29 January 2012

Cycling Embassy Policy Bash

I was fortunate to be able to spend the weekend in London, attending the first Cycling Embassy of Great Britain policy bash (#CEoGBBash on Twitter) where we discussed many and varied topics and covered a wide range of issues relating to our desire to see gold standard cycling infrastructure which will enable all sorts of people to take advantage of the simple wonder of riding a bike from here to there.

As well as the fascinating debates and conversations, it was also rewarding to be able to put faces to names, and associate those faces with twitter handles and blogs. It certainly is a powerful tool this interweb thingy, but never more so than when it is enabling people to get together in a room and make plans.

We began with a quick reminder of the Embassy tour of the Netherlands last year, when some lucky souls got the chance to sample this advanced cycling culture at first hand - surely something we wish many more policy makers and engineers from this country were able to do. Then, we began to set out the themes and key issues that would occupy us for the weekend. It was determined that we should break into two main groups, one looking at infrastructure issues and the other looking at policy matters. Each group was tasked with exploring the themes identified earlier and cross reporting after the regular discussion sessions. It is the aim that the written-up results of these discussions will find their way onto the Embassy Wiki shortly, for wider debate and consultation.

Highlights of the weekend for me were, in no particular order of importance, the inspitational summary of Embassy aims and ambitions for getting our message out there, delivered in style by Mark Ames of ibikelondon, and the eye-opening infrastructure design session that resulted in a phased proposal for creating separated cycling infrastructure around a typical UK roundabout. And of course the plenary session in the pub on Saturday night, where the real work was done.

However one idea really stood out for me, biased of course as I am, which is that design is the solution to so many questions - be it setting out a cycling network to inform decisions about what and where infrastructure is required or in understanding how spaces can be used or occupied. Making good design decisions and following a recognised process of carrying out your analysis, formulating a strategy, creating a concept and setting that within a framework which you rigourously test is such a strong approach and I am grateful for my architectural training which has equipped me to think in such a way.

I return to Cardiff tired but energised, thoughtful and re-enthused. I look forward to seeing some of the great ideas we had come to fruition and forsee a strengthening of networks and the relationships made.

23 January 2012

Place, Place, Place


Great post focussing on the idea that bikes are just one weapon in the peacemaking armoury.

Shiny Bike for a Bash

The Brompton got a polish this weekend, and some overdue oiling and easing. This is because it is going up to Town with me this weekend for a bit of a bash;


and for some old fashioned reason I felt it ought to look nice. Don't want to let the Embassy down.

The only downside here is that I bought some 3-in-1 oil , mostly for nostalgic reasons, only to be sorely let down when I realised it now comes in a plastic container, not a tin can as I remembered from my youth. So no nice "plink" noise when applying. Bah.

11 January 2012

Good Work 2011

I have been impressed and humbled by the work done in the bloggersphere during 2011. There was some really fabulous and inspirational stuff created and disseminated during the course of last year.

First up in this quick summary of what interested in the past year, and already covered extensively elswhere, is the video below produced by the Dutch Cycling Embassy. It is enthusiastic, elegant, inspiring and really annoying that they get it and we don't.

Next on the wall of fame is the work done by the LCC in producing imagery of how Blackfriars could be if TfL weren't so intent on backing the wrong horse in the race for the future of London. The way that LCC have conducted this campaign is very interesting and the level of expertise that has been broguht to bear by an interest group is impressive. The positive aspect is the actually the positive nature of the campaign - promoting an idea rather than just levelling criticisms. I suspect this will create a new paradigm for cycling campaign groups.

There have been so many other fantastic moments - the ride in London of the 10 worst junctions for cyclists, Mikeal getting his cargo bike back (but then stolen again - what is the latest there?) and of course the inaugral Harris Hack in Cardiff, with more tweed on show than has been seen in South Wales for many a long year.

Harris Hackers Cutting a Dash at the National Museum

8 January 2012


Bike advertising in Cardiff

I enjoyed seeing this fine advertising tricycle in the centre of Cardiff today, remininding me of the infinite variety of uses for this wonderful machine. Today a mobile advertising hoarding, tomorrow a mobile barbers (maybe).

5 January 2012

The Need for Speed

We all love to hate the comments on the various blogs and comment sites where the enemy motorist thunders that cyclists who run red lights or ride on pavements effectively remove any moral right for  those squeaky clean unoffending riders to complain about their lot. I love to get hot under the collar about that and I also particularly enjoy dutifully stopping at red lights and riding on stupidly dangerous roadways in a constant battle to reclaim the moral high ground. As Homer Simpson said "it's not marriage that's the problem, it's the constant battle for moral superiority that's the killer".

My latest bit of moral grandstanding involves my double life as a car driver. Yes dear reader, I do enjoy a dalliance with the dark side now and then, but then again don't we all...

I have decided to commit to drive as near as I can to the posted legal speed limits wherever I go in my car; that statement in itself saying something about what follows. As a result, I have discovered two highly connected things. Firstly, the vast majority of car drivers break the law with impunity and secondly, it is very difficult not to join in this mass protest action against authority. Actually, that makes it all sound a bit jolly and rebellious, whereas in reality of course it is a corrosive and antisocial disease that is killing our public spaces, but more on that later.

Now, this is not going to be an authoritative or scientifically accurate dissection of motor speeding rates. It is private blog written by a hobbyist after all. If you want facts, go to Wikipedia. All I know is that I am now the slowest and most cringingly annoying driver on the road. Wherever I go, other drivers behind me often get stressed and upset just because I am trying not to break the law. So really the ridiculousness of anyone using RLJs as evidence for why cyclists should be licensed, taxed, burned at the stake or whatever is quite overwhelming. These incentives obviously haven't worked for motorists. In fact the only main requirements of the highway code are that we drive on the left, don't smash into each other and don't drive too fast. We only really  manage to drive on the left, despite all the taxes, licenses and bureaucracy that can be devised.

But, it is the second thing I discovered that interests me more than some boring and endlessly replayed argument about who stopped at the traffic lights and who didn't. The fact that breaking the speed limit is so easy should be the concern. I believe there is of course a cultural force at work here - my natural instinct to blend in and do as others do, to be part of the social "norm" makes it very difficult to drive differently (and thus slower) than  everyone else, but It is also the case that antisocial speeding behaviour is all facilitated and condoned by the highway network itself. The engineering strategies that ensure large visibility splays, gentle radii to bends, easy gradients, shallow dips, open vistas and a smooth (!) well drained surface all in the name of safety have created the perfect risk-free environment to go faster and faster. It seems intellectually bizarre to create a system which facilitates certain behaviour, which you then try to prevent with unenforceable rules.

The "Twenty's Plenty" campaign on one hand stands as a recognition of the tragic fact that the risks of the game are not accurately relayed to the most dangerous protagonists, and on the other as the apogee of this whole daft approach. In a sensibly designed network, there would be no need for speed limits as it would be obvious what an appropriate speed was. The design itself would imply the right approach. This is a purely selfish notion - despite the warm glow of law abiding citizenry, I am sick of feeling like a twat driving at  the legally correct 30mph over the Gabalfa flyover in Cardiff, designed in a similar style to the M4 just to the North, where 70mph is the limit. You could hit 100mph over that flyover without too much bother. Is it any wonder that so many fail this unfair morality test just a little every day?

I think it is fair therefore to consider the problem of speeding partly as an engineering failure, consistent with the failure to recognise that Dutch style road and cycle path design is the only sensible starting point if you wish to increase cycling rates. This is why the battles in London over key public spaces, such as Blackfriars, Kings Cross and Elephant & Castle are so important. It is at these locations that the clash of the arguments I have set out above has become clear and apparent. On one hand, we have the institutional engineering strategies of TfL that prioritise traffic flow over all else and which divorce the design from the appropriate behaviour. On the other, we have people demanding inherent safety and a genuine consideration of the importance of public realm, a sense of place and the way citizens use their public space.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain will play a crucial role here, as it seeks to open our eyes in the UK to the approaches and solutions used in other countries such as The Netherlands which have grappled with this same conundrum, but have typically come up with a far more grown up and civilised approach.

3 January 2012

More Dispatches from Spain

Bikes on stands
Bike Parking in the centre of Palma de Mallorca

We return from Spain again encouraged by the progress and openess we see there to alternative means of transport. Of course, they are still largely in thrall to the motor car (and moped), but there are definite green shoots in terms of a growing cycling culture. The beauty of a country like Spain is that whilst they remain very car orientated, people are very quick to adapt to and accept new ideas. They seem to have an in-built sense of civic duty that means that if something is suggested that will clearly have benefits for the civic realm then there seems to general acceptance, if not always complete support. This stands in contrast to the more overt conservatism in the UK, where new ideas are generally regarded with suspicion at best. I like to think that the focus on public space and quality urban realm that typifies a Spanish city like Palma de Mallorca comes from this belief in the idea of "civitas". Perhaps this is one of the cultural influences bequeathed to Spain by it's Moorish occupiers centuries ago.

Bike share scheme
Typical docking station

Either way, the green shoots are in evidence in Palma. In addition to the now a-typical bike hire scheme, carried out with the usual Spanish commitment and panache, there are also new cycling infrastructure interventions all over the city. They may be sub-standard when compared with best practice, such as the painted lanes that cross Plaza Espanya in a rather unlikely fashion, but there are also new two-way lanes with separating kerbs that have been borrowed from the carriageway and newly installed two-way lanes forming part of widened footways. The beginnings of what could become an extensive network are in place, mostly in the form of segregated routes - something that we can't sneer at at all in the UK, regardless of the criticisms that could be levelled at the two-way style and narrow widths.

What makes the difference is when the Spanish decide to do something, they do it the best they possibly can. Not just a can of spray paint; but taking lanes from traffic, closing some streets altogether to cars, introducing bike friendly crossings, having bike/pedestrian priority crossings at junctions etc etc. they recognise the compromises that inevitably stem from believing bike is best, and accept them. All too often in the UK, you get the sense that planners and engineers know they have to do something, but can't quite stomach the true consequences of that decision and we end up with the useless, underused and often dangerous rubbish that passes for cycling infrastructure here.

Bike share stand
Bike network map on docking station

Beyond the evidence literally on the ground, there are also actually people on bikes. There are bikes parked on stands that once would have been all for mopeds. There are bike shops doing bike maintenance and selling stylish fixies. There is advertising using bikes as the backdrop. The next time I am there, I am sure that the balance of sensible upright bike v cheap knobbly tyred mountain bike with unsuitable suspension will have shifted in favour of the more elegant way to travel, and lo, a utility bike culture will have taken hold. Don't forget that sport cycling in Spain is a major deal, much more so I suspect than in the UK, so getting people to consider cycling for transport rather than just sport is perhaps a bigger stretch, although equally more people are used to cycling regularly. The point is that when I first came here 9 years ago, a bicycle would have been a rare beast in the city. Not now. There are painted bikes on the surfacing of segregated cycle paths, and real ones riding over - two facts not unrelated, I believe.