Sunday, 11 September 2016

I was a witness today.

I witnessed a collision less than two hours ago.

I was on the way home from a reunion with a childhood friend. I was planning to change trains at Brighton, get off at Shoreham and cycle home from there, but thanks to a cancelled train it was actually faster for me to cycle all the way than wait for the next train. And I had my bike, so off I went.

I was cycling on the seafront cycle route, just west of the i360. This is a bidirectional cycle route, somewhere between a track and a shared path; a little narrow, and at this point, between the pavement and Hove Lawns. (Street furniture such as parking meters prevent it from being closer to the road, apparently, although to me it seems like there's plenty of space.)

A group of friends were walking along, laughing, chatting, playing with a small ball. At least, that's what I vaguely remember. I wasn't really paying conscious attention to them until one of them dropped the ball, ran to get it and ran straight into the path of a cyclist, and the bike went up, up, up into the air.

The man on the bike, as it turns out, was alright. The woman who got hit had grazes and scrapes and something very, very wrong with her leg.

He was untangled from his bike, and immediately he went over and apologised to her, but gritting her teeth through the pain she insisted that no, it had been her fault. Somebody phoned for an ambulance. Another somebody found the ball and gave it to her to use as a stress ball. "I hate this fucking ball," she screamed, quite understandably. I handed over my hoodie for her to rest her head on; I didn't have much else to give. The ambulance dispatch didn't know when they'd be able to get an ambulance out, because they were busy, but one was coming soon.

We waited.

We were right beside the cycle path, and even though it was a Sunday, it was the end of rush hour. There had been some kind of event on and all of a sudden there were more and more people coming through, so we stood as lookouts to make sure that we didn't have a second collision. Mercifully the majority of them had the sense of mind to slow down. One woman stopped and asked if she could do anything, but there wasn't much else to be done, so she set off again.

The ambulance arrived, and the paramedics inspected her leg and quickly declared it broken. An IV line was set up, and the gas-and-air machine came out. The police arrived, and started taking notes. They spoke to the woman's friends, and to the cyclist. A fire engine arrived (although, thankfully, that was completely unrelated - somebody had dumped hot coals into a bin after a barbecue). A third paramedic arrived, and after administering more pain relief, they were eventually able to remove her shoes, straighten her leg, splint it, and lift her onto a stretcher. She went off into the ambulance, followed by her friends, and the cyclist and I went home, after taking down contact details to check on her later and after I gave her friend a piece of cake (given to me by the aforementioned friend, who had been celebrating his recent engagement) to give to her, because she would probably appreciate it more than I would. 

And I thought.

I thought about how I was the next cyclist but one behind the man involved in the collision, but the man in front of me just swerved around them and kept going, and I was the one who stopped.

I thought about how there was no animosity at all between the woman and the man and the friends. She saw it as her fault, and he saw it as his, and neither blamed the other. 

I thought about how so many people had slowed down to see what was going on, but only one had stopped to ask if she could do anything.

I thought about how as we were sat down next to her with the paramedics, a man cycling by shouted at us to 'get out the cycle lane', even though the ambulance with flashing lights right beside us was probably a decent indicator that something had happened.

I thought about how the policeman had commented to his coworker that even though all parties agreed that she had been the one who stepped out, and there was no time for the cyclist to react, that anyone cycling along there should watch out for people crossing the path. I thought about how he was right, in a fashion, because despite it being distinct from the pavement, there are always people crossing from one side to the other, perhaps because it's not quite distinct enough, or perhaps because the path itself is in the wrong place. I thought about how it was odd that you never hear police officers making similar comments about drivers.

I thought about the incredible work the paramedics did, calmly and reassuringly explaining everything they were doing, making jokes to keep the woman at ease, and dealing quickly and efficiently with a passerby who wanted to know if they could have a look at his eye, please, it's sore and a little bit swollen. I thought about ten billion pounds and about an NHS crisis (although whether it's a crisis of overspending or underfunding, nobody can seem to agree). 

And I thought just how much worse it could have been if the woman had instead been hit by a motor vehicle on the four-lane road ten metres away.

Mistakes, thank goodness, are not always fatal.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Velocipedal variety

This post is going to be a relatively short one, but I hope you find it interesting all the same. (And yes, the alliterative titles are going to continue being a thing.)

It's often noted that in the UK, a hugely disproportionate number of people cycling are white, male, and in the 20-to-40 age group, whereas in the Netherlands a group of cyclists is effectively a cross-section of society. But recently I've noticed that this stereotypical image of a British cyclist really doesn't hold up to the town where I live.

We do have a lot of MAMIL sports cyclists; sitting on the High Street and waiting a while will prove that. But there are also a number of groups who, though existent in other towns, seem to have an especially big presence here:

  • People cycling for short shopping trips, typically on cheap bikes with bags over the handlebars, ages ranging from about twenty to fifty.
  • Children cycling, recreationally or as a way of getting to school/around town, often on BMX-style bikes and normally of around secondary school age.
  • Elderly cyclists, normally on Dutch-style city bikes (the type rather appropriately called 'granny-bikes').

And it's very noticeable that the majority of people are cycling in normal clothes. The lycra wearers are a minority in Shoreham.

Also interesting is how they cycle:
  • Shopper-cyclists tend to cycle solo, at quite a brisk pace, typically on the roads and/or cyclepaths but occasionally on pavements (especially at major junctions). Helmets are present but not universal, and seem to be more popular on people cycling to and from the hypermarket on the edge of town - likely because they have to navigate the Holmbush Roundabout, which I've mentioned previously. For them cycling is a method of transportation.
  • Children cycling are, unfortunately, normally wearing helmets and almost always on the pavements, perhaps because it feels safer or perhaps because that's where they learnt cyclists were meant to be. But they cycle at a pleasant speed and often in groups of up to five. It's clear that they enjoy cycling and the freedom it gives them.
  • Elderly cyclists cycle especially slowly, but I have never seen one wearing a helmet or on anywhere other than a bog-standard road - I suspect many of them grew up when cycling had a much larger modal share than it does now. For them, cycling is both a mode of transport and something they enjoy.
But why here, in Shoreham, of all places? There is a NCN cycle route through the town, but it is typically poor-quality, only being especially notable near the town centre (a pedestrianised street and a cycle-pedestrian bridge - one of the few things Sustrans has done well). Many people drive short journeys and there are a lot of main roads with heavy traffic. Here are some things I consider possible factors:
  • Shoreham's flat and has pretty good weather for the UK, and the cycle route may be poor quality but it does eventually lead to a segregated seafront cycle-path towards Lancing. Not a factor in utility cycling, but definitely a reason for recreational cycling.
  • Shoreham is predominantly residential, with the main roads circumnavigating the town, meaning that a large part of the town actually has quite low traffic. There is also a lot of traffic calming along the through roads in the residential districts.
  • Shoreham Academy, the local school, draws its pupils primarily from the surrounding area. A large number of students live literally down the road and walking is a viable method of getting to school, so cycling is perhaps a lot more feasible than other schools. There is also a large provision of cycle parking (I'd estimate upwards of 300 spaces, which isn't enough for a school with more than 2000 pupils but is a lot more than other schools of a similar size. Cheeringly the cycle shed is often overflowing on weekdays) and transport by car is strictly controlled, with a small car park and little pick-up/set-down space.
  • I'm not sure. Maybe you can figure something out.
Shoreham isn't a shining pinnacle of cycle-friendly town planning, but it is a place where a higher-than-average number of people who don't usually cycle do, and I for one think that's rather nice.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Cycleway classification

Those of you who know me well (which is barely anybody who reads this, to be honest, this being a new blog and all) will know that, among other things, I am a massive dork. I mean, it's not normal for a 15-year-old boy to be interested in languages and cycling infrastructure and whatever else happens to suddenly pique my curiosity. All too often, I see something, get an idea, and think, "I am going to completely disregard all my current obligations and tasks and focus on this one little thing for a few moments."

And so came about my attempts to try and create a shorthand way of describing cycleways!

The general format I came up with is NNN-N-ABC, where N represents a number and ABC represents some letters.

The first number is the width of the path, in centimetres. For example, a path 1.3 m wide would be given as 130.  Bidirectional paths are followed by a lowercase B, e.g. 250b. If the effective width of the path is reduced by high kerbs, fences or similar, an exclamation mark is added, e.g. 300b!. Unpaved off-road routes, which are not infra that enables mass cycling but are included here for completion, tend to vary a lot in width and so should be listed as an average width rounded to the nearest half-metre.

The second number is the average separation from the main carriageway, rounded to the nearest metre. Thus, a 200-1 path is 2 m wide and about 1 m away from the main carriageway. On-carriageway lanes are 0; advisory lanes are marked with a 0!. (A lot of 'cycle infrastructure' in the UK is just 70-0! lanes.) Off-road routes or routes that are separated completely from motor traffic can be marked with an x here.

After that goes any additional comments, in heavily abbreviated form:

  • D = cyclists dismount; when the council decided that cyclists should get off and walk at various points, normally crossings. You can't expect them to design for motorists AND pedestrians AND cyclists, after all.
  • G = gives way to minor side roads.
  • H = high-quality surface, such as asphalt.
  • J = vanishes at junctions.
  • O = obstructed (permanently). All too often councils put in cycleways and refuse to relocate streetlights or signposts.
  • R = repurposed pavement; when a council paints a line on a pavement, marks one side for cycles and the other for pedestrians, and calls it infrastructure
  • S = shared use.
For example, let us say that a path along Anytown Road was found to be 110b-1-GR. This explains, succinctly, that the path is bidirectional, 1.1 m wide and about 1 m away from the carriageway, is repurposed pavement and gives way to side roads. The Anytown Trail might be 400b-x-H. You get the picture.

If you have any ideas on how to improve the system, or a feature you think should be included, leave them in the comments or tweet me (@boyplusbike).

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Problematic policies

It's back to school! Well, a week tomorrow anyway. (Early, I know, but that's what you get for going to an independent school.) So the school has emailed out all the documents necessary for the start of term, and one of them - intriguingly - is titled 'Bicycle policy'!
     Let me share a little with you:

There are many positive reasons for encouraging the safe use of a bike to get to and from school. There are, however, crucial safety concerns which must be addressed in order for a pupil to use their bike for their school journey.

     Not a good start.
     There are safety concerns about many forms of transport, especially motor vehicles, which are the typical form of school transport in the UK. In 2004, 1.2 million deaths were attributed to motor vehicles. The fact that safety concerns for other forms of transport are not mentioned in any documents sent out does not bode well.

1. Parents / Guardians must complete a Cycling Permit giving permission for their son/daughter to cycle to school.
2. All pupils must ensure the bicycle is in good working order, well maintained and the correct size. The school strongly recommends that bikes should cost no more than £200 and that parents/guardians  should keep the receipt, model, make details and frame number.
3. The bike must have front and rear lights, flashing or steady and must also be fitted with a red rear reflector and amber pedal reflectors.
4. Parents/Guardians must provide a named cycle helmet and encourage their child to wear bright and or reflective clothing on the journey.
5. Parents/Guardians must provide a sturdy lock to secure the bicycle at school.
6. Note that all bicycles and helmets are brought and stored on school grounds at the owners’ risk. The school is not responsible for bicycles brought on to or left on school premises and is therefore not liable for pupils’ bicycles being stolen or damaged by a third party.
7. Housemasters will notify parents/guardians if their son/daughter does not adhere to the school bicycle policy and permission to ride will be withdrawn until the issues identified have been satisfactorily addressed.


     That is almost half a page of conditions to be met before pupils are even allowed to cycle to school.
It seems that a lot of the conditions are redundant (the bike has to be 'in good working order' and 'well-maintained', but surely if it is not one it is not the other) or unnecessary (all bikes in the UK must have reflectors to be determined legal, and lights are also a legal requirement for riding in the dark). But as for the helmet, surely that is for the family to decide? Helmets have not conclusively been proven to have a specific impact on most cycling-related injuries, and many children simply wear helmets because of their parents' fears.
     Also horrific is the idea that failure to comply with the policy will result in 'the permission to ride being withdrawn'. If cycling is a pupil's way of getting to school, then withdrawing that is surely unfair and of questionable legality. It is akin to forcing parents to pay for their children to use the school bus rather than the public bus network, which is a lot cheaper and more convenient. Cycling is portrayed not as a right or a true transport choice, but as a privilege - one that can be revoked.
     If the school really wants to encourage cycle use as a mode of transport, perhaps it could start by properly treating it as one, instead of essentially patting it on the head and telling it to hush.

  • A safety helmet and reflective/fluorescent clothing must be worn where appropriate.
  • Cycling within the school grounds is not allowed (including the main gateway and entrance).
  • No fixed wheel bicycles will be allowed.
  • While cycling you must behave in a manner which shows you and the school in the best possible light and consider the needs of others when cycling.
  • Your bike must be kept in good working order.
  • Keep your bike secure: bikes must be locked in the allocated bike shed beside Catering.
  • Know the rules of the road e.g. one-way only streets, stopping at zebra crossings and red lights.
  • Do not ride on pavements: dismount and walk.
  • You will not be allowed to ride to and from school if you do not follow this policy.
     These are 'rules and guidelines', but as evidenced by the last bullet point they are just as much conditions as the previous seven.
     The school is ridiculously prescriptive in what is an 'allowed' bike. It must be in good working order and well-maintained, the correct size - presumably exactly so - must be kitted out with lights even if it is not to be ridden in the dark, and cannot be a fixie. What a mystery that there are not such restrictive conditions for the motor vehicles pupils might be driven into school in.
     Again, legal requirements are presented unnecessarily - and in the case of pavement riding, possibly incorrectly, for it is considered acceptable for children to ride on pavements if they do not feel safe. And indeed many of the roads around the school feel dangerous. Although in a predominantly residential neighbourhood there is heavy traffic on several routes which are also the most desirable routes to cycle. The UK already has a problem with forcing cyclists to choose between pavement cycling (slow and inconvenient) and vehicular cycling (strenuous and feels dangerous) - that the school is removing one of the two options is worse. And are pupils not allowed to use shared-use pavements, even when they are the only infrastructure provided to avoid, say, a gyratory or a dual carriageway?
     It is also annoying that cycling in the school is restricted. It is a lot more convenient to cycle through the gate all the way to the bike shed than to dismount and walk 100m or so, especially when you are presumably laden with schoolbags and possibly late for the morning register. The storage restrictions are quite hypocritical, because I know for a fact that at least two teachers store their bikes in their classrooms and a third leaves his by the railings outside the DT building. The bike shed is in one corner of the school site, problematic especially for the boys' house situated almost exactly on the opposite corner, and is normally almost full. (Unfortunately, most evidence suggests that these cyclists are maintenance or catering workers.)
     The policy then goes on to mention marking and registration schemes in great detail, which is odd for a bike that is supposed to be cheap, and finally is this gem:

To become a more proficient cyclist, Bikeability training is available at 3 levels at:
East Sussex County council:

     Oh, no, you couldn't expect the school to provide Bikeability training. You are to contact the council and arrange (and likely pay for) sessions all on your own.
     The worst thing is that I feel somewhat responsible for all of this. At the last school council meeting of last school year, I raised the suggestion that cycling to school be encouraged more, perhaps with the inclusion of Bikeability training for those who currently feel uncertain about cycling. And the school has decided to do so.
     Hopefully, next time they try they could actually put some effort into it.
     This is not encouraging pupils to cycle. What parent would want to go through all that fuss when they could just pay for a yearly bus pass and stick their child on a bus without worrying whether it is well-maintained or if it cost less than £200? And indeed that is what a large number of parents do. All of my friends who live within two miles of the school get the bus, with the exception of two who live literally one block away from the front gates. Which is interesting, because the aforementioned traffic means that cycling is faster. But policies like these make cycling inconvenient, at least compared to other transport modes, and so the parents choose a mode that is convenient and feels more supported by the school.
     This is the result of a half-hearted attempt to encourage cycling without actually providing for it or making it more convenient. As the threat to remove 'permission to ride' shows, cycling is not viewed as a transport mode in its own right but instead as something for kids to do instead of getting the bus or being driven in. And so, much like a school trip, innumerable conditions are attached to absolve the school from any image problems should something go wrong. If a child is hit by a car on their way to school, the school can point their finger and say, 'He wasn't wearing a helmet. We did not say he could ride; he was breaking the rules.' It is yet another form of the victim blaming which has become endemic in the light of collisions between motor vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists.
     The school run could look like this, if only they would actually try to get people to stop using motor vehicles:

Photo credit to Hembrow Cycling Holidays.

     A small post-script of things I couldn't quite work in satisfactorily: I do wonder how the school intends to enforce some of these rules. Are the housemasters meant to go to the bike shed during their lunch break and check that the bikes are well-maintained? And it would certainly be more encouraging if the school would illuminate on those 'many positive reasons' for cycling, especially since they are so concrete about the conditions. 

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Holmbush hijinks

My mother and I do our weekly food shopping at the Tesco at the Holmbush Centre, near us in Shoreham-by-Sea. This is very close to where we live and by all means we should be able to go there on foot. Yet whenever we go there together, we drive, even though this takes about two minutes at the most. One reason for this is that access to the Centre is via the Holmbush Roundabout.

Clockwise from the top, the roundabout connects the access road to the shopping centre, the A270 Old Shoreham Road towards Brighton, a residential street, the Upper Shoreham Road, and the A27 dual carriageway bypassing the town. For many years the roundabout was not marked with lanes. However, about a year ago the council decided it was high time the roundabout was painted. The resulting lanes are ridiculous. There are only two, except where there are three; they do not spiral as you expect and instead require you to change lanes at gaps where the line dividing the lanes does not exist; they make horrid work of the available space, to the point where large areas have been hatched off; and the destinations are poorly signed. One lane declares it leads to the TOWN CENTRE, but the centre of which town is not clarified - quite important, considering that this roundabout is almost directly on the boundary between Shoreham and Southwick. Another lane is for the S'PER ST'RE, although as it is split over two lines SUPER STORE would have easily fit. (Incidentally, one of these markings is instead S'PER S'TRE - presumably for the supersotre.)

The roundabout could adequately be described as 'evidence of satanic interference in human affairs', with frequent near-misses and a worryingly high rate of collisions, often in the form of people realising they are in the wrong lane and trying to get off the roundabout anyway. It is an extremely unpleasant place to be driving.

And it is even worse when you aren't.

There is a narrow and poor-quality cyclepath, along with a footpath, leading from the Upper Shoreham Road across the residential street, up to a two-stage puffin crossing over the A270 (cyclists are expected to dismount), which dumps potential shoppers onto what the Dutch call a 'service street', opposite the swimming pool. On foot, you can here either cut through the swimming pool car park or follow the pavement along the service street, but either way, you end up on a narrow pavement that snakes it way around another roundabout and a 'stretchabout', over a zebra crossing, and then up the covered strip for pedestrians all the way up to the central hub. Cyclists have the additional and exciting option of going up the service street, ignoring the compulsory turn-left sign and accessing what is signed as a cycle-only section, turning right onto a busy road and then navigating both the petrol-station roundabout and the stretchabout. When you arrive, there is minimal cycle parking (and what there is seems to be provided by Tesco - M&S evidently does not cater to cyclists).

This is considered adequate infrastructure, and indeed is the route signposted from the south side of the main roundabout.

It is often said by cycle campaigners that dangerous behaviour is encouraged by poor infra which forces people to choose between safe and convenient. There is no better evidence for this than the few cyclists who choose to navigate Holmbush Roundabout itself (despite a 40mph speed limit among predominantly 30mph roads - a holdover from when the A270 had yet to be bypassed by the modern A27) or the occasional pedestrian who can be seen standing with a bewildered expression on the large central island, a place which they are technically barred from but which seems to be the fastest and/or the only sensible route to the shopping centre. Nobody in their right mind would willingly choose these routes, but the infrastructure is so bad that they are seen as legitimate, competing options.

And it is abhorrent that this monster is allowed to remain in place, when just metres away is National Cycle Route 2, which has recently been outfitted with a shiny new shared-use bridge.

All too often in the UK funding for cycle infrastructure is spent on vanity projects which look good as photos or press releases, persuading people that Things Are Being Done. In Shoreham the Adur Ferry Bridge is just another example of wallpaper over the cracks. Cycling is never going to be seen as a viable mode of transport if people can't even comfortably use it to go to the shops.

(The only decent thing about the Holmbush Roundabout is that it features an example of a cycleway bypassing a bus stop, and even that's pretty crap.)