Sunday, 26 March 2017

Safety At Street & Road Works

I finally got my street works "ticket" through the post after resitting the qualifications to supervise road works which has to be renewed every 5 years.

I thought it might be useful to share a document with you which most people won't have come across (why would they) which is the main reference for people undertaking road works in terms of how traffic (in the widest sense) is managed on a temporary basis.

Safety at Street and Road Works (SSRW) has been around for many years, but the current October 2013 is now a code of practice which is very important as in general, following a code of practice will be a way of demonstrating that one has complied with the law. SSRW is no different;

The part highlighted in red states;

Warning: Failure to comply with this Code is evidence of failing to fulfil the legal requirements to sign, light and guard works. Compliance with the Code will be taken as compliance with the legal requirements to which it relates.

In other words, if you follow the guidance, you've complied with the law. This is not to say you can do things differently, but you would need to be doing better in my view. This document could perhaps be seen as a legal minimum. The part in green says that situations on motorways and 50mph + dual carriageways is dealt with differently. So, the document deals with most UK streets and roads, although in Scotland it is recommended rather than mandatory. Where a situation isn't covered, then people are directed to seek advice from their supervisor, manager or other competent person and so SSRW is aimed at road workers as well as those supervising works.

SSRW is broken into sections;
  • Part 1 - Basic principles,
  • Part 2 - Operations, 
  • Part 3 - Equipment and vehicles.
Part 1 deals with the backgrounds issues (such as the status of the document mentioned above) and also the things to consider before anyone goes near a shovel. 

Part 2 is the meat of the document. It starts with a reminder that there is a fair bit of planning to do before anyone gets to site and for planned works, someone with competence should have visited the site to plan the works and to undertake risk assessments where appropriate. For unplanned works (i.e. emergencies), there is still a need to plan, but the works may need to change as they progress.

Part 2 also talks about risk assessment and analysing traffic flow and composition (in the widest sense), the layout of road and streets, with commentary on how things might change as the work progresses. We than have advice on how works should start in terms of setting out the most basic signage which is then built on and can lead to really complex layouts. The principle here has certain signs and management tools (such as the humble cone) being set out in a certain way and certain order. When the works are complete, this "stuff" is usually removed methodically and in reverse order.

Above - your basic road works signs which should always be used. As the section continues, the layouts get more complicated and anything in a red box should be paid close attention.

The image above shows a basic layout where an excavation is taking place in the carriageway. For those who can't see, the various dimensions relate to distances signs should be before the works, the length of coned-off areas and other space requirements; all linked to a table at the end of the document which relates to speed limits. There are lots of situations described and there is commentary on how to deal with pedestrians, cyclists, equestrians, trams and railways.

The matters dealing with people on foot is well established and there are clear requirements such as;

You must take into account the needs of children, older people and disabled people, having particular regard for visually impaired people. 

If your work is going to obstruct a footway or part of a footway, you must provide a safe route for pedestrians that should include access to adjacent buildings, properties and public areas where necessary. This route must consider the needs of those with small children, pushchairs and those with reduced mobility, including visually impaired people and people using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. 

The requirements for people cycling is less established. SSRW will be 4 years old this year and even in that short time, there has been a real change on how we provide for cycling in some parts of the country. The sign shown on the first page for this is not particularly helpful;

This is at odds with the earlier statement about taking into account the needs of children, older people and disabled people. As we know, cycles are often used as mobility aids and so our game must be upped. Mind you, next to the sign it says;

Cyclists might have to use other parts of the carriageway, a temporary cycle track, or an alternative route. You should consider whether access on the carriageway can be preserved for cyclists, even if it needs to be closed to motor vehicles. 

This is an appropriate response where we are actively enabling cycling, but I fear the message hasn't got through to enough people and it is the local highway authorities which need to make this more explicit as they have to be involved in the planning of road works.

In London, Transport for London consulted on an appendix for it's London Cycling Design Standards to give more advice on assisting people cycling through road works. It was by no means comprehensive, but it was useful and sadly didn't make it to the final document (I don't know why).

Part 3 sets out the equipment road workers will need such as hi-visibility clothing, basic signs which should be carried in their vehicles (or readily available for more complex schemes), pedestrian barriers and ramps, and the conspicuity requirements for road works vehicles.

The other useful piece of information is that every road works site should display a sign explaining who is undertaking the works (promoter and contractor) and an emergency contact; you'll often see a "permit" number as well which is a unique record of the works used by the local authority for coordination purposes (and viewable online).

As well as the link to the document I gave at the start, you can also get a hard copy which is useful to carry around if you are as sad as me!

Sunday, 19 March 2017

What makes a nice street?

I'm not going to beat about the bush, because you know what my opinion is already; the most important thing about nice streets is that they have very low motor traffic flows with access limited to those who really need it.

Earlier in the week, I found myself in Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell. There is nothing particularly flash about the street, it is just very pragmatically paved and managed. The businesses spilling onto the pedestrian space could be better managed (some of it will definitely be an issue for visually impaired people) and there is a bit too much street furniture, but the street gets on with its job without fanfare or pretension. 

Doing a bit of going backwards and forwards in Google Streetview shows that the basis of a nice street has been around for a long time and that is the pedestrian zone which operates 7am to midnight, 7 days a week. There is an exception which allows loading and the street is one-way.

Its modern incarnation maintains the pedestrian zone, but a restricted parking zone has been added (operational all the time) and loading is banned between 12pm and 2.30pm, Monday to Saturday. In other words, one could drive a car along the street between midnight and 7am, but not park. One can also load all week, other than the 12pm to 2.30pm period between Monday and Saturday (there are loading laybys provided).

What this all means is that unless you need to get into the street with a motor vehicle out of hours or for loading (other than the banned hours), the street offers no advantage to rat-running. There are also camera signs showing, so I'd guess that CCTV enforcement is taking place from the cameras in the area!

The traffic management also uses a couple of other streets to form traffic cells for motor vehicle access which essentially means that access is provided (subject to the controls I mention above) and it allows a section at the south-western end of the street to be totally closed to motors. The diagram below shows the one-way loops (green) and motor-free section (red).

Cycling is partly two-way, but the signage is a little confusing and not all streets in the wider area can be used for two-way cycling. A bit of a tidy up and explicit permission using contraflow signage would be the icing on the cake. Google does shows things changing and so it could be seen as a work in progress.

The sections of the street which is newly paved pragmatically uses wide granite kerbs bounding a tarmac "carriageway" which can be used by drivers needing access and for those cycling. It is just wide enough for what is needed and the retention of kerbs gives a hint of the traditional street layout.

The "footways" are of (concrete, I think) block paviours - I would add that the whole area is a level surface which is great for pedestrian use. I realise that level surfaces are controversial, but in a mainly pedestrian area, they are generally appropriate. Interestingly, there are bollards used to edge the carriageway which hints at out of hours loading abuse.

There are also cycle parking hoops on the footway edge and so with the bollards, it can give a bit of "semi-protected" space for those needing a more defined footway area. If you have a strong view on this, please comment. The use of a level surface is pragmatic because it allows the use of the street for a market and for tables and chairs to spill out. Had kerbs with an upstand been used, there would have been a risk of trips and falls as people picked their way through at the busiest times.

There is no specific recipe for a great street and Exmouth Market is not absolutely perfect, but there are many elements which should be replicated. People often look longingly across the North Sea at what other countries do in their commercial streets, but we have plenty of examples here which can easily be copied.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Balancing Act

"We have to balance the needs of all road users" is an over-used phrase which can be found in consultation summaries and is often used by politicians to counter claims that active travel hasn't been enabled.

Language is of course used for communication, but it is easy to misrepresent what someone has said and in some cases, people will deliberately misrepresent to make their point. It is therefore useful to have a look at the definition of the word "balance";

So, from the basic Google search we get;

1. an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady. "she lost her balance and fell"
synonyms: stability, equilibrium, steadiness, footing "I tripped and lost my balance"

2. a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions. "the obligations of political balance in broadcasting"
synonyms: fairness, justice, impartiality, egalitarianism, equal opportunity; 

1. put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall. "a mug that she balanced on her knee"
synonyms: steady, stabilise;

2. offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another. "the cost of obtaining such information needs to be balanced against its benefits"
synonyms: weigh, weigh up, compare, evaluate, consider, assess, appraise, estimate "it is a matter of balancing advantages against disadvantages"

The use of the word where our streets are concerned is pretty much universally selected by people who are either scared of tackling the current approach or as cop-out to maintain the status-quo by those with something to gain from it.

Victoria Embankment before CS3 was built.
Is this street balanced?
The "even distribution" argument is that which is often applied to so-called shared space (which is a terrible catch-all term in its own right) where it is expected that everyone will be able to share nicely and that all road users have equal weight (they might have equal rights to be there, but might is right). This of course is just not true - a person walking does not physically possess the same weight as a lorry being driven and a fit young male will approach the same street far differently than a young child or someone who is frail and cannot walk very fast. If balance was truly in accordance with the misrepresented position, then we'd see our A-road high streets full of people crossing where they want (and with no stress) and people cycling everywhere. We don't see this and so this use of balance is nonsense.

This has roots in the misrepresentation of equality. Again, the term is often abused to mean that everyone should be treated equally; everyone on the same footing if you will. This is of course nonsense because on the street, if we assume that everyone is equal, then how come we can have someone drive aggressively and then hit a child? True equality comes from enabling everyone to have the same opportunity. On the streets, this means we must use engineering to ensure those who need help and protection get it and in doing so, we actually make things better for everyone. This is what balance actually means. Changing our street layouts and networks so that "a situation in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions" is absolutely what we need to do.

What about the use of the verb? To balance a street or to "put (something) in a steady position so that it does not fall" again speaks volumes. If we have reached a situation where we don't have the steady position where all road users feel safe using a street, then it cannot be in balance. I like this part of the definition as it hints at physical change. Take a painted cycle lane on a busy road. The fact that a driver can easily enter it means that we don't have a steady position and the "fall" is that the lane doesn't offer the constant protection that a cycle track would. As the paint wears out, the position falls further whereas the use kerbs and dedicated traffic signals create the steady position.

So what about a situation where we close a road to drivers - haven't be gone beyond balance? The simple answer (in the context of what I have written above) is yes in terms of "road users", but no in terms of "street" users and this brings about a different point which is around the difference between the "place" and "movement" function we often hear about. In coming to a balance which allows everyone to feel safe and comfortable, we have brought in the needs of those not using the street to move through. This may include those living or working there in terms of wishing to have a quiet, non-polluted street; it could include a cafe wanting to have tables and chairs in the street for customers and it could be outside a school where we have to use radical physical changes to enable walking and cycling to it.

This brings us to where we "offset or compare the value of (one thing) with another"; this is when consultation results and decision-making should be more honest. The balance argument, as I have suggested, comes from the point of view that everyone is equal, regardless of view or need, but this argument is nonsensical. What people are really saying is that they have looked at the arguments, users and needs and attached a value to each of them. They have then offset those those arguments, users or needs. Of course, if one's position is that walking and cycling should be enabled, one will be accused of trying to skew the balance, but as I have explained above, there is no balance because those users simply do not currently feel safe and comfortable.

I'd be happier if people said "we've analysed the consultation and based on feedback, we have decided to prioritise the provision of on-street parking and the use of the street by people driving through" - at least it would be an honest position and not some doublespeak using the word "balance". You are of course entirely at liberty to disagree with me and suggest that my post is not balanced. However, please consider your starting point which has to be the proposition that most streets are fundamentally unbalanced. 

The discussion scales. Whether we're talking about a residential street which should be quiet, but is full of drivers avoiding main routes; or a motorway where communities are severed and a bridge is needed; the question of balance holds. My advice to those seeking to "balance the needs of all road users" is to examine your starting position, because more often than not, you are actually arguing for the unbalanced status-quo and your use of the word "balance" is therefore entirely disingenuous.

Victoria Embankment after CS3 was built.
Is this street balanced?

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A False Fine Fluster

Today, the BBC News website continued its slide into sensationalist tabloid pro-bad driver rhetoric with a piece on "lucrative" bus lane cameras.

I almost hesitate about writing this post because the headlines have splashed, people have muttered the usual "bloody councils using hard-pressed motorists as cash cows" and the RAC chimed in with;

"Bus lane cameras are fast becoming a new 'cash bonanza' for councils. The amount of money being raised by them in fines is frightening.

Rather than just rubbing their hands together and taking the money councils should be asking questions as to why so many motorists are being caught driving in bus lanes."

The story has of course been picked up by the usual suspects such as the London Evening Standard, Metro, and Daily Mail (who I won't link to). I don't know whether the news release was pre-cascaded to other outlets and no doubt local takes on the "news" will be doing the rounds such as the Chronicle in Newcastle. That sort of debate is for others to take forward. The data relates to the 2015/16 financial year where £31m was taken in bus lane fines. To put that into context, the revenue budget for English local authorities for the same year was estimated at £4,922m (£4.9bn) for highways and transport. So, the bus lane fines contributed 0.6% - I state contributed as fines can only be used for highways and transport matters by the issuing authority.

You'll probably be familiar with the saying about a lie being half-way around the world before the truth gets its shoes on and this type of reporting is the same. The story is out with another little chip added to the shoulder of the beleaguered collective of otherwise-law-abiding-motorists. Looking at the data is a waste of time.

But, I am interested in the numbers and the BBC has helpfully provided a link to the results of its 160 Freedom of Information requests made by BBC England and with Department for Transport traffic data, we can pick out a few examples to discuss. The BBC also has produced a chart of "England's most lucrative bus lane cameras" and it's those I'm going to try and delve into;

The table has been framed in terms of income per day with John Dobson Street in Newcastle being the one where fines of about £6,000 per day are being issued. Of course, that's a snapshot and as reported in the Chronicle, the City Council said;

“Since bus lanes were introduced on John Dobson Street we have seen a dramatic decrease in Penalty Charge Notices issued from 13,500 in March 2016 to around 4,000 in February 2017 and we are confident this downward trend will continue."

The point about John Dobson Street is it is a relatively new scheme from what I have read and so I'm afraid that for some drivers, it has taken time to bed in and it's not really a bus lane in the sense that it is a lane next to general traffic lane, it is a section of street reserved for buses (and other users) with a rather nice cycle track as well! By February this year, there were still 143 fines a day issued which is still high, but you can see what each end of the restricted section of road looks like and so people are fairly warned (here and here).

OK, lets look at a "traditional" bus lane because we can look at the number of fines issued per day versus the general traffic flow. London Road in Kingston-upon-Thames in London just happens to have a DfT count point. It is No.8 on the BBC's list at about £1,700 in fines a day or on average just 26 fines. The average daily traffic flow here was 16,736 vehicles per day in 2015. This means that just 0.16% of drivers couldn't manage to obey the rules and 99.84% of drivers complied.

It's pretty pointless to go through them all, but my general observation is that city centre schemes such as John Dobson Street seem to drum up a bit of cash to be reinvested into local transport schemes, but they are arranged to give the bus an advantage over private transport. This is deliberate and is designed to make bus travel more attractive. With the bus lane next to general lanes example of London Road, we actually get a tiny amount of bus lane abuse compared to overall traffic flow. Looking at the amount in fines "raised" compared to English revenue budgets for highways and transport, the 0.6% is equally unimpressive and not in any way newsworthy.

So, the real headline here is that in general, driver compliance with bus lanes and bus "streets" is excellent, and this allows space to be reserved within which we can prioritise a more efficient transport mode. Early compliance is perhaps worse on a newly opened scheme, but people are not really being caught out, they are failing to pay attention. The trouble is, this type of headline is not "news" and doesn't generate interest. It certainly doesn't support the organised motoring lobby's myth that it's law abiding drivers being targeted. That's an hour I'm not going to get back, but it's off my chest!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

The Amazing Electricity Trickery: Recharged

Four years ago, I wrote about the Government's push for electric and so-called "ultra low emission vehicles" (ULEVs). There has been some media coverage of ULEV/ EV subsidy and so I thought it worth having another look at the subject.

When I last wrote in 2013, there was a budget of £400m available through the Office of Low Emission Vehicles (OLEV) which was being used to provide grants towards private and commercial ULEVs which was due to end in 2015. Of course, this was under the previous Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition.

We still have OLEV and it has been tweeting some things recently. First, that the ULEV grant system is still alive and well. It has also been trailing the fact that one can obtain grants towards domestic and workplace charging points. Finally, it has been tweeting the news that the Government will be pushing to improve the availability of EV charging points (possibly through changes in the law) as part of the proposed "Vehicle Technology and Aviation Bill". On the latter, there will also be the introduction of an insurance regime to cover autonomous vehicles (AVs).

In short, the Government is putting its weight behind a future filled with electric (or at least low-emission) vehicles and autonomous operation. In many ways, this is no different to many other countries who are seeking to dump fossil-fueled vehicles such as the Dutch and Norwegians. The whole area is a multi-trillion market and one can see why the UK Government is pushing to be part of it, more so given the uncertainties around leaving the European Union.

On the one hand, we will probably be using motor-vehicles for the foreseeable future and so they may as well be electric. At the very least, the tail-pipe emissions problem in urban areas will be addressed, although there are still plenty of issues created by braking systems and the action of tyres on roads. On the other hand, this represents a push to maintain business as usual and in that I mean to continue with a car and lorry-based UK transport system and anyone using active or public transport be damned.

It was interesting to read concern raised about vehicle excise duty being changed from April this year which meant that many owners of "gas guzzlers" would be paying less VED, whereas those driving "cleaner" cars would pay more (zero-emission cars will still be exempt). Forgetting about the weird discrepancy, this is the Government realising that as cars get more efficient, VED revenues will fall. With fuel duty too, aside from the fuel tax escalator being removed, a switch to EV and ULEV vehicles is going to see revenue drop as well. I fully expect to see changes whereby EVs will attract VED and as for fueling EVs, it will be interesting to see what happens as they are really cheap to run. It will also be interesting to see what the traditional fossil fuel companies do in terms of production and divestment in the next decade as the current push must surely go against their traditional business model!

Of course, subsidy and tax are part of the same system used by Government to influence a particular market sector in response to their stated policies. Unfortunately, in the UK, it seems to be about trying to compete for the "business as usual" sector with nothing of any substance being made available for local active transport. In truth, this area of transport is almost always neglected - at least it has seemed this way to me over the last 20+ years in my industry.

On Twitter, some people questioned OLEV about the potential for subsidy/ grants for e-cycles;

OLEV were pretty clear and in truth, e-cycles are not part of their remit. Someone suggested that the grant system was similar to the "Cycle to Work" scheme, which is essentially a tax-efficient mechanism which allows an employer to "lease" a cycle to an employee and for the lease to be paid before tax. At the end of the "lease" the employee purchases the cycle from the employer at a market rate. If you are in work and your employer runs the scheme, then you can save money. Otherwise, it's no use to you. It's rather different to the ULEV grant scheme which is basically money off the vehicle when you purchase it and the dealer will sort out the paperwork for you; there isn't even an applicant form!

E-cycles can help with our urban pollution and congestion problems. They can give range and help to those who would otherwise struggle with a conventional cycle. They enable heavier loads to be moved for those important "last mile" freight journeys and indeed, can help with family transport in terms of e-cargo cycles. If the Government valued transport diversity then it would extend the ULEV scheme to subsidise e-cycles. Of course, it doesn't deal with the infrastructure issues which have been largely ignored. England is still waiting for meaningful funding under the Cycling and Walking Investment Strategy (CWIS) as are the devolved administrations.

There is also the current concern about people using finance schemes to buy new cars becoming the next sub-prime financial disaster. If you have Government policy set up to perpetuate car ownership through road building and enabling car use, then there will be many people needing cars who can't afford to buy one out right. If your town has expensive and unreliable public transport, if the roads are not safe to cycle on, or if you have to get around to multiple destinations (care workers visiting people at home for example), then life without a car will be difficult.

As ever, this goes back to Government priorities. I'm afraid that I am quite pessimistic these days. It seems that the push to maintain the current model attracts copious amounts funding, ministerial support and the allied industries rushing to get their collective hands on the subsidies (because that is where the cash is going) - hell, there are even design standards for motorways! 

When it comes to local active transport, every infrastructure project seems to be a fight. Funding is hand-to-mouth and we have inconsistent approaches to design because walking and cycling are always "matters for local authorities". Compare the UK with other countries which are seeing a low emission future; they are investing in local active transport and therefore seeing that there are different tools for different jobs. Of course, ULEVs are just a part of the story, but this is a story which, as far as I can see, won't have a happy ending.