Use the bus in North London? The tube? Walk? Enjoy the park? This consultation needs your support.

TfL are consulting on “Cycle Superhighway 11”, from Portland Place to Swiss Cottage. Their proposals are to create an attractive and safe route around Regent’s Park Outer Circle and up Avenue Road, enabling people who would like to make their journeys by cycle, but are currently put off by fast and heavy motor traffic, to start riding.

But the proposals aren’t just great for cyclists and for people who would like to cycle if the conditions for it were right. They’re great for bus users, people enjoying the park, and anyone who walks in Swiss Cottage. Don’t ignore the consultation because you’re not a “cyclist”: these changes are for you too!

Bus users: get quicker journeys!

The proposals will see the Swiss Cottage gyratory removed, so that traffic goes straight down Finchley Road. Bus lanes along Finchley Road will be extended, and the Avenue Road section of the gyratory will become bus/cycle only, with dedicated facilities for buses turning at the end of their routes. So buses will no longer get caught up in the congestion of cars navigating the gyratory. Traffic modelling predicts significant journey time savings for the 113, 13 and 82.

The models are less favourable for some other routes, being neutral for most routes and suggesting increases for the C11 and 31. But traffic modelling consistently underestimates the positive effects that dedicated cycling infrastructure has on bus times. When cycle tracks were extended to Stratford for Cycle Superhighway 2, for example, traffic models predicted buses would be delayed by 1.5 minutes. In fact, no such delay occurred. Why?

First, TfL’s models don’t understand bike/bus dynamics. You know when the bus gets stuck behind a slow cyclist in the bus lane? When at every traffic light the bus has to wait for a sea of cyclists to clear out of the way before it can pull away from a green light? When the bus can’t pull out from a stop because cyclists have already started overtaking? TfL’s models understand none of that. The proposals for the Cycle Superhighway will see people switch from cycling on Finchley Road to cycling on Avenue Road, freeing up the bus lanes for buses.

Second, TfL’s models don’t understand how infrastructure changes lead to changes in our transport choices. The whole point of the Cycle Superhighway is to remove the barriers for people who would otherwise like to make their journeys by cycle. One of those barriers is the motor traffic using Avenue Road and Regent’s Park as a shortcut into town. Yet TfL’s models assume that after the changes are made, the same number of people will be driving, cycling, walking, and using the bus and tube as before — that nobody will change their mode of transport in response to the closure of a ratrun for cars, the removal of barriers to cycling, or the improvements to walking and public transport. But obviously people will change their behaviour, and there will be fewer cars around to get in the way of your bus than TfL assume.

And third, TfL’s models don’t look at the effects of crashes. Perhaps even more infuriating than long journeys are unreliable journeys. TfL’s plans provide a safe route for cycling, cutting the risk of nasty crashes on Finchley Road. Removing the gyratory will end the complex race track of ever changing lanes where motorists have to jostle to move into the correct position, meaning fewer prangs and smashes blocking the road. And the improved pedestrian crossings and spaces will substantially reduce the danger of pedestrians being hit by motorists flying around the bends of the gyratory. So fewer crashes, even leaving aside the obvious benefits of not killing and maiming people, means a more reliable road.

Finally, as if quicker journeys weren’t enough, note that some of the cycling journeys made possible by the Cycle Superhighway will be for people who currently use the bus. Many bus routes are now saturated to the point where increases to frequency or vehicle capacity are no longer feasible, and the only way to relieve overcrowding is to provide alternative means of making journeys. If you don’t want your buses to get any more crushed than they already are, Cycle Superhighways are what you need.

Walk in Swiss Cottage or use the tube? Get safer streets and better crossings!

With the proposals at Swiss Cottage, improvements for cycling are almost incidental to improvements that will be made for anybody who walks here — to the tube or bus stops, the shops, pubs, cinema, library or leisure centre.

The removal of the gyratory alone will make this a much more pleasant and much less dangerous place to walk. No more speeding traffic racing around the bends of the gyratory. No more trying to work out which of the many turn lanes and slip roads the motorists might erratically throw their vehicles at. And the removal of traffic from outside the tube station at the top of Avenue Road will make for a much better environment in which to walk and wait for buses.

There will also be some footway widening and continuous footways across driveways and side roads to emphasise pedestrian priority. There are also some excellent changes to the pedestrian crossings in the consultation which need your support: inconvenient “staggered crossings” (where you wait, cross to an island, then wait again for traffic coming the other way) are replaced with single stage crossings; and an extra wide crossing of Finchley Road is added outside the tube station. A small number of the changes might not be so perfect — so make sure you respond to the consultation supporting those that are good while suggesting where you would like to see further improvements to the crossings.

Enjoy Regent’s Park, but concerned by the speeding traffic? Get a safer, calmer park!

London is recognised internationally for the quality of its parks. But one thing currently mars Regent’s Park: the fast and heavy motor traffic that is allowed to drive right through the park on the Outer Circle. At rush hour the constant procession of traffic makes the park a noisy, polluted and unpleasant place to be; outside of the peaks, motorists speeding on this road make it an downright dangerous place for the recreational activities the park was designed for.

There is no need to be able to drive through the park: Outer Circle is paralleled on all sides by main roads that are properly designed and designated for through traffic. The reason motorists nip through the park is because, with fewer junctions and traffic lights, it’s easier to speed on the Outer Circle. As anyone who has used the park for even the smallest amount of time knows, law breaking by motorists is endemic in Regent’s Park, in close proximity to families trying to enjoy the park for its intended purpose. The 30 mph speed limit (already far too high for a park) is routinely flouted, and you don’t have to hang around long to witness motorway speeds.

That Regent’s Park can be used as a racetrack by motorists is an embarrassing anachronism that the proposals seek to resolve. Four of the eight gates to the park will be closed, except for a few off peak hours in the middle of the day. Motorists will still be able to access properties, visitor attractions and car parks. But for most through journeys the park will cease to offer an advantage over the surrounding main roads. I don’t think the proposals go nearly far enough, but the plans under consultation undoubtedly offer a massive improvement over the current unacceptable situation.

So if you use Regent’s Park — or would like to be able to enjoy it but are currently put off by the traffic barrier and the noise, pollution and danger it creates — make sure you respond to the consultation supporting the changes and suggesting improvements.

This needs your support: minority vested interests are fighting these improvements

If you want to see improved bus journeys in north London, or a better, more pedestrian friendly, less traffic dominated environment at Swiss Cottage, or a calmer, safer Regent’s Park, or if you want the option to make your journeys by bicycle where currently the roads are too dangerous or unpleasant, this needs your support.

Because to make these improvements for pedestrians, bus users, park users and bicycle users, the proposals must cut a favourite ratrun shortcut for wealthy Hampstead motorists who want to be able to drive a few miles into the West End. Instead of being able to nip down Avenue Road and race around Regent’s Park, if they want to continue driving private cars into the centre of our congested and polluted (but comprehensively public transport-served) city, they will have to contain themselves to main roads.

Though totally out of touch with the reality for normal people who rely on public transport, walking and, increasingly, cycling in the city, these motorists have loud mouths and the luxury of a lot of time on their hands. They are fighting hard to preserve their private shortcuts from Hampstead’s prosperous hillsides through Primrose Hill backstreets to their West End playgrounds, at the expense of the massive public improvements that are so desperately needed for the rest of us. They’re used to getting their way, and feeling that under threat they have mounted an increasingly desperate campaign of misinformation to frighten fellow motorists and NIMBY neighbours into joining their fight. Now they’ve made enough of a cacophony to start making politicians twitchy.

So make yourself heard

The minority vested interests are relying on the majority who stand to benefit from this scheme not noticing the consultation, or dismissing it as something that’s “just for cyclists” without spotting the broader benefits. So please make sure you respond to the consultation, supporting the scheme, highlighting the improvements that are most important to you, and making suggestions for how it could be made even better for you. It only needs 10 or 15 minutes, but the deadline is this Sunday.

Fear of the unknown

Jim mentions the difficulties of bicycle maintenance and repair as a barrier to cycling. It’s one of several minor barriers to cycling — nothing compared with the problem of the uncomfortable, intimidating and dangerous environment that is so many of our roads and streets, but a real effect nonetheless. It’s actually part of a larger barrier: a combination of not knowing how it’s done, and not having adjusted to it. How do you know what clothes you need? What do you need to see by and be seen at night? Do you need special shoes? How do you carry things? On a rack? But then, how do I know which one fits this bike? Isn’t it a hassle having to unlock the garden shed, move the lawn mower out of the way, and carry it through the house to the front drive every time you have a journey to make?

Stephen discusses the perception that rail travel is expensive, and Simon the idea that it’s difficult and unpleasant. Everyone knows that a train journey costs hundreds of pounds, will be very late, and you’ll be standing in the corridors with smelly and possibly dangerous strangers, but they wouldn’t know, if they were to ever have to use a train, how to find out the times, how they would carry and look after their luggage, how they’d make their connection, or how to complete the final mile from the station. They’d spend ages looking for the right ticket type and checking they were pressing the right buttons on the ticket machine, and they wouldn’t be able to find the right exit at the big city terminus. It’s just so difficult and complicated. Similarly, buses are very difficult: you’re not sure exactly where to get one, how to pay, what to say to the driver (is one supposed to leave a tip?), how to make it stop — or even where to make it stop — and how early to get to the bus station to ensure you don’t miss the last one home.

Obviously all this is nonsense. Bicycle maintenance is almost as easy as riding a bike: you just wheel it down to the bicycle mechanic’s shop once you’ve learned it by making a few mistakes, you always know how. Train travel even easier. Of the countless (certainly well into three figures) assorted train journeys I’ve made in the past year and a half, including travelling most of the length of the country and back five times (I am a bad person and do not endorse such hypermobility), I’ve never paid more than £56.75 (PNR-EUS after a last minute change of plans), rarely paid much more than £15, stood in the corridors for a total of about half an hour, missed a booked train once, witnessed one fight (MCV-TOD on a sat eve), and had to change plans due to total service failure (GLC-ADS) once. Mostly they have been easy, relaxed, delightful, productive, or, at the very least, fine. And much of it excellent value — especially the three pence per mile for the Highland Sleepers, with bed, lounge, and tea in the morning included. You just need to know where and when to book in advance, who to go to for help, and which journeys would be quicker on a different line or cheaper by leaving half an hour later, or with a rover or season ticket. Those aren’t things that require lessons or study or investing time and effort. You don’t have to make many journeys before you just remember that trains always call at X, Y and Z minutes past the hour, the cheaper services start at 08:Z, and the ones at Y minutes past are quicker, or have more seats, or one of those other things that one picks up without any effort.

What must really be difficult and expensive is driving. I wouldn’t know where to start. Well, getting lessons and a license, I guess, but how do you go about doing that and how much does that cost? At least, judging from the competence of much of the driving I see, you’re not required to actually be very good at it, otherwise I doubt they’d ever let me do it, even if I wanted to: it looks complicated and I’m not sure if I’d really get the hang of it. And then getting a car. What kind? There are so many different makes and models — presumably all for different uses. I wouldn’t want to accidentally buy a racing car or mountain car if what I needed was a utility or touring car. And I’ve heard about car manufacturers and salesfolk. How do you know it’s good quality, ethically sourced, and not a scam or stolen goods? And drivers keep moaning about things like “road tax”: how do you know all these different bits of bureaucracy you need to get and pay for? What happens if you forget one of them? Are they for life, or do you need to remember to renew? What do you do if something breaks? It’s surely far too complicated to fix it yourself. How do you even do the refuelling thing? Perhaps there’s a tutorial on YouTube…

That’s all before you’ve even started driving it. How do you time the journey right? It’s obvious when trains and buses are due, and the average speed of a journey by foot or by bicycle has little journey-to-journey or day-to-day variation — we can all make a reasonably accurate estimate of a foot or bicycle journey time, it’s like language: just a skill we pick up over time as kids. But drivers seem to get themselves into all sorts of time-consuming queues that fluctuate during the day and over time according to patterns that I have difficulty following: I assume they have to pad all of their journeys to take such unpredictable variation into account? What do you do about the motion sickness? Doesn’t it get smelly, the confined enclosed space? What about when it rains: how do you see out of it? How do you find time to write blog posts if you can’t do them while on a long journey? Doesn’t it get boring having to just sit there concentrating on the job of driving? And don’t you get fat? How do you stop that? What about storing the thing? Judging from what I’ve seen around town, you can just store your car on any vaguely flat surface, and there are a lot of them, but what do you do if you get to your destination and there isn’t a convenient bit of road, footway, cycle path, field, park, cemetery, village green, or somebody’s front garden available that doesn’t already have somebody else’s car stored on it? And it must be a lot of hassle organising everything around having to return to the spot where you stored it. It all just sounds way too complicated.

Even leaving aside the expense and sheer impracticality of motoring, the complexity of it and the the length of the list of things you would have to find out about, learn how to do, and remember each time you wanted to make a journey — the known unknowns that I’ve listed and the unknown unknowns that might come as a shock — is frightening. The idea of adopting a new mode of transport is genuinely overwhelming. You’d have to adjust your whole life to it, and there are a million better things you could be doing with your time. Give me a simple bicycle and a railcard every time: you always know where you are with those.

Big roads, crap cycling and bendy buses in the Development Pool

While London’s attention is turned to Blackfriars Bridge, those blissfully unaffected by the bumbling buffoon Boris* might like to take a look at the 45 proposals that councils around England have submitted to the DfT’s Development Pool in the hope of being picked for a share of the current £630 million available for local transport projects.

Heads of council transport departments and engineering consultancies have dusted off the bypasses, relief roads, distributors and links that they have been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and resubmitting for funding for fifty years.

Look at your local area in the Development Pool and you’ll find them all there. They’ll be called something like “town centre improvement”, “bus rapid transit”, or “cycle route enhancement and congestion relief package.”

Things like the Weston-super-Mare package, which will provide better bus services and enhanced cycle routes, by, erm, widening town centre roads and ensuring that they have substandard and probably unusable shared pavements alongside.

Of the Cross Airfield Link Road, proposed to open a large brownfield site to light industrial and retail developments,** the Weston package says:

The approval is for a single carriageway road 2.4km in length, four roundabout junctions and parallel shared-use foot and cycle ways. The proposed road is 7.3m wide single carriageway. A 3.0m wide segregated shared pedestrian and cycleway will be provided along the northern side of the new road with a 3.0m footway along its southern edge. Both the cycleway and the footway will be segregated from the carriageway by 5.0m verges which are to be planted with trees to create a boulevard along the road’s length. The scheme design includes Toucan crossings in strategic locations.

This sort of stuff should be illegal — I mean that, actually legislated against. Proposing a shared pavement as a transport route in a built-up area should mean automatic rejection from the Pool, pending a suitable revised design. Three metres should be the bare minimum width requirement for a two-way dedicated cycle track on busy roads like these, where large trucks are expected, and even then the council/agency should have to provide a very good explanation for why a 4.0m track or a pair of 2.5m unidirectional tracks would be unreasonable. Weston are proposing to spend our money on a future facility of the month, and that should be against the law.

There is a pattern to the Development Pool proposals. Another Westcountry project is the “South Bristol Link”. It’s a Bus Rapid Transit route, and definitely not the South Bristol Link Road, the extension to Bristol’s southern bypass that the council has been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and re-submitting for funding since the sixties. It just happens to be a road, and to follow the route of the South Bristol Link Road. But it has bus lanes, which makes this a Bus Rapid Transit project, and definitely not the same old bypass. Bristol has grown since the road was first proposed, but the route was set aside, leaving a strip of undeveloped land surrounded by housing. Here’s the artist’s impression of the Bus Rapid Transit system:

Look at that lovely 3.0m shared pavement — in this case divided into equal shares of 1.5m footway and 1.5m bidirectional cycle track. Doesn’t it look so inviting, riding against traffic, alongside the car parking bays, in a space barely wide enough for one bicycle. One bicycle is presumably all that the council are expecting: there is no provision for two bicycles travelling in opposite directions, or travelling in the same direction at different speeds. The council will no doubt seek a solution to that problem if and when it ever arises.

It’s a classic British road mockup. Hide all the cars and clutter and put unnaturally large pedestrians and cyclists in the foreground. The road would be carrying thousands of vehicles per day, swelling with induced demand, but here it’s all free flowing, and just a single homeowner parks a car in their neat free parking bay, gift from the council. Perhaps all the other cars are parked in the city centre because neither a 1.5m bicycle track nor a bendy bus to an edge-of-town park and ride interchange are attractive methods of getting to work?

A 1.5 metre bicycle track will be of no use to anybody. The parking bays will, if you let them, fill with second and third cars, and spill out over the drop kerbs and green spaces. Within a few years the city will discover, to everybody’s surprise, I’m sure, that there is limited demand for a bus between suburban housing and an edge-of-town park and ride interchange, and the bus lanes will quietly be turned into general traffic lanes.

I’m really quite embarrassed for Bristol, having praised them for exceeding our (low) British expectations on Redcliffe Bridge. Seriously, what the fuck, Bristol? “The country’s premier national and international showcase for promoting cycling as a safe, healthy and practical alternative to the private car for commuting, education and leisure journeys.” Bristol’s “cycling city” status clearly hasn’t really sunk in for the highways engineers, who plainly have no experience of cycling or how to provide for it, but who confidently give it a go anyway having read something once in an instruction book.

The city council are cutting hundreds of jobs, and I think I’ve spotted where a few of them of them could go.

While cutting those jobs, the city is seeking £43 million for this bypass Bus Rapid Transit line. I think the Cycling City team could use the money far more profitably, retrofitting the city’s existing big roads with wide, fast, direct, prioritised, attractive tracks, and could never support Bristol throwing the money away on the South Bristol Link. But even for an urban road project, and even leaving aside the contemptible crap cycle facilities, this is an especially bad scheme. The one potential benefit of a bypass is to have a designated road on which to push traffic from city streets. But to capture that benefit you have to reclaim those city streets immediately — make it unattractive to drive on them for anything other than essential property access and loading — otherwise people will just find new ways to fill the old streets with more ridiculous car journeys. With a southern bypass Bristol could close ratruns through the southern suburbs; take back space on the main southern arterial roads — the A38 through Bedminster, for example — for the pedestrians and cyclists who spend more money in the shops along them; it could even close some more of the inner ring road. Bristol failed to capture those benefits when it previously built big bypass roads, on the northern and eastern fringes, and it would fail to capture any potential benefits of a southern bypass, proposing to make it a little bit less attractive to drive only on a couple of residential streets and a country lane:

Take a look at your local schemes on the map. There are potentially worthwhile projects in the pool too, like rail upgrades and even reversing railway closures. More has been written about the bids by Sian Berry and George Monbiot. The DfT are soliciting comments on development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk, deadline TOMORROW, Friday — though I’m not sure why, and whether anybody will ever read them.

* but we’re all affected, sadly, due to London’s unfortunate influence over the nation.

** it’s actually one of the least indefensible of the new roads, and one of the least bad sites for such developments, being on brownfield located alongside a railway and within walking and cycling distance of the town’s population and railway stations. I’m sure they will fail to make good use of all that potential, but it’s still progress over road-only out-of-town greenfield sprawl.

Floppy bus

Utrecht’s 25 metre buses — 7m longer than London’s — are so bendy they’re floppy.

Boris Johnson is half way through the fourth year of his term as mayor of London, approaching an election, and his great achievement in office has been to phase out the city’s bendy buses. A big justification for the policy is that the long vehicles are dangerous, especially for cyclists.

More than a third of journeys in Utrecht are made by bicycle. The big bendy buses don’t seem to be a problem. Why might that be?

Perhaps it’s something to do with having a city government that designs streets in a way that doesn’t put cyclists under large vehicles.

453

To Deptford Bridge, my bus back when I lived in Deptford, on the rare occasions when a bicycle or train wouldn’t do the job. This week, local blogger Darryl marks the end of the 453 bendy bus. The bendy buses have been one big political pantomime, introduced as a conspicuous symbol of Ken’s commitment to public transport, and scrapped as a conspicuous symbol of Boris’s commitment to, er, taunt Ken.

The friday photo theme is just an excuse to plug my photography site.

Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus

Derwent Water on an April morning
Derwent Water on an April morning. Click the images for larger versions.

Download the Google Earth layers
Download the Google Earth layers

The Lake District is generally agreed to be England’s finest national park.  Unlike last week’s Scottish Highlands suggestion, though, during spring and summer in the Lakes you won’t be alone in the wilderness: you’ll meet hundreds of others out enjoying the countryside.  Which is great, except that most of the people out enjoying the fresh air on the hills will later be spoiling it by driving back to their hotels and cottages.  Like most English national parks, the Lake District is easily accessible from a major motorway, and 93% of the 8-9 million annual visitors come by car.  So, despite its low permanent population, it has a serious seasonal problem with congestion, car parking, and other blight from the influx of car-bound tourists.  Visitors are literally destroying the same wildlife and spectacular natural landscape that they are coming to see, as dual carriageways, bypasses and ever bigger car parks get built — merely inducing more demand and congestion.  In 2003, the local authorities even looked at the feasibility of introducing a Lake District Congestion Charge.  Clearly it would be irresponsible to drive to the Lake District and add to these problems.  But surely it’s not possible to have a break in the lake district without a car?

Normal everyday buses. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)
Simple everyday buses. But sometimes with the roof off. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)

I’ve had several.  Mostly they were by bicycle (and I might give some bicycle route suggestions in a future post), but one time it was by bus.  In february.  Which was excellent.  I imagine it would be even more excellent in April-June, when the full bus services are running, but before the schools break up and the families flood in with their mock military personnel carriers.  (I’ve also been to the Lake District once by car, and can honestly say that not only is possible to go there without one, it’s much better to go there without one — with a car you have to plan your day around it at least as much as you do with buses: where do you park, how are you going to get back to where you parked, etc)

Derwent Water from Latrigg
Derwent Water from Latrigg; Keswick is below the photographer, just out of view.

The buses are not tourist coach packages — the kind with a cheeky middle-aged northern failed comic giving distracting commentary between set 30 minute stops at “attractions” only the most senile of the passengers would want to visit.  They are simple normal everyday buses on reasonably frequent timetables.  Normal buses that get people to work, or the market, or the post office on pension day.  Buses are not complicated.

Derwent Water
Derwent Water

(Many Motorists, of course, will not have seen the inside of a bus in decades, and the idea of using one on a holiday in unfamiliar terrain will sound awfully difficult and complicated to them — especially if their only idea of a public bus is something that they’ve picked up from the worst Radio 4 or Daily Telegraph portrayal of a Brixton night bus.)

If you’re not already familiar with the Lakes then Keswick, in the north, is a good place to start — a small market town with the full spectrum of accommodation from youth hostels to luxury hotels.  It’s on the shores of Derwent Water, one of the prettiest of the lakes, and is surrounded by small hills with fantastic views which you don’t need to be a hardcore fell walker to climb.  Plus, if the weather turns bad one day, you can visit the world famous pencil museum.  (I’ve never been, but I know dozens of people who have and they all say: “not as awful as it sounds”.)  Or maybe an ironic trip to Cars of the Stars.

Continue reading “Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus”

Are we winning?

I’ve just been scrolling through Google Reader clearing a couple of months worth of posts with videos that got saved-for-later when using a mobile connection.  Peter at Pedestrian Liberation asks whether we are winning, citing London Bridge as evidence that maybe we are.

I shot a similar video — above — of London Bridge a year ago almost to the day.  Peter wouldn’t have been able to make same film as me because the night after I shot it, TfL cut down the pedestrian cages (my improvised tripod) on the bridge, to improve the conditions for pedestrians and cyclists.  In the year old film, you see the bridge at a little after 8am — the peak time — on monday 4th january.  I’m not very good at estimating crowds, especially fast moving ones where you can’t see everybody, but there were surely 300-400 people per minute walking over the bridge, plus a couple of dozen cyclists (on a morning so cold that the docks were frozen inches thick) and several stuffed buses.  And what you can’t see in the film is the stuffed tube line beneath, the trains rattling over the neighbouring Cannon Street railway bridge, or the bicycles on the neighbouring and less bicycle-unfriendly Southwark Bridge.  (But nor can you see all the cars on the neighbouring CCharge-less Tower Bridge.)

There are only a handful more private motor vehicles than there are bicycles in the video, with taxis making up nearly half of them, and motorcycles and delivery and tradesman vehicles accounting for most of the rest.  Of the few remaining cars, a lot are probably actually minicabs.  It’s entirely plausible that they were all minicabs.

Yes, this is normal for London Bridge, and has been since at least the introduction of the CCharge in 2003.  London, of course, is not normal, but nor is it a world entirely different to the rest of the country.  As in London, all through the UK you’ll find that most people want an alternative to the blight of the car — to their spoiled streets and miserable hours wasted in jams.  They recognise that they are both a victim and an unwilling perpetrator of this car sick situation, but they don’t think they’ve been given a viable alternative.

On London Bridge they do have alternatives: development is an appropriate density for walking and cycling (at least from the railway terminus to the office); there’s a rail and tube line; and the cheap 24hr buses are too frequent to timetable.  Provide alternatives like these and they get used.  And that’s despite the many limitations that Londoners can happily whine about while not knowing how lucky they are: just imagine how much they would get used if one lane each way were a proper cycle path, and if London Bridge and Cannon Street stations were served by British Rail instead of Southern and SouthEastern, and if the Northern Line had better capacity and better reliability and better stations, and if the City’s streets were more pleasant places to walk around…

This is the most worrying thing about the latest policies of Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond — not so much that we are losing bits of the congestion charge, and other sticks with which to beat the motorist; for motorists already beat each-other more than enough to put normal people off driving — but that the alternatives are under threat.  The media remembers Ken Livingstone for the CCharge, but at least as important was the massive improvement to bus services (then priced at 65p a journey) that he introduced on the same day; Boris is cutting the Western Extension Zone, but more importantly, he is funding this with another bus fares hike, so that a journey is now twice the 2003 price.

Very few people are the kind of capital ‘M’ Motorists, who are never pedestrians; and the majority of people who drive say they would like to drive much less or not-at-all.  But that has been true for a long time, and that alone has not yet got us much closer to “winning”.  Partly this is because we have allowed the tabloids to get away with claiming that most Britons are big-M Motorists, and allowed them to dictate which policies the Motorist will stand for.  Part of turning things around is to get more people to declare: not in my name.  Some ideas for doing that another time.

Queuing

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about the M4 bus lane, but haven’t had the time, so here’s a rather crude brain dump while I sit in the dark on a bus somewhere on the A9 in the snowy Cairngorms.

The Dutch infrastructure minister recently announced that speed limits on some stretches of motorway would be raised.  This would not help Motorists get to their destinations any quicker, she noted, but it was a change worth making because it would make the motorists feel better.  Aside from being a delightfully refreshing piece of honesty from a politician, it highlights again that behaviour and psychology should not be ignored when designing transport policy.  Philip Hammond should have been this honest when abolishing the M4 bus lane — instead of the weak nonsense about improving journey times, just tell the truth that it’s a cheap way of making Motorists feel better.

The M4 bus lane was designed to cut the journey times of Motorists entering London — to make their journeys faster and more reliable, and thus to cut the <insert absurd made up number here> billions of pounds that the Institute of Directors like to claim is lost because of their Jags being caught in congestion their supply chain being delayed by congestion.  The Motorist probably thinks that he too would like his journeys to be faster and more reliable.  But this is not quite true.  The Motorist would like his journeys to seem faster and more reliable.

The M4 bus lane was hated not because it increased car journey times or made journeys less reliable.  It didn’t.  As previously explained, the bus lane was a clever hack to the layout of a road with a bottleneck.  It made a tiny and irrelevant cut to journey times, while cutting lane changing and accident rates and thus greatly improving consistency in journey times.  The bus lane was hated because motorists thought it increased their journey times.

Part of it was the problem of common sense.  The likes of Jeremy Clarkson and Terry Wogan despise those scientists and academics with all their fancy facts and data — the problem with these researchers is that they don’t have any common sense, and common sense tells Clarkson and Wogan that taking away one lane of the M4 must have caused traffic jams.  No amount of your facts can change that.

Another part of it was recall bias: all of those massive pre-bus lane jams begin to blur into the distance, whereas this jam that I’m sat in right now is real — and hey look, there’s a bus lane.  Coincidence?

But it was more than this.  It was about people’s perception, and particularly people’s perception of queues.  Since I’m on a bus with no reference material and limited battery life, I’ll put it in bullet points:

When sat on a Motorway in a traffic jam, Motorists usually believe that their own lane is going the slowest.  It’s simple: when their own lane is moving freely, they’re concentrating on driving, and don’t notice that the other lanes are stationary; when their lane is stationary, they have nothing better to do than stare at all the vehicles which are moving freely in the other lanes.  So even if over time all lanes even out, the Motorist perceives that the other lanes are moving better — especially if the jam is severe enough that they spend more time stationary (observing others moving) than moving themselves.   (Hence all the futile changing of lanes in jams, which just makes the jams worse.)  This is the same reason why in the Post Office — wait, do blog readers even still use those?  OK, this is the same reason why in the ticket office at a major station, you have a single queue serving several windows, rather than independent queues.  Independent queues make people nervous about their decisions.

This perception leads to Motorists overestimating their time sat in traffic, and it’s made worse when they can see moving traffic — if the opposite carriageway is moving freely, or there’s a parallel un-jammed road, then the sight of moving cars merely serves to remind the poor stationary Motorist of their own lack of motion.  Drivers asked to estimate how long they were stuck in traffic consistently over-estimate the jam if they see other traffic moving freely.

So the M4 bus lane was about the worst thing you could do if you wanted Motorists to perceive that they were spending less time in queues.  Now when they were sat in a queue they weren’t just sat there with nothing better to do than get paranoid over the relative speed of the two lanes of traffic: they could also sit there watching the buses and taxis and prime-ministers go past at speed, constantly highlighting the fact that the Motorist was going nowhere.

The research shows this — have drivers estimate their queuing time with and without visible moving traffic nearby; or compare the driver and passenger experience of a stop-start motorway jam. It’s just another of the many fascinating little quirks of psychology — one of the bizarre things our brains do when confronted with absurd man-made situations like traffic jams.  You can make Motorists happily spend more time sat in traffic jams, simply by making them sincerely believe that it is less time.

(Somewhen I’ll try to find some interesting references, but 3G has just dropped out…)

Engineering, psychology, and a bus on stilts

This week I’m trying to clear up the loose ends of threads I began and never finished, and get rid of some of the draft posts that I started but never polished…

Last week I posted about tracked hovercraft and straddling buses — a tongue-in-cheek look at how through the ages engineers have proposed ever more overcomplicated engineering solutions in an attempt to manage our out-of-control transport problems.  I assumed that my learned readers would get the point without labour.  WordPress.com very kindly picked it as one of their daily front-page features, though, which led to it receiving around 4,000 spam comments, including several dozen along the lines of “wow that bus looks awsum and wood solve all our problems make one for america!!!?! (p.s. here’s a link to my blog!!!11!)”.*

Well, actually my guess is that the straddling bus will be just another absurd transport solution that fails to achieve the things that it is designed to achieve.  The stated purpose of the bus is not to get cars out of its way, it is to get the bus out of cars’ way: the designers complain that the frequent stop-starting of buses means that they hold up the traffic behind.  It will probably fail to achieve much in the way of making car drivers’ lives easier because the designers are obsessed with engineering and don’t consider Motorist behaviour.

Here are a couple of random fascinating psychology factoids.  I wonder to what extent the bus backers have considered them in their models?

  • When you make road lanes just a little but wider — as you will surely need to do if you are to accommodate the bus safely — people drive faster.  They’re not doing it deliberately or rationally, perhaps not even consciously, they just do it.  It feels right.
  • Drivers slow down for tunnels, and things that feel like tunnels — tree-lined avenues and close high walls.  Even if there’s nothing telling them to, and no rational safety reason to do so.  They just do it.

The cause of traffic jams is traffic.  Too much of if, behaving erratically.  We like to pretend that it’s bad engineering, because we can always fix engineering by replacing it with some different engineering.  And we like to pretend that it’s not the volume of traffic and the behaviour of drivers, because acknowledging this would mean giving up hope that one day the traffic jams will magically be solved.  But that’s the way it is: too many cars, too badly driven.  The straddling bus will probably not help congestion — at least, no more than a conventional bus on a conventional bus lane — because it will change driver behaviour in a way we can’t easily predict, but which (as described) will likely involve them slowing down and speeding up in chaotic waves as the bus passes them and they pass the bus.  It doesn’t sound like much, but these effects have a habit of amplifying themselves: the traffic between lanes will cease to be smooth, so cars will be changing lanes more, and this lane-changing contributes further to slowing things down, and also greatly raises the risks of accidents occurring.

Perhaps that effect will be marginal given all of the other existing complications and currents in the traffic flow.  Perhaps we’ll see other interesting unforeseen behaviour changes in the Shenzhen trial.  All that we can say for sure that everybody will be predictably surprised when drivers don’t behave in a simple rational manner.  Just like they were the last ten thousand times the solution to congestion was discovered.

The main reason the bus will fail, though, is the same reason that all urban roadspace provision schemes fail: create a new space for cars to drive in, and an equal or greater quantity of car journeys will be created to fill that space.  The cause of traffic jams is too much traffic.  Double the capacity for traffic and all you’re doing is doubling the size of the traffic jams.

Put a conventional bus on a conventional (parking and taxi enforced) bus lane.  It’s easier.

* Not that I’m not grateful for all your valuable contributions to our discussions ;)

Tracked hovercrafts and straddling buses

The Ministry of Transport’s 1963 Buchanan Report on the future of traffic in towns may have thought of jetpacks and hoverboards as a potentially real future for individual private travel, but it didn’t ignore public transport entirely.  Obviously, in 1963 the railways were obsolete, but the report suggested there was some scope for “multi-passenger units”, particularly ultra high speed devices on long journeys between dense population centres.

The most delightful is this fabulous art-deco “tracked hovercraft”.  Happy 1960s families, where the women all wear skirts and sit cross-legged and the men all read big important newspapers, drive their car into the bottom deck and sit in airline-style comfort on the upper deck.  It’s not clear whether “tracks” in this solution refer to rail tracks or to caterpillar tracks — the diagram appears to show elements that could be interpreted as either.  Perhaps it has both, for ultimate flexibility.

The report says:

It is possible, of course, if serious technological studies were undertaken, that a whole range of new ideas for moving people and goods in cities would be produced.  It is indeed to be hoped that we are not at the end of our ingenuity in the matter.  The bus, for example, for all its convenience, does not appear to be the last word in comfort.  The travelator seems to offer much scope for development.  Continuously operating chair-lifts might be used in a highly attractive way between points of pedestrian concentration to augment existing means of travel.  Conveyor belts, pneumatic tubes, and pipelines might well be developed for the conveyance of goods, perhaps even justifying rearrangement of commercial processes to facilitate their use.

Monorails and moving pavements were the future of public transport in the 1960s — at least while we were waiting for our moon bases and space elevators.

Just some things to bear in mind when you consider the Shenzhen Huashi Future Parking Equipment Company’s (!) dream of the straddling bus:

Once upon a time, highly educated and expensive civil engineers were required to invent absurd transport solutions. Now all you need is an idiot who knows how to open photoshop.

For those unfamiliar with the city, Shenzhen neighbours Hong Kong; it was a fishing village right into the late 1970s when China created a “special economic zone” encouraging market capitalism here.  The city now has a population estimated to be 14 million squeezed into the limits of the SEZ, and is one of the fastest growing cities in the world.  It’s an entirely new city, conceived late in the motorcar era, and full of the wide boulevards you would expect in modern car dependent Chinese cities.

Shenzhen is the future.  At least, it must feel that way to the people who live there.  The Chinese are in the middle of great change: social progress, economic development, and technological revolution.  This is their 1960s, and more.  They’re putting men into space to prepare the way for the space elevators.

They’re also struggling with the sort of problems that European cities were struggling with the the 1960s.  In the picture above you can see how this little city street is too narrow to accommodate conventional buses.  Conventional buses keep stopping and starting, and this causes congestion as Important People in cars have to slow down and move over into one of the other four lanes available to them.  Therefore there is a need to invent the straddling bus, which will not impair Important Motor Traffic — those SUVs and executive saloon cars can happily drive under it (albeit, only having been considerably shrunk in photoshop).

It’s a genuinely clever idea.  You might wonder whether they’ve considered safety, and turning cars, and height clearance.  Of course they have.  The engineers have thought of everything and there’s no reason why it shouldn’t work in Shenzhen.  Just as there was no reason why hovertrains and moving pavements shouldn’t work…

Weekly War Bulletin, 25 Sep

As we know, Boris has been quietly dropping policies that improve our transport and built environment by cutting private and business vehicle use.  The already delayed Low Emission Zone, for example, has been pushed back another two years — so another two years of the smogs that cost the city millions of pounds and thousands of lives.

All Newspapers reported the story that Brake are backing helmets for hire bikes – they’re essential, apparently.  Indeed, Boris is terrified by people’s careless Borisbiking.  As CycaLogical points out, though, All Newspapers overlooked the next part of Brake’s recommendations — that traffic be cut, speed be cut, and more routes be de-Motorised.

Oona King thinks that cycling in London will take off only if we provide showers for “hot and sweaty” cyclists.  No mention of the one issue that non-cyclists most consistently cite as putting them off: too much traffic too badly driven, and the lack of sane de-Motorised infrastructure.

Car park fees at tube stations are to rise — a stealth fares hike says All Newspapers.  Presumably, since there is no other way to get to a tube station, Motorists will just have to drive all the way to their final destination instead.  And up and down the country local councils are continuing their War On The Motorist by considering raising parking fines.

From the department of absurd transport “solutions”: the 155mph 23 seat business-class “superbus“.  And the electric van fitted with sci-fi sound-effects, because people would obviously be unable to adapt to a world with quieter vehicles.

Instead, how about a more stepped introduction to driving, with recently-passed Motorists kept off the roads after dark?

Via Boing Boing: the story of an Illinois state trooper who sends emails while driving at 126mph, before inevitably veering into an oncoming car, killing two.  His comeuppance? A 30 month suspended sentence, two years off work on full pay, and the receipt of $75,000 worker’s compensation.  If that isn’t a harsh disincentive to drive dangerously…

The number of careless driving convictions is falling.  Interpret this fact as evidence for anything you like.

Cycling is cool — but not for professionals.  Therefore professionals are not cool.

Recall of Bentleys: the flying B mascot will impale the pedestrians that get hit by the cars, they found.  Obviously, it’s fine to sell something that you know will kill people, it’s only the impaling bit that’s wrong.

London Underground will be fined for flying flaps that slapped passengers on the platform.

The proposal to give Waterloo Station (a “much altered and uncoordinated mix of styles”) listed building status has been rejected, leaving Network Rail free to mess about it with it.

Brixton bus depot burned down.

Apparently it was car-free day on Wednesday.  Me neither.

Railway first-aiders say they’re not allowed to give first-aid to passengers.

And your moment of zen, via flickr blog and flickr user Brunocerous: the sad sight of an old tree downed by storms in NYC.

BJN_1152 tree v SUV

On Oxford Street

Wikipedia / GFDL

The Grauniad Bike Blog asks, “why are taxis the king of the road when they carry so few passengers?”  That is, the obvious question that most people in London have been asking for some time, why, given that taxis are responsible for at most one in every 200 commuter journeys in London, and given that for the vast majority of these journeys a taxi is a needless and extravagant luxury, and given that taxis are a major contributor to congestion and pollution, why the fuck do we publicly subsidise their industry by allowing them to use the infrastructure that is supposed to be set aside for the transport modes which actually solve those problems?  Why, when politicians words are of increasing bus and bike share, do their actions say: we don’t care for bus users, we will penalise your transport choice by creating taxi jams to hold up your bus; we don’t care for cyclists, we will force you to share space with some of the widest, tallest, most polluting, and most erratically driven vehicles on the road?

Well, think, dears.  Who uses taxis in London?  The people who can afford it.  Politicians, for example, and the businessmen that fund their parties.  Councillors, mayors, and assemblymen aren’t going to do anything to inconvenience taxi drivers, because that would inconvenience themselves, and perhaps even make the businessman who arranged to buy them lunch late.

And anyway, taxis need to use London’s bus lanes: they need to make sudden swerves into the pavement on a red route, cutting up bicycles and buses, because they need to pick up fares.  It’s in the interest of everybody’s safety if they only brake suddenly in one lane, without having to cut across two.  But still, they would need to use bus lanes for a third reason, because otherwise it would take them hours to get across town, and then how would they be able to compete in the free and fair market for transport modes?

But one bus lane they don’t need to use is Oxford Street.  People who can afford taxis don’t go to Oxford Street.  They go to the arcades of Knightsbridge or Kensington; Smithfield boutiques if they’re trendy; or jump on a Eurostar and combine it with lunch.  So taxis don’t need to go to Oxford Street for their fares.  But do they need to go through Oxford Street in order to avoid the jams on the conventional roads which would amount to an unfair burden on their industry?  Well, according to the BBC, taxi drivers are complaining about how long it takes to get down Oxford Street — because of all the buses and pedestrian crossings full of common non-taxi using plebs getting in their way.

Perhaps Westminster council and the London authority could consider doing a little something to help taxi drivers, by banning them from Oxford Street entirely — thus doing their bit to end the end the war on the motorist, and, in the process, creating the city’s first real bus lane.