Saturday 2 February 2013

Stop Blaming The Engineers (at least some of the time)

highway engineers and their work is often derided by cycling activists and bloggers. some of the criticism is fair of course, but it is not the whole story. This blog is a bit long, but I have tried to explain the process involved in getting a scheme on the ground.

Roger Geffen of the CTC has a favourite word when describing cycling infrastructure that his organisation does not consider to be appropriate - "farcilities". Now, this blog is not here to bash the CTC or Mr Geffen, but I don't like the word. It is a "throw away" soundbite and is dismissive without seeking to understand why we get this infrastructure. The trouble is, that people get used to being negative and even with fair schemes, people focus on the negative and lose the bigger picture.

This photo by David Owen, shows a scheme in Harlow, Essex, 
which had shares in a cyclists dismount collective and a tactile
paving works. From Warrington Cycle Campaign website.
So how do we get some of the rubbish that blogs and campaigners like the Warrington Cycle Campaign like to poke fun at such as this photo which is their "Cycle Facility of the Month" for September 2007 (this is often seen on road safety engineering courses and always gets a laugh from my fellow geeks). WCC also has some pages devoted to good practice to be fair to them!

As explained in my profile, I am a Chartered Engineer and to get this (legally protected) title, I first had to gain the educational base (civil engineering degree in my case), followed by a period of relevant experience during which I had to keep development records. I had to pass an experience appraisal after a few years in industry (an extensive written submission of how I was almost ready to be a Chartered Engineer) and then I submitted myself for the Chartered Professional Review (written submission, exam, interview, stress) with the Institution of Civil Engineers in my case.

As well as being a Chartered Engineer, I am also a member or fellow of several engineering institutions and being admitted at those grades also required me to provide evidence that I was a suitable and proper person. After all of that, I must be an expert and therefore anything I say or do must be right. Right? No. Like all walks in life, there are good, bad and perhaps ugly engineers as there are doctors, teachers, social workers and all of the other people we rely on for their skills and judgement.

What makes an engineer a better engineer is one who keeps their knowledge and skills up to date. As a professional engineer, I am required to maintain a certain level of knowledge which is known as Continuing Professional Development (CPD), that is, I need to plan and undertake activities which keep my knowledge and skills up to date. For cycling infrastructure design (as a part of the day job) I do undertake regular training in current design thinking, guidance, standards etc. 

I undertake road safety training and other activities which keep my development broad-based. I also read a fair few industry publications and follow a number of blogs to keep up to date with the debate. This is not intended to be a self-congratulatory bit of puff, just a quick explanation of how one becomes and stays a professional engineer.

I also think it is pretty important that as somebody involved in the design and implementation of cycling infrastructure, that I cycle (which I do). I mainly cycle to and for work and take the opportunity to cycle our schemes before and after we build them. Additionally, I have also occasionally driven a small lorry, pushed pushchairs and wheelchairs and worked with people with particular needs from the highway environment - these are things that I would commend anyone involved in local authority engineering to do themselves. Until you have tried to drive a lorry (albeit a small one) in multi-lane traffic at rush hour or reversed one between some gates, you will never know the problems those drivers have with seeing what is going on in their blind spots!

Now, contrast this against what it takes to become a local councillor, MP, assembly member, secretary of state etc. which then gives you the chance to make decisions on cycling infrastructure. Well, you need to get elected and you then need to get appointed the chairman of the highways committee or a cabinet position (government or council). There is no need for you to have experienced travel using different modes and you don't need to know what it is like to struggle to cross a road.

You do not need qualifications, you do not need to be an expert in the field, you do not need experience in the subject that you will be making decisions on. I am not knocking politicians per se as there are the good, bad and ugly; but basically, you don't actually need to know what you are talking about. However, good politicians can grasp concepts and the arguments and can make objective decisions because of their lack of baggage - unlike the designer, they don't have "pride of ownership".

In the UK, the person in government with responsibility for cycling is Norman Baker MP,  a Parliamentary Under-secretary of State. He is also responsible for buses, taxis and "alternatives to travel". He has held the post since May 2010 and was previously a shadow secretary of state for transport. He seems to be one of the better government politicians of late and at least willing to listen. I am not endorsing him or his views, but he appears to have at least undertaken enough research to get a fair level of understanding. But, true to political form, Baker ducks the issue on better design guidance and hasn't the proverbials to lead from the front, instead insisting it was down to local councils. Of course the current mob got rid of Cycling England in their bonfire of the quangos and an important national resource was lost, so their track record is not exactly outstanding. The transport has suffered high turn-over for as long as I can remember, which is typical of the short-term politics of the UK when it comes to transport planning.

Councillors make local decisions and yes, their quality varies considerably. In my day job, it is not unknown to have run ins with them, especially if I am presenting at committee and there is a dislike of the scheme from those responding to a consultation. Again, good councillors will have read the report in advance and have an idea of the issues and the questions they need to ask. Some turn up hostile to a scheme before it is even presented. The worst are like kids who cannot get their way. Until a campaigner has sat in on a committee meeting, they have no idea how bad it can be - if designers should experience cycling, campaigners should experience committee, it is only fair! I once gave a presentation on casualty investigation to a highways committee as I thought it useful they knew a bit more about the subject to inform their decisions. One muttered all of the way through, two were messing around (are we there yet Dad?) and I doubt most were that bothered.

The other problem with councillors is that some often do not trust or accept (but not necessarily agree) the advice of their own professional staff. They like to see a glossy consultants' report, rather than a considerably cheaper internal briefing paper from their own engineers. I am not knocking consultants, they produce what is asked of them, if the report is poor, then their brief is poorer. Why politicians cannot trust the staff that they pay is beyond me and senior staff seem to tiptoe around the subject (at least in my experience!).

Cycling groups and representatives want to be consulted, they want to be involved and I am not knocking them for that. But, who are they representing? Are they representing existing cyclists? Members of their organisations? (LCC, CTC and so on). Are they representing people who might want to cycle in the future perhaps? Some groups or individuals are often negative about aspects of a scheme and rather than trying to reach a compromise, the lobby against the scheme as a whole and result in losing the good aspects all together.

Perhaps for cyclists, we should be thinking about people who want to cycle - these people are probably interested in getting to work, going to the shops, going to school etc and I am not sure the groups always think about those kinds of people. I don't think we should be that interested in the views of people who blast along the roads on top of the range racers eating 100 miles for breakfast on a Sunday - they will do it no matter what. Politicians see cyclists as a group, rather than people who have happened to choose a bike for transport. This is an area which groups could be much more effective in explaining to politicians that there are no "cyclists", just people who cycle (and vote!).
Here are some "things" being installed, 5 hoops outside some 
shops which have been added to the 10 already there which 
are always filled up. This not rocket science, but an example 
of some of the easy and little things local highway authorities 
can do to makeutility cycling a little easier. It doesn't help 
that the contractor's lorry is parked on the cycle track, but 
the cycle parking actually provides some separation between 
the footway and cycle track and so a nice little example of 
doing more with less - good design in other words.

So, this brings us to schemes. Highway authorities (London boroughs, county councils, unitary authorities etc) are the ones responsible for the design and installation of "things" on their networks, including cycling infrastructure, traffic calming, traffic signs etc. Most new schemes come into being as the spawn of local transport plans (local implementation plans in London). 

LTPs and LIPs are essentially the transport policies for each highway authority as they are linked to funding. The Highways Agency deals with motorways and many trunk roads in England, Transport for London deals with the major routes in London and there are devolved powers to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The total funding regime is complicated and perhaps worthy of a post in the future.

Assuming there is some money for cycling, what happens next? Well, good highway authorities will have a strategy which takes the "what we want to do" of a LTP/LIP and sets out "how we will do it". Such a good strategy might have some maps showing which routes need improvement, how casualties might be addressed, what cycle training looks like and what is needed to increase the numbers of people cycling - this is part of the transport planner's job. Poor highway authorities won't have a strategy or one that sits under a load of dust. They may not have transport planners or if they do, they are stuck doing things other than transport planning.

Then, to implement the strategy, the engineers get more involved in the process. If a corridor is to be improved, then they will be looking at the length of highway involved (the links) and the junctions on those lengths (the nodes). Good engineering will consider the impact on all users and seek to propose appropriate measures. So, we now have a scheme to build and away we go. No. We need to go to the highways committee or even worse, the area committee! (I will now concentrate on local councils who are highway authorities)

Committees are made up of politicians who decide or recommend a course of action or scrutinise decisions which have been made (in cabinet style set ups, committees sometimes make recommendations to a cabinet member who ultimately makes the decision). They are normally politically balanced (proportionally made up of the size of the local parties) and whichever mob are in charge will be the ones who install a chairman (or chair, or chairperson, or chairwoman). 

The chairman's job is to run the committee meetings and where a vote is split, to have the casting vote. Highways committees will deal with the whole of the highway authority area, whereas area committees are concerned with a part of an area. There are also parish and town councils which can have input into schemes and sometimes have their own budgets. It can get very complicated.

The problem with area committees is that they can be controlled by a group which is not the administration and they are rarely bothered by silly things like policies or strategies, more likely the views of Mr Smith who has turned up for the last 1000 years to moan about the state of the gutters on the local public convenience; or make decisions to upset the administration.

So, the engineers will take their scheme design to the committee and with a formal written report, they will present the scheme (as they are also council officers - i.e. not a member). If the scheme has come into committee after public consultation, then the public will often be invited to comment and then the committee will debate the scheme and may ask the engineer to answer questions. They will then vote on the scheme and the engineers crack on and build it. Well, assuming the scheme is not rejected, sent back for redesign or (as I have found quite a bit) the councillors try and redesign the scheme themselves on the night (remember, they are likely to know as much about design as I do about quantum mechanics).

So, why do we get Mr Geffen's farcilities? If the highway authority has poor policy or strategy or good policy left on the shelf or politicians which ignore policy, then the engineers have nothing to hang the scheme on. For example, if the adopted policy is for the development of separated cycling infrastructure and this has been properly agreed with councillors as policy or strategy and it is a material consideration at committee stage, then we engineers can be bold and confident in our designs. If not, we tend to propose things which we think will get through committee.
A transition between an advisory cycle lane and a cycle track on CS2,
just after the Bow Interchange (Google link here).
Now, there is no kerb between footway and track, but the cycle
parking provides separation.
What a shame that it is currently the best 100m on CS2!

I have had heated discussions at committee about putting in basic advisory cycle lanes (whether or not you agree with cycle lanes, bear with me). They do not interfere with traffic or parking, but some councillors are so anti-cycling, they won't even allow paint. So, is there any point me quoting their own policy at them (which they have approved) and taking bold schemes which they will never let me build?

Capacity is also an important consideration as many politicians consider capacity-reduction for traffic to improve conditions for walking and cycling as either another language or even engineers imposing their own political doctrine! A few years back, I looked at a simple signalised crossroads with 2 traffic phases (that is one pair of roads got a green light and then the other pair) and no green man for pedestrians. I had the traffic flows counted and then different options modelled. One option was adding a pedestrian phase so that traffic was held and pedestrians crossed on all arms (called an "all red"). It was terrible in terms of an increase in congestion and queue-length, although the approach roads were already stuffed at peak times.

The other option was for extensive road widening to install staggered pedestrian crossings which worked in traffic flow terms and was better for pedestrians. In the event, the councillors (at committee) didn't want the congestion risk or the visual impact of road widening and rejected both options meaning I put the scheme back on the shelf as I couldn't "un-investigate" - the junction is still abjectly horrible for pedestrians and traffic still sits there is long queues at peak times - nobody has won.

With cycling infrastructure, we have the same issue. Engineers can design fantastic schemes for cyclists, but on the whole, we do not make the decisions. So, how will we Go Dutch? At the moment, there isn't a chance in hell that it will happen in most parts of Outer-London, as our politicians are car-centric, car ownership is high and people drive everywhere. The revolution needs to start in the centre and ripple out. That is not to say engineers and campaigners should shy away from radical. I think we need to push the good schemes, but accepting that having a Plan B up our sleeves might be something campaigners must accept for now. Of course, the trick for the engineers can be to badge a scheme up as a "junction or route review" and include some better cycling measures and hope the politicians don't notice, but of course, no professional would do that!

What campaigners really need to do, though, is learn how the system works. They need to understand how the policy and strategy works; and make sure they push for involvement at the first stage. A poor strategy will mean poor decision-making and poor schemes. They need to target the decision-makers in pushing good schemes rather than getting confrontational with the engineers. It is a sad fact of local government that those in charge at the senior levels on the officer side are not experts any more. They are generalist managers in many cases, highly political as disobedience leads to early retirement. But, if they are being pushed by councillors, they will push the engineers and in turn we will be free to be radical.

This has been a rambling post I know, but my message is that being critical of engineers is not a problem in itself, as we should be challenged. But, please just stop to think why the scheme has been designed that way. It is the product of a process which starts with the attitude of the politicians from the top down. They are your representatives, what are they doing for you? Where is their leadership? Do they serve your interests or someone else's? 

Who knows, perhaps facility of the month will be something to celebrate, rather than deride!


  1. Many thanks for that. So, a dog's breakfast of micromanagement at all levels which inevitably leads to a race to the bottom.

    It's not just positive interventions for cyclists that are troublng. My personal hate as a cyclist is pedestrian refuges (is that the technical term?) on narrow roads which regularly cause drivers of motor vehicles to take risks with my life even if I am taking the lane. Dedicated infrastructure aside, these show how little the process you describe thinks of cyclists.

    Here's an example

    Yet only a couple of hundred metres away on the same road we have

    Which is so much nicer for cyclists, and probably for pedestrians and motorists too. Are refuges used to anywhere near the same extent in Europe - a quick look round StreetView would suggest not? Why are they so popular in the UK? Do you, as an engineer, have to put them in?

  2. There's a long history of this political fudging, of course. And a long history of pro-car, anti-bike designs. I'd love to get hold of the AA's 1938 plans for wide, well-surfaced bike paths with underpasses and stuff. In effect, Britain could have had a good network of 'cycle tracks' long before the Netherlands. As it was only 100 miles of experimental paths got built and most of them weren't terribly well designed.

    CTC leaders at the time said they would be in favour of bike paths if they were quality bike paths.

  3. Hi Ranty,
    many thanks for your post - very informative. I've been involved with my local Bike Forum for the last 3 years and although I don't understand much of local workings am starting to understand the issues.

    I have read books (John Adams, Robert Davies et al) and many blogs on both the UK and Dutch and Danish engineering and have come to one major conclusion which you brush against with your post...

    There is NO recognition in UK road planning that in order to have modal shift to cycling, walking etc we HAVE to disadvantage motor traffic. The phenomenon of induced demand time and again proves to be the driving force. Redesign a junction for better throughput = more motor traffic. Improve a section of road = more traffic. Allow (as we have done for the last half century) arterial traffic to abuse residential side roads as rat runs = more traffic. My local council (Bournemouth) says it's going to reduce motor traffic by 8% by 2026. They are doing NOTHING to deter driving.

    When will it end?

  4. Refuges. What a thorny issue. I will be exploring casualties, risk and preventative engineering in another post (which I have yet to write!) and crossing options for those walking and their impacts on users is part of the debate.

    Do I, as an engineer have to put them in? No is the short answer. The longer answer is "depends". The reason refuges are put in is to help people cross the road in two-parts and some people will use them to help reduce speeds (they do a bit), but we need to ask why do people need to cross in two-parts.

    If the road is very busy or fast and it is impossible to find a gap in which to cross the road in one go, the refuge lets you tackle it more easily (especially if you are older or younger and cannot judge speed). Of course (and you give a good example with a speed cushion thrown in) they "pinch" cyclists.

    You then show a perfectly sensible raised zebra crossing which does not pinch cyclists, allows pedestrians to get priority (if drivers are doing their job properly) and the hump will help slow traffic.

    I am a massive fan of zebras, but they have problems. If a zebra is only used occasionally, then there will be drivers who learn that it is not used and so ignore it. The other issue is when (often at peak times) one direction has solid traffic and the other moving traffic, the pedestrian is "masked" by the slow or stationary traffic.

    Drivers coming the other way cannot see the pedestrian and despite the fact they should be expecting someone to walk out, they don't (multi-lane approaches to zebras have the same problem - here is a lovely example in Ilford, East-London

    In terms of installation costs, a basic refuge with a couple of dropped kerbs will cost about £10k (including design costs), whereas a raised zebra with proper illumination (and not a couple of crappy spotlights) will need a budget of around £25k (including fees).

    The majority (in my opinion) of refuges and zebras are put in as part of casualty-reduction schemes and as the funding in the UK has been devastated by the cuts, engineers are being forced to spread the money too thin and so 2 refuges on a route with pedestrian casualties or 1 zebra is often the dilemma.

    Now, I don't know your area well, but it seems to me that if the problems are with speed or flow, why is the area open to through traffic? Why isn't through traffic forced to use the A313 and A310? If the route was quiet and slow, then we would't really need to spend money installing and maintaining things in the middle of the road would we? A few point closures or one-way access points would cost far less than traffic calming a whole area and I reckon pay greater dividends.

    As I have tried to explain in the post, the problem starts with the politicians and ends up with the often under-resourced engineers trying to spend a little more on bugger all. Enlightened politicians will want to look at their road network and wonder if they could make things better and then tell their constituents how it could be rather than leaving the engineers to have to answer the complaint letters!

    By the way, it is not just us, here is a random Dutch one and one with a zebra crossing, of course, people on bikes don't need to use the road as there is a separate cycle track and that is also a clue to why we are getting it wrong here.

    So, back to the point. I have put in refuges and will probably still do so, even knowing that road-cyclists like me don't really like them. (Of course, why am I a road-cyclist - because there is no alternative in much of Outer-London). I think the issue here is that refuges are a symptom of a system which maintains utterly unrestricted vehicular access and everyone else is meant to work around the problem.

  5. Damn, not got the hang of this yet have I!

    My comment was for 3rdWorld, but Carlton and Bournemouth effectively make the same point about a lack of leadership and the only way to crack it is to take on the decision-makers.

    Of course, engineers need to be "braver" in suggesting better schemes even if they get knocked back because at least the campaigners will see we are serious.

    In London, though, many boroughs only invest funding from TfL for schemes and put no money themselves in. So, if a scheme gets knocked back, we try and shift money to other schemes and of course are then put under pressure by corporate management and councillors to spend it rather than give it back. If these "leaders" were serious, they would get involved (I would say more involved, but many are not bothered as long as we spend the money).

    Carlton, not a good view, but the older parts of Thamesmead in Southeast London has some pretty cool separated tracks in underpasses and these were built decades ago -

  6. That last link sent me to 1011 Pawtucket Blvd., Lowell, USA....

  7. I'm glad to have seen this after leaving work very frustrated (Highway Design Engineer - Consultant).
    I am being asked to do a detailed design on plateaus immediately at the mouth of many junctions to residential areas from a major ring road! The idea is to give priority to cyclists, I can anticipate nothing but collisions as cyclists hurtle over the junctions. It will also force vehicles to go up a ramp while turning immediately off the ring road. All this because it's what the Council Leader wants! They get what they want all the time, at the drop of a hat, whereas, members of the public ring with genuine issues and they get ignored if it's against the proposed. What's the point of having Engineers (and a democracy) when one person can just make up what they want?

  8. Is actual priority being given to cyclists, or implied using speed tables?

    One way or the other is needed to do a proper job and I reckon you can prioritise in this situation;

    Of course, this will mean that design objections and decisions should be properly recorded, but if you are logical, I cannot see an issue. What is the posted speed limit on the ring road? Can some of the side roads be closed to traffic:

    Also have a look at;

    It is the politician's job to provide leadership and at some point, the scheme will be signed off by a politician or a political committee. Our job is to design logically and set out the pro's and cons of any design.