Tour du Danger: Waterloo

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?

Shared-use facility of the month

Riding up to Waterloo recently, I spotted a wonderful collection of pavement obstructions — roadworks signs, a fast food kiosk that takes most of the width of the footway, and A-board advertising the fast food kiosk just in case you hadn’t spotted the kiosk itself, and a fixed shared-use cycle/footway sign, designating this pavement as a place to ride your bike.

It’s not entirely clear from the sign’s position and jaunty angle whether the shared-use applies to the narrowed pavement outside the kiosk, or the even narrower pavement alongside the Charing Cross railway arches.

(distorted by ultra-wideangle lens)

The latter could be a useful route up to Waterloo (up the ramp in the distance on the left) avoiding having to go through the roundabout and bus station (beyond the traffic lights on the right), though it would make a lot more sense just to add “except cycles” to the “no entry” sign on this little-used one-way street.

But I realised later that it’s probably to take you up to those traffic lights, which control a toucan crossing allowing one to make the right turn into a quiet side-streets route without having to pull across two lanes and wait in the middle of the road for the oncoming traffic.

There are dozens of ways this could be improved, by moving the kiosk out of the way, moving stop-lines back on the oncoming carriageway and on the no-entry side-street, and having a proper bit of cycle track leading into the crossing. Just as Haarlem patched the ugliest bits of this ugly road, one can imagine a great many far superior ways to deal with this crossing.

But anything you build to serve this crossing is always going to be far from satisfactory because the entire concept is wrong. There should be no need to cross here at all because the recommended cycle route shouldn’t be meandering down little side-streets like Exton Street. If you want people to cycle, you need to give them an attractive, direct, easy to follow route, that doesn’t waste their time with constant changes of direction and checking of signs. Main roads like this need a complete rebuild — as they tend to get every few decades anyway — but with proper thought and planning. It’s not difficult to see where the space can be taken from vehicles (and kiosks) on this road of bloated traffic lanes to provide high quality dedicated space for cycling.

Until that happens, trying to route cyclists through cramped and crowded bits of pavement kinda makes TfL and Lambeth look like a bunch of idiots.

London cycle hire: second thoughts

Way back in July, when the Barclays Cycle Hire scheme launched a couple of months late, we had a little play around with the bikes to get our first thoughts.  Just a quick back-and-forth beside the BFI.  The bikes were fun and sturdy, just right for their particular job.  It was only later that we saw the credit card bill.

Since then, the “vandal proof” Boris Bikes have had time to be hit by a few cars and kicked around after a few Christmas parties.  More importantly, since then I have temporarily left London and become instead a once-or-twice-a-month visitor for business and social events —  pretty much the target audience for the hire bikes.  So I’ve been using them (or trying to) on the non-member “casual” basis on the five days I was in town these past couple of weeks.

The first thing to note is that it’s very easy to use the non-member system, and once you’ve done it once, it becomes easier still.  When I first hired one it took little more than sixty seconds (though of course I agreed to the EULAs without reading a word of them), and once you’ve got your one/five day access, it’s even simpler next time.  At least, this was the case on the first day when I used them.  On the second day, on the South Bank, something wasn’t right — all the machines were very slow to respond, the buttons needed a harsh jab before they would do anything, and after two minutes of waiting with the spinning circles, they gave an unhelpful error message.  This has since happened on 40% of the days when I’ve tried to hire a bicycle on 24hr access (n=5).  In each case I was in a hurry and had to quickly implement alternative plans, so didn’t bother calling customer services.  If it happens again and I have the time to spare, I’ll see what happens and report back.

The second is availability of bikes: on the first day, my snow-delayed coach from Scotland got in to Victoria at just after 9; on the second day my snow-slowed train from the Westcountry got into Waterloo at just after 9.  In both cases the docking stations — including the massive one at Waterloo — were empty.  But there were plenty in the nearest neighbouring stations, including those behind the festival hall and under Waterloo Bridge, where Serco were still redistributing bikes in the morning, despite the new “super” station at Waterloo which was supposed to end the need for redistribution to and from the South Bank.

The reverse was true when making the return journey: the “super” station at Waterloo was full by seven o’clock, forcing one to ride around the South Bank seeking an alternative.  Then run for your train.

Running for trains brings me to the third observation to note: the docking station black-spots.  Due to objections from the boroughs, not all of the stations have yet been installed.  Their absence was particularly noted in the Albemarle Street area when I left the pub 25 minutes before the last train, but proceeded to waste 10 minutes running around looking at Layar before I found a station.

The Kenny Farthings themselves remain excellent, and far superior to my shoes in the snow.  On one, the gears were noticeably slow and crunchy when changing, but, given my bad habit of leaving bicycles in top gear and using brute force, I didn’t have much opportunity to examine that.

All this matches what those who responded to the London Assembly transport committee’s survey said: the bikes are great, but the scheme doesn’t make for a reliable transport option.  Where buses are slow, tubes vulnerable to signal failures and suicides, and taxis likely to get caught in jams, a hardy bicycle should be the most reliable way to make a journey of a few miles through central London.  But the hire bikes aren’t.  Try to rely on them and one day you’ll turn up at an empty docking station or a terminal that spends five minutes loading an error message; no oyster card in your pocket or taxi pre-booked.  If you do get a bicycle, have you planned in advance where you’re going to leave it at the end of the journey, and if your preferred destination dock were to be full, have you considered your backup plan and left enough time if you need to use it?  I hope these are just the last few teething troubles, and not an indication that, like most British transport and built-environment projects, politicians are willing to invest in building something fancy and new and newsworthy, but not in its subsequent boring running costs, maintenance and bug fixes.

According to the end-of-year TfL report, the hire bikes get a lot of custom from commuters, and some from business use.  And the bikes would indeed be perfect for the sort of central London professional who currently takes taxis to meetings — if only journeys and journey times were consistent and reliable.  Under the current (evolving) implementation, they’re of more use to tourists who have all the time in the world and nothing important to get to.