Tag Archives: closing roads

The Living Heart Safari

Champion Square

Champion Square: shared space that works, because it’s combined with filtered permeability.

Finally, the Saturday evening Infrastructure Safari at the Cycling Embassy’s AGM in Bristol in May. This was led by Steve Melia, a transport and town planning academic at the University of the West of England and campaigner from the Carfree UK and Living Heart for Bristol campaigns. That latter campaign formed the theme for the safari, a short ride around the city centre looking at the big roads that blight it and the ways in which traffic reduction has already helped to make a more thriving liveable city, and the potential for further reduction.

The Google Map tour is here.

The basic idea of the Living Heart campaign is to cut traffic and create a liveable city centre through the careful use of selective permeability to make it impossible to drive through the city centre, without preventing anybody who has a genuine need to be there with a vehicle — residents, traders, and deliveries — from driving in and out. In a sense, they are seeking to make the best of the Bristol that the motorway mad 1960s planners left us, with its arterial motorway and inner ring road, by switching from a system which used the big roads to feed ever greater volumes of traffic into the old city streets to one which uses those main roads to remove traffic from those streets. Or, to put it another way, they would block up the ratruns, freeing them up for more suitable and useful purposes.

Queen Square, before and after, from the Living Heart campaign.

Compared to much of the country (and I know, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement), Bristol already has a relatively good record on creating a liveable low-traffic city centre. It started in the 1980s with strategic road blocks and short sections of pedestrianisation to close ratruns in the Old Town, at King Street and Corn Street and the like, and continued in the Broadmead shopping area with (poorly enforced) bus-only streets coupled to one-way systems which enable access while making unattractive ratruns. More dramatically and famously, Bristol has succeeded in rolling back some of the mistakes of the motorway mad past: the inner “ring” road dual carriageway isn’t a ring any more. Where for decades it crossed diagonally through the fine Georgian Queen Square, blighting the area so that all around was neglected and run down, it was closed amid much protestation in the mid-1990s, and the square restored in stages through the 2000s, giving the city a much loved little park and thriving commercial zone. Similarly College Green outside the cathedral has lost a main road.

But the city centre still suffers from motorists trying to find a shortcut through the old streets, at times making them unpleasant places to be and to do business, and trapping pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users in the mess they create, not just fellow motorists. The campaign are not greatly attached to any one specific means of keeping this through traffic out of these unsuitable streets — there are lots of potential places where a block or a bus gate would be appropriate and have the desired effect. But they particularly point to the four bridges that cross the harbour within their ring road cordon as obvious places to consider.

And they have a good local example to cite. Unfortunately we were too busy looking at railway paths to look at the city centre while in Bath. At first sight Bath, with a perpetually jammed trunk road almost through the heart, would seem an unlikely choice for a lesson on liveable low-traffic city centres, but it would have been worth looking at for the ways in which many of the old city centre streets have been reclaimed from traffic while maintaining essential access: through road blocks with pedestrian and cycle permeability, a one-way system around the historic and commercial centre which enables access for delivery vans and then sends them back to the same main road they came in on, and, of interest to Living Heart, Pulteney Bridge bus gate. Together these things create some pleasant public spaces, some streets fit for cycling, and some bus routes not completely blocked by jams of ratrunning motorists.

Ultimately the Living Heart campaign, and Steve’s safari, is about segregation: separating traffic away from people. It’s what all of the diverse safaris in the Westcountry were ultimately about. Which will be explored properly in a post to conclude this whole thing. If and when I get around to writing it…

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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.

The Brunel Mile

Like most British cities, Bristol has a big inner ring road. It crashes through neighbourhoods of medieval houses and 1970s concrete office towers, and it thunders past landmarks from Brunel’s Temple Meads Station to England’s largest parish church, St Mary Redcliffe, a fortress of fast cars and pedestrian cages cutting the old central business district from the rest of the city.

But it’s not a ring road. The ends used to meet: from Redcliffe church it continued west over the bascule bridge and cut diagonally through the run-down Georgian Queen Square. Twenty years ago, Queen Square was taking 20,000 vehicles a day, including 1,000 buses. No wonder it was run-down. The council got rid of the vehicles, all of them, and restored the Georgian square, now a calm but popular little park. It remains one of the few notable examples of undoing 1950s-80s urban motorway mistakes in the UK, and it happened at the same time as one of the last of the mistakes, the M11 link, was being driven through Leytonstone.

The restoration of Queen Square left a bizarre stub of dual carriageway on Redcliffe’s bascule bridge (orange, below the ‘I’ in ‘Bristol’), carrying a tiny fraction of its designed capacity. When I was there in the spring I noticed that they had finally brought the builders in to do something new with the bridge. Here’s the finished £130,000 piece:

I was a bit disappointed — I’d been expecting them to move on to the other carriageway once this one was complete, for a pair of unidirectional tracks, but they’ve just gone for a bidirectional track using a single traffic lane, which apparently isn’t much help to the gentleman who is using the opposite pavement. Still, the one track is not an unusable width.

The reason they’ve gone for a two-way track here is that the council are not thinking in terms of fixing individual isolated streets, but nor have they yet got to the stage where they can think in terms of a network. If this were part of a network, you would have tracks on each side linking up to more tracks around the other big roads, as well as to the calmed low-traffic streets around here. Rather, Bristol is currently thinking in routes — that’s all they can do with the small pot of money they were given to become a “cycling city”. This is one of half a dozen routes that the city was able to create with the project.

It’s the “Brunel Mile”, a very direct route between Temple Meads Station to the bars, restaurants, and museums of the old harbour. Sadly, this short section over the bridge is probably the highest quality section. The cycling city website, Better By Bike, produced a video of it:

Lots of shared use plazas, parks, and pavements. That’s fine for access — making it possible to keep riding the final yards to the destination — but shared use doesn’t really make for an attractive through route, especially when it runs straight through a set of tables laid outside a cafe. Bristol already had a lot of shared use squares and parks — Bristolian pedestrians and cyclists seem to be able to get along without one interpreting the mere sight of the other as a near death experience. Little, if any, of the shared use in this video is new, but previously it was designated as shared use more because there was no reason to ban bicycles from those areas, rather than because they made useful through routes.

Bicycles have at least been given priority, and a raised table, where the route crosses Welsh Back, from Queen Square onto the bascule bridge — though there aren’t many other examples of this arrangement in the Westcountry, so it might take motorists a while to work out that their “give way” markings aren’t a mistake (notice that the producer of the video clearly had little confidence that the white van was going to give way at 0:57). And there’s no other priority crossings on the route — only some grey-green paint on Prince’s Street, and toucan crossings with very long waits on three different branches of ring road before finally reaching Temple Meads.

This is not a toucan.

Clearly the cycling city team were going for a cheap option — spreading their little grant thin over as many routes and projects as possible, and reusing as much existing infrastructure, whatever the quality, where they could. But when it came to a gap in their route, where no existing infrastructure could be commandeered, they’ve taken the time and money to do it right: they’ve taken a traffic lane out to built a proper usable cycle track, rather than dump people on a dual carriageway with the buses. Perhaps it’s not quite as much space as would really be desirable, but it’s enough, and with priority over the minor roads. And they did it, so far as I can tell, without being asked — without the campaign and the fight that was required in Camden.

With real funding, I think Bristol could do great things. The cycling city grant must have brought some of the right people in. With the grant all spent, I fear they will have been sent on their way.

The local rag doesn’t like it, but I always got the impression that the Evening Post was pretty irrelevant.

Millbank

I can’t quite put my finger on what it was that was different, but somehow this four-lane dual-carriageway felt like a more pleasant place to cycle along this evening…

Surrogates and segregation

You’ll have noticed that here at At War With The Motorist we like the idea of good segregated cycling infrastructure in places where bicycle users would otherwise have to interact with high volumes of fast moving and badly driven motor vehicles.  The point of developing the infrastructure is to develop mass bicycle use: having seen what has happened here and around the world, we’re satisfied that segregated paths are an important requirement for mass bicycle use; their absence a major barrier to it.

But mass bicycle use is not our ultimate goal either.  It’s just one way to help to achieve what At War With The Motorist really wants: places that are nice to live and work in.  Happy, healthy, stress-free cities and villages.  We want to remove the air pollution and noise pollution, the neighbourhood and community division and destruction, and the danger and intimidation from our streets: all problems that are caused or at least exacerbated by excessive use of motor vehicles (along with climate change, inequality of opportunity, war, and many other problems to explore one day in other posts).

And yet mass bicycle use is still not exactly the solution to our problems.  Because as we’ve seen again and again, create spare road capacity in London — by building a new road, displacing cars with a congestion charge, ripping out pedestrian crossings, or having a modal shift to trains and bicycles — and there will be ten others waiting to jump in that space.  Demand for road space in a city like London is so elastic that it will always be filled just to the edge of gridlock, whatever happens.

On segregated infrastructure, Carlton Reid says:

In such a car-centric society as the UK it is politically naive to demand to take meaningful space away from cars. Millions of vote-toting motorists would scupper any such plans. We have to build alliances with other active travel and true road safety organisations, not be single issue campaigners. And we probably have to recognise we’re not going to succeed with the present administration.

Mass bicycle use, if it were ever to be achieved without any changes to the roads, would likely make little improvement to the quality of our environs.  They would still be smelly, smoggy, noisy, nasty stressful places.  I would hesitate to call that a success.

So absolutely we should not get carried away and campaign on the single issue of segregated cycle paths, a mere surrogate endpoint.  Taking meaningful space away from cars is exactly what we ultimately need to be aiming for.  Not just building a bike path, but reducing the motor-vehicle capacity on the route of that path; making residential neighbourhoods impenetrable for through motor traffic while at the same time more friendly to people; getting motor-vehicles out of the narrow city centre side-streets that they’re destroying; and reforming the way we design new neighbourhoods, to prevent ourselves making the same old car-centric mistakes.

I don’t think those things are impossible.  Indeed, I see a lot of them already quietly happeningMost car users are not political Motorists: they want nice livable streets too.  They’ve let pedestrian zones and residential road blocks and people-friendly developments happen, and I’ve seen no evidence that they wouldn’t also let bike paths happen.  It is not car users who have being vetoing the development of good bike paths.

If you build it they will come

On the London Cyclist thread “is there anything super about the Cycle Superhighways?,” we hear Chinese whispers on the reason why TfL decided against making real superhighways and instead came up with the overpriced and failed PR exercise that are the blue lines on the side of the road:

“TfL said the routes are simply not being used frequently enough to warrant separation of traffic.”

and,

Boris, when asked why the Superhighways are not segregated, always says “There is just not room on London’s roads”.

Whether Boris used one or both of these excuses, he is wrong.  The reason he is wrong is Transport Economics 101 stuff — the sort of thing that even amateurs like us understand.  Simply, the demand for transport — and especially the demand for a specific mode of transport in an area with competing modes — is extremely flexible, and easily adjusts to supply.

People like to go places.  If you give them fast and affordable railways, they will jump on the train to the seaside.  If you give them fast and affordable roads, they will drive their car to work.  If you give them budget airlines, they will herd into planes to southern Europe.  A new transport mode releases latent demand: previously, though they would have liked to have gone somewhere, they chose not to because it was too difficult or expensive.  And it induces demand in other ways: a new road creates car journeys by allowing small local shops and services to be closed and merged into large centralised versions that people have little choice but to drive to, or by removing the incentive for efficient means of transporting goods, or by making it feasible to develop residential suburbs and new towns far from centres of employment, etc.

This is why in densely populated places like the UK, building a new road to solve one problem always creates another before long: the new road makes driving easier and cheaper, so more people drive and they drive further and more frequently, putting additional pressure on all the existing infrastructure surrounding the new road.  We could bulldoze corridors through the cities and pave the whole countryside, build ten times the road capacity that we currently have, and the road network would be just as overloaded as it is now.  This we already knew.

What is less well known is that the reverse is just as true.  Make it more difficult to drive somewhere and people will not drive there.  Make taxis sit in traffic jams instead of subsidising their industry by allowing them into bus lanes, and their fares will take the train instead.  Make it more expensive for goods vehicles to get into central London and the businesses and organisations that are based there will stop being so wasteful with goods.  Impose airport taxes on budget flights to the continent and people will realise that they can have an equally appalling stag night somewhere nearer home.

Take away a transport route and our remarkably robust network copes just fine.  A sudden emergency causes disruption because people aren’t expecting it; but sufficiently well publicised road works have a far more modest impact because people adjust their plans around them — take a different route, move their journey to an off-peak time, or do something else instead.  Permanently closing a whole road is even better tolerated still: such closures do not leave the surrounding roads gridlocked, at least, not in the long term.  People shift modes and shift behaviours; and eventually, all of the businesses and development patterns that had adjusted to a world in which everybody drove down that road will happily adjust back to one in which they don’t.

The amount of road space that we have now is essentially arbitrary: it could go up or down without making the slightest difference to the traffic jams its users moan about.

So it is not true that our streets are too small to accommodate dedicated cycling facilities.  Our streets are already too small, and will always be too small, to accommodate even a tenth of the potential for private motor-vehicle use, and we cope with that situation.  The road network copes with this situation because nine out of ten Londoners are quite aware of the fact that trying to drive a car through town is an absurd thing to do, and they don’t do it.  Taking away a little bit more will make a negligible difference because a few of the more stubborn Motorists will wake up to the fact and the volume of traffic will adjust accordingly.

And it’s not true that there is no demand for segregated facilities, and anybody who says there isn’t must be living in a fantasy land.  Pick a random non-cycling London commuter and ask them about cycling: more often than not they will tell you that would love to be able to replace their horrible bus journey with a bike ride.  But ninety-nine out of a hundred of them will tell you that they don’t do so because the roads aren’t safe, and there’s nothing to stop a truck driving into them.  Not because they’re afraid that they might get sweaty, or because it occasionally rains, or because they don’t know how to use a spanner, or because they’ve never heard of cycling before.  Entirely because there is no infrastructure that is perceived to be safe.  Cycling has a modal share at the lower end of single figures; it could plausibly account for a third or more of commutes.  Provide fast, capacious, sensible, joined-up and conspicuously safe infrastructure and you will unleash the vast latent demand for cycling.

If you build it they will come.  The only reason not to that Boris has left is to protect his credentials with the primarily non-London Motorist Tories who he will one day want to vote for him to be prime-minister.

–Joe