07 December 2009

Cabbages, King's Road, and contraflow cycle lanes

I've just received my Dec-Jan copy of the London Cycling Campaign magazine. The LCC is like a Cabbage Marketing Board: you can sort of imagine what they're supposed to be doing, but you're not aware of anything they've actually done.

Anyway, among the mag's out-of-date news stories is one about Kensington and Chelsea's decision to pioneer new signing on contraflow cycle lanes.

Now, as I understand it from this Central Office of Information news story, the situation is this. The government is keen to cut red tape, and is letting local councils tweak road signs without having to get approval, as part of a Traffic Signs Review. The Review started on 17 September and runs until this Thursday, 10 December. K&C was one of the first councils to take this up.

As part of their review, K&C have put up signs for contraflow cycle lanes that are normally considered illegal: a simple 'No entry' sign with a plate below it saying 'Except cycles'. Such signs are legal in Scotland, and widely used on the continent - one of the few bits of Dutch I'm fluent in is 'Uitgezonderd fietsers'. You'll have seen several examples in 'illegal' use already, though, like the one (right) at the entrance to Petworth St near Battersea Bridge.

But in England, you're supposed to design the entry to a contraflow cycle lane like the Great Gates of Kiev, with no-entry signs for cars, and the bike lane barriered off and signed separately with a blue cycle-lane sign, like the correct example on the right into Herbrand St near Tavistock Square. Cambridge Cycle Campaign's gallery page has more examples for fans of counter-directional pedalling.

Now, K&C's new signs are on five quiet back streets: Gilston Rd and nearby Hollywood Rd, off Fulham Rd; and the almost-contiguous Holland St, Old Court Place (below right) and Thackeray St off Kensington Rd. In each case the start of the contraflow is marked by the 'illegal' except-cyclist sign and a short or medium length painted cycle sign.

The idea is that, with fewer literal and metaphorical barriers to creating contraflow cycle lanes, councils might be readier to do it, and make streets more permeable, which would be a good thing. The Holland St / Old Court Place / Thackeray St set, for example, is a newly-created contraflow sequence. I cycled all the above back streets in both directions yesterday, and it felt no more dangerous than say a Go Go Hamster.

If the idea catches on after the review finishes this week, expect a few silly news stories on the lines of 'now cyclists are being allowed to go the wrong way up all one-way streets' - as did the BBC website's report last year. Make no mistake: these are very quiet back streets, and the stretches affected are only a few dozen yards, less than the total of column inches they've already generated.

But make no mistake also that these will really encourage councils to shift the emphasis from car to cycle. As the K&C spokesperson quoted in the LCC mag said themselves, this measure will "reduce street clutter" and "allow more parking"...

...Oh. Well, I never did like cabbage much anyway.


  1. Yes, there are lots and lots of "uitgezonderd fietsers" ("except cyclists") signs over here. In fact, I can't think of a one way road which doesn't have one.

    However, one way roads are used for a different purpose here. They are used primarily to reduce the permeability of areas to motorists, rather than to speed motorists' journeys. They make cycling more convenient than motoring. There are very few "rat runs" in the Netherlands as the quiet roads intentionally don't provide a useful link to drivers.

    Also, the examples I can think of here are all rather less busy with cars than the examples on the "quiet back streets" shown in your photos.

    However, on the positive side, I'm very glad that the sign has finally been used. As you rightly say, it's a big improvement on the excess of the "Great Gates of Kiev" style.

    Hopefully the UK will also now start using one way systems for the correct reason.

  2. Hurrah - one way streets are a huge PITA for cyclists, especially in smaller towns where the whole purpose of the one-way system is to funnel traffic onto the big roads and out of the quiet ones which makes navigating on a bike without getting sucked into some terrifying gyratory system a bit like trying to swim away from a waterfall.

    Of course, just because something happens in LONDON doesn't mean it will be suitable for the rest of the country, oh no. Indeed the fact that they do it in LONDON, will more or less be considered an argument against doing it anywhere else ...

  3. I'm not sure I would want to cycle the wrong way up a one way street if if there is a sign telling me I can!

  4. @Red Bike

    We have loads of contraflows here in Cambridge (albeit with the DfT's stupid signage requirements, which as this article points out, are hopefully about to be change) and it causes no problems for cyclists. They make life a lot easier.

    PS It's not the "wrong way up a one-way street" - a sign permitting this is simply allowing an exception to one class of vehicle - as with lots of other things like bus lanes, etc.

  5. "We have loads of contraflows here in Cambridge... and it causes no problems for cyclists"

    Now take a look at this Cambridge cyclist's YouTube video of the contraflow experience:


  6. Yeah but... that video's on a semi-pedestrianised city centre street, not the kind of back street through routes we're talking about. In Cambridge we have some proper contraflows, and also various 'false one-ways', with No Entry signs at one end, but two-way movement for vehicles legitimately on the street.
    I'd also like to mention Switzerland, where almost every residential street in the cities is one-way to cars but two-way for bikes - that's what's needed, a situation where drivers automatically assume they'll meet cyclists.

  7. Lambeth has a few decent contraflows such as near the Oval cricket ground.
    But too often where one would be really useful the council will never put it in, because it would reduce on-street parking. We have roads that due to parking both sides, cars in the inevitable jam are very difficult to pass on a bike.

  8. @thereverent - indeed so. This contraflow that I've mentioned before, just a Chris Gayle six-hit from the Oval, has arguably given just a touch too much space over to car parking...

  9. Tim says "I'd also like to mention Switzerland, where almost every residential street in the cities is one-way to cars but two-way for bikes - that's what's needed, a situation where drivers automatically assume they'll meet cyclists."

    No, what's needed is infrastructure on the Dutch model, physically segregating cyclists from motor vehicles. What's cycling's modal share in Switzerland compared with the Netherlands, I wonder?

    If you look at the photos on the Cambridge Cycle Campaign's Gallery Page mentioned above, you'll see there's a serious problem with unlawful obstruction of contraflow lanes. The only contraflow lanes worth having in Britain are ones where there is a physical barrier preventing abuse by drivers.

  10. Well, according to a list published on the Copenhagenize blog this year, some Swiss cities don't do at all badly.

    With 25% of trips done by bike, Basel beats Rotterdam (20-25%), for instance. Berne also clocks in at 20%.

    Copenhagen and Groningen are the class swots with 55%, while York and Cambridge plod into the reckoning with 18% and 15% respectively.

    You have to be wary of stats though. According to figures, only 23% of people are happy working with percentages. The other 87% can't understand them at all.

  11. Freewheeler: Switzerland's modal share shows 6% of journeys by bike. The infrastructure isn't first rate, but I understand that quite a bit of it exists.

    Rob: That list is not entirely trustworthy - starting with the first entry on it. Where are the published figures showing that 55% of journeys are by bike in Copenhagen ?

    I've asked Mikael for a source more than once. Nothing has appeared yet.

    The last time Copenhagen produced figures for all journeys in the "bicycle account" they said that under a fifth of journeys were by bike when the commuting figure was about a third. They now claim a 37% commuting rate and don't mention the all journeys figures any more. If it rose at the same rate as the commutes it would now be around 23%. For it to have risen to 55% over the same time scale simply isn't plausible. And if this had in fact happened, surely the city wouldn't have dropped "all journeys" from the "bicycle account".

    I recently made a blog post giving statistics and a graphic showing Copenhagen's modal share, from official Copenhagen City documents along with an explanation of why I think it is so different to Dutch cities.

  12. Freewheeler - it's a dream that you can have parallel bike routes through densely populated residential districts. You can dream of cycle superhighways for the trunk sections of your journeys, but they'll never go door-to-door. In Britain there's often no room even for physical barriers. But I know what you mean, I take a lot of those Cambridge obstruction photos (Bateman St & Downing St especially).

    Rob - Cambridge claims over a quarter of journeys to work by bike.

  13. Like I said, you have to be wary of stats. I mean, people just make up a plausible figure half of the time.

    Seriously though, I wouldn't be too trusting of the TfL figures on London's doubling of bike trips in the last decade blah blah either. This spring I saw some TfL people doing the thing with the clicky counters near the Elephant. They were counting bikes. I chatted to one of them.

    "Oh yeah", he said chirpily when he saw I was on a bike, "don't worry, I often click two or three times per cyclist to bump up the figures".

    I hope he was joking.

  14. And to cheer you all up, here's another picture of a contraflow parking violation, courtesy of a white van today in Roper St, just south of Tower Bridge.

  15. Tim: I doubt there's a home in Assen which is more than 200 metres from at least one cycle path. We've got two different ones within that distance. That's actually the policy here. There is a grid of cycle paths that looks like this across all Dutch cities, old and new. Space is made for them. Often by restricting car access. That's what happened to provide a recent superhighway which is one of several (very nearly) traffic free routes convenient between our home and the centre of the city.

    We lived in Cambridge until two years ago. I know just what it's like.

    Gilbert Road in Cambridge where there is "no room" for cycle paths is the same width as this road in Assen which has space for wonderful cycle paths.

    (I'm in that photo on Gilbert Road...)

  16. Tim, I think you give up on Dutch-style cycling infrastructure too easily. It would be very easy to do in central London, where the roads are very wide. I think you can also do it in the London suburbs. An example: http://crapwalthamforest.blogspot.com/2009/12/going-dutch-on-high-road-leytonstone.html

    It's physically possible. The obstacle is political not physical, because on-street car parking currently occupies the space which you'd need.

  17. Well, the Netherlands has the advantage of having had the crap bombed out of it... Clearly that's what we need in Cambridge. But the Gilbert Road problem appears to have been solved (it was a political issue, not technical).

  18. And whenever the Cloggies are short of a bit of land, they can just knock up a polder or two. Pah! Easy for them. Surprised they caved in to the green lobby over filling up the Ijsselmeer really.

  19. Tim: It's always a political issue. Britain has just as much space as NL does, but doesn't make room for good cycling provision even around new developments (Orchard Park springs to mind), let alone to link them to the city.

    NL has infrastructure of all ages, from narrow streets in ancient city centres, through post war car oriented development through to some of the newest cities in the world, built on land reclaimed in the 1970s. It's all been shaped to make cycling a realistic option for everyone.

    The centres of old cities here exclude cars in a much more extreme way than do British cities. This American tourist's comments about Groningen capture it quite well.

  20. Well yes, I suppose I meant small-scale local political (politicians paying too much attention to the residents of one street) as opposed to large-scale political (politicians paying too much attention to the supposed car lobby). I did start to watch that video, but got tired of the inane comments like 'It's amazing, there are no cars' as he passed.... cars on all sides. Can he only register US-sized vehicles?

  21. Tim: Watch a bit further. You'll see parked cars in residents parking bays, delivery vans and a few shop owner's cars (it's a city centre), a couple of taxis (blue number plates)... Lots and lots of bikes. Even when he leaves the area where cars are restricted there are still more bikes than cars.

  22. @Tim said...
    "Well, the Netherlands has the advantage of having had the crap bombed out of it..."

    I do think this is another myth we use in the UK to limit our aspirations - this idea that we have ancient and olde worlde streets which are too narrow to change. That's rubbish - the streets of Amsterdam and Copenhagen are just as old as London's, and they've done it successfully there, so why not here? Also, much of London (especially the East) was bombed in the war - but we used it as an opportunity to build more car-centric communities. There's plenty of space for cycling infrastructure, just not the will to build it.

  23. @Mark

    I agree that often there is the space. But building good cycle lanes would take space away from cars (moving and parked) and no political party will go for that on a large scale.
    Well maybe when petrol is £1.70.......

    Some central London streets are very narrow, but these would be better to just be used for cycle paths and pavements.