Sunday, 23 April 2017

An angry man on a pavement, a rash of misunderstandings - and why I'll be seeking to bridge the gap

One morning in mid-March, because I was running late for a meeting, I opted to ride across Waterloo Bridge, expecting it to be the fastest route, despite its being a hostile environment for cyclists. Only just over half way across, however, I found myself stuck behind a queue of buses stretching all the way to the Strand. Resting my foot on the kerb, I peered down the long, red, double-deck wall, wondering what I should do.
Waterloo Bridge, approaching Covent Garden (c Google):
scene of a run-in that briefly enraged me,
before opening my metaphorical eyes

As I did so, a passing pedestrian decided to lecture me on the basis of what he thought I was doing, not my actual actions.

“Hey, mate!” he shouted in my direction, before pointing down at the pavement (or sidewalk, North American readers). “This here is a footway!”

I tried shouting after him to explain I had not the slightest intention of riding my bike down the pavement, as he assumed I planned to do. But he was already off, an air of self-righteousness buzzing around him like flies round a smelly cow.

It was one of several times recently when I’ve come across people making judgements about people’s behaviour on the roads based on their perceptions of what was happening, rather than the reality. I’ve had to pull out of my son’s front tyre a tack that had been left, presumably deliberately, on a cycle path to thwart someone’s idea of bad, irresponsible cyclists. I’ve rowed with an Uber driver who thought I was being unreasonable by riding down the middle of a narrow street to stop him from dangerously overtaking me and my family. I’ve seen pedestrians pause as I slowed to a stop at traffic lights, apparently assuming I would breeze on through.
The tack that caused my son's puncture:
anti-cyclist prejudice made manifest

These and other incidents have all made me realise how hard it is to change attitudes about events on the road. As far as the angry man on Waterloo Bridge is concerned, he went away having prevented a cyclist from riding on the pavement, an event that can only have reinforced his self-righteousness. The people who scattered the tacks on the cycle track will have assumed they thwarted some lycra-clad cycle commuter and won’t have seen my son’s anxiety over the incident. The Uber driver gained no understanding of why I was riding in the middle of the road so will only think cyclists more unreasonable. The wary pedestrians will assume I’m the exception, not the rule.

But the incidents have also made me think about how I react when I’m out on the streets myself. Time and again, as I assess the risks of some situation, I look round to work out how much of a danger a particular driver’s behaviour is likely to represent. I notice that I retreat into the basest assumptions about how people of a particular race or gender will behave or judge a person solely on his or her choice of car. The recognition has impressed on me yet again the vital importance of getting to know the widest possible range of people and understanding their views. Yet both on the roads and in politics - which it’s now my day job to cover - groups appear to be growing more polarised and less apt to talk to each other, rather than less.

At the heart of the on-street misunderstandings is a paradox of road use that has struck me repeatedly over the years. It feels like a private experience to use a street - particularly when driving in a car. But one’s in fact engaged in a very complex social interaction. It’s vital to anticipate how others are going to act and that people broadly adhere to the expected ways of behaving, even if those are not the same as the formal rules of the road.

In the US and UK, where cycling is a minority means of getting about, this creates a problem for people who ride bikes. Very few drivers or pedestrians can picture themselves in a cyclist’s place on the road or understand the multiple pressures on a cyclist on a busy road or mixed-use path or some other place where conflict between users arises. This only exacerbates, it seems to me, people’s tendency to stereotype cyclists’ behaviour. The wincing pedestrians at traffic lights are a case in point. While they perceive cyclists as inherently unlikely to obey traffic lights, I’m far more struck by how many cyclists obey signals whose placing and timing is generally governed by another mode’s needs.
A crash on Clapham Road: road use is such a complex
interaction it's surprising such scenes remain relatively rear.

The challenges are all the greater because people have to make decisions on the roads fast. Many of my own reactions, I’m aware, come from bits of my brain that work so instinctively I’m barely aware of them. I’m startled into fear by the sudden movement of a car in my peripheral vision, much as my distant ancestors must have been hard-wired to jump at the movement in the corner of their eyes that signified a prowling bear or wolf. Once those fight-or-flight responses are aroused, I tend not to revert quickly to my normal polite, reasonable self.

On top of all this, most people, I think, carry the mental scars of past bad experiences, which they recall far more readily than good things. It’s easy to miss how much that shapes one’s perceptions. A friend from New York, for example, cycled in London last summer and raved about how she saw no-one driving while using their mobile phone, comparing that favourably with New York. She had yet to build up my experience of spotting drivers using mobile phones in London. For me, by contrast, each time I see someone’s driving while using a mobile, it slots into a convenient mental envelope - “yet more evidence that dangerous mobile phone use is endemic among London drivers”.
A clear message to drivers about driving
around cyclists: all too rare - and all too
badly needed

The net result of all these human foibles, it seems to me, is that nearly every road-user travels around a mess of prejudices, dangerous assumptions and hurt feelings. It’s hardly surprisingly, consequently, that myths about road user behaviour seem particularly persistent and prejudices against cyclists seem particularly hard to shift. People’s assumptions are shored up not only by what they see going on around them but by the far greater number of things they think they see going on. My apparent determination to plough down a busy pavement on a Monday morning probably did more to reinforce the prejudices of the Angry Man of Waterloo Bridge far more than any encounter with a real pavement cyclist would have done.

Yet, however urgent the need to bridge this chasm of comprehension, the gap seems currently to be growing ever wider. Whereas debates about roads policy might once have been played out mainly through newspaper articles or in other media that had a range of contributors and readers, social media such as twitter seem to let narrow groups reinforce each other’s prejudices. Drivers’ twitter accounts often bristle with violent anger against cyclists, frequently reinforced by other, like-minded people. Cycling social and other media, meanwhile, are prone to a self-congratulatory tone and, sometimes, scorn for anyone using any other transport mode, including buses.

I was particularly disappointed recently to read a column by Ashok Sinha, chief executive of the London Cycling Campaign, lambasting those of us who point to the evidence linking worsening motor traffic congestion with the building of London’s segregated Cycle Superhighways for spreading “fake news”. It would be far harder for this conviction to maintain its current hold on London’s cycling advocates if more of them spent time with transport planners and advocates from outside the activist community. Even planners who are well-disposed towards cycling and want to see cycling levels rise go slack-jawed in amazement at activists’ reluctance to accept the clear, substantial evidence that the new facilities have played a significant role in worsening congestion for motor vehicles.
A busy North-South Cycle Superhighway,
next to a congested road: my views about
the relationship between the two are
"fake news," apparently.

Yet I understand all too well why the echo chambers get sealed off from outside noises. Two of my Facebook friends would, for a while, respond every time I complained about dangerous drivers by complaining about the alleged danger posed by cyclists on pavements. When even a blogpost analysing the evidence on this point failed to persuade them, I took, I admit, the path of least resistance. I unfriended them, making my experience of Facebook less stressful but simultaneously less diverse.

The problem is far from confined to cycling advocacy. This past week, I started a new, temporary day job as a political correspondent. It’s impossible to avoid the idea that politics in both the UK and US have grown polarised partly because people have so little experience of communicating with people with a different point of view. The stubborn insistence of some supporters of Jeremy Corbyn that he can lead the Labour Party to a general election victory makes far more sense if one imagine how information flows to Corbyn’s hardest-line supporters. Since most presumably have twitter feeds and Facebook timelines full of people agreeing with them, it must be easy to assume that the opinion polls - which show the party 20 percentage points or so behind the Conservatives - are some nefarious plot.

The widespread nature of the problems, meanwhile, means I can’t offer an easy solution. I wanted to put the Angry Man of Waterloo Bridge straight but I couldn’t catch up with him. If the gulfs of understanding that separate multiple groups in contemporary society were easy to cross, misunderstanding would be far less rife than it currently is.

The angry man’s reaction was, nevertheless, a useful reminder of how easy it is to slip into assuming the worst about another person and failing to question how one’s interpreting a situation. I will seek in future to be slower to anger, less ready to assume the worst about others and more ready to explain my own position politely and calmly.

Sunday, 26 March 2017

A chance remark, a horror attack and why cars and violence are so closely linked

During a brief stop-off on Wednesday morning at Brixton Cycles, I fell into the kind of chit-chat that’s a customary part of any healthy relationship with a cycle retailer. Recalling that the staff member serving me had previously complained about cycling conditions on Westminster Bridge, I remarked to him on the news that Transport for London is due to start installing protected bike paths on either side of the crossing.

“It’s good news about Westminster Bridge, isn’t it?” I’d asked.

The parliamentary clock tower:
tourist icon turned site of terror
The comment was to appear darkly ironic within hours, after Khalid Masood, a convert to Islam, deliberately drove a vehicle at pedestrians on the bridge, killing three, before fatally attacking a policeman guarding the Houses of Parliament. Masood was himself fatally shot following his attack.

I’ve had particular cause to ponder my comment, however, because following the attack I was called away from my normal reporting duties onto the effort to try to identify what led Masood to commit mass murder in the name of his islamist ideology. It was the latest of a large number of extremist attacks I’ve covered stretching back nearly 20 years to the 1998 Omagh bombing, which killed 29 people in a town in Northern Ireland.

As I tried to work out key details of the killer’s life, it struck me how many of the incidents I’ve covered have had some connection with motor vehicles. Two days before another islamist, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, killed a guard outside Canada’s parliament in October 2014, one of Zehaf-Bibeau’s associates had deliberately used a car to run over two Canadian soldiers, killing one. In the aftermath of the 2013 Boston bombing, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and his brother, Tamerlan, who had planted the two bombs, hijacked a car a went on a high-speed chase through the Boston suburbs. Tamerlan died during the subsequent gun battle when his brother accidentally drove the car over him. The Omagh bomb was planted in a car.

The Westminster attack follows two other recent serious attacks by motor vehicles. In July last year, a driver killed 86 people in Nice by driving a truck at them. In December, an attacker killed 12 people in Berlin with a truck.

The motor vehicle is an ideal weapon, it occurred to me, not only because it is so familiar and humdrum an item but also because it provides the dehumanising distance that’s a vital aspect of many weapons. It’s easier psychologically as well as practically to kill people via the familiar action of pressing down on the accelerator pedal than if one is looking them in the eye and throttling them.
The site of a raid on Hagley Road, Birmingham:
one of many parts of the city made more miserable
by its dependence on a deadly dangerous transport mode

As I rode my bike around Birmingham trying to make sense of Masood’s act, however, I had a further thought. It was impossible to miss how much of Birmingham’s landscape was blighted by the presence of sweeping dual carriageways full of high-speed motor vehicles. It was, in particular, a miserable experience spending time by Hagley Road, the six-lane thoroughfare next to which Masood seems to have spent the last few months of his life. While no-one but Masood bears responsibility for his appalling crime, it is unsurprising that cities criss-crossed by such barriers to walking and cycling end up feeling like atomised, impersonal places where it’s hard to make human connections with strangers.

None of this should minimise the horror of Wednesday’s events. There is something uniquely shocking about seeing coverage of such gruesome events in a place that one knows intimately. Masood’s attack ended on a cycle track down the side of parliament that I use frequently, most recently the day immediately before the attack. I spend a reasonable amount of time around Westminster and had been invited to an event in the Palace of Westminster last Tuesday, though I hadn’t attended.
Cyclists wait by the Palace of Westminster: a familiar sight,
easily transformed by a moment's violenc

It is an appalling shock to be reminded of how quickly a single, malicious act can transform such a setting. One of the injured people, for instance, had to be rescued from the Thames. It had never occurred to me that a person might be thrown by a car over the parapet and into the river. I often roll my eyes as I ride through Parliament Square at how tourists take delight in simple things like being photographed in a British telephone booth or pretending to hold the parliamentary clock tower between their fingers. I will regard the scene differently in future knowing that people engaged in such goofy sight-seeing were mowed down because of one man’s misdirected anger and confused ideology.

There is, it seems to me, an especial horror that the deaths and injuries that Masood caused were a result of a deliberate act. In the aftermath of the attack, some people have sought to relativise the attack by pointing out that the attack’s death toll of four was smaller than the five or so average daily deaths on Great Britain’s roads. But it must deepen the pain of the bereaved to know that their loved ones’ deaths resulted from someone’s deciding they were expendable, rather than from negligence, however blameworthy. There is a clear, well-established legal and moral difference between a premeditated and deliberate act and other deadly driving.
A car crash I encountered on Thursday morning:
a reminder that automotive mayhem is a constant, not an exception 

Nevertheless, motor vehicle terrorism is effective precisely because it can be so hard to distinguish the start of a deliberate, pre-meditated terror attack with a car from normal bad driving. When Masood first started revving his engine and speeding up on Wednesday afternoon, his behaviour can’t have seemed that different from the deliberately aggressive driving I encounter on a daily basis in London. I see countless drivers’ speeding up to grossly excessive speeds to express their momentary fury over having been held up, often by me on my bicycle.

The closer the interest one takes in road safety, the less removed from day-to-day driving an attack like Masood’s appears. In December, the driver of a Ferrari supercar was racing another driver down a street in Battersea, near my home in south London, when he lost control, mounted a pavement and hit six school pupils, including one who was thrown over a bridge abutment onto a car below. This past Saturday evening, the police were forced to clarify they didn’t suspect terrorism after a driver ploughed onto a pavement in Islington, north London, at 50 mph, hitting a group of people queuing to get into a pub. A car combines huge destructive power and ease of use in exactly the same dangerous way as a gun. While there is a moral difference between being willing to race a powerful sports car down a public road around pedestrians and deliberately seeking to kill people, the difference is not as big as the racers would like to think.
Sparkbrook: an area with problems, but less blighted
than many plusher parts

But I was struck anew by how pervasive the dehumanising effects of motor vehicle dominance are when I headed to Birmingham on Thursday to research Masood’s last days. When I first headed west from Moor Street station to Hagley Road, I struggled to find a viable cycle route and found myself on one-way streets wholly dominated by unbroken streams of fast-moving cars. When I finally reached the miserable stretch of Hagley Road where Masood lived latterly, I discovered an area blighted to an extraordinary degree by Birmingham’s planners’ decision to base the city’s transport around private cars. When I headed off to the traditional heart of the city’s Muslim communities, in south-east Birmingham, I encountered still more dystopian roads.

It seemed to me impossible to ride a bike on the fast-moving, six-lane “Queensway” system that carries the vast bulk of the traffic. In places, I resorted, shamefully, to riding down the pavement. The only consolation was that my decision jeopardised barely anyone since so few people walk in such a hostile environment.

One of the ironies of my trip was that the rougher, poorer areas such as Sparkbrook that have produced many of Birmingham’s jihadis were far less unpleasant for a cyclist than plusher areas such as Edgbaston. The narrow streets of brick, terraced houses in the poorer areas at least kept vehicle speeds lower. Even in these areas, however, cars crowded pavements and clogged the streets. Residents clearly preferred their cars to the buses that were trapped in the same traffic.
Orlando's Pulse nightclub: scene of a previous horror

There are, of course, multiple, complex reasons for the spread of violent jihadism. The more I’ve learned about Khalid Masood, for example, the more I’ve been struck by how his act last Wednesday seems largely to have been an expression of nihilistic rage, rather than a defined ideology. I was struck by the obvious similarities with the personal story of Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people last June at a nightclub in Orlando, another incident on which I personally reported.

Yet my experience this past week in both London and Birmingham has led me to think that societies where people shut themselves off in cars will always be wary and fearful. A car provides a near-perfect shield for the violent, obscuring their faces and making their intentions harder to read. Like most cyclists, I know the terrifying readiness of many drivers to point their vehicles at cyclists and force their way past. The ultimate threat is a violent one: if you get in my way, I’m more than ready to drive over you.

While there is more work, clearly, to be done on weeding out Islamist ideology and shutting down Jihadi networks, it’s also obvious that western societies have for far too long shrugged at letting drivers wield deadly power with minimal accountability. That danger has seemed until now for most people an inevitable yet unavoidable side effect of cars’ flexibility and convenience as a means of transport. But no other killing machine as potent as private cars is given such free rein in most European countries as motor vehicles are. The logic of a renewed effort to boost alternatives becomes still more compelling as horrors like Thursday’s mount.

The views in this blogpost are entirely my own private reflections and are unrelated to my work for my employer.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

A Cheshire epiphany, cheap driving - and why Brexit means no respite from clogged roads

It’s the kind of scene that’s probably familiar to anyone who’s tried recently cycling in the large swathes of the UK where the motor car is the dominant transport mode. On Sunday, February 12, I tried to cycle a short distance along the A548 road on the outskirts of Chester, the kind of road that a couple of decades ago on a Sunday probably wouldn’t have had enough motor traffic to feel seriously intimidating. After only a few hundred metres, having suffered a succession of high-speed, close passes, I felt forced to retreat to a cycle path I’d spotted on the far side of the road. But, once I’d dismounted to cross, I found myself stranded for several minutes as a stream of high-speed vehicles raced past me.
A car speeds down a lane in rural Cheshire: an increasingly
common sight as fuel duty tips the scales in favour
of travel by car

It’s a scene that’s growing steadily more common. Provisional figures show there was more traffic in 2016 on Great Britain’s roads than in any previous year and that traffic volumes rose 1.2 per cent on 2015. The rise is all the more impressive for occurring against a backdrop of falls or only slight rises in traffic volumes in London, much the biggest city. There are indications wherever one looks that steady falls in the price of fuel, vehicles’ improving fuel economy and a series of other cuts in the price of driving are pushing ever-greater numbers of motor vehicles onto the country’s roads.

Yet I’m just as struck by the poverty of the debate about how to tackle this crisis as I am by the sheer unpleasantness of the conditions. Whereas the UK a decade ago was engaged in an earnest - albeit ultimately unproductive - debate about how to charge for road use, there is currently no serious debate about what to do. It has become expected at each budget or autumn statement that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will continue the freeze on fuel duty, even though it has contributed to an 18.9 per cent decline in average petrol prices over the last three years. I have heard little debate about the policy challenges presented by the exemption of a growing proportion of the UK’s car fleet from vehicle excise duty.

It’s a fair commentary on the intellectual vacuity of the current discourse on the subject that one of the main problems Chris Grayling, transport secretary, identified as a challenge for the UK’s road system in an interview in December was “excessive” use of speed bumps. This is the rhetoric one should expect in the immature, early stages of a government, when ministers are caught up in the simplistic solutions they dreamed up while still in opposition. By their second terms, most governments have started to recognise unpleasant, underlying realities and begun to tackle them. It seems clear to me that the abundance of cheap leasing finance is contributing to the misery by making it ever cheaper for drivers to get hold of very large and very powerful cars, whose effect on other road users is particularly intimidating.
Rush hour traffic in central Birmingham, one of the UK's
most car-dependent cities: a result of badly-positioned
speed bumps, presumably

As long as the problems go unaddressed, however, roads in most of the UK will continue to clog up with cars, efforts to encourage cycling and public transport will grow steadily more fruitless and the actions needed to redress the balance will grow ever more extreme.

At the heart of the debate is the question of what one thinks it means to let motoring get steadily cheaper. There is an argument that it’s perverse to argue on principle that any item - especially one that’s indispensable to many people’s daily lives - should be more expensive. I’ve certainly heard passionate arguments from some transport economists that it’s just that motorists should benefit from recent years’ undoubted rapid improvements in vehicles’ fuel economy. It’s also clear that in the UK - unlike the US - taxes on motorists cover the direct costs of building and maintaining the road network many times over. That prompts many people to argue that any extra tax take from drivers represents an unjustified extra tax burden to which the government is right to object.

But it’s impossible to miss the effects of allowing the steady fall in rates. While traffic levels in central London continued to fall in the last quarter of last year, for example, overall traffic volumes on major roads rose by 1 per cent year-on-year. To judge by my experience of dodging speeding vehicles haring down back streets, the rise on minor roads in outer London must be far higher. Minor roads in rural areas are also becoming increasingly miserable to use outside a motor vehicle. Bus travel is falling in many parts of the UK as growing volumes of cars clog the roads, getting in buses’ way. Traffic growth on the railways - where ticket prices mostly go up by at least the inflation rate - has slowed down sharply. As long as fuel duty is frozen, transport policy will remain hostage to the growing advantages enjoyed by cars.

Space allocation in Glasgow, which faces worsening
congestion. I'm sceptical bike paths are the main cause in
cities like this.
It’s even more alarming that there’s so little recognition of what’s driving the increasing congestion in a lot of the UK. When he was asked about the issue in a recent interview with the Evening Standard, Chris Grayling immediately started talking about the poor design of some bike lanes in London, suggesting that the issue in most of the country was the shrinking capacity of the road network, not the growing volume of traffic. While there’s clear evidence that new bike facilities have contributed to the growing congestion problem in central London, it’s equally obvious that the paltry facilities provided for cycling in most of the country take up nothing like enough space to have seriously affected road capacity. Road use is responding to price signals precisely as conventional economics might predict it would.

The action in central London has at least had some of the intended effect. Cycling levels in central London in the October to December quarter were up 5.4 per cent year-on-year, while motor traffic fell again, by 3.5 per cent.

It is also, meanwhile, far from clear that placing a higher tax burden on drivers would be as unjust as opponents typically suggest. There is a wide range of estimates of whether the annual tax take from driving covers the full external costs of motoring - most of which come from congestion. Even the Institute of Fiscal Studies, a respected thinktank, failed to make a clear judgement on the question in a report last February that called the present fuel duty regime “a mess”. But there was a consensus among economists several years ago, before recent years’ freezes, that the tax take was probably falling just short of covering the full costs. The steady falls since in fuel prices, improvements in vehicle fuel efficiency and growing exemptions from vehicle excise duty must all have made the situation worse.
London's policies have at least shifted the central London
balance towards cyclists - even if this driver failed
to understand it.

I had particular cause to rue the changes ten days after my epiphany near Chester when my daughter announced that she and her friend planned that day, for the first time, to ride their bikes the 3.4 miles to school in Dulwich. While the outbound journey, which I rode with them against rush-hour traffic, was relatively calm, I found myself repeatedly buzzed even on quiet streets on the way back by high volumes of fast-moving vehicles. If current road conditions left even me, a hardened and committed cyclist, a little shaken and worried about my daughter’s safety, I realised, it was small wonder that she was so unusual in her choice of transport to school.

Yet there’s no mystery about what could be done to tackle these issues. It has been well known for years that fuel duty was bound to do a steadily worse job of controlling congestion as vehicles became more fuel-efficient and started to rely on untaxed power sources such as electricity. Both Conservative and Labour governments have recognised in their later terms in office that a system that charges drivers according to where they drive and the time of day is the only realistic answer to the challenges of charging for road use. In a rational world, the UK’s national transport policy debate wouldn’t revolve around speed bumps and the impact of desultory cycle facilities but around the details of the road-charging system that was inevitably on its way. Policy could move on to managing traffic, rather than falling victim to the inevitable effects of surrendering to it.
An electric, autonomous pod vehicle at Heathrow Airport:
current policies take no account of how roads will be funded
when more vehicles start to resemble this one

But there is, I think, a powerful reason why rational policy considerations are having an even harder time than normal asserting themselves. During the late years of the 1979 to 1997 Conservative government, there had been more than a decade of steady policy development that had made it clear the simple answers were not going to work. Much the same goes for the later years of the 1997 to 2010 Labour government. In contemporary British politics, by contrast, every policy calculation is subservient to the effort to mitigate the unnecessary damage of pulling out of the European Union. I sense the distraction of dealing with the distraction of an incompetent, unpredictable president is having a similar effect in the United States.

The effects of that policy stasis are visible in far more places than beside the A548. Long years of declines in road deaths have halted or started to reverse. Pollution is growing worse. The pleasure of a quiet bike ride along a winding country lane is increasingly interrupted by the speeding of vehicles taking the route their navigation app tells them will be least congested. It is hard in many parts of the UK to avoid the feeling that the country is being slowly strangled by this surrender to the motor car. I’m unlikely in the immediate future to have much respite from worrying about the riding conditions for my daughter or the many others suffering the effects of current miserable, directionless policies.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

A past mayor, a miserable blogiversary - and why I still think Roundheads must come to the rescue

It used to be frustrating asking Boris Johnson, London’s mayor until May last year, about transport policy issues. During my first stint as a transport correspondent, from 2003 until 2011, I recall asking him about his determination to remove the western extension of London’s congestion charging zone, to introduce new cycling facilities as mere blue-painted lanes down busy main roads and replace London’s efficient, articulated buses with a lower-capacity, double-deck vehicle loosely based on a much older vehicle. All the concerns were shrugged off, with Johnson’s trademark insouciance.

All those ideas are now recognised, to a greater or lesser degree, as bad ones that either should have been better thought through or not implemented at all. Congestion in west London rose; the painted “superhighways” proved tragically dangerous and the new bus has become an expensive joke that has helped to damage the performance of London’s bus networks. The mayor, meanwhile, went on to be a leading figurehead of the movement calling for the UK to make one of its biggest, most poorly thought-out policy decisions since the second world war when it voted to leave the European Union.
A Routemaster at the London Transport
Museum: nostalgia for the design classic
inspired Boris Johnson to commission
the New Bus for London, the opposite of
a design classic

This past week, however, has left me with the impression that far more people approve of the former mayor’s style of policy-making than I had suspected. Since I posted on Monday a blogpost calling for cyclists to face the reality that London’s roads are growing steadily more congested, I’ve faced a series of criticisms. Many of them have focused on my argument that cyclists have to recognise that our aspirations to get further dedicated space for cycling facilities mean we are in competition for scarce road space with other road users, who face growing congestion. Cyclists ought, I argued, to take an interest in the problem and in measures to rein it in. In particular, I was the subject of a blogpost by Andrew Gilligan, who worked as Boris Johnson’s cycling commissioner. He accused me, essentially, of cherry-picking evidence to suit my position and asserted, based on Transport for London’s Journey Time Reliability figures, that congestion wasn’t really getting worse at all.

The various criticisms I’ve faced have fallen into a series of broad groups. Several people argued that there was no real trade-off between cycling and other modes. Others contended that other road-based modes were so much less worthwhile that any trade-off was worth it even if it, say, caused serious inconvenience to people making the 6.5m daily trips by bus in London. Finally, there was a strain of thought that I was mistaken in even my attempt to put cycling in a broader policy context. Cyclists should make the argument for cycling provision and forget about anything else. I’d class all of these criticisms as falling, like Johnson himself, within the Cavalier tradition in British public life - that the depth of one’s convictions and the elan with which one states them are more important than the pettifogging details of the statistics.

A mid-morning traffic queue on Blackfriars Road: road-pricing
might fix this.

However, a report on Thursday from the London Assembly’s transport committee has reinforced my conviction that my cautious approach to public policy - which I’d class as being in the Roundhead tradition - is in the ascendant, in London at least. The report acknowledged the growing congestion crisis and that the recent worsening in conditions reflected a shrinking of the road network’s capacity for multiple reasons. It advocated - as I do - pressing ahead with new, high-quality cycle provision such as the segregated cycle superhighways. However, it also said it was vital to introduce road-pricing - as opposed to a simple congestion charge for entering central London - to relieve the pressure on the roads. I very much hope - although I doubt that the current mayor has the political courage for it - that the assembly members’ recommendation will be followed. I also hope that the debate over the issues can become more constructive than it feels to me after a week that’s marked a fairly miserable fifth anniversary for this blog.

The focus of much of the criticism, however, has been my reference in the last blogpost to a point that ought, in a rational world, to be uncontroversial. This was to point out that central London’s congestion is worsening and that it is likely that the building of wide cycle tracks along some of central London’s key arterial roads - and the addition of some cyclist-only phases at junctions - contributed to this. I made the point not because I disapprove of the cycle tracks’ building - I enthusiastically endorse them - but because of the implications for the future.

Anyone who wants an extension of the existing tracks needs to gain the approval of planning authorities and a mayor’s office already facing substantial pressure because of the road network’s deteriorating performance. There seems to me to be little likelihood that a mere restatement of the now-conventional wisdom that the cycle superhighways are unrelated to traffic delays is going to win over many of the people that need to be persuaded.
Cyclists last week on the north-south
Cycle Superhighway: a stirring and encouraging
sight - but still, I contend, one that must be
affecting the neighbouring motor traffic.


As I pointed out in the original post, the average speed of traffic in central London has fallen in the most recently-published figures despite a substantial fall in the volume of traffic on the roads, a phenomenon that most observers attribute to a shrinking of the network’s capacity. While it’s true that the network’s capacity started to fall well before the cycle superhighways were built, there’s little serious doubt that the superhighways are contributing to delays for motor vehicles. An update in November on implementation of the schemes said that journey times for motor vehicles southbound alongside the north-south cycle superhighway had returned to pre-construction levels since completion of the project. All other traffic flows alongside the superhighways were longer, however.

The added delays included eastbound journey times alongside the east-west cycle superhighway that were 10 to 15 minutes longer in the evening peak than before the facility was put in. The roads concerned will undoubtedly have been affected by the wider worsening of congestion in the period in question and the changes will no doubt, like all changes to road networks, bed down as drivers adapt their behaviour to cope. But it seems profoundly improbable that the big changes to traffic flows have not contributed to this slowing and it is impossible that this substantial slowing of some journeys has not played a part in the declining average speeds reflected in the statistics.

It was my reference to the superhighways’ effects that prompted Andrew Gilligan’s response. Referring to me by my title in my day job - something I’ve tried to keep scrupulously separate from my free-time blog - he accused me of using figures that were “selective” and that the true indicator of congestion was quite different. At least one person treated this post as definitive proof that I was wrong. “Watch @mragilligan use knowledge and stats to destroy @RKWinvisibleman 's recent argument that cycle lanes are causing London congestion,” wrote @BrixtonHatter on Twitter, linking to Gilligan’s post.

Yet Gilligan’s arguments seem at odds with nearly everyone's experience. His argument that congestion isn’t getting much worse pre-supposes that the ever-slowing movement of London buses and logistics companies’ dwindling productivity are mere fever dreams. Any anecdotal evidence - the fact, for example, that I often now have to pick my way between halted vehicles to buy my lunchtime sandwich, whereas the danger used to be moving ones - is also to be disregarded.

In fact, the reason why I didn’t quote Gilligan’s favoured measure of congestion - journey time reliability - is that the average speed figure that I used more accurately captures the nature of this problem. The reliability figure tracks the proportion of vehicles that complete trips in more than five minutes longer than the average time over the previous year. It consequently measures the frequency of severe, one-off disruption. Its use of previous average speeds means it is designed to screen out the kind of gradual, strangling congestion that is steadily choking London.

A typical weekday lunchtime on Southwark Bridge:
anecdotal evidence that it seems I must disregard.
My central point remains. It must, in my view, be a serious problem if average daytime traffic speeds in the centre of London - a place where motor vehicles are needed to serve a big upsurge in building and infrastructure work, to carry people in buses and to make deliveries - have dropped as low as 7.8 mph.

Members of the London Assembly’s transport committee seem to share many of my concerns. In the foreword to their London Stalling report on congestion in the capital, Caroline Pidgeon, the committee’s chairwoman, wrote that congestion had begun to rise sharply.

“Traffic has slowed down and road users are spending longer stuck in delays,” she wrote. “Buses have become so unreliable that usage has begun to fall, after many years of growth.”

The report went on to list a very Roundhead set of recommendations - ideas based on careful attention to the statistics, rather than the kind of sweeping, grand gesture that used to be the rule under the previous mayor. While I am delighted that the existing superhighways have been built and grateful to Andrew Gilligan for his central role in that achievement, it seems vanishingly unlikely that either Sadiq Khan or the assembly’s transport committee will sign off on a significant extension if it will produce a further worsening of congestion.
Ultimate motivation: my son enjoys the east-
west cycle superhighway by the Embankment

It is hard to imagine some of the arguments I’ve heard this week will succeed in swaying the current mayor. It is inherently implausible, for example, that the mayor will allow measures that significantly delay bus passengers to benefit cycling, which currently accounts for just 700,000 daily journeys across the capital. As with nearly every other public policy question, measures to favour cycling are subject to trade-offs with other choices in which policymakers have to balance competing interests in as equitable a way as possible.

But the ultimate question for me doesn’t involve politics, policy arguments or the different personality types of the people involved. It’s that my children since we returned to London from New York in July have become much keener on cycling in central London, thanks to the cycle superhighways. I want to see them extended so that we need do far less jostling with aggressive drivers to reach them.

The Cavaliers had the chutzpah to get the existing facilities built. Perhaps their current strategy - berating the uselessness of everyone concerned, questioning their motives and insisting that no trade-offs are necessary - will succeed again, despite my concerns. But my guess is that the next push will require more of a Roundhead’s recognition of the complexity of the policy challenges and readiness to get to grips with them. I hope that such sober thinking will grow far more widespread than it seems to be at present.

Monday, 16 January 2017

A smug expectation, a messy reality - and why it's time to get to grips with a tough conundrum

Before I got out on my bike, I was anticipating that Monday, January 9, was going to be my smuggest cycling day since returning to London from New York in July. A strike by station staff on the London Underground had brought the busiest bits of the capital’s most important public transport system to a halt. And, as I sat at home writing initial stories about what was happening, I noticed account after account of chaos on the roads as would-be underground users turned to cars and buses to get to work. I imagined myself slipping casually through the traffic on my bike, warmly congratulating myself on the excellence of my transport choices.

In the event, the day ended up feeling less like a triumph and more like a reminder of the acuteness of the transport policy challenges facing London. By the time I left home to ride to the office, around 10am, the bus lanes that I’d normally use for the early stages of my journey were choked with other forms of motor traffic. Progress was so slow I retreated to the side streets, which in places were little better.
Traffic backed up on Vauxhall Bridge on January 9: a visible
demonstration of London's reliance on its underground.

The incident dramatised an issue that’s been worrying me for some time. London’s roads become congested when people are emptied out of the underground and other non-road forms of transport onto the roads. Yet it’s an uncomfortable truth of campaigns to encourage cycling in inner London that the vast bulk of the growth in cycle commuting must be coming from a similar, slow-motion shift from rail-based modes onto already over-stretched streets. More and more complex demands are being heaped onto constrained roadspace, without much sign of a strategic plan to manage the resulting pressures.

On top of that, I noticed once I got to work how many twitter users were complaining of having hours spent on buses even on short journeys. Later in the week, would-be commuters on Southern, the mainline rail service, would undertake similarly unpleasant journeys during strikes by their service’s drivers. The stories illustrated the shortcomings of decades of efforts to encourage cycling. Cycle provision in most of London still consists of signed routes down backstreets, most of which are growing ever busier and less attractive. It’s clear that most people will not consider riding on these, even in the most desperate circumstances.

Faced with placating demand for better cycle provision and the challenges of congested, polluted roads, Sadiq Khan, London’s mayor, seems anxious about building more of the direct, segregated cycle routes that might get such reluctant cyclists pedalling.

The challenge for everyone in London who wants more, safer cycling in central London is to devise arguments for better provision that recognise the new realities. It’s vital as the system accommodates growing cycling to safeguard road provision for the buses, delivery vehicles, emergency vehicles and other vital road-users that make up a high proportion of central London’s current road users. The challenge is similar for advocates in other big urban centres - including New York, my old home - where people shift to cycle commuting mainly from modes that don’t depend on the roads.
 
Pedestrians spill out of Southwark underground station by the
north-south cycle superhighway. How many of them can switch
to cycling before the roads get even more congested?
Yet some of the most influential figures on London’s transport scene continue to insist that the conundrum is so simple it barely exists. On January 5, Andrew Gilligan, London’s former cycling commissioner, tweeted a graph from Transport for London’s latest “Travel in London report that attributed 75 per cent of London’s congestion to “excess traffic”. The conclusion was “blindingly obvious to all but motorists,” he wrote, dismissively.

A little digging into the statistics for central London fills in the details of the policy dilemma. Traffic volumes entering Central London fell 3.4 per cent between the June to September quarter in 2015 and the same quarter in 2016, part of a long-term decline that’s seen the volume of motor traffic entering central London decline by more than 20 per cent since 2000. Instead of increasing with declining traffic volumes, however, average traffic speeds in central London - the easiest available proxy for congestion - fell 3.5 per cent, to 7.8mph. The network’s capacity is very clearly falling even faster than motor vehicle are going away. The amount of traffic that it takes for traffic to become “excess” is falling.

It is not clear, either, which part of the traffic can easily be reduced to alleviate the problem and free up space for cycling. The same Travel in London report that Andrew Gilligan quoted says that private cars now account for only 18 per cent of motor traffic during weekdays in the central London congestion charging zone. The other vehicles - private-hire cars, taxis, vans and heavy lorries - all have at least some arguable economic reason to be in the area. They are likely to be more resistant than private vehicle owners to stopping driving in the area.
 
A typical traffic queue on Southwark Bridge: it's not clear
crackdowns on private cars or encouragement for cargo bikes
will solve this problem.
One of the most popular suggestions among cyclists for reducing the traffic is that more of the growing numbers of internet deliveries being made in central London could be shifted to cargo bikes. The idea is sufficiently attractive that I investigated the subject in my day job for a piece about the growing numbers of cargo bikes I see around central London. Yet I emerged from interviewing even courier companies that use cargo bikes a little depressed. While cargo bikes were helping them to make urgent deliveries despite the heavy traffic, courier companies told me, they would always be a niche vehicle compared with the vans that were their fleets’ mainstays.

Amid this growing crisis, meanwhile, the one unutterable suggestion among cycle campaigners is that the building of segregated cycle superhighways along a number of central London roads might be contributing to the problem. When Florence Eshalomi, a member of the London Assembly, asked cyclists on twitter on January 11 whether they agreed with a senior TfL manager that cycle lanes had had some impact on bus journeys, the replies mostly struck a similar note.

“Making London a byword for cycling is more important than bus usage,” one twitter user replied.

“I think any far measurement of bus delays would show that excess cars are the main cause,” wrote another. “There aren't that many cycle lanes.”

The replies drew on the now-conventional wisdom among London cyclists that the 12 miles of new cycle superhighways in central London - which I love using, especially when with my children - have had no significant effect on congestion. The facilities, however, have been put in on arterial roads that were already operating at or near full capacity. They have, crucially, introduced new, cyclist-only light phases that can only have introduced extra waiting time for motor vehicles both on the streets with the new facilities and those crossing them.
 
A bus in a traffic jam by the cycle superhighway
on Blackfriars Road: the superhighway has no bearing
on what goes on on the rest of the road, it's said.
While there are plenty of other factors restricting London’s road capacity, it seems fanciful to imagine that cycle facilities alone can remove capacity from busy roads and have little effect on congestion. It is certainly clear the capacity of London’s roads fell around the time the new facilities were built. It is not unreasonable, it seems to me, for Sadiq Khan and Mike Brown, commissioner of Transport for London, to seek to reduce the effect of any new facilities on congestion before giving them the go-ahead.

Yet to say that the challenges facing London’s leaders are hard is very definitely not to say they are impossible. It is quite clear, for example, that action that reined in the growth of services such as Uber in central London could have a significant effect. Private hire vehicles - the vehicles that provide the Uber service - now account for 12 per cent of traffic in central London on weekdays. Any measure that makes deliveries to the scores of construction sites in central London more efficient could free up significant amounts of road space. It is hard to understand why low-emission vehicles, which take up the same road space as others, remain entirely exempt from congestion charging.

It is regrettable, meanwhile, that London relies so heavily on the double-deck New Bus for London given its poor capacity and the time it takes to load and unload. A wholesale reform and extension of the current central London congestion charge to make it more sophisticated and more closely related to the space each vehicle takes up on the road seems overdue. The mayor should continue to pursue increases in cycling because bikes provide clean, healthy, flexible transport. Extra cycling journeys can almost certainly be catered for more economically than extra journeys on the underground.
 
Fog and pollution haze sits over south London:
more cycling might avert such incidents
It is far too easy, however, for the debate over this complex issue to slip into glibness. Taxi driver groups slip into this trap when they claim the simple removal of new cycle paths would restore London’s roads to flowing freely. Cycling groups fall into it when they pretend new cycle paths magically shift London commuters from wasteful cars onto space-efficient bikes.

The rest of my ride to work on January 9 was a stark reminder of the risks of ducking serious debate. I encountered drivers engaged in fierce rows over road space, a furious woman cyclist yelling at a man who had somehow wronged her and, in van after van, long lines of stressed-looking delivery drivers and workmen. An air of unhappiness and frustration hung over everything.

While the scenes were far worse than those on a normal day, I made an inward vow to renew my efforts to think more seriously in future about the less acute but still worrying levels of congestion I encounter daily.

If others do the same, it may prove easier to build wide support for the kind of excellent facility I found myself using towards the end of the trip. Wanting to take in the scene, I rode over Vauxhall Bridge then down the east-west cycle superhighway along the Embankment. As van and taxi drivers sat motionless in the neighbouring traffic jam, I was finally slipping by the traffic jams, as I’d anticipated. Looking at the grim faces of the stationary drivers, it was a pleasure I was keenly aware I shouldn’t take for granted.