Copenhagenize recently analysed in detail how Danes behave at an urban intersection. I wonder what they would make of the terrifying mess that is the British urban road junction?
Mark commented on an observation that Richard Lewis of LCC made, an aside in his Street Talk last month.
is this street out here [Theobald’s Road] an appropriate location for that type of [segregated] infrastructure presumably segregation?. Or is it kind of a bit ‘I’m not sure?’ Is the volume of cyclists using this street enough to calm the motor traffic down, so that actually it becomes safe and inviting for cycling? Or do you think there should be dedicated infrastructure?’
It doesn’t look so terrible in the photo that Mark used, does it? All buses and taxis, outnumbered by cyclists. But I never got around to posting the footage I captured of the Theobalds Road / Grays Inn Road intersection for the Tour du Danger series last year, shot from outside the newsagents, where the bicycles are chained up and the folk are waiting to cross the road on the left of the photograph…
To really see what’s going on, though, you have to take a few steps back to reveal the conjoined intersection: the fork of Clerkenwell Road and Rosebury Avenue, which you can just see hints off, behind the newsagents in the photo, as YouTube user pgsmurray has done…
Safe and inviting? There’s a reason this junction was in the Tour du Danger. The relatively high volume of cyclists — coupled with the atrocious fast and confusing road design, signalling conflicts, and appalling road use discipline — puts this junction in London’s top ten for cyclist casualties. So much for safety in numbers.
Modal choice in London has generally been less about pulls and more about pushes: there isn’t a Londoner who doesn’t have some complaint about their commute, after all. Very little about getting around London, by any mode, is all that inviting. If a few more people are cycling along this road, it’s probably more about the push of an overcrowded Central Line, of paying to sit in jams going out of fashion with city centre workers, and of poor public transport options in Hackney. For a few — an unrepresentative few — the horrors of all the other options currently outweigh the horrors of cycling along this road. What happens when Crossrail opens, almost directly beneath these roads, and the pushes away from public transport are eased?
Building a policy of cycle safety and traffic calming on a high volume of cyclists on the road is a risky strategy: the volume can go down as well as up. And then you’re right back at the beginning again…
This is part of a series gathering thoughts on what is wrong with London’s road junctions.
If the junction of the A301 Waterloo Road/Waterloo Bridge and the A3200 York Road — the BFI IMAX roundabout — were just a roundabout it wouldn’t be very interesting. It probably wouldn’t be quite so dangerous for people on bicycles, either — not that the standard British design three-lane large-radius roundabout is at all safe or inviting, it’s just that this junction is made extra special by the Waterloo Bus Station beside the railway arches:
The bus station is on the northbound side of Waterloo Road, and the northbound section of the roundabout is, perhaps uniquely, split in two, both in space and time: the buses exiting the bus station have their own phase of the lights, and their own dedicated carriageway for this quarter of the roundabout. In amongst the sprawling traffic traffic lanes and bustling bus station, a few scraps of stop-start “cycle facility” are provided.
Heading north on a bicycle on Waterloo Road, when past the left-turn into the bus station, one is given the option of a tight-left turn into a narrow fully segregated unidirectional cycle track (best illustrated by this architect’s drawing of a hypothetical bus shelter). There is no such cycle track for bicycle users entering the roundabout from any of the other arms, but they are provided with a way into this cycle track once they have negotiated the roundabout all the way past the Waterloo Road arm. Except that by then the cycle track has already run out and instead become, for the final few yards, an on-street cycle lane, within the bus station, on the right-hand side of the buses. That leads you up to the advance stop box and the traffic lights in this video.
I can’t think of any reason why anybody would use this facility, except out of cautious lack of familiarity with the road, in the mistaken belief that a cycle track will safely lead them to where they need to go. The timing of traffic lights on the roundabout and on Waterloo Road are such that if you chose to use the facility then the traffic lights for the exit from the bus station will almost always be turning red a few seconds before you reach them, and if they’re not, well, that’s even worse — you’re deposited in a narrow and soon to expire lane on the wrong side of a line of buses all racing to get through the short cycle of the lights.
And see how they race! In fact I observed a few rounds of the lights before I erected the conspicuous camera and tripod, and I’m sure the drivers must have noticed when they were being filmed, for, before the camera was set up, on every single round of the lights a bus would crawl all the way to the front of the advance stop box and the drivers, clearly intimate with the signal timings and watching the behaviour of the neighbouring traffic streams, were experts in setting off a full second before their own light turned green — every time. You wouldn’t want to be the on a bicycle directed up the narrow lane on the right-hand side of those.
There are several fundamental problems with the ideas behind this junction. One is that it’s good to put bicycles and buses together. British engineers are told by the DfT’s cycle infrastructure guidelines that cyclists like sharing with buses and so engineers should plan them into the bus spaces. But to say that cyclists like sharing with buses is either a misinterpretation or misrepresentation of the research — a survey which found that existing cyclists preferred lanes where they only had to deal with buses over general traffic lanes where they had to deal with buses and fast cars and big trucks. (The same survey also found that cyclists and bus drivers have a low opinion of one another.) Bus lanes are less awful than no bus lanes; that doesn’t mean that most people like riding bicycles in them or that they can bring about mass cycling, and it certainly doesn’t mean that a bus station, where a lot of buses are stopping, waiting, and pulling in and out of tight spaces, is a safe, sensible or attractive cycle route.
But the most fundamental issue is perhaps that both the cycle facility and the bus station is weird cheap improvised one-of-a-kind crap stuffed in where it won’t get in the way of the very important people who drive cars and hire cabs in central London. The de facto hierarchy and prioritisation of motorised modes is a familiar problem, to the point that it is barely interesting when considering this junction. Rather, it’s the cheap improvisation that makes this one stand out. These weird ad lib facilities, which stop-and-start, merge and diverge, and abandon you in unexpected places, apart from being unattractive and unlikely to be much help in bringing about mass cycling, make everybody’s behaviour unpredictable, and that leads to mistakes being made.
Certain British cyclists look at the Netherlands, see it all working smoothly, and conclude that the laws must be beating everybody into good behaviour — the fear of insurance claims under “strict liability”, perhaps. But they’re overlooking the many ways that the Dutch control behaviour through engineering — not merely physically preventing bad behaviour by designing out speed, but also engineering out mistakes by making things obvious and predictable. Roads are built differently to streets and lanes, for example, and it is therefore obvious which you’re on and what is expected of you. Roundabouts in particular are made to be predictable places: there are few designs, with minor variations between them. People on bicycles get their own dedicated space, everybody understands that this is so, and it is made very obvious where bicycles and motor vehicles could come into conflict and which gets priority in those places.
British roundabouts follow no such rules. Some of them are a single lane, some of them two, three, four, or even five or six, depending on how much space the engineers had to play with. Sometimes there are lane markings, sometimes these are concentric circles that you veer across as you proceed, sometimes they spiral around to carry you all the way to your exit, and sometimes lane markings come and go several times in the course of your gyration. Sometimes there are traffic signals on the roundabout, sometimes there are traffic signals only on the entrances, and sometimes a roundabout will have a mix of signalised and non-signalised segments and entries. Sometimes there are signalised pedestrian crossings, sometimes there are informal traffic-island crossings, sometimes there are zebra crossings set back by the statutory distance, sometimes there are underpasses, and sometimes there is nothing and nowhere for people on foot. The huge variety comes from the obsession with eking out every last drip of traffic flow capacity at the expense of safe and intelligible standardised layouts. And the result is confusing and stressful enough for users, even without their having to worry about what sort of bizarre ad hoc cycle facility hack has been woven around the edges.
If you want people to ride bicycles where there are big, fast, complicated roads like this, you need a cycle track, but a proper one, put in the right places, continuous and predictable.
Under Ken Livingstone, when street space was still being reclaimed in the post-CCharge introduction period, a new design for the IMAX roundabout was proposed. There was one of those world-of-their-own architect’s mockups, big on shared space, which imagines that a stone surface makes trucks disappear and leaves a big plaza full of happy pedestrians (and, even more bizarrely, imagines a totally new IMAX building). South Bank organisations are still promoting the plans (passively, at least, through a website last updated two years ago), but there can’t be any chance of anything changing here with Boris in city hall.
Do you have any observations of the Waterloo junction to add to the Tour du Danger dodgy junctions dossier?
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.