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.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

The tragedies at Bow

The vigil in the centre of Bow roundabout
There are spaces in our cities that don't exist. These are the places that planners never expected, nor wanted, anybody to go, nor provided any facilities for them to be reached. They have no function except to give shape to the road junctions that flow around them. They are the bleak, dirty, litter-strewn concrete island pavements that the major road planning of the late twentieth century made so familiar to us: the centres of roundabouts, the places under flyovers. But one of these non-existent places took on a remarkable life on Friday evening. In the centre of Bow roundabout, in east London, people gathered to remember the two cyclists killed trying to negotiate that junction, on Boris Johnson's tragically mis-conceived Cycle Superhighway 2. Those people each personally had to take calculated risks even to reach that gathering point. There are no pedestrian crossings; the only way to the centre is to wait for the lights to go red and dash across at the white line, one stage at a time, from one bleak island non-place to the next. To cross when the lights are red, but when you have not seen them just go red, would be very foolish, for they can change again in an instant, and the traffic would be on top of you.

The message of the vigil
The dead cyclists were Brian Dorling, hit by a left-turning lorry while cycling east on 24 October 2011, and Svitlana Tereschenko, hit by a left-turning lorry while cycling west on 11 November 2011. The vigil was organised by the Tower Hamlets and Newham borough groups of London Cycling Campaign. Candles were lit and David Tuckwell, a local cyclist, led a minute's silence. Then the son of Brian Dorling spoke, then his widow, then the sister (I think) of Svitlana, then a local politician – I could not make out who that was, as it was hard to hear proceedings through the throng of 200 people who had turned up. A "Ghost Bike" was set up at the NW corner of the roundabout, where Brian had been killed, while a small shrine to Svitlana was seen at the SE corner, where she died. Press, TV reporters and prominent politicians attended: Brian Paddick, Liberal Democrat candidate for Mayor (who has also been supportive of the cyclists' protests at Blackfriars), and local MP Rushanara Ali. There were many children there, including (I gather) a boy who had actually witnessed Svitlana's death. Poor boy.

Ghost bike for Brian Dorling
Shrine to Lana Tereschenko
Another member of LCC said to me how sad it was to meet at such an occasion. But I said that I could see a good side to this. For of the 33,000 road deaths in the UK over the last 10 years, few can have attracted such attention, caused such outrage, and led to so much political pressure for change as these two. These two deaths were so similar in their circumstances, came so close together, and so soon after the opening of Cycle Superhighway 2, whose opening had been proceeded by such unambiguous warnings from campaigners about the danger of what had been provided there, so clearly against Transport for London's own consultants' recommendations, the deaths being so clearly due to the defects in the design of the Superhighway that anybody who studied it could see, so clearly due to negligent design, that public outrage was inevitable, as was more publicity than has probably ever before followed a cycle fatality on London's roads. The high-profile nature of Boris Johnson's Cycle Superhighways scheme, his personal association with cycling and with this scheme, and the nature of this specific route, being the recommended route for Londoners to use to cycle to the Olympic Park, ensured this. So now there is real pressure for change, both here and on the other Cycle Superhighways, and on London's dangerous junctions more generally. It is sad this was achieved through this succession of events, but it is the good side of this double tragedy.

The "cycle facilities" that killed Brian Dorling

Daytime view to show clearly the defective design (picture courtesy LCC)
The design disaster of the Cycle Superhighway on this roundabout is clearly seen in these pictures. Large lorries and other vehicles are able, and encouraged by the design, to make a high-speed, low angle left-turn across the blue cycle lane. The potential for tragedy was always here, before the lane was painted, because of the inappropriately wide geometry of the turn and the excess lane widths. A cyclist pursuing a prudent course through this roundabout, in its pre-superhighway state, would not have been on that strip on the left, but in a more central position in the left-hand lane, to be clearer of the possibility of the left-hook and more in the line of sight of drivers.

Both the blue strip and the segregated section of lane on the outer edge of the roundabout that have been provided for cyclists have clearly made a dangerous junction far worse for them. The segregated strip is the biggest error. For to aim for its narrow entrance, a cyclist is going have to take the worst possible course, the one that makes it most likely for them to be overtaken on the outside and then mown down by the inattentive driver of a left-turning lorry. The narrowness of the entrance of the segregated section and the precision of the move required to get into it will inevitably slow the cyclist, making it more likely that they will be unwittingly overtaken and ploughed into by a driver having limited visibility from his cab.

This is a totally disastrous mis-application of segregated cycle engineering to a junction – one where the basic problems of the junction have not been fixed, and the best, but still highly unsatisfactory, course for a cyclist remains a high-visibility, fast, vehicular cycling approach, yet they are forced or encouraged to modify that approach to fit in with a facility that does not protect, thus creating a hugely amplified risk. Nobody who understood cycling could have designed this.

Transport for London's consultants on the CS2 project were Jacobs Consultancy. They told TfL that signalised crossings for cyclists were needed and that off-carriageway cycle lanes should be provided around the roundabout, to "encourage less confident cyclists to use the route". Though the wording about "less-confident cyclists" is peculiar – cyclists have the right to protection whatever their level of confidence, and Brian Dorling, for one, was certainly an experienced and confident cyclist – this was correct advice, with which LCC agreed. We know why TfL did not build the crossings. This was made very clear by the answer Boris Johnson gave to London Assembly Member John Biggs in May:
TfL have been unable so far to find an immediate solution for providing controlled crossings at Bow Roundabout that doesn't push the junction over capacity and introduce significant delays to traffic.
"Traffic", here, as usual when "cycling champion" Johnson uses the word, means, of course, motor vehicles. "Significant delays" to pedestrians and cyclists don't matter in the Johnson–TfL world – significant delays such as being dead for the rest of eternity.

This blog is not afraid to pull its punches, and I think we should stop diplomatically hiding the personal decisions of Boris Johnson behind the acronym "TfL". The way TfL is set up, legally, makes the Mayor effectively its dictator. Johnson personally decided on the trade-off between delays to motor traffic and risk to cyclists at this junction, and at others like it all over London. He could have instructed TfL officials to adopt a different policy, but he did not. People have talked about "corporate manslaughter", but I am not sure there is anything particularly corporate here.  If there can be said to be manslaughter connected with recent cyclist deaths at at London junctions, there is only one individual behind it. We know where the buck stops.

More broadly, one should consider that if an attempt is being made to set up a safe cycling network in a city, it would make sense to take expert advice from those who have proven experience of delivering this elsewhere in the world. There is no proven experience of creating safe and effective cycle networks in the UK, thus expertise should have been drawn from abroad, ideally from the Netherlands, and officials should have been given the freedom politically to act on the that expertise. I have been saying for the last 20 years that London should get transport engineers for the Netherlands to redesign its roads, but this never happens.

In every industry in the private sector these is a flow of expertise from one country to another; those who are the real experts in every field move internationally to raise standards everywhere. Whether you talk about manufacturing, engineering, banking, media, arts or sports, we do not live in a nationally-compartmentalised world. In every one of these fields the real experts operate internationally, and are called upon to go wherever they can best help and most increase productivity, quality and profits.

But UK road engineering is different. It seems to exist in a bubble of its own that admits little influence or interference from people trained in places that do the same better. There are two aspects here: street engineering involves interrelated technical and political issues. The correct policies need to come from political leadership, but there needs also to be the technical expertise available to best realise the political ambitions when they are clearly crystallised.

We might forget all about cyclists for a moment, and think about how to design major junctions safely for motorists. We have not a clue about this in the UK either. Standing in the centre of the Bow roundabout, it was easy to observe the designed-in chaos of the motor vehicle interactions at this intersection, with, despite the signal control, near-collisions being a constant feature, with honking of horns and sudden braking all the time showing clearly the problems created by the wrong geometry of the entrances and exits, the multiple lanes and excess lane widths. These are not problems of user behaviour. To think in this way, as Johnson seems to, is to not have progressed to a sensible, realistic understanding of the interaction of human beings with the technology of transport infrastructure. These are problems of design.

The Bow intersection is a bad example, but not untypical of major UK intersections. There are many others similar in London. There are many junctions in London that frighten not just cyclists, but motorists, and are hated by many of them. I guess Bow would be one. Another that I know, because motorists in my area have mentioned to me how much they dislike it, is Northwick Park roundabout in Harrow: another chaotic, open geometry, multi-lane gyratory. This is terrifying to cycle on, and I do not do so, except to make a left-turn, and I advise cyclists to avoid it.

Northwick Park roundabout, Harrow and Brent
Another appalling junction that I do cycle through regularly, because, as at Bow, there is no other option for crossing a major linear barrier (the River Lea in the Bow case), is Staples Corner West. This provides the only practical way to cross the North Circular Road on the east side of Brent and the west side of Barnet. Staples Corner West is very similar to Bow Interchange. In both cases the east-west and north-south routes have both been taken across on uninterrupted separate motorway-style infrastructure. In the case of Staples Corner there are two levels of flyovers, for the A5 and the North Circular Road, over a roundabout. At Bow, the A11 is taken over the roundabout and the A12 is taken under. In both cases, slip roads connect these roads to interchange at a signalised multi-lane roundabout. In both cases, cyclists following the commuting desire-lines in and out of central London are faced with a choice of whether to take the flyover, avoiding the roundabout, but risking the low-angle, high-speed interactions with motor vehicles on the slip roads, or to go round the roundabout, risking the chaos there.

Staples Corner roundabout is not quite so bad as Bow as the spaces are not so wide, but it is sufficiently bad to greatly increase my tendency to take the tube into central London rather than to cycle down the A5. There was proposed to be a Cycle Superhighway here as well, CS 11, but TfL thought better of the idea, or Barnet, which part-controls the A5 here, did not want it, so CS11 has been redirected to the A41 (where it will still not penetrate into the anti-cycling Borough of Barnet).

Staples Corner West roundabout in Brent and Barnet
The sources of danger at all these intersections for drivers, pedestrains and cyclists are the multi-lane gyratory arrangements which encourage switching of lanes, the excess lane widths and broad turning geometries which encourage too much speed, the lack of convenient pedestrian crossings at surface level (Staples Corner has a network of little-used elevated walkways, while Northwick Park has a pedestrian tunnel), and the obvious lack of safe cycle facilities.

I am sorry to have to keep repeating myself, but the fact is that the Dutch know how to do roundabouts. They have unrivalled expertise in making roundabouts safer for all road users (including motor vehicle occupants), and it is very hard to undersand why in the UK we continue to pig-headedly avoid importing their expertise. The Dutch design roundabouts according to the principles of sustainable safety, meaning that they make it hard for road users to make dangerous errors. From the Dutch SWOV (Institute for Road Safety Research):
Homogenous use of the infrastructure is one of the Sustainable Safety requirements. On urban main road intersections, where all traffic types meet, this homogeneity requirement translates into reduction of the number of potential conflicts and lower driving speeds. [Dutch] Roundabouts meet this requirement because of their features.
By "homogeneous use" they mean all road users using the infrastructure in the same correct, predictable manner, because it was designed to make them do that. This is the reverse of the junction chaos that UK designs typically create.

Dutch turbo roundabout, from SWOV publication
Here is a Dutch "turbo" roundabout for motor vehicles only. A separate cycle path can be seen to the top right of the picture. The roundabout is designed to satisfy the need for high capacity simultaneously with creating sustainable safety. Vehicles bound for particular destinations, having particular origins, follow fixed, predictable courses through the roundabout. There are two lanes, but no switching and no conflicts. There is only one way to go, chosen by the driver before he reaches the roundabout. This is the simplest possible turbo roundabout, but many more Dutch roundabout designs, of increasing complexity, and including cycle facilities, can be found in this paper.

On relatively low-traffic Dutch roundabouts, cycle lanes may be located on the carriageway round the periphery of the roundabout, provided that the geometry is such that vehicles entering and leaving the roundabout cross the cycle lane almost at right-angles. Here is such a roundabout that I photographed in Groningen:

Unsegregated cycle lane on Groningen roundabout
However this is not the safest nor most modern design, and the Dutch generally provide entirely separate cycle paths around their roundabouts now. This would be the case always when there is a high vehicle flow. The cycle paths cross the motor vehicle entrances and exits almost at right-angles. There are several possibilities for priority. In rural areas the Dutch usually have the give-way markings on the cycle track, but in urban areas, often the motor vehicles have to give way.

One-way unsignalised cycle track round roundabout near Groningen: cyclists give way

Cycle priority on cycle path round Dutch roundabout
These solutions will not be satisfactory where motor vehicle flows are very high, and here signalised crossings for the cycle paths are required, so the crossing of the path with each arm of the roundabout is turned into a separate signalised junction. These signals can either be automatic, phased with other signals, or they can be push-button, or, most satisfactory for cyclists, they can be controlled by a magnetic loop detector embedded in the path which detects the presence of a bike and gives the cyclist a green as he or she approaches the crossing.

Two-way signalised cycle path round roundabout in Utrecht
This technology is so well-established and developed in the Netherlands it is not necessary for us to dangerously experiment with cyclists on busy roundabouts in the UK. The solutions are known. David Hembrow has provided a post which shows and explains every single roundabout in Assen (there are 19 of them), showing the wide variety of designs, and the fact that they all have separate cycle paths incorporated into their design.

Though I am no traffic engineer, or indeed graphic designer, I have made the crude attempt below to show how the part of the Bow roundabout on which Brian Dorling died could be modified to make it safe for eastbound cyclists, using Dutch-style engineering. This is of course not intended to be a definitive solution, but merely demonstrative of a possibility.

My suggested design for Bow
All TfL's blue markings need to be imagined as removed. An off-road cycle track is needed to cross the entrances and exits from the A12, some way back from the point at which vehicles make their turn. The kerblines need to be altered so that the turns off the roundabout are tightened, and vehicles cross the cycle track slowly and perpendicularly. Because of the very high volume, signals are essential for the track and slip road intersections. These would allow pedestrians to cross as well. Each crossing of the track by a slip road needs to become a small signalised junction. The lights could be phased to allow cyclists fast passage across both the exit and entry slip road, stopping only once, if at all. This solution is the sort of thing that can easily be produced within existing space constraints once throughput of motor vehicles ceases to be the over-riding criterion. Motor occupants benefit too from a safer, calmer, more predictable junction.

Fixing the Bow roundabout would not fix Cycle Superhighway 2, which I cycled on my way back from the vigil on Friday. The rest of it is a travesty of safe cycle infrastructure as well. The blue lane, marked intermittently in the inner half of the bus lane, does nothing to remove conflicts between cyclists and buses and conflicts at other junctions. This lane has no legal force, not being a mandatory cycle lane (not bounded by a white line), and it gives cyclists no protection in law, nor in practice. The A11 is a horrible road with a peculiarly aggressive "Gotham City" feel to it as you cycle towards the huge, overbearing towers of mammon of the City of London, looming up ahead. The implementation of this Superhighway, of all of them, was uniquely disappointing, as the space for creating proper, segregated cycle tracks on both sides of this road was so clearly present, even without alteration of the current vehicle lanes. The road is enormously wide, with much unused pavement space.

Bow Road, the A11, photo by Oxyman, taken before the implementation of the Superhighway. Plenty of space here for a wide segregated cycle track.
Basically, the Superhighway here, as with all of them, was done quickly, on the cheap, and with no coherent thinking on what it was actually supposed to do, save for waymarking a route which was obvious anyway: it is, after all, just the main road, the one that anybody cycling from the City to Stratford has to follow.

As I pointed out in my last post, it was clear at least as far back as August 2009 that the Cycle Superhighways were going to be like this. That was when TfL told LCC that:
Cycle Superhighways does not have the time or the budget to... seek major changes to traffic operations (e.g. via side road orders or controversial Traffic Regulation Orders).
Traffic Regulation Orders are the legal mechanism used in England and Wales for all significant alterations to highways, such as altering lanes, changing parking arrangements, or altering junctions. In ruling out seeking these, the Superhighways team was making clear that nothing would actually change on these roads. At that time I advocated that LCC should condemn the Superhighways programme and call for it to be stopped. Now, at its AGM last Wednesday, LCC has finally done that. In an Emergency Motion, overwhelmingly passed, the meeting  resolved to:
1. Call upon TfL to immediately redesign the Bow roundabout junction, providing continuous, safe East-West cycle crossings and safe approaches and exits.
2. Call upon TfL to halt work on the remaining Superhighway routes until issues of road space reallocation and junction danger are addressed and resolved.
3. Call upon the Mayor to intervene and give TfL the mandate and political direction to provide clear space for safe cycling on London's main roads.
4. As part of out "Go Dutch" campaign, seek a commitment from the mayoral candidates that the Cycle Superhighways will be completed (including resolving barriers on existing routes) to the highest international best practice standards, in accordance with LCC's "Go Dutch – Key Principles" document.
TfL's response so far to the furore over the Bow deaths has been to announce the following:
Work is beginning on how London gears up to move to the next level of cycling infrastructure and continuing to improve safety for cyclists.
This includes a commitment from TfL to review all major schemes planned on TfL roads as well as to review all the junctions on the existing cycle superhighways.
That work will include an assessment of Bow Roundabout, which TfL have been asked to report back to the mayor on as a matter of urgency.
This could be interpreted as progress, but it could be intepreted as fobbing-off. We have had reviews and studies of cycling in London until our eyes fall out. What we need is not more reviews by TfL, but a change in policy by Boris Johnson, away from putting motor vehicle throughput above safety for all road-users. If these reviews are a face-saving way of him making this change, that is good. But I worry that what will come out of this will be some nonsense such as merely moving the blue lane at Bow roundabout from the outside to the middle of the carriageway. "The next level of cycling infrastructure" sounds fascinating. Is this the level where cyclists only get their limbs crushed under lorries, as opposed to their heads? For I believe that is what actually happened to both the victims of Bow.

I, for one, would like to see Boris Johnson apologise personally to the relatives of Brian Dorling and Svitlana Tereschenko, and personally promise to them to start to mend London's deadly junctions, in Brian and Lana's memory. I end with a video I made of the one minute's silence on Friday.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Cycle danger in London and the predictable, grim farce of the Superhighways

While I was finding "Causes for optimism in November", others were not being so cheerful about the state of cycling in London. The Tour du Danger protest ride against the policies of Transport for London, particularly its refusal to redesign dangerous junctions to make them safe for cycling, which was organised by ibikelondon and Cyclists in the City, attracted a large crowd. They were spurred on by, firstly, the second cyclist death in three weeks on Cycle Superhighway 2 at the Bow Roundabout, and, secondly, by Boris Johnson's outrageous comments in response to questions in the London Assembly about cyclist safety, perhaps the worst of which was:
One of the first cycle superhighways takes you round the back of Elephant & Castle – that cunning little cut-through that I sometimes use.
Though I have to tell you ...sometimes I just go round Elephant & Castle because it's fine. If you keep your wits about you, Elephant & Castle is perfectly negotiable.
This, about the statistically most dangerous junction in London, that has seen 89 cyclists casualties in the last two years. That statistic alone tells you, even if you have never visited the place, that Elephant and Castle is not "fine", and it is not "perfectly negotiable", irrespective of where your "wits" are. It is unacceptably dangerous for cyclists, just as are literally hundreds of other junctions and sections of road across London. Though TfL keep creatively finding ways to combine statistics to suggest that cycling in London is getting safer, as in this attempt:
It is encouraging that the proportion of cycling collisions on TfL roads that result in fatal or serious injuries has declined since 2008, indicating that the severity of collisions is falling,
in fact the casualty rate per mile cycled in London is getting worse, according to Department for Transport figures:

A claim that cycle casualties per journey are declining, that TfL makes in this document, is statistically dubious, for the reasons explained in this valuable blogpost.  In any case this is an irrelevant statistic, as it is the casualty rate per distance travelled that is the real measure of risk. This last-mentioned reference does demonstrate that we actually haven't got much of a clue as to what the cycling rate in London really is, so it is very hard to tell how risky it is, and how the risk is changing. As with everything in cycling, the Dutch do this better. The Dutch have a saying, measuring is knowing. The Dutch know what their cycling rate is, because their cycling is largely on cycle paths, and they have automatic counters on the cycle paths that look like this, that tell them how many cyclists use the routes:

Cycle traffic counter in Groningen
Because, in the UK, we don't actually know what the split of cycling is between major roads, minor roads, pavements and paths, and in most of those places, we don't count cyclists, we haven't really got a clue about how much cycling there is, and how dangerous it is. What we can say is that people increasingly feel that cycling in London is too dangerous. That is what the cyclists on the Tour du Danger were there to highlight, and to highlight, specifically, Transport for London and Boris Johnson's failure to redesign the streets and junctions they control with cyclist (and pedestrian) safety in mind. And they succeeded in highlighting it. The mainstream media is noticing this issue as never before. And, as I write, TfL have been forced to respond on Bow:
Transport for London (TfL) director Ben Plowden promised to look "very closely" at the cycling superhighway which ran through the Bow Roundabout.
He also said cyclists would be advised to avoid the route, which runs to the Olympic Park, during next year's Games.
Where else cyclists will be advised to go, to get to the Games, is not clear to me. Also, the question is, what is there to look at "very closely", that was not looked at last year when the design of the Superhighway was decided upon against all advice from cycle campaigners? Nothing has changed. TfL took a deliberate decision then to risk the lives of cyclists rather than produce a proper design for cycling. The two cyclists who have died there paid the price of that decision. Looking at this one roundabout "very closely" will not fix it, nor any of the others of hundreds of dangerous junctions and roads in London, without a fundamental change of approach from TfL.

For TfL's approach to cycling reflects the views of Boris Johnson closely. Where he says "it is just fine, so long as you keep your wits about you", and, again, "sometimes I don't think that physical streetworks are the answer", he is, as a cyclist himself, only expressing a type of view that has always had some currency amongst British cyclists: the view that the issues are personal and a matter of character and determination, not public, structural and political. This view is exemplified by the slogan, as formulated by David Hembrow, "I cycle, so you could cycle too". It demonstrates a profound lack of insight into how human beings operate, a profound failure of empathy –  a quality you would have thought a successful politician would need. As Green Assembly Member Jenny Jones put it:
The Mayor is an experienced cyclist who wants roads that are safe for him to cycle around. In contrast, I am an experienced cyclist who wants roads that are safe for a twelve year old to cycle on. That is the gulf between us.
But I thought Charlie Holland on the Kennington People on Bikes blog put it best:
As an experienced motorist, cyclist, cycling instructor and trainer of cycling instructors I'd like to say that the Elephant & Castle and the majority of the Cycling Superhighways are bloody awful for cycling - which is why you hardly see any secondary school children, especially girls, cycling there.
Most of the motorists I know dislike many of TfL's roads and junctions, and they've undergone loads of training and a test! So what are the odds of your average soft, squidgy person who can't drive merrily pootling around these roads on bikes? Bugger all...
In the Netherlands they work really hard to make the route for cyclists friendly, obvious, direct and safe, subjectively and statistically, because they want their children to cycle and they recognise their vulnerability.
Here Boris just tells the boys and girls to grow some cojones and jump in front of the HGVs. 
What a pillock.
Charlie later changed the last word to "buffoon", but I prefer his original.

So the Cycle Superhighways project always reflected Boris's view that what was really needed to get people cycling was publicity, encouragement and razzmatazz, not safe, clear cycling space on the roads. It was thus always going to be an entirely predictable, grim farce. Many are now saying that the scheme needs rethinking or abandoning, but to me (and I am not pleased to have been proven right by events), the failure was apparent from the early planning stages of the Superhighways. In August 2009, I urged London Cycling Campaign, under its then Chief Executive, Koy Thomson, unsuccessfully at that stage, to withdraw co-operation from, and support for, the whole Superhighways project. When Brent Cyclists was asked to help with the planning of Superhighway 11, proposed to run along the A5, I wrote, on 6 August 2009, the following to Thomson:
My option is that we should not take part. I am certainly not inclined to take part after having put a lot of effort into LCN+5 (more or less the same thing as Highway 11) which achieved absolutely nothing. 
I think the whole LCC policy on the Highways (or are they Superhighways, TfL can't seem to make up its mind) is now wrong. We should rethink. I think we should not be co-operating with this project as the information with we have been supplied, particularly the presentation from last week's meeting at LCC, indicates that both the funding and the conception behind these routes is so calamitously inadequate to the task that they will be a total waste of time and money, and, worse, will attract inexperienced cyclists onto main road routes that have not been made any safer than they are now, with junctions that are still highly dangerous and unsuitable for all but the most skilled with-traffic cyclists.
The email below [not quoted here] from Koy, Rik [Andrew] and Tom [Bogdanowicz] says:
"The TfL presentation makes clear that the infrastructure element will be accompanied by soft measures such as cycle training, parking and promotion of cycling."
In fact, the presentation makes clear there will be no infrastructure element. Even the few slightly promising-sounding elements in the earlier (May) TfL presentation, particularly closing-off side roads along the routes, and "reorganising" parking and loading, seem to have been ruled out in last week's presentation, on Slide 9, "Constraints" where it says "Cycle Superhighways does not have the time or the budget to... seek major changes to traffic operations (e.g. via side road orders or controversial Traffic Regulation Orders". If B[oris] J[ohnson] did not realise that prioritising cycling would be controversial, why did he start on this in the first place?
The next paragraph on that slide is key for Route 11: the statement "The Boroughs are King". LB Barnet continues to be totally opposed to putting a route on the A5. It stopped LCN+5 and it will stop this. There is absolutely no point in us putting any more work into it before we get a definitive statement of a change of policy from Barnet. All the issues for the section from Kilburn High Road northwards have been covered fully in the LCN+5 CRISP report anyway.
In short, though I can see the argument that LCC needs to make the Highways as good as possible within the constraints, after last week's presentation, I think the balance of advantages to LCC (and London cyclists) has now shifted to one where we would gain more from publicly opposing the Highways scheme, and making a big media thing of doing so, rather than from being associated with the total failure and embarrassment that they will surely be.
Am I alone in LCC in thinking this?
David Arditti
This is a complete and unabridged quote from the email that I wrote in August 2009. I found the policy of conciliation and cooperation with TfL on the manifest impending disaster of the Superhighways, favoured by Koy Thomson, "for fear of losing all influence" to be very unfortunate. Since then, and with a new chief executive, LCC has changed its tone on the Superhighways a great deal, and I support their current position.

I was perfectly right then in pointing to the fundamental problem that anti-cycling boroughs like Barnet were able to veto the Superhighways. That is what happened to CS 2 when it reached the borough of Newham. The anti-cycling Mayor of Newham, Robin Wales, caused CS 2 to stop dead at the Bow roundabout, with no further facilities. The Superhighway may not have been any better implemented on that roundabout had Wales allowed it to continue into Newham, for, as Assembly Member John Biggs was told, it was TfL, not Newham, that was so obsessed with not reducing the traffic capacity of the Bow roundabout as to not be prepared to put in any signals for pedestrians or cyclists. Cycle Superhighway 11 has not yet been "built" (i.e. painted), but it is now planned, like CS 2, to just end, bang on the border of the Bikeless Borough of Barnet, at another nasty junction (the junction of the A41 Hendon Way and Finchley Road), where cyclists will, again, just be "dumped".

Contrary to their protestations, TfL's officials seem to learn no lessons in stumbling from the failed implementation of one Superhighway to the next. Here is Leon Daniels, TfL's Managing Director of Surface Transport, answering a question from Assembly Member Joann McCartney last month (p33 of the minutes of the GLA Transport Committee):
Joanne McCartney (AM): This Committee looked at cycle superhighways and we came up with a list of recommendations which included having a minimum standard on all of the superhighways, for example a minimum two metre wide blue strip, about improving consultation prior to a superhighway going in and about revisiting the pilots to make any improvements that were necessary. I am just wondering how you got on with some of those recommendations? 
Leon Daniels (Managing Director of Surface Transport, TfL): Again, loads of lessons to learn from the initial cycle superhighway not just in respect of the superhighway schemes themselves but also the way in which the construction is done and the disruption to general traffic and so on. In just about every case we are looking to - this is a big compromise because, at the end of the day, the carriageway space is fixed and therefore we are trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot. 
I agree entirely with you about minimum widths and so on. Just in some places, on the ground, practically, we are faced with what we have to do. In many cases - and Members will know some of these - there is a requirement for a certain footway width, the frontages need some space, there are requirements for loading and unloading, we need to keep ordinary traffic moving as well and, therefore, in many cases, we are shoehorning this into a narrow space. I agree entirely with you that a minimum width for cyclists is desirable but, again in many cases, we are stuck with what we can do practically and cost effectively.
So there you have it. It's a case of "trying to squeeze a quart into a pint pot". It's a case of a minimum width being desirable, but "we are stuck with what we can do practically". What Daniels is clearly saying here is that, though this is supposed to be a scheme for cycling, cyclists are, in reality, still at the bottom of the pile on these roads. Footway requirements can't be altered, loading requirements can't be altered, and capacity for "ordinary traffic" can't be reduced (he might as well have said "proper traffic", that would probably have better reflected the way he was thinking), so the thing that has to "give" is space for cycling. Cycling needs no space, right, because cycles are so narrow? After starting by saying "Loads of lessons to learn", Daniels makes it crystal clear he is learning nothing at all. He is sticking to the same old "big compromise" line (i.e. compromise into meaninglessness) that has caused all London cycle infrastructure schemes over the last 20 years to fail, from the London Cycle Network, to LCN+, to the present.

I don't think Daniels, or Johnson, have the slightest idea what proper cycling infrastructure looks like, what it actually does, or how it can be implemented. I don't know if they have seen what they have in Holland, Denmark and Germany. Maybe they have, but just concluded, in classic British fashion, "This is not why they cycle here, they cycle here because it is flat". Presumably they have never seen the cycling infrastructure in Switzerland, Austria and Italy. Certainly Boris seems to make a big thing out of hills. When the ex-coordinator of Harrow Cyclists, Colin Waters, tacked Boris at a public meeting in March 2010 in Harrow School, on the question of why the Superhighways were no good, Boris totally avoided the question, turning it to humour, loudly asking Colin, to the audience, "Goodness me, did you cycle here? Up this fearsome hill? Congratulate that man, give him a round of applause!"

Boris's vision of a "cycle-ised city" (a phrase he copied from LCC) seems to be of a city pretty much as it is now, with perhaps a few more cyclists fitted in, in the gaps between the cars, just to take up space more efficiently, and take a few more people off the tubes. It's not a vision of the radically reconfigured, re-prioritised, safe, people-friendly environment developed by the Dutch and Danes. For some reason, he thinks that's no good, or not possible here. The fact that, in his vision, some cyclists fitted into those little gaps are inevitably going to get squashed by the motor vehicles doesn't seem to occur to him, or if it does, he thinks he can't do anything about it. He thinks that "physical streetworks are not the answer". He won't admit the bleeding obvious, that it is the physical state of his streets now that is the problem.

I don't really see him and his cohorts moving on from that position. We need change at the top.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Causes for optimism in November

Grey November is here in London, and a very grey, damp one we have been having so far. But every season has its place, and there is nothing wrong with the grey dampness of the London November, in its place. It provides a contrast to golden October, a pause before the hardness of winter sets in, with the (sometimes forced) jollity of the Festive Season, and, with nothing much growing or needing harvesting any more, and no sky to see, a time for reflection, with few distractions from the natural world. As Thomas Hood wrote in 1844:
No sun - no moon!
No morn - no noon -
No dawn - no dusk - no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no healthful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member -
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds!
And so I cycled off yesterday, armed against the darkness and damp of November with a new Schmidt dynohub, which perhaps I will review sometime (brief review: it is a superb gadget), to plan Brent Cyclists' Infrastructure Safari. This ride will take place this Saturday, 12 November. I am sorry that it coincides with another high-profile ride in central London, Mark and Danny's Tour of TfL's 10 most dangerous junctions for cyclists, but my ride was scheduled first. Its idea is somewhat the reverse of Mark and Danny's ride. We will not be deliberately going to dangerous places. The idea of this ride is a constructive one, to look at as many implemented examples of cycle infrastructure in inner London as possible on a short ride, to critique them and assess how they are working, note how they could be improved, and also note locations with no infrastructure, which patently need it.

What I am going to say next is purely based on subjective opinion arising out of my exploratory ride yesterday, interspersed with the odd fact, but I think it is worth saying, bearing in mind the highly negative (but I believe realistic) articles I have written recently about the state of cycling in outer London. It should be borne in mind that when I lived in the Borough of Camden, up until eight years ago, I cycled in inner London every day. Since moving to the outer suburbs, I have been cycling less to the centre. So I am perhaps more likely to notice the gradual changes there, on the occasions when I do cycle down, than those who now cycle there every day.

The disclaimer is that because I was exploring cycle infrastructure, I was likely to be going to places where more cyclists are; even poor cycle infrastructure has some positive effect on cycling numbers, in my experience. Also I was cycling around at peak time on a weekday.

What I have to say is that I got the feeling that cycling in inner London, particularly in Camden, Islington, Southwark and the City, has taken off in a new way, that I had not seen before, and is now probably on an irreversible upward trend. Last week, at an event I attended in Parliament, on behalf of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, the Cycle Rail Awards Ceremony (never mind what that is, it's not important), the well-known transport commentator Christian Wolmar stated that "cycling in parts of London has now almost reached Dutch levels". This is an exaggeration. The highest-cycling borough, Hackney, had, in 2009, a mode share of 6% officially recorded, and though it might have gone up since, it is unlikely to be comparable with the mode share of cycling in Dutch city centres, which I guess would be typically above 50%, since they have whole cities, including suburbs, with a mode share of 30–50%.

Nevertheless I felt, riding yesterday, that a qualitative as well as a quantitative change has occurred in cycling in central London. It felt very different to how it felt only a couple of years ago. It is also starting to look different. Yes, it is still dominated by young to middle-aged men wearing high-viz and helmets and riding fast bikes fast, but not so much as before. There seems now to be a high proportion of women in the mix, mostly young women. There seem to be more continental-style bikes on the road – practical, town bikes with hub gears, mudguards and chainguards, integral lighting, luggage-carrying features, and an upright riding position. I even saw a lady on a sit-up-and-beg bike with handlebars decorated with flowers, as you see all the time in the Netherlands. The sedateness of the Boris Bikes seemed to have made its impact on the cycling atmosphere as well.

Starting my journey from north Brent, I saw there is still no cycling at all to speak of north of the North Circular Road. But after going through the horrible Neasden pedestrian/cycle underpass, getting into south Brent, on the quieter backstreet routes and in the parks, I was seeing women on bikes, and even families of children on bikes. And from Camden Town onwards there seemed to be a flood of people on bikes. When I cycled around Camden a decade and more ago (when I was involved in planning the Camden segregated cycle tracks with Camden Cycling Campaign), when I stopped at junctions, I would need to be wary of the cars around me, wondering what the drivers were likely to do, but I would not have checked for the presence of cyclists behind me, because there would never have been any (as in outer London today). But yesterday there seemed to be cyclists behind me all the time, if they were not in front or to the sides.

The cycle facilities in inner London still do not make up anything resembling a coherent network, on the Dutch or Danish or German pattern, but some of the gaps that used to annoy me intensely have now been closed up. In Camden, Islington and the City, at least, there now seems to be the beginnings of a functioning network. There has been an improvement in cycle permeability, and also a fall in motor traffic. This last is not an opinion, but a fact, confirmed by a useful analysis by Jim Gleeson

The segregated cycle facilities in Camden are now getting absolutely packed, confirming both the popularity of this style of engineering with a broad range of cyclists (though still not adopted widely by other boroughs, or by Transport for London on its Cycle Superhighways), and the fact that these highly-engineered routes are now being fed better by better bike permeability elsewhere. This is what we always intended, in Camden Cycling Campaign, in our campaigning for them in the late 1990s. We never imagined many London roads would have segregated cycleways on them – just a few, to create a few high-profile, highly-attractive routes, in the Dutch style, fed by lower-profile permeability and cycle priority measures on other routes.

The signs are that this has worked, and I felt for the first time, on this journey, that the undoing of this work has now become unimaginable. Though, as I have reported before, there have been threats to the Camden segregated cycle tracks, I can't see them being taken away now: they are too popular. Unless, that is, cyclists were to be given the whole road, as they have been in Goldsmith's Row, Hackney, where a segregated cycle track was removed. But I can't see this happening in the Camden cases – there is too much commercial activity needing servicing by motor vehicles on these streets, so the segregated tracks remain the best solution.

The tracks still stop dead at the Westminster border, though the routes notionally continue. There has been no change in the anti-cycling attitude of Westminster Council (though they are, for reasons of their own budget, now starting to reduce free parking, which should benefit cycling). But the City Corporation has had something of a turn-around in attitudes, and the effects of this are noticeable. 

There remains much to do in the City. The very useful Queen Street and King Street corridor north of Southwark Bridge, extending Cycle Superhighway 7, that I noted in my article on the bridge, has become such a high cycle-traffic route it needs to be converted to a proper bicycle road, Copenhagen style, with priority at the junctions, and none of the silly button-pressing and confusion with pedestrian facilities that currently occurs at the Cheapside junction. The Gresham Street to Moorgate route via Coleman Street is also so popular it needs regularising, with a properly signlised crossing of London Wall, for bikes only.

Back in Camden, I saw, and perhaps this is the first time this has ever occurred in British history, proper measures to divert and keep protected a cycle route when the usual route is closed by building work. This is a diversion on the Royal College Street two-way cycle track:

Diversion currently operational on the Royal College Street cycle track, Camden (picture courtesy Jean Dollimore).
I noted the problem with these works back in June, and I know that Jean Dollimore, co-ordinator of Camden Cycling Campaign (whom I happened to meet yesterday on the track: two-way cycle tracks are particularly sociable places) has been working hard to try to resolve it since then. My earlier photo showed the famous UK-standard "Cyclist Dismount" signs on the track. Now the solution implemented by Camden officers looks so good it is almost as if they have been reading A view from the cycle path.

Just to cast our minds back, before 1998 this road was a three-lane one-way race track for cars, with cyclists directed to a wiggly and inconvenient back street route. Just like Matthew Wright now thinks is the best, indeed the only practical, solution for London cycling. Since then one lane for cars has been removed, and the remaining two lanes have been narrowed and calmed, to make way for the cycle track and segregating strip. Now, one of the remaining lanes has been taken away from cars to keep cyclists safe for the expected 6–12 months duration of the building work. Note the child cycling in the picture. Segregated cycle tracks on main roads are particularly crucial to getting children cycling. Keeping them safe and the priorities unchanged when works are carried out is particularly critical, as the Dutch know. It seems that one London council is now aware of this as well.

Unfortunately I can't lavish too much praise on Camden council, as two other important cycle routes in the borough, that I used yesterday, are also blocked by street works, and without satisfactory mitigating measures for cyclists. One is in Tavistock Place between Marchmont Street and Judd Street. Jean informs me this blockage, for cable-laying, should only last a few days. At least the closure of the track here is clearly signed in advance. The other is Malet Street, in the centre of the University of London, where major street rebuilding work, taking a long time, should have had temporary cycle facilities incorporated, on this very high-cycling street. The result of the lack of them is cyclists annoying pedestrians on the pavement.

Cycle facilities in Islington looked relatively neglected, with a failure to sign routes consistently. In the City and Islington, cyclists were not directed around temporary blockages to their routes.

Going back out to Brent, I found that there is still a lot of work needing doing on permeability there, in the southern parts of the borough that I don't often cycle in. Brent did attempt at one time to create an off-road cycle path linking Canterbury Road, near Queens Park Station, to Kilburn High Road, but the details of the execution are poor, without even dropped kerbs in the right places. For this route to be useful, something needs to be done about the dangerous gyratory system around Queens Park Station. There needs to be a bypass to get cyclists from Albert Road to Salusbury Road without getting involved in the one-way system. Then very simple bike permeability measures, like cut-throughs at the road closures of Chevening Road/Winchester Avenue and Christchurch Avenue, where they meet Brondesbury Park, and Lechmere Road at Willesden High Road, have not been thought of.

Basically, the pattern is that conditions for cycling deteriorate as you go out from the centre of London, with fewer and worse cycle facilities, and the number of cyclists falls off correspondingly. The divide between the two cities, inner and outer London, the first of which has clearly had at least a bit of a "cycling revolution", and the other, which certainly has not, is becoming more and more striking.

I don't believe in the thesis of "safety in numbers". Cycling safety comes from good infrastructure design, and that then gets the numbers up – the safety does not come from the high numbers themselves. This is demonstrated by the increasing casualty rate amongst London cyclists, both absolutely and relatively, despite their rising numbers. This is a great cause for concern, and can fairly be blamed on Transport for London's lack of concern for the safety of cyclists, and their prioritisation of motor vehicle flow, as most casualties are occurring on the major junctions managed by TfL, not the boroughs. The boroughs are increasingly concerned about this, and are speaking out publicly about it. Anger, particularly at recent deaths at London's major junctions, widely commented to be unsafe for cycling, is behind the ride around the 10 most dangerous junctions.

It may be that a tipping-point has been reached in central London, where the number of cyclists has now become so great that they can exert themselves, through protests, conventional lobbying of politicians, and through the London Cycling Campaign, as a serious political force for gaining real change on the still, for the most part, far too hostile roads. If so, this would generate even more cycling, and a virtuous circle of rising cycling and improving conditions would be established, the reverse of the cycle of decline that I described operating in outer London. Not wanting to be complacent, it now looks to me, for the first time, on the basis of yesterday's ride, on a cold, damp November evening, as if that point could have been passed, and that inner London could be leading a revival of cycling in the UK, ahead of such traditional English cycling towns as Cambridge, Oxford and York, and despite many of the policies of London's mayor.

If you are interested in the Infrastructure Safari, join Brent Cyclists at 11:45 on Saturday at Gladstone Park Railway Bridge (the foot of Parkside, NW2). A meeting point closer to the centre could be arranged if anyone not from Brent wishes to join us.

Monday, 7 November 2011

What people are saying about the M5 crash

Helen, a.k.a. Mrs Vole, who spends more time on the internet than most, with a focus on transport (some people do have strange girlfriends), comments on how the crash is discussed in rather contrasting terms, comparing news websites and cycling forums. On the news, the focus is on the fireworks display, the smoke, fog, poor visibility, rain and wet road. On the cycling newsgroups, they talk about speed and tailgating. In those discussions there is understanding of the concept of "contributory factors", whereas the general news channels look for the "cause" of the crash.

I sometimes think that perhaps all the most intelligent motorists are cyclists – at least part-time cyclists.

Hopefully there will be one last casualty of the M5 crash: the government's idea of increasing the speed limit on motorways to 80 mph (129 km/h).

More on this in a good article from Peter Willby in the Guardian: "Ministers are nudging drivers in the wrong direction".

Friday, 4 November 2011

Some more thoughts on Dutch cycling

It is over a month since I returned from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain study tour in the company of David Hembrow. I have referred to this tour quite a lot here already, but there are some major points that I took from it that I have not covered, and, in the light of a suddenly increased interest in the UK as to what "Going Dutch" could and should mean, I think it is a good idea to go into these.

The tour was very enjoyable as well as enlightening, and I hugely recommend anyone who has the slightest concern with developing cycling in any country other than the Netherlands to follow in our footsteps, and get over to Assen to do it. The Embassy hopes to put together another group to go next September, so start thinking about it. Or, if you want to go at any other time, David Hembrow will try to oblige.

For those "real cyclists" amongst you, don't imagine that "study tour" like this is all cerebral and nerdy. Well, it was a bit cerebral and nerdy, with plenty of photographing of bollards and videoing of traffic light sequences, but it was also physically enjoyable. Cycling 70 km in a day on a solid three-speed sit-up and beg Dutch bike with all the accessories was something the like of which I had done for a long time, and it was fantastic. Perhaps the highlight for me was the dynamo-illuminated night ride on cycle paths back from Groningen to Assen on the last day, which some of our party foolishly absented themselves from, by wimping out and taking the train! Taking the train with a bike in the Netherlands is extremely easy, and so always a temptation. I can't blame them.

How did the trip affect my views on providing for cycling? Well, the trip did not change my views in any major way, but it cemented and developed them. I had already understood the elements of Dutch cycle policy and infrastructure provision from reading A view from the cycle path, other websites, and talking and corresponding with others who had spent time cycling there. But there really is no substitute for experiencing it yourself. The cycling environment is so utterly different from what we have in the UK that we really cannot imagine it from this side of the North Sea. It is hard to adequately describe. It has to be felt, seen, and experienced. The scale, quality, ambition and complex diversity of the system developed to allow average people to cycle safely, comfortably and conveniently to anywhere they need to go in the whole country is beyond what I would have guessed, and beyond what any of us expected.

There were some situations where I thought I knew what the Dutch solution was, but what I found was that there was far more diversity in the solutions as used in different places than I expected. There are many possible ways in which cycle space can be arranged in towns and countryside, and I found that there are often several Dutch solutions to the same question. The Dutch have experimented constantly with cycle provision. So you don't find consistency, but do do find a large range of possible solutions to problems. Whatever the traffic or infrastructure problem is, that is hindering cycling, there is a Dutch solution, and, usually, a choice of solutions.

One point about which my opinions needed revising were give-ways, and the significance of them. Having gone around for a long time telling people in the UK that Dutch cycle tracks have priority over roads that they cross, if the junctions are not signalised, I found that often this is not the case. There are quite a lot of give-ways on Dutch cycle tracks and paths. Not in the way we have in the UK, where you get shared-pavement cycle routes with stupid give-ways at driveways and minor side turnings – Dutch cycle tracks always have priority over minor roads. But the Dutch paths, particularly when not adjacent to roads (i.e. when tending towards the suburban or rural cycle path model rather than the urban cycle track model) do often give way when crossing major roads, as minor roads would do, and they sometimes give way to the arms of roundabouts when encircling them. However, I discovered that in practice this is not a problem, for in an environment where motor traffic is so much lower on major roads than it is in the UK, you are not delayed much by these give-ways. They are not frequent. In addition, many drivers give way when not legally required, and a linked factor is junction and roundabout design, which tends to give motorists tighter corners than in the UK, which slows them just before many of these give-ways on cycle paths are encountered. Where cycle paths encounter very major roads with a lot of traffic on them, there are signals, or the path blithely continues on its way through a tunnel or over a bridge. Problem solved.

Before I went, perhaps I expected the achievement of the good cycling conditions in the Netherlands to be more about priorities and the law and codes of behaviour and enforcement, about what various road-users can and can't do, than it turned out to be. (Matthew Wright, writing on the Guardian's cycle blog, articulated this mistaken view recently.) But it turns out it's far more about the design of the roads, tracks and paths than about making road users behave correctly. There is actually a fair amount of chaos in how various road users behave, as there is anywhere, but the Dutch principle of "sustainable safety" has led them to design out the most dangerous conflicts. They have simply designed the environment so that it is hard for road-users to make mistakes, and the mistakes they can make are likely to be less dangerous ones.

There is a noticeable difference in approach compared to Germany, where I have also studied high-cycling towns. There, there is more freedom allowed by design, but more restraint expected though law-abiding behaviour. The German system of allowing cyclists on a cycle track to pass though a junction on a green light that is simultaneous with the green for cars on the adjacent carriageway gives cyclists on the track a high degree of priority, but their safety depends on drivers obeying the rule that they must not turn across the cyclists' path. The Dutch, on the other hand, not trusting drivers to behave in this way, completely separate the green phases for cars and bikes. However their traffic-light phasing still minimises delays to cyclists.

The Germans sometimes implement high-quality cycle tracks as well, but their junction principles are different. Münster, Germany.
I tended, before I went, to buy the line that is often believed in the UK that because only 10% of the roads in the Netherlands have segregated cycling on them, there is still a lot of interaction between cyclists with motor vehicles on all the other roads, but that this is safer because of good behaviour from the motorists in an environment where "everybody cycles". In fact that 10% statistic is highly misleading. Its implication is, in UK cyclists' minds, that 90% of the time you are sharing space with motor vehicles. But this is not so for several reasons. 

Firstly, the roads where you do have segregation are the long ones, the important ones, and the ones on which you spend most time cycling. They are the critical "backbone" routes. Secondly, at least in the towns we visited, you spend a lot of your time cycling on totally separate cycle paths that are unrelated to the road network. Thirdly, you encounter few motor vehicles on the unsegregated roads. So, with this combination of factors, you find that the separation of cyclists from motorists in the Netherlands is astonishingly complete. Cyclists rarely have to "negotiate" with motorists in the UK vehicular cycling sense. We did find places where they did, have to, kind of, particularly in the busier Groningen, as opposed to smaller, quieter Assen, but these places were exceptional. So, with this degree of separation,  it is not necessarily for motorists to be remarkably well-behaved towards cyclists for cycling to feel very safe.

One should bear in mind that a large part of the unsegregated 90% of roads are the narrow residential streets and cul-de-sacs that are irrelevant to transport (except for the few minutes you spend riding on them to leave or return to your home or other destination on them). One should not confuse traffic-calmed or traffic-restricted areas in the residential "Home Zone" or Dutch Woonerf sense with the cycle routes used for transport. They are separate, as they must be. The last thing you want in a Home Zone, where children should be paying in the street, is commuting cyclists rushing through it. This is a frequently-misunderstood point in the UK.

With the fact that the separation between cyclists and motor vehicles is almost complete in the Netherlands, it follows that the common (not universal) 30 km/h, or 18 mph speed limit, though it certainly makes towns and cities more pleasant for pedestrians and cyclists, is not so critical a factor in the safe cycling environment as is believed in the UK, where extending 20 mph is the main plank of campaigning for many organisations. Hence Roger Geffen, of the CTC, quite thoroughly misses the whole point of the Dutch model where he writes:
Even in the most cycle-friendly countries such as the Netherlands, most urban streets simply have a 30kmh limit, perhaps with some nicely-designed traffic calming, and no cycle-specific provision whatsoever.
And Matthew Wright is also far off the mark to say:
In reducing the Dutch approach to being mainly about paths, LCC is misrepresenting it. Their campaigns for a 20mph speed limit (widespread in the Netherlands), and the crucial issue of strict liability would make a more sensible centrepiece for Go Dutch.
It is very difficult to give an accurate and complete picture of what the Dutch cycling environment is like to those cyclists in the UK who have not experienced it. So again, I do encourage them earnestly to come and see for themselves. The trouble is that the context, the background of what we are working with, is so different. When you have spent 40 years implementing Dutch policies, which have led to so many more bike journeys and so many less car, bus, train and taxis journeys, everything in the landscape is transformed, and nothing seems directly comparable with what you see in the UK. 

When we sent back pictures of what it was like cycling on a main road linking Assen with an adjacent village, a correspondent in England, well-known cycle campaigner, kept arguing that we were not showing something that had relevance. "That's not a distributor road" he said. "Go somewhere busier and take a photo". He thought we had found some traffic-free country lane leading nowhere to show him and hold up a false comparison with main roads linking towns and villages in the UK. But it was a true comparison. Analogous roads in the Netherlands and the UK, having exactly the same function, and linking settlements of comparable populations, look totally different. That 40 years of prioritising the bike has changed everything, and those who have spent their whole lives campaigning for change in the UK, with only very limited success, just cannot, without seeing it, imagine the Dutch environment, and understand how it has been achieved.

Is this a distributor road or not? Gasterenseweg, Loon, Assen
Likewise, many campaigners who cycle on busy roads in London and other UK cities just cannot imagine how their roads could be transformed if Dutch policies were to be implemented. They see problems everywhere: lack of space, competing demands from parking, buses, taxis, deliveries, pedestrians. "What can you possibly do here?" they often ask, in a despairing tone". But there is a huge range of Dutch solutions, as I have said, and implementing them widely through a city changes the whole background context, and makes things possible in "difficult" places that could not have been imagined before. Suddenly you don't need to find all that space for parking and for buses and other motor vehicles, and you can start improving the "difficult" streets. But you can't change everything at once, and it is important to realise how the Dutch got to where they are now. They started by doing the easy things, and that is what we will have to do in the UK. They then kept working on it and improving things, little by little. As David Hembrow always says, you just have to start, and then keep working on it, like the Dutch did. But you do have to start.

Before I went I had already formed the impression that 90% of what British cyclists say about cycling in the Netherlands is wrong, but I was not certain which 90% was wrong and which 10% was right. Now I know. Indeed, most of what is believed about cycling in the Netherlands, and how the cycle culture there has been achieved, on this side of the North Sea, is dead wrong. Here are some wrong ideas that I have encountered, and the answers to them:

1. The Dutch have encouraged the bike by making it very difficult to drive and park

Not so. You can get everywhere by car in the Netherlands, with fair convenience. The Dutch have fast roads, motor access to everywhere that might be needed, and plenty of inexpensive or free parking where it is needed. The Dutch seem to have fewer traffic jams than we have. An argument can be made that driving, using and owning a car in the Netherlands is actually easier than in the UK.

2. The Dutch have encouraged the bike by good planning, putting everything within easy cycling distance

True only to a limited extent. What is "easy cycling distance?". Everybody's mileage varies. But if you make cycling really pleasant and relaxing, people, even the unfit, may be willing to cycle surprisingly long distances. There are dense developments in the Netherlands, and there is urban sprawl. There is good planning and less ideal planning, such as you find anywhere in the UK. There is no strong relationship between cycle uptake in the Netherlands and planning characteristics of the towns, cities and suburbs. There is high cycling in some very low-density regions, and less cycling in some higher density regions that might be thought to be more amenable to bike use. The strong relationship is between cycle facility provision and cycling levels. In other words, a city or region with a high standard of infrastructure, but more need to travel, can have more cycling than a city or region with less good infrastructure, but smaller typical distances to travel. It's more related to subjective safety than distances.

3. The Dutch have ensured that motorists behave well through "strict liability" and other laws

As in the UK, you sometimes encounter motorists behaving stupidly and selfishly. There were occasions in our travels where we encountered motorists driving at us, and we might comment on those occasions, "He didn't seem to be particularly worried about his strict liability, did he?" Dutch motorists are not all brilliantly behaved towards cyclists. The real and subjective safety of cycling in the Netherlands comes from good design, and from the general separation from motor traffic, not through having made motorists saints. Therefore the stress that is being placed on campaigning for Strict Liability now by some UK cycle organisations and commentators is a mistake. Strict Liability might be a good thing to have in the longer term, but it should not be a priority (and it is very far from general political acceptability in the UK anyway). The efforts would be far better spent on campaigning for good infrastructure, which is far closer to political achievability in the UK. The effectiveness of the infrastructure should not be seen as depending on any changes to the law.

A further "it depends on the law" argument is around priorities at junctions. Roger Geffen of CTC again, in the article mentioned earlier:
Another important pre-requisite for segregation to work is legal priority for cyclists at junctions, given that this is where around 70% of cyclists' injuries occur. In countries like Denmark and the Netherlands, if you're on a cycle track and travelling straight ahead at a junction, the law says you have clear priority over drivers turning across your path, even when the driver has a green traffic light.
Apart from conflating different countries which do things differently (I have mentioned differences between the Netherlands and Germany), this is simply wrong in the Dutch context, which I believe provides the best model that we should follow. Most modern Dutch junctions use the simultaneous green for cyclists system, where all motor traffic is held at red twice in the full cycle, while all cycle movements are allowed, the cyclists turning in different directions negotiating with one another (this takes practice, which, of course Dutch cyclists get plenty of). So there is no potential conflict with motor vehicles, and no role for the law in defining priority. Again, the viability of translating infrastructure to the UK should not be seen as needing changes to our laws. Waiting for these will probably delay us for ever. The favourable position enjoyed by cyclists in Dutch law followed the establishment of the infrastructure-based mass cycling culture, came as a political consequence of it. That was the way round it happened.

4. Dutch cycling culture is just about slow utility cycling

When you have created such good conditions for cycling as the Dutch have, and cycling becomes normal transport from kindergarten to dotage, non-utility cycling also mushrooms and blossoms in every conceivable direction. Far from there being a lack of "enthusiast" or "sports" cycling in the Netherlands, the country is full of racing cyclists, time-trialists, Audaxers, long and short distance touring cyclists, leisure and enthusiast cyclists of every description, even, would you believe it, mountain bikers (there are specially constructed rough and muddy mountain biking courses, to make up for the lack of true mountains, or even hills). Every town of consequence has a racing bike track (far from the case in the UK), and you see all these breeds of leisure and sports cyclist far more frequently than you do in the UK. While the vast mass of cyclists is not really that interested in their bikes, as they are not enthusiasts, merely people using a machine, that they have limited understanding of, as a tool for transportation, this mass is in addition to the enthusiast cadre, which is itself much larger than in less favourable cycling countries.

Assen's cycle racing track
And another thing, another huge misunderstanding: cycling in the Netherlands is fast. As fast as you want it to be. Cycling through Dutch towns on cycle infrastructure is much faster than cycling through British towns on roads, because of the junction priorities, the planning that has reduced the frequency of junctions (in old urban areas achieved through closing many of them), the "clear space for cycling", the lack of obstructions and hazards to watch out for all the time, the separation from traffic, and the quality of the surfaces. A critical point, never commented on in the UK: unless you separate cyclists totally from heavy motor vehicles, you can never have decent smooth surfaces for cycling on, because the heavy vehicles will always mess the surfaces up faster than it is economic to repair them. Segregated cycle tracks and paths can have perfect surfaces: they are indeed the only economical way perfect surfaces can be achieved. And that means speed, as well as safety. In the countryside, unrestricted by frequent junctions, the cycle paths allow cycling at any speed you want. Joe, in our party did indeed attempt to attain 40km/h on the cycle path, on the flat (well, everywhere is flat), but narrowly failed, saying it was because the rest of us were in the way.

Perfect surfaces are standard on Dutch cycle paths, making for no speed limit other than that imposed by your legs
So if you want to, you can cycle very fast in the Netherlands. But of course most people don't wish to. The fact that you don't need to cycle fast or assertively to be safe, or to make the mode work for you, to benefit your life, is key to the universality of Dutch cycling – the fact that you cycle at the speed you want, that there is no pressure. It's the reason so many Dutch people go on cycling into their seventies, eighties and nineties. Despite the health benefits of cycling, we all have to die some where, some time, and many Dutch people literally drop dead on a bike – one reason to be very cautious about the meaning of cycling fatality figures compared between the Netherlands and other countries. People commonly die on bikes, or after falling off them, with no involvement of other traffic. An old person suffering a low-speed fall from a bike is much more likely to die as a consequence than is a young person. But this kind of cycling fatality, though sad, is an indication of success of Dutch cycling policy, not failure.

No pressure: cycle gracefully through middle and old age in the Netherlands (and I'm not referring to Sally)
I am glad that I now understand far better how the Dutch achieved the highest cycling rate and the safest cycling in the world. I hope these posts help in the understanding of this in the UK other countries. For understanding is the start of change, and though change takes time, and can be difficult, if it proceeds through accurate understanding, it is easer. Let's get to work.