Sunday, 5 February 2012

Some more comments on The Times manifesto

In an earlier post post I welcomed The Times's campaign for Cities fit for Cycling. I also gave their 8-point manifesto, which I believe strongly is worth supporting. Here it is again:
  1. Trucks entering a city centre should be required by law to fit sensors, audible truck-turning alarms, extra mirrors and safety bars to stop cyclists being thrown under the wheels.
  2. The 500 most dangerous road junctions must be identified, redesigned or fitted with priority traffic lights for cyclists and Trixi mirrors that allow lorry drivers to see cyclists on their near-side.
  3. A national audit of cycling to find out how many people cycle in Britain and how cyclists are killed or injured should be held to underpin effective cycle safety.
  4. Two per cent of the Highways Agency budget should be earmarked for next generation cycle routes, providing £100 million a year towards world-class cycling infrastructure. Each year cities should be graded on the quality of cycling provision.
  5. The training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test.
  6. 20mph should become the default speed limit in residential areas where there are no cycle lanes.
  7. Businesses should be invited to sponsor cycleways and cycling super-highways, mirroring the Barclays-backed bicycle hire scheme in London.
  8. Every city, even those without an elected mayor, should appoint a cycling commissioner to push home reforms.
I am sure (in fact I know) the journalists considered and consulted upon this manifesto for some time, realising that specifying precise measures to be called for to make cycling safer is a controversial area. My list would not be precisely the same as theirs, of course, but I think they have got a lot right here. Here are my points of difference.

I would not have ordered the list this way. They don't seem to have the most important things first. They have put first the measures that occur most obviously in connection with the lorry danger problem, and this is understandable, bearing in mind that the spur for this campaign was the crash with a lorry that left their colleague Mary Bowers fighting for life (and still in a coma). But the important demands are 4 and 6, referring to the creation of quality cycling infrastructure, and 20 mph on all roads where cyclists are not segregated from motor traffic. These are the really big demands.

No. 4 shows that they have understood that the critical difference between UK roads and those in the Netherlands and Denmark is that money has been spent there on properly safe cycling infrastructure. The demand for 2% of the highways budget is on the low side (but this is a right-wing newspaper which is loathe to advocate big state spending). This would raise around £100 million a year, £2 for every person in the UK, which is less than a tenth of what the Netherlands spends on cycling infrastructure. However, they do also suggest that this money should be augmented from the private sector, in their point no. 7.

No. 6 is hugely ambitious, as it is not politically likely that highway authorities will agree to many main roads being made 20 mph. This implies that all such roads would get cycle lanes – and they mean "segregated cycle lanes" – they do say this explicitly on one page, but not in the listing of the 8 points. Because this point is so important, but not clear in the list, I have screen-grabbed it to show its presence on this page, in case it disappears:

This of course is in perfect agreement with the policies of the London Cycling Campaign, who are calling for "clear space for cyclists on London's main roads", and those of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, which believes in the "principles of separation and sustainable safety". But I've never heard the UK's largest cyclists' organisation, CTC, calling for anything like this. It's time they caught up, in my view.

To have mentioned "cycle lanes" or "segregated cycle lanes" first in the list in the sixth point down, and then as a negative, is infelicitous. They should have laid out what they were talking about at first, by making an early, or the first, demand for "Segregated cycle lanes on all roads with speeds over 20 mph, and all busy 20 mph roads as well". The second part of the prescription is necessary because, even on road with slow speeds, traffic above a certain level makes them hostile to cyclists, or blocks cyclists' progress because of congestion, particularly near junctions, forcing or encouraging cyclists into less safe road positions or manoeuvres.

To expand on this: I do quite a lot of cycling on 20 mph roads, in a 20 mph zone that the Borough of Brent, to their credit, have introduced round some schools. But few others do the same, and virtually no school children, because merely being a 20 mph zone does not make it feel very safe. This is essentially because the rat-runs on these residential streets are still in place, and in the narrow, parked-up spaces, substantial volumes of 20 pmh traffic (assuming they obey the speed limit) trying to overtake and negotiate around cyclists, and blocking junctions up, will be enough to prevent most people attempting to cycling on these roads. In the Netherlands and Denmark, they either separate cyclists from motor vehicles, or they remove most of the motor vehicles from the street. Low speeds are not enough.

This is demonstrated in the Danish separation criteria diagram, showing speed against vehicles per day. We see that at 19 mph they recommend cycle lanes at flows over 5,000 per day (3 per minute) and cycle tracks (segregated lanes) at flows over 10,000 per day (6 per minute). Note that these flows are rather low compared with the sort of motor volumes cyclists are used to mixing with in UK cities, even in residential areas.

This concept of separation criteria is not alien to the UK. There is a similar diagram in the London Cycle Design Standards (Chapter 4) published by TfL in 2005.

There are two problems with this TfL version, unfortunately. The first is that it sets the transitions to protected infrastructure at much higher speeds and volumes than the Danish diagram. At 20 mph it only recommends cycle lanes, not tracks, definitely, above 10,000 vehicles per day, the volume at which the Danes are certain tracks must be used. For segregated tracks at 10,000 vehicles per day, the TfL criterion is that the 85 percentile speed should be above about 38 mph. The second, more important problem, is that TfL have never attempted to apply even their weaker separation criteria on any of their roads. OK, the road network in London is big, and I don't expect them to be able to bring it up to these standards overnight. But it is seven years since they published this diagram, and I would have expected them to have started, by now, to apply the principles enshrined in it, to at least the most dangerous roads. They have not. Something to do with Boris Johnson perhaps?

It is clearly the case that on most 20 mph roads, which will be residential, there is not going to be enough width for segregated cycle tracks. There is not in the Netherlands either. The Dutch approach is to remove the through-traffic from those roads, by making them non-through roads for motors, so that only access traffic is present, moving the road to near the bottom of the separation diagram: a "shared quiet road".

I've strayed away from my topic, which is The Times manifesto, into a tangential explanation. To go back: they start their list with the familiar litany of lorry safety measures, sensors, mirrors, and the rest. Some of these, or all of them, could do some good, but they are not the real solution to the lorry danger problem. There is the danger of overloading lorry drivers with too much information, too many mirrors that they have to check. Audible sensors do seem a very good idea. But basically we do need lorries to be able to get around and make deliveries, often on the same roads that cyclists need to use. The real answer is to separate cyclists and lorries (and other large vehicles: the latest London fatality was due to a coach) in space and time through junction design – something the Dutch have been working on for a long time. Unsurprisingly, the Dutch road safety institute, SWOV, agrees with me on this:
In SWOV’s opinion, the ultimate solution for the blind spot problem is a structural separation of trucks and cyclists. How this must be organised and what the economic consequences will be, requires further study. For the time being, the solution can be found in separating cyclists and trucks at intersection, both in time and position. Furthermore, it is important to make both the truck driver and the cyclist more aware of the hazards. For drivers this means that it should be an automatism to carry out an “after check” to see if the road is clear when they pull up. This is a task for the driver training. The front view system is important here and SWOV recommends to make this also compulsory for trucks manufactured before 2007. Although several warning systems are being developed to warn drivers that cyclists are  present, it is not yet clear whether these systems will be sufficiently reliable.
The traffic mirror, also known as black spot mirror {or Trixi mirror], is mounted on the pole carrying the traffic lights to provide truck drivers with a better view of cyclists at the right-hand [UK: left] side and front of their vehicle. This mirror has been found to barely influence truck driver behaviour and is only effective while the truck is stopped in front of the mirror. Therefore, the mirror is not effective at the location where the driver has to carry out the after check.
So The Times's Point 2 is rather more relevant than their Point 1: redesign of junctions and changes to signals are more important for solving the lorry problem than the provision of mirrors and sensors.

In point 4, the grading of local authorities on their cycling provision is an excellent idea. But this has been done before. Kind of. Cycling England did it some years ago. I do not have an exact reference to this episode because it was shrouded in some secrecy. Cycling England decided  not to publish a national league-table of the results, because they did not want to embarrass the bad councils! Their idea was that the gradings would be used internally by local authorities to improve their performance. They were for "information only". Fine. Except not, because this approach missed the fact that the worst councils were positively opposed to cycling, and did not want to do anything to encourage it. So those councils (and it is rumoured that the Bikeless Borough of Barnet was at the bottom of the table) did not care less how Cycling England graded them. And the fact that the grades were secret meant that campaigners could not use them to name and shame their local authorities. So the grading exercise was useless, undermined by Cycling England's timidity. (Not that this timidity did it any good in the longer term, as it was abolished by the coalition government in 2010.) So, yes, Times, grade councils on their cycling performance, but make it public, and have sticks ready to punish the bad boys.

I suppose my biggest difficulties with The Times's list come in their Point 6: "training of cyclists and drivers must improve and cycle safety should become a core part of the driving test". This is all very well to say, but exactly what training are we talking about?

To treat the driving test first, it seems to me a far-fetched idea that any major improvement in cyclist safety is going to come about through changing that. The driving test teaches drivers to do all sorts of things, like stick to speed limits, and stop at amber lights (if safe to do so), and give way to pedestrians crossing a minor road into which they are turning, that they all go out and immediately stop doing the moment they have passed the test. I don't see how concentrating more on cycle safety in the test will be any more effective. What could be effective is more (or even some) police enforcement of the Highway Code, but The Times manifesto doesn't go down this road. My experience of Dutch drivers is that they are not really that much better behaved towards cyclists on the roads than their UK counterparts. The much higher profile and uptake of cycling in the Netherlands hasn't reformed the basic instincts of people behind a wheel. It is the Dutch infrastructure that makes cyclists there so much safer.

The issue of cyclists' training is even more problematic, because as soon as you talk about that, Road Safety Minister Mike Penning's cherubic face will light up and tell you that the Government is paying for lots of cycle training, so that's all right then, isn't it? Training for cyclists is what government wants to pay for when it doesn't wish to challenge the basic hierarchy on the roads, with cyclists at the bottom of the pile: it becomes the responsibility of the "better-trained" cyclists to sort the situation out for themselves, to deal with the unacceptable risks single-handed. It put all the responsibility on the weakest road-users.

Moreover, the cycle training that we use in this country, Bikeablity, concentrates on the development of an assertive riding style designed to minimise risks to the cyclist in a car-dominated cycling environment, that is quite irrelevant to cycling as it is practised in the bike-dominated cycling environments of the Netherlands and Denmark. It cannot be part of the long term solution to cycling, as the majority of the population will never have any interest in riding assertively (which really implies "fast" as well), in the way that Bikeablity seeks to teach them. The other problem with Bikeability is that it can be regarded by its proponents (such as some of those working in the largely state-funded industry that delivers it) as the correct way to cycle, rather than as what it is, a stop-gap mitigating measure for an incorrectly designed environment. In this sense, Bikeability-style, Government-approved, training and bad cycling conditions become a self-perpetuating, symbiotic ecosystem. This ecosystem is one that needs to be broken out from if we are ever to achieve mass cycling on the European model.

We do need cycle training. Every child in the Netherlands gets cycle training (and a practical test at the end of it). But their training is more about cycling in the allowed places, and obeying all the rules of the road, than it is about assertiveness. Dutch cyclists do not need to assert themselves in front of streams of hostile traffic. The cycle training that we have in the UK at the moment is problematic in the same way that cycle helmets are: both provide safety benefits sometimes for some people, but both are really symptoms of the problems with the environment that neeed addressing for us to move on from these temporary "solutions", and achieve the mass cycling culture where they will be redundant. My cycling manifesto would not call for more cycle training, but I can see why many other people's would.

The Times's final manifesto item, cycling commissioners for every city, "even those without an elected Mayor", is again sensible. I don't quite follow the "even those without an elected mayor" bit, as it implies that cities without elected mayors have less need of cycling commissioners than those with. I suppose if all elected mayors were as regressive as Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, this would be the case. These commissioners would have to have far more power, and be far higher up in the council hierarchy, than the current generation of council cycling officers, who are, of course, well-intentioned, but lack authority, budgets, and political support.

Localism is all very well, but the UK is a totally centralised state, in terms of how public money is collected and distributed, and the manner in which the spending priorities for that money are decided upon. Local authorities have little freedom to differ from what Whitehall expects. So any cycling revolution in the UK as a whole is going to have to start in Whitehall, with the ministers and civil servants there. Local authorities need the powers and the cash and the incentives to change their city streets for the better, but Parliament also needs to change many laws (for cyclists are not even properly recognised as a category of road-user under English law, being still treated as "carriages" under the Highways Act 1835), and the Department for Transport needs gain a whole new mindset, if The Times campaign is going to lead to real change anywhere in England (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have more freedom).

One example of what needs to change concerns the land needed for inter-city cycle routes. So far, where these have been constructed, they have been on old railway courses, the most famous example being the Bristol to Bath cycleway. We have more or less run out of these disused railways. If we are to go further, county councils will need to be able to compulsorily purchase wide strips of land at the side of existing main roads to build well-separated cycle tracks. This is what happens in the Netherlands, routinely, and has been happening for decades, which is how they have acquired their splendid inter-urban cycle route network. It is not controversial there, it's a thing that needs to be done. But I have never heard of a local authority compulsory purchase of land on which to build a cycle track or path in the UK. This has to change.

Even in the centres of cities, the continuity of cycle routes is often frustrated by problems of land ownership. A prime example is the south bank of the Thames in central London, where, despite years of effort by many parties, a decent, continuous route along the river embankment still has not been bought about, because of the swathes of private land it needs to cut through. This would be a difficult area for The Times, traditionally a supporting organ of the land-owning classes, to broach. But it needs to be tackled somehow.

I have used The Times's campaign as a peg here on which to hand my own discussion of a number of issues they raise. But, make no mistake, basically I think theirs is a splendid campaign that has got the approach very largely right, and  I urge everybody to support it by signing up. They have researched the subject, and not come up with the easy, obvious, but wrong demands. It would have been easy for them to come up with a campaign based around pushing helmets for cyclists, and bright clothing, and fines for cycling through red lights, and number plates for cyclists, and licenses for them, and all the usual rubbish. Mike Penning still believes all that old rubbish. But, hopefully, less people will do so now as a result of The Times campaign. They have correctly identified the design of the roads infrastructure as the critical issue for cyclist safety. Cities fit for Cycling, not Cyclists fit for Cities. It has taken a long, long time for this realisation to become mainstream in the UK. A watershed has been passed.


  1. Excellent post David. I'm intrigued by the Cycling England 'league table' you mention, which sounds like it might be worth trying to resurrect in a new form. Producing 'expert' grades for every city would be time-consuming, but instead one could either draw on the existing data on cycling levels (from DfT traffic counts, the Census or other surveys) or perhaps carry out a new online survey of cyclists and non-cyclists asking them to grade the areas they know best on a variety of indicators. I'm sure the Times could get enough people responding to such a survey to make it representative.

  2. On cycle training - what if you had to pass a cycling proficiency test before you were able to apply for a provisional driving licence? For most people, this would need to include on-road cycling - if for some reason you were unable to cycle on a bike or trike, a simulator could be used. This could go a long way to normalising cycling, and create better educated people on bikes and in cars.

    I agree the Bikeability programme teaches you to be assertive. But that's assertive, not agressive. My own instructor frequently pointed out that it was easier for other road users if I held a clear line and used my position as well as conventional signalling to communicate my intentions. He wasn't trying to get me to be aggressive, he was just pointing out that my former kerb hugging line was quite difficult for other people to interpret.

    I don't for a minute agree with people who seem to think the only problem is a lack of training for cyclists. On the other hand, I don't think any group, not even the CEoGB, is trying to build a segregated systen everywhere. We will always need to share our space with someone - pedestrians, motorists, or other cyclists. I don't think it's unreasonable to ask cyclists to take some free or cheap training to make them more competent road users. Because while its all about being considerate and sharing the road nicely, I found that the right thing to do as a cyclist wasn't always what I expected it to be.

    It would do rather more good, I think, than all these suggestions of compulsory helmets, demands for hi-vis clothing, or the latest suggestion from my own MP Jeremy Corbyn that bikes are sold pre-equipped with lights.

  3. If bikes had to be sold pre-equipped with lights that would bring our law into line with that in Germany (where I believe they can make an exception for sports bikes). This idea has always been resisted by the bike trade in the UK, but it sounds sensible to me, in a country where for part of the year there are 17–19 hours of darkness a day, and it is inevitable that all bikes used for utility purposes will be ridden in the dark at some stage.

    The Times uses the phrase "a new covenant" and I think that is a good way of putting it, as it implies a social quid-pro-quo: safe infrastructure in return for a certain renewal of responsibility on the cycling side. Lights would be part of that. But I am not suggesting that cyclists must behave well to "earn" infrastructure. That's an anti-cycling argument.

  4. Another problem with the effectiveness of cycle training as part of the driving test, is that it will take a whole generation before most drivers will have done this. I passed my driving test some 25 years ago, and have never been tested since! I think simply re-testing every driver every, say, five years, would have a big advantage in (a) helping to reduce bad habits that we all get into and (b) enabling new teaching and testing methods to affect all drivers, not just the new ones.

    Human nature, sadly, is corrupted by power. Being behind the wheel of a vehicle with hundreds of kilowatts of power tends to corrupt people (worryingly, myself included!) - hence "road rage" and lack of concern for others on the roads. The Dutch know this, and this is why they are still building, extending and improving their segregated cycling infrastructure.

    The Netherlands already has "safety in numbers" and "most drivers being also cyclists", but their experience is that this isn't enough to make motor vehicles safe to mix cyclists with. Human nature and physics mean mixing cyclists with motor vehicles will always result in deaths and serious injuries unless the motor vehicles are travelling no faster than the bicycles.

    I quite agree, though, that it's excellent that a national newspaper has actually woken up to the issues, and is willing to lead the discussion.

  5. The LCDS segregation principles were copied from the Dutch CROW manual.

    BTW I wrote longer comments but Blogger kept losing them and I can't be bothered to keep tying the same stuff over and over. I hate Blogger. Switch to Wordpress.

  6. Sorry about that Mustafa. Some discussion on Twitter vis-a-vis the Danish, Dutch and London separation guidelines led to Tommi Komulainen putting them all in an integrated graphic, here.

  7. I agree that the definition of bicycles as carriages in law sounds odd to modern ears but tampering with such a definition could lead to unintended consequences.

    Bicycles have the right to be on the *highway* because of that 1878 rule change, campaigned for by the Cyclists' Touring Club. Bike paths are also part of the highway, as are pavements.

    Different things are allowed on different part of the highway. Right now, bicycles are allowed in lots of places they wouldn't be if that 1878 law were changed.

    If you seriously wanted this law changed, the wording would have to be couched in many caveats because the rights of cyclists on all sorts of highways could one day be swiftly removed. Such a fear was the impetus in 1878, too. By being lumped in with 'carriages' cyclists were not banned from the roads. Most localities already banned cyclists from pavements. Cyclists feared they'd have nowhere to go. That we have a sport/pastime/recreation/mode of transport at all is partly down to those legalists of the 1870s and on who could see that the legal definition of a bicycle being equal to a carriage was highly important.

    We already rely on too many "permissive routes", we don't need any more.


  8. Hmm. I don't think it's a tremendously important point whether bicycles are "carriages" in law or not, but I do think it would be a good idea to sort the whole thing out, and have a proper "Cycling Act" and define bicycles as "bicycles" consistently in the law, as they are clearly not "carriages".

    Such an Act would define exactly where bikes are and are not allowed to go. It could be part of the "new covenant" that The Times speaks of, going along with a proper level of investment in cycle tracks and paths, and changes in the law to make it clear that those paths can have priority over roads where appropriate. A Cycling Act could also iron out the problem of children not being permitted to ride on footways, which most people agree is stupid (and is of course unenforceable as children can't be charged or fined).

    The fear that cyclists would "loose the right to the roads" is a very destructive one which has led to a continual conservativeness in what mainstream cycling campaigning has been prepared to ask for down the years. I am not worried that cyclists might loose the right to the roads. This worry seems to be a paralysing one that prevents us from sorting long-standing problems and anomalies out. The fact is that, with a 1% (national) modal share, cycling is as good as banned already, as a transport possibility for most people. This is not a good situation to preserve.

  9. As part of The Times' campaign I have written to my MP, text below. Feel free to copy from it for your own letters!

    Dear Sarah Teather,

    I trust by now you must have heard of The Times' "Cities fit for cycling" campaign. I hope you will support this campaign, if you have not already done so.

    The benefits of cycling are numerous, improving health, reducing congestion and pollution, increasing footfall for local shops, providing children with independent transport, etc. However, it has to be safe to cycle for people to take up cycling in any meaningful numbers. This is particularly a problem in Brent, where the latest Transport Plan showed only relatively wealthy white men were cycling, in low numbers, at the exclusion of everybody else. This is despite Brent being relatively compact, with many local jobs and schools and close to central London. Many more trips could be made by bike here, if only it was safe.

    The current layout of cycle lanes is, at best, woefully inadequate, when it is not absent altogether. Supporting the Times' campaign, as well as the London Cycling Campaign "Go Dutch" campaign, would help putting pressure of the authorities responsible to put in appropriate infrastructure. Brent, with its network of parks, schools, libraries, and connections to the West End, could be an amazing place to cycle in. Please help us make this happen.

    I also note there will be a debate on cycle safety in Parliament on 23 February, I do hope you will be able to attend and put forward the advantages of proper cycling infrastructure not only in Brent and London, but the rest of the country as well.

    Yours sincerely,
    [name redacted]

  10. @Nico:
    Thanks for the template-letter, but readers should not hold their breath. I wrote on similar lines to my own MP earlier this week, and received an old Conservative Central Office press release by return of post: so fast that his office must have been anticipating a cascade of e-mails in response to the Times campaign.

    Given that he's an arch-Eurosceptic linked to the climate-change denying "European Foundation" I'd hardly have expected anything else (I mean, suggesting that This Great Nation of Ours might imitate silly little Legoland countries like Holland and Denmark...) Likewise my enquiry as to whether he would be attending the debate on 23 February was pointedly ignored. But the fact that they'd anticipated it at all and prepared a response shows that something might be moving. If the Guardian had started this campaign then the Establishment would have taken no notice at all: "the usual suspects" and so forth. But to have the Murdoch-owned Times standing up for the right of tofu-eating subversives not to be crushed by HGVs has clearly left them rather disorientated.

    ...So let's keep it up: particularly after we've seen what happens on the 23rd.

  11. A great deal of conflict could be resolved if the Highway Code was amended to explicitly state that cyclists may cycle in the middle of the lane if the lane is less than 4.5 metres wide. Of course, cyclists currently and implicitly enjoy this right, but many motorists (and cyclists) are unaware of the fact. Many local councils in Spain have recently established this explicit right for cyclists and it does make a difference to driver attitudes.