Reclaiming the Road Space

Last year, TfL launched an experimental scheme to extend the ability of motorbikes to use bus lanes. In other news a few months ago the industrious James Randerson of the Guardian managed to unearth a few facts about Advanced Stop Lines (ASLs), basically after much digging he discovered that actually, yes, it is a fixed penalty for deliberate flouting of them.

Together with the eye-wateringly blue cycle superhighways, which many cabbies, motor cyclists and assorted other ne’er’do’wells assume that cyclists MUST use, London’s roads are becoming increasingly confusing; who is allowed to be where, when and who’ll you’ll be sharing the space with when you get there.

The cycle lanes are particularly open to misinterpretation: parked cars, mopeds, motorbikes, the unwitting and the deliberate. You might forgive the poor motorcyclist, they’ve been let into bus lanes (which are normally also cycle lanes), so they assume (incorrectly) that now all cycle lanes are open to them too. It seems like every day I’m being overtaken on the inside by a motorcyclist along CS7 – and when I’ve pointed out the dangers, almost exclusively the responses are that they believe they’re allowed to be there (normally in fewer words).

iBikeLondon is advocating cyclists reclaim the ASL box. That doesn’t go far enough; we need to reclaim the cycle lanes, too. But as the cyclists in the city point out, all this is highlighting the conflict that marrs our roads: we’re just none of us very good at sharing.

London just isn’t very good at going beyond some PR fluff and spin. The boris bikes have helped get a few more non-specialists out there, but as the nights (and mornings) draw in, the roads will return to their more natural state of being populated by the generally more hardy, experienced and, dare I say it, more militant cyclist. If you’re out there week-in, week-out, rain and shine, cold winter dark mornings and balmy summer evenings, you’re less likely to put up with grockles invading your space.

Fighting back doesn’t really help anyone, but where’s the balance between deliberate obstruction (e.g. Critical Mass) and meekly submitting to being weaker and happy with it? The police shouldn’t be needed to enforce every last nuance of the traffic rule book, we should be adult enough to work these things out but when everyone’s rushing about, desperately trying to make it through the lights, being higher and mightier than thou (we are all each individually right, after all, it goes without saying that you, as the other guy, are implicitly wrong).

Approaching Menace

Whether you have form or whether your experience is shouting answers from the sofa at the screen, taking the next step and actually answering the contestant call for Mastermind (wiki), filling in the form, passing the audition (which was done at Bvsh House, which was quite exciting in itself) and then accepting the place are all reasonably straightforward.

Even the realisation that you should be revising again, however many years since your last exam, isn’t too bitter a pill; you should be picking subjects that are fun or little real effort. Fortunately I’d given a relatively small bibliography, but that’s where the worrying started. When I’d filled in the form and was searching for specialist subjects, I’d turned to my bookshelves and plonked down a few things for which I’d both interest and several books already. Bletchley Park was an obvious choice given the couple of feet of shelfspace donated to it and, once I’d got over my surprise that they’d not had anyone do it before, I got down to re-reading the books and noting down question fodder. (I heartily recommend Mental Case for a desktop/iPhone assistant.) That’s when the nerves first raised their head. GC&CS is such a wonderful story with such a number of people interested in it, that my worries were now that if I made a big mistake, or the question setter misunderstood my description of the subject (I’ve just about to managed to forget the disastrous semi-final of the radio version), or if I just froze, there would be lots of people watching the eventual broadcast with a huge sense of disappointment. I had to perform well for the sake of the people who have a vested interest in the subject.

The day dawned. The train struck out from London and the last few pieces of reading and revision were trying to get stuck in.

I walked to the studios, as much to clear my head as to enjoy the quirky post-commercial, architecture of central Manchester. Entering by the same gate as about 15 years ago was a fun little trip down memory lane. In reception we were collected at a similar time to the Countdown contestants (and saw Jeff Stelling, Susie Dent, Sharron Davies and Rachel Riley in make-up, so that was a plus for the day before anything else). We were briefed and the four of us got our first introduction to each other: confirming the order for the first round (I’m to go third), the text that will appear on screen and a first hearing of the other specialist subjects and a review of the rules. Then a little dancing in the conversation: who’d done it before, any previous TV credits. So who had the form?

I’ve always suspected that your draw isn’t complete coincidence, there are generally two strong entrants in each heat, perhaps one a slight favourite, then two others who might not be quite as strong; strong enough to merit their place but whose recall is a maybe a little off the pace, whose specialist choice was a little too broad or who don’t revel in the spotlight. Who’s who? Which are you? (As the old business cliché goes, if you can’t spot the mug around the meeting table, it’s probably you.) Chatting while wardrobe ironed the duds didn’t really help, the nerves were out, but the chat wasn’t giving anything away. My money on my major oppo was on the slightly older chap with the subject closest in our heat to serious culture (I suppose mine probably counted for that as well).

Then we were changed and being miked up, before walking into the studio and being introduced to the audience. Still no sign of John Humphrys, though. Indeed, apart from being behind the desk and in the line up for the opening shot, we had no time with him – very unlike Paxman’s behind the scenes persona. We were the first recording in the day, so maybe it was not surprising that he didn’t come back afterwards, but a little surprising that there was no chit-chat.

Sat in our seats on the set, with a bit of banter from Ted Robbins, the warm up king, and Humphrys arrives. He runs through his intro autoue a couple of times, then boom. The iconic music is playing, Paul’s up first and he’s already answering real questions. I was expecting some warm-ups, some level checking, but no. He’s already well into his two minutes. Maybe this is a good thing, kill the nerves as quickly as possible.

He’s chosen FIFA World Cup Finals since 1970 and, to be honest, it was a little too broad, with questions on goalkeepers, sendings off, teamsheets and strike threats, just asking too much of him. His tally of eight points is decent, but I’m relaxing. Robin, the older chap, is next on the TV plays of Alan Bennett. It’s a decently small canon, some scope for slip ups, but generally a solid 14 points with a few passes and there’s the line drawn in the sand. I was right – he is serious. But now it’s me.

“The next contender, please.” And I’m walking. I see some tape on the floor, taking the curved route and making sure to not fall off the stage, then I’m sitting down, making sure not to slide off the chair. That would be embarrassing. He’s asking my name and I’m coping with that, I even get my specialist subject right. Almost coming a cropper on the alledged open goal first question, but then I’m off to the races. One genuine guess, then the last question – the buzzer goes and I probably should have had him repeat the question as I know as soon as I’ve answered that I’ve gone for the other chess champion … (There’s always a clue in the question and I knew that Stuart Milner-Barry had never been British chess champion.)

Still 15 points and no passes isn’t bad, and after Steve does a grand job of 13 points on U2, I’m leading at halfway. That has to be seat you’d choose; the ability to sit and wait and know what to do. Paul’s GK at least overtakes me, Steve sets a better target, then Robin’s off. He fluffs a couple but, especially with the extra half minute in the second round for this year, he’s climbed to 27 (albeit with a fist full of passes – hindsight says I really should have paid attention to that).

It’s me again, to chase a decent target, but should be gettable. I start well, with the first 4 or 5 out of the gate, but then a few go begging and maybe my aim of guess not pass might not have been the best strategy. I’m getting some wrong and Humphrys has to correct me, burning valuable seconds. I confuse the character and the author with Rankin and Rebus, and then a question about an attraction named for the Greek word for movement and all I can remember is the UC final and hippodrome. Then it’s the last question on the city where Jane Austen lived and based some of her novels. I don’t know, but as a guess, I can’t go away from the city of my youth, I know she lived (and died ad I think is bured) there, but I don’t think it’s right. “Winchester.”

Bath. And while I’ve only passed on the one, I have burned too much time, and I’m one short. 26. Only one more correct amongst a handful which I should have claimed would have done it.

But how good is it? Will it be enough for the semi final? We’ll have to wait for the next round of filming. 6 from 24 heats will get the nod. It would have been enough last year, but with that extra 30 seconds it probably won’t be. I’m in with a shout, but I can’t really say more than that at this point.

(For the next week, it’s still on iPlayer.)
Update: mentions

Language

Rowing clubs rejoice. Your sport is in capable hands, or at least in hands capable of creating ludicrous management speak.

"get the regulatory burdens & bureaucratic procedures which prevent you delivering sport off your chest"

British Rowing

"Delivering sport"? Is that really what they call it now? Is that really what we’re doing?

I appreciate the offer, but I’d rather they treat us as volunteers who love our sport, not management consultants implementing a process within some faceless corporation.

I think I need to go to deliver my coffee into my cup and deploy it to my stomach.

Language criminals. George Carlin got there, 30 years ago.

The anti-smug backlash

The excellent London Cyclist blog asked this morning, what London’s cyclists thought of the tube strike?

The general concensus was that there were more out there and that there were many who really didn’t understand how it worked. As I suggested in a post 3 years ago (almost to the day)

Your normal tube journey has tourists getting in the way and making you grumble. You fairweather, occasional cyclists are the tourist on my tube. Don’t be surprised when I grumble at you!

Much has changed in three years, but apparently not that much. There were definitely more bikes and definitely more people who were clueless as to how to ride in traffic and, as importantly, how to ride considerately in a group.

While I’m not going to tout myself as some elite level cyclist I have ridden for years in pelotons, on club rides and just generally in groups who know what they are doing, some of the n00bs scared me yesterday: both from a blatant sense of danger, but also that it is their behaviour who drivers and other road users will remember. I’m generally happy to wait my turn – I’m faster than most and I’ll let my speed do the talking when the lights go red, but the amount of queue-ignorance and just pure bad manners was simply staggering.

It is not a race track out there but n00bs see people riding fast and assume it is, not to mention the queueing at lights (let’s leave the jumping and skirting down on pavements alone for a moment). You wouldn’t jump the queue when getting your coffee when you get to work so why do it when queuing for the lights?

After almost 20 years and over 40000 miles on London’s roads, it is clearly a better place to cycle now than in the early 90s when I started regularly riding here. I’m afraid, though, that we’re in danger of seeing a backlash if the general level of bike nouse doesn’t increase. We might have safety in numbers, but we’re going see more clampdowns and rules because we obviously can’t control ourselves.

Some predictions

  • Cycling will be banned in many areas where it is currently tolerated, perhaps as a result of being shown as not being able to play nicely with the other kids e.g. on the South Bank.
  • Some of the semi-autonomous districts (BIDs) will be looking to ‘solve’ the problem themselves (as highlighted by the well argued I Bike London). Canary Wharf, as another example, is semi-private and it wouldn’t suprise me if the landlord started actively putting obstacles in the way of cyclists (rather than merely passively making cycling out here problematic and dangerous)
  • There will be some enforced insurance and possibly even a licensing scheme. If you’re a member of the LCC or the BTC, possibly even on your house insurance, you already have third-party insurance. And just like car drivers have to be insured to drive their vehicle (of course many aren’t) and it’s not beyond the realms of credibility to expect that cyclists will have to do the same.
  • Number plates. If you can anonymously break the rules, leaving fuming drivers in your wake, it’s not going to be long before someone mentions some system for being able to identify you.

The weather turned slightly worse this morning and there were fewer people out there, so until the next tube strike, I expect the roads to return to something approaching normal.

More than just red lights

So Jon Snow’s been snapped playing a little fast and loose with the traffic law. Whoop, te, do.

On the one hand, I have some sympathy with the CTC’s reaction, albeit a broadly ad hominem reaction of "he was busted, but there but for the grace of God goes every other road user, including all the reporters who worked on the piece." Of course they are probably right, but Matt Seaton is equally right when he writes;

all this does is reinforce the widespread popular view of cyclists as both behaving badly and acting with an obnoxious sense of entitlement and totally unearned moral superiority

On the whole, I agree with him, but he does a disservice when he suggests that because we have lots of new cycling related investment we (as if there is a corporate-we in the cycling world – I don’t see much espirit de corps on the roads on my commute) that cycling should sit down, shut up and be thankful, dutifully obeying the laws in gratitude to finally being paid a little bit of attention.

This is just a bad a reaction as the CTC’s (or the Daily Mail’s victimisation of something which is, frankly, normal for the majority of road users, whether on 0, 2, 4 or some other number of wheels).

All this alleged benefits for cyclists has affected my life barely one jot. Does Boris’ new cycle superhighway make my commute easier? I use miles of both the CS7 and the CS3 every day, yet it hasn’t changed any attitudes. Motorists still park in it, motorbikes are still in the ASLs, busses still squeeze past, cyclists still ignore the red lights, pedestrians still wander their ways around without a care to anyone. A splash of blue paint just makes the roads more slippery after the occasional rain.

In general advanced stop lines aren’t particularly useful: motorbikes assume they are allowed in there, the approach markings are frequently blocked, there are rarely any handholds, so the unclipping and clipping in just keeps in the target zone for longer. Bike parking is occasionally handy, but only if it is married to actual security. An acquaintance had his bike stolen from a rack outside a building which has 24/7 security guards. When he asked them why they didn’t intervene, apparently it is against their rules, even saying “oi” to a bloke with big bolt croppers isn’t allowed in case the thief takes it badly. Fine security theatre.

I stop at red. I get annoyed at those who don’t, but I understand them. You want to make cyclists’ lives better? It’s not all about safety, it’s about not impeding me for non-obvious reasons.

I was interested to read a TfL report recently which was investigating shared use zebra crossing. In amongst the preamble was an interesting factoid;

The Traffic Management Act 2004 requires that, subject to other policy objectives, highway authorities take steps to minimise delays for all road users including pedestrians and cyclists. Signalisation can create delays to both traffic and pedestrians if the traffic conditions do not justify them.

Wow.

Who knew? That sounds like most of the traffic lights I pass on my commute route.

Grab back control

A recent edition of the Evening Standard, which I never read even when you had to pay for it and I still don’t despite it is now free – as a wise man once said, twice crap is still crap, you just have a bigger pile – carried a banner headline (it must have been as I saw it on someone else’s copy) cycling city touting the new bike hire scheme, similar to Paris’ Vélib’ programme.

This is a tremendous idea, don’t get me wrong, more people on bikes is a winning situation on so many levels. Cycling is now a viable method of commuting in London, which it wasn’t 15 years (and some 35,000 miles) ago when I started on two whiles about this metropolis. Cyclists are a lot more visible on the capital’s road and, by extension, the chances that the car driver behind you is also an occasional cyclist too have now grown. If more people get out, even a little, on bikes then life does get better for all of us.

But Boris needs more than just a few thousand hire-bikes and some headlines. The “cycle superhighways”, especially the two scheduled for “opening” in May of this year, are possibly progress – although what’s a new lick of blue paint really going to accomplish? You’ll still have dozens of sets of traffic lights and too many cars, vans and buses fighting over too little road space with drivers and other cyclists who have little or no roadcraft, patience or manners worth speaking of.

The problem is that London’s roads are no longer fit for purpose. From the bus lane on the M4 to the kerfuffle about the Olympic lanes, drivers complaining about red-lighting jumping bikes, motorbikes being allowed in some bus lanes; too many people feel that they’re special and that it’s everyone else who is the problem.

We are all the problem. When I’m on my bike I’m a smaller problem admittedly, but my daily round-trip is now almost 25 miles, surely that’s the hub of everyone’s problem? Too many people are working in too compact an area – be it the West End, the City or Canary Wharf. Too many people are being moved into too small an area, too often by a transport infrastructure that cannot be taken seriously.

I don’t intend to move to the East of the City, but for now I’m working there. Canary Wharf had the chance to do it right. They started the place from almost scratch and could have designed in cycle access but it really feels that they did the exact opposite. The roads within a mile of the development are generally massive and car-focussed. Actually everything East of the Tower, so make that three miles. Cyclists aren’t expected to feel like second class citizens here, they are expected to consider themselves are untouchables. In 2007 90,000 people worked in Canary Wharf and just 2.9% cycled. Frankly, I’m surprised it is that much considering how we’re treated.

I don’t want much – and maybe May’s cycle superhighway number 3 will be enough – but I’d like London to repay some of my taxes by allowing me to travel to work without risking my life on a daily basis. Canary Wharf is a soul-crushing place at the best of times, it doesn’t have to be a body-destroying one on the commute too.

I don’t expect to cycle from my front door to the secure underground parking (sic) with neither stopping nor even putting a foot down, and having broken no rules. We all will need to stop and give way at points, but frankly the current situation is ridiculous – too many red lights where all I’m doing is waiting (and probably watching other cyclists going past me) for no obvious good reason.

If Boris wants to make a difference he needs to get everyone moving and not stopping, helping each other and not getting in each other’s way any more than we have to. The system is now built to stop and control, taking away our right to think and react. A cyclist at a redundant red light has more ability to exert some freewill than the car nth in the queue – but because it’s “illegal” everyone gets up in arms.

I’m not about to condone their flagrant disrespect, but get angry at the red light, not the cyclist flexing some degree of independence. In these pre-election times, the traffic light is about control; the zebra crossing, roundabout or crossroads are about give-and-take and letting us sort ourselves out. It’s about democracy versus totalitarianism. We don’t all always need to be told what to do. Running a red light is almost certainly unsafe because the junction doesn’t assume you to do it, so why shouldn’t we hand some control back to the road users and have us work out for ourselves what we need.

Some taxes are just fine by me

No one likes being taxed, even when it’s not called a tax but a licence.

But as the very fine David Mitchell said recently

the BBC is the envy of the world. Why are we letting its competitors, and the politicians they have frightened or bought, tell us that we can’t keep it as it is?

There’s a lot wrong with the BBC, and if they close 6Music then there’s even more to add to that list, but in comparison with some of the other things to complain about, it’s just about the best thing that the UK has at the moment.

It’s a bargain; the mealy-mouthed words of the sponsored politicians and the journalists who just rehash their masters’ thoughts cannot take that away from any right-thinking person.

Red lights distract

Recently Boris decided that it might be an idea to investigate whether cyclists should be allowed to (conditionally) turn left through red lights.

While it certainly is not the answer, it’s not really even part of the question.

There are innumerable reasons why cycling is dangerous, but the fundamental one is that cyclists are not considered first class citizens when the road system is being planned, amended, dug up, redesigned or rephased.

My commute is around 7 miles each way. On my morning route in the other morning, just for fun, I counted the number of sets of traffic lights that I had to cycle over. 32. Thirty-two. That’s more than one every quarter mile. There are just four zebra crossings.

I divided the lights into 3 categories: those which were fair enough, e.g. major junctions etc. (12), those that were pure pedestrian crossings that could be easily replaced with zebra crossings (12) and those which I couldn’t quickly decide on (8). It’s these pedestrian request lights that are the most irksome – people pressing the button, then walking across on green, only for the lights to kick in anyway. How about a cancel request button?

It’s no wonder that cyclists run red lights (I don’t, but I’m in a minority) when so many of them are blatantly surplus to requirement. Surely zebra crossings must be cheaper to install, cheaper to maintain, greener (given the average wait times) and less likely to provoke irritation at others’ behaviour? After all, I’m convinced more car drivers would run reds if they could – but they’re constrained by the guy in front.

So rather than the red herring of turning left (which could be often useful, but more often than not, not) – let’s have TfL justify every set of lights with a pedestrian request phase and ponder if that crossing could be better served by a zebra crossing.

That would be a real win in the battle to wrestle control of our roads back from the car.

Update: Someone’s on my wavelength. Ealing is putting a bag over many after realising that the wisdom of crowds works well. Hoorah for them.

Banking Hypocrisy

No, not anything about the merchant banks and the mess they’re making of the world.

My phone rang over the weekend: a number I didn’t recognise. I answered it … nothing. A few minutes later the same number called again and an automated voice introduced themselves as being from my credit card company and, with a reasonable voice emulator, said my name. Apparently they were seeking verification that I’d been responsible for some recent transactions. I was asked to press 1.

Then I was asked to identify myself by tapping in my birthday. At which point I hung up.

I don’t have a problem with fraud prevention and the bank trying to recognise unusual usage patterns and asking me to verify them. Far from it, I’m more than happy to make sure my balance is no higher than I make it.

Banks – all banks – are on at us to keep our PINs secret, to not fall for phishing scams and to be careful with our discarded paperwork, yet here was my bank being blatantly dumb. My postman knows my name and has a reasonable guess as to a lot about my life. Every shop assistant or waiter who takes a plastic payment from me knows precisely what credit card I hold and a decent guess as to my name, quite possibly my address and other data too.

Yet when they ring me, I was asked to identify myself. They rang me. They can identify themselves first. Otherwise, no dice.

I searched for the area code and then searched for the credit card name and the town – and I got some hits. So it is possible that this was genuine. (Or maybe an enterprising call centre worker.)

Either way, they can ring me back. But unless they can prove their identity, I’m not going to talk to them or tell them anything.

Update: I did ring them back and, eventually, got through to a human who was friendly enough and we verified the transactions but, more importantly, I was removed from their automated call list. Any fraud questions they might have, they’re perfectly at liberty to contact me for verification, but I’ll ring them. I’ll go to their website, find their number and call them.

Email disclaimers

I own a number of domains. Recently one of these has started to receive a number of email messages to apparently genuinely real people who definitely don’t have an email address on that domain but who, for some reason, are receiving email. (My favourite theory is a badly configured mail server appending an incorrect domain to outgoing messages.)

Several of the messages I’ve received have had disclaimers appended to the end, you know the form,

This email is only intended for the recipient, if you are not the recipient, please douse your computer in moonshine and howl at the moon.

(Due credit to MetaFilter)

I have taken to responding in a slightly disdainful tone (haughty? moi?) that if the sender can’t be bothered to verify that they’re sending email to real addresses then I can’t be held to their grip on the law.

Google searches suggest I’m on reasonably solid ground:

Even though their effectiveness in court is doubtful, they may provide a useful argument in negotiations to resolve a dispute.

The central conceit here is that while I’m not the target for the email I’m being given something. I’m not picking it up in the street, looking over someone’s shoulder or poking my nose into someone else’s private space. This is my email account and someone is, mistakenly, putting something of theirs into my inbox. I refuse to accept conditions – if they can’t send it to addresses they have validated to be correct, why should I obey their wishes?

I’m interested in why I might have got this wrong. I’m also interested in the real reasons why other people have so little regard for their businesses that they could configure their systems to get it wrong.