yet seen a problem for which they won’t suggest building roads is the solution, no matter how absurd, and councils who sell you road building with the empty promise that it will be accompanied with investment in public transport, active travel or liveable neighbourhoods.

Read the post here.

It’s on a new blog I’ve been trying out for local things, tentatively called Bristolize (I don’t really like the name or its associations, I just haven’t thought of a better one yet). The other posts on it so far are perhaps a little bit in the style of Crap Cycling & Walking Waltham Forest, and clearly starting it is inspired by feeling a little bit nostalgic for the 2008-12 era blogosphere and very jaded with the social media that killed it off. I’m not sure I’ll keep it up for long, but I might have fun with it for a little while.

Read and subscribe to Bristolize here.

Shared use and covert cycleways: how cycling on footpaths came to be officially recommended

A misunderstanding in the ’00s led cycling organisations to recommend against separating cycling from walking and aided the proliferation of bad shared use paths. We’ve made some progress towards correcting that mistake, but it lingers in Bristol’s covert cycleways.

For anyone who has been missing getting together for Infrastructure Safaris lately, here’s a reminder that I’ve put some on YouTube. The latest is about shared use and covert cycleways:

I won’t try to replicate the video exactly in written form, partly because the point of an Infrastructure Safari is to (virtually) ride along and see everything in context, but mostly because it largely covers topics that I and others have written about before.

Specifically, the infrastructure safari is about the variety of things that fall under the umbrella of “shared use” cycling and walking infrastructure, and how each of them in their own way create and exacerbate conflicts between walking and cycling by persistently bad design.

The early history of shared use, introduced as a quick and cheap way to convert pavements into “cycle tracks” at a time when it was assumed cycling was on the way out, I wrote about in 2012.

But there is one part of the story that I had thought had been written about, if not by me then by another blogger, but which now after some searching I fear perhaps hasn’t, and so maybe deserves a few words here. That is: the story of how design guidance and even cycling organisations came to endorse and encourage mixing walking and cycling rather than trying to keep the two separate.

For decades after their introduction, the norm for shared use paths was, to use the technical jargon, “segregated shared use”. This unhelpful oxymoron means paths on which cycling and walking are separated into their own space. This encompasses a great variety of designs, including those that have a proper cycleway and a proper footway alongside.

But in practice, the overwhelming majority of such paths were the crap facilities we know so well: 3 metre wide pavements and greenways with a white line painted down the middle creating a comically narrow space for each mode.

The design guidance for shared use paths, 1986’s LTN 2/86 and 2004’s LTN 2/04 specified the presumption should be in favour of separating the modes.

And that led to lots of problems. People inevitably can’t always stick to “their” side, but people also get territorial. Cyclists can’t really pass one another in 1.5 metres of space, so will use the walking side. Where sightlines are poor, this can mean last-minute evasive maneuvers. People walking together like to walk side-by-side, and groups especially spill over. People get distracted or lost in thoughts and don’t pay attention to a white line or subtle signage.

Studies started highlighting these problems with segregated shared use — particularly influential amongst them a study for the DfT by Atkins, which looked at a small sample of shared paths, all of them archetypal narrow crap facilities.

There was an obvious lesson to be learned from these studies: build paths wider than 3.0 metres, and with more robust separation than a white line. All of the conflicts were caused not by the modes being separated from one another, but by the fact that the modes inevitably failed to remain separated from one another in such narrow spaces. 

And yet we managed to take away an entirely different lesson: that it is best not to bother trying to segregate shared use, just mix the modes. Cycling Infrastructure Design, the DfT’s 2008 manual for crap facilities, removed the presumption in favour of separation and introduced the idea that it may be better to mix. Sustrans moved towards mixing in the ’00s and adopted a formal position against separating modes in 2010, based on their experience with routes including the Railway Path. Meanwhile, the Atkins study led to the DfT replacing LTN 2/04 in 2012 with LTN 1/12, which emphasised mixing modes. These moves also influenced the decision of the Royal Parks to remove separation on their much wider (but still only paint-separated) paths in 2017.

To be fair, some of the studies and guidance attempted to be a bit more nuanced: suggesting that widening paths is important where usage is high, and that mixing modes is a solution where physical constraints on width are out of the designer’s control. But nuance has never had a place in practice. Every time a design guide has specified technical minimum standards, alongside pages of nuance about best practice, the result is that infrastructure gets built to the technical minimum standards. And so, for more than a decade, rubbish 3.0 metre wide shared paths have proliferated where once rubbish 3.0 metre segregated paths would have been the choice. 

Things are changing. Last year’s LTN 1/20 swept away all the previous guidance, specifying proper cycle tracks in place of shared use pavements, and returning to a presumption in favour of separation of paths, but this time with proper guidance on their widths. Even Sustrans are very slowly and reluctantly accepting the inevitable and will be widening the Railway Path, even if they haven’t yet quite managed to shake off the dogma about mixing modes being a good thing.

But that leads to the other main point of the Infrastructure Safari: that when we build these proper cycle tracks and paths with separation, they need to be clear and legible to all. Covert cycleways will only perpetuate the conflicts that led to the big misunderstanding about separation vs sharing in the first place. Do watch the video if you’re interested in that story.

Gloucester’s crap cycle facility and the ambition for active travel

Gloucestershire lost out on funding in the latest round of DfT active travel grants. Instead of wasting everyone’s time appealing the decision, they should reflect on why.

So the Department for Transport (DfT) have been delivering on their promise to withdraw funding from any council-led active travel projects that don’t meet minimum design standards. Gloucestershire County Council (GCC) are reportedly appealing against one such decision. But the DfT were absolutely right to turn Glos down, and GCC should instead try to learn why. Let’s have a go at that together — there might be something we can all learn from their experience.

The inadequate facility

The proposal in question is for a cycleway along the route of the B4063 between the edge of Gloucester and the outskirts of Cheltenham (Google Map). It’s the old main road between the towns — many decades ago bypassed with a fast dual carriageway, but, as is the British way, always retained as a through route itself.

The plans (PDF) are a mix of cycle tracks — narrower than the design standards require — and shared use pavements, some of them as narrow as 2.0 metres, others with bus shelters in them. There are a few half-hearted attempts at priority crossings of side-roads and property accesses, perhaps an amateurish attempt to fool the DfT into thinking Glos have taken on board the modern design standards, but which instead stand out for their fundamental failure to understand the geometry of cycleways, as they attempt to bend the kerb-hugging cycle track around the vast splays of the side roads. Of course the DfT’s feedback described this as “inadequate”. The DfT’s claim to be turning down councils who waste funds on crap facilities would have zero credibility if they’d given money to this rubbish.

The way to fix this is screaming out from GCC’s own annotations on their designs. They say things like “existing layby to remain”. They mark multiple turning lanes for stacking motor vehicles at signal-controlled junctions. They retain bus stop laybys — deciding that allocating the limited available space to motorists so they can easily overtake buses is a higher priority than allocating it to designing the cycleway well. In a stretch where they deemed there was sadly not enough space to separate cycling and walking, providing only a 3.0m shared pavement, they mark on the adjacent carriageway 3.32 metre wide central hatching!

As the DfT feedback says: the space is there, the council just need to show the political will to reallocate it from motor capacity — on a road, remember, that has already been bypassed by a high capacity parallel route.

Are there any critical fails?

Extensive use of shared use paths in inappropriate areas, poor and indirect provision at junctions. Could seek to maximise pedestrian and cycling space through carriageway narrowing etc. …

Designs as shown are heavily motor centric and could provide higher quality cycle and pedestrian infrastructure in line with LTN 1/20,(e.g. indirect crossings, no side road priority and so on).  Optional aspirations marked on the drawings provide suitable interventions, however the design approach presented could have shown greater ambition to address carriageway space and motor capacity/dominance.

The DfT are saying: be bold. Forget motor capacity, that’s what the bypass is for. Design a fantastic cycling and walking route, and then see what you can fit in for motoring around that. Can’t fit in a proper 3.5 metre cycleway with separate 2 metre footway and fit in 2 motor traffic lanes? Then don’t fit in 2 motor traffic lanes. Have a single lane pinch point with one direction of traffic giving way. Put in a bus gate to remove through private motor traffic if you have to. There’s no shortage of ways you can make this road great for cycling and walking, you just need to accept that the cycleway is a higher priority than the central hatching on a road — I don’t think I can say this enough times — that is already bypassed by a high capacity parallel route.

Sympathy for the councils

It’s hard not to feel just a little bit of sympathy for GCC. For decades they’ve been told to design rubbish, and suddenly they’re being chastised for it. They’ve got a highways department conditioned to expect cash for any old crap, and suddenly they’ve been told they’ve actually got to work for it. The reality of the situation must be terrifying — no wonder they’re in denial. If the DfT really are going to keep up seriously enforcing the new standards, it’s going to be quite the rude awakening for those councils who have found active and sustainable transport funding an easy target for something they can use to keep their highways departments busy, or covertly channel into motor-centric schemes.

You can also perhaps feel a little sympathy for a council that has designed something that, until the introduction of LTN 1/20 just six months ago, was largely what the government’s own design guidance was telling them to do. The designs GCC submitted are classic LTN 1/08 stuff.

Most of all though, I felt genuine sympathy for GCC when I read in the news coverage that the designs were largely drawn up for them by Highways England — an agency of the Department for Transport.

In 2013, Highways England committed to “cycleproofing” the interfaces between their network of motorways/trunk roads and the local road network, and said some genuinely encouraging things about what they do to overcome the severance caused by their roads and junctions. Alas, the sense I get is that policy effectively died long ago. (It’s a fate that awaits many policies: the people who championed it move on in their careers, those who are left to implement it aren’t enthusiastic enough, empowered enough, or qualified enough to make it live up the original vision or to then push it through to its next phase, and so it withers.) The B4063, it seems, is Highways England’s solution to cycleproofing the A40 — that high capacity route which bypasses the B4063 — and its junction with the M5.

From GCC’s perspective, they’ve submitted the DfT’s designs to the DfT for funding and the DfT have come back and said they’re not good enough.

How much initiative would you like us to use?

In their feedback in the designs, the DfT make it clear that GCC should be bold and use their initiative:

B4063 could potentially be more than a local distributor road as the A40 provides a bypass to this corridor and access toward the city centre via roads with more overall highway width available for corridor improvements; there are clear opportunities for network level interventions to help progress more ambitious schemes on the local road network

They’re saying what I said above: if they need to find more room to do the cycle track properly, GCC should take away central hatching, turn lanes and laybys. They should make traffic wait behind the buses at stops if necessary. They should put in single lane pinch points. If it comes to it, filter out through private motor traffic. If there’s too much traffic, enable modal shift and send any remaining excess elsewhere.

The problem is that GCC are at the same time being told not to do that. Mid way along the route is a large industrial estate, which continues to grow. The B4063 therefore has to be a distributor road — it’s the only available route for HGV traffic to service that industrial estate. The council are obliged to accommodate HGV access.

It’s hardly surprising that GCC’s highways department are rather attached to all the turning and stacking lanes at junctions along this road. They’ve spent five decades incrementally producing these motor capacity “improvements”, one by one, as and when developer contributions from housing and industrial estate expansion allow, as central government guidance has advised them to do. As central government still advises them to do. It must be exasperating to be told to fix these mistakes by the same government department that had told you — is telling you — to make them in the first place.

Ideally, perhaps, the industrial estate wouldn’t be where it is. It would be alongside the A40, or the A417, so HGVs could hop straight onto a main road without having to wind through villages on a road shared with cyclists and local buses. But it’s not, and in the past decade central government have been further eroding what little power local councils and local people have to determine where developments like these happen in their areas.

Perhaps, when the DfT say GCC should be ambitious and seek “network level interventions”, they are inviting GCC to bid to the Active Travel Fund for funding to build a whole new HGV access road direct from the industrial estate to the A40 that will enable through traffic to be removed from the B4063?

So I have some sympathy for councils, even the ones who still haven’t got it on active travel. GCC should go back and revise their B4063 plans, they can do much, much better. But they are given all of the responsibility for delivering on a central government vision and none of the power. They must juggle the demands of multiple, contradictory instructions and policies from different branches of central government — even from other teams within the same department.

On balance, at this stage in the Active Travel Fund it’s a good thing that the DfT are micro-managing the bids to prevent the money being wasted. But if this is ever to scale up to something that really delivers for active travel, central government need to fix their own policies that push councils to keep preserving and reinforcing motor dominance, and then empower the local authorities who are expected to do the work.

Defund road safety awareness campaigns

Everyone on twitter is* dunking on embarrassingly bad road safety awareness campaign tweets. But we should abolish all social media-based road safety awareness campaigns — including the ones which target genuine causes of danger on the roads.

Kent County Council’s Road Safety Campaigns Team are the latest in a long line of road safety twitter campaigns queuing up to get ratioed

Twitter now has a whole army ready to dunk on road safety awareness campaigns that are so incompetently designed they don’t even understand the road safety problem that they’re supposed to be addressing — that people get injured on the roads not because they aren’t visible, but because drivers don’t look properly, don’t pay attention, or don’t give a shit. They show up a lot on my feed when, in reply, they cite my own road safety campaign for greater visibility on the roads.

It’s especially cathartic to dunk on the one that uses photos so old that they obviously lack the dynamic range of human eyesight and look totally unlike how we actually see the world.

But sometimes something unusual happens, and a road safety awareness campaign puts out a tweet that gets some commendation:

The thing is, all road safety awareness campaigns on twitter are bad and should be stopped.

Introductory Communications 1.01

Every governmental, academic, charity or advocacy organisation has at least one director whose understanding of digital communication strategy is “you can just put a tweet out about this thing that I care about.” And they all have a communications team who will then have to try to explain the basics of comms when they say ‘no’ to wasting everyone’s time with a tweet that they know will flop. Or, if that looks like too much effort on this occasion, they will sigh to themselves as they put out a tweet that they know will flop.

Communications strategy 1.01 is: know your audience. Who do you need to reach in order to achieve your organisational goals? Where will you reach them? What do you need them to do? What will motivate them to do what you need them to do? What will they need from you in order to do it?

A road safety awareness campaign needs to reach people who are not aware of how to use roads safely. And it will not reach those people with an organic social media profile. Organic social media is people choosing to follow topics that are of interest to them. It works for engaging people who are already warm to what you have to say. If your goal is preaching to the converted — and using that to motivate them to do something — then organic social media is great. But nobody who needs to change the way that they behave on the road is following a road safety awareness campaign on social media.

Look at who is following those Kent Road Safety and Sussex Safer Roads accounts. It’s just a bunch of other road safety professionals and campaigners, plus a load of active travel campaigners who enjoy dunking on bad road safety tweets. Nobody who actually needs to hear their message will ever even know they exist.

Take the message to the audience

To make road safety awareness a little bit less of a total waste of money, you’d need to use suitable media for actually reaching the target audience.

The quickest way to do that might be to replace organic social with paid social adverts, for example. You can be very targeted with them these days. Pay for these messages to appear to everybody who has shown an interest in high-powered German cars or gaudy wankpanzers. Have them appear to young men who join “car meet” groups on Facebook. Target them at anyone who follows Jeremy Clarkson or has ever posted a message about speed cameras.

Maybe one of these campaigns already is and I just never see the messages because I’m not any of those things.

Understand the problem

Let’s take a step back though. Before jumping into designing an awareness campaign, and certainly before jumping to the conclusion that a social media profile is the solution, an organisation really needs to understand the problem it is actually trying to solve.

Most road safety awareness campaigns follow a very simplistic information deficit model: people are doing the wrong thing because there is a piece of information they lack. All we need to do is give them the missing piece of information and they will behave differently.

Maybe there are a few rare cases where that is partly true — particularly when it comes to driving around cyclists, equestrians, and other people that a motorist who isn’t also those things has difficulty identifying with. Many motorists still fail to understand why a cyclist would be leaving a buffer between parked cars or debris-filled gutters instead of hugging the edge of the street (though of course, even in the cases where it is true, lack of information is not sufficient to explain why a motorist would be motivated to drive psychopathically dangerously in such a situation).

But in most of the scenarios, road safety awareness campaigns are trying to correct a deficit that surely doesn’t exist. Do motorists really not know that they shouldn’t be looking at their mobile phones while driving? Do they really not know that they shouldn’t be breaking the speed limit? That rain and ice and fog merit adjustments to one’s driving? That seat belts are compulsory and you shouldn’t park on a zebra crossing? Or do they know all these things, but also know that enforcement is so overstretched these days that they will probably get away with it?

I mean, having seen what British drivers manage to do on the roads, I can easily believe that many are really as dim witted as the information deficit model of road safety awareness portrays them. But the evidence of these Safer Roads Partnership social media accounts itself surely points to other explanations.

Browse through the content of these profiles and you’ll find them full of reports from police stops and accident aftermaths. There are the cars which have been seized for multiple offences from uninsured drivers with previously revoked licenses — people who are well aware how to drive safely, but know the odds are good they can get away with doing what they like instead. There are the motorists who crash in the rain while doing 90 on the motorway, who weren’t lacking awareness of road safety information, only the self awareness to accurately judge their own ability.

And there are the people who run out of petrol while driving, who it’s tempting to dismiss as genuine idiots who lacked the awareness that drivers are responsible for keeping their vehicles fueled. But they are maybe better understood as a demonstration of the fact that all people are inherently flawed and they do things that are unimaginably stupid because life is complicated and amidst it all sometimes you overlook something obvious. Operating a vehicle in traffic is complex and difficult; mistakes are inevitable when we build a world where people who aren’t very good at such things have no choice but to keep doing it.

What motivates change

When you understand the problems, you can start to think about what might be the relevant motivations of your target audience. And who, of all the people who need to hear road safety messages, is going to be motivated by any of them?

Will the upper middle class straight white man with no self-awareness of his own dismal driving abilities, but all the confidence of his privilege and a sense that he is somehow the victim of political correctness and interfering jobsworths, be motivated by a hectoring slogan from a local council? Will the young person from the car meets, deeply socialised into a sub-culture that fetishises the very behaviours that a road safety campaign is trying to counter, be motivated by a branded twitpic from a Road Safety Partnership? Will the sort of person who drives without a license, without insurance, with frosted windscreens, bald tires and unsecured loads, have an epiphany when a police tweet informs them that actually such things are against the law? Will the average, normal person be motivated in the slightest by an official tweet telling them not to do the things that they see all of their peers doing and getting away with every minute of every day? Will road safety awareness do anything to motivate a change in those people’s behaviour?

I started writing this post to argue that we should defund social media-based road safety campaigns. But you know what? Defund all road safety awareness campaigns. Spend the money on interventions that work.

*I started writing this in November and then got distracted before I could post it, in case you’re confused by the now incongruous use of the present tense…

Beware ministers bearing targets

The Transport Secretary says the government “want half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030.” But targets are useless if you don’t have a plan to make them happen.

In 1996 — 25 years ago this July — a tired Conservative government, wounded from a broad backlash against its road building programme and fearing a rejuvenated Labour party promising progressive transport policies, launched the National Cycling Strategy (NCS). It set a target for mode share: 10% of journeys in the UK would be cycled by 2012.

Perhaps the most appealing thing about this policy was that it didn’t need the government to do anything.

I recall transport journalist Christian Wolmar demanding Sir George Young, the secretary of state for transport, to tell us where the money was.

Sir George told us it didn’t need any money as such, because transport planners would be required to include cycling within the budget already provided for general transport development.

The NCS ran for the best part of a decade, giving us a load of advance stop lines and little bits of “cycle facility” that looked like conceptual art installations. But, adrift from the rest of transport policy and national and local planning, with little in the way of action, money or plan to back it up, it made absolutely no discernable impact on modal share — in fact, Britons were making fewer journeys by bike in 2012 than in 1996.

The NCS is just one of many pledges, “ambitions”, “visions” and targets that have been made by nearly every government, devolved administration and major party over the past quarter of a century, each declaring that they would like to see X% mode share for cycling by Y date. Councils pick up these numbers and write the same empty promises into their Local Transport Plans. And as the date slowly creeps close enough to start feeling real, while zero progress has been made, the target is quietly forgotten — or, if campaigners are persistent enough, history is rewritten so that the target was never a literal target, but a representation of our aspiration.

Like setting climate emissions targets to keep atmospheric warming below a set level, we set a 10 year target, procrastinate for 10 years, discover that the problem is now even worse than it was, and we need to set a correspondingly bigger 10 year target.

Visions are important… and dangerous

And so to Grant Shapps, who some readers will be surprised to learn, while others will be surprised when they remember (though none more so than he is himself) is the Secretary of State for Transport. Reports that he has confirmed the government have a “vision for half of all journeys in towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030″ got top billing in the active travel sphere this week, and a few people even got excited about it.

Much of the response has been that a vision is great, but it’s pointless without the action and money to back it up. And they’re right. Visions are great, they get everyone on the same page, and enable them to design and plan the right policies to deliver it. And they’re right, a vision alone is a waste of everyone’s time if you just wish for it without working for it.

But visions and targets can also be dangerous, when they create the illusion that the situation is under control. Consider this example from 2017, in which Sustrans commissioned a study into air pollution so that they could press release the results and use them to raise awareness. Here’s how it was reported:

Death from air pollution would be cut if UK hits walking and cycling targets

If the UK hits government targets for walking and cycling more than 13,000 lives and almost £10bn would be saved over the next decade, according to a new report.

The UK isn’t hitting government targets for walking and cycling, of course, it is failing again and again to hit targets for walking and cycling. But that’s not what a casual reader hears from this story. To the casual reader it looks like air pollution is a problem, but the government has the problem in hand. They have targets. They must be doing something about it, and this story says that good things will result from the government’s target. Good on the government! If Sustrans’s intention was to increase political pressure on the government to deliver by raising public awareness of the problem, this is surely a flop.

Beware of visions and targets. A vision without a plan for a delivery is just a fantasy. But if you let it, it can delay and diffuse pressure until the clock ticks down and it’s time to reset the target.

You can’t plan the mode share of one mode anyway

The other big failure of targets for cycling and/or walking mode share, even when they are backed up with some kind of plan or policy or funding, is that you can’t plan the mode share of individual modes in isolation. Mode share is by definition a proportion of all journeys, it is dependent on the forces acting on all the available modes, a tangled web of economic, cultural, social and personal pressures. Ministers love to say that they want more cycling and walking, but they’ll start getting nervous when asked to actually engage with what that statement inevitably means. “I don’t want to give the impression that somehow cars are bad,” Shapps was quick to add to his vision for walking and cycling.

Changing mode share means engaging with what trips people are currently making and identifying which ones you think are currently not walked or cycled, but should be. The Tory line on this is that their vision can be achieved simply by encouraging walking and cycling, just by making those options more attractive — that there is no need to look at the broader transport system. But they don’t want to look into that assumption in case it turns out not to be true.

If you started looking at what is actually generating trips, motivating modal choice, and considering transport policy as a whole, you might discover that the government’s own policies are pushing against cycling. They might discover that their cut-back, laissez-faire planning system is further exacerbating the decline of town centres in favour of ring-road business park sprawl. They might discover that their infrastructure funding for pump-priming new house building is creating more car-dependent neighbourhoods. They might discover that they are spending £27 billion to encourage more driving. They might discover that they are permanently severing cycleable journeys with other new build transport infrastructure for the sake of saving a few thousand pounds on a multi-billion megaproject.

That’s not to say that the carrot is in any way not the right thing to do. The carrot is essential, we need it desperately and we need lots of it. But there are only so many journeys that it will enable to be walked or cycled. You can not say it’s a vision for increasing mode share when at the same time all your other policies and actions are also going to increase the number of journeys that will inevitably be driven, erecting new barriers to active travel and encouraging trip generators to move beyond reach of walking and cycling. Transport policy can not consist of a series of siloed visions for individual modes and some Treasury-friendly discrete projects.

Support the people at the coal face

The NCS failed because it was expected that a national policy would be delivered by local authorities, but those authorities weren’t given the support that such a task needed.

Half of them simply weren’t on board with the policy, and there was little oversight to ensure that they seriously engaged with it. At best, they made token gestures, and at worst, they misappropriated what little funding there was into old-fashioned motor capacity schemes with a veneer of cyclewash. There are signs that the current government might have learned this much from experience, and is expecting councils to meet standards, under threat of losing funding.

But even those councils who claimed to be on board with the aims of the NCS completely failed to deliver. They were naive about just how big the task was, and how radically things needed to change. They lacked technical expertise, design guidance and best practice examples. There wasn’t nearly enough money available to make any kind of meaningful impact. And every system, rule and process they had to operate under, from consultations to funding analysis, was stacked against delivering the government’s professed policy. Some of those have been fixed. Many of them haven’t.

We now have several councils and metro mayors who genuinely and dearly want to deliver on a vision of more of the journeys in their towns and cities being made by walking and cycling. But if they’re going to succeed in delivering on a central government vision, they’ll need central government to smooth the path for them. Councils are the ones getting the flak from opponents, the motoring lobby, and knee-jerk reactions. Councils are the ones getting their time and money wasted with legal reviews over technicalities. 

Not only does this vision need the plan, the legal framework, and technical guidance and the money to back it up, it needs central government to stand up for it, and to stand up for the councils delivering it — including by tackling those misunderstandings, misconceptions, and outright lies propagated by their own party’s councillors and activists.

How many journeys are even cycled and walked in towns and cities now?

So I went off on this rant, and then it occurred to me: I don’t know exactly what the current modal share for walking and cycling in towns and cities is these days, so I don’t actually know how ambitious a target of half of all journeys even is. But I knew the National Travel Survey would have the answer, so fired up the spreadsheets

It’s 30%.

(Caveats: NTS is a survey of a sample, the data is far from perfect, especially once you start slicing it up, but it’s the best we’ve got, and good enough for a rough idea.)

So we’re talking about shifting 1 in every 5 trips — or 1 in 4 of the trips that are currently not made by walking and cycling. Another way of looking at these big numbers is what that would mean for a typical individual, assuming this modal shift falls equally across the population.

In the NTS’s sample of residents of “urban conurbations”, the average for each person was 254 walking trips and 14 cycling trips per year. They also made 486 trips per person as a driver or passenger of private motorised modes; and 141 on public transport.

So, assuming we’re not expecting each person to make 359 entirely new trips a year that will be walked or cycled, and we’re not simply eliminating 359 trips altogether from those that are currently not walked or cycles, we’re talking about the typical person switching 179 trips per year from other modes.

If those trips all come from cars, that’s more than 1 in 3 car trips. (If they all come from public transport, we’ve completely wiped out public transport.) If they all go walking, we’d be increasing walking by 70%. If they all go cycling, we’d have nearly 14 times as much cycling as we do now.

None of this has told us anything new, and yet thinking about the big numbers in this way helps to bring home the fact that a vision of 50% of urban journeys being made by walking and cycling within just 9 years, when currently only 30% are, needs to be backed up with a pretty damn radical plan to implement it, some serious changes to other government policies which currently work against it, and some pretty serious money. It needs diggers in the ground fast, and capacity building to ramp up construction. It needs politicians who are capable of being clear with councils, Highways England, house builders, and other delivery partners about the scale of what is required of them, and capable of being honest with the public about the need for a third of their car trips to change, of selling the benefits to them and bringing them along during the inevitable disruptive transition that will come with making this change in just 9 years.

I swear, if after this they announce that the vision will be achieved with bikeability training, workplace travel plans, and another tiny pot of funding that councils can fight for…

The amnesia cycle

Transport is one of the unglamorous government portfolios that rarely gets ministers with any genuine interest or expertise, and over the past decade austerity has left the department barely capable of functioning at all, so it’s best not to expect too much. But we’ll no doubt be back here again soon enough. Ministers come and go fast, but the problems stay the same, so each one will discover anew that walking and cycling is the solution, each one will set a 10 year target, each one will discover the same cheap and politically easy policies, and each one will find out for themselves that actually modal shift is more difficult than that.

Unless we find some way to break the amnesia cycle and say that a vision is not enough.

Stop calling them “car bans”

Some cities and boroughs are starting to make modest changes to residential streets to enable socially distanced travel, but they face a battle because of the language they use.

Faced with the dilemma of how to ease lockdown without overcrowding public transport and resuming spread of the disease, or else seeing their cities grind to a halt as everyone clogs them up with single occupant cars, (some) councils are realising that they need to take urgent action to enable walking and cycling.

Most are realising that the best action you can take in an emergency, when things need to be done quickly, cheaply and effectively, is filtering through motor traffic out of residential streets that are used by motorists as ratrun shortcuts. Modal filters can be as quick and cheap as dumping down a concrete block, forklifting in a flower planter, or concreting in a bollard.

What’s stopping them being used more widely, or installed more quickly, is people kicking up a fuss about them, and telling councils that they don’t want them. Often even it’s the people who have the most to gain from these actions who are objecting. Not just the residents who will benefit from walking and cycling being enabled for them and their neighbours. The local business owners who stand to benefit from a population who enjoy walking and cycling to local businesses rather than feeling they have little choice but to get in their cars, at which point they may as well take the easy route to the big barn store with the big car park on the ring road. The professional drivers who will otherwise face being stuck with everyone else in the gridlock that will cripple us if people have no alternative but to drive everywhere.

Those people should be allies in clamouring for quick action. Instead, they fight it. Because they’ve misunderstood what it is and how it will impact them. And you can’t blame them for doing so. The media might be slightly to blame for misrepresenting filtering, but they’re really just reflecting councils and campaigners who make the same mistakes when promoting the intervention.

Don’t close the roads

The most obvious mistake is talking about “car bans” and “closing roads”. It’s entirely understandable that people run away with the idea that they won’t be able to drive a journey that they can only imagine themselves driving if you’re talking about a car ban. It’s understandable that people will assume that they won’t be able to access their own house — even if they are disabled, or have a van for work — when you tell them you want to close their road.

Bristol, to take just one of many examples, is working on pedestrianisation of a few more narrow shopping and cafe streets in the old city centre. Those streets were already very low traffic thanks to a clever system of opposing one way sections; 99.9% of residents of the city will never have driven on any of them anyway; and those who do have legitimate business doing so will still be able to get access. But somebody got overexcited and oversold what is happening as a “car ban”. Opponents were able to turn it into a scare story for suburbanites and a battle in some sort of culture war. But lots of people with no such malicious intent heard the words “city centre car ban” and had perfectly understandable questions about hospital access, people with mobility needs, and goods and trades. Questions with easy answers, but questions that wouldn’t have needed answering if the proposal had been described more accurately. The project’s going ahead, but a bunch of effort and political capital was wasted on what is really a very small and timid change, because it was sold as something radical.

Don’t try to convince people they can cycle

A subtly different manifestation of the same phenomenon can be found all over social media. Twitter these days has sadly transformed from being a network for discussing with friends and colleagues to being a place where strangers who don’t understand one another, because they have entirely different frames of reference, shout at eachother.

So a random on the internet hears about a “car ban” or a “road closure” and raises an objection.

“What about the disabled? What about the elderly?”

And they get bombarded with strangers telling them about the amazing people who cycled into their 90s, and the normal folk who happen to use bikes and trikes everyday as mobility aids because they have difficulty walking. Tweets pile in full of pictures of old people cycling on strange foreign Dutch cycle paths.

“What if I have to carry boxes of heavy tools and equipment to do my trade? What if I need to buy a washing machine? How will I do the weekly shop?”

And they get bombarded with strangers talking about cargo bikes and sharing pictures of fully loaded PedalMe trailers and washing machines on giant Dutch trikes. Tweets pile in full of people stuffing their panniers with the weekly shop, and talking about how cycling has reunited them with their local butcher and baker and they now make smaller shopping trips 3 times a week.

“What about the hills? What about the rain? How will I visit my distant relatives?”

All the questions and objections will be met by hundreds of strangers tweeting: actually, it’s fine, you can cycle, try it, you’ll surprise yourself. And they’re usually correct, but they are never going to convince anyone that cycling will be for them in a tweet.

When see these questions, because I’m a sarcastic twat who has the urge to wind up people I don’t like online as much as the next sarcastic twat, I want to reply:

Well what if I’m not elderly?

Well what if I don’t need to carry a fridge?

Well what if my journey isn’t to visit distant relatives?

(In the end, I don’t, because I know that to somebody with such an alien frame of reference, it would be interpreted as callous disregard for their needs, rather than as a commentary on their own disregard for the needs of others.)

Because the point we need to get across is that modal filters do not make any journey impossible. A modal filter doesn’t prevent driving for the elderly, the disabled, trades, goods, anyone else who has a legitimate need to drive, or for that matter, anyone who just has a preference for driving. “What about X?” What about it? Just continue doing what you do now, if you like. Chances are, your journey will be identical to how it is now, or at most, you’ll need to take a short detour that adds a minute to your journey.

What the filter does do is give people who aren’t elderly, don’t need to carry a fridge, and aren’t making a 250km journey, the option to not make their journey by car. They create choice for a lot of people, without taking any choice away from anybody.

So much of this discourse is people screaming about their choice being taken away from them, when the exact opposite is true. No option is being taken away from people. Nobody is being banned from driving by a bollard in a back street. But some people are being given an opportunity to make journeys by means other than a car, where previously that option just wasn’t realistic.

And yes, often the people doing the screaming are awful, entitled people who are inventing excuses, protecting their privilege, and pretending to care about the disabled and elderly people whose needs they don’t actually understand because they’ve never asked.

But just as often it’s people who have genuine questions, because they’ve heard that the council’s going to close their road, and that sounds an awful lot like they’re going to be banned from using their car. Piling in on them on twitter to tell them that, actually you can cycle with a disability, you can cycle with a fridge, you can cycle long distances, is only going to entrench their misunderstanding and their opposition.

Tell them it’s OK: they can still drive all their journeys. Nobody’s banning cars. Nobody’s closing the road. They’ll work out the cycling by themselves later.

Slapdash signals

I tweeted a little clip of something from a commute of a few months ago. It was the police making a couple of annoying, potentially very dangerous, and entirely understandable mistakes.

First, the police driver has blocked an advance stop box. I imagine probably the lights were green when they entered it, but a traffic jam ahead of them prevented them continuing on their way before the lights turned red.

It’s a common problem. Blocking ASLs is the least of it. Blocking pedestrian crossings and entire junctions happens all the time too, because motorists know they can try their luck and just keep bumper hugging in slow-moving traffic without worrying about whether they’ll be able to see when the lights turn green again. Aggressive motorists can nudge forward through red lights and pedestrian crossings, ready to floor it when they see their light turn green.

My thesis is that this behaviour is not merely accommodated by repeater traffic lights on the far side of junctions, but over time it has been slowly, creepingly encouraged by it. Those who have driven or cycled outside the UK will have noticed that having multiple signal heads to display the same signal strewn about a junction are quite a British peculiarity. They’re not unheard of elsewhere, but it’s far more normal to have just the one signal — in most countries, always situated at the stop line (but in some, always situated directly opposite on the far side of the junction).

And they exist purely to accommodate drivers who have overshot their stop line. I guess at some time, somebody identified that there was a niche problem: occasionally a driver accidentally stopped over the line, or had to make an emergency stop for some reason, and then couldn’t see when lights changed. And they invented far-side repeaters as a solution, and in doing so have created a far more ubiquitous and pernicious problem.

But this isn’t the only danger created by far side repeater signals. The second, equally excellently demonstrated by the police in the original video, is that they turn junctions with the slightest complexities into a dangerously confusing mess. The police driver clearly sits in the advanced stop box watching a signal on the far side of the junction, and shoots off when they see it turn green. Only to realise that they’ve been watching one of the many independent signal heads that is associated with an entirely different stop line in the junction complex. Luckily on this occasion there wasn’t anybody in the pedestrian crossing, and they correct their mistake before hitting the traffic that actually has the green light.

Far side repeaters have also created ample opportunity for the opposite kind of confusion: people who are making a turn will ignore any red light in the street they’re turning into, because they’ve been trained to assume that such lights must be far side repeaters aimed at traffic waiting in the perpendicular arm of the junction. So we get people who are making turns shooting through pedestrian crossings because they’ve been trained that when you’re moving through a junction, it’s normal to see red lights that don’t apply to your flow and which you can safely ignore.

This is just one specific, but excellently illustrative example of two more fundamental flaws in how we design and manage our streets:

  1. The motoring industry has successfully defined “road safety” as being accommodating the bad behaviour of motorists and making sure that the dangerous situations they create don’t end up with them killing themselves, rather than about preventing them creating those dangerous situations.
  2. We have lots of lengthy and precise regulations and design guidance which get prescriptive about lots of detail that isn’t really very important (giving councils plenty of opportunity to say improvements are impossible because the technical guides say no) while remaining silent on lots of big stuff that has a massive effect on the usability of our streets, allowing councils to create all kinds of confusing slapdash rubbish.

This latter point is perhaps more perfectly illustrated by this deadly pedestrian crossing in Sheffield, which last I checked had not been fixed because it follows the strict and detailed regulations and design guidance perfectly, while being utterly and fatally incomprehensible to everyone who has to use it.

Anyway. That’s my pitch. The campaign to ban far side repeater lights is open.



In which we Make The Lane

This is just a notification for those of you who aren’t already following on the twitter (@steinsky). Because all the cool kids are apparently vlogging instead of blogging these days:

Like I say, I might do some more of these, focusing on showing some of the positive things that people are doing, and what good looks like. But only if it looks like there’s an appetite for it and people actually watch these things. So I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, and subscribe to the channel if you do want to see more.

Why are we still waiting? Regent’s Park needs action NOW

Westminster Council have been playing games with the mayor, putting improvements for walking, cycling, public transport and one of our greatest parks in jeopardy. It’s time for Sadiq Khan to get a grip and deliver, before it’s too late.

In December 2016, Sadiq Khan announced construction of CS11, from Swiss Cottage to the West End, would start in 2017. Since then, nothing has happened — and now the whole project is in danger.

CS11, for those unfamiliar, should provide some desperately needed improvements to north London neighbourhoods in Swiss Cottage and Primrose Hill, and even more so to Regent’s Park. Nominally a “Cycle Superhighway” scheme, most of the improvements it makes are somewhat mediocre for cycling — like “semi-segregated” cycle lanes on Avenue Road, and cycle tracks on Portland Place that would probably prove too narrow and soon need upgrading.

Really, CS11 is a set of important improvements to the general environment of the places and neighbourhoods along the route, and that’s where its value lies.

In Swiss Cottage it will remove the vast gyratory of speeding traffic that severs neighbourhoods and suppresses the potential of this local hub. It will transform the public transport interchange here, and provide bus priority to cut journey times on most of the bus routes.

In Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood it will halt the otherwise relentlessly rising tide of ratrunning traffic that is taking over residential streets.

And most importantly of all, in Regent’s Park it closes the gates on the habitually speeding motorists that race through this place of recreation, destroying the peace and polluting the haven of our parkland.

This is a scheme which has huge benefits for residents, park users, public transport passengers and cyclists — for everyone except the drivers who think they should be able to take a short-cut through parks and residential streets. Which is why so many people supported it in the first place, during the consultation stage.

Time is running out and Sadiq Khan needs to get a grip

I have no party allegiances. I’m not anti-Sadiq. He got my (second preference) vote. I like a lot of what he says. And he’s not even the villain here.

The Conservatives of Westminster City Council are the villains. They’ve been playing games with CS11 — and playing games with the Mayor. They’re causing trouble, muddying water, in order to introduce delays until time runs out on the project.

Westminster have introduced an alternative proposal for Regents Park, watering down the changes to the point where they become entirely useless. They suggest closing a token couple of gates for token couple of hours a day, leaving it no less full of speeding traffic and pollution.*

Their proposal is a wrecking amendment: it is obviously useless, and therefore obviously unacceptable to all the other stakeholder organisations at the table. But it will tie everybody up arguing about details it until it’s too late.

Because it seems the rest of the route is now on hold until the park question is resolved. And I’m told that if work doesn’t start on the northern sections of the route soon, it will be too late to complete it before other major construction works are scheduled to begin nearby. Fixing the ever-growing problems blighting the people of Swiss Cottage and Primrose Hill will be off the cards for years.

A walkover in the park

But on this important issue, it’s Sadiq Khan who is not delivering on his pledges and not showing the leadership of the mayor of a great city.

Closing the gates and restoring Regent’s Park should be such an easy, quick win. It’s popular. It’s cheap. It needs no lengthy or disruptive construction or preparation. It has already been consulted on and received wide support. The gates are shut from midnight to 7am every night anyway — it is literally more effort to open them every day than to keep them shut. If a leader can’t deliver this, what can they deliver?

A clean park, a fresh air haven in the centre of the city, could have been a fantastic, highly visible signal from an incoming Mayor that he’s taking air pollution seriously and leading with practical action.

Instead we’re nearly half way through this Mayoral term with nothing to show for it.

Sadiq Khan criticised his predecessor for his cavalier style, for pushing schemes forward without doing enough to address all the concerns raised by everybody affected. The professed approach of Khan, and his deputy for transport Val Shawcross, is to “take more time” and work through problems to make sure everybody’s happy.

Westminster’s Tory councillors have seen this and they have walked right over him.

Westminster are taking the piss, and eventually a leader has to stand up to that and not allow themselves to be played so easily.

A beast is stirring

Half way through Boris Johnson’s first term, people started getting tired of his bluster. Johnson made grandiose promises about the scale of his cycling programme which were visibly lacking in substance on the ground. He thought the constituency of people who cared strongly about this stuff was small.

Then some things started happening.

It began on Blackfriars Bridge. It was the tiniest of things really. A plan to revert a 20mph speed restriction, and replace a mandatory cycle lane with an advisory one, upon completion of the new Blackfriars Station.

A mediocre speed limit change and a rubbish bit of paint. Hardly quality infrastructure worth fighting for. But symbolic of a mayor who was so ineffective that he was letting things slide backwards — even the things that should have been so ludicrously easy to achieve.

It turned out there were a lot of people who cared. Thousands turned up to flashrides and rallies, and began making their voices heard.

It ended five years later, with that junction at Blackfriars transformed beyond recognition.

The people who got angry, and got organised, at Boris Johnson were placated when he finally delivered, and when Sadiq Khan was elected with a pledge to continue — and accelerate — the progress.

But once again, we’re half way through a mayoral term. Once again there has been a lot of talk and not much to show for it.

I feel the beast is getting restless.

*To really take the piss, and really slow things down, they even propose an entirely new change — to make Hanover Gate entry only — which nobody yet seems to have noticed is another one of those turning restrictions which actually facilitate increased motor traffic throughput. Dressed up and paid for as a cycling project of course.

Why doesn’t [population x] cycle?

I wrote this thing a year and half ago but never quite got around to shaping it into anything I was quite happy with. Well, since the BBC have come around with yet another “what is stopping women cycling?” story, I figured I’ll never finish it and may as well get rid of it…

Another tweet scrolled past me this evening asking why a segment of the UK population doesn’t cycle.

It’s certainly an admirable exercise, trying to address inequalities in access. And there are certainly inequalities to address. But there is little to learn about what the inequalities are, or what the solutions to them might be, by comparing current cycling rates between different populations, or by asking the question “why don’t x cycle?”.

Because it’s not just x who don’t cycle. Black and minority ethnic populations don’t cycle, but neither do white populations. Women don’t cycle, but neither do men. And the number one reason all of these populations don’t cycle is the same.

That’s not in any way to say there aren’t inequalities of access, or to dismiss the additional barriers that women and minorities face, or to belittle the diverse ways that different people and populations can experience the same barriers. Only that when it comes to “why don’t people cycle”, the biggest concerns by far are the same for everyone.

Here is an entirely hypothetical society that we can imagine, with some entirely made up data for different populations in that society:

Compared to population X, 4 times as many population Y cycle. And 3 times as many again population Z cycle. When you only look at the few who currently cycle, these populations look vastly different in their propensity to cycle. But look at the many who aren’t cycling and you see they’re not very different at all. Almost nobody in any of those populations cycles. Clearly they live in an environment which is very hostile to cycling.

Some of the people would never ever cycle, no matter what the environment for it were like. But for the vast majority of people in all demographics, there are circumstances in which they would happily cycle, were the environment different. There are barriers stopping them, but they are only barriers in the context of the prevailing environment.

Indeed, in our hypothetical society, while Xs are currently substantially less likely to cycle than Zs, if you radically change the environment to shift the cut-off point to the left, the proportion of Xs to Zs converges until Xs slightly outnumber Zs.

Perhaps in our hypothetical society, Xs on average actually make more of the types of short journeys to which cycling is inherently the most suitable form of transport — but compared to Zs are typically burdened by this society with other duties, expectations or threats to their safety which make cycling extra unattractive in the prevailing conditions.

Understanding the burdens Xs face may be a worthwhile exercise in itself. But they’re not the answer the question “why don’t x cycle?” — and addressing them alone won’t change the fact that, just like everyone else, they overwhelmingly don’t.

New road safety campaign calls for greater visibility on the roads

As the nights draw in and the clocks go back, it’s time once again for the perennial road safety campaigns to call for cyclists and pedestrians to take their share of responsibility by making sure that they’re visible.

But today I’m delighted to announce another important new road safety campaign.

Because every day when I look around on our streets it is clear to me that it’s not just cyclists and pedestrians who are failing to do their bit by making themselves visible. There is another group of road users who are all too often failing to do their bit.

That’s right, I’m talking about fluorescent yellow illuminated retroflective plastic ‘keep left’ bollards.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

All of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

Both of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.


This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

One of these fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

These fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollards should have made themselves more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard still should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

This fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective bollard should have made itself more visible.

It’s time fluorescent yellow illuminated retroreflective plastic ‘keep left’ bollards took their share of responsibility on the roads and made themselves more visible.

Lambeth Bridge shows us that TfL still needs a fundamental shift in design philosophy

Catching up with the latest TfL consultations, I was a combination of delighted and exasperated to see the proposals for Lambeth Bridge.

Delighted, because they reveal the political will to provide for cycling and walking, even if it means sacrificing a tiny bit of motoring capacity at these junctions.

Exasperated because even when the will is there, the technical capacity clearly isn’t. Just look at it.

Click to download fullsize diagram from TfL (PDF)

Look at that splurge of tarmac.

TfL had a blank canvass here. They’re completely rebuilding the junction, which is currently a roundabout. The kerblines are going, the trees are moving, the drainage will have to be redone. It’s not like any compromise is being made to work within the constraints of what’s there now.

It reveals a lot about how TfL’s designers are approaching these problems. They had a blank canvass and they filled it with tarmac. Then they asked where they needed to fit some kerbs into it. Walking and cycling is still being designed to fit around the edges of motoring, which remains the natural rightful state of our streets.

And look at the absurd mess that has led to.

Look at the entry to Lambeth Bridge. They’ve painted an arrow on it to tell motorists to get out of the cycleway. How on earth did that happen? According to the diagram, there is only ever one lane of traffic able to head onto the bridge at any time. How did they get themselves into a situation where people might be driving in the cycle lane and need to be told to get out of it?

Look at the entry into Albert Embankment. What is that lane merge arrow painted on that grossly distended carriageway space for? Again, there is only one lane of traffic entering this street at a time.

These kinds of tarmac oceans, with arbitrary shifting kerblines and unclear routes through them, are why British junctions are confusing, stressful and dangerous — whatever mode of transport you’re using. There is a large area of tarmac here that in theory should never ever be used, even by the largest and longest vehicles, because there are no legal manoeuvres that would use the space, or at least, that wouldn’t normally and more safely and sensibly be performed using some other space. But what that tarmac does do is provide opportunities for people to make mistakes, to perform illegal manoeuvres, or to behave dangerously. The gaping wide entries into Lambeth Bridge and Albert Embankment do nothing for a law-abiding motorist except create confusion about where they’re supposed to be, but they do invite idiots to use the turn lanes and cycle spaces to jump queues or to make illegal turns.

What might this junction look like if designed with a less motor-centric philosophy?

Instead of washing an undercoat of carriageway all across the blank canvass, you’d start from the opposite default. The canvass is blank and the only carriageway you add to it is the carriageway that’s needed to accommodate the manoeuvres that are possible here. Who are the users who need to move through the junction, and where do they need to move from and to? Draw the paths that they will need to take through the junction.

Draw the paths that motorists would take through this space if following the turn restrictions and if following the most rational routes. Work out how you’d cycle around it, and how you’d walk around it. The result looks a lot like Dutch crossroads do.

Click to embiggen. (This is just a 5 minute scribble, exaggerated in places, to illustrate the concept. Please don’t tell me the turning circles are too tight for HGVs or the cycleways too narrow or there are white lines in the wrong place, I’m not trying to propose this as a working plan for the contractors.)

This kind of design enables all of the same turns that TfL’s design legally allows, and has exactly the same number of motor traffic lanes feeding into and out of each arm of the junction. Capacity for legal manoeuvres should be the same (but the illegal turns, lane misuse and simple mistakes encouraged by TfL’s original design become much more difficult). I’m not saying necessarily that this is what I’d want the junction to look like, because I wouldn’t necessarily accept the same demands of motor capacity as TfL, but if you do accept the demands TfL are working to, this is roughly how the junction would work if cycling were properly designed for.

The one impact I haven’t addressed with my crayons is that they would have to address turn conflicts across the cycleways — something that wouldn’t be an issue if we had normal priority rules. But there are multiple options available to solve that problem TfL could call upon — indeed, they already solve it in their own design, for traffic/cyclists exiting Albert Embankment, with a separate turn signal.

Rail electrification and HS2? You need some better hot takes

Readers with no interest in the nerdy details of UK railways can look away now. This post is one very long, tedious “actually I think you’ll find” reply that I didn’t have time to make fit into a tweet.

So the railway electrification programme has been cut back, with the entire Midland Main Line electrification scrapped, plus relatively small chunks of the Great Western (at Swansea) and Northern (at Windermere) projects.

And predictably enough, the worst takes roll in trying to blame this on HS2, from people who will believe absolutely anything you say against the high speed project. These are terrible takes. And they’re a problem, because these are the kind of terrible, childishly simplistic takes on complex policy issues that stop you doing anything useful about them.

I can’t claim to be an expert on the situation with electrification — take everything I scribble here with plenty of salt, and factcheck it before you go citing any of it — but I know it’s a bit more complicated than almost any of the takes on twitter.  So, since you asked, here are some alternative takes for you, which I hope might help to shed the tiniest bit of light on just the surface of that deep complexity.

Electrification hasn’t been cut

The first thing you need to understand is what has actually happened, and what Grayling’s announcement is tiptoeing around. The budget for electrification hasn’t been cut to pay for HS2 because the budget for electrification hasn’t been cut. It has been massively overspent.

Railway investment is planned in 5 year chunks (the announcements are happening now because now is the deadline for DfT to send their draft investment plan for the next 5 year period to the relevant organisations for comment).

In the current 5 year period, 2014-19, Network Rail were asked to electrify a lot of things:

  • Great Western (GWML) from Paddington to Oxford, Bristol and Swansea, including Thames Valley commuter lines;
  • Midland (MML) to Nottingham, Sheffield and Corby
  • The main TransPennine line between Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and York, plus associated Northern lines around Liverpool and Manchester
  • A couple of comparatively short commuter lines elsewhere — London Overground’s GOBLIN and Birmingham’s Chase Line
  • (Plus a lot of Scotland’s Central Belt. That’s separate, devolved to Scotland, but it’s relevant later.)

Network Rail gave an estimate for these jobs, the government liked it and made the funds available.

So Network Rail got to work on the GWML and immediately began massively overspending and falling behind schedule. So the budget hasn’t been cut. It’s just that Network Rail has spent all of the money before it has delivered even half of what it was supposed to deliver.

This wasn’t even really about electrification

The next thing you need to understand is that electrification is just one part of a much bigger, more complicated modernisation plan which is primarily driven by the need for new trains. It’s no coincidence which lines were chosen for electrification: they’re the ones that need the most new trains, or which maximise the opportunity to bring in new trains so the current ones can be sent elsewhere.

The country already has a chronic undersupply of diesel trains, because we haven’t bought any new ones in years despite passenger demand growing. But the situation is about to become dire, because deadlines are looming for the mass withdrawal of a substantial fraction of the fleet.

On the GWML, and a few other parts of the network, the Intercity 125s are reaching 40 years, a heroic service for an intensively used intercity train. They’re brilliant but they can’t keep going forever. Meanwhile, in 2020, new accessibility regulations come into force. Lots of trains won’t be compliant with the new law, so they either need expensive modifications, or withdrawal. Since nobody is going to waste money modifying the hated 1980s Pacers, those are off for their long-overdue trip to the scrapyard.

So, 10 years ago, people started realising we were going to have a rolling stock problem and something needed to be done about it. They could have just bought a load of new diesel trains. But somebody looked at the problem strategically, and the case was made for killing many birds with one stone. Electrify some lines and then you can solve the rolling stock problem with cheaper to buy, cheaper to operate, faster, cleaner and greener trains.

This was an excellent plan.

The plan all depended on the electrification happening in time for the 2020 deadline, so that a complex cascade and shuffle around of fleets could happen. New electric commuter trains in the Thames valley, for example, will displace Paddington’s diesel commuter trains to Bristol, so Bristol’s can in turn replace the condemned Pacers elsewhere.

Now those timelines are all fucked, so a load of new diesel trains have had to be ordered anyway.

Dropping the Midland Mainline is a good thing

When you see that this is a rolling stock project, dropping the MML — and Swansea and Windermere — at this point makes perfect sense. The MML has a relatively small fleet of intercity trains — most of them relatively new — and no diesel commuter trains to displace for use elsewhere. Rushing to try to electrify it will do relatively little to solve a rolling stock problem. Effort needs to be focused on finishing the Thames Valley and Northern areas, where there are the greatest number of diesel trains to release and cascade per mile of electrification, before 2020.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t electrify MML, only that it doesn’t make sense to do it right now, when there are obvious higher priorities.

Slowing down electrification is a good thing

This mess all happened because we bit off more than we could chew — or rather, Network Rail was asked to do, and agreed to do, more than it could possibly do at once. The last time Britain did any substantial amount of electrification was a quarter of a century ago, and suddenly we decided to try to do 6 or 7 projects simultaneously.

That led Network Rail to make a lot of mistakes, spread themselves too thinly, and made it a seller’s market for their suppliers and contractors.

One of the big problems that has been encountered is that electrification is interdependent on other projects, like re-signalling in the Bristol area and rebuilding Oxford station, which have encountered their own problems. Slowing down could enable projects with dependencies to be delivered in a more rational and coordinated way. That would be particularly important on TransPennine, where there are still projects in development to improve line speed and capacity.

The significance of Grayling’s announcement is that he didn’t cancel the rest of GWML, TransPennine and Northern or GOBLIN. That implies that finishing these projects will be what Network Rail gets asked to do in the next 5 year period — 2019-24 — if they don’t get finished in the current one.

That doesn’t mean that Swansea and MML will never happen, but they won’t happen before 2024.

We’ve recognised that everything can’t happen all at once in 5 years, and asking for it all to happen at once in 5 years is a recipe for disaster. Dropping some projects should make the others more secure.

But you’ll still need to fight for them

That said, it’s still a very bad sign that the projects have been explicitly cancelled. There’s nothing to force Grayling to say cancelled. He could have said: there’s only so much we can do at once, so MML, Swansea and Windermere are shelved for this period and we can look at them again the next time we do this funding specification exercise in 5 years time. Instead he chose to call them cancelled.

That’s because Grayling, and perhaps equally importantly the chancellor, don’t get railways.

Take a look at their policies and track records and it won’t take you long to find Hammond’s notorious question about why trains don’t give way to cars at level crossings, or Grayling’s clueless playing politics with London’s suburban rail.

Blaming HS2 would let them off the hook, and they both probably want an excuse to cancel that project too.

But the real problem, and potential solutions to all this, is with the system

We concentrate power centrally in a few hands, and then change the leadership frequently through reshuffles and changes of government. The recent fashion for electrification rose and survived due to support from Transport Secretaries and Chancellors like Andrew Adonis, George Osborne and Patrick McLoughlin (who’s constituency just happened to be on a branch of the MML).

It’s a real bugger that in the game of musical chairs, Grayling and Hammond happened to be in the seats when the music stopped for this crucial phase in the funding cycle. We can at least take comfort that neither will be in the same seats in 5 years time when this exercise next happens.

But we will still be planning investments in a stupid and wasteful way.

With the last major electrification projects having been quarter of a century ago, to make the current projects happen we’ve had to rebuild our expertise, retrain our workforce, and rebuild our supply chains. That’s yet another of the reasons why so much has gone wrong and gone overbudget. We had huge start-up costs. We didn’t have the expertise or information to make accurate estimates. Rookie mistakes were made. And the politicians set Network Rail up for failure by ordering them to do 20 years worth of work in 5 years, because that’s the maximum horizon politicians work to.

Now we’ve flipped political leadership and policy, and we risk losing the expertise and supply chain that has just been built up from scratch, so next time electrification comes back into fashion, as it surely will, we’ll do it all over again.

Slowing down electrification, could be a great opportunity to do it better, more rationally. While the 2020 big bang deadline for rolling stock retirement has now been solved by ordering new diesels and bimodes, there will be a continuous trickle of other diesel train fleets reaching the ends of their operational lives over the subsequent years — alongside continued growth in passenger demand, if current trends continue. It would make perfect sense to continue, at a slower but more consistent pace, a rolling programme of electrification to pave way for electric trains to replace fleets as they reach retirement age.

With the security of a rational, long-term plan, we could retain a committed workforce which builds up the experience and expertise to do an efficient and competent job, and to innovate in delivery. We could support a supply chain that invests in a long-term steady return, instead of handing out a brief bonanza and leaving them bust. And we could plan delivery alongside dependent projects.

(Scotland looks to be slightly closer than England and Wales to having such a plan, with an ambition to electrify their remaining commuter and intercity lines in a 2 decade rolling programme, though even that will be at the mercy of future Scottish ministers who may not share the ambition. Alas, we don’t even have the ambition, and will remain stuck swinging between ideological extremes until somebody fixes the system.)

Blaming HS2 isn’t going to fix any of these underlying issues that stand in the way of electrification continuing.

Electrification’s failures are exactly why HS2 is happening

Your final hot take: everybody complaining that HS2 is to blame for this is clueless not just about electrification but also about what HS2 does.

Electrification is being cut back because it’s massively overbudget. All those people like Richard Wellings at the IEA pulling cost estimates for HS2 out of their ass? The overruns they invent are nothing compared to the 300%-500% overrun on the GWML.

And that just cements the case for HS2. Whatever you think of HS2 (and I say this as somebody who certainly wouldn’t have put it as #1 transport capital priority, or chosen many of the design specifications it has been given), the fact we’ve seen time and time again is that trying to upgrade and add capacity to existing transport routes — by modifying their old infrastructure while trying to work around a live, intensive service — is massively more expensive compared to building something brand new for the equivalent capacity added, and is substantially more likely to run massively more overbudget than the newbuild.

Just as electrification was really a rolling stock replacement programme, HS2 is similarly not what it seems. HS2 is not a high speed intercity programme. It’s a getting intercity trains out of the way programme. The West Coast Mainline out of Euston, MML out of St Pancras, and East Coast out of King’s Cross all need more capacity. There is unmet demand for more local rail commuting in the cities served by these lines, for more regional trains to and between towns on them, and for more freight on the railways. There isn’t capacity to meet that demand because mixing frequent-stopping commuter and regional trains, lumbering freight trains, and high speed intercity trains makes for an inefficient use of a railway line. HS2 creates a disproportionately large amount of capacity for local and regional services by getting the intercity trains out of the way.

People who argue that what the railways need is better local, regional and commuter services instead of faster intercity trains need to explain how those services will be possible without HS2. The only alternative is by making extensive modifications to 3 different Victorian mainlines, on a scale no smaller than HS2 itself, while trying to work around a live, intensive service. The fuck up of electrification has only made HS2 look even more like the preferred option over the terrifying prospect of that alternative.