Saturday, 3 May 2014

Filling The Vacuum

The uk government has consistently failed to keep up with thinking in designing for walking and cycling, and people are rightly frustrated.

Most of the problem is down to the lack of political interest and enthusiasm for any solution beyond the end of a car bonnet. For years, the only "official" road design manual was the "Design Manual for Roads & Bridges" which was and still is only relevant for trunk roads and motorways; essentially the roads operated by the Highways Agency for England and similar roads under the control of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland administrations (who are increasingly going it alone anyway).

Walking and cycling are marginalised. Although there is some advice in the DMRB when it comes to non-car modes, it is rarely followed even on Highways Agency roads. Other than the technical structural guidance on bridge works, it has no application to local streets.

In 2007, "Manual for Streets" was published which raised the game for the design of residential streets. It was a government document, but it was put together by the industry with representation from local authorities, consultants, developers and others. On the whole I like it and the section on walking is quite detailed. The section on providing for cycling is short and pretty poor; things have moved on and this "official" guidance hasn't.

7 years after MfS, those campaigning for walking and cycling or for just better streets haven't got anything "official" to refer to. For those of use on the design side and in local authorities, our life is not helped by the lack of guidance. If there was up to date guidance on developing walking and cycling networks, things can be measured against it and facilities can be made consistent. I have covered some if this before.

What has happened is people have gone at it themselves and with varying results. In 2010, the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation released Manual for Streets 2. Although it was "sort of" endorsed by government, it remains an industry document and it comes at streets more from a policy and planning point of view than the detail needed to actually design and build stuff.

This week, two more "unofficial" design guides came out. First, we have Sustrans with its "Handbook for Cycle-Friendly Design" was has had a savaging on Twitter and in the blogosphere. To be fair to Sustrans, they do suggest that it is the start of a process and in my opinion, there is some good stuff in there. The early parts of the document is about user needs and on the whole, it is pretty sound, but it falls down massively with a couple of statements;

Target user: design should be attractive and comfortable for the less confident cyclist – a sensible 12 year old or novice adult who is trained to National Standards / Bikeability Level 2 – but should aim to provide for the more confident cyclist as well. Where more confident cyclists choose not to use any facilities provided their needs should also be addressed with separate provision where appropriate; they should not be compromised by the design;

Design in line with cycle training: on-highway design should reinforce how people are taught to cycle in National Standards / Bikeability Level 2, in particular primary and secondary road positioning;

My personal message to Sustrans is that I am a confident cyclist, in the saddle most days and mixing with traffic much of the time. I have never been "trained", but I have ridden "primary" in a lot of places, including the old bit of Cycle Superhighway 2 in London. Do you know what? I prefer the protected bit of the Stratford extension!

I thought we were now moving towards designing for most people rather than the two-tier approach which does rather come through elsewhere in the document and sadly the good is soon forgotten and people remember the bad. Sustrans does intend to revisit this and it is a starting point, but they should (in my opinion) have come out in unqualified support to provide proper space where required (and that goes for pedestrians). Had they done so, the "target user" and "design in line with cycle training" would have merely been statements of the current position which we need to move on from.

The other release was "Making Space for Cycling" which has been put together by the Cambridge Cycling Campaign (CCC) and published by Cyclenation. The web-based format is excellent and means it can be easily updated (also available as a pdf). I think the guide is pretty damn awesome and it shows more of what we should be aspiring to. 

It seems to be aimed more a new build and the non-techn, but much of it can be retrofitted to existing streets. My one criticism is that it is extremely light on practical design layouts which at least Sustrans has tried to deal with (not always well). Perhaps it is more of a marketing document aimed at those who don't know what people want and that is no bad thing.

It is very easy to sit back in one's chair and criticise and many people do. It is a lot harder to be constructive and offer help and advice. We should remember that both Sustrans and CCC are trying to move things on (in their own ways) and this is a symptom of a continued lack of leadership from the Government. Sustrans, CCC and indeed all of us commenting on design would be making much better use of our time responding to proposed National design standards which everyone can sign up to.

National standards (and please don't forget pedestrians here) would ensure that things are done consistently (and I mean that from an assessment as well as a design point of view). It would be a huge help to local authorities as many of their highways people don't cycle and so don't understand the user experience. We are not going to be in a position any time soon where all highway engineers cycle and until then, they need to be able to understand how it all hangs together.

Of course, the larger authorities are going it along. In London, we were promised the radically overhauled London Cycling Design Standards back in December. Then March. It is now May. The previous LCDS were published in 2005 and are of course massively out of date. I think I know why the new edition is being delayed which I will come back to in a bit. Wales has passed its "Active Travel Act" which will undoubtedly lead to design guidance.

This might be the way forward where the devolved and regional governments produce their own guidance and the National Government simply puts the legislation in place to facilitate. I do worry that we will end up with area-specific layouts which lack consistency, but only time will tell.

Back to the reason for the LCDS being delayed. This week the Government published a consultation on a huge rewrite of the Traffic Signs Regulations and General Directions (TSRGD). Pencilled in as TSRGD2015, this will be the background legal framework to what gets installed on the streets in the next few years. I think TfL has waited for several reasons (which I might be wrong with of course!);

  • There is a lot of new cycling-specific stuff in there which TfL has been trialling and lobbying for, such as low level cycle signals and cycle zebra crossings. Publication of the draft TSRGD2015 will give TfL confidence that the new LCDS will have layouts which can be lawfully used. (perhaps a liability and reputational concern about an authority going it alone!)
  • Politically, had TfL gone for it before the TSRGD was updated, it would essentially have been Boris getting one over the Government which may not have gone down well.
  • They raised expections to such a high level, there has been the need for a lot of rewriting (possibly by Andrew Gilligan!) to get the guidance to the standard everyone is now rightly demanding in London.

These regulations matter because they link back to road traffic law and this is important in how things work for safety, how things get enforced and of course makes sure that things are consistently laid out UK-wide. Believe me that I have only been through the draft a couple of times so far, but TSRGD15 will finally unshackle design creativity and set us well on the way to getting things right for walking and cycling.

The Coalition has made big noises about localism and perhaps leaving authorities to come up with local guidance is par for the course with them. TSRGD15 will give the enabling framework on what can be done, it is up to local authorities to use it. Only time will tell if this approach will work and if the vacuum will be properly filled.

My final point is that I urge anyone with a passing interest to read the TSRGD15 consultation and respond, even it is just to say you think it is all great as it will show the government that people are watching. I know that many organisations will be responding and I will probably do as well as a practitioner - I might even post my more detailed views in due course.


  1. Good analysis as expected from a pro!.

    For me the Sustrans fell over for several key reasons.
    There is a reliance on onstreet designs and trained users taking primary. Like you I'm experienced and confident, but that is not enough on a busy narrow road with an idiot behind you.
    There is reference at various points to facilities being designed depending on speeds of users. There is not much difference and we should be building up to a single standard where everyone can cycle.
    The good stuff is mixed in with the bad. Even the off road diagram has good and bad bits with little or no distinction between them (the bollards being a prime example). Less enlightened LAs will just use what they want or can fit in from that, just assuming everything is good practice. I would like to see a revision pulling the crap like pinchpoints with a painted bike symbol.

    The three guides (including the CTC one) actually seem to complement each other quite well as. The new TSRGD seems to have an awful lot of very good stuff.

    It all seems quite hopeful

  2. Does it all seem hopeful Gazza?

    There are some signs of progress yes..but until big organisations like Transport for London, Westminster Council, Department for Transport etc really do make changes ON THE GROUND then it is just hot air.

    And that means restricting traffic/ taking away parking to make way for good cycling facilities. In my 40 years it still hasnt happened. :-(