Sunday, 20 October 2013

If we are going to do it properly, let's plan it properly first!

Despite the general doom and gloom about a lack of funding for cycling, I seem to have been spending quite a bit of time looking at very early scheme ideas for funding bids, but I am also worried.

I have been looking at a strange mix of potential Quietways for bids against the Mayor's Cycling Vision, a couple of routes to leisure destinations, a major upgrade for a main road and some ideas for linking the areas around schools together in local "Network Clusters" (hey, I just coined some jargon!). It has also been great to get out on two-wheels for work as how else can you design for cycling if you sit behind a steering wheel or a desk all the time?

The big worry for me is that we always seem do this back to front. What seems to happen is that we have a vague idea of what we want to do, make a funding bid, get too little money and end up with a fudge. The political horizon is too short and politicians want to make their mark quickly. Take Boris Johnson.

Classic political "easy win" - the Trixi mirror. Department for
Transport successfully lobbied to allow them and now they are
popping up all over the place because they are cheap and
it shows that "something" is being done. This is not cycling
infrastructure and should not be praised as such.
In his first term, he did little for cycling in terms if infrastructure other than a couple of blue paint jobs called Cycle Superhighways (with some rebranding of other people's work). He did get the cycle hire scheme off the ground, but it remains loss making (which is a debate in itself about the costs of public transport).

His second term saw the release of his Vision (in March, a year after getting re-elected) which is actually a fair policy and in the main it makes sense. He has set out his broad objectives. Of course, the vision came as a result of a heck of a lot of lobbying and campaigning and he is now itching to get things implemented - third term perhaps?

A lot of people (myself included) cannot wait to get things getting built, but in the rush, I am worried that we are going to mess it up again. Politicians and senior management types often enthuse and gush about "quick wins"; the "low hanging fruit" and other such vacuous cobblers.

An Advanced Stop Line (ASL) outside 197 Blackfriars Road,
otherwise known as Palestra, the home of Transport for London's
Surface Transport Team amongst others. There is so much space
on this street, but where are the cycle tracks?
What they really mean is that a proper job is difficult, it will take a long time, it will take a lot of money and it will take a lot of effort to win people round. In essence, they may well not be around when things start on site and so how will they take the glory? The easy wins are great as they get "things" built or installed for the photo opportunity, it allows them to say we are getting on with the job. It is often little more than window-dressing.

"Shovel ready" is another terrible political term being bandied about which assumes that local authorities have shelves full of schemes ready to go. In reality, "shovel ready" schemes will be those which throw money at resurfacing a carriageway or changing the lanterns on lamp columns - probably needed, but not new schemes.

Don't get me wrong, I really like small interventions if they are the right answer at the time, but we cannot transform cycling with just little schemes. At some point, we are going to have to tackle big issues and pull out the big civil engineering toys. For example, lots of places have street networks which converge at bridges where roads cross other roads, railways or waterways or the streets are crossed themselves.

This is a bridge which has been around for decades, but had no
pedestrian or cyclist access 
from day one (unless you fancied
walking or cycling on a 40mph 
road). There were three
solutions to getting a new route over this 
bridge; widen the
bridge to create space for a cycle track; build a 
new bridge
parallel to this one or narrow the carriageway to create a 
shared-use unsegregated cycle track together with replacing the
bridge parapet for a higherone (so cyclists didn't fall over he
edge!). Widening the bridge was 
not structurally feasible, a new
bridge was a million-pound scheme 
and so the third option was
chosen which cost less than £200k and 
could be delivered within
the funding time limit. Was this the best solution? No, but is it a
fair compromise to get the network linked up? Possibly.
It is not often that we find spare space to play with at these locationsand so the stark reality is that we are going to have to make serious changes. We may need to widen or rebuild bridges to create cycle tracks or even build new bridges for walking and cycling. We are going to have to cross busy roads or run alongside them and we may well have to get other people involved who will not be marching to our programme.

Take Network Rail. If any work needs to be done near the railway, it will call the shots. If you are doing bridge works over a railway line, you will be restricted to what you can do and when you can do it. Lifting a new bridge over a railway may mean booking space 18-months in advance or even longer to coincide with a planned works blockade (such as Christmas!).

In London, Transport for London's traffic signals unit has a 14-month lead in to new traffic signal schemes. Elsewhere major planning applications take 13-weeks to determine (if you are lucky), utility diversions can take months to programme, highway authorities need at least 3-months' notice for major works, the list of issues external to the immediate scheme can be huge.

Copenhagen have been delivering their cycling infrastructure for years
and it shows all across the city. It is clear that some of the layouts
are compromises which are at the expense of cyclists and
pedestrians, but they have tackled the difficult such as the bridges.
On one of the schemes I have been looking at, I was asked for rough costs many months ago to help inform a bid which I gave, but with a list of caveats and recommended that a proper feasibility was done. 

All went quiet for ages and then I was asked to do a more detailed feasibility, so I got out on my bike and had a proper look. I remained fairly happy with my original estimate, but then I was then told that far less had been awarded for the scheme. What is the point of awarding funding for a scheme which is less than the bid? Why not fund less, but better schemes?

In London, the Mayor is pressing on with his vision and he is pushing boroughs to get their ideas for Quietways in to TfL as soon as possible. Bearing in mind, the vision only came out in March and nobody really knows what he and the Cycling Commissioner, Andrew Gilligan, wants. 

The London boroughs are being pushed hard to deliver on a plan which has not been developed beyond the "vision" stage and very little is being done on looking at the feasibility of the routes being chosen (it does vary between boroughs of course). Until and unless the difficult parts of the cycling network are identified early and work to deal with them starts early, then we are utterly wasting our time delivering easy things which remain in isolation.

I am quite happy to see this type of "easy win" to open up networks
to cyclists which are restricted to other vehicles. But, these
networks will have to interact with main roads at some point!
If we are serious about building proper infrastructure, it will cost us a lot of money, but (and I would say more importantly) it will cost us a lot of time. If the right answer to a barrier is a new bridge or a tunnel, or traffic signals which cut back vehicle capacity, then we need to spend the time getting proper budgets together and time to win people over. If the right scheme needs 3 years to deliver, then so be it. We have waited this long after all. 

As for the money, well if the government was not so intent on spending billions on road widening and a high speed white elephant, there would be more than enough to deliver proper schemes.


  1. An excellent post. Thank you for your insight as ever. Planning and deciding what to do is absolutely key.

    I have been saying for ages that what is needed first is a set of national designs that local authorities have to abide by. These designs need to be of a much higher quality and cater for a much greater number of cyclists in the future. It is also important to plan and include cycling at the very start of any project.

    If the Govt had decided to chuck a couple of billion at LAs and told them to get on with it, over large parts of the country all we would have got was a lot of tarmaced pavements redesignated as shared use.

    Yet to see any sign of the "cycle-proofing" promises (I hate that phrase btw), but suspect it will end up being more narrow shared paths with convoluted routes across junctions

  2. Well, the closest we may get to National standards will be those coming out of the Welsh Active Travel Act or the London Cycle Design Standards - I cannot see anything proper national, any time soon and this continues to demonstrate the total lack of leadership we have from the government.

  3. I think that Sustrans are going to evaluate some or all of the quietways in London.

  4. Yes, Sustrans are heavily involved and have engineering staff in place for the workload.

    I am a volunteer for them and so have a lot of time for them, but while they will be able to help to assess borough proposals for TfL, it is all still too rushed and there will still be the issue of barriers and bust streets to deal with.

  5. Another excellent post, and it does highlight the problems of the political expediency of "getting things done" and delivering stuff quickly as opposed to delivering stuff well.

    Very few authorities I know have schemes that can be simply taken off the shelf and submitted into a funding bid. Whilst the construction is the finance-heavy element of any scheme, the design is the resource-heavy element. Most local authorities simply do not spend the time designing schemes for which funding is uncertain or non-existant.

    As you can guess I also feel your pain. We are currently trying to submit for the Local Pinchpoint Fund. This effectively means designing a scheme, modelling it, consulting on it, and preparing a Major Scheme Business Case inside a month. That means putting all my other work on hold for a month to rush around in the vain hope of getting a few million quid. All in the name of getting something done.

    Ironically, one of the things I have had to drop is pulling together a 5 year programme of integrated transport schemes across 4 authority areas inside 6 weeks to go into the bid for the Single Growth Fund. One year's programme takes the better part of 6 months to pull together. It's insanity.

    I admit that long ago most authorities should have planned and designed the network they want to see before funding it. But the short-termism applied to funding bids makes things a hundred times harder.

    Rant over!

    1. "I admit that long ago most authorities should have planned and designed the network they want to see before funding it."

      Not just planned and designed, but "introduced" it, as well. This—says the only publication out of Europe to answer the question, How to begin?—would be "a prudent course to follow".

      In French—Une approche prudente: le niveau de fonctionnement minimal
      In German—Ein vorsichtiger Ansatz: das Minimalkonzept
      In Spanish—Un enfoque prudente: el nivel de funcionamiento mínimo

      "But the short-termism applied to funding bids makes things a hundred times harder."

      The hardest step—according to Eastern philosophers—is to go from zero to one. Madame du Deffand: The distance is nothing; it is only the first step that is difficult.

      And yet this "difficult" first step, we want to make a hundred times harder. How very British of us.

      1. Think in terms of a network
      2. Plan the network
      3. Study the feasibility of the network
      4. "Introduce" the network
      5. Develop the network further on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable. The key here is sustained investment, which means to say, a lot of money and (more importantly, Ranty suggests, and I agree) a lot of time.

    2. It is madness to front end so much feasibility as we as we never get the chance to develop it properly or sound people out. We need a plan to transcend politics. Yeah, right.

    3. 3. Study the feasibility of the network ...

      "Studying the feasibility of a network is of a similar importance to setting up a cycling unit or appointing a cycling coordinator," (Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities, p.57)

      In other words, what is needed to be done in order to get the network to function?

      Once the network is functioning, you have gone from zero to one. As before said, this is the hardest step.

      You say that it is madness to front end so much feasibility, but a 'network first' approach has never been tried in this country, so how do you know that you would never get the chance to develop the network further? How do you know this?

      "Given their low cost, the small amount of extra work which they entail and the possibilities of corrections in the case of error, such measures may be adopted automatically. Even if their impact is not massive, it will be real (improvement of cyclists’ comfort, raising the awareness of motorists, encouraging the mass of non-cyclists who are most likely to take up cycling again).

      You have said before that engineers like to see stuff written down, but surely you don't think engineers are unique in this respect? What evidence can you show us to refute the five-step plan listed in my earlier comment?

  6. Quote "If the right answer to a barrier is a new bridge or a tunnel, or traffic signals which cut back vehicle capacity, then we need to spend the time getting proper budgets together and time to win people over. If the right scheme needs 3 years to deliver, then so be it. We have waited this long after all."

    But what if the right answer is road building?


    1. Quite right, but in the UK we have built ring roads and bypasses, but have mostly not treated the areas being bypassed and so these routes still take heavy, non-local traffic.

  7. But what if an LA or even the HA proposed such a scheme. A town gets a (probably long wished for) bypass, with the quid pro quo that the town's infrastructure is also re-designed to be fully inclusive (with the obvious exception of the car)? What then for those vehemently against the car and ever more road building?