Sunday 24 November 2013

Lessons from the Big Apple

I have recently started watching online chess commentaries on YouTube (Kasparov, Fischer, Carlsen, Tal, etc). There's a couple of American sites which I think are very good: OnlineChessLessons and thechesswebsite. Another one I like is by this Croatian chap called Mato Jelic. And then there's ChessWorld, which is presented by a guy who calls himself Kingscrusher (he's from Barnet).

With the Kingscrusher videos, when he gets to the critical position in the game, he usually gives you ten seconds to see if you can spot the key move. It is at this point that I usually mutter: "You could give me ten years, mate, I still wouldn't be able to see it!"

And yet, it's a funny thing about chess, because the same pieces that these Grand Masters are looking at are laid out in front of me. Why can't I see what they would do next? Why do I have to be told the answer?

In an incredibly inspiring presentation, Janette Sadik-Khan raises a similar point. She says: "Streets are some of the most valuable resource that a city has, and yet it is an asset that is largely hidden in plain view."

She continues: "The design of a street can tell you everything about what's expected on it. In this case [photo below], it's expected that you shelter 'in-place'. The design of the street is really to maximise the movement of cars, moving as quickly as possible from Point A to Point B, and it misses all the other ways that a street is used."

This street is designed to maximise the movement of cars.

Under the leadership of Mayor Bloomberg, it was acknowledged that with more and more people choosing to live in the built-up area, the design of our cities is going to be a key issue for our future. With the launch of PlaNYC in 2007, there was a recognition "that cities are in a global market place, and that if we're going to continue to grow and thrive, and to attract the million more people that are expected to move here, we need to focus on the quality of life and the efficiency of our infrastructure."

So the transport authorities in New York decided to work hard to refocus their agenda. Ultimately this was to result in them taking a new approach, and probably the best example of this can be seen at Times Square. Janette Sadik-Khan explains:
"People had tried for years to make changes: they'd changed signals, they'd changed lanes, everything they could do to make Times Square work better. It was dangerous, hard to cross the street, it was chaotic. And so, none of those approaches worked, so we took a different approach—a bigger approach—looked at our street differently.
"And so we did a six-month pilot. We closed Broadway, from 42nd Street to 47th Street, and created two-and-a-half acres of new pedestrian space. And the temporary materials are an important part of the programme, because we were able to show how it worked. And I work for a data-driven mayor, as you probably know, so it was all about the data. So if it worked better for traffic, if it was better for mobility, if it was safer, better for business, we would keep it; and if it didn't work, no harm, no foul, we could put it back the way it was, because these were temporary materials, and that was a very big part of the buy-in: much less anxiety when you think that something can be put back."

Imagining ourselves forward

In the chess videos I watch, it is usually the case that the breakthrough moment involves a sacrifice of some kind. Indeed, in some of the "immortal" games, it is often the queen which gets "sacked".

Always, always, of course, and at all costs, the king must be protected against the opponent's forces. In New York, it would rather appear that there is a new king on the throne: the New Yorkers themselves, the people, and the places they most wish to visit.

David Edmonds, Bobby Fischer's biographer, has said: "What chess is really about is a form of wisdom: it's about intuition; it's about imagining yourself forward."

In this sense, the use of temporary materials and paint is the equivalent of moving a piece, and then leaving a lingering finger on it. For those of us who do not have the ability to imagine ourselves forward—and most of us don't—we need to be able to see the piece in its new position before fully committing ourselves to the move.

Moving quickly

Even so, the evidence from New York is that it is still possible to move very, very quickly. "Instead of waiting through years of planning studies and computer models to get something done," says Janette Sadik-Khan, "we've done it with paint and temporary materials. And the proof is not in the computer model, it is in the real-world performance of the street."

She continues: "I can't underscore enough how much more quickly this enables you to move over traditional construction methods."

And then: "We also brought this quick-acting approach to our cycling programme, and in six years, turned cycling into a real transportation option in New York. I think it's fair to say ... [audience applause] ... it used to be a very scary place to ride a bike, and now New York has become one of the cycling capitals in the United States.

"And we moved quickly to create an inter-connected network of lanes ..."

And we can, too. We need to be mindful of what has gone before, of course. The following is adapted from Paul Gasson's 1999 report on the Camden Cycle Route Network:
The original 'theoretical' LCN featured a set of direct routes linking local centres and longer-distance destinations. However, following a series of ad hoc modifications and additions, the strategic nature of the network became somewhat blurred. The transition from concept to physical network was more than a little compromised, therefore.
In 1994 the network still remained essentially a paper concept, as barely a single cycle facility had been built in the borough for a decade. Fed up with this lack of activity, Camden Cycling Campaign suggested a number of modifications to the LCN, but these were rejected in early 1996.
However, thanks to an officer's hard work, many of the suggested routes were later to form the beginnings of a new Local Camden Cycle Network. Since then a considerable number of cycle facilities have been installed (such as Advanced Stop Lines). A couple of complete LCN routes have even been 'implemented', the most notable of which is the east-west route running to the south of Euston Road.
Whilst this is assuredly one of the better LCN routes in London, and of some benefit to existing cyclists, road space pressures meant that parking and poor driving standards degraded the effectiveness of this route. Thus, under the guidance of Campaign member Paul Gannon, the physically segregated Seven Stations Link between Paddington and Liverpool Street was proposed.
So whilst being denser than most of the other borough cycle networks, Camden's is very far from being complete, in the sense that it still has a large number of hanging links (for example, on one-way streets where there are no contraflow facilities).
Mill Lane, West Hampstead
A further problem exists which is intrinsically down to route quality. In common with most boroughs, Camden Council maintains that an LCN route is implemented only once it has been through the design / consult / build phases. This blind adherence to procedural bureaucracy, instead of common sense, led to an outcry from the Campaign during 1997-98, when the 1.5 km West Hampstead LCN route along Mill Lane was implemented at a total cost of £40 000. The facilities which actually appeared on the ground comprised 10 metres of advisory cycle lane and a 3 metre section of mandatory lane in the centre of the road (to help cyclists negotiate a junction). 95% of the cost was accounted for by the consultation process.
Route quality remains variable. There are routes such as Mill Lane—"where facilities are minimal, ineffective, and do not address the most basic of hazards that cyclists face"—but there are also some better quality routes, such as the popular north-south route through Somers Town, "which runs along relatively quiet streets, and has some dedicated cycle facilities."

And now I quote directly: "So whilst implementation quality in the borough is improving, most still falls well below what even the averagely competent cyclist would consider to be reasonably safe, let alone someone new to cycling. As the council has a target of doubling cycle use by 2002, the public's perception of the network's attractiveness and safety must be a key consideration when setting adequate design standards."

That was written nearly fifteen years ago. During this period, a cyclist has been killed in London once every twenty-four days, or something like that.

Network first

Steffen Rasmussen was invited to London last year to address a GLA committee hearing. The very first thing he said—the very, very first thing—was this: "The key word is an holistic approach and then a separation of functions."

I would like to consider how this approach might be pursued in Westminster. We know that the Mayor already intends that some exemplar schemes be installed at various locations around London. I won't be spending any time looking at these here and now, but I will just take a couple of moments to consider some of the non-functioning sections of a proposed bicycle network (shown in bold red on the map below).

View Westminster in a larger map

One day, perhaps, I imagine that the whole of the south-east corner of Sloane Square would be closed to private motor traffic. What do you think?

In the case of Belgrave Square, the reason a two-way cycle facility is required along the southern side of the square is because it needs to link up with Hyde Park Corner in some way (please refer to the end of this blog for more detail).

The Belgrave Road route is currently the subject of a public consultation, and except to repeat a point that I have made before—that it doesn't join up to anything—I don't wish to say anything else.

In order for cyclists to be able to pass through the Victoria gyratory system more conveniently, two-way cycle facilities are required both on Buckingham Palace Road and on Ebury Street - Beeston Place.

Finally this leaves a proposed cycle route along Gloucester Street.

Gloucester Street at the junction with Sutherland Street

Gloucester Street at the junction with St. George's Drive

Gloucester Street at the junction with Belgrave Road

I was intrigued by "Option 4" (as reported by the Warwick Square residents). One of the points made in favour of this option was the possibility of direct access to Victoria Station from Nine Elms. The report says: "Network Rail could provide a dedicated walkway / cycle path as part of their future redevelopment plans for the station’s railway sidings."

A major problem with this—possibly—is detailed at Section 1.4.2 of Cycle Infrastructure Design (LTN 2/08), thus: "It is important to avoid creating long, narrow routes that are not overlooked by adjacent properties, as these can give rise to anti-­social behaviour." LTN 2/08 makes the point that the risk of crime can be reduced through the removal of hiding places along the route, and through the provision of security lighting, but I think it is generally regarded that the presence of passive surveillance from neighbouring premises or other users makes for the best option.
It is true that Option 4 provides for more direct access to Victoria Station from Nine Elms, but not by very much. It's only about 300 feet further than the alternative back street route shown in blue. My maths isn't great, but I think that if you travelled at an average speed of 12mph, this would equate to about 17 seconds.

My concern is obviously that TfL are proposing all sorts of wonderful schemes without establishing how they would fit in with the bigger picture. I also worry that by focusing on these grand projects, they are not giving any consideration to less glamorous but immediately available schemes.

The proposed Grosvenor Bridge cycle path I can see, but I do not believe that a sufficiently robust case has yet been made for Option 1. The unanimous view of Warwick Square residents was that TfL appeared only to be "considering this project from the viewpoint of those connected to the new development on the south side of the river." Just so. From Clapham Common up to Parliament Square, say, the Option 1 bridge does not confer any advantage when compared to the currently-available facilities (in terms of distance). Likewise for Camberwell Green up to Hyde Park Corner (via Belgrave Road).

If you live in Brixton, say, and want to get to Victoria, then Option 1 would be very good for you (assuming rumours of a "cycle bridge" with four flights of steps at each end prove to be ill-founded). I don't know. I am not saying don't do it, but I would want to see how this fits in with everything else. Specifically, my concern is that if we gain this on the swings, are we going to end up losing something else on the roundabouts?

Residents' parking

Paul Gasson reports that, following the 1997-98 consultation on Mill Lane, "the council supported the right of residents and businesses to continue parking along the road over and above the provision of cycle lanes. However the council did acknowledge that this outcome was not acceptable, and that something had to be done for future schemes."

Wisely (in my opinion), the consultation regarding the re-routed CS5 scheme steered clear of any debate about residents' parking. This didn't go down well with one commentator, however: "The new route is absolutely not going to be safe for a child or pensioner to cycle on. If you’re not going to design infrastructure that is worth building, then simply be honest and say, 'We can’t be bothered providing a safe route.'"

As Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities notes: "Taking a political decision to reduce the space allotted to cars (whether for traffic or for parking) in order to create facilities for cyclists requires a certain amount of skill, entails explanations for the population, and has to be implemented gradually."

Once the network is up and running, it then becomes very much easier to decide how best to take it further forward.

Closing remarks

"And we moved quickly to create an inter-connected network of lanes ..." So said Janette Sadik-Khan, and all the evidence is that this approach is the most effective way forward. So why aren't we doing it that way?

About eighteen months ago, Ben Irvine wrote: "The Olympic authorities have shown that it is possible, and indeed desirable, to create a network of designated routes throughout London. They have shown how easy it is to put up signs and to paint new lanes and markings on the road surface, to make the network functional and visible, all within a very short space of time."

It's not as if "it can't be done", therefore. So let's give it a go, why don't we? What's to lose? If it doesn't work out, then no harm, no foul, we'll just put things back to how they used to be.

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