Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Road safety audit at Blackfriars expects 700 cyclists per hour to get off their bikes, cross the road three times and then carry on cycling towards Waterloo. This time, I can't blame Southwark Council but our entire road culture, which allows safety auditors to get away with inadequate recommendations that don't bear resemblance to reality.

Stamford Street - 700 more cyclists per hour will be heading along
here at rush hour from December
In a couple of days time, Southwark Council will close a stretch of Upper Ground - a road that makes up a crucial low-traffic route between Waterloo and Blackfriars Bridge. I'm quietly predicting an outcry when the closure does go ahead. Southwark is proposing to re-route cyclists via Stamford Street.

I've expressed some grave concerns about the re-routing, not least of which are safety concerns - the biggest of these being the fact that people who normally cycle here can avoid the highly intimidating junction between Blackfriars Bridge and Stamford Street.

Southwark Council and one of the contractors working near the site have kindly sent me a copy of the road safety audit that was commissioned after cyclists protested at the closure of the route.

First some facts. The auditors note that 700 people cycled along Upper Ground between 8-9am on the day they monitored the route in October. Somehow they conclude that means only 1,850 cyclists every 24 hours, which strikes me as a hugely conservative forecast. When I cycle through here most days at 7.30am, it's almost just as busy as it is at 8.30am and my guess is the volume of cyclists is at least 2,500 per day, probably higher. Those 700 people per hour make up a fraction of the thousands of people who cycle across Blackfriars Bridge every rush-hour.

We're talking about quite significant flows of people on bikes here.

Let's assume that the 700 people per hour who use this route use it because they prefer a quieter, safer, less intimidating route to cycle to work than the alternatives on parallel roads - that are narrow, fast and quite unpleasant to cycle along. In the terms of the auditor's report, there's an implication that these 700 people per hour are 'less confident' cyclists. I'm one of those, apparently. I prefer quieter, slower, safer routes to work. I'm not an 'unconfident' cyclist, I just find this route easier and safer to negotiate than other routes.

The report is pretty detailed. Some of it isn't too bad, if I'm honest. It suggests, for example, that Transport for London should paint an advisory cycle lane along Stamford Street. It also suggests carrying the cycle lanes into the filter lane from Stamford Street to Blackfriars Bridge I don't yet know whether TfL has looked at this recommendation.

But two things shock me about the report.

The 'more confident cyclist' can get in to the fourth
lane and use the advanced stop line. Yeh, right.
Picture taken from the fourth lane coming off
Blackfriars Bridge.
Firstly, the total absence of measurable 'cycle standards': The report suggests that Stamford Street should have an advisory cycle lane "in similar vein to those on Blackfriars Bridge Road". The cycle lanes on Blackfriars Bridge Road are worse than useless. They are less 1 metre wide - the sorts of things that mean many impatient motor drivers try to force you into the bike lane but where the bike lane is little more than a dangerous extension of the gutter. The fact that the Mayor of London has a) yet again delayed London's cycle design standards and b) never actually enforced those standards in the first place means that 'road safety auditors' can get away with making recommendations to councils like this that are (in my view) almost immoral.

Secondly, I feel that the report almost entirely bows out of dealing with one of the most pressing issues: the right turn from Blackfriars Bridge to Stamford Street. To cross this junction, you need to swing out over four lanes of motor traffic driving fast off the Bridge. Or, you take the cycle filter left, wait for the lights and then cross the main road and make your way down Upper Ground, thereby avoiding the nasty junction. Here's what the road safety audit has to say:

"The more confident cyclist is likely to use the traffic signals to turn right with the general traffic and use the advanced stop line". Pictured above, the advanced stop line in action. Yes, when it's not dark or raining and when I can look in the eye of the rows of drivers behind me, I'll turn right with the general traffic. When it's dark (e.g all winter), I am much less happy swinging out across four lanes of traffic, unable to second-guess whether the cars behind me will slow down. At least once a month, a driver won't slow down. They'll simply change lane and swerve around me, cutting me up from the inside.

So, what do the road safety auditors recommend? They recommend this: "Less confident [sic] cyclists can leave the carriageway at the toucan adjacent to Upper Ground travel south down the central reserve and dismount to use the pedestrian crossings to cross both Blackfriars Bridge Road and Stamford Street, remounting (on Stamford Street)".

In other words, the auditors seriously expect 700 people per hour to wiggle down a central reservation on their bikes, cross the road three times in total (one of the crossings has no pedestrian green phase by the way) and then pedal off again. That's plainly nonsense.

This isn't a criticism of Southwark Council or of the contractors who engaged this road safety audit. But I think the fact that a road safety audit can present such an inadequate series of recommendations reveals some major flaws in the way our entire road culture works.

The whole industry needs to take a look at how it goes about designing roads that include cycling, rather than treat cycling as a minor irritation. The road safety audit sets out to "ensure the safety of all road users". All well and good. But it prescribes methods that simply don't resemble reality.

My own view? Many 'less confident' cyclists, aren't 'less confident'. They just want decent, safe conditions that demonstrate someone has thought about them as cyclists. When you're a train passenger, you know someone has thought about how to minimise danger during your journey. Same when you're driving. When you're a cyclist, though, it seems you're on your own. Or you're "less confident" because you don't like trucks skimming past you or you don't like crossing four lanes of motor traffic to turn right. Who does?


You can read more about this in yesterday's Evening Standard in an excellent editorial piece. Evening Standard; Give London's cyclists their fair share of the road. If you haven't read it yet, you should. It's a must-read piece.


  1. I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

    The truth is, I will ride a bike less often due to this, as any journeys that cross Blackfriars Bridge are now effectively off-limits to me. (I might do it late at night, Northbound, but my partner would definitely refuse to cycle there.) I suspect I'm not alone in this.

    Cycling is a fragile mode of transport which needs continuity and consistency, stuff like this just puts people off.

    Great research, by the way!

  2. Another cogent, readable, pertinent piece. Thanks Danny.

  3. Blackfriars you use the safety audit to beat TfL, now you are beating the safety auditors. Had southwark ignored the safety audit you would be screaming at them for ignoring the advice of the safety audit. So what is your advice for local authorites, take the advice of the safety audit or ignore it?

    1. Yup, that's fair comment. Although I have no idea who you are and slightly object to your assertion that I'm 'screaming'.

      What I'm saying is that safety audits seem to come in varying qualities and there seems to be a genuine lack of consistency in the approach that different auditing companies take.

      The Blackfriars TfL audit makes sense. It is instinctively right and a lot of people agree with me on that. The Upper Ground audit is much less so.

      I think my advice to local authorities is that they need to be able to see for themselves where the difference in quality lies between different road safety auditors. In the case of people who are responsible for road design but have not cycled on those roads, the challenge is to work out how to speak and read the language of cycling transport rather than motor transport.

      In other words, there's no point commissioning a safety audit for cycling if you can't read it as someone who understands what it's like to cycle. Fair comment?

    2. Yes I agree with that. Unfortunately the words "safety audit" strike fear into the hearts of many designers and managers due to the public's reaction if they reject its recommendations and someone dies. This fear was compounded by the media circus around the blackfriars audit and perhaps with an eye on that, the southwark designers are fearful of going against it. Although Blackfriars is slightly different as it is a stage 3 so after it has been built.

      As a general rule, safety auditors will go for the inconvenient, impractical but in their eyes "safe" option. Like you say, methods that simply don't resemble reality. The reason for this is 2 fold. 1, their only remit is safety, nothing else. 2, there is an element of covering their backside. If they prescribe this recommendations, a cyclist does something else and dies, then its not their fault, its the cyclists. I don't agree with this approach but unfortunately with the immense pressue local authorites are under on cycle safety this blame game is now a major consideration and if convenience and practicality has to suffer, then so be it.

    3. I think those are very good points. I think the 'blame game' issue has come up because it was the only way to focus minds and to find a common and unifying way to say that planning to bicycle transport needed to change.

      The question I have is how we move on from that so that convenience and practicality can be successfully brought together with safety, rather than safety and convenience ending up in opposing camps, as they seem to tend towards at the moment (and have done so very clearly in this Upper Ground audit).

      Any thoughts?

    4. Having read the safety audit from cover to cover now, I am struck by the fact that they don't seem terribly satisfied with any of the variations proposed for using Stamford St, whether that involves diverting back via Hatfields, Broadwall, or Cornwall Rd. They note some of the difficulties with this option, but not all - they seem unaware of that long-standing scandal, the lack of any pedestrian crossing provision across Stamford St at the junction with Blackfriars Rd - an absolutely huge desire line for pedestrians from Waterloo to the City - which has certainly been the case since 1988 or earlier. Therefore they have not taken account of the difficulties posed for cyclists, like pedestrians, in adopting their central median-NCN4 route down to the junction.

      After all this, what do they recommend? The Stamford St route! To which they add some worthy but uselsss observations about how it might be nice to paint some lines or make other temporary provisions for cyclists, all of which are beyond Southwark's remit because Stamford St is a TfL road and in any case the boundary with Lambeth abuts almost at the eastern end.

      Classic buck-passing. The problem belongs to Southwark, but they shrug their shoulders and walk away from it.

    5. Safety auditors have a long list of minimum training and experience they need to have per year. However cycle training and courses is not part of this but it should be IMO. Cycle groups should ask to see the crudentials of the auditors in question.

      Local authorites can chose who carries out the audit and perhaps pressure should be put on them to choose auditors with proven cycle knowledge and experience. As with many things it boils down to individuals. Also when they do give dodgy recommendations, designers are under no obligation to follow these, as long as they adequately address the issues and give good reasons. However this point is in general not understood by the public and media which is why many (but not all) designers are too scared to go against the audit. Not sure how we address this!

    6. There was an initial safety audit at Blackfriars, before the new junction was built, which I think ignored most of the safety problems for cyclists that have now been identified. Clearly training auditors to understand how cycle/motor vehicle conflicts occur, and how to prevent them, is one part of the jigsaw.

  4. Why did they only "estimate" the number of cyclists per day. Surely there's plenty of CCTV cameras that could supply them the full footage to count them properly. Or is it because it might take more than an hour to throw some numbers together?

    1. Yes. All TFL roads, at least, have traffic cameras, which could be used to count cyclists. So I assume that could be done at the Upper Ground/Blackfriars Bridge junction.

  5. Spot on - coming off the bridge they are placing the responsibility for safety on cyclists' own "confidence" in their riding, not on the drivers to allow cyclists to cross lanes and turn right.

    You can be as confident as you like, but if someone is determined you shouldn't be doing the manouvre you are attempting, horrible things will happen.

    How about measures to alter the expectations of drivers coming off the bridge?

  6. I know what I am going to do, and it doesn't involve using Stamford Street. Once upon a time I routed via Stamford St and the Imax roundabout because it was faster and a better road surface that Upper Ground (which is pretty skanky, especially on small wheels like a Brompton). Then they closed it eastbound for several months for water main repairs and I had to go back to Upper Ground. When the water works were finished I tried reverting to Stamford St but found that my nerve has clearly failed in that time, as I have gained in age, and I can't take it any more.

    However, before I took up cycling I used to walk from Waterloo to Blackfriars for many years and, like most people walking that trip, I cut through Roupell St and Colombo St to join Blackfriars Rd by the church. I note the safety audit considers diverting NCN4 along this route, observing that one or two small sections would require a cycle contraflow on one-ways to make it legal. Basically, I would ignore that, on the basis that if going eastbound you follow Brad St directly next to the viaduct as far as the pub, then you only have perhaps a 50 metre stretch in each direction - either side of the junction of Roupell St with Theed St, where you would be cycling contraflow without authorisation. (I think these one-ways were introduced to prevent taxis using Roupell St as a rat-run to Waterloo, and they are occasionally observed by Lambeth traffic enforcement). It should be safe enough due to the pedestrian density and the impermeability to motor traffic - as long as you behave considerately towards the pedestrians of course - and if you spot a copper, get off and walk!

    The report suggests a right turn across Blackfriars Rd into Meymott St, sheltered by the pedestrian refuhe at the crossing there. I haven't checked lately, but Meymott St was also closed for some considerable time by construction work, so I don't know whether that is a viable means of making the trip westbound. I might have to do the wrong way down Colombo St (again perfectly safe as long as you are sensible towards peds, and short) crossing Blackfriars Rd at a point where the carriageway is divde by hatch lines and a small bollarded island which gives some protection.

    There is also, finally, a short stretch of Mepham St, where the buses emerge from under Waterloo approach, which is one-way eastbound. You just have to be vigilant for buses.

    Quite a bit of rule breaking? Well, excuse me, but I am not going to feel guilty about some innocuous infringements if it preserves my life!

    1. This route could be made entirely legal very easily with the new contra-flow cycling signage (as they're doing on many streets in the city..)

  7. Paul said that Stamford Street is faster, but I'd come here to leave the opposite comment. Sticking to the main roads you have to deal with all the cars jamming up the streets, and the several sets of traffic lights that are required to deal with them. The quiet road tends to let you flow freely -- until that last toucan in the station approach. Which is another reason to think it's wrong to say that this is the route for less confident cyclists.

    1. You might think so, might you not? I'm not so sure - the speed tables can often mean that a taxi overtakes you only to slam on its anchors as it approaches the hump, forcing you to slow sharply behind. There can also be a lot of vehicles, particularly delivery vans, parked in the street around Gabriel's Wharf or outside the LWT building, resulting in pauses while traffic sorts out who has priority to use the other side of the road - usually resolved politely, it still interrupts the smooth flow.

      However, I don't really mind any of that, my only gripe about Upper Ground/Belvedere Rd is that the surface is horrible for Bromptons, with all the bricks on the speed table coming loose, and the tarmac sections in between being badly degraded.

  8. Stamford Street is horrible! But even Upper Ground could be difficult: I was once riding westbound on it when I was overtaken by a fool who cut in front of me, forcing me to stop so that he could explain that I should be riding on the cycle path on the other side of the road. My explaining that that was a contraflow lane, as indicated by the arrows on it and the numerous road signs (I think there were six) explaining this, cut no ice with this particular idiot, who of course knew better.

  9. The document linked to is most certainly not a Road Safety Audit!