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)