Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?

Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.

Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.

Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.

Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport

One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.

(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)

It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?

I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.

Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.

It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.

If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.

Why the Scottish budget matters

So Glasgow has been building what are (by our very low British expectations) pretty good cycle routes. Far from perfect, but a league above the usual crap cycle lanes. And in the Highlands, routes (primarily recreational) suitable for pootling families and hardcore tourers alike are taking shape. But this progress is under threat from cuts proposed in the budget bill that is currently going through the Scottish Parliament.

The Caledonia Way between Oban and Glencoe is not yet complete (and Sustrans never did get back to me regarding the status of funding for the final third), and patchy bits of a route like this is barely better than nothing: if you were put off by the fifty kilometres of main road, you’ll probably still be put off by the remaining fifteen. Nice to have for the 1% who were already cycling, but no use for growing that 1%. And by ending at Glencoe the route currently misses the trick of linking two railway towns, Oban and Fort William, 20km beyond Glencoe up the A82 trunk road. There is little sign of activity on there, or anywhere else on the Campbeltown to Inverness route, outside of the Oban to Glencoe section.

Glasgow’s routes are also currently incomplete, though somewhat safer as beneficiaries of the Connect2 project — a £50 million National Lottery grant awarded to Sustrans after a public vote (who says the public isn’t interested in funding cycling?). However, Connect2 is a one-off project that will only fund these few routes, and whether to move to the next level — from routes to the network, which the Dutch experiments of 30 years ago demonstrated to be where the really big gains can be made — will be a decision for Scottish politicians.

And politicians in the SNP administration now intend to cut their support for cycling — support that is already mediocre compared to that of the National Lottery, and embarrassing compared to the continent. The budget for “active travel” — cycling and walking — is to be cut from “pocket money” last year to “spare change” next year. At a protest in Edinburgh last month the transport minister in the Scottish government, Keith Brown, tried to blame the Westminster Treasury, who have forced a cut to the overall budget for Scotland. The crowd showed remarkable restraint in the face of such blatant dishonesty. Everybody there already knew that, despite Westminster’s cuts, Scotland’s transport budget is to rise, with additional spending on motorways and other old fashioned road widening projects on a scale that will dwarf the active travel budget.

How Scotland chooses to spend money on transport is obviously important to its residents. Glasgow especially feels the problems of car centric planning and car dependency greater than most of the UK. The city occupies unfortunate positions in league tables of health and deprivation, and while some would like to pin all of Glasgow’s health problems on personal failings involving Buckfast and deep-fried Mars bars, we know that a crucial factor in our health is the environment in which we live and extent to which it allows us to live healthily. For several decades the environment in Glasgow has been one in which choosing to walk or cycle has been made unattractive and difficult, and in which those who do make the choice will spend their travel time stewing in the fumes that drift off the motorways.

That’s not to say that everybody chooses to sit behind the wheel instead. Like the rest of the UK, a lot of people simply don’t have that choice — though you might be surprised to hear it given the reluctance of our media and politicians to acknowledge the existence of people who have never been able to afford to own cars. In fact more than half of Glasgow households are car free — one of the highest rates in the EU. A lot of those households are therefore denied many of the economic, educational and cultural opportunities that arise in this world built for drivers, at the same time as having to deal with all of the consequences of the motorways that thunder through their neighbourhoods. Glasgow’s transport environment has been propping up inequality as well as ill health, and the new budget proposes extending the out-dated policies that created that environment.

In a time of austerity and struggling economic recovery, what Britain generally, but Glasgow especially, desperately needs is a cheap, easy and egalitarian means for people to access economic opportunities, not more motorways on which those who can still afford it can burn wealth in the form of oil.

But how Scotland spends its money on transport is important to all of us, even if we don’t plan on using Scotland’s transport, and for the same reason that the outcome of the upcoming election in London matters to the whole UK. Devolution of power over transport planning and investment enables the sort of radical new policy directions and innovations that transport secretaries at Westminster have been unable to achieve in decades. In Scotland, the previous Labour administration used that power to make some notable reversals of the Beeching Axe. In London, Ken Livingstone used it to introduce the Congestion Charge, with its associated improvements to buses, ticketing and streets. In Wales, a cycling bill is in the current legislative schedule, and it looks likely (though details are not yet available) that if passed this would introduce new responsibilities and tougher standards for Welsh local authorities to provide for bicycle journeys, and may make changes to the law where the law currently stands in the way of quality provision.

The devolved administrations get to invest, experiment and innovate in a way that doesn’t happen in the rest of the country. But the rest of the country will follow eventually, when the solutions are no longer experimental or worryingly innovative. These administrations are the trend setters, so when they choose to squander their opportunities on old fashioned motorways instead of the transport we need in the 21st century, the whole country is waiting behind them doing the same.

Return to Glasgow again

A quick update on this post, which was in turn an update on this one. Briefly: when I passed through Glasgow in the spring there were some cycle tracks under construction (and on streets that the Mayor of London, and many cycle campaigners even, would no doubt describe as “too narrow”), and, while they looked pretty good, the markings were not yet down, so there were some ambiguities about how it might work.

I will make a wider point about these tracks and more in a future post, but for now, this post is just some photos showing off what Glasgow has been getting — not just here, but at several similar routes in the city.

The good news: the crossing of side-roads has been done pretty much exactly right: the priority is clear, and if the markings weren’t enough, the contrasting colour should be:

It’s not quite 100% perfect: as the coloured surface shows, there is still a rather generous sweeping curve for vehicles turning left onto the minor road to race across the tracks. But it’s plenty enough to make it one of the best examples of on-street cycle tracks in the UK… not that this is a great boast.

The not so good news is where the tracks switch from one side of the road to the other, at the same time as the road is intersected by another minor road. When I was last here, it wasn’t year clear how crossing to the opposite corner of the crossroads was going to work.

Well it’s a two stage crossing. The minor road is another cycle track priority crossing, with coloured surface to make it obvious, though this time the track first briefly jumps up and down kerbs (and slippery ridged paving that’s potentially dangerously aligned) over a wee patch of shared use footway.

Then comes the crazy bit, a toucan crossing:

I’ve only passed this way a couple of times — at the tail end of the evening and morning rush hours — so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but a signal controlled crossing seems like overkill. Signals are expensive to install and power, so you’d expect authorities to be cautious about using them. But I just can’t work out why they’re needed here. The two obvious simpler solutions would be to have a non-signaled crossing with cyclist priority (and a zebra), as has been done with the minor side-roads, or a non-signaled crossing with motor priority. My impression of the motor traffic volume was such that the latter would not hold up cyclists any longer than the signals do. The former would obviously be preferred, and my impression of cycle and foot traffic volume was that cycle priority and a zebra would not hold up motor traffic much — though it would hopefully contribute to slow speeds on a street lined with shops, flats, and a playing field. I don’t know… perhaps at the height of rush hour it’s required.

My suspicion is that there is a toucan here simply because the old fashioned engineering rule book can’t accommodate the more obvious alternative.

That’s the only real issue with this new section of the tracks. The width, though perhaps not generous, is certainly sufficient. It would be nice if we were in a position where all those bollards were not necessary, but we’re not. Further on at the traffic lights, the tracks have their own dedicated phase (sadly without a detector that lets cyclists go first, as the Dutch might have):

But the full route isn’t yet complete up to this standard. To reach the city centre you are still directed on an ad hoc route along old footways-turned-shared-paths (signed as cycle routes but still without drop kerbs or toucan crossings) across the tangle of motorway slip roads and into the foreboding poorly-lit motorway underpass. And that leads me to my point…

…which I’ll post when I get the time.

Return to Glasgow

While touring the hills of England and Scotland a month ago, I briefly stopped off again in Glasgow.  I think they must have read my blog and been shamed into action.  Look how the city has changed in just six months!

This is new:

Berkeley Street, West End
Berkeley Street, West End.  (Note how they’ve chosen to do the bus stop in the background.)

This is… interesting:

Junction of Elderslie and Berkley. Not really sure where this route is going...
Junction of Elderslie and Berkley. Not really sure who this route is for. You can see the segregated track continues ahead as a contraflow on Elderslie St, but you have to get back into the carriageway and wait in front of the stop line and the left-turn-only motor vehicles for the lights to give you the clear to cross the junction.  The cycle track traffic light only turns red when the manually-activated pedestrian crossing is used.

This is even newer, and not quite finished:

Elderslie Street, with the previous junction in the distance.
Elderslie Street, with the previous junction in the distance. Cycle track a bit wider here —  looks like they’ve nicked a foot or two of the footway, not just the parking bays that they nicked further up.

And this is even more interesting:

Looking the other way on Elderslie St: the cycle track ends at a crossroads and then restarts on the opposite corner.
Looking the other way on Elderslie St: the cycle track ends at a crossroads and then restarts on the opposite corner, where the yellow “parking suspended” cones are. Not yet clear how users are expected to get there.

The tracks were put in by Sustrans as part of Connect2.  When complete, they will link the University, museums, and park at Kelvingrove to the existing riverside path into the centre.  Other than the funny business at the junctions, the tracks don’t look too bad, though in places — especially that sharp corner with the traffic lights — they are clearly too narrow to comfortably accommodate two-way operation, and we’ll see how they look after a few more years of street maintenance budget freezes.  Other than those concerns, would these tracks prove that the British are sometimes capable of building high quality cycling infrastructure?  Sadly I fear not.  Elderslie Street and the riverside path are a considerable detour if cycling between the university and the city centre.

I almost didn’t recognise the city.  But luckily a few things never change:

A nice traditional Glasgow street surface.
The waterfront.
The waterfront.

Not that Glasgow’s cyclists have anything to complain about.  They have the ultimate segregated facility:

Wind and rain free at all times...
Wind and rain free at all times…

Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow

On Sunday I took a look at Glasgow, a town I have previously only passed through without stopping.  Here’s my commentary: a mix of cameraphone and proper camera photos; some of the commentary comes from the live tweets that accompanied the cameraphone pictures.


M8The great overwhelming presence in Glasgow’s built environment is the M8, which crashes through the centre of the city, dividing the central business district from the inner suburbs, and filling them both with a tangle of concrete flyovers and junctions.  While several British cities have motorway arterial routes, a massive backlash prevented the planners of the 1960s implementing their dream of flattening our city centres and neighbourhoods to build networks of through motorways.  Instead, most cities stuck to bypasses and orbitals, with smaller and not quite so destructive inner-city ring roads.  In this through-motorway design with big city centre grade-separated junctions, Glasgow looks very North American. Continue reading “Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow”

Weekly War Bulletin, 18 Dec

An SDLP Northern Ireland assembly member has proposed making riding a bicycle in Northern Ireland illegal except where the rider is wearing a plastic hat.  I can’t find much coverage of it, but this proposal appears to have already been delayed from August.

Also ongoing under-reported news from Northern Ireland, highlighted by Christian Wolmer this week, is the £800 million A5 dual-carriageway construction.  The bankrupt Irish government (who are already being prevented from opening another new motorway by the workers who are waiting to be paid for having built it) and the cut-happy British government are going halves on the Derry to Dublin road apparently because it makes for a nice piece of symbolic government cooperation.  I’m no expert on the Northern Ireland issue, but my understanding was that the British and Irish governments were already quite good at cooperating, and the issue is instead one of divided communities.  So what could be better than further dividing communities by driving another motorway through them?

The DfT has found that 60% of the people who are able to cycle say that they don’t because they think it’s too dangerous.  Who would have guessed?  And the road haulage industry have noticed that they’re getting rather poor publicity over all the cyclist deaths and victim that’s blame going on — but it’s ok, their PR department are on the case.

After a slow start, Bristol has allocated all of its £11 million cycle city budget.  York is still getting through its cycle city pot, with half a million on routes to and facilities in the station.

There is nobody cycling in Blackpool, therefore building cycle paths is a waste of money, say taxi drivers.  Blackpool cabbies have slammed the council for creating a road nightmare in the town.  “That’s our job,” the taxi drivers said.

Meanwhile, Boris has announced that London taxis will be electric by 2020.  I expect this to happen about as much as anything else that Boris has promised to make happen.  Boris is being praised for bringing in strict rules for taxis — six month checks and an age limit on the vehicles.  No newspaper journalist seems to have noticed that all he is doing is reversing his earlier relaxation of the rules…

There’s a 46% rise in those unregulated First Capital Connect season ticket prices outside of central London.

Northamptonshire’s road safety partnership is the latest to run out of money and switch off its cameras.

36,000 Motorists break speed limits at Gateshead Metrocentre.  None prosecuted. The Metrocentre, largest “shopping and leisure complex” in Europe, looks horrible: wide roads, dual carriageways, and acres of car parks.  And they’re surprised that people drive too fast in this sort of environment.  (I notice that 200k of the Bristol cycling city money went on a bike path to Cribbs Causeway, a similar out-of-town motorway-side “shopping and leisure complex”, when the goal should really be to reverse these awful soul-destroying developments.)

A kitten was thrown from a car on the M1.  And somebody’s throwing snowballs back at the motorists.

An Oxford Tube intercity bus fell over after taking the wrong exit from the motorway.

Two pedestrians were killed by a Range Rover driving on the pavement in central Glasgow.

The Waterloo cycle hire station is open.  I used it last night, and then ran for the train — ten minutes had been wasted running around the Picadilly area trying to find a bike in the first place.  Could you put some on Albemarle Street please?

Fat coppers break their bikes.

Nice acceptable middle-class crime: while local authorities have to cut services, Westminster are owed £18 million by people who think the world should organise itself around their Mercedes.  Meanwhile in Kent, nice middle-aged Jaguar owners have a bit of fun killing people on the motorway.

Wanking behind the wheel gets you a driving ban.  Mobile phone use not considered an equivalent offence.

For the benefit of vulnerable road users, the US are setting minimum noise levels for electric vehicles, which will presumably amount to a de facto global standard (unless and until another major car purchasing nation sets a stricter standard).

Delightfully absurd transport solution of the week?  A system of delivery tubes under Croydon.

A special bumper pack of zen: first, via RailwayEye, a Christmas carol flashmob in Sheffield station:

And via Going Underground, Christmas carols at Charing Cross:

Finally, via Hembrow, this delightful 1960s video of trains in the snow: