Tuesday, May 25, 2010

End of the London Western Congestion Charge Zone

Boris has finally done it - announced the end of congestion charging in West London. The last day will be 24 Dec 2010.

To give anyone a tax cut (which is what it is) in these straitened times seems rash. Although it was a manifesto commitment, Boris could quite understandably have pleaded poverty. London will lose £50M+/year from this.

Who are the winners here? People who drive in West London. Of course there are some people who don't have a choice and have to drive, but there are plenty of others who are contributing to the congestion, pollution and road danger problem who are getting rewarded with a tax cut. That's perverse.

There's a couple of other lower-profile changes. The central zone will have an increased charge of £10/day, or £9 if you auto-pay. There's also a 'free pass' for Euro-V-compliant vehicles that emit less than 100g/km of CO2. Both of these changes should worry people. There already was an exemption for alternative-fuel cars including hybrids such as the Toyota Prius. This change brings a much wider choice of mainstream vehicles into the exemption. Vehicles such as:

  • VW Polo 1.2 TDI 75PS BlueMotion
  • VW Golf 1.6 TDI 105PS BlueMotion
  • Seat Leon 1.6 CR TDI 105PS Ecomotive
  • Ford Fiesta 1.6 Duratorq (95PS)
  • Citroen C3 1.6HDi 90hp Airdream+
 Don't forget though that the list is growing all the time. The Ford/PSA diesel engine used in the Fiesta is used by Ford, Peugeot, Citroen, Volvo and others. There are a number of other models that use this same engine such as the Ford Focus, Volvo C30 and Peugeot 207 that fall into VED Band A (<100g/km CO2) but are not Euro-V-compliant. The manufacturers will likely be working to introduce Euro-V-compliant versions of these models.

Now this is likely to cause two changes:
  1. a significant number of existing commuters choosing an exempt model, thus depriving TfL of revenue;
  2. new commuters choosing an exempt model so they can commute 'for free'.
The second change will add to congestion and road danger. Euro-V is not zero-emission by a long chalk, so more vehicles will mean more pollution. Just like what'll happen in West London.

If the new 'Band A/Euro-V' discount replaces the existing 'alternative fuel' discount, then there will be some offset because the existing discount allows some relatively polluting vehicles such as hybrid and LPG-fuelled 4x4 SUVs to avoid the congestion charge.

On balance, however, these announcements add up to a perfect storm for London in terms of reduced revenue, increased congestion, increased pollution and increased road danger. Just in time for the Oympics. Nice work, Boris.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Pavement Parking in Merton

On my travels around Merton, I'm seeing an increasing proliferation of illegal pavement parking. Isn't it strange how the media gets all hot under the collar about cycling on pavements (which is in large part brought about by the fact that one cannot safely cycle on many roads) but when it comes to driving on the pavement, they are silent?

So it's left to blogs like this one to tell the truth. As I've pointed out before, pavement parking and driving on the pavement (which is of course necessary if you're going to park there) is dangerous and usually illegal. Children should be able to walk and run down the pavement safe in the knowledge that a car won't reverse into them because the driver cannot see. That's the whole point of a pavement - it's a safe area, segregated from the dangers of motor traffic.

Yet look at this scene in Canterbury Road.

Cars parked on both pavements. Yet there are no apparent markings or notices that this is allowed. Maybe I'm wrong?
Here's Arterberry Road:

Again cars parked on the pavement causing considerable obstruction in some cases. Look at that Land Rover. A child standing on the pavement just behind the vehicle would be invisible to the driver, who might well need to reverse to get out of the parking space. Of course, if that happened, in the eyes of the justice system it would be a case of  'Sorry Mate I Didn't See You', a tragic accident with no-one to blame, except the child who should have been on stilts wearing high-visibility clothing and a helmet. No wonder road death is the leading killer of the young.

How the Planning Process obstructs Cycling

Here's a telling report in the Cambridge local press about the council trying to stop parking in cycle lanes.

Gilbert Road is a fairly wide 1930's residential street. Most of the houses have offstreet parking. So there's not much call for people to park on the road. In many cases, visitors could park in one of the side roads, or - now here's an idea - not come by car. The road has wide pavements with grass verges. If it's really, really necessary, a couple of parking bays could be cut into the verges. How many cases are there when someone absolutely has to visit by car and cannot park off the road? Not many I suspect. But still the residents regard on-road parking as their God-given right.

And that's the planning process in a nutshell. A relatively small group of people can frustrate improvements necessary for road safety. Because after all, the convenience of the few is more important than the safety of the many. Bear in mind that Cambridge has a relatively high modal share for cycling, so if it's not possible to put safe cycle lanes in Cambridge, it sure as heck won't be possible in Merton.

Any government that's serious about cycling needs to change the planning process so that there is a general presumption in favour of safe cycling. Of course we still need democratic accountability, but right now cyclists don't have any democratic rights in terms of the planning process. Every time, the wishes of small local interest groups overwhelm the interest of the large number of people who would like to cycle safely.

Friday, May 21, 2010

How much confidence do you need to cycle?

According to this York press report, "campaigners fear many parents and their children may be deterred from getting in the saddle due to a lack of confidence behind the handlebars." Well that's probably true, and it's because there's so little in the way of safe cycle routes and so much dangerous driving. The solution? "Offering families the chance to receive cycle training".

Sorry, but this is yet another case of money being spent not solving the underlying problem. People will go for the training, start cycling, have a couple of frightening  near-miss experiences and quit. Or they'll hear about a terrible accident like this one and decide it's too dangerous for their kids.

People don't cycle because of safety fears. Those fears are well-founded. Putting on a training course that kids people into thinking it's safe doesn't make it safe - you can put lipstick on the pig, but it's still a pig. This is a waste of money, money that in these austere times should be spent on proper, safe infrastructure.

Martin Way, Morden

Good news: the lethally dangerous Martin Way chicanes are coming out.

Here's a pic of one of the chicanes:

Notice how the chicane in the middle of the road forces the vehicles over to the left, just as the cycle bypass ends. Believe it or not there is a 'give way' where the cyclist is supposed to stop to allow the motor vehicle to pass. This is a straight, wide road with enough room for cyclists - or it was until they put these ridiculous obstacles in.

Here's another pic, where they've ripped out the chicane:

What they need to do next is remove the hatched area in the middle of the road and put in 2M-wide cycle lanes as per TfL's cycle design standards. The road is wide enough. That's what a competent designer would do. We'll see.

I don't think there's ever been a worse-designed scheme than Martin Way. There are dangerous roads aplenty in London, and there are lots of cheaply-implemented cycle lanes that are too narrow and full of parked cars, but this is a scheme where someone has actually considered the fact that there are cyclists on the road, and spent a lot of money making life as difficult and dangerous as possible for them. How on earth was it possible for anyone even vaguely competent to design such a scheme, audit its safety and approve it?

You'll be pleased to know that Merton Council agree with me and the many other people who have pointed out the dangers.

This is a relatively recent scheme, costing nearly £250,000. As you can see, Merton Council are spending more money ripping it out. Guess who's paying? Not the idiots who designed it. Not the idiots who approved it. No, it's you and me, the Merton council taxpayers. The only good news is the aforementioned idiots could lose their jobs in the spending cuts that are coming our way over the next 5 years.

Bizarre crash in Morden

As usual with road crashes, there are few details in this local paper report about an accident on the A24 in Morden. Apparently a quick-thinking off-duty nurse came to the aid of the occupants of a car that had flipped ONTO ITS ROOF in a crash on the A24 in Morden.
Now, modern cars are very difficult to overturn. They're designed to be stable under considerable lateral forces. Their manufacturers make them so, because of bad publicity in the past with models that developed a reputation for being prone to overturning like the Mercedes A-class. Of course, at high speed it's possible, if the vehicle slides sideways at speed into a high kerb, for example.
Now while it's difficult to overturn a vehicle, if you do succeed the consequences for the occupants are often very serious or fatal head and spinal injuries, because the safety systems aren't designed to cope with 'rollovers'.
Now this crash happened in daylight at 5:30PM on a weekday, the rush hour. The A24 at this point is a straight road with a 30MPH limit. It almost beggars belief that a car could get overturned here...let's be clear, there's no indication of who was at fault, but I'd be willing to bet that someone did something incredibly stupid and dangerous. And I'd also be willing to bet that that person will be back behind the wheel very soon, due to the lenient way the justice system treats dangerous driving.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Taxpayers Alliance nonsense...

I stumbled upon this paper from the Taxpayers Alliance and the 'Drivers' Alliance', which seem to be one and the same rightwing thinktank with close links to the Tory party. In it, they claim that road spending gives better value for money than rail spending, on the basis that many more journey kilometres are made by road vehicles than by rail, despite the government spending being roughly equal. They further claim that road users pay more in tax (fuel duty and vehicle excise duty adding up to £30.3 billion) than the combined total of road investment (£8.3 billion) and the cost of carbon emissions due to road vehicles (£3.54 billion).

This is rather silly. If you're comparing the relative cost-efficiencies of two systems, you would need to take into account not just the government subsidies, but also private outlay by individuals and companies. This would include total fares and freight charges for rail, and for roads would include the cost of all fuel, insurance, servicing and depreciation of vehicles.

Let's overlook this basic error, however, and look at what the real cost to the government is. Clearly, there's a lot more costs involved in the road system than just infrastructure. There's the cost of policing the road network for one. There's the massive costs of disability benefit, lost taxes, NHS treatment and so on accruing from the annual 30,000 road crashes in which people are killed and seriously injured. There's the 5000+ lives lost annually to pollution, much of which is caused by road vehicles.

Let's overlook that as well. The premise of the paper is that road infrastructure spending gives better value for money than rail. They give no evidence to support this. The years of predict-and-provide road investment show that building more roads doesn't reduce congestion. At best, it just moves the congestion elsewhere. At worst, it simply generates more journeys and creates more congestion. There is plenty of evidence that roadbuilding gives spectacularly poor value for money. The 27-mile M6 toll road cost around £500M at 1998 prices.

Let me give an example of what can happen when you build a road. We'll wave a magic wand and widen the M4 between Reading and Chiswick. Cars would get to the traffic jam at Chiswick a lot quicker, and wait a lot longer there. So let's build a new motorway onwards from Chiswick to central London. We'll build a massive car park at the end. Now people can get from Reading to central London quickly, and more cheaply than by train. Sounds like a no-brainer, so a lot of people will now take that option, and pretty soon, the new motorway will be at full capacity, and there will be massive tailbacks every day. Bear in mind that the peak capacity of a single motorway lane is 2,100 vehicles/hour, so 6,300 vehicles per hour per carriageway for a 6-lane road. A single light-rail line can carry 20,000 passengers per hour. You would need a road 18 lanes wide to achieve the same capacity.

The fact is, the whole transport system is both interconnected (many people drive to a station and take the train) and interdependent - if you change one transport option you will affect the other. If you make rail unattractive by increasing fares, reliability, journey time or through overcrowding, passengers will switch to using the car, until the level of congestion on the roads makes driving equally unattractive. In other words, if you invest in rail, you're investing in road. It's a networked system - you can't take a reductionist approach and consider one element in isolation.

The biggest error the TPA make however, is to assume that roadbuilding is actually possible. In many of the most congested parts of the UK (like London), there is no more land. People don't want rat-runs through residential areas any more than they want new roads built through the countryside - both damage quality of life on so many levels. I've never understood the idea that building roads is a 'Conservative' thing to do. It helps destroy the things we value most in this country. While most people accept that ease of travel is essential to quality of life, there comes a point where we all have to consider: is your journey really necessary?

Where will the transport spending axe fall?

Given the Coalition's commitments to increase spending on the NHS, reduce the deficit, increase personal tax allowances, fund the pupil premium from from outside the schools budget by reductions in spending elsewhere, allow parents to set up their own schools, create a green investment bank... (pause for breath) ...it's pretty clear that massive cuts are on their way in other, less 'sexy' departments. So the cross-hairs will be lining up on transport.

But wait. As well as Crossrail, the Coalition has also agreed to the establishment of a high-speed rail network. They've also ruled out national road pricing, and promised to 'end the war on the motorist'. Now I'm not too sure what this war entailed other than fining dangerous drivers, but it looks like the Treasury can look forward to less revenue from speeding fines.And unless the Coalition finds some other way of improving road safety, the Treasury will be paying for the considerable financial consequences of increased deaths and injuries on our roads.

There's also the "fair fuel stabiliser" which could ensure that fuel duty is reduced when world oil prices rise, and duty will rise when the oil price falls. Of course, this would depend on the ability to see into the future to know what the long-term trend of the oil price is. Presumably the intention is that this measure will be revenue-neutral but consider the following problem. The price of petrol rockets from its current £1.20/litre to £2.00/litre. According to the rules, fuel duty would be reduced. Let's say that price level is sustained for a year. You're now in deficit. Do you gamble on the oil price going down in the future, worsening the deficit still further, or do you increase fuel duty, risking the wrath of motorists? They just haven't thought this through.

So where can you cut spending? Forget about cutting cycling spending because that is such a miserly amount it won't make much difference. Road spending is another matter - approximately £8bn is spent annually on the roads network, according to government stats. Another £8bn is spent on railways. Raising rail fares won't be popular, which is what will happen if the rail budget is cut. So the roads budget looks the most vulnerable...

Monday, May 17, 2010

Boris in Wonderland - New Routemaster

Boris was on telly this lunchtime gushing about the expensive 'New Routemaster'.
He was enthusastic about its green credentials, and the need to reduce emissions which, he claimed, come from older buses.
It's true that buses do contribute to London's pollution problem, but not as much as taxis, and if Boris hadn't messed around delaying the next phases of the Low Emission Zone and abolishing the 6-monthly taxi emissions check, we'd be further forward in reducing emissions. Furthermore, the 'New Routemaster' emissions-reducing technologies are already in existing bus designs. You don't need to design a new bus to get these benefits.
In terms of running costs, Boris says there will be a second member of staff (conductor/PCSO) on the bus when the platform is open. Don't foget that Boris lampooned the bendy bus by labelling it 'the free bus', because it was so easy for passengers to hop on and off it (without paying) through any of its three entrances. How many entrances does the New Routemaster have? That's right - three. So Boris does not seem to have fixed the 'free bus' problem, except by having an expensive second member of staff, which could have been done with the bendy bus.
Boris's original plan was to replace the bendy-buses with the new Routemaster. His beef about bendy buses was the cycle-safety issue. However, if he instead spent the 'New Routemaster' project money on cycle safety projects, he would probably save rather more lives than will be saved by getting rid of the bendy buses.
All this makes the New Routemaster look a bit of a vanity project. The original Routemaster is an iconic design that has great value in terms of the contribution it makes to making London a unique city. However, it seems rather backward-looking to try to reproduce the Routemaster. If we're going to make a unique (and expensive) artefact that makes a statement about London, we should be doing something truly innovative with artistic merit, rather than making a reproduction half-timbered thatched cottage on wheels. We need something that will solve the 21st century's problems. Any ideas?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Report bad driving here

Met police have a website where you can report bad and inconsiderate driving.

Whether anything actually happens when you report an incident is unclear, but if there are enough reports maybe it'll get on the radar of our dear leaders. The police are supposed to take their priorities from public feedback, so I'd enourage everyone to use the website, so they know what we know.


You can also report on the CTC's 'Stop SMIDSY website here:


Politics - You never get what you want

This is not a political blog, but I couldn't resist one post because the mainstream media don't seem to have a clue what's going on.

The papers seem obsessed with the idea that "the electorate didn't get what they wanted".

Well there's a basic ontological error there. The electorate doesn't have a will, beyond the fact that a majority may have voted for a given party. But in the 2010 election, they didn't. So what did they want? It may be safe to say that Conservative voters wanted a Conservative government, but did every Conservative voter want the same policies? It seems highly unlikely, given that there are well-known splits even within the Conservative party ranks. Many are climate-change deniers. Many want to leave the EU. Many want grammar schools.
It's been said that Lib-Dem voters have been 'betrayed'. It may well be that many would have preferred a Lib-Lab coalition, but that was never really feasible with the MP numbers as they are. Would they have been happier with a minority Tory government? The fact is, it was difficult to get a cigarette paper between any two of the parties on many issues in their manifestos, so hard were they going for the centre ground, so whatever government got elected and however you voted, you would have got 80% of what you voted for.

It seems to me that the electors who should be happiest are Labour voters. There's a government that may actually be to the left of the outgoing one. The Labour Party gets time out to rebuild its leadership, agenda and support, and they get to blame two other parties for the economic, political and environmental mess we may find ourselves in five years from now. That's assuming the coalition lasts five years, which I rather doubt...

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Potholes force wheelchair ban??

According to this story, an epilepsy charity has banned students from using wheelchairs on its access road because potholes are forcing them into the middle of the road.

It should be titled "Dangerous drivers force wheelchair users off the road", because that is actually what is happening.

This really does seem ridiculous. Of course, the 'ban' is likely just advice from the charity so there is no reason why the students can't continue to use the road. However, if the local police and council fail to act, this would be an outrageous infringement of human rights. Drivers are apparently swerving (without looking first of course) to avoid potholes, and because few drivers on country roads show any awareness of people who aren't also in cars, they are liable to crash into anyone in a wheelchair. This is prima facie dangerous driving. Given that it is endemic according to the report, the council should either close the road to through traffic, or implement temporary measures to improve the situation such as coning off one side of the road.

Why carbon trading doesn't work

A positive of the recession is that because European economic growth has stalled, so has the increase in CO2 emissions. To such an extent that the market is now awash with worthless carbon credits. Hence, there is currently little incentive for businesses to invest in low-carbon technologies. There's also the problem that in a recession, businesses tend not to make as much capital investment.
In theory, if and when demand picks up, CO2 emissions will also pick up and there could be a shortage of carbon credits. By which time, it'll be too late! There will have been 4 or more wasted years in which investment in low-carbon technology has been too low, due to a combination of lack of incentives to invest and lack of money. What hasn't helped is that governments have spent money on scrappage schemes, propping up a failed car industry that is making too many cars that people don't want to buy, and failed to set the foundations for a green economy.

The carbon trading system as it is currently structured has at its heart a fundamental paradox: if you succeed in curbing CO2 emissions, then you reduce the incentive to further reduce them. Businesses that didn't invest in low-carbon technologies can pick up cheap carbon credits. In other words, businesses that did the right thing and invested in low-carbon technology are saddled with the capital costs but have little or no cost advantage over those who didn't. In even simpler terms, they didn't think this through. They didn't stress-test the carbon-trading model under a perfectly forseeable event - a recession. Eejits.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sutton Cycle Tragedy

Here's a tragic story relatively local to me.

A schoolboy was seriously injured at the junction between the A217 and Gander Green Lane in Sutton.

It's not clear what happened from the report, and it's quite likely I'll never find out, as even the local press don't tend to spend much time on this kind of story.

One thing is for sure though - at 7:43AM when the crash happened, you can expect to see children on their way to school. Motorists should be driving with extra care, and they should be prepared to stop if a child runs out into the road unexpectedly. There is no duty of care required of motorists, so providing they were not speeding or driving dangerously, such an accident is not considered the fault of the driver. If they were speeding or driving dangerously, it's highly unlikely this would be detected and even less likely that it would be successfully prosecuted.

It could be that the driver in this case was driving attentively, legally and carefully. But in my experience, most accidents involve two people doing something wrong: often one person driving dangerously and the other inattentively. If you drive defensively, anticipating and allowing for other people's errors, you can avoid many accidents. Children make more errors, that's in their nature, but they should not have to pay for their errors with death or serious injury, if it can be avoided.

Cycling in Brussels

I had occasion to visit Brussels, Belgium the other week. Only a short visit so I didn't get the opportunity to study the cycle infrastructure in any detail, but I did take a couple of pictures.

Above you can see the parking for a suburban rail station. There's way more bike spaces than car spaces here: you can see three uncovered racks on the right and to the left, another eight covered racks. Compare this with Morden or Wimbledon stations - there's probably an order of magnitude fewer bike spaces at comparable stations in good old Blighty.

Above you can see two non-folding bikes with their owners waiting for a train. This is in the middle of a weekday: it's pretty clear that bikes are welcome on trains and people do actually combine these modes of transport.

The weather in Brussels is just as wet and cold as the UK. Brussels clearly isn't noted for its cycle infrastructure, but it's still way ahead of the UK. If Brussels is in the second division by European standards, we're at the wrong end of the Ryman League.

Friday, May 7, 2010

LCC Manifesto

Waltham Forest's Freewheeler deconstructs the LCC Manifesto here.

I agree with a lot of Freewheeler says, but I think he misses the point a little bit. The point of the LCC Manifesto is to frame something that local candidates can sign up to. Anything calling for massive investment or radical change would be pointless, because no candidate with a realistic chance of getting elected could sign up in good faith. We know from reading the national manifestos of the major parties that none of them regard cycling as a vote-winner. I don't think anyone at the LCC is happy with the status quo, but they also know that they have very little power to change things.
However, there are a few things I would add to the LCC Manifesto:

1. Safe Routes to Schools. Everyone loves kids, and most people (at least people my age) remember fondly the freedom that having a bike gives a child. Everyone thinks children should be kept safe. Most people would agree that active travel has a role in combating childhood obesity. Most people don't like the 'school run', because of the congestion, pollution and danger that it brings. So why isn't the LCC campaigning for the right of every child to cycle in safety to school? This seems like a politically realistic first step to getting safe infrastructure for cycling.

2. Stop Wasting Money on Stupid Cycle Schemes. In this age of austerity, we should be spending money on worthwhile schemes, not wasting it on painting narrow sub-standard cycle lanes on busy roads and allowing cars to park in the lanes. And spending years of local authority employees' time drawing up plans for these stupid schemes and consulting with people who don't understand cycling. Fix the rules so that sensible schemes can be implemented cheaply and quickly. Any scheme should given a real safety benefit to cyclists.

3. Let Residents Own Their Streets. You don't have to be Einstein to figure out that while many people love their cars, they don't like their residential areas being turned into rat-runs. It brings down house prices for a start. We need to harness this grassroots desire for quieter, safer streets and use it to promote active travel, turning streets into quiet Home Zones where only residents and visitors drive.

I think it's intiatives like these, which are local, have high value and appeal to a broad spectrum of people - not just regular cyclists - are the way forward for cycle campaigning.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Black Boxes in Cars

There's a lot of strange paradoxes and contradictions in the way road safety is managed by our rulers.

The technology for black boxes that record exactly how a vehicle was being driven at the time of a crash has been around for some years now. That technology is cheap. Most of the major systems in modern cars are essentially computer-managed, so all a black box needs to do is record information that is already available from sensors that are in the car. The black box could also be equipped with video recording - video cameras are also very cheap. The exact GPS co-ordinates of the vehicle could be recorded given that many vehicles come with sat-nav built-in.

If every car were so equipped, there would be no need for the police to spend endless, expensive hours investigating the cause of crashes. A simple printout from the cars involved would tell them most of what they need to know. Similarly, insurance companies would not have to spend nearly as much time trying to figure out who's telling porkies on their insurance claim - like this guy. Innocent motorists wouldn't need to worry about an accident in which they are blameless going 'knock-for-knock' and costing them their no-claims bonus. And crucially, it would mean that dangerous drivers could no longer get away, literally, with murder, in the absence of human witnesses to their actions. This deterrent might save quite a few lives and serious injuries, with their attendant costs to the NHS, disability benefit, and so on.

There are more benefits. Rather than relying on the lottery of speeding tickets and other endorsements to assess whether someone is a good driver, insurance companies could get a much more accurate picture of the 'where, when and how fast' of each person's driving. I didn't just make this up, some of it is already happening with pay-as-you-drive policies.

You would think that with these obvious upsides, it would be a no-brainer to build black boxes into all new cars. But apparently not. We're prepared to have our personal freedoms and rights eroded in the name of counter-terrorism - terrorism being the cause of a relatively tiny number of deaths compared to road crashes - but the idea of recording what someone does with a potentially lethal piece of machinery seems to be a step too far. Even though road death is the leading killer of young people.

That is, until now. The NY Times reports the Toyota safety recall has caused the case for black boxes to be considered in the US.

So here's the paradox. Whether any crashes have been caused by the widely-reported Toyota faults is still unproven, but  in general catastrophic failures of safety-critical systems in vehicles are quite rare, and crashes caused by such failures rarer still.  The overwhelming majority of crashes are caused by 'user error' - inattentive drivers going too fast for conditions. Because the 'users' of cars are you and me and the bloke next door, we're in denial about the problem. But when it's a faceless corporation that's in the frame, we have no problem scapegoating them.