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.

Friday, 12 July 2013

London Flashride at Tower Hill today

I bring this blog out of aestevation (the summer equivalent of hibernation) to urge readers to take part in the flashride organised by the London Cycling Campaign today. The meeting is at Tower Hill at 6pm for a 6:15pm start, and the ride will go to Aldgate. Slightly earlier, at 5:30pm, there will also be a vigil at City Hall in memory of recent lorry deaths of both pedestrians and cyclists. The two sites are only five minutes ride or 10 minutes walk apart across Tower Bridge, and the vigil will only last 15 minutes, so it will be possible to attend both events. But the ride is the one which will make the big statement, that I urge everybody with an interest in safer streets in London, particularly for cycling, to attend.

The pressure for another cyclists' protest has been bubbling up in London for a long time. The first London flashrides were at Blackfriars Bridge, the first taking place on 20 May 2011, covered in the third post on this blog, the second on 5 August 2011, in which 1000 cyclists took part, and the third on 12 October 2011, in which 2,500 cyclists took part. Of a similar type was the ride preceding the Cities Fit for Cycling parliamentary debate on 22 February 2012, in which 2000 cyclists took part. All this led up to the ride organised by LCC in support of the Love London, Go Dutch campaign on 28 April 2012, one week before the mayoral election, when 10,000 cyclists turned up in appalling weather to let the candidates know that a vast number of Londoners want change in the way our streets are managed. By the time of the poll, all the main candidates had endorsed the campaign.

And so we have been waiting, waiting to see what happens next. In the mean time cyclists have continued to die unnecessarily, on unnecessarily dangerous roads. Last Friday 20-year old French student Phillipine Degerin-Ricard became the third cyclist to die under the wheels of a lorry on Barclays Cycle Superhighway 2. I covered the first two deaths on that route in this post. Changes were subsequently made to the Bow roundabout, where those fatalities took place, but nothing was done to the route between Bow and Aldgate. I wrote in November 2011:
Fixing the Bow roundabout would not fix Cycle Superhighway 2, which I cycled on my way back from the vigil on Friday. The rest of it is a travesty of safe cycle infrastructure as well. The blue lane, marked intermittently in the inner half of the bus lane, does nothing to remove conflicts between cyclists and buses and conflicts at other junctions. This lane has no legal force, not being a mandatory cycle lane (not bounded by a white line), and it gives cyclists no protection in law, nor in practice. The A11 is a horrible road with a peculiarly aggressive "Gotham City" feel to it as you cycle towards the huge, overbearing towers of mammon of the City of London, looming up ahead. The implementation of this Superhighway, of all of them, was uniquely disappointing, as the space for creating proper, segregated cycle tracks on both sides of this road was so clearly present, even without alteration of the current vehicle lanes. The road is enormously wide, with much unused pavement space.

Bow Road, the A11, photo by Oxyman, taken before the implementation of the Superhighway. Plenty of space here for a wide segregated cycle track.
Basically, the Superhighway here, as with all of them, was done quickly, on the cheap, and with no coherent thinking on what it was actually supposed to do, save for waymarking a route which was obvious anyway: it is, after all, just the main road, the one that anybody cycling from the City to Stratford has to follow.
That was 2011. Now a start has now been made on building an extension of Cycle Superhighway 2 beyond Bow that should be of far higher quality, and I welcome that. But why is the existing part of the route being allowed to remain in this primitive state at the same time? This is unacceptable, especially as a higher-quality extension, with better, but temporary, subjective safety, will attract more novice cyclists on to the route. They won't be made safe just by having larger numbers of cyclists on the route. More of them will die unless the whole route is radically improved. This snails' pace progress towards even acceptable, let along "international standard", cycle infrastructure in London is not good enough. It has become unacceptable to a great number of cycling, and non-cycling, Londoners now, and that is why I confidently predict a very large turn-out at today's protest.

Furthermore, the City of London has just announced plans for the remodelling of the Aldgate Gyratory, the traffic maelstrom into which cyclists have hitherto been dumped at the City end of Superhighway 2.  But these contain nothing resembling international best-practice cycling infrastructure, as both As Easy As Riding A Bike and Cyclists in the City have reported. The changes, if built, will ensure cyclists are crammed up against huge, lethal lorries in extraordinarily tight and heavily-used spaces.

So the protest will be about this as well. The message will be that London's authorities have got to get their act together on cycling. We cannot go on like this with schemes coming out that are still in the transportation dark ages, with no concept of separating out vulnerable road users from the biggest threats to their safety. We've heard some great noises from Boris Johnson, and his Cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, about their Vision for Cycling in London, but the Vision isn't going to come to much, if we, and they, can't get schemes like Aldgate, and the forthcoming changes to Tottenham Court Road and Gower Street and Elephant & Castle right for cycling this time. And getting them right means not just catering, with difficulty, for current levels of commuter cycling, with the current clientele, but future-proofing them for the much higher levels of everyday cycling the Mayor says he wishes to see, critically, making them also suitable and safe for the much wider spectrum of people on bikes he says he wishes to attract.

We're in a different world now to the first flashride. At that time, May 2011, I wrote:
In my opinion, LCC, despite being quite clear about what it does not want in places like Blackfriars, is still a bit ambiguous about what it does want on busy roads like this, and this is not helping its campaigning. I don't think the focus on the 20mph limit ("Keep it twenty" was a chant head at the flashmob) is the right one. Even with low speeds, large volumes of aggressive motor traffic tend to push cyclists out unless they have protected space.
This all changed with the LCC from early 2012 agreeing to campaign on the theme of "clear space for cycling on main roads". The demand for protected space for cyclists on main roads is now pretty universal and uncontroversial. But we still don't have any in London; certainly none of any decent standard in central London. We've only got some nice photoshopped graphics. It's vital to keep the pressure on Boris Johnson, and on the Corporation and the boroughs, so that they realise that this issue is not going to quieten down, and we are not going to let them backslide, faff, or delay with the changes we know are needed to our roads. And further afield, we need to send a message to the nation, and to the national government, that the old roads order, with cycling pushed to the margins and allowed to struggle on in an environment designed entirely against it, is no longer acceptable to a very large number of people.

I reported from Copenhagen in May, where their history of the great cycle protests of the late 1970s and early 1980s is now treated as a revered episode, that led to the freedom and good conditions that Danish cyclists now enjoy. The Dutch had their cycling revolution slightly earlier, from 1974, when the Stop de Kindermoord campaign turned the policies of the national government around. Are we finally going to catch up, and is this the equivalent moment for Britain? If so, then London's cyclists must lead the movement. I hope to see readers on the ride. The hashtag is #space4cycling, appropriately enough.