Friday, 15 November 2013

Has London progressed in the last six years ?

This is the second of a three part series. See also "Has Britain progressed in the last six years?" and "Has Assen progressed in the last six years?" .

Previous experience of London
I'm not a Londoner, but I have some affinity for the place. While in the daytime the city can seem too busy, too smelly and too noisy, at night time it comes alive. Every possible type of food is available and every restaurant and every pub is full. I enjoyed it when I lived there but more than twenty years have passed since I lived and worked in South London. Judy and I met each other in Hackney some years before the demographic changes which led to the increase in cycling in that part of London.

When I lived in Cambridge I cycled down to the Thames on a couple of occasions and this of course involved going through London. An older blog post features photos of some of the grotty infrastructure that I found on one of those rides. Until October, the last time that I had cycled in London was to make the short journey from Kings Cross to Paddington in order to get to take a train to the start point for a bicycle tour in 2006. When I looked up this journey, Google Maps suggested that covering 3.1 miles would take 22 minutes by car. That's an average of just 8.5 mph or 13.6 km/h. This is much slower than I would expect to cycle or drive in the Netherlands. It doesn't surprise me that London scores rather less well even than Amsterdam (one of the more challenging Dutch cities to drive in) on an index of "commuter pain".

London as experienced in October 2013
This photo should have had two cyclists in it. One of them was
weaving very carefully in and out of pedestrians and rubbish
 on the pavement. I can't say I blame her or other pavement
cyclists because these roads do not invite people to cycle.
On the first morning in London we walked along Cromwell Road between the hotel and the museum and I took a few photos of people cycling as we walked.

It was interesting to me to see who was cycling and how many people were cycling. My subjective impression was that cycling had surely grown in popularity since I last rode in the city. We have to be  wary about forming subjective impressions as they can so often be wrong, but as I understand it, official statistics claim there to have been a 70% rise in cycling since 1989.

As well as helmets and fluorescent clothing, a significant
 proportion of London cyclists wear masks.
Absolutely no-one wears a mask over here.
That said, cycling in London is still very much a minority activity with a specific demographic who do most of the cycling. There are a lot of people in the 20-40 year age bracket, more male than female. Very few children cycle. This is not surprising given the conditions but it stood out to my eyes which are now used to seeing almost all children cycling.

I saw no pensioners cycling. . This again contrasts greatly given that almost all pensioners cycle in the Netherlands and older people have been the main source of growth in Dutch cycling since the 1980s.

Even though I expected it, the predominance of safety gear was still surprising. No-one wears reflective clothing to cycle in the Netherlands unless they're on the way to their job at a building site. Helmets are worn in the Netherlands only by people taking part in sport, not people going to work. These things are clear signs of cyclists trying to increase their odds of survival in a hostile environment. They are symbols of a lack of subjective safety. London's cyclists are the pit canaries of the roads, and their bright yellow clothing serves to warn everyone that they don't feel safe and that this is an unsafe place to be. I used to wear reflective clothing when I lived in the UK and if I returned then there is a fair chance that I'd so again. It's a reaction to the conditions on the roads.

This is presumably one of those roads where it is claimed that
there is "not enough space for a cycle-path", but actually
London's roads could be adapted to make cycling pleasant
and safe. Londoners need to know what is possible and want
it. Examples exist. Take a look at some before and after
photos of Dutch cities and see which you prefer. British streets
simply look like Dutch streets in the 1960s.
I saw people wearing helmet cameras for their commutes. Because these have only become affordable since we left the UK, and because no-one would wear one for their commute here, I'd never actually ever seen anyone riding with a camera on their head simply in order to video traffic until now. I do understand why.

While there were more cyclists than I remember, the social rules are clear. Cars still dominated the streets. London cyclists know their place and mostly ride in a very much less self-assured manner than do Dutch cyclists. Those who step out of line are tooted at by drivers.

On other days I took back streets. Collingham Road, Courtfield Road, Stanhope Gardens, Harrington Road and others. You can look them up if you want. These roads had less traffic than Cromwell Road, but cars still dominated and not one of them was nearly traffic free enough. I didn't come across a single road in this part of London which was comparable with minor roads in the Netherlands. Minor roads in the Netherlands are attractive for cycling because cars are routed elsewhere and bicycles dominate them. You may remember that a few months ago I tried to draw London's Mayor's attention to such a road in order that he could come and see the difference for himself.


Exhibition Road's Shared Space in a mock-up photo. This is
what London was sold. The next photo shows the reality
How about Exhibition Road ?
While I mostly used the rear entrance to the Science Museum on Queen's Gate, the front entrance is on Exhibition Road. This has been discussed quite widely as an example of Shared Space in London. Shared Space doesn't work well in the Netherlands and I wouldn't expect it to work well anywhere else either.

However, having watched how people use Exhibition Road and having ridden a bicycle along its length, I can only conclude that this is "Shared Space" designed by someone who didn't understand it at all. There is no sharing and Exhibition Road is not functionally Shared Space. Motor vehicles dominate here to an even greater extent than is the case in Shared Spaces in the Netherlands. Cyclists are squeezed for space and pedestrians dare not cross the road. Nothing has been achieved here at all. This is just the same as other roads in London save for the fancy paving. See also my video impression of Exhibition Road just below this section (play from 2:35).

Exhibition Road in reality. How much "sharing" will there be
when this truck catches up with the bike ? It's more likely to
 scare the cyclist especially given that close passing is
inevitable given how little space is left due to the car parking
spaces. Was this  £29 million well spent ? Watch the video
from where this still was taken (Exhbition Rd from 2:35).
I'm not the first to criticise Exhibition Road. Read Freewheeler's blog post from where the extraordinary "planner's fantasy view" of this space filled with pedestrians came from. In reality Exhibition Road's "Shared Space" has never looked like the architect said it would and has always looked much as in my and others' photos and video.

A video impression

Video showing how the design of streets in London causes problems, especially for cyclists and pedestrians. The Exhibition Road Shared Space features from 2:35

This video demonstrates many of the problems facing all modes of transport in London. People don't drive in London because it's efficient, they do so because it's the least bad option. Most journeys are short in London and the potential for cycling is huge. However, few people cycle because they view it as terrifyingly dangerous. If cycling in London were so inviting as it is in the Netherlands then people would find it easy to make the choice to ride a bike.

Riding London's shared bikes
I have written several times before about the shared bike scheme in London.

Shared bike schemes are nice things to have in a city, just as fountains and parks are nice things to have in cities. Shared bikes are a civil amenity, and a good one. However, they shouldn't be confused with cycling any more than a fountain should be confused with providing running water to every home. Shared bike schemes simply cannot make a significant difference to modal share because they can never be numerous enough to do so. This is simple mathematics. 6000 bikes in a city with a population of 8 million people is almost insignificant. It's less than one bike per 1000 people. The problem with London was never a lack of bikes. There were a million bikes in London before the shared bike scheme was installed. People didn't ride them before because they were scared to do so and nothing has changed to address this issue. People are still too scared to cycle in London.

I ended up with a pile
of receipts and access
codes. It's an easy to use
system once past the 30+
pages of legalize on
the terminals !
Despite my skepticism about the value of bike share, I was determined to try it out. As it happens, I quite liked using them. I saw someone else have trouble with the system, but for me it worked without fault. Two pounds is next to nothing to be able to use a bicycle for 24 hours and by the time I left the city I had a pocket filled with release code printouts.

I'd heard stories about how the shared bikes were excessively heavy and slow, but actually I found them fine to ride. I could keep up with London cyclists quite well. What I didn't do is take any photos while cycling. I do that all the time in the Netherlands and many of the photos and videos on this blog were taken by me with a hand-held camera while riding a bike. However, in London ? No. It simply doesn't feel safe to do that.

I didn't find the hire bikes to be slow at all. Actually, they rode quite well. I avoided a couple of obviously broken bikes which were in the stands and those which I selected had reasonable tyre pressures, clean enough chains and were quite efficient to ride. 3 speed hubs are not especially inefficient and the bikes really aren't slow, though to achieve much in the way of speed you do need to ride with quite a high cadence because the gearing is absurdly low. I found I could easily keep up with other London cyclists and overtook most of them.

What I will criticise about the bikes is the useless "basket" on the front and the truly appalling lights. London seems concerned enough about danger that they make users of the bikes read (or ignore) 30 pages of legalize before they can take a hire bike, but they care so little about safety that the lights provided on the hire bikes are terrible. Why not fit a decent headlight and a decent rear light ? Flashing lights are no good for lighting the way even if they're bright, and this one really isn't bright at all. The rear light is so low so that it can easily be obscured by other traffic or street furniture. Hopeless. Decent lights should be a prerequisite for bike share schemes.

It's not only the hire bikes which were inadequately lit. Given the hostile street environment I expected that most London cyclists would have decent, if not excessive, lights on their bicycles in an attempt to be seen, however most actually had very poor lighting at night. My advice to Londoners is to buy and use better bike lights. (I don't want to turn this into an advertisement, but you can buy really good lights from us)

It will perhaps not come as a surprise to many people who cycle regularly in London that I was cut up by an Addison Lee minicab almost immediately after I first mounted one of the hire bikes.

London is slow
London is a very slow place to ride a bike and I found my patience was stretched somewhat. Here in Assen I'm spoiled. I'm used to being able to ride to most destinations by a direct route and without having to stop at all. Being able to make faster journeys by bike are just one of many advantages of having an efficient and comprehensive network of well designed cycle-routes. I am now accustomed to this network enabling me to avoid nearly all traffic lights and therefore I found it frustrating that in London I had to stop and restart every few hundred metres because cycles go through all the same traffic lights as cars do. This is enormously detrimental so far as average speeds are concerned and it is also very wearing on the rider, even over short distances. Cycling in London necessarily consists of inefficient short sprints between traffic lights. Cyclists try to get ahead, sometimes pushing through traffic lights before they've gone green, in an attempt not to be overtaken by too many cars before the next long delay at the next traffic light.

Cycle-path through Hyde Park. The only
segregated infrastructure open in the
evening near where we stayed. It's quite
an awful path, bumpy, with nothing
but a "cyclists dismount" at the end
and absurdly narrow (one bike width).
It came as a real surprise to find
someone heading in the opposite
direction along here. It had not occurred
to me when I started that this narrow
strip would be bidirectional, but it is.
I rode a shared bike back to my hotel along Cromwell Road, through back streets, through Hyde Park and together with Peter on his Brompton we rode to a friend's home near the Hilton in Kensington. There was a fairly large number of people riding along Kensington High Street at 6:30 in the evening. We were amongst the fastest cyclists (if you were overtaken on October 30 by a balding gray haired guy on a Boris Bike accompanied by a much younger chap on a Brompton, neither with helmet or fluorescent clothes, that was us) but the journey still took quite a long time. I started counting traffic lights but gave up after the tenth set. It was only after I returned home and looked at Google Maps that I realised that in this time-consuming journey we had ridden only 2 miles (3 km). In London it felt like we had gone much further - that being the effect of stop-start cycling. By way of comparison, watch a video showing how 2/3rds of the same distance in Assen to the city centre is ridden without any traffic lights.

Advanced Stop Lines are, thankfully, rare in the Netherlands. They are one of those things which was tried but which fell out of favour. Unfortunately, they're commonplace in London and because London is painting even more of them as part of new infrastructure they're becoming more common. These facilities do very little to make cyclists' journeys faster and any small gain is achieved at the cost of encouraging cyclists to make dangerous manoeuvres. I'm not enthusiastic about squeezing through gaps in traffic to get to the front at each traffic light as that simply means you have more cars behind you keen to overtake when you get going again. As a result, when the lights went green I had to ride with the cars past any cyclists who had pushed past me to the front of the queue. Quite absurd.

What was also quite absurd was that all my journeys by bike except for one short exploration through Hyde Park were on roads and not on separate cycling infrastructure. The only piece of separated infrastructure I could find was awful.

It seems none of the concepts of sustainable safety have yet been understood by TfL.

Has London Changed ?
Very little has changed on London's roads in the last six years. While there are more cyclists now, the attitudes of the majority of the population have not changed. Whatever mode of transport you choose, journey times are long even for short distances in London because everyone is crammed onto those same overly full roads.

While Andrew Gilligan continues to try to make out otherwise, the journeys that Londoner's make are the same lengths and for the same purposes as journeys in the Netherlands. However, Londoners drive for journeys which the Dutch would typically cycle. The reason why people drive so much more in London is that they find this to be the least awful way to get around, not because they make a positive choice to drive nor because it's particularly convenient.

Driving is not particularly pleasant in London but it is seen as the least awful option and that's why many people choose to drive.

Even though many British children receive cycle-training at school, their parents still don't let them cycle. This is a subjective safety issue. London's streets do not feel like a safe place to cycle so most people don't cycle. Parents are protective of their children so they  It's quite normal for people to want their children to be safe. Driving feels safer than cycling and that is why when Londoners have children, they drive even more because doing so is a way of keeping their children safe.

Dutch children have more freedom which leads to UNICEF saying that they have better lives. Shouldn't British children be equally blessed ?

What about those Superhighways ?
Unfortunately, I didn't get to ride on a "superhighway". I've written before about many issues with London's Superhighways, and one of the issues with them is that they are very far from being the comprehensive network of cycling facilities which is required for mass cycling. No superhighway went anywhere that I wanted to ride, so I didn't ride on a superhighway.

However from what I could see of one of those superhighways (CS3) from a car window on the way home, they're really not up to much at all. These, like everything else in London, are not close to being of typical Dutch quality.

Just after I returned from the UK, the extension to Cycling Superhighway 2 was completed.

Immediately that the extension to this "superhighway" was opened on the sixth of November, videos started to turn up of what it was like. What you see in videos like this is absolutely nothing comparable with modern Dutch cycling infrastructure. This infrastructure still causes conflicts, even on the day of opening:
 
Astonishingly, this is London's best effort at building segregated infrastructure. It promotes conflict, looks absolutely nothing like any Dutch cycle-path, the bus-stop bypasses only resemble the very oldest that I've seen in NL and it is only about 1.5 km long.

Boasting and blathering
If the junctions had been designed on
genuine Dutch lines, as shown to be
possible by this visualization by
Schrödinger's Cat
, then the incident
in the video above would not have
occurred.
Transport for London initially boasted of the "2 mile" length of this infrastructure on CS2, but people then started to point out that they were counting the length of both sides of the road. i.e. it's really just one mile in length but they've done both sides. These works are on a very small scale. Even main through routes in London add up to over 360 miles and in total there are 9205 miles of road in the capital.

It's been talked about for months and now London has eventually reworked approximately one hundredth of one percent of the city's total road network to an inadequate quality. Was this really worth inviting the press and photographers so that the Mayor could open it in style ? Was it really worth press-releasing to the entire world ? Seriously ? Even when they'd done such a bad job as is exposed in the video above ? The cycling hype from London has perhaps just reached a new height of absurdity.

Is the city even making forward progress ? How many miles of roads have been improved for driving in the time that it has taken to do this minor piece of work for cycling ?

(note that later measurements show the length of the CS2 extension to be much less than one mile)

An inadequate response to a series of deaths
London has had quite a spate of cycling deaths recently. Yesterday I learnt that a previous dreadful toll of four cyclist deaths in eight days had increased to five in nine days. Many people are upset about this, but Boris Johnson's response was to say that "there's no amount of traffic engineering that we invest in that is going to save people's lives". Frankly, this is utter bull. It's disgracefully dishonest. I live with engineering which saves peoples lives. Dutch cyclists are the safest in the world because of this engineering. It's time for both Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan to stop making excuses and for real remedial action to start in London.

In order to make Dutch cyclists safe on this country's road network, consisting of 130000 km of roads, the Dutch limited speeds on 40000 km of roads, restricted the usage of almost all residential streets in the country and built 37000 km of cycle-path. That's for a population which only double that of London. While there are 198 people per mile of road in the Netherlands, there are 869 people per mile in London. While London has managed to build just a few "Cycling Superhighways" to an appalling low specification, the Netherlands has built a mile of cycle-path for every 700 people. If London built proportionately as much as the Dutch have then the city would have more miles of cycle-path than road. No-one argues that it is necessary to go that far, but London with its population of 8 million people ought to have far more quality cycling infrastructure than does little Assen with less than one percent of that population. Unfortunately, due to decades of inaction London actually has less. The job which needs to be done in London is proportionately far smaller than what the Dutch have already achieved. It's not beyond London to do this, but to get the job done will people someone with real vision. Enough bullshit - get building !

The unfortunate lack of a spine in the London Cycling Campaign
Also on the sixth of November, the London Cycling Campaign sent out a press release in which (amongst other things) they said "Today, the London Cycling Campaign hailed a major success as Mayor Boris Johnson opened the Dutch-style extension of Cycle Superhighway 2 from Bow to Stratford". The text of the press release is remarkably self congratulatory. "Another victory for our campaigning", "Today's announcements come on top of an announcement", "the political wins... finally bearing fruit", "as safe and inviting as they are in Holland(sic)", ending with the inevitable "Sign up as a member today".

I'm not impressed by this. It's quite obviously a recruitment drive dressed up as campaigning. What's more, this "major success" is actually the same infrastructure as other people are criticising for its poor quality. Indeed, it's the same CS2 extension as I have criticised previously for a a ludicrously badly designed right turn, which the LCC praised when it was first proposed. Indeed, only a few weeks have passed since LCC criticised me for saying that they approved of this, and here they are again handing out praise for exactly the same infrastructure again (I also criticised London's badly designed bus stop bypasses also seen in the video above at around the same time only to find that elements of the LCC were protective of those as well).

The LCC's own video showed the extension to actually be of anything other than of Dutch quality and with many obvious faults but nevertheless they wrote similar glowing praise to accompany this video (since edited, perhaps in light of what happened next on CS2).

After the death on Cycling Superhighway 2 on the 13th of November, the London Cycling Campaign sent out another press release in which they called for people to attend a flash ride in protest. This was the fourth death of a cyclist on London's roads in eight days.

Now I have to be fair and say that LCC did criticise "the lights" at the Bow roundabout before this fatality occurred. However the problem with that junction goes well beyond anything that merely changing traffic lights will fix. That's not nearly enough to make it "Dutch". London needs more effective campaigning than this. Too much praise is being handed out when the city has actually achieved very little of substance and cyclists still face enormous problems on a daily basis.

On the 14th of September, in the wake of another death on London's roads, The LCC sent another press release. This one calls for the Mayor to "upgrade all Superhighways to continental standards", which is a meaningless request. There is no such thing as a "continental standard" and this rather wet request gives far too much leeway to London to do whatever they want. This isn't nearly clear enough. What does LCC want TfL to do ? Copy France ?

LCC: Get your act together. Ask for more and be consistent. London needs better campaigning than this. The membership voted for "Go Dutch", they did not ask for something more vague. Set the highest standards.

Conclusion
We could help London if London would let us
do so. It is clear that knowledge about how to
cater for cycling is inadequate at TfL and
amongst London politicians. Let us help you.
The problems with London are not limited to Bow roundabout and not limited to CS2. They're not limited to anything remotely that small. The cycling conditions that I observed in London and the roads which I cycled on were not part of a "cycling superhighway" because none of them went where I wanted to go. Conditions for cycling are unpleasant along a large proportion of London's 9205 miles of roads and addressing this will take a lot more than concentrating on just a few main routes. London needs a comprehensive network which goes way beyond anything that has yet been proposed in the city.

The rate of "improvement" for cyclists at the moment is lower than the rate of building of roads which are hostile to cyclists. London cannot "catch up", not in forty years or any other period of time if the city continues to "progress" as it has done over the last six years.

Many words are spoken but it is still the case that little is happening in London or in the UK. A million words of PR are not worth one metre of safe cycling infrastructure. How much time do you think you have ?

The propeller was thought to be
dangerous, hence the fence around it.
No ice here so we also showed videos 
Why was I in London ?
My second week in the UK, that in London, was spent with friends Steve Ellis and Peter Haan, demonstrating the Ice-Bat in the Science Museum for three days. I've always thought the Science Museum was fabulous. It's full of wonderful things that I read about as a child like steam engines, aeroplanes, computers and space capsules. It was wearing to explain the same things repeatedly to visitors, but also a lot of fun to be there and do it. It was also quite marvelous to be able to get into the museum and have a good look around before all the visitors turned up.

While we were in the Science Museum, a couple of London bloggers turned up for welcome conversation. Also an old friend invited us for a very enjoyable dinner. It's nice to be somewhere unusual for a while I very much enjoyed my visit.

I had a good look around the museum when it was empty. No-one here but me.

This is the second of a three part series. See also "Has Britain progressed in the last six years?" and "Has Assen progressed in the last six years?"

I lived for not much more than two years in London before wanting to move on. I have good memories of my time there, but I simply prefer somewhere a bit quieter and less chaotic. If you ever mention you're thinking of leaving the city, someone is bound to quote Samuel Johnson: "when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life". However, Johnson lived in the 18th century. In 1750, London's population was only about 700000 people, less than a tenth of today's population, and no-one drove cars in the city at that time. It was not the same place as it is now. I realised recently that I've now lived for three times as long in Assen as I lived in London. I'm not yet tired of Assen.

4 comments:

Fonant said...

It never ceases to amaze me how UK road designers are unable to use the ready-made tried-and-tested infrastructure designs that have been developed in the Netherlands. I understand a bit of "not invented here" syndrome, and the slight complications of differences in highway laws, but surely the TfL designers could have used the best Dutch designs for the bus stop bypasses without any trouble, and, in the process, gained glowing reviews all round.

I think the root cause is that "we" (our leaders) don't actually want more people cycling in the UK. "We" are forced to make the right noises about sustainable transport and improving road safety, but "we" really want to be able to drive "our" cars without any restrictions (other than the carefully-ignored problem that everyone else gets in the way by driving their cars at the same time!). Perhaps "we" think that cycling is still a left-wing activity, so unacceptable in such a right-wing rules country (both Tories and New Labour).

The UK needs a "Stop the Road Murder" movement, and soon, before the country suffers too many completely avoidable deaths to fit and healthy people just trying to get to places.

Frank Reinthaler said...

David, if your constitution can bear it, I hope you can visit London again soon. It has inspired you to write very a very passionate, no holds barred, polemic which is exactly what's been needed after this unfortunate week on London's roads. Next time go with a bit more fanfare & go and bend some ears!

Jitensha Oni said...

@Frank Reinthaler

I thought the piece was pure description. If you want polemic try this…

The one thing that's troubled me most about cycling since coming back to live in the UK, more than congestion, pollution, bad road design and maintenance, and abysmally poor cycling infrastructure is the uncompromisingly brutalising attitude of large parts of the media, politicians and (as a result I'd say) a significant fraction of UK motorists, toward bicycle riders. Accordingly you get the "indicator species" of sad kids desperate for attention or bonding tweeting pathetic stuff about hating cyclists who should get out of their way etc. Not something to be proud of and it seems to me to be unique in it's antagonistic ferocity over a wide demographic at least in Western Europe.

In this light, I was particularly struck by the "London is Slow" section. It's a number of years since we lived in the Netherlands & I'd forgotten about that factor, but it's right. It's not just London, it applies to most town/city centres. The section made me realise that I've unconsciously chosen some of my regular routes, not to avoid traffic per se, but to avoid traffic lights. Many light systems (I'm actually thinking of the Epsom mini-gyratory) seem to operate on a negative green gulf. When one lot goes green the next lot in front goes red. No wonder UK drivers get impatient. The start-stop also contributes to the poor air quality, of course. At least a bike rider can filter to the front and make a little bit of progress. But seeing riders doing this just winds drivers up further. Drivers are of course encouraged left right and centre to keep to their oh-so-wonderful cars. They are, to my mind having to cope with the cognitive dissonance between what they are fed and what the reality is. It hard to say who is being failed the most, bicycle riders or motorists. However, it doesn't say much for the drivers that they are conned by this fallacy, and don't take to the bicycle in numbers.

The media and politicians even try to boil safety down to issues of behaviour, conveniently ignoring (or more likely deflecting the point) that the environment to a large extent produces that behaviour, and that they create that environment. Change the environment to more people-friendly and safety (and to a large extent decent personal behaviour) follows. And I don't just mean the physical environment of infrastructure - it should include much more overt encouragement of bicycle use by officialdom, but there, I fear, fonant is largely correct.

Robert said...

Courtesy of the poor quality, obsolete infrastructure in London and the rest of the UK, a sixth London cyclist in two weeks is now dead. Boris' conscience must be as asbestos-lined as his attitude to cycling London gyratory systems.

And for those unfamiliar with the deadly CS2, The Guardian have provided a study tour.