Friday 30 December 2011

Festive Cheer

I have been rather busy over the last few weeks, and unable to post. Therefore I offer a rather belated Festive greetings and Happy New Year.

I have several posts I want to share, but to continue with the positivity I summoned up in November, I thought I would start with how cycling has changed Christmas for me.

Since crossing the age divide, where one moves from opening up presents which are exciting toys and progress onto opening up presents which are socks, I have viewed Christmas as overblown and stressful. But the last few Christmases, I have started to enjoy the festive period again. And in doing so, I realised it wasn't the actual Christmas holiday I didn't like, but the run-up to it. I am not a happy shopper at the best of times, and having to shop for presents in a shopping centre so crowded that it probably contravenes EU rules on livestock transport was never going to improve matters. Or the fact that I used to drive everywhere, and at Christmas, this is just torture.

But some things changed my mind, and made Christmas so much better

1) Having a small child. One has to have really misplaced one's heart if unmoved by the excitement of a small child at opening presents.

2) The wonder that is Amazon (or any other online retailer). Not only can you buy presents online without having to inch your way through hoards of angry shoppers, but you can specify the presents you want. This means I get the gifts I would like, and can simply pick something off other people's wish lists so they get what they want as well. This seems a very satisfactory arrangement all round. Hell, many online shops gift wrap it as well for you. It as if they read my mind (or the mind of any other lazy, reluctant shopper).

3) I don't drive to get to the shops at Christmas. No matter what size of present or shopping I am picking up, multiple cycle trips are better than using the car.

To illustrate no. 3, I remember driving to my local Tescos, which was barely half a mile away, to pick up some shopping. I couldn't park in, or indeed get anywhere near, the supermarket car park. I couldn't park anywhere else either. The roads were gridlocked. The journey took 30 minutes simply to circle the supermarket. My wife got out and did the shopping whilst I inched my way around the vicinity. Apparently two people were having a fight in the supermarket, according to my wife. I knew how they felt.

But on a cycle things are very different. My journey takes me about as long as it always does to get to the supermarket. And if the supermarket has run out of what I need, I simply get on the cycle to the next shop. Not something easily done in a car at the best of times, and infuriating when the traffic means any journey is done at less than walking pace. Christmas Eve around Walthamstow illustrated the point wonderfully. This was my journey through the town centre.

The two pictures actually show one very long traffic jam pretty much circling the centre. I don't know how long it took these drivers to complete their journey, but none of them looked particularly full of Christmas cheer.

And to make matters worse, some had to spend their time queuing under the watchful gaze of Mrs Thatcher. I, on the other hand, was only delayed by trying to find a stand to lock the cycle against - a problem which actually made me happier since it means there were many more people deciding the cycle was the only sensible transport option that day.

It might sound slightly silly, but not having the prospect of spending an age in the car to simply get some shopping makes the Christmas chores much more bearable. The suitability of the cycle for local trips, and the stupidity of the car for the same, cannot be better illustrated than during the run up to the festive holidays.

Wednesday 23 November 2011

Grumpy Cyclist? Depressed Driver!

The other day, I happened upon a reference to this blog. Cycling Info is a blog written by someone far more knowledgeable about cycling that I, so I was really quite flattered that I was listed among a whole series of much more informed blogs than mine. Although the comment against Grumpy Cyclist is : 

The title says it all, if you fancy reading a rant.

I have to admit this may be true - my posts are not particularly inspiring for would be cyclists..

But it got me thinking, firstly that maybe I need to be slightly more upbeat with my posts, and secondly, why exactly do I cycle?

Clearly, I consider there is much wrong with the way cycling is treated as a mode of transport. I often feel that those people who make the transport decisions think of cycling as a jolly oddity that should be encouraged, but not at the expense of important modes of travel. So, in the face of patronising and half-baked campaigns from government and often outright hostility from car drivers why would I persist?

One of the reasons for cycling was brought home to me the other day, when I decided to do a local journey of around 2 miles by car instead of cycle. Driving a car anywhere is London is simply horrid. It is slow - junctions that I get through in one traffic light phase on a cycle took three phases by car as we all collectively crept forward to the next queue. It is stressful - narrow streets, parked cars everywhere, high pedestrian numbers and dense traffic mean that I remain on edge for the whole journey. It is frustrating - a journey of 5 minutes takes 30 minutes because a lorry is unloading, the car parking spaces at the destination are all full, an idiot in a BMW decides to use an active bus lane to get 3 car lengths ahead and then blocks two lanes when pushing back in.

In short driving in London isn't pleasant. And this is simply local driving - start using a car in zone 1 and the experience becomes 10 times worse.

Compared to this, cycling is quick and predictable. A 10 minute journey might take 12 minutes if I am feeling lazy or 8 if the wind is behind me. It is liberating - when I get to the shops I generally can tie the cycle to something (although more proper stands would be jolly nice), and I don't need to circle around small car parks trying to fit my transport choice into a gap which is too narrow. Cycling, even popping to the shops, makes you feel just a bit more refreshed and healthy than sitting in a metal box for the same journey. And, in spite of the best efforts of local transport departments and errant drivers, cycling is usually remarkably stress-free.

But more than this, it is actually quite a lot of fun. A trip to the shops isn't so much of a chore. Realising that one has to go to Stratford or Leyton or Tottenham, isn't wasted time, it is an opportunity to get a little exercise and interact with the local area. Because, in a car, one is isolated from the streets one traverses in a haze of junctions and traffic. On a cycle I wave to people I know, I stop to have a chat, I smell the bakery and hear the market. In a car you fight through the local area, on a cycle you are part of the local area.

So why don't more people cycle instead of drive? I think a big part is due to conditioning. It took me years of frustration to try something else. Another big part is the way cycling is considered and treated on our roads. In spite of good words by those who wield power over our street design, the way they treat cycling in places like Blackfriars and Bow gives a message that cycling is in theory good, but hardly a grown-up way of getting around. And by letting our roads - even residential ones - become a car choked mess, they not only make driving utterly miserable but dissuade many from thinking that there are alternatives to sitting in a metal box.

So there are many reasons to be jolly about cycling. There are many reasons to give it a try. But it is frustrating when such a super mode of urban transport is compromised by policies that try making driving a car, a naturally poor mode of urban transport, easy. Not only do these policies fail to make driving easy but, in pursuing them, more natural urban transport options become much more difficult. So this is why I remain a grumpy cyclist despite all the wonderful things about cycling. 

Or maybe I am just a glass half empty type...

Sunday 20 November 2011

Neutrinos and post office vans

There is currently uproar in the world of Physics. Particle physicists in Italy have measured Neutrinos that appear to break the fundamental principle of Einstein's theory of special relativity - namely that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Such is the incredulity at this result that one physicist, Professor Jim Al-Kalili, has committed to "eat his boxer shorts on live TV" if the results are proven to be correct. Since a second experiment seems to show the same results as the first one, I am intrigued by the possibility that we may be treated to the sight of a respected physicist eating his undergarments live on the small screen. Still, I guess it beats X-Factor..

Living in the UK, I struggle to understand why anyone would be astonished at anything breaking the speed of light. Those physicists should have had a holiday from their lab under a mountain in Italy and popped across to the UK and tracked our Royal Mail vans - some of whom seem to be able to achieve such amazing speeds with ease. In fact such is the velocity of some of our post vans that I find it difficult to understand why it can sometimes take so long for post to arrive - I would expect that, at the speed of some of their vehicles, the Royal Mail could travel back in time and I would be receiving my post before it was sent.

Take the example below.

Bow Flyover at around 8:30am. Clearly, although a 30mph zone, neither the laws of physics or the road apply to this driver for the Royal Mail. For reference, I estimate the black car at the beginning of the sequence is driving a little over 30mph as I am doing over 20mph. I would estimate the van is travelling at least at 50mph? Note the deft undertake of the black car towards the end of the sequence - the driver actually went on the slalom between several cars (avoiding the joining slip road traffic) before ending up at the queue for the red lights a little further on.

I have seen a number of post vans driven with reckless abandon on our roads. Enough to wonder why Royal Mail doesn't install cameras or tracking equipment in them. This might pay for itself in less fuel consumption and body shop repairs. I have seen a post van drive so quickly up my 20mph road that one of the doors flew open. I saw another one on my road run an elderly cyclist into a parked car. Apparently they have a "how is my driving" sticker on some of them, but, frankly, the ones I have cause to report are travelling so quickly there is no way I could note the number before they have disappeared into the distance.

Still at least this post van was only speeding on the Bow Junction - an area well known for being safe and pleasant for vulnerable road users...

*PS - I am sure there are many safe and courteous drivers employed by RM. Its just the reckless ones are also driving  big red lorries which are instantly recognisable, and therefore stick out like a sore thumb.

Saturday 19 November 2011

Superhighway review

Since posting about the tragic death of Brian Dorling on CS2 at Bow Roundabout, another cyclist died in a collision with a lorry at the same roundabout within a month.

Over 300 cyclists, including me, participated in the "Tour du Danger" which was organised by Danny from Cyclists In The City and Mark from IbikeLondon. Both of whom must be given a huge amount of thanks for organising such an event with so many cyclists attending. Local LCC branch volunteers marshalled the event superbly and the local media covered the stories of both the cyclist deaths at Bow and the ride extensively.

I think that the pressure applied by LCC, the media coverage, and some GLA politicans - who participated in the ride as well - have forced TfL and the Mayor into a review of all SuperHighway junctions, with a priority on the Bow roundabout. Certainly this seems a departure from the Mayor's previous comments to the GLA where he had pronounced that the Elephant and Castle roundabout was fine:

"Though I have to tell you ...sometimes I just go round Elephant & Castle because it's fine. If you keep your wits about you, Elephant & Castle is perfectly negotiable.

Words, one can only hope, the Mayor now regrets.

The "Tour Du Danger" didn't take in the Bow Roundabout, but the other junctions were more than enough. Even within the safety of 300+ cyclists and marshals controlling traffic (I heard comments that it was the safest people had ever felt cycling in London), it was obvious that the junctions we negotiated were not designed in any way for cyclists. How Elephant and Castle can  be thought of as "perfectly negotiable" is utterly beyond me. In case we forget, it currently looks like this

Elephant & Castle gyratory
image courtesy of  London SE1 blog

Although there may be a (somewhat tortuous) cycle bypass to this junction, the same cannot be said for the Bow Roundabout. There are no options I can see aside from this junction if one is cycling from Aldgate / City to Stratford. Which makes Ben Plowden's "recommendation" to cyclists to "avoid the route" even more facetious than the already laughable fact that TfL, after spending millions on the CS2, are now advising cyclists against using it.

IbikeLondon linked to a youtube clip which highlights the danger to cyclists using CS2 on Bow Roundabout, as well as the LCC comments on consultation concerning the Bow cycle facilities. The video is below

None of this is good enough. And there are more and more people realising this. On the "Tour Du Danger", which was my first ride of this kind, I met city workers, lawyers, academics and an eclectic mix of ordinary people who are simply want cyclists and pedestrians to feature in TfL's plans when they examine junctions such as Bow. This isn't an unreasonable request.

There is another "Tour Du Danger" being held on March 17th. This will include the Bow junction. I hope that TfL and the Mayor will have reviewed the junction thoroughly before then and implemented changes to make cycling and walking through the junction easy and safe. And then the "tour du danger II" could become a celebration of the Mayor's commitment to improving road conditions for the increasing numbers of people who believe that walking and cycling are great ways to navigate our great city.

Wednesday 9 November 2011

Primary and Secondary

Cyclecraft, and cycling enthusiasts, talk of "primary" and "secondary" road positioning when dealing with our roads. They are, it would appear, considered "key" to successful vehicular cycling. To those uninitiated into the lingo of the cyclist, secondary position is where one cycles to the left of the centre of the carriageway but away from gutters, drains and other debris that hugs the side of our roads. It is intended to be safe for the cyclist, and allows easier overtaking by following traffic. Primary is where the cyclist takes the centre of the road and effectively restricts passing by following traffic. Primary is considered by tomes such as Cyclecraft to be key to negotiating safe progress for the cyclist through pinch-points and other road narrowing where overtaking could only be achieved by squeezing the cyclist's space.

So far, so good - although I do have a fairly fundamental objection to being the road-user who is tasked with controlling traffic behind me. The concept of the vulnerable road user being the one that controls the actions of those travelling in several tonnes of metal at speed seems, to me at least, slightly counter-intuitive. I would kind of hope anyone charged with driving large vehicles would be able to control themselves without little old me having to help them out.

But not withstanding this objection, the bigger issue is that, outside a fairly esoteric group of hardened cyclists, the concept of "secondary" and "primary" is completely unknown. Especially to those who are supposed to be "controlled" by this practice - the drivers. To the average driver, I suspect "secondary" looks like "bloody cyclist in my way" and "primary" looks like "bloody arrogant cyclist taking up all the space on my road paid for by my tax".

The fact that drivers have absolutely no idea about why cyclists would be taking primary or secondary, or indeed that cyclists are actually encouraged in such practices to control road-space, seems somewhat of an oversight and might just lead to some difficulties when put into practice on the roads.

So how does it actually work in practice?

I submit to the jury exhibit 'A'.*  Taken a couple of weeks ago in Leyton.

In this video, I am going around the little gyratory they have on the High Road. I take primary as I move around the gyratory - even though there is a cycle lane bizarrely on the right hand side; any cyclists I have seen using it get cut up terribly on the exit of the corner. Why do I take primary? Because I don't want some genius trying to pass me on a corner when traffic from the left sometimes doesn't stop. All well and good. But then after rounding the corner, I move to secondary to allow the cars behind me to pass. Except this time, the car doesn't pass before the zebra crossing on the corner, or wait until the corner is cleared. They pass on the corner and pretty much run me off the road. I really don't think this was intentional, just really poor judgement.

So, what to do here? Take secondary and risk a manoeuvre like the one above, or stick in primary and possibly incur the wrath of impatient drivers behind? In a less hostile road environment this decision wouldn't be required since the type of overtaking as seen in the video would simply not happen, either because the road layout would stop it, or the drivers would engage a modicum of common sense.

The second exhibit is my old favourite, the Tottenham Hale Gyratory (Broad Lane), taken on the same day as the video above.

This is a different type of problem. I am in primary to prevent very close overtakes at high speed. The middle lane is travelling at between 15-30mph, so there will always be one important person determined to get in front. And, sure enough, I glance back to see a driver undertaking the middle lane at high speed until he meets me where he sits on my rear wheel. I have a choice here. Move left and get close passed anyway, or continue in primary and hope he doesn't decide to drive through me, and instead moves into the next lane. Of course he decides to drive through me.

This, I think is the problem with primary and secondary. Drivers don't know why you are doing it and care even less. Primary, in theory, should stop close passes like the Toyota whereas the best that happens in many cases is that you simply slow down the close passing car and force it make some attempt to move into the other lane.

The real problem is that roads are designed with only the car in mind, and drivers know they can get away with this type of behaviour with absolute impunity.

Both videos have been reported to Roadsafe.

(* I think I may have been watching too many courtroom drama series on TV recently)

Saturday 29 October 2011


Following on from the death of another cyclist involved in a collision with a tipper lorry, Private Eye, of all places, ran a story concerning the death of Nora Gutmann in June.

It would appear that the driver of a tipper lorryJoao Lopes, who was involved in the collision which killed a cyclist, Eilidh Cairns, in 2009 was also involved in the collision that killed Nora.

I normally have the utmost regard for the police. But the investigation of the death of Eilidh Cairns, and the prosecution of Lopes appears to take bungling to an art form. The police officers first at the scene failed to collect witness details, instead asking them to get back in their cars and leave the area in order to get traffic flowing again. Then they failed to check Lopes' eyesight, even though he said he hadn't seen the cyclist. When a few months later his eyesight was checked it so defective that he legally couldn't drive a lorry. However, by this time, this fact couldn't be used in his prosecution for killing Eilidh Cairns.

He was found guilty of driving with uncorrected vision and got 3 points and £200 fine.

Now it would appear that he has been involved in the death of an elderly pedestrian, also in London.

One worries about the release of this information before prosecution for this latest offence - but now the information is out in the public domain, I can only hope that a Jury direction to disregard previous events is considered adequate to continue with any prosecution.

London wasn't designed for large vehicles. They add risk to the road. They also are, in most cases, essential. But there is much that can be done to mitigate this risk, from better driver training, to technology such as sensors and cameras. Even shutting down companies that employ drivers who are drunk and using a mobile phone might be a good start.

Most of the technology and safety equipment isn't particularly expensive. We are talking about adding side-bars or mirrors in most cases. Even fitting out cameras and sensors isn't exactly prohibitive.

I would like to see all government building contracts - including huge construction projects like the Olympics - mandate that transport used by contractors are fitted with the latest safety equipment, and that the drivers are trained to the highest standard. This would send a clear message.

I would also like to see that those driving to a standard significantly lower than expected - for instance by driving drunk or using a phone or whilst they have uncorrected vision are subjected to lengthy jail terms and the firms for which they work are given very heavy fines and stringent checks before they can operate again. 

Friday 28 October 2011

CS2 death in Bow

It is with sadness that I read of the first death on a cycle-superhighway this week.

Details are somewhat scant aside from the following from the BBC link above.

A 58-year-old man has died after a collision with a tipper lorry on a cycle superhighway in east London.
The cyclist was involved in the collision on the roundabout at Bow Road, Bow, at 08:45 BST on Monday.
I normally use this blog to vent my frustration with dollops of sarcasm. For such a serious incident as above this is entirely inappropriate. The fact that this is the superhighway, and junction, I cycle through on a fairly regular basis, has brought this particular incident home.
I don't usually cycle the roundabout as it is circuitous, and in my opinion, more fraught with difficulties than the flyover going over the top of it. And the flyover isn't exactly easy to cycle.
The Bow roundabout is also where the Newham boundary lies and, for reasons I have blogged about previously, this is where the CS2 ends.
There should be no illusions about the Bow interchange. This is a junction designed for the movement of motorised vehicles and, in my opinion, was never designed with cyclists or pedestrians in mind. This can be ably illustrated by the fact that the lights have no pedestrian phase - pedestrians simply have no other way to cross these roads than running inbetween the flow of traffic. I think the fact that there aren't more deaths and injuries to cyclists or pedestrians at this junction is simply because so few actually use it -  I see few pedestrians and most cyclists do the same as me and get onto the flyover instead of using the roundabout.
According to questions to Boris, the Bow flyover has no pedestrian phase since TfL consider they cannot implement this without serious implications to traffic flow. 
This is simply unacceptable, and has to change. Stratford high street at this point was once industrial units, but now has blocks of flats springing up. And many local transport connections at this end are across the Bow junction. So more people will be wanting to walk and cycle across it. This is only going to increase with the regeneration of old industrial areas such as Sugar House Lane.

So what to do about junctions such as these? Look at the video I took several months ago when I used the roundabout Stratford bound

Firstly, it might be easy, and a bit glib, to say the whole thing needs to be re-designed. It does, but this is so unlikely that I would say we have more chance of James Martin  doing the tour-de-France. But the whole junction could be made more amenable for cyclists without having to radically change the entire junction.

For a start, this is a 30mph stretch of road. Does it look and feel like 30mph? No. The slip roads are very wide, the entrances and exits on the roundabout are designed for high speed. Surely traffic flow could be slowed and regulated, and cyclists helped by reducing the slip road entrances, by making the roundabout exits tighter. 

Secondly, the new CS2 paint segregates cyclists to the left as they travel around the roundabout, but then can put them in conflict with fast moving traffic as they merge on the A11 slip-road, or even worse, directly put them in the path of crossing traffic if the cyclist wishes to continue around the roundabout. This is simply poor design, which would normally be mitigated in Northern European countries by having the cycling lane take priority, or introducing cycle lights to aid cyclists.

Thirdly, the cycle-lane on the A11 slip road back up to the A11 is laughably narrow. Although I wasn't laughing at all when I had to use it with traffic squeezing past. The presence of the lane makes drivers think they should be able to squeeze past without crossing the double lines, but this, in reality is way too close. The cycle lane should be made wider to indicate the true space required by a cycle, and the double lines should be made dashed. 

Fourth, look at the parked vehicles. This was a Sunday, but after hours vehicles do park here during the week. The coach on the slip road is blocking CS2 and forcing cyclists out into the path of traffic travelling at speed down the motorway style slip-road. Parking here should be banned 24 hours a day.

Can you imagine anyone unable to walk quickly being able to negotiate this junction on foot? Or indeed would anyone cycle on this other than the battle-hardened?

The fundamental problem is that TfL et al. want us to cycle and walk more - but are not prepared to compromise traffic flow in order to help us do this. When such lack of compromise affects cycle infrastructure such as the superhighways to such a degree as seen at Bow, one hopes that talk about negligence on the part of those responsible for our streets gains momentum and forces a rethink.

My thoughts are with the family of the cyclist who died at this junction; the 14th cyclist to die on London's roads in 2011. TfL need to worry less about traffic flow and more about making our great city somewhere amenable for people. We owe it to all those killed to continue to lobby for more humane roads that will allow the pro-cycling and walking rhetoric of TfL, and local and national government to become reality.

Saturday 22 October 2011

Tour de TfL

Whilst TfL is organising the Straford to Stratford cycle ride, Cyclists in the City blog is organising a cycling tour of the most dangerous junctions in London.

A roll-call of the junctions on the route sends a shiver down me.

1. St. George's Road/London Road/ Elephant & Castle Junction Southwark
2. Clapham Road/ Kennington Park Road/ Camberwell Road Junction
3. Strand/Northumberland Avenue/Whitehall Junction
4. Waterloo Road/ Stamford St/ York Road Junction
5. Mansion House St/Princes St/ Threadneedle St
6. Elephant & Castle/Newington Butts Roundabout
7. Hyde Park Corner Westminster
8. Millbank/Lambeth Bridge Junction
9. Clerkenwell Road/Farringdon Road Junction (via Kings Cross)
10. Albert Embankment/Kennington Lane/ Wandsworth Road Junction

Although my cycling is mostly confined to North of the River and the City, I have visited these junctions on foot or in the car, or on cycle enough times to know that they are simply terrible.

The initiative is really in honour of the fact that TfL is "improving" Elephant and Castle, with the same thought processes that are currently "improving" Blackfriars bridge. That is that cramming as many lanes as possible into an urban space can be adequately mitigated for cyclists by scattering some ASLs around the area and some fluffy promotional video initiative. Just look at the plans for the Elephant and Castle below (courtesy of cyclists in the city)

It is somewhat of a struggle to see how this is any improvement on the current layout. In fact, I struggle a bit to see much difference at all. 

And this isn't simply happening in some isolated cases in London, it appears to be happening everywhere TfL is involved in redeveloping the roads. We have the celebrated Blackfriars bridge, but also Kings Cross, Tottenham Hale, Stratford Gyratory to name simply a few that spring to mind. TfL have no right to claim any positive influence on cycle rates in greater London whilst they pursue such misguided redevelopment plans.

So, if you are feeling brave, join cyclists in the city; the event is happening

10.30am Saturday 12 November
Meet by the stairs at the front of St. Mark's Church, The Oval, Kennington, SE11 4PW 

I will be endeavouring to join this event if I can. 40-50 like minded cyclists attempting some of the most horrible junctions in London will be an education if nothing else. If I do join I will make sure the panniers are loaded with several changes of underpants so I can complete the route in comfort...

Clampdown on uninsured cars

This week the MET has run a one-day campaign targeting uninsured drivers. This is, apparently, the start of the new commissioner's "total policing" policy. Several hundred cars were impounded and the MET believe "that up to 80% of uninsured drivers are involved in other crimes". Makes one wonder why the uninsured haven't really been targeted before if it leads to other crimes in 80% of cases.

This all sounds good. Uninsured drivers cost the legal motorist dear. Not only in hikes in insurance premiums to cover the damage, but that uninsured drivers are 5 times more likely to be involved in an accident in the first place, and are much more likely to engage in unsafe and anti-social driving in the first place.

But, according to another report from the BBC in 2009, the scale of the issue of uninsured drivers is huge. From research covered in the report, it is estimated that 13% of drivers in Greater London are uninsured and at least 1.7M people drove without insurance in the UK. This isn't just a small minority of drivers, it is a significant section of private motorists on the road today.

The report has the CEO of the Motor Insurers' Bureau saying

"Indeed, the number of drivers across the UK who were caught without insurance last year would fill Wembley Stadium more than twice. The message to motorists is clear: driving uninsured is simply not worth the risk."

But let's consider the risk vs reward for a bit. From the article and a bit of google research, it appears that around 300,000 people get caught without insurance per year. The penalty for driving without insurance is 6 pts on the license and £200 fine, with the car impounded (presumably released upon payment of fine). The average cost of insurance in London is over £500 per year. When I enquired (I drive a company car so don't have private car insurance), my premium would be £700-£800 per year; I have a clean license with no accidents in 5 years and am approaching middle age. So, it looks like the vast majority of uninsured drivers don't get caught, and even if they are caught the penalty is significantly less than the yearly premium.

I don't subscribe to the view that all those without insurance are hardened criminals - we are talking about over 1 in 10 motorists. So many are making a calculated decision to drive illegally. And based on the information above, I can see why.

To deter illegal driving, one has to make the deterrent much more harsh, or make detection much easier, or both. And we have the means to do both. ANPR cameras can instantly detect illegal cars and drivers, and, as can be seen from the MET clampdown, can lead to more detection of crime than illegal motoring. So why doesn't it happen more? One could affix ANPR cameras in key locations (Stratford Gyratory would be one, A406 I believe already has some) and then station police to pull over cars on occasion to issue hefty fines and confiscate cars. If the illegal motorist knew that ANPR cameras were in operation at all times, police regularly used them, and the fines were hefty including confiscation of vehicles, I think attitudes may change. In urban areas such as Greater London, the sheer lawlessness of the roads, along with myopic transport policies, is allowing illegal activity to flourish whilst discouraging other transport alternatives.

The MET actions is a start. But a few hundred vehicles impounded, to be returned after a few points and a measly fine isn't going to have much impact at all. Maybe the "total policing" policy will spread and make our roads safer for other motorists, cyclists and pedestrians. I hope it isn't simply a gimmick to raise the profile of an incoming commissioner.

Tuesday 18 October 2011

TfL - caring about cyclists

Whilst away on holiday last week, I note a few developments in the world of cycling in London.

In amongst the schemes that have been announced by TfL, a couple drew my attention

The first is the Stratford cycle challenge. Initially I thought this might be some kind of contest where cyclists went round and round the multi-lane gyratory with the winner being the last to be knocked off by speeding cars - some kind of cycling version of Tron. But no, it is actually a 100 mile event cycling from Stratford E London to Stratford-Upon-Avon. It does say the number of riders will be limited, and I assume this is because there are only a certain number of people stupid brave enough to cycle around Stratford (E. London) Gyratory. 

The second was a story on the BBC about TfL offering a reward scheme for people cycling and walking instead of driving. Apparently it uses the GPS facility in a smart-phone to log journeys and this will rack up points for discounts and promotions.

Both jolly promotions showing how much TfL cares for the cyclist.

Except are we satisfied? It would appear not! Surely what else do we want?

There is the LCC now demanding all sorts of impractical things, like a Blackfriars bridge that is actually cycling and people friendly. There are even blogs such as cyclists in the city promoting demonstrations against the current TfL schemes which prioritise important motorists, and leave cyclists to fend for themselves and pedestrians to cross using multiple islands.

Then there are pesky sites such KingsCrossEnvironment which are digging up all sorts of information under FoI which TfL would prefer didn't see the light of day. Documents which show TfL had audits predicting casualties on certain roads as "inevitable" due to the layout encouraging aggressive driving and speeding. And then the blog has the temerity to think that maybe TfL should be held account when the "inevitable" happens and vulnerable road users die on said roads. Surely we need to realise that squeezing as much private traffic as quickly as possible through dense urban areas is of upmost importance?!

Us cyclists are really a grumpy lot. We are not content with some discounts for using our bicycles, but actually want roads fit for cycling as well?! What next, moon on a stick?

I for one will be very grateful for my discount points earned whilst dodging speeding traffic on the A11 bow flyover, or being close passed on the A10 at Stamford Hill, or harassed by taxis whilst in "their" bus lane. I think we should simply be happy with this and not questioning why TfL believes a points-means-prizes gimmick will encourage cycling whilst they continue to pursue a policy of marginalising cycling on the roads. 

Friday 30 September 2011

Westfield Cycle Shenanigans

Several people have commented on my Westfield article. Primarily about the accessibility, or otherwise, of the centre to anyone not in a car, but on a cycle.

I decided to try for myself, and the results are below in a little annotated video

One has to remember that the road above is simply an access road to the centre, and is brand new. The facilities aren't dictated by existing road structures, or drains, or through traffic. The cycle facilities here are as they were designed. Which is slightly worrying; one might assume it is all done for a bet.

As a pedestrian things aren't exactly rosy either. This pavement is hardly generous for walkers, and, further round, the gyratory pedestrian crossing doesn't seem to have been upgraded at all. People waiting to cross are being pushed into the road by the sheer weight of the crowds, into a multi-lane road where car speeds are way in excess of the 30mph limit.

The powers that be are seemingly intent on re-creating the 1980's Birmingham Bull Ring in East London. Except with somewhat less charm. And congratulations to them - I really think they are succeeding.

War, what is it good for?

.. raising speed limits, apparently.

Philip Hammond - a man whose smugness is directly proportional to the vacuousness of his speeches - is due to announce that motorway speed limits are to rise to 80mph.

It isn't really something I care hugely about. 80mph seems de rigeur  for most drivers on motorways anyway. I assume that the increase in speed limit will raise the average third lane speed to around 90mph instead of 80mph as now. If nothing else it proves that many people cannot be that worried about fuel pricing if they are prepared to use 20% more of it simply to get somewhere a bit quicker.

What does seem extraordinary is the language employed by the commander-in-chief on the fight against the "War on The Motorist". Hammond manages rhetoric such as

"Britain's roads should be the arteries of a healthy economy and cars are a vital lifeline for many." he blamed Labour's "shortsighted and misguided war on the motorist" for penalising drivers.
"This government has already scrapped the M4 bus lane, cut central government funding for money-making speed cameras and announced new measures to crack down on boy racers and reckless drivers while standing up for the decent majority," he said.
"Now it is time to put Britain back in the fast lane of global economies and look again at the motorway speed limit which is nearly 50 years old, and out of date thanks to huge advances in safety and motoring technology.
"Increasing the motorway speed limit to 80mph would generate economic benefits of hundreds of millions of pounds through shorter journey times. So we will consult later this year on raising the limit to get Britain moving."

Ah, the war on the motorist. A funny thing, this particular war. I am a motorist, and as such would be sure that I should have noticed if I was "at war". Clearly I escaped this "short-sighted and misguided" war - presumably by trying to not drive like a lunatic.

But let's look at the substance of Hammond's comments - this shouldn't take long... 

It appears that the war was over when the M4 bus-lane was removed. Even though a TRL investigation showed that it improved journey times for all traffic, including cars. And then "money making" speed cameras were cut. Which is strange, since speed cameras were being removed by local councils to save money, surely if they made money the cash strapped councils would be having Gatso festivals?

But Hammond isn't against the rule of law applying to the roads. Oh, no, for he does mention measures to crack down on boy racers - the specifics of which are somewhat less than clear.

Still, as he says, increasing the motorway limit to 80mph will generate economic benefits (presumably mostly for the fuel companies) to get Britain moving again. Which is good news. Clearly the reason why it takes me 4 hours to travel 70 miles on the M25 isn't to do with the horrendous congestion encouraged by road mad transport policies over a generation, but because I haven't been legally allowed to go at 80mph.

Hammond is, quite clearly, an attention seeking buffoon. Those old enough to remember that cornerstone of 90's TV programming "The Word" may remember a section titled "I would do anything to be on TV". Hammond appears to be enacting a political version of this game with gusto whilst some script writer is wondering how much more nonsense he can be made to say. But the real problem is that it is thought that everyone is a law-abiding, decent motorist whilst a few bad apples and some tofu eating enviro-mentalists are spoiling the party. Well, I am sorry to break it to Hammond but there is a very significant proportion of law breakers on our roads today, and declaring that attempts to regulate behaviour constitute "war" is beyond stupidity.

Drivers have their own internal justification mechanisms for disregarding laws. "I only speed where it is safe" being one - another being " I am always careful around schools". Even these fatuous rationalisations are wrong. Escorting my daughter to school is eye-opening in itself. The majority of motorists around the school break the 20mph limit. The school zig-zags are used as a drop-off zone at all times. And cars simply stop in the road to let their children out to the accompaniment of horn blowing by other parents who cannot wait to edge forward and do the same. If this is considered driving safely, no wonder I could fill my hard drive with examples of lunatic driving on the roads.

So, Mr Hammond, for you I leave you with some randomly picked examples of the type of driving I see every day on my cycle. The problem isn't the war on the motorist. It is the lack of law on the motorist.

Thursday 29 September 2011

A family addition

Aside from my cycle, the daughter got her first bicycle a little while ago. My wife had temporary use of a loan cycle, but that had to be returned to its owner after a short spell where she used it once or twice on family outings.

So my wife, who doesn't drive,  walks or uses public transport. Not so bad since London public transport by and large is fairly efficient. But my wife wanted more mobility in getting places quickly that aren't served well by public transport. A cycle was the answer, I said. She said that I meant a cycle was cheap...

In anticipation that the wife's cycle enthusiasm wouldn't last long (and being careful - my wife may say stingy - with money), we went to our local bike shop for a cheap second hand model. Where she decided upon a very early example of a folder cycle for less than £70. So early, in fact, that the manufacturing label states "Made in West Germany" - thus dating it between 1949 and 1990. I explained to my wife that this was a true classic cycle - by which she correctly surmised that this was spin for "old". And, again,  "cheap".

She used it in anger for the first time the other week. I got a call from her that morning. I was expecting to hear of problems with the cycle, or difficulties with the cycling etc. Instead she sounded as excited as my child on her birthday. She had realised that she could travel locally in a fraction of the time she took walking and with much more convenience that a bus. She loves the cycle.

Her enthusiasm reminded me of the first times I used a cycle and realised the freedom it gave you, even in comparison to a car, in London. It also made me think about how much potential is in the humble cycle.

In Waltham Forest around 40% of households don't have a car or van for private use (2001 census).  And this includes the leafier, less dense, Chingford suburbs north of the A406. In a ward such as mine, the number of households without a car increases to 44%. In some other wards, this number is around 50%. And remember, this is households, and won't indicate households where one adult cannot drive , or doesn't have regular access to a car (multiple car ownership is low in most wards - 10% in mine), or doesn't want to drive locally.

This seems to me to be a huge opportunity for a large section of the local population to increase their travel options by using a cycle. It also appears to me that this significant proportion of the local population who simply don't benefit from road treatments made to aid the flow of private vehicles.

So with this apparent latent demand why is cycling such a minority travel option? Even though more people are using cycles, the percentage is still very low.

There are many reasons given for low cycle modal share in the UK. Some seem  fairly obvious like the state of the roads for cycling, others are less obvious such as home cycle storage, the concerns about arriving "sweaty" and dishevelled, and then there are the arguments against which can never change - such as the climate or hills. We can all speculate about the main causes, and maybe cycling will simply become more popular because of external conditions such as fuel cost, economy etc. But for my money I still think fundamental re-think of the way we use our roads is required. When one considers all the facts, it seems odd that local government and transport bodies are effectively ignoring great sections of their community when they consider roads only in the context of moving private traffic from A-B. This seems non-nonsensical in areas such as Walthamstow, and becomes lunatic in central London with plans such as Blackfriars bridge. I am not anti-car - I have one and am very glad on occasion I can drive - but I increasingly cannot see the sense in treating every road and street with a universal assumption that private traffic flow supersedes all other requirements.

A few weeks ago, my wife was somewhat disinterested in the notion of cycling as transport. Within a day or so she has become completely attached to the cycle, using it for more trips than she ever anticipated. And this is with the current, second-rate treatment of cycling - imagine what could happen if this transport option was taken seriously by the great and the good! Recently I have had to contemplate the possibility that I may become car-less for the first time since I passed by test many years ago. Previously this possibility would have given me nightmares. Now, I kind of considered it and concluded - meh - I will use the cycle and join Streetcar on the odd occasion I need one. Five years ago, I never thought my attitude to car ownership would have been reversed so completely. If the cycle changed my attitude to this extent (I used to be a die-hard car user), well then it pretty much change anyone's  transport habits.

So the question remains: if my wife and I - with little previous interest in cycling, and none in transport policy - can realise how useful a cycle can be, why can't those who are actually supposed to know about these things and run our roads?

Wednesday 14 September 2011

Westfield Stratford

The Grand Opening was yesterday. I could tell since the traffic was backed up to the Bow Flyover, with a solid three lanes of traffic until the pedestrian crossing at the Gyratory which was having to be manned by a team of police to control the huge numbers crossing. After this there were traffic queues up Angel Lane, which is one of the entrances to the 6000 space car park.

The sheer numbers of people was astonishing. The policeman who was by me as I waited for the pedestrian crossing to clear reckoned that 1 million people will visit the centre in the coming week.

As a cyclist, having the A11 and gyratory completely backed up instead of the usual traffic moving at more (sometimes considerably more) the speed limit whilst close passing is actually a bit of a relief. Filtering is difficult due to the policy of fitting in as many lanes as possible, but us cyclists were considerably quicker than anything else on the road today. The A12 looked stuffed, and the local roads were pretty congested.

Westfield has provided over 1000 bicycle parking spaces, which actually isn't bad at all. It is then somewhat of a shame that Newham / Tfl / ODA / whoever has seen fit to make cycling as unpleasant as possible on the roads around the centre. Those new cycle stands don't look quite so tempting if one has to negotiate pants-soilingly dangerous multi-lane roads to get to them.

One of the major issues was that the pedestrian crossing between Westfield and the original Stratford centre was simply not fit for this many people. The police had to physically restrain the pedestrians to prevent the weight of people coming up to the crossing pushing those in front into the road. Before Westfield, the crossing was a horrid mess barely able to cope. It just gave up yesterday. As far as I can see there has been no significant work done to improve the pedestrian facilities around the gyratory, and I guess this is the result. Once again walking and cycling have been completely marginalised in favour of traffic flow.

I will leave you with a video I found of the Westfield Apple Store Opening. A brand that appears to have turned buying mass produced electronics consumer goods into a religious experience opening in a shopping centre that seems to have become our new place of Pilgrimage . Sometimes Mr Grumpy wonders if he isn't an alien accidentally trapped on this planet. What happened to the recession?

Tuesday 13 September 2011

Dangers of Lorries

Travelling along the Mile End Road the other day, I remembered a cement mixer turning left, but didn't really take much notice, apart from keeping away from it.

Looking at the video recorded, I realised how easy it is for a cyclist to travel up the inside of these lorries and how easy it is to get into real trouble very quickly.

The lorry driver did everything right, and was - as can be seen in the video - very diligent indeed. He stopped and moved slowly past the school children, he was indicting way in advance of him turning, and he turned slowly and carefully into the side road. I don't think you can ask for more from the driver.

But it is sobering watching when you see how far out the lorry has to be to start the turn, the huge space to the left of the vehicle and the very quick turning circle that it has - even at this walking pace.

In my younger days I may have gone up the inside whilst the lights were at red. These days I try to keep as much distance from lorries as possible - even overtaking stationary ones is something I do with huge care.

In my experience lorry - and bus - drivers tend to be the most professional and courteous of all road users, especially towards cyclists. But there are careless lorry drivers out there, and one wonders what I may have done if the lorry driver hadn't bothered signally left so early - would I have been tempted to undertake to get to the front? Maybe.

I have a lot of respect for lorry drivers, such as the one in the video, who negotiate London's roads with these types of vehicles, and do so diligently and carefully. Takes skill and patience. I also know that cyclists can be difficult to spot and we can put ourselves in difficult situations. In an ideal world, I would think that all big lorries in London should have pedestrian / cyclist sensors and camera to aid the driver in these busy roads. But until that day comes, this video has made me realise how easy it is for us cyclists to become very badly compromised with large vehicles.

Another RLJ

Quite extraordinary this one.

The focus driver had pulled into the petrol station just before the lights - then changed their minds (actually slowing the under-passing Golf driver in the previous post).

Then, for reasons only known to them they completely ignore the red light and breeze through turning right.

Narrowly missing some cyclists coming out of the turning who had waited for green. It should be noted that the Golf driver amber-gambled the first set of lights of well, and must have simply gone through the red light at the synchronised pedestrian crossing after the right turn.

Monday 12 September 2011

Biking Boris' Blue Lanes

There are a couple of posts I have been meaning to write. The first concerns the reports on cycling facilities around Stratford by the BBC and others. There appears to be disquiet on the state of the roads local to the Olympics - particularly in relation to getting people cycling to the "greenest" Olympics.  TfL, however, appear to believe all is well with cycling on these roads. Those of us who have tried, and not had our brains removed, realise that this is optimism of such as huge magnitude one can only assume that TfL have either never cycled the routes or have been binging on industrial quantities of Prozac. To be honest, each time I start a post on this subject I get worked into a frenzy of indignation that is neither good for my blood pressure or coherence. But one day I will manage it...

The other post was to relay my experiences whilst using the Boris Blue Lanes - Cycle SuperHighway 2. This is also taking some time since I start composing the post and simply run out of ways to say "OK-ish" and "how much did you say this cost?!". But I shall try to put down some thoughts below.

NE London is yet to be graced with blue-tarmac; the only Cycle Superhighway going near is the CS1 which is not due until 2015. However, the CS2 has been completed from Aldgate to Bow, and I have had cause to use the A11 Mile End Road several times in the last couple of weeks. This was my first foray into Boris' Blue cycling utopia...

Firstly, it would be very easy to be cynical and sarcastic about the whole thing. But I want to be more constructive and positive - before being cynical and sarcastic.

So on the positive side - the ASLs appear to be deeper and bigger than anything I normally see outside a Cycle Superhighway. And cars seem more reluctant to simply ignore them - presumably because they are such a gaudy colour and so large. So there is more space at traffic lights, and the left feed-in lanes aren't the tiny tight-ropes of paint often seen elsewhere. It is lucky there is more space, because I think the CS2 has more cyclists than before. Although I infrequently used the route in pre-CS2 days, it feels like there are more cyclists on the road, and this is a good thing. Certainly drivers seem more aware of cyclists, and often give way to them on left turns - something I have only seen in Copenhagen before. The signs are really clear - no missing the "CS2" boxes on the road, or indeed the extra signs along route. There are trixi mirrors on major junctions - not sure if they help lorry drivers with spotting cyclists, but they cannot hurt.

Now the not so good stuff.Clearly TfL - probably in the name of "traffic smoothing" - didn't want to reduce the space available to cars, yet the cycle lane had to go somewhere and be 1.5m wide. So, instead of removing a lane, they kept both when the road is multi-lane, but reduced the width. Most normal drivers stick to the outside lane, leaving the narrower one for black cabs and other "important road users" to squeeze up and undertake the traffic - often at speed and always close to cyclists. This is really disconcerting - the lanes aren't often wide enough to hold two lanes of traffic and a cyclist in parallel in comfort so the whole road becomes a huge elongated pinch point. When traffic is heavy, paradoxically, this isn't so bad as even the ones undertaking are slowed by other cars, but when traffic is flowing at 30mph on the outside lane, the inside lane is the preserve of idiots wanting to break the speed limit and not caring too much about other road-users.

To illustrate my point, see below.

The traffic in the outside lane is moving, but the Golf driver decides to undertake them. Unfortunately there is a hold up with someone turning left into the petrol station so he loses most of the ground he has gained, but this is driving - rationality doesn't come into it..

And then there is this

The black taxi driver has several cyclists in front of him, and one is overtaking the other cyclists - at a fair rate, I might add. Sensible people would temper the speed, pull in behind the audi and then overtake in the far lane. But the taxi driver decides to go right up to the cyclist and beep his horn before pulling in behind the audi and overtaking in the far lane.

So, the two lanes encourages those less predisposed to cerebral activity that they can undertake at speed and squeeze through. Clearly not ideal.

There are, of course, other issues with the Super Highway. It stops and starts for parking bays. When needed most it tends to become shy and only show itself as a CS2 logo on the street. I could go on.

What is really disappointing about the SuperHighway though is that this kind of road treatment is the least we should expect from cycle infrastructure on our streets. The fact that it is an improvement on the other facilities is a damning indictment on cycle infrastructure in general, not a reason for thinking the blue lanes constitute anything one could realistically term "Super". The fact is that, for something truly "Super" for cycling - indeed for walking as well -  these roads need the be fundamentally rethought, with their purpose being considered outside trying to squeeze as many vehicles through the gaps as possible.

But probably the real Achilles heel to Cycle Super Highways is what happens when they end. CS2 ends at Bow roundabout in a fairly undignified manner, spewing the unsuspecting cyclist into the edge of a really unpleasant roundabout system with little indication of what to do next, and absolutely no priority. Alternatively one could decide on the Bow Flyover (which many cyclists use) and end up enjoying the cycling facilities laid on in that cycling nirvana  hell called Newham. Hands up all those who can imagine young families and novice cyclists using this to get to the Olympic park?