Sunday 19 May 2013

But then again, you do have to start somewhere

A little while back, Jack Thurston spoke to David Hembrow, "a cult figure in British cycling", for an extended interview broadcast on The Bike Show. Here follows an extract:

DH: "It seems that the lesson that won't be learned in Britain is that you need to keep bikes and cars apart. [...] Another problem with what's happened with the Go Dutch campaigning has been people celebrating [...] the idea of having a single high-quality route. This is something which the Dutch found in the 1970s had almost no influence at all on people's cycling patterns. You actually need a dense grid of high quality routes so that people can make their journeys from A to B without any problems along the way. If you have a single route, it works only if A and B are on that route. Otherwise the majority of people in the city where the new route is are completely unaffected by it."

JT: "But then again, you do have to start somewhere."

DH: "You do have to start somewhere, yes indeed, yeah. But it's ... it's planning of a comprehensive network. You know, you're not going to build it all in one second, clearly: it's going to take time.

David makes the point that Britain is now forty years behind the Netherlands, and this is because we have never started the process by which towns and cities are enabled to develop amenable cycling environments. "The Dutch started forty-odd years ago," he explains, "and they've built on what they had for forty years, to get to the position where they are now." Britain could have "joined in" at any point in those forty years, of course. But we didn't. The best we have ever done is bits and pieces.

Another veteran campaigner, Sam Saunders of Bristol, has said: "Changes of a piecemeal kind, however well-designed, can add to our problems not reduce them. Bristol offers a highly visible warning about the confusion, frustration and downright bewilderment that can arise from idiosyncratic designs and an accumulation of unfinished or unsustained plans." Even so, as Jack makes clear, you do have to start somewhere. So where is the best place to begin? What are the first steps?

Now seems like a good time to look at the engineering design process:

It is rocket science: image taken from NASA

Engineering is a disciplined process. When determining how best to build something - be that a skyscraper, or an amusement park ride, a music player, or whatever - engineers are guided by a series of steps (some of which they repeat). They start by trying to understand the fundamentals. What is the problem? What do they want to accomplish? How can they develop a ______ that will ______? What have others done? What are the project requirements? What are the limitations? What is the goal?

For most people with an interest in the bicycle, the goal is to enable more people to ride bikes. The health benefits alone would be monumental. Just half-an-hour a day of regular cycling is better for you than going to the gym. And then there's the environmental benefits. Oh, and the social benefits as well. According to UNICEF, Britain has the unhappiest children in the developed world. The economic benefits are significant. For every mile that is ridden in the built-up area, as opposed to every mile that is driven, society is better off by something like 20p. And let's not forget that those towns and cities which have developed a decent cycling culture are much better places in which to live and work. An investment in the bicycle, therefore, is an investment in your neighbourhood. Love London, Go Dutch.

David Cameron summed up the case very well just a couple of years ago: "Wellbeing can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture and, above all, the strength of our relationships. Improving our society's sense of wellbeing is, I believe, the central political challenge of our times."

* * *

"Far more people want to cycle than do so now," David Arditti pointed out at the start of his video presentation to the LCC membership, "but the main thing that is putting them off is that they feel that the roads are too dangerous. What is needed is a strategic network of routes which look really attractive to cycle on ..."

This is exactly right. However, the difficulty is - always has been - that developing such a network takes a long time, a lot of money, a lot of public support and a lot of political will, not all of which is universally available. More to the point, I would suggest, none of the people who want to cycle now - but who are put off from doing so because they regard the roads as too dangerous - were actually killed whilst riding their bikes last year - no, not a single one - whereas 122 actual cyclists were.

In 2007, Rosie Wright was killed by a left-turning HGV on Pentonville Road. Her father, Peter, later told Radio 4's You and Yours: "Round about the start of the Tour de France, Ken Livingstone was saying how he hoped that this would encourage cyclists to come out, the six out of seven people who own cycles and don't use them on the road ... I think we have to build a system that is safe for these people before we encourage them to come and make their contribution to reducing global warming. I think that's all correct, but we have to make it safe for them."

When the GLA began their Investigation into Cycling, Chair of the Transport Committee, Caroline Pidgeon AM, said: "We cannot have a situation where more people are being encouraged to cycle at the same time as more cyclists are being killed or injured."

I completely agree with this, and not just for ethical reasons. From a practical point of view, developing a strategic network of routes which makes conditions safer for existing cyclists is very much more 'doable' than developing a strategic network of routes which look really attractive to cycle on ...

A few blogs ago I quoted Warren Buffett. He was saying that he doesn't look to jump over 7-foot bars; rather he looks around for 1-foot bars that he can step over. Developing an environment which makes conditions safer for existing cyclists is analogous to stepping over a 1-foot bar, whereas developing an environment which makes conditions attractive for potential cyclists is the equivalent of trying to jump a 7-foot bar.

* * *

Dr Rachel Aldred said of Westminster Council's draft cycling strategy (here) that for her, "the key omission in the document is a clear statement of what people who cycle need / want / require." Rachel also had in mind "those who'd like to cycle but currently find road conditions too scary / difficult / unpleasant". For simplicity's sake, however, I am not going to spend much time considering the needs of potential cyclists.

So what do the people who currently cycle need / want / require?

David Hembrow says in his radio interview: "The most important lesson about the Netherlands is that everything joins up." Rachel herself has noted that cycling needs connectivity. As she goes on to explain, any interventions to improve the cycling experience must "depend on looking broadly across the network."

Cycling also need density. David Hembrow again: "The importance of having a tight grid of high quality routes to encourage the use of bicycles was a lesson learnt way back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and is still just as valid today. Don't let your city get away with offering just a few prestige projects or just a few particularly good routes. Such proposals may sound good [...]. However, a few pieces of exceptional infrastructure cannot cause any sort of appreciable change [in the cycling environment] because for most people making most journeys, the experience of cycling will remain the same as it was before."

As long ago as 2008, David reported how good quality cycle routes are of almost no use if they are not close together. Just a few high quality paths were developed in Den Haag and Tilburg in the mid-1970s, and a subsequent evaluation in 1981 showed that overall these had not made any noticeable difference to the cycling experience. These paths were of good quality, but they were too few and far between.

Cycling needs connectivity and it needs density. It also needs routes that are direct, and that go to the places that people most want to go to.

What else? According to a European Parliament publication entitled Promotion of Cycling, "Mobility encompasses not only the activity of travel, but also, more importantly, the possibility for the traveller to decide when and where to travel, by being aware of, and making use of, an information set for optimising the journey."

Mobility, therefore, is not just about getting from A to B, but also about knowing how to get from A to B, whichever method of transport is used. The top tip for cycling safely in Amsterdam, by the way, is: "know where to ride".

According to TfL research, not knowing where to go is actually a major problem for people (source). Since about 2002, the authorities in London have attempted to address this problem through the publication of a series of maps.

Image from the University of the Arts London website
Recently I had my attention drawn to a book entitled The Atlas of Design. It says that for many people, maps are solely about data. As far as they're concerned, as long as the content is present and legible, the map "works."

Whilst this view is not necessarily incorrect, a case can and should be made for the importance of aesthetics in cartography. Content must take a form, and how something is said is just as critical as what is said.

Aesthetics are not simply the pretty pictures which appear on the covers: they are the framework in which that data is presented. Design and aesthetics matter, because form is not secondary to function, it is integral to function. A map cannot function if it remains unread.

* * *

Just recently a small group from the Leeds Cycling Campaign went on a tour of the Leeds city centre. "To be honest," their report lamented, "our expectations weren't that great. Most of us already had some experience of cycling in Leeds and had a fair idea of the sort of issues we might face. But the reality of trying to do even the most basic of things was astoundingly bad."

You can read the report in full here, but for the moment I would like to bring your attention to some selected comments from a few of the riders:

"Road layout not always obvious."

"Access to the railway station was embarrassingly bad."

"There were no signs for cyclists anywhere! How are we supposed to know where to go?"

"The whole ride felt disjointed."

The report continues:

"When asked to score the city out of ten for safe, friendly and easy-to-follow cycle routes, someone shouted out, 'Minus two!' - which pretty much summed it up.

"So what does this show us? That a group of fairly experienced cyclists who had at least *some* idea of how to get around the city found the experience deeply unsettling.

"Would someone new to cycling, or new to Leeds, enjoy it? Absolutely not."

* * *

Even when the standard of the infrastructure is of a reasonably good quality, people don't necessarily know which way to go. Mark Treasure posted a blog about Royal College Street, Could this be the best cycling scheme in the UK? One of the commentators, an LCC member who had “been cycling up Camden High Street [...] every couple of weeks for the best part of a decade”, was not even aware of the facility on Royal College Street, this despite the fact that he lives in Kentish Town and needs to get down to Kingsway.

Following the death of Min Joo Lee, Olaf Storbeck at Cycling Intelligence posted a blog entitled How to avoid King’s Cross as a Cyclist. Olaf lives in Highbury, used to live in Angel, and his office is adjacent to King's Place, so he has a fairly good knowledge of the area. Even so, his map of selected routes did not include Royal College Street. This prompted the following comment from David Arditti: "I am surprised you don’t use the Mabledon Place–Ossulton St–Royal College St route going to the north. It gives easier access to Camden Town, Kentish Town, Primrose Hill etc." Olaf replied that he did not know this route, "but it looks good indeed". For myself, I was surprised that David was surprised.

David himself once got lost going from The Young Vic to Blackfriars Station [source]. The distance between the two places is just over two-thirds of a mile. Comparatively, the average journey distance travelled by cyclists in the very much smaller city of Copenhagen is about three-and-a-half miles.

Charlie Lloyd, Campaigns Officer at the LCC, has said that Going Dutch is about "planning for people to have easy, safe access to wherever they want to go." In addition to this, of course, people need to be aware of, and to be able to make use of, "an information set for optimising their journey."

This information set needs to be presented to the public in such a way as to be easily understandable. As Sam Saunders explains: "The development of a settled culture of city transport will depend on consistency, predictability and regular physical cues. Consciously wondering what rules or possibilities are likely in a given situation, while trying to find a route or deal with an immediate problem overloads the attention span, increases anxiety and increases errors – for all."

* * *

On the whole I think that there is an awful lot to like in the Mayor's Vision for Cycling. I regard the idea of mini-Hollands as inspired. I think they're a really good idea.

Pleasingly, the Mayor's Vision goes further than the three key tests demanded of him by the LCC. However, in trying to bring all the various components of the plan together, I am sorry to say that it lacks an eye for the bigger picture.

Consider the following passage about 'A Tube network for the bike':

"By 2020 the London Cycling Network will be easily understood and heavily used. We want to change the nature of cycling, attracting thousands of people who do not cycle now. We will offer two clear kinds of branded route: high capacity Superhighways, mostly on main roads - for fast commuters - and slightly slower but still direct Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets - for those wanting a more relaxed journey. Some Quietways will also be attractive green routes, suitable for recreation and family enjoyment. In the City and West End, a mixture of Quietways and new Superhighways will make up the ‘Central London Grid’, joining all the others together. Outside the centre, local links complete the picture."

Setting aside the admission that it will be several years yet before the LCN is "easily understood", what is the problem that would be solved by developing different networks for different cyclists?

When the subject of the Cycle Superhighways came up during the GLA's Investigation into Cycling, Richard Tracey put it to Ben Plowden that the Superhighways were not universally popular with cyclists, and asked him how he felt about that.

To cut a bit of a long story short, Ben said that for commuters, they have been a big success. However, he did concede that there are questions about how else to draw in people who are not in the demographic of 25-45 year-old males.

And so, taking on board Rachel’s point that cycle routes need to be pleasant and direct, Ben suggested it was worth thinking about the potential options for developing parallel routes. These would be quieter, of course, and probably more suitable for less confident, slower cyclists.

Rachel immediately responded by saying that's not really what she meant: she wants to be able to use these Superhighways as well. Take CS2 (soon to be rebranded CS25, of course, because bus route 25 goes along that way). Rachel's feeling is that if TfL were to install a high quality segregated route along here, there would be no need to worry about providing parallel routes.

Some confident, faster cyclists using CS2

Incidentally, I don't know how the idea of parallel routes has gained such currency, because there are very few of them in London. Certainly there isn't much of one anywhere near the Mile End Road.

This section of CS2 is 2.5 miles in length, whereas the "parallel" routes are 
more than 25% further, at 3.2 miles in length .

But anyway, going back to my earlier question, given that cycle facilities in the UK tend to be of the little-bit-here-little-bit-there kind, how on earth have we been able to convince ourselves that the next step should be the development of routes which are "more suitable for less confident, slower cyclists". What is the evidence that this would be a good idea?

Who are these people? How many of them are there? How often do they ride bikes? Where are they going to? What else can you tell us about them?

Some less confident, slower cyclists using CS2

Thus far we have mainly been concerned to consider what the people who currently cycle need / want / require. We have established that they need connectivity and that they need density. More than this, they want cycle routes which are direct and which go to the places that they want to go to. As well as this, routes which are pleasant tend to be very well received.

It is vital to take on board the fact that these things can only be provided for during the 'planning phase'. Routes which are unpleasant now can be made pleasant, it is true, but as a rule of thumb, it may be fairly said that if a route is not pleasant now, it is not likely to be pleasant for a good while yet, if ever.

All cyclists - potential and actual - want routes which are safe and comfortable. Significantly, however, routes that meet these criteria can only be provided for during the 'development phase'.

Please try to keep this in mind when we come to consider how the development of an amenable cycling environment may be taken forward.

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