18 October 2013

What Do We Do Now?

This is a piece I wrote some time ago on the subject of getting my son to school. In my mind, this is a fundamental illustration of why segregated cycling facilities have to be the future. He is now nearly 6, and the problem remains.


A few weeks ago, I was delighted to be able to tweet a message that my 4 yr old son had successfully negotiated one of life's more memorable milestones - he had made his first solo flight on his little black and yellow bike; stabiliser free and wind in his hair. What a little belter.

He has since practised hard, and has subsequently added "the launch" to his skill set, plus some pretty advanced cornering abilities. I've even raised the seat as he's grown. If he could only master stopping (he keeps forgetting where the brakes are) we'd be sorted. No doubt he'll get it eventually.

This is a brilliant development, and just in time for mum and dad, as he has outgrown the rear bike seat he used to use on his mum's bike. He is also starting to get too big for the IT Chair on my Brompton; or at least he's getting too heavy for my feeble pedalling efforts to actually propel us forward.

But, despite our pride in his achievements, and pleasure at his progress, we do have a problem. What do we do next?

I mean, he's only 4. He lacks any understanding of the rules of the road. He's a bit wobbly too - it's only been a few weeks after all since he got the hang of it. How can he develop and utilise this new ability? Why not ride to school?

Fortunately for us, we thought, his new primary school is accessed via a back lane and is only about 250m from our back gate with only a few side road crossings to negotiate. Excellent, we thought - we could fit a Trail Gator to our bikes, allowing us to tow him to school behind us on his bike and as his confidence grows maybe he could start to do it on his own after a few months. Problem No.1: No cycle parking at the school, preventing us from unhitching him and continuing our journey unencumbered. Not very welcoming, and no special parking place for a little one on a bike.

Ok, so perhaps we could just lock up his bike just off school premises and carry on regardless? Problem No.2: The back lanes we were relying on as a safe route become a mess of traffic, both parking and speeding through, for 30mins before school starts and for 30mins after it finishes thanks to the school run rat-runners. I prefer walking when it's like that, so it's not really a place for a little one on a bike.

Ok, but we are lucky to have a place for the little feller at the breakfast club and the after-hours club, allowing us to get him to school early and pick him up late and thus miss the rush. Sadly, at these times the lanes are used as rat runs by commuters who are able to zoom through when the gridlock of the school run is not present - I've been chased in the past at full tilt by the odd car who has bullied past despite the lack of room. So perhaps not the ideal place for a little one on a bike.

So where exactly is the place for a little one on a bike in this world? After all, acquiring a new and important life skill should be cause for celebration, not dismay.

It shouldn't be "if only".


14 October 2013

Guess What?



I have a confession to make. Since I got interested in all things related to cycling infrastructure and road design, I find myself all excited when my monthly email update arrives from SWOV, the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research. This is why the bloody Internet does to you and it is a disgrace. Anyway...this particular paper caught my attention for being a bit chameleon like. It is both interesting and informative, whilst also having a whiff of The Daily Mash about it.

The basic premise seems to be a bit radical for these shores, so I'm glad no self respecting UK highway engineers would be caught dead reading it. Those Dutch traffic boffins claim that the speed vehicles travel at along a section of road directly affects both the number of accidents that will happen there AND their severity. After that mind altering revelation, they go on to make the heroic suggestion that in order to achieve a desired speed limit on a road, you need to design the road environment accordingly. I presume, in my typically naive and unqualified way, that means going little bit further that just sticking up a speed limit sign and hoping that the moral fibre of passing drivers is sufficiently robust.

I like the SWOV papers not just for their earnest (and thus faintly amusing) air. More importantly, they demonstrate an enthusiasm for modern, updated and continuous research into road safety measures. They are not afraid to test ideas they themselves once promoted and to note where they fall short in practice. They cover all road users. This body of knowledge helps policy makers take decisions on the basis of study, and does not simply rely on the endlessly regurgitated, and hopelessly outdated, publications of yesteryear which seem to underpin the equivalent in this country.

I do hope that something similar exists here.


Note that this has been in my pending tray for almost a year, such is the lack of blogging I now manage to indulge in. Oops.


19 March 2013


I wrote a post some time ago on the design problem that seemed to be posing an unreasonable level of danger to cyclists - that of lorry cab designs.


The point I was making that the cyclists are not to blame for the problem, even though safety campaigns are invariably aimed at them - a cut and dried case of the "victim blaming" typical in this kind of situation. I would go further and say that often the drivers of these vehicles are victims too, as they are put under extraordinary pressures as a direct consequence of the design of the vehicle they are often expected to manoeuvre quickly and safely through crowded urban streets.

If you applied basic health and safety thinking (of the kind that really has made a genuine difference to the way the construction industry operates in this country) to this problem, the design of the cabs themselves would be an obvious starting point for remedial action. It is sad that so many major construction companies are not extending their health and safety obligations resulting as a consequence of their operations beyond the gates of their site compounds, and insisting that lorries used in crowded urban areas are better designed.

I am therefore delighted to see that the London Cycling Campaign has come up with visuals that show exactly the kind of thing I had in mind, as reported in The Guardian:


and as noted on the LCC website itself:


The biggest problem here for haulage companies and the extremely safety-aware major contractors that employ them is that these visuals look so entirely reasonable and sensible.

In a civilised world where people in cities come first, surely those in charge of governance would insist that the brutish and dangerous lorries were tamed before being allowed through the city gates? If you want to drive here, drive something safer.

27 February 2013

Designed for Speed

I am interested in the prevalence of speeding amongst motorists, particularly in the light of statistics and common sense relating to potential harm and the dangers inherent in this activity. Many people, including myself, have previously highlighted the role played by the design of the highway environment itself. I am a firm believer that arbitrarily low speed limits applied to urban motorway-style highways rely almost exclusively on motorists internal "moral compass" for compliance. Obeying the law is one thing, but doing it in the face of constant temptation is quite another. Others have discussed a cultural desire for speed and the power of marketing to create and then reinforce this.

I seem to be test driving a considerable variety of cars at the moment. Not because I have a cool Top Gear type of job (that is cool, right?) but rather because I have a building on site at present and I need to lug a large amount of drawings and PPE around with me when I visit. It is also a 500 mile round trip. I get a different hire car each time, and so I am able to compare and contrast in some detail.

This ad-hoc experiment of dubious scientific quality has clearly demonstrated another conclusion we need to add to the motorist's woes when it comes to controlling the need for speed. The design of the car cockpit itself is quite terribly poor when it comes to communicating to the driver basic information about how fast they are going.

Our everyday family car is a Honda Civic. Actually, "everyday" is a misnomer, as it mostly spends its days quietly depreciating outside the house, stationary. But no matter - the key point here is that it has a "heads-up" type digital speedometer that sits in a binnacle (see, I've got the terminology sorted too) above the steering wheel. This is not why we got this car, but is turns out to be a brilliant feature - knowing how fast you are actually going. This is important, as modern cars seems to go nicely just above 35mph in 4th gear. You can hardly hear the engine at 40mph. The road you are on in the centre of town is barely discernible from the 70mph M25, but has a 30mph limit. In other words, the sensory information and feedback from the car and the environment is providing a false reading which makes the speedo a useful point of reference, bearing in mind the damage a speeding car can do.

Interesting therefore that the vast majority of hire cars I drive have the standard rotating needle-type speedo. Unchanged probably since Herr Benz thought it would be amusing to see how fast he could go, and stuck an adapted pressure gauge next to the steering wheel. They truly are appalling. They are inaccurate, illegible and mostly stuck BEHIND the steering wheel - which themselves have become bloated with paraphernalia, making it even harder to see through them to the vital information beyond. Looking frequently down behind the steering wheel isn't much of a safety feature either. A final ignominy is that the speedo is often the same size as the rev counter, despite most normal people having no use for this information whatsoever.

It is almost as if car designers would prefer not to remind their eager customers that they are actually just crawling along in a massive traffic jam at a snails pace, rather than bowling along in the manner beloved by car advertisements worldwide.

I am intrigued why this issue has not been more consistently addressed, as a vital safety feature. Maybe fewer drivers would then zoom past me in an unholy rush as I pedal serenely onwards.