Tuesday 27 December 2011

Accidents will happen

In nearly all accidents we need to distinguish two different levels of causation. The first is the immediate technical or mechanical reason for the accident; the second is the underlying human reason. It is quite true that design is not a very precise business, that unexpected things happen, that genuine mistakes are made, and so forth; but much more often the 'real' reason for an accident is preventable human error.

It is rather fashionable at present to assume that error is one of those things for which it is not really fair to blame people, who, after all, were 'doing their best', or are victims of their upbringing and environment, or the social system - and so on, and so on. But error shades off into what it is now very unpopular to call 'sin'. In the course of a long professional life spent, or misspent, in the study of the strength of materials and structures, I have had cause to examine a lot of accidents, many of them fatal. I have been forced to the conclusion that very few accidents just 'happen' in a morally neutral way. Nine out of ten accidents are caused, not by more or less abstruse technical effects, but by old-fashioned sin - often verging on plain wickedness.

Of course I do not mean the more gilded and juicy sins like deliberate murder, large-scale fraud or Sex. It is squalid sins like carelessness, idleness, won't-learn-and-don't-need-to-ask, you-can't-tell-me-anything-about-my-job, pride, jealousy, and greed that kill people.


Generally [accidents] are caused by lack of proper care and professional competence. I very much doubt if the remedy lies in the imposition of yet more regulations. It seems to me that what is wanted is the creation of more public awareness and a climate of opinion which regards such 'mistakes' as morally culpable. The man who drilled a hole in the wrong place in the wing-spar of a wooden aeroplane, plugged the hole, and said nothing, was acquitted. Presumably the jury thought that the moral blame was negligible.

What is wanted is much more publicity; the difficulty lies in the law of libel. In most cases, if the real causes of an accident are made public, somebody's face will be very red, and it is likely that their business or professional reputation will suffer. Most practicising engineers are accutely aware of this and have to keep quiet or risk heavy damages. In my opinion, there should be some way round this, for it is in the public interest that accidents and blunders should be publicised.

Professor J.E. Gordon, Structures, or Why things don't fall down

Wednesday 21 December 2011

An open letter to all advocates of cycling in London

I am a self-confessed map addict. I can’t even look at a map without wanting to draw lines on it.

About twelve years ago now, I stumbled upon a signing strategy which uses colours to indicate the direction of travel, compass colours. Although I find it to be an extremely flexible design tool, I have to concede that it is not so flexible as to allow me to code all of the routes – or rather, sections of route – that I would like. This is in fact a shortcoming. Only one person has pointed this out to me, Professor John Parkin from London South Bank University, who otherwise described my proposal as ‘technically flawless’.

He suggested that the main problem I have is a PR one, and in this I feel I am not alone. Cycling also has a PR problem. Indeed, when considering the development of the cycling infrastructure in London over the past couple of years, it’s actually impossible to avoid the impression that things are going backwards.

Recently Transport for London have more or less explicitly stated that, as far as they're concerned, the convenience of the motorist is now more important than the (safety and dignity and spiritual well-being and) convenience of just about everybody else. For the life of me I don’t understand this one little bit, and would be indebted to anyone kind enough to explain their thinking.

I mean, what actually are the benefits to society attached to the use of the private car in the built-up area? Anybody? No? It doesn’t seem that difficult a question to me. Let’s try something else. What is the point of living in towns and cities if you can’t access local facilities, such as schools or railway stations, safely and conveniently on foot or by bike? No really; what is the point?

The major advantage of high-density conurbations is that these facilities are usually fairly close to hand, and easier and quicker to reach by ‘the humble bicycle’, which has so many benefits, both to the individual and to the wider community, that it is, I suggest, no surprise that a Radio 4 poll from a few years ago determined it to be the best invention of all time. “It was an easy victory for the bicycle,” this BBC report says, “with more than half of the vote.”

Did you get that? More than half of the vote! In Britain! The bicycle! In a poll to determine the best invention ever! (The internet, by way of comparison, received just 4% of the votes cast. Second was the transistor, with 8%.)

On the one hand, then, we have these horribly inefficient machines, which nobody can find a good word for; and on the other hand, we have these wonderfully efficient machines, which even a child can enjoy.

I wonder, then, how is it that Boris Johnson can tell a Conservative Party Conference, that everything they do at City Hall is about bringing the village back into the city, receive the warmth and laughter of an appreciative audience in return, whilst at the same time actually making conditions worse for cyclists and pedestrians, in an attempt to smooth the traffic-flow, which was mentioned not at all in his speech, and which takes us about as far as it is possible to get from the ‘nothing more villagey’ scene so vividly conveyed?

What’s going on there? And Peter Hendy, TfL’s Commissioner of Transport, echoing the Mayor’s theme, explained in his inaugural lecture to the Chartered Institute of Transport and Logistics (UK) that:

“Making cycling itself more attractive means overcoming some challenges, such as: improving its 'reputation'; removing barriers to cycling; [...] using more green spaces to make more attractive cycle ways [...]; and increasing the understanding of cycling design considerations amongst professionals and ensuring these are adequately reflected within scheme designs – particularly in road schemes.”

Now what Peter Hendy is saying there sounds absolutely bang on the button to me. And yet, these words are not being reflected in schemes such as Blackfriars, King's Cross, Vauxhall, the Elephant and Castle, etcetera, etcetera, and I have to ask why not.

More recently, TfL’s Director of Environment, Kulveer Ranger, issued a statement about improving cycling safety. He said: 

“Historically our roads have been designed with motorists in mind, but that must change, and the Mayor intends that with thousands more Londoners taking to two wheels, their needs be given greater attention.”

Sounds promising. Let’s read on.

“Sixteen cyclists have been killed in London this year, and nine of those deaths involved a heavy goods vehicle. There is no doubt we need to address that horrifying connection.”

Hmm. I wonder if a penny has finally dropped? Following the death of Sebastian Lukomski in 2004, Rose Ades, then Head of the Cycling Centre of Excellence at TfL, said that the best solution would be for cyclists and HGVs to ‘safely’ share the same road space. I suggested that this was like asking surfers and sharks to ‘safely’ share the same stretch of coastline. Maybe TfL have finally realised that segregated cycling is the only proper way to resolve ‘that horrifying connection’.

“The Mayor has asked TfL to commission an independent review of the design, operation and driving of construction-industry vehicles such as […] skip lorries, tipper trucks and cement mixers […]. We will look at how we can make those vehicles safer through physical improvements such as side bars, extra mirrors and sensors; and through better training for drivers.”

They’re planning to make some of the sharks safer in other words. No bad thing of course. I mean, who wouldn't want to go surfing when there are safe sharks around? And there’s a safety review planned of over 300 junctions, including Bow Roundabout. But not the least indication that TfL are thinking in terms of a network; nothing at all about a reduction in the road capacity; and nor is there any evidence that they are serious about ‘removing barriers to cycling’.

These barriers are known beyond any shadow of a doubt, thanks to TfL / MVA Consultancy research:

·         too much traffic / congestion
·         not trusting other road users
·         lack of cycle lanes / routes
·         not knowing where to go

The first two can only properly be addressed through the creation of ‘clear space for cyclists on London's main roads’, as the LCC's Go Dutch campaign is calling for, and the last two can only properly be addressed through the development of a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network.

The benefits of developing a network are beyond dispute.  As Olaf Storbeck explained in one of his blogs:

“Two economists independently drew my attention to another issue: network effects. ‘A few isolated bike lanes don't help much if you still have to go through dangerous stretches on most trips,’ Matthias Doepke (Northwestern University) wrote me. ‘Once there is a connected network, the attractiveness of biking goes up a lot. That's where we are in Chicago now - good number of lanes, but no real network yet.’

“Greg Ip, US economics editor with The Economist, puts it this way: ‘Just as you are likely to buy an Ipad the more applications it has, you are more likely to switch from car to bicycle the more bicycle lanes (and therefore destinations reachable by bicycle) are available. Doubling the number of bike lanes more than doubles the number of cyclists likely to use them.’”

Jim Davis said, “If we don’t […] think in terms of [a] coherent network instead of piecemeal ‘solutions’ that act like a Band-Aid on a laceration, then […] the bicycle will continue not to be taken seriously as a mode of transport.”

A good question to ask at this point is, Which routes? I understand that the LCC is drawing up a list, borough by borough, of those main roads which they think should be given the Go Dutch treatment. I imagine this would largely be based on the LCN+. Obviously I am very interested to see the detail, but to be quite honest with you, it’s not my concern whether this road gets treated first, or that one. What does matter to me is that I am able to code whatever it is that people think is worth incorporating into a network.

This is why I have developed bikemapper.org.uk, and this is why I am writing an open letter to all advocates of cycling in London. 

For what it's worth, I think Matthias Doepke has it absolutely right: 'Once there is a connected network, the attractiveness of cycling goes up a lot.' Indeed, once there is a connected network, the only way is onwards and upwards.