15 March 2012

Fear and Cycling in London

We went up-town to London last weekend for a bit of culture. Sadly, despite massive success on the cultural front, I failed once again to have a go with the Boris Bikes. We were wandering around Paddington Basin after breakfast, and came upon a bike hire station near the back of St Mary's Hospital. We were in the process of considering our way to Trafalgar Square, via the Bakerloo Line and Piccadilly Circus, and idly wondered for a moment if it might be worth a go on a bike. By actually looking at the docking station closely for the first time, I realised that you probably don't even need to have a membership card, which I had incorrectly presumed to be the case before now. There were even a couple a brand new bikes, which looked to be in great mechanical condition.

However, the familiar dread just kept coming up about having to ride in traffic. Being tourists in London Village, we are just not that familiar with London driving and the road system. It is why tourists take the tube and locals take the bus - the underground network is a navigation method that is diagrammatically simple and directionally certain, whereas the bus takes a route you are unsure of and you don't know when you have arrived at your destination (you mostly have to ask for the bus to stop somewhere which you aren't familiar with - it always stresses me out anyway).

A similar worry exists with the bike system - you don't know how to get where you are going, and don't understand the nature of the network you are forced to use (the roads). It is even less easy to use the back streets, unless you stop every 20m to try and figure out where you are, which means manoeuvring into the correct position is tricky, plus we don't have an A-Z permanently on hand. Maybe we just need to get a bit more techno-savvy and get on board with the bike hub app and equip ourselves with the appropriate hardware...

However, I recall that this wayfinding was not such an issue when we cycled in Copenhagen, because although the network you are using is adjacent to the road system, it is separate from it and so the problems of manoeuvering or getting in position, or even stopping to look at a map are easier to manage. By removing the issue of negotiating with traffic from the wayfinding equation, all other worries became more manageable and less concerning. If I could cycle down Edgware Road happily in my own space, I'd know where I was, I'd have a rough idea where I was going and I wouldn't be cacking myself. Perhaps then I'd have the guts to keep my Oyster Card in my wallet and try above-ground two wheeled travel for a change. After all, when we walk around London, we always chuckle knowingly about how everything is much closer than you might think from looking at the tube map.


I wanted to write something about a bike hire scheme, but had to go to London to do it. The Cardiff scheme, for which Cardiff was in the vanguard for once, has quietly closed and the unusual rod-driven bikes have been given away. Evidently, the unusual idea of "trialling" the scheme with a handful of docking stations and less than 100 bikes turned out to be less successful than the experiences of some other major European Cities who have tried something similar. Like Barcelona, for instance, where they dumped 1000's of bikes and 100's of docking stations on the city virtually overnight. Can you spot the difference?


14 March 2012





I like this, cos I got one in the cloakroom. Bit grubbier than these mind.



8 March 2012

Efficiency and Trains

Photo: HS2 Ltd

I note that a central plank of the argument for HS2 is the accounting matter of efficiency. If we arrive at our destination earlier, we'll get more done, and thus be more efficient. We are not, it seems, allowed to work on the way. Let us set aside for a moment the depressing intellectual position this proclaims - that the journey is not significant - and focus instead for a moment on the wondrous ability of bean counters to miss the point. In a thoroughly unscientific and appallingly self centred way, I shall base my argument purely on personal experience and extrapolate to the wider world.

In terms of blog posts, I am pretty much constrained these days to coming up with stuff whilst sat on the train. For some reason, the thinking space that the train creates, combined with the gentle rocking motion, allows me to think and write. If journeys were shortened, so thus would my creative output reduce. And what a loss to western civilisation that would be.

The correct solution in terms of efficiency is therefore not to reduce the journey time, but improve the experience whilst on the journey. One thing Network Rail could usefully do to that end is have a jolly good tidy up. The rail network seems to serve a dual purpose these days - obviously it is a route for trains, but it is also a vast linear tip for Network Rail to hide its junk over an extremely stretched out area. If you gathered up all the spare sleepers and rails lying about, you could build a complete new rail line. The recycled railway if you like.

I'm not sure why working on the way to somewhere is not accounted for in these costing exercises - perhaps the kind of people who do this kind of maths are not the kind of people who take the train. And that is something that western civilisation is definitely the poorer for.

6 March 2012

Political Will v Engineering Standards

It has been a crazy exciting time in the world of cycle campaigning, with the thundering weight of the Times thrown behind the Cities Fit For Cycling Campaign. Suddenly, for the first time in ages (ever?), an infrastructural approach to cycling is making waves both in the press and in the political world. It has been a pleasant surprise to see how far support for this campaign has spread amongst MPs, with a significant attendance at the special debate in Westminster Hall and, more importantly, a relatively sensible discussion (?)

This is the beginning of a long journey, and a necessary starting point. However, I agree with a recent posting from Joe Dunkley at War on the Motorist, who reminds us that it is only one side of the coin. As I have previously written, we must also win over and persuade the engineers that all things are possible. Their dogma is not political, or fashioned and filtered through the press and the lens of public opinion. It is based instead on the intractable guidance and technical design notes that form the basis of the highway schemes that we must change for the better.

I suspect that this is the harder battle to win. Politicians may bend to a vigorous and well supported campaign and their response could be policies and hopefully cash on the table. However, it is the engineers that will turn this cash into reality, and they will base their designs not on policy or public support, but on the guidance that exists. We must therefore ensure that the guidance is capable of producing what we want on the ground, and the wheels turn slowly in the world of engineering publications. For instance, The Manual for Streets is new(ish) guidance on how to design roads particularly in new housing estates and yet still designers and architects have a battle on their hands persuading local authorities that it is reasonable and effective. What is more, this particular manual is considered to be innovative and cutting edge (not concepts highway engineers are typically associated with), but does not come close to being able to deliver the kind of separated cycling infrastructure seen in the Netherlands, and demanded by groups such as the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. Even it refers to the Hierarchy of Provision we are so familiar with, and so rude about. Even it is influenced by vehicular cycling publications and ancient research now long superseded.

Joe Dunkley has chosen the LTN 2/08 as the particular target for his ire in his post and rightly so. We must continue to question these perceived articles of faith and provide the intellectual debate and research to counter them. We must create the body of knowledge that can be referenced and referred to. We need to create a bibliography that is ready and waiting for when the political will turns and the cash arrives. We need to become the recognised experts in the field, who are turned to when the moment comes.

This leads me to comment on a sad event of the week, which stands in contrast to the progress elsewhere. The decision of David Hembrow to close his fabulous and influencial blog A View from the Cycle Path is a sad loss. We must be inspired by David's Herculean efforts but also his accurate and clear style. We might also usefully buy something groovy from his shop and go on one of his tours to see this stuff for ourselves IN PERSON, which was after all his constant refrain.

(In a brilliant twist of organisational nonsense, David has resurrected his blog whilst I was dragging my feet attempting to post this. So, I am both current and out of date all at the same time).

5 March 2012

Trainspotting Moment

I have never been to Stafford station before, but it turns out to be a bit of a brutalist tour-de-force. Board-marked concrete always enlivens ones journey, I find.

Stafford Station, in transit.