Tour du Danger: King’s Cross

The Tour du Danger attracted such a massive crowd that in the end it was useless in terms of looking at how the junctions are designed, how people behave on them, and how they might be improved. If you were in the middle of the pack of hundreds of people on bicycles, you wouldn’t even have seen a motorist, let alone have been able to observe their natural behaviour in the wild.

So I thought I’d interrupt the Sunday theme of pleasant quiet videos from the Netherlands with a new theme of nasty noisy videos of London’s (and perhaps beyond London) most dangerous road layouts, as part of the evidence-gathering for the Tour du Danger Dodgy Junctions Dossier — the report to representatives on the ride and the problems with the junctions we visited.

I went to King’s Cross and got a wide-angle of the two eastbound lanes heading onto Pentonville Road, and the five(!) lanes at the top of Grays Inn Road, which split into to two northbound onto York Way and three westbound onto Euston Road (which you have to migrate across if you want to get to York Way):

With a close up looking east at the two lanes of Pentonville Road, with the northbound York Way traffic crossing from right to left:

And a look back at the two-lanes turning into York Way:

The Grays Inn Road to York Way route is an interesting one. There are two lanes leading up to the lights. An advance stop box is provided for cyclists — built to the British standard that puts cyclists who use them in an HGV driver’s blind spot. But the entry to York Way is then relatively narrow, with no lane markings. That shouldn’t be a problem — it’s still wide enough for two vehicles, even if one is a bus or HGV. But the way drivers use it is a problem, treating the traffic lights like the opening of a race, and then running into trouble where the road gets narrow.

And perhaps what the Streetview of the junction is showing is that any bicycle user uncomfortable with “taking the lane” at the front of this race will get squeezed out of it altogether.

Motorists are not supposed to go faster than 30 mph here, but they do, racing and stopping in waves. Motorists are not supposed to turn right from Grays Inn Road to Pentonville Road because there is a pedestrian crossing in Petonville Road which matches the phases of the GIR-York Way traffic — there are more than enough signs, but they do it, honking horns at the pedestrians as they go. Motorists are not supposed to race off when a red light turns amber, or race through as an amber light is turning red, but they do it, causing, if they’re lucky, one stream or the other to brake hard.

There are plans to remove the left-turn lane from Euston Road to York Way* (left, in the Streetview image), and the traffic island with it, having instead more pavement outside the station, and a wider entry into York Way, which will no doubt solve some problems and introduce a whole bunch of new ones. Because the problems here for people on foot and on bicycles are bigger than moving around the street furniture.

In that sense, Peter Hendy and Boris Johnson are right. “Physical streetworks” at junctions like these won’t do a vast amount to help cyclists if your idea of physical streetworks is a minor rearrangement of the furniture with some crap cycle facilities painted on at the sides. But nor will “educating HGV drivers”. The drivers at King’s Cross know that they’re not supposed to go faster than 30, stop beyond the stop lines, park on the bus stops, drive into the box junctions before the exits are clear, race through amber lights, turn right at a “no right turns” sign, take drugs, or drive with defective vision or defective tires or no insurance. It’s not for want of training that a great many go ahead and do those things anyway.

Nothing that Boris Johnson is capable of imagining will fix King’s Cross, because Boris Johnson is incapable of imagining any solution that isn’t simple enough to be easily implemented in time for his next election campaign and given a “Boris” PR moniker to be popularised by the Standard.

King’s Cross is difficult for bicycle users to avoid, not because there’s a lack of (sometimes slow, winding, difficult to find and follow, and therefore unattractive) alternative routes, but because, in addition to being a complex transport route through which planners have tried to stuff as many cars and trucks as possible, it’s supposed to be a place. Despite the traffic making it a very unattractive place, with rows of difficult to reach shabby, closed-down and derelict shops and businesses, it’s still the location of two of London’s major commuter, intercity, and international railway termini, one of its busiest tube stations, and a bunch of big employers. People ride bicycles there because there are things to ride their bicycle to. Any fix for King’s Cross has to acknowledge the scale of the damage the motor traffic does to the place, and it has to acknowledge that some of that traffic has to go away, not simply get rearranged in the street space. Back street cycle bypass routes, helpful though they are for some people and some journeys in the absence of anything better, can not be the solution to a place, a centre of employment and services, being dominated by deadly traffic streams.

Roads like this really need rebuilding completely with people on foot and on bicycle in mind, designed from scratch as places rather than as high speed and high volume motor routes. Not merely this one bit of junction, but the whole network of the Euston Road and King’s Cross one-way system.  (Not that the system being one-way is itself the problem, or that merely making the roads two-way would fix anything — the streets of the old Picadilly system are little better with two-way traffic. Making a good environment for people, and routes that are attractive for cycling, can be entirely independent of whether motor traffic is one-way or two-way. What matters is that motor traffic does not dominate and there is quality dedicated space for cycling; one-way motor traffic might even help achieve that if done right.) I don’t suppose Boris or Hendy are capable of imagining the scale of the change that places like Kings Cross need.

Do you have anecdotes or observations of King’s Cross that might inform the Dodgy Junctions Dossier?

* The diagram of the changes in that post might need a pinch of salt — I think it exaggerates the pedestrian space and it even shows a bike lane where I remember there being a bus lane.