blood and blue paint

Are ‘Cycle-Superhighways’ a new category of municipal displacement activity? Containment Infrastructure?

The Mile End Road – the A11 –  is in the news because two inquests coincided last week. They enquired into deaths at either end of this corridor.

The word ‘tragedy’ is over-used but that’s what these awful mishaps are.

The two deaths have circumstances in common – people travelling by bike, going ahead at junctions, knocked down and crushed by left-turning trucks, a well documented systems-failure. In these specific cases the crashes aroused further interest because – since 2011 – this section of the A11 has also been ‘Cycle-Superhighway 2′(CS2), a new flavour of highway design  that consists mostly of bright blue surface treatments along the left of the carriageway and some direction signs.

Giving evidence PC Simon Wickenden of the Metropolitan Police Traffic Unit  suggested that the presence of ‘Cycle-Superhighway’ stripes may have contributed to the slaughter by encouraging riders to travel too far to the left and by giving them an unjustified sense of security. The coroner – who dealt with both cases – has criticised the Superhighways. Her report is published today. TfL have eight weeks to reply.

Two useful principles when riding on roads shared with other traffic…

  • …control the space around you.
  • …pick a line that minimises conflict with traffic trying to go in other directions.

At times these principles can contradict. It’s easier to control space when you ride close enough to a kerb, or other linear barrier, to prevent people in cars or trucks passing on one side. This allows you to pay more attention to what’s happening on the other side; but if – for example – you’re approaching a junction where you want to go ahead, and the leftmost lane is used by traffic planning to turn left, taking the second lane will reduce conflict with left-turning traffic, but also make it harder to control the space around you because – once you’re in the second lane – other traffic can pass on either side.

The decision-making process can be more important than it’s outcome. When you’ve a definite idea of what you’re doing it’s easier for other people to discern what you’re going to do next. The blue stripes have no legal weight. Anyone using  any vehicle can use that space but their presence encourages bike riders to follow them even if they’re not the safest, or most convenient, path.

The tendency of riders to follow the blue stripes reduces uncertainty. Uncertainty keeps people alert. The stripes discourage communication – looking and signalling – between road users. Communication keeps people awake and encourages them to look out for each other.

The Cycle-Superhighways are an initiative of Transport for London(TfL) who are responsible for the Capital’s major road network. Other roads are administered by local Boroughs. TfL answers to the Mayor. The Cycle-Superhighways were proposed by Ken Livingstone and are being implemented under the aegis of Boris Johnson. The stated aims of the Superhighways are “to improve cycling conditions for people who already commute by bike, and to encourage new cyclists”.

The coloured tarmac certainly offers superficial validation of the idea that cycle travel is welcome on these routes and they mostly follow radial, main roads – which makes sense, not only do these follow the level, direct desire lines, they’re the ones TfL controls. The ambiguous and legally worthless, Cycle-Superhighways are a product of the era of mixed messages but classic ‘Alibi Facilities‘ they are not.

Boris’s political place-man Kulveer Ranger who oversaw their first phase – but has since moved on – defended the blue stripes against early criticism.

“To reinforce safety we wanted to define where other road-users could expect cyclists to be.”

And the big beast himself, reworking the mantra…

…around 45 seconds:- “This is somewhere where motorists can expect to find cyclists.”

Now I don’t know where these jokers have been living for the last ten years?

Stating the obvious, for their benefit, the answer to the question:- “Where on the streets of Inner London do you expect to find cyclists?”

Is – of course – “everywhere.”

Indeed an unspoken corollary of their slogan might be:- “Don’t expect to find cyclists on the bits of the Mile End Road that aren’t blue.”

It’s instructive that the Cycle-Superhighway initiative came in as TfL were also engaged in ‘smoothing the traffic’. Perhaps we have a new category of municipal displacement activity, a reaction to the rising tide of bicycle madness:- Containment Infrastructure?

Subsequent to two death crashes in two weeks at Bow Flyover late in 2011 the design of CS2 was modified. During one of the many consultations on the scheme a colleague observed:- ‘They should paint the whole road blue, or none of it.’

If the ambition is to validate cycle travel, to encourage riders onto the road without increasing complacency or limiting the options for cycle-traffic how about taking inspiration from the mysterious markings on Mare Street E8?

It’s a mistake to ever imagine that an organisation like Tfl speaks with one voice.

this campaign contains some useful messages

There isn’t anything good to take from the waste and horror of motor-slaughter but it’s worth noting that current coverage of the deaths on CS2 is different from, and more intense than, anything we could have expected during the era of the vanishing tribe. In former days disasters like these were ignored, or told tersely with a ‘what-do-you-expect-if-you-ride-a-bike?’ subtext.

Motor-traffic in general, the haulage business in particular, kills people. They kill people at a rate that would be a national scandal if any other source – bad food hygiene? enemy action? unmanned level-crossings? – were responsible.

Nowadays reportage on the slaughter of people using cycles may be more humane, with voices of bereaved friends and relatives, victim’s biographies, to transcend the statistics and reveal the true stories of suffering and loss, but it still tip-toes around the central issue. These stories are about trucks not bikes.