Tuesday, 30 April 2013

Transport for London nails it. Full-scale Dutch cycle designs being tested for roll out in London as early as next year

Testing the new Dutch-style roundabout at the TRL facility

Yesterday, Transport for London lifted the lid on test facilities that were built late last year at the Transport Research Laboratory in Bracknell. Pictured above, TRL's first test roundabout. You can read a useful review on the BBC London website and there's a key point made by one of the TRL engineers on this video: "the car drivers does not get affected by the cyclist in the road". Exactly. Nor does the cyclist 'get affected' by drivers of HGVs or buses as they do at the moment. And, in fact, it's better for pedestrians too. Instead of a traffic island where you are expected to run across the road when you spot a gap, you get zebra crossings. Why? Because you need to slow down motor vehicles to give pedestrians and cyclists the same equal rights to travel through the junction safely as you do to motorists. At the moment, that's not the case. Motorists get priority again and again and again. 

You'll notice the design is very very Dutch, even the give way symbols on the carriageway are Dutch symbols, rather than standard UK road symbols. My understanding is that the plan is to keep refining the scheme and to test more commonplace UK road markings. 

The roundabout is a huge step forward. Late last year, Transport for London proposed a scheme to make the roundabout at the northern end of Lambeth Bridge safer for cycling That proposal was pretty weak. You can read a good review of the original TfL proposal on AsEasyAsRidingABike blog. The roundabouts at either end of Lambeth Bridge have both been touted (unofficially, mind you) as potential locations for a Dutch-style roundabout. Lambeth North is a pig of a roundabout. The southern roundabout is just as dreadful. Pinchpoints, buses, lorries, bikes, taxis all jammed into narrow lanes, full of conflict between different road users. 

Pictured below, a fairly typical morning rush hour at Lambeth North roundabout. Complete chaos for drivers watching out for cyclists; cyclists having no legitimate space on the road; what's even worse is that there is nothing to slow drivers or cyclists down and protect pedestrians at the zebra crossings. 

The key benefits of this new TfL design is that - unlike 99% of roundabouts in UK cities - this design gives pedestrians and cyclists safe, convenient ways to cross the roundabout that are just as safe and just as convenient as for drivers. At the moment, most roundabouts are designed to get drivers around them as quickly as possible and woe betide anyone else who needs to get across them who is on foot or on a bike.

Funnily enough, the National Cycle Manual standards in Ireland contains a variant of this design. The National Transport Authority makes it clear why this sort of infrastructure is necessary: "If we are going to expect a massive increase in cycling, there has to be an increase in the offer for cycling". The same goes for London.

The problem with the Irish design, though, is that is only goes halfway to solving the issues at roundabouts. The Irish design paints some markings on the road where the bike lane is and leaves it for drivers and cyclists to work out who has priority. The TfL design, though, is the real deal. It structures things so that cyclists are clearly protected by the belisha beacons and it makes life easier for drivers by putting pedestrians and cyclists somewhere predictable. The exact opposite of the way the Lambeth Bridge roundabouts work at the moment.

The TRL test facility is also testing bike traffic lights - the sort of traffic lights used all over Europe already - that would allow Transport for London to design junctions so that people on bikes and in motor vehicles can obey different timings on the traffic signals. TfL has already made public that it will consider using these traffic lights at junctions like Bow roundabout, provided the Department for Transport gives the lights approval. I know that a number of other high profile junctions - for example at some of the junctions near London's bridges - might see these bike traffic lights, provided of course, that the DfT gives the go-ahead. 

There's plenty more underway as well in the form of detailed mock-ups of alternative junctions and other traffic signals, as well as more experimentation with segregated bike lanes. TRL has published a full list of the test scenarios on its website. 

The pace of change on London's streets is still incredibly frustrating. Ill-thought through designs like those announced by Westminster council a couple of months ago smack not only of yesterday's road engineering but, even worse, they seem to assume people on bikes behave just like people in cars. They don't. And the TRL test scenarios are clear evidence that Transport for London has realised, just like its colleagues in the Irish Republic, that people on bikes need a different offer on London's streets - an offer that does not treat them the same as one tonne motor vehicles.

If you have any doubts about whether Dutch-style roundabouts actually work or not, have a look at this video of one in operation. All good stuff. Admittedly, this is a rural location by the looks of it, but this is exactly where, in the UK, you'd be faced with some snarling, horrible roundabout that simply makes it impossible for your average person to cycle from A to B.