A standards-based approach to roads

Dearest readers, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make; I’ve been learning how to drive a car. Don’t worry though, I’m not planning on buying one or giving up on cycling. In fact, one of the main reasons is  (as I have written about before) there is an awful lot of discrimination against non-drivers when applying for jobs which do not require any driving whatsoever. I will write in more detail about the experience of learning to drive in another post.

Whilst first-hand experience has only enhanced my belief that our current approach to road design always favours the convenience of motorists over the safety of all other road users (after years of UK cycling, driving is really easy) there is one aspect which remained the same whether cycling or driving; the inconsistency of the road experience. Many of the routes I have driven down on driving lessons are the sorts I would usually avoid when travelling by bike (such as the A55) which has allowed me to see areas of the road network which I have traditionally been effectively excluded from.

Grosvenor Court Roundabout

For example, in the centre of Chester there is the Grosvenor Court square roundabout where the dual carriageway surrounding the town centre meets the Foregate Street (the end Chester’s ‘shared space’ main shopping street) and City Road, which leads to the train station. The lane markings on this roundabout highlight the inconsistency in UK road design.

Entering this roundabout from Foregate Street, you are encouraged to use the left lane for taking the first exit or travelling straight on. The second lane is straight on only, with convention dictating that this lane is used when the left lane is busy.

Entering the roundabout in the left lane, with the intention to go straight on, you are then confronted with this. You must move into the middle lane to go straight on. Hopefully the person in the right lane knows not to enter this lane.

The two lanes are now both marked as straight on. Best practice dictates that if possible you should stay in the left lane.

Once again, a middle lane opens up. This time it is for the users of the right-hand lane to use, presumably for the purposes of traffic stacking.

Here, the left hand lane can be used to take the left exit, or to go straight on. Once again it is best practice to where possible, to stick to the left when going straight on here. In this image it appears that the driver of the silver hatchback has become confused by the layout of this particular roundabout and is in the process of changing lanes.

This is probably why the driver became confused, the left lane allows traffic to take the left exit or go straight on. There are four traffic lanes by this point.

This time, neither of the two left-hand lanes allow traffic to proceed straight on. Instead, the left two lanes are directed onto the A51, a short urban dual carriageway lined with various businesses.

Hoole Way Roundabout

This is the approach to Hoole Way roundabout from St. Oswalds Way (West). Here the left lane is for the exclusive use of traffic taking the first exit, with straight on traffic sent to the right-hand lane.

Here we can see that the right-hand lane can be used for taking the right-hand lane of the first exit onto Hoole Way, another short urban dual carriageway, or to stay on the roundabout in the leftmost of the three lanes at the traffic lights.

This lane is labelled with a straight arrow, indicating that traffic using this lane may proceed straight on. However, in this case, this is actually referring to leaving the roundabout at the next exit, St Oswalds Way (East)

Both of these roundabouts have significant internal inconsistencies in their design, in addition to differing from each other. Despite this, they are actually next to each other on Chester’s bizarre inner ring road (bizarre because despite it being a dual carriageway, not one of the roads feeding in or out of the ring road is a dual carriageway).

The result of these inconsistencies is confusion. Whilst locals will become familiar with the particular peculiarities of the roads, junctions and roundabouts in their area, those visiting an area, or who do not frequently use a particular road, junction or roundabout will not be. The non-standardised nature of the design of roads, junctions and roundabouts in the UK means that experience of other roads, junctions or roundabouts on the road network will not necessarily prepare a person for using any other road, junction or roundabout.

Add to this distraction, lapses in concentration, poor maintenance, vastly different modes of transport sharing the same infrastructure and good old fashioned incompetence and we have the British road network, a recipe for a disaster which claims thousands of lives each year and which effectively restricts the choice of transport for many to only the most heavily armoured modes.

I decided to write this piece during an ISO 9001 training session. Whilst not exactly riveting stuff, it impressed upon me the value of consistency. Most of the problems with the UK road network find their root in this lack of consistency, standardisation is sorely lacking in almost all aspects of road design. This is why there are inconsistencies between the roundabouts examined above; there is no standard[1][2][3] to make road features such as roundabouts consistent internally, let alone consistent with with each other. The result is that a road user has no idea what to expect when encountering a roundabout or large junction for the first time.

This is also why we have little cycle infrastructure, with much of what has been provided being less than useless; there is currently no requirement to provide cycle infrastructure on any road and where planners choose to add it, there is no standard to ensure cycle infrastructure is consistent, safe or functional. All that exists is guidance which offers generally poor solutions and is easily ignored by highways engineers and local authorities. This lack of standardisation makes cycle infrastructure especially vulnerable to corner cutting and thoughtless, dangerous design choices based on the whims and prejudices of the individuals responsible for a given project. The situation is little better when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure.

Before I took driving lessons, I wanted the UK to adopt a Dutch approach to road design because I was a cyclist. Having experienced the roads from the perspective of a motorist, I  want it just as much. Regardless of mode, the road user experience needs to be consistent in order to be safe. This consistency means making sure road users know what to expect when tackling a particular type of junction, it means that the safety and convenience of a particular group of road users can’t be subordinated (or ignored altogether) based on the whims of individual planners or councillors. Regardless of how you travel, we should all be able to agree that it’s time for a standards-based approach to road design.

Eric in an ideological Pickle over parking

I was interested to read about Eric Pickles’ statement about local authorities and car parking charges on the recently resurrected Crap Waltham Forest blog.

Councils will have to declare the total paid by drivers to park in both on-street and off-street bays, after new government figures showed local authorities’ total income from parking hitting £1.27 billion last year. 

Ministers believe the new “transparency” drive is vital to ensure local politicians can be properly held to account by motorists – and to help reverse the decline of the country’s high streets, including the closure of businesses. 

Earlier this year a government report conducted by Mary Portas, the retail expert, identified that high cost of parking as one of the reasons why shoppers were deserting high streets in favour of out-of-town centres where parking is often free. 

Mr Pickles said: “We are ending an era of bureaucratic accountability and replacing it with a more open era of democratic accountability. It is right that taxpayers get to see how town halls spend their hard earned taxes so they can properly hold local politicians to account. 

“As part of that we will expose a great council cash cow cover-up, unmasking punitive parking practices that hit residents in the pocket. We’re calling time on the billion pound local war against motorists – now, more than ever, we need to see the back of this shopping tax and encourage more people onto the high street.” 

Town halls are supposed to control parking to improve traffic flow and stop gridlock occurring, and they are prohibited by law from using their powers in this area simply to boost their income. However, ministers and their advisers believe a growing number of councils seek to get round these rules by earmarking the cash raised for other transport projects.

Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government seems to be suggesting that it is wrong for councils to charge for car parking on their sites at rates which allow them to turn a profit and that these rates should therefore be reduced.

This statement confused me immensely for several reasons. Firstly, as Conservative minister, should Mr Pickles not believe that it is wrong for local authorities to use their position to offer parking facilities at prices with which the private sector could never compete? Surely the idea of government crowding out the private sector when it comes to the provision of car parking facilities if at odds with the Conservative ideology. Naturally, the first step in remedying this would be for local authorities to increase their parking charges to allow the more dynamic and efficient private sector to step in.

Secondly, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, surely Mr Pickles should be aware that accommodating to many private motor vehicles in town centres contributes to their downfall. Shopkeepers grossly overestimate the amount of their customers who arrive by car, falling to see that, in town centres, pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users are usually better customers.

Thirdly, providing subsidised parking in town centres tends to damage town centres by excluding those who wish to, or have no other option than to arrive by different modes of travel. The town centre of my native Rochdale is a good example of this; surrounded on three sides by dual carriageways Rochdale’s local authority has done everything possible to accommodate private motor vehicles in the centre of town. The result of this is that the centre of Rochdale us barely accessible by non-motorised means. The tragedy of Rochdale is that even though it’s local authority sacrificed the safety and convenience of pedestrians and cyclists to benefit motorists, it has not produced an otherwise-successful town centre. It is no coincidence that Rochdale has one of the highest levels of unoccupied shop units, with even McDonalds giving up on it. Successful town and city centres rely on a concentrating a large number of people in a relatively small area and put simply this is never going to be compatible with the car. Once people have been coerced onto using the car, it is a trivial matter to go somewhere which seems less of a hell-hole, such as the Trafford Centre. At least they have a McDonalds. 

Fourthly is Eric Pickles’ pet project, localism;

The Localism Bill will herald a ground-breaking shift in power to councils and communities overturning decades of central government control and starting a new era of people power.

 

“It is the centrepiece of what this Government is trying to do to fundamentally shake up the balance of power in this country. For too long, everything has been controlled from the centre – and look where it’s got us. Central government has kept local government on a tight leash, strangling the life out of councils in the belief that bureaucrats know best.

 

By getting out of the way and letting councils and communities run their own affairs we can restore civic pride, democratic accountability and economic growth – and build a stronger, fairer Britain. It’s the end of the era of big government: laying the foundations for the Big Society.”

Somehow this seems slightly at odd with central government interfering with councils’ running of their car parking operations.

Finally (and building upon point three) is choice. Twenty-five per cent of households don’t have access to a car. Many of these people are hard-working strivers who want to be better off and so do without a car, at least for the foreseeable future. It is simply not possible to further accommodate private motor vehicles in our town centres without further diminishing the experience of those travelling by other modes. Should people not be able to choose how they travel? It seems at odds with Conservative values to subsidise one mode of transport far above all others, as it coerces people into acquiring the means to travel in that manner, and to use it for almost all trips. Is influencing transport choice in this way not the very opposite of the choice which is so valued by Conservatives? Surely the right thing to do would be to treat all modes of transport equally (perhaps with the advantages and disadvantages of each taken onto account) in order to give people back the choice of how to travel. Since motor transport has seen decades of generous government subsidy, it would make sense to start with massive investments in walking and cycling infrastructure.

Unless I’m reading too much into this, and it is actually just a cynical exercise in which our Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government panders to the myth of the victimised motorist to boost his popularity.

Crap Cycling in Wrexham

Firstly, apologies for the lack of new posts recently but I have been in the process of moving into my new house in Chester. Unfortunately, moving house generally means a period without broadband. Thankfully, normal services should resume soon.

My new job is based at Wrexham Industrial Estate. Eventually I plan to experiment with cycling there from Chester, but for now I am getting there using a combination of train and Brompton. Wrexham is interesting because it has quite a lot of cycle infrastructure. Sadly, much of this infrastructure is typical of cycle infrastructure in the UK at present; crap.

My ride from Wrexham Industrial Estate to Wrexham General train station takes me along some idyllic country lanes, which I find quite pleasant. Thankfully, a strategic closure of part of Bryn Estyn Road to motor traffic stops these lanes being heavily used as rat runs. The route is still open to foot and cycle traffic, although the design of the entrances to this road are quite poor. Despite this, Bryn Estyn road is the one good piece of cycle infrastructure I’ve found in Wrexham so far.

From here, cyclists can turn off into a relatively new residential development. Oddly enough, this development has a separate, possibly purpose-built cycle and walking network. Despite this, the paths closely resemble converted pavements. Naturally, this through route for cycles gives way to the minor residential access roads on the housing development, which is perfectly topped off with the obligatory “Cyclists Dismount” signs. I really hope that the developers didn’t receive any public money for this, unless this is actually a public art installation exploring the concept of the second class citizen.

Access to the cycle paths is rather impressively inaccessible, with many cyclists choosing to circumvent the excessive and inconsiderately designed barriers.

The route later rejoins the main road, where cyclists are encouraged to cross the road using a pedestrian crossing and cycle on the converted footway. Impressivley, this bi-directional cycle path does not even meet the DfT’s minimum width requirement for a single-direction cycle path. As always, this infrastructure also represents a raw deal for pedestrians.

The footway conversion continues along Holt Road towards Wrexham until just after the roundabout, where it abruptly ends, providing no way for cyclists to get back onto the correct side of the road. Many users (in their understandable confusion) probably end up cycling along the pavement, illegally. A few hundred metres further down the road, a cycle path suddenly reappears on Holt Road, on the opposite pavement, with no provision made for cyclists to get onto it from either the road or the opposite pavement where the cycle lane existed a few hundred metres down the road.

The surface quality is particularly impressive

Cyclists are moved from pavement to advisory road lanes, seemingly at random along Holt Road.

The cycle lane here manages to encourage side-swiping by close-passing motorists.

Where Holt Road meets the town centre, the cycle path takes cyclists away from the roundabout, where they are expected to give way at every arm of the roundabout, with the addition of some particularly unpleasant, steep kerbing along the path.

The narrow, bi-directional cycle lane swaps sides with the pedestrian section of the path here, for no apparent reason.

This route at least allows access to a cyclists-exempted one-way street, allowing cyclists to cut through the pedestrianised area. Somewhat useful, but making pedestrianised areas through-routes for cycles is problematic for cyclists and pedestrians alike, being especially irritating for blind and elderly people.

The last leg of the journey involves dealing with an unjustifiable one-way gyratory system near Wrexham General station. Separate contraflow cycle paths have been provided, although all of these are lazy pavement conversions, with poorly thought-out access points and dangerously sharp . It goes without saying that cyclists have no-priority over the joining roads.

Cycling through Wrexham reminds me a great deal of my visit to now-infamous Waltham Forest last year. I have been exploring other routes since I took these pictures and I continue to find ever more baffling examples of Wrexham’s cycle infrastructure. I will do a follow-up post when I become more familiar with cycling in Wrexham.

Places for People

I came across this earlier today in Macclesfield. It’s nothing out of the ordinary, a van parked illegally, partially on double yellow lines and at the intersection with a minor road, blocking the route for pedestrians and making it less safe when they do try and cross. The sort of thing you might see hundreds of times in a typical week in the UK. What tickled me was the company branding, the van belongs to a company called Places for People.

Metrolink: (Further) Degrading Floop accessibility

A few weeks ago, during my tandem test weekend, I noticed that the already irritating barriers installed prior to the tram crossing at the Chorlton end of the Floop had been re-positioned to provide a serious (possibly impenetrable) barrier to access for anyone riding a cargo bike, tandem, tag-along, bike trailer, modified disability cycle or anyone using a mobility scooter or other mobility aid.

The irritating and unnecessary barriers to access which already existed on the Floop have been well documented. Whilst these barriers should be ripped out as a matter of priority, it is worse still to introduce new barriers, and then to re-position them so as to produce maximum inconvenience to users of the Floop.

IMAG0923

Facing towards Fallowfield

IMAG0924

Other side of the tracks, facing towards Chorlton

The fact that this work was done recently (and shoddily) combined with the fact that the barriers had already been installed once previously, makes me wonder what consultative processes Metrolink’s barrier redesign went through before being approved by the local authority, cycling campaigns, disability groups, pedestrian groups, Sustrans, Friends of the Fallowfield Loop and so on. My guess is that the work was done without any consultation whatsover, and that the issue of the degradation of access to one of the only cycle facilities in Greater Manchester must therefore be raised at the next Manchester Cycle Forum.

IMAG0930

Users of cargo bikes (particularly when loaded) face great difficulties when trying to pass the poorly re-designed barriers.

IMAG0931

The tandem, being approximately 20 cm longer than a Yuba Mundo, presented its own problems when attempting to pass this barrier

This barrier re-design, whist only a small local issue, embodies everything which is wring with provision for cycling in the UK; the assumption that making cycling inconvenient isn’t a problem because anyone on a cycle is obviously only doing so for leisure. They couldn’t possibly be trying to conveniently get somewhere in a timely manner, or they’d have gone by car, right?

The propaganda deemed acceptable to show in schools

Years ago, when I was in high school, I remember that we were given numerous safety presentations. Sometimes these were about the railways (dare to step on the tracks and you WILL certainly be killed), sometimes about not flying kites near pylons and sometimes about the roads (such as the green cross code). The issue of responsibility was never discussed, interviews with children who had been maimed by cars were shown, although we were never told what happened to the motorist in the aftermath. The takeaway message from these videos was that when crossing the roads, the onus was very much on us to look out for cars and only cross when it was safe to do so. The wider issues of government-enshrined inequality between transport modes were never discussed, and the implication from the road safety propaganda we watched was that if we were hit by an adult in a car, it was our own stupid fault.

I have a little sister, who is currently in high school. In order to assess the state of “Road Safety” propaganda shown in schools nowadays, I decided to ask her what were the sort of things they showed her in school on the issue. I don’t really talk to my sister about the issues I discuss here, she is quite young, like most people she doesn’t cycle, and she doesn’t generally give much thought to the issue of transport. By being careful in how I asked about it, this presented me with an opportunity to find out what the take-home message she (and by extension the average pupil in her age group) got from the propaganda. The conversation went something like this:

Me: Do they still show you those road safety videos in school nowadays?

Sis: Well, there was this one about a boy who got paralysed when crossing the road.

Me: Oh. Did they tell you what happened to the adult in the car who hit the boy?

Sis: No. It was the boy’s fault because he was wearing dark clothes



So-called “Road safety” education programmes are generally funded by the fake road safety charities such as the Road Safety Foundation, RAC Foundation and the Road Safety Fund set-up by the AA, RAC and FIA. These education programmes have a very poor success record worldwide. Their main purpose is to counter the bad press the motoring lobby were receiving at the time they were founded due to the death-toll (particularly of children) caused by the actions of their members. It seems odd to me that this propaganda is welcomed by schools, but for example the tobacco and alcohol industries are not similarly indulged. At the very least the obvious conflict of interests should be recognised by the governments. Allowing the motoring lobby to set the agenda for how road safety is perceived by school children is a bit like allowing Anheuser-Busch InBev or British American tobacco to set the agenda for health education in schools. Perhaps all they need to do is set-up a cynical faux-charity foundation and they will be welcomed with open arms. 

The benefits afforded to the motor lobby and those whom it represents as a result of such education programmes are many. Firstly, it creates the image that the motoring lobbies care about, and are actively trying to reduce casualties. Secondly, by targeting the young and vulnerable, they are able to plant two very powerful ideas into the minds of the next generation; if a motorist hits a pedestrian (or any vulnerable road user, such as a cyclist), it is the victim who is at fault and that these activities are intrinsically dangerous compared to the perceived safety of the car.


Motorists benefit from this propaganda by the creation of a culture in which drivers are blameless for collisions involving their vehicle with more vulnerable road users. Additionally, this helps to prevent governments from reversing the creation of a road network favouring the use of the car for almost all journeys, high volumes of motor traffic and the high speeds attained by these vehicles.


The “Decade of Action on Road Safety” is a fine example of this. Fronted by Lewis Hamilton (Booked for speeding in UK, reckless driving in Australia) and Jenson Button (Booked for speeding in UK multiple times) and funded by the FIA, one of the biggest motoring lobbies and the world governing body of motorsport, it embodies our arse-about-face approach to road safety. It saddens me that an institution such as the United Nations would degrade itself by choosing to be associated with this pish. 


Those of you who have reproduced may wish to prevent your own children from being exposed to this blatant propaganda, or at least get through to them ahead of time. It might be fun for them to have an understanding of the forces at work behind the scenes of these campaigns, at least then they will be able to ask some awkward and disruptive questions in class.

Twats

One of the more serious downsides to cycling in the UK is, “The twat factor.” I think we will all have a story about a motorist who has consciously made the decision to attempt to intimidate a cyclist with their vehicle, verbally abused a cyclist or threatened them with violence, typically attempting using the car itself as a weapon (although this is not always the case). It is a markedly different experience from the constant stream of bad behaviour from motorists which we as cyclists endure on a regular basis, such as unsafe overtakes, left hooks, cutting in and ASL/cycle lane obstruction and intrusion, to name a few. The less cynical amongst us can dismiss this kind of behaviour as a symptom of ignorance or selfishness, rather than outright bigotry or malice.

I encounter similar behaviour sometimes in a non-transport context, after all, the person who tries to assault a cyclist with his car will still be a twat when he is away from his vehicle. However, in this context this kind of behaviour is much more easy to deal with, as the playing field is much more level. When an aggressor is armoured with a few tonnes of car which can accelerate to a high speed very quickly, and the victim is, well, not, such behaviour can be particularly intimidating.

It made me think of that quote attributed to Gary Fisher;

“Anybody who rides a bike is a friend of mine.”

Whilst this particular statement is a bit too rosy to sit well with my own slightly more misanthropic world-view, it got me thinking. Whilst the man who tries to assault a cyclist with his car will still be a twat when he is away from his vehicle, his ability to harm is severely reduced. If he were to ride a bike instead of drive, I’m sure it wouldn’t make him the sort of person I’d want to call a, “Friend,” but his very existence would suddenly become less of a detriment to the lives of others. So, I have decided to modify Gary Fishers quote to fit my own view of the world;

“Anybody who rides a bike, is less of a twat than they would be if they were driving a car.”

It perhaps doesn’t have the same ring to it, but I think the sentiment is similar enough. Feel free to share your stories of these sorts of encounters in the comments.