A Place at the Table

Sometimes you find yourself in a situation wondering how you got there…

I was in a room, filled with TFL and Borough traffic engineers and planners. I just kept thinking “I don’t belong here” and that at any moment someone would realise their error and have me chucked out! We were all waiting for the start of the London Cycling Design Standards Workshop, delivered by Phil Jones (@phil_PJA if you tweet – worth following) and John Parkin, Professor of Transport Engineering, South Bank University. As it turned out, my fears were unfounded and I think it was a very valuable session for all concerned, especially me.

This two day course was aimed at officers who needed to deliver cycling provision. There was also a good look at the current guidance contained in the LCDS (London Cycle Design Standards). The course itself was very well presented and if all present go back to their posts and do it the way Phil and John told em’ to, we will see a massive improvement in the infrastructure we get in London…. It’s a big “if” but not for the reasons I might have given before the workshop.

Much of the discussion concerning cycling these days focuses on infrastructure and this puts the spotlight on the engineers. After all, they are the ones tasked with delivering it.

It was clear that there is very genuine concern over safety and that they really wanted to get it right for cyclists. There was the odd suggestion that cycling should be moved onto minor routes and other such tosh but overall I would say I was pleasantly surprised at the acceptance of cycling as mainstream transport and the breadth of knowledge displayed regarding good infrastructure. So if the engineers and planners know what they are doing, how come TFL keep getting it so wrong?

One word…. Governance

Again and again as we all discussed various projects or interventions the officers said things like, “that would be great but I will never get it past my superiors or elected members”. Often we came up against the fact that there was no one in the room senior enough to answer core questions like, “What are we trying to achieve on a broader scale?” or “is the goal, modal shift or accommodation of existing demand?”. Answering these questions defines what gets built.

On the second day Phil very kindly gave me the chance to show a short video over lunch. I live in Barnet and the recent changes to Henlys Corner loom large in my life so it seemed a good subject. I added a few of my pet gripes at the front too. What I hate is that stuff gets put on the road which I then have to tell my trainees not to use. Here is what I showed them…

It was kinda quiet afterwards… so I asked, “I think we can all see how much worse that is for cyclists, so given all the expertise amongst practitioners and the good guidance in the LCDS, how did the redesign of Henlys Corner ever get signed off?”

One chap rather bravely said he had signed off on an early version of the design but had then passed it on to another team for review. (Correction Dec 20 2011! Please see note at the end) A colleague mentioned that it would have gone through some sort of cycle review but I can’t see that went very well.

In fact, with my new knowledge of the LCDS gained from the excellent workshop I was attending, it was clear that Henlys Corner fails to meet TFLs own design guidance. There are several small details that turn out to be rather safety critical which are very poorly implemented and that I do not flag in my video as I was unaware of how wrong they were when I was filming.

It is both ironic and timely that only today Jenny JonesAM has got a motion passed (with support from AMs of all the parties) at the London assembly that specifically cites TFL failing to follow their own guidance with respect cycling. Clearly something needs to change.

It really looks as though TFLs internal design review process is not fit for purpose, with respect cycling. Or is it just that those in charge are asking for things to be done in a certain way. How could one tell?

The TFL board is made up of people who all have something good to contribute. There are people with direct experience, not just knowledge, of the various transport modes as well as those whose broad knowledge can only be an asset. There are train, bus and taxi (black and private hire) people, someone who knows about aerospace, people with business and property development experience and of course someone from the tubes. But where is the member representing cyclists?

Black cabs are a private business and make up only 0.6% (per TFL 2009) of modal share, it seems bizarre in the extreme that cycling, with a modal share that is conservatively five times that, is unrepresented while they have a permanent seat. Indeed, the chap from Camden told us that cycling is up to around 12% of modal share in their borough.  Why is there no expert presence on the TFL board to protect our interests? Surely, that would represent some sort of check and balance against some of the nonsense that is going on at the moment at junctions all over the TLRN. Junctions like Henlys Corner… Does it make sense that volunteers from the local LCC group have to fight to get  a compliant design. I thought that was someone at TFL’s job.

In my personal opinion some of the board members may have a financial interest in “smoothing the flow” and could lack impartiality. You may judge for yourself by reading about their declaration of interests here.

I am calling on TFLs Chairman (Boris to you and me) to step up and show us that he is really serious about cycling issues. He should appoint a board member for cycling, who can be part of directing top level policy. The engineers will do the rest. Come on Boris!

The issue is one of democracy. It’s time we had a seat at the table.


A correction:

On 20 Dec. I got this email:

I was at the LCDS cycling training days earlier on in December and may have been the person who you described as “One chap rather bravely said he had signed off on an early version of the design but had then passed it on to another team for review.”

Just to clarify the point, I had undertaken a stage 1 Road Safety Audit in 2008 but that doesn’t mean the design is signed off, the only people who can do that are the designer /client!

It may seem pedantic but it is important to realise that the RSA does highlight safety issues and it is up to the designer/client to react to these and respond.

Glad you enjoyed the course and it was good to see “a user” representing some views of the non-engineer / planner despite that fact that a good deal of those attending ride regularly. To add I regularly commute into central London on my bicycle .

As he says, only the client can sign off the final design… That’s the board of TFL in this case.

7 responses to “A Place at the Table

  1. Actually, the GLA motion did not have all-party support – the Tories abstained, although at least this time they didn’t attempt to kill it by taking away the quorum, and only Brian Coleman flounced off in a hissy-fit.

    This is important, because in practical terms the motion did not get support from the mayor’s party. Given that the Mayor is entirely free to ignore GLA motions*, this does not bode well for it getting us anything at all.
    I like the idea of a cycling rep on the TfL board. After all, it has representation for cabbies (Bob Oddie, LTDA) private hire cars (Steve Wright) rail and bus workers (Patrick O’Keeffe and Tony West) airlines (Keith Williams), rail users (Mike Hodgkinson and Charles Belcher), road construction (Christopher Garnett) and private motorists (Steve Norris). Of course it could also use a pedestrians’ rep, as personally I don’t fancy any of the current crop for that role – none of them look like they would go anywhere without a chauffeured Merc handy. And I don’t count a Halfords director as a valid pro-bike rep.

    So how do we get that to happen?

    * There is a wider democratic deficit which also ought to be fixed, though that is a much more ambitious goal – Boff and Co whine about how they don’t get the committee chairs their assembly numbers should command, unlike Parliament, but a good reason for that might be that unlike parliament, Bojo doesn’t have to carry the GLA members with him to implement his policies. Even the president of the USA needs congressional approval to implement his policies. The GLA can talk but it has no influence, it is not an effective check & balance. That needs to change.

    • I am assured by Jenny Jones no less, that she had Tory support. She tweeted me this, “To be fair to the Tory AM’s, most did vote for the motion. And at least none of them voted against it. http://t.co/edDT0HdC

      Jenny’s motion has wide support. That’s why Boris’ behavior is so dissapointing. His mate Brian Coleman stormed off… says it all really.

      However, I will amend the blog from “all party support” to “support from AMs of all the parties” to more accurately reflect the position. The web is the best sub editor! thanks 🙂

  2. The answer to your questions is ‘fear’. It is psychologically difficult to put ‘pencil to paper’ and produce a cycle friendly design. That sounds mad but in my experience it is true. My conclusion, we are so inured to the way things are done, that even with good knowledge of Continental infrastructure, the act of going against ‘a’ norm is fraught. The first suggestion then is that CFI and London guidance isn’t enough, they need to be written in an authoritative and demanding manner. Not ‘if a provision is required then do this’, but ‘this is the choice available for this junction, on this kind of road and with these volumes’. This clarity and authority is needed for the monkey at the CAD screen to produce the goods.

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  4. I so agree with all you say … and what you say about the workshop, and how the actual working planners need better direction from the top people at TfL, is really enlightening. You’ve inspired me to write another of my emails to dear Boris, and to a couple of the London Assembly Members who I have a moan at from time to time.

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