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Cycling London: Our Responsibility

Cycling London: Our Responsibility

For the last few months I’ve been shortening my life expectancy by cycling to work, in London; if the busses don’t get you- the nitrogen will. I’m no stranger to commuting by bike- however city cycling, and capital cycling especially, is a different beast. It doesn’t take an engineering degree and a stint in the highways department to know that, despite our comical mayor, London just isn’t setup for cyclists.

That all that’s left is for me to control the hazard is, to me- at least, is a real CDM failure for TfL.

This is a problem that is beginning to result in an impressive death toll, and one where civil engineers take some responsibility for the start, and often the end of the chain; if we are the custodians of infrastructure than the omission is our fault– and construction traffic has claimed more than its fair share of lives. Knowing this, I took the opportunity to appraise my own commute and see what I was facing.

First of the bat, we have to address the question of why am I cycling. I cycle on a Brompton, so it’s fair to say I’m not doing it for the pleasure of the thing (although Bromptons are well engineered piece of kit; more on that another time). I cycle because I cannot (ever) afford to live close to where I work, so the combined walking time either side of the train journey is circa 45-60 minutes. Unexpectedly, simply “solving” the housing crisis in London would, literally, save a good few lives.

I could, of course, get the tube/bus. However- this would set me back something in the region of £1000 every year, be slower, and involve playing an intimate game of sardines twice a day. Once again improving alternative infrastructure would make a difference. However, I’m going to make the point that cycling is arguably better for the environment, and (if you don’t get hit by something) a good form of exercise.

To often these lanes are “shared” with busses; they bring you in closer proximity to some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road,

So, let’s get on my bike. Waterloo starts with a brilliant combined ‘pedestrian and cyclist‘ -way. At this point it’s me who’s the aggressor; joining the multitude of cyclists swerving between the surprisingly nonplussed pedestrians. Paradoxically, however, I’ve never seen/heard of an accident here- I suppose it’s because everyone on that walkway knows to keep their wits about them.

The next feature happens immediately after; a “zebra” crossing to allow pedestrians to cross the cycle path. This is a lazy transference of a road paradigm onto cyclists; and doesn’t really work. You see- bikes are thin, and their propulsion is directly linked to effort; It is easier not to stop on bike. The result is an odd junction where cyclists are rewarded for bravely cutting close around pedestrians.

The majority of my journey is along plagued by transient cycle lanes. These green widths make semi-random, short lived, appearances; terminating abruptly and abandoning their followers back onto the road. As a consequence, they are ignored; arguably creating a bigger danger by giving people new to the route a false sense of security.

To make it worse, these lanes are often “shared” with busses; which means that even if they were continuous- they bring you in closer proximity to some of the most dangerous vehicles on the road, and require you to constantly change lanes- or face frequent waits behind each bus stop. The result is a network of coloured paving, and not much else.

Without a cycle lane, cyclists become second class citizens; vehicles rarely leave any space for them to pass through, or give way to allow lanes to be crossed. Combined with London’s slow moving traffic, this results in a parkour-like free-run, with cyclists being forced to flow and filter through the ever changing tiny gaps. It’s obvious to anyone that this is a recipe for disaster.

A lot of the dangers faced by cyclists in London are actually due to their behaviors- This means my health and safety is entirely linked to my ability to control the hazards I’m subject to.

This effect comes to a head when there are road works (engineers, once again) and the already fragile transport flow begins to break down; buses aggressively pushing into tiny openings- taxis vying for reduced carriageway and in the middle of it; cyclists being squeezed into smaller and smaller gaps. Unfortunately, roadworks in London are pretty much the rule, rather than the exception- so what should, at least, be a temporary risk is more of a permanent one.

Finally- my journey involves an odd one-way loop; where my return home requires me to cycle the wrong way down a road (on an apparent, but undivided, ‘cycle lane’) and then dumps me onto the pavement. The combined counter flow and temptation to push along the footpath just continues the theme of putting me into risky situations, which I am forced to manage.

You see, a lot of the dangers faced by cyclists in London are actually due to their behaviors- if I was content to hold my position in the center of the carriageway and pretend to be a car, my commute would be significantly safer. It’d also be much slower, and would cause complete mayhem is everyone started doing it. This means my health and safety is entirely linked to my ability to control the hazards I’m subject to.

And as an engineer you should spot the concern. ERIC: Eliminate, Reduce, Isolate and Control; London’s cycle infrastructure is almost entirely at the worse level of risk management. Where are the exclusive cycleways to eliminate, the segregation to reduce or the alternative routes to isolate the problem?

If all that’s left is for me to control the hazards; that is a real CDM failure for TfL

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  1. Andy T

    I have a thing against transient cycle lanes. The places where they cut out are, of course, where there isn’t enough highway width to accommodate them. I can understand why they are cut there, but the problem is that these are the places where cyclists are at most danger and therefore most in need of cycle lanes! So councils install cycle lanes where it’s relatively safe to cycle, and suddenly end them where it isn’t so safe. Genius! Better just not to bother installing them at all!

  2. George

    My cycling manifesto:
    Stop all use of shared space – they are bad for people on foot and bad for people on bikes
    All busy through roads need separated spaces for bicycles in the long term, this can be done incrementally but needs to be done. Where there genuinely is not enough space for the carriageway and a separated cycle route (and the carriageway can’t be routed elsewhere), that doesn’t mean you don’t put in separated provision when there is space again!
    All residential streets must have modal filtering to prevent rat running
    New DfT standards for engineers to use, who don’t cycle (prevent things like 90 degree bends and poles in the middle of cycle paths)
    Standard for cycle routes to be: high quality, continuous and separated. Stop-start routes are no good. Low quality paving is no good. Mixing it with cars and lorries is no good.
    In urban areas which are already congested, traffic capacity should not be the main guiding criteria -the approach of maximising traffic has already failed (repeatedly for decades) and the more people on bikes or on foot does mean less congestion

    There are two nations that we can look to for guidance, the Netherlands and Denmark and it really isn’t difficult. It is a political issue rather than an engineering one, but I feel that engineers haven’t been maximising the opportunities when they arise and are content to put in the worst possible solutions, presumably because they don’t know any better.

    +1 for the Brompton though, woop!

    • I like it. I must admit I’m incredibly jealous of all of those who get to use the new segregated cycle lane along the North Bank in London these days. Although when I did try an use the one from The City to Mile End, it was full of road works and I expect ended up being more dangerous due to me constantly having to switch to and from the main road again!