Thursday, 25 May 2017

The Red Bank Holiday Herring

We're about to have the perfect storm of a pretty good looking Bank Holiday weekend, and the usual predictions of record traffic.

Apart from people wanting a couple of days away from the rat race (and who wouldn't with all the doom and gloom), the predicted spike in traffic is, well, predictable given that lots of people will have 3 days off. Why it is a surprise, I don't know;
Whether it's the early May, late May or August Bank Holiday, the same old news is trotted out as the 2 minutes of research in the links show. As ever, when demand outstrips supply, we get congestion. That's life and we should resign ourselves to sitting in traffic if we choose to drive on bank holidays; it would obviously be daft to add capacity to deal with a few "get away" days a year.

The bank holiday getaway is a red herring because the real story is about the Government's continuing obsession with building road miles on England's strategic network (and the devolved administrations are just as bad) because we know for a fact that this induces more traffic. Beyond the strategic network, people are going somewhere and when they hit towns and cities, there generally is not commensurate road and car park building going on. We know what happens there, we have people sitting in traffic (on the buses too), walking and cycling is awful and most people in power can't escape their own limited thinking.

It's the old personal mobility conundrum in that the easier we make it for people to travel, the further they can travel in the same time. The UK obsession is that roads equal mobility and they are intrinsically tied to economic growth. The downsides are downplayed, ignored or frankly, lied about - just look at the air pollution crisis.

Mobility can be great if we're going to visit a new place for a holiday and in many ways, the stress of the journey is soon forgotten as we slip into the pool, sip our beer or just forget about the daily grind. But for every day journeys, most people are not given a choice; their option is to either run a car or - well if they can't afford to run a car or overpriced public transport, or they don't/ can't drive then few leaders are bothered about them.

Sunday, 21 May 2017


Why is it hard to discuss active travel publicly without it descending into "whataboutery"; and by that I mean that despite rational attempts to construct a cogent argument in favour of prioritising active travel, we get "ah, what about" in response. 

This common denominator essentially cuts out the use of further facts because the Whatabouter will be unable to provide any data or even a logical discourse.

On Friday, there was a vigil by Stop Killing Cyclists outside Labour's HQ which highlighted the type on money the UK should be allocating and investing in active travel - 10% of the transport budget by 2020. (There is also a vigil planned at Conservative HQ this coming Friday). 

There were tweets on the event and as usual, some London taxi drivers threw in their tuppence worth. This choice comment caught my eye;

In a rare piece of witty (I thought so) chance I was able to recall where I could found a mode share graphic, I tweeted back;

I have blanked out the person I responded to because apart from the fact they have now deleted their account, the words are more important than the person as this is the type of uninformed view people often take. It's also easier to fire rhetoric than engage in productive debate.

Responses to the tweet trod the well worn path of accusing "cyclists" (that out-group again) of jumping red lights and mowing people down; you know how this goes. 

Then we get the the whataboutery which can be found in most threads on the subject.

"What about plumbers who need to get to a job and need their van?"

"What about construction firms needing to shift 10 tonne loads of rubble?"

"What about cyclists who jump red lights"

"What about disabled people who rely on taxis?"

"What about people who need to get to business meetings?"

"What about the emergency services who need their vehicles?"

"What about fixing potholes first?"

"What about traffic congestion?"

"What about people who can't ride that far?"

"What about buses?"

"What about insurance for cyclists?"

Yes, what about those things? Some are very important such as needing to shift construction materials around, having to deal with emergencies and like taxis being a lifeline for people who cannot contemplate active travel under the current conditions (and for those people who could not even if it was all perfect). 

These are important issues which need to be planned and catered for, but please don't conflate this with needing to make accommodation without question - we've tried this for a long time and it clearly doesn't work. The Whatabouters never think of themselves of being part of the problem;

"What about car-lined streets that block ambulances and fire engines?"

"What about construction vehicles or delivery vehicles being stuck in traffic jams full of single-occupancy private cars?"

"What about people parked on the footway blocking someone using a mobility scooter?"

"What about the van driver trying to deliver from a bus stop and now the bus driver can't get into the stop and so the wheelchair ramp can't be deployed?"

"What about people too scared to walk to the shops because of drivers rat-running their street?"

"What about transport poverty - people who can't afford a car or public transport, how do they get to work?"

"What about pollution by the local primary school?"

Well, what about you being the fanatic?

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Fire Engine vs Bollard: Who's Going to Win

Something a little different this week and despite the slightly tongue-in-cheek title of this post, there is an interesting story to tell.

First, my thanks goes to the London Fire Brigade for trusting me with a spanking new fire engine, but sometimes in life, we just need to have a go at something to prove it works - more on that in a bit, but first a little background.

In the last few years, I've been able to work on some schemes which contain an element of filtered permeability designed to prevent access for through motor traffic. We know this is a vital piece of a wider approach to creating liveable neighbourhoods, but there is the issue of how we prevent or discourage motor vehicle access. I blogged about this a while back and in many respects this is an update.

As a sort of recap, we have moved from staggered barriers and gates to embrace the humble bollard (by we, I mean my team in the day job - lots of other people haven't got this far yet). We've kept it simple and have used the mantra of using odd numbers of bollards with 1500mm clear spacings. Our centre bollards will be of a removable type to allow maintenance and fire access. The spacing and the bollard width will always give at least 3100mm when the centre bollard is removed which is perfect for fire access.

On one particular scheme, I met with a representative of the local traffic police who had some concerns to discuss. One of these concerns was the use of a central steel bollard as shown on the above photo. The concern was that should it be clipped by a person cycling or riding a powered 2-wheeler, the outcome could be serious. The concern extended to the potential for a collision in the event the police were pursuing a suspect (powered 2-wheeler or car), although if it is getting risky, the police will stop the pursuit.

At this, point, one could suggest that a person fleeing the police deserve what they get and if they crash into a bollard and get hurt, then tough. However, as a designer (and from a local highway authority point of view) there is still a duty of care. From a sustainable safety point of view, then yes, there is a potential risk to law-abiding cyclists and so we should demand more from ourselves.

You might remember the above photo from my previous blog (and a tweet where I gave it a little wobble). The bollards are made by Glasdon and they are the Advanced Neopolitan 150 Rebound Impactapol units; and the centre bollard has the LockFast Socket option. I've no personal affiliation to Glasdon, but I have been a long time fan of the company and this is a perfect product for the application.

The arrangement was chosen because we can remove the centre bollard for access and if it gets destroyed, then we can swap it out for a new one (the outer bollards not generally being in the firing line). The Impactapol option allows fire engines to simply drive over the bollard as can be seen in this video from the manufacturer;

The reason I was interested in the product was because with the steel bollard, they are padlocked from removal using a standard fire brigade lock. Unfortunately, keys are readily available and in my area, there are locations where fire gates and bollards are readily opened/ removed (unlawfully) by people who have keys. The removable variant of this bollard needs a special key which is only available from the supplier (and so not readily available to the public).

The site in the photo above is actually at the end of a cul-de-sac and protects a little pedestrian area, although people can cycle through to some cycle parking. In reality, the fire brigade wouldn't actually need to go through, but it was a useful site for testing in a location where it didn't matter if the experiment went wrong.

You might also be interested in this video from the manufacturer showing a high speed collision with the bollard. Again, why should care about someone blasting through? Well, again, we try to keep everyone safe. Even if they are maniacs;

For many reasons, it took a while to arrange a fire engine to have a go at our installation. Despite my reckless post title, you can now see that this has all been tested and at a low speed, there was never a risk of damage to the fire engine;

OK, I've hinted enough, I made a little video of Fire Engine vs Bollard;

As you can see, it worked completely as planned. But that's not the end of the story. The idea of using the removable centre bollard was so the fire-fighters could remove it to drive through. It is often the case that in response to a call, the fire brigade wouldn't bother stopping to unlock gates or bollards as it is too fiddly and takes valuable time; they will go the long way around. However if the incident is large, they may need to take a secondary access and so will open up the closure.

This is not always the case and in the conversation with the crew who assisted us today, they cited some cases where they still opened up a fire gate because it was still quicker, but as one said "if it is 3am, dark and raining, it's a real pain to deal with fire gates and it takes time". 

There was also some scepticism about the collapsible bollards because if they could drive their fire engine over them, then so could anyone else if they knew what they were doing. Yes, this is absolutely true. In a normal car, driving through might damage it, but someone in a company van or truck might take the chance and if they go slowly they'll get away with it. 

Where we have installed a road closure of this nature, we would generally use traffic signs to give effect to the traffic order which should be in place (if we intend to enforce the restriction). If we closed the road with a fire gate, people opening it up for their own access are very clearly disobeying the closure, but it happens. 

This really is no different to using a collapsible bollard. If we have the right signs up, we can also use camera-enforcement and believe me, local people will soon report abuse. If we have someone doing this repeatedly, then this will need police involvement. The parallel here is the argument for staggered barriers on cycle routes to stop mopeds which we know doesn't work.

It might not suit every location or configuration, but the balance here is as follows;
  • Providing a physical deterrent to drivers,
  • Improving passive safety for cyclists who might clip the bollard,
  • Improving passive safety for people who might accidentally drive into the bollard,
  • Improving the passive safety of people being chased by the police,
  • Providing a simpler way for the fire brigade to get through a modal filter in an emergency.
For a wider roll out, I would suggest the white bollards with red reflectors to improve day and night conspicuity. Where used in a side road, then the bollards need to be set back so a fire engine turning in from the main road can "attack" the centre bollard straight on.

As often is the case in traffic engineering, there are compromises to be debated. In this case, we have a solution which ticks most of the boxes. Where we have abuse of the system, then this is more serious than contravening a traffic order (which at the basic level is probably not that dangerous in the context I have set out). We do get the potential for someone in the know to go through with covered number plates (it happens), but again, this is a more serious thing.

All in all, my colleagues and I were happy with the test as were the fire-fighters and their station officer. At the end of the test, they could see real value to their fire response times and from our point of view, it's a pretty cheap method of filtering. The bollards can take some knocks and abuse, but are cheap to swap. If a gate or fixed bollard is hit, then it can be far more expensive to repair or replace, so the maintenance guys are happy. Finally, it shows the value of local engagement of a key stakeholder and it's always worth using their local knowledge. So in Fire Engine vs Bollard: who's going to win? I think we all did on this one!

Update 14-5-17
Perhaps I should do more research before I post, but I found a very interesting Freedom of Information response from the London Fire Brigade to someone who clearly doesn't like the modal filters. There are two responses here and here.

In the second one, a statement was made by the LFB (beyond what is required in terms of releasing information;

I must first advise you – as I mentioned briefly in my acknowledgement – that some of the matters which you have asked me to review require an opinion of the Brigade, and not the provision of data we hold. Under FOIA, you only have a right to the data we hold.

Putting your rights under FOIA aside for a moment, I think it would be fair to say that road closures can cause delays to the arrival of LFB appliances at emergency incidents. Those closures would need to reflect the main traffic routes used by Brigade vehicles, and the extent of delay that might arise from the closure of minor (or side) roads, would depend on the numbers of incidents we expect to attend in the areas affected by the closure. 

Road closures are a frequently occurring feature of London’s infrastructure and, so far, they have never caused a detrimental delay to our emergency response. We know from analysis that the cause of most delay’s in our response is the time it takes for people to call the Brigade. An analysis of fires shows that on nearly half of occasions it takes more than 10 minutes from the start of the fire for the Brigade to be called (and it taking us less than 6 minutes, on average, to arrive).

This is one (big) scheme in one city and so local conditions may vary. However, there is information in the response that shows the LFB are on a steering group and there is definite two-way discussions going on with the council. It seems that the LFB is taking a pragmatic approach with this particular project and they don't have any fundamental issues.

One final point on fire access. Where fire gates or lockable removable bollards are being used, we would normally add a universal fire brigade padlock. The standard keys are available very easily (just Google it) and the sort of person to ignore a no motor vehicles sign and then drive over a bollard would happily avail themselves of a key (this definitely happens at a couple of places in my area).

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Missing The Point By A Mile

I'm often reading about how cycle tracks (and I mean tracks, not painted lanes) are empty off-peak and this is a reason why they shouldn't be provided. At best, this is crass ignorance and at worse a calculated play by people with something to lose from providing for active travel.

It should be clear to anyone with a modicum of understanding of how transport works, that at peak times the chances are that it will be busy and this will hold true across all transport modes. It therefore follows that off-peak, there will be less people travelling. This is a really simple and basic pair of facts. OK then, if we now think about capacity as the amount of people we can move along a bit of infrastructure for a given length of time, and demand as being the amount of people who want to move along the same bit of infrastructure for the same given length of time.

I don't think I have stated anything particularly baffling and to take this just a little step further, where demand exceeds capacity, then those people trying to move along that bit of infrastructure will experience congestion and delay.

Let's now imagine that we are a government (local, regional or national, it doesn't matter) and we want to get people travelling in a particular way. At a national level, we might think that everyone having the wondrous freedom of driving their own motor car is the way forward and so we start to add capacity to make our chosen mode more attractive because we don't want our voters inconvenienced by traffic jams - OK, you don't need me to go on, you know where this leads.

At the regional or local government scale we generally don't have the space to keep adding motor capacity, unless we fancy knocking down some homes or tarmacking the parks (and some UK local authorities are perfectly happy to do this), so the challenge is to use the space we have efficiently to move people and goods around.

With congestion (regardless of mode type), there is always the debate about making sure delays aren't too great, otherwise people might not use that bit of infrastructure. On the other hand perhaps we don't want to have the capacity way over demand as then our bit of infrastructure will seem superfluous and profligate. The problem here is that we will always require a basic amount of space for a mode to function, be footway width, the number of rail lines, traffic lane widths/ numbers, runway width and length; and indeed cycling infrastructure.

So, with a combination of having basic functional space requirements (and I mean that from a practical point of view) and the off-peak situation, we are going to see quiet times. This could be quiet train carriages, an empty dual carriageway or an empty cycle track. It is the latter which we often see this strange outrage against and especially where the person frothing makes some comment about that exact space being needed for peak driving times which coincidentially, is exactly the same time more people will be cycling or want to cycle.

Any idiot can take a photo of empty cycle tracks, and equally, of empty roads - and I frequently do! Part of my commute is next to dual carriageway which is pretty quiet off peak as it's capacity purpose is to stuff people into and out of our part of London twice a day. Off peak you can usually catch a gap between traffic signals and therefore one can show empty tarmac;

The photo above shows one side of an empty dual carriageway and indeed, an empty shared-use cycle track. What does this tell us? Absolutely nothing perhaps - it was just that I could easily pick a gap between traffic signals to show. Actually, it tells us a fair bit. First, we have a dual carriageway which was built for a reason and at peak times, it is busy;

As you can see above, bus passengers have to sit in the daily traffic jam with the empty shared-use cycle track sitting next to them. However, there is a basic amount of space one needs to get that bus along this trunk road. We can have a debate about how many lanes we should have (and indeed if there should be a bus lane), but there is a basic amount of practical space needed on this type of road.

The shared-use cycle track is narrower than one of the traffic lanes, but in terms of space, it's probably a reasonably practical minimum, although in certain locations, there is conflict with pedestrians. That aside, for this type of (approximately) inter-urban road, a cycle track like this will need to be this wide even if lightly used by people cycling. Taking this space away at peak times to build another traffic lane will deal with congestion in the short term, but it will bar the few people cycling on or off peak.

The other issue about my local dual carriageway is the one of community severance. The crossing opportunities on this road are roughly one every 350 metres. There is a subway in one location and some signalised crossings associated with large junctions, but the rest of them are informal gaps in the central reservation like this;

Someone wishing to cross on foot or cycle have to wait to find gaps in the traffic to cross (and then the same on the other carriageway). At peak times, gaps take ages to find and off peak, drivers are faster which means finding a gap is also tricky. These conditions will put off many people from crossing - it's the mere size and intimidation of the road creating this issue; the traffic flow is almost secondary. They are not going to walk a long way and back again to use the signals or the subway. If they have a car, they might drive because it's easier. We have placed (motor) traffic movement above all else. One might think that's appropriate given the function of this road (an arterial route), but the cost is the independence of active travel.

The photo above was taken at one of the London Kidical Mass rides last year; Saturday 19th September to be exact (about lunch time); on the Embankment in Central London. Those who condemn the space taken by this type of world-class cycling infrastructure (because they want "their" peak weekday traffic space back) essentially condemn this group of families to the previous conditions which were a little like this;

Families did not cycle here peak or off-peak, so the argument made misses the point by a mile (ignorantly or deliberately). On the matter of the Embankment cycleway (and this part of CS3 in general), Transport for London and Mayor Johnson on this issue were brave and as a result, cycle traffic has grown hugely at peak times and in some ways more importantly, we are seeing families and tourists pootling around whether on or off peak.

I took the photo above yesterday at about 13.15 on Blackfriars Bridge (CS6 for locals). It's a cycle tour which (in all reality) was simply not possible before this infrastructure was built. Those against cycle tracks crave this space for their peak time driving, but its reallocation has opened up parts of London to people who wouldn't be cycling at peak times.

There is a parallel of "road" capacity with cycle track capacity in that the more people we get (driving or cycling respectively), the higher the demand and eventually we get congestion. The difference here of course is that we can move far more people per hour by cycle than we can by motor car.

But, it's more than that, the provision of proper cycle tracks enables people other than commuters to cycle for their day to day transport needs, to have some exciting active leisure or (as I'm often spotting) shifting stuff around. They arguably benefit more than the commuters.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Stories From The School Run: How Can We Get Change?

This week we ran the little pop-up event "Stories from the school run" (or #schoolrunstories on Twitter) and as with last year, it was about people just trying to get their kids to school actively, despite the conditions.

Experience does of course vary across the country, but most people will just be getting on with it and they don't have the time to lobby for change (let's face it, most people are just trying to get on with their lives generally). In the meantime, aside from relatively isolated pockets, people and their children struggle to walk along footways parked with cars, cross busy roads and let's face it, cycling is often an unusual form of school transport.

How can we crack this? It's an issue which has fluttered across my mind from time to time and this week it was back front and centre because I had a meeting with some local schools to talk about school travel. To set the scene, the meeting was with two primary schools which are very close to each other and share the same issues on the surrounding streets such as parking, speeding on the main road, lack of crossing opportunities and no protection for cycling at all. The meeting was small, just head teachers and a couple of governors, but they were eager to report back to their children who are very interested in their own travel options.

The location of the schools has a public transport accessibility level (PTAL) of 2 (poor). Most of the surrounding area has a PTAL of less than 2 (some with zero). We're very lucky in London as Transport for London crunches lots of data and turns it into useful tools such as WebCAT. One of the schools is a gold accredited STARS school (again, London has a TfL-run system, although Modeshift runs one elsewhere) and the other is a bronze school. 

In essence, gold STARS accreditation means that the school is doing loads of things to try and encourage and enable pupils and parents to ditch the car and indeed, gold schools are often trying to build links with the community to look at common issues (and helping other schools is one of them). This gets me to the point. The gold school is pretty much doing everything it can and impressively, only 9% of pupils are driven to school. The problem is that those 9% still generate plenty of vehicle movements and so they want to do more.

At least with the limited sample of "gold" schools I have discussed school travel with, they have worked as hard as they can to make change happen, but they are now up against the final challenge. This is of course, the streets that surround them and on which their parents and pupils travel; this needs action by the local authority and not to put too fine a point on it, councillors with determination to allow change to happen.

This is all fine for those places where the politics have shifted beyond the end of the bonnet, but what about places still stuck in the past? For what it's worth, I think there is a role for some engineering subversiveness. Don't worry, it's nothing dodgy, it's simply engineers using their skills to help someone imagine how a street could be transformed and believe me, schools (as a community) have huge imaginations.

With the schools I met this week, the seed was sown at a school travel conference I spoke at 3 years ago as one of the heads remembered my photos of infrastructure; believe me, photos and images sell more aspiration than thousands of words ever could. The aspiration (and inspiration that matter) had made it into the gold school's travel plan which in terms of engineering measures was fairly simple;

  • 20mph speed limit,
  • Add road humps to existing pedestrian crossings,
  • Build some more pedestrian crossings,
  • Build cycle tracks on the main roads near the school.
For my mind, the only thing I would add is something about filtered permeability, but these ideas are home-grown by the school without any help so far and it shows that in actual fact, people do know what is needed to be done, it's just they are not sure of the how it is done. 

I then produced a couple of photos of infrastructure that we have managed to get built locally and a mock up of the main road outside the schools done in the wonderful Streetmix;

It was at that point that the penny completely dropped (and it was already well on its way down); those at the meeting could now see how their local streets could be reworked. They were interested in the relationship between carriageway width and driver speed, how parking bays alternating on each side of the road could change the alignment of the road and that in fact there was space for cycling.

During my journey exploring how engineering can bring about active travel, I've often heard about the UK not being the Netherlands. In the last couple of years, we've seen some high profile work being in this country. Locally, it's been very much "well that's central London" and so despite their isolation, local examples have made it so much easier for local people to understand what can be done.

Anyway, back to the point. The schools I was meeting have realised that writing letters to the council is not the way to get change and so their plan is to work on their travel planning jointly (which will bring the bronze school up to speed) and then to develop a school travel vision to take out into the community. They have realised that between them, they have the children of hundreds of families attending and these families (and their friends) is a community of thousands of people who need to be convinced that change is possible. On the politics, well there could be an unstoppable force on it's way to challenge that.