Playing Baseball with Aunt Sally

I was prompted to write this piece based on a post by Carlton Reid on his Quickrelease blog, in which the a comparison is attempted between building infrastructure for bicycles as a means of increasing their use and building baseball stadiums as a means of increasing the popularity of baseball in the UK. As an analogy, it doesn’t really work (and I know I’ve strained a few myself on this blog in the past) but it is at least an interesting revisiting of a straw man with whom Carlton has been arguing with on and off for a few years now.

The straw man I refer to is as follows; that of the cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK, a significant proportion believe that implementing a botched half-measures as seen in Milton Keynes or Stevenage is enough to produce cycling rates in the UK which are comparable to those in The Netherlands. No-one is saying that quality cycle infrastructure is the entire solution to the unpopularity of cycling as a mode of transport in the UK, it is just most of the solution, difficult, an entirely essential component of the solution and the most obviously visible part of the changes required.  It makes sense that people are talking-up infrastructure; it is a very visible part of the changes we need, it is easy to communicate and it is the very foundation of making cycling a viable mode of transport for normal people. Talking down infrastructure, however, helps none of us, and is a particularly odd thing to do if you have previously made the case for the need for cyclists to present a united front to decision makers.

Carlton beats his straw man over the head with examples such as Milton Keynes or Stevenage, neither of which come close to representing what cycle campaigners advocating replication of The Netherlands’ approach to cycle infrastructure here in the UK are proposing. Whilst the treatment of main roads in these places may superficially resemble approaches used in The Netherlands, without the corresponding changes to other classes of road, such as residential streets, and the requisite inconveniencing of short-hop car trips arising from this infrastructure, attempting to use these places to argue that The Netherlands approach to cycle infrastructure would not work in the UK due to unspecified cultural difficulties is dishonest.

Instead, the importance of the built environment on the modes of travel people choose is downplayed, with unspecified cultural reasons suggested to be the real issue. As most of you will know, using the bicycle as a means of transport in most parts of the UK is not a normal thing to do. Using a means of transport which differs from the dominant means of transport; the car, on infrastructure designed entirely around the car, and amongst car users who have little understanding of cycling or cyclists can often make the act of cycling for transport into something of an ordeal. When facing this situation day in, day out, it can be very, very tempting to see the decision of others to drive rather than cycle as a personal failure, or a result of culture, rather than as a result of the environment. “If I can cycle in this, so can they,” you think to yourself, after a close overtake or a multi-lane roundabout, “if only they weren’t so lazy, or stupid, or addicted to their cars.” I find myself thinking along these lines sometimes, after a particularly gruelling ride to work. But really they’re just ordinary people, people who haven’t given much thought to why they chose the mode of transport they have. The cultural argument for why cycling has failed in the UK is so alluring because it allows us to feel morally superior to those who drive. Accepting that those who currently drive in the UK are the same as those who currently cycle in The Netherlands is hard because it means committing to changing the road environment here to more closely resemble that over there, which is a big job. It also means losing the thing which makes us special; being a cyclist, despite the environment, in a place where cycling is marginalised.

Carlton, it’s time to put this old straw man out to pasture.

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TfGM’s Oxford Road corridor changes risk the lives of cyclists

The forthcoming Oxford Road bus corridor in Manchester is to be accompanied by a series of changes to the surrounding roads, including Upper Brook Street and Upper Lloyd Street. In their current form, the changes offer pitifully little for pedestrians and are potentially lethal for cyclists. In a consultation found here, the proposed changes to the layouts of these roads can be seen in detailed the detailed plans found here.

The specific details of what will be offered for cyclists on the relatively short section of Oxford Road from which general motor traffic is to be excluded will not be shared in any detail until 2013. This makes the current consultation relatively useless as we are prevented from seeing what may or may not be gained in exchange for the significant reduction in cyclists’ safety on the surrounding roads. Even in the unlikely event that both the short section of Oxford Road from which private motor vehicles are to be excluded from, and the remainder of this important route are to be brought up to something resembling Dutch standards, as unlikely as this would be, this does not excuse the significant increase in danger posed by the redesign of the surrounding roads, which cyclists would still have to use.

Here we see where Upper Brook Street meets Grosvenor Street. The protected contra-flow cycle lane on Grosvenor street, whilst not perfect was a welcome step in the right direction. Sadly the hideously botched Toucan crossing solution for cyclists where Grosvenor Street looks set to remain. A missed opportunity to make this unfinished bit of infrastructure, still one of the most notable in Manchester, into something genuinely fit for purpose.

Under the present layout, this is a far North as traffic can travel into the city, however the proposals will make Upper Brook Street two way as far as Portland Street for the first time in decades. Truly a step in the wrong direction.

Plymouth Grove is to have advisory cycle lanes added to it for possibly as much as 100 metres southbound. As risible as this is, the bigger issue is that the motorway sliproad geometry where Plymouth Grove peels off from Upper Brook Street remains, placing cyclists continuing along Upper Brook Street in completely avoidable danger of a left-hook.

In a show of contempt for both cyclists and pedestrians, this overly-wide section of road is to have its southbound pavement converted into shared use between Plymouth grove and Grafton Street. From this point southwards, Upper Brook Street is to have one additional lane squeezed into the existing space. This extra lane it switches use to the opposite direction of traffic roughly every signalised junction. I used to live near here and I couldn’t count the number of dangerously close overtakes I endured using the current two-lane arrangement. This area also sees a great deal of pedestrian traffic due to the hospital and University, yet the proposed changes (or rather lack of improvements to existing dire facilities such as crossings) show a complete disregard for the needs and convenience of pedestrians. 

As the extra motor vehicle lanes South of this point are not continuous in one direction, it will not create any extra vehicle capacity, instead encouraging motorists to dangerously speed through the sections where the road is two lanes before forming a jam immediately after the lights where two lanes are forced to merge back into one. This unnecessary extra merging will simply result in additional collisions between cars without providing any time benefit to motorists, whilst the additional lane will necessitate lane narrowing which will bring cars and cycles into conflict, making an increase in the number of injuries and fatalities an inevitability should the proposed designs be implemented. TfGM’s designs for this section of Upper Brook Street in particular will force cyclists and motor vehicles into even closer conflict. I have little doubt that, if implemented, these designs will lead to the deaths of cyclists.

Despite Upper Brook Street seeing significant amounts of pedestrian traffic, the proposal does nothing to facilitate this whatsoever, with existing anti-pedestrian junction geometries and multi-stage crossings requiring pedestrians to deviate repeatedly from desire lines remaining in place. Where additional crossing are to be provided, such as at Brunswick Street, pedestrians are treated with contempt; forced to cross via a ludicrous number of stages so as not to inconvenience motorists coming onto Upper Brook Street from popular residential rat-runs. Cyclists and pedestrians are to be brought into conflict between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street by the lazy conversion of the inappropriate-width footway to ‘shared use’ in order to allow an unjustifiable three-lane stack at the junction between Upper Brook Street and Grafton Street. This junction, separating the Manchester Royal Infirmary, blood bank, flats and the University of Manchester Medical School sees a significant amount of foot traffic, making the atrocious treatment of pedestrians by the proposed design at this point inexcusable.

The proposed changes to Upper Brook Street in particular represent a potentially lethal attempt to squeeze ever more private cars into the same amount of space. In addition to the increase in fatalities and injuries, many cyclists will be intimidated off these roads entirely, either continuing to cycle but on the pavement, causing problems for pedestrians, or switching to another, less desirable mode of transport. Where cycle infrastructure is proposed, such as Booth Street West and Higher Cambridge Street, it is of the same kind which has been shown time and time again to fail to meet the needs of cyclists for both safety and convenience; advisory cycle lanes and ASLs. Advisory cycle lanes are generally less than useless, they are frequently blocked by legally parked cars and routinely abandon their users at junctions, anywhere where the road design becomes confusing or complex or where the road starts to narrow and cyclists might genuinely need some additional protection from the motor vehicles which have been brought into close proximity with them. In the few places where cycle infrastructure is proposed in the current designs they are simply paint on the carriageway or lazy footway ‘conversions’. At junctions, turning geometries are not tightened up at all (as is commonplace in The Netherlands and Denmark) meaning left turning vehicles can perform turns at higher speeds, increasing the chances of a ‘left-hook’ collision with a cyclist, which are often fatal for the cyclist.

In addition to the problems caused for pedestrians by ill-conceived shard use paths as between Plymouth Grove and Grafton Street and the risk of overall increased pavement cycling, the few additional measures included supposedly to benefit pedestrians have been done in a manner which shows utter contempt for the value of pedestrians’ time and the quality of their experience of walking. The increase number of vehicle lanes will increase noise and pollution endured by pedestrians, cyclists and residents, which make the already formidable barrier presented by the road even more difficult for pedestrians to overcome.

These designs need to be changed as a matter of urgency. In their current form they represent a disaster waiting to happen.

The Tyranny of Speed

Speeding is probably the most common and socially acceptable form of lawbreaking. Close to 100% of motorists will have less than perfect adherence to the posted limits, with a sizeable number of scoff-laws routinely flouting the law. There appears to be a belief amongst those routinely flouting speed limits that there is nothing wrong with what they are doing, that they have a right to drive at whatever speed they wish too. The inference is that their perceived right to go fast is more important than the rights of other road users to be and feel safe going about their business. I have observed strong resistance to measures as reasonable as 20mph zones in residential areas from people I would not necessarily expect it from. See the Association of British Jeb-ends Drivers for further examples of this kind of behaviour.

Perhaps it is simply a result of being forced, inappropriately, to share space with motorised traffic regardless of its speed and volume, but I have also seen a similar attitude from some fellow cyclists too. Many sport-cyclists are capable of regularly exceeding speeds of 25 mph on a bike. Because cyclists are forced to share space on roads designed exclusively to accommodate high volumes of fast motor traffic, these sorts of speeds become a natural way to survive the hostile environment. I have experienced this myself when cycling in heavy, fast traffic; you are put under pressure to ride faster and often end up doing so without necessarily meaning or wanting to.

The problems arise when separate cycle infrastructure is discussed, construction of which requires re-allocation of road space away from motorised traffic. In addition to improving cyclist safety, this has the added effect of calming traffic through the requisite lane narrowing, side road geometry/levelling alterations and junction redesigns. The natural result of this is lower speeds, especially in areas where road space is at a premium. This is A Good Thing as the areas where space is at a premium are usually also the areas where roads are (or rather, should be) places rather than routes; including residential areas, shopping streets and around schools and hospitals to name just a few. These are areas where speed reduction is particularly necessary. On roads which are routes rather than places, space is usually at less of a premium, such as dual carriageways and large A-roads linking or bypassing towns, meaning that (if desired) cycle infrastructure can be provided without as much of an impact on the speed and capacity for motor traffic on the adjacent carriageway (with the exception of the requisite junction and side road treatments).

There is a risk when talking about such infrastructure of creating an unholy alliance between those motorists and those cyclists who are most attached to travelling at speed wherever they may be. I have been concerned by the ‘dual-network’ approach the LCC appears to be entertaining with its Go Dutch designs, partly because the dual network approach has a pretty solid track record of not working and partly because it represents an up-front acknowledgement that the designs are not good enough to accommodate the needs of all cyclists. I have also been concerned by the lack of understanding of what Dutch cycle infrastructure actually means by one of the UK’s most prominent cycle bloggers (including the unwelcome presence of a misleading Franklin-era diagram). ‘Going Dutch’ means that people come first, and speed is only accommodated where there are fewest people. It benefits cyclists as much as it does pedestrians and can even make life easier for motorists by keeping them out of the way of the former two.

Whilst the cycle infrastructure along roads which are routes rather than places would naturally facilitate fast cycling (and very fast cycling), cycle infrastructure on roads which are places rather than routes would naturally require some of the very fastest cyclists to slow down, some of the time, just like all the other traffic, or else use another road which is  actually intended as a route. Whilst it may seem acceptable at present to blast past a primary school at 25mph on a road bike where the road is carrying 30mph motor traffic, this kind of arrangement is hardly acceptable; in a location such as this all traffic, regardless of mode, needs to be slowed down to a more civilised level, with fast traffic being reduced in volume substantially.

Taming the motor traffic and turning such a location from a route to a place once again, through the sorts of measures used in The Netherlands, would most likely involve the removal of through motor traffic. The road would likely still allow through cycle and foot traffic, but it would be access only for motor traffic and no-longer be a place for that kind of vigorous, fast cycling. This is not a reason for fast, sport-oriented cyclists to oppose such changes; the road nearby which is a route will have been altered too, in a way which would comfortably accommodate high speed cycling.

Faster, sportier cyclists have nothing to fear from ‘going Dutch,’ provided they are willing to accept that there are times and a places where speed is acceptable, but people have to come first.