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November 17, 2011 / clayliesstill

Bats: more important than CO2 or humans

Chiltern Railways – the poster child for rail privatisation – hatched a plan a few years ago to run trains from London Marylebone to Oxford via Bicester. This would compete with First Great Western (FGW), which currently operates the Paddington – Didcot – Oxford route, a monopoly on rail travel between London and Oxford. Chiltern already run trains from London to Bicester North and from Bicester Town to Oxford, but it is a mile walk between the two stations and then only 11 trains a day for the second leg.

Chiltern were the company that opened up a competitive route to Birmingham, taking significantly longer than Virgin, but at a fraction of the price. Their Oxford plans (called ‘Evergreen3‘) would take around 10 minutes longer than the fastest FGW service.  Instead of changing at Bicester

In order to do this Chiltern needed to redouble the existing track and build a ‘chord’ (junction) at Bicester. Stations would be rebuilt and a new ‘Parkway’ station opened just to the north of Oxford.

Not only would the scheme help to reduce car commuting in and out of Oxford, it would mean cheaper tickets between London and Oxford, rail connections between Oxford and parts of Buckinghamshire, a start on the ‘East West Rail’ project to provide intra-regional travel without needing to go through London and… most importantly, the glorious confusion of tourists at Oxford stations watching trains for London leave going both north and south.

Unfortunately the Planning Inspector’s report into the project, published today, says that it should not go ahead. Why? Because in its current underused state, bats have taken up residence in the Wolvercote Tunnel. 22 trains a day (and the occasional military train) was didn’t scare the bats but higher line speeds and three times as many trains would cause problems. Chiltern had offered to light up the tunnel (thereby alerting the bats) as each train approached, but will now need to seek further mitigation measures.

So, a scheme that would greatly improve public transport in the area, reduce motor traffic, save CO2 and enhance a long term strategic objective has all been shelved (temporarily, one can only hope) by the presence of bats.

October 21, 2011 / clayliesstill

BA – so scared they can’t even copy edit

Now, I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not the most careful typist and editor. But if you are spending several thousand pounds taking out a full page advert in a national newspaper’s Sunday supplement magazine you’d think you might do a bit of a spell check?

Perhaps this is just a reflection of British Airways in tailspin terror about the fact that the new Transport Secretary ain’t the most friendly towards airlines…


(this is actually a design/type error, not some clever play on ‘Far Away’)







September 30, 2011 / clayliesstill

80 mph

Philip Hammond, who has already done his level best to make the Local Sustainable Transport Fund as unsustainable as possible, has reached a new low of hypocrisy with the announcement to raise motorway speeds to 80 mph.

As many have already commented, this proposal would lead to substantial increases in collisions and injuries. The latter is self-evidently bad and in his comments, Hammond appears to agree – yet he is prepared to sacrifice lives on the altar of the economy. Separating collisions from injuries is important since the justification for Hammond’s move (other than the nakedly political pandering to the Clarkson brigade) is to reduce journey times. Yet collisions on motorways are a major source of congestion, with estimates ranging from 12%-33% of congestion caused by crashes

80 mph limits means 90 mph will become the default speed limit (police only prosecute at the speed limit + 10% + 2mph). This will lead to more crashes for two reasons: speed obviously is linked to crash risk because it gives the driver less time to react but it will also increase the speed differential between lorries (whose speed will remain at 56 mph-60 mph) and the cars that will be overtaking them or attempting to join or leave the motorway.

And then, of course, there are the carbon emissions. It is well established that the increase in aerodynamic drag is non-linear and thus higher speeds leads to a disproportionate increase in fuel use. Why would a government that (long ago) claimed it would be ‘the greenest ever’ be contemplating such a move? The answer is simple: more fuel use means more tax revenue – this is, in essence, a ‘speed’ stealth tax. Massively increasing fuel consumption on the motorways from witting motorists is therefore a sly policy to assist with deficit reduction.

ps. the Campaign for Better Transport has just published a report making this point.

August 10, 2011 / clayliesstill

Death in Montreal: the perils of poor infrastructure

This is where a 56 year old cyclist in Montreal was killed yesterday by a right turning cement truck. He was using the cycle path that crosses Rue Frontenac at this point.

The cycle track provides an alternative to the very busy Notre Dame and runs through pleasant green spaces. However, the design of the crossings of roads is appalling. And it is at junctions where the danger is concentrated.

The standard approach used in the Netherlands and included (if not generally followed) in British guidance is to run the cycle path alongside a major road but bend the cycle path AWAY from the major road when it encounters a side road. This does two things:

1) it allows drivers turning from the major to the side road more time to see if there are any cyclists crossing, and

2) it allows space for drivers on the side road space beyond the cycle track when waiting to turn into the major road, thus not blocking the cycle path.

Unfortunately, in this case the approach on this path has been designed around pedestrians and instead of bending away from the main road it gets closer, disgorging its users just at the point that vehicles are turning. The path therefore has been designed completely opposite to best practice.

Of course, the fact that the path was badly designed must not exculpate the driver entirely.

Incidentally, this death occurs not too long after a research report that claimed that cycle tracks in Montreal (although acknowledged by the researchers to be substandard) had a better safety record than equivalent non-cycle-tracked streets. Personally, having examined some of the streets in question, I am sceptical that this study has any merit because the controls chosen bear no relation to the ones in the experiment. Advocates of quality facilities must acknowledge that a poorly designed cycle path can be more objectively dangerous, even if it is, in the long-term, beneficial because it increases the number of people using the route.

August 2, 2011 / clayliesstill

Britain and the Netherlands – is it a fair historical comparison?

Vole O’Speed has produced a well researched and interesting post examining the historical divergence in planning of cycling infrastucture.

The comparison is compelling but somewhat telescopes the story and I think greatly overplays the significance of campaigning groups. The Dutch had a huge headstart in having a much higher base level of cycling – don’t forget that cycling was already down to a less than 3% of traffic by the early 1970s in the UK but was 10% of traffic in NL – as well as a much greater legacy of constructing quality cycle tracks. In addition the overall proportion of travel that is made by bike has declined in both countries over the last 50 years.

Simplistically, the various ‘actors’ influencing the construction of quality cycle tracks (assuming that land can be made available) could be explained using the tacky force analysis diagram below, where solid lines represent direct influences and dashed indirect ones.

Yes, activists are important, but other key ingredients are political commitment, funding and skilled officials following sensible regulations and guidance. In the UK all of these forces are weak; in the Netherlands nearly all are strong.

Even within the ‘campaigning’ sphere there are several other players whose impact should be remembered and who Vole O’Speed’s post has omitted, presumably simply for a lack of space.

Firstly, whereas – as Vole O’Speed says – in 1906 CTC was not permitted to admit motorists, the Dutch equivalent, the ANWB, was and over time became almost wholly a motoring organisation. There was therefore a greater vacuum of ‘cycling leadership’ into which Fietsersbond emerged in the 1970s offering a more vibrant, anti-car and pro-sustainable transport by bike alternative.

Having said that, from the 1960s onwards CTC was actually quite supportive of cycle paths. From what I’ve seen of the old CTC materials it supported the attempts to provide better quality cycle facilities in the 1980s in the midst of a significant revival. Sadly most of the demonstration infrastructure projects in places like Portsmouth were ripped out once the cycling bubble burst on the greedy point of the thrusting Thatcherite boom.

The nearest equivalent to Fietsersbond is Sustrans, which started in the late 1970s as Cyclebag, a local campaigning group in Bristol. However, the approach they took was very different and clearly has been less successful than their Dutch, being based on an autarchic vision of inchoate ‘Big Society’ do-it-yourself infrastructure (in fairness to them they did lobby Bristol City Council for several years to no avail).

The other organisation that emerged in the 1970s was of course the Cycle Campaign Network, of which John Franklin was a key figure. He formed CCN in opposition to CTC because the latter wasn’t really campaigning and what campaigning it was doing was rather too pro-segregationist for his taste.

Fietersbond emerged in the Netherlands but the equivalent in the UK was a load of local campaigning groups (LCC and Cyclebag) which went on to different roles in life. Clearly there are differences, but the differing financial support and political commitment to cycling as a form of transport appears to me to be the really fundamental difference.





April 21, 2011 / clayliesstill

Is the A24 really good cycle infrastructure?

Despite its frankly bizarre self-aggrandizing title, the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has had some useful things to say.

One of the points they have been making is that while much of British cycle infrastructure is very poor, some good cycle infrastructure does exist in Britain, thereby disproving the argument that ‘we just can’t build good stuff here, so let’s not bother’.

As of writing, three pieces of infrastructure have been uploaded to a map of ‘notable cycle infrastructure’. One of these is the cycle infrastructure alongside the A24, from Dorking to Leatherhead.

Here is a photo of the A24 with accompanying cycle path and separate footway as it approaches the famous Mole Gap, with its swallow holes that take half the flow of the river under the chalk ridge of the North Downs.

Isn’t it lovely? It meets standards, gives the road a wide berth and is reasonably well maintained.

It’s just the sort of place where segregation is required: adjacent to a busy dual carriageway along an alignment that is one of the only decent routes across the North Downs, linking two towns just 5 kms apart.

But hang on, isn’t one of the main problems with segregated facilities? Surely high quality facilities like this will have surmounted those sorts of problems?

Here is the shared footway in Dorking around 1 km south of the photo above.

Instructions have been painted on the road to encourage cyclists to engage in some spontaneous ballet.

And here is a wonderful, three stage toucan crossing with lots of handsome guardrailing at the same location.

Farther along, at the junction with Westhumble Street, a minor road (admittedly, providing access to some wonderful North Downland country lanes) treats the cycle path thus.

And here, in the refuge, is a piece of cycle infrastructure that looks like it could feature as a Facility of the Month.

I will still use this infrastructure – it is far preferable to the A24, yet it is not good infrastructure. It is merely passable. The faults identified above support the contention that, in general, planning for cycling is appalling in this country and, for the most part, simply pays lip service to the needs of cyclists.

Perhaps the biggest indication that this is not a successful route – despite the intermittent quality of this path – is that it is very little used. In 2009 the 12 hour traffic count found that 29,494 motor vehicles used the route, but only 154 cyclists. And this is the road providing access to one of the most popular cycling roads in the south east.

March 13, 2011 / clayliesstill

In defence of non-motorised crossings

A strange post appeared from A War with the Motorist last week.

The author takes the view that the Mayor’s approach to transport is exemplified by his take-up of a Green Party idea of a cable car linking two parts of rapidly developing East London.

The post claims that the cable car is a pointless waste because it doesn’t provide any more capacity than a ‘well served bus route’ (presumably flying buses, given the barrier the cable car is overcoming) and apparently there isn’t much demand for that journey. This ignores the fact that huge amounts of more housing is planned for the North Greenwich peninsula, an area currently isolated from other areas except by motorised transport. While I somewhat agree that a cable car is a vanity project to create headlines and nice pictures, the tone of the  rest of the post is horribly indulgent to the bridge builders who have been waiting to despoil London for years.

To quote AWWTM:

Most importantly, it doesn’t solve the supposed lack of river crossing supply here: the demand is from road vehicles that are fed into the area on the north and south circular routes

For a blog entitled ‘At War with the Motorist’ this is a very strange – indeed dangerous – thing to say.

First of all, let’s try and avoid the pathetic fallacy: road vehicles can’t express demand for anything, they are inanimate. The people in those vehicles are responding to a demand for trips generated by a range of factors, but that demand is limited by the infrastructure available to use. If I stand on the side of the Thames at North Greenwich Excel isn’t really a trip generator for me at the moment because there is no way of getting there, create a means and I might go there. Likewise the rise of cheap flights released previously suppressed demand.

This idea that one simply caters to demand is dangerous: without modal selection you are left with the  mid 20th century transport planning mindset of joining up big roads to allow journeys to be made. Perhaps AWWTM is unaware of the decades of battling by real anti-motoring campaigners against an East London River Crossing?

The implication in the post is that it is vitally important  to enhance and ease movement  for motor vehicle users is important but little pedestrians and cyclists don’t need a crossing for them alone. It perpetuates the myth that trips on big roads are made only by important people making long trips: not so, actually a huge number of those using major roads are making short trips, which could easily be made by walking or cycling if driving were impossible, say, by the lack of a bridge.

Actually the provision of pedestrian/cycle only links (preferably fixed) can have an amazing effect on transport choices. The Millenium Bridges in York and London are good examples – though the latter is irritatingly pedestrian only. Other sketchily planned bridges are Canary Wharf to North Greenwich – vaguely an alternative to the Blackwall Tunnel, from which pedestrians and cycles are banned. The Rotherhithe Tunnel is a horrible link which cyclists and pedestrians area permitted to use, but very few actually do. Other than the expensive ferry to Canary Wharf and the randomly closed Greenwich foot tunnel there is nothing decent for non-motorised users between Tower Bridge and the Woolwich Ferry.

AWWTM should be promoting cycle/pedestrian links as an alternative to large river crossings for motor vehicles, not the old fashioned approach of ‘fixing the missing links’ of major roads.

February 25, 2011 / clayliesstill

Heavy snow + no brakes = train crash…

…that’s the unstartling conclusion of a RAIB report into the derailment of a Stobart Rail freight train at Carrbridge in the Highlands last January.

The train had made a long descent from Slochd summit and was travelling at around 65 mph on the approach to the points outside Carrbridge when the driver attempted and failed to brake.

The train left the line on a runout, its forward momentum eventually overcome by trees. The runout had been built after a fatal crash 60 years before, when set of runaway freight wagons were lost at Slochd Summit and ran 5 miles down the line into the front of another freight train, killing two of the crew.

Thorough as ever, the report outlines the factors behind the crash:

  • Large build up of lineside snow (around 40 cms of snow had fallen in previous weeks) due to use of ‘miniature snow ploughs’ which allowed snow to be disturbed and blown into the train undercarriage
  • Brake failure caused by ice build up and potentially water ingress into brake pads
  • Inadequate brake testing procedures for drivers
  • The driver’s failure to test the brakes adequately

The build up of ice around brake shoes and rigging occurred because of very heavy snow fall over previous weeks which had left in large piles on either side of the line. When the driver was ascending Slochd he tested the brakes for a few seconds while on full throttle and incorrectly perceived them to be working.

Recommendations are obvious: plough the snow further away, lower speeds in snowy conditions and make sure drivers know to do serious brake tests.

In other countries, of course, the build up of ice and snow on the brakes is dealt with in a more prosaic matter, a bloke gets out of the train and smashes it off with an iron pole:

But the real recommendation for me is the same as it ever is with the RAIB and rail safety in general: why isn’t the same degree of scrutiny conducted regarding road crashes?

The thousands dead on the roads get a bit of investigation, but most of the injuries don’t.

Road freight vehicle leave the road all the time, yet 69 reports on these incidents never appear.

(Actually there is one lorry crash that might receive a bit more investigation than normal, but only because it happened to crash off a bridge and hit a train)

February 24, 2011 / clayliesstill

Why reading the Daily Mail is one of the biggest causes of heart attacks

Stress caused by reading one of Britain’s mostly widely absorbed hate circulars newspapers is apparently a leading cause of heart attacks, scientists today confirm.

Ok, perhaps not wholly accurate.

The Mail has today come up trumps with a story about how cycling to work is one of the biggest causes of heart attacks, based on a study in The Lancet, but I think I’ll probably go in an apopleptic fit resulting from an ill-advised expedition into the Mail’s twisted world of hypocritical scaremongering.

Actually, the Lancet paper’s conclusion is that traffic exposure is the leading attributable cause of heart attack. The problem is with motor traffic, not with cycling. As with road safety, the literature on air pollution is the same: focus on the victims, rather than contributors to the problem.

Of course one of the best ways of preventing heart disease in the first place is regular physical activity, perhaps by… cycling to work.

The Copenhagen Heart Study found that, even after controlling for other physical activity, people who cycled to work had an all cause mortality 40% lower than sedentary commuters.

Incidentally the Lancet article also reveals that the highest risk activity (but not a huge contributor overall to population heart attacks) is using cocaine.

As an individual activity traffic exposure is very low and comes after half a dozen other ‘risk factors’, including both positive and negative emotions, marijuana use, big meals and sex. The problem is that heavy traffic, cars and associated air pollution is now ubiquitous, and all of us have to suffer the consequences.

February 14, 2011 / clayliesstill

Who owns the most cars in Europe?

One of the aspects of the current (and semi-civilized) debate around the ways to improve conditions for cycling is the unfavourable comparison of Britain with it’s European neighbours, specifically the Netherlands.

I’ve already looked at how data on cycling levels can and is manipulated.

Car ownership is another statistic deployed to show how terrible things are in Britain compared with elsewhere.

For instance, one cycle blogger writes:

“DfT Vehicle Licensing Statistics show that there has been a continued growth in the number of licensed cars in Great Britain (an increase of 25% between 1997 and 2009).”

Clearly travel by private automobile is still seen as something inherently more desirable than travel by bike.

So what about car ownership elsewhere in Europe? Well, I don’t have access to international figures on car ownership to 2009, but here is a graph of the increase in the car fleets in the EU-15 from 1997 to 2007.

So yes, car ownership has increased in Britain, but we sit in about middle table, slightly below the Dutch, whose car fleet increased by 25% to Britain’s 24%.

Amazingly, the German car fleet has remained static, whereas the Greek one has doubled.

Obviously this is not the whole story. We can also looks at the number of cars per person.

Once again, Britain sits mid table. Only Luxembourg and Italy are real outliers, each having well over half a car per person. Germany is also high and perhaps demonstrates that the car market there – at around 0.5 cars per person – was saturated ten years ago.

What do we learn? Britain is, when compared to other EU countries, pretty mediocre. But the situation is bad in many countries, perhaps worst in Spain, where the car fleet increased 42% in 10 years and has now exceeds Britain in cars per head.