Monday, 18 April 2011

London's ghost cycle super highway lanes will kill. All because TfL doesn't want cars to slow down.

Southwark Bridge road and its ghost cycle lane
Last week, I spent an evening walking around Vauxhall Bridge Road and the Vauxhall gyratory with a chap from Transport for London.

One of the things that we got talking about was what people are increasingly referring to as 'ghost cycle lanes'. Here's a picture of one just south of Southwark Bridge. My view is that these lanes are death traps waiting to happen.

Look at the scene above.

The bus and the lorry behind the lights are in the 'ghost lane'. Essentially, it's a normal motor vehicle lane. But it's painted blue and has bicycle symbols on it.

I took this photo and watched as the lorry on the right of the picture overtook the chap cycling along in the ghost cycle lane (by thre traffic light in front of the bus). The lorry overtook the cyclist and turned left in front of him. If the man cycling hadn't braked, the HGV would most likely have killed him.

This happens again and again. And is a function of the ridiculous design of this junction. It's a bicycle lane filled with HGVs and buses.

That's my problem with ghost cycle lanes - they're a half-cocked excuse at not implementing a proper bike lane. And they're dangerous. Because they're neither one thing nor the other. In theory, I reckon transport planners think that each vehicle will work out how to navigate the ghost lanes safely. But in reality, as I saw at this junction, if you're big and fast, you do what you bloody well like, and screw the cyclist.

I asked my TfL host why London's transport planners couldn't allocate more space to cycling at one particular junction, namely at the cross roads at the northern end of Vauxhall Bridge here. This is a place with four lanes of traffic leading up to the lights in each direction. In other words, plenty of space to allocate space for cycling. The plans for both the Cycle Super Highways that will soon cross this junction from north to south and east to west are to implement ghost lanes. Not proper bike lanes, just a bit of blue paint.

The reason is to prevent 'stacking'. A new term to me. What it means is that TfL want as many motor vehicles as possible to be able to access the junction as possible so that they can get through the junction efficiently and not cause congestion. In other words, they want motor vehicles to be able to fan out as they approach the junction, so they don't back up as much along the street. That should enable motor vehicles to get through the junction more quickly.

The thing is, what that answer doesn't reveal, is that if you're not in a motor vehicle at the time, you're bottom of the pile.

Let's see what that means in reality, then.

Here's the new Cycle Super Highway heading west along Millbank. It's almost shockingly impressive especially compared to what was here before which you can see here. The hatchings down the middle of the road are gone. In their place, two fairly decent bicycle lanes. Redesigning road space this way is genuinely good news for cycling. There are plenty of streets all over London that could be redesigned like this but nothing's happening. It's just this one street.
Back to Millbank, though.

Just as you get used to the nice wide cycle lane along Millbank, things go a bit pear-shaped. The same as they do at Vauxhall gyratory, TfL's Cycle Super Highways completely fail to deal with the difficult bits of your journey just when you need them.

 'Stacking' for bicycles but not for motor vehicles?
If you carry along Millbank you soon come to the junction with Vauxhall Bridge pictured left.

The Super Highway isn't finished here yet. But when it is, it will work exactly the same way as that treacherous junction pictured at the top of this page on Southwark Bridge Road.

What happens is that the blue cycle lane disappears and instead, you get four lanes of motor traffic. If you're a cyclist heading straight on, you have to share the nearside lane with left-turning motor vehicles in your new bicycle ghost lane.

EDIT UPDATE IN NOVEMBER - It is exactly this sort of 'ghost bike lane' design that has now killed two people at Bow roundabout. And Transport for London is proposing dozens more junctions should be designed exactly like this.

In other words, your bike lane buggers off and you get to share a motor vehicle lane that happens to be blue.And you get HGVs overtaking you and cutting left in front of you, just as I saw at at the top of this article on Southwark Bridge Road. Fabulous example of an institutionalised death trap.

So, in other words, the junction will look hardly any different to how it looked today, in this picture here.

Lots and lots of bicycles, crammed into a narrow strip stuck between the pavement and the motor vehicles. And guess what? Because motor vehicles have four lanes to themselves (including what has been your cycle lane up to this junction), there's not much of a queue for motor vehicles. It's never more than a few vehicles deep. But there are upwards of 20 cyclists in this stack of bicycles, all lined up in a tiny, narrow space that will be not much different when the Super Highway is complete.

So, it seems that TfL doesn't want motor vehicles to stack. But if you're on a bicycle, tough luck mate, you'll have to make do with a mega queue of bikes in front of you. Can't make it less convenient for Londoners to drive everywhere and more convenient to cycle and walk now, can we?


  1. A friend of mine had a great idea for a poster campaign aimed at highlighting the appalling lack of thought gone into the super highways.

    We take a photo of the Lion, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow from the Wizard of Oz at Vauxhall Cross where the blue paint runs out - with the strap line "Oh dear! I keep forgetting I'm not in Kansas!"

    Any volunteers for the photo shoot?

  2. Those ghost lanes are usless, the one at Oval in particular. Very little thought has gone into the junctions of the Cycle Superhighways.

    The junction at the top of Vauxhall bridge doesn't work for cars either as it reduces to two lanes and a bus lane from four. This means cars cutting each other up.

    CS8 has some problems further west where TfL won't get make space for a lane.

  3. @thereverent - I think the idea of the ghost lane comes from the way bus lanes often end before a junction to allow left turning vehicles to use them, as well as trying to avoid tempting cyclists to filter up the inside which is where most filter lanes can be found.

    However, aside from the supposed Superhighway being a space for left turning vehicles to queue, what disappoints me about the junction of two major cycle routes on large dual carriageways is the poor provision for right turns between Smurfways. Yes, there are ASLs, but in all directions one must cross two lanes of traffic in order to get to the right hand turn lane. And I seem to remember you saying something about 85th percentile speeds on London's bridges...

    Maybe we'll get there eventually, though.

  4. "almost shockingly impressive"

    It's an improvement, but lacks any barriers to prevent motor traffic from entering the cycle lane.

    Much better, just across the river on Baylis Road, is this:

  5. It's starting to become a lot clearer now I've read this how TFL thinks (or is that doesn't?)
    Surely the "stacking" issue is a load of BS as unless you have multiple lanes the whole way then you're just causing issues as you go from narrow>wide>narrow (with the ensuing pushing and shoving as everyone re-merges) - you see it happen on CS8 across from where that picture is taken as 2 lanes merge to 1.

    I have also caught footage, some of which has been used for the Silly Cyclists series on YouTube, of riders queueing exactly as shown in the picture when a lorry is already sitting there indicating left FFS! As I would rather like to arrive home to my family I'll wait behind it but that doesn't stop a dozen or so riders going round me to sit down the beggers belief!

  6. To Mark S -

    At a busy junction, you have to allocate a certain amount of time to each green signal at each arm of the junction. You can fiddle around with the timings, but basically you are only playing with a relatively fixed amount of time for each green signal phase at each arm.

    'Stacking' is simply another word for queuing. How do you get rid of queues of motor vehicles? By allowing as many of them as possible through the junction on the green phase. And this is achieved by using multiple lanes at the queuing point. So it doesn't matter that the road might go down to just one lane *after* the junction - the whole point is to ram as many vehicles across the junction as possible. It doesn't even matter that there might be jostling as cars re-merge after the junction. Journey times (for motor vehicles) will be quicker, because they are not queuing for as much time at the junction.

    This is TfL's 'smoothing traffic flow' in action - sacrificing the safety and convenience of cyclists for better (motor vehicle) journey times.

  7. "So it doesn't matter that the road might go down to just one lane *after* the junction - the whole point is to ram as many vehicles across the junction as possible. It doesn't even matter that there might be jostling as cars re-merge after the junction."

    And as that 'jostling' happens the maybe a few cars get sideswiped but cyclists and motorcyclists come off a lot worse. I've seen the aftermath of a number of nasty looking accidents caused by just this along the Embankment at Cheyne Walk.

  8. Makes me wonder.

    If you get a queue of 20 cyclists while it's dangerous and plain scary, how many cyclists would you get if there weren't any lorries putting the squeeze on?

    And will we ever find out?

  9. I'd add another kind of ghost lane: the kind where there's a series of bike symbols on the road but no lane at all marked as such. Completely useless, not to say positively dangerous.