Sunday, 15 October 2017

Is The Law Stacked Against Active Travel

A bit of musing this week on whether the law reflects the public opinion and in turn, is it the problem when it comes to trying to get change for active travel.

I covered the traffic order process some time ago with a specific point about how the law operates in terms of ordinary roads;

"The archaic way in which highway law evolved in the the UK means that roads are essentially open to all classes of traffic (including pedestrians and cyclists) and any change from this position requires a Traffic Regulation Order (TRO) or in London, a Traffic Management Order."

The only exception to the this apparent free for all is that of default speed limits which are nationally set - i.e. 30mph in lit areas and the National speed limit in unlit areas (known as restricted and unrestricted roads). The impact of this approach is that "might is right" rules and so active travel is marginalised in deference to motor traffic. 

A change to the status quo has to be dealt with on a case by case basis and aside from the physical costs of a scheme, the procedural and statutory requirements of making changes can be a particularly costly undertaking. For example, the physical works for a really simple filtered permeability scheme using a handful of bollards and a traffic sign would be broadly similar as costs for the procedural and statutory requirements to enable the filter to be constructed.

At the other end of the scale, a large project could need lots of traffic orders to make lots of changes and while the cost of the administration will be tiny compared to the works costs, it makes for a great deal of complication. Some authorities deal with this by way of a two-stage approach with the project being informally consulted (from a legal point of view) and once a broad decision is taken to proceed, the various traffic orders can be dealt with locally if there are unresolved issues. Sometimes, the process gets crazy.

In the London Borough of Camden, there is currently an inquiry into the Tavistock Place scheme. In brief, the project is using an experimental traffic order to change a corridor from a 2-way street for general traffic with a 2-way cycle track to a layout creating two one-way cycle tracks and a one-way for general traffic. Essentially it's a capacity increasing scheme for cycling and if made permanent, it would lead to a reconstruction of the street which would provide more pedestrian space too.

The inquiry is apparently being held as the experimental order was not properly deposited at one of the council's offices (held to be publicly available), although there were objectors and an inquiry adds a certain amount of independence and transparency to the proceedings. You can follow progress on the Camden Cycling Campaign's website. Objections is the key here. The law is arranged to invite written objections to a proposed traffic order as set out in The Local Authorities' Traffic Orders (Procedure) (England and Wales) Regulations 1996 as amended (Scotland is here); 

"8.—(1) Any person may object to the making of an order by the date specified in the notice of proposals or, if later, the end of the period of 21 days beginning with the date on which the order making authority has complied with all the requirements of regulation 7(1) to (3)."

Of course, the ability for someone to object is clearly important in a modern society, but I wonder if the whole thing ends up steeped in negativity from the off. It is interesting to note that highway authorities only have to consider written objections before they make their decision (broadly) and have to pay no regard to any written expressions of support.

On the one hand, this could be taken as a highway authority being able to assume anything they propose is the right thing to do and the statutory process is a democratic check in case a proposal has a potential impact on someone which wasn't envisaged. The same Regulations specify those who should be consulted as a matter of routine;

"4.—(1) Before making an order in a case specified in column (2) of an item in the table below, the authority shall consult the persons specified in column (3) of the item."

It's not unreasonable to consult other organisations which might be affected by a proposal - a filtered permeability proposal should be communicated to the emergency services for example. In all cases, the highway authority can also identify organisations as appropriate, but also must consult the Freight Transport Association and the Road Haulage Association.

The provision of controlled crossings (zebras or signalised) also have a statutory requirement, but this time it is limited to consulting the police and giving public notice (s23 RTRA1984), although this often ends up being a consultation process as well.

The common theme with all of this is whenever we wish to control the use of (mainly) motor vehicles in terms of speed, access, parking and so on (in favour of active travel), the process becomes convoluted and it certainly brings out the objectors in force. 

Transport for London is currently consulting on two new cycle superhighways (CS4 and CS9). The first has a parish priest asking his congregation to pray against the scheme as it will "do more damage than the Luftwaffe" and the latter has a funeral director saying the superhighway should be built somewhere else. Even small interventions get savaged such as a proposed puffin crossing in Lyme Regis where the mayor of the town is concerned about the loss of parking spaces

Are these types of objections merely a manifestation of how reliant we have become on motor vehicles and the law which has developed around changing streets merely a reflection on this culture where so much time and effort has to be expended on dealing with objections?

I wonder where we would be if legislation was adjusted. As well as having to consult freight organisations, shouldn't consultation with local walking and cycling groups be mandatory? Perhaps written expressions of support must also be taken into account (whether or not they already influence decisions). In overruling an objection, a highway authority should really be able to explain why and in the same way, shouldn't an overruling of support be subject to some transparency?

What if the law was changed to require highway authorities to consider the impact a proposal has on active travel and for it to be properly and transparently recorded? You might accuse me of being biased and you would be right, but no more biased than a system which assumes a status quo which makes it so difficult to get change in favour of active travel.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Part 4 - Time & Space

This week, my taste of Dutch cycling infrastructure has a little look at how space and time are used to get people cycling through busy junctions.

Just along from the side road I looked at last time, Middenweg intersects with Kruislaan to form a signalised crossroads. Middenweg runs southeast to northwest (towards central Amsterdam) and Kruislaan runs southwest to northeast. The northeastern arm connects to the University of Amsterdam Science Park and the southwestern arm is a distributor type road connecting with residential areas and other suburbs (but not as large a road as Middenweg). 

I should state that this is just one junction - others are available in terms of layout and operation and there are issues here which I'll cover later. Hindsight is wonderful as in researching this post, I have found out I could have seen another roundabout and some serious railway overpasses

But, it was a holiday and I was out for a cycle with my son who had to keep stopping for me to take photos!

The photo above shows Middenweg as we cycled northwest towards central Amsterdam. As we've come to expect on big roads, we've motor traffic in its own space (with a tram in the middle), a verge for trees and highway "stuff" (and to provide a safety buffer for people cycling), a smooth red cycletrack and footway, raised slightly above the cycle track. The kerb between the cycle track and the footway is not forgiving (sloped) which shows that even the Dutch can be behind their own best practice!

As we get closer to the junction, the verge becomes a narrower paved strip to give way for a left turn traffic lane.

As we get to the junction, we can see quite a lot going on;
  • Cycle track narrows and moves left to create pedestrian refuge,
  • The pedestrian crossing of the cycle track is a zebra, whereas the crossing of the carriageway is signalised (green man) with a push button demand,
  • Left hand motor traffic lane has a green signal (hard to see, but it's there) and left turning driver is waiting for the oncoming tram to pass,
  • Cycles have a green signal, so they're running at the same time as the ahead/ left motor traffic lane, but there's no "free" right turn for cycles,
  • Right hand motor traffic lane is held on red with a red arrow signal,
  • The right turn traffic signal has a low level signal.

The photo above is a panorama of the junction, taken from a different position from the previous photo. To the left is Kruislann (towards the science park), the cycle track running into the distance is Middenweg (looking at where the previous photo was taken from), middle right is the other arm of Kruislaan and to the right (where the bus is coming from) is Middenweg which continues into the city.

The photo above shows a closer view of a little island which is used on three corners of the junction. It's essentially a remnant of the space left when setting out cycle tracks around the junction with gaps for access. The idea of the layout is drivers turning right will see people crossing (where the signal arrangements mix in this way).

Let's watch a video - first we see people using the junction and then I film a left turn which has to take place in two stages because of the way the junction works.

You'll have noticed that ahead cycling runs with ahead traffic and on Middenweg (the road with the trams), right turning traffic is held to remove the risk of right hook. On the other hand, you'll see on the later section of the video (from a cycling position on Kruislaan), right turning traffic is not held, hence the 'Let Op' sign warning of right hooks as traffic and cycles move together. 

The layout (where traffic right turns are not held) does have the cycle stop line way beyond that of the driver. The theory is that drivers turning right will be doing so fairly tightly and so slowly and they will see people cycling as they make the turn. However, at this junction, there isn't really enough space for a driver to complete the turn and stop before the cycle/ pedestrian parallel crossing which is why I assume the sign is there.

You'll also note that there are some people cycling the wrong way or from strange directions - this is because the two stage left turn is less convenient (drivers don't have to put up with it) which means people don't all behave in accordance with the rules. Pedestrians do have to cross the cycle track which I know is a concern for visually impaired people (although the zebra does afford priority) and the refuge between the track and the carriageway is narrow. Much of this is down to the space being dominated by motor traffic.

I'd recommend reading posts on this type of junction from David Hembrow and Mark Wagenbuur. You might also like an older video of mine showing a simultaneous green for cycles by way of a contrast;

You can also catch up with Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Saturday, 30 September 2017


I've been inspired to write about competency this week. What is it? How do we measure it? Who decides if someone is competent?

This post is inspired by a Twitter discussion with Sea of Change Film who were asking what qualifications were needed to design roads in the UK. The question was prompted about issues in a "shared space" scheme in Preston.

Now, as you may know, I don't like the catch-all term "shared space" because each situation and each street is often different, but I get its use by campaigners where they are trying to highlight some common accessibility issues (especially for people with visual impairment) such as;

  • Lack of controlled crossings (signals and zebras),
  • Lack of kerb upstands,
  • Lack of contrast between footway areas and carriageway areas,
  • Lack motor traffic reduction where the other three points persist.
Anyway, this is not a post about the subject, just an introduction to set the scene on one particular angle on what I think competency might mean (and I'll come back to this later). Before I go on, I must recommend that you watch the Sea of Change film (especially if you are a street designer);

OK then, competency? A dictionary definition is;

Having the necessary ability, knowledge, or skill to do something successfully.

Immediately, the word "successfully" is open to debate because success means different things to different people. One measure of success could be measuring a completed project against its stated objectives - how well did we solve the problem? The pitfall here is the one of defining the problem in the first place. Let's use the example of Exhibition Road in London. I'm using it partly because I'm being provocative and partly because it is a "shared space" scheme which relates to the introduction to this post.

For those who don't know Exhibition Road, it is one of London's big tourist destinations with the Science Museum, Natural History Museum and others situated along its length. Following a long development phase, the street was transformed from a "traditional" wide London street of narrow footways and lots of (motor) traffic lanes into something that provides far more pedestrian space and at a high level, a far nicer public space.

The scheme also included a complex reworking of local streets in the area to get rid of various one-way systems. So was it a success and were the people involved in its design "competent"? 

  • A forward looking streetscape 
  • Retain character
  • Cater for growing numbers of visitors
  • Cater for residents’ needs
  • Maintain vehicular route 
  • Improve pedestrian environment
  • An accessible space
  • Cater for servicing and transport needs
  • An inclusive design
As the project was being developed, there was a judicial review lodged by Guide Dogs against the use a level surface (nominal footways and carriageways at the same level, without kerbs) and this ended with the local authority working with Guide Dogs and others to change the design to provide tactile strips to demarcate "safe" areas that people with visual impairment would know to be car-free (and hence the judicial review being put on hold).

In terms of the defined objectives, I'd suggest that most have been met and on that basis, the scheme could be argued as successful. However, given that Guide Dogs and others are still against some of the design principles used (despite the compromises made), the scheme won't be recognised as successful by many people and it is arrogant to think otherwise. Most recently, the street has been made one of the Mayor of London's Quietways and by this, I mean the letter 'Q' has been painted on the ground;

The photo was taken at 7am on a Saturday which is a stark contrast to how busy the street during the day;

Transport for London gives Quietway objectives as;

Linking key destinations, they will follow backstreet routes, through parks, along waterways or tree-lined streets.

The routes will overcome barriers to cycling, targeting cyclists who want to use quieter, low-traffic routes, providing an environment for those cyclists who want to travel at a more gentle pace.

When measured against those objectives, I'd argue that Exhibition Road is a failure as it's not a quieter, low traffic street by any means.

Therefore, I would advance that "success" is in the eye of the beholder. Exhibition Road is a success in terms of its transformational impact on an important international cultural destination, but it's not a success for some of the people who might want to use it (and who now are nervous using it). Therefore, success might also a frozen point in time - in other words, something deemed successful at the time might be measured differently later, especially if something new is being tried that doesn't perhaps fit with the original objectives?

In street design, is it ever possible to have a set of objectives that meets the needs of anyone with an interest in the scheme? One of the Exhibition Road objectives was to maintain a vehicular route - this means a through-route and not just access to those who need it. By setting this as an objective (knowing what the likely traffic flows would be), was the objective on inclusivity ever going to be fully met? Does this mean that for street design, objectives need to be set in a hierarchy of priority?

Looking back (which is easy from my armchair) I would have asked more questions about the objectives. If remaining a motor traffic route was immoveable, then the design should have been different and there would have been compromises against the vision on how the street should look. For example, maintaining a kerb for people with visual impairment would have meant those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters would have needed regular crossing points with flush kerbs; although this could have coincided with humped zebra crossings to give help people with visual impairment.

Maintaining a kerb would have helped with making bus stops fully accessible (a kerb meeting a low floor bus). If cycling had been part of the consideration with the level of traffic (and mixing with buses/ service trucks), then we might expect cycle tracks. Of course, all of this "stuff" would have eroded the success of the streetscape aspect. In fact, had motor traffic been filtered out and reassigned at a network level, then the street could have been made a pedestrian and cycle zone.

Competency then. I have no doubt that the professionals involved in the Exhibition Road scheme were competent planners, designers, engineers and architects and they clearly had the ability, knowledge and skill to deliver the scheme. On the Quietway scheme, the answer has to be the same; just because one disagrees with project objectives, it doesn't mean those involved in delivery are not competent. With the Quietway, adding cycle tracks was never going to happen and so the complaint about the scheme must be lodged with the people at the top. One could argue that a competent designer must challenge an unachievable objective and that is true, it's just that we are rarely party to such discussions!

If ability, knowledge and skill define a competent person, what do they look like? At a basic level, the person involved must surely have a basic understanding of what they are doing. For example, in order to design a zebra crossing, the person should have designed them before, they should know the regulations governing them and they should have an understanding of how they fit into the street. In other words, dragging a person off the street and giving them a pencil is not going to make a competent designer!

A competent zebra crossing designer (as a technical person) is probably (but not vitally) going to have a relevant academic qualification. They are going to be able to demonstrate that they have had some relevant training and they will have a track record of designing zebra crossings. Of course, people have to start somewhere and so our zebra crossing designer will have designed their first one (or several) under the supervision of a more experienced designer and in accordance with a system of review so that their designs are checked and challenged. A very important aspect of the competency of our zebra crossing designer is that they will understand their own limitations. When a client approaches them and says "you're in the crossing the road game, can you design me a bridge", our zebra crossing designer will decline the commission if they are competent!

A person can also have all of the academic qualifications under the sun, but not necessarily be competent. Imagine a few years later, our zebra crossing designer has become an expert and in fact, they have returned to academia and they are now professor of zebra crossings; travelling the world to teach other people about the delights of zebra crossings. After a few years, the regulations have changed, construction methods have been refined; our professor hasn't actually designed a zebra crossing for a decade now and they've not kept up with developments. All of a sudden, our expert is no longer competent to design zebra crossings (although they will still be an expert in the principles because they have studied them at length).

Competency as a designer is a life-long undertaking, underpinned (often) by relevant academic qualifications which taught the person to think, relevant experience in their chosen field, evidence of continuing professional development and self-knowledge in terms of personal limitations. In highway (and street design) competency must surely also include a proper appreciation of the needs of the end user - an ability to see things from a user perspective and to recommend how competing demands can be compromised or knowing when they cannot.

I often read that the last people who should be designing our streets are highway engineers. I can understand where this comes from because most day to day highway schemes are delivered by highway engineers. They are generally not high profile and they are trying to solve a problem which may not always be properly defined and often using really poor guidance. They might also be stuck in a rut in terms of being able to think critically and understand their increasingly important role as advocates for end users.

I say (well I would of course) that highway engineers should be leading the design of our streets, but they should feel more empowered to challenge the objectives they are set, especially if they are in direct conflict with each other. The problem is, engineers are problem-solvers and to that end, they like to define the problems to be overcome and this often comes across as negativity. No wonder non-expert clients are taken in by the promises of snake oil street designs.

Designers can consolidate their competency by gaining a professional qualification and membership of a professional institution. In doing so, a line is drawn under their basic competency which they can then build upon. Again, a professional qualification doesn't make a person competent, they have to continue with professional development, but at least it can reassure a client that the person is worth engaging.

I hope I have made the distinction between a poorly defined set of project objectives and a designer's competence defining the success of a scheme. As with Sea of Change Film's concerns about a particular style of street treatment, the force of the concern must be aimed at the objectives, especially with the common theme of a superficially pretty street with no motor traffic reduction. It is the role of a competent highway engineer to understand the needs of the end user and be vocal where they are not met by a project objective.

Saturday, 23 September 2017

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe: Part 3 - A City Road & A Side Street

This is the latest in a series of posts about some of my adventures in the Netherlands which took place over the summer. I've introduced the subject and talked about roundabouts. This week, I'm going to concentrate on a city street and a typical side street connecting to it.

About 4km to the south-east of Amsterdam, in the neighbourhood of Watergraafsmeer, there is the Betondorp estate. One half contains a residential area and the other half contains the cemetery, crematorium and memorial garden of De Nieuwe Ooster. The residential area is filtered from through traffic (which has to stick to the main roads around it), but of course, one can cycle around and through the area. It's pleasant enough of course, but it is entirely unremarkable.

One of the motor-vehicle access points into the estate is Zaaiersweg which meets the S113 Middenweg. 'S' roads (or stadsroutes) are city roads connecting the city to ring roads or motorways. At about 25m in width, Middenweg (photo below) crams in space for walking, cycling, trams/buses and motor vehicles. Again, it's an unremarkable width; compare with the 32m dual-carriageway of Stratford High Street in London for example. As usual, the Dutch are not focusing on just motor traffic.

So why am I interested in a side road off an ordinary and unremarkable Dutch "city road"? The answer is that it is a very good example of how to give priority to people walking and cycling. Let's take a look;

As you can see above, Zaaiersweg is the road to the right and Middenweg stretches into the distance. Looking at half the street, we can see the following arrangement from left to right;
  • Tram/ bus lane,
  • General traffic lane,
  • Verge (paved either side of the side road, green elsewhere),
  • Cycle track,
  • Footway.
The logic is simple. Trams and buses follow direct routes which pass other motor vehicles and their routes ahead are also clear (so avoiding the traffic jams that one can see, even on Dutch roads). There is no messing about with nearside bus lanes which end at large junctions and have other drivers turning across them. In other words, interaction with other vehicles is minimised. Drivers turning into and out of side streets such as Middenweg can also use the central tram/bus lane to turn across traffic in two parts if needed. The bus and tram stops on streets like this are often floating (see below) and in some locations, they have controlled crossings to get passengers to and from the islands.

The verge is an important piece of the puzzle because as well as providing a buffer between motor traffic and people cycling, it provides space for planting and street furniture. It also provides a place into which drivers can pause to turn in and out of the side street without impacting on people walking and cycling too much - the usual UK approach has a driver in this position often blocking people walking and cycling.

As you can see in the photos above, the guy pulling out of the side road is able to see who is coming along the main road and once the guy on the bike has passed, he can then think about joining the main road. In effect he is giving way twice. The verge is paved in this location which gives a little more waiting space (these areas are sometimes larger). You can also see that the footway and the cycle track are continuous across the junction to give actual and visual priority to active travel.

It not just a continuous footway and cycle track we have here, it is kept completely level across the side street. This is achieved by special kerb units called inritbanden which provide a slope from carriageway level up to that of the footway and cycle track (see above and below).

The cycle tracks along Middenweg are nominally one-way and so if you need to turn left out of Zaaiersweg, you're going to have to cross the road (2 traffic lanes and 2 bus/ tram lanes). It's not ideal, especially when the road is a little busier, although in this case, you could turn left and then U-turn through a protected intersection a couple of hundred metres away.

The photo above is a closeup of the inritbanden kerb. In this case, the ramp is about 500mm long and rises about 110mm. It therefore gives a fairly gentle slope, but it is steep enough to give those driving a definite obstacle to deal with in order to keep speeds low.

As can be seen in the photo above, the arrangement of the junction gives drivers a cue that they are entering a lower speed environment which is reinforced with the 30kph (20mph) speed limit.

As one enters the street it is very narrow (but still 2-way) and from a cycling point of view, there is no infrastructure at all. However, speeds are pretty low, the estate is filtered and so none is required. There is a controlled parking zone and some pay-by-phone parking which further reminds us that the Dutch aren't especially anti-car, but they are certainly pro-choice in transport terms.

This type of junction is simple, logical and sensible. It is safe and comfortable to use. Despite the UK not having inritbanden kerbs (I have raised the idea with one UK manufacturer), we can certainly copy this approach in the UK - in fact, it should be the default in this kind of situation.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

London KidicalMASSive 2017

You know the sketch. Provide safe infrastructure and families come out to ride. Today was KidicalMASSive 2017.

This time, as well as taking in the east-west Central London cycleway (CS3), we extended the ride to The Mall which was closed to motor traffic and returned to people. This is the power of infrastructure.

The next ride will be Sunday 3rd December - #KidicalXMass!