Tuesday, 22 May 2012

Chicago joins London and promises to smooth traffic flow for car drivers. But unlike London, Chicago puts in safeguards to protect people and strikes precisely the right balance.

Chicago protected bike lane, courtesy koonce on flickr.
Late last year, Chicago opened the first of its new protected bikeways. People who cycle on the bikeway are protected from moving motor traffic because they cycle on the inside of parked cars. They also benefit from traffic lights specifically designed for people on bicycles. Again, the aim is to keep people in motor vehicles and people on bicycles well apart from each other.

By the end of this year, Chicago will have built 25 miles of protected bikeway. You can see what the Chicago protected bikeways look like below. Each mile costs £175,000 to build. London has spent up to £2million per mile on vastly inferior bike routes. The London bike routes are, for the most part, blue paint painted on the inside of bus lanes and car parking spaces.
This month, Chicago's Mayor announced his transport plan. And it's a massive piece of work.

What's very revealing about the plan is that, just like his London counterpart, Chicago's mayor promises to "Improve the reliability and consistency of workday auto travel times on monitored major streets."

London's mayor has a near-identical strategy to "smooth traffic flow [which] will mean less stop-start traffic, more predictable journey times and fewer obstacles for pedestrians."

I've never had a problem with the concept of 'smoothing traffic flow' for its own sake. My issue with Boris Johnson's policy has been the way London's Mayor puts smoothing traffic flow as his absolute key transport objective for London's streets without building any of the safeguards that are needed to prevent a bloodbath. The way that Boris Johnson has implemented 'smoother traffic flow' has been wholly irresponsible so far. Can't cross the street? That's because traffic lights have to be removed to smooth traffic flow. Can't build a protected bikeway like Chicago? That's because we can't take away any space from the motorist because it might disrupt traffic flow. And so on.

And this is where Chicago gets it radically different to London. In fact, Chicago gets it radically right. Yes, the Mayor of Chicago wants to make for more reliable motor journeys, just like London's Mayor. But unlike London's Mayor, Chicago stresses that the primary goal of its Transportation Department is "The safety and convenience of all users of the transportation system, including pedestrians, bicyclists, transit users and motor vehicle drivers, shall be accommodated and balanced in all types of transportation and development projects and through all phases of a project, so that even the most vulnerable – children, elderly, and persons with disabilities – can travel safely within the public right of way.”  

How London designs a Greenway cycle track
Pathetic isn't it?
Courtesy Crap Walthamstow blog
Almost all of this sort of thinking is unique to Chicago (and Paris, and New York and Copenhagen and Amsterdam). You won't see any of it coming from Transport for London, even though, technically, the Act of Parliament that gives TfL its powers is very specific about doing exactly what Chicago is doing. Boris Johnson is just choosing to ignore that point.

When TfL released its road casualty numbers last year, it boasted of a "dramatic fall in road casualties in London", showing a 49% drop from the mid 1990s to "only" 126 road deaths in 2010.

The plan in Chicago? "Eliminate ALL pedestrian, bicycle, and overall traffic crash fatalities within 10 years".
How Chicago designs a Greenway cycle track
One that looks usable and practical
Courtesy Grid Chicago blog

A total of 93 people were killed on London's streets last year while walking or cycling. That is to say nothing of those that were severely injured.
In my opinion, Chicago is addressing issues to make life easier for people that feel they need to drive in the same way London is. But unlike London, Chicago is building a moral and responsible framework around that policy that will enable all of its citizens to get about the city safely and conveniently. That means building specific interventions for people travelling by bike or on foot. London is building the car smoothing part of the strategy. It seems to have forgotten it has a responsibility to its citizens when they're not in their cars.
Put bluntly, the plan in Chicago is to build a city where everyone can travel safely within the public right of way. The plan in London is to build a city where the public right of way is enhanced for the benefit of motor traffic, which means that the public is increasingly losing access to the public right of way unless they're in a car. I would far rather live in a city that is puts as its number one priority a reduction in road deaths to zero than a city that simply shrugs it shoulders and prioritises smooth traffic flow above all other priorities.

You can read more about the Chicago plan at Grid Chicago blog here.