Monday, 11 December 2017

It's Snow Joke

Many parts of the UK get snow each Winter, but being a Londoner, it's a novelty for me and Sunday's sprinkling got me thinking.

With any significant snowfall in the Capital, the place grinds to a halt, although being a big place, it seems that north of the river was more affected and certainly out on the edge we had plenty (being on higher ground). By Monday morning, the rain had washed most of the snow away to leave one wondering about what all the fuss was about!

As it was a Sunday morning, fewer people were out and about than on a weekday. At least early in the morning, it wasn't too bad under foot and the kids took advantage to give the sledges a rare outing. Sadly, some of the people driving didn't see the need to slow down and we got sprayed a couple of times by the slush - is it a 4x4 owners' mentality that they are truly invincible?

We walked to the local shops (well Mrs RH and one of the girls did, my boy and youngest daughter made it half-way before she decided she was too cold!). 

My wife was chatting to a lady who just got off the bus as we passed the stop - there were 40 minute delays and being a carer who didn't drive, it was going to be a tough day. 

We spent the rest of the day indoors. Twitter and the news bulletins kept us up to date with the transport problems across London. Of course, there were plenty of pundits going on about how council's had been caught out, but this simply wasn't true. The problem was that heavy rain in the early hours would have washed away any salt and a lack of traffic on a Sunday would have meant a lack of traffic-action.

I should perhaps explain that "gritting" is actually the application of rock salt rather than "grit", although in some cases sand is used (often pointlessly). The use of salt on an already-frozen highway surface will melt the ice (pre-salting) and when applied before freezing temperatures occur, it will lower the freezing point of water. Many local authorities use an additive to make the rock salt sticky which is a byproduct from the sugar refining and livestock feed industries.

The problem with snow-fall is that unless extremely light, pre-salting can be overwhelmed and when the snow has fallen in any decent accumulation, gritting just won't melt the snow. If we then get into snow clearance, we need a much thicker layer to make the use of snow-ploughs viable. Because of the rarity of snow at that depth in most parts of the UK, ploughs are an expensive piece of kit to have on the off-chance (although some gritting lorries can have a small plough attached).

Where there is a layer of ice or hard-packed snow, then actual grit can be added to the rock salt to help break up the frozen layer and provide some traction. the problem with all of this is the salt is highly corrosive and can attack vehicles. Many large bridges will be treated with de-icing chemicals to reduce the risk of salt attacking reinforcement.

Footways and cycle tracks are a different matter. The use of rock salt requires the wheel action of traffic to make it effective it crushes the salt which mixes with water to form brine. Foot and cycle tyres cannot crush the salt and so a brine solution can be sprayed onto surfaces to either stop ice forming, or to help melt it. There are some places in the UK where this is deployed (especially on cycle tracks) because regular low temperatures and decent cycleways make it worth investing in the kit.

Where snow and ice have accumulated on footways, the best way to get rid of it is to get out with shovels and clear it, followed by the application of brine, or fine salt (so long as the wind doesn't blow it away). The official advice is here and to be honest, it is unrealistic to expect local authorities to have the resources to get into every side street and so clearing the area outside of where you live or work is a really helpful thing to do. The local authority will have hierarchies for treatment, but main roads and bus routes will be the priority. 

The whole approach to dealing with winter weather on the highway network is known as "winter service". It's essentially planning an then implementing a strategy to keep people moving. Low temperatures form the main thrust of a winter service plan, but snow certainly features (even in London) and increasingly, dealing with flooding is becoming more prevalent.

The future is going to be interesting. Climate change experts suggest that weather will become more extreme and so in the UK, we might expect more storms and rain leading to flooding. Also, it could mean that heavy snowfall occurs and places which are not usually used in dealing with it will have greater disruption. 

How we use of road network will also change. Sunday's snow made me wonder if autonomous vehicles would have coped. There is a debate raging about how AVs will navigate and how they will deal with people outside of the vehicle. There are discussions about how AVs will use a combination of GPS and on-board sensors. The trouble is that GPS is not perfectly accurate and sensors could be disrupted by snow and indeed heavy rain or fog. It is a world of difference between a sunny, dry Californian motorway and a snow-covered local UK street with parking on both sides!

Saturday, 9 December 2017

London #KidicalXmass 2017

Last Sunday saw 2017's Christmas festivities start in style with London's KidicalXmass ride around some of the Capital's protected cycleways.

Despite the drizzle, over 30 parents, children and friends met up at Trinity Square Gardens for a 3 mile ride which took us to Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens and a lunch stop at Tea House Theatre (thanks guys). We rode along CS3, across Blackfriars Bridge on CS6 which were as wonderful as ever. After braving a section of Lambeth (which could so easily be upgraded with cycleways), we headed through the back streets of Vauxhall along the old LCN3.

As usual, everyone left for home to their own timetable and a smaller group of us stuck together with a return trip along some of the excellent CS5 which took us over Vauxhall Bridge, then the paint'n'signs CS8 on Millbank (which could so easily be upgraded to provide cycleways) and on towards Parliament Square (the approach to which is shockingly awful to ride with kids, let alone as an adult).

We were then embraced by the protection of CS3 once more until we were back in The City of London. By the end, there were just 5 of us left - 2 adults and 3 children - and we had to navigate Bank. There is currently an experimental scheme to cut traffic through the area, but it doesn't operate at the weekend and so it was stressful getting through.

The protected cycleways are now a huge part of the London Kidical Mass rides and that is testament to their quality. However, away from them, it's business as usual where cycling with our children is difficult and stressful which makes it all too bittersweet. 

Saturday, 2 December 2017

#BeyondTheBicycle: Mobility Scooters

There is a stupid piece of legislation which means that people using mobility scooters are banned from using cycle tracks. 

The official guidance from the Department for Transport can be read here, but essentially, the rules govern two types of "invalid carriage" (which is a pretty outdated and frankly offensive term) and it covers mobility scooters and powered wheelchairs (often called "powerchairs");
  • Class 2 - have a maximum speed of 4mph and cannot use the road (carriageway) unless there is no footway;
  • Class 3 - have a maximum speed of 4mph off the road and 8mph on the road; and must be registered (and you have to be 14 years or older to use).
Class 1 refers to unpowered wheelchairs (i.e. self-propelled or push by someone else). The legislation behind this is The Use of Invalid Carriages on Highways Regulations 1988 (UICHR1988).

The registration process for Class 3 (either new or used) requires the same forms to be filled in as for a new car which is pretty bonkers as well - why we need to add more difficulties to people is beyond me.

Mobility scooters are a common
sight on Dutch cycle tracks.

Class 3 machines also need lights, reflectors, indicators, a horn, a rear view mirror and a flashing amber light if taken on a dual carriageway. When on the road, you are not allowed to "drive" in bus lanes, mandatory cycle lanes. On the footway, one is limited to 4mph and as the byline states, one is not permitted to use "cycle paths marked cycle only". They are also subject to normal parking restrictions.

In terms of user, there are also strict rules and so you can only drive one if you;
  • have trouble walking because of an injury, physical disability or medical condition

  • are demonstrating the vehicle before it’s sold

  • are training a disabled user

  • are taking the vehicle to or from maintenance or repair
So, if you need to use a mobility scooter or powerchair, then you are essentially either stuck using a footway at 4mph or having to mess about getting an 8mph machine registered and which you're forced off the road anyway because it's so awful. In fact, I wonder who would want a Class 3 machine with all that faff.

There is a powerful parallel between Class 3 machines and adapted/ non-standard cycles in terms of their dynamic envelopes, steering geometry, footprint and speed (I average about 8mph on my cargo-trike for example). 

It is utterly stupid that the users of mobility scooters/ powerchairs are not allowed to use cycle tracks, especially now that we are starting to see some world-class examples in the UK which are perfect for people using such mobility aids. The very best examples have space within which to move along and make turns. They are smooth and comfortable to use and let's be honest, it keeps people cycling away from people walking and driving which is one of the sustainable safety cornerstones of not mixing transport modes with large speed differentials.

Changing the rules would not be difficult, the UICHR1998 is secondary legislation which means changes to it is devolved to ministers (Secretary of State for Transport in this case). It could be so simply updated to reduce the rules for mobility scooters/ powerchairs and explicitly allow them to be used on cycle tracks. 

This is another area of modern transport life which is stymied by outdated thinking and law and needs to be brought up to date as a matter of urgency.

Saturday, 25 November 2017

Five Years Of Blogging

This week celebrates 5 years since I started this blog and what a revelation these years have been. For something which was started out of frustration and with a feeling of disconnection from my profession, it has constantly reignited my enthusiasm for civil engineering.

I wrote a bit about the origin of this blog on my (very occasional) blog from my other project, "City Infinity", earlier this year;

I started cycling to work at the start of 2011 because I was fed up with sitting in traffic on my 3.5 mile commute. Many people cite all sorts of worthy reasons why they cycle, but for me it was purely selfish and everything else good about cycling is just a bonus (although not spending loads on petrol is rather good too). At the time, I did have a bike, but it was used for a bit of local exercise and it really didn’t occur to me that it could be such an astonishing invention for transport. I was pretty familiar with the measures we could take to prioritise and enable walking, so I think that an interest in local travel was tucked away somewhere, but certainly, cycling was the missing link between the short and long journeys people take day to day.

As an engineer, I had simply followed the available design guidance which tended to add a bit of paint and a few signs to a road in order to call it a “cycle route”; my daily commute had started to change my understanding of what people needed in order to feel safe and comfortable and so something in my brain must have connected. In the latter half of 2012 I discovered that all sorts of people were writing about streets (and especially cycling infrastructure). One blog inspired me in particular; “Crap Cycling and Walking in Waltham Forest“. In it I saw road conditions I had been experiencing, together with explanations of why they were so bad.

The inspiration from this and lots of other blogs I was reading at the time finally spurred me to write something myself. I was reading lots of opinions from those campaigning for better streets and perhaps arrogantly I felt I should be giving some balance from the position of a practicing engineer who is constrained by professional orthodoxy, the dogma of design guidance and the political system in which I and my peers operate within.

Very quickly, I was forced to confront all of this and perhaps I had a crisis of faith (this is as close to religion as I get). Imagine having realised that something you had studied for and then worked at for many years might not be what you thought it was. However, a whole new world of interest opened up before me and through a combination of going to look at how we can rebalance our streets back in favour of people, a huge amount of research and speaking with many inspirational people, it has become clear to me that change is possible and indeed, it is desperately needed for so many reasons, but especially to address the inequality that the UK’s motor-centric policies have created.

Fast forward to the present day. I have been involved in some really interesting projects myself which have served to put some theory into practice. I have also visited quite a few projects around the UK and in the great tradition of engineering, the best ideas have been stolen and so I think I’ve now got a good grasp of the issues. On the cycling side, riding in rush hour on London’s cycle superhighways and then with a group of families for London Kidical Mass has shown me the power of what rebalancing our streets can achieve.

Since I wrote these words, I have been lucky enough to holiday in the Netherlands and I have spent the Autumn writing about the cycling infrastructure I just could help looking at while I was there. There's not been an epiphany for me, just a gradual realisation of how wrong we have got things in the UK and some regret about wasted time. But, I often say that there is always learning to be had in life and this blog has enabled me to explore and share ideas, so I've been playing catchup. 

I originally set myself the mad target of a blog post a week and I have stuck to it. Some posts are a bit lazy and some are quite involved taking several hours to put together. This week is a little lazy (I think I earned it), but I thought it would be fun to go and look at the data to see what my top 5 most read (or reread) posts have been over the last 5 years and with nearly 440,000 hits (yes as of this minute as I write);

At number 5, with 3,808 hits, is a post from March 2013 - "20mph Speed Limits, Their Design and The Police". I discussed some controversy at the time where at the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group Inquiry on 4th March 2013 a comment about not enforcing 20mph limits made by West Yorkshire Police led to a hasty clarification by the Association of Chief Police Officers about that not being the case. Things have changed a bit with the refreshing attitude of the West Midlands Police Traffic Unit which is enforcing 20mph speed limits and their good practice is gradually being adopted by other forces.

At number 4, with 3,995 hits also from March 2013, we have one of my favourite headlines - "Portas Pedal Powered Parking Pickles". I took the opportunity at having a pop at both the former transport-interfering-local-authority-hating-self-appointed-parking-tzar Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles MP and the self appointed UK authority on high street regeneration, the marketing creative Mary Portas (so the headline worked). 

I moaned about Eric's constant interference in how local authorities manage on-street parking and Portas's assertion that free parking was the saviour of the high street. The pedal-powered bit was about the costs, space and procedures around installing cycle parking. Eric is now out to grass and Mary is still banging on about the same nonsense and not doing very well with her high street vision. Luckily, local shop keepers are starting to embrace active travel as their saviours (from Sustrans);

At number 3, with 4,642 hits is my long and winding post about zebra crossings from February 2015 - "Why Did The Zebra Cross The Road?" This post was essentially everything I knew about this wonderfully flexible type of pedestrian crossing. It's actually showing its age as we now have "parallel" zebra crossings (below) which allow cycling as well as mini-zebra crossings over cycle tracks. I will be updating this post, but probably as some guidance through City Infinity. 

At number 2, with 5,545 hits from June 2015 is an astonishingly short and lazy post - "A Lazy Post." In it, I noted the sad deaths of several people in London who were just getting about by cycle, that some exciting schemes were in the pipeline and that I was looking forward to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's AGM in Leicester! 

And at number 1, with a huge 7,747 hits from August 2013 was perhaps my nerdiest post - "Kerb Your Enthusiasm". It is one of my favourites and tells you everything you wanted to know about kerbs, but were too afraid to ask. Earlier this year, it spawned a little update looking at kerbs and cycle tracks. I think it's going to be a subject to revisit with some City Infinity guidance as kerbs are a really important feature in our streets and their use can make or break a scheme.

So, there's a snapshot of the thousands of words I have written and the hundreds of photos I have taken (as well as all the miles I have travelled) to bring you this blog. If you keep reading it, I'll keep writing it!

Saturday, 18 November 2017

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Part 8 - All good things must come to an end

Well, all good things must come to an end and this week's post will be my final one from the Netherlands. It's an assortment of things which I thought were interesting, but probably not worth a post on their own.

OK, perhaps I could have made this into a post because I saw lots of roadworks, with much of it linked to new development. The interesting thing is that the Dutch seem to favour putting in the infrastructure before people have moved in rather than the UK approach which is often the other way around.

This housing development in south-east Amsterdam already has cycle track access which has probably be in a couple of years given the asphalt has faded a bit.

Some large motorway construction (widening of the A9) in south-east Amsterdam, but cycle access is maintained through the works. In fact, people cycling are well-protected with concrete barriers.

"Pay Attention" - a sign aimed at construction vehicle drivers turning right into the site access ahead. Compare with the UK which makes the vulnerable user responsible for looking out for traffic.

The scheme involves some heavy civil engineering and is another example of how the Dutch are building roads. That's right, in the land of the bicycle, there is a lot of motorway building going on.

In another part of the city, more housing is being built. The cycle track here is a series of precast concrete slabs laid as a temporary route. The tram line in the grass isn't a relic of a former industrial area it is already in place (connecting to the tram depot outside the city).

Where there isn't a cycle track, people cycling divert onto new residential streets while reconstruction works on the main road takes place.

On the outskirts of Driemond a junction and bridge is under reconstruction. Of course, there is a route through for people cycling.

The diversion includes a floating pontoon for people walking and cycling. Since we visited the works are complete, but the project has it's own Twitter feed!

View from the driver's seat

It's not cycling infrastructure, but here is a cheeky snap of a maintenance tractor with a multi-use cutting boom being used to deal with grass and the hedgerow. Mrs RH kept getting bugged to keep the camera ready because I am "that much" geek!

I can't remember where this is, but the road here dives under a railway line. Given how flat much of the Netherlands is, you'd think it would be full of level crossings. But no, this underpass designs out danger from road/ rail incursion and designs out delay to both modes. The usual cycle track is on the right which also dives under the railway, but only as much as required by a cycling headroom.

The "bridges" above are called "wildwissel" and are used to provide wildlife corridors over large roads. The lower one is Woeste Hoeve near Apeldoorn.

Interesting odds and ends

I thought that this map at Weesperplein Metro Station in Amsterdam was a mock-up of a proposed junction redevelopment scheme. It wasn't, it's a wayfinding map to get you from the station to the correct bus stop. It's also an example of a large city junction.

As you might expect, in a nation where so many journeys are made by cycle, the odd parking space is needed. This one at Kleine-Gartmanplantsoen in Amsterdam is rather large!

For cycling, it's the attention to detail I liked. Here, we have a two-way cycle track passing a retail park. the track is inset from the main road so that drivers turning in can stop before the enter the site because the cycle track has priority. The track then has little protected slip roads into and out of the site where it becomes an advisory lane within the retail park.

On the edge of Hengsdijk, we have a road on which through-traffic (including motorcycles) is banned, unless you have a right of access. You can of course cycle along here - in fact this is the cycle route as the parallel road doesn't have a cycle track and so cycling is prohibited.

Nothing to see here, just a timber fence. Well actually, it's a timber-clad crash barrier (or safety fence) along Provincialeweg on the edge of Amsterdam. Another recently upgraded route with a new cycle track surface and the crash barrier protecting drivers from ending up in a ditch to the left and giving high levels of protection to people cycling.

I didn't always grasp the full skill of the Dutch cycle destination signs, but getting lost didn't happen (well not too much anyway!)

The cycles
When in the Netherlands, ride a Dutch cycle! So we know that the cycling infrastructure is safe, comfortable and forgiving, but what about the bikes? I got to ride three different models.

Amsterdam saw me in charge of two cycles. First was a Batavus Personal which is essentially built like a tank and weighs as much. However, I loved riding this bike as it was really comfortable. An ideal city bike really which might be why Abellio use them for their Bike & Go rental scheme in the UK.

This piece of bakfiets (cargobike) clog lunacy from Black Bikes was a great way to transport #TheDoodle around the city. We had a choice of this or a conventional bakfiets; and it wasn't until she had picked this and we had got out of the shop before I realised what it was! It took about 10 minutes to get used to it, after which we rode around (with stops to look at stuff) for over 5 hours as we cycle-wandered around the city. She even managed a nap!

This is a Cortina Roots bike which I had in South Zeeland. For some reason it is marketed as a "ladies" bike which is daft because it was an absolute joy to use. The frame was nice and big for me and being lighter than the Batavus, it was easier to ride the longer rural journeys. I also had one with a child seat on the back for #TheDoodle. My next bike has to be Dutch!


So, I didn't actually go into the Rijksmuseum itself, but with #TheDoodle in the clogbike, we cycled through the middle of it. Oh yes.

The end (for now)
As I said at the start of this series, there was a health warning because the things I have written about have come through a tourist's eyes. I cannot possibly know the minutiae of Dutch highway engineering from a fortnight. However, the trip has been a revelation (and that's about as divine I get). 

As a designer, the genie escaped the bottle after seeing some of the best UK cycling infrastructure. After my trip to the Netherlands, the genie is half-way to the German border. On a magic bakfiets.

The other parts to this series are as follows;