Tuesday, 25 December 2012

Elstree to Edgware by bike: remember Zoë Sheldrake

Sometimes it happens that I will start a blogpost and not complete it, or I will collect lots of pictures intending to write one on a particular subject, and then not get round to it. I was reminded of such a case by a tweet recently from Gerhard of London Cycling campaign, who asked simply:
Who decided it's enough to have a 'pedestrians crossing' sign on a 70mph dual carriage way? #bonkers
I don't know what location prompted this thought form Gerhard, but it doesn't matter; this kind of "provision" is quite standard for both pedestrians ands cyclists all over the UK, outside towns and cities. It's a most bizarre thing in the context of a so-called "civilised" society, and it put me in mind of a bike journey I made just before Christmas 2011, and a blogpost I had started to compile based on that, which had remained incomplete. It was written to demonstrate the typical problems a cyclist will encounter when travelling across the green belt between the Shire suburbs and outer London. Here it is.

The journey in question was from Elstree to Edgware, on the north-west fringe of Greater London.
The journey is entirely on this map. The photos below are more than a year old, but I do not expect anything of significance has changed.

We start at the (permanently congested) crossroads at Elstree, Hertfordshire, a hilltop village that might be quite attractive, if it was not for the traffic blight, and we descend via the narrow High Street, which becomes Elstree Hill South, to a roundabout that serves only to connect with the Centennial Avenue industrial estate. Here we are looking back up the hill from this point:

At this roundabout we encounter a shared cycle/pedestrian path sign. But unfortunately there's no way to get on to this path from the road. We must stop and climb the kerb:

Following the path we soon reach this confusing signage:

Does this mean cross the dual carriageway to the other side to continue? I thought about this for a while before deciding it does not. The route continues on the pavement to the left. Note the spacing of the bollards to prevent smooth cycling.

Following the shared path further we now skirt the roundabout connecting the A5 and the A41. There is no safe way to cross this roundabout to continue south on the A5 (Brockley Hill) should you wish to (for example to access the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital). If you are heading towards London, however, I wouldn't advise using Brockley Hill anyway, as it is a very narrow road with a 40mph limit and a very steep (downhill) gradient. The view of London is impressive, but you don't have time to enjoy it as the ride is too hairy, with trucks whistling past you at 40mph, as you do about 25 on a poor surface, with a hairsbreadth to spare. No, what we are looking for is the cycle track alongside the A41 Edgware Way.

The A41 past the A5 roundabout climbs over the M1 (though the Google map above incorrectly shows it going under) and we see, comfortingly a sign indicating the way to our destination, so we continue on this narrowing "shared" path round the curve and over the bridge:

But getting a little bit higher on the bridge, and things start to look puzzling. The path becomes gravely or covered with grass. Can this really be the way?

No, it isn't. One looks around a bit in puzzlement, before noting the presence of a paved area and vague hieroglyphics on the other side of the southbound carriageway, in the central reservation:

We are supposed to be using this feature to cross to the pavement of the northbound carriageway to continue. Another cryptic clue to this fact may be found if we look again at our immediate surroundings on the southbound carriageway, and spot this sign, high above our head:

This is the no pedestrians sign. It means that people should not continue walking on this side of the road, so, ergo, unless they are supposed to turn back, this is where they must cross the road. And, since it is a shared facility, this must be where cyclists cross as well. Is that all absolutely clear? No??

So we make our way across two lanes of 50mph limit southbound traffic to the central reservation and then across two lanes of 70mph limit (arguably, moderated by yellow stripes) northbound traffic. Just to spice it up a bit, it's all on a curve, and the northbound traffic is coming over the hump of a bridge, so you can't see that far down. This is the view from the other pavement looking south:

The stripes on the carriageway are to slow the traffic, not because of the crossing, but because it's approaching a roundabout (there are "Reduce Speed Now" signs with roundabout symbols as well). On this pavement we encounter more hieroglyphics aimed at cyclists. This is the view northwards:

The "ahead only" would apply to any cyclists brave enough to head into the A5–A41 roundabout, I suppose – so this constitutes the totally unclear instruction for cyclists going the opposite way to me, heading for Elstree via the cycle route, to cross the road. And, in the unlikely event of a cyclist coming from the roundabout encountering a cyclist going towards Elstree on the cycle route, they are supposed to give way, indicated by the "toytown traffic" give-way lines here. I am sure that in reality, should two cyclists meet here, they could negotiate without these markings, but someone though these strange junction markings at what is not much of a junction were needed, rather than the more obvious thing, which is an arrow or sign to instruct cyclists heading for Elstree to cross the road. The markings here manage to be a mixture of the unhelpful, the incomprehensible, and the unnecessary.

So we proceed south on this path, to encounter, oh dear! – a ghost bike:

This ghost bike is tethered at the point where the slip road to join the M1 north-westbound diverges from the A41. Cyclists are required to cross the 70mph slip road here, with no more than a "look left" and their own judgement to protect them.

This is the ghost bike for Zoë Anne Sheldrake, killed at the age of 31, on 26 April 2010, at this spot. Ghost bikes are not normally allowed to remain long at their installed location by the authorities, so I am surprised this was still here, 20 months later, seen by every motorist who drives northward on the A41 Edgware Way. I can only assume that Transport for London or Borough of Barnet inefficiency or oversight is responsible for longevity of this one, or possibly doubt about responsibility, as it is very close to the Hertfordshire border. Whatever, this must be the longest-lived London ghost bike, standing in this incredibly bleak location.

The piece of paper attached to the bike is still there, giving Zoë's dates and the statement "Killed by car" – though "killed by criminally irresponsible road design" might have been more appropriate.

The driver who hit Zoë, Clive Sanford, was found not guilty of causing death by careless driving (by a majority verdict) on 8 September 2011.
Mr Sanford – who had denied the charge – cried as the verdict was announced, while members of Ms Sheldrake's family screamed and shouted in the courtroom, labelling the decision “disgusting”.
An understandable reaction, but what is really disgusting is the design of this cycle path. The London Cycling Campaign made a video and webpage about it, calling it "The most dangerous cycle crossing in the UK?"– which it could be. They point to the facts that there is not even a sign telling motorists that cyclists and pedestrians are supposed to be crossing the slip road here, and that motorists can at the last moment change lanes into the slip road, when they are almost at the crossing, without giving any indication. Possibly this is how Zoë died, I don't know, I cannot speculate reasonably from the information I have seen. I have made my own video of the junction. This shows quite long gaps in the traffic, but remember this was taken on a Sunday near Christmas. At a busier time it might be far harder to get a substantial, certain gap in the flow.

[Having now looked at it carefully on Google Street view, I think there is a real problem with the speed limits here. Motorists, whether heading for the M1 or the A5/A41 roundabout, have passed  a black diagonal bar "End of Restriction" sign, meaning the limit is 70mph, only about 400m south of this point, at the point where he dualled section of the A41 starts, yet at the point where the M1 slip diverges, about 100m south of this point, A41 traffic is already being encouraged to slow down by the yellow bars across the road, yet there is no reduction in the formal limit for any of the three northbound lanes, and the "End of Restriction" (70 limit) is reinforced by extra signs (including motorway signs) on the slip road at exactly this point where cyclists are supposed to be crossing. How can motorists on the A41 lanes really be already slowing, as demanded by their markings, when they are negotiating with the motorway traffic? This impacts on the safety of cyclists crossing the northbound lanes at the bridge. What was the point of raising the limit to 70 for all northbound traffic only 300m from the start of the slowdown bars? I can see a legitimate problem for motorists trying to judge their speed here. The whole arrangement is misconceived.]

Reaching the path on the west side of the A41 to M1 slip road, and proceeding slightly south, we come to another memorial still extant (in December 2011) to Zoë.

Continuing south, the shared path, on the section of the A41 between the start of the slip road and the Spur Road (A410) roundabout at the northern edge of Edgware, is a relatively good example of cycling infrastructure, by our dismal UK standards, with a good surface, which looked as if it had recently been relaid (indeed current Google Streetview pictures show this work being carried out), and something like a 2m clear width (though this was reduced in the wooded parts by the effect of all the damp autumn leaves having fallen and not been swept off the inner edge):

The bollards in my photo seem to be remnants of the work shown on Streetview. The path is at this point adjacent to a hard shoulder, but a few metres further south it goes right next to the inside lane of the dual carriageway, Further south the road becomes a single carriageway with a verge and trees separating it from the path, so the cycling environment gets slightly nicer. There are even some driveways or minor access roads intersecting the path with, pleasingly, no "Give Way" lines for cyclists (but maybe they just hadn't got round to painting them in following the resurfacing). This being the UK, the cycling pleasure cannot last long, however, for we soon come to the roundabout where the A410 (called Spur Road for thew short section between here and the A5) intersects the A41. Here, you have to cross Spur Road, in two stages, crossing four lanes of near-continuous heavy traffic, with a 40 limit going into and coming out of a very wide-geometry roundabout, and this is all the help you get:

Note again the general lack of clarity that bedevils these things. The cycle route crosses the road here and comes from the right. The pavement to the left is not for cyclists, but nobody would know without looking at the TfL map. This shows that official routes continue on the south side of Spur Road westwards, and on the south side of the A41 Edgware Way (Watford By-Pass). Edgware Town Centre can be more easily accessed however by a yellow (unofficial) route marked on the London Cycle Guide via Green Lane: a long, straight residential road that has low traffic because it is closed at its far end, at Station Road (a road I have blogged about already).

At the top of Green Lane an new estate of flats is being built: here's the builders' sunny visualisation on a big board: it will be, aparrentlly, a place of greenery and walkability:

And here's the reality: minor roads chocked with parked cars. The Borough of Barnet is now having areas like this developed at high density, which should imply low car ownership, but the street environments outside the small envelopes of development land are not changing. They are still laying out the street environment exclusively for the convenience of car drivers, with nothing to make cycling and walking pleasant or attractive. So architects' visualisations like the one above always turn out to be remote from reality.

Here endeth the journey. As we see, the facilities for cycling on this potentially important corridor across the green belt just to the north-west of London are the usual tragi-comic mess characteristic of such facilities on the edges of UK urban areas, where small roads like Green Lane run out, and cyclists have perforce to be directed around 70mph roads and motorway intersections, in the cases, that is, where any thought has been given to them at all. You can find this kind of thing all over the country. There are exceptions, such as the Bristol to Bath National Cycle Network path where it enters Bristol on impressive bridges across the peripheral motorways and junctions, but these exceptions are, as my late friend Patrick Moore would have said, "as rare as hens' teeth".

The most serious problems occur where motorway-level roads have to be crossed, but there is no will to actually engineer for cycling (nor often for pedestrians either). There seems to be just no solution in the UK's current transport regime to the kind of issue that killed Zoë. For cycling and walking levels in these places are very low; as has been truly said, you do not measure the need for a route by counting the number of people who are walking through a wall.  Highway Authorities see it as an unreasonable demand that millions of pounds be spent retrofitting bridges and tunnels into roads and junctions that don't cater for cycling or walking because of what they perceive as the low level of demand. But it is on the shoulders of the Department for Transport that the blame for this must mostly be placed, for setting policy guidance and funding levels, and determining the general spirit of things, In a letter to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain (not published) that I have seen, the current Secretary of State for Transport says exactly this, in terms. He says he's not prepared to spend serious money on engineering for cycling, as continental countries do, because we have so few cyclists.

And so we have a totally diagraceful, inhuman situation that kills people and stifles attempts to get sustainable transport off the ground. The only hope seems to be in the few cases where Sustrans, a charity, can raise enough money to build something proper, as they did at Bristol. In terms of basic safety of sustainable travel modes, we in the UK are not in the position we were in for poverty relief when the welfare state was created, not even in the position we were in during the era of the Victorian Poor Laws; we are in a mediaeval state of having to depend on charity.

Here's an aerial view of the M1-A41-A5 junction that shows it more clearly than the map does. The problem is that cyclists have to be got from the road at the top, Elstree Hill (both sides) to the two-way cycle path on the west side of the slip road at the bottom.

It can be seen that the roundabout is at a high level, and the M1 is in a cutting. With the very high traffic levles and designs speeds, I don't think any surface level treatment for a cycle route is going to work here. Nor would it be reasonable to expect it, at a crucial node on the national road network. The best solution looks like building ramps and underpasses to take cyclists under the roundabout, and then on to a new, dedicated bridge over the motorway, parallel to the existing A5 bridge on its east side, to end up on a new cycle path on the south side of the motorway slip road that would follow round to connect to the existing path at the bottom right of the picture.

I've no doubt this engineering would run to tens of millions of pounds. But it's clear and straightforward, in principle easy (plenty of open space), and it's what the Dutch would do. But with the current levels of funding for cycling infrastructure we simply cannot do this kind of thing. We need a step-change in funding, as I argued recently. What's the alternative? A steady stream of deaths, and practically zero cycling in such city fringe areas. We tend to concentrate, in our thinking on cycling in the UK on town and city centres. But unless we can solve these urban edge locations as well, we'll end up with, at best, a few inner-city city cycling enclaves, but still at very sub-Dutch cycling levels, and not with any kind of national transport cycling culture. For cycling to be a serious transport option, it must be possible to get safely from A to B anywhere.

This Christmas, remember Zoë Sheldrake, and all others killed on the roads of Britain, just for trying to get around on bikes.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Shurdington: a typical English village

This blog is London-based, and so nearly all the cycling discussion on it is about London. I have often thought of, and intended to write, articles concerning more rural areas, but I never seem to get round to doing them, because other things happen, locally or nationally.

However, I was reminded of something when I read, through Twitter, on Wednesday, this very brief and sketchy news of the death of a cyclist in Shurdington, near Cheltenham:
A cyclist has died in hospital following a collision on the Shurdington Road in Cheltenham yesterday afternoon. 
The collision happened at approximately 3.05pm at the traffic light controlled crossing between Cotswold Van Hire and Shurdington Car Sales and involved a cyclist and a red mini. 
The cyclist, an 87-year-old local man, was taken by ambulance to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol but sadly passed away a few hours later.
This gentleman was probably the 115th cyclist to be killed on the roads of the UK this year. What I was reminded of was the fact that I visited Shurdington last year. I cycled there from Cheltenham Station, and I took a few pictures, with the idea of writing a blogpost about the standard UK rural or semi-rural  environment for cycling, and what needs to be learned from Dutch planning if we are ever to improve it. This sad death, though potentially unrelated to my points, brought this back to mind.

Shurdington is a village in the Cotswold Hills between Cheltenham and Gloucester, four miles from Cheletenham town centre. The only way to get to it from Cheltenham is on the A46. There is little more than a mile of green belt between the edge of the Cheltenham suburbs and the beginning of the village. Then there is only another mile of so of the A46 before you come to villages that are suburbs of Gloucester. The A46 is the only way to get there also. All this is so typical of so many villages in England: sandwiched between larger centres, preserved as marginally rural by the preservation of tracts of green gelt but part, in reality, of a much larger urban sprawl. Exactly the same could be said about most villages in the denser parts of the Netherlands. The overall population density is probably similar.

Map of Shurdington, from Google

Here is a Google Streetview picture of the location of the fatal crash, according to the report. It's where it says "Cheese Rollers Inn" on the map above, on the A46 towards the bottom of the map.

Since we have no information as to the causes of the crash, I will not comment further on it. The rest of this post consists of my pictures, and thoughts about Shurdington, based on my one-day's visit in Autumn 2011.

It's a nice enough village, with a very pointed church spire, a village green, and charming, almost traffic-free lanes (because they lead nowhere) that would be fine for cycling.

But what's wrong with Shurdington is the classic thing found in a thousand and one English villages: it has as it's spine, one straight, not very wide, heavily-trafficked through-road with narrow pavements: the A46. There's no other way to get anywhere,  and no alternatives for cyclists, walkers and horsesriders; there is no space for cycling, and absolutely nothing to physically slow traffic down, just "30" signs, "slow" signs, and red painted "slow" markings on the carriageway.

It's horrible to cycle on. The next picture includes the only other cyclists I spotted on my trip. The pavement is not officially "shared", but I cannot blame them for cycling on it.

In the village itself there are narrow footpaths on both sides of the road. But in the green mile between Shurdington and the outskirts of Cheltenham there is only a footpath on one side. These photos show the edge of the village, where you need to cross the road to continue on the other footpath, if you are walking into town. Note the space wasted by the centre hatching.

As can be seen, in the gap between the village and the town, there's space by the road to provide another footpath, or to provide a cycle path instead, but this is not done. In the village itself the properties are close to the road, and it would not be possible to create cycle paths.

The reaction of any English local authority to this deficiency of safe pace for cycling, if it considered it at all, and tried to remedy it, would almost certainly be the creation of shared-use pavements as defined in the 1980 Highways Act. In other words, it would just legalise, with signs, what the man and child on bikes in the picture above are doing. But this, the standard UK approach, the only one the government really empowers and encourages local authorities to adopt, would be the wrong approach.

For one thing, though not too bad on the fringes, where the man and child were when I took the photo, you would get issues in the village centre (where the crash occurred), with the many crossovers and other activities. For another thing, this would not  address the real issue: the untrammelled domination of the village by through-going motor traffic often, or perhaps usually, doing over the speed limit.

I visited Shurdington just after I had been on the study tour in Assen, in the Netherlands, run by David Hembrow, author of A view from the cycle path, with other members of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. It struck me as a salutory comparison to we had seen of the Dutch semi-rural environment on that tour: so typical of the UK, and so unsatisfactory by comparison. I've shown these pictures before, but here they are again, to make that comparison.

Here we have the road to Loon, a village near Assen. This road has far lower traffic than the A46, but, between the towns, where there is space, wide, excellent cycle paths are provided on both sides, well separated from the road. They could be walked on, but they are not engineered as pavements on which cyclists are allowed to ride (UK-style shared-use paths), they are engineered as cycle paths on which people are allowed to walk (or use low-powered mopeds, mobility scooters etc., a very important use of these paths, as Bicycledutch explains).

In Dutch villages, like English ones, often properties are too close to the road to allow separate cycle paths to be fitted in. The Dutch solution is not to give up, it is to control cars. Cyclists are re-introduced to the road, and they must share space with motor vehicles, but things are done differently in the Netherlands, and the effect on the perceived and absolute safety of cycling is very different.

The cycle path can be seen on the other side of the road here, at the point at which it enters the village of Loon. The cycle paths on both sides of the road are taken comfortably round the traffic-calming feature. Cyclists are integrated into the carriageway on the other side of this. The pinch-point, with considerable deflection, forces cars to slow down. The limit is 30kph, 18mph. The change in road surface, to the tiles, which make it slightly noisy and rough to drive a car at a greater speed, emphasises the change in the nature of the space. This contrasts with a road like the A46, which blasts through the village of Shurdington with almost no change in character between the inter-urban sections and the residential sections, and with nothing to make traffic to slow down other than optimistic signs, which even if they work will still allow traffic to travel at the excessive speed of 30mph.

The problem with making these sorts of comparisons, as we found in the Cycling Embassy group, is that British people will always say, of a place like Loon, "Well this is different, isn't it? This is not a comparable location. This is out of the way, and traffic levels are far lower here – you can't really compare it". It is very hard to compare, because four decades of radically different transport planning in the Netherlands has made everything different. There is far less traffic here, though this is a comparable village to Shurdington, in a comparable relationship to the towns of Assen and Groningen as that of Shurdington with Cheltenham and Gloucester, and this is is the comparable road to the A46 in the Assen/Loon context.

Why is there far less traffic here? It's in part because the alternatives to the car for local travel have been made accessible and attractive to all. It's also in part because the longer-distance traffic, between Assen and the other towns in the region, has been deflected onto other, bigger roads, by determined, systematic policy.

And here is the other part of the UK planning failure for rural roads. We have built the motorway and trunk-road alternatives, but we have kept the rat-runs open unaltered. The A46 is the old road between Cheltenham and Stroud. It should and could have been completely bypassed by the construction of the M5 motorway.

Traffic can get from Cheltenham to Stroud using the A40, the M5 and the A419. There is no reason to keep the old, narrow A46 through the villages of Shurdington, Coopers Hill and Painswick going as an alternative continuous through-route, with a minimum speed (not enforced) of 30mph. These villages could all be accessed by car through the grid of bigger roads. This is a fundamental difference between British and Dutch planning: the British usually allow a number of alternative through-routes between centres, and allow all the routes to fill up with traffic, no matter how unsuitable they may be, while providing no dedicated cycling alternatives. The Dutch both provide the alternatives and  restrict the motor through-traffic to the most appropriate routes, by means either of actual road closures, or re-engineering to change the character and attractiveness of the roads as through-routes, with lower, better-enforced speed limits.

It's a long way from the flatlands of the Netherlands to the rolling Cotswold hills, from the bricks of Assen and Loon to the honeyed sandstone of Cheltenham and Shurdington. There are fundamental differences in the land that mean that England will never be like the Netherlands. But there are psychological differences that are not so basic. With a long enough period of intelligent transport planning, I believe we could make cycling in the English countryside almost as attractive as cycling in the Dutch countryside – more so, if you like hills!

Quality cycling infrastructure, better planning, and a better general quality of our public built environment is desperately needed in English cities for the future health of our nation – but if there's one place it's even more needed, it's in the English countryside.

In case commenters are tempted to go down such roads, I'm not interested in pernickety debate about how big various settlements are, or in exact population densities, or how things in one place are not quite the same as in another for reasons people of a certain disposition are good at pointing out. Such debate will not invalidate the general points, so I will ignore it.