Wednesday, September 28, 2016

More jams not fewer on the new A133 roundabouts?

The two roundabouts that form the Ipswich Road junction. Making it one large roundabout is likely to mean more jams, not less

Looking at Essex County Council's plans to "modernise" junctions on the A133 in Colchester — which seriously downgrade cycle facilities — it is apparent that the design could mean more frequent jams.

Common sense says that going from two small roundabouts to one large roundabout at each junction could lead to more not fewer "traffic locks" — even with minor incidents such as breakdowns and shunts. 

At present, each junction consists of two double roundabouts, as in the picture above. These ensure that in the event of a breakdown or collision, at least half the junction is able to function.

Essex Highways plans to replace the two sets of double roundabouts with two single large roundabouts, essentially reverting to the layout that existed before 1972, but with three lanes around each roundabout.

The larger junctions may have more traffic lanes but the town is growing fast and new road capacity is quickly filled by extra cars — the M25 is the prime example.

This is the last thing Colchester needs: a £10m system that doesn't work.

CCC is especially worried about 999 vehicles getting through in an emergency, so we have flagged up the issue in a letter to key people (see below).

Why are schemes like this coming through? Because the council hasn't listened — see Colchester Cycling Campaign's call for a fundamental rethink of local transport.

If the single to double roundabout idea worries you, review the scheme yourself, then write to the councillor in charge, Rodney Bass, and make your views clear. Write to him again till you are happy. Don't be fobbed off.

Will Bramhill, September 28


Dear Sir or Madam

I am writing on behalf of Colchester Cycling Campaign in relation to Essex Highways’ £10m plans to modify the A133 junctions at Harwich Road and Ipswich Road, Colchester.

EH’s aim is to increase traffic capacity in an attempt to deal with peak-time congestion. We are worried about this on several points but we may share concern over the resilience of the scheme, especially in relation to everyday use by 999 vehicles and also how the junction would function in the event of a civil emergency.

Has your organisation been consulted about the plans to date?

At present, the junctions each consist of two double roundabouts. These ensure that in the event of a breakdown or collision, at least half the junction is able to function.

EH’s plan is to replace the two sets of double roundabouts with two single large roundabouts, essentially reverting to the layout that existed before 1972, but with three lanes around each roundabout.

Our fear is that the greater capacity will simply encourage more traffic and the new single roundabouts will affect the performance times for emergency vehicles; even a minor incident, a shunt or breakdown, will lock the entire junction (rather than just part), leading to longer delays in reaching incidents.

I would appreciate your view on this issue.

Yours sincerely

Will Bramhill
Planning officer
Colchester Cycling Campaign

Colchester is desperate for a fundamental rethink of local transport

More than seven in ten car journeys are 1-5 miles long

Many people ask us if Colchester Cycling Campaign is just about cycling.

Well, yes, we like using our bikes ... but we're also interested in how cycling can solve society's ills, notably those caused by cars and lorries.

Don't get us wrong. We appreciate that motor transport is very useful. Some of it is even essential in our modern world.

You have to admit, though, it has taken over a teensy little bit. The exhaust pipe is wagging the driver, so to speak.

Before you ask, most of CCC's 400 members and supporters are drivers, too, but we tend not to use cars every day or for short journeys. This means that when you really need to use your car, there's at least one less car in front of you.

Short journeys are the curse of towns the length and breadth of Britain. Nearly 20 per cent of trips under one mile and 70 per cent of trips of one to five miles are made by car. Many of these are made at peak times. To put these figures into context, an ordinary able-bodied person of virtually any age should be able to cycle a mile in five minutes, or five miles in 25 minutes, and there are now power assisted ebikes for those for whom pushing pedals is just too much effort. You can zoom up those hills!

We understand that some people have to make longer trips, and others like the comfort of their car, and listening to Emma Bunton while sat in a jam.

But wouldn't it be marvellous if a good number of those people making short trips were on bikes on separate, protected cycle routes next to main roads, just like those in London, where they have taken space from the car?

Even a small number switching from car to bike would make the world of difference. Imagine if the town's children could get to school by bike rather than in Mum's Taxi.

So what is the solution?

We want to see a town where people, young, old and in between, can ride safely and confidently. To achieve this, we need a high-quality cycle network.

Some say "build it and they will come" and in London that has happened. In Essex, it might mean less carrot and more stick, but then the county's dinosaurs are still thinking mainly about the car. (Look for instance at the plans for the A133 road: £10m spent on making cycling and walking worse, not to mention scarier.)

Colchester is growing at a huge rate. CCC believes that the issue of local transport in Essex needs a rethink at the most fundamental level.

We ought to be addressing the matter with a combination of managing motor traffic demand (filtering to discourage short trips by car and/or congestion charging) and installing high quality alternatives for bus users, cyclists and walkers.

At present the priority given to motor transport and the hazards this creates (both subjective and real) mean we have a dangerously skewed transport system.

Also, Essex County Council is not taking a holistic view. At its recent A133 consultation an officer was asked about why the plan wasn't better for bikes. His response was: "Bikes? No, this is all about cars."

ECC's deliberations are not taking proper account of issues like combating climate change (it has a "team" you can email but not one officer to take responsibility) and public health in relation to transport (this includes issues such as quality of life, greater independence for young and old, air quality, mental health, obesity, heart disease and diabetes).

It is even promoting wider roads like the A120 and A12 which would have unfettered use —without considering that most journeys start or end in towns. It will be chaos.

At the same time ECC is dancing to the tune of its business pursestring-holders in the nondemocratic, unaccountabhle local enterprise partnership, made up mainly of business people who, naturally, don't take a rounded view. It doesn't like challenges from people such as CCC so it tries to keep its schemes secret for as long as possible to minimise criticism.

We need a complete, fresh approach. Please send a link to this blog to your local councillor to say why you'd like to see more people cycling. Mention that high quality cycleways are needed, not the usual British rubbish. Then press them. And press them again and again and again.

Good luck with making your voice heard.


PS: The Dutch are still tidying up after the car. See this link.

If you live outside Essex and want more information on campaigning organisations nationally, contact Cycling UK and the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain.

William Bramhill, September 28 2016

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Please get to this meeting!

Eighty four years ago, teams of labourers picked from the 1930s dole queues were put to work on the Colchester bypass — the road that was going to free the town's historic High Street of traffic.

It never did do that, of course.

In the 1970s the powers-that-be bypassed the bypass with a dual-carriageway bypass, and are now talking of widening the bypass's bypass (that's the A12; do keep up!) to take more traffic.

Today comes news that the bypassed bypass (that's the A133 Cowdray Avenue and St Andrew's Avenue) is going to need extra work ... yes, to take even more cars and provide extra space that will encourage more people to use more cars. (Did I mention that the poor bypassed and re-bypassed High Street is still full of traffic?)

You'd think that by now Essex County Council would have realised its transport planning was a little awry. For example, in the time from the building of the first bypass in 1933 to now, cycle use has gone down from 37 per cent to just six per cent.

Medical care, meanwhile, has come on by leaps and bounds but Essex Highways doesn't worry overmuch about public health, turning a blind eye to the hundreds of premature deaths in the county caused by poor air quality, and the epidemics of child obesity, diabetes and heart disease that will bankrupt the NHS by 2030.

So what can you do about it?

Kick up a fuss, that's what!

You can start by attending the public information event for updating Ipswich Road, which is being held from 4pm-7pm tomorrow (Sept 22) at The Rose & Crown Hotel, East Street.

We're sorry about the short notice but Essex doesn't like letting people know early — they may get double figures turning up.

What does CCC want to see? As this is likely to be a once-in-80-years change, we'd love to see Dutch-style roundabouts, which are being tested by the UK's road transport laboratory even though they've worked well in Holland for years and not caused jams.

The bad news is that Essex has ruled out such roundabouts and is being its usual secretive self (the Pentagon could learn lessons here) about what it is providing.

We'd also like to see cycle routes that are segregated from pedestrians and priority over side roads such as those that lead to Waitrose and Homebase.

London is leading the way with cycling provision, so why should we in Essex put up with second-best?

Please go to the meeting, ask questions and be tough on ECC officers. Hold them to account.

All that said, we may be pleasantly surprised, but we doubt it. Essex has spent 80 years  cocking up local transport and some of the dinosaurs there see no reason to change.

Will Bramhill // Sept 21

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Why you should think before saying 'a helmet saved my life'

A deep breath, folks, because I'm going to mention the H word.

I don't usually dip my toe into such muddied waters but a Facebook friend recently published a picture of their cracked cycle helmet, saying it had "saved their life".

This came soon after Richard Branson made a similar claim.

I do wish people would look at the research at before attributing unicorn-like magical powers to their styrofoam shell.

Before I go on (and I will!) please note that I am talking about everyday utility cycling. There are arguments that helmets have a purpose in cycle sport such as racing or off-road. All my cycling is utility riding.

I choose not to wear a helmet; whether you do is entirely up to you and I wouldn't want to influence you one way or the other.

My complaint is over the "it saved my life" claims. These give ammunition to the lobby that wants every cyclist helmeted. They also send the message that "every cyclist should be like me".

Advising people to wear a helmet can put some off cycling, when building a bike ride into a daily routine is probably the best way to fend off obesity, diabetes, heart disease and mental health problems (life years lost through cycle accidents are far outweighed by life years gained through regular exercise).

There's also the issue of false safety, where someone wearing a helmet subconsciously takes more risks (I did this in the heady days when I wore a helmet — I found myself riding along a busy trunk road; it was only when I asked 'would I do this bare-headed?' that I realised the danger I was putting myself in). Would you really want to be responsible for that?

Even if you don't believe Cyclehelmets' conclusions, I would hope you would agree that there is sufficient doubt about the efficacy of helmets that wearing one should remain a matter of individual choice, that people should make their own analysis of the professionals' arguments before lidding up or not.

Helmet science is exceptionally detailed and often counter-intuitive. As an example, look at this video.

Disregard the fact that someone should have dealt with the ice patch by putting salt on it.

In nearly all the falls, the rider's head is very close to the ground. If they had been wearing a helmet, no doubt some would be saying "a helmet saved my life".

However, if they had been helmeted, the extra weight of the helmet could have fractionally increased the velocity at impact, meaning a sharper blow (which could do damage) or possible brain injury.

In my view, the jury is out. I really believe that helmets lead to cyclists taking greater risks. In some falls a helmet may help; in others it could result in a worse outcome. In collisions with cars or lorries (ie those above 12mph) helmets are of very little use at all.

In conclusion, I have made a choice not to wear a helmet but if you want to wear one, please do.

Think carefully, however, before saying "my helmet saved my life".

I don't want to see mandatory helmets here in the UK. I'd give up cycling if I had to wear one ... and I'm sure you wouldn't want to rob me of the joy of riding my bike.

Will Bramhill, August 31, 2016

Friday, August 26, 2016

Richard Branson and the claim that "a helmet saved my life"

When I saw the pictures of British tycoon Richard Branson battered and bruised after a bicycle fall on a Caribbean island this week, I wondered for an instant if Jeremy Corbyn, the UK’s Labour party leader, had pushed a stick through his spokes.

The two had clashed in the #traingate row when the businessman refuted the politician’s claim that there were no seats on a Virgin train and he’d had to sit on the floor.

One can only imagine Mr Corbyn’s fury over Mr Branson’s claims. However, barring a poltergeist-like power that works over several thousand miles, or an exceptionally long stick, Mr Corbyn is probably not guilty of causing this bicycle mishap.

Mr Branson, meanwhile, blames a rogue “sleeping policeman” speed bump for his fall, which happened while he was going downhill during a ride with Holly and Sam, his grown-up children.

Both Mr Branson and Mr Corbyn appear to agree on one thing though: the power of cycle helmets.

Mr Branson told the Daily Mirror newspaper that his life was only saved because he was wearing a helmet, even though his only facial injury was to his cheek.

The fact that a helmet would have been next to useless if he’d gone off the cliff, where his bicycle ended up, seems not to have occurred to him.

Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, always wears his silver-and-black helmet, which serves as a  counterpoint to his grey goatee beard.

Mr Branson’s claim is bound to upset the growing number of cyclistas in London who are riding bare-headed — putting their faith in the data at rather than a relatively flimsy piece of polystyrene.

Roger Geffen, campaigns and policy director of Cycling UK, Britain’s national cycling charity, wished Mr Branson a speedy recovery but cautioned that helmets were made only to withstand simple falls not high-speed impacts. He said: “One cannot safely assume that a cycle helmet would have ‘saved Mr Branson’s life’

“Some evidence suggests that helmet-wearing may make cyclists more injury-prone, possibly due to riding a bit less cautiously.”

Mischievously he pointed out that the British billionaire had been stopped by police in Australia three years ago for not wearing a helmet.

As to the future, Mr Branson will, no doubt, be developing a Virgin-branded suit of armour that will protect cyclists’ entire bodies in any situation. In fact it may just make him his next billion.

Mr Corbyn, meanwhile, is probably reflecting that his helmet gave no protection from particularly vicious silly-season political fallout.

Will Bramhill, August 26, 2016

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Essex up to its old anti-cycling tricks

What's the difference between three seconds and nineteen? Wake up at the back! What's that? Sixteen?

Yes, you're right, but it's also the difference between a good council (Colchester when it was highways authority in the 1980s) and one that pays lip service to the idea of being cycle-friendly (the car-orientated politicos and officers of Essex in the 2010s).

That 16 seconds is the extra time it takes for cyclists to get a green light at East Bay, Colchester -- on Route 51 of the National Cycle Network -- after Essex replaced the traffic lights and a nearby mini-roundabout.

Over in Denmark, Holland and Germany, traffic engineers are implementing "green waves" so  cyclists can complete their journeys across town efficiently and in comfort.

The idea is that once you hit a green, it will be go, go, go at all the other lights on your route so long as you're riding at 12mph. By and large such plans don't inconvenience drivers ... it is the classic carrot rather than a stick.

Here in Colchester, East Bay was the one junction where cyclists could press a button and have the lights change instantly. If you started counting and got to "three" you thought you were hard done by, or you realised someone else had triggered the crossing in the 60 seconds before you arrived.

Then Essex hit the jackpot. It won a wedge of cash from the Department for Transport, the distribution of which was carried out by the South East Local Enterprise Partnership, in reality a Quango of businessmen (who like cars) and politicians (most of whom can't say no to people who like cars)  which refuses to accept that the public exists.

The rationale was to improve the town prior to the explosion in new homes expected before 2040. The result, however, has been a hotchpotch of schemes that has included Mile End Road, moving the Cymbeline Way crossing ... and the little matter of widening Colne Bank Avenue, St Andrew's Avenue and Cowdray Avenue to squeeze in, you've guessed it, more cars.

Back at East Bay, cyclists press the button and have to count to n-n-n-nineteen. On the way to work and school; whatever the weather, and all the time while chewing on diesel particulates next to one of the worst pollution hotspots in south-east England.

And does it help drivers? Response from motorists suggests not. They say the jams are still pretty much the same.

Is there a safety reason for the longer wait?  Well, Essex will try to spin a story about how drivers have to see you waiting before the lights change, which is a nonsense: most drivers can't even see the lights when a cyclist presses the button.

In the meantime, the Bike Committee's attention is turning to the Cowdray Avenue works and whether we can expect Dutch-style roundabouts at the junctions with Ipswich Road and Harwich Road.

Don't hold your breath, though.

Rodney Bass, one of Essex's transport chiefs, was asked recently by CCC's Paul Avison if he thought Essex was doing enough to double its pathetic cycling levels, as promised in the county's spanking new Cycling Strategy. "Probably not," he said, and moved on. To talk to someone about cars, we presume.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

Balkerne Hill — a bridge too wide?

The Balkerne Hill footbridge from the west
This week Colchester Council granted planning permission for a wider footbridge across Balkerne Hill. While we welcome the scheme, we were amazed when, last autumn, Essex County Council announced the plans. ECC sneaked in the idea as part of its project to change the flow of traffic on Priory Street on the other side of the town centre, and it was down to luck that we noticed Balkerne Hill among the paperwork on show at an "information event".

The idea is an old one: back in the late 1990s and early 2000s we tried to get a contribution for a wide plaza to replace the bridge as part of the scheme for new homes at nearby St Mary's Fields. We thought a wider structure would present the Romans' Balkerne Gate (the oldest Roman gate in the UK) at its best.

That came to nothing but then the Labour government gave Colchester £4.2m and made it a "cycling town"  with the aim of "bridging the gaps".

Widening the Balkerne Hill bridge was immediately considered but we were told the abutments would not be strong enough for a broader structure (ECC said engineers had to take into account the maximum load should the bridge ever be full). The cycling town group (councils, campaigners, public health people, police, army, etc) then concentrated on creating a route along Crouch Street.

As a halfway house, however, and because cyclists were already using it, the railings on the bridge were raised to a height that complied with national best practice — and made it less likely that a rider would tumble 12m to the busy road below.

ECC also said it would remove the order that banned cyclists from riding on the bridge.

And there the matter stayed until last September — because the supervisory organisation, Cycling England, went up in flames as part of David Cameron's "Bonfire of the quangos".

As a former CCC chairman, I thought the cycling ban had been removed, but it turned out this was only because I ride almost exclusively east to west. Essex did not remove the sign for cyclists going west to east. This is typical of the legal confusion left behind by Essex Legal Services in the wake of cycling town.

Personally, I believe the Balkerne Hill scheme will be like Lower Castle Park: a lot of hands raised in horror at the idea which then settle down. There are examples of wide areas like this being used with no ill effects and very little conflict, including this one in Queen Street, London, which handles thousands of pedestrian and bike journeys a day with very little conflict.

Yet, I hear you say, the cycling campaign opposed Mile End Road: why is that different?

There are several reasons, but these are the main ones:
1) cyclists in Mile End Road will be going up to 25mph downhill
2) driveways mean that cars will be clashing with cyclists
3) parked cars raise the risk of "dooring"
4) it's too narrow, and
5) the road is a reasonable alternative: there are very few cars and most travel well within the speed limit (Balkerne Hill bridge, by contrast, is on a desire line with no reasonable alternative.)

Like Mile End Road, ECC allowed very little input from the cycling campaign. In fact we've been kept totally in the dark. If we had been consulted, we would have advanced the idea of a bridge with splayed sides such as this, below.

Note how the sloping sides add to the feeling of safety
with this bridge in the Netherlands (Courtesy Mark Wagenbuur)

That's probably academic now, although it is yet another reason why Essex should listen to cyclists, no matter how much it hates us.

Between now and the time the new, wider bridge opens, probably in early winter 2016, I'd like to explain a few things.

Every bicyclist rides an inherently unstable machine. Even hitting a bumble bee can be enough to cause you to lose balance and suffer injury. That's why most cyclists ride considerately. When cyclists encounter pedestrians, they tend to slow down. Video studies show that virtually all riders reduce their speed to that of pedestrians: cyclists don't want to hit anyone nor do they want to fall off themselves.

Lots of people say that cyclists can "get off and walk". over the bridge. This is the equivalent of expecting motorists to "get out and push", or even drop off a passenger, drive 25m then pick up the passenger again. Walking for a section of the journey ruins a utility ride in terms of overall speed and convenience. We want people to cycle for health and for the environment: spoiling the advantages of their journey will not achieve that aim. As an aside, there is also the issue of disabled or older cyclists, for whom getting off and back on to a bike can be a struggle but they do it because cycling is a faster means of transport. Why penalise them?

Pushing a bike can also be more dangerous that riding slowly and considerately. For a start, you take less of the width of the path. Also, take a look at a bike, with its sticky-out pedals, handlebar ends and brake levers. Any cyclist can explain the agony of a pedal coming into contact with a shin bone. It hurts! So long as you can control a bike at slow speeds -- and most riders can -- it is better to stay in the saddle with feet on pedals and hands covering bar ends and levers.

A Santander hire bike in London. Note the registration number.
So what about bells? Up until the Coalition government's "bonfire of red tape" in 2011, all new bikes had to have bells fitted when sold. However, bells are not a legal requirement and the human voice "Excuse me" or even the grossly rude "Get out of the f*&%$£g way" are means of warning of approach. Personally, I like bells. I have a Lion bell on my favourite bike and its sonorous "ping" is my pride and joy. That said, some people like being "pinged" while others hate it. I've lost count of the number of times that a pedestrian has sworn at me just for ringing my bell while I've been riding slowly and considerately.

Many anti-cycle people point to cyclists not paying road tax or having registration plates. For starters, there is no such thing as road tax, and many low-emission cars are also exempt; why should cyclists pay when some drivers don't and they require far less investment and cause far less wear and tear on the road surface? Registration schemes have been tried many times and never worked; they have been far more expensive to administer than their worth (just like the UK dog licence); London's hire bikes have had serial numbers in 112pt type on their rear stays. In five years, no one has used a number to report misuse of a bike by a particular cyclist. 

All this said, you always get idiots. Idiots are idiots whether they're on foot, on bike or, worst of all, in a car. It's a social problem. They're inconsiderate people; full stop. Please feel free to shout at them, to cuss at them, to flip them the bird, but don't reserve your ire just for cyclists: do the same for bad drivers, especially those on the phone and fiddling with their satnav, and bad walkers, too.

Will Bramhill // July 2, 2016