Saturday, 28 June 2014

Turbogate: the fuckup that keeps on giving

The Bedford Turbo Roundabout was already a fuckup-in-progress as soon as it was announced the cycle crossings at the roundabout exits were to be marked "cyclists dismount". Still, there were at least going to be the barriers to reduce cyclists being cut up by aggressively driving cars choosing straight-through routes

What's interesting is that -as David Hembrow regularly observes- the worst parts of Dutch Road infrastructure are being picked up and hailed as fantastic. Shared space is one example, turbo roundabouts the next. Not only are they mediocre bits of the NL roadspace, when brought to the UK they don't come with the rest of the system: bypasses and road blockings to reduce traffic flows into the shared space and viable alternative cycle routes for the roundabouts.

The South Gloucs shared space project ended up resulting in the Great Wall of Filton: a barrier added to stop motorcyclists getting through, and out of fear of pedestrians being hit by speeding cyclists. Even on a back road converted from a rat-run to a quiet road, cyclists aren't welcome.

The Bedford Turbo Roundabout is a mess spiralling down into a blatant abuse of cycling money. Sustrans should be backpedalling manically, using the death of the barriers as a way to exit without admitting that the original design was flawed the moment those blue "cyclists fuck off" signs appeared on the designs. Instead they are making things worse, issuing press releases claiming victory. If this is a victory, it is about as good as one as Blair and Bush's in Iraq, the one only those two still pretend was a a success.

It's not too late for the cycling groups to recover from this one. They need to go the council and say "no cycling cash unless the new proposed DfT signage "elephants feet" crossing goes in and those Dismount signs go out", with some raised road to indicate right of way alongside the belisha beacons. That's imperfect, but an improvement on the current debacle. Could we get it? Not while Sustrans is still giving its support.

Which is why Sustrans needs to be kicked into shape. They have got a good engineering department, and have apparently helped with some of the Bristol infrastructure development. But their campaigning group has got stuck in the late 1990s, giving the seal of approval to unacceptable mediocrity that is never going to encourage mass cycling.

They need to look at their goals and come with a nice metric: cycle routes good enough both for the 8 year old with their grandparent -and the commuter in a hurry. What is being proposed on the turbo roundabout doesn't suit either -and instead is theft of cycling money to improve traffic flow.

We get next to nothing for our infrastructure anyway -now the roundabout builders are stealing it in exchange for some cyclists dismount signs, with Sustrans saying "It's OK, take all of it". If the Bedford Turbo Roundabout gets to keep the cash, every civil engineer with a photo of a motorway junction on their wall be looking at their local cycling funding and thinking "How many cyclists dismount signs do I need to add to get that money for my junction?". Every project going over-budget can see the money and think "what little do I need to do get Sustrans approve me taking it".

And the worst part? Those civil engineers think they are doing the cyclists a favour. They will think the turbogate roundabout is an improvement; they do think that an unlit underpass with barriers and dismount signs acceptable facilities. And they will think that cycling groups that whine about this are ungrateful. Why do they think that? Because Sustrans encourages it.

Sportives are the new Critical Mass

Critical Mass rides grew as a form of protest, for cyclists to say "We are allowed here too". They've been controversial -in New York, very much so; then there was the Olympics Critical Mass.

Are they effective? Who knows. But they make a point -they are a chance for the cyclists to get out together and say "there are enough of us that you have to pay attention to us and our needs"

Cities are slowly coming round to see this. In Bristol, with Infrastructure. In London, with words. In Bath with putting on hold "improvements to the urban realm", and in glasgow with patronising bollocks.

Outside the cities though, things are different. There's the semi-rural commuter belt of many cities -S Gloucs and North Somerset being Bristol's examples. Here in S Gloucs, the council still thinks they can add more suburbs without congestion, without having to spend any money on cycling infrastructure other than a few more Cyclists Dismount signs on the A38.

As for North Somerset, it's "improvements" are so bad they make it to the BBC, and not even Sustrans will lend their support.

As for elsewhere, Magnatom's daily near death videos show the reality: the roads may look like country lanes, but they are really rural-rat-runs, where drivers think they can drive at 60 mph and will overtake any bicycle holding them up -irrespective of the benefits or safety of their action.

Which is why we have to move beyond just protesting about conditions in the cities, and start protesting about conditions outside them.

And where better to start than The New Forest.

The New Forest, Britain's newest National Park, is now a park governed by a committee of cycling haters. As the article says "After the meeting members cited the need to tackle the problems being caused by huge cycling events in the area.". That's the big traffic issue in the area. Not the vast traffic jams on summer weekends, nor the number of New Forest Ponies getting killed by cars. No, it's the cyclists, where the most absolute exemplification of this is the Wiggle Sportive Series, Spring and Autumn.

This is the one where three times already people have sabotaged the race. Where local councillors put up posters denouncing the ride. And as usual, there's a local paper stirring things up.

The New Forest Haters seem to have their central power base in the Verderers, who can apparently choose the date and location of their pony round-ups  to bring them into direct conflict with the next pre-planned cycling event.

Their attempts to impose "codes of conduct" are the next issue. They've had a general one for a while,  which isn't too bad -apart from (a) its narrow view of cycling as a leisure activity and (b) its "no cycling two-abreast" demand

Clearly it is only cyclists that hold up cars -but it shows that it isn't just sportives that are perceived as a problem. It is just that the Wiggle sportive represents the ultimate travesty of those UKIP-voting cyclist-haters who start fuming the moment they are held up for 15 seconds by a bicycle.

The charter for sportives somewhat more controversial. While most of it is about how to set one up effectively, anything that covers "riding two abreast" or -in the original draft- "riding as a peleton" being a bannable offence, show that holding up drivers is one of the key troublespots. Yes, for two or three days a year it happens, But has anyone tried to drive round the new forest on a saturday in august? It's almost as bad as trying to drive down the M5 over the Avonmouth bridge towards Cornwall on a Friday evening between now and September -you'll get held up by peletons of caravans, with tailbacks of them queueing to get into every service station. Nowhere do you hear residents of S Gloucs or commuters from Portishead to the North Fringe demanding a code of conduct for Caravans. But in the New Forest, cyclists represent outsiders, and are clearly resented all year round for holding up cars, and clearly hated at sportives.

And with the recent coup at the New Forest Park Authority, things will only get worse.

What to do? We could all just go somewhere where we are welcome. There's a wiggle event in the Cotswolds soon, one down in the Mendips mid-August. While some people may resent the cyclists, they aren't going to sabotage the race. The main hazard would be getting into trouble on the Cheddar or (worse) Deer Leap descents, but the organisers have wisely made them climbs. Road riders who want pleasant days out should consider attending.

But to give up on the New Forest -that would be to surrender; to be chased away by tack-dropping, mud-spraying cyclist haters who would love to declare "Victory!" if events get cancelled.

Which is why there's another action: make a stand, go to the New Forest ride. Stay somewhere local, eat out local, and make it clear that you are only visiting the area for the ride. Follow the bits of the charter that are polite, and don't leave empty gel packets everywhere. But not ride two abreast on roads too narrow for a car to overtake without changing lane. They'll have to suffer on that one. Welcome to Britain: share the road or fuck off.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Car manufacturers: swapping one myth for another

Business Week, April 2014: "Convertible Car Sales Have Plunged as Image of Fun and Freedom Dims".

Those photos and 30-second adverts showing a happy couple driving their open-top car along though an empty county lane, or a gritty bond-esque man  gear changing aggressively as he forces his sports car through alpine roads? Dead. The customers have realised this is bollocks -as much as those banking adverts that show a friendly bank manager at a local branch greeting you, the customer. Banks have been shown to lie about the products they sell, from mortgage types to insurance, while the fact that the "dream of the open road" turns out be "the myth of the open road" is obvious to all.

There's fuck all romantic about sitting in a motorway flyover with nothing but three lanes of traffic jam ahead of you -which is why the M4 junctions 1-3, Bristol M32 or Spaghetti Junction never show up in adverts. Cars are no longer status symbols, they are things to sit in while you suffer in traffic jams.

As the BW article says," in the U.S. and Europe, the biggest convertible markets, are opting for more pragmatic vehicles as the automobile wanes as a symbol of social status. "

VW dropping the EOS, Peugot abandoning their open-top yous/. The only people who haven't realised that the dream is dead are the Daily Mail article writers -and even there the usual haters in the comments lay into the story as being bollocks.

This is leaves the car vendors with a problem: how to sell cars. And what better than another dream? What better than admitting that your drive will be stuck in a traffic jam -but saying with our urban SUV, the fact that you spend 2 hours a day and £80 a week stuck in traffic won't matter.

As this Audi Q3 advert claims
Calm, Serene, Don't you just love rush hour
There's no such thing as a bad journey in the Audi Q3. With its elevated driving position, DAB digital radio and Audi Music Interface, you're always happy behind the wheel. Even whilst queuing behind a long line of traffic.

This is absolute bollocks and someone should complain to the ASA about it.

Because we know what people driving Audi Q-series SUVs end up doing: driving into shops while trying to run cyclists over.

Where is the "happy behind the wheel" there? Where is the "Calm?" Where is the "serene?"

To close the advert, the copy editors say "The Audi Q3. A great place to be"

More accurate would be "The Audi Q3. Just as shit for driving around a UK city as any other car -but a better place to be than the on a bicycle just in front of the Audi"

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Autonomous Lorries may aid safety -but so would EHS enforcement

Self-driving cars are going to be as much a solution to cities' problems as e-cars. They still take up space, they still need parking and they still will be full of cylist-haters who will resent being held up by bicycles.

If there is a benefit, a self-driving car probably isn't going to squeeze past with 3 cm to spare. Probably. But at the same time, the car lobby will be telling stories about how wonderful it will be -and how the government just needs to spend a bit on infrastructure to help. As well as the millons already promised on charging bays, access to bus lanes is going to be the other one. No doubt they could code it up nicely, "reward early purchasers", and maybe even explain how it could be congestion aware, the auto-cars allowed into the lanes under central management when traffic is heavy and no buses due. But they will still treat cyclists as shit, still blame them for holding up e-cars, and pretend that they don't cause pollution or congestion.

It's also going to take a long time for any portion of "the private vehicle fleet" to go self-driving, until then the safety benefits will be low. We can get an estimate of the times by the resistance car manufacturers have shown to any mandatory "safety feature" (i.e. risk transference feature): ABS, airbags &c. The vendors wanted them to be premium so that they could charge lots of money for people who wanted it, and keep selling price low for people that didn't. Overall it kept the market big and the profits high. Mandatory safety features hurt sales at the bottom and profits at the top. Bear that in mind when someone praises self-driving features like volvos that look ahead: its a premium feature because they can bill some people from it, even though lives are a lot more likely to be saved if all vehicles had it.

The other example: the eight year delay on rolling out truck safety features in the EU. This is a major setback -lives will be lost at the expense of profit. But it represents an opportunity

Rather than wait eight years for the safety features proposed today -we should say: in exchange for the delay, we want integrated autonomous safety features too.

HGVs do a lot of miles. Banning them from cities at peak hours is the fix that will save the most lives without hoping for any EU legislation to deliver changes on the streets. But even after a ban, they still nearly hit people on roundabouts, squeeze past cyclists on A-roads, run people over "I mistook him for a bollard" , "I didn't expect a cyclist to be there", etc. As HGV drivers work long hours -and regularly fake their log books- fatigue is an issue.

Making HGVs safer would save more cyclists lives than making all private cars autonomous. As about 50% of the causes of cyclist death, improvements there have the best return on investment. So what could we do with autonomous HGVs that would save lives

  1. Speed limiting co-ordinated with area speeds. 40 mph road: 40 mph maximum speed. No doubt the HGV transport companies will complain about this, but they are really arguing for the right to break the law.
  2. Enforcement of no-HGV signage. If the signs say "no", the trucks shouldn't go.
  3. Safe distance maintenance. That's motorways as well as normal roads. the HGVs can keep the stopping distance in front of them, and as they speed up, back off more. This is what drivers are meant to do, but never do: the more "professional" they get, the more aggressively they drive.
  4. Automated pedestrian and cyclist detection: if its in Volvo cars, it can go into Volvo trucks.
  5. Collaborative convoys. M-way convoying could be partially automated. Maybe it could be fully done to the extent that the drivers could sleep. There's risks there, but if it downgrades hours on the M5 to rest hours, they may be more alert in town.

    Are these unrealistic? No. Google cars can do 1-4 already. What do you think they can do in five years? In eight? If the EU is delaying safe trucks by eight years, we should go back and say "fine, we want the safety features a modern car will have in 2022, not features proposed for HGVs in 2014".

    And until then? Given how many truck drivers don't even seem to have hands free phone kit, truck companies need to care. That means Healthy and Safety legislation has to apply to trucks. Why aren't lorry companies fined if their drivers are caught texting while driving? Why, given automatic GPS tracking of trucks in become common, aren't speed limit violations being auto-reported to the police? HGV shipping companies -and worse, tipper truck companies- have built business models about dodging laws whenever they can. EHS enforcement could get them to care. And once that happens, maybe they'll actually want autonomous HGVs before the EU tells them to.