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.