Bow junction is a road system I have to tackle on a cycle on a reasonably regular basis. Having once ventured onto the roundabout, realised how dangerous it could be with two lanes of traffic sometimes trying to turn left, I have always used the flyover. The flyover isn't exactly cycling nirvana - it is quite steep, vehicles break the speed limit to a ludicrous degree, one has to be very assertive and claim the lane whilst checking to see if you might need to bail left into armaco if some driver is no inattentive as to plow through you. And then, nature doesn't help - the flyover is very exposed and cross winds can be fierce. And the eastbound side has a long and dangerous slip road allowing drivers to speed before they even get onto the A11. So, the popularity of the flyover with cyclists is less to do with the suitability of it for cycling and more to do with the fact that the alternatives are even worse.
When I first heard of the alterations - and TfLs much announced first "early start" lights - I was cautiously optimistic. Then I saw the youtube computer simulations of the scheme and became somewhat more sceptical. So, with the scheme finished (after some alterations due to vehicles becoming impaled on the kerb), I thought it only sensible to try the scheme. I decided to use the roundabout instead of the flyover eastbound the other day.
Below is my video of the new scheme - with some annotations.
There were three things that struck me immediately.
1) This is absolutely no better for pedestrians at all. The few pedestrians I saw were still running between light phases as cars surged onto the A12.
2) Presumably TfL have to stick to guidelines (I assume from the DfT) which appear to believe that cyclists don't exist and end up making schemes like this clunky at best and dangerous at worst.
3) There had been an overriding factor with the scheme which was that traffic flow should not be impacted at all by anything implemented.
I will take point 2 first. The cycle lights are at the same height as the standard lights. The red light on the cycle light is simply red, whilst the amber and green are cycle shaped. I can only assume this is because there are some guidelines concerning traffic lights that completely ignore the fact that signals for cyclists would be better to be a bit lower and all displayed in a cycle shape. The confusion caused can be quite large. It has been reported that cyclists and motorists were getting confused by the different lights (I think there are 8 in total) even to the point that some cyclists were assuming (not unreasonably) that the green filter cycle light allowed them safe passage onto the roundabout when in fact traffic was still crossing from the right and they were supposed to stop at the standard lights a few metres away from the cycle filter. I saw one instance of this with my own eyes and my heart was in my mouth as a cyclist - completely unaware of the danger - crossed the roundabout and just missed a car. My conclusion is that the DfT have generated many, many rules concerning traffic signalling and street furniture and very few of them are geared towards anyone travelling by cycle. And TfL (and local councils) will slavishly follow these guidelines to build "facilities" that are clunky, wierd, or dangerous, or all three combined. For further proof just look at some of the signage around one way streets with a cycle contraflow because DfT currently doesn't allow a no-entry sign with cyclist exemption.
Point 1 is important because bow junction doesn't just present a barrier for cyclists. I have heard stories of elderly pedestrians catching the bus one stop simply to avoid having to cross this junction. I would call that beyond unsatisfactory. It is simply wrong and idiotic. If we want this area to be "regenerated" then not allowing locals to cross the road in favour of vehicles streaming out of London seems a very odd way of going about it.
And then there is point 3. The fact is that when I used the scheme correctly, it was just about OK. It was better than before, but short of TfL implementing an Indiana Jones set for cyclists, pretty much anything would have been better. The cycle lanes are too narrow, CS2 stops half way around because Newham council took a dislike to blue paint, there is a frankly bizarre build-out of the kerb as you exit which seems to be a bike lane to nowhere but confused the hell out of me, and the lane on the Newham side is, as one has come to expect with any cycling facility in Newham, crap.
On the lights on the roundabout entry, if there are no cars trapped in the ASL and you are a reasonably quick cyclist, and are prepared to wait for two phases of lights (one cycle, one standard), then you do get a bit of a headstart on the main traffic. But I wouldn't advise anyone hanging about once the lights turn green. Or taking it as read that no driver will jump / misread the lights. To the point that in the video above, even a police van completely jumps the lights.
But why have TfL implemented a scheme in a known blackspot that is probably just about workable only for cyclists who are relatively quick and savvy? I have seen questions on blog comments wondering why TfL don't simply look at other countries to see how this type of cycle "early start" works elsewhere. But these questions miss the reason why the scheme is like it is. Of course TfL understand about how The Netherlands, or Germany, or even some US cities now give cyclists their own phase at junctions to remove potential conflict. The reason that this scheme is complicated and cumbersome is because of point 3. It appears that maintaining the same phasing for vehicular traffic defined the entire nature of the scheme. After all, if it didn't, why have the rather unique double phasing - why not have a simple cycle phase integrated with a new pedestrian crossing on the A12 exit? Because this would have taken time away from vehicular flow.
So, we are left with this new scheme. Already signs exhorting cyclists to stop at the red signals have gone up as a response to the confusion over the two sets of lights. When I used the scheme at rush-hour, no other cyclists used it with me - they all went over the flyover. Because the current cyclists over Bow tend to be battle-hardened commuters who will take the quicker options and have learned how to manage in a deeply hostile environment. And those who would like simply to use a cycle to get to Bow, or Stratford are very unlikely to leap on their cycles with this new layout.
It is a shame. It shows the compromises that are currently considered necessary to our road layouts to preserve traffic flow and the priorities that lie behind such schemes.