Saturday 14 March 2015

Have A Pop If You Must

As a local government worker you need a thick skin; working in a highways department, it needs to be like a rhino; and as an engineer, you may want to have a word with Tony Stark about an upgrade.

I have had to deal with some very unhappy "customers"* over the last couple of weeks who were annoyed with the service they were getting (or not which may be more the point for some). I have had shop keepers who hadn't bothered to respond to a consultation and were now upset that we had started on a scheme which included stopping people (potential customers) parking at a bus stop and them driving over the footway (where are we meant to park they cried - tons of space literally round the corner I said). 

I have had the resident who wouldn't accept that I wasn't there to complain to another transport authority on their behalf - they managed to email me to moan about the other authority, but couldn't use the email address I provided to moan direct. Then we have Mr Scattergun who emails everyone he can think of and when he doesn't get an answer the same day, sends another email complaining and we end up with multiple departments and people trying to answer when they really need to butt out and let me respond within ten working days.

Then I had the councillor who wanted to raise (on behalf of a constituent) concern that there was a signalised junction where people found it hard to cross because of a lack of green man, a narrow refuge and lack of gaps in the traffic. The answer of course is a redesign and green men on all arms, but the concern evaporated when the impact on drivers was also explained.

Next up was the complaint by email with a press cutting attached reporting on a collision with the person asking for my comments before they took it further. The complainant disagreed with a decision made a couple of years ago (bus stop again) and clearly wanted to make a fuss. I think my answer will be that they should take it further because that is their intention anyway.

Away from the the day job, the continual whining on Twitter about UK traffic engineers, well, continued (yes, I know there is an off button and I know a lot is probably justified). What would have crowned the fortnight would have been one of my neighbours having a moan about potholes, but at least I was saved from that!

OK, I will put my fortnight into perspective. People continue to get killed and injured on our streets because we have let them be engineered for cars. People still can't travel independently because there are no green men at junctions, buses cannot pull into the stop and people are scared to ride bikes - you know the list as well as I do.

So, have a pop if it makes you feel better, group-blame highway engineers if you must; but remember that underneath the exoskeleton of officialdom, there lies ordinary people and many of them are frustrated as you are.

At least I get to escape on two-wheels from time to time,
even if it is just putting up official notices!

*perhaps people are customers, but it is still a stupid term. As if there is a choice.


  1. I must plead guilty to being among those who have criticised Ranty Highwayman’s profession of traffic engineering and planning for alleged backwardness when it comes to catering for cycling on our highways.

    I appreciate the unpleasantness of having one’s work criticised, especially if one considers the work in question to be worthy of praise rather than of being pilloried. No doubt many of the criticisms aimed at engineers and planners are unfair or are expressed immoderately, even insultingly. I fully acknowledge that there are indeed some UK traffic engineers that are trying to make changes.

    But, in my opinion, the changes we are beginning to witness are the result of our campaigning. Activists have led the conceptual revolution, dragging the nexus of traffic engineers/planners/councillors along behind them, winning arguments about the need to provide protected space for cycling if it is to become a serious choice as a mode of transport.

    Maybe my partial view is lacking and I’m mistaken, and really the profession has been chafing at the bit to implement high-quality cycle networks and has only been held back by retarded visions among councillors. Time will tell.

    In the meantime, the debate must continue and no one should feel restricted in saying what they think for fear of upsetting the feelings of (paid) professionals. Open discussion is vital and trying to stop criticism is a dangerous mistake.

    I’ve been reading a rather sobering book lately, Anne Applebaum’s history of Eastern Europe between 1944 and 1956, Iron Curtain. At one point she says of a wave of arrests, about which no one talked for fear of also being arrested, that ‘since this wasn’t a topic for discussion, it wasn’t a topic for reflection either’.

    I’m not trying in the least to compare the highway design profession to the Stasi or anything like that. The relevant point is that if we don’t debate and talk about things, then we won’t think about them, won’t reflect on them, and as a result we won’t achieve change. So I appeal to our professional friends to understand that political debate, even if it leaves them feeling a bit battered, is in the long run what gives us hope, lets us imagine alternatives and to make improvements.

    1. Paul, please keep the debate going - I have had a crappy couple of weeks.

      Pride of authorship is a big issue, although unless one "authors" something, there is nothing to talk about. We (myself included) expend a lot of energy moaning about what we don't like (which is easy of course) and not enough showcasing what is good and perhaps most importantly discussing what good looks like.

      My industry is led by influential people and they are almost as responsible as national politicians; I say almost as it should be the politicians providing leadership. There are some (as in all walks of life) who tell politicians what they want to hear, even if they know it is the emperor's new clothes.

      Professionals are duty-bound in my view to stand up for what they believe, but yes, there is some "fear" about upsetting the establishment.

      Get the politicians demanding we allocate space and (most) engineers will get on with it. I am heartened by comments and discussions within my professional networks as things are changing. Curiously, I think there is change coming from engineers as there are increasingly many who either cannot drive or don't run their own car and so they are interested in designing for their own needs.

      From the point of of view, campaigners should perhaps thicken their skins a bit too and some need to get up to speed with the debate too - I am still arguing about advisory lane widths with a CTC representative; if we are discussing cycle lanes, then there is something wrong!

      I also think that the "cycling lobby" (if such a thing exists) perhaps needs to think a bit more about the needs of pedestrians who are the forgotten mode in my view (although providing for cycling does help).

    2. "I also think that the "cycling lobby" (if such a thing exists) perhaps needs to think a bit more about the needs of pedestrians who are the forgotten mode in my view (although providing for cycling does help)."

      In the responses of the campaign I belong to we often end up making the walking arguments at the same time as the cycling ones. A flush kerb is a features for wheelchairs as well as cycles, chicanes stop cargo bikes as well as prams. We don't want shared-use pavements any more than pedestrians do. 20mph is a common cause, as are roads closed to through-traffic.

      But there is a limit. We are a cycling campaign, and it's not our job to solve the whole streetscape (though we might try sometimes). We often get blasted at both ends: people seem to think that we should both give way to pedestrians and to motor traffic, that we hold up vehicles at the same time as insisting that we should slow down for pedestrians.

      And for all the problems that there are with streetscapes for pedestrians (there are many) pedestrians do have pavements. That battle for segregation was won long ago, albeit for the convenience of motor traffic rather than people on foot. The commonly-held hierarchy of provision seems to be that whichever way you turn it up, people cycling end up on the bottom.

    3. Or, to put it more simply: nobody expect the pedestrian lobby to actively campaign for cycle infrastructure. While there might be productive discussions to be had, it's not what they are there for.

    4. Hester, you are correct of course. My point is not that the "cycling lobby" campaigns for pedestrians, just remember that the "walking lobby" are nervous that cycling is encroaching on "their" space in some ways, even if it is having to cross a new cycle track when they are used to just dealing with cars - forgetting how bad several lanes of cars were.

      Yes, cycling has been seen as a bolt on to pedestrian or traffic space, when in reality, it needs its own space in many situations.

    5. Please do not conflate CTC with a campaigning organisation, or even one genuinely representing cyclists more generally. Especially now that they have become a `charity' (with all the legal restrictions on their activities which come with that). If they are pestering you in the course of your day job, then challenge them to quantify and qualify exactly who they are claiming to speak for---and dismiss accordingly.

      You ought to be heartened that all of these moaners are clearly being satisfied by your responses. If that were not the case, they would be escalating their complaints over your head and explicitly calling for your sacking (or worse)! As for describing them as `customers', perhaps if you started billing them on an hourly basis they would be a bit less inclined to waste so much of your employer's time?

      Pedestrians already have their lobbying organisations such as Living Streets, who are often vocally and virulently anti-cycling. Yes, it would be nice if they could work constructively with cycling campaigners. But they make it very hard to do so. Likewise with niche pedestrian groups such as Guide Dogs, as you have previously pointed out.

    6. Mark - it is a big world out there with lots of people trying to make their points, each of which may have differing levels of validity, with often competing issues and indeed business plans to meet. It's a wonder that engineers don't retire to padded cells ;)

      Oh, I have had calls for me to be sacked many times!

  2. No wonder my professional look at this horrific layout:

    1. oops, no wonder my profession gets slated!

    2. Lest you think my main comment lets engineers off the hook, a comment under Matt Turner's video says "Are you beyond retarded or something? The signals ie green and red man will be positioned in the direction from which you want the traffic to stop so you can see both at the same time."

      Someone might have told the "retard" that installed this on the Tolworth Wackyway:


    3. Another one for me to ride! To be fair to Tolworth, there is a distinct gap between the crossings and with the additional high level signals, it is less of a problem although far sided will probably have been better as near side have issues with crowds blocking views!

  3. Ranty is not only a #bloodytrafficengineer he's a #bloodycyclist as well! I trust those who are happy to criticise the genus "traffic engineer" are equally happy to accept criticism of the genus "cyclist". Thanks in large part to his blog I've come to accept that I should only really be criticising Ranty and his colleagues if they have made a pig's ear of their brief. This of course happens quite a lot :p. Interesting to learn of Ranty dealing with emails etc, though. Perhaps wisely, my local authority engineers seem only to communicate via the medium of their shamans, the parish and borough councillors. I've never had any joy through personal supplication.

    However, I largely agree with Hester about pedestrians: and would add that they are also used as an excuse to dilute cycling projects. Whether this is authority specific, as with engineers' predelictions, I wouldn't like to guess, though I wouldn't be surprised. There is also the apparently national design sport of extreme footway widening, obviously favouring those on foot. The most pernicious dilution, though, is the use, and consequent implementation, of phrases such as "the cycling budgets will benefit all road users", which I've read a few times recently in one form or another. When a budget is meant to bring cycling facilities up to the standard of pedestrian and motor infrastructure, such statements and implementations should be actively and strongly criticised. Remember the approximately £400k of cycling fund used on the Union Roundabout, Bedford? The works are on StreetView now. After a careful search, this narrow diagonal path between the trees is the only actual cycling-specific infrastructure that I can find:

    It wasn't just engineers that OK'd this (if any - that's not clear), it was councillors and various campaign groups including those from cycling campaigns as well (as David Hembrow and Schrödinger's Cat have documented). And Pete Owens, who isn't the most supportive campaigner for segregated infrastructure, but knows his carriageways, has written some damning stuff about the final on-road geometry for vehicular cycling (CTC forum IIRC). It doesn't slow motor traffic down enough, I think was the gist. But I presume this would come down to a similar exchange with a councillor, as Ranty describes in this article with respect to the all green with his.

    1. Sometimes I want to get off the ride and go and do something different, but that would probably turning into someone emailing the council!

      My profession very bad at setting a brief and scheme objectives to measure by, but politicians need to take more responsibility in being up front with what they want out of schemes (even if it is providing for cars) and challenging what officers try and tell them. The strange universe of highways and transport indeed!

  4. Having done a lot of criticism of transport planners in my time I am still just some bozo on twitter. Although one who's getting more and more pissed off with having to risk my life every time I get on a bike.

    I don't think anyone outside the industry could have made the profession look as ridiculous as the recent comments by Mark Hanson in his editorial in New Civil Engineering.

    1. Dave,

      NCE does not represent the professional (as in the Institution of Civil Engineers, of which I am a member) and Hansford is an engineer turned journalist. However, his comments were reckless given his position of influence in my industry.

      The ICE is an oil tanker with many senior people as wedded to the car as their clients and government are, but change is coming slowly. In terms of being a leading light of active travel, I would say the CIHT is far better (I would say that as I am a Fellow and fairly active in the organisation).

      Far from being a bozo, you are an end user and this country is failing those walking and cycling and why should you travel as safely as you would on a train!