Saturday, 22 October 2016

This Week I Upset A Primary School

Earlier this week I was blocked by a primary school on Twitter for retweeting their photo of kids dressed from head to toe in hi-viz fancy dress with the caption: *holds head in hands and weeps*.

I'm not going to identify the school because they did get a bit of pop from the Twitteratti, but there is a serious point behind my tweet and that is the insidious creep of victim blaming that the hi-viz pushers stock-in-trade. 

The kids were evidently winners in the school's "be seen be bright" competition which seems to be the main theme of a plank of the Government's "road safety" campaign for children. The website for the campaign is pretty disgusting as it features a game which requires the player to hi-viz-up cartoon kids to stop them being splattered crossing a busy road to a funfair;

"Dress brightly in cool gear if it's hospital you fear!"

As usual of late, the Government's "Think!" campaign simply doesn't. Be Bright Be Seen sits squarely in the victim blaming swamp and it essentially tells children (and parents) that unless kids are dressed as roadworkers, it is their fault if drivers can't see them and they get hit.

The operational side of my industry has worked hard for many years to reduce death and injury befalling our staff on site, especially on road schemes. What we know is we need to change systems so that people are not put in the way of heavy machinery and despite the wearing of hi-viz being essentially mandatory for us when we are out working, this is not the approach we should take with our streets.

If the government wants to influence behaviour (and I'm dubious how much of this actually works, although marketing is a helpful information tool) it needs to change it's message back to the hard hitting campains aimed at the people in control of the heavy machinery. More importantly, it needs to invest in local roads where children are the victims.

My message to schools is that it is right for you, as community leaders, to take an interest in the safety of our children. But, please don't buy into this hi-viz crap, put your influence to work in demanding changes to our streets and systems to protect our children as this is a long term investment and not an annual garish fix.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Rights vs Community

Why do our streets get so much "stuff" put in? Why do we build speed humps which annoy people? Why do we stick crossing refuges in the middle of the road? Why don't we put some signs up to stop people doing something? Why don't we give more green time to that road? Why are people cycling on the footway? Why do we need clearways at bus stops?

The list of complaints about how our streets are managed, maintained and operated, or how people use them, is pretty long in my experience and probably has all sorts of combinations. I think I can boil them all down to just three themes (you may have other views, so please comment); 
  • an individual's right to do what they want,
  • how other people behave,
  • concern for the community.
There are potential overlaps, but I think there are subtle differences between the themes. I should also apologies for the generalisations and stereotypes, but I'm not being scientific here, it's an opinion piece and you are welcome to disagree with me! I think the following is a good diagram to some up the overlaps and themes which I'll discuss below;

An individual's right to do what they want
This essentially stems from a libertarian viewpoint about having a small state which does not interfere in people's lives. It is the complaint about parking restrictions, the cost of parking, objecting to speed humps, objecting to filtered permeability and so on.

Of course, it's not always the perspective of someone who identifies as a libertarian, so it goes back to personal convenience. People who don't want a zebra crossing or a bus stop clearway outside their house will always cite the inability to park outside their house, or for tradespeople to park (these objectors always have tradespeople); of course, parking is often cited by business owners, although it's often about *their* parking rather than space for their customers. A filtered permeability scheme means they have to drive further to get out from their house, or it forces them to use a congested route. 

It's interesting as the type of complaints around this theme are rarely coming from the point of view of pedestrians, cyclists or bus passengers. One could argue that a request for a new zebra crossing is about a "pedestrian" wanting to do what they want with controls on other people, but in truth, they have been excluded from crossing by the "freedom" of others. Ever since we unleashed the motor car on our streets, we've been trying to manage it and perhaps many of the problems stem from this.

Of course, some "cyclists" (whatever that word actually means) do come at things from a libertarian point of view; they are from the "vehicular cycling" camp. The principal position is that roads are for all (and by roads, they mean the carriageway) and any attempt to pen them in with "infrastructure" is against this "right to ride". Of course, the position always manages to sidestep the fact the the UK has a pitiful cycling mode share because most people are scared of cycling with traffic.

In truth, apart from some localised improvement in cycling rates in some UK cities (significantly enabled by infrastructure), the mode is for all intents and purposes designed out of the road network. This has spread to those walking too as the mode has been in decline since the 1970s.

Streets have been redesigned (or taken over by default) by those wishing to enable motoring and because of this "politics of space", those not using cars have been pushed out and marginalised. The politics which have enabled this to happen essentially come from the idea that people should be free to travel when they want. Of course, this sidesteps the fact that in most of the UK, choices have been squeezed out.

How other people behave
This is where the is an overlap. At one end of the spectrum, we get complaints about the behaviour of people which directly affects the person making the complaint; I state this without judgement, but it can mean all sorts of things (but I'll stick to transport). At the other end of the scale, it's behaviour which does not directly affect the person complaining, but they are still worried.

With the first, an example might be the classic about a kid on a BMX cycling on the footway passing too close the complainant. It didn't feel comfortable (people do occasionally get hit, although drivers hit pedestrians on the footway with frightening regularity). Another example could be the pedestrian looking at their phone while crossing road and the complainant is a driver who "nearly hit them".

The cycling example is one where the complainant feels scared, the pedestrian on the phone example is where a driver felt irritated as in truth, they are in 2 tonnes of metal. In both cases, you can see that it's not a huge leap for people to start calling for the police to deal with yobs cycling on the pavement or to deal with zombie pedestrians.

This is very much a case of where we are still talking about the rights of individuals (often perceived) impinging on the rights of others. The kid cycling on the pavement has had his rights removed by the system, but the pedestrian's rights are eroded by the behaviour. The driver's right to proceed without modification is being eroded by the pedestrian not looking. The pedestrian may be blissfully unaware or simply pushing back to claim the space that they have been designed out of.

At the other end of the scale, the community concern slant is that someone is not directly affected by a particular behaviour is worried about the impact it has on others (who may be more vulnerable than the complainant). An example could be poor parent parking by a school which worries someone who walks past every day, but has no children at the school.

Behaviour is a really difficult thing to quantify because in terms of the person complaining, it could be deeply subjective or it could be used by someone to make a point to support their own position which is that of their right to do what they want.

Community concern
I think that genuine community concern is sometimes hard to grasp because of the overlap and for observers or people with a different view, it's hard to be objective. Take some of the current cycling infrastructure stories such as London's CS11 and East Dumbartonshire's Bears Way. CS11 has not been agreed yet and the second phase of Bears Way has been rejected by councillors. Common to both schemes is that there are definitely two sides to the community concern (at least as presented).

On the one hand, there are people and groups who support the schemes because it will give more people more travel choices, enable children and families to cycle and provide wider societal benefits. On the other hand, there are people who come at it from the point of view that it will take out motor traffic capacity, divert traffic onto other streets, be bad for businesses and so on. Who is right?

I'm biased of course, but hopefully after considering the evidence and the arguments objectively. The answer for me lies in the language. Those who talk about behaviours are key in sorting out their true position in my view as it reveals if they are actually coming from the "individual's rights" point of view; people are allowed to be concerned or worried of course, it's only natural.

Those worried about loss of parking outside local businesses, are they projecting their personal concern that they are going to find their own driving to those businesses more difficult? Are those supporting cycling infrastructure doing so because they are anti-car? Perhaps both points are true with some people, but in my experience most complaints can be sifted between those about individual rights and the community. Perhaps those in the behaviour overlap worth spending less time on.

True community concern comes from those worried about the wider population and especially those who don't have a voice, or perhaps more accurately, those who are prevented from having a voice because of their age, personal circumstances etc. The sort of comments you get from people like this might acknowledge that a scheme might impact on their personal circumstances, but it's worth it for the wider good.

The classic transport example is the thorn of filtered permeability. Those who object generally do so from their personal right to drive position and those who support tend to come from the concern for the wider community. Some objectors are worried about visitors' ability to drive to them and some are more interested in personal peace and quiet. But, where you seen campaigns for change, they tend to be powered by those reaching out to the community rather than being concerned with personal gain. 

Where does it leave us?
I've not got the answers, just opinions. It seems to me that in terms of looking to enable active travel, to push for healthy streets, to aim for walkable neighbourhoods and all of the stuff I consider to be a good thing, energy is best put into looking at the community concerns first. They are the things that lead to mass action engineering such as lower speed limits, modal filtering, better crossings and cycle tracks.

Spending time looking at the issues around the assertion of the individual's rights (in the strict sense I've set out the position above) doesn't get us very far. Even the behavioural overlap probably takes too much effort to deal with universally and so dealing with issues most likely to cause harm is where energy should be expended.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Change Is Difficult

People don't like change and we must be sensitive to the fact. It might be difficult to put yourself in someone else's shoes, but dismissal without thought isn't helpful in the long run.

I'm not suggesting that we need to agree with people we don't agree with (if that makes sense) or indeed spend hours arguing with them; I'm talking about acknowledgement and understanding, even if it goes against the grain (and it often does with me, mightily). I'm not talking about compromise either and I'm definitely not talking about stopping challenging people when they are being ridiculous. I'm just suggesting they we throw some understanding into the mix and realise that people dislike and even fear change when it goes against their long-held beliefs or stated position.

Our towns and cities have always changed, that is their nature - it's not a recent thing, change has occurred ever since we grouped together and gave up nomadic lifestyles to form settlements (notwithstanding those who didn't of course). Fast forward though the eons and from a transport point of view, methods of moving stuff and people have ebbed and flowed with necessity truly being the mother of invention. 

For a long time indeed, the wheel has been a constant in our ever changing urban landscape and in many ways, it has driven the change. Back in history, people tended to travel as far as they could in one day, partly because it took effort (even if it was with a horse) and partly because they didn't fancy being robbed on a lonely road at night. For most people, travel wasn't by a magnificent beast or by a bunch pulling a carriage, it was good old fashioned Shanks' Pony and that severely limited their range.

In the urban places, people soon got fed up with walking in the gunk and detritus of city living and so we got ourselves some new fangled footways/ sidewalks/ causeways which in many places have formed the backbone of pedestrian networks which are taken for granted today. We also invented mass transit which allowed many people to escape the squalor via iron-rails to an approximation of the countryside, group remembered from their forefathers, to create the suburbs. Of course, the railways were terrifying to some, especially as people weren't desire to go too fast lest the air be sucked from their lungs!

The problem with the suburbs was they were too for from things and people didn't fancy walking for a day to get to work or to the shops and so all hailed the motor car which made life simple (for those who could afford one) and eventually the idea caught on to the extent that we rebuilt out towns and cities to accommodate motorisation. 

OK, I've probably misremembered my history, but with every change, there has been opposition and sitting here in the first part of the 21st century, we have plenty of opposition to change; even if the real change is in a few places. I've talked about the space delusion before, but change involving the wheel is still being opposed because it monkeys with people's comfort zones or long held beliefs; yes, I am talking about cycling as a transport mode.

The opposition comes from those who resent space being used to enable cycling with their often shouted slogan of "share the road"; the problem is, few people want to share the road with heavy traffic - if it was that simple, it would have happened by now. The opposition likes to show photos of empty cycle tracks (when they are built) as a proxy for data demonstrating their stated position of nobody using them. It's disingenuous of course. My hackneyed old counter to this is to show a photo of a disused outer London trunk road which I (like those opposed to enabling people to cycle) is purposely taken in a gap in the traffic flow between a couple of sets of traffic signals.

What do we need to understand about those opposed to cycling as a proper transport mode? I think there are four main themes. Some may simply dismiss cycling as kids' stuff (despite the fact that we have designed kids off our streets); some may have concerns about their livelihoods where they see cycling as competition - taxi drivers, delivery drivers and the like. There are some who claim that cycling is a threat or a danger to people walking (especially visually impaired pedestrians) and in stating this, create a conflict where there would be a better united front against those who don't want space rebalanced to those walking or cycling.

Some take up the libertarian stance; that is to say they consider in absolute terms that the road is for sharing and people's choice to cycle shouldn't interfere with their choice to drive. This point does make me chuckle and groan at the same time because the libertarian approach almost exclusively seems to start from the position that *their* driving shouldn't be affected, despite that fact that children and young people are not allowed to drive and that many people don't drive. The fact that most people are sh*t-scared of cycling with traffic doesn't register.

The politics of it (the politics of space if you will) tends to fall into one of those four themes or variations therein. People don't cycle, so why should be building infrastructure? People should stick to cycling in parks. Cycling should be on back streets. Deliveries cannot be made by cycle. Yadda, yadda, yadda. 

The opposition to cycling hasn't done much for walking either. Many opposing cycling say that the provision of cycling infrastructure is bad for people walking when the truth is that space needs to be given over to both modes. While there are generally footways on urban streets, they are often commandeered for parking, traffic signs (mainly *motor traffic* signs) or the other "stuff" we place on them which give no advantage to people walking.

Street layouts have created conditions whereby the pedestrian has to be given permission to cross with controlled crossings (because they don't stand a chance otherwise) or the might of the moving metal has left them scurrying across side roads or jumping guardrail because the alternative is to use 6 separate crossings to get to the opposite corner of a street dominated by an urban motorway (if a proper crossing is provided at all).

Calls to increase crossing times at signalised crossings is not something which should be allowed as it takes time away from motor traffic. The provision of staggered crossings (walk with traffic) might be efficient in motor capacity terms, but it leads to an awful level of service for people walking. Even putting in a dropped kerb for driving onto private parking often means a street of up-and-down slopes which aren't great to walk along and for some people, it means its too uncomfortable to use.

In understanding the opposition to change, we would do well to remember what motivates it and to frame the reasons for change accordingly. I'm not suggesting for a minute that this will change the opposition, but it might create some understanding by the other party and as in presenting arguments to the wider populace, it could potentially mean that opposition looks increasingly irrational as I would lay odds that most people are either unaware of the debates about towns and cities or at best indifferent until a change directly affects them.

So as we move forward into uncertain times, I wonder if the concept of people driving cars being allowed to drive through parks will move from the normal to the irrational. Whether there can be agreement between walking advocates and cycling advocates that they're actually active travel advocates and whether the current "share the road" nonsense is called out for the nonsense it is.

Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Tower Bridge

Sorry, it's a London-centric post this week, but there's application for many situations. The iconic Tower Bridge is closing for essential maintenance for three months and it presents an opportunity.

The venerable structure is being closed between 1st October and 30th December for major planned maintenance and so drivers and cyclists will be diverted elsewhere and other than a few weekends, it will be available for pedestrian use only (a ferry is planned for full closure days).

Tower Bridge and its approach roads are the A100 and form part of a rough circle of A roads around The City which also run in some of the other adjacent boroughs. Some of the A roads around the area and indeed within the area are A roads in classification, rather than design in that they were never designed to take high levels of motor traffic, its a network which evolved.

Southern approach to Tower Bridge.
Tower Bridge is often held up as being strategically important as the next crossing of the Thames (for motor traffic) is the Rotherhithe Tunnel some 2km east and then we have the Blackwall Tunnel a further 3km east of that (as the crow flies). Tower bridge carries all classes of traffic up to 18 tonnes, including 3 bus routes, and so it is pretty important locally with delivery lorries, taxis and private vehicles. There is also a 20mph speed limit which along with the weight limit, helps manage the loading on the historic structure; both are camera-enforced.

From a walking point of view, the footways are reasonably wide, but they can often get busy with tourists which is what one would suspect. From a cycling point of view, there is no infrastructure and what you tend to find is that drivers often try and overtake you on the approach roads before the main span of the bridge which is much narrower - it's awful as are the approach roads themselves! On the north side, the east-west CS superhighway passes within 500 metres.

The Google car captures the conditions for cycling!

Traffic-wise, we have a Department for Transport count point on the A100, just south of the bridge;

Since the year 2000, there has been an almost 40% reduction in motor traffic crossing Tower Bridge. There has been some fluctuations and in 2015, there is a hint that traffic might be growing again. LGVs and HGVs have dropped by 22% and 26% over the same period, with motorcycle use dropping about 40%. Cycle traffic has grown 140% in the same period and as a percentage of all traffic, cycling has gone from less than 3% to 20% which is astonishing given how awful it is to ride there. Bus/ coach traffic has stayed fairly consistent.

The closure will affect motor traffic and cycle traffic with separate diversions for people travelling northbound and southbound. Northbound will be via London Bridge some 900m to the west and southbound traffic will be via Southwark Bridge which is another 450m to the west. There are also other restrictions designed to make the diversions work.

It's an interesting time of the year for the closure as it will be through the Autumn and into the run up to Christmas which is a time when traffic levels tend to be at the highest; the Summer holidays would have been more usual, although we only have 6-weeks then. Also, bridge works taken place at this time might have more weather interference, but the decisions will have been taken by The City which manages the bridge and in turn they may well have had to coordinate with other major works in the area.

So, what is the opportunity? It would be a perfect time to get some traffic monitoring out on the road network in the surrounding area to see what the impact on traffic flows and congestion is. This could provide data to enable a discussion to take place on how traffic is managed in the future. Unlike a good wine, bridges don't improve with age and they need increasing amounts of investment to maintain any given level of service. Tower Bridge is Grade I listed and 122 years old and is having its timber decking refurbished for the first time since 1970. 

The discussion we should be having is whether or not we should continue to allow so much motor traffic to use Tower Bridge. It would be simple to use a traffic management order to restrict the bridge to buses, taxis and cycles (with exemption for emergency vehicles of course). From a cycling point of view, it would still mean mixing with traffic and there would be no gains for people walking.

To go further, we could run a contraflow over the bridge controlled by traffic signals - there is stacking space either side. This would free up space within which cycle tracks could be provided;

OK, the dimensions are a bit rough (I've taken from Google), but it shows how the space could be rebalanced to enable cycling. Away from the bridge, there is plenty of space for cycle tracks and wider footways. This type of thinking could take place on any bridge which is showing its age and as ever, we are dealing with the politics of space.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

Map Signs Are Useful

OK, this post is a bit niche, but let's pause for a minute and think about how we can multi-purpose the humble traffic direction sign and make things (a little bit) better.

My industry is often accused of ruining our towns, cities and rural places with traffic sign clutter. This is often true, but there will be a need to warn, inform and regulate for the foreseeable, so signs are here to stay!

A good principle to work with is that everything we place on our streets has to do a job (a real job, mind) and things that do more than one job are even better. Map signs are one such thing which do more than one job. On the face of it, they give directional information but they can also show us what the road ahead looks like. Here's an example from Basildon;

The sign in the top right corner is placed well in advance of the roundabout so a decision can be taken early on which direction to take. Not only does the sign actually tell the driver there is a roundabout coming up, it tells us that there is a left turn slip road (there is is on the main image), gives us the destination information to local places and gives a rough idea of how the roundabout is laid out. How about this bit of super-madness at Hemel Hempstead;

The map sign certainly shows the horror ahead, which is a roundabout with six mini-roundabouts around it (yes, you can go both ways around the main roundabout!). And here is one final roundabout in Dagenham which has been created by merging two;

The common thing with those three examples is that the signs explain the road layout quite clearly, but the layouts need explaining as they are unusual and less than intuitive for those unfamiliar with them and to a certain extent, a way of adding motor capacity to existing junctions. Map signs can also be used at T-junctions, like this example near Epping where the junction has a skew;

Here's one more in Lambeth which is designed to stop drivers taking a wrong turn before they get to this side road;

Here's another in Havering-atte-Bower which shows a sharp on the main road bend to the right, a side road to the left, destinations and the start of as weight limit.

Map signs are not rocket science to be sure, but they are a helpful little tool in the highway engineer's toolbox. When they are well-designed they not only provide important destination information, but they show what the road ahead looks like and what restrictions might be coming.