Saturday, 27 August 2016

Close The Road, Open The Street

So, yesterday, we decamped to Clacton-on-Sea in Essex for the annual Clacton Air Show and although the main interest was blasting around the sky, there was the usual opportunity for some geeky transport observation.

It wasn't until the show was over and we headed away from the beach that I noticed that a large chunk of Marine Parade was closed to traffic. Clacton's sea front is at, well, sea level and fronted by cliffs. The airshow had stalls and activities associated with it and these were accommodated on the green at the top of the cliffs and with the vehicles servicing the set up and the thousands of people in town for the day, Marine Parade was closed to traffic.

Marine Parade provides an east-west link through the town and in common with seaside towns, the road is wide, difficult to cross and casualties are common (especially with pedestrians being hurt). It is no small wonder that with motor traffic excluded, people started to walk along the road and for those cycling, there were no traffic worries as the photos below show (the vehicles are parked and associated with the event);

Marine Parade has lots of side roads running perpendicularly away from it and they were also closed at the sea front in a very robust, but cheap way; using Legato concrete blocks. These are much better than a handful of cones which can be moved about.

Closing roads to traffic is pretty common for events and festivals; indeed, we often have large roads closed for such events which also attract a great deal of people travelling by car (and the Clacton Airshow attracted a lot of vehicles). OK, there was some traffic congestion when the show finished, but in fairness, it's no different to a stadium kicking out or a retail park on a Sunday afternoon.

We normally agonise over traffic models, we deal with objections about perceived loss of trade or an increase in congestion. But it is so often the case that the system rebalances and we have set aside space for other uses as a result. Perhaps we should undertake "before" and "after" studies on events to generate more data to show how things can cope and indeed how closing roads can open our streets.

Monday, 15 August 2016

A Walk In Walton

In this week's blog, I look at a little high street which has made extensive use of continuous footways and it serves to remind us that new ideas are rarely new.

Walton-on-the-Naze is in the far north-east corner of Essex and as is characterised by this part of the country, the town (with nearby Frinton-on-Sea) is almost on a peninsula because of the network of watercourses and marshes around it. It's very much at the end of the line as far as rail and road go and so it's perhaps not as popular (in tourist destination terms) as Clacton-on-Sea and Southend-on-Sea. But, it's a pretty little town, with a great beach for kids and being compact, it is eminently walkable.

Anyway, the point of this blog post is to talk about the High Street in Walton. I have visited the town with my family on and off for some years (not for a few years though), but it was only this last weekend did I notice that the footways along the High Street are all continuous. I put it down to having sharpened my eye in the last few years, but it wasn't until we had walked along most of the street that I noticed!

Continuous footways are those which simply continue across side roads (as with private accesses) so that people driving are having to cross them to get to and from the side roads. In essence, pedestrians retain full priority. I explored the concept some time back here and here. The layout in essence turns usual custom and practice on it's head. The image below shows different junction  treatments. The first drawing shows a layout we see all over the UK; the second is better as there is now tactile paving to assist visually impaired people to cross the side road; third is a large flat road hump (a speed table) to provide a level crossing of the side road which is better for those with reduced mobility and fourth is a continuous footway.

The Walton layout has been in place for several years (it must be over ten years) and from a walking point of view, it provides a high level of service. High Street is one-way for traffic and it is bypassed neatly by the two-way Old Pier Street (forming part of the B1034) and so in theory, most people don't need to drive into the street unless for access. 

The streets accessible from High Street don't go anywhere (mainly dwellings), although Mill Lane serves a car park which probably generates more traffic than should be in the High Street. There is also quite of bit of on-street parking provision which is not necessary as there is parking very close. There is some loading space which does restrict footway width when being used. Let's look at some photos;

The two photos above are the junction of High Street with Alfred Terrace; the first is a view along High Street and the second is in Alfred Terrace looking back at High Street. The paving across the junction is a pragmatic grey block paving which can better deal with vehicle use compared to the 400mm square modular concrete paving used away from the junction. 

The block paving starts well before the junction and continues into the side road to give visual priority. The give way line in the side road is set well back to further reinforce the fact that emerging drivers are entering someone else's space. The yellow lines also assist with visual priority, but the area is in a Restricted Parking Zone which states that parking should be in marked bays only and so is superfluous. It wasn't there the last time I visited, so I assume it was put in to appease those claiming to be caught out by lack of yellow paint which is a shame.

The four photos above are all of the junction High Street with Mill Lane. Interestingly, there is "blister" tactile paving on each side of each junction along the High Street and I wonder if it shows caution on the original designer's part or is the result of local consultation with visually impaired people who may have had concerns about walking in an area where drivers previously treated it as their own. If anyone has views on this I'd be grateful for feedback. The tactile paving is in an area which vehicles could over-run and so maintenance could be an issue.

I have had a look at the casualty history for the site as it turns out that Essex County Council has the information online. Between April 2011 and March this year (the data available), there was one collision (May 2012) at the junction of High Street with Alfred Terrace which involved a pedestrian being slightly injured by a vehicle (yes, driven by someone, but that is how it's reported). We are not given any more details, but if I were pushed, I would say perhaps someone leaving the side road was looking for vehicles coming from their right rather than people walking from their left - it's pure guesswork though. My feeling is that this is a single (recorded) injury in 5 years where there are lots of people walking and so safety (from a people getting hurt point of view) it's unlikely to be a significant issue.

High Street is a nice place to be on the whole, but the on-street parking and loading reduces footway width (and some are fairly narrow), but given the age of the scheme, it would have been quite forward-thinking when it was proposed (if you know any background, do let me know). I think it needs to be changed further and the street made a pedestrian (and cyclist) zone during the day when there are most people walking around. Those needing to access could be provided with permit exemption and loading could take place out of hours.

The Mill Lane car park is an issue and to remove the need to use High Street, it would be necessary to look at the access road between Mill Lane and Kirby Road as an alternative way to access the car park (it is currently narrow and one-way "out" of the centre). Of course, it could be redeveloped as housing!

All the above stated, it is a good example of how most traffic can be excluded from a street and pedestrians given better priority in order to to provide a distinctive place which gives a reason to linger, far better than many comparable seaside high streets in my opinion.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

I Come From A Land Down Under

Sustainable Urban Drainage Systems (SuDS) is an area of civil engineering I've only had a peripheral involvement with, but when putting together my programme of Continuing Professional Development this year, it was something I wanted to learn more about.

SuDS is a branch of drainage engineering which has been around for many years and essentially looks at managing storm water flows from development by slowing the rate at which water is released into the ground, sewers and watercourses. SuDS tools don't just apply to urban areas, it's just they are generally associated with urban development. The idea is to prevent flash flooding and to reduce the burden downstream of any given point. From what I know of the subject (and I am happy to be put right), the best systems are those generally dealing with water where it falls, rather than having to deal with it further downstream.

So, at the small (and important) end of the scale, we have "source control" which is dealing with storm water flows at source. At its most basic, we can let the water run into the ground to soak away (infiltrate), although once the underlying soil becomes waterlogged, then water will run on the surface. We can use "green roofs" which have plants which use the water falling onto them (thus water is used for growing and the transpiration process) and the growing media to slow the flows down. We can also store water in tanks during times of rain with the water being let out during dry periods. Gardeners are familiar with this in the form of the good old fashioned water butt. 

The photo above is from my garden which features a 1000 litre tank repurposed from palletised fruit juice concentrate tank. Very simply, the gutter down pipe from the shed goes into the tank. Over the winter (or in summer storms) the tank fills up and the water is used to the garden or to top up the pond during a dry spell. I put the tank in to compensate for the paved area on which the shed sits. There is a second down pipe which current runs into the ground where the water soaks away.

We can replicate this kind of low-tech (and therefore resilient) technology to downpipes around a house and in some developments, rainwater is harvested to flush toilets and to provide water for washing machines. At a larger scale, we can consider how we manage surface water runoff from our streets and this brings me to the main subject of this post (but I will return to this fascinating and practical subject again).

A few weeks ago, I went on a site visit with Urban Design London to have a look at some SuDS schemes in the flesh, but I want to concentrate on one scheme at Australia Road which is in the White City area of West London. I want to talk about this scheme in particular as it has outcomes beyond surface water management. First, have a look at what the site used to be like, courtesy of Google Streetview;

It's a typical city street with parking and traffic calming, but on the south side, there is an early years centre and on the north side, there is a school and playgrounds. The wider estate has modal filters (the area is between the A40 Westway and A219 Wood Lane) but on the visit we were told that the school drop offs were busy and cars used to take over the space. 

The area is at risk from surface water and sewer flooding and so the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham are proactively looking to find locations for potential SuDS interventions with Australia Road being a fairly large intervention. At a cost of some £900k, it's a very expensive scheme (it works out at £11.3m per mile, about the same as widening a motorway by a single lane per mile) and this is down to having to move buried utilities as much as it did building the scheme. It is entirely possible to retrofit existing streets far more cheaply and the council does have other, more modest projects underway. So, let's look at what has been done.

The new space has been named "Bridget Joyce Square" after a local children's worker with the Council and it is very clear on entering the space that this is not the domain of the driver. There are signs up which state "no motor vehicles, except access" and those needing vehicular access are very few. This section of the street is only open to motor vehicles at its western end. This is essentially a pedestrianisation scheme into which there is access of off street parking for a few cars and one is allowed to cycle through.

The western half of the scheme is dominated by a large retention basin, that is an area designed to flood, but to let water our slowly. The lush planting is just over a year old and as well as utilising water for growth, the leaves from the plants will transpire water into the atmosphere.

The paving around the square is permeable concrete block paving. The uneven edges creates a gaps around each unit which are filled with grit to give pathways into the underlying bedding material which is a similar grit and all generally a single size. Normally, permeable paving is designed to allow water through into the ground below, but at Australia Road, the underlying material is thick reinforced concrete which would have been too costly to remove. Instead, the water seeps towards and into the retention basins (there are several of differing sizes).

The retention basis is divided into cells which take time to fill up before emptying into the next one. The central wall provides the cells and something for kids to walk along. In fact, the wall also replaces an old low wall along the edge of the street which generations of kids walked along and the local community wanted to capture it in the new scheme.

This shows a slot between cells.

The main detention basin has a timber deck across it's middle to provide permeability through the space and further interest.

At one end of the retention basin, there is an overflow to the storm water sewer, but the size of the basin means that this is very rarely used.

A view to the western end of the square. The building on the right is the early years centre and it's entrance has been incorporated into the space.

A smaller basin with a transition from a paved "wall" route turning into an actual wall in the basin. As well as the paved area, roof drainage from nearby buildings has been disconnected from the local drainage system and diverted into the basin and smaller "rain gardens".

Another view of the smaller basin. The granite "plinth" provides a hard edge to the basin and somewhere to sit; but it was quite expensive!

The western approach to the square is gated and only really for emergency and maintenance access. It's a let down from a cycling and accessibility point of view, the gate needs to be replaced by removable bollards.

Australia Road is an expensive scheme to be sure, but it admirably showcases some SuDS concepts. Just as importantly, it has created a new public space and brought the uses on both sides of the street together. It has been referred to as a "shared space" by some, but I challenge that (it's a divisive and misleading term in my view). In reality, it's a scheme which puts the pedestrian first, provides a through route for cycling (notwithstanding the gate issue) and permits vehicle access to those who need it; and of course, it's wonderful community space which builds in resilience to the local surface water drainage system.

Monday, 1 August 2016

#RideLondon #FreeCycle 2016: Mixed Feelings

London has just been basking in the delight of the 2016 Ride London and as usual, it was a great weekend of cycling.

For my family, it was the first time my wife and two girls participated in the Free Cycle event on Saturday, where a swathe of Central London was closed to traffic to enable people to cycle around in perfect safety. Not all roads were closed; some routes were open or partially open with marshal control, but it was well-planned and we had a great day.

I took the (idiotic) opportunity to bring the box bike up into Town so our 2-year old could take part and it was the to and from journey which leaves me with mixed feelings. The last few years, we have taken bikes up on the train and this was the first year I had ridden in (there is no way the box bike will fit on the train!)

The way in was fairly uneventful as I was on the road really early (my average speed was about 9mph, so I wasn't rushing). I did have to cycle along Romford Road which has a surface slightly worse than the Moon and I did have the impatient of the No.25 bus overtake me at the last second to pull into the first westbound bus stop on CS2 in Stratford. I did find CS2 west of Bow highly variable in terms of crossfall, humps and protection; I was almost tipped off by an adverse gradient; steering left into a bus stop bypass as the gradient fell to the right was not pleasant on 3-wheels.

Going home was far worse. CS2 through Whitechapel was awful with no protection near the market and I did find the narrowness and tight geometry of the bus stop bypasses hard work, it might have been because I was tired and I felt I held up other people wanting to pass. The worst part was leaving Stratford town centre and heading back east where it was a constant slog with drivers lurching from "must get in front", to speeding past me, to blocking what lengths of narrow cycle lane there was - CS2 was utopia in comparison. 

And that's the depressing point. Most of East London is car-sick; on a random Saturday afternoon, every piece of legitimate parking was taken up and still people parked everywhere else. Footways have been dug up to provide parking laybys thus creating door zones for people cycling and there are some awful pinch points. Coming from a (temporarily) car free world, through an area of variable protection and then into the wild-East where car is king and takes up all of the space shows we've a long, long way to go.

Anyway, back to to the positives of Ride London; be under no illusion, provide an environment where people feel safe and they will come out in their droves. Apply this principle to protection on main roads and filtering on side streets, and we can enable people to cycle those short distances. I really cannot see how people are not making this connection. I'll leave you with some photos of the day.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Out Of Space: The Cycling Embassy Of Great Britain's 2016 AGM (Part 2)

Last week was the first part of my review of some of the cycling infrastructure we saw during the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's 2016 AGM in Cambridge.

This week, is the second and final part of my review and will cover cycle parking, how even a new-build scheme with all the space in the world can be done badly and will conclude with some smaller interventions which are simple to replicate anywhere.

We know that Cambridge has a lot of cycles and finding space to park them is a constant headache. Of course, the beauty of cycling is that one can essentially park right by where one wants to stop; where the attractor is popular, we need lots of space! Cambridge Station is extremely popular and the solution for cycle parking here is on a grand scale. Cambridge Cyclepoint opened earlier this year and has space for nearly 3,000 cycles over three floors. 

The ground floor is smaller than the first and second and will eventually be for cargobikes, other non-standard machines and for people requiring step-free access. The upper floors are accessed by shallow steps with ramps - it would have been nicer for shallower ramps one could cycle on, but this would have taken space. There is also a cycle shop on the ground floor. For someone used to leaving his cycle outside on a Sheffield stand this parking facility was rather stunning. Yes, I did cycle down the ramp!

In the city centre, there is a couple of other cycle parks. We had a look at the 200 space Grand Arcade Cyclepark which is in the basement of a multi-storey car park. Elsewhere, opportunities have been taken to provide cycle parking. We had our Saturday night dinner at the wonderful Haymaker's Pub in north-east Cambridge (and some of us had a few beers too!) and cycle parking for a large group was no problem at all as the pub had plenty.

As you can see above, plenty of space at the pub with more parking behind the wall. The railing that the cycles at the front are locked too continues out of shot along a wall and is perfect to lock cargobikes to. Cambridge is a university city and cycle parking has been taken care of, at least in the campuses on the edge of the city.

On a much smaller scale, there are places where on-street residential and business parking has been provided such as outside this pub;

and this car parking bay which has been repurposed.

Of course, people want to park near to where they are going and so bikes are just left lying about as we saw in one of the parks where cycling to a football match (to play!) is the simple option.

In the city centre
The centre of Cambridge is a curious mix of streets which still contain heavy traffic and streets which are dominated by people walking (although cycling is allowed). In fact, some places really did remind me of Deventer in the Netherlands which I visited last year (no, seriously - look at the last photograph of the next four!)

The city centre was packed as you'd expect on a summer weekend and some of the tourists were curious about our little convoy! But people just got on with it as they do in other places which welcome cycling. There was no blasting through, we couldn't; it was just nice. The traffic is the issue as aside from servicing, we have city centre car parks which hgenerate revenue and this will be a hard golden goose to kill off.

Out on the edges
On the Sunday, we got out of the city centre for a longer ride out to West Cambridge and one of the highlights was the Coton Path. Apart from a slightly rubbish zig-zag to get onto it, the path has a 3m (ish - it does vary a bit) cycle track with a stepped (up) footway of about 1.8m in width. The track is smooth, surfaced in red asphalt and has good drainage. 

In fact, it's a cycle road and very good too. I suppose today, we'd use lower kerbs with a gentle profile. But, it is really good and one can easily eat the miles on a infrastructure like this! We turned off the Coton Path into a growing complex of buildings which are part of the University of Cambridge's development in the west of the city (because the centre is full up!)

Sadly, the infrastructure became progressively worse and this is a massive shame because it is all new build and as you will see, space wasn't an issue. First is a section of path after turning off the Coton Path. It's a shared-use segregated affair, but the paving is all the same with a contrasting centre line. You are cycling on block paving (left side I think) which is fine, but nowhere as good as machine-laid asphalt (photo below). They could have taken a cue from the Coton Path and built this with light block paving on the footway, a forgiving kerb and red asphalt for the track.

Futher west, it becomes completely shared (above). Then there are a series of estate roads and there is a shared path, segregated with a tree line. Again it's all block paved and people cycling essentially give way at each side road. It's a pretty version of what we can see all over the UK and it doesn't even have tactile paving to help visually-impaired people. 

The two photos above show that one cannot cycle between the tracks at junctions (at least without a detour). This is new build and should have been a world class demonstration of how to lay out streets for all. A huge shame indeed.

The little stuff
I want to round up this post with some positives. Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the little things which can have a big impact and in Cambridge, there is some excellent and pragmatic modal filtering to be seen. The photo below is the north end of Gresham Road which narrows down from a road to a cycle track using a simple row of bollards. The street ends in a parallel crossing of the A603.

 The crossing connects to the separate path and track shown below.

The photo below is of a filter at Gwydir Street. It needs to be modernised as although the slalom gates are OK to ride through, it's tight. We heard that the gates (for fire access) are rarely locked, but cheating by drivers is rare and it's locally policed by the residents!

This next photo is in one of the filtered areas either side of the Station and it not only shows contraflow one-ways for cycling (motors get access, cycles get through in all directions), but opportunities have been taken for greenery.

The photo below is (I think) St Philip's Road which is one way for motors and 2-way for cycles. It was built before we were able to have "no entry except cycles" signs and so there are narrow cycle bypasses which are too narrow for non-standard and adapted cycles; again, good principles which need updating to be accessible to all.

Cambridge is a nice city to stay in and a nice cycle to cycle around and I'd definitely recommend it if this was a travel blog! As an engineering blogger, I'd recommend it too as there is some really interesting stuff going on and certainly, there is some realisation that the private car simply doesn't fit in the city centre. This is not an ideological position, it's a space position. I hope that the practicality argument wins as this is a place where one should be able to get on with cycling for transport!