Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Calling London's Professional Institutions: Support Proper Space For Cycling

I am probably repeating myself to some extent, but this post is essentially an open letter to my professional institutions who are based in London, asking for their support the North-South and East-West Cycle Superhighways.

I posted abut the deeper benefits to developing these schemes last month and since then I have tweeted requests to my London-based professional institutions asking them to support the proposals. The targets of my tweeting have been the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation, the Institution of Civil Engineers and the Institute of Highway Engineers. I have had a response from CIHT, but not of the others, so here is my open letter. If you are a member of a professional institution in London, please badger them for support too!

The east-west route passed right outside ICE HQ!
(Image adapted from TfL consultation drawings)


Colleagues,

After years of stop/start funding, debate, tinkering and disjointed approaches to design across London, the Mayor of London is consulting on two new cycle superhighways, one running east-west and one running north-south. We have often struggled to provide decent protected cycling infrastructure in the UK, but this is a golden opportunity to show what can be done, especially against the backdrop of a growing city with falling car use - colleagues on our various technical panels can demonstrate this as fact.

I am not asking for you to comment on the details of every junction and cycle track, but to support the concept of providing safe and direct protected space for cycling on London's streets. I know that CIHT are very supportive of cycling and even this week announced new guidance (although I haven't chased down a copy to read just yet!) and I know you are reviewing the Mayor's proposals in a more general sense. 

I know that ICE has a cycling and walking policy and these schemes fit right in with these aspirations. It was just about a year ago when 250 of us joined a panel of experts to debate how infrastructure will power the cycling revolution.

IHE - you are the industry experts on traffic signs and traffic signals. You understand the technical and legal issues of getting things changed to give designers tools which will help us design new layouts which feel safe. You also award professional certificates in traffic signals, traffic signs, cycling infrastructure and indeed maintenance - all vital areas of work which will contribute to providing proper protection for people riding bikes.

The institution HQs are all within a mile and a half of both schemes and for the ICE, the east-west route runs right past the front door of One Great George Street! You employ lots of staff who need to travel and they will benefit from these schemes. You host meetings, training and seminars all of which could be made more accessible if you support these schemes.

So please respond to the consultations at least in principle, the links are in the first paragraph and as employers, add your voices to dozens of diverse companies and organisations who have already come out in support

More than ever, London is at a transport crossroads. Do we keep providing for cars which are not being used as much as they were even a decade ago, or do we sign up to changing this city for its people - whether they live here or work here. Your powerful and influential support is vital and will help London's transport compete at every level with every other world city. 

You have until 9th November to respond.

Your loyal member,

The Ranty Highwayman

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Highway Maintenance: Do It Yourself

You might have caught the news story about Devon County Council's plans to have volunteers filling in potholes on their road network, but of course, there is a proper story behind the headlines.

This week's post was nearly another one about being on strike (for a cost of living pay rise after years of freezes) which was called for yesterday for many of us in the public sector and in my case, working for a council. As it turned out, the strike was suspended to consider a new offer and so perhaps more on that in the near future. There is a link with the Devon story of course!

So, the headline with all of this is that Devon County Council is looking at making substantial funding cuts, including £3.4 million from its 2015/16 highway maintenance budget. I would state that Devon CC talks about "savings" - let's call them what they are - cuts. These cuts are being forced on highway authorities because of the wider programme of local government cuts being imposed by the Government.

Highway maintenance has traditionally been a service which is at the front line of being cut and you can track the decline over decades, it is just the most recent rounds have been especially harsh since the current mob took power in 2010. Devon CC is reckoned by the Western Morning News as having the largest highway network of any UK authority costing £1 billion a year to maintain and certainly the asset list is impressive for a relatively sparsely populated county (and hence relative lack of council tax payers!).

Funding for highway maintenance is complicated, but in essence, local councils get about 75% (and falling) of their funding from Central Government and the rest is made up with council tax. Capital works are a different kettle of fish which I won't deal with here. The vast majority of this maintenance funding is not ring fenced (other than the politically motivated pothole fund) and so if central funding is cut (as it has been since 2010), then highway authorities have some choices;
  • Cut services
  • Raise income levels through charges
  • Increase council tax
Of course, raising council tax is a vote loser and the Government has connived to make this difficult by bribing councils with extra cash for freezing it and requiring a local referendum to raise it above 2% (which of course costs to set up!). Besides which, who wants to vote to pay more tax? There are lots of ways income can be raised, essentially by charging for services (where permissible in legislation) which includes little things like charging developers for formal planning advice before a planning application is made and the headline grabbing parking debate (no, I am not getting into that again - yet).

So, in common with councils up and down the country, Devon CC is undertaking a consultation on its proposed service cuts framed in its "tough choices" slogan (doublespeak if I have ever heard it). Highways has its own consultation which you may wish to respond to of course. Areas of the highway services identified for cuts are as follows;
  • Cuts to the winter service (gritting, snow clearance etc) fleet and gritting/ snow clearing routes - local grit bins no longer used, but local groups could pay to restock them;
  • Sale of the county's 4 picnic sites;
  • Grass cutting to be reduced to just safety critical areas (visibility and so on);
  • Weed killing of noxious weeds to end;
  • Reduction of Lengthsmen service (a traditional highway service which keeps drainage grips clear and does minor things as they are picked up - good old fashioned and cost-effective preventative work);
  • Reduce front-line area staffing by a fifth - these people act as liaison with local people, parish/ town councils and councillors etc

There isn't actually a mention of people filling in their own potholes in the consultation, but there are discussions about community wardens (unpaid volunteers) picking up some of the slack in a similar way to an existing system of volunteers who help with snow clearance in the county. For a very rural county the snow warden scheme makes sense and as with other parts of the country with similar arrangements (which have been in place for decades) it keeps isolated communities accessible. This story has also been picked up with a cycling spin on Road.cc and by the Chartered Institution of Highways & Transportation (CIHT).

The thing about this is that highway authorities have a legal duty to maintain their highway network, although there is nothing to stop them using volunteers (my own employer has a small network of volunteers who act as extra ears and eyes and that is no bad thing). However, volunteers need to be organised, trained and managed. In order to to be able to defend against claims an authority needs to keep records of works (to show they have acted reasonably) and so as a bare minimum, someone being paid to do a job at least has some basic financial motivation to so their job.

Where it is a local person simply phoning in faults, the only organisation needed is to make sure they have the right phone number and the fault gets logged. When we get into people potentially undertaking works, then it is a whole different matter. Roadworkers (paid people) whether contractors or direct highways staff have to be trained in techniques, tools and health & safety to be either deemed competent or to comply with basic law. Volunteers doing work need the same and that takes resources and someone employed to manage them. That is not intended to be disparaging about volunteers at all.

Once we are into pothole repairs, we are into people working on live carriageways - potentially in a lone working situation. Repairing a pothole could involved bunging a bag of deferred (cold) set asphalt into a hole (subject to the person having been trained in manual handling and the correct risk assessments being in place), but a proper job will invariably involved cutting out the road and doing a proper job with hot materials and machinery - that is not something a resident could do.

No, in my view, this is just a headline which might translate into a little extra being done by motivated residents, but with similar arrangements to the snow warden scheme. The news stories out there do talk about the cuts, but actually, the scale of the cuts should be the headline and this is being repeated up and down the country. Staggeringly, we are being told by David Cameron that if the Conservatives are elected in 2015, they will cut taxes. From a highway maintenance point of view, this is despite a backlog of at least £12 billion.

For those of us involved, it is a very depressing time (as it is for people in child services, education, libraries and all of the other services provided by councils). Devon is a microcosm of the wider cuts agenda and with highway maintenance, they appear to be targeting the "easier" areas for cuts. But, ignore the basics like dealing with weeds and keeping drainage grips clear and problems are magnified in the future. The Asphalt Industry Alliance suggests that reactive maintenance costs 20 times more per square metre than preventative work.

So, the choice is yours. Either have a properly trained and motivated highways workforce which you have to pay for, or do it yourself. Perhaps while you are at it, you could also do a bit of policing and if you really have time, warm up by volunteering in your local library to keep it open.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Sunny Sunday Southend & Shoeburyness Safari & Shameful Shared Space

Last Sunday, Ranty Junior and I went for a ride along the seafront at Southend-on-Sea in Essex between Chalkwell and Shoeburyness.

It was a ride we had been thinking about doing for a while as I had been told there was a pretty good cycle track we could use. Before I go any further, please take time out to read David Hembrow's take on Southend which deals with the town at a strategic level - I am sticking to the the engineering of kerbs and tarmac, as there are positive things which can be taken away.

As I have done before with a photo-heavy blog post, I will simply add comments to a set of images and round up with more general comments at the end. Before I start, some background. I have been going to Southend for years, since I was small in fact. It was the place for a day by the sea for many people from East-London. I was a regular as a teenager, taking the train there to hit the arcades and this continued when I learnt to drive, although my friends and I tended to drive there. The trip last weekend was the first time I had ever taken a bike.

Sadly, our trip started on four wheels - it is just too expensive by train and so we stuck the bikes in the car (Ranty Junior on his usual bike, me on the fold-up Tern). We parked at Chalkwell which is west of the main town centre and the ideas was to head east, through the pier area and out to Shoeburyness to the east (6 miles away). After an ice-cream, we would then retrace our tracks. We arrived at Chalkwell, parking was £1 per hour and so we stuck in £4. It was a wonderful sunny day and so we were raring to go, although we were going to detour to the main shopping centre for some lunch. So, to the photos:

At the Chalkwell end (west) of our safari we were presented with
a cycle track which was 2.5 metres wide and bi-directional.
A bit of a sod to get on if heading east though.

The track has a normal but lowish kerb upstand above the
carriageway, is surfaced green (more on than in a bit) and has
a low, but vertical upstand to the footway. So it is a hybrid track.
The upstand to the footway looked like the original carriageway
kerb and so this is a retrofit scheme, but that upstand is not
forgiving to 2-wheels, so best keep away!

Heading east and our first interaction with pedestrians. On this
cycle track, cyclists are meant to give way to pedestrians (which is
fine with me) but it is quite clumsily done because of the lack
of space between the zebra and "give way" area. Messy if lots of
people are on the tactile area too. On a bike, you also have to dodge
the Belisha beacon.

This track was machine-laid and so would have been very smooth.
However, it had been coated in green thermoplastic surface dressing
which gave it a "rumbling" quality. Would have been far better done
in red machine laid asphalt rather than with surface dressing. Red
asphalt would have probably been cheaper than black plus the
green surface dressing.

The kerb on the seaward side has changed to a kerb drain. You will
still want to keep away from it (not forgiving), but gives a good level
of surface drainage. Note the tiny drainage gaps which would normally
be twice as deep which shows that the track would bolted on and
levels lifted to make the crossfall acceptable.

Approaching another zebra crossing. The white line on the right
seems pointless, but I guess some use at night.


Getting closer to the pier and in this area, the road becomes a bit of
a dual carriageway affair with basically a car park in the middle.
Welcome to the Western Esplanade. 2.5m starts to feel too narrow
for a bi-directional track when people are coming towards you and you
need to avoid going into the carriageway or hitting the kerb (for the
oncoming rider).

Door zone dealt with (ish). We didn't have any problems and people
opening doors would have a better chance to see you, but a bit
tight really.

What the hell? We are invited to join a shared-use, unsegregated
cycle track just as we approach the pier which is probably one
of the busiest areas for pedestrians. Yes, that is 2 traffic lanes and
a parking lane you can see. Why the track didn't keep going, I have no
idea.

See, sign says share. Imagine the crowds in August.

"Welcome to City Beach - Share Space" - how would I get from this
side to that side, even if I fancied sharing? If it is a shared space, why
the heck is there a staggered Puffin crossing? Mind you, there is an
average speed camera (yellow on top of the black post) to enforce the
20mph speed limit which I only realised when I put this post together!

There is a highway pinch point under the pier, but there is space for
driving lanes, cycle tracks and footways. Besides, we are *meant* to
be sharing this space - probably wouldn't work if we had decided to
cycle towards traffic to keep on this side where the shared-us track was.

OK, we want to turn left now to go up the hill to the shopping centre.
Shall we bounce down the kerb from the shared-use cycle track into
the shared space carriageway? No, too much traffic, so we will backtrack
and use that Puffin crossing in the shared space area in the previous
photograph and then jump back into the road then. Yes, we were
ready for a spot of lunch!

After lunch in the shopping centre (where bike parking was a rare
species indeed) we came back down the steep Pier Hill expecting
to somehow rejoin the route on the shared-use cycle track. Except
we didn't. We turned onto the carriageway in the shared space.

With me as a rolling road block, we continued east on Marine Parade.
This area used to be a dual carriageway with staggered
pelican crossings and a wide central reservation. It was popular with
drivers of hot-hatches and there were often cruises and sometimes
the odd drag race. There is no denying that this new layout is so
much better, but why wasn't the through traffic sent around the long
way on the nearby A127 leaving this area for people and access?

Kerb Nerd Klaxon! This was pretty cool. In a few areas, there were
loading bays built onto the widened footway which was not an issue
at all for occasional use - businesses need servicing. The kerb
upstands in the shared space were 50mm and the kerbs were 300mm
wide. Where the loading bays were placed, the kerbs were chamfered.
This gives a slope of about 1 in 5 which was really comfortable to
cycle up and down, but less useful for people with reduced mobility
who would need a maximum slope of 1 in 12 (1 in 20 is better).


This is just getting stupid. The area behind the planting is vast, so why
this is all getting so squeezed is beyond me. You will share the space!

This is the junction with Hartington Road which is an access to the
large Seaway car park (yes where Radio 1 used to pitch up for its
summer Roadshow - remember Smiley Miley?). The kerbs are gone
and we are into "single surface" territory, you know, like Exhibition Road
in that there London. Why here? I guess for all the people walking back to
their cars at the Seaway.

And with the dome of the exotically-named Grade II listed Kursaal, we
have a "courtesy crossing" (otherwise known by its proper term as a
uncontrolled pedestrian crossing). At least that driver was being courteous.

Actually, this bit was superb.

So after a bit of stop/ start through the shared space for me to take
photos, we were unceremoniously dumped at the Eastern Esplanade.
I don't think we should have been cycling here, but there was no help
for us, so we slowly carried on and turned right at the Sealife Centre.
(the blue building)

Here, we were on the seafront proper, no idea if we were allowed to
cycle, but we did for a little while.

Then we found the cycle track again - yay!

This track is much older than the one to the west, perhaps 1990s?

It is machine laid in red asphalt (nice) which is faded, but on the
whole in a very good condition. The track was 2 metres in width and
with very unforgiving full-height kerbs on both sides as we now had
a buffer between us and the carriageway. 

We then worked out what we should have done at the Kursaal. We
should have swung across the shared space onto the northern side of
the road and then cycle through a busy junction and then used this
jug handle to access the refuge to join the cycle track on the southern
(seaward) side of the street. Actually, this has been here years, it is
the shared-space designer who didn't think about cycling continuity.
It was kind of OK, but a bit tight and with a trailer, forget it.

The western (green) track only had a couple of side roads on the
opposite side of the street, but no access to and from the cycle
track is provided. On the eastern track, there are lots of (tight) little
junctions so that people can feed into it from side roads.

Looky here, a floating bus stop! It is accessible with a high kerb to
meet a low floor bus. The bus stop island is a bit narrow and the
fencing makes for an over-engineered layout. But ahead of its time.

Less good for pedestrians here. Cross the track onto a refuge in the
buffer area, cross onto the narrow refuge in the carriageway and then
finish crossing. A mobility scooter user or someone with a pushchair
needs a 1.8m wide waiting area.

Interesting. At each bus stop, there is a little cycle parking area.
Was this a Dutch idea brought over so that people could park their
bike and catch a bus? Not sure, but the track doesn't seem to go
far enough and there is no wider network to feed into it to make one of
these park and ride sites much use (at least from what I could see).

Zebra crossing of the carriageway and then a stagger to give two
crossing points over the cycle track. Again, over-engineering to try
and deal with pedestrian/ bike conflicts.

At last, a bit of greenery in an otherwise harsh street scene.

The track got a touch wider in places, but remained very smooth indeed.

Pedestrians benefit from a big buffer from traffic.

Another floating bus stop...

...and its cycle parking. We are about to bypass a roundabout too.

Ranty Junior cycling in perfect safety and at the pace he chooses.

Oh dear. This is just an access to a slipway. No need at all for a
give way here.

Further east, the track is still separated from pedestrians, but with a
grass verge on both sides, the kerbs change to basic edgings.
Basic edgings are not a patch on larger kerbs which do a much
better job at supporting the structure of a machine-laid track. Edgings
are much more likely to move.

The eastern track surface is red AC6 (asphalt concrete with a 6mm
nominal stone size - previously known as 6mm DBM). These days
I would specify AC10 or 55/10 HRA (hot rolled asphalt with 55%
10mm stone) as both are more durable.

I think the track was routed onto the green. Still machine-laid and
with the verge rather than a high kerb, the full width could be used.

So, the track has just bent away from the road at the access to
Thorpe Bay, which is a car park, a cafe, some loos and beach huts.
It could have been designed to carry the track straight through the
access.

Another access to a slipway, with a handful of parking spaces. The
track and footway should have carried on through. 

This is Ness Road which bends in away from the sea, but at least
we still have a separate track and footway. The track doesn't feel
as smooth which might be the affects of tree routes.

Now we are off the cycle track onto a 3m wide path. No idea if we
are meant to cycle, but a few people were. There is new housing
being built on the background.

Passing an old fort - I assume Second World War.

Just before we had a rest before turning round, we are back by the sea.

Heading back west, bike traffic increased and it was hard to overtake
with the kerbs on either side.

Ranty Junior gave up and went round!

So, at the western end of the eastern (red) cycle track, we rejoined
the carriageway as we were supposed to and it wasn't particularly
pleasant.

Transition between the chamfer kerb and the full height (50mm) kerb.
This looks like the perfect way to keep a cycle track level and allow
vehicles over to private drives and small estate roads. Pity this was
for access to a loading bay rather than a cycle track :(

A slightly weird panoramic shot of the shared space for what it's worth.

Traffic was at a standstill, so we stuck to the shared footway/
cycle track area.

Just too narrow.

Back on the western (green) track and having to keep right of the
low but vertical kerb.

This line of palm trees looked in-keeping given the sunshine!
From a designer point of view, a good way of giving some informal
buffering space between bike handlebars and pedestrians.

Yes, the zebra crossings were kind of working.

So, what did I learn from this safari? Well, it continued to reinforce the fact that I enjoy being segregated from busy traffic, that should be a no-brainer by now. The western (green) cycle track was wider and felt nicer in terms of space and ability to overtake, but with Old Shoreham Road in Brighton being between 1.8m and 2.5m on each side of the road (uni-directional) it did feel mean. There was space to get to at least 3m which would have been good.

The eastern (red) cycle track was quite old, but the surfacing was superior. The 2m width and high kerbs made it feel tight and overtaking was a pain, but I preferred it in the round because of the buffer from traffic. A minimum of 3m with a buffer and chamfered kerbs would be pretty good in my books. The floating bus stops and pedestrian crossings on the eastern track were over-engineered. On the western track, bus stops were ignored and the crossings squeezed in.

I will write a blog post about shared space in the next few months and so I won't talk much about it here, but Southend's was basically useless for cycling and it did not tie the two cycle tracks together. Southend could have had a connected the pair and got nearly 6 miles of continuous cycling. I did like the loading bay kerbs and could see them being used for vehicle crossings of cycle tracks and footways - that is how they do it in Copenhagen and elsewhere.

Of course, because of a lack of network, the seafront tracks will only be of use for people who live and work in close proximity to them as beyond that, they are really just something for leisure. Although there are flaws with the two tracks, they are far better than the conditions on my daily commute and most importantly, they were being used by a wide demographic. I think we can learn some engineering from Southend's sea front, both what to do and what not to do. The challenge will be making things wide enough (so complete new layouts rather than bolt ons) and then building them into networks. After all, having the sea on one side means no junctions to worry about!