Tuesday 8 October 2013

Self-help books

In A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking famously wrote: "Even if there is only one possible unified theory, it is still just a set of rules and equations. What is it that breathes fire into the equations and makes a universe for them to describe? The usual approach of science of constructing a mathematical model cannot answer the questions of why there should be a universe for the model to describe. Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?"

Reading a recent blog from The Ranty Highwayman, I was left wondering, What is it that breathes fire into traffic models? Why do engineers go to all the bother of producing them? As Ranty himself suggested, when a traffic authority already has in place a policy of prioritising motorised traffic, producing these models "is often an utter waste of time". (Ranty later supposes that this is part of the game that they play: "Do loads of work, write a technical report and go with the charade of explaining the implications to committee.")


In order to address the various competing political demands associated with town planning, the Department for Transport have, over the years, produced a number of guidance documents that tell council officers and consultants how they would like roads and streets to be built. One such document, published in October 2008, is entitled Cycle Infrastructure Design. (This is more commonly known by its serial number, LTN 2/08, where LTN stands for Local Transport Note.)

Joe Dunckley from the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has written about this publication here:

"The introductory section of LTN 2/08 is the most widely endorsed. It contains a series of underlying principles for designing for cycling. Some of it is very good—the need for “convenient, accessible, safe, comfortable and attractive” space for cycling, for example, and the need to think at the level of the network, not just streets and routes. There is something of a disconnect between these principles and the rest of the guidance, however, and the good principles rarely shine through in the built designs. But it is also far from the case that the underlying principles are all good.

"The first problem that leaps out while reading the Introduction is [the inclusion of] the Hierarchy of Provision. [...] The second fundamental problem is that LTN 2/08 endorses “dual networks”. It correctly identifies that different cyclists have different needs and abilities, but from this fact it draws some very wrong and damaging conclusions. “Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others,” the report says. “In order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to create dual networks offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority.” That is, new, nervous and child cyclists will be grateful for a crap facility that gives way to every side road, or a winding back street route, while confident cyclists will want to be in their natural place—on the road, with the traffic, riding in the vehicular style. Indeed, the former category are expected to eventually cast off their training wheels and graduate into the latter category.

A new housing development in Chichester, West Sussex
"The effect of the “dual networks” principle in LTN 2/08 is that neither “network” is satisfactorily designed. The low-traffic “network” can be designed down: it can concede priority, take circuitous routes, [etc ...]. And when it then comes to fixing the main roads and busy junctions, engineers will “take into account the type(s) of cyclist expected to use it”, conclude that the inexperienced and nervous cyclists will be using the other “network”, and design the roads and junctions accordingly."

[To read my own critique of dual networks, please click here.]

More guidance

In order to define the link between planning and policy, the UK Government developed Planning Policy Guidance Notes, which were statements of the Government's national policy and principles towards certain aspects of the town planning framework, such as green belts, housing, telecommunications and transport. In March 2012 these were replaced by the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), this being a key part of Government reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible. As the Minister for Planning, The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, wrote in the Foreword:

"Planning must be a creative exercise in finding ways to enhance and improve the places in which we live our lives. This should be a collective enterprise. Yet, in recent years, planning has tended to exclude, rather than to include, people and communities. [...] In part, people have been put off from getting involved because planning policy itself has become so elaborate and forbidding—the preserve of specialists, rather than people in communities. This National Planning Policy Framework changes that. By replacing over a thousand pages of national policy with around fifty, written simply and clearly, we are allowing people and communities back into planning."

The NPPF is in fact a material consideration in the determination of planning applications, and at its heart is a presumption in favour of sustainable development. As the report puts it, "sustainable development should be seen as a golden thread running through both plan-making and decision-taking." Thus, the transport system "needs to be balanced in favour of sustainable transport modes, giving people a real choice about how they travel." Therefore, says the report, developments should be located and designed to:
• accommodate the efficient delivery of goods and supplies;
• give priority to pedestrian and cycle movements, and have access to high quality public transport facilities;
• create safe and secure layouts which minimise conflicts between traffic and cyclists or pedestrians, avoiding street clutter and, where appropriate, establishing home zones
Yet more guidance

In March 2007, the Government published Manual for Streets. This provided guidance to a range of practitioners on effective street design, with the intention that they would be thereby enabled to increase the quality of life for people through the development of more people-oriented streets. Although the detailed guidance in the document applies mainly to residential streets, the overall design principles apply to all streets within urban areas.

In the Foreword, it is written:

"In 2003, we published detailed research * which demonstrated that the combined effect of the existing policy, legal and technical framework was not helping to generate consistently good quality streets. Without changes, this framework was holding back the creation of the sustainable residential environments that communities need and deserve."

* Better Streets, Better Places - Delivering Sustainable Residential Environments.

An Action Plan

In June 2004, the Department for Transport published Walking and Cycling: An Action Plan, "a collection of practical actions and good practice studies to support and encourage more walking and cycling". In the Ministerial Foreword, Dr Kim Howells writes:

"Around 60% of men and 70% of women are currently not physically active enough to benefit their health. Walking and cycling offer the opportunity to build moderate, pleasant exercise into people's routines. [...] Walking and cycling are also vital means of travel. In themselves, they are viable modes of transport for many of our trips. Nearly a quarter of all our trips are one mile or less—a generally walkable distance. And 42% are within two miles—less than the average length of a cycling trip. [...]

"Increasing walking and cycling levels will also improve our public space and the social interactions we have. Both modes allow us to stop and chat or just say ‘hello’ in a way which it is difficult to do when closeted in the car. As such, they improve our sense of community. They also provide for more pleasant and sustainable public spaces and serve to support local facilities.

"Nobody in Government would claim that it will be easy to reverse the long-term decline in walking and cycling. But this action plan sets out the shorter-term, practical steps which Government and its partners will now take with the aim of increasing levels of cycling and walking. The plan is the result of a wide-ranging consultation within Government and with cycling and walking groups. [...]

"The barriers to walking and cycling have developed over a long period of time and we want to work towards long-term changes to overcome those barriers. For walking and cycling, this action plan marks a beginning, rather than an end."

Concluding comments

It has been said of self-help books, that if they worked, then why does there need to be so many of them? Did I even mention The Future of Transport: a network for 2030, published in July 2004? Or what about Towards a Sustainable Transport System: Supporting Economic Growth in a Low Carbon World, published in October 2007? And who could forget Shared Use Routes for Pedestrians and Cyclists, published in September 2012?

I am going to take a closer look at a couple of these publications over the next few weeks, specifically LTN 2/08 and Manual for Streets. Before closing this blog, I want to quickly respond to Joe Dunckley's point about LTN 2/08 that it "largely consists of guidelines rather than strict rules". Now, this is a problem only inasmuch as the guidance "frequently goes unheeded" (to quote Cyclenation). Even so, rather than impose "strict rules", I think it is more preferable to change the guidelines, for
“It is more important to have a clear understanding of general principles without, however, thinking of them as fixed laws, than to load the mind with a mass of detailed technical information which can readily be found in reference books or card indexes.”
(W.I.B. Beveridge, The Art of Scientific Investigations)

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