Friday 14 March 2014

Going Local: How can campaigners and engineers work together?

this idea has been hanging around for ages following a question from @angus_fx back in october (thanks by the way!) - "what can local campaigners best do to help?"

The discussion was prompted by my post on the frustrations of bidding for funding against the Mayor of London's Cycling Vision which had the inevitable requirement for "quick wins". I was trying to explain that although slow progress is deeply frustrating, there must be situations where schemes should be planned over say a 3-year programme.

I mentioned that TfL were operating a 14-month lead in for traffic signal works, Network Rail 18-months for track possession and planning consents for major schemes took 13 weeks. In other words, people and organisations external to a project must be built into a programme and those developing schemes should accept this from the start. The tweeting went as follows;

I probably wasn't fair in the way I put things across, but to be fair to TfL traffic signals people and Network Rail, it does take time to design and plan an installation and so the lead-in was not a criticism. The criticism was for those who get a suggested budget and programme from people like me. They then give people like me less budget and a much shorter programme and wonder why we get the arse-ache!

So then, local campaigners. What can you best do to help? There is a long list of things, but it is essentially for you to get an idea of how the "system" works;

  • How do budgets get put together? 
  • How are bids worked up? 
  • Who makes the decisions? 
  • When are the decisions made? 
  • How are decisions made? 
  • Who are the key players?
There are loads of questions which can be asked about a project or the allied processes and my message is don't be afraid to ask and keep asking until you get an answer (even if you don't like the answer!)

As I explained above, engineers are often brought in to do a quick feasibility, but don't see the project again until they are told "here is the money, get on with it" - whether or not there is enough time or money. Perhaps the local campaigner needs to be pushing to be involved in that initial feasibility stage and indeed when the local authority's transport policy/ plan is being developed. 

Local authorities will have various development and transport policies. Campaigner's could get to know the key points with regards to transport and push the decision-makers and designers to consider properly their own policies which can be ignored when it suits. The (development) planning process is key as developers and indeed the local authority development control staff may have no idea about what good looks like in terms of walking and cycling. These are the people making recommendations on planning applications which is key in getting space for walking and cycling prioritised.

I use this advisory lane often to filter past the regular traffic jams, but
it is not going to encourage mass cycling. Three-quarters of the
people I regularly see are on the footway.
Campaigners also need to think about who they are representing. I have had many an argument with local campaigners over the "right" width of advisory cycle lanes and whether advanced stop lines should be provided.

This is the wrong use of everyone's energy as both concepts are not going to especially attract new users, although existing users may appreciate them. 

The focus of campaigning should be on getting local kids walking and cycling to school in actual and subjective safety. It should be about showing how changes to the streets can allow people to leave the car at home and do the same journey in a reliable time. It should be definitely be aimed at the politicians and decision makers so they know that there are lots of people fed up with the status quo. 

I think what all parties need to do is to get away from the "them and us" mentality that we sometimes get. Engineers (and planners) need to be aware that local campaigners are often using up their free time and so they will want to use their energy in the right place. Campaigners need to remember that we are implementing the policies of the authority and that those policies are those of the particular bunch running the town hall. 

We do get accused of making excuses for the schemes we build when they are seen as poor. I am not saying for a minute that local campaigners should compromise on what they want to see, but perhaps they need to understand that sometimes engineers have to compromise because of the funding, time and political constraints we are often under. Understanding if not acceptance. But, every time I think about the issue (and I do quite a lot) it all comes back to one thing and that is the schemes we get are a result of who we are working for. I will leave you with quote I made in the current Highways Magazine (yes, a shameless plug);

“Being an engineer is about being able to adapt one’s skills to new problems. Unless we are challenged by our leaders to change our approach as designers, we revert to type and carry on as before and this is just not going to deliver.”


  1. I could have used this article a week ago when I tried to explain how and why 'sub-standard' schemes get built and the process of designing and implementing schemes.

    I don't know about Local Authority engineers and timescales, but out here in the private sector it's not unknown to work on the same scheme (or versions thereof) several times in ones career - actually seeing infrastructure get built sometimes just seems to be a bonus. Try explaining that to people outside the industry.

    Andy R

    1. A good point. Some things hang around for years, but never get finished!

  2. "Campaigners need to remember that we are implementing the policies of the authority and that those policies are those of the particular bunch running the town hall. "

    Well, yes and no: engineers and transport planners can (and do) impede projects because they are locked into traditional car-centric ways of doing things. Plus a lot of what a local authority can do is actually not in Highways or Transport departments, but Planning - as you say - and also Housing, Education etc.

    One possible way forward is to have a Councillor who is interested in cycling chosen as a Cycling Champion. You can have some sort of panel/cyclist group which meets regularly comprising stakeholders, and that MIGHT resolve some issues. I wouldn't hold my breath about it actually achieving anything significant, but it might free up some logjams and act as a forum where local campaigners can be informed about what is happening. Of course, such forums also act as ways of fobbing off the said campaigners...

    Ultimately it comes down to having senior Councillors who genuinely want to support cycling and see modal shift away from car use, and be prepared to instruct officers accordingly (and that includes knowing when they are being bullshitted by said officers). Like I said, don't hold your breath...

    1. Yes, it is entirely possible for staff to frustrate the process Yes Minister style and I suppose equally subvert a pro-car administration. Completely agree that senior councillors must want to change things.

  3. While I sympathise with your position and have learned a lot from your blog posts, this latest one seems to have an underlying assumption that, were everyone simply willing, the UK could have as good infrastructure as the Netherlands. I don't buy it. If that were so, someone, somewhere in some borough or ward would already have done it. As far as I can see only Hackney comes close, pursuing a half-Dutch policy of treating its roads like access roads; where they fail is linking these to the major roads and junctions; though, to be fair,this seems largely down to TfL not providng safe segregated infrastructure on their roads - where, as numberous observers have noted, the whole network most needs it. Yet where the opportunity (and apparent desire) is there, such as with CS2x as the latest example, infrastructure that your kids and granparents could safely and conveniently cycle on is simply not being delivered. I mean (a bit old but) …
    and not … really?

    Clearly with this and other examples, someone wanted to do something better for cyclists, but there must be something missing from the toolkit, or someone somewhere in the UK would have done a proper job, and IMO it is the guidelines and regulations that have to be followed that are preventing much progress. So yes, get your councillors on board, yes encourage more cycling, but if the build is inferior by legal necessity to what we know can be done in other countries, you're not going to get very far. Engineers are surely the best people to be campaigning for that.

    1. Of course, political leadership can get the rules changed. For example, we have low level cycle signals approved (still waiting for proper guidance granted). I agree other things need to be changed such as priority for cycles without needing signals and that is political.

      There is a lot we can do with current rules, it is just that many of my peers are unwilling or scared to push things to the limit and perhaps break a few rules (with a proper and recorded justification).

      I don't see myself as a campaigning engineer, but talking about things is part of being a professional engineer. It would be nice for our professional institutions to provide some more leadership and bang the table for walking and cycling too.

  4. @ Jitensha Oni - re changing the regulations.
    Currently several cities have received funding from central government to improve their cycling facilities (see CCAG). These are cities like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds. Together, these cities, their officers and one presumes their councillors have made representations to the DfT to be allowed to try some 'innovative' (i.e. for the UK), infrastructure. And yet, even with this broad coalition, the DfT won't allow something as pitifully small as trialling a modified zebra crossing until the TSRGD is rewritten, hopefully to be sometime in the next 18 months.
    The likes of TRL used to be admired worldwide (and that's not jingoism), but somewhere along the line UK transport research and policy has ossified. Some claim there is a 'not invented here' syndrome, but look to our engineering consultancies (some of our most successful yet overlooked exports) and they are all engaged in worldwide markets, adopting local standards and adapting to local conditions. There is no fear of the foreign, certainly not that I have seen, at the coal face. The problems we face wrt not being allowed to innovate are most definitely within the ranks of the DfT.

    Andy R

    1. I think much more pressure needs to be brought to bear on getting DfT to either change the rules or allow LAs more flexibility within defined limits (having consistency can be important for safety. DfT have always mean difficult and that change is firmly with the Minister.

  5. Me again (the 2nd Anonymous):

    The problems faced in terms of reducingc ar use and getting more cycle use are not IMO about the nature of the regulations for engineers.

    They are about the fact that politicians (in Councils, the GLA and Parliament) do not want to take space from motor vehicular traffic and generally reduce motor vehicle use.

    Dr Robert Davis, Chair Road Danger Reduction Forum

    1. I think that this comes back time and again, especially where with have things like "smoothing" traffic flow and lots on on-street parking. We have the space on the whole - how we chop it up is an engineer's suggestion, but a politician's decision.

  6. There is no longer any debate amongst cycling advocates about the destination - at a strategic level as well as at a local level - and for this we must be ever grateful to a number of people, pretty much all of whom we could name.

    But how to get there? Perhaps the best way - as proposed by Chris Hill of City Cycling Edinburgh - is to keep this vision of the future in mind, and then to ask: "What steps do we need to take today in order to get to where we want to go?"

    This is the concept of "backcasting", which according to wikipedia is "a method in which the future desired conditions are envisioned and steps are then defined to attain those conditions, rather than taking steps that are merely a continuation of present methods extrapolated into the future."

    The five main requirements for bicycle-friendly infrastructures as identified by CROW are as follows:

    > Improved traffic safety;
    > Directness: short, fast routes from origin to destination;
    > Comfort: good surfaces, generous space and little hindrance from other road users;
    > Attractiveness: a pleasant, socially safe environment, without smell or noise nuisance;
    > Cohesion: logical, cohesive routes

    The concept of backcasting would therefore begin with this end in mind, and then look backward from the vision to the present, before finally moving step-by-step towards the vision. This image shows how important it is to prioritise.

    First, routes which are direct, which are logical, and which cohere can be got up and running and made to work quite quickly. Second, if routes are not safe, comfortable and attractive now, then they can be made safe, comfortable and attractive "on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable"; but if routes are not direct, logical and cohesive now, then a lot of money might get spent developing a network such as the one planned for Manchester, to no obvious advantage in the long run.

    1. Quite right. If there was vision, it should be where we want to get to. If space, regulations or whatever get in the way as we go, they need to be tackled and it might free up other blockages further along.

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