Sunday, 12 August 2018

Ramps and Steps

Inclusive design is about more than just giving people options, it's about enabling people to take the same options as everyone else. How we deal with changes in level is perhaps one area which shows this off in sharp relief.

It is a certainty that we'll have to design for level changes because the world isn't flat However, they way in which we deal with those changes can make all the difference. Consider this example from Great Yarmouth;

There's nothing revolutionary or flash about the layout and one can even ask why there are steps at all. However, some people do prefer to use steps and so having a ramp and steps next to each would allow a group of people to broadly stay together as they change level and so in my book, this is a pretty inclusive layout.

The photograph above is a ramp and step combination which I saw recently in Manchester. It works hard to fit into limited space and again (as far as possible) allows a group of people to keep together whether they use steps or ramp.

Ramps do need a heck of a lot of space and the greater the change in level, the greater the length of ramp needed. In the UK, it's something of a tragic design classic that we end up building bridges and underpasses with twisting ramps to fit them into as smaller space as possible like this dystopian mess of an example from the many footbridges crossing the High Speed 1 railway.

This sort of outcome is often because the desire line isn't considered. Bridges like this will often have the desire line for people placed perpendicularly to the obstruction to be crossed and unless space is provided either side to simply lift and drop the desire line, we get convolution. In terms of inclusive design, this bridge is nothing like the elegant solution of the Yarmouth example as people cannot cross as a group. 

Compare the HS1 bridge with this bridge in Cambridge which doesn't bother with steps, as the gentle ramp allows people to pass in groups whether as pedestrian or cyclist

Much of the design thought depends on the context of course. Whilst we can have surface level pedestrian (and cycle) crossings over busy high speed roads, we don't provide them in the UK in general unless they are associated with a junction. Bridges require a greater change in level to get the lorry headroom, whereas underpasses for people require less, even if designed for people riding horses. In this photograph, the Dutch ably show how to get a cycle track under a road;

Crossing rivers will depend on whether or not they are navigable or what is needed in terms of coping with flood events. Railways need certain headroom for the trains (obviously) and whether or not they have overhead power cables.

The key to much of this goes back to the simple provision of infrastructure which follows the desire lines for those people for whom the use of energy to move is the most critical. Get it right and the experience will be better for everyone.

Saturday, 4 August 2018

300th Blog Post: So Where Next?

Rather astonishingly, this is my 300th post to this blog which I started in November 2012 and what a journey I have been on (goodness knows how many words I have written).

In my very first post, I asked the question "what do we really want" in response to the various articles in the CIHT's Transpro magazine for the month. I also made the following comment;

What this single month's magazine shows me is that the UK really doesn't seem to want to get a grip on running its highways properly and doesn't do long-term planning.

It's now the middle of 2018 and I am not sure that as a country, we have changed (well apart from the continuing fallout from *that* referendum). We still want to predict and provide for motorways under the guise of being nationally significant projects, whereas local active travel is stupendously patchy and often reliant on budgets which wouldn't even buy a modest motorway junction - Highways England is currently running at a £2.9bn overspend, a sum which could transform dozens of towns and cities.

We have expensive and often unreliable railways, a big push to move car fuelling from the petrol station to our streets with EV charging and endless studies and reviews whenever we're dealing with local transport and especially active travel.

My most popular post is from 2013 and it was heartening to see that it was Kerb Your Enthusiasm, which has remained my top post for a long time. It's great that people are interested in perhaps the most ordinary element in our streets toolkit because in fact, they are extremely powerful in how they shape space, safety and accessibility. The post actually inspired me to write an entire design guide as part of developing my fledgling micro-consultancy, City Infinity. By the way, The Joy of Kerbs is available for free.

This blog has hit over half-a-million views and I like to think this is more about people being interested in how our highways are designed and managed, rather than my writing skills. Certainly I have been humbled when people have told me they have used my posts as either campaigning tools or as reference materials when they have been undertaking design work. I have even seen my photos appear in consultants' documents when they are trying to get a point or cross. I don't always get the credit, but I am glad the message is spreading.

So, where next? I don't know if blogging is going out of fashion because I am seeing fewer posts from other people I have followed for a long time, but I continue to find writing enjoyable and so I'll carry on for now. I set myself a crazy target of a post a week and while I have ideas, it'll continue. If there is a subject you think I should cover or if there is a problem you want looked at, then please let me know.

It just remains for me to say thank you for reading and let's continue with these adventures in time and space in the strange universe of highways and transport!

Saturday, 28 July 2018

Ride London Freecycle: We Were Lucky With The Weather Edition

So today saw the annual Ride London Freecycle event in central London with it's 8 miles of roads open to cycle traffic and as with previous years, there were some slight tweaks to the route and I thought it was better - the earlier start at 9am was also good.

Anyway, aside from the usual observation about how hostile most of London is for the other 364 days a year, it's nice to let the photos of people having fun speak for themselves. I bring you Ride London Freecycle: We Were Lucky With The Weather Edition (mainly because it was raining for my journey to the start!)

Saturday, 21 July 2018

Planning Pickle

The UK has a fragmented approach to spatial planning which can mean that there is a disconnect between the planning process and impacts on the management of highway networks.

As you'll know, I have gone through something of a journey over the last few years as my training and knowledge has been challenged, moving from car centricism to understanding that this is unsustainable. The risk for me these days is akin to the ex-smoker evangelising about the dangers of smoking and so I need to be careful not to reject all road schemes out of hand (although few have any worth from what I can see).

One of the toughest problems in my view is the disconnect between spatial planning and how to make best use of the highway network. It is problem on different levels, but one of the biggest issues is the multi-tier nature of local government (with some exceptions). With functions often split between highway and planning authorities, the best coordination model in the world isn't going to deal with competing priorities.

For example, London has 32 unitary boroughs and the City of London which look after 95% of the roads as well as being the local planning authorities and so you'd expect it to be fairly joined up locally in terms of planning and highway impacts/ management. However, most of the boroughs also have Transport for London roads passing through them and in some cases, motorways controlled by Highways England. London also has the Mayor who has planning powers on larger developments.

You've English counties which are responsible (pretty much) for all roads in their areas, yet each district or borough (non-unitary) are responsible for planning. It's a similar fragmented picture across the UK. Throw in Highways England, Transport Scotland, the Welsh Government, Department for Infrastructure in Northern Ireland, national park authorities, combined authorities and town and parish councils to be even more confusing. A good commentary on the intricacies can be found here. This is all with a variety of councillors at different levels! There is also a very good guide to the planning processes in each of the 4 UK countries available here.

The unitaries are where things are a bit more joined up (at least in terms of responsibility). In England, there are a few unitary counties such as Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire which means they are responsible for planning and highways, other than any Highways England roads (although they are still planning authority for those).

There are national planning frameworks which translate into local plans (for the spatial planning side) and with trunk roads and motorways, the respective countries administer those at the national level. As I have experienced recently (with my own consultancy work) it is a minefield for people wanting to influence change in their own street or area. Whether it's the community group wanting to get highway changes made for walking and cycling or a rainbow of campaigners fighting to keep a direct road crossing, the odds are stacked against them.

There are also separate processes for nationally important projects where the immediate planning authorities don't make the decisions. For example, in England & Wales, there is the Development Consent Order (DCO) process which seeks to provide reasonably certain timeframes for people making DCO applications - more on that here.

So, it's all rather complex and in many cases rooted in the history of the UK countries, regions and localities. It's telling that for nationally important projects, the decision making is taken away from local planning authorities because otherwise, there would be chaos (whether or not one agrees with a particular scheme or not).

What has this to do with highways? Well, from a planning perspective, the highway authority is a consultee in the process. However, even if it objects to a planning application, it does not automatically follow that the planning authority will refuse planning consent. There is also established case law that a highway authority cannot use its powers to frustrate development. In other words, no second bite of the cherry - this was established with the Powergen case.

So, what is my beef with it all? Well, as is usually the case, we are dealing with the highway network as a finite resource. A development comes along and it will (to a greater or lesser extent) utilise some of that resource. Eventually a development will come along that demands more than is available and so there will be the arguments over whether or not the impact on the highway network is significant (which is a test of acceptability under the National Planning Policy Framework, at least in England).

A good example is one where we have a signalised junction in a town centre and a supermarket with a car park wishes to open close by. The supermarket will attract car-based trips and some will be made through the junction. In a situation where there is spare capacity, then the supermarket's consultant will argue that there is no adverse impact on capacity because there is some spare.

Alternatively, if the junction is running at capacity, then the supermarket's consultant will argue that people will adjust their journey timing to avoid the congested times and that some will switch from competitors so there is no net increase in traffic - I have had that argument advanced with me several times.

In both cases, a highway authority will need to demonstrate that the development creates significant harm, but being one voice in the wider need for regeneration, homes and facilities means that there might not be significant weight afforded the issue by the planning authority.

Where the planning and highway functions are not unitary, this sets things up (potentially) for more conflict, probably because of the competing objectives of planning and highway authorities. The former is there to ensure so-called sustainable development is permitted, subject to ensuring there are no significant impacts and the latter is there (essentially) to maintain the network and ensure people move along it.

With a highway network being a finite resource, it occurs to me that development generally gets access to it all too cheaply which means that the pressure is on the highway authority to accommodate development. This is notwithstanding that mitigation work can be required through a planning consent (either physically or financially), but a developer is not going to deal with decades of neglect (and it wouldn't be reasonable to expect them to).

OK, this is a rambling post and I am not sure I have actually made a point here, but it's good to have some thinking time. So, my questions I think go back to how we are set up for planning and highways in the UK. Should we radically shake up the responsibilities for all of this anyway and move to a model of unitary regions?

London for example, having 32 (and The City) unitary authorities seems crazy to me. So, do we move to a single tier authority where planning and highways (and I guess transport for generally) is dealt with by a single body? Does this remove local democracy in favour of strategic thinking for the wider benefits of London. It would be a similar model as the unitary counties after all? Do you live in a unitary county or have experience of how it works or doesn't work?

Should we move to a more federalist model of perhaps city regions or does that either disadvantage the smaller towns and villages which would be satellite to the regional capital? Conversely, would politics outside of the city make managing the regional capital more difficult?

In terms of managing the highway as a resource, should we overhaul the way in which development fits in? Should we invest and support development which helps build capacity rather than taking it. With my supermarket example, would this enable the very thought of a town centre needing a car park being seen as crazy, so we push for a denser mixed use scheme which would enable the developer to contribute to repurposing the highway network for walking, cycling and public transport?

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Filtering The City : The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's AGM 2018 (Part 3)

In this week's post, I conclude my recent Mancunian adventure with the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain's AGM. I take a little look at some of the other interesting stuff which caught my eye.

For my visit, I stayed in Trafford, right next to some stadium or other at which I assume a football team play. I might be wrong.

Well, if it floats your boat. The thing that caught my eye was some work in progress just down the road from the stadium where the junction of Wharfside Way/ Sir Alex Ferguson Way/ Sir Matt Busby Way was being remodelled. I think it might have something to so with the Metrolink Trafford Park Line scheme, but I'd be interested to know.

In any case, the junction has been remodelled making it straight-forward for people to cycle across the wide Wharfside Way between the two side roads. It's not a pretty layout or anything particularly world-class but it is quite useful and is part of National Cycle Network Route 55. The photo above is the view looking south towards the stadium and the photo below is the view looking north towards Salford Quay.

Heading south, you are taken towards the stadium on NCN55 which passes through a plaza which I assume is part of the stadium because of the bollards either end;

After I rode through, I managed to get lost because after a couple of signs to Manchester City Centre, the wayfinding disappeared and I ended up using my smartphone to navigate. Mind you, I still found more interesting stuff.

The photo above is Phoenix Way which doesn't really make sense. It's a one-way street (south to north) with an apparent one way island protected cycle lane on the offset (also south to north). The first section also has a nearside mandatory cycle lane (see below);

It's all rather curious, but the islands offer plenty of protection. A little further north and the lane gives way to a cycle track;

The track (with the Brooks Building of Manchester Metropolitan University on the left) is again one-way and very nice to use. To the right is a drop down to Princess Road, a dual carriageway which you really don't want to cycle one!

At the end of the track, you go through a bit of shared space, apparently dismount to cross Stretford Road and then you're terrifyingly dumped in the the end of Princess Road where you get to cycle through an interchange with the A57(M)! There is north to south route for cycling on the other side of Princess Road, but in reality, both sides need to be 2-way to make in sense next to such a large road.

Over in Salford, we paid a visit to Coronation Street with it's solid old houses forming part of a wider and mainly filtered residential area.

Trees have been wonderfully woven into the street using build-outs into the carriageway so keeping footways clear.

At the street's western end, the filter (below) wasn't cycle-friendly and so needs upgrading. Further on, there are still fairly busy roads and so some more filtering to keep traffic on the main roads would be welcome.

The city has definitely been up for filtering schemes in the past and there are some creative layouts. Taylorson Street is at the back of the Tudor Ordsall Hall, home (there is debate) of the Gunpowder Plot.

The street is filtered with a pedestrian zone which is always in operation with exceptions for access to the residential dwellings (below).

The pedestrian zone is supplemented by an "no waiting at any time" restriction which is essentially double yellow lines done without paint and so as well as the terminal signs (as you enter and exit - used in pairs as above), there are also yellow repeater signs within the zone.

Being a pedestrian zone with the "no motor vehicles" sign, you are allowed to cycle here. And we did (fillings permitting);

Speaking of filtering, we found a bit more outside Heald Place Primary School. A few simple bollards had turned a section of Heald Place into a place for walking and cycling. The bollards and signs used to close the street to motor traffic will have cost less than the traffic calming they have made redundant (below);

I don't know the history of the street, but it's gone through the 5 stages of grief (kind of) where the old layout was just a street which it is fair to guess acted as a rat-run and lawless school drop offs, to a street with parking bays and traffic calming to try and encourage some drop off sense and finally to the acceptance that safety at the school gate should be the priority.

The last thing to show you is this temporary bridge next to Trinity Way. It was built as a service bridge as part of major rail works in the area, however, it was decided to keep it and is gives a much better alternative to cycling on Trinity Way itself.

At the southern end of the new bridge, there is an access to the towpath along the River Irwell. It's a nice design which combines steps with a zig-zag ramp dealing with the change in level.

The canal path is a good way to miss the adjacent roads, but I'm not convinced it's useful for mass cycling and the social safety is poor - that where we came in - there are big plans for walking and cycling in the city!

The first and second parts of the series are here and here.