Saturday, 12 October 2019

Where is Chapter 6?

In a week where the government has proudly said it will fund £13m for bikeability training in a press release that as usual just drones on about cycling being a good thing I am still looking at tumbleweeds rolling past on design guidance.

For a rounded rant about the lack of funding for cycling infrastructure, have a read of Karen Gee of Cycle Sprog's blog post on the press release which I wholeheartedly endorse. However, there is something else missing that only geeks like me tend to worry about and that's the guidance to help what little money appears for infrastructure to be invested properly.

I have been trawling through lots of walking and cycling design guidance for my day job recently and it's apparent that the UK isn't short on help, the problem is that much of it is an abject mess. There are good documents to be had, but it's almost an industry of redesigning the wheel which we really could do without. The significant issue we have is the usual government position of expecting this stuff to fall to localism. One of the key Dutch principles is to make layouts legible and this requires a level of consistency. It doesn't mean everything looks identical, it means it should read the same.

It's a far cry from how we run our motorways and trunk roads (at least from a design point of view) because the groundbreaking (for the UK) Interim Advice Note 195/16 "Cycle traffic and the strategic road network", has now been fully Incorporated into the Design Manual for Roads and Bridges as CD195 "Designing for cycle traffic".

I do have some criticisms of CD195 because there are some layouts which to me would still feel very unsafe to use even though they are for lower traffic flow situations - how people feel is a very important part of designing along the Dutch method of Sustainable Safety. However, it's now a mainstream document and in theory, those working on motorway and trunk road schemes across the UK (it covers the whole UK) will start using it. These schemes have a long lead in time though, so don't expect change overnight.

For a more central approach to non-trunk road situations, we are a waiting on the replacement for Local Transport Note 2/08 "Cycle infrastructure design". As far as many of us in the industry were concerned, we were expecting to see this published last month with an announcement by the Government. Unfortunately political focus remains on wrecking the country with the EU withdrawal and so the replacement remains under wraps for now.

There is one document, however, which should have been published a long time ago and that's Chapter 6 of the Traffic Signs Manual (TSM). While designing for cycling along links is reasonable straight-forward, junctions and crossings get a little more complicated. The TSM is an important document for designers as it helps explain how traffic signs and road markings should be used and Chapter 6 will deal with traffic signals, zebra/ parallel zebra crossings and other control methods (traffic in the widest sense. It will also incorporate and update other design advice on signal and crossing assessment/ design.

The document exists in draft because I still have a reviewer's version;

The reason why this frustrates me so much is that the UK sign rules changes in 2016 with the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions 2016 which itself came after a long review of the 2002 regulations, although it was still rushed out for political popularity and is no easier to read than the previous version. In order to more easily understand the legislation, the TSM provides detailed advice and given we were given the gifts of traffic tools such as cycle signals and parallel zebras, it would have been nice for Chapter 6 to have come out in 2016 with the new legislation.

I should point out that there aren't many people working on this in the Department for Transport and with the pressures of Brexit, it's unlikely to improve soon. I place the blame on the delay squarely on the Government as it's certainly not the fault of DfT staff.

So, we sit here in 2019 still designing with one arm tied behind our backs with national guidance which is 11 years old and regulations which have been in place for 3.5 years with no help on how to interpret them. Meanwhile, Highways England with the devolved governments are able to update their design standard with no fanfare or announcement from the politicians. But that's OK, bikeability is being funded for another year. Go us.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Lamlash Garden: A Hidden Gem

I do like those little places that one just stumbles across in the street network which give joy and Lamlash Garden tucked behind the Elephant and Castle in London is one just place.

I was on my way back to the City from a meeting in Brixton using one of Central London's hire cycles and the mostly awful CS7 cycle route when out of the corner of my eye I noticed something unexpected as I was going along Elliotts Row, a backstreet part of CS7;

It was Lamlash Garden which is actually a long, thin pocket park, which was won from Lamlash Street, a skinny little street which passes between and to the rear of some houses and allotments. 

Astonishingly, not only have I passed this numerous times without realising it (I passed it and missed it on the outbound journey), it is actually on a list of places I wanted to go and look at (yes, a vague plan of interesting things to go and see to learn about and blog about).

It's less than 70 metres long, but utterly transformed from what it looked like before;

Thanks to Google Streetview, we can see a bit of history - in June 2014 there is a bollard closing the street off to motor traffic;

At the other end, we've a large planter - the space is claimed for people;

Over time, the street is transformed with surfacing, planting, plant supports, a storage shed and all sorts of planters and pots - it becomes an extension of the allotment - April 2015;

By September 2017, it's all established - it's still open for walking (and cycling), but there are no traffic signs (there doesn't need to be any), the space is now fully claimed;

I had read about the project a while back (hence adding it to my list) and there's a nice little feature on one a website of one of the residents. I was on the clock for finishing my cycle hire within the 30 minute window, but there was time for a (slightly wobbly) cycle though the garden. Even in early autumn, it was still lush and a world apart from the scabby old alleyway it used to be;

Saturday, 28 September 2019

Freiburg im Breisgau

A couple of weeks back, I took you on a little tour of Vauban, a neighbourhood in the southern German city of Freiburg im Breisgau. This week, I'm taking a look at the city centre itself.

There's no Google Streetview in Germany which is a disadvantage when trying to double check where one has been, but in common with many of the places we have visited on our mainland jaunts, we have stayed at campsites on the edges of cities where we have the ability to get to by car (5 of us and full camping kit), but to travel into the city by public transport and Freiburg was no different.

We stayed at Busses Camping on the edge of the city because it was a short (1km) walk to a tram stop and as mentioned in the previous post, we could also rent a Donkey Republic hire bike. We arrived on a Thursday afternoon and after getting set up, we were eager to head into the city. My son and I rented bikes and we met my wife and girls in the city as they went by public transport. On the Friday, my son and I cycled to Vauban and then met up with the others after. On both trips, we got the tram back.

Freiburg has an historic core surrounded by a ring road and a couple of large roads going out to join the motorway network. There is an extensive tram network in the city which connects the edges to the centre and at the city's station just to the west of the ring road, there is interchange with trams and buses. The tram and bus network is owned by the city's transit company VAG;

Cycling around the city is OK, but infrastructure is still designed around the car and some large junctions are quite intimidating such as here on Basler Straße with its lovely murderstrip;

We had been travelling along an OK cycle track (shared-use, segregated) and we needed to turn left towards Vauban. Our route meant we had to leave the track into a cycle lane between an ahead and left traffic lanes because we had to turn in two stages, despite the road layout and markings not being helpful. Many of the large junctions are like this and in dire need of work to make them feel safe. The main roads had cycle lanes and tracks, but quality varied meaning it was hard to relax.

There were also glimpses at some 1970's style engineering such as this underpass at Schwartzwaldstraße which tries to compensate for the large road running through the adjacent neighbourhood. In fact, the tram and the car compete for speed along this corridor to the east of the city showing it's possibly too easy to drive around;

Closer into the old city, the neighbourhoods are older and streets narrower and so there's quite a bit of filtering of traffic and contraflow one-way working making the layout quite familiar with other parts of Europe;

Although in many cases, it was all a bit inconsistent and we did feel exposed to poor driver behaviour in some places. There was some protection, but again, it was just painted lines on the footway;

It does rather seem like a bit of a basic network was built, but nothing has really been developed and things like this dropped kerb reminds us who the streets are for;

Still, there were plenty of people cycling and so at least that does show progress. I haven't cycled extensively in Germany, but what I saw wasn't vastly different to what I saw along the North Sea coast area, so it's not an isolated design issue;

In contrast to the edges and the area around the ring road, the city centre is completely different, although to get there you are lumped in with people on foot such as this toucan (two stage) crossing over Schlossburgring to the south-east corner of the old city;

However, once inside the old city the change is striking. There is some access to traffic, but the centre is largely the domain of walking and cycling with the odd tram going past (well, quite a few in some streets) and it is wonderful (and tricky to follow without Streetview);

The city centre streets are quite logically laid out with more defined walkways on the wider streets, clear space for cycle parking and of course the tramways;

One fascinating feature of the city centre is the network of rills which were originally built to supply water to parts of the city;

Freiburg's city centre is extremely walkable and walking-friendly. There are plenty of cobbles which are not always great walking surfaces, but the level of maintenance means that most of the time, they don't present a problem. There are also lots of hidden places where peace from the crowds can be found;

The quality of the paving is something for the budding kerbnerd to behold. Here we have the "carriageway" area to the left in smooth cobbles with a bitumen pointing to keep things nice and flat. A water rill and then a footway made from small stones which have been cut on half and bedded in to provide a flat walking surface;

I also loved the inset mosaics in front of businesses which explained what the business was, like this office for the city transit company;

Back out from the centre and back on a bike, there is also some interesting developments of bicycle streets (Fahrradstraße) which essentially prioritise cycle traffic with local access or other traffic restrictions. At junctions, the cycle route has priority and it means cycle speeds can be maximised;

Freiburg is definitely a place to visit for a few lazy days and the transport system and walkable city is a joy to use. If only the city could tame the car a bit more and build some decent cycle tracks on the main roads!

Saturday, 21 September 2019

The Ethical Question

Yesterday saw the global climate strike and as I was on the train to work, it led me to pose a question on Twitter about how my industry should respond.

The tweet spawned some really good debate during the day and I am grateful for the various options and comments given. There was of course a wider discussion across Twitter and it had me thinking for most of the day to the point where I thought it might be helpful to put some longer thoughts down. Of course, the best tweets have a mistake in them because I of course meant conscientious objectors!

I think that a largest issue we face is that we are dealing with irrational humans who in the main cannot grasp the enormity of the situation. In fact, there are stark parallels with the only piece of management training that has stuck with me - the Kübler-Ross model of the five stages of grief (something I have covered before) and while it has its critics, it serves a useful reference point of me - as an engineer, I like to have things nicely compartmentalised!
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance
Literally, we have climate change deniers which covers people who simply do not believe there is a problem and people who know full well what is going on, but their interests depend on denying it.

I think I have to put a chunk of my industry at the first stage given the type of schemes we are working on, but is it as simple as that? Let's take the expansion of Heathrow Airport. Should everyone in the industry simply say "no, we're not going to work on it as we'd be complicit in adding fuel to the fire"? 

The problem with the purist approach is that there is absolutely no way anyone is going to get everyone involved to simply walk away from a project like this and to think that would happen is naive. I'm afraid that's a hard truth for many to understand because at the same time as we are campaigning for the future of our children, there are people working in the industry (and indeed at the airport) who rely on their jobs to feed their children. 

This brings us to the next stage - anger. So we are past denying climate change, but we are angry. Those of us in the West are being told we need to radically change our lives and this means being less comfortable than we are now - it especially sticks in the craw when we are being told this by the Boomer generation who have had it all (wait until you hear about the people on our planet with nothing). People working on the Heathrow scheme are now being vilified for their involvement and they are now angry after investing their careers in the airport.

But hang on, we can maintain our standard of living because we are clever. What we can now do is develop a whole new technology of electrically powered aircraft. We can use public transport to support the expansion and so in doing so, we protect jobs and people can carry on as they are. Of course, many people cleverer than I will tell us that we simply don't have the resources on the planet to decarbonise Western transport with a business as usual approach. It doesn't matter because other people cleverer than I think we can mine the materials we need from space. Yes, we are now in the bargaining stage.

Eventually, we realise that we do in fact need to change, but it's a massive challenge and as individuals or companies, we cannot possibly deal with climate change. We may as well crack on and expand the airport because after all, the UK's contribution to climate change is nowhere as much as other countries. It is extends to the personal as well, we can cycle, eat less meat and put solar panels on our roof, but it needs government-level change.

Finally, we accept the reality of climate change and we realise that effort is needed individually, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. We also accept that people and systems are not binary, we accept that people are fallible and we realise that every step taken is important. Perhaps over time, people is West London decide that a career at Heathrow isn't for them. People choose or are taxed to the extent where there isn't so much demand and expansion plans are scaled back or shelved. Designers start to see that there is more work in rail electrification and so start bidding on those projects.

Beyond the five stages of grief, we can talk about my industry as a profession and by that I mean that the professional institutions, trade bodies and societies with their membership need to start discussing climate change with a great deal more urgency. This discussion also needs to permeate through to where we all work too. As someone said to me yesterday, we can come up with a low-carbon motorway, but it's still a motorway!

In parallel to the people working on the Heathrow expansion, I have many years invested in my industry and at least in the medium term, I can't see myself doing anything else. It's probably ironic that I'm a highways engineer who doesn't support road building, but we are where we are and I know it is possible for me, my colleagues and my industry to use our skills and knowledge to do better. A properly designed and constructed cycleway uses the same kind of knowledge and design process as building a road after all!

So back to my original question;

"Do we refuse to work on roads schemes as conscientious objectors, or do we try an influence how they're done?"

I'm in agreement with my peers who responded to the tweet saying both. If the government is absolutely determined to expand Heathrow, then perhaps working on the project to make sure airport workers can easily cycle to work is better than throwing our hands up in the air as the runway surface is laid. 

We are expanding our trunk road network and so is it possible that we can argue for grade separated crossings as part of a dualling scheme at the same time as arguing against the scheme (close to home that one) - perhaps we can make that argument while taking a general position against expanding the road network. Can we work on a new retail park, but at the same time encourage our client to make walking and cycling into it/ around it easier than driving?

I know there may well be a whiff of cognitive dissonance here, but what is the alternative? If everyone in my industry who are even vaguely aware of the scale of climate change stopped working on anything vaguely damaging, then I'm afraid there are plenty of people who don't know about the impacts of climate change or are not bothered and so I actually think it is very important that we are in the thick of it trying to push change. 

As members of institutions, trade bodies and societies, we should keep raising the issue of climate change - even the odd letter to a trade magazine means the message reaches other people or a question at a learned society meeting might challenge the status quo. Getting people elected to boards and councils will help shift an organisations position. There are lots of things we can do to make a difference.

I think this Mister Gotcha cartoon by Matt Bors probably sums things up for me quite well;

Of course, you may disagree with me. In fact I want you to disagree because we need to be challenged at every stage. But I will put this to you as well - I think we need people out on the streets shouting for change for sure, but we also need people sitting in client meetings and institution meetings putting the case for change. It's not either or.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

Suburban Serenity

Long before I got interested in how our urban places are put together I read about the city of Freiburg in southwest Germany and more specifically, the neighbourhood of Vauban which was built as a low-car eco-development.

A few weeks ago I finally managed to visit as we'd picked Freiburg im Breisgau (to give the city its full name) as a camping stop on the homeward leg of our summer holiday. I'll write about the city another time, but for this week, let's have a look around Vauban. The neighbourhood is to the south of the city, about 3km southwest of the city centre.

To get there, my son and I hired a couple of bikes from Donkey Republic, a system I used last year in Copenhagen and Malmö which conveniently had a virtual docking station at our campsite on the edge of the Waldsee neighbourhood to the east, arriving at about 11am on a Friday morning.

We cycled about 5.5km along a range of roads and streets which I'll cover in another post. We entered Vauban via the main street, Vaubanallee which runs roughly east-west through the centre of the neighbourhood. 

Vaubanallee does several things. Along the centre, there are a pair of tram tracks providing a connection to the city - they are actually one line because the route loops at the western end of the neighbourhood forming an interchange with a little bus station. The speed limit is 30kph throughout.

To the north of the tram line there a wide pedestrian boulevard within which cycling is permitted;

To the south of the railway line there is a carriageway providing access for motor vehicles;

The key thing about the road layout is that it is completely filtered. You can drive into the neighbourhood and you can access the streets, but you cannot drive through. Modal filtering before it was famous!

The street layout has been designed in such a way that walking and cycling is welcomed everywhere. It is all shared-use, but because it is a fully accessible grid, there is not going to be any conflict to worry about;

Motor traffic can access some streets off Vaubanallee, but drivers are guests because of the home zone approach taken with little loops for motors which removes the need for turning heads;

There were cars around and some parked up in the side streets such as this guy who was cleaning out his car;

Even late morning, there were plenty of people about, mainly using cycles to travel and what was striking was just how quiet the place was;

It's a mixed density development with flats and houses, but it is arranged in such a way that it feels open and spacious - not having wide roads for traffic and parking means more space for landscaping and greenery;

There is some on-street parking along Vaubanallee, including loading space, accessible parking, pay-and-display and e-charging;

So, where are all the cars because Germany is not famous for being car-free. Well, Vauban is low-car rather than car-free because residents can own a car, it's just they can't leave it on the street, it has to be parked in a communal car park which they pay for, perhaps reflecting the true cost of storage. A city car club does allow people access to a car if they need one. 

One other eco-feature within the street network is a series of swales do deal with surface water run-off;

For more information on the background to the development, please look at Steve Melia's 2006 report of his visit. It's a fantastic concept, but it shows that decent public transport and access to cycling networks are required to give people genuine transport options. Definitely a place to spend time in if you get a chance.