Thursday, 23 May 2013

We Need To Rethink The Hierarchy

Engineers like to cling to guidance, campaigners have their dogma, politicians like to please voters and most people have no interest until it affects them. Throw in the engineering consultants, perhaps a "showman consultant" and we have unleashed an unholy recipe for schemes which will not work.

Welcome to the wonderful world of local authority highway engineering. This is the background within which I attempt to operate, which means I have to try and keep various people happy, I have to try and second guess what issues will come up when I propose a scheme and I need to try and get somebody who has been elected to represent their community to allow me to build my scheme (i.e. local councillors).

Before I go on, my thanks to ibikelondon for the inspiration for this blog which was prompted by his blog on road narrowing schemes which recounts a discussion with a highway engineer on why road narrowing was something that "local cycling campaigners" wanted, but now the scheme was built, cyclists had moved away.

Oooh, a pile of guidance. Suits you Sir! Do you thumb
through it Sir? Do you follow it to the letter Sir?
I will come back to the other players shortly, but lets start with the highway engineer. In my post Risk, Liability and Designers, I explored the relationship between legislation and guidance, plus how it would impact on innovation. I concluded that so long as engineers follow a logical framework to achieve a reasonable aim, there is pretty much no risk to being sued or summoned for a "bad" design. But, engineers do cling to their blessed design guidance, even if they (hand on heart) know it to be crap.

Local authority engineers also need to have an awareness of the political dimension which is essentially like herding cats (who have often not read the committee report). In the past, we (at work) used to worry quite a bit about what the decision-making politicians will think about the scheme, often tailoring it for what we thought would get through committee. This has proved variable at best and so our approach now is to propose what we judge to be the correct solution, even if the politicians throw the scheme out rather than to settle for something they will agree, but which is not the right scheme.

Campaigners are often the last people designers should listen to as they often do not represent a huge body of users and they will often project their own personal views. I am not going to pick on any group here, but we know that there are some who campaign on the basis that they want to stay cycling on the carriageway. Campaigners are the converted, we don't need to convince them. I am not just thinking about cycling, how about the loons at the Association of British Drivers - I drive and they certainly don't represent me!

Politicians can be random and they also have their eye on the voters. I have sat in committee with a scheme being thrown out because of a few noisy objectors to whom the politicians have given far too much weight in the debate. Some politicians see through this, many don't. Politicians rarely write policy, they sign off what staff write for them (they may want some changes, but they don't physically write it themselves). Some will give strong views such as Eric Pickles MP and his free parking, but coherent and structured arguments are not often articulated.

Elwick Road, Ashford. Fancy cycling round this "roundabout"?
Would that be in the road with traffic following or on the footway?
Fancy crossing on this zebra crossing looks like a crossing, but
it isn't really? Image from Google Streetview.
Engineering consultants are often employed by Councils and organisations such as TfL. On the whole, they will do the job they are asked to and are being paid for. Unless they are asked to be radical or prioritise one mode over another, they will give a reasoned and logical scheme in accordance with the brief. They won't suggest something completely different unless they have been asked or paid to do so.

The small "showman" consultant is a strange beast. Often made up of a tiny number of staff, these consultants often get to lead big commissions. Just look at schemes like Ashford, Exhibition Road and Poynton. I get the impression that things which look nice take precedence over the people who have to use these spaces. Yes, cycle tracks may not be the most pretty things, but Exhibition Road would a better place with them. Actually, I have a soft spot for a few of these guys as they do shake things up a bit!

So, drifting back to the point of hierarchy. All of these players will have a different idea on how our streets should function which, will not often accord with other people's ideas. It is therefore important to have defined objectives for a scheme and then follow them through, testing how the design meets those objectives as things proceed. If there are competing objectives or priorities, they need to be resolved. Proper zebra crossings in Ashford may have been offensive to the urban designer's eye, but they would have let pedestrians get actual priority to cross the road and so I wonder if the needs of the user were put first.

For cycling, there are out of date hierarchies being used by engineers and waved around by campaigners. Politicians don't really understand them and consultants do as they are told. The showmen may use them if it suits the design.

Local Transport Note 2/08 "Cycle Infrastructure Design" (Department for Transport) is a hierarchy often used and quoted and is meant to be the best design advice for engineers. It is not. Although there is some good stuff in there, the hierarchy proposals simply do not work and being 5 years old and given how things have moved on even in the last year, it is due for a massive overhaul.

Table 1.1 gives some suggestions on the kind of facility which could be chosen given various conditions. So, high traffic volume/ speed routes suggest off road (carriageway) provision, but then the next issue of a large number of side roads then contradicts and suggests that this is not a good option because of the increase in conflict crossing side roads creates. Actually, the answer to the issues on the left do rather suggest the solution of protected cycle tracks full stop.

Then Table 1.2 provides the Hierarchy Of Provision. So, when read with Table 1.1, I am looking at a busy single carriageway A-road which runs between a couple of local town centres in a London borough. It has lots of side roads, HGVs/ Buses and as there are schools nearby, quite a few pedestrians at commuting times. 

Here we go, a bit of "Hazard Site Treatment".
A bit of green paint AND a cycle logo. A typical main

road treatment on the LCN. 
(it was one of my schemes in work - this is a warts
and all blog after all - not to mention the railings!)
So, what would Table 1.2 have us do and what should be consider? Can we reduce traffic volumes on the main road? I doubt it. What about speed? Well being a main A-road, we cannot put in heavy traffic calming as the emergency services and London Buses will not be too happy. 

What about junction treatment, hazard site treatment, traffic management? Well, we could put some green paint down at side roads or stick a few ASLs in couldn't we? What about reallocation of road space? Well, we are on a busy route into town, but it is single carriageway, so I guess we could nick some carriageway and put in some cycle lanes? Advisory or mandatory? Advisory, less grief with needing to stop parking. What about cycle tracks away from roads? What through the park - doesn't get cyclists into town does it? I know, let's paint a line down the footway and let cyclists and pedestrians deal with it.

The biggest problem with this hierarchy is that it is very easy to slip into the "it's too hard" mentality and end up with an easy job using paint and some signs but which does not really change anything - this brought us a fair bit of the London Cycle Network which has some on-carriageway cycle lanes and some back streets with confusing direction signs where the main roads were really difficult to deal with.

We also now have Local Transport Note 1/12 "Shared Use Routes For Pedestrians & Cyclists (DfT) which does start to try and make things better in terms of guidance and it points out the pit-falls of shared-use designs. Almost weirdly it comes up with 5 "design cyclists" and tries to look at different solutions for different kinds of cyclist - fast commuter, utility cyclist, inexperienced or leisure cyclist, children and specialist equipment users (tricycles, hand cyclists, those with trailers). Well, I qualify for the first three depending on what I am doing at the time, so what would someone design for me! Shared-use provision is a whole other blog, perhaps next time!

Shared-use unsegregated cycle track. Who was it built for? Perhaps
the drivers on the busy multi-lane roundabout it skirts around.
LTN 1/12 does soon slip back into "Hierarchy Of Provision" and refers to pretty much the same table as in LTN 2/08 and so I guess you pick up LTN 1/12 when you have exhausted LTN 2/08. Now, there are some good things in both and they should be pulled out into one document, but for my mind, we are just designing for one group and that is people using cycles. I do not know what a fast commuter is, but part of my journey to work is on the carriageway and I (try) to move along as quickly as my hybrid allows me in order to mix it with the traffic. I would rather go a little slower on a protected cycle track - I might even dump the orange lycra! 

So, the current hierarchy has given us on-carriageway cycle lanes, a few back streets, a bit of shared cycle track and the odd Toucan crossing where our routes run across roads into parks. It has taken our cycling infrastructure as far as possible and carrying on like this will not significantly increase cycling. Higher fuel costs might push a few more people (onto the footways), but those scared of traffic (i.e. most people) will not take up cycling because it feels dangerous.

So, how do we rethink the hierarchy? Actually, we should be looking to rearrange it around the user. A high-quality, protected cycle track would suit all of the DfT cyclists no matter where it is put, but to be any use it has to be where people want to go and that means tackling main roads. From a user (any user) point of view, hierarchy for me essentially means;

"those cycling routes serving the journeys I wish to make, which are direct, well designed, well built and which feel safe"

That is to say, the best routes will be highest in the hierarchy.

Therefore, hierarchy actually applies to the individual and their needs. My table above reworks DfT's Table 1.2. and I hope it shows the relationship between the quality of infrastructure provision and volume of use one could expect from that infrastructure. The inescapable fact arising from this is that in order to get to the top of the arrow, we need to spend really serious money - a few tens of thousands for a London borough to review cycle routes will not cut it - tens of millions is what we are really needing to invest even in a single borough. 

A shared, but segregated cycle track on CS2 west of Stratford.
If there was a kerb upstand between the footway and the cycle track,
cycle-signal priority at junctions and a consistent treatment all of
the way into the City, we would be pretty high up the arrow!
Image from Google Streetview.
It is all relative, but one can apply this hierarchy to schemes and routes. Take CS2 in Bow. It is pretty much blue paint and signs, but it also has some protected tracks, mandatory lanes, signs which are actually pretty good and useful (they show journey times) and some integration with cycle hire. So, the infrastructure provision has moved up the arrow a bit and I don't think anyone would disagree, volume of use is greater than when it was just old LCN layouts. When CS2 is extended into Stratford with protected tracks, surely the volume of use must grow.

Now, I have an idea we are starting to play around with in work. We have (like many parts of London) a fairly well-developed LCN network, but it is mainly paint and signs. We have some really good direct routes through parks, even though they are unsegregated shared use and quite a few direct routes through quiet streets. We are looking at one route this year, though, which is classic LCN advisory cycle lanes developed I guess at least 15 years ago (well before my time). We don't have a lot of money to play with (a tiny budget), but I am determined to not just play with paint and signs.

What we are going to do is to produce a drawing of a big section of the route between to local town centres. We are going to show all of the on-street stuff like cycle lanes, pedestrian refuges, ASLs and so on. We are going to take the old design and start adding to it with 4 or 5 different evolutions. 

This is an unsegregated shared-use cycle track. Some people do
not like these, but if you look carefully at the other side of the road,
you will see what this side used to look like - a narrow hard strip
on a bridge with a crash barrier in the middle. Cycle? you could
barely walk along it. Some of the carriageway has been taken away
and the crash barrier removed with the parapet (big crash barrier
that looks like a fence) being upgraded to compensate.
The politicians had a mutter, but as traffic hasn't really been
affected, it went through. This is a fairly rural leisure route,
but it would not have existed unless a fair chunk of money was
invested in reworking the bridge. Even kids can use this route and
the fact the road has a 40mph speed limit isn't a particular problem.
The first thing we are going to do it to look at little things to to make conditions a little better for existing users - it may be converting a Puffin crossing to a Toucan so that cyclists can leave the carriageway, use the crossing and get direct access to a cycle parking area outside a station rather than having to swing across the road. This small tweak might just help a few more people get confidence to cycle to the station, rather than get dropped off by car.

We will be looking at some short separated cycle track links between the LCN route into some side roads and service roads which do not have direct vehicle connections to the main road, but the tracks will open up wider residential areas to the route and actually enable some easy bypassing of awkward junctions (easy and quicker to cycle than is current).

I think you get the drift. The idea will be to gently and gradually lift the route up the arrow in my table. We should be able to take each stage to the politicians without scaring them and if we can grow numbers a bit each time, we create demand to take things to the next stage. The higher we go, the more money we will need and the more difficult the solutions and decisions will be. But we are starting from a very low base and I am not sure we can do much worse than the old layout we have now.

Oh, and don't forget the little things like filtered permeability. This is
Eric Street in Bow which runs parallel to Burdett Road. This is a
much quieter route than Burdett Road, but it is just as direct. Good
solutions are not always expensive.
I need to come full circle and touch on road narrowing schemes. Many of these have been pushed from a streetscene or urban landscape or some other designer-speak for repaving vast areas in expensive stone paving and sticking trees in. I am happy we are trying to give pedestrians more space, but there are many schemes which have been at the expense of the existing cyclists and so these very expensive schemes, actually drop us back down the arrow. If a decision has been made to take away traffic lanes, why couldn't have the designers provided cycle tracks in each direction. They could be paved expensively so the look is there and line of trees between the footways and cycle tracks actually creates soft separation, plus a "clutter line" in which to place lamp columns, benches and cycle parking. It would have cost pretty much the same.

So, let's rethink the hierarchy and wrap it around the user. The more we invest in protecting the user, the more existing people will be happier to use the route, the more they will tell others and the more users will appear - the volume of use hierarchy follows the arrow in the right direction!


  1. Excellent informative stuff as usual. Puzzled by the curvature on the poles, I went to have a look at Elwick Road, Ashtead on StreetView - I see these are lamp posts - crazy, man - pity they clash with all the verticals! However, back on topic, in general it looks somewhat like a Dutch road where the cycle paths have been left out. For example, this "surgery scar" design:

    could easily have been replaced by a cycle path as at

    However, the HoP with the implication that any given intervention is optional, is not the only aspect in need of a rethink: where you have a bunch of people with no consensus over how important bicycles are, and a government that sticks to the line that the implementation is up to the LAs, there will always be a patchwork of solutions of different quality and safety.

  2. Apparently, "interesting" lamp columns are an urban designer's thing - great until hit and then a 12-week order from Italy (probably!). The "scar" would have been better with trees set nearer the road and as you state a cycle track - could have used the nice materials of course. Apparently this wiggly line is suffering from maintenance issues along with lots of the bespoke stuff which is a major issue for the poor sods once the showmen have left town.

  3. Why isn't filtered permeability being used a lot more? I've seen it work very well in Kingsland / De Beauvoir Town in London (leading to quiet streets with many happy pedestrians and ordinary people on bikes), and it's clearly a big part of the Dutch solution to local transport.

    It would seem to me that filtered permeability might even be more effective than 20's Plenty in terms of improvement to environment, safety, and encouraging cycling.

  4. Yes, I need to go for a mooch around Hackney at some point. I do support lower speed limits, but unless we take though traffic out of residential areas, we will be left with people driving too fast, so I agree with you!

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  6. This is why a lot of what I say is directed at things that the engineers should know they can already do with existing guidance or at least show them things that are closely based off of what we already have and would be by law possible, or at the guidelines themselves. I don't usually object to the actions of individual engineers. In fact, one provincial transportation engineer I often talk to has said that he knows that I'm right, but he needs to as closely as possible, follow the existing design guides. I often talk about how to improve the guidelines themselves as a result of this problem. Unfortunately it is hard to convince the provincial department of transport to adopt the sustainable safety guidelines because it's true that traffic collisions and fatalities have dropped a lot since the 1960s and 70s, which is a common excuse. Then again, much of what does work, the Dutch do as well, like clear zones next to fast roads. They also tend to be nervous about how emergency services deal with the traffic calming and anything narrower than 3.3 metres of width on a lane and how snow clearing would work.