Sunday, 10 June 2012

Bow roundabout: Transport for London "wants conversations with the Department for Transport" to build proper Dutch-style bike traffic lights. This could be the start of something quite significant.

The new segregated bike lane and traffic lights
at Bow roundabout
I spent an hour today watching the new segregated bike traffic lights at Bow roundabout. So did several police officers. The police are there to monitor and advise people how to use the junction.

First impressions? Really tough. This is a hopeless junction. I've driven through it plenty of times and it's incredibly frustrating: slow crawl up the junction followed by hyper-aggressive manoeuvring through the junction itself. It's rubbish for cycling. And it's simply appalling for pedestrians who can only cross by running across the motorway slip roads. It should never have been built like this in the first place. The whole thing is unpleasant or irritating whatever form of transport you're using. But it's only on a bike or on foot that it's truly dangerous.

Transport for London has built a new segregated cycle lane here, complete with bicycle traffic lights on one approach to the junction (pictured left). A similar structure will be built in the opposite direction after the Olympics.

The new cycle lane is a bit of both worlds. On the one hand, it does separate people in motor vehicles and people on bicycles, which is very welcome. But then it throws them together through the junction in a very clunky way. It involves multiple and confusing traffic lights some of which are for people on bikes, others for people in motor vehicles, but they all look the same. The biggest issue, though, is that the scheme fails to match the basic rule of the Dutch Institute for Road Safety Research (SWOV) that: 'The ultimate solution for the blind spot problem is a structural separation of trucks and cyclists."

Getting to Bow roundabout is made
unnecessarily dangerous on a bike because
TfL has plonked two car parking
spaces and a bus stop that fill entire
 bike lane just before the roundabout.  
Having observed it for over an hour, my sense is that TfL's new cycle lane at Bow is very compromised. But it is undoubtedly a slight improvement on what was there before. The three police officers agreed, as did the woman filming the junction for a student research project.

I spoke with a contact at Transport for London late last week to ask about Bow in more detail. TfL told me that since it implemented the original design a week ago, it has monitored the junction non-stop and looking at how people actually use the bike lane, TfL has made a number of changes. It has moved both the motor and cycle stop lines, moved the traffic lights, added an extra traffic signal, changed  the appearance of the advance stop area for bikes and modified some of the segregated kerb.

Some people have criticised TfL for making these changes but I think it's only right that TfL should amend the junction in response to what's actually happening. You have to remember that TfL has said from the outset this would be a trial scheme and rather than just leave the  scheme unaltered, at least it's trying to make the best of the job. I think they deserve some credit for that at least.

But my fundamental issue with Bow roundabout remains: It will only ever be friendly for people on bikes if they're kept properly apart from people driving cars. That's the sort of thing the Dutch would do here, for example.

So I was stunned when, having talked through all of the aspects of the new junction, my contact at TfL said something truly extraordinary. Transport for London would like to upgrade the junction further, I was told. Specifically, I should understand that: "Transport for London is keen to have conversations with the Department for Transport about implementing European-style bike traffic lights at Bow".

Dutch bike traffic light. Coming to London soon?
What I understood that to mean is that TfL is considering rolling out proper bike traffic lights, like  you see in Holland, Germany, France, Denmark, Spain and now even all over the US. My TfL contact suggested this would mean a traffic light that could involve:

a) A red light with a bicycle logo (instead of the 'all traffic' red light with no bike symbol as we have in the UK at the moment)
b) A bike traffic light at eye-level for people on bikes not up in the air like they are currently
c) A bike traffic light would be much smaller than normal traffic lights (and therefore much cheaper to install) and could probably fitted on to the traffic pole, in the same way as they are in the Netherlands.

Basically, something not dissimilar to the standard Dutch bike traffic light pictured on the left.


One bike traffic light will not make Bow roundabout a Dutch style junction.

Most of Cycle Super Highway 2 looks like
this. Blue paint and massive pavements.
But what is clear is that this could be the start of something very interesting. London needs proper bicycle traffic signals and it needs proper bicycle infrastructure. If Transport for London really is considering Dutch-style bike traffic lights, that means they are starting (albeit slowly) to think about how they embed cycling into their corporate thinking. And that can only be a good thing because if cycling becomes part of Transport for London's DNA, we might eventually start to see London building world-class bike infrastructure.

And London needs that infrastructure. As I cycled along Cycle Super Highway 2 this afternoon I was struck by just how truly awful it really is.

Most of it is a lethal line of blue paint, similar to the picture above, that serves virtually no purpose.

A tiny section of London's Cycle Super Highway 2
shows what the rest of it should look like
But there is an unbelievable amount of space to build a world-class cycle highway along this route. There's even a tiny stretch where Transport for London has done just that (pictured left) and built 20 metres of separated bike lane. Which then evaporates and turns into just more blue paint.

Whatever happens next with Bow's cycle traffic lights, I spy a fight coming up. And a good fight. The Minister for Road Safety (Mike Penning) recently made some unbelievably naive and contradictory comments about bicycle-only traffic signals. Either Transport for London is going to have to convince him to change his mind or it's going to have to ignore him and go build something the DfT won't technically allow on London's roads.

For my part, I hope Boris Johnson sticks two fingers up at Mr Penning and let's his officials build their bike traffic lights. And I hope that Bow will continue to evolve. The junction has been made slightly safer and easier to use but it's still horribly compromised. And that's not going to change until a significant cultural shift takes place within Transport for London. My sense (and it's very early days) is that the bike traffic lights symbolise the beginnings of that cultural shift. There's a long way to go.


BBC Sunday Politics show on Dutch-style cycling

This morning's episode of BBC's Sunday Politics show had a fantastic debate about what Dutch-style cycling is all about and why the UK has a lot to learn about making cycling a normal form of transport for everyone. 

Alternatively, you can see the clip below and wonder why they've chosen a retired racing driver to talk about what urban streets should look like.


  1. It's unfortunate that the DfT have not taken it upon themselves to legislate for better cycling infrastructure. But certainly a great step if TfL are going to press them on the issue! Surely this fits within Cameron's "Big Society" aims...

  2. BBC 1 London news had Stirling Moss on saying how London has too many cars to Go Dutch. So now they're treating racing drivers as cycling planning experts!

    1. Going Dutch means: don't wear a helmet!! Sterling's is really a petrol-head's solution to a big problem in many cities. Don't touch my car and my inherent rights, as I'm not going to anything about your problem. Slap on a helmet and good luck to you! Not really creative thinking when it comes to mobility and city-living.

  3. It's not quite true that there are no cycle-specific lights in the UK. They're not like the Dutch ones, but there are some cycle-specific traffic lights in Cambridge. For example, this filter or this crossing.

    However, there are none like this, and that's now the most common arrangement at this end of the Netherlands.

  4. Can TfL actually ignore the dft and use non-approved lights?

  5. Nobody I know cycles round the Bow Roundabout, as most commuting cyclists go over the flyover - which is really dangerous for cyclists owing to the thousands of tossers driving like maniacs and cutting you up as you try to get onto it. This new scheme offers nothing at all to me as a vulnerable woman cyclist, so in my view it is thousands and thousands of pounds of money chucked down the drain. The only real solution is enforcement.

  6. What would be truly extraordinary is if TfL implemented, as an interim measure, the solution to Bow roundabout that was decided in a brief conversation between all interested parties at the site visit in February 2010 during the planning of the CS route and was then recommended in the summary document by TfL's consultant engineers (the Cycle Route Inspection and Stakeholder Plan). That is toucans on all arms; a brief conversation because it was an uncontroversial proposal.

    We say interim because the solution to the Bow junction (roundabout, fly-over, Blackwall Tunnel approach roads) is demolition and a radical public realm project that favours the needs of the locality over motor vehicle capacity. Now that would be an upgrade.

    LCC were offered limited choices when 'consulted' by TfL on this interim safety measure. CS2 had to either run to the roundabout or go over the fly-over and improvement works would favour one or other. TfL made clear there would be no provision for pedestrians. In regard to this Early Start scheme the issue of compliance and enforcement was raised at the first meeting with TfL as our concern was the advanced stop box would be treated as an ASL and driven into - TfL thought not.

    (Enforcement of speed limit is the issue on the fly-over; the police report speeds of 60 mph.)

    THW could not support a measure that did not provide for pedestrians. Post Olympics we want neither the continuation of the Early Start scheme at Bow Road nor its mirror construction at the SE corner; we want the toucan scheme. And to aid confidants cyclists who can hold the road the removal of the half-way segregated lanes that incorrectly position cyclists on the left.

    As an immediate interim measure TfL could construct a 4/5m deep ASL at the Stratford High Street traffic lights, bar the past refusal by Newham council to allow them to do so. In the opinion of the Met Police expert witness at Svetlana Tereschenko's inquest such an ASL would have given her the best option on survival.

    Tinkering around with traffic lights may alleviate some of the problems the Early Start scheme is causing however this is a very small sticking plaster on a very large carbuncle. Redesign of the entire junction is the only answer.

  7. Re my post THW are Tower Hamlets Wheelers, the borough group of the London Cycling Campaign.

  8. Good points made, but there's a safety issue problem with the introduction part of the film clip. In it, the commentator not only looks and speaks directly the camera (taking his eyes off the road) he briefly TAKES BOTH HANDS OFF THE STEERING WHEEL WHILE HIS CAR IS IN MOTION! Not good from anyone, and especially someone discussing road safety for motorists and cyclists.

  9. I travelled up this road the other day to attend a business function at the Olympic Park. I was in the back of an AdLee car (I know, but it was a business trip with colleagues) and even then, wrapped in my steel box, I could only cringe at the sight of CS2 running alongside. I saw cyclists trying to creep down the left hand sides of stationary lorries and buses at lights - I know people will say that is not smart but what kind of "super"highway doesn't even provide dedicated, let alone segregated, space?

    Further up I saw the route marked by "elephants' feet" - still no dedicated lane, although the road looked plenty wide enough.

    Where there was dedicated (not segregated) lane, it was liberally sprinkled with parked vans. I did see one van being moved on by a Met cycle cop - the van had Dutch licence plates, of all the ironies.

    We went over the flyover so I didn't get a good look at the roundabout, and on the other side it was evident that CS2 was no more. On a stretch of road skirting the south of the Olympic park, with three wide traffic lanes in each direction, a central median which has to be at least 4m wide, and fairly wide footways. It would be soooo easy to create a segregated 2m cycle lane in each direction here, by taking perhaps 2m off the median, 50 cm off the footways either side, and a mere 10-20cm off the width of each traffic lane.

    But then, we are in Robin Wales' territory are we not, so not much chance of that happening.

    I came back on the train. Fast, frequent, and with Oyster card only about £3 from Straford to central London. So why do they need such a lot of road???

  10. Olympics we want neither the continuation of the Early Start scheme at Bow Road nor its mirror construction at the SE corner; we want the toucan scheme. And to aid confidants cyclists who can hold the road the removal of the half-way segregated lanes that incorrectly position cyclists on the left.

  11. Many thanks for writing your bike ride experience. Good to know that bike traffic lights were already enhanced to ensure the bikers' safety.