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.


  1. If a city in the world's most car-centric country can build 25 miles of protected cycle way per year, London (2.6 times the population and 2.9 times the land area) should be able to build - oooh, let's say 65 miles a year?

    That's physically protected, ie by kerbs or placing car parking outside, and effectively denied to motor vehicles. Smurf lanes need not apply.

    1. I should have said 2.6 times the land area and 2.9 times the population.

  2. Same old Tories.

  3. '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 this is where TfL's policy just doesn't add up. Take for example the Embankment, in particular when heading West from Blackfriars. The intermittent painted bike lane regularly stops to make way for parking spaces, meaning that when on a bike you have to pull out into traffic usually doing somewhat more than 30mph, inevitably causing it to slow down. The absence of suitable bike infrastructure here is a positive impediment to 'smooth traffic flow'.

    1. Couldn't agree more! I thing that confusing and interrupted road layouts (both for cars and cyclists) create more backlogs and impedance to traffic (both cars, cyclists and peds) than properly designed ones with smaller capacity. How many times roads are narrowed by silly parking spaces, traffic islands and so on. This gives a false sense of space and makes driving and cycling much more difficult. In other words - a straight, narrow road with no obstacles and a separate lane for bicycles and cars can in my opinion let through more traffic than a much wider one riddled with traffic islands, parking spots and lane narrowings.

  4. The cycle paths in the UK are do crap that you have to lift your bike over fences: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jZ0W7cl1O_s

  5. Imagine the public outcry if 93 people were murdered in London instead. #Getyourprioritiessorted.

    1. Out of interest, how many people were murdered in London last year? Not sure what it proves, but it would be good to know.

    2. According to:

      There were 99 homicides in the 12 months to April 2012.

  6. That photo of the barriers across the cyclepath is what really gets me annoyed about tfl and councils; this happens such a lot - someone actually goes to the lengths of putting in a cyclepath and then puts a barrier across it ensuring that I (and I'm clearly far from alone) won't use it, as it's a lot less hassle to continue using the roads, unsafe as they are.

    I have a theory that these barrier schemes are designed by cyclist-hating officials. The anti-cyclist psychopath, who has inveigled his way into gaining a position of responsibility for cyclepath design, thinks "ah, I know how to spend the budget, appear as if I'm doing something for cyclists, and ensure they get nothing out of it whilst allowing others to point to something they call cyclist provision". So he does a cyclepath with barriers - voila!

    You can see I really resent this! For goodness sake tfl and councils - get real cyclists to be responsible for cyclepath provision!

    1. I also really resent these barriers.

      You can see how two neighbouring boroughs, faced with pretty much the same situation, have approached the task at hand in quite different ways, here and here.

    2. LCC have said: "If something is really worth achieving then it is almost certainly against the odds to attain. If the obstacles weren't formidable we'd have vaulted them already." Are these guys really my voice for a cycling city?

    3. What is the issue of these barriers? How long does it take you to get through them?

      I always thought they were put in to stop motorbikes being ridden on the cycle path. There is one of these barriers on the Grand Union Canal on my commute from Northolt to Aldwych - it take me less than 10 seconds to go through it - but stops any motor bike getting on the towpath.

      Please tell me what the problem is with them?

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  8. I'm sick of hearing about Chicago's amazing cycling infrastructure. That bit of road you refer to is just 1/2 mile or so long and part of an already absurdly wide road. It was cheap to build because its not part of a massive city-wide infrastructure project. If you want to point to very similar pieces of infrastructure in London then check out CS3 that "blue paint painted on the inside of bus lanes and car parking spaces" which you whine about so regularly has actually a significant percentage on fully dedicated off road cycle paths that are totally segregated from any other traffic.

    1. Matthias Doepke from Northwestern University: "A few isolated bike lanes don't help much if you still have to go through dangerous stretches on most trips. Once there is a connected network, the attractiveness of biking goes up a lot. That's where we are in Chicago now - good number of bike lanes, but no real network yet."

    2. Read the first sentence of the post above; "Late last year, Chicago opened the first of its new protected bikeways." The point is not that Chicago has some fantastic network of cyclepaths: it doesn't - yet. The point is that it has undertaken to build 25 miles of protected cyclepaths per year. In a ten-year plan, which they only started "late last year". To scale, London would have to build about 65 miles per year. Of protected paths. Not smurf paint over on-street parking spaces.

      CS3 has nothing whatever to do with the Boris/Barclays scheme, apart from having smurf paint poured over it recently. The entire route from Goodman's Yard to Canary Wharf has been gthere for some yearss, including the off-road sections along Cable Street

  9. Hi Paul, the seminal work on the development of cycling in the urban environment is Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities. We have had several false starts here in London over the years. Given where we are now, if we were to develop a "fantastic network of cyclepaths", how would we set about it?

    The first step is soon to be taken, with the appointment of a cycling commissioner within City Hall. Important though this is, "Studying the feasibility of a network," says Cycling: the way ahead, "is of a similar importance to setting up a cycling unit or appointing a cycling coordinator."

    One can approach the development of a cycling network either from the top-down or from the bottom-up. In the long run, the result is the same.

    The top-down approach is a voluntarist policy, and involves the study and introduction of a planned network. The bottom-up approach is an adjustment policy, and is aimed at improving specific situations.

    Using the top-down approach, a cycle network can be developed in the medium term (5 - 10 years). As David Hembrow recently pointed out in a comment on this blog: "The Netherlands [developed] much of what they [have] now after less than ten years, and it looked pretty good after about 20 years of consistent policy. But consistent policy is [what it] must be ..."

    Before I come back to this, I just want to make the point that it looks to me as though they are pursuing the adjustment policy in Chicago. Certainly the LCC's three flagship schemes are in that mould. Cycling: the way ahead gives no indication how long it would take to develop a cycle network using this piecemeal approach.

    David Hembrow said that the aim of a consistent cycling policy has to be a lot higher than what is being asked for at the moment. Not as a first step, it doesn't. To begin with, "the level of minimum functioning is a prudent course to follow", says Cycling: the way ahead

    Thinking in terms of a ‘network’


    "Using a carefully drawn up plan as a basis, it should be possible to examine closing certain roads to car traffic, creating traffic loops or comparing various options to remove obstacles to cyclists’ mobility. A total absence of hindrances and a bicycle’s size make it easy for cyclists to ‘go off the beaten track’. Itineraries in a cycling network may therefore comfortably include shortcuts and even small detours which are inaccessible to heavy vehicles.

    "There are a number of places in towns where prohibitions to cycling could be lifted: foot bridges and pedestrian streets, alleyways, paths in parks, pontoons, parking areas and cul de sac roads, one-way streets, towpaths, small steps to be equipped with ramps, etc."

    As Lynn Sloman explains in her book Car Sick: solutions for our car-addicted culture: "The focus of our attention should switch from a few grandiose engineering schemes to thousands of small initiatives."

  10. Further to my earlier comment, the upside of pursuing the voluntarist policy, of course, is that, relatively quickly and for not a great deal of money, it should be possible to develop a comprehensive, city-wide cycle network. Non-functioning sections, as here, here or here, could easily be brought up to standard. The downside is that certain sections of this network, as here or here, are going to function at a minimum level in the short to medium-term. However, as Julian Dicks memorably pointed out, "At the end of the day, everyone has to start somewhere."

    I have only had a quick look at Chicago's transport plan, but I have seen enough to get the idea. Personally, I regard their 'Safety First' agenda as not something to be emulated.

    My own view is that a route should be meaningful and direct before it is safe. Consider this from Paul Gasson of Camden Cyclists:

    "In common with most boroughs, Camden Council maintains that an LCN route is implemented [only once] it has been through the design/consult/build phases.

    "This blind adherence to procedural bureaucracy instead of commonsense led to an outcry from the Campaign during 1997/98 when the 1.5 km West Hampstead LCN route along Mill Lane was implemented at a total cost of £40,000. The facilities which actually appeared on the ground comprised 10 metres of advisory cycle lane and a 3 metre section of mandatory lane in the centre of the road to help cyclists negotiate a junction."

    Safety First? Oh, I know how much this appeals to a certain mindset. But if anyone out there is really serious about the development of an amenable cycling environment, what they should be saying is 'Network First'.

    Paul M makes the point that Chicago has undertaken to build 250 miles of protected cyclepaths over the next ten years. Great stuff. But, says Cycling: the way ahead, it is possible to "go much further" than this. For example, over the next few years, London could develop 1500 miles of easily identifiable cycle routes.

    "If it is not possible to systematically remodel the entire network to better meet the needs of cyclists, specific action can be taken on each occasion that works need to be done."

    > Analyse journeys - origin/destination
    > Plan the network
    > Implement the network on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable

  11. To those who claim there is no space on London's streets take a look at some of the grand squares and piazzas in Southern Europe - with not a parked car in sight, and that tends to extend to the surrounding streets as well, because the city authorities have realised that street space has to be active space for moving traffic and social interaction.

    At a loose calculation moving 10 cars through a city at 30 mph with comfortable gaps between cars etc requires 57% more road area than doing it at 20mph, and the space saved can be allocated to other transport modes.

    In some way we do have the words but not the delivery for this, as by law the only requirement for a roads authority is to provide roads for passing and repassing traffic - of every type. Quite cleatly spelled out - no requirement to provide free, or paid for, car parking. No look outside that the typical UK street and at least 50% of the street are (including footways!) is used for ... car parking, sterilising that space - in some commuter dormitory areas those cars don't move for days, in many city centres the places are blocked for a full working day by the same vehicle, and then empty for the rest of the 24 hours.

    Its not an efficient use of valuable city centre land, and it increases the area of road surface that needs to be maintained. Just look at the road after a light fall of snow and see how little has been returned to 'black'. THose 'white areas represent big savings in the repairs bill, and potentially big opportunities to mitigate flooding and enhance air quality by returning them to free draining soil with grass, and trees - Nature's air conditioning system.

    The exit from providing car parking by Local Roads Authorities clears their complaints mailbox of all those demands for parking outside 'my place' be it home work or other activity. At last we can see car parking being supplied as a free market commodity, and the skewed transport economy given a nudge in towards a level playing field.

    This of course benefits walking and cycling, both in releasing street space, and making a negligible demand on that space for each individual moving along (0.25 - 2 sq m depending on the speeds and mode of transport used) compared to that required by an individual in a car (a minimum of 12.5sq m for a stationary car and an exponentially growing footprint as traffic speeds increase (a very clear argument for 20mph limits on all city centre streets is the far greater efficiency in using the road space A recommended 2 second gap between vehicles at 20mph is 30 feet, at 30 it is 45 feet, the actual stopping distances step up from 40 feet (at 20mph) to 75 feet (at 30mph) with a wider dynamic envelope also requiring wider traffic lanes.


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