Saturday, 31 December 2011

It's not just me, SWOV also thinks "safety in numbers" is untrue

The phrase "safety in numbers", as applied to cyclists, comes up a lot on this blog. It was discussed in this post and this one and this one. It's discussed here a lot because it has been a core belief of many UK cycle activists, and in particularly, organisationally, of the CTC, who never loose an opportunity to promote the idea as basically the "solution" to cycle safety in the UK. Get lots of cyclists on the roads, they say, or imply, and it will all be OK, very safe, without needing to change anything else fundamentally in the road environment.

I must acknowledge some change of tone from the CTC of late, for example, in this letter to the The Guardian written by their Campaigns and Policy Director Roger Geffen, in response to the Guardian article that I also criticised in my last post. Here Geffen does mention the role of road design in creating safe conditions for cycling, while (as usual) stopping short of calling for proper continental-type cycle infrastructure. But in general, CTC has always espoused belief in the "safety in numbers" effect as being key to generating a bigger, safer cycling culture. From this seems to flows their concentration on promoting training for cyclists (though they first started to promote training in the 1930s, long before "safety in numbers" had been heard of). If you train cyclists to cope with our road conditions, you get more of them on the roads, so the argument goes, so it becomes safer, and that encourages more cyclists out, and so on. And from the CTC's concentration on training comes the government's concentration on it. Whenever the government is asked what it is doing about cycling, basically what it talks about is training for cyclists.

There is a counter-view, that I espouse, as have others, particularly Freewheeler, and David Hembrow. This is to look at the post-war history of cycling in the UK, and to note that we have had 60 years of training for cyclists, corresponding to an ongoing collapse in cycling. In our view, training simply is not the solution. The international experience shows you do not get significantly more people on bikes without major changes to the road environment. Cycling in the UK fell from its immediate post-war modal share of about 15% to about 1% today, despite 60 years of training, for reasons that are not going away. You can encourage and train and enthuse as much as you like, but those reasons continue to hold our cycling rate to a very low level, even in the cities that are currently said to be experiencing a "cycling booom" such as London, where cycling is now (2010 figures) up to the dizzy height of 2% modal share.

The modern vogue of the "safety in numbers" theory for cycling, in the English-speaking world (and it does seem to be largely confined there), seems to be mostly down to a rather vague piece of research published by an American, P L Jacobsen in 2003, in the journal Injury Prevention. Here Jacobsen stated his conclusion:
The likelihood that a given person walking or bicycling will be struck by a motorist varies inversely with the amount of walking or bicycling. This pattern is consistent across communities of varying size, from specific intersections to cities and countries, and across time periods.
I describe Jacobsen's research as "vague" because (and you can read the full paper if you like), though it is full of statistics, it lacks sufficient discussion of the radically differing contexts of the figures from different places and times to make its conclusions meaningful. It has no proper discussion of cycle infrastructure, despite the fact that it uses statistics from the Netherlands, where the effects of segregated cycle infrastructure surely cannot be ignored. It says:
The Netherlands has implemented a range of policies to encourage people to walk and bicycle and make them safer. These efforts have succeeded in increasing bicycle use and decreasing risk.
without going into the details of these policies further. But it is these details that are critical.

It also says:
The possible explanations [for changes in cyclist casualty rates] are changes in human behavior, roadway design, laws, and social mores. However, insofar as the changes seen in the time series data occurred rapidly and with both increasing and decreasing amounts of bicycling, it is improbable that the roadway design, traffic laws, or social mores, all of which change relatively slowly, could explain the relationship between exposure and injury rates.
Here is a key unsubstantiated assertion: why is it improbable that changed roadway design could lead to rapid safety change? Surely changing roadway design is by far the fastest method of changing both behaviour and social mores and, consequentially, safety.

In Jacobsen's defence, it may be noted that his final conclusion is simply to say that:
Policies that increase walking and bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving the safety of people walking and bicycling.
And it is fair to say that that may be how it "appears" if one takes a rather blinkered, infrastructure-excluding view of the problem. And he does not say what those policies should be, he does not specify that they should be training or publicity as opposed to road redesign. But unfortunately this work has been often used as evidence for an idea that the good safety record of the Netherlands and Denmark is not due to their well-designed infrastructure, it is due to their having large numbers of cyclists.

Clearly Jacobsen only demonstrated a statistical link, not causality. His conclusion is open to the obvious objection that the causality may be (in fact, seems, on a wider view of the contextual evidence, and also on a common-sense view, far more likely to be) the other way round, that larger numbers cycling are due to higher perceived safety, which is linked to real safety, which is linked principally to road design (and users' behaviour as influenced by road design).

Anyway, all this is a just pre-amble to tell you that the Director of SWOV, the Dutch institute for road safety research, agrees with me on this. His discussion on the subject is contained in a column on page 3 of the Autumn 2011 Research Activities published by SWOV in English. I would rate Fred Wegman, Director-manager of SWOV, as the world's greatest expert on cycle safety, on the principle that you listen to those who have achieved rather than talked about a goal. I quote his article in full:
Safety in numbers: more cyclists, lower risks?
A swarm of birds or insects, a school of fish, a flock of sheep, a pack of wolves. Language has many possibilities to indicate a group of animals. Biology has taught us that a group offers protection and increases safety for the individual members of the group. It is more difficult for a predator to attack a group than one single animal. For this reason a predator uses the strategy to isolate an animal from its flock before attacking it.

This is also the thought that occurred to me when studying cyclist safety: why not compare the safety of one individual cyclist with the safety of a group of cyclists. The risk of the one single cyclists is greater than that of a cyclist who is part of a group. The American
researcher Jacobsen compared the casualties among cyclists in different countries and
tried to establish a relation with the amount of bicycle traffic. He concluded that “Policies
that increase the numbers of people bicycling appear to be an effective route to improving
the safety of people bicycling”. In other words: add more cyclists to traffic and cyclist
safety will increase. This is a popular idea among those who put effort into stimulating cycling and therefore Jacobsen’s conclusion is quoted frequently in these circles. However,
I believe that this conclusion is not correct. I will try to explain why.

If there is much cycling in a country, the risk for cyclists is indeed lower. Comparison of
statistics of different countries offers conclusive evidence. The risks in countries that have
a lot of cycling like the Netherlands and Denmark are (much) lower than in countries where cycling is a less important mode of transport. The explanation may be twofold. Firstly,
there are the expectations of the other road user. If a driver does indeed expect a cyclist
on the road, as is the case in the Netherlands and Denmark, the risk is lower. But a second
explanation is conceivable: if there are more cyclists, more safe cycling facilities will be
constructed (which in turn make cycling more pleasant). We have sufficient evidence that
cycling facilities (like bicycle tracks) reduce the risks of cycling. Not only do the Netherlands and Denmark have many cyclists, there are also many cycling facilities. 
I do not expect that just a greater number of cyclists will on its own result in a risk reduction for the cyclist. On the other hand, I do expect that more cycling facilities will lead to lower risks. Policy that only focuses on an increase in cycling and at the same time ignores the construction of more cycling facilities, will not have a positive effect on road safety. Unless, of course this policy also takes care of cyclists only cycling close to one another: in a swarm, school, flock, or pack of cyclists.

This is the clearest statement I have seen in print that Dutch road safety experts do not agree with the simple "safety in numbers" idea, despite the fact that Jacobsen's work relied heavily on Dutch statistics. Wegman is very clear:
We have sufficient evidence that cycling facilities (like bicycle tracks) reduce the risks of cycling. Not only do the Netherlands and Denmark have many cyclists, there are also many cycling facilities.
And as I have often pointed out, the real clincher to the argument is that there are no counter-examples. There is nowhere that has achieved good cyclist safety and mass cycling without these facilities (like bicycle tracks).

Elsewhere in this interesting publication, we read SWOV's opinion on the correct way of dealing with the lorry danger problem, source of so much grief in the UK:
In SWOV’s opinion, the ultimate solution for the blind spot problem is a structural separation of trucks and cyclists. How this must be organised and what the economic consequences will be, requires further study. For the time being, the solution can be found in separating cyclists and trucks at intersection[s], both in time and position.
On Trixi mirrors mounted on signal posts, the devices that are being promoted in London at the moment as a method of addressing the lorry blind-spot problem for cyclists, SWOV has this to say:
This mirror has been found to barely influence truck driver behaviour and is only effective while the truck is stopped in front of the mirror.
The overwhelming impression from the whole document is of the extraordinary seriousness with which the Dutch take cycle safety, and how, far from being satisfied with already having the safest cycling and highest cycling levels in the world, they are continually spending money researching, applying and evaluating better solutions. It is clearly this attitude that lies behind their cycling achievement. "Safety in numbers" is a too-simple concept that in no way summarises the complexity of the problem and the interlocking effects which occur that influence cycle safety.

Yes, if you are talking about the flock or the herd, there is safety in numbers. I was in the Vismarkt, Groningen city centre in September, on a study tour led by David Hembrow. I was sitting there at a café table with David and the others from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, looking at the scene, which was this (video by Stabiliser):

Yes there are huge numbers of cyclists here, "flocks" of them, and it feels very safe for them. But why are there such huge numbers here? It is because urban planning over the whole city has made it difficult to drive here and very easy to cycle. There are no separate cycle facilities here, but that is because they are not needed here. If you look at the rest of the city, as we did, you see the massive network of segregated cycle tracks and traffic-free paths that make it both subjectively and objectively safe to cycle from the suburbs and surrounding villages to the centre, whether there are many or few cyclists cycling around you, resulting in this massive concentration of cyclists in the centre, where all the routes converge, where there is no longer need of segregation. A person parachuting in from Mars, or London, to this spot, might say "Cycle facilities, what cycle facilities? No need, as it is so safe, as the place is full of cyclists". But they would fundamentally misunderstand the context. Similarly, Jacobsen's simplistic comparison of cycling safety with cycling levels critically overlooked context.

Segregated cycle track on a main road leading to Groningen city centre
Happy new year. Let us hope 2012 will be a safer year for cycling in London than was 2011.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Cycling in recessions

Mark King has written a very unfortunate, ill-researched piece in The Guardian, this week, titled Cyclist deaths rise during recessions, figures suggest.

The article tells us:
The DfT's 2011 annual report on UK road casualties shows that cyclist deaths across the UK rose by 7% last year, up from 104 in 2009 to 111 in 2010, just as many of the government austerity measures were kicking in. In the first half of this year the number of cyclists killed or seriously hurt on UK roads rose 12% year-on-year. Cycle deaths also rose by 58% between 1930 and 1935 and by 14% between 1980 and 1984. After both the 1930s and the 1980s recessions, the number of cycle fatalities fell back once again.

The idea that cyclist deaths automatically rise when cycling numbers rise seems a very crude one, ignoring all the factors around danger and the sources of it, and it is also the direct reverse of what the CTC is always telling us, which is that cycling should get safer the more people that do it: the safety in numbers effect. I have argued that the safety in numbers effect is not true, in the way the CTC means it, but it is also patently foolish to regard the background of risks to cyclists as a fixed given, the number of casualties then only being related to the rate of cycling.

To deal with the early 1930s: the period mentioned saw a huge expansion of motor traffic on the roads. All speed limits were removed by the Labour government's Road Traffic Act of 1930. 1934 was the record year for UK road casualties, with 7,343 deaths and 231,603 injuries, half of these being suffered by pedestrians. The new Conservative transport minister in 1934, Leslie Hore-Belisha, described this as "mass murder", and introduced the 30mph limit in towns, plus the driving test and other reforms, which had a big effect in reducing casualties from 1934. So, although there was a depression in the early 1930s, there were a lot of more relevant things going on from the point of view of cycle casualties.

And there have been a lot more relevant things going on recently, as anybody who follows this and similar blogs will realise. Such as the previous transport secretary, Philip Hammond's, War on the motorist rhetoric, his talk of raising speed limits on motorways, his cuts in road safety spending, his sidekick Mike Penning's Daily Mail driven anti-speed camera rhetoric and policy, Boris Johnson's "smoothing the traffic flow" policy, his massive cutting of expenditure on cycle safety, despite rising numbers of cyclists in London, his creation of disastrous new cycle facilities on the cycle Superhighways which have already claimed lives, and poorly-judged anti-cycling street changes elsewhere in London. And so it goes on.

Apart from all this, Mark King has completely misinterpreted Department for Transport casualty statistics, as they record contributory factors to "accidents" (based only on an arbitrary opinion of a police officer at the time, a critical piece of information King does not mention). His mistakes are pointed out by Jim Gleeson:
[King's article] gives the impression that errors by cyclists themselves are the dominant factors contributing to cyclist deaths. And that would be the wrong impression, because (a) the figures quoted refer to all accidents, not just fatal ones, and (b) by definition they exclude any actions of motorists or other non-cyclist.
As the TRL report says, "attribution is split fairly equally between the cyclist and driver/rider of the motorised vehicle". 
The worst aspect of this article, however, is its overall thrust that cyclist casualties are generally the cyclists' own fault, for somehow riding incorrectly. So there is no discussion of the basic, endemic UK problem of purely car-centric road design, except for passages quoted from a cyclist called Paul Codd, emphasising the problems created by cycle lanes, from a vehicular cycling perspective:
"Cycle lanes in some cases can be part of the problem, the seemingly random lanes imposed on older roads. These lanes encourage cyclists to 'ride in the gutter' which in itself is a very dangerous riding position – especially on busy congested roads as it places the cyclist right in a motorist's blind spot."
Such issues (as this blog is always saying) are problems of badly-designed cycle lanes, not of cycle lanes fundamentally. There is no discussion of how our European neighbours manage cycle infrastructure, nor of the differences in real and subjective safety between their roads and ours. There is no discussion of how those places achieve far higher cycling rates with far lower casualty rates. There is also no discussion of motor speed or enforcement.

The closest King gets to the critical subject of infrastructure is where he writes:
Of the more recent high-profile fatalities in the capital, poor navigation at hotspots, such as Bow roundabout and Blackfriars bridge, as well as irresponsible driving by lorry drivers have been cited as key contributors.
Navigation? Hotspots? What the heck is he on about? Everybody knows that the problem is fatally-flawed, car-centric road designs that Transport for London refuses to change because its number one priority is getting cars through junctions. Particularly, of course, the killer gyratory systems like King's Cross and Bow. Can we call a spade a spade please, Mr King?

There is mention of training for cyclists (of course, because the emphasis here is all on what cyclists do wrong):
Lloyd said improved awareness of cycling safety training might help reduce the number of deaths, along with better education for younger cyclists.
This is Charlie Lloyd of LCC, but I suspect he has been very selectively quoted, as I am pretty sure that Charlie would not agree with an emphasis on cycle training while ignoring all that is wrong with our road system that is contributing to the appalling casualty level for cyclists.

The Guardian's article is somewhat analogous to a discussion of the "causes" of rape that analyses how many women are "responsible" themselves for becoming victims through wearing short skirts or high heels at the time. It is not possible to comment on the article on The Guardian's website. I hope, however, they will allow a right of reply. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain would certainly be willing to correct the lamentably inaccurate view of the subject given by Mark King's article.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Christmas Message from The Vole

The Archbishop of Canterbury likens our society to "atoms spinning apart in the dark". This is the kind of thing we expect our religious leaders to say. It is what they are for. It is the kind of thing they have been saying since the birth of their religions, and other religious leaders were saying the same before that. In the earliest writings that have survived, distinguished elders were talking about how society is falling apart, how the younger generation has no respect and no responsibility, and how everything is certain to get worse in the future. People must have been saying these things even before the first writing came about. This is a permanent part of human perception. Only the language changes slightly. The Archbishop appropriates this time concepts of science, with his atoms spinning, ironically, as the religion he represents has been opposed to scientific and rational progress, and the concepts he now appropriates, of the testable realities of invisible or non-experiential things, were developed in spite of the religious domination of human thought in the past.

So a group of our wise people and leaders always say that everything is always getting worse and that society is always collapsing. The Archbishop mirrors David Cameron's claim of a "Broken Britain" (while being more careful to apportion blame equally at the poor and rich ends of society). And yet others believe that there is moral progress, and that humankind is in engaged a continual evolutionary improvement of its conditions. A strong case may be made for this. Scientific and medical progress, rising average standards of living, more democratic, fair and open societies, lower levels of intolerance and vicimisation, lower levels of war, violence and insecurity, these all seem to be (also arguably) historical trajectories of human society.

How to reconcile these contradictory views? Science cannot measure human happiness comprehensively, though people try. Economic conditions can be measured fairly easily. Whether you believe in continual decline or continual progress probably depends mostly on what sort of a person you are, what your job and role in society is, and what you are expected by society to say.


On the subject of religion, in a nice article Confessions of a recovering engineer, Charles Marohn gives some insights into the mindset of the American traffic engineer, which could well be relevant to those elsewhere as well. He says:
A book of standards to an engineer is better than a bible to a priest. All you have to do is to rely on the standard. Back in college I was told a story about how, in WWII, some Jewish engineers in hiding had run thousands of tedious tests on asphalt, just to produce these graphs that we still use today. Some of our craft descends from Roman engineers who did all of this a couple of millennia ago. How could I be wrong with literally thousands of years of professional practice on my side?
When the public and politicians tell engineers that their top priorities are safety and then cost, the engineer's brain hears something completely different. The engineer hears, "Once you set a design speed and handle the projected volume of traffic, safety is the top priority. Do what it takes to make the road safe, but do it as cheaply as you can." This is why engineers return projects with asinine "safety" features, like pedestrian bridges and tunnels that nobody will ever use, and costs that are astronomical.
I wonder if all this tells use something about how Transport for London arrives at the road designs that it does, despite the public and virtually all politicians – maybe, to give him the benefit of the doubt (it is the season of Goodwill to All Men, after all), Boris Johnson himself – telling it to do something different.


One of the resolutions being proposed for the National Federation of Women's Institutes (NFWI) to adopt in 2012 is:
6. The NFWI urges Her Majesty's Government to make the wearing of helmets when cycling a legal requirement.
On their resolution briefing sheet (pp. 8–9), while there is some acknowledgement that helmets may not the be-all and end-all of cyclist safety, this bizarre statement appears:
compulsory helmet wearing may encourage more people to take up cycling, whilst improving the overall safety of cyclists. 
Aside from arguments about the actual effectiveness of cycle helmets as a safety intervention, how, logically, could any activity that society wants more of, let's call that activity "X", be encouraged by making a law that requires people doing X to do some new thing on top of X that adds to the difficulty and expense of X and makes it less practically and socially convenient? It's a total, obvious, logical nonsense.

If you have not already done so, please sign the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's petition urging the NFWI to reject Resolution 6 and:
focus instead on creating conditions in which all members of society will feel safe and comfortable riding a bicycle
The petition wording is expanded upon in an open letter to the NFWI from the Embassy. The letter covers the facts that everywhere in the world where it has been tried, helmet legislation has led to a dramatic reduction in cycling and no overall, proven increase in cyclists' safety, and that a reduction in cycling would be bad for public health, before calling on the NFWI to support a campaign for better safety for cyclists through better infrastructure:
Your resolution shows that you have the interests of cyclists and their safety at heart but we hope that you’ll be able to think wider than just helmets and training to infrastructure based on the Netherlands model that has had proven success giving freedom of movement and empowerment to all.
So the NFWI is not merely being asked to reject something here, not merely being told where they have got it wrong, but being asked to become participants in a real, positive campaign for safe cycling for all. If they did this, British cyclists would have powerful ally on their side. This is precisely the type of social coalition-building that is needed if we are ever to succeed in getting cycling in the UK to break out of its current tiny minority ghetto to attain the sunlit uplands of mass culture that it occupies in several comparable countries in the world. I urge you to sign the petition.


Since hearing his song, via A view from the cycle path, M'n fiets is gejat ("My bike has been nicked") I have become a fan (possibly the first non-Dutch fan) of Ronnie Ruysdael (formerly the front-man of the band De Sjonnies from Nijmegen). This man is a musico-comic genius. He deserves exposure outside The Netherlands. He might get it if he did something in English, which he does not appear to have done so far.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from The Vole.

Friday, 23 December 2011

Change may be on the way at King's Cross, but it needs to be the right change for cyclists

The Christmas Vigil at King's Cross to remember the 16 dead cyclists, and over 60 dead pedestrians, in London this year (with many more seriously injured), and to demand action from the Mayor and TfL to reduce danger on London's roads, took place on Tuesday, and was well-attended, well-organised, brief, poignant, and to the point. A model of a dignified public protest on a serious issue, it brought together grieving relatives of those killed, members of the London Cycling Campaign, RoadPeace, Living StreetsTransport for all, and many other individuals who feel passionately about the issue. Politicians who attended included Jenny Jones, the Green mayoral candidate, and London Assembly Members Caroline Pidgeon (Lib Dem) and Andrew Boff (Conservative).

The vigil
Here is Caroline Russell of Islington Living Streets speaking at the vigil:

And here are Mark Ames (ibikelondon) and Mustafa Arif, Board Member of LCC:

There seems to have now been a reaction to the Kings Cross safety campaign (and to the Bow campaign) from TfL. Yesterday (22 December) they published the following media release:
TfL to carry out a strategic review of the Kings Cross road network during 2012
TfL has today announced details of a strategic review of traffic movements through the Kings Cross area.
The review, which will begin in the spring of 2012, builds on previously agreed work to review traffic speeds through the area.
The study will consider how all road users, especially vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, travel along the TfL and local borough road network around Kings Cross.
The findings will enable an informed discussion regarding the future of the Kings Cross gyratory system and the aspiration to return it to two-way working.
TfL intends to discuss the scope of this work with both Camden and Islington Councils in the New Year and will commence the study in the spring.
TfL has also now completed its initial review into the proposed Pedestrian Improvement schemes at three junctions outside Kings Cross station, in particular considering the location at the junction of York Way and Grays Inn Road where there was a fatal collision involving a cyclist in October.
The pedestrian improvement scheme has been developed and agreed with Camden Council following earlier reports by TfL identifying the need for enhancements at busy junctions around the station, helping pedestrians move more safely through the area.
The scheme, which will deliver wider pavements, reduced street clutter and new advanced stop lines for cyclists around Kings Cross station, has been reviewed to see if any further changes were possible prior to commencement of main construction in January.
York Way
Although there will be no significant changes to the original scheme in the short term, TfL will be further widening the approach to York Way junction to provide additional space for road users and cyclists through the junction.
Work will begin during the Christmas period and TfL has committed to delivering the pedestrian improvements by April 2012, ahead of the London 2012 Games.
However, TfL will include the York Way junction within its ongoing cycle safety junction review to identify, discuss and plan further improvements.
Were any potential options to be identified which would benefit all road users, TfL would look to install these after the London 2012 games.
Work on these improvements will start during Christmas between 28 and 30 December, to take advantage of the reduced traffic flows during the festive period. TfL will be working on site 24 hours a day where possible and lane closures will be in place outside Kings Cross station while these works are carried out.
When main works begin in January 2012, TfL will work overnight to deliver these improvements where possible to minimise disruption to people travelling through the area.
Leon Daniels, Managing Director of Surface Transport at TfL, said: 'Any fatal collision on the Capital's roads is one too many and the Mayor and TfL are determined to work night and day to reduce that number.
'We will be working closely with all partners to carry out a strategic review of how traffic moves through the area. However, we have an important commitment to provide pedestrian improvements around Kings Cross station ahead of the London 2012 Games. Work will begin to deliver these during Christmas while we continue to investigate further changes at this location.'
Notes to Editors:
TfL had committed to deliver the schemes before the London 2012 Games in view of the increase in pedestrian movements around Kings Cross during the Games
TfL continues to investigate making improvements to the junction at Bow roundabout and has now identified potential options for improvements. Detailed modeling and design is now being carried out and more details will be available in the New Year, when TfL begin discussing the improvements with key stakeholders and cycle groups
There seems to be a significant change of language and tone from TfL here, compared to previous statements on this and related issues. The wording
consider how all road users, especially vulnerable road users such as pedestrians and cyclists, travel along the TfL and local borough road network around Kings Cross 
contains a different emphasis from previous statements which, in the last few years, always talked about "reflecting (or balancing) the needs of all road-users" It seems as if the (justifiably) emotive vigils and other campaigning actions (such as the Blackfriars Flashrides and the Tour du Danger) at the various dangerous junctions have rattled TfL. They have noticed that their language of "balance" between provision for road-users of totally different levels of vulnerability is at odds with what a lot of ordinary Londoners are thinking and saying. One can only applaud Leon Daniels stating now that "Any fatal collision on the capital's roads is one too many".

Another new thing here is talk of an "aspiration to return it [the King's Cross gyratory] to two-way working". TfL has consistently insisted in the past that it was not possible to remove the gyratory. Any big changes are being put off until after the Olympics; still, it looks like TfL have been stung by criticism arising from the death of cyclist Min Joo Lee (Deep Lee), about their unwillingness to make space for cyclists in Grays Inn Road and York Way as part of the current changes, because they are in such a hurry to get these done in time for the Olympics. As the Camden New Journal reported a couple of weeks ago:
On Monday night, Kenji [Hirasawa, boyfriend of Deep Lee] listened patiently in the Town Hall chamber – a perfect picture of dignity in his blue suit with top shirt button done up – as council officials argued they were mostly meeting cycle safety targets in a presentation of endless graphs and pie charts.
A TfL representative insisted that introducing a cycle lane at the junction would “cause considerable queues”, stressing that there was “limited time” to conduct a review of the proposed changes for the junction because of a “commitment” to make them in time for the Olympic Games.
And Caroline Russell mentioned at the King's Cross vigil that cyclist Leslie Michaelson was killed in exactly the same way as Deep Lee at exactly the same spot, 14 years ago.

So now TfL have decided that it is possible to modify the current plans, to be implemented by April, specifically
further widening the approach to York Way junction to provide additional space for road users and cyclists through the junction
 – whatever that confused-sounding wording means. Cyclists are "road users": are they making space specifically for cyclists, or not? It sounds even less hopeful where they go on:
However, TfL will include the York Way junction within its ongoing cycle safety junction review to identify, discuss and plan further improvements.
Were any potential options to be identified which would benefit all road users, TfL would look to install these after the London 2012 games. 
So we have more of the suspicious old language about "benefiting all road users", which has always, in the past, meant not looking after the vulnerable ones.

So what should be done? It has been suggested that there should be a segregated cycle lane installed at the north end of Grays Inn Road, to protect cyclists at the point where the deaths have occurred, but actually I cannot see how this could work. In the diagram below (reproduced from TfL's plans for the junction from before the latest announcement), the place I presume it would go I have marked with the red cross.

From TfL king's Cross consultation leaflet
A lane in this location would not work because cyclists aiming for it would get cut-up from the right by traffic trying to get into the westbound lanes leading into Euston Road. It would create exactly the same difficulty as does the segregated cycle lane on the Bow roundabout – creating an extra-difficult thing for cyclists to get to that would slow them and modify their road positioning in such a way as to make them more vulnerable to the left-hook. There would still be a battle to get into lane in Grays Inn Road. The Dutch would not do anything like this. No, to make this safe for cyclists, the whole thing needs to be rethought on "Dutch" (or Danish) lines. The stop lines for the Grays Inn Road lanes going both north and west need to be brought back to before the point at which the lanes split, so that all motor traffic exiting Grays Inn Road can be stopped at once. Then a segregated lane on the left hand side of Grays Inn Road could work, because cyclists could be put through the junction (in various directions) on a signal phase of their own without conflicting with any other flows. This style of engineering at a major, "difficult" junction in Copenhagen was recently described on the Danish Cycling Embassy site.

Many will rejoice at the hint that TfL may consider, in the longer-term, removing the whole, complex Kings Cross gyratory system. I would caution that gyratory-removal does not necessarily produce good cycling conditions. We have recently seen a major gyratory in Pall Mall and Piccadilly removed, with extremely poor results for cyclists. Gyratory-removal is not a cure-all for car-sick, cycle-excluding road-design. It does not even come close, if done badly, that is, if it is done without a central concern for the subjective safety of the cycling experience. Unless cyclists are given clear space on main roads, in the wording of LCC's Go Dutch campaign, unless, in other words, their space is dedicated and properly protected, then cycling in these roads will never feel safe enough for most people to consider cycling there.

The worst possible results for cyclists from gyratory-removal come when new two-way roads are created, as in Pall Mall and Piccadilly, where the lanes are narrow and there is no space for motor vehicles to overtake cyclists when the traffic is flowing, hence cyclists are forced to act as "rolling speed bumps", a very intimidating experience for all but the most hardened vehicular cyclists, and not a role anybody would like to see their child or grandmother play. And when the traffic is not rolling, cyclists are just stuck in the fumes, unable to get through, or tempted to cycle on the pavement. All this may be slightly safer, but is no more appealing and efficient for cycling than the old gyratory arrangements – which is why such changes will not get many more cyclists on the streets, will not reduce motor traffic volume much, and will probably lead, a few years down the line, to the authorities just saying to themselves: "Actually, why don't we try one-way traffic again, we will be able to increase capacity that way and reduce congestion and pollution", and so the gyratory system of traffic-planning fashion will continue to spin.

If you look at cycle-friendly major cities, such as Amsterdam, The Hague, Utrecht, Copenhagen, even Stockholm, Munich and Berlin, you will not see the general removal of one-way systems for motor vehicles. What you will see are comprehensive bypass networks for cyclists, so cyclists are not put through these systems, jostling for space with cars and lorries, as they are in London. There is even a case to be made that one-way systems for motor vehicles are more or less essential in getting them out of the way of cyclists on many streets in dense centres, and for creating long, inconvenient routes for cars and short, convenient routes for bikes, which is one method of prioritising and encouraging cycling.

So I think it is a mistake for cycle campaigners to regard the removal of one-ways and gyratories as a real end of campaigning in itself. There are probably a hundred different possible solutions to the King's Cross traffic mess, but I am sure that the only ones that will make the junction attractive for cycling will be the ones that separate cycle space from motor space comprehensively, and, where those spaces must overlap, separate the cycle and motor flows in time. Whether the roads are one-way or two-way is not exactly the issue.

So apposite are the comments of Deep Lee's boyfriend, Kenji, on King's Cross, as quoted in the Camden New Journal article, I'll end with some more of them:
I grew up in Shinjuku, the busiest area in Tokyo. I never heard that such a dangerous junction existed in that city. The council had given a presentation about how the Town Hall was generally meeting its targets and complying with standards. It is just their normal job and duty – it is nothing special to show off like that. For me, because of their laziness, my girlfriend is killed at the junction.
I will be so ashamed that Deep Lee was killed at this junction if I am a member of Camden Council or TfL. This area is known as a blackspot for cyclists. It is so shameful that there exists such a name of a place in Camden and in London, one of the most developed and advanced cities in the world.
It is indeed shameful that this situation has been allowed to continue for so many years. When TfL asked Kenji if the ghost bike could be removed, he told them to "Sort out the junction first".

And kudos to Lib Dem mayoral candidate Brian Paddick, quoted in the same article as saying:
It is better that we have to wait for five minutes in a car than have someone killed.
Candles at the Kings' Cross vigil

While congratulations are due to racing cyclist Mark Cavendish for winning BBC Sports Personality of the Year, the idea that this could somehow lead to a new respect being shown to everyday cyclists by motorists on the streets of the UK is, of course, absurd. After all, the award has been won by cyclists in the past with no such effect. Such an idea can only be entertained by those who try to promote any solution for generating a cycling culture other than the only proven one, safe cycle infrastructure.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Handing it down

So Kim Jong-il is gone in North Korea, and the new ruler will be his son, Kim Jong-un. According to the most primitive method of selecting a ruler of a tribe, possession of the whole nation is just handed on lock, stock, and barrel to the heir by birth, as if it were an estate, or a bureau, or an old bike, or any other material object that can be inherited. The lives and fates of millions and the wealth of the whole nation just handed on by "divine" right of the possessor, to his closest genetic copy. If property is theft, then the greatest theft of all, one of the greatest evils of which people are capable, must be the dynastic, undemocratic handing on of a nation on the death of its ruler.

It's good that the more advanced parts of the world have evolved their constitutions beyond this. But we do have a hereditary monarchy in the UK. Of course, any direct comparison between out Queen and Kim Jon-il would be crass and stupid. Our Queen has merely continued the constitutional system handed down to her. She has not meddled in every aspect of public life (so far as we know), and has definitely not caused a famine of millions of people.

We have a constitutional monarchy. But how constitutional is it? The constitution is not written down anywhere that we can definitively and easily read. I am not all that happy with our constitutional monarchy as it is. In theory, Parliament has been the sovereign body since 1689, and can choose who is to be monarch. It last did this in 1688. Since then it has allowed the succession to continue in the traditional way without interference. It also has not removed all the powers of the monarch over our government and law-making.

The Queen has a weekly conversation with the Prime minister. This is secret. We do not know what they discuss, or how she uses her influence. Probably more seriously, Prince Charles has been interfering in legislation – over "at least 12 bills since 2005" – but the details are obscure. The lack of transparency and explicitness in the relationship between the British monarch and constitution is not good for a supposedly modern democracy. We have a special breed of person in the UK (always an upper-class white man high up in the establishment) called the "Constitutional Expert" who can explain fine points to us about "The Monarchy", "The Queen" "The Crown", "Parliament" and "The State". This is a thing that appears to be unique to the UK. In the Irish Republic, for example, they don't need any "Constitutional Experts"; every schoolchild knows as much about the constitution as anybody does, as it's in a little book that they are all given. It's all written down. That's a real constitution, and real democracy.

I don't think the monarchy is the biggest problem with the British constitution. The biggest problem is the lack of a fair voting system for Parliament. But it's all embroiled in the general antiquated mess. Looking into the British constitutional system is like looking into the cobweb-filled electrical cupboard of a house where the system has not been overhauled by a qualified electrician in 100 years. It may have continued working, after a fashion, for all that time, with ad-hoc solutions and mucking about, but it's an inefficient,  dangerous mess that nobody understands and nobody is proud of. And I think it reduces Britain's standing in the world, its influence, and its authority to be able to criticise corrupt, dictatorial and mediaeval political systems elsewhere. Handing over power in the state to the son and heir –"Well, that's what you do in Britain, isn't it?"

The London Cycling Campaign and London cycle bloggers have organised a vigil at 6pm tonight (Tuesday 20 December 2011) at Kings Cross, to remember the 16 London cyclist deaths of 2011 (twice the total for 2008, the year our current Mayor took over), and protest over the lack of action from him and Transport for London in making the streets of London acceptably safe for those on foot and bike. I hope you can join me there.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Raising awareness

Londonneur wrote recently:
I was listening to The Bike Show podcast, which covers recent events. A good portion of it is given over to Mayor Boris responding to Assembly questions.
Amongst what is mainly waffle, I noticed a startling admission. At 21:50 he says that the “whole point” of the Superhighways is “to instruct the motorist that this is a place where you are going to find loads of cyclists, so be careful”.
Well, that’s cleared that up then… The CS is not, in fact, a “superhighway” for cyclists. It is, rather an overpriced and massively over engineered road sign for the benefit of those who choose to drive. How silly of us not to realise. Any expectation that the CS ought to provide priority for cycling is completely unfounded it turns out. Indeed, viewed through the cipher of his statement, the design of the CS starts to make some sense. It wasn’t built for cyclists…
Well this kind of thing is not new. I have spent a couple of decades going to meetings with council officers and consultants in various London boroughs, looking at streets that were proposed to be part of one or another "cycle network", and after being told all the reasons why none of the changes cyclists actually needed to make them safer were possible because of either lack of money, or, more importantly, competing political demands and priorities (e.g. parking supply, motor vehicle capacity, and accommodating taxis and buses), finally getting told that what would be done instead would be to put up a few direction signs for cyclists, and paint some bike logos on the road. What was the purpose of these bike logos? Well, they were supposed to be seen by drivers and to "raise awareness" of cyclists in their minds. This was always the great UK "expert" bike consultants' phrase, "raising awareness", and seemingly the purpose of the routes, and the literally millions of pounds spent on studying them and then doing nothing but getting a man out with paint and a stencil. Not protecting cyclists, just "raising awareness" of them. But where did these "experts" get this idea that such "awareness raising" actually achieved anything to improve cyclists' journeys? What was the evidence-base for it? I asked, and was never supplied with a good answer.

I have cause to often cycle on an east to west course across the Borough of Harrow, from Edgware, near the A5, to Harrow town centre, North Harrow, or Rayners Lane. If you look at the map of Harrow, you will see that there are actually only three roads that run as continuous through-roads east-west across it.

The area between Harrow town centre and the A5
So to do this journey, or many like it across this substantial slab of north-west London (population 230,000) , you have to use one of these three roads. They are:

  • The A410 Uxbridge Road
  • Streatfield Road (and its westward continuation Christchurch Avenue)
  • The A404 Kenton Road
The first and last of these essentially bracket the borough on the north and south sides, and are the major, purpose-built through-routes. The A410 varies between four and two lanes width, building is generally well set back from it, with service roads in places, and it is very heavily trafficked, with several bus routes. It has narrow advisory cycle lanes along some sections, and elsewhere cyclists are directed along service roads. Needless to say, few cyclists use it, with these generous cycling features.

Uxbridge Road, Harrow, typical view
The A404 is four lanes wide all the way and is heavily used, with many buses. It is often congested, particularly at the west end near Northwick Park roundabout. It has intermittent bus lanes, which of course cyclists can use. It is not a scenic nor a pleasant road to cycle on, though not as bad as some, as most of the time there is room for cars to overtake bikes. Its main hazards are the nasty multi-lane roundabouts at either end of it, Kingsbury Circle at the east end and Northwick Park roundabout at the west end. The former can be tackled by a fast, experienced and assertive cyclist, but the latter I advise all cyclists to avoid.

Kenton Road, Harrow/Brent border, typical view
Streatfield Road is the narrow residential rat-run "C" class road inbetween these two A roads (though of course they are all residential roads). This is the kind of road the Dutch would close off, or make one-way for motors in different sections, to remove the through-traffic and allow it to be a pleasant, quiet cycle through-route. As it is, it is a narrow, minor road with high speeds (often in excess of the 30mph limit), with intermittent parking and other pinch-points creating hazards for cyclists, who are constantly overtaken aggressively and with insufficient space. It also has an entirely gratuitous very wide-geometry lozenge-shaped roundabout at the Culver Grove and Kenmore Road junction. But quite a few cyclists use it in preference to the other routes.

Harrow Council seemingly have noticed this, and, presumably, as some gesture towards trying to encourage cycling, have recently painted "awareness raising" cycle symbols on it. Though I am not really sure why they have done it, as so far as I know it is not a designated bike route, and I never heard anything about it through Harrow Cyclists (the LC group). Here is the new paint-work at the Culver Grove roundabout:

Streatfield Road, Culver Grove roundabout, Harrow
And here we are looking the other way from the same point:

Streatfield Road, Culver Grove roundabout, Harrow
Note the bad linear surface defects, creating a hazard exactly where cyclists are likely to be (or likely to get pushed to by fast overtaking traffic in the wide space). Note the geometry of the exit, which makes it very hard for a cyclist on the main route, unless he/she is very fast and assertive, not to get swept to the left and cut up by left-turning traffic. Note the totally inappropriate space on the roundabout, considering it connects two-lane roads. Note how the vegetation on the roundabout blocks the view of what may be coming round it.

Rather than recognise that this road is on a cycle desire-line and fix these hazards, the council has painted these "awareness raising"cycle symbols. They go all the way down. Further west, at Kingshill Avenue, we see how restriction of the carriageway width by chevron markings and pedestrian islands, plus a median strip installed to prevent right turns from Kingshill Avenue and Kingshill Drive and to block that rat-run (for all, including cyclists), have created a "trapping area" where you do not want to be caught on your bike with an aggressive driver trying to squeeze past. Note again the hazardous broken surfaces and the magic "That'll make it all right, wont' it?" awareness-raising bike symbols.

Streatfield Road, Kingshill Avenue junction, Harrow
I have cycled this road many times before the symbols were painted, at all different times of the day, and I have now cycled it several times since the symbols were painted. I can tell you that I am absolutely certain that they have made no difference to the behaviour of motorists whatever. Why should they? Motorists do not know why they are here or what they mean. It is clear to them, as it is clear to cyclists, that nothing to benefit cyclists has actually been done on this road. They can see that this is in no meaningful sense a specific "cycle route". (There are cycle advance stop lines at the Kenton Lane traffic lights, and short advisory lanes leading to them, but these existed before the new symbols were painted. The lead-in lanes are normally rendered unusable by parked cars.)

All the people who used this road as a rat-run before the symbols were painted continue to do so afterwards. They do not moderate their speed when they encounter cyclists any more than they used to. They do not give any more room or give cyclists any more consideration than they ever did. There has been no reduction in dangerous or obstructive parking. Neither have the symbols somehow magically caused an increase in the number of cyclists, which are always a very rare species in these parts. Anybody who believed these symbols would have any of these effects was living in fantasy land. 

I have actually gone off using Streatfield Road recently, and been using Kenton Road more, which, although an altogether more fearsome road in terms of scale and speed of motor traffic, at lest does not have so much problem parking, and at least, most of the time, affords cars and buses sufficient room to overtake cyclists safely. The "he's aggressively revving up right behind you while you are taking the lane going through this pinch point" factor is much less.

For cycling on Streatfield Road, and innumerable other suburban rat-run roads like it all over London, is peculiarly unpleasant. The combination of restricted width, heavy traffic, speeding, impatient drivers, parking, pinch-points, bad surfaces, buses stopping (for there are buses on most of these minor suburban through-routes) and badly-designed roundabouts and junctions, leads to a massively stressful experience that people (like this man) who just see such roads on a map, and say "Yes, minor road, not A or B category, suitable place for cyclists, better than main road" simply do not understand. 

The road network of Harrow, that I am demonstrating to you, with through-roads like Uxbridge Road, Kenton Road, and Streatfield Road, shows the falsity of the concept that there is a network of minor roads in London eminently more suitable for cycling on than the A roads, which just need a bit of signage and a bit of engineering work to make them into an attractive and effective network. It just isn't really like that. In reality, the political difficulty of making these roads cycle-friendly is at least as great, if not greater, than the political difficulty of installing high-quality segregated cycling infrastructure on big roads like Kenton Road – which would actually be a much more useful solution, if the junctions could be fixed as well, because another reality is that most of the places people need to go most of the time, like shops and stations, are on main roads.

So why do councils get it into their heads that there is any point in painting cycle symbols on these rat-run roads? Clearly, it's a gesture. They want to be able to say that they are thinking of cyclists, but don't want to annoy motorists by removing any space for parked or moving motor vehicles, and they think it is politically suicidal to propose closing heavily-used through roads (though when roads have been closed in similar circumstances, there is rarely a campaign by anyone to have them reopened) . These roads also cannot be traffic-calmed, as they are usually treated as priority routes by the emergency vehicles. So out comes the stencil and the paint. It's not expensive. But if one added together the cost of putting all this useless paint on all the roads in London where it has been applied, over twenty years or so, you probably would be talking about millions of pounds – enough to created one or two genuinely useful cycle facilities here and there. And that's not to mention the cost of the studies that generally precede these paint measures, which always seem to absorb most of the money allocated to cycling in the UK.

The current LCC campaign Go Dutch for "clear space for cycling on London's main roads" gets it right. Creating the space on the main roads where cyclists feel subjectively safe is fundamental to the Dutch cycling paradigm. Yes, the Dutch do a lot to minor roads as well. They do radical stuff there that has the effect of clearing the inessential motor traffic off them and establishing segregation of modes without cycle-paths. But this is the second stage. In a car-dominated society like the UK there is little political appetite for removing the motor rat-runs on the minor roads while cyclists remain such a minor political force, because of their small numbers, because, in turn, there is no obviously safe cycling space on the main roads, which are the really useful roads. In this situation that we are in, motorists, and councils, feel that they cannot sacrifice any of the current road space given over to cars.

Merely slapping down painted symbols of obscure significance, that have no effect of giving any extra legal protection to cyclists, and which do not legally oblige motorists to do anything in particular, does nothing at all for cycling. There is no "awareness raising" effect. These symbols may be noticed by a driver on his regular route once, quizzically registered in his mind, before being integrated into the constant background and forgotten, amongst all the other things that need to be given attention whilst driving.

In London we have wasted decades doing this pointless stuff. There is no evidence that it works. Cycling in suburbs like Harrow has continued falling. Bikes do not "belong" on the minor roads any more than cars do. Give cyclists safe routes on main roads, and then we can think about the rat-runs.

Thursday, 15 December 2011

All the fun of the fair

This festive season there is a funfair in Hyde Park. I took these photos on the Saturday before last.

The presence of the funfair, and all the other Londoners here for whatever other reason, causes the cycle route at the south-east corner of the park to look like this:

It has become unusable and totally impassable on a bike due to the crowds of pedestrians. It is slow enough on foot. Now of course we all know that the West End does attract crowds at Christmas, and nobody wants to be a killjoy about people enjoying innocent entertainments in the park. But is this sensible? Would the authorities allow the equivalent route for cars, Park Lane, to be rendered impassable to vehicles by crowds of pedestrains? I doubt it.

This kind of situation arising on a major cycle route in London is symptomatic of failure of design and planning. It is a result of cycle facilities, as always, being woven-in around other features of the city as a total afterthought, a squeezed-in compromise between various public authorities all more or less uncomprehending of the actual requirements for proper cycle routes.

There is always a problem with the route at this point. The decent-width of line-segregated cycle and skate path on Broad Walk, parallel to Park Lane, progressively becomes narrowed as it goes round the corner, crosses Serpentine Road (without a clear, sensibly-marked crossing or clear priorities vis-a-vis pedestrians, cyclists and cars) and joins Rotten Row. Here it becomes constrained down to (I guess) a couple of metres width: ludicrous for a heavily-used bi-directional cycle path.

The reason for all this is that when the path was created, which goes back at least 25 years I think (it was part of the Ambassador's Cycle Route put in by the GLC: who remembers that now?), by the gracious goodwill of the Royal Parks authorities, who had never before allowed cycling at all, nothing was actually changed. A line was merely painted bisecting the original pedestrian paths. Since then, cycling in London has greatly expanded, and (wholly inadequate) attempts at implementing dedicated cycle crossings at Hyde Park Corner have been made, other local cycle facilities have been constructed, and these have contributed to an enormous increase in use for both leisure and commuting cycling, this stretch having become a critical part of many cyclists' commute. Yet still nothing has actually been changed.

The southern arm of the cycle path circuit of the park could have been accommodated properly, either by widening the existing path, or, probably better, by moving it completely away from the main pedestrian areas by transferring it to a re-designed South Carriage Drive, where, by reallocating the space on this under-used but fast road, through construction of a proper kerb-segregated bi-directional cycle path, the problems could have been solved, and all pedestrian-cycle conflict eliminated. But these options would have actually involved spending a little bit of money, not on the perennial, pointless "attitude studies" of users so beloved of our parks authorities, but on actually altering things to fit in with how the activities of Londoners have changed over time. The simple fact is that Londoners now want and need to do different things than in the past, and our roads, paths and open spaces do need to change to accommodate these. There needn't be any loss of green space, but there does need to be proper planning for cycling. The space for cycling should, as far as possible, be taken out of roads, not out of paths, and there should be decent, safe, high-capacity designs for the crossing-points between motor and cycle flows.

The tendency in the UK has always been for planners to think of cycling and walking as almost the same thing, to put them into the same "bucket", accommodate them similarly with things like Toucan push-button crossings, and divide between the two modes a pittance of space, leaving the motorised hegemony unchallenged, creating conflict and ill-will between the sustainable transport modes through so doing.

We see this tendency even in recent official publications, such as the Department for Transport's October 2011 policy paper Signing the Way. Although this paper contains some good suggestions, notably the proposal to allow local authorities to put up a sign simple creating an exception to one-way roads for cyclists without any other infrastructure (a practice that has long been normal on the continent), the confusion in thinking over the nature of cycling is apparent in the proposal to allow cycle connections to be established by allowing cycling over zebra crossings. Apparently the CTC has lobbied for this, but it is a foolish idea.

The basic idea of zebra crossings, as places where pedestrians cross the road and all vehicles must stop for them, should not be confused in this way. Instead, cyclists only need proper junctions between proper, clearly demarcated cycle paths and roads, marked with the normal priority markings, or equipped with signals, hence treating cyclists on cycle paths as a proper flow of traffic, as they do in the Netherlands. Cyclists should stop at zebra crossings, they should not ride across them, because they are vehicles. This principle should not become confused. Otherwise, we just get more of the button-and-sheep-pen cycle crossing nonsense (a brand new example of which in Barnet has been videoed by Londonneur).

Cycling is just completely different to driving, and completely different to walking. Though when flows are low and vehicle speeds are kept down, a mixture is sometimes possible, for transport purposes in the centre of a dense, massive city, with heavy flows of all three, the infrastructure should clearly and safely separate the modes and allow none of them to block or render impractical another. This seems to me to be common-sense, and I think it's time our planners caught up with the idea.

Proper treatment of cycle path and road junction: Het Kanaal, Assen, the Netherlands
Foolish confusion of cycle and pedestrian space at a London road junction: Putney Bridge

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Walking away from Europe (or should that be driving?)

It seems to me that David Cameron's decision to veto the amendment to the Lisbon treaty sets the UK clearly on a course to ultimately leave the EU, or to leave it in all but name. It was an epoch-making decision. The UK could "leave the EU in all but name" if the other 26 members proceed with closer fiscal and political union independently. Ultimately they could decide to exclude the UK from the single market in goods, labour, services and capital, as it would be easy for twenty-six to gang up on the one that was outside the new club. They could make their new rules without the need for unanimity. This is the huge risk that Cameron's decision runs. UK industry (what is left of it) is clearly worried about this too.

It is totally pointless for Nick Clegg to express his "disappointment" about the result of the summit. He is part of this government and he is jointly responsible for all its actions. This is at his door too. If he could not ensure that he, as the leader of the minority party in the coalition, had a veto on the veto, then his coalition seems to have failed at a critical point. The very fact that Timothy Kirkhope, the leader of the Conservative MEPs, feels he has to say "We are still a full member of the European Union and will remain so" indicates how in his mind, and that of many others, we are actually on the way out.

It does seem that withdrawal from the EU is what the British people want:
52 per cent of people agree that the euro crisis is an ideal opportunity for Britain to leave the EU altogether.
The British media has convinced British people of the absurd idea that, in the words of Nigel Farrage,
[Europe has] decided to head off on the Titanic towards economic and democratic disaster and we are now in a life boat.
There has been a massive failure of pro-European leadership in the UK over a long period. It would be hard for youngsters growing up now to understand how it was that the Conservative Party originally took Britain into the EU. Edward Heath's Conservative party was pro-European, but since then the party has become by imperceptible steps more and more anti-European, to the point where nobody notices the fact that David Cameron, regarded as being somewhere in the centre or on the left of his party, is by far the most anti-European leader we have had, not excluding Margaret Thatcher. Cameron made his direction plain even before he became PM, by withdrawing his MEPs from the European People's Party, the main centre-right group in the parliament, and aligning them with various odd far right elements instead. This was a harbinger of the situation we now find ourselves in: on a course heading further and further into the fringes of Europe.

In the last few years no-one in the British political mainstream, to my knowledge, not even the most pro-European, has been arguing that the UK would be better off in the eurozone – which it clearly would have been, particularly had it joined when the zone started. The European argument in Britain has been lost by default. We are abandoning ship. Many agree that ship is The Titanic. But it is not, this belief is mere insular schadenfreude. We are casting ourselves adrift in an open boat while the mother ship sails away with renewed purpose. For the idea that the euro or the EU will fail is absurd to nearly everybody in the rest of Europe. The economic ills of the eurozone counties are no greater, less in many cases, than those of the UK.

The UK has become ridiculously dependent on the financial services industry, and that industry has benefited enormously from the free market in capital. The argument that resulted in the veto revolves around a proposed tax on financial transactions in the EU, 75% of which occur in the City of London. Cameron therefore argued that the UK would be disproportionately affected, which is true. Other leaders argued, however, that any exception for the UK, any difference in the taxes on transactions between different states, would undermine the single market, which is also true. Hence stalemate.

The problem at bottom is therefore the unbalanced character of the UK economy, not anything being done in Europe. The problem is the collapse of British manufacturing. We do not have enough to export any more, we have to import too much, and the stuff we have to import, particularly oil and metals, is becoming much more expensive, hence a huge budget deficit. Blaming this on the American mortgage market of several years ago, or the banks, or the overspending of the Greeks, is bizarre blame-shifting.

Another problem has been the failure to start to put the UK economy on a more environmentally-sustainable basis. The Germans introduced their tough environmental and recycling laws two decades ago, and everybody in the UK at that time said these would bankrupt them, and would bankrupt us if we followed suit. Well, who is bankrupt now? But this is still the view of the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, who views UK and European environmental regulations as a brake on growth, and who feels that sustainability and wealth-creation are opposing desires which need to be "balanced". Hence, for example, this government's new planning proposals, which drive a coach and horses through the whole concept of publicly-controlled planning for the benefit of all, in favour of a market free-for-all.

The German government has genuinely promoted cycling, as the UK's has not. The Germans also introduced (eminently sensible) legislation requiring all bikes to be sold with lights (a idea always resisted by the UK cycle trade). Result: the Germans have developed an industry manufacturing high-quality bike lighting, and we buy all our bike lights from them (or the Netherlands, or Taiwan). OK, this is very small beer on the scale of the motor industry, or most other areas of the economy. But it is an example of the interrelations between environmental policy, industry and economic success in a world trying trying to establish more sustainable economies.

The drift of the UK away from the EU matters to a blog mostly concerned with cycling, this one, because with it goes, most probably, a psychological drift away from more collective, egalitarian and pro-environmental transport solutions, and a drift back towards the exclusive influence of the English-speaking world, the USA, Canada and Australia, with their emphasis on the right to use a car everywhere and for everything. In practice, a political drift away from Europe is likely to make UK transport campaigners' jobs even harder.

One tangential result of all this, however, which has probably not occurred to the Conservative and UKIP europhobes, is that their campaign is also pushing the United Kingdom apart. For the Celtic nations are not in agreement with the English about wanting to sever ties with Europe. The current UK may break away, but this greatly increases the chances of the other parts of the UK breaking away from England, in order to remain as full members of the EU. An independence referendum is on the cards in Scotland in 2014 or 2015, and the SNP wants to make an independent Scotland part of the Nordic group of countries, economically and politically tied to Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

So in seeking to preserve that which they most want to protect, an independent and strong United Kingdom, the anti-Europeans may themselves actually drive its destruction. And then where will England be?

Monday, 28 November 2011

Sticking-plaster solutions for the recession

George Osborne, the Chancellor of the Exchequer (that's the archaic name we use for our finance minister in the UK, I have to explain for my overseas readers) has announced that he will be using £40 billion of public money to underwrite bank loans to small businesses, as there is perceived to be a problem with these businesses not being able to obtain credit from the banks, and this is said to be hindering the "recovery".

What this amounts to is the government taking over part of the banks' job for them, using the its ability to borrow money at low interest rates to subsidise the loans to businesses. It would mean firms being able to borrow at 4% rather than 5%. Across the political spectrum this is generally regarded as being a good thing.

But it seems to me strange that a Conservative chancellor is effectively nationalising banking in this way. Is this not big-statism, and an interference in the normal commercial working of the banking system, things to which you would expect right-wing politicians naturally to be opposed? What are the implications of this?

The government is able to borrow money at low rates of interest because it is perceived by lenders to be at very low risk of defaulting. Businesses are charged a higher rate by the same lenders because they pose a higher risk. If there is a problem with firms being able to obtain credit, this must be because the banks do not feel certain enough that they will be able to make a profit on the lending without charging a high rate. The credit problem is not a problem with banks being nasty or selfish, it is indicative of underlying contraction or stagnation in the economy: a recession without "recovery".

By nationalising part of the risk of lending to businesses at low rates, the government must reduce its own creditworthiness, creating a risk that it will be charged marginally higher rates in the longer term, as the risks of businesses defaulting on their loans are transferred through government accounts. To an extent, therefore, in an indirect way, this government is advocating a similar approach to that which it is so ready to criticise in the heavily-indebted European countries like Greece and Italy, where interest rates charged to government have spiralled because of uncertainly about repayment in the long term. Where there is uncertainty about economic expansion in the near future, there is no free, easy way out of a credit crunch. The government juggling bits of the lending system between public and private sectors is a sticking-plaster solution which cannot change anything fundamentally because the recession is really out there, for reasons other than what banks do.

Somehow politicians and the media have managed to convince the public that the recession is a product of the problems of the banking sector, rather than the problems in banking being just a symptom of a real fundamental economic problem. The recession was all caused by unwise mortgage lending in the USA, according to many. More recently, the stress has been on the idea that it is all the fault of those running the Euro.

I have always believed that there is an underlying recession which exists because of the reasons that recessions and depressions always occur: commodity shortages and environmental issues, which are opposite sides of the same coin. Problems in banks and national banks are just a delayed manifestation (delayed by borrowing on the future) of the costs coming through due to the effects of global warming, other environmental problems associated with energy-intensive development, and demand for essential commodities outstripping supply with world population growth and the rapid expansion of the emerging economies.

The answers to the crisis are not fiddling with banking and taxation or even radically cutting public expenditure, which will just have to be increased again in the future to sort out the problems created by the current round of cuts. The answers lie in sustainable development, particularly reducing reliance on fossil fuels, better, more efficient planning of society (not a laissez-faire "business always knows best" approach), reviving manufacturing industry, engineering and science, the activities which genuinely create wealth, as opposed to speculation, which does not, making people skilled and productive in areas that genuinely benefit society, making society fairer, more democratic, equal and hence better-satisfied, and above all, controlling global warming and developing a climatically stable and fair development path for the whole planet.

Not easy. The hardest thing will be to convince people that they have to get used to the fact that growth, as defined in the past, will have to stop. There may never be a "recovery". That does not mean that peoples' lives will get worse however. They will have to change. The big challenge for politicians is explaining the difference.