Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Stealth Cameras

It seems that Labour was getting all hot under the collar about "stealth" speed cameras on the motorway network over the weekend, although it was old news recycled to have a pop at the Conservatives who had allowed all of these hidden cameras to be installed.

The outrage was reported by many newspapers, including the Daily Mail (naturally!) - if you would rather not click on the link, the thrust of the news report was related to the enforcement of variable speed limits on the motorway network;

  • 112,000 drivers given penalty notices in 12 months because of the cameras
  • Increase due to 'grey cameras' on motorways with variable speed limits
  • Critics say the measures are used to catch out drivers and make money
  • Numbers of drivers fined will rise as system is extended across the country
Well, let's have a look at those four points before I return to the politics. First, 112,000 drivers received fines because they were driving too fast and yes, if it wasn't for those pesky cameras keeping everyone safe they would have gotten away with it.

Yes, many of the cameras in use are grey, but as this image of a gantry on the M6 shows, the cameras sit behind the variable speed signs over each traffic lane and yellow cameras wouldn't be much help to drivers not wishing to pick up fines. (Images from Google Streetview). There are plenty other systems running, some with yellow cameras, some grey.

I guess that people getting fines and those who purport to be representing them might be called "critics", but as for catching out motorists, I simply cannot accept it. Presumably, people know what the speed limit is on the motorways and when the variable speed limit is in operation, there are some big signs on the gantries above the road and as one enters a variable limit section from a slip road; so how are people being "caught out"? Perhaps people feel ashamed and their representatives feel the group shame!

As for the numbers of people fined going up as "smart motorways" are rolled out, that may well be true, but as it becomes normal to stick to the speed limit, then I am certain that the numbers will drop and as a percentage of annual trips on the motorway, the numbers being fined are already supremely tiny to the point where this isn't really a story and me commenting is a waste of time!

Back to the politics. Labour issued a press release at the beginning of February where it quoted Michael Dughar MP, Shadow Transport Secretary;

This camera on a Transport for London road is new
and yellow!
“The previous Labour Government issued strict guidelines that speed cameras should be in accident blackspots and that they should be painted yellow. At the same time, we worked to deliver the best road safety record in the EU.

“Under this Conservative Government we have seen a proliferation of grey, hidden 'stealth’ cameras, and at the same time road safety has deteriorated.

“This Government’s belated and half hearted review is insufficient. We should have one universal standard whereby all fixed speed cameras are in accident blackspots and are painted yellow. Ministers should issue guidelines to the Highways Agency today to stop treating motorists like a cash cow.”

The first paragraph is true, although they were guidelines and so not following them never would have invalidated enforcement activity; although most camera operating authorities and partnerships did as they were told. The point about having the best road safety record in the EU is highly questionable, although in 2010, the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition introduced swingeing cuts to road safety work, including the removal of revenue from camera fines being reinvested in safety camera partnerships.

The whole issue about treating motorists as cash cows was, is and always will be nonsense when it comes to law enforcement and to say otherwise is populist nonsense. At the simplistic level, one could say that if you stick to the speed limit, then you have nothing to fear and that is OK to some extent. The wider issue is that people should drive according to the conditions and for sure, automatic cameras cannot police this and this brings the gradual cuts to traffic policing in the UK into sharp relief.

If our politicians (all of them) were more serious about speeding, they would be calling for changes in the law to tighten up on penelities, stopping serial offenders from driving whilst banned and ending the nonsense that allows people to carry on driving with more than 12 points. Of course, this is all about motorways and I think far more is needed in enforcing speed limits on local roads. Cameras will have their place, but they cannot be a substitute for roads policing.

If you want to find out the detail of how safety cameras (speed and red signal) have been funded and kicked around as a political football, then the House of Commons Library Standard Note 350 will be of interest.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Sign Make It Better

I do occasionally tag traffic sign-related tweets as #signmakebetter and as we approach election season, it does make me smile that politicians seem to love them so much, despite pushing us to declutter our streets.

Yes, I have covered clutter before and I am not going to repeat myself, this is about the elections. In London, we are "only" voting for our MPs and actually, it has been a lot quieter than usual on the correspondence front and so I am hopeful that the current and potential MPs in my area had more important issues to campaign on than getting new signs put in!

Transport never features highly in elections at any level, unless it is a shiny big-ticket scheme like HS2 which will often divide opinion and so the stuff that gets people about on a daily basis is all but forgotten. This is sad, because it is the funding decisions, the national and local policies and indeed the views of elected people which make or break the small interventions which can often make all the difference or at least set the foundations for greater and more equitable things. Our transport policies have direct impacts on health, poverty, access to employment, pollution, personal safety; the list goes on - but then you all knew this anyway! 

No, as we move to the elections I will be voting for those who know that there are signs which can make things better such as those bearing the number "20", pictures of little green men and little green bicycles, the words "except cycles" and "bus stop", the "no through road sign" and lots and lots of little blue signs showing people safe and direct routes for walking and cycling where motorised traffic plays second fiddle.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Because Buses Cause Congestion*

(*no they don't) First, a massive Hat Tip to Alistair Coleman who runs the angry people in local newspapers blog where he trawls the local newspaper websites for the big stories of the day which are making local people very angry.

I must admit, that this website appeals to me, as working for an organisation which is often on the receiving end of local "journalism" where (in common with many local rags) we are presented with an issue that some local people don't like and then through the written form of talking heads, various people give opinions and that is it. No facts, no background and so much digital fish'n'chips wrapping. Yes, I am indulging in armchair-punditry again, but there is more to this story than meets the eye.

Station Road, Didcot. Image from Google Streetview.
There are some excellent local newspapers which undertake extensive extensive investigative journalism, but it appears that a story in a recent Oxford Mail was of the former variety. The issue is about plans for a bus route along Station Road in Didcot which is linked to the redevelopment and extension of the Orchard Centre. According to John Cotton, Leader of South Oxfordshire District Council;

“It’s great news that Hammerson is now able to progress with the next phase of the Orchard Centre. People living in Didcot and the surrounding area want more shops and amenities in the town centre and I am confident that what Hammerson is proposing will add to the growing reputation of Didcot as a great place to live.”

A bus (plus taxis and bicycle) only road is to be built on which
means shifting the buses (and taxis and bicycles) somewhere else.
Image from Google Streetview.
To enable the redevelopment to take place, an existing bus-only link road will be closed (to build on) and so (according to the article) the developers want to send up to 7 buses an hour along Station Road to access the shopping centre, much to the residents' disgust. They are concerned that the road is too narrow and that buses will end up going through the pedestrianised area at one end of the street. They also claim the buses will cause congestion.

The developers want to reroute the buses so they can avoid the congested Jubilee Way roundabout which sits to the west of Didcot Town Centre and presumably, the natural route to take when the link road through the extension of the shopping centre is to be built on. In other words (mine, from the armchair), the closure of the link road will force buses to use a roundabout which is currently stuffed and so the operators are not happy, so using Station Road will keep them happy.

Station Road ends at a modern, pedestrianised retail park.
Image from Google Streetview.
I admit that I was cynical (!) when I first read the article as after all, who wants buses rumbling past their homes? I chuckled at the residents for suggesting that buses cause congestion as that is clearly nonsense, but I thought I would dig deeper and I think there is a story in here that the paper simply didn't pick up on. 

From what I have read, it seems that the Orchard Centre is in fact Didcot's town centre which opened in 2005. The town is also a growth area and the expansion of the Orchard Centre is an aim of the local authority and it has a supplementary planning document to support this. Actually, I think the residents have a point. Their road does look too narrow to run two-way bus services along, although I think they might be as concerned about the potential to lose parking on the street.

The residents should be asking why the expansion is closing a purpose-built link road when buses could stop right in the shopping centre. They should be asking why their town centre is owned by a private developer. They should be asking why their town centre is essentially a retail park. They should also be asking South Oxfordshire District Council why their town centre is being made the main centre for the sub-region;

South Oxfordshire District Council intends that, by 2026, the town centre will have grown significantly to provide a vibrant, dynamic and living heart at the centre of the town -competing effectively in the sub-region as the principal town centre within the district.

No, it is not buses that cause congestion, it is the policies of the local authority which cause congestion and that is the real story here as it is up and down the country.

Saturday, 28 March 2015

ALARM Bells Still Ringing

This week, the Asphalt Industry Alliance published its Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) Survey which showed that despite billions of pounds thrown at potholes, the carriageway maintenance backlog in England and Wales remained stubbornly at £12bn.

Potholes are the Government's favourite and utterly unsophisticated shorthand for the state of our roads and in some ways, their obsession with filling potholes has backfired. The media was quick to pick up on the story, but the reports were not detailed enough to do the subject justice and the hint was that local authorities had been wasting the money which was first announced in reaction to the spate of flooding and heavy rain which had played a significant part in the backlog rising from £10.5bn in 2013 to £12bn in 2014. The full ALARM report is well worth a read as ever and as AIA Chairman Alan Mackenzie states, it is a case of two steps forward and one step back. 

Now, don't get me wrong, money for road maintenance is very welcome to those of us working in local authority highway departments, but what is not welcome is huge sums being dumped on us in one go. Highway maintenance has always been the Cinderella of highways, and highways is often the Cinderella of local authorities in the first place. The poorly staffed maintenance guys work wonders with the little money provided and so large sums to be spent in short periods disrupt our ability to plan in the long term. This comes through in the ALARM report as interestingly, less authorities responded than they did last year which anecdotally at least, is an indicator of staffing reductions made by the Government's austerity cuts. Oh, and contrary to popular belief, contractors don't keep armies of staff in warehouses in case work picks up. We need long-term budgets so all involved can have certainty on levels of staffing and workload.

The Government has provided a map so that Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells can see where their hard-earned taxes are being spent and how money potholes are being filled. Potholes are a symptom of course, but dumping a pile of tarmac into them as an emergency repair is not the answer. Even if a first-time repair is undertaken, it remains a sticking plaster.

The positive news is that the structural condition of the road network is less worse than it was last year (less worse, because it is still a backlog), although Wales is not doing very well. I pick on this as this as a guide to the underlying condition of the network and perhaps a better long-term indicator;

On road user claims, London and Wales seem to be doing well compared to 2015, but England is struggling. It is hard to be sure why this is the case, perhaps some authorities are struggling to keep up with their statutory inspection regimes or don't have enough resources to fight claims.

Certainly, it is costing more in terms of staffing to deal with road user claims and perhaps this hints at the problem - the data is not detailed enough of course and so we only really have anecdote.

Far be it from me to praise the Government and I am not going to do so here! I will acknowledge that my industry has received more funding for maintenance work, but a chunk of it is being used to react to the problem - the local authorities are not wasting this investment, the Government is by trying to show how wonderful it is in getting potholes filled;

England and London are filling more potholes than before and Wales less. Great, so we can fill potholes! Is this an indicator that we are doing better, or just having more money to fill them than we did before?

We have a General Election coming up and so I have no idea what will happen to the funding post-May. The fear is that we shall have more cuts to public services and so we can throw as much money as we want at highway maintenance, we still need a well-trained, staffed and motivated workforce to delivery - I think AIA should add to this survey and ask about numbers, experience and qualifications of staff delivering the work and how much is outsourced. I think it would also be good if data is collected on the state of our footways, cycle tracks and bridges as the ALARM survey only covers carriageways.

Friday, 20 March 2015

Traffic Signal Pie: So Near, Yet So Far

I have covered stand alone signalised crossings before, but an issue popped up over the last few days which is worth airing in its own right.

Our story starts with a video posted by Matt Turner of the Great Gas Beetle blog showing a Puffin crossing within a large signalised junction in Sheffield which had recently been reworked (Streetview variously shows the old layout and works in progress). Before we proceed, watch the video for yourself;

When I first watched it, I couldn't work quite what the problem was, but clearly, people crossing ahead could see a green man shown on the Puffin display - a "near side" display (known as a Pedestrian Display Unit - PDU). The issue is that the green man is actually for the people using the crossing to the left (from where the video starts) with the ahead signal being on the right hand side of the crossing.

Puffin crossings, whether stand alone or within a junction have the PDU above the push button. When a green man is shown, you can cross - my earlier post went into more technical detail as there is pedestrian detection involved too. The push button is normally (but not mandatorily) on the right hand side as you face the crossing which is there for consistency for visually impaired people, but in terms of the PDU, it will normally be placed so it is on the side the traffic is approaching from and they are turned to if one looks at them, one kind of sees the traffic in the background.

In the Sheffield example, the crossing point in question has the PDUs on the approaching traffic side. The side the video is taken has the push button under the display (on the right), but for people crossing back, the PDU is in the left (as you cross) which is on the traffic approach side. For people crossing back, there is a push button on the right (for consistency), but also another on the left. Yes, it does all seem a bit confusing already. 

The video is taken standing on a triangular island from which three crossing emanate, all with various posts, PDUs and push buttons which, on the face of it, are kind of set out correctly with at least a push button on the right and PDUs facing traffic (where displays are on the left, there is also a push button). 

The underlying issue with the layout is that the triangular island is very small and so in terms of the "wrong" green man which is the subject of the video, it is positioned about the same (but mirror image) as the "right" display. Granted it is turned to face traffic, but as that traffic is coming through a central reservation, the "wrong" display is still very easily seen.

The original junction was laid out pretty much the same from what I can make out in Streetview, but the important difference is that it used to have far-sided signals (known as PedX crossings);

In the image above, pink blob and arrow shows where the video was taken. The yellow circles show the push buttons (both on the right) and the green circles show the old far-sided signals. The red circle is the push button for the crossing to the left as shown in the video.

With the old layout, the implication of someone pushing the "wrong" button is that they will never get a green man at the far-sided signal they are looking at. They might think there is a fault and cross in a traffic gap, although given that traffic will be stopped at some point (to let other traffic movements go), a green man would come in automatically. The "wrong" push button might still be an issue for a visually impaired people who may not appreciate the button being on the left. 

With the old layout, the triangular island is still small and so the "wrong" button is still in reach. The junction is very much laid out (was and still is) to maximise the throughput of motorised traffic and as is pretty much always the case with road layouts like this, pedestrians are given several crossings to negotiate, with very small islands to wait on. There are other layout issues, but I will stick to the signals issue.

Of the two layouts, although both poor for pedestrians, the old far-sided signal layout does not create the additional risk of someone mistaking the green man on the wrong signal as theirs. This issue has been debated on Twitter (well so far as you can) and it has been suggested that people should have been taught how to cross and where "their" green man is. I think that is nonsense because we are dealing with people who are fallible and besides, people don't always see official training on such things!

One of the big problems with Puffin crossings is that when they are busy, people not standing immediately next to the display simply cannot see the green man. Imagine this location is busy, some people won't see the red man, but they might see the green and assume they can walk out into live traffic. Where high numbers of people are expected, then a second, high level display can be provided, but it will never be as good as the visibility afforded by a far-sided signal.

There are good reasons to use near-sided signals and that is where far-sided signals could be confusing. The layout on the left is a two stage non-staggered crossing - essentially two separate crossings (Toucans in this case). 

If far-sided signals were used then there is the possibility (perhaps remote in this example) that someone crossing could mistake a green man in the distance on the second crossing as theirs. We can add louvres to the green men (so they can only be seen from the right position), but it is another maintenance issue and they just don't give the same clear view.

This example has a second set of higher level displays, but in reality it never gets that busy and so all in all, I think the right choice has been made in terms of the near-sided signals.

In this next photo (a 2-stage cycle crossing running parallel to a PedX crossing) it is possible to confuse the signal in the distance (circled) red as the signal for the first crossing. There is a signal for those cycling immediately at the crossing point, but it is up on a pole and so you are relying on the secondary signal circled in green. If the far away signal goes green, then again, we have a serious issue. 

The lesson from all of this is that we must always take care that the right signal can only be seen by the right people and this follows for those driving too - there is a phenomenon whereby people's eyes can settle into a particular focus where things further away get noticed before things closer, with signals and PDUs this is called "see through".

What do users think about near side and far side signals? There is some research from 2005 by Transport for London which looked at the views of people using Pelican (far-sided signals) and Puffin (near-sided signals). The conclusion (of quite a detailed study) was;

In summary, Puffin crossings are slightly more likely than Pelican crossings to engender a sense of safety among pedestrians. While neither type of crossing could reasonably be described as presenting any fundamental difficulties of use, Puffin crossings might benefit from a general review of the visibility of pedestrian signals. At some sites, provision of additional signals would solve the problem of obstruction by other pedestrians. Where this is not possible, it will be important to make sure that all Puffin crossings have audible signals as well as visual ones. 

The study was only looking at stand alone crossings; as Pelicans use flashing green men/ amber traffic signals, they are never used at junctions, but it is a useful piece of research in terms of user experience. For a while, TfL was quite interested in using near-side signals for new schemes and upgrades of existing kit and even back then, they were years behind other parts of the country which seemed to have embraced near-sided signals already. Of course, TfL are now more interested in "Countdown" which goes back to far-sided signals with an additional signal which counts down the time left to cross when the green man goes out and before the red man is displayed and they have produced a study showing people like that system too! (a whole other discussion)

The DfT published (now archived) guide to Puffin crossings (near-sided signals). Appendix D sets out some of the other research and the flavour of the document as a whole was in favour of Puffins. Interestingly, there is a section on PDU positioning (p22) and it discusses using "reduced angle of view" PDUs where see through could be an issue. The photo demonstrating the point is from Sheffield City Council! Reduced angle of view is all about the optics in the PDU which can only be see from a narrow angle. From what we understand, Sheffield is looking to rotate the pole of the offending PDU. I am not sure if there is a reduced angle PDU or not, but clearly something needs to be done. I don't know if this will work or not, we shall see.

So, what can we learn from this? For me, it is all about using the right tool for the job and not having a rigid policy one way or another because each site we look at will have its own issues to consider. It is also about checking signal installations at every stage and especially when they have been switched on to make absolutely sure that nobody gets confused. We all need to remember that if there is any confusion, then it is the people outside of the vehicles who will always come off worst.