Monday, 15 December 2014

A Beer, Bivalve & Bicycle Beano In Bruges

So this year's Jolly Boys' Outing took me and some of the guys from work to the UNESCO World Heritage Site which is the medieval city of Bruges, the capital of the West Flanders province of Belgium.

I will be honest, we were there for the beer, but have camera, will snap and I thought it worth ticking off another European city which does cycling better than much of the UK - a conclusion I made on the coach when we were on the motorway heading into the city! I came to this conclusion at a point on the E403 where we went under a bridge which carried a cycle route over the road and onto a protected cycle way.

The cycleway (which seemed quite new) followed the E403 right into the city and I caught glimpses of priority over side roads, gentle chamfered kerbs, cycle tracks behind parking bays and cycle traffic signals, there were also 30kph zones on side roads. I also saw some less good things like Advanced Stop Lines and advisory cycle lanes on busy roads (but hey, who's ticking items off a list).

In the journey from the edges of the city to the coach park, I had seen many of the features one comes to associate with a place which is giving space for people to ride bikes and with no lycra, hi-vis or helmets to be seen; plus people of all ages (which goes without saying).

After a short walk, we were inside the city walls and it was canals, public squares, narrow streets and a few boulevards. Traffic was permitted, but was one-ways and limited access. 

Possibly because the place was packed, there were quite a lot of temporary road closures and so although the odd vehicle needed to get through, it was generally safe and at low speed. There were a few busier roads, but nothing really of note. We did the usual tourist things such as moules and frites (mussels and chips), shopping for chocolate and of course tasting lots of local brew. 

No, we didn't cycle (surely a reason to go back for a long and less beery weekend), but cycling was everywhere. Some infrastructure was old, but there seemed to be a lot of new stuff and obviously, the city has decided to continually upgrade as the newest was really some of the best I had seen.

Bruges was also very walkable and because it is such a tourist attraction, there has been a conscious decision to prioritise the pedestrian over a great deal of the city. In larger squares, cycle routes were picked out in the vernacular cobbles which was subtle, but provided guidance (although the cobbles might be a chore in places.)

Cycle parking was available in spades. A combination of huge areas set aside for cycle racks and scattered parking places was order of the day, although a little different to the humble Sheffield stand! 

Some stands held bikes by the handle bars with the front wheels off the ground and some by the saddle post with a little hoop for a lock to go through. I am sure someone will be able to tell me, but I assumed that the idea was to keep the bikes held in place while pannier bags and baskets were being filled.

So there you have it. An interesting city which gives you a flavour of how cycling can be prioritised. You can also view infrastructure of different ages and I guarantee that when I end up going back (as I will) the older stuff will be brought up to a modern standard.

We often hear that in the UK, many of our historic cities cannot be made accessible for cycling because the streets are too narrow. Well, we have bypasses (to keep through traffic away) and arterial roads alongside which we could build proper cycle tracks. We can limit the access to core areas to all but essential vehicles. We can use park and ride to leave cars on the outside of city centres and we can give pedestrians priority. It's not rocket science and I can drink to that!

Friday, 12 December 2014

Driven To Distraction

This has been simmering with me for some time - the thorny subject of advertising on or next to the public highway.

Two things prompted me to post about this subject (putting off technical posts again!). First was an enquiry at work from our planning enforcement team about an illuminated digital advert billboard. I cannot give any more details because of possible action. Second,  I received a news email from Transport Network regarding a deal between Edinburgh City Council and JC Decaux on maintaining the city's bus shelters and other street furniture.  According Transport Network, JC Decaux get advertising rights in return for a 10 year deal.

It is also reported that a "30 metre digital moving image advertising screen over all four lanes of the main road from Edinburgh to the city’s airport" is planned which has got the Institute for Advanced Motorists concerned about driver distraction.

I am happy to be shown wrong, but I believe the location in mind is the A8 Glasgow Road, near the airport. There is a planning application available for viewing and the proposal is to have huge digital advert displays on the roundabout junction with the A270, under which the A8 passes. In other words, these advert displays are entirely aimed at the occupants of vehicles on the A8, many of whom are driving.

Consultant, WYG, have provided a technical note on highway safety in support of the application (plus an appendix). The note suggests that on the approaches to the site, drivers are subject to a wide variety of visual stimuli (buildings, adverts on buildings etc) and at the place where the proposed adverts would be, drivers will have already passed lane destination gantries and will have moved to their correct lanes before the adverts are seen. They also do some casualty collision data analysis and conclude that there is no current safety issue at the location.

WYG then considers the safety impacts of the adverts and concludes there are none because there are only two manoeuvres where drivers would see them (passing under the roundabout and leaving the A8 off slips, where they would be slowing down and the adverts would be out of direct line of sight). They consider a roundabout in Manchester with an identical casualty rate before and after a big advert was installed. The Manchester site is an entirely different junction and WYG do not explain why they have picked that particular site. Of course, this is up to the good people of Edinburgh and their elected officials, plus WYG are doing the job they have been paid to do.

Highway authorities have a general duty under S39 of the Road Traffic Act 1988 to promote road safety. It is a general duty because it does not prescribe. An action against an authority for failure under S39 is unlikely to succeed and I am not aware of any successful cases (m'learned colleagues might have some interesting examples). However, if a local authority (also being a highway authority) actively promotes something which is designed to attract the attention of drivers (by entering into contracts, even with civil indemnities), can that be right?

Of course, advert panels of all sizes are everywhere and perhaps I am over-reacting. Many towns and cities have deals with advertising companies in return for bus shelters and other kit, but in this climate of savage cuts, I do wonder how objective people will be in approving these huge advert displays?

There is very little research on the impact of roadside advertising and coupled with the fact that driver distraction is under reported, it is very hard to determine exactly what linkages there are to collisions. If a driver is involved in a reportable crash, would they really want to admit to the police that they were distracted? What does seem to be an issue is the emergence of animated video adverts. The Transport Research Laboratory did some (simulator) work for Transport for London in 2007 and the conclusions were that drivers:

  • Spent longer looking at video adverts
  • Glanced at video adverts more frequently
  • Tended to show greater variation in lateral lane position with video adverts
  • Braked harder on approach to video adverts
  • Drove more slowly past video adverts

This report was on TfL's old website, but annoyingly I cannot find it now, although I am sure I downloaded it - if I find it, I will update this post with a download link. What is interesting is TfL is now actively promoting advertising all over its network, including roadside hoardings. In TfL's policy, there is a single reference to safety, although it is pretty vague;

In the case of digital media, the advertisement must not pose a health and safety risk as a result of flickering or other visual imagery. 

TfL is worried about people being distracted on its network, but only if they are 11 - 14 years old and not driving.

Adverts on the highway require planning consent. In the case of TfL, the planning authority will be the London Borough (and City) and even if a proposal is agreeable to TfL, the local authority can reject it on material planning grounds, including impact on highway safety. However as can be seen from the Edinburgh case and in countless cases up and down the country, the outdoor advertising industry has the resources to employ consultants to prove their scheme is safe either at planning application stage or at appeal.

Risk is subjective, but human physiology less so. The faster someone is moving, the less they are able to take in and at a critical moment, an advert board (especially large, brightly lit and animated ones) may be the thing the eye hones in on rather than other more important things such as a stationary line of vehicles ahead, people crossing the road, cyclists, traffic signals and so on. 

Advertising is big businesses and the players are falling over each other to get our attention so we become aware of their clients' brands. Outdoor digital advertising is worth £214 m in revenue in the UK. Some of this will be in private areas, not seen by drivers, but clearly, there are vested interests in selling roadside space. You only need look at the trade body's website to see the images of massive adverts by the side of big roads being heavily featured.

Let is be very clear. Advertising is designed to attract people's attention; the more people the better. Big adverts placed by the side of busy roads are attractive to those advertising because many people pass them and see them. A significant number of those people will be in control of vehicles and other people around them are relying on those drivers to pay attention. Not sure I need to add anything else, other than the damn things ruin the visual amenity of our streets (although granted, there might not be much amenity on an urban motorway!)

Friday, 5 December 2014

The Fall And Fade Of The Municipal Engineer

I have some technical posts in the pipeline, but they are taking a little bit of time. So, this week, a bit of navel-gazing I am afraid.

I have been doing my current job for nearly 10 years, which is the longest period I have ever done one job. Of course, local authority highways work is so varied, there is always something new going on. Next summer, I will have been in the industry 20 years and the one constant has been change which of course serves to keep life interesting.

Over the years, I have been lucky enough to work in various areas of civil engineering and I am a civil engineer foremost; highways being a more recent specialism which has its lineage in municipal engineering. The municipal engineer was the unsung hero of the civil engineering world. Mainly working in local authorities, they worked day in and day out on what could sometimes be routine, never for the money and never for the glory. The municipal engineer could turn their skills to a variety of schemes from roads, to drainage, to coastal defences, to water supply, to public health, to waste management. Doing a good job was the main source of satisfaction. Sadly, the municipal engineer is fading from society.

My recent working life has been a series of restructures as my team has been moved between departments and bosses. We lost many staff in 2010 as a direct result of Government cuts and we are at the start of the next round which will be even more swingeing and I am not sure the public understands what is at stake.

I have a chart from April 1973 showing the structure of the Borough Engineer & Surveyor's division for my authority. There were 124 staff, mostly technical, but with a small administration team (and that doesn't include the direct labour workforce). 40 years later, there are now about 25 of us - I say "about" because there is always some turnover of staff and it is a bit of a guesstimate with some jobs. 

In those 40 years we have had privatisation of water which means the drainage department ended up with Thames Water; but the shrinkages have been a result of cuts (all Governments to take blame here), a gradual dilution of technical functions, outsourcing, restructures and redundancy/ retirement - the annual Christmas lunch has more former-employees than current staff! 

Municipal engineers used to run things in local government as the council-owned built environment was (and probably still is) the largest public asset and rightly or wrongly (when we think of some of the road schemes built by local authorities!) there was professional leadership and focus, but this has changed. Professional managers, generic job profiles and competency frameworks are now the order of the day. 

Engineers are being replaced by service managers and customer relationship specialists (the IT Crowd really is spot on). The public can no longer pick up the phone in the brave new world of shared services, multi-borough contact centres, self-service and on-line systems. OK, these systems are there to save money, but people often just want to chat to someone about their issues.

My authority is not unusual. I speak to people around the country and the situation is the same. There are some places which have invested in their staff, but many have not and it is no wonder that many consultants are staffed by ex-local authority people and indeed, many started by ex-local authority people. We have large consultant-contractor consortia which suck in staff as they are able to offer attractive packages and adapt to the market whereas local authorities simply cannot complete, more so in an austere environment. We also have lots of people working through agencies because they cannot work for less, foregoing benefits such as sick leave and a pension.

My industry is also suffering from a huge skills shortage. The collective civil engineering and construction workforce is aging and people don't want to come into the industry. Civil engineering graduates go into better paid sectors (student loan repayments being a big issue), we don't have enough apprentices and so the skilled labour we need to physically do the work is not there. Against the backdrop of the Government re-announcing all of the this construction work, I wonder where they think they are going to get people from (thank goodness for the EU!)

But, as I start to sound like my bosses from years ago, who also yearned for a rose-tinted past, I have to remain positive. I still have a job, I have interesting work and I work with some great people. But, just let me shed a tear every so often as the municipal engineer fades into a warm and comfortable long sleep. One day, we will be back, to sort out the mess like we always have done.

Monday, 24 November 2014


Even with the polish from last week's post still barely dry, there came a funding announcement from Transport for London for some "bright ideas to radically improve London's streets".

This is the Mayor's "Future Streets Incubator Fund" which was announced in March to the tune of £1.8m. Read the full details for yourself, but the concept was:

From ideas such as temporary public plazas to pop-up street sporting activities, the 'Future Streets Incubator Fund' will help convert more of London's streets into spaces where people can socialise and interact.

There will also be a focus on creating new, greener spaces, boosting sustainable transport, testing new street layouts and alternative ways that roads and streets can be used.

The Mayor and TfL are looking for creative pilot scheme submissions from local boroughs, Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) and community groups in order to award the substantial funding over the next three years.

The idea seems to have come from the Roads Task Force which provides an update in its report from March of this year (p17).

Now £1.8m is small beer for the Mayor when compared to the wider budget he controls and this is funded at £600k per year for three years, so relatively modest. Funnelled through TfL, we can surely look forward to some real transport innovation;

The fund will champion innovation and will be a great way to temporarily try out new street layouts using low-cost measures.

The full TfL webpage can be viewed here, but the details are rather sketchy and so I will reproduce them below. Before I continue, there are a couple good ideas (in my humble opinion of course), a few which have been done before in the UK (so where is the innovation?) and some appear to be complete cobblers (yes, in my view of course, you are welcome to disagree).

As more details emerge, then I may well have to change my mind, but today, I call it as I see it. One other thing to note is that these have not just been punted in, the process involved organisations giving outline details to TfL so that feedback could be given before they were invited to formally submit bids. In other words, TfL considered the proposals to have merit before the bids were made. 

So, at last, I get round to the schemes - descriptions in italics, my comments underneath each one.

Simultaneous Green
In partnership with the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames.
A continental-style simultaneous green signal for cyclists will be trialled [sic] using advanced technology. The junction will detect the presence of cyclists before giving them a dedicated green light in all directions during which they can cross along their desire lines.

Well, it will be no surprise that I welcome this, but why it wasn't included on TfL's off street trials, I will never know. We don't get know if this will be at a "live" site or as another off street trial somewhere in Richmond. There is no detail on whether this will be as part of protected cycle lanes or a pre-green fudge from ASLs. It seems a bit random as this would not be a borough which springs to mind for being at the cutting edge of cycling. Still, they have now massively raised my expectation, so let's see where it goes.

The Bounceway
In partnership with Architecture for Humanity.
The Bounceway will be the world's longest urban trampoline. This iconic and inclusive new public space in the heart of London will boost fitness and fun, and provide a novel form of transport where the journey is the main event. The trial will be part-funded by a crowdfunding campaign set to launch in late 2014.

Pardon. What the hell is this? "A fun and novel form of transport"? TRAMPOLINES ARE NOT TRANSPORT. Seriously, TfL, what the hell are you doing? Do I really need to criticise this? I found this link after a bit of delving - it has a link to Architecture for Humanity and so I reckon this is the concept. Perhaps this is intended to be a public art idea to promote discussion, but there is no way this should in anyway linked to a TfL-run transport project. Nonsense.

In partnership with the London Borough of Bromley.
A flexible lane using intelligent road studs and dynamic signs will switch between loading bays, parking and a bus lane throughout the day. The trial will allow road space to be used more efficiently and the road studs will monitor traffic flow to help improve road reliability.

Well at first glance it seems reasonable. But wait. We can already do this. Bus Lanes can be part time and we can put parking and loading bays in them to be used outside of bus lane operational times. OK, there may be something new here, but it looks like a solution looking for a problem.

Colourful Crossings
In partnership with Better Bankside.
An artist will bring graphic designs to pedestrian crossings and the carriageway on Southwark Street in Bankside. The crossings will show how art can change people's perceptions and use of junctions and bring the street to life.

You what? How can "art change people's perceptions and use of junctions"? Looks like an entire barrel of special polish to me. Southwark Street needs more than graphic designs at crossings and junctions, believe me.

In partnership with the City of Westminster.
E-parking permits will communicate with sensors embedded in disabled resident parking bays to provide better, more targeted enforcement of parking regulations and ensure kerbside access for Blue Badge holders. E-permits have the potential to be used in other types of bays to improve parking management across the Capital.

You have to giggle really, it is no surprise that Westminster has a parking scheme! What is interesting is the blurb confirms that the idea is not innovative as the concept has been used elsewhere. I assume the idea will use road sensors which detect parked vehicles along the lines of the scheme Westminster already runs. In this scenario, I assume the sensor will detect the permit holder's vehicle using a tag in the vehicle. If a vehicle without a tag parks, then enforcement will be alerted and they can turn up and nick the offender. But, why can't they just get on with it for their disabled residents now? 

In partnership with Team London Bridge and the London Borough of Ealing.
Parking bays will be repurposed to provide amenities such as seating, canopies, greenery and cycle parking. These living spaces will give streets a cost-effective makeover and improve the environment for pedestrians and cyclists.

Well, cycle parking in parking bays is old hat. It has been done by Hackney and elsewhere, plus others are looking at the idea. Change parking bays into seating and parklets? There is no innovation here, we can move kerb lines now.

School Streets
In partnership with the London Borough of Camden.
Streets around three schools will be closed at both the start and end of the day to promote healthy, active travel and make walking safer and easier for children. The trial will encourage people to make small changes to how they travel and has the potential to make streets more lively and fun.

I think Scotland might get there first with its parking ban, although this idea seems like a ban on driving. Not sure there is much innovation here as this is a similar concept (I guess) to play streets. We have had these for years and there are quite a few schemes in London already. I assume that this will be a series of roads closed, perhaps as "pedestrian zones" during specific times of the day. The interesting thing here will be whether residents are also banned from driving though these streets as well or if problems get shifted elsewhere! Yes, might be an interesting one to watch!

Tunnel Vision
In partnership with the Brick Box.
A blighted underpass will be transformed using interactive new lighting design and resilient, low-maintenance technology to improve safety and security for pedestrians.

This mob have form (assuming I have got the right people of course) - their website talks of a temporary scheme in Thamesmead, although I guess this must be a permanent way of dealing with a "blighted underpass". Which underpass and why is it blighted would be my first questions. I suspect that the answer is not to shine lights at it. 

Sight Line
In partnership with the London Borough of Islington and the Royal College of Art.
Improvements will be made to road work barriers to help visually impaired people navigate around them. Features include tactile arrows, high contrast signs and real-time digital location information.

OK, this is interesting and could be really helpful to many users trying to get through roadworks. I just hope they realise who will be installing temporary barriers as they don't always get it to perfection!

Cloud Consolidator
In partnership with the Fitzrovia Partnership.
An online purchasing system will be introduced to reduce the number of freight vehicles by combining common orders and deliveries for local businesses.

I am not sure if this is particularly new as deliver consolidation schemes were being looked at for the Olympics. However, the idea makes sense as it could be cheaper for the individual businesses and reduce lorry movements. I await the scheme with interest.

So, there you have it. The Mayor and TfL have run out of ideas and so after an exhaustive search, we have the cream of London's transport and streets ideas. To be fair, there are a few which are worthy at first glance and might go interesting places.

The trouble is, these sort of funding streams bring the showman designers out of their rubber-coated rooms. Then we get trampolines suggested as modes of transport. Sigh.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

You Can't Polish A Turd...

Not a very professional post title I know, but attempted turd polishing is everywhere and besides, it is one of my favourite sayings which I use to counter some of the management-speak cobblers often used to justify public realm schemes.

A couple of trees which might help reduce speeds when they get a
bit bigger, plus they look nice in a relatively quiet side road.
First on my faecal-flossary hit list; doomed to my smallest Room 101 if you will, is the street tree. Now I am not some evil destroyer-of-trees, I love trees. Especially fruit ones. Especially if I can ferment the fruit!

Trees can transform a street from a concrete jungle to a minor oasis. They can be used to visually narrow a street (to slow drivers) and on the whole, trees seem to make people happy. Street trees do have a service life like any other kit and so they need to be the right tree. They need replacing from time to time and sometimes, they might need to come out to allow something to be built.

My ire is not with the tree, but the people behind turd polishing projects which try and take an urban motorway, stick a few trees in and then call it a "City Boulevard" in an attempt to suggest the route now has importance as a "place", rather than for movement. I am not against planting trees in this kind of place per se, but to try and suggest the route is anything other than an urban motorway is disingenuous.

The Mayor of London has been sticking in a few trees in recent years as part of his 2012 election manifesto. As the 5th point out of 9 of a "plan for a Greater London", planting trees was more important than transport (8th). Why do we want more trees I hear you scream? Well, there is a helpful set of reasons which I suppose are fair aspirations on their own, but given the number of new trees involved it really does seem to be window dressing to me. Tackling climate change by planting a few trees is as ridiculous as spending £30bn on a 22 mile tunnel around the Capital - I guess the Mayor likes to present schemes to specific audiences, depending on their views.

You also hear about schemes to "greening the <insert name of massive road>". These schemes try and use trees and other landscaping which are the "low hanging fruit" which can make streets more liveable (my own bullshit wording). In reality, it is about smearing a veneer of green space over what remains traffic dominated toilets where nobody would want to sit eating their lunch watching the lorries thunder by.

The Embankment in Westminster with the traffic turd flushed away
for one magical day a year.
Then we have "special events". Take the Ride London Freecycle. Please don't get me wrong, it is a cracking day out with the kids and it gives a glimpse to how a city could operate. 

The problem is that it is just one day a year, with temporary road closures trying to polish the turd which is cycling in Central London. The elephant in the room (now doubt fouling himself) is that with things like this we are trying to kid ourselves that cycling is for everyone in our cities, when in truth, once the road closed signs are thrown back onto the lorries, you are on your own (so long as you have your wits about you of course).

Paint makes it better.
How about 20mph speed limits? What could be wrong with those? Again, I am a fan and I would love them to be the default in urban areas. In the last few months, I have cycled around the City of London quite a few times and recently, most of it had a 20mph speed limit imposed. Do I feel any safer now? Of course not. The City has gotten out its road marking crews and tried to paint the turds into slowing down.

I am sorry, I also have to have a pop at other places looking to impose 20mph limits in this way. Unless the nature of the streets are changed, then we are still asking people to walk and cycle around heavy traffic (flow and size). Have you seen York Way on the Islington-Camden border?

We might get there in time if more urban areas adopt a 20mph speed limit in the absence of leadership from the Government; and if it becomes the norm. However, many places with this limit are still awful, despite the trees.

Well at least they are not cycling on the footway, this is a single
surface shared-space after all. Mind you, nobody is having a picnic
where the traffic is running.
Next, how about some multi-million pound, grand-master, stool-shining? I bring you Exhibition Road (yes, London again). 

If the traffic wasn't there (and it kind of isn't at one end which has restricted movements - pun intended!), then it would be a great setting for the world-famous museums. Instead, it remains a traffic-choked Central London rat-run and car park for the lunatics who run private cars slap bang in the middle of a city of 8 million people. If you walk up the street, the footways are crowded and people don't "share the space" with the cars, lorries and buses, unless they are feeling particularly brave (shared space will be a future post).

Finally, we have Seven Dials in London's Covent Gardent. This is almost one of my favourite London places at the moment. Interesting shops, a layout to give a road safety auditor stomach cramps, 300 years of history and a great atmosphere. It is almost one of my favourites, but it is ruined by black cabs and delivery vans pelting through the space, heedless of the pedestrians milling about. There are also the parking bays around the area which take up space which could be used so much more effectively (note the car-shaped bike rack which uses parking space more efficiently).

In this case, the turd polishing is more subtle, it is the way in which the place is celebrated as a wonderful place to visit while conveniently ignoring that it is yet again ruined by the people driving through it - I am not referring to the people who need to be there to make a delivery, but the rat-runners trying to avoid the traffic-choked main routes of Theatreland.

It is almost a nice place.
Turd polishing happens at so many levels and in so many ways that you could probably apply the concept to any argument to make your point. In my case, I am trying to show that the common denominator is that we are always trying to hide or ignore the fact that so many of our urban areas are utterly ruined by (often through) traffic. If it is an arterial road, then perhaps we need to accept it for what it is and either provide alternatives for people to avoid it as pedestrians and cyclists, or do a proper job and change it for ever by giving people real protection from traffic.

If we have traffic choked residential streets or places like Seven Dials, the answer is not to slap down some 20 roundels on the road and hope for the best, it is to filter out the through traffic in conjunction with a lower speed limit.

All too often we think that a bit of fancy paving and some trees will do the trick when it won't. Of course you can't polish a turd, but you can roll it in glitter.