Saturday, 4 June 2022

A Cheeky Monkey

Well Dear Reader, this is my 500th blog post and I can scarcely believe it. My first post was on 28th November 2012 and so this year I shall also be celebrating 10 years of writing this conduit from my brain.

This really *has* been a chronicle of my adventures in space and time in the strange universe of highways and transport both professionally and personally. I think the journey to starting this actually started back in January 2011 because I started cycling to work and this enabled me to see the streets from a lost perspective, having barely cycled since being a child. My conversion wasn't because of any green or health-related ideals, it was the fact that I had just moved offices from the suburban edge to the town centre and got fed up with sitting in traffic jams twice a day. In many ways, journey time predictability and convenience remains a key reason why I still cycle today, but I'm increasingly learning there is more to it than that.

From that point onwards, it started to dawn on me that our approach to urban transport in particular was utterly warped. I could see cycling was part of the solution, although I didn't really grasp just how important it was. I already had a professional interest in walking and so I saw cycling as an natural extension, which in some ways it is. When I started to write this blog, I was working for a London borough and after cycling for 18-months I started to become frustrated with some of my colleagues, certainly management and definitely politicians when they couldn't see the world as I saw it.

I had started to read other people's blogs at the time and one in particular got my brain thinking and that was "Crap Cycling & Walking in Waltham Forest." I was reading lots of others, but CC&WIWF got my brain going because of its focus on infrastructural solutions to the problems we had (and still have in many ways). I also need to give a shout out to the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain which really introduced me to how the Dutch design for cycling as well as showcasing the best of the UK. The organisation is currently resting for a variety of reasons and I don't know if it will get going again, but I am indebted to all involved, plus those who took time to lead rides and talk at the Embassy's AGMs - a much missed annual highlight for me.

In 2012, cycling for transport seemed a marginal idea in UK transport terms, at least it was in my own professional circles. Sure, we had places like Cambridge, but they had been dining out on local peculiarities such as being a university town with skint students needing a cheap way to get around. There really wasn't a coherent UK-wide policy approach, although in my London bubble things were starting to change. At the time, Johnson was freshly into his second term as London mayor and there was outcry that his first generation of so-called cycle superhighways had been killing people. These were just painted stripes and in many cases, not even actual cycle lanes.

Cycleway 8 in London. The wands are a Pandemic response. The paint was how Mayor Johnson thought in his first term.

In 2013, I looked at Transport for London's Cycling Safety Innovation Trials 
being undertaken by the TRL and later the same year I actually visited trials twice to see them for myself. First as a cycling participant and second on a professional institution visit. Change to the cycling design approach with regulatory change was on the move, although it took until 2020 for the Department for Trasport to update its design guidance (for England) with LTN1/20 - Cycling Infrastructure Design. While the devolved administrations have their own guidance, LTN1/20 probably just pushes ahead, although I'd say it needs updating already, but that's another post.

I think looking back at the approach to cycling infrastructure design, it has increasingly became a mainstream subject in my profession from a conceptual point of view, but it is still taking time to permeate best practice. That is personally beneficial as almost three years ago, I quit my local authority job for my third private sector role which majors on walking and cycling design, but hopefully I'll end up out of a job one day.

The test roundabout at TRL (long since removed). It's a great pity the "shark's teeth" give way markings didn't make into UK regulations.

Beyond the potted roundup of how we and I got here in 2022 from a cycling design point of view, I think the posts on this blog have broadly crystalised into three themes:
  • In-depth technical posts,
  • Infrastructure Safaris (a term coined by Sally Hinchcliffe), and
  • Rants - subjects which had got my goat and which needed a venting.
The in-depth technical posts have been very enjoyable to write because they have pushed me to undertake some research which in itself has been fascinating because it often showed that many "new" ideas weren't new and we were just rediscovering things lost to a generation or two of designing and managing our streets for cars. For example, my research into traffic orders supporting "Low Traffic Neighbourhoods" (LTNs) earlier this year definitely showed they were nothing new at all.

My infrastructure safaris have been very enjoyable, whether solo or with other people. During the Pandemic lockdowns, they became vital to my wellbeing, but more generally, they have been a great way of looking our how other designers have been working. As I have said, nothing is new and so borrowing (and hopefully improving on) other ideas is as old as time. I also think that as design approaches have matured, I've probably shifted more to safaris in recent because they are a great way to explain design concepts. 

Ranting has been there in the background, although I've probably had it knocked out of me a little bit over the last couple of years because it takes too much energy! One of the subjects which rose to some controversy has been the deployment of LTNs and I am contantly irritated by the bad faith of people who use increasingly contorted arguments against them without admitting that they want the status quo. There's often a suggestion that main roads need treating too (they do), but that's more of a delay tactic than a genuinely held position because in my experience most who oppose LTNs also oppose main road changes. In the summer of 2020 I wrote about this and my post was commended in the Active Travel Media Awards in the blogs cateogory that year. Completely unexpected and very much appreciated.

I don't tend to keep an eye on the statistics generated by this blog (apart from posts like this) and so it's always interesting to see what is popular. The blog itself has passed 875,000 views (whatever that actually means), but more importantly, the most popular post with 10.7k views remains my 2013 "Kerb Your Enthusiasm" piece which was my original attempt at explaining how kerbs are used. I think this truly demonstrates that people are interested in how our roads and streets fit together in detail. I don't know what the least popular post was because Blogger doesn't seem to rank all of them, only the top 20 or so!

The very first deployment of entrance kerbs in the UK on the Coundon Cycleway in Coventry.

Speaking of kerbs, my ramblings have actually helped get the UK a new civil engineering element - the "Dutch Entrance Kerb" which is common outside of the UK (and of course in the Netherlands). It's a simple premise which uses a large ramped kerb to support the use of continuous treatments over side streets where walking (and cycling) space is prioritised over motor traffic accessing the side street.

My writing about the concept led to a meeting with a couple of Charcon's team about four years ago. As ever, ideas are great, but you need someone willing to to put their money where their mouth is and so the first potential customer for the kerb units was Salford City Council which wanted to use them in their Chapel Street scheme. Catriona Swanson was working for the council at the time and was instrumental in getting them included in the proposals and all of a sudden, the idea was a reality. Well actually, it wasn't quite there because the scheme ended up getting delayed. At the end of 2019 I was able to reveal the details of what was happening and at the start of 2021, I was able to talk about the first deployment of the units in Coventry on the Coundon Cycleway.

Although I have written quite a bit about cycling, I have also tried to cover walking, given it was my original point of interest. Walking is harder to talk about because the infrastructure already exists in most people's minds. In fact, given it's 2022, we should be talking about walking and wheeling if we are to be inclusive. In terms of infrastructural tools, there's probably only the side road zebra we need to add to our tool box. On the other hand, the use of infrastructure seeks to reduce the attractiveness of walking with staggered crossings and long wait times.

An experimental side road zebra crossing in Salford.

Back in 2014, I was reminded how important properly constructed dropped kerbs were as a new addition to our family got me back into practice pushing a buggy. This also was a good lesson in remembering that what we do to help one group in society, invariably makes life easier for many other people too. Maybe that's the key to walking and wheeling because it's the mode that requires the most personal effort and every twist, turn and long crossing can be tiring and works against the idea of a 15-minute city.

I think some of the problem with walking and wheeling being the original mode of transport with its (UK) infrastructure just being there is that there is very little research work going on to update practice. At the end of last year, I considered the PV² assessment framework which should have been consigned to the bin in 1995, but still lingers in highways departments today. It was actually a pretty shocking piece of research to undertake because it relies on the number of people crossing now - the fit and the brave. It was therefore nice to propose a different assessment framework, especially as the official one from 1995 which replaced PV² has also been withdrawn.

People don't behave like traffic models.

My writing hasn't always been about this blog, although did have the Silvertown Mole writing about the awful Silvertown Tunnel scheme in 2018, my only guest post so far. In March 2014, my first spin-off column appeared in Highways Magazine and my 84th article will be out in the next week or so. This has enabled me to reach a different audience and one which needs to change its approach in the face of the climate emergency. I started my micro-consultancy, City Infinity, in 2017 because I was frustrated with the direction of my day job (lots of annoying politics) and that has spawned three design guides and some interesting little projects. As it turned out, I didn't end up doing this as my day job because an exciting permanent role came up, but I still take small commissions and who knows what might happen in the future?

As a practical person in terms of learning and doing, I have found the more academic concepts in life challenging and often hard to understand. In the last couple of years I have take some more challenging training courses to try and get out of my comfort zone and it was an absolute revelation to complete the Urban Cycling Institute's Unravelling the Cycling City course in 2020. I think it was this piece of study which finally allowed me to conceptualise the fact that most of the "stuff" we have on our streets is motoring infrastructure. It's an area of thinking which extends to ideas of how people's behaviour responds to the environment you give them and for walking and cycling, rules created for driving often fail because of the way people behave when under their own power. The "how" of unravelling driving from urban areas is a subject which continues to fascinate me and I look forward to learning more.

Talking of unravelling driving, another little piece of my mobility jigsaw changed last August when our aging car died on us just before going on holiday. The hire car we arranged was another opportunity to consider changing technology and 10 months later, the idea of actually another car becomes more distant by the day.

My changing mobility choice.

Luckily, my Christiania tricycle has picked up the slack for local heavy lifting and the train for the odd long trip. There have been some trips we just don't make any more because they were only accessible by car, but to be honest, they're really not missed and there are other things to do. Life moves on and life changes.

My tricycle.

Let's go back to my original blog post where I asked "what do we really want". It was probably a pretty rhetoric question and it probably still is. Maybe it's because I have become immersed in my professional area of interest, but I think the UK in 2022 has become more aware of the importance of streets as places. Whether that has been a general shift in thinking, or whether highlighted by the Pandemic, we have (in some places) rediscovered our neighbourhoods. We have also realised that many places have become very inaccessible through gradual creep of motorisation.

One thing I haven't really written about is the climate emergency. This is mainly because I really don't understand enough to have any sort of authority on it (there are plenty who do), and partly because it's a tough thing to conceptualise. Even within the last few weeks, I heard Professor Glenn Lyons quote the economic anthropologist Jason Hickel who said "The Status Quo is a death march and we must abandon it". We are already beyond the point where we can pretend that business as usual is possible. Professor Lyons' words are going to haunt me going forward (with thanks to Glenn for the link). What I do know is our urban transport future and climate change cannot be solved by betting on a technological solution, it needs a huge reduction in car use and repurposing of streets to enable walking, wheeling and cycling as well as creating countless local responses to heating and flooding.

So what's next? Well, writing a weekly blog post has been hard work and at times it has been very time-hungry with site visits and research. I had been toying with retiring the blog when it hit 500 posts for some time, but it's not something I am ready to give up just yet. What I am going to do is to be less worried about posting weekly and I'll be having some time off. I have some family trips in the next few weeks into which I'll hopefully squeeze a few mini-safaris into and I've other places to visit and revisit on my long list. I've also a pile of books I want to get through, so local campaigning I need to help with and some other ideas at the early stage of thought.

Other than that, thanks for reading, thanks for the feedback and look out for my next post in a few weeks time which will most likely be another safari post. Oh, and where does the cheeky monkey come in? It's apparently Indian slang for the 500 rupee note which used to have a monkey printed on it and it became very familiar in London to mean 500. We're very good at nicking everyone else's ideas you see.


  1. A huge achievement, congratulations. And Thank You. You probably wouldn't believe how helpful googling the blog with whatever keyword is exercising me has been to this embryonic cycle campaigner. "Everything I know about TROs, I learned from the Ranty Highwayman." I'll be checking for your reappearance with the start of the next 500...

    1. Thanks for the kind words Brenda. Don't worry, there will be more from me soon, I just need a rest!