Monday, 30 December 2013

A post about bikes

I've never written a blogpost on the subject of bikes before: I've just written about 150 posts on cycling. So I thought I had better remedy this.

I've been spending a lot of time in bike shops lately: mostly Evans, but occasionally Halfords, Cycle Surgery, and others. I have no hesitation recommending Evans, by the way, as I've found their staff knowledgeable and helpful, and a big plus for them in my book is that they are helping fund the London Cycling Campaign's Space for Cycling campaign: exactly the kind of thing that the big bike firms in the UK should be getting involved with, in my view, for their own self-interest. (Brompton previously helped with the LCC's Go Dutch campaign for the 2012 Mayoral elections). Another plus for Evans is that they give a 10% discount for in-store purchases on presentation of an LCC membership card. They even allowed me to take an expensive bike out to test-ride it, for no charge, with only a credit card handed over and sight of a British Library card as proof of identity, and there was no sales pressure at all (I didn't buy it). The branch in question, my nearest one, was their huge shop in the most unpromising location imaginable, on the roaring A41 trunk road in Hendon, on the edge of a steep hill, in the Bikeless Borough of Barnet. I once said to them that I thought this was a terrible location for a bike shop, but they assured me, to my surprise, that they see quite a few commuters cycling past on the A41. In any case they usually seem to be busy, though I suspect most customers get there by car.

Anyway, my point is to make this observation, having spent some time looking at the bikes they stock in London bike shops: the bikes you see in shops are different to the bikes you see on the streets, predominantly. Put the other way round, if, you survey the bikes you see people using for practical tasks on the streets of London, they are untypical of the bikes the shops mostly seem to be trying to sell. This is not entirely true, of course. There is some overlap of the sets. But they are different sets, and that causes me to wonder why.

At Asda. Spot who hasn't learned to use the iPhone camera without their finger over the lens yet.
Here's a scene by the (terrible) bike-parking facility at my local Asda in Colindale. You don't see many people shopping by bike in these parts; I would guess it is a small fraction of one percent of the number of people driving (some people use buses and walk as well, of course). But I've been looking at the bikes people do use for shopping here. The nearest bike to the camera is one of mine. It is my lowest-quality bike. (I acquired it in Morocco on a tour that went wrong, after the bikes I and my friends had taken to Gatwick never turned up in North Africa. I kept it with the idea of leaving it at theft-prone locations like stations, but then I upgraded many components because they were annoying me, and now it is quite good, though still heavy.) It has a rack, mudguards, dynamo lights front and rear, a prop-stand, bell, and straightish, flattish handlebars, giving a fairly upright riding position, like all my bikes. It's my entirely unscientific observation that a high proportion of the bikes you see in London being used practically, on a day-to-day basis, have many of these attributes, which are clearly untypical of the bikes you see in shops, at least in the raw form in which they are sold.

The bike behind mine in the photo has the mudguards and rack, plus bungees, and bell, but battery, not dynamo, lights. It does however have some sort of chain-guard, a refinement which mine sadly lacks. The lady loading the bike at the back, which you can't really see, has both a wicker basket on the front and panniers on the rack.

My point, of course, is that the bikes you see in shops are not sold ready for use as practical machines. Everything you need to turn them into such is an extra in most cases, and in many cases the bike would not be very suitable for such utility use anyway. Go into any low-end warehouse like Halfords or Go Outdoors, and you will see rows and rows of samey, unispiring hybrid and mountain-style bikes, the vast majority with no mudguards, no rack, no incorporated means of carrying luggage of any kind, and no lights. This is in a country famous for its wet weather, and where we have 17 hours of darkness per day for part of the year. So any bike that is used at all is almost inevitably going to be have to used in the wet and the dark, but they don't give you mudguards or built-in lighting. Dynamo lighting systems, so common on the Continent, are almost unheard of in the big UK bike chains, and hub gears, so much better suited to stop-start urban cycling, and so much better for those who don't want to be bothered with bike maintenance, lubrication and cleaning, than the ubiquitous derailleurs front and rear, are rare indeed.

If you go into a store that sells higher-quality bikes, like Evans, or most small, independent shops, you'll see, more predominantly than the faceless mountain-style bikes, row upon row of alloy and carbon racing-style bikes with drop handlebars, derailleurs, and no accessories. Who buys these? I don't know. I don't see many of them actually ridden on urban roads. Here's a point to baffle most people outside biking culture: these bikes are called "road bikes" by everyone in the trade, and by cycling geeks. An ordinary member of the public I suspect, would expect the term "road bike" to mean a bike equipped for normal uses on normal roads, but of course you and I know it means a racing bike: always one with drop handlebars. What should be referred to as a "road bike" is called a "utility" or "town bike". But these are incredibly rare in our shops, so most people who go in  to a shop looking for one of these will probably go out with a mountain-hybrid as the closest available thing, though it probably won't be very suitable at all, without a lot of changes that they have to make. Paradoxically, many so-called "mountain bikes" are actually closer to what is needed as a "road bike" for utility use than what is called a "road bike" is. This all puts a certain barrier between the bike trade and the non bike-enthusiast potential customer, I feel. Language is used confusingly; the categories are wrong.

Why is this called a "road bike"...
...rather than this? (Pictures nicked from Evans Cycles, who classify the red bike as a "hybrid", which it is not, it is a classic town bike design – nothing could be less "hybrid". There's a categorisation problem.)

So what is going on? If the general truth of my observations is accepted, why are the bikes that actually get used around town not the ones the shops sell? There are a number of possible explanations, and the truth is doubtless a combination of these. One explanation is that a high proportion of the bikes sold in the UK are indeed only sold for leisure and sports use. They are taken out of the city in cars and ridden in the countryside, or abroad, or people ride them from their homes in the London suburbs, early on Sunday mornings before I am about, and go on "club runs" and audaxes on them. Some of my friends do do this, and there is nothing wrong with it. Typically, these people don't ride during the week and don't do their shopping by bike. They aren't interested in cycle campaigning or in the concept of mass utility cycling. The people who ride these bikes are being sold the right bikes, and the shops are catering to them.

Another explanation is that lots of people are buying the bikes on offer and then rapidly giving up cycling after trying it in real UK conditions. The problem here is not primarily with the products the trade is offering, but with the lack of suitable infrastructure to cycle on in the UK: you can't cycle unless you can come to terms with, and deal with, constant threat, harassment and bullying from drivers, the lack of subjective safety David Hembrow bangs on about. Most people cannot do this, so the bikes they buy languish in garages, or rust away in gardens. The saddest possible explanation however is that many people are being mis-sold inappropriate machines, and that they fail to become regular cyclists when they might have done so had the products from the retailers been better suited to the tasks they needed a bike to perform. Under this explanation, those users who survive the winnowing out process due to hostile conditions mentioned above do so preferentially if they have been supplied with better bikes in the first place, or have had the determination to improve them themselves.

These are not new ideas of mine. I recall two decades ago Paul Gannon addressing a day-long conference at Camden Town Hall, organised jointly by Camden Cyclists and the council, and asking why the British bike trade did not offer more bikes better suited to utility purposes. He made the point that though the trade will just say they are responding to demand, and that because cycling is perceived largely as a leisure activity and a sport in the UK, that is what they cater to, in reality, the problem is that there is a marketing job which is not being done right. He commented that every successful product is marketed actively, so that people who didn't think they needed it at first become convinced that they do, and that the trade really does not try to market practical bikes as they should. They are, in other words, purely reactive, complacent and lethargic.

Since then, the situation does seem to have improved slightly. There are small, independent shops in London specialising in practical bikes, and Evans does stock a significant number of such machines. (I was able to get the picture of the red Pinnacle off their website). The big lacuna I still observe is the lack of bikes on sale with built-in lighting. This seems to me to be the biggest issue, bordering on scandal. It is as illegal for bikes to be used after dark without lights as it is cars, and rightly so. But how many motorists would have lights if their machines were not supplied with them built in, powered (indirectly) by the fuel they supply? How many would fiddle about to fit them themselves, with screwdrivers and plastic bands, or pay for the shop to fit them as an extra? Of course, this is a silly, childish point. The concept makes no sense. But that our bikes are sold without lights in this 17-hours of darkness country shows clearly the immaturity of our cycling culture.

The UK bike trade, I am told, anecdotally, has historically resisted legislation to make lights on bikes  compulsory at point of sale. The have argued it does not make sense for a trade which is leisure and sports-driven. Their lobbying has been successful, to our detriment, and maybe their own, viewed long-term. For there is a big credibility problem for cycling with the majority of the British public, and much of this stems from the perceived problem of cyclists being lawbreakers. And part of this comes from the difficulty with lights. If quality, solid, reliable and theft-proof built-in lights are not normally supplied with new bikes, chances are that a significant proportion of bikes, inevitably, will be ridden at night without lights. The problem of being responsible for sorting the lighting is too great for many users. What is sold to them is too easily stolen, runs out of battery power, or falls off. Or they just convince themselves they won't ride in the dark, and then they find they have to.

The Germans seem to have solved the problem elegantly. The law there is that bikes over a certain weight must be sold with lights conforming to certain standards. The weight criterion serves to exclude high-end sports bikes. So basically all the bikes used on the streets in Germany have lights built-in. A side-effect is that Germany has developed the world's leading dynamo and bike light industry, and we import their products and use their standards. This legislation has had beneficial social, safety, environmental and economic effects for the country that enacted it. I'd support a similar approach here.

I think it's probably naive to expect the UK bike industry to make a big change on its own. This is a complex, factorially-interlinked, maybe circular,  problem. The trade think they are supplying according to the demand. They perceive the main demand in this country as sporty. The demand for utility "Continental-style" machines won't increase until the government makes the infrastructure better, so a bigger mass of people feel safer engaging in slow, relaxed, routine utility cycling. Unfortunately, the character of the trade as it is at the moment creates problems for people trying to get into cycling, and we need those people to get into it to accelerate the change by experiencing the issues we face and joining the political lobby (though organisations such as the LCC).

The trade resists legislative change on lighting, though that change, arguably, might serve to regularise cycling into British society better, ultimately increasing their turnover. (They could certainly make a lot of money selling high-quality lights and dynamos, and better-quality fully-equipped bikes). The trade promotes certain other things quite a lot, like helmets and high-visibility clothing, that serve, arguably, to distance cycling as an activity even more from the mainstream public. The trade often seems unable to provide people with what they need, or tries to persuade them they need something different to that which they really need. It confuses customers, but that's inextricably linked to the rest of the cycling culture we have, which is shaped by a combination of history and current environment.

Dave Warnock commented on his blog 42 Bikes yesterday:
Also worth noting is that in the UK where cycling is not at all normal you find a much higher percentage of people who ride bikes are “bike geeks” compared to the Netherlands where bikes are just bikes for most people who ride them. That is a clear indicator of the amount of work to be done in the UK to get non bike geeks on bikes (work that I believe should be nearly all focused on safe and convenient infrastructure).
He's right. Though you can get here, or build up yourself, of course, highly practical bikes, we need a situation where those who aren't really interested in bikes don't have to do a lot of research and search high and low, and don't have to fiddle about themselves for hours, just to get easily what any ordinary non-enthusiast bike user would need. What they need should be in their face as soon as they step into a bike shop, as it would be in Denmark or the Netherlands.

In previous discussion of the bike trade in the UK versus that in the Netherlands, Carlton Reid, who is something of a spokesman for the UK trade, has assured me that the Dutch bike trade does not promote utility cycling much either, because most of their income comes not from the utilitarian mass of cyclists, but the sporting minority. This seems unlikely to me, though I suppose it is possible that there is more profit on one anodised stem than on 100 inner tubes. If true, it maybe indicates we can never expect much better from the trade, that it always follows a market environment determined by external conditions, and that it is never likely to be much of an ally for cycle campaigning. I think this could be too pessimistic a view. The actions of Brompton, Evans and other companies supporting LCC campaigning argues otherwise.

When I once commented in a tweet that the Dutch don't really care much about their bikes, they just regard them as "furniture", David Hembrow reacted indignantly, claiming that the "furniture" analogy was not right, and that many Dutch do in fact spend a lot of money on their bikes and regard a nice bike as a status symbol. This could also be true. But it doesn't really invalidate the "bike geek" point. In the UK, if you ride a bike you are probably in to messing about with bikes, adjusting them, maintaining them and optimising them, whether for speed, or usefulness. If you are Dutch or Danish or German, you just buy a bike and use it, and get it serviced when it needs it, like you would a car, or central heating, or a TV set. It's rather symptomatic of a mass culture of anything that most users don't know how to fix the gadget in question.

In summary, I think that to change both the culture of cycling in the UK, and the type of bikes we get, the primary requirement is for government at local and national level to work much harder to change the conditions. The trade could do far more, both in joining and supporting campaigners in ambitious lobbying, and in disseminating more widely an image of cycling that would appeal beyond the enthusiast, backing that up with more pro-active marketing of practical utility bikes, changing the language around them and clarifying the message. They should also be willing to accept sensible legislation on lighting at point of sale. But the situation we have at the moment with respect to these attitudes is a bit of a log-jam, and it's hard to see any part of this jigsaw moving without all the other parts moving first, which is where the basic problem lies. There's been a slow drift in the right direction since Paul Gannon spoke on this 20 years ago, but the fact is that a typical UK bike shop still looks very different to a Dutch one, and this is both a symptom of, and a contributory factor to, the big problem of promoting utility cycling in the UK.

Best wishes for 2014 to my readers.

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

A response to Westminster's Cycling Strategy

The City of Westminster has published its cycling strategy. The first draft of this, which came out in May, was reviewed very badly by leading cycling blogs Cyclists in the City and As Easy As Riding A Bike. Arguably, having been prepared while Andrew Giligan was preparing the Mayor's Vision for Cycling in London, which was worded far more ambitiously, it could be seen to be falling short, as it was out of phase with the programme the Mayor was promoting.

This month a new draft of Westminster's Cycling Strategy came out (I wonder how many they need), with an online consultation form. Most significantly, this draft was published with a plan of the proposed Central London Cycle Grid for the borough, as had been promised by Gilligan in the Mayor's Vision, the first time this had been seen. Last week, the full plan of the Grid, including the parts in the Boroughs of Kensington & Chelsea, Camden, Islington, Hackney, Southwark and Lambeth, was published by Transport for London. This is another "draft for engagement", and seems to correspond to Westminster's plans.

TfL's proposed "Grid"

The production of the Grid has been a long-term demand of London Cycling Campaign; they suggested the concept in 2009 (though no doubt many others had suggested similar plans going far back into the history of campaigning: see for example this bit of documentary from 1974, kindly transferred to YouTube by Carlton Reid). LCC's reception of the grid plans says exactly the right thing, welcoming the concept but stressing that high standards for the actual cycling conditions need to be applied if it is to work in any way at all:
The Grid must provide genuinely safe and convenient conditions throughout, particularly at junctions, with routes that have either protected lanes or low motor traffic volumes and speeds.
The actual standards that have to be met we know, and I covered these recently: in a pithy phrase, they are: 20mph and less than 2000 Passenger Car Units per day. If roads on the grid do not meet these standards, we will not accept that the grid has been provided.

I'll have a lot more to say about the Grid in future, but for now I will return to Westminster's Cycling Strategy. Cyclists in the City and, even more comprehensively, Rachel Aldred hve already put a lot of effort into analysing what is still wrong with Westminster's whole approach to the subject of accommodating cycling, so I don't need to reproduce their excellent points. They amount, in Rachels's words, basically to the fact that
Westminster needs to start seeing cycling as a solution, not a problem.
Instead I'll encourage you to comment on the strategy using their form, reproducing here my responses, to give you ideas.

Many of the questions involve selecting options, and I leave those out, and just give you the text that I filled in where it was requested. How you fill in all the options where they ask you to rank the importance of measures like "refurbishing abandoned bikes", "developing apps", "running events", "establishing a network of champions", blah blah blah, is of no importance. That the authors of the strategy are so off-beam in their grasp of what the actual problems are with cycling in Westminster, that they think that these ideas could possibly be of any significance whatever, speaks volumes. As usual in UK cycling strategies, there's the fixation with the idea that they need to be "promoting" something that, in truth, the vast majority of people literally, physically just can't do unless there is a massive re-enginnering of the street environment to accommodate it, such as the Dutch and Danes achieved. Since that re-engineering seems, politically, too frightening for them as a thing to fight for, so they grasp on to all these other candyfloss flim-flam "soft measures" as a drowning man to a basket of sponges, and with similar results.

But enough of the invective against local authority officers: it's Christmas. They've got a difficult balancing-act to perform, trying to be progressive, while not risking a Conservative-controlled council voting down their strategy. Let's try to help them to do the right things. There are a lot more things that could be said about the Grid route plans, but I've tried to be positive and constructive. Here are my answers to the survey:

Westminster cycling consultation response 
(Multiple choice questions omitted)

3. What would you say are the main barriers to you cycling more regularly?

Inconvenient one-way systems, poorly-designed routes through parks that don't connect up with the road system conveniently, dangerous junctions such as Hyde Park Corner where the cycle routes are inadequate and poorly-designed, excessive and obstructive parking on minor roads, inconvenient, inefficient phasing of traffic lights for people travelling at cycling speed, poor road surfaces, disruption of cycle routes by roadworks and developments.

10. Do you have any comments on how the council can make the roads safer for cyclists?

The council needs to define a network of direct, priority, safe routes for cyclists. On these routes motor traffic either needs to be reduced below 2000 PCUs per day, by means of road-closures or one-ways for motor vehicles, allowing two-way cycling, or segregated cycle tracks need to be constructed, with parking, loading and taxi and bus stopping taking place on the outside of these tracks. These tracks would be appropriate on larger roads; smaller roads on the network would have traffic reduction measures applied plus 20mph speed limits. Junctions on the network need to be treated so they are safe for cycling, with dedicated cycling phases at traffic lights that separate cycle movements from the movements of motor vehicles turning across the path of cyclists.

11. What are your thoughts on the proposed cycle routes?

There are some very good ideas here. Particularly beneficial would be to make the Grand Union Canal towpath route continuous east of Harrow Road, by allowing cyclists to use Blomfield Road both ways, bypassing the Maida Hill tunnel. However, there is still a major gap in locations where the canal and the A40 can be crossed, between Westbourne Terrace and Cosway Street. There needs to be something between these. The Jubilee line route connecting from St James's Park to Bond Street is far too indirect, and needs to be straightened-out by taking it via St James's Street. If there is to be a route via Exhibition road, that road needs re-engineering as the latest changes have made it a very poor cycling environment. If the “Central Line" is to go via Grosvenor Square, most of the traffic needs to be removed from Grosvenor Square, as it is currently highly dangerous, or segregated cycle tracks with priority traffic lights need creating. Hamilton Terrace is also unpleasant for cycling because of the high volume of parking narrowing the road. This needs completely re-designing if there is to be a satisfactory route here.

13. Do you have any other comments on how the council could help road users get on well together?

The main method of getting "road users to get on well with one another" would be to provide suitable space and facilities for cyclists, who are currently made to make do with a hostile and dangerous environment where they cannot compete well with aggressively-driven motor vehicles. Road users will "get on" when cyclists are given the space and priority they need to make progress safely and at their own speed.

15. Do you have any other comments on how the council could support residents to own and maintain their own bikes?

The council doesn't need to "support residents to maintain their own bikes". Westminster has lots of bike shops that can maintain bikes, and most residents can afford to pay for these services. Residents do need places to store bikes, however. If they cannot store bikes, then they can use the TfL hire bikes. We need more stations in Westminster for the Barclays hire bikes.

17. Do you have any other comments about the consultation, or how the council could encourage more people to cycle?

The consultation seems obsessed with the idea of "encouraging people to cycle". This is misguided. People don't need to be "encouraged to cycle". They are desperate to do so; they would love to do so. They need to be enabled to cycle by changes to the roads to make them objectively and subjectively safe to cycle on. It's very simple. If the roads are made safe, a lot of promotion is not necessary.
Happy Christmas from the Vole.

The Vole and friends. Yes, the knitted doll is wearing a CTC cycling jacket.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

The Holborn trap

I wanted to do as more positive blogpost at this point, as there is a certain amount of positive news on the London cycling radar, with some welcome (and overdue) moves towards actually making the Mayor's Vision for Cycling a reality. However, a comment I received the other day on my post of 16 July causes me to return to the subject of the continuing, criminally dangerous cycling environment that cyclists are still suffering on routes both north-south and east-west bang in the centre of London, around Holborn, at the southern edge of the Borough of Camden.

That post was prompted by the death, under a lorry, of Alan Neave on 15 July, in High Holborn, near the junction with Kingsway, at the place marked by the red dot on the map.

I linked that death, as did others, with the issue that cyclists from east London travelling towards the West End cannot follow Theobalds Road into Vernon Place, Bloomsbury Way and New Oxford Street on a direct route, as can the buses, but are are forced with cars round a mad multi-lane one-way system consisting of Drake Street, Procter Street, High Holborn, and St Giles High Street, that looks like this:

In the weeks leading up to Alan Neave's death, the police had been actively ticketing cyclists attempting to use the Vernon Place and Bloomsbury Way bus lane. The borough of Camden and Transport for London had always maintained that cyclists could not use this bus lane, as it is not wide enough for buses and cyclists to share.

I called, in July, on these authorities, and, in particular, on the Mayor's Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, to take emergency action to create, through some sort of temporary infrastructure, not unlike that put in place for the Olympic lanes, a safe route for cyclists through this area, which has some of the highest cycle flows seen anywhere in London. They, and he, chose not to do this. Gilligan has persistently claimed, in response to such calls, that the number of cyclists being killed in London does not constitute an emergency, and that hurried action ("panic measures" as he terms it) would be counterproductive.

On 7 November Francis Golding, distinguished architect and former head of the Royal Fine Arts Commission, was killed by a left-turning coach at the junction of Southampton Place and Vernon Row, part of the same one-way system. So I need to add a blue dot to my map to mark his death:

Maybe if emergency measures to allow cyclists more priority and protection through this road system had been put in place after the death of Alan Neave, Golding would still be alive today. Maybe not. The incidents were different, only having a common factor in involvement of a large vehicle. But I just don't think arrangements for cyclists in this area are sane.

I also pointed out in my earlier post how there is a confounding problem, that the cycle route that I helped to devise, with Camden Cyclists, in the 1990s, via Great Russell Street, Bury Place, a short contraflow segregated track in High Holborn, then Newton Street, and Great Queen Street (shown with small orange dots on the map), which was designed to separate some cycle journeys from the Holborn one-way system, had been blocked by long-term building works with the provision of no alternative. Here is the blockage, looking towards the southern part of Bury Place from Bloomsbury Way:

I pointed out that it would have been really easy for Camden to provide an alternative here to maintain the cycle route. The signals cyclists need are still in place. They just needed to remove a section of railing, insert a dropped kerb, put in some markings and do a temporary traffic order. There is still a decent space for both pedestrians and cyclists to get through, with sensible behaviour, outside the building hoardings.

Then this week, a new comment appears on that earlier blogpost, from Tim Brooke:
Thanks for the article, David. 
Interestingly, I was given a £50 FPN [Fixed Penalty Notice] 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.
So, not only have we had police fining cyclists for trying to avoid the one-way system by using the bus lane in Bloomsbury Way, we've had them fining cyclists for trying to avoid it by using the disrupted cycle route in Bury Place. It's as if the police, Camden and TfL between them are deliberately laying a huge trap for cyclists in Holborn, trying to force them to their deaths, pushing them through a road system with a terrible safety record.

It is illegal, and it should be, for cyclists to cycle on the pavement.

But it should also be illegal for a local authority to allow a cycle route to be blocked without providing an equally safe temporary alternative.

Camden are supposedly a cycle-frienldy council, and have in the recent past done exemplary work in creating an alternative route for cyclists while an established route is closed for works, at Royal College Street:

But not at Bury Place.

I have learned, in conversations with Camden Cyclists' committee, that cyclists will soon be allowed to use the Bloomsbury Way westbound bus lane. But the lane will be segregated off with wands in the road (things like thin and flexible bollards), and it will still be too narrow for cyclists to overtake buses, or vice versa, and cyclists will be banned from overtaking buses by straying through the wands into the opposing lane. The Camden officer responsible for this scheme is reported as saying that if cyclists are seen doing this, cyclists will be banned from the bus lane again.

So it seems like cyclists are dying on the major roads in central London, and the response of the authorities, rather than providing rationally-designed, safe and practical infrastructure that cyclists can use without breaking the law, is consistently to blame cyclists for the problems and criminalise them at every possible opportunity for merely trying to use the road system in the best and safest way they can find.

Frankly, I'm sick of it. So are lots of other people.

It doesn't help that the first thing that it seems to enter Boris Johnson's head whenever there is another cycling death is some new, counter-evidential argument to attempt to transfer blame for the road danger that is killing them on to cyclists themselves. In November, after the deaths of six cyclists in two weeks, including Francis Golding, his response was to blather some rubbish about headphones. Quite sickening.

This, Mr Gilligan, this whole accumulation of deaths, injuries, insults, and institutional incompetence, is why cyclists and others are lying down in roads to protest. We know you have some good ideas, but there's a huge back-story here, a lot of it is associated with your boss, and we're not seeing the changes we need yet.

Here's Vernon Place looking east, with the contraflow bus lane that cyclists will soon by allowed to use, but not overtake buses in.

So, interpreting Camden and TfL's current position on this, it seems they are saying there's room for three eastbound lanes of traffic, but not room for making a westbound lane wide enough to be sensibly shared by buses and cyclists. These are unbelievably wrong priorities. This problem could be fixed by repainting the road markings with only two eastbound lanes and moving the traffic lights. It doesn't seem too complicated. Is the real agenda here that maintaining the capacity of the gyratory system is a higher priority than cyclists' safety?

Obviously, if Camden do what they say they will, and add these wands to the bus lane at its existing width, cyclists will overtake stopped buses by going over the solid white line, if there is nothing coming towards them in the opposing lane. Why shouldn't they? But I think that these wands will themselves be an extra hazard.

Andrew Gilligan has spoken elsewhere of segregating combined bus and cycle lanes (not necessarily contraflow ones) off from the rest of the traffic with wands. I find this concept hard to fathom. If the lane is not wide enough to combine cyclists and buses in, in parallel, with a good margin for overtaking, then enclosing the whole thing with wands is surely going to create more problems. If it is wide enough, then the wands are in the wrong place. They should be between the cycle flow and the motor flow, in other words, between separate bus and bike lanes. Or alternatively there should be no separation, but the cyclists must be allowed to undertake at the bus-stops with bus stop bypasses. Cycle flows have a totally different dynamic to bus movements. They are about the same average speed, but mix very badly, because of the stop-start character of buses. We have huge numbers of buses in London, and substantial numbers of cyclists (in certain places). Neither of these are going to change quickly. We have to sort this problem out.

I'll look at some further aspects of the practicality of TfL's bike plans for central London, which were announced this week, in another post. For now, it seems that in Holborn they are still intent in trapping cyclists in a weird cat-and-mouse game. If the police actually enforce the "no overtaking" rule (which is hard to imagine), cyclists will not have a practical route, and they will have to use the deadly one-way system again. Trying to prevent cyclists and buses from passing each another is idiotic.

Fortunately, there are other people with better ideas. I draw your attention to the Clerkenwell Boulevard proposal by Andrea Casalotti. I think this deserves some serious consideration. He has considered the east-west corridor from Old Street roundabout to Bury Place, the most cycled route in London, with conditions, that are, as he says, currently "scandalously disrespectful to people who cycle". He proposes making it a bus and  cycle (and pedestrian) only corridor, with continuous separation of cyclists from buses with a single bi-directional track. The removal of turns by other vehicles on to and off the route means that some traffic lights could be removed (though I'm not sure so many could be removed as the eight he claims), speeding both bus and cycle journeys. They would also be speeded, of course, by being separated from one another, and having the cars, lorries, vans and taxis removed from the corridor. This traffic would be displaced to the inner ring road: Euston Road, Pentonville Road and City Road.

Conditions on "Clerkenwell Boulevard": "Scandalously disrespectful to  people who cycle"
It's a radical proposal which would attract huge opposition from taxi drivers and commercial vehicle operators, without doubt. I also think it would need to be part of a wider and more complicated package of proposals. You wouldn't just get the displacement to the ring road, as Andrea claims, you would get displacement to many small roads unless they were all closed as well; particularly, the whole route of the Seven Stations Link, or LCN 0, needs to be closed to through-traffic. But such a radical proposal should force our decision-makers to think about who and what these streets are actually for. Are they there for the benefit of the taxi trade and commercial vehicle operators (there actually are not many private cars here at the moment) so that they have short (but rarely quick or efficient) journeys, or could we use them better, for a more beautiful, pleasant, and more civilised city?

We are not proposing removing motor vehicle access to any destination, but some motor routes would become longer. However, experience in the Netherlands and elsewhere shows that simplifying networks and reducing the number of possible motor routes and open intersections can actually make journeys faster for motor vehicles. Certainly any claim that we have the perfect solution in Central London at the moment would be generally laughed out-of-court. We are constantly told that road space in London is a limited resource, so why do we persist in using it so inefficiently? These roads are not working well now for anybody, and cyclists and pedestrians are coming off the worst. In too many cases they are being killed. More widely, there is a denial of travel choices. Contrary to what our Cycling Commissioner thinks, we do have an emergency, in so many ways. Let's have a radical rethink.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Policy progress in the LCC

I've left this blog fallow for a while, and this sort of thing becomes the more difficult to take up again the longer it is left. It becomes too overtaken by events, and there develop too many possible angles to cover. The point of my last post was to explain the policy position I wished London Cycling Campaign to take on cycle network standards, in particular, how I wished them to campaign for only one standard of provision for all users, as opposed to the two-tier approach which has been commonplace in UK cycling provision up until now.  I am pleased to say that the LCC AGM overwhelmingly backed my Motion 5:
In summary, London’s cycle network should not be designed in such a way as to create a two-tier network, one that trades safety against convenience; rather uniformity of provision should make all areas suitable for everyone.
And it also, perhaps even more importantly, overwhelmingly backed Rachel Aldred's Motion 3:
This policy is designed to ensure that we campaign for a dense network of streets that have either low-speed motor vehicles in low volumes, or protected space for cycling, including through junctions.
A network with these characteristics is likely to provide safe and inviting streets suitable for everyone to cycle.

Our new policy is to call for intervention when motor vehicle speeds are above 20mph or the number of passenger car units (PCUs) on a given street exceeds 2000 per day.
These two policies I regard as a solid bedrock that both LCC, and any other cycling campaigns that choose to follow its example, can use to assess which schemes are acceptable: which genuinely provide the "space for cycling" that we are asking for: space that is both subjectively and objectively safe, usable, and inviting. They lay down clear standards that cannot be escaped from or wriggled-out of: in particular the 20mph and 2000 PCU criteria. Of course, they do not fully specify what quality cycle provision looks like; that would be impossible in the wording of a short motion to be debated at a meeting. The full explanation of the "Protected Space for Cycling" policy may be read here, but that is only three pages and still can't be a full explanation of what we are campaigning for. We know there will be many other factors at play in determining whether cycle provision and cycle routes will be successful: factors of directness, priority, efficiency, legibility, social safety and overall quality. We know the treatment of junctions is critical, and this policy does not attempt to go into that at all. We can't lay down in one policy a set of design standards. Transport for London is producing a new set of design standards currently, and I await to see what they say (word is that they are a major advance on previous standards). But the policies enshrined in LCC's Motions 3 and 5 do represent, I believe, a real leap forward in terms of campaigning clarity, vision and ambition.

In fact there was little opposition in the AGM to Motion 5. There was a concerted attempt by anti-infrstructuralist (and now re-elected Board member) Oliver Schick to derail Motion 3. He first tried a procedural ruse, claiming that because the full explanation of the policy had not been included with the AGM papers (as it was available on the web), it could not be voted on. This argument was quashed by the Chair. (It was noted that the accounts had been approved by a vote, even though those were not in the AGM papers either.) He then tried to replace the carefully-considered argument of the "Protected Space" policy, which differentiates between the functions, and necessary treatments, of main roads and side-streets, with a simple call for 20mph everywhere, without a call for protected space anywhere. The meeting had the good sense to reject this approach overwhelmingly.

However, the workshop session in which I took part in the afternoon, on "Protected space on main roads" revealed a level of misunderstanding and doubt amongst many in the campaign about the policy as it applies to main roads. I think we will have to adopt wordings in the future that leave it beyond doubt how "protected" and how "dedicated" the space on main roads for which we are campaigning needs to be. Shared bus lanes are not "protected" or "dedicated" space for cycling. Advanced Stop Areas are not protected or dedicated space for cycling. (Indeed I believe we should start to generally oppose Advanced Stop Areas on major, multi-lane roads as they are not an appropriate or helpful facility in these places.) Protected, dedicated space means that other vehicles cannot drive or park in the space. It has to be physically segregated using kerbs, wands, bollards, "armadillos", planters, or some such engineering. The protection must continue through junctions, with separation of conflicting traffic flows in time (vehicles not allowed to turn left across the path of straight-ahead cyclists; straight-shead vehicles not allowed to conflict with right-turning cyclists). The principles are well established, and coverage on Camden Cyclists' website and that of Paul James (the in-aptly named Pedestrianise London) goes into many details.

A variant of "dedicated space for cycling" on Royal College Street, Camden.
The political realities are more problematic than the technical principles, however. Some at the afternoon workshop were clearly of the opinion that they would be laughed out-of-court in their local transport department if they argued for Dutch or Danish style space reallocation on the main roads of London. They clearly could not conceive of how it could be done in such a way that could be "sold" to the non-cycling majority and their elected representatives. There were some bizarre claims, such as one that "There is space for this on the roads of Outer London, but not round here": "round here" being the venue of the meeting, the University of North London, on Holloway Road, a road that looks like this:

Spacious Holloway Road in Islington
The claim particularly amused me as an Outer Londoner as it was as if some people had never been to Outer London, and imagined it to be a more leafy version of Dallas, Texas. In fact, most of the main roads in Outer London are the remains of old village High Streets, or lanes that once connected London's orbital villages, and have far less obvious potential to segregate-off cycling than do the capacious boulevards of the West End (Park Lane, Portland Place etc.) or the main arteries of Inner London like Holloway Road. Yes, there are exceptional big roads in Outer London, but there really isn't a pattern of "more road space" being generally available there. If anything, the space ripe for "easy" reallocation is in the centre, where the Congestion Charge, parking restrictions, and general policies making it more difficult to drive and park, including those in force only during the Olympics, have reduced motor traffic and the pressure on road-space.

Cramped Uxbridge Road (with advisory cycle lanes) in Harrow
Holloway Road is actually a classic example of the type of road that must get segregated cycling provision if we are to ever achieve a double-digit mode share for cycling in London. However, a current consultation from Transport for London for a stretch of this road, covered in detail on As Easy As Riding A Bike, proposes, sadly, a load of rubbish again: 1.5m wide advisory cycle lanes just outside parking and loading bays, leading to Advanced Stop Areas which provide nothing useful in terms of subjective or objective safety. Please do respond, telling TfL that this is totally inadequate, here. We now have a policy which says clearly that on a road like this, where traffic flow is far above 2000 PCUs a day (this equates to about 1.4 vehicles per minute on average), we need truly protected space. And we need one protected space (or one for each direction) for all cyclists on this alignment: no more fobbing us off with the line: "Experienced cyclists can use the road (or unprotected, toothless, advisory cycle lanes) while nervous cyclists can choose other routes", in other words, "We won't give you any material change from the status quo".

We've got a policy, and that's what it is, a policy; we can't force change. But if enough people say it enough times, the message will get through. This is what we need to start to make London a city truly fit for cycling in. We must ask for what we really need, and, in particular, for what those who currently are far too frightened to cycle on our roads – the vast majority of Londoners – really need.

In July 2011 I wrote a post calling on cycling campaigners to stop asking for "Poor scraps dropped from the Big Man's table – the Big Man, of course, being the hegemony of the motor car". My main example was a set of requests for Advanced Stop Areas and painted lead-in lanes on a main road (Piccadilly). I asked for campaigners to look beyond what they felt was "politically possible" at any moment, but to move political possibility forward, with ambitious demands based on the experience of what infrastructure has actually worked in places where mass cycling has been achieved: to set the proper standards, and keep asking for them, and not deviating. I also asked campaigners to promote better, more comprehensive and radical visions for how our streets could be completely rearranged, with visual material that could be used to demonstrate to public and politicians not particularly interested in the subject of cycling what real, transformative change to our urban spaces, to benefit everyone, would look like.

Two and a half years later, and I think I can say I got my wish. LCC upped its game in advance of the 2012 Mayoral Election with the Love London, Go Dutch  campaign, with visionary graphics, that, if not technically correct in the Pedestrianise London sense, certainly attracted wide attention. We approach the 2014 local elections with a Space for Cycling campaign based on the policies adopted at the AGM, and developed around six policy themes:
  1. Safer Routes for schoolchildren
  2. Streets without through motor traffic
  3. Protected space on main roads/major junctions
  4. Safe cycle routes via parks and canals 
  5. 20mph speed limits
  6. Liveable town centres
Signs are that, with the leadership of CTC and Cyclenation, groups across the country will launch campaigns for their local elections based around the same themes, and under the same slogan, so we will have a national Space for Cycling campaign in 2014. Good ideas spread fast. The local campaign in Cambridge, another national leader, seems to be heading for a "Clear and less compromising stance... following the lead of LCC" and focusing on getting at least one Cambridge main road up to Dutch standard of provision. If they can get that, then, as CCC's Martin Lucas-Smith says, 
Making the case for other streets will become easier because a really high-quality scheme will (a) get new people cycling, (b) remove conflicts with pedestrians and (c) provide a visible subjectively safe place that will tempt people out of their cars. The result is that people elsewhere will say ‘I want that here too’ – i.e. create a demand. (Compromise schemes don’t create that demand.) Then it won’t just be us asking for it, it will be pedestrians, the disabled, ‘ordinary’ cyclists, even drivers, even rural councillors maybe.
So I go back to the theme that I developed in 2011, articulated here again by Martin, that though  compromised cycling provision can appear in the short term to be a "politically achievable" objective, campaigning for it is mostly a waste of time, as it can't generate a visionary movement that snowballs with the public, and never achieves a breakthrough.

It looks to me that, led by various bloggers and the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, cycle campaigning in the UK has moved into a phase that is realistic because it is radical, and radical because it is realistic. Another aspect of this new radicalism is a willingness of cyclists and associated pedestrian and disability activists to engage in publicity-grabbing direct action in order to draw attention to the policy demands. The first London "Die-in" occurred outside TfL HQ in Southwark on 29 November. The next will be held at Vauxhall Cross this Thursday morning. If you can, do consider going along. You can sign up on the Cyclists' Requiem Protest Facebook page.

We've got a clear policy, but we see with the Holloway Road scheme, and numerous others brought forward in recent months, that Transport for London and the boroughs are still producing, mostly, appallingly compromised, near-useless or positively dangerous schemes for cycling, despite the promising words of The Mayor's Vision for Cycling, published nine months ago. The pressure on them needs to be intensified in every way possible.