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.

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.