Tuesday, 16 July 2013

"Two sides to every story"

I've been going through various bits of cycling promotional or educational material supplied to London Cycling Campaign in the past by Transport for London and others, deciding what to put into recycling. I've come across this:

It's a booklet of advice produced by TfL some time, I think probably between three and five years ago, aimed at cyclists and lorry drivers. It's cleverly done so it can be read from back or front, with two different messages. One way it goes:

"Ignorant Lorry Drivers!"
(But aren't there two sides to every story?)

And the other way it goes:

"Ignorant Cyclists"
(But aren't there two sides to every story?)

Inside it reads both ways for the two road-user groups, running through a load of clichés to counter them :

It's design exemplifies the concepts of symmetry and reversibility in graphic form. The red and black colour scheme on one cover is reversed on the other. It's a concept of road morality played out in pep-talk paper form. The message is that "There are two sides to every story", and its up to lorry drivers and cyclists equally to take responsibility for preventing crashes by understanding one another's needs and behaving with appropriate caution. It implies everyone's equally to blame when things go wrong, and the solution is shared understanding.

Well, I have news for TfL. This is not a symmetrical situation, and there are not two sides to every story.

There is only one side to this story. This is it:

Picture by Evo Lucas
Sorry for the horrifying picture, but it's necessary to make the point. As @beztweets put it yesterday "People need to see this shit". There's no elegant logical or graphic symmetry here, and nothing is reversible. A person trying to use a bicycle for transport in London has been crushed by a huge vehicle that was made to share the same space by the people who run this city: a simple, one-sided story: that's it.

As the TfL booklet eloquently puts it, 




The picture was taken yesterday morning in Holborn: the latest London cycling fatality caused by a lorry, and the third London cycling fatality in three weeks, two of which were due to lorries.

There's only one side to this story, and this is it: people using the roads make mistakes. People don't necessarily read instructional pep-talk booklets, and people don't necessarily have the right training. If they do have the right training they may forget it or ignore it. They may have lapses of concentration or moments of impatience or make misjudgements. They may disobey the law, they may be in a hurry, they may take calculated risks. And if any of those things happen, and a cyclist and a lorry driver crash, only one of them will die. The booklet on that only reads one way. If people on bikes are forced to move in one space in parallel with heavy vehicles, that can easily overtake them, whose paths will often cross theirs in an uncontrolled fashion,  and whose drivers have poor visibility of what is going on around them, the results are absolutely inevitable. They are played out on the streets of London, and a ton of two-sided booklets, a whole lorry load of them in fact, will not alter these facts.

There is only one side to this story, and this is it.

London encourages the construction of enormous, tall buildings right in its centre. This is official policy. The materials for these buildings have to come to the sites through vast numbers of lorry journeys on main roads in the daytime. This is official policy. This is where these lorries have to be, and they are banned from doing it at night. This is official policy, lorries are forced to be on the roads at the same time as large numbers of commuting cyclists will be using them. This is official policy. It is also official policy to encourage cycling. That cycling has to take place on these same main roads, in general. The Barclays Cycle Superhighways are mostly on main roads, unsegregated from lorry traffic. Elsewhere the main roads may not be official cycle routes, but by and large they are the most practical and useful routes, and those that inevitably cyclists will most use, unless you ban them.

So we've got official policies in conflict, and we see the result. There is only one side to this story, and this is it.

There are some cycle routes on minor roads that lorries probably won't use, of course, and London cycling policy has concentrated for a very long period, at least 30 years, on developing these. We can see this in this very interesting letter from 1983, from B. W. Lyus of the Greater London Council, to a correspondent.

Courtesy Samantha Smith
Mr Lyus ends his letter on the plans for minor-road cycle routes by mentioning "some of the problems involved". There are, of course, massive problems involved with this approach, which is why it has been persued for 30 years with singularly little success. These routes will always be less efficient and less direct than the main roads, they will always involve more give-ways and delays, they will always be incomplete and interrupted by sections of main road, the will inevitably not go from and to the places cyclists most often want to go from and to, and they will often be cramped, full of parked cars and other obstructions, be under-maintained, and have poor subjective safety (though they will probably be absolutely safer than the main roads, where the lorries and buses are). But, whether under the title of the London Cycle Network, LCN+, Greenways, or Quietways, this non-solution is doggedly pursued in official policy. No amount of failure seems to cause a rethink. That's Mr Lyus from 1983, and this is Mr Gilligan, London's Cycling Commissioner, from The Mayor's Vision for Cycling, 2013:
London is not the same as Paris, New York or Berlin – all of which were largely built, or rebuilt, in the 19th and 20th centuries to centrally imposed plans with wide, often one-way streets. Nothing of the sort ever happened in London. We have something better than grand boulevards, however – a matchless network of side streets, greenways and parks. 
A cross-London network of high-quality guided Quietways will be created on low-traffic back streets and other routes so different kinds of cyclists can choose the routes which suit them. 
The prose is more polished and creative than that of Mr Lyus. Gilligan is a journalist, Lyus was a planner. But the idea is much the same, at opposite ends of three wasted decades. Decades that cities like Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Berlin, New York, Seville and Chicago have use to install safe segregated cycle tracks on the main roads, in the places cyclists actually want and need them.

Another problem with the back-street cycle routes in London, even where they are better-designed, tends to be that they routes get blocked all the time be works and developments, because nobody in London government really cares about them, and adequate diversions and temporary measures are rarely put in place. As I pointed out in my piece on Copenhagen, there, the cycle routes, which are mostly on, or alongside, main roads, are never allowed to be blocked by works. Temporary measures are always put in place to deal with the cycle flow and keep it separated from motor vehicles on main roads. This is absolutely critical in establishing trust in the network and maintaining the user-base.

If we look at Holborn, where Monday's death occurred, what do we find?

The death occurred at the spot marked with the large orange dot, according to Andy Waterman. Where I've put the line of small orange dots, there's supposed to be a London Cycle Network route north-south through this area, that is supposed to allow cyclists to avoid busy roads, by going via Great Russell Street, Bury Place, Newton Street and Great Queen Street.  I know about it because it was my idea, back in the early 2000s in Camden Cyclists. It was my idea to create the contraflow lanes and the track on the north side of High Holborn necessary to complete this route.

Contraflow cycle track on High Holborn leading east into Newton Street contraflow
But this track is currently useless, as it cannot be reached from Bury Place, because the part of Bury Place south of Bloomsbury Way is closed long-term by building work.

Bury place currently seen from bloomsbury Way. Cycle route gone.
It didn't need to be closed. There is space outside the construction barriers, as can be seen. Pedestrians can get through. Cyclists could have been allowed through by removing part of the guardrailing and dropping the kerb and putting in signage. But so lazily are the earlier cycle network attempts of London maintained and regarded in government that nobody seems to have thought of this. And, I submit, this problem is likely always to be endemic with low profile, hidden-away backstreet cycle routes.

So, to consider the map again:

Cyclists heading south and attempting to use this route will end up at the Bury Place / Bloomsbury Way junction. They cannot legally turn right. There is a bus lane running westbound, where I have placed the small green dots on the map, but this short section, only up to the junction with Drury Lane, excludes cyclists. West of that, for no apparent reason, as it does not get much wider, it becomes shared with cyclists, but there is this short, obstructive section that cyclists may not use westbound. The police have been actively enforcing this, fining cyclists using the bus lane in recent weeks, as Andy Waterman reports.

So cyclists must turn east, and proceed into Vernon Place. Southampton Place cannot be used to go south as it it is one-way northbound with no contraflow. Also they cannot turn right into Southampton Row and right again into High Holborn, as the right at High Holborn is banned. The only legal route to go west or south is now to follow the furious one-way four lane racetrack system via Vernon place, Drake Street, Proctor Street and back into High Holborn. So any cyclists attempting to get through this whole area will inevitably find themselves forced through the point where the latest death  occurred, unless they ignore the bus lane restriction and risk a fine. When I was last there, on a Sunday, I saw many cyclists doing this. It is actually the sensible option, as has been so horrifically demonstrated.

So we've got no protected space for cyclists on main roads in London, roads where, in some places, cyclists now form the largest part of the rush hour traffic. We've got a few complicated back-street alternatives that only experts who have studied the maps, like me, know about, and they took years and years of negotiation to achieve, and then they are blocked for months and years at a time by "temporary" works, through indolence and neglect on the part of the local authorities, and we're back to square one, with cyclists forced back on to the most dangerous roads with zero protection save their wits. It's crap.

We're told by the Mayor, through Andrew Gilligan, that;
Cycling across London will double in the next 10 years. We will ‘normalise’ cycling, making it something anyone feels comfortable doing. Hundreds of thousands more people, of all ages, races and backgrounds, and in all parts of London, will discover that the bike has changed their lives.
Note "all ages". We've been told this before. Twenty years ago we were told the London Cycle Network was going to be "suitable for a trained, competent 12-year old child". It never happened. The idea that people like this:

 Or people like this:

(both those photos, of course, from the Netherlands), will ever be cycling on roads like this,

the Proctor Street one-way nightmare system that cyclists going west and south though Holborn are forced through, sharing space with vehicles like this:

(the lorry that nearly killed a woman at London Bridge in 2011), or, like this:

(a lorry that nearly killed a woman this very morning, 16 July 2013, outside Earlsfied Station) is, of course, absurd. It can't happen. Fit young adult cyclists, who have plenty of "wits", and can get out of danger quickly, are being killed virtually weekly by lorries in London now. Near-death incidents occur daily. What chance would children and old people have? Thety would have none. It wouldn't be allowed. Effectively, it isn't.

There is only one side to this story, and it is a story of broken promises, weasel words, lies, dreary incompetence, and inaction, over decades and decades. The Mayor's vision for Cycling in London still says (p23),
We will also act more vigorously against cyclist violations, such as failure to show lights at night and riding on the pavement.
as if, like my mirroring red and black booklet, it has to establish a "balance" between criticising bad driver behaviour, and doing the same for cycling infractions, as if they were symmetrical phenomena. The police have, as we have been told, been enforcing against cyclist violations in Holborn, vigourously. They have been preventing cyclists from using the only safe way through. So it seems like we've already started on this page 23 part of the Mayor's Vision, before we've had any infrastructure built. If we had suitable infrastructure, these violations would not take place. There is no symmetry in this situation, it is persecution.  It is shameful. And the words of the Vision are shameful, at this point, too. For it is supposed to be about "going Dutch". Vigorous enforcement against pavement cycling? There is no pavement cycling in the Netherlands, because the alternatives are good.

There are two narratives around cycling in London going on at the moment. There is the LCC one, the bloggers' one, the campaigning one, a narrative of proterst, of anger, of urgency, of a demand that we've got to have change now. If not now, then when?

Then there is the official machine. It's got a higher profile now, and a more articulate leader, and a bigger budget, but it's trundling on, much as it always has done. So we've had the publication of the Vision, and we've had the mini-Holland plans from the Outer London boroughs requested and tendered, to be decided upon in the autumn. Then those boroughs will get some cash to do more extensive planning, and then, eventually, maybe about three or four years down the line, some stuff will start getting built. Maybe. And we've got, as usual, half-baked road schemes coming out of the boroughs and the city corporation, like the plans for Haymarket and the plans for Aldgate, which still squeeze cyclists into tight spaces alongside heavy vehicles, and Gilligan is telling us that it's inevitable that there will be for a long time still plans coming through that are no good for cycling, because it takes a long time to turn the tanker around. And of course, we've got the promotional guff of the RideLondon festival of cycling still to come from the Mayor (why on earth are LCC co-operating with this, doing the led rides to the Freecycle ride, since they are effectively "at war" with the Mayor and TfL in the current series of protest rides?)

I find myself, personally, caught between these two narrtives. I'm not going on the Holborn protest today, because I've a prior engagement. I've been invited on some delightful boat trip on the Grand Union Canal, with officials from the Canal and River Trust, and, I daresay, people from TfL, to hear about the supposed potential of the canal in alleviating the pressure for safe space for cycling in London. As if one canal towpath, even if it were much wider than it is, could ever make much contribution to the cycling network that's really needed for London. I daresay it will be a decorous and pleasant affair, but actually I'd rather be at the protest. It seems more relevant. For this dewelling on the supposed potential of the canal, is, like the Greenways and the Quietways, a Shangri-la. It's a dreamy way of continuing to avoid the hard reality that we have to take lanes out of main roads in places like Holborn and allocate them to protected space for cycling. That's going to be the meat of any effective, safe cycle network, not canal towpaths and parks.

So there are loud demands for action now. There should be action now, from the Cycling Commissioner, on behalf of the Mayor. In my opinion he should take emergency measures. Too many cyclists are dying right now. He has said he would like to try temporary arrangements for cyclists on the main roads, not unlike the temporary changes put in place for the Olympic Route Network. So let's have that, now. Lets rapidly assess which are the main central London routes that have the largest numbers of cyclists on (it would only take a day or two to do that, most of the information has probably been collected already, and LCC would help), and let's use plastic barriers to create 2–3 m wide segregated cycle tracks on ALL those roads, as if they were temporary road-workings. Let's put in temporary signals where necessary, and lets do this now, and monitor how it works through the end of the summer and in to autumn. If it makes anything more dangerous we can rapidly take stuff away. If it works we can modify it, perfect it and cast it as concrete over the next two years. Most of the boroughs will probably co-operate, but TfL should lead on it and do it all and push it along. We don't need studies and consultation, it just needs to be done. If certain boroughs don't co-operate TfL should do it on their roads anyway. This is an emergency situation. Too many people are getting killed and maimed. Let the boroughs or the Department for Transport take TfL to court, if the wish, for exceeding their authority. See how they get on.

Easily set-up experimental cycle track in Chicago, courtesy Koonce on Flickr
That's my advice to the Commissioner. He needs to show he represents  real break with the past, that he can react to changing circumstances, and can get things done where politicians and planners ave failed for decades.

There's only one side to this story. That red and black booklet just goes back to it's beginning. You have to turn it over and start again. It's a closed loop of failed thinking that leads only to more deaths. I'm going to put it in recycling now. Let's have a book with a better ending.


  1. Well said. It's so true that with focused local government effort and vision, London could be so much easier & safer to cycle.
    I want my kids to join me on the road but there's no way I'd ever let them as things stand at the moment.

  2. Thank you for this. Yes, this is an emergency situation. Hard to imagine it being treated as such though, unfortunately.

    Perhaps one thing to bring up on your boat trip tonight might be the potential for canals to transport heavy goods through the heart of London? We have to get these trucks off our streets, and I can't think of many better ways of doing that, short of ending all construction work.

  3. Well put - especially the mid section's photos.

    One minor correction - I was re-tweeting @beztweets, which was also his original caption for the photo. I still stand by it though - people really do need to see this shit. Especially the people who drive aggressively, or who drive to a timetable where time is money. But most importantly, the people who drive the policies putting lorries and people in the same space really need to see what it means in practice. I don't mean photos, but actual visits to the sites, to talk to survivors and to come face-to-face with the relatives of the deceased.

    1. The photo is not mine, it was taken by @veloevol - but I did say "people need to see this shit".

      Great blog post, of course.

  4. Phew, well put.

    I only hope that we don't need to have even more people killed before something is done to stop this completely unnecessary carnage.

    Why is it not blindingly obvious to transport planners that mixing people on bicycles and lorries on tight time-scales is a recipe for disaster? This sort of thing would never be allowed by the H&S Executive on private business premises or even busy construction sites. So why do we allow it on public roads?

  5. It is the London Lorry Control scheme which keeps a lot of HGV traffic out of many London streets at night, Saturday afternoons and on Sundays. Although many boroughs have withdrawn from the scheme to safe a few quid, it is still in operation and administered by London Council's rather than TfL.

    The scheme was set up by the GLC initially and was designed to give residential areas a respite from HGVs (although permits can be gained for those entering the area).

    Many planning consents mirror the LLCS and so developers are having their first deliveries at 8am - it seems to me the crashes seem to be mainly AM peak?

  6. David,

    You are spot on; until you give the benefit of the doubt to TfL.

    The reality is that TfL does not see it as an emergency. The reality is that Gillingham, a part-time commissioner, in spite of all his good intentions, has no chance in arguing the case for cycling against the powerful Bus department and Roads department.

    The only chance is that we take TfL on. We need to build the temporary structures, because TfL are very unlikely to do it.

    65 dead on bikes, 500+ on foot since the Boris reign are the victims of a war; a war waged by TfL against ordinary people. They will continue to wage this war until we rise and stop them.

  7. I don't often cycle in London and it's been 20 odd years since I did so during the rush hour so attending last night's protest ride was a mind-blowing experience as you can well imagine. Never mind the protest ride, the sheer numbers of cyclists on the streets is staggering.

    I think you're right in calling it an emergency.

    With that number of cyclists and no cycle lanes it's inevitable that there will be more deaths. I had a few "near misses" myself and feel lucky that I wasn't one of them.

    It is blindingly obvious that there are vast acres of main roads that have been given over wholesale to motorised traffic. These need to be reclaimed.

    The question is whether TfL can be persuaded to see it.


  8. Even newer developments in London do not cater for cyclists.
    A year after the Olympics there is no '"safe" cycle route to Westfield or the Olympic park, which is still a building site.

    TFL cycle route panner from the West, Hackney and Victoria park which has very much improved cycle infrastructure, take you along 2 cycle prohibited routes, 1 to the N along Waterden Road where JW security physically stop cycles, the other along the so called greenway, which resembles a cross between a railway marshalling area and concentration camp, ends up in a BAM Nutall building site with limited pedestrian only access 7-19.

    The only alternative is via Bow roundabout via CS2 or Blackwall Tunnel Northern approach.

    Not much cycling legacy a year after the "greenest" Olympics yet?


    1. Amazingly, the proposed massive (£4.5-billion( Brent Cross development in Barnet has very poor cycling provision.

      The developers are more interested in accommodating the council's projected 29,000 extra cars per day instead.

  9. Could we reclaim the streets for the pedestrians as well as the cyclists please?
    Why is it official policy to have all these tall buildings? I guess we should be challenging that at the same time.

  10. You've got to start naming names. Who are the people at the various departments? Where is the org chart?

  11. Great article, David. Very hard-hitting.

    I use the North-South route through Holborn all the time, I didn't realise you were behind it! The best bit is the cycle path along High Holborn.

    It's very annoying that Bury Place has been blocked off without even so much as the usual "cyclists dismount" sign. I carefully use the footpath (if it's busy I'll get off and push). But I shouldn't have to, there should be a proper, safe diversion in place.

    Anyway, thanks for creating that route. Without it I wouldn't have cycled half as much as I have done, as it provides a largely non-scary way through. It ties up pretty well with the Torrington track, which ties up with Royal College Street (via Ossulston Street) so for me it's enabled many journeys between Camden and Waterloo.

  12. I've been to several places comparing Dutch and British cycling policies, and I think you hit the nail on the head in this blog post. What the Dutch have done right these last 10-15 years is what has been called 'Sustainable Safety', I would say 'safety by design'. Every time a lorry hits a cyclist, either the lorry should not have been there at that moment, or the cyclist should not. No cyclist will voluntarily place him/herself in a position where he/she might be hit, and no lorrydriver will voluntarily hit a cyclist (I hope). So probably one (or both) has made some minor mistake - something like taking a corner too large or running a red light that they thought would still be yellow. What the Dutch have done right about 15 years ago is saying that a minor mistake should not have major consequences. And that means that every time there is no big, obvious mistake (like drinking 20 beers and then speeding one's car in counterflow direction) and still someone ends up with major trauma _safety is not as good as it should be_. Small, understandable mistakes should never cause a car and a cyclist or pedestrian to be at the same place at the same time. When that does happy, don't say it's the driver's fault, and definitely don't say it's the cyclist's/pedestrian's. It's the road system's fault for allowing such a small mistake to have such dire consequences.

  13. Thanks for the article, David.
    Interestingly, I was given a £50 FPN this morning on that very spot on Bury Place that your photograph shows (and where the long-term building works are still occupying pride of place), having cycled on the short stretch of pavement connecting Bury Place to Bloomsbury Way. Police hiding round side of Kier hoarding.

  14. tim, you should contest the fpn,

    "In a letter to an MP, who had questioned the new fines, then Home Office minister Paul Boateng wrote the following: “The introduction of the fixed penalty is not aimed at responsible cyclists who sometimes feel obliged to use the pavement out of fear of the traffic, and who show consideration to other pavement users.
    “Chief police officers, who are responsible for enforcement, acknowledge that many cyclists, particularly children and young people, are afraid to cycle on the road, sensitivity and careful use of police discretion is required.”"