Tag Archives: street furniture

Cyclists need more situational awareness and training

No more learned an authority than Lord Alan Sugar recently proclaimed that cycling infrastructure is unnecessary because cyclists simply need more situational awareness and training.

I realise now that the noble lord has a point. We could save the tiny number of very important people like Lord Sugar who drive into London minutes on their journeys if we just train everybody to be more situation aware.

There’s just one thing I’d have to add to Lord Sugar’s training programme: it’s not just the cyclists we’d have to train.

Because these signposts also need more situational awareness.

These traffic lights need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This guardrail needs more situational awareness.

This utilities cabinet needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This street lamp needed more situational awareness.

These stands needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness.

This 20mph sign needs more situational awareness.

This bollard bottom right needs more situational awareness.

This utilities box needs more situational awareness.

This stand needs more situational awareness.

This bin needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This lamp post needs more situational awareness.

All of this needs more situational awareness.

These signs need more situational awareness.

This stuff needs more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

This zebra crossing needs more situational awareness.

These bollards need more situational awareness.

These 20mph signs need more situational awareness.

This bridge needs more situational awareness.

And this bridge needs more situational awareness.

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness.

All of this shit needs more situational awareness:

This railway needs more situational awareness:

This underground railway needs more situational awareness:

This lake needs more situational awareness:

This “Let’s look out for eachother” sign needs more situational awareness:

This sign needs more situational awareness:

These bollards need more situational awareness:

This sign for cyclists needs more situational awareness:

This photographic representation of a cyclist on a phone box advert needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian guardrail needs more situational awareness:

Traffic signals need more situational awareness:

Ponies need more situational awareness:

The sea needs more situational awareness:

All of this needs more situational awareness:

Cycle paths need more situational awareness:

Trees need more situational awareness:

Rivers need more situational awareness:

These Dutch things need more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This bus lane and contraflow cycle lane needs more situational awareness:

These trees need more situational awareness:

This traffic signal needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing button needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian refuge needs more situational awareness:

This pedestrian crossing needs more situational awareness:

If we can train the cyclists to have more situational awareness and we can train the road signs and the bollards and the bridges and the pedestrian refuges and the zebra crossings and the traffic lights and the fences and the bell bollards and the utilities boxes and the bins and the railways and the lakes and the phone boxes and the guardrail and the cycle paths and the sea to have more situational awareness… then we’re 👌. Lord Sugar will once again be able to do whatever the fuck he likes.

Oh, except we’ll also have to train all the houses, and some of those are quite old and set in their ways…


Friday photo: a handsome Raleigh tourer

On the urban motorway that is Whitechapel.  Whitechapel should be the quintessential neighbourhood High Street: it has the tube station, the bus stops, the shops and pubs and library — sorry, “Idea Store” — and the street market that these vans supply.  As Andy Cameron would put it, Whitechapel has a very high “place status” — it is not an anonymous transport route but a destination, somewhere people go and things happen.  It’s not a part of London that I frequently have reason to visit, but every time I do it is packed with people living their lives.

And yet the powers that be have for decades put Whitechapel the place secondary to Whitechapel the A11, TfL trunk road.  This is a High Street on only one side of the road; the other has withered and died because crossing the four to six lanes of traffic has been deliberately made as difficult as possible with the use of metal barriers and cages to supplement the barrier of fast moving rivers of traffic.  There are a few official crossing points, where crowds gather as the signal timings make it clear how much their time is valued relative to the other road users’.  The High Street and street market is being prevented from reaching its full potential, as growth is limited not by lack of interest from businesses or customers but by lack of space — space that is currently given to the movement and storage of cars.

Isn’t it interesting how we always manage to find room for the storage of cars?

What I don’t understand is why the bicyclist chose to chain to a signpost, instead of the excellent cycle stands nearby?

Looks like the signage has suffered from some strong winds...

If you’re interested in the colourful transit van, check out this week’s Spitalfields Life for an explanation.  The vans are essentially storage for the market traders, who seem to be subverting the fact that society tolerates using the streets as free storage, so long as you’re storing a vehicle-shaped object.

More photography and prints for sale at my photography site.

Risk compensation, shared space and unstable evolutionary strategies

The great evolutionary biologist, George C Williams died this week.  One of his many contributions was to explore the population genetics of sex ratios — the relative abundance of males and females in populations.  Williams observed that in most of the animal species that reproduced sexually, there were an equal number of males and females.  But in most species this is hugely wasteful.  Consider a species like deer, where one stag keeps a harem of does: a single male can mate with many females.  And so the majority of males are evolutionary dead ends; from the point of view of cold heartless biology, they are wasted.  It would be far more efficient if the species produced many fewer males.

This curious observation turned out to contribute to a major development in evolutionary biology: Williams and his colleagues realised that in a population that had many more females than males, any heritable tendency — any strategy — that led one lineage to start producing more males would be at an advantage, because those males would have a very high probability of producing hundreds of offspring.  The rest of the lineages would be at a disadvantage, investing in females which would only ever have a few offspring.  The many-males strategy, inherited by the hundreds of offspring, would become more common in the population.  But then the population would no longer have many more females than males, and the strategy would no longer have an advantage: for each male there is now a much higher risk that they will not reproduce at all.  Now, any lineage which took the opposite strategy — to produce safe females — would be at an advantage.  The many-males strategy destroys the very conditions that make it a good strategy.  This idea was part of the mid-20th century revolution that explained evolution as a process of fluctuating gene frequencies in populations: selfish genes and their strategies, competing in the context of the individuals and environment around them.  The revolution finished-off the idea that anything in nature was done “for the good of the species”; all that exists in nature is the best set of strategies for maximising short-term existence that selfish genes have yet stumbled upon.

Shared space is supposed to work by creating an unusual situation, free from all the signs and barriers, markings and signals that attempt to keep the road safe (or, at least, to manage the danger).  It is proposed that road users will perceive this strange foreign situation to be unusually risky, and so the Motorist will compensate for that perceived risk by slowing down, and the pedestrian will compensate for the risk by keeping on eye on their surroundings.  It’s all in the risk compensationIn Portishead, for example, the council have switched off the traffic lights and covered them with bright orange plastic.  The users of the roads of Portishead do not need to perceive that under normal circumstances these are the sort of roads that would need signals to keep them safe.  They have the signals right there saying it, better than any sign ever could.  Shared space works in Portishead because road users perceive the road to be unusually risky, and they perceive it to be unusually risky because they can see a set of signals that are conspicuously switched off.

On normal “safe” non-shared roads, road users already take absurd risks with their own and others’ lives.  London is stuffed with builders driving trucks while talking on phones, and minicabbers who will happily kill a cyclist just to get to the back of the next queue for the lights a couple of seconds quicker.  As the saying goes, if the car were invented today, it would be banned by modern health and safety — and that doesn’t reflect badly on modern health and safety.  We should surely be perceiving this great risk and adjusting our behaviour to compensate.  But we don’t.  Because the road is mundane.  These risks are just our boring every day commute, or the least fun part of a family day out; the bit that makes the builder late for his job and the kids scream “are we nearly there yet”.

What happens when the signals in Portishead are not simply wrapped in plastic, but ripped out altogether?  What happens when Bristol, and Clevedon, and Weston-super-Mare all do the same thing?  When no streets anywhere have traffic signals?  Road users will not be expecting to see them, will not consider their absence unusual.  A shared space will be just another street, like all the other streets.  Why should a road user perceive it as being associated with any greater risk than any other street?  Why should Portishead’s shared space then be anything other than our boring every day commute?  Why should Weston’s shared space be anything other than the least fun part of a family day out*?  Why should a road user then adjust their behaviour to compensate for a risky shared space any more than they currently do for our already staggeringly dangerous roads?

Shared space is a strategy and it is strategy that relies upon its own novelty and rarity to be effective.  When every street is filled with signals, signs, markings and bariers, shared space is a strategy that has a high probability of paying off big time.  But as shared space becomes more common; as more road users become familiar with, and comfortable with shared space, every shared space scheme becomes less effective, until shared space becomes so common and mundane that they all fail.  Traffic planners and politicians will suddenly discover that the opposite strategy, to attempt to manage the traffic, is more effective and attractive; that in the new population of streets, it is the traditionally managed ones that are the safer strategy.  And so the population cycle will continue, to the great joy of traffic-light manufacturers and aggregate companies.

Evolution is a nasty, wasteful, amoral process, with no forethought.  Evolution provides short term incremental improvements at the expense of long-term progress.  A small short-term sacrifice or investment that could pay-out a giant jackpot will simply be invisible to evolution.  It is not something we should imitate or interpret as a parable for how to lead our lives.  Civilisations should be capable of planning, cooperating, and acting for the good of the society.  We should be able to recognise that for a short-term sacrifice and investment, we can come up with a strategy that is far superior than any of the equally wasteful and unsustainable variants on the car-dependency strategy.

* Weston was a bad choice of example, wasn’t it?

Shared space in Portishead

Every journalist and cycling campaign group can cite one great example of a town where the simple switching off of every set of traffic lights has transformed it overnight into a transport utopia: Drachten, half way between Amsterdam and Groningen in the Netherlands.

Here in the UK, Drachten’s experiment is being repeated with reportedly great success in the nearest equivalent town that we have — Portishead in Somerset:

Portishead is a little smaller than Drachten, with a fast growing population currently at around 25,000, compared to the Dutch town’s 45,000.  But like Drachten, Portishead has no passenger railway line, and is bypassed by a motorway.  In Dracten, Phillips R&D employs thousands; in Portishead, Argos and Homebase employ literally tens of people.  But both towns also serve as dormitories for centres of employment nearby.  Drachten is just down the bike path from Groningen, the largest city in the Dutch north-east, and Europe’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 57%.  Portishead is just down the NCN bike track from Bristol, the largest city in England’s south-west, and the UK’s cycling city, where cycling has a modal share of 5%.

In short, with so many controlled variables — such striking similarities between the two towns — there can be no reason why simply switching off the traffic lights won’t achieve in Portishead the same clean, friendly, decongested transport utopia as Drachten.  The gentlemen of Bristol Traffic might like to take their white van on a trip to the seaside, and tremble at the power of a dozen orange bin bags, a roll of duct tape, and a yellow “Signals Not In Use” sign.  They might even find themselves spontaneously showing other road users respect.

Only one person on the video questions whether ripping out the traffic management will, alone, solve Britain’s transport problems: it will only work if we also have driver education, to teach empathy and equality.  Ah, that must be what the Dutch have that we’re missing.

Shared space

The latest trend in street engineering is shared space.  It sounds great: the street belongs to everybody, Motorist, pedestrian and cyclist, and we all look out for one another and show some respect.  It’s a reversal of the forced traffic management: the curbs and railings that segregate vehicles from people; the feeder lanes and traffic lights and one-way systems that take decisions about traffic flow out of the hands of the Motorist; the crowds of warning signs and prohibitions, all shouting information at the Motorist who is treated as too dim to work it out for himself; and the omnipresent bollard, that cares for those Motorists who really are too dim even to read the signs.  The idea is that with everybody sharing the road space, we will all have to adopt a different attitude: a new culture will emerge.  We will all be forced to act responsibly and courteously; Motorists will have to drive carefully, pedestrians will have to stay aware of their surroundings, and we will all have to give way until it’s our turn.

It’s a reversal of decades of ever more elaborate schemes to manage traffic and the harmful effects of urban private car use.

It’s nice.  It seems like a cute idea.  My immediate reaction is to like it.  And it’s a popular one.  All the urban planners and sustainable transport groups are saying what a miracle cure it is; all the journalists are falling over each other trying to share the shared space in the transport utopia that is Drachten in the Netherlands.  Politicians are falling in love with the money-saving planning philosophy, and the first samples are being put in place in Exhibition Road and in towns around the country.

But after further contemplation, I find that it says something very interesting about traffic management and the state that we have got ourselves into.  It says that traffic management has failed.

Traffic lights and bollards were not invented to fill a void in council expenditures.  They were invented to solve real problems that had existed without them, real problems that, if left unsolved, would become unbearable.  They are there for a reason.  The widespread use of oversized and overpowered private vehicles in cities causes dozens of major problems: the symptoms of a car sick culture are problems with space, pollution, impaired mobility, conflicts, health, and many more; symptoms that authorities have so far attempted to manage.  The management methods for traffic problems that the planners developed were not random.  They were based on evidence of their efficacy.  They worked.  But now, with more management schemes than ever, the city is also more blighted by the problems of traffic than ever.  We have failed to acceptably manage the symptoms of car sickness for many reasons: because drivers adapted their behaviour around the management schemes; because the roads filled with too many conflicting schemes; and most of all, because over the years the roads filled with traffic, more traffic than could ever be managed.

The idea that shared space might now eradicate the symptoms of car sickness in the city seems optimistic.  The assumption is made, perhaps, that the reason why traffic management failed — the huge growth in traffic density — is the same reason why, when we revert to pre-traffic management streets, we will not simply revert to pre-traffic management problems.  And certainly the absurdly optimistic assumption is made that, while magically solving all of our existing problems, shared space will not create entirely new ones.

Shared space might be a miracle cure.  But it might just as plausibly be a desperate and unrealistic last-ditch attempt to justify continuing to allow masses of inappropriate private vehicles on London streets that manifestly can not handle them.  Sixty years of experiments have been conducted, attempting to find a way that the mass use private cars and fleets of taxis might be compatible with the narrow and complicated streets of London.  Every experiment has failed.  Rather than giving in and acknowledging that mass car and taxi use simply can not work in central London — can not be managed except by physically barring it — the politicians and planners seem to have decided to start over at the beginning, and run all of the experiments one more time.

Miracle cure or last-ditch reprieve for a failed system: my first and second gut reactions.  Over the next few weeks, I’ll look at where the evidence is pointing — right now, I’ve no idea which way it’ll go.

In pictures: Bollard collides with motor vehicle

Here on the Old Kent Road, a bollard has been involved in a collision with a motor vehicle.  It is not yet clear which party was at fault.

Bollard collides with motor vehicleBollards are fascinating creatures.  Over the course of a number of posts, I want to show you how the once humble bollard turned its back on life as an innocent east end docker,

and took up position on the front line of the War On The Motorist, multiplying, moving west, and infiltrating every part of the city.  Bollards are at right in the thick of the action, and I will explain how they represent perfectly the issues that are the centre of this dispute.

I will tell you of the history of bollards, and how the history of bollards is a history of the war; how the different varieties of bollards reflect the various major developments in the conflict; and why the true test of whether the war is over would be whether Britain could survive without its tens of millions of bollards.