Monday, 4 June 2012

Cycle-specific traffic lights coming to Blackfriars Bridge: Transport for London drops another big hint new road layout on its way

Bow roundabout bike lane goes in. Courtesy DiamondGeezer
Late last week, Transport for London opened its new 'bicycle-friendlier' junction at Bow roundabout. The solution is (unbelievably) quite radical for London - a segregated bike lane approaches the junction and people on bikes get a (slightly) separate traffic light phase.

In any other country, Transport for London would be able to make use of dedicated bicycle traffic lights and bicycle traffic phasing all over London. But not in the UK. As TfL puts it in a comment to The Times: "the new design incorporates the full extent of what can be installed 'within current Department for Transport regulations'".

For once, I'm not going to knock Transport for London about this. Instead, I'm going to knock the Department for Transport. TfL is absolutely right to point out that this solution incorporates the full extent of what the DfT will allow it to do. And the Department for Transport seems very, very confused about cycling. A couple of months ago, the Minister (Mike Penning) responsible for road safety was asked about whether the UK would ever seen bicycle-only traffic lights, the sorts of things you see in every single other developed country. He'd keep an 'open mind' he said but he didn't want to see one set of rules for people on bikes and another for people driving cars. And then in the very same sentence he talked about people on bikes needing to be ahead of people driving motor vehicles at junctions 'because of the disparity of speed'. On the one hand, Penning believes there should be one set of rules for all people on the road, regardless of whether they are leg-powered or engine-powered, on the other he acknowledges people don't have the same acceleration on a bike as they do when they're driving a car. 

In other words, the UK will have to keep using traffic lights designed for motor cars to organise people on bicycles because the Minister can't make his mind up whether he wants one set of rules or two. And that means the Department of Transport will sit on its hands and do nothing. Unless, of course, organisations like Transport for London start saying that the rules need to evolve. I think, in a very subtle way, that's exactly what Transport for London is saying to The Times. The comment made by TfL seems to suggest that TfL wants to push the Department for Transport to set rules that more reliably match reality as far as cycling is concerned. At least I hope that's the case. 

Blackfriars Bridge northbound. To turn right from here, you
have to try and force your way across three lanes of
motor traffic as it accelerates off the lights.
Bike traffic lights coming soon?
What's very encouraging is that Transport for London has also confirmed again that it is considering bike-only traffic lights at Blackfriars Bridge. I first wrote about this back in April when TfL hinted at a possible bicycle-only filter for people cycling over the Bridge and trying to turn north east into the City of London. According to The Times "cyclist-specific lights could be trialled elsewhere in London, with the northern side of Blackfriars Bridge likely to be one of the next sites."

This would be a great result and would significantly change the dynamic of this junction. Something like 10,000 people cycle through this junction every day and their existence was more or less ignored in the original plans for this new junction. After much protest, some small improvements have already been made: The bike lane pictured above, for example, was meant to be half the width it is now. A small improvement but worth fighting for, I think). Making it safer for people to turn right on their bikes would be a big improvement. All sorts of people head over this junction at the moment - folk on Boris bikes in suits, speedy road racers, you name it. There's no obvious or safe way for those heading into the City to turn right through the junction and so you end up with a sort of weaving of bikes in an out through the entire length of the junction. It's daft for cyclists and it's equally daft for drivers who have to watch out for the cyclists. I've watched lots of people just chicken out of turning right altogether, especially at night when there are fewer people about on bikes. They end up trying to turn right and then dashing for the pavement instead and crossing on the pedestrian crossing. 

My suspicion is that whatever ends up being built at Blackfriars will still look and feel relatively clunky compared to easy-to-use equivalents in the US or in Europe. And why's that? Well, a good part of it is down to intransigence on the part of Transport for London a couple of years ago. But now that TfL seems to be thinking about how to incorporate cycling as a genuine mode of transport, I think a real barrier to simple and safe cycling facilities here and elsewhere in London is the Department for Transport with its out-of-date thinking about cycling. I'm pleased that Transport for London is starting to make the right sorts of noises. I'll be even more pleased when I know my journey to work on a bike involves one less hold-your-breath-and-go-for-it junction. Then there are many, many more junctions to resolve. But at least it's a start.