Friday, 18 April 2014

Babies, Blankets, Buggies, Buses & Bicycles

Life constantly changes and in my household change has been brought about by the birth of our third child, Poppy.

Of course, there is a highways/ transport angle with a new baby - this is a highways blog after all! Before I go on, an apology as I know that for some people babies are a complete turn off for a variety of reasons, but they are a part of the cycle of life I guess, so bear with me (see what I did there).

The run up to the birth was not easy and involved regular trips to our local hospital. The why is not important here, but the how is. Regular readers will know that I have a car (many people have more than one in outer-London as so we are considered a bit weird round our way!). Our car sits around most of the time gathering dust and this partly continued during the pregnancy, although it did more miles than usual recently.

My wife had a few stays in hospital and so the lunchtime routine was biking over to the hospital for a visit and then driving the kids over in the evening. I am fortunate to be able to bike to work and the regional hospital is close to work which enabled me to stick to two-wheels where possible (plus I have a very understanding boss).

The visits with the kids were by car because our (now middle) child is still on stabilisers and I didn't want to take them home late in the evening by bus. My wife had a few appointments which she did get the bus to and I met her by bike. The other factor to consider is the high cost of hospital parking - £18 over 12-hours, although discounts were available when the office was open (which it wasn't in the middle of the night!).

I wonder what Poppy's transport choices will be as
she grows up?
The day before Poppy was born, my wife took the other two kids with her by bus to the hospital for a routine checkup and I met them from work (by bike of course). The homeward journey was by bus with me racing them home (I easily won over the 4 mile distance!). That evening, we left the kids with relatives and went back by car. Within a few hours, she was born!

My first child was born at another hospital which was within easy walking distance, but ten years later, there has been substantial centralisation (and hospital land sell-offs) which puts the closest hospital at 4 miles for us. For many other people, our regional hospital is harder to get to and they have to take multiple buses, expensive taxis or drive and pay the charges. We also have the policy of "choice" in which health services we use, but for most people, there is no choice because of the lack easy non-car transport options - choice is limit to the closest service.

This illusion of choice shows the huge political disconnect between all sorts of public services and transport. Be it kids travelling (or being driven) across town to their school of choice or people having to spend half the day on buses getting to a regional hospital for treatment. Choice is easy when you can drive everywhere.

To be fair to our local NHS trust, they have a very busy travel champion who has tirelessly lobbied for more bus routes going into the hospital and has increased and improved cycle parking at the regional hospital (for staff and visitors). But, the local roads are congested and cycling feels far from safe, so travel planning needs to go far beyond the grounds. The hospital will be building new car parking soon to cope with the extra services being centralised.

As far as this blog goes, cycling will of course remain a large part of my thinking, but expect other things to creep in such as access to public transport and difficulties for pedestrians as our mobility changes with journeys being made with a push chair - it is amazing how more difficult travelling life becomes with a baby (if you try to avoid the car that is) and I will post some of the experiences. I have often said that anyone designing highway schemes needs experience life from a user point of view, although I am not suggesting that babies should be compulsory for engineers! Perhaps my posts will get you thinking.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

ALARM Rises At Lack Of Road Maintenance

short post this week to moan once again about the woeful lack of funding going into highway maintenance.

The Asphalt Industry Alliance's (AIA) 2014 Annual Local Authority Road Maintenance (ALARM) survey has a headline grabbing figure of the road maintenance backlog in England, London & Wales rising from £10.5 billion last year to £12 billion this year. I should state that the AIA is an industry group which exists to promote the use of asphalt (and of course lobby government at all levels), but the survey has a high level of response from local authority maintenance people and it is well respected in the industry.

Being London-based, I was interested to learn that one of the survey's key findings was that on average each authority would need a one off investment of £36 million just to bring things up to a reasonable standard. Wales is "better" at £20 million per authority, but England (excluding London) is a staggering £90 million per authority.

For roads being resurfaced, you need to wait 68 years in England and Wales, but "just" 36 years in London. Of course, this is average - for a main 'A' class roads, resurfacing might be every 7 to 10 years and so on average it means that the local road network is suffering even more. For schemes like the London Quietways project (forgetting for a minute if it will be any good or even delivered) does this mean that walking and cycling will be confined to pot-hole ridden moonscapes?

The survey deals with carriageways (roads) and so the impact on footways, cycle tracks and the like must be even worse. The highway network is the biggest asset we have in the UK, but we have neglected it for decades which is a national scandal. So, a jump in the backlog of 15% in a single year is staggering - perhaps the politicians might realise that "things" need to be maintained and perhaps "we" public need to realise that we might actually need to pay for it?

So, as the Government embarks on the biggest road building programme since the 1970s, I wonder if we will be able to afford to maintain all of this tarmac. If only there were easier and cheaper ways to manage our road space to make travelling easier, cheaper, more active and safer.

The full survey can be downloaded here.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Clutter Buster

Brace yourselves, I agree with eric pickles on something. yes both you and I are now feeling sick. actually, we agree on a very narrow area of life and that is street clutter.

Blue paint, unnecessary pedestrian guardrail and an advert board.
Three bits of clutter. Not sure the lights hanging above the road do
much for the street scene either.
It has taken us decades in many cases, but we have managed to stuff our streets are full of clutter. It is a combination of "official" stuff such as signs, guard rails, bins, bollards, road markings and dare I state it, blue paint (at least in London). This could also include advertising boards and hoardings where planning permission was granted. Then we have the unofficial stuff like the shop advertising boards, bin bags left on the footway or cars parked everywhere (Eric and I probably part ways at that point).

Of course (and as usual), Pickles was out to criticise local authorities. It is his hobby and I doubt he has ever taken the time to try and understand why some of the things get put in our our streets. If we are really going back to the basics, then we could do a lot worse than always asking ourselves the following question when planning elements of a scheme or reviewing an existing layout:

"does it perform a useful job?"

If the answer is no, then you probably need to remove it. Let's think about some examples. Pedestrian guard rail (PGR) is the obvious one. Nominally installed to keep pedestrians safe, PGR has covered our streets and may things more dangerous in many cases. If people are safely penned in, then they cannot wander into the path of traffic. On the flip side, drivers get used to pedestrians not crossing the road and so begin to ignore the fact that they are there.

OK, see through PGR has been provided, but I
wonder if it was really needed at all?
PGR can be useful in some limited circumstances. I have used it right outside school gates on busy roads not to keep the kids from running into the road (is there any actual evidence of this lemmingesque behaviour?), but to stop people accidentally stepping into the road during the crowding one can get at the school gate. Of course, this use of PGR does not deal with the busy road or the lack of capacity on the footway but we sometimes we do have to just deal with the symptom. I am not happy about it, but it is life - especially in skint local government.

I have covered desire lines before and really that should be the starting point which means PGR is not needed. Where people crossing a road are made to come off their line, PGR might be useful within a high speed environment, although if people can easily walk round it then it is a waste of time. The problem is that it can also be a trap for people on bikes. Oh and it is not designed to prevent vehicle impacts despite the amount of times I am ask to put it in to protect someone's garden wall.

Traffic signs (and I include road markings) are over designed and over used. Much of the problem is the complexity of the rules governing their use which leads to over specification as many designers do not understand how it all works. There are some signs we do need such as for speed limits, parking controls, banned turns, no entries and the like - actually signs which regulate are required because they give effect to Traffic Regulation Orders (Traffic Management Orders in London). I would also add that signs are relatively cheap and nobody likes a sign more than a local councillor who wants to see to be doing something!

Chapter 4 of the Traffic Signs Manual - what a read!
Warning signs are so overused I wonder if they have much effect any more. Some are useful such as "traffic signals ahead" on a high speed road where visibility is not quite perfect and indeed at traffic speeds above 50mph they are (almost) mandatory (the guidance states they should be used rather than must be used). In a normal 30mph urban situation they really do not need to be used.

The "zebra crossing ahead" sign seems to be put in as a matter of routine by many people without any reference to guidance. Again, it should only be used when there is a specific visibility issue - possibly the crossing is over a hill. Of course is this a sensible place for the crossing? It might be on the desire line and to improve visibility by moving it might mean people don't use it. The other thing is that the sign does not look like a zebra crossing and many people are not actually sure what it means.

On the entrance to a side road, speed limit signs don't need to be lit.
Sometimes traffic signs need to be lit. Normally, if the road is an A-road and is lit, the signs will be lit to help them stand out from the generally levels of illumination (if that make sense). Apart from some regulatory signs in most other situations, signs don't need to be lit but some designers just specify lighting without checking. Speed limit signs are a good example. If the limit changes part way along a lit road, then the speed limit signs need to be lit. If the speed limit changes at the entrance to a side road, they don't need to be lit, but it is amazing how often side road signs are lit.

Apart from the energy and maintenance costs associated with signs which don't need lighting, there is the extra clutter created by the lighting units and the wide-based posts which take the power supply - simply not needed.

My point with signs and indeed road markings is to always start with nothing and only put in what is needed. If this was the approach, streets would look so much better. The big problem with all of this is managing parking. The UK takes the approach that one may park where one likes unless there is a restriction and to restrict parking, we need more traffic signs and road markings, only we don't.

The Traffic Signs (Amendment) (No.2) Regulations and General Directions 2011 made some changes which can help reduce sign and line clutter in both town centres and residential areas.

Although around for a while with permission from the Department for Transport on a case by case basis, we are now fully able to use Restricted Parking Zones. Done properly, the entry points to the zone has a sign giving the restrictions and repeater signs replace the yellow lines. 

Parking or loading bays can be "marked" with paving designs or bollards, although the parking bay signs are still required. The large sign on the left is an image of a RPZ entry sign which basically tells drivers that parking and loading is banned in all places except in signed bays. The yellow sign is the repeater sign which replaces the double yellow lines and kerb blips for the loading ban. 

Although the signs are needed, the visual impact of the road markings is removed totally. The image (from Google) is Chester City centre which has a RPZ in force which has indeed done away with road markings. At the end of the zone, a "zone ends" sign is needed, but that can go on the back of the entry sign.

For self-contained areas operating permits, we can get rid of all of the parking bay markings. The two signs on the right of the above image are the entrance/ exit signs which are used. Again repeater signs are used in the permit area (they would have been needed for the bays anyway) and if there are places where no parking is allowed, then sections of double yellow lines are needed. I have been involved with one scheme like this which restricted 4 roads which were accessed from a single point. So easy.

The bus flag did not need planning permission, but
when combined with the shelter and lamp column, it
is all rather crap for pedestrians and bike riders on
this shared-use track
OK, what about non-local authority clutter? On-street advertising is something I really detest. Whether it is an advert board (A-board) put out on the footway by a shop (often without permission or licence) or a permanent advert stuck in the middle of a shopping centre, they not only create visual clutter, they block the free flow of people walking. Many adverts require planning consent and this is one area Mr Pickles does have oversight with.

There is guidance available and I suggest campaigners read it and challenge their local councils on their enforcement and licencing policies. Briefly (and subject to various rules) there are things which don't need planning consent such as bus stop timetables, for sale signs and A-boards on private forecourts for example; everything else does.

A strange middle ground exists with some poster sites known as "4-sheet" which is the size of bus shelter adverts (which you see on the end panel). They mustn't be lit and mustn't be larger than 2.16 square metres. They must be on a purpose designed structure for the poster panel and have permission from the highway authority (S115E of the Highways Act 1980). Of course once the poster is lit, then it requires consent.

OK, my ramblings are a little cluttered, but I think you get the gist - things need to earn their place on the streets and I haven't even commented on how rows of parked vehicles create clutter! I will leave you with a story on how a traffic sign did solve a clutter problem.

As a vestige of privatisation, British Telecom has a "Universal Service Obligation" to provide telephone call boxes for social and community reasons. The other telecoms operators are not saddled with this (apart from Kingston Communications by a historical quirk) and so poor old BT lose money on the call boxes because of falling demand, cost of maintenance etc.

Before - the old phone box
So, to offset the cost of providing call boxes, they have been working with advertising companies to sell the space available on them. With a normal call box, a non-illuminated post of less than 2.16 square metres can of course be put up without planning consent.

But this is not big enough for the advertisers and so BT is working with the advertising industry to provide large, lit poster panels which have a telephone attached. The argument is that the structure does not need planning permission as it is for the telephone and as BT has powers to install a call box, it does need highways permission to install it. They only need planning consent for the lit advert.

After - the advert panel aimed at drivers
(the phone is on the other side)
There has been debate in planning and legal circles whether this is within the law, but I don't know if it has been challenged - if you know, please do let me know. 

In my example, we had a call box which was replaced with one of these poster-phone combinations. The problem was that not only did is substantially reduce the footway width it ruined the visibility at a T-junction just behind it. Pulling out of the side road, one had no view of traffic on the main road.

I met the advertiser to explain the concern and it was like water off a duck's back on the basis that there was nothing we could do - you have to understand, planning permission for the poster itself was very hard to refuse - technically it was the structure that was the issue and that was lawfully installed using BT's powers.

There is more than one way to skin a cat.
I dealt with numerous resident and councillor complaints which just sucked in time. The planning and legal departments ummed and aahed and so eventually I concocted a plan. The advert panel is hinged at the top and so opens up for the advert to be changed. What I did was to arrange a traffic sign to warn people on the main road that there was a side road ahead and to replace the obscured cycle route warning sign.

Using highway authority powers, the sign was installed right in front of the advertising panel so that it couldn't be opened to change adverts and coincidentally, the sign completely blocked the view of the advert. The advertiser was not happy and threatened us with action. My answer was that as highway authority, we had the power to install the sign and we only did so because of the junction visibility being blocked. Eventually the advert was removed and we took out the sign. Sadly, there is no call box at all now, but the point was made - I do question the conscience of advertisers placing things to attract driver's attention, but that is a post for another day.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Surface Tension

I am by no means a materials expert, but with surfacing materials I know what I like as both an engineer and a user. so this week, some of my thoughts.

About ten years ago I had some development control work dumped on me after a colleague left. One scheme included a short walking and cycling link. It was a typical tarmac path with a white line along the middle. Half for pedestrians, half for bikes. Not great, but not bad. The thing that struck me was that the surface had been machine laid.

The contractor's next job was to coat the cycle side in green surface dressing and I suggested not as the machine-laid surface was far superior that the hand applied surface dressing could ever be in terms of ride quality. Sadly, I didn't get my way as the drawings were all agreed, I was a bit green myself on the development control side of things and the developer wasn't interested, so we got stuck with it. I have since learnt how to play the developers at their own game (when necessary) and the vision of a machine-laid cycling surface stuck with me as the best approach even though this was several years before I got serious about day to day cycling.

Blue resin anti-skid on CS2. It is not pretty and it is not that even.
Last week I posted my thoughts about the upcoming London - Surrey 100 and the need to get some miles in. So, last Saturday I hit the road. Part of my run took me through Stratford and lo and behold, the new protected start to CS2 was closed with cyclists being pushed into the live carriageway. As I went past, I noticed that the blue surfacing had been redone, but it looked like anti-skid rather than the smooth blue "gunk" that was there before.

I need to explain a bit more. Much of the London Cycle Superhighway network is coloured a rather hideous shade of blue which is either the corporate colour of the original sponsor, Barclays, or the Mayor copying what he saw at some junctions in Copenhagen. Whatever was put down originally on the carriageways appears to have failed in places and I am still not 100% sure on all of the materials used.

Blue paint over an already good surface on the A13. Look on the
other side of the road and you can see the original green of the route.
Truly an example of blue paint sold as a scheme.
TfL did test various surfaces in advance as shown in a Freedom of Information request. I suspect much of the surfacing was a kind of paint. Certainly, the section of CS3 by the A13 is a good example of what I mean - you can see that the stones of the tarmac surfacing are simply covered in a thin layer of paint because you can still make them out - probably epoxy modified acrylic.

There are also patches of blue thermoplastic here and there (hot, poured paint which is used for normal road markings) which pick out places which people on bikes may be found overtaking buses. We also have the on-carriageway "stripes" along the carriageway edge or in the cycle lanes (where present) which is a very smooth surface indeed. From my research, I think it is some kind of polymer concrete slurry which gets applied to the surface with a squeegee type arrangement.

The blue antiskid - see how rough it is in the low sun. Great for
stopping vehicles at 30mph in the rain, but not really an appropriate
treatment for a protected cycle track.
Anyway, much of this surface is smooth (apart from the odd pothole), but the anti-skid is nowhere near as good. Anti-skid normally comes in two flavours. Either a thermoplastic which is hot poured or a cold-applied resin which is squeegeed around and then coloured chippings applied. It is well worth reading up on this on the excellent Highways Maintenance website. Antiskid is usually used in areas of high vehicle braking such as on the approach to zebra crossings and is basically expensive stone and other materials which give high levels of grip. 

You have seen it everywhere, green or red antiskid
on a cycle lane. Beyond, you can make out the
ridges of grey thermoplastic antiskid approaching
the crossing.
On cycling schemes antiskid is often used to paint in areas of conflict. London had tended to use green stripes and other parts of the country red stripes in locations such as where cycle lanes pass junctions. the problem is that antiskid has a thickness and can make riding over it uncomfortable. It is also bugger all use at night unless the area is brightly lit with white light.

The thermoplastic option is often quite uneven and even worse to cycle on. Resin can be better, although the loose stones can be an issue in its very early life. The other thing is that if traffic is using it, then eventually it wears out and potholes appear with the coloured versions having a particularly poor design life (perhaps 5 - 7 years). Everyone has there own views about unprotected cycle lanes, but purely in surfacing terms, I am not a fan - I would rather ride on a machine laid surface.

A road planing machine. Image by David Wright.
And that is the point. When we surface a carriageway, we tend to do it with a machine-laid asphalt material. The old surface is planed off with a road planing machine and the new surface laid with a paving machine. Some of this kit is extremely sophisticated using GPS and computer controlled sensors to lay very smooth and flat surfaces. Some even continuously check the temperature of the material being laid for quality control.

Obviously, there is an awful lot more to it, but I wanted to give an idea of what goes on. Of course, even resurfacing works need some proper thought and a new scheme has to be designed to get the levels to work properly anyway. So, rather than all of the blue which went in to the Stratford section of CS2 and all the blue going in again, what would I have done?

Nice narrow pond you have there, Boris.
Well, assuming the levels were right (and some are not as can be seen in on CS2), I would have gone for a machine laid asphalt surface. There are two types of materials I would have looked like and they are known as AC10 and 55/10.

AC10 is an "asphalt concrete" with a maximum stone size of 10mm. It comprises of crushed rock (or recycled aggregates) of 10mm and smaller bound together with bitumen (the "binder"). It is suitable for relatively low stress areas (estate roads and of course cycle tracks). 

We often see AC6 (6mm stone and smaller) laid on footways and cycle tracks which is fine, it is just AC10 gives a little more grip. Then there is 55/10 HRA or Hot Rolled Asphalt with 55% of its makeup comprising of 10mm stone. HRA differs from AC in that it has an awful lot more finer materials within its matrix. Again, it is all bound together with bitumen. You will recognise "normal" HRA on the streets because stones get applied after the material is laid (but hot) and they are clear to see - they are for skid resistance. 55/10 HRA does not need anything applied for grip in the same way because of the high single sized stone content.

A cycle track machine laid in 55/10 HRA.
This is on a site on my patch and is not going
to be coated in rough green antiskid. Pretty
much surfacing perfection for me, although I
would have preferred a higher kerb separation
from the footway and perhaps with the
footway in a contrasting paving.
AC10 is cheaper than 55/10 HRA and I would always go for the latter given the choice because it is absolutely bullet-proof if properly laid and laying is the key. If you really need colour, both can be found in a variety of shades, although AC10 will have more choice.

Unfortunately, most of the cycle tracks I have ever ridden on have been laid by hand and I have been involved in the construction of some. This is essentially the road workers dumping a pile of the surfacing material, spreading it around with rakes and then compacting it with a roller. While some crews can do some fantastic hand-laying, they can never do as well a machine and on a bike, one can feel every bump and ridge - look at a cycle track surface with low sun and the shadows are a give away.

The reason we end up with hand-laid AC6 is generally because engineers and the contractors working for developers and local authorities don't often know better. 

To machine lay, we obviously need the paving machines and even small ones can be quite heavy and the lorries delivering the materials are also heavy. In the UK, we traditionally tip the asphalt from the lorry directly into the paver which is fine for roads designed to take heavy loads, but no good for more lightly constructed cycle tracks and footways. It costs money to make the cycle tracks more heavily constructed and that is often where we are let down - lack of proper budget.

It won't be a surprise that other countries have worked out that mini-pavers are the key. Some are mini-versions of the road going kit and have to have the material placed with a grab or digger (to keep delivery lorries off the cycle track). Some can be fed from the road with the laying part of the machine sticking out the side such as on this US video:

UK contractors are perfectly capable of doing this, it just needs to be insisted on by those running the schemes and it means that we should be writing this into our contracts, drawings and specifications. I had a conversation with a contractor a while back about laying cycle tracks. He was happy to use a mini-paver, but he didn't have a grab lorry he could use to lift in the asphalt (it would need to be dedicated to asphalt really). Also, as much of the asphalt is delivered by suppliers, they won't wait on site to be unloaded by a digger - emptying into standard road paver doesn't take long.

So, back to CS2 - although the blue is all about way-finding, I cannot see anyone getting lost on the protected sections, so why not use a machine laid black surface instead of expensive anti-skid. That is how they do it in Copenhagen. If we need a colour, then use red like the Dutch as UK suppliers often have it available.

Paving flags in the City of London. Fine for cycling over a short
distance cycle track link between two roads. The cobbles in the
foreground form a little ramp and are nice and flat, so a visual
reminder that we are moving to an area a little different (ie. there are
pedestrians here!)
Of course, we have other materials such as concrete and block paving. Both are fine for cycling on if they are laid properly, although concrete has joints which can be felt. Natural stone slabs and the like are fine if properly laid and are machine sawn - I cannot stand cobbles or anything rough because of the ride quality and actually some types of stone and/or their finish is slippery in the wet.

No, for me, simple machine-laid AC10 or 55/10 HRA is my idea of cycling utopia (well from a surfacing point of view anyway!)

Update 30/3/14
Oh and just to show that I am not just a one track HRA dinosaur (Andy R!), I will leave you with a street paved with multi-coloured granite blocks - Lower Marsh near Waterloo Station!

Friday, 21 March 2014

Blogging, Borough, Bread, Boris & Box (Hill)

I am lucky or mad enough to be doing the Ride London 100 mile sportive on Sunday 10th August, although I will be the cycling equivalent of a fun runner at a marathon!

I put myself forward last year after the FreeCycle event I did last year with Ranty Junior, partly because of the amazing atmosphere and partly because I had promised myself that 2014 would see me doing a cycling challenge.

I did the London to Brighton in 2012 as as result of a drunken agreement with old friends at a school reunion in September 2011 which was the end of my first year as someone commuting to work by bike and I guess at the beginning of my journey to learn how we could better provide for cycling as a day to day form of transport.

My father ran the London Marathon twice in the early eighties which has always been an inspiration and as a result, I have always wanted to tackle my own challenge. The trouble is I am rubbish at running and my knees couldn't take it anyway, so cycling it is! 

After walking up most of Ditchling Beacon and after a rest I got
to glide down into Brighton! I wonder what Box Hill will be like?
The London to Brighton Ride was one of the best days I have ever spent in the saddle and while it was billed at 54 miles, I actually did 67 on the day when taking into account the logistics of getting to the start and home again via Clapham Common! At the finishing line, I thought that the ride was the most difficult physical challenge I had ever done and I vowed never again. 

2013 saw my normal commutes and plenty of leisure cycling (including my Summer of Space for Cycling), but nothing challenging. This year is a different matter! I know there are many people out there who can eat up 100 miles for breakfast and they often do. I am not a regular long-distance cyclist and so this is my personal challenge. Although the London to Surrey 100 is nothing to do with everyday cycling the roads will be closed and it will give a brief window on what feeling safe in the saddle could be. 

I am looking forward to the ride, but I need to up my fitness and so will be embarking on my first long ride of the year early tomorrow morning which will be a blast straight into the City, a loop around Westminster, followed by a dive into South London and with a breakfast stop at Borough Market (and I will pick up some interesting bread!). I will then need to summon up some energy to slog it back out East. The thing that also pushes me on is the realisation that Boris Johnson did the 100 last year - if can, then so can I!

So, if you see a sweating lump pedalling through East, Central and South London tomorrow morning, wearing red or orange top (depending on if it is raining at the time) on a grey hybrid, then give him a wave and perhaps a shout of encouragement as it will be me attempting to get a little fitter for the summer. I might even get a chance to take some snaps while I am out as I don't like to miss an opportunity to be a #streetgeek and I might have something else to blog about. See you in the saddle.