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.

Smoothing the flow: pushing more kids into cars

We know that Boris Johnson’s fantasy of “smoothing traffic flow” will act as an incentive for people to get into their cars and, even more so, for businesses to move more stuff around. In a city like London there is much more potential demand for road space than could ever be supplied, because individuals and businesses who see an empty bit of road will always conjure some reason to fill it. An equilibrium is maintained by the tolerance that individuals have for sitting in traffic and the tolerance that businesses have for spending money doing business on the roads.  Add or remove capacity to London’s road network and it will not make the slightest difference to congestion or journey times. It’s not like we haven’t tried it enough time to be sure of that.

What is not so obvious is that in addition to pulling people into motor vehicles, it will push them in too. There are several reasons why. One of them is that the mayor is ripping out traffic lights and pedestrian crossings, making walking more difficult, dangerous, and time consuming.  There are a number of reasons why this will push people into cars, but I stumbled upon a nice one while skimming through Hume et al, Walking and cycling to school: predictors of increases among children and adolescents.

Hume et al looked at the variables that affected the success of a programme to encourage walking and cycling to school. They surveyed the opinions of the children and their parents on all sorts of aspects of their lifestyles and of their social and physical environments. Two variables were strongly associated with success: the perception that other children in the neighbourhood were walking to school*, and the provision of safe crossings.

Well, not exactly the provision of safe crossings, but the perceived provision of safe crossings. Specifically, the survey asked participants if they agree/disagree with the statements “there are no traffic lights / pedestrian crossings for my child to use” and “I am satisfied with the pedestrian crossings in my neighbourhood”. Parents, whose job it is to worry, are of course easily affected by perceptions of safety, and when they perceive safety to be compromised they do something about it — like put their child inside a big metal box.

Even if there is just about a sufficient provision of crossings to get their child to school, the provision of crossings in the wider neighbourhood will still affect whether a child is walked or driven to school for all sorts of reasons, including: the perception of how safe it is to walk to school is influenced by an environment wider than just the route to school; the number of other children in the neighbourhood walking to school will itself be influenced; and those living in less walkable neighbourhoods are more likely to own and frequently use cars, including over short distances, making driving to school seem like a less unusual thing to do.

Off course, none of this says anything certain about what the precise effects of the mayor’s removal of traffic lights and pedestrian crossings will be — quite the opposite. In the complex, chaotic, unstable and irrational world of travel choices, the mayor can’t hope to make isolated quick fix tweaks without sending unpredictable shocks through the system.

Further problems with the mayor’s traffic lights games are discussed by Cycle of Futility.

Just Stay Indoors

How best to get the road safety message to the yoof of today? A catchy hook? A rap? Too passé. A cartoon? Too juvenile. What about zombies. Brilliant. Depict an apocalyptic world populated by undead victims of road traffic accidents. The kids will love it. Or be too terrified to ever leave their homes. But that’s a risk you take if you’re Newcastle City Council. The first line of the council’s new Road Safety website states:

Traffic is the single biggest cause of accidental death for 12 to 16 year olds.

The second is suicide. Being a teen is ace! Alongside gory, gratuitous mocked up photographs of zombified traffic victims, are tabs on cycling and pedestrians. These are divided into facts and, er, survival skills. Because transporting oneself outside of a vehicle is that dangerous. Here are a few of those facts.

  • Teenage boys are six times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on bikes than teenage girls.
  • Young people aged between 11 and 16 are more at risk of being killed or seriously injured as a pedestrian or cyclist in road accidents than any other age group.
  • Wearing a cycle helmet can improve your chances of survival, and reduce the chance of serious injury.

Firstly, your chances of being killed as a cyclist as ridiculously low. Far, far lower, than as a motorist. There were 104 pedal cyclist fatalities in 2009. To begin a section on cycling with the assumption that YOU MAY DIE is to basically scare off a generation of teenagers from forming walking and cycling habits that could become embedded in part of a healthy lifestyle.

In a similar vein, the section on walking warns teens that:

  • Young people aged between 11 and 16 are more at risk of being killed or seriously injured as a pedestrian or cyclist in a road accident than any other age group.
  • Traffic is the biggest cause of accidental death of 12 to 16-year-olds.
  • 1 in 5 teenagers report having been involved in a road accident.

Again, I see this as scare-mongering – in addition to being told that if they walk home late at night they will be kidnapped and murdered, they will now also be mown down by vehicles, unless they drive or board them.

Why are the council ploughing money into an “edgy” campaign that will only serve to turn teens away from cheap, healthy modes of transportation? People who start walking and cycling in their teens, generally keep walking and cycling. I’ve lost count of the number of peopel I’ve met in their twenties who want to cycle, but are unsure of where to start, and wish they had kept it up instead of stopping once they hit 13. Cycling isn’t dangerous, if you teach drivers to look out for cyclists properly, and if cyclists feel safe on roads. Similarly, if pedestrians have places to cross, they don’t get run over.

A savvy website may grab attention, and make the council feel “hip”. Unfortunately, the cost of outreach schemes, when the health service is overstretched due to heart disease rates skyrocketing years down the line is a lot harder to predict.


Waiting for God

I stopped off at Ludgate Hill one morning in October, after reading this on Cyclists in the City:

…most of the elected politicians [in the square mile] don’t seem to care about cycling or walking.

What they do care about is this zebra crossing opposite St Paul’s on Ludgate Hill. Several times, I’ve heard City politicians and planners complain about this crossing and refer to it as a problem. Guess what the ‘problem’ is? Simple: the problem is that City politicians don’t like the fact they have to wait in their taxis in a queue of traffic while pedestrians have the extremely rare right of way.

And the only reason this crossing hasn’t been replaced by a traffic light is because the City planners think traffic lights in front of St Paul’s might be ugly and they can’t think of a better solution.

With God on our side…

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.

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.