Tuesday 4 March 2014

Another year without progress in London. Ever get the feeling you've been cheated ?

On the 4th of March 2013, Andrew Gilligan wrote of his and Boris Johnson's "ambitions for the bike". He set the scene for what was to follow by claiming that "it took 40 years to turn even Amsterdam into Amsterdam".

Today is the 4th of March 2014. London has not made any discernible progress towards becoming a proper cycling city in the last 365 days, so as of today, the automated counter on the right (code to embed it on your website or blog is produced by clicking on "embed this") has updated itself to report than the UK is now 41 years and zero days behind.

It may seem a little harsh to use Andrew's "40 years" statement in this way, but I'm very bored indeed of hearing this very well worn excuse for inaction. It was about twenty years ago when I heard "we're n years behind" being used to excuse the UK's bad cycling environment. At that time, those people who said this could only claim that the Netherlands had a twenty year head-start. The only change since then has been in the number of years by which people admit to being behind. While the Netherlands has continued to progress rapidly, the UK has continued to stagnate. The gap can only get bigger while the UK does not progress.

Can progress be made in less than 41 years ?
Before the UK was even just "twenty years behind", this video was produced in the Netherlands to demonstrate what had already been achieved:

Yes it's dated and much of what is shown is no longer to current Dutch standards, but look at what had been achieved in just 17 years in the Netherlands. Britain could have started to copy from this film 24 years ago. i.e. the UK could easily now look better than the Netherlands did when this video was made, but it doesn't.

I apologise if you think you've seen this before. You may well have done, perhaps on a study tour, or it could have been in an earlier post on this blog as this is the third time it's been featured here. The video shows the impressive result of just the first 17 years of work since policy changes in the 1970s in the Netherlands. I first wrote a blog post featuring this video six years ago. Back then, Britain was only "35 years behind the Netherlands", but unfortunately nothing of any substance has been achieved in Britain in those six years.

Actually, progress can be made in less than ten years
After the Netherlands changed its policies on cycling in the 1970s, it took just eight years until the country was impressive enough that New Scientist magazine ran an article about what had been achieved. In eight years, the Netherlands had already achieved more than London has managed when given those same eight years plus an extra 33 years which followed after the wake-up call from New Scientist.

To reach the point where the Netherlands was worth taking notice of took barely more than the six years between when I first posted the video above and the present day. It actually took less time than Boris Johnson has already been mayor of London (he has had this position since December 2005).

Not standing still vs. Same as it ever was
Even now, when they are "41 years ahead", the Netherlands is not standing still. We have seen rapid progress here in the last six years, making the infrastructure in the video look even more out of date now than it did when I first embedded it. Meanwhile, Britain has not progressed in any meaningful way in that time.

Dutch infrastructure has changed enormously since the 1970s while Britain's still looks very much as it did in the 1960s.

Cycling was in decline in both Britain and the Netherlands until the mid 1970s. It took a second revolution in Dutch street planning to reverse the decline here. As yet, that second revolution has still not taken place in Britain.

Back to London
This post started by referring to Andrew Gilligan's claim last year of London being 40 years behind. He said this in order to pave the way for the introduction four days later of plans which were supposed to make London "compete with Amsterdam". The level of hype was immense. After reading the plans I was immediately critical because it was very obvious that these plans could never achieve the stated aims. The document was long, the language was slick, and it alluded to things "Dutch". However, all that was really being offered were a few minor changes around the edges which could never achieve the stated goal. London appeared to think that it could "catch up" by spending "a third of as much as the Dutch and to do so for just ten years". Nowhere was it proposed to create the extensive grid of high quality go everywhere facilities necessary to result in a high cycling modal share.

London has has continued to borrow the names of things Dutch to describe infrastructure of far from adequate quality. Schrödinger's Cat pointed out that London had begun to use the word "grid" to describe a much lesser quality network of routes and that  "the plans are already failing to live up to the promises made" (I introduced the term "grid" to describe this important feature of Dutch infrastructure in 2008).

I visited London myself last year and was extremely disappointed with what I found. Nothing had changed for the better for cyclists. While there's a lot of hot air about cycling, there is no "cycling revolution". It's clear from their lacklustre and old-fashioned proposals that TfL still doesn't really have much of a clue what they are doing for cyclists. London actually took some small steps in the early 1980s, and had they continued then the city might have been transformed. Unfortunately, instead of continuing along this path, it was abandoned. The city still does not have infrastructure of the quality required to make it a truly pleasant and safe place to cycle.

We now know that Londoners' journeys are not different in length or purpose to journeys made by their Dutch counterparts, but cycling in London remains something that most people wouldn't consider. It's an activity for those who are either brave enough to accept the challenge, hard-up enough that they have no choice, or who are somewhere on a spectrum between those two extremes.

When there was a string of fatalities last year, Boris Johnson and Andrew Gilligan blamed cyclists rather than acknowledge the inaction of themselves and those who came before them had led to cycling being inherently dangerous as well as unpleasant in the city.

More recently, London's mayor has said that he still thinks properly designed cycling infrastructure is "totally pointless".

These people are not working for cycling and we should not let them get away with pretending that they are.

London's horrible plan for Kings X.
ASLs, on-road cycle-lanes, badly
designed crossings. TfL - have you
learnt nothing ? Come and find out
about real cycling infra
. (source)
Yet more press releases
Perhaps in an attempt to forestall the inevitable criticism which would follow from having achieved nothing of substance over the last year, London has been sending out yet more press releases. These have been reported far and wide, including here in the Netherlands.

The new publicity appears to have done its job. Campaigners have almost completely forgotten about the promises made but never fulfilled last March because they're looking instead at the latest promises. Once again, it's "jam tomorrow". Once again, many campaigners are being tricked into thinking that the promise will come true.

The new announcements are actually even more lacklustre than last year. Rather than promising that the whole city will be transformed to "compete with Amsterdam", they're now promising only to transform 33 junctions. This isn't even new. It's a recycled version of the "junction review" which was promised to Londoners two years ago. To put the proposal in context, 33 junctions are to be reviewed out of thousands of road junctions in London. Even the proposals for these junctions have led to criticism because the proposals are lacklustre.

Even if London does manage to deliver what has been promised, the city will still fail to deliver what is needed because the promises made in the last week are so lacking in scope.

This has not stopped the London Cycling Campaign from adding to the hype. On the day of TfL's press release, LCC sent out two press releases of their own which praised the promises from TfL. They "congratulate the mayor" and talk about "success for campaigners".

But when the city's mayor has has done so little for cyclists and he also so recently made it clear that he doesn't understand what is needed, what are campaigners cheering about. This is not a time for praise, it's a time for sensible consideration of what is, or perhaps what is not, on offer from London's Mayor, Cycling Commissioner and TfL.

Cycling in London needs action, not words. It needs real campaigning and not mutual back patting, and will benefit greatly if campaigners can somehow forget about their amnesia, remember how things have not turned out according to press releases in the past and try to make sure that this situation doesn't continue. That promises made to cyclists are always about tomorrow is the reason why Britain is 41 years behind.

An ongoing emergency situation
The Dutch do the most moderate exercise in Europe. The
British almost the least. Source @Jono_Kenyon
This is an ongoing emergency. Change is needed urgently. In London and in Britain as a whole, cycling is something that most people simply never do and this lack of cycling kills people.

The health of the average Dutch adult benefits from having the best chance in Europe to incorporate a little healthy exercise into their daily lives by cycling. Meanwhile, British adults are near the bottom of the list.

Dutch children have enormous freedom and are considered by UNICEF to have the best well-being in the world, while British children are at the bottom of the list.

Campaigners and government alike have produced manifestos, reports and any amount of hot air in Britain for decades and they still continue to do so. None of that will get people cycling. Nor will more cycle training. To get people cycling you need infrastructural change, and you need that infrastructure to be of the best quality possible.

Get building
Britain needs to start planning and building that high quality infrastructure. Stop writing press releases and get on with actually doing something. Don't delay. Start now. Having sat back for 41 years already, time is of the essence.

Cost is not an issue. It's cheaper to build cycling infrastructure than not to build it.

Time is not an issue either. As this video proves, when Britain actually wants to build infrastructure, it can be done quickly - so long as its a project that the government is genuinely behind:

Think rapid progress isn't possible in the UK ? Watch this video which demonstrates how much can be achieved in little time when the British government has found a project that it really wants to support: "The entire 55 miles of dual carriageway,  132 bridges and 92 concrete culverts are due to be completed within 19 months". Everyone involved was "inspired with a sense of urgency". "After only 16 weeks of construction, the record of progress was remarkable". In the Netherlands, cycling projects are built with a similar urgency. Speed is essential when rapid progress takes place over many years. To build Britain's motorway network, many big things had to be done as well as small things like changing laws and moving kerb lines - the sort of small problems seemingly regarded as insurmountable obstacles when it comes to cycling infrastructure.

I pose again a question from last year: How much time do you think you have ? At the current sub-glacial rate of change, no significant improvements can be expected for British cyclists within the life-spans of anyone campaigning now.

Click here for more information
Having low aspirations will never result in the change that is required. Come and find out how to do a proper job. Take what you learn back to the UK. We can show you how to make cycling accessible to everyone so that everyone wants to cycle.

We're here to help, but we can only help those who actually want to be helped.

The hype continues. London's "smart" pedestrian crossings.
In the week after this blog post, London achieved considerable publicity yet again (not only within the UK but also extending to the Netherlands) for plans to trial a new pedestrian crossing innovation which is claimed to improve conditions for pedestrians. In fact, crossing the road in London is a harrowing experience (as I demonstrated last year). In recent years, pedestrian green times have been shortened and shortened again, and the number of pedestrian crossings in London has also been reduced, making pedestrians' journeys longer if they wish to use a pedestrian crossing to get across the road in relative safety, or their crossing more dangerous if they do not.

What's more, London uses the concept of a countdown timer on pedestrian crossings to tell people to run faster because its not long until motorists will be given a green light, while in the Netherlands it's used to demonstrate that the delay before we can cross the road will be short so there is no need to hurry across, possibly in danger.

While on the subject of delays before crossing, these can be extraordinarily long in London compared with what I'm used to in the Netherlands. We have a maximum delay of 8 seconds for pedestrians and cyclists at many of our crossings.

However, while London is achieving press around the world, including here in the Netherlands, for its "innovation", almost no-one knows that the experience for pedestrians is in fact far better in this country than it is in the UK.

Not only Britain's cyclists but also Britain's pedestrians would do a lot better if more effort was put into actually achieving a good environment rather than simply writing press releases.

British campaigners: here's a message from the 1970s which is especially pertinent to the current situation for cyclists in the UK.


Unknown said...

Hi David,

Your observations are so true, sadly. I won't be fooled, just as you.

As a result of my comments made to this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fh3dSbi1zug I was approached by a BBC-journalist about my view on "Dutch-style segregated cycle lanes in Bristol".

It made me realise that most British people (and authorities) still don't understand the concept of a Dutch cycle path. Reason to make another addition, please check http://thecyclingdutchman.blogspot.co.uk/ and see whether I missed something out!

Keep up the good work!

Best wishes,


bz2 said...

The pedestrian crossing technology touted in the latest press release has been available (and implemented) for a long time. I found evaluation reports online about using infrared detectors at pedestrian crossings to extend green times from 1994, 2000 and 2004 ­— and those included results from the UK. Once again, Boris takes something that's been known elsewhere for decades, calls it a London invention and then — if past experience is anything to go by — implements almost the opposite.

David Hembrow said...

Eric, there's at least some deliberate confusion within the UK. Almost anything old junk is being passed off as "Dutch" these days. The LCC were dragged reluctantly into supporting "Go Dutch" and are particularly bad at spreading confusion. All the other large British campaign groups have contributed to this as well by supporting the now infamous "Dutch" junction at Southampton and the Turbo Roundabout in Bedford. We can't just blame the British though because even Dutch companies have got in on the act, selling as "Dutch" things that they would not try in the Netherlands.

This of course demonstrates why our study tours are of value. We're independent. While it's the job of the Dutch Cycling Embassy to find work for Dutch companies, that's not our job. We offer independent advice and recommend what works, not what we think someone can sell. What's more, we're native English speakers which reduces confusion and we've been doing it for years longer than they have !

bz2: I wrote software well over ten years ago which interfaced with SCOOT (to prioritize buses). It was far from the cutting edge of technology even then...

The pedestrian counters in London are almost certainly going to be used to prioritize driving. That is what every other 'innovation' at pedestrian crossings has been about. On the TV last night someone from TfL said that they could be used to prevent drivers having to stop at a red light when there were no pedestrians waiting. The only reason why this would happen is of course that the pedestrian green times as so far apart that the pedestrians gave up on waiting and have already crossed against a red.