A Caring, Sharing Britain

Architects Impressions - Great at showing what Britain could be like if Prozac was pumped into the drinking water.

We Britons love the idea of sharing space. Well, other people’s space. We love to come up with holistic transport solutions through these shared spaces, sometimes incorporating an architects sketched vision of roads reduced to near emptiness, an extra tree or two and everyone walking and driving with a sense of equality and good cheer toward their fellow humans, maybe pondering where to buy their next latte or iPhone.

Exhibition Road in west London is a prime example (as shown above). The blog ‘Cyclists in the City’ summed it up beautifully for me with the headline ‘Sustainable Travel in London means spending lots of money to make car parking look prettier’ . It manages to acknowledge without commiting to removing the danger that you’d expect in an area of London where a very high tourist footfall for the wonderful museums nearby meets Transport for London’s commitment to cramming as much ‘smooth flowing’ traffic as it can through Central London (presumably for a bet – I’m running out of ideas as to why they are behaving the way they are). Instead it seeks equality by changing the surface treatment, adding street furniture and, in some cases, removing the split level between road and pavement. Its trying in effect to create a level playing field for all users. This is all very well, and I salute the intentions, but the day motorists think they are equal with other users will be the day when Hell freezes over, or introduces its own shared use facility.

In creating a shared space, an area has been created where groups such as the visualy impaired can feel far more vulnerable and their voice can easily sway the powers that be in a country already reluctant to positively embrace the bicycle. Exhibition Road became the subject of a judicial review raised by Guide Dogs for the Blind and in Woking, Surrey, cycling is now banned in part from what were shared use cycle/pedestrian areas in the town centre (as covered here by CTC’s Chris Peck in Guardian Bike Blog). Instead of working together, the humble bicycle has again become a common enemy.

Another concept of shared space that Britain will probably get spectacularly wrong is that of the ‘Woonerf’

Woonerf - Simple. And not some EU Plan to control our residential areas which is probably what UKIP & the Daily Mail thinks

Last August, from Bike Biz

Poll finds many are in favour of more areas where cars do not have priority – and that the law should protect vulnerable road users in such areas

A new road safety poll has found that the majority (58 per cent) are in favour of holding drivers legally responsible for accidents between cars and more vulnerable road users in pedestrian priority zones.

The poll was taken for road safety charity IAM (the Institute of Advanced Motorists) and quizzed 4,000 people on pedestrian-priority zones. Most were in favour of importing the ‘Woonerf’ zone concept from the Netherlands, used to encourage cycling and walking and designed to be used at walking pace.

Forty eight per cent thought the concept – with no pavements, giving cars, pedestrians and cyclists equal use of the same road space – is a good idea to bring to the UK, while 27 per cent thought they were a bad idea.

36 per cent said the pedestrian priority zones should be located in shopping areas, with a similar amount advocating the zones be installed where there is high pedestrian traffic. 33 per cent said they would be best used in certain residential areas, while 16 per cent said they should be used for all residential roads.

Improved pedestrian and cyclist safety were seen by 49 per cent and 43 per cent respectively to be the most beneficial result of bringing pedestrian-priority zones to the UK.

“Our poll reveals a surprisingly positive attitude towards better protection of cyclists and pedestrians, both in road layout and legal responsibility,” said IAM director of policy and research Neil Greig. “On the continent, attractive street design is used to make it clear where pedestrians have priority but this approach is in its infancy in the UK.

“The IAM supports any move to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, but research is needed into the best way to inform drivers about changes in legal responsibility, and also on the effect a Woonerf might have on the road sense of children brought up in such a zone, when later exposed to less protected areas.”

Respected blog Amsterdamize contacted BikeBiz to elaborate on the Woonerf concept: “The IAM’s incorrect about ‘woonerf’ and ‘confuses’ it with elements of Shared Space. ‘Woonef’ only relates to residential streets (home zones). Woonerven (plural) block cars from using it at as through ways, slowing cars down to walking speeds. Pedestrianised (commercial) zones in the Netherlands allow certain vehicles in at certain times (with automated rising pillars). There are more, different models giving priority to pedestrians and people on bikes. There’s no single solution but a range of proven means to pick from, as it goes hand in hand with urban design.”

Essentially, a ‘Woonerf’ isn’t a through route to anyone. Therefore it is easy to reduce the speed to walking pace and create parity between residents because it would be patently stupid and anti-social to have it any other way. The sign in the picture above says it all; there’s a house and people playing outside with the car set at a smaller scale. The car has its uses but it isn’t important in this area – people are.

I don’t have a problem with this country trying shared space. I do have a problem with what appears to be this country’s complete and total inability to look at other countries and learn correct interpretations and best practice approaches to shared space, home zones or cycling infrastructure that people can actually use as opposed to us doggedly sticking with something that would have made Evil Knievel think twice. LCC recently voted in favour of persuing ‘Go Dutch’ at their AGM and already people are warning of ‘segregation’ and nodding gravely even though they haven’t the faintest idea what it means in a Dutch context.

When the London Cycle Superhighways launched, I cautiously welcomed them as I thought they were a good idea in principle. However, I stupidly believed that they lent themselves heavily on the Danish model (right down to the colour)  – Copenhagen had tried creating cycle routes on minor roads parallel to main roads that cyclists were using as they were quieter (a bit like London Cycle Network +) but no-one used them as that was the planners telling cyclists where they thought they should go as opposed to where cyclists were actually going (Mikael Colville-Andersen of Copenhagenize explains this and more in a talk he gave in Melbourne which I urge you to watch. The relevant bit is here). The result is a typically weak British compromise that has now resulted in two needless deaths in three weeks at Bow Roundabout in East London. Painting the same crap Barclays Blue doesn’t change anything – like when Marathon changed to Snickers.

Outside London, Warrington Cycle Campaigns ‘Facility of the Month’ site gives ample rib-tickling moments of Authorities trying to ‘get’ the bicycle and ‘get’ the idea of shared space rendering shopping area, bus stop and pavement potentially dangerous to cyclist and pedestrian alike.

It’s like we’re stubbornly using a Sat-Nav instead of stopping and asking directions even when it’s blatantly sending us miles out of our way creating more delay to our collective journey. I guess in this case the Sat-Nav is a PC with Google Streetview where we can look at a Dutch, Danish or German street and delude ourselves that we can instantly understand the context and can speak with authority on it. All we have to do is stop and ask directions and start a proper dialogue with our neighbours. Now that would be sharing.

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A Very British Revolution

Of course, we saw this all the time on the Study Tour of The Netherlands...

It is now over a month since I returned from the Cycling Embassy Study Tour to The Netherlands. It has taken this long for it all to really sink in and I advise any of you who have any interest in cycling, transport policy, planning, or you just want to see what a country can do when it actually gives a shit about its people by giving them unfettered freedom and choice on how they get about their communities whilst giving consistent investment in their health and wellbeing. In fact, I advise you to go anyway just for the bike ride. At least over there you aren’t bullied by people in 1 ton metal boxes who think that they are essential to ‘progress’ and that killing at least 1,700 people per year is ‘one of those things’.

It would be fair to say that I came back from The Netherlands a changed man. An angry man at that. It’s all very well to sit in front of a computer, to look up a Dutch street on Google Streetview and draw your own wierd and wacky conclusions based on the British experience. It’s quite another thing to actually go over to see it in context and realise that their roads are not wider, that they didn’t always have masses of cycle infrastructure and that what they have got isn’t always perfect but they are constantly innovating and striving to make it so. When you look at a typical street in Assen, it becomes instantly apparent what local and national Government thinks about the bicycle. You can draw your own conclusions from looking at a typical British street – in fact, it’s probably better to focus on the pavement because that’s either where a bicycle symbol might be painted or where the cyclists are anyway because they view riding on the road as an extreme sport requiring clothing and lights that make you visible from Neptune.

Recent events in the news have thrown light onto another problem that can be encountered when pushing for decent cycling infrastructure based on best practice from mainland Europe.

We hate Europe.

Not all of us of course. I certainly don’t and if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you probably don’t either. As far as the latest call for a referendum goes, I personally believe that in the midst of a really big crisis, it’s not particuarly advantageous to turn to your neighbours and tell them to go f*** themselves. To a British cyclist [and therefore a small minority view], the Netherlands is a country of wonderful infrastructure where people of all ages are out on their bicycles, of multi storey bicycle parks, of railway stations where only having space for 20,000 bicycles gets the alarm bells ringing with local authorities, of schools where children are trusted and can cycle independently from a young age with their friends with no adult intervention. However, to many British people, The Netherlands is a place of red light districts, hen/stag destinations, clogs, Max Bygraves singing ‘Tulips from Amsterdam’, round cheeses, canals and a language that sounds like a bit of a laugh that got desperately out of hand.

A cycle path in Assen. It even has it's own lighting.

In an earlier post, I stated my opinion that the reason 20’s Plenty campaigns across the country generally work is because they are community led campaigns as opposed to being cycle-specific. This despite Rod King (the jolly nice Founder of 20’s Plenty For Us ) being a pinnacle of the Warrington Cycling Campaign. Even though the benefits of 20mph speed limits in populous areas should be patently obvious, 20’s Plenty allows a wide range of community groups to ‘buy in’ to the concept. It seems strange that in the early years of the 21st Century, curtailing someone’s right to drive like a pillock should be regarded as part of an arsenal in the ‘War on the Motorist’ – stranger still having just returned from a country where 30kph (18mph) is the default on residential streets.

The point of today’s sermon is that promoting decent cycling infrastructure is difficult enough coming from a minority, and quite often not a particuarly liked minority at that. However, when combined with the fact that mainland Europe is being used as an inspiration, it may be too much for many to bear. If I close my eyes, I can see the smoke and sparks billowing as the Daily Mail Europhobicometer slams into overdrive.

We have to be thoughtful and innovative about how we take the message to a group of people that don’t know they want to cycle yet. Also to planners and engineers that may in some instances be reluctant to take different practices on board. Whilst on my travels in The Netherlands I saw examples of great community spirit as people of all ages went about their business by bicycle; I saw groups of children chatting away on their way to school and college. I saw groups of elderly people and couples off for a nice social ride in everyday clothing, sharing the latest news without harassment. I saw hundreds of children being picked up from school by bike, hurredly telling their parents and grandparents what they did that day. In a way, it was looking back to a Britain that I once knew where I cycled to school and on adventures with friends. Where local residents cycled to the local shop to buy a newspaper without fear or being regarded as a f***ing taxdodger. In a sense, it could be argued that countries such as Denmark and The Netherlands are more British than Britain as they have retained decent values that are still about in Britain but have been tempered by consistent anti-social, car-centric policies. I believe the Dutch and Danes are on to something that’s worth fighting for.

I leave you with this latest offering from Mark Wagenbuur that I urge you to watch as it is utterly superb. In particular, look at the dire situation The Netherlands found itself as it entered the 1970’s. Then think about a typical school run in Britain today and wonder how it could ever get better with current policy.