Thursday 22 May 2014

Cycling Spring

My posts over the last few weeks have been very bike-based and this week is no exception. I will remember to be a highway engineer and post something technical next week (maybe).

Today is the local and European elections. For the Euros, my decision was simple (no, I won't say here - ask me in the pub). Locally, it was a little more difficult (not a huge choice), but in the end, I went for a party who fielded 3 candidates who all signed up to the #Space4Cycling campaign at an early stage. Only time will tell if they get elected and if they carry through on their pledge.

By carry through, I mean actually challenge the current thinking locally and actually demand some decent funding and design approaches where we can do some good. My next highways committee will be interesting to say the least (and that is as much as you get about the day job here - the line is too fine!).

In casting my vote, I cycled round the corner to the polling station to stick my crosses down in person which is something I have always done - for a few seconds, I had the full power of democracy behind me. This was a contrast to last night where the power of the people was also being demonstrated.

After being a bit on the fence about attending, I rode across East London (and headed south) to the Elephant & Castle to participate in the #StopKillingCyclists "die-in" following the death of Abdelkhalak Lahyani at the junction.

I was sitting on the fence partly because of time (getting to the protest on time by bike was a challenge, but my new daily bike performed brilliantly) and partly because I am part of the industry and bureaucracy which leads to stuff being built (and I mean things which affect pedestrians too). But, I am just one engineer who is learning as he goes and as I often tell colleagues at work, you need to live the designs you work on and that must include coming to terms with how those designs turn out and who they affect.

The decision on what gets built on the highway network is largely a political one, but it is the job of those designing the schemes and advising the politicians to explain what the consequences are (good and bad) of something being put forward. However, we could and should do more as a profession in explaining how we can improve the transport in our towns and cities and increasingly how important walking and cycling will be. I for one am looking forward to voting in the General Election next year and the London Mayoral and GLA elections in 2016!


  1. "I was sitting on the fence...partly because I am part of the industry and bureaucracy which leads to stuff being built (and I mean things which affect pedestrians too)."

    Surely if there's one thing cycle activists need it's support/input from practitioners of highway and traffic engineering to help them get where they want the UK to be? I stated on another blog that it's OK to quote the CROW guidance, but if they don't know our system, how and why things are the way they are in the UK, other than 'our engineers are stupid', then they quickly lose all credibility whatever the merits of their arguments. This lack of knowledge goes for the planning process (and the time things take to get designed and built) how schemes are funded, never mind the engineering challenges we face (including Local Authority Design Guides and the DMRB), even the terminology we use.

    An example, perhaps of the last case - but also lack of knowledge of our system overall, and why our input is needed - is a cyclist who has asked on a couple of blogs about 'Section 39' reports; referring to Section 39 of the Road Traffic Act and the duty on highway authorities to collect collision data and reduce the number of injury collisions on their network. You and I (and hopefully most highway/traffic engineers) will know of Road Safety Audits - for new and planned road schemes - and of Collision Investigation and Prevention studies (AIPs, for the older folks) for existing sites which have been found to present an injury collision problem. We know that local highway authorities (and in the case of the Highways Agency their consultants) collect Stats19 data from the police and have databases of injury collisions going back to what, perhaps the mid-eighties, certainly the early nineties. And that we've certainly been doing this longer than any other nation.

    Yet this writer, who probably knows the preferred entry radius for a Dutch roundabout off the top of his head, seemed to have absolutely no idea that this happens. That it's just part and parcel of what highway authorities do every day. So he carries on wondering out loud whether LAs are doing anything to satisfy this section of the RTA - the implication being that they're sat on their hands, doing nothing, cynically oblivious to the casualty toll on their roads, and specifically those injury collisions involving cyclists (although I have since responded to one of his questions on another blog, so fingers crossed he is now a little more informed).

    No, you were entirely correct to go to this demonstration/memorial, and should not feel guilty about the works of (y)our profession. I would suggest we have done far more good than harm. What an engineer's influence on politicians is I do not know - I've only ever worked for the Devil (consultants), but my impression looking in from the outside is that local politicians listen to subject matter experts about as much as our national politicians do...shame.

    Andy R.

  2. Oh, I agree, it is easy to sit at the sidelines and condemn what you don't know. I started this blog so I could learn, but also educate others as it is only by understanding the system can we influence it or change it.

    I have said plenty of times that poor designs are often the result of a poor brief (and perhaps a poor budget) and to be fair to consultants, they do as they are briefed and paid.

    I do think we need to change our approach as the traditional AIP work is getting harder because the "easy" collision patterns have been dealt with and I think we need to concentrate far more on the prevention side.

    Of course, the interest in cycling and to a lesser extent walking, is bringing the impacts on vulnerable roads users right into the media spotlight.

    I did go to a vigil earlier in the year as my own movements that day took me near. This one was an effort to get to, but I am glad I did. In the event, there was no hysteria, just people asking that designs take vulnerable people into account.

    There is cycle provision at the Elephant & Castle, but will never be used by kids going to school - frankly it was so intimidating, I wheeled my bike round for the homeward leg.

    Our professional has allowed itself to be marginalised and water down and so it is the showman architects who are respected - politicians love a big name and a shiny project. My message to engineers is that they should stick to their principles and get a bit more vocal.

    If I think campaigners should understand our point of view, we have a professional duty to understand theirs.

  3. "Our professional has allowed itself to be marginalised and water down and so it is the showman architects who are respected - politicians love a big name and a shiny project. My message to engineers is that they should stick to their principles and get a bit more vocal."
    I have often joked that if an architect proposed a public realm scheme, of the type seen in Ashford and Poynton and said he needed to use artisinal block paving crafted by a single 80-year old in Andalucia, it would be a sign of his deep feeling and understanding for the space, and how the people who use it relate to it. Whereas if an engineer proposed the same thing he'd be thrown a copy of the Marshalls catalogue and told not to be so profligate.

    "If I think campaigners should understand our point of view, we have a professional duty to understand theirs."
    I agree entirely. But as David Hembrow often points out in his excellent articles, it is easy to misinterpret what the Dutch do, and this is where we as engineers need to fully understand and explain their system to lay people. For example, it has to be acknowledged that there is a strain in some areas of UK cycle activism of seeing the internal combustion engine as the root of all evil, and road building as the Devil's work. However, the Dutch are by no means afraid of the car, and are happy to build and widen motorways as part of their strategic network, (having first wrung as much capacity as possible out of their old layouts by using management techniques we are only now employing) - on the other hand we are yet to have a fully dualled road linking the capital cities of England and Scotland, and in some quarters even the idea is begrudged. Theirs is a system which provides separate, safe, and direct routes for cyclists, but outside urban areas does exactly the same for motor traffic. It isn't either/or - a zero sum game, as so often the argument seems to be over here - it's both, in parallel.

    Andy R.

    1. Amen to that, brother (from a Yankee Highwayman who takes his moniker for his love of the Road via 18 Wheels, 4 Wheels, or 2 Non - Motorised Wheels.