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.


  1. David,

    You concluded your blog by saying, 'Give cyclists safe routes on main roads, and then we can think about the rat-runs.' I would say instead, 'Give cyclists a functioning cycle network, and then we can think about making the main road routes safe for cyclists.'


  2. I think you are wrong about this Simon. I don't understand your concept of "a functioning cycle network" (that you refer to a lot in your writings). Functioning for whom and in what way?

    If you mean something like they have in the Netherlands, yes, virtually every cyclist will agree that they would like a "functioning cycle network". The question is the best way to achieve that starting from where we are now. You appear to be saying that it can be achieved without first creating "clear space on main roads". Precisely what I am arguing in this article is that this is not the case. That strategy has, indeed, already been tried, with the original London Cycle Network, and found not to work.

  3. The thing about any minor road network is the need frequently to stop, give way and turn. Stopping a cyclist who then restarts has an energy cost equivalent to cycling over a hundred metres. There is also the need to check signs and maps at many junctions. Drivers are very aggressive on minor suburban routes. 'Cycling networks' don't work here.

  4. Your description of Streatfield Road sounds exactly like my experience traveling North-South in the same area. I tend to use Culver Grove, Kenmore Road and the connections North to the A410 and South to Preston Road.

    There is the ever-so-occasional "squashed bicycle" along with problem parking and sets of 3 speed bumps which motorists straddle in the centre of the road.

    While motorists can say "SMIDSY" any amount of signs or paint aren't going to make them take more notice.

  5. I am glad that we are agreed on one thing at least, that virtually every cyclist would like 'a functioning cycle network'. In saying this, I am using your interpretation of what a functioning cycle network would look like, and the question is, as you rightly point out, what is the best way to achieve that starting from where we are now?

    I support the LCC Go Dutch campaign for 'clear space for cycling on London's main roads', but now we need to start getting down to the detail, David, because which ones? All of them? How long do you anticipate this work would take? What do we do about things like this in the meantime?

    The case is, you understand my interpretation of a functioning cycle network perfectly well, because the whole tenure of your blog is about it. And yes, to begin with, large sections of it are going to be as crap as you portray, in some cases, much worse.

    But, in talking of the 'magic'awareness-raising bike symbols, you say, 'Motorists do not know why they are here or what they mean.' Now, can you imagine what would be different if they did know what they are for? It wouldn't be much, maybe, but to begin with, whatever you do first isn't going to be much, in the whole scheme of things I mean.

    It is good permaculture to begin by making the minimum change for the maximum effect.

    In Jim Davis' inaugural speech, he said that his greatest fear is that the authorities would go ahead and develop a cycle network to a minimum (i.e. crap) level of functioning, and then say, 'There you go! There's your cycle network!'

    But I don't think he needs to be worried about that. We're talking about a direction of travel, attracting people 'from the margins' for the first year or two, and then building upwards from a *point d'appui*, a solid base. This was not the strategy of the original London Cycle Network.

  6. To answer your questions, Simon:

    Which main roads? No, obviously not all of them at first. A selection. LCC is indeed drawing up a list, borough by borough, of those we think would give the biggest impact most easily.

    How long would it take? If we had a mayor who was fully committed to "Going Dutch" we would see dramatic results within 4 years.

    What do we do about things like the closed southern end of Regents Pk Broad Walk in the meantime? We can continue to make a case for this as well, but I think you are perhaps not realistically estimating some political points here. Where you write above your photo of the closure "Minimum change required", it causes me to raise an eyebrow. Because it only looks like "minimum change" to you, whereas I, through my past involvement with Camden Cycling Campaign, know the full history of this, and the huge battle over decades it took even to get cycling on the northern Broad Walk. There's reasons in the mentality of the people running the park why that section is closed, and to change that would be another mighty battle that could take decades more. And even if we had cycling on the whole Broad Walk, that would still not solve any of the major problems of cycling in central London. Even the Outer Circle is a relatively benign road compared to most main roads, and certainly the "killer junctions".

    So in my opinion the relevant question is not "What is minimum change for maximum effect" but "What would really work?". I think there is not much point expending a lot of energy in difficult battles that will not make much difference, as here.

    What would make the difference, I believe, would be things like a really good central London Thames crossing, or segregated cycling all the way along The Embankment.

    I think your concept of "what to do in the meantime" is a problem. This "meantime" would last forever if the old campaigning strategy, of just asking for apparently "easy little fixes" here and there, were continued. We need a bolder vision.

  7. David, I am talking about the development of 2,200km of cycle network, more if you include the Biking Boroughs, and you say we need a bolder vision. My God!This I have got to see.

  8. Simon, you seem to be unable to distinguish between lines on a map and infrastructure. I look forward to you opening this 2,200 km network.