Residential streets are wasted public space

Here’s a picture of Harrowgate Road in Hackney, a fairly typical residential street distinguished only by the fact that it is around the corner from my house. It doesn’t see much traffic, and you’ll usually see neighbours chatting to each other at their front gates. Note that it has one thing in common with pretty much every other residential street in the UK: it is choked by cars, nose-to-tail.

On-street parking is a private appropriation of a great deal of our public space, which is particularly disputable in Hackney as in the borough as a whole only 44% of households own cars or vans.

In Copenhagen, in a neighbourhood near the Carlsberg brewery, I noticed that although there was on-street parking, that wasn’t all there was.

Some of the space had been used for picnic benches, turning the street into a place where people might actually spend time:

Some of the space had been used for sandpits and play areas for children:

And, of course, being Copenhagen, some of the car parking space had been given over to bikes:

Lots and lots of bikes:

Basically, there is so much more that we could be doing to make our ordinary residential streets into better, more liveable, more enjoyable places. Yet no public authority in the UK seems interested – certainly not mine in Hackney.

Published in: on July 4, 2012 at 10:30 pm  Leave a Comment  

Murderous bus driver let off with lightest sentence possible

A bristol bus driver who used his bus as a weapon to run someone over, badly injuring them, has been given the lightest possible sentence by Bristol Crown Court.

The video on the BBC report is shocking: the driver swings his bus into the cyclist, throwing him some distance and causing grevious bodily harm.

The driver, Gavin Hill, 29, was given 17 months in prison and a two-and-half-year driving ban.

This is an obscenely light punishment.

This was premeditated assault in which a weapon was used – a particularly dangerous weapon. In any other circumstance, had he used an equivalent weapon, 18 months would have been the starting sentence. The maximum could be seven years.

Even worse is th paltry driving ban, a good portion of which will pass while he is behind bars anyway. Someone who ever commits a serious assault like this and uses their car (or indeed bus) as a weapon should be banned for life.

An utterly disgraceful decision, but sadly typical of the way in which drivers in this country, even murderous ones, are coddled by the law.

Published in: on February 16, 2012 at 6:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

Cyclists are law-breakers

“I’ll stop running cyclists down when they stop jumping red lights.” The response, apparently, of a good portion of British drivers to the current cull of cyclists by the haulage industry.

I’m not going to go into the arguments about whether cyclists breaking the rules of the road is justified. Those arguments being, briefly, that a lot of the rules are designed to solve the problem of motor-traffic that bikes simply aren’t; that obeying the rules can sometimes actually put cyclists in danger from traffic; that cyclists are forced to do so by a negligent lack of safe and continuous infrastructure. All true, but it’s still the case that most cyclists who jump red lights do so because they are assholes. So many do it even when it involves screaming through pedestrians who, after waiting and waiting, have finally been given right of way to cross the street without being mown down by truck drivers.

So I’m not going to defend it. What I am going to say is that it absolutely pales in comparison to the quantity of law that motor drivers break incessantly.

Running through red lights. On my average 20-minute urban commute I probably see three or four cars jumping red lights. Most are amber gambles gone bad, some are because after queuing at traffic lights forever they are going the hell through this junction right now. Others (black cabs, mostly, I find) scream across pedestrian crossings because they are dicks. Jumping red lights is not a distinctively bike problem.

Breaking the speed limit. Want to do an easy test? Drive down the motorway at 70mph. In theory you shouldn’t be overtaken. In practice, you’ll be the slowest thing on the road. My local council have made it easy to test how many drivers obey 30mph restrictions too, by installing vehicle-activated signs that flash a warning when people are speeding. My estimate is that a good 80% of vehicles are doing more than 30, some by very significant amounts.

Driving using a mobile. Technically 3 points on the license and a £60 fine, but scarily common. The head of road safety at the AA, has said that there are probably 100,000 people driving around using their phone on the roads at any one time. Ed Balls and Harriet Harman were both caught doing it, the latter actually crashing because she was busy chatting on the phone.

Driving without insurance. Hard to measure, but the amount of accidents on the 30mph residential street racetrack outside my house that end with participants just yelling at each other then driving off probably suggest it’s pretty common.

Driving with fog lights on. The Highway Code says: You MUST NOT use front or rear fog lights unless visibility is seriously reduced (see Rule 226) as they dazzle other road users and can obscure your brake lights. You MUST switch them off when visibility improves.” It can technically get you points on your license and a fine. Yet on the average commute I see maybe 20 cars and taxis with fog lights on. I can’t quite work out why this is. Maybe they genuinely don’t know how to use their car: I pointed it out to one driver stopped at a junction, and he just pawed at his dashboard ineffectually then shrugged at me. Maybe they are such bad drivers that they don’t know what fog lights are or what the glowing sign on the dash means. Maybe they think they are bling lights for added disco. Odd one.

Making illegal manoeuvres, driving the wrong way down one-way streets, making illegal turns: all entirely common.

Stopping in advance stop lines for cyclists and in yellow box junctions.

Use of the horn. The Highway Code states: “Use only while your vehicle is moving and you need to warn other road users of your presence. Never sound your horn aggressively. You MUST NOT use your horn while stationary on the road or while driving in a built up area between the hours of 11:30pm and 7.00am except when another road user poses a danger.” You can technically be fined for using a horn, yet at any given time London’s roads sound like the Salvation Army band warming up.

Oh, and let’s not forget the thousands of people, mainly pedestrians, killed or seriously injured on London’s roads each year. That probably counts.

The point is that drivers are so coddled that their crimes are largely ignored by the police and the media.

Our roads, barely policed or regulated, are full of criminal drivers, speeding about in tonne-heavy steel boxes in a way that is negligent and dangerous.

Let’s get some perspective here.

Published in: on February 8, 2012 at 7:18 pm  Comments (4)  

Tories don’t understand the countryside

Tories are waging a bitter war against anything they see as damaging the countryside. Wind farms, high speed rail, and new housing developments are all encountering their organised resistance. This is because they have, dangerously and inaccurately, come to regard the countryside as a garden for their own enjoyment.

Prince Charles described wind farms as “a monstrous carbuncle”; his father just called them “a disgrace” (Wind farms are defended in the Mail article by fellow Lib Dem blogger Adam Bell!) The Government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework is condemned on the basis that it might allow buildings to go up on green fields. The HS2 high speed rail link to the North is excoriated just for having the temerity to pass through the countryside. Forget the energy crisis, the housing crisis, the decades of underinvestment in the country’s infrastructure, these people say – what about our views of grass?

The countryside is not, and has never been, some kind of vast pleasure-garden. The countryside is about grinding a hard living from the soil, corralling and slaughtering beasts by their millions, blasting rock apart for its mineral wealth, gouging out solid energy from the earth’s crust. It is a landscape wholly created by industry and toil, girded all about by steel rails.

There is wild land that is wholly worth preserving as national park. But a national park has the same relation to the countryside as a city park has to its urban context: a necessary complement, but something fundamentally unlike its surroundings.

One of my favourite spots in the country, perhaps the world, is Stanton Moor in the Peak District, for its megaliths, its ecology, a curious folly commemorating the Reform Act of 1832, and because its height affords a spectacular view of the surrounding countryside. That view is of working farms and working quarries – of toil. That doesn’t detract from the view any more than all those damn buildings detract from the view at the top of the London Eye. It is the view; it is the essence of it. The moor itself was shaped by its industrial history. You can’t walk anywhere in the Derbyshire countryside without seeing where our Bronze Age ancestors carved rocks from the earth, or the Romans dug for lead, or where Victorian Englishmen started a little thing called the industrial revolution.

These commuter Tories who escape to the country and buy up farmhouses to create a fundamentally suburban simulacrum of rural life misunderstand the element they are entering. They don the Barbour and attend the village fete and enjoy the view from their rustic-style barnconversion kitchen windows, but they misunderstand.

There is another moor that I love, just to the North of Stanton-in-the-Peak: Beeley Moor. From here you look down across an artificial rustic landscape – the Chatsworth House estate, with its Capability Brown gardens, neat turf and precisely-picturesque number of lambs. The fourth Duke of Devonshire went as far as to demolish the local village, Edensor, and have it rebuilt behind a convenient hill so that it would cease spoiling his view across the Derwent.

Now every two-bit Tory in the land thinks that they can act like this Duke and look out across a panorama of bucolic fakery. Never mind that this stops affordable housing development and drives up housing prices beyond the reach of real low-paid rural workers. Never mind that we’re dependent on Arab sheikhs for our energy security.

Tories of the shires: our countryside is not your frivolous playground. It is a serious place for serious work.

Published in: on November 21, 2011 at 8:43 pm  Leave a Comment  

Resisting the lure of protectionism

I’m living in Derby at the moment, so have been particularly conscious of the news that new carriages for Thameslink will be built by German firm Siemens rather than local firm Bombardier. Well, I say local. German/Canadian, actually, as if you couldn’t tell by the rum foreign way everyone pronounces it. Still, it means the loss of 446 permanent jobs and 983 temporary contract staff, which is sad for a city that’s already struggling.

What has been still sadder, though, is the protectionist rhetoric that the decision has prompted.

Bob Crow and the RMT today announced that they are considering a legal challenge to the decision. The general response from the popular press has been to demand British jobs for British people. Local Labour MPs Chris Williamson and Margaret Beckett have been doing the same. Which I suppose is fair enough– they could hardly be expected to do otherwise. But the Shadow Cabinet have also jumped on the protectionist bandwagon, which is the height of irresponsibility from the Labour Party.

Most of the Tory argument has been evasive – just noting that the previous Labour Government wrote the tender rules and are technically responsible, and noting that Labour also left the incoming Government with a project 16 years overdue and £600 million over budget. Fair enough, but good on Philip Hammond for also making the point of principle in the House: “I firmly believe that free trade and open markets are the best way for us to proceed.”

Shirley Williams was a hero on Question Time last week, making the case for Free Trade:

“I’m going to say something very unpopular: think very hard before you go for protectionism. We have thousands of people in this country who work for German firms, French firms, Japanese firms, and they have on the continent thousands of people who work for British firms. If you want to start down this train, I’ll tell you exactly what will happen: you will lose at least as many jobs as you’ll gain. If you bring in protectionism, you’ll see the 1930s back again.”

The World Depression was caused and exacerbated by protectionist policies.

We need world trade- free trade. It will be vital to the country and the world’s economic recovery.

If you’ve ridden the railway in South Africa recently, you may have been on a train manufactured at the Derby Carriage and Wagon Works. Likewise if you’ve been to Taiwan. If you’ve traveled on a high-speed train in Switzerland, Italy, or China, ridden the light rail in Madrid or Melbourne, been on the Metro in Guangzhou or Shenzhen, or a tram in Strasbourg or Milan, it may have been one of those designed by one of the hundreds of design engineers employed at the Derby plant.

Which is to say, British manufacturing relies on exports as well as the home market. What would have happened in Derby if the government in Pretoria had demanded on a policy of South African jobs for South Africans?

Published in: on July 12, 2011 at 12:04 am  Leave a Comment  

Hackney’s Labour Council shows no interest in making cycling safer

Every year in Hackney, around 6 cyclists are killed and 150 seriously injured. There have been so many accidents recently that the local newspaper has launched a safer cycling campaign. Our Labour Mayor has claimed to support the campaign, but the borough’s new Transport Local Implementation Plan has been released – and it won’t do a thing to improve safety for cyclists.

Mayor Jules Pipe told the Gazette:

“In recent years, Hackney Council has gone to great efforts to improve safety for cyclists, including free cycle training to people living, working or studying in the borough. We also host a local safety working group, where the council and its partners meet up to discuss ways of improving cyclist and pedestrian safety around heavy goods vehicles. As a council, we support any additional efforts to try and create a safer environment for cyclists in Hackney.”

But the proposed Transport Local Implementation Plan barely says a thing about physical improvements to make the transport network safe for cyclists.

Three out of four of the borough plan’s cycling goals are just to provide more cycle parking:
– Estate cycle parking: providing cycle lockers in Hackney Estates.
– Increase in cycle parking at rail, Overground and Tube stations in the borough.
– Provision of on carriageway and on footway cycle parking.

That’s all very well – and very cheap. Hackney has about half the amount of bike stands as neighbouring Islington; and installing secure cycle parking at rail stations would be particularly welcome, although I’ll believe it when I see it. In general, though, Hackney already has a tolerably good amount of cycle parking, so this doesn’t add much.

No matter how much parking there is, without improving the safety of the road en route, more people won’t take up cycling.

No matter how much “Provision of cycle training levels 1,2,3 to adults” the council offers, without improving the safety of the road, more people won’t take up cycling.

The council’s plan wants more pupils to cycle to school. That’s not going to happen without without improving the safety of the road en route ETC. ETC.

Hackney Council are currently making Goldsmith’s Row ‘safer for cycling’, involving a massive amount of digging-up and repaving. It’s a popular cycle route into the borough… but it was already safe. This is a quiet, slow, minor street. It was even one of the few places with a segregated cycle path. This couldn’t be a more pointless tinkering exercise with something that was already basically fine.

This seems utterly symptomatic of Mayor Pipe’s approach to cycling: tinkering around the edges. There are mad five-way junctions like Pembury Place, HGV Chaos at Dalston Junction (the scene of the most recent killing). Even on Goldsmith’s Row- after the clear and safe stretch that the council are pointlessly digging up- on-street parking narrows the road to a bottleneck and causes constant clashes between cyclists and traffic. What will be done to tackle these genuine problems?

In conclusion, Hackney’s transport plan is utterly uninspiring, doing only the easiest of the easy stuff. It lacks any sort of coherant vision, and doesn’t even plot a clear way to achieve its stated goals.

It’s still out for consultation of course- but why bother responding? As we know, no matter what people say, Hackney’s Labour council isn’t interested in listening.

Published in: on February 18, 2011 at 2:55 pm  Leave a Comment  

New vision for equality and the real class conflict in urban life

Enrique Penalosa, the former Mayor of Bogata, talked about Urban policy at the LSE this week. He spoke about the need for governments to create socially inclusive cities and articulated a vision of the good city. Before we know what city we want, he said, we need to know how we want to live. Urban planning is about building happiness. And it’s all about politics, about choices.

The speech is online here, and it was inspiring stuff.

Peñalosa put equality as the foundation of his urban vision. He explicitly didn’t mean income equality (because “we all agree that the best way to manage most of society’s resources is private property and the market”), but, rather, equal access to the features of cities that enhance the quality of life.

So he spoke against gated communities, private waterfronts, exclusive parks. But the main thrust of his argument was about mobility in cities:

“If all citizens are equal before the law, a bus with a hundred passengers has a right to a hundred times more road space than a car with one person. This is not communism, this is basic democracy. A child with a tricycle has the same right to road space as a car driver.”

The transport system we have currently prioritises car drivers – it grants them greater legal rights to public space.

Peñalosa spoke about some ways to reclaim this space, including dedicated bus lanes. In London, it strikes me that although bus lanes represent a small attempt to introduce some equity into the road system, they are still accessible, and usually blocked up, by black cabs. Taxis cost £20 a pop and so are only available to the tiniest heights of the social spectrum, and in any case generally cruise around in the bus lanes completely empty. Ironically, the bus lanes for the people become zil lanes for the rich, presumably because the few people who can afford to take taxis also happen to be the ones writing or buying the law.

Peñalosa insisted that segregated cycle lanes are hugely important. They are not “cute architectural features”, but ought to be be a right. Otherwise, the only people who have a right to safe mobility are car drivers.

A segregated cycle lane “shows that a citizen on the $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $300,000 car.”

Cars were rightly identified for particular opprobrium. Not only do they represent a hugely disproportionate distribution of space and money, they make cities a dangerous place to live.

In 2009, 3,227 people were killed or seriously injured on London’s roads, of whom 1488 were pedestrians or cyclists. 184 people died– 101 pedestrians and cyclists.

Around the world there are tens of thousands of children killed by cars every year. Children grow up in cities in terror of being killed.

As Peñalosa put it: “Even in Columbia where we never had wolves, we tell children about wolves, because Western civilisation is still scared of them, because a few children in the Middle Ages were eaten by wolves in Northern Europe. But I can assure you that in any given month in our time there are more children killed by cars than were killed by wolves in the Middle Ages.”

It’s mad that we think it’s normal and natural because it isn’t – it’s the result of choices.

There is no such thing as a natural level of cars in a city, or a requirement for the privileges the law gives to drivers. This all came about through political choices.

Just one local example for me, as described on Freewheeler’s blog:

“Cyclists and pedestrians have to GIVE WAY to motor traffic on Richmond Road and are not even given a zebra crossing or signalled lights, even though cycling and walking flow is high and traffic flow is relatively light. The message, as always, is that those who choose to travel around London in a car are the top priority, and those who cycle or walk are an inferior species, who must at all times defer to the primary transport mode.”

This was a political, not a technical decision.

Peñalosa said that:

“The real class conflict today is not the Marxist class conflict between proletariats and capitalists and all that story, although it was very beautiful, but between car owners and those who do not own cars.”

The space and resources given to the owners of these dangerous machines is fundamentally inequitable, and ruins cities. It’s because of the car that the twentieth century will be remembered as a disastrous one in urban history. But it’s something we can change.

Published in: on January 13, 2011 at 9:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

Vélib and the Boris Bike: reasons to be optimistic

There has been some scepticism about the possibility of the Boris Bikes causing a critical mass of cycling that will turn our city into a pedal-powered Utopia. My experience of cycling in Paris this week suggests that it could. The Vélib hire-bikes are everywhere in Paris, and since their introduction the number of people cycling Parisians has increased hugely, despite physical conditions on a par with London.

Sceptics of vehicular cycling say: “The problem is not a lack of bikes, but that Londoners in the main don’t cycle because conditions for cycling in London as with the rest of the UK, are terrible when you compare them with Dutch cities. Londoners are scared to cycle and it’s quite obvious why. This problem cannot be resolved by making fractionally more bikes available. It can only be addressed by making conditions for cyclists better.”

I agree. But Paris shows that getting a critical mass of people on bikes can increase the number of people cycling, even if the infrastructure isn’t welcoming.

Paris is technically a horror for cyclists. Haussmann’s wide Boulevards are fast-moving, multi-lane roads that are frightening for cyclists to navigate. The boulevards meet at huge roundabouts like the Place de la Concorde and the Place de la Bastille: chaotic, unmarked, terrifying wheels of death for a cyclist. Parisian drivers have scant regard for lane discipline even where there are road markings. The Byzantine one-way systems stymie each and every attempt to reach ones destination. There are very few advance stop lines for cyclists at traffic lights.

There are cycling routes across Paris, but not noticeably more useful than the ones in London. And the French attitude to cleaning and maintenance means that parts of the cycle paths are in a state of disrepair, blocked by rubbish and parked cars. Parking enforcement in general seems non-existent, with cars and vans casually abandoned all over the place (in one case, in the middle of a four-way intersection).

The Vélibs themselves are in a poor state of repair. Most had poor brakes and made concerning mechanical noises. Many in the stands were completely unusable- with flat tires, broken seats, no brakes at all. There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of attention to moving the bikes around to where they are needed as there is in London. A lot of the stations were either completely full or totally empty – whichever was worse at the particular time.

It ought to be a nightmare – but somehow it works. The Vélib scheme doubled the amount of journeys taken by bike, and it shows. Cyclists, especially Vélibists, are everywhere. Presumably in consequence, motor-drivers seemed to understand how to share the road with bikes, and treated cyclists with more respect than the average London cabbie. Pedestrians were similarly understanding of cyclists mounting the pavement at the worst roundabouts and most inhumane stretches of road.

The Velib has performed a real modal shift in how Parisians get about. Paris has terrible cycling infrastructure on a par with London’s– so I’m optimistic that the Boris Bikes could be part of a similar revolution in our city.

Published in: on October 16, 2010 at 4:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

Test Driving the Boris Bike

I tried out one of the new Boris Bikes yesterday! The Critical Mass ride seemed like a good chance to personally inaugurate this new era of public transport in London. In the event, teething troubles with the hire scheme meant that we were left behind as the bike ride swarmed off into the distance.

The pricing is structured so that while half an hour is free and an hour is only a pound, take it back after an hour and you have to pay a pretty steep £4. Hopping from bike to bike seems to be the only sensible way to get round this price, so that was our intention.

The first problem is that some of the cycle bays on the map that TfL sent with the key don’t exist. The map lied to us that there would be bays at County Hall and at Old Queen Street. So as the Critical Mass ride made its stately way around Parliament Square and up Whitehall, we dashed around trying to find somewhere to swap the bike, while the clock ticked down on our reasonably-priced hour. The Evening Standard have visited 374 sites on TfL’s official cycle hire map and found that only 284 docking stations appear to be complete, 34 were being built, and no work had been done at 56 sites. So don’t trust the map!

Second problem was that when we did find a docking bay on the Strand it was entirely full, so there was nowhere to park up. When that happens you can log into the terminal and it grants you another 15 minutes to whizz off to try and find another one.

So as the Critical Mass disappeared up the Mall we searched behind the National Gallery for a free bay, parked the bike, and tried to hire another to continue on our way. There seems to be a wait between stowing one bike and taking another – I’m not sure why that’s entirely necessary. But no matter how long we waited, another bike wouldn’t release.

We walked to another docking station (and there are plenty of them in central London), but still couldn’t get a bike to release. A phone call to the helpline revealed that a bike we tried at the National Gallery station had been hired but not returned. Turns out that our bike had been activated, but the green light hadn’t flashed and the bike hadn’t been unlocked properly.

BBC London News are reporting today that this has been a recurring problem, with TfL cancelling the fine for a woman who was “billed for 11 hours’ use even though she could not get the cycle to unlock”. Luckily, we found out about the problem within twenty minutes.

To anyone trying to extricate a bike from the docking bay – lifting up the back wheel while pulling it seems to be required sometimes.

The Critical Mass well and truly lost, we settled on giving the Boris Bike our own test run.

They are little heavy to ride. I wouldn’t fancy cycling them up any sort of hill, so while I’d be happy to ride one from Angel into the City I wouldn’t fancy the return trip. It takes a lot of hard work pedalling furiously to get anywhere, even in the highest gear, and it’s hard getting up much speed on the flat. The basket is pointlessly small, and a bigger one would be welcome.

I still think the scheme is very exciting, and could potentially revolutionise public transport in London. Boris has admitted that there will be teething problems, and I hope they will be sorted out.

But for anyone living in London, it will still be better to own your own bike. The £45 you’d spend on Cycle Hire membership alone isn’t a lot less than buying a brand new bike. Nothing can match the convenience of your own bicycle, especially if using the Boris Bike will involve traipsing around the area looking for a free docking bay as the minutes tick on your affordable hour.

Riding the hire bike drew constant catcalls and hoots from excited pedestrians. And they weren’t yelling ‘Barclay’s Cycle Hire™!’ or ‘Ken may also have had this idea!’ – they were yelling, “Nice Boris Bike, Boris!” Looks like Mayor Johnson has his legacy sorted.

Published in: on July 31, 2010 at 6:46 pm  Leave a Comment  

Government ends war on the motorist

Tory Transport Secretary Philip Hammond has announced the end of the war with the motorist. In 2008 alone the war with the motorist claimed 2,538 lives in the UK. At least 230,905 people were injured, over 26,000 of them seriously. The peace treaty looks more like a humiliating capitulation, and the ongoing violence by motorists against the civilian population of the UK is likely to only intensify.

The Coalition Agreement included pledges to both “stop central government funding for new fixed speed cameras” and to “support sustainable travel initiatives, including the promotion of cycling and walking”. I’m not sure are compatible, given that the main bar to the promotion of cycling and walking is the lawlessness of the roads.

Ministers are trying to justify this on the basis of putting the public finances back in order. But increasing the number of speed cameras would ostensibly increase revenues, while saving lives by making sure drivers respect the rules of the road. The fact that they raise money from lawbreakers makes them, at the very least, an incredibly cost-effective way to enforce the law. The PR wing of the motorist insurgency claims that they generate £100million in fines each year- enough to cover not only their operating costs, but a slew of further road safety improvements or defecit downpayments.

Even as a good coalition man I think it’s still okay to recognise that Tories are gross, especially the ones who resent being obliged to obey the law while careering about in their tonne-heavy metal killing machines. Just avoid Oxfordshire for the moment, as if you weren’t already.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 4:10 pm  Leave a Comment