Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Fun With Numbers

Well, it has been a few weeks of rambling, so I am back with the technical this week with little bit of insider knowledge which you might find useful.

The Department for Transport collects traffic flow data on every junction to junction link on the A-road and motorway network in the country. A link is a street between two junctions with other A-roads (often called "nodes" in the business). The data is published and the home page is linked here. In order to find you place of interest, they also have an interactive map which can be found here. The map has a menu which allows you to select the local authority area you are interested in.

A screenshot for Westminster Bridge.
You can zoom in on the area of interest (or you can manually select the count point), not forgetting you need to change authority area if you move the map around. 

Let's look at Westminster Bridge (A302) in London as an example. Click on the icon which points to the link of interest and a speech bubble appears with some information. Then click on the "count point id" and you are taken to a table of links - you need to look for the count point ID here. If you then click "download" in the right of the screen, the data for that count point will download as a spreadsheet .CSV file. 

The surveys are snapshots; simply annual traffic counts which show what happened in the the face of prevailing conditions, policies in force etc. I am not suggesting for a minute that this data should be used as a forecasting tool, but it can show trends over time. If you download the .CSV file it will give you the year on the far left hand side (back to 2000 in many cases) and various columns including location and technical stuff, plus traffic flow broken down by type. Pedal cycles, motorcycles, cars/taxis, buses/ coaches, light good vehicles and the full range of HGVs; the last column being total traffic.

There is a health warning with this data. It is based on an "average" day's traffic - traffic over a full 24 hours, so you cannot pick out the peaks (the Annual Average Daily Flow - AADF) and so for any given day or time things could be busier or quieter. The data is also for both directions of traffic added together (unless a one-way road of course). The data does not drill down into more local roads and so is intended for use at a higher level. Nonetheless, it is interesting and opens opportunities to challenge assumptions which are often made.

Looking at Westminster Bridge, I have considered bike use as a percentage of all motor traffic (which is easy to play with having a spreadsheet). I have simply added bike and traffic flows and then calculated the percentage of bikes. 

From this snapshot, the trend has been for all traffic to decline to a point where in 2013, it was less than half than it was in 2000. Over the same period bike flows peaked in 2010/11 which was also the highest percentage of total flow. By 2013, bike flow as a percentage of all traffic had dropped and, with traffic flows dropping as well, it is not surprising that bike use dropped off in the way it did.

I have no answers as to why things have changed as they have - that is one for the academics and those that know the area. My guess is that the motorised traffic falls is a long term trend and the cycling figures are rather volatile - perhaps a better parallel route opened for bikes in 2012, perhaps the high was just a blip - answers on a postcard (or the comments) please!

Here is another set of data, this time for the Dartford River Crossing (A282). Don't be too shocked about bike use - they are stuck on 4x4s and carried over and getting to the crossing points involves using some very unpleasant roads! I have highlighted the period where junctions 27 to 30 were being widened and so it is possible that flows dropped because of the lower speed limit in force at the time, although 2013 saw another slight dip.

For comparison, here is the data for the link between junctions 29 and 30. Again, a bit of a dip during the road works, although despite now having 4 lanes in direction (rather than 3), traffic flows were a little lower than in 2000 - did we need to spend all of that money? 

Well, look at the data in 5 years time to see if more traffic is using this section of motorway, but there doesn't seem to have been the traffic growth which the Government is so worried about tackling on this stretch of motorway. Where was the justification in widening? I leave that comment hanging as I know full well that the area is far busier during the day time!

OK, let's look at what has been happening at one more place, the A118 Stratford High Street. This link is where the extension to Cycle Superhighway 2 was completed towards the end of 2013 please correct me if I am wrong).

So, "peak traffic" was in 2008 and by 2011, traffic was less than it was ten years before. I don't know if any tweaks were made because of the Olympics in 2012 (it should still be representative), but the drop was dramatic. In 2013 traffic stayed at this new lower level. Again, the information over the next few years will be interesting. 

Cycling was relatively popular leading up to 2007, but dropped of in 2008 (did politics shift or something?). It has been on the increase since, but only time will tell if 2012 was the peak or if CS2X is making a difference. One generalisation I might make is that with general traffic dropping, there was "slack" to reallocate the road space to cycling. What might have been seen as a bold scheme in building CS2X, could well have had some science behind it (I bet it did) as all of the howls of chaos before it was built don't seem to have materialised (again, correct me if I am wrong).

I have only considered a few locations, but the point is that the data exists and we pay for it to be collected. So, why not realise your investment and have a play with the figures yourself? I have most recently used the data to show the potential impacts of a relatively modest development where vehicles accessing the development is a tiny fraction of overall traffic in the area, but HGV movements increase by a fifth which is locally significant. Do beware. The numbers just benignly sit there doing nothing, it is how they are interpreted which counts. As I have said before with statistics, they can be used for good or evil!

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Weekend Download

OK, I know my recent posts have gone increasingly away from the technical and into the wistful. This week is no exception, take it as a bit of therapy for me, it has been a long week. The technical will return soon...

This week has been very "planning" oriented. I am not a planner by training - I am a kerbs and tarmac person, but I have picked up an awful lot over the years (and a lot of awful things no doubt). What has been a help to me dealing with the highways planning side of things is the fact that I used to work for a developer (exposed to the planning process from the other end) and so it is very much poacher turned gamekeeper from that perspective.

1.5m cycle lanes with a bridge pier on one side
and flimsy traffic wands on the other. Slightly
better than now, but the right answer involves
either traffic lane removal of structural works to
the bridge. Good Streetview here. Image is an

extract from the TfL consultation on CS2.
The start of the week was fun. I sat down with a transport planner and we worked up some (very) rough Quietways concepts in anticipation of a funding announcement later this year. We aren't actually holding our breath, but there is enough useful stuff in what we have looked at to come up with some good little schemes which might help at a more local level and we are eager to get things "on the shelf". It was nice to get back into some engineering as all too often my day gets bogged down in stuff which has nothing to with being an engineer.

It did show that there are some major issues which need serious money spent to make cycling a safe reality - an issue which seems to be gradually popping up all over London as a few projects get going. Even the CS2 revamp has plenty of compromise to avoid spending the real money needed for a proper job. As usual, we will have to think if we are going to do most of the job as well as possible, only to leave the big problems on the too hard pile, rather than deal with that pile first.

Much of the rest of the week was either spent in meetings with planners and developers or reviewing planning applications from a highway authority perspective. I won't go into the details of course, but at least one developer brought an architect to the meeting who seemed really up for making walking and cycling the heart of their new estate layout and working vehicle access around people - a first for me and I have been involved in this side of the business for a long time. Another meeting led to a chance discussion with a colleague from the Housing Department which has turned into an idea to improve an existing (and short) walking and cycling link. Not sure where it will end up, but hopefully, there will be photos in due course! One of my meetings also included a discussion on solar farms and whether they are appropriate in the Green Belt. Opinion was divided, but I was compelled to point out that motorways seem perfectly acceptable in the Green Belt!

Because maximum parking standards apply, I am forced, kicking
and screaming to park my works van on the cycle track. But don't
worry bus driver, I have used my hi-vis vest to stop you crashing into
the metal tube on my roof rack, but you won't be able to get into the
bus stop properly, so anyone who has trouble with stepping into the
road and then up onto the bus is screwed.
Other meetings and many planning applications had me wrestling with parking standards - both local and London Plan. The situation is that we have maximum standards these days, although the London Plan has lower maximums than you might find is the norm in Outer-London. The conundrum is that maximum standards (as in private, off street parking) seek to limit car ownership, but where development is in existing areas with low public transport provision, how do we stop people arriving with more cars, filling up their private parking and then over-spilling onto the streets and invariably onto the footways, round corners and so on?

Developers come with different views. Some want to maximise the number of units on a site and as parking is dead land for this purpose, they go for low provision. Some see parking spaces as a selling point and so we end up with new front gardens mainly parking spaces or parking courts which perhaps should be gardens. Please take a minute to read John Dales' views on the current proposals by Eric Pickles MP to take local decisions away from local authorities. Localism - when it suits him (Eric, not John). I digress. I don't have the answers, other than an idea that "car storage" is an issue in many local streets. Coupled with loads of parking at destinations and no alternatives, it is no wonder we are in this mess.

"Hello. Is that the 1970's? About this footbridge you sold me. I am
standing on it now, but the traffic is still screwed and people are still
dashing across the road at street level."
I spent a fair bit of time catching up with correspondence which was the usual mixed bag of moans about lack of parking, congestion and requests for schemes we don't have funding for. The magic pill for most of the problems is of course to prioritise walking, cycling and public transport. The enquiry of the week was from a disgruntled driver who felt we should build a footbridge over a road so that they were not held up by people using a pelican crossing. The road in question is a relatively narrow "high street" type affair which is tidally stuffed at peak times. Putting pedestrians on a bridge at this location would mean that drivers get to the back of the queue further up. Oh, and the idea was so bloody stupid, impractical and discriminatory, I wouldn't even know where to start with an answer. Still, the person remained anonymous and so although no reply could be sent, I (and colleagues in our contact centre) still had to log and close the pointless rant.

Peppered around the week (and away from work), Mrs RH and I have been trawling secondary schools with Ranty Junior in anticipation of him moving up to Year 7 next September (have I got it right? I went back to being a 1st Year!). I am hoping it is the local secondary school (he really likes it) as he will be able to walk (and cycle perhaps). Some of the other schools were good, but needed walks at each end of one or even two bus journeys to get to. Mrs RH and Ranty Junior did the journey for real and I met them either on my bike, or with the car (after going home to drop off the bike - we had the baby in tow as well and yes, it was just easier). It said a lot about how local and national planning policy over 40 years had rendered our area so hostile to kids getting to school.

As the week came to an end (and I was stuck in the office far too late for a Friday) I had a look at my final planning application of the pile (the pile that always replenishes itself!). It was for a new house in a more rural part of the patch. Actually, it was to demolish an existing big house and build an even bigger one. 6 bedrooms, cinema, 10 metre swimming pool (in the house of course), triple garage large enough for two cars and a horse box. OK, reviewing planning applications brings out the nosiness in me. I don't begrudge the person wanting to build this house - I am not there to judge (other than on highway impacts!), but it seems as far away from normality as one could get in my area.

Thursday, 18 September 2014

London's Proposed North-South / East-West Cycle Superhighways: Deeper Benefits

For those interested in cycling matters in London and perhaps further afield, you will of course know about Transport for London's proposals by now.

The consultations are running now for the North-South and East-West routes and you have until 19th October to make your views known. I am not going to blog about the proposals in detail, plenty of other people already have and there is nothing I really want to add on the technical side at this stage. I would say that this is the golden opportunity to deploy simultaneous greens, free left turns and the like.

There may be concerns about some of the details of the layouts, concerns about how they can be delivered, that they might get watered down and of course that the usual suspects have come out against the schemes. These were going to be issues anyway and now is the time to challenge the dogma head on and consign the opinions of those people looking to the past to plan our cities for the future, well, to the past.

For me, the plans are vital because it would mean that we would have highway space specifically allocated for cycling (without taking it away from pedestrians), giving space to those wanting to take up riding as a form of transport in its own right. More important than that, it will help show that a proper and coordinated approach on direct routes can be made to work and most importantly (for me at least), it will be a demonstration to highway and traffic engineers, planners and politicians; and the general population that it can be done.

The layout at Bow in East-London is safe-ish (don't write in please),
but bikes always have to stop and pedestrians have bugger all to help
them, but things are shuddering in the right direction.
We don't have all of the tools yet, but as the emerging London Cycling Design Standards suggest, adaptability will be an important consideration for London cycling infrastructure going forward.

We may end up with some "always stop" junctions, but we can now use low level signals. We don't yet have mini-zebra crossings (without Belisha beacons) for cycle tracks to give pedestrians priority where needed (IHE - you have the DfT's ear on this,have a word please), but we can muddle on for now - we will be able to adapt as time goes on and the rules and regulations catch us up to keep on improving and to make the next scheme better.

These routes have to be the proving grounds for our engineers. We technical types need to ride the layouts to understand them. We need to share the experiences, and we need to take the good aspects away and push them into our own schemes. Although I know full well how far we are behind other cities across the world, London (and the rest of the country) needs to find its own way to some extent and develop layouts which work for us - that is not to suggest for a minute, we shouldn't push for regulatory change.

These two schemes will only happen if people get behind them. The London Cycling Campaign has made it easy to respond and so please take a couple of minutes to visit their website. There is also the new Cycling Works website where you can get help in getting your employer to support the proposals.

For those readers who are professional engineers, architects, planners, public health experts, academics and the like, lobby your professional and educational institutions to respond in support of the proposals. I have membership of three engineering institutions, all based in London. The Institution of Civil Engineers has the East-West route running past the front door of One Great George Street for goodness sake! The Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation and the Institution of Highway Engineers have their HQs within a mile and a half of both of the routes. I have tweeted all three asking for support (as is the modern way) and I hope colleagues will follow suit and make contact too - they have powerful voices.

It is worth those three institutions realising that these are proper civil engineering projects in their own right, but have many other linkages to areas of life such as public health and transport poverty which I know are topics important to many within the institutions and the wider membership. Also, don't forget that our members will also be involved in the design and construction of these schemes and frankly, it will also keep people like us in work for years to come.

We have been here before. Until this point, we have always made the wrong choice. We have always tried to maintain business as usual for motor traffic and time and again, it has been proved (with evidence) that we got it wrong. I really hope these schemes go ahead and as I hope I have suggested, the benefits are far deeper than they first appear. Above all, I hope they shake up our design culture and change it for the better. Only then will we see the benefits ripple out beyond the boundaries of the Capital.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Petrol Promotions, Prioritising Parking & Poor Passengers

As those who have followed this blog a while will know, I do have a car, but it sits (off street) most of the time. It does get filled up every so often and at the moment, I get to benefit from a "pennies" off per litre promotion my local (big, national) supermarket is running.

Actually, we don't tend to shop in our local (big national) supermarket very often and so on the infrequent occasion we need to fill up, it is only about a £2 saving on a 50 litre tank. The reason we don't need to fill up very often is we try and use the shops in our local area as much as possible and although for groceries it is still a national chain, it is a smaller shop which is within walking and cycling distance of home (and it is at the more "cooperative" end of the scale if you catch my drift).

The big store is designed for cars. It has almost direct access from a trunk road with a huge car park (although people always queue to get close to the door). The access to the trunk road also serves a 1980s residential development and as a result vehicles are prioritised over those walking and cycling - it has a staggered Toucan crossing to contend with which is arranged to not affect traffic.

At the store, walking and bike access is squeezed down the side of the building, although at least it connects to the cycle track which runs along the trunk road. The bike parking is at the far end of the store (away from the entrance) as trolley parking is prioritised. There is a bus route which goes into the store (no use to me, though), but it dumps people at one end of the car park, rather than stopping right outside and so passengers have to lug their bags through the car park to go home. The store sells everything and so it is not a place to go for fun.

Although the big store is actually on my way to and from work, I never go into it (unless getting petrol or using the car for a big shop), I prefer to make a slight diversion to use the local shops. I can park my bike right outside the door of the local supermarket and I also have access to the other shops. There is car parking outside (pay and display) and so there is still the option of the car for a bigger shop or the bus (which stops at the shops and within 2 minutes of where we live).

The more local shop has been running for years and I hope it continues to do well as it means we don't have to do a weekly shop at the big store; just pick up what we need as we go (and we have the other shops too). The trouble is, the big store is cheaper and so as well as being able to entice people there with a petrol discount, they can undercut the local shops. The flip side is that if walking or cycling, you tend only to buy what you really need rather being enticed to fill up the boot of your car.

The big supermarket is a classic business model. You can get anything you want under the one roof, there is plenty of free parking and as a result, the local streets are arranged to get traffic into and out of the site. This arrangement can be found at countless locations up and down the country and has us stuck into a loop with the supermarket business. I know there is the other model of large convenience stores, but they seem to be aimed at knocking out the smaller independents. At least with the local supermarket, there are still two independent newsagents in the same parade.

The big store's business model pays no regard to people who are not arriving by car and of course, there is no offer of a bus ticket refund, or loyalty card points for walking or riding to do your shopping - you are only valued if your mode has an engine. There are other examples of this difference in valuing people for their mode. Larger shopping centres often charge for parking (and unlike paid-for council parking, we don't hear that fool Pickles moaning about parking profits for private operators!), but one can often get money back for using the supermarket "anchor" store or perhaps the cinema. Again, no discounts or refunds for those arriving by public transport, foot or bike.

These sites are again arranged to stuff the traffic in and those trying to walk or ride (or live) around them be damned. It is of course easy to take a car park ticket from a shopper and stick it in a computer for a discount - it is a little harder to prove that you walked to the cinema! But, whole swathes of the purchasing population are treated differently because of their modal choice. In the public sector, it is the same. Zelo Street recently blogged about the hollow "victory" the newspapers had over hospital car parking in England. I recommend reading David Hembrow's post on free parking because as ever, there is a lesson to be learned from across the North Sea about providing real alternatives.

A few months back, Mrs RH spent some time in hospital (she is fine now, by the way, although she brought a small person home with her!) I was fortunate to be able to bike over to the (edge of town) hospital for frequent visits as I knew how expensive the parking was. When came to taking the kids visiting in the evenings, it was just not practical to use the bus (we were time poor between me getting home from work, getting the visit in and then home in good time for bed) and so we used the car. There are arrangements to help some patients and their families with parking charges at many hospitals (hence the hollow victory), but there is no campaign to help people pay for bus travel to hospital - especially as the fashion is now to have large, edge of town hospitals - again, all designed for motor car access.

Being an edge of town site, the hospital sits within a roads system designed for cars. In common with many places in the UK, it is a PFI monster which has centralised loads of services alongside other hospitals and smaller units having been flogged off as housing sites. If you live near a bus route which serves the site, then you are reasonably OK (although many routes end up literally going round the houses which is the outer-London arrangement). Live a few miles away from the site, or out of borough, then it will be multiple buses to get there. Train-wise, it is just over a 1km walk, but many pedestrian crossings and horrible subways.

I don't know if the parking charges cover the cost of running the car parks at the hospital, but it is expensive and I can totally understand why people get upset paying when the alternatives are so poor. If you are ill or visiting someone with a long stay in hospital, the last thing you should worry about is transport.

We never seem to learn from past mistakes. Our approach to transport seems always skewed to the car, never recognising that there are huge numbers of people who either don't or choose not to drive everywhere. Big stores and regional hospitals are a good example of the illusion of the freedom of choice. If the local shops go out of business, then it is the big stores who corner the market and immediately, the non car-using people are immediately at a disadvantage as they have lost their choice. Those already using the big stores have given up their choice in reality as their lives now include infrequent, but large shops with the car. With hospitals, we are promised the choice of where we are treated. For many, it is a struggle to get to their nearest hospital, let alone travel to the next town. There is no real choice for many.

As someone who is a small cog in the transport sphere, it is frustrating that many of the decision-makers and influencers don't see need to change how we travel and most importantly, give people real choice.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

My Personal Cycle To Work Day

Today was "Cycle To Work Day", an event aimed at getting people onto two wheels for at least one day this year. For me, it was my normal cycle to work, but I thought it would be a bit of fun to run through my journey.

There is more information on the Cycle To Work Day website and while a single day of publicity is not going to change anything overnight, at least it might be a way of showing the conditions that many of us put up with already and get people thinking what would happen if the right infrastructure was provided.

So, here follows a set of photos with some comments, and I will round up with some thoughts at the end;

The bike is ready to go. Coming to the end of my 4th year as a
bicycle commuter, I have the best bike I have ever had. 7 gears
(including a super low gear), twist shift, luggage rack, proper
mudguards, nice and upright, a comfy saddle and a smart bag which
converts from messenger to pannier. A happy rider indeed!

Round the corner from home, I am on a shared-use, unsegregated
cycle track. A bit uneven in places, it is far better than the amazingly
empty 50mph trunk road on the right. I don't normally see pedestrians,
but, this would be ripe for a proper separate footway and track.

Further down, our old friend, the multi-lane flare appears on the
approach to a large junction which means the track gets really narrow.
I often have to give and take with people walking or by the bus stop
in the background and if you think this hedge is bad now, you should
have seen it last month - virtually impossible.

Still on the cycle track, things are a bit better again, but the nice wide
verge separating riders and walkers has gone.

As I near the half-way point, the track goes all shared-use, segregated.
The trouble is that it is all paint, too narrow and often occupied by
pedestrians who for some reason, don't fancy walking next to the
50mph dual-carriageway!

So, well into the on-carriageway section of my commute and it is
advisory cycle lanes all the way. Normally, this road is stuffed and I
am able to glide past the traffic queues (watching for left hook at the
junctions of course). This morning, some plonker parked, and from
the fog on the windows, this person has been there for some time.
It would be a doddle to build a cycle track between the white line
and the edge of that concrete strip. Sigh.

Nearing the end of my journey, I have just ridden around a large
roundabout and now I just have a section of urban dual-carriageway
to contend with. I am not sure what is more fun, the bus stop to my
left, the sunken gullies in the cycle lane, or the vehicles to my right.

A quick nip over an area of single surface shared-space (which
kind of works as it goes nowhere for traffic) and my goal is in sight
(not work, but where I pick up some rolls for lunch!)

The bike gets tied up in the secure compound by the staff entrance
to my building.

And so to work with the obligatory cup of tea (strong, one sugar please)
and a sneaky pain au chocolate to get me started.

The first job of the day - setting up a new project file.
No money announced as yet, but I am going to put some base
drawings together as I live in hope. This project is staying with me!
(if we ever get some cash!)

I guess the photos are a fair reflection of many people's bicycle commute. On the first part of my journey, the photos show there is tons of space, but while all of the attention is in Central London (and please do read the blog post by Cyclists in the City), it is very easy to feel forgotten.

Sadly, the second part of my journey is on my patch and I don't have people queueing up to ask for it to be made wonderful (they are queueing up to sit in traffic) and so I doubt it is even on the political radar (with a small, and very objective and not at all critical 'p'). There is very little money floating around for cycling in my neck of the woods, despite the almost constant announcements.

I do live in hope and that Quietways folder is absolutely genuine - I am going to find the time here and there to get some base plans drawn up so the schemes exist. Once a scheme exists, even on a shelf, there is at least a chance it will be built. It is something to talk about and it is more than a scheme name on someones wish list.