Monday 10 September 2012

In our profession

"In our profession, a plan that everyone dislikes for different reasons is a success. A plan everyone dislikes for the same reason is a failure. And a plan that everyone likes for the same reason is an act of God."
                                                (Richard Carson, a planner from Portland, Oregon)

This article follows on from an earlier piece that was published on the Movement for Liveable London website entitled Towards a revitalised London Cycling Network. It seeks to look more closely at the reasons which have been put forward in opposition to my proposal.

My proposal comes in two parts: a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network introduced to a minimum level of functioning; and a signing strategy which uses colours to distinguish one route from the next, compass colours. The first part of my proposal is largely informed by European best practice, as elucidated in a seminal publication entitled Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities

The introduction of a network to a minimum level of functioning ought to be fairly self-explanatory, but just to be clear, it means doing as much as possible at least bureaucracy first. Following this course would obviously mean that the network could be set up and made to work relatively quickly and relatively cheaply.

To what advantage? Well, there is a group of cyclists in London, whom we might call The Enthused and the Confident, and over the last fifteen years they have been killed on their bikes roughly every twenty-odd days. I believe that the introduction of a network of well-signed routes would make cycling relatively much safer for them than it is now, although in the short-term, I regret to say, there's simply no accounting for some people.

This group is not to be confused with The Strong and the Fearless, by the way. As far as they're concerned, we already have a vast road network, and it doesn't merit wholesale redesign: we just need to think about changing the culture of road users.

Thankfully, views such as this are becoming increasingly marginalised. Most advocates of cycling now agree that the short-term goal is to develop a network which could be used by The Interested but Concerned, and not to maintain a situation which makes cycling available only to a doughty few. However, since the development of such a network would take more than a few years, it is important to prioritise—between the pressing and achievable demands of existing cyclists on the one hand, and the harder-to-deliver and longer-term demands of would-be cyclists on the other.

"Try to see what is worth doing," said Alcyone; "and remember that you must not judge by the size of the thing. A small thing which is directly useful is far better worth doing than a large thing which the world would call good. You must distinguish not only the useful from the useless, but the more useful from the less useful."

Indeed, there's a whole load of stuff that people could be doing, which would not in any way be constrained by the planning process, but which would make cycling in London safer for people. Specifically, in the words of a regular commentator on many blogs, Paul M:

“Using back streets would be excellent advice, apart from one thing. They are generally quieter, less scary, less polluted, and generally more interesting to view the scenery as you pass. Some of them even have interesting shops, cafes, etc. The 'one thing' is one-way systems. Apart from a little bit of wiggling, because we don’t have a grid system like many US cities, we could make relatively straight lines if only we could ride both ways down each street, or even if the this-way streets and the that-way streets were at least roughly lined up with each other. But they are not.”

Having set out my stall, let us now consider how some of the major players regard my proposal, beginning with the London Cycling Campaign. Mike Cavenett, LCC's Communications Manager, has recently suggested that route confirmation markers, laid down on the road surface, as per the Cycling Superhighways, would do "NOTHING to enhance the safety of cyclists in London. A brief look at the map," says he, "sees coloured lines running through some of the most dangerous junctions in London, with no clue as to how to make them safe for cyclists."

On 20 July this year, Transport for London announced "a multi-million pound safety improvement programme for cyclists at major junctions across the Capital". You can see their map here [pdf]. For Mike's criticism to have any validity, he would need to identify those junctions which TfL are not planning to improve, but which appear in my design for a revitalised London Cycling Network. This, I can tell you now, he will not do.

According to the TfL press release, "An initial review of 500 locations has now been completed, which has allowed TfL to identify a priority list of 100 junctions, based on a range of measures such as user feedback, cyclist numbers and collision data. Work to explore initial design options at these priority locations is now well under way, with TfL committed to completing the review and having detailed designs for all of these 100 junctions by the end of 2013." 

At the same time as the above announcement was made, the Mayor said: "I am one hundred per cent committed to making London's roads safer for cyclists and other vulnerable road users." This ought to be taking us on towards deeper discussions, as indeed it is, despite LCC's insistence that the only way for London to be a cycle-friendly city is for there to be "an unprecedented show of political will from the Mayor and all of London's political leaders"; meaning, this is the only way their 42 policy recommendations have any chance at all of being implemented. 

I suggest that there already is an unprecedented show of political will in support of the bicycle. More than this, the country now has a 'can-do' attitude following what has largely been a successful Olympics. Several media outlets are talking seriously about the bicycle as a mode of transport, and many businesses and organisations also recognise the need for some sort of change, including the AA.

"Cycling needs to be incorporated into the planning stage of developments," the AA has made clear, "not added as an afterthought." Obviously what is needed, then, is a good plan; for good plans shape good decisions.

Let's move on. 

Chris Peck, Policy Coordinator at CTC, has said of my proposal: “It seems to depend on vast amounts of specialist route signage (as opposed to general directional signage), which is an unrealistic thing to ask for when all it seems to do is replicate the existing road network...”

The more observant of you will note that Chris twice uses the word 'seems'. It seems to depend on vast amounts of specialist route signage ... it seems to replicate the existing road network. 

Does my proposal depend on vast amounts of specialist route signage? No, not at all. In fact, I argued several months ago on the Cycle Lifestyle website that there is no particular need for any specialist route signage, never mind vast amounts! All that is really needed are route confirmation markers, laid down on the road surface, as per the Cycling Superhighways. Away from the busy roads, these markers can even be spaced quite widely apart, since their 'awareness-raising' role is not nearly so important.

Awareness-raising markers on the road are really not a very good long-term solution. In a very narrow sense one could argue that they are only marginally better than, say, the Share the Road [pdf] campaign, which both LCC and CTC supported when it launched in 2006. Even so, it has been suggested that drivers would expect to encounter people on two wheels if they saw these markers regularly repeated on the road. “It’s a shame this principle didn’t save Brian Dorling’s life,” Mike Cavenett chided, “when he was run over on the highly visible Cycle Superhighway 2 at Bow roundabout last year.” Just so.

The cover photo of the Share the Road campaign Outcomes Report

Whereas Mike (LCC) thinks route confirmation markers painted onto the road surface would be ineffective, Chris (CTC) thinks they're an unrealistic thing to ask for! Are they? It depends how you look at things. According to Mark Syndenham of the Edinburgh Bike Station, “Most people would say that navigating around using a map is fraught with problems, even Google mapping. What is needed are clearly defined routes to remove the ambiguity and uncertainty around cycling and moving around.”

Does my design for a revitalised London Cycling Network replicate the existing road network? Does it heck. More than half the routes are on quiet back streets. To what extent do these constitute "the existing road network"?

"What we wanted to do was to make people think slightly differently of their town and city. Most people view a place through a prism of their usual journey, which is generally made on the main roads. Maps contribute to this world view. Any regular map of a town will show the main roads in bold, and these effectively become the 'skeleton' of the town, with everything else seemingly built around them. This elevates them to a status that they don't deserve. Why is an A road any more important than a B road or a path across a path? It is all viewed from the perspective of the motor car, and it constrains how people think and view their surroundings, and therefore pre-determines how they travel from A to B."  (Mark Syndenham, Edinburgh  Bike Station)

Let's move on. 

The Vole, David Arditti, has recently blogged about how excessive red tape can strangle cycling provision. Perhaps mischievously, certainly debatably, Ben Irvine from Cycle Lifestyle has commented:

“This is the first time I've heard a plausible reason why Simon Parker's London Cycle Map proposal might not be viable. It's sad, though, that the problem comes not from anything internal to Simon's idea, but to the diffuse cultural phenomenon you've eloquently identified: ‘a mad system of red tape, legalism, and excessive emphasis on expensive public consultation over small matters currently strangles attempts to provide for cycling in our cities.’”

David was talking about a tiny little street off the Harrow Road which cyclists use as a short-cut to somewhere. The local council are keen that they should be able to do this without let or hindrance, but there is a pedestrianised section at the top, and whilst there no issues with a lack of space or anything like that, there is a traffic order in place that excludes all wheeled traffic from using it.

Hazel Road, Kensal Green (Photo:

Thus, what on the face of it looks like a very modest change in terms of engineering, in practice turns out to be vastly more complicated. “Multiply this by the many other small changes that are needed all over London to create even the most rudimentary cycling network,” David explains, “and you can readily see why such a project seems unaffordable.”

As I have previously explained, the development of networks can be approached either from the bottom-up (adjustment policy) or from the top-down (voluntarist policy). The LCC have long pursued the former approach, with the result that, on each and every occasion that a situation like this crops up, cycling officers find themselves having to jump through the same hoops, fill out the same paperwork, issue the same public notices, advertise in the same newspapers, produce the same consultation documents and argue the same points, maybe even to the same people. I would be astonished if anybody thought this “a prudent course to follow”. Approach this from the top-down, however—look at the problem holistically—"and lo! creation widens to our view."

But as I say, the London Cycling Campaign favour the bottom-up approach. Consider how they set about the development of the LCN+ [source]: 

“In 2001 the LCN+ replaced the earlier London Cycle Network project with the aim to produce a smaller but higher quality network.”

Why? Why was it considered necessary to abandon two-thirds of the LCN simply in order to create a network of cycle priority routes?

“The LCN+ includes provision at junctions, measures on main roads, signed routes on back streets, contra-flows in one-way streets, cycle tracks and routes through parks.”

According to Mike Cavenett, the LCN+ is “60% complete, with the 40% unfinished [bits] creating the worst barriers to cycling.” Mike has been asked to produce a map to show those sections which have been finished and those which have not. This request, I note, has been completely ignored.

Incidentally, I cannot allow LCC’s claim that the LCN+ incorporated “routes through parks” to go unchecked. I’ve had a look, and yes, there are some routes through parks, but it rather appears as though the only route not to have been inherited from the original LCN is an east-west route in Kensington Gardens (adjacent to the Bayswater Road), which, needless to say, is not yet functioning.

“The aim is to make it easier and safer to cycle to work, to the shops, to school or college; to commute, refresh or socialise. It aims to give cyclists priority where possible.”

I ask again, why was it considered necessary to abandon two-thirds of the LCN simply in order to create a network of cycle priority routes?

“LCC wishes to see many existing facilities improved as well as a speedy completion of the whole network. Its members provide advice to ensure new cycle routes serve cyclists’ needs [and] are safe and practical.”

As David Arditti has explained: "You can't change everything at once, and it is important to realise how the Dutch got to where they are now. They started by doing the easy things, and that is what we will have to do in the UK. They then kept working on it and improving things, little by little. As David Hembrow always says, you just have to start, and then keep working on it, like the Dutch did. But you do have to start."

"It's never too late to start doing the right thing. You just need to actually
make a decent start." (Words and image: David Hembrow)

“The process can be frustratingly slow as the LCN+ team has to collaborate with TfL, local authorities and local stakeholders. The significant innovation [my emphasis] in the process is the Cycle Route Implementation Stakeholder Plan, or CRISP, which allows LCC’s local groups to contribute to the design process before, rather than after, the JCBs and tarmac-laying machines get going.”

By the summer of 2006, more than four years into the project, a total of 92 CRISP studies had been commissioned, covering around 340km of the network. However, less than a third of these studies had been ‘finalised’, with the result that on just 29km of the network was there any work done. The overall expenditure up to that point is estimated to be somewhere in the region of £50m. 

“Once a route has been identified, a cycle route inspection meeting (CRIM) is organised. Some LCC groups have organised pre-CRIM social rides to check routes out. The CRIM itself is an on-road audit of the proposed route attended by TfL and LCN representatives, the local authority cycling officer or engineer, a consultant, an LCC volunteer and sometimes other stakeholders.”

Mike recently said: “Anyone who blames the failure of the LCN+ on the London Cycling Campaign could barely be less informed. LCC put hundreds if not thousands of staff and volunteer hours into working with the boroughs and TfL to analyse the barriers (largely junctions) on the LCN+, and come up with safer solutions. We still have hundreds of these route inspection documents on file, as no doubt do the LCN+ team.

“Despite the best efforts of LCC and the LCN+ team, many boroughs did a poor job of implementing their part of the network, Transport for London failed to tackle most of its major barriers, and then Boris cancelled the project entirely in [2010]. It’s a shame some people choose to characterise this as an LCC failure."

Firstly, it is not enough that the LCC were busy. The question is: What were they busy about? Secondly, are we seriously to accept that to the architects of the project we should apportion no blame whatsoever? Was it really Everybody Else's fault?

Their plan was flawed. Specificlly, how did the London Cycling Campaign expect "a speedy completion of the network" when it was being introduced one piece at a time?

As Freewheeler has observed: “At the very centre of the problem is something which another cycling blog has noted: the LCC doesn't know what form of cycling it wants."

Freewheeler continued: “The LCC has no coherent philosophy at all as a campaigning organisation. If you look at its five year plan for 2008-2013, entitled One in Five by 2025, all you find there is aspiration. There’s nothing tangible. It’s a collection of platitudes orbiting a dead moon of buoyant optimism.

London is a failed cycling city with an atrocious modal share but you’d never know it from anything put out by the LCC. It is in denial about the state of things and in denial about its own role in that historic and catastrophic failure. For more than three decades the LCC has basically functioned as a vehicular cycling organisation with a deeply provincial outlook. Its energies have gone into trying to ameliorate the conditions of vehicular cycling at a local level. It has small local successes to its credit but it has never had a holistic approach to transport …


“Even as a vehicular cycling campaigning organisation the LCC is fundamentally incoherent. It has no core principles. This void at the centre of the LCC means that individual groups can cheerfully pursue any campaigning strategy they want to, irrespective of how effective this might be. Some branches are lively and vibrant, others lacklustre and exhausted. Anyone who joins LCC is automatically deemed to be a member of their local branch, even if they never attend a single meeting. In reality these branches, ostensibly representing anything from 200-800 cyclists, are usually run by half a dozen activists. Some of them will have been campaigning for over twenty years. They are hardened vehicular cyclists who have long since lost touch with the reasons why most Londoners don’t cycle. Cycle campaigning becomes a way of life, often not much more than a social club. Yes, there is a hurricane of activity, lots of meetings and small local victories. But a broader perspective is lacking …”

This lack of a broader perspective, David Arditti has argued, has meant that LCC has been reduced to fighting over scraps. He suggests that this “advanced-stop area here, lead-in lane there” approach is “a good example of a problem that cycle campaigning in the UK urban environment tends to get into. It tends to become a fight for little scraps of road-space.”

“It is very hard to enthuse people about campaigning for these scraps,” he points out later on in his article, “which will only ever make a marginal difference, at best, to the experience of cycling in heavy, aggressive, London traffic. Therefore I think campaigners should never lose sight of a bigger picture.”

Now, I am not necessarily looking to pick fights with the LCC, but given that they purport to be the voice of cyclists in London, it is reasonable to insist that they express themselves in a way that demonstrates clarity of thought. Because I have to question whether or not they have taken on board the process by which a city the size of London would be enabled to develop an amenable cycling environment.

For instance, one of their policy recommendations demands that a coherent network of cycle routes, built to high standards, be implemented in London. But how? From the bottom-up or from the top-down? It does matter.

The LCC's submission to the London Assembly Transport Committee's Investigation into Cycling gives not even the smallest hint as to their preference, and Mike Cavenett's vacant suggestion that the LCC would fully support the completion of the LCN+ with continental standards of cycling facilities "if the Mayor were to wave his chequebook" is next-door to hopeless.

The Mayor has talked about now as being "the moment for the great leap forward in cycling". What greater leap could there be for cycling in London than the study and introduction of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network? Seriously, I’d like to know.

And we can be hopeful that the introduction of such a network even to a minimum level of functioning would lead to much grander things, for

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” (Vaclav Havel)

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