Monday, 16 January 2012

Why can't we have a 'turbo roundabout' at Bow? Not only sounds amazing but it's better for drivers, better for people on bikes, better for people on foot. Puts Mayor's plan in the shade.

Last week, the Mayor announced plans to make Bow roundabout - a key junction on the cycle route to the Olympics - safer for cycling. The announcement follows the tragic deaths of two people killed cycling across this horrible junction late last year.

My initial reaction last week was to welcome the change of heart and the extremely encouraging noises coming from Transport for London. For the first time, there was a sense that TfL might implement a scheme that gives safe and sensible cycling equal importance to safe and sensible driving choices.

I fear I spoke too soon.

This is a place that is supposed to be setting the standards for a new future-proof London. It is a place where a world-class urban design firm is working on a massive residential neighbourhood right next door. The only problem is those residents won't be able to cross the road.

As the local blogger Diamond Geezer puts it in a comment on this blog: "And there's *absolutely nothing* here for pedestrians. We continue to have no safe way across the roundabout whatsoever, which isn't just an opportunity missed, it's criminal neglect."

What happened last week was interesting: TfL announced its plans via an embargoed press release on Wednesday night. Someone had clearly put a lot of thought and time into the scheme. Videos, diagrams, all sorts of things have been added to Transport for London's website to make this scheme look like there is something really fundamentally different going on. For the first time, proper infrastructure for people on bikes looked like it was getting the same sort of attention that is given to other forms of transport - the sort of attention that cycling deserves, in my view. My initial reading of the press release I wrote about it on Wednesday night was one of cautious optimism.

During Thursday and Friday, TfL added more information to its website, including a number of videos that make it crystal clear how they see this junction working. You can see one of those videos above.

Seeing those extra details, my optimism turned into something much more critical.

I think TfL is presenting Bow as a real benefit to people on foot and on bikes, when in reality all that's happening is they are making people on bikes fit around the priorities of motor vehicles and doing nothing whatsoever for pedestrians. As another blogger puts it: "Correct me if I’m wrong, but this really doesn’t look like a dedicated green phase for cyclists that allows them to travel ahead of other traffic. It just looks like a dedicated green light that lets them into the advance stop box, where they’re held on red and then cyclists and other traffic just go for it like usual. "

It's a farce. It's tick box road safety that does nothing for pedestrians and, as Pedestrianise London blog points out, will be ignored by people on bikes too because it simply doesn't represent the reality of what happens on the ground.

Dozens of people commented on my initial post. Dozens more have emailed me directly. The general view is that TfL has presented a scheme which has no disruption on motor traffic but slots a few rudimentary but utterly unrealistic devices into the road layout that will make things seem safer. But it is very much a motorist-designed scheme.

Bow - plenty of capacity for motors and people on bikes & on foot
This is what it should look like. Courtesy: Pedestrianise London blog
Pretty much anyone who has ever ridden a bike or walked here is saying the same thing. As another blogger puts it: "You’ve gone for the grand gesture which, on first sight, pays lip-service to the idea of cyclist safety but doesn’t actually do anything, and still makes no provision for pedestrians to get safely across the junction."

The Mayor's big fear is upsetting the 'motorist'. He simply can't be seen to suggest that people should come first. He thinks tackling congestion should come first. And his way of dealing with that is to pump more cars through the junction faster and more efficiently.

The result? Nasty urban spaces that are not only unpleasant but downright lethal for pedestrians and people on bikes.

Interestingly, even Transport for London suggests that if it could get more people cycling (and it reckons that 23% of all journeys in London could be made by bicycle, not so different to Holland or Denmark), then more cyclists would 'relieve pressure on the road network'. TfL's words, not mine.

But, whether we like it or not, we have to face the fact that sort of thinking is a long way off and that the Mayor simply doesn't see bicycles as a genuine way of solving congestion. Not yet. And nor, frankly, do most Londoners.

If there is no political will from the Mayor to reduce capacity for motor traffic (in fact, the political will in London at the moment is to INCREASE the capacity for motor traffic and reduce it for everyone else), then how do you put in safe cycle facilities and places for people to cross the road?

Well, in my view, one man has summed it up perfectly on his website here. His is a suggestion that could actually increase the capacity for motor traffic at the junction AND install proper, segregated facilities for people to cycle through and for people to cross the road. You can see some of what he's suggesting in the diagram higher up this page.

The Dutch call it a 'turbo-roundabout'. We know it works, in fact. It could give people on bikes and on foot equal priority to motor traffic without reducing capacity for motor vehicles. It could possibly even increase capacity for motor vehicles. There's a full description of what a turbo roundabout is and how it works here.

What I want to know is why the Mayor and Transport for London can't imagine a junction that works like this, rather than a junction designed for motor traffic that entirely excludes pedestrians and that pretends to make things safer for cycling but simply makes people on bikes wait for the people in cars. It even sounds marketable. Who wouldn't want a turbo roundabout? Turbo for cars, turbo for bikes, turbo for people on foot. Yes please, I'll have one of those.

TfL needs to stop building London around motor vehicles and excluding people on bikes and on foot. We're all 'traffic' and we all have equal right to safe, convenient access across London.


If you want chapter and verse on what a Turbo roundabout is and how it works, there's a detailed technical document here with plenty of examples.


  1. TfL have indeed bottled out of giving a genuine bike only light, to give a proper headstart to cyclists before the motor traffic cuts across them.

    Can't say I am surprised, since a lot of time the bike phase will be triggered when there are no bikes.

    I am surprised that you thought it was ok at first sight though - but pleased you have seen through TfL's ploy.

  2. The trouble with advanced stop lines or head start light sequences etc, is they only help the cyclist that arrives at the junction when the lights are red; they offer no benefit when the cyclist arrives when the lights are already green, when they're at risk of being taken out by left-turning vehicles who have failed to realise that the cyclist they started to overtake 5 seconds ago is still there.

    I'm not in London, but see this issue all the time. So many motorists seem to only think of cyclists at stationary obstacles and try to overtake them while they are slowing for junctions before turning left.

  3. There could be a bike-only phase of the lights, but controlled by a sensor so it only gives priority to cyclists when there is at least one present:

    I love the look of the turbo roundabout! It would be great to see more work done on how this could work at Bow and other locations in London.

  4. I have to say that TfL loves designing for conflict. I mean ASL is the best way to ensure drivers and cyclists can't coexist peacefully - basically you are putting a slower but more manouverable mode of transport ahead of a faster accelerating one. Why not create a propper cycle track at the side and make everyone happy also using the turbo roundabout to make sure motor cars cant turn left across cyclists path.

  5. Who wouldn't want a turbo roundabout? Sorry, me, because it wouldn't work in this specific case.

    Firstly the proposed design assumes that all traffic which wants to go east-west will use the flyover. That'd mean buses having to miss out two stops, and cars leaving McDonalds unable to get to Stratford, amongst other problems.

    Secondly, and more awkwardly, Stratford High Street is two-way on both carriageways where it meets the roundabout, so the necessary lane segregation doesn't work.

    Good try, but here in Bow, alas impractical.

  6. @diamond g

    i don't think those problems rule out this kind of design - though they might end up making it slightly less efficient. need an expert view here.