Showing posts with label traffic. Show all posts
Showing posts with label traffic. Show all posts

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Are you a nanokiller?

I have been intrigued for some time with Ronald A. Howard's idea of micromorts: a way of putting the risks we take in our lives on a human scale. The idea is that one micromort is a 1-in-a-million chance of dying. So, for example, if we say doing a skydive has a risk of 7 micromorts (as that Wikipedia page that I've linked to claims), that means 7 jumps out of each million lead to somebody dying. Or, in other words, if you jump from a plane there's a 7/1,000,000 chance you'll die (assuming you've used a parachute - without the parachute I suspect the chances are far worse). As we'll all die one day, of course, just being alive carries a background risk level of more than 30 micromorts, as the article also explains.

Anyway, I wondered if we might apply a similar principle to road deaths, as a way of making salient a very important point: each time you drive a motor vehicle, there's a small chance someone will die. I've long thought about how, each time I drive, I am effectively killing a tiny fraction of a person because I'm complicit in the overall number of deaths that take place. Today I realised that something analogous to the micromort concept provides a useful way of quantifying this.

So let's find some statistics! The Department for Transport statistics web page reveals that in the United Kingdom in 2012, motor traffic travelled 302.6 bn miles and led to 1754 deaths. Let's do the maths:

  • 302.6 bn / 1754 = 172,519,954.39 miles for each death
  • 1 billion / 172,519,954.39 = 5.8

And so, ladies and gentlemen, I present you with the nanokilling. Every mile you drive, you commit 5.8 nanokillings. Drive 12,000 miles in a year and you've committed 69,600 nanokillings, or 0.0000696 killings.

So clearly, the typical individual is fairly unlikely to kill over the course of their driving career. Let's say someone drives 10,000 miles per year for 50 years. 50 * 10000 * 5.8 = 2,900,000 nanokillings, or 0.0029 killings. This means you'd need to get together with about 344 other people before you could be reasonably sure that, collectively, you've managed to kill somebody.

But that's the thing, isn't it? 345 people isn't really that many. There's probably that many within a few streets of you. And there are a lot of streets in the country, aren't there?

Obviously the nanokilling would need to be recalibrated from time to time as new statistics on numbers of deaths and the amount of travelling that took place to cause them emerge, but of course that's also kind of beside the point. The point is that as long as there is motorized travel and deaths on our roads, the number of nanokillings will never be zero, which means the fundamental point of this article will endure - when we use a motor vehicle, we commit nanokillings. Unless you foreswear motoring (and the products of motoring, and do nothing to push for alternatives) you're to some extent complicit in causing little bits of a death. I know I am, even if I'm not happy about it.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Why I hate pedestrians

You know what I hate? Pedestrians. That self-satisfied, striding, boot-bedecked bunch of scum. Is it just me, or does the country suddenly seem to be full of them? I've never tried walking anywhere myself -- why would I? I'm a successful adult -- but it seems I can hardly travel down the street these days without one of them stepping off the pavement in front of me without looking, their face set in a holier-than-thou expression as they jump out of the way of my car in a burst of expletives. Something clearly needs to be done, and it's good that the government are starting to realise this.

The thing is, it's not just that pedestrians are all smug and annoying when they bang on about "health" and "pollution". That's sickening enough, but if their smugness was the only problem I could just ignore them - after all, they and their silly 'shoes' flash past quick enough when I get going, and their smugness can't penetrate my car's tinted windows. But the thing is there's more to it than that, because have you noticed that even though pedestrians walk millions of miles on our road system every single day, they contribute nothing at all to the cost of that road system? They have thousands and thousands of miles of dedicated pedestrian-only travel routes -- pavements, they're called, or sidewalks if you're that way inclined -- which they don't pay a penny for! Whilst honest motorists are taxed left, right and centre, they don't pay anything at all for all these facilities they enjoy. It beggars belief.

And recently, of course, it's got worse. As I'm driving up the street I constantly come across pedestrians walking across my part of the road to get from one of these pavements to another. I mean, what the hell...? Do they want the shirt off my back as well? They've been given vast tracts of pedestrian-only routes, where I'm certainly not allowed to drive, but apparently this isn't enough for them. Oh no, they want to keep encroaching into my space as well. Sure, we've all heard these walking zealots who say that it's because the 'pavements' don't form a joined-up network, meaning they can't walk to where they want to go without having to step onto the road from time to time. Aw, bless their little hearts. To pedestrians I say this: get off my part of the road. If you walk there when I'm coming along then I'll happily run you down, that's all.

In the long term there's clearly only one solution to all this. If pedestrians want to walk on our streets, which we pay for with all our driving taxes, then they need to pay their share and take their part of the responsibility. Anybody who walks anywhere should undergo training, should have to pay an annual tax towards the facilities they enjoy, should display a license plate so they can be identified, and should each be made to carry insurance in case they are ever involved in any accidents. Until then, they can sod off back to Shoeville or wherever it is they go when they aren't freeloading off the rest of us.

Monday, 16 March 2009

Bicycle overtaking and rebuttals

Something I've become slightly infamous for is my 2007 work on drivers overtaking bicyclists. A couple of weeks ago I was alerted to a US website where somebody called Dan Gutierrez posted a surprisingly angry critique of my findings as well as some data from his own replication of parts of the study (the main document is here [pdf]). Dan found some different results to me, which is great as I've long expected there would be differences in driver behaviour between the UK and the US, particularly because of differences in road design between the two countries. However, rather than simply conclude our countries are different, Dan seems to conclude I'm either a big numpty who can't do research, or a deliberate liar. Either way: ouch, Dan.

Two weeks ago I emailed Dan to try to clear things up, but haven't had a reply, so I thought I'd reproduce my email here. Given he's been quite so stinging about my work in a public forum I feel I should have some right to reply. And, more critically, I spent ages writing this email and at least by posting it here the effort is less wasted. Again: ouch, Dan.

Dear Dan,

Hello! Someone recently pointed me to your online article discussing the findings of the bicycle overtaking study I conducted a couple of years ago. I had a look at your document and I have to say, I was slightly surprised by the general tone, and use of words like 'deceptive' when referring to my presenting findings. But hey! I've been called worse things than that. I hope you don't mind my writing to try and clear up one or two things, as having read that document I almost feel I've offended you somehow?

First, the graphs. I'm a big fan of How to Lie with Statistics too, but I really wasn't trying to hide anything with those graphs. They were intended primarily for use by my colleagues, who regularly use graphs of this sort and who would be totally familiar with the practice of truncating the y-axis. It's done simply to make the differences that exist clearer, to facilitate discussion, not to hide the overall magnitude of an effect - I'd fully expect people to look at the bottom of the axis and see it doesn't start at zero. I'm also satisfied I didn't build up any insignificant differences into significant ones by plotting the graphs this way - I can give you more details to explain this if you're interested.

Moreover, you're dead right that the overall mean passing distance is about 4 feet, but I think by focusing only on the average passing distances you overlook the really important thing, which is all the variation in the data. As you'd expect, the gaps drivers leave when passing cyclists vary a great deal. The distribution of gaps wasn't far off being a Gaussian distribution - a bell curve - which means most drivers left an amount of space somewhere near the average, a few left a massive amount of space and, critically, a few down in the left-hand tail-end of the distribution left very little space indeed (in fact, two of the drivers I encountered left less than zero space).

This last point, about the small number of drivers who leave very little space, is probably important. Every day, many cyclists are passed by motor vehicles. And we know that some of these events end with the cyclists being hit, sadly. Given there are drivers who leave very little space indeed (to the extent some leave less than none), I'd say that it probably does matter if the average gap left by drivers gets smaller. If the average gap gets smaller, this very likely means the whole distribution is shifting along to the left. It's probable - but by no means proven, certainly - that if the average gap declines by one inch, the very near misses shift by an inch too, so all the vehicles that would have just missed the bicycle by a whisker (which we know happens fairly often) instead become vehicles that just hit by a whisker. And the bigger the shift in average passing distance, the more near-misses might become hits. Noone can prove this, but given there are so many near-misses already every day, I really wouldn't want to see drivers doing anything to decrease the gaps they leave, even by only a centimetre on average. I don't know what your thoughts are on this tail-end issue?

You went on to mention that I didn't also look at riding in a position to command the lane. There is a cultural misunderstanding here! British roads are quite small compared to yours (typically an urban lane is about 2.5m wide; often half that size in the countryside). The 1.25m riding position is pretty much in the centre of the lane, so you can take those 1.25m data as being the centre-of-the-lane commanding data you were looking for. Also, you're totally correct to say that drivers did change their behaviour in response to changes in bicycle lane position - I think I said something to that effect in the paper's discussion - but the key point remains: as the bicycle moved further towards the centre of the road, the gap between it and passing vehicles tended to decline. That's why I said 'to a first approximation' vehicles don't respond to changes in the bike's position: I know they do respond, but they don't respond enough! As you say, a 1 foot move by the bike led to a 0.75 foot response in my data; the further out the bike was, the smaller the gap between it and the passing vehicles. Hence my saying 'to a first approximation': that statement was worded to convey my surprise at this finding, not to ignore it. (Incidentally, I suspect the strange disappearance of the helmet effect at the 1m riding position in my data is something to do with this position forcing motorists to approach the centreline of the road; at 1.25m they definitely have to cross it, but at 1m I suspect they had just enough space that they tried to stay entirely within the lane. Or something like that. You have to remember this was the first study looking at such things, and it wasn't clear in advance that the centreline would be an issue. Research builds over time.)

The difference between our countries' road systems, which I mentioned above, is the key to the final part of your paper. I'm honestly really impressed by the lengths you've gone to in collecting in those data. I'm on record saying that I'd expect other countries (especially in North America) to see different results to those I found in the UK, and that I'd love it if people were able to test this. That was why I was quite surprised to see that when somebody finally did do this test, it was in a document that seems distinctly hostile to me! It's great that you found something different to what I found - we now have concrete data showing there's a difference between our countries. But might it not have been fairer simply to describe this as what it is - a difference between our countries - rather than suggest I don't know what I'm talking about?

Anyway, this was only going to be a short email and it's grown into a lengthy one. I write in a genuine spirit of friendship, rather than to moan, although I fear it won't come across that way. I doubt either of us likes the idea of cyclists being struck from behind by passing cars (which, in the UK's accident data at least, has a really high probability of killing the cyclist). Any information we can gather which might make this less likely is incredibly valuable. I hope in future we might work together, rather than in opposition, towards this goal.

With good wishes,


Quite reasonable, I hope you'll agree. It's a shame we cyclists can't get along more. Goodness knows, we should be united against the common enemy.

Wednesday, 11 June 2008

The family minibus

I have a neighbour who regularly travels with his wife and their two children. To move the four of them around, he bought a minibus with 20 seats.

'Why have you done that?' I asked, choosing my words carefully. 'There are only four of you - wouldn't a car make a lot more sense? It would take up less space and use a lot less fuel.'

He gave me a level look. 'But once every six weeks it's my turn to take my son's football team to their match. I need a vehicle with 20 seats.'

'Er, okay. But why not buy a normal car and just hire a minibus on the odd occasions you need one?' I asked. 'It would be a lot cheaper, and probably easier for you.'

'Oh, who can be bothered with that?' he replied, and stomped off.

Okay, so this neighbour is fictitious, but I've had almost exactly the same conversation with many people, with the only difference being that the numbers are all 5 times lower. There are so many people who buy a car with five seats primarily to move one person around. When challenged, they always point out some achingly unusual event as justification ('What about when I need to take rubbish to the tip?') I mean, what's that? Twice a year? Three times?

As plans for congestion charging force us to think about the consequences of our travel more and more, it is the sheer bone-crunching illogic and irrationality of this thinking that drives me crazy. Cars are fundamentally badly designed in various ways (e.g., their need for huge slurpy soft tyres to stop them flying off the road), and one of their basic design faults is that they take up the same amount of valuable road-space to convey one person as five. As I've mentioned before, people are going to have to realise that if they travel alone 95% of the time, it is better for everyone - including them - if they get a one-person vehicle and hire something bigger on the odd occasion they need more space. It's such a shame that we're going to have to go through masses of congestion and heavy-handed legislation to make people act rationally. Bah.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Road Injury Severity Map of England

Here's something curious. Using the Department for Transport's road accident statistics for 2006, I calculated road accident severity figures for each county in England. The DfT's accident figures include a Killed-and-Seriously-Injured (KSI) statistic, which is the count of the most serious road injuries: those leading to... well, death or serious injury. For each county, I divided the number of road accidents with a KSI outcome by the total number of recorded accidents. The reasoning was that the higher this ratio is, the more severe the outcomes of that county's road collisions tend to be and, in one sense, the more dangerous that county's roads are.

The statistics I computed gave figures ranging from just 5.6% of road accidents having KSI outcomes (in Plymouth, where it seems most road accidents tend to end okay) to 23.7% (in North Yorkshire, where almost one-quarter of all road accidents lead to someone being killed or seriously injured). I then normalized these values to lie on a scale from 1 to 100, converted these into saturation levels of the colour red and filled in the counties on a map. Yes, it took a few hours.

The map reveals a few points of interest:

* We have to work in call centres, but at least we don't get squashed too badly - Former heavy industrial areas around Manchester, Merseyside, the West Midlands and the Potteries stand out as having quite low accident severities.

* Leafy suburbs, dead bodies - the affluent south-western corner of Greater London suffers quite a lot of serious road accidents. It's so tempting to make a link to all the SUVs...

* Mad Crazy Viking Berserkers - North Yorkshire and the East Riding. One in four road accidents in North Yorkshire has a serious outcome. My father lives there. I'd like him to move away now.

* Wiltshire and Northamptonshire are really dangerous - I live in Wiltshire! Can everybody take more care please?

* Odd pockets of safety - Plymouth wins here, but there are other counties that stand out from their neighbours: Surrey, Rotherham, Newham in London.

Sadly, these statistics aren't broken down by county for Wales and Scotland. However, overall Wales is at a similar level to Southampton and Coventry, with just under 11% of road accidents having a KSI outcome. Scotland is somewhat worse, and with 17% of all road accidents ending in death or serious injury is similar to Essex and East Sussex.

My hope in doing this was that novel insights might reveal themselves if I looked at the accident data in a new way. I wondered if there would be a North/South split, or patterns that follow motorways. Perhaps the most striking thing to emerge here is the suggestion of more serious road accidents in rural areas. (Most notably, wherever there is a city that has separate figures from the county that surrounds it -- Reading in Berkshire, Leicester in Leicestershire, Poole in Dorset -- the city always has a lower accident severity score than the surrounding county.) This seems on the face of it to support the idea that higher levels of road crowding and reduced speeds are good for reducing the severity of road accidents, although we must also consider other factors specific to rural areas such as twistier roads which give poorer visibility, and possibly higher levels of drink-driving. But then we have to explain why Devon and Cornwall -- perhaps the most rural and twisty-roaded counties -- aren't particularly bad.

Like all good data explorations, this raises more questions than it answers, but I think it shows the value of looking at data in novel ways.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Drinking and driving

During a commercial break on television last night I saw two adverts in quick succession. One was for vodka. Vodka is great stuff, but the advertising can't tell me this. It has carefully to ensure that no images or messages are used which might make me see it as enjoyable, because this could make me, as a blubber-minded member of the public, use it irresponsibly. And in case there's any lingering doubt about how much I'm not supposed to enjoy the vodka, the advert is plastered with the slogan "Drink responsibly" and points me to a website where I can learn how to drink less.

This advert was followed by one from Renault, selling a car which plops out noxious pollutants, is built to exceed the legal speed limit and is quite capable of killing innocent people. It was marketed with lots of exciting images of the car being driven wildly and ended with the slogan "Serious Fun". You can watch it, if you like.

Isn't there an inconsistency here? Alcohol: most people people enjoy it but it can cause harm if abused = constant warnings and can't be marketed as making your life more fun. Cars: although some people enjoy them, they cause harm when used normally = no warnings, and the marketing can promise sex and fun in return for using the product.

Surely the time has come for car companies to go where the drink companies have gone? Renault could have an advert which focuses solely on some minor aspect of the product's design -- the shape of the gearstick, for example, with resolutely no mention of how people might feel when driving the car. It would then display warnings like "Please enjoy the Twingo responsibly". Naturally oil companies should carry similar exhortations in their commercials too. And of course, both types of advertiser should direct consumers to websites where they can be helped to spend less money on the the products of the people paying for the adverts. Just a thought.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Fuel Prices

Those of us working in transport know that, despite what the public feel, the real cost of motoring is really much lower than it used to be. The Guardian today have an analysis of what fuel really costs, which shows this pretty clearly (and fuel is only one part of the falling cost).

If, like me, your memory extends back as far as the 1970s, you should know all this to be true. Look at car ownership and use prior to... ooh, let's say 1987: a typical person owned a second-hand car and used it fairly infrequently, and the cost was a major factor in this behavioural pattern. Today the same typical person has a brand new black pickup truck and uses it to go everywhere. (Okay, I know not everybody has a black pickup truck, but it does sometimes feel that way. I can't express how much I loathe those ridiculous Nissan and Mitsubishi pickup trucks and the morons who buy them.)*

Sure, part of this is the greater availability of credit, but still: go back 20 years and there was no way the average British working person could have afforded to drive in the manner they do now. And what's the cost of public transport done whilst the cost of motoring has fallen? Yes, you've guessed it...

* Edit: Is anybody else annoyed by the names these moronmobiles have? What sort of inadequate feels the need to drive a vehicle with 'Warrior' or 'Outlaw' slapped on the side? My suggestion: everybody who drives round with 'Warrior' written on their vehicle should be pressed into the army and sent off to Afghanistan, everybody with 'Outlaw' can be lynched and everybody with 'Animal' gets sent to a zoo.

Tuesday, 25 March 2008

David Cameron and cycling's mixed messages

So I suppose I'd better say something about the supposed scandal of David Cameron's cycling. The thing is, all the hullaballoo surrounding his riding really reminds me of some issues I've been mulling for quite some time regarding the terribly mixed messages given to cyclists in this country. Here are a few of them, in no particular order.

  • Cycling down a one-way street is dangerous - unless it happens not to be. Cameron was slammed for this, but I know of various one-way streets which are officially one-way to all traffic except for bicycles, which can go both ways. I use a street like this in Salisbury all the time. So is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling on the pavement is dangerous - unless there is a small blue sign with a cyclist and a pedestrian painted on it, in which case suddenly cycling on the pavement becomes safe. So is cycling on the pavement safe or dangerous?
  • Filtering up the left-hand side of stopped traffic is dangerous - unless there is an Advanced Stop Line (which nobody can see), in which case it is safe. So is filtering on the left safe or dangerous?
  • Cycling is a healthy and non-polluting travel mode and it is officially supported and promoted - except of course it isn't really officially supported, at least not in a sense whereby the government provides any realistic legal protection, road priority or infrastructure.

I think the clear message here - and particularly with regard to the first three points above - is that a range of cycling activities are terrible and dangerous and a menace to society... unless they get official sanction in a particular place, at which point they magically become safe. Central and Local Government can't have it both ways. They can't on the one hand chastise cyclists for, say, riding the wrong way down a one-way street whilst on the other hand designating one-way streets as open to cyclists as a way of cheaply increasing the amount of cycle provision they have. It is all a question of mixed messages and it's no wonder nobody is happy.

Of course, some people might point out that what we are seeing is a special kind of flexibility for cyclists - places where it has been deemed safe for two-way cycling are opened up and places where it is deemed dangerous are kept one-way, for example. The thing is, if this is the official approach (and I don't believe it is) then this is still a mixed message as the approach is simply not applied consistently.

The current approach, which constantly sends mixed messages about cycling to all road users, fosters danger and resentment - which in turn fosters further danger. What we all need are consistent policies. Is cycling down a one-way street safe or dangerous? If it's safe, make it universal; if it's dangerous, ban it. This is the approach applied to all other road-use, after all. Because despite some of the terrible and ill-informed stereotyping that has been thrown around in the past few days (in a way that would never be allowed about people's other lifestyle choices, I might add), the vast bulk of cyclists are law-abiding and just want to travel safely and efficiently. They don't want to have to constantly travel around asking themselves 'Now is it safe or dangerous to ride here today? Where's the little magic sign that'll stop me hitting the pedestrians...?'

Saturday, 1 March 2008

A mention in the Economist

I just got an email from our university's Press Office to say my work on how drivers' overtaking behaviour gets more dangerous when a cyclist wears a helmet was mentioned in a recent article on risk in The Economist. It's interesting how that project of mine has been viewed and used by different people. One of the main findings was that a behaviour intended to reduce risk (putting on a bicycle helmet) might paradoxically increase one's overall level of risk because drivers react to its presence by changing their behaviour. I've seen this finding used in many discussions -- some people find it a curious datum, others feel it backs up their own experiences, and some people loath my findings, usually because they are starting with the 'common sense' position that bicycle helmets must be a good thing.

But I've also seen that research used in broader contexts. Indeed I've seen it used in relatively extreme right-wing libertarian writing to justify an argument for having no state intervention in people's day-to-day behaviour. It just goes to show that when you do research and put your findings out into the world, you can never be sure exactly what's going to happen to them.

But for all that, I have to say that it's very satisfying that work of mine is being used by people. It's just a shame that any use of one's research by people who are not themselves professional researchers "doesn't count" under our government's Research Assessment Exercise. Academics writing in endless circles about one another's work is "good research"; a grand theory which excites everybody but then proves to be completely bogus after two years is "good research", as there will be lots of papers supporting it, then a second raft of papers slamming it, giving the high number of citations that research assessment focuses on to a large degree. But studies which excite the public, lead to media discussion or even change public behaviour for the better don't count as having had any impact at all -- our research is only "good" if other academics write about it. But we'll moan about that another day. It's far too sunny a Spring day for caviling now. I'm off to walk the dog instead.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Car sharing: why can't we think beyond cars?

Car sharing is in the news again as various cities look to ease congestion by reducing the number of cars with only one person in them (four out of every five, according the the BBC report).

The BBC's article includes someone from the AA trotting out the most common objection to car-sharing, which is that it obliges people -- who often won't not know each other well -- to adjust their working patterns so they start and end work at the same time. With the sorts of jobs so many people do, this isn't possible. Therefore, people conclude, car sharing cannot work.

What a staggering lack of imagination! Why on earth don't people see that there are any number of solutions that just don't involve a car at all? It's pretty odd, when you think about it, that people spend so much time travelling alone in vehicles designed to carry five, and which fill up the road just as much to carry one person as their full complement. You wouldn't book five seats in a cinema if you were going there alone. So why don't people consider single-occupant vehicles, such as scooters and motorcycles, more often? Again, it has to be that the car is so amazingly dominant in our collective psyche that their use is totally habitual and alternatives, despite their being plentiful, much cheaper and logically more appropriate, simply never occur to people. So everybody carries on using completely, wildly, infuriatingly inappropriate vehicles to get around and our cities get less and less pleasant and accessible.

Or is it, to build on a conversation I had last night, something to do with labeling? Perhaps most people do not consider a motorcycle, for example, because they simply cannot conceive of the label 'motorcyclist' applying to them? Answers on a postcard, please.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

Car parking: I'll just leave this speedboat here

I've got a really big wooden crate -- it's a little over 4 metres long and just under 2 metres wide -- and it won't fit in my house. I'm the only person who gets any benefit from my having this crate -- indeed, my ownership of the crate is actually bad for you. I didn't really care about the fact I had nowhere to keep the crate when I bought it; I wanted it and so I got it anyway. So now, because it won't fit in my house, I'm just going to leave it in the street. It'll block half of the road, but so what? I need somewhere to keep my crate and that's where it's going.

If you heard me say this, you would quite rightly brand me a selfish bastard who deserves to be beaten soundly with rolled-up copies of the Daily Mail until I learnt a little civic responsibility. But hold fast! What if, instead of a crate, it was a saloon car I was talking about? A car has exactly the same dimensions as my crate, but you'd think absolutely nothing of my saying "I don't have anywhere to store my car and I knew this when I bought it, but I'm just going to leave it in the street where it'll block half the road".

Parking cars is a topic which, more than most, gets people angry (certainly more than the World Bank's policies or the invasion of Iraq, as far as I can see). I've been dwelling on the subject since, about a year ago, I had an email from somebody wanting my expert endorsement for a policy of greater freedom for motorists to park where they like. This got me thinking, and I soon realized that car parking is a nice illustration of the bizarre level of freedom given to motorists. (I turned down the request, incidentally.)

Because here's the question: why should I be allowed to own a car if I have nowhere to store it? I am not permitted the same freedom to store anything else on the road. If I own a caravan, or a speedboat on a trailer, I am obliged to have off-road storage facilities for it. If I want to place a skip outside my house when doing building work I have to take great care that this hazard is brightly lit and removed as soon as possible. These are all relevant comparisons, as skips, caravans and speedboats on trailers are all are more-or-less the same size and construction as a car.

You might at this point be thinking that you pay about £100 a year to tax your vehicle, and that this sum makes cars different from all these other items. This argument is fallacious in so many respects that I think I'll devote a whole post to it soon. For now, let me put it this way: I pay masses of tax every time I buy a bottle of whisky, but I can't thereby expect the State to provide me with a shelf to store it on or a glass to drink it from.

So I'm left unable to see a rational reason why I should be allowed to own a car when I have nowhere to store it, leaving me with no option but to dump it in various bits of the civic landscape. I'd be genuinely grateful for any suggestions.

Edit: To offer one more important comparison, I used to live on a narrowboat on the Kennet and Avon canal. As anybody who has ever tried to buy one with know, it is impossible to own a boat on the inland waterways without either proving you have somewhere to keep it, or issuing a solemn promise that you'll keep on moving indefinitely without leaving it at the canalside. Our canals are a public transport resource just like our roads, but apparently the rules are very different...

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Don't watch Newsnight on Monday...

...unless you want to risk seeing me talking about Shared Space road design principles. Shared Space is the intriguing idea that traffic management is best handled with as little regulation as possible -- no traffic lights, no road markings, no pavements even -- and it's something I've had my eye on for quite a while as it claims to offer considerable benefits to the more vulnerable users of our roads. Indeed, the approach promises towns in which everybody gets to where they want to go faster and with fewer accidents. It sounds great.

My position, which I hope comes across after the interview is edited, is that Shared Space is a very intriguing idea but that it urgently needs a proper evaluation to tell us whether or not it really works better than the current approach. The problem the Shared Space advocates face is the two curses of road planning. The first curse is that authorities and town planners tend to be very conservative and often won't try new things, sticking to rigid road-design guidelines which are handed down from above and which, in many cases, are essentially based on little more than guesswork.

The second curse is that new developments in road design or usage are hardly ever evaluated properly: when somebody tries something new, it's not often the effect of the innovation is properly measured. So let's have more science and less blind faith: that's my basic argument (and not just as regards road design). BBC 2, 2230 on Monday 14 January.

On a more awe-inspiring note, I entered a great email discussion this morning in which Michael Carley and I decided there really should be a product like Bovril, but pork-based and from Germany. Here's how I imagine the advertising might look...

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The People's 50 million: Vote, but don't be fooled

Like every blogger with an interest in cycling, I am now about to exhort you to vote for the Sustrans Connect2 project on the People's 50 Million charity giveaway. If you don't know about this, the National Lottery has £50 million to give to charity, and we can vote for where it goes (presumably to make us feel that we live in some sort of democracy). Anyway, I would suggest you vote for the Connect2 project, which will open up valuable possibilities for off-road cycling and walking all over the country. For example, the plans for the two cities in which I have a personal interest - Salisbury (where I live) and Bath (where I work) - will be magnificent developments, and the Salisbury plans in particular will transform cycling in the city. So vote now - it only takes a moment. And apparently you can do it even if you're not British, so all the people who visit this blog from places like Singapore and the US, you can help too!

Right, now you've done that, let's have a good moan about the whole process. What has happened to our country when a set of highly valuable and important developments - and the Eden Project - are having to fight it out in a vulgar, gladiatorial winner-takes-all combat for a piffling pot of money like this? It is notable that all four projects have some sort of ecological/nature theme, but there is only a small amount of funding and most must lose out. But in a contest to decide where money gets spent in this country, why isn't road-building included? Or Heathrow's expansion? Or the Iraq war? Even if we stick with the transport theme, £50 million is a drop in the ocean of the budget used for building and maintaining highways, or expanding airports and shipping capacity: Why can't we the people choose whether some money gets taken from these budgets to fund ecological work? That way we could fund all four bids. In fact, we could go crazy and give a few million quid to a whole raft of good causes (and the Eden Project). Of course, I've little doubt that in such a straight choice, the British people would choose to have lots more roads and runways now, rather than a peaceful and inhabitable planet in 100 years, but at least it would be their decision and their children would be the ones who would live with its consequences.

But my main concern with this preposterous contest is that it will almost certainly cloud the public and political memories for many years. Funding ecological or non-motorized transport projects three years from now is probably going to be a lot more difficult because as far as the average person and politician will be concerned, those issues were all taken care of during this high-profile event. Indeed, given the publicity that will inevitably surround the winning project, there's the real danger that the three projects that don't get funded (as well as the thousands that were never able to compete) will be perceived as "unpopular" or "unwanted" by the public, and so will be marginalized and in a worse situation that they are now (especially given all the money they will have spent on their bids and publicity). This contest could well prove to be a two-edged sword. Just be careful, is all I'm saying. The average Briton doesn't think about sustainability issues very much as it is, and if they get the impression that it's all been taken care of with a nice big media-friendly quick-fix, changing their behaviour in the future will be a lot more difficult than it is already.

To forestall any flood of emails telling me how great the Eden Project is: it isn't. I will not entertain claims to sustainability or eco-friendliness from an installation built down in a far distant corner of the country which is local only to a handful of cows and which cannot realistically be reached except by car. If they want me to believe they care about the environment they'd have built it near Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds-Sheffield or in the Scottish Central Belt. That way, there would be millions of people who could reach it without travelling a long way, and there would be a useable public transport infrastructure that could bring people from further afield. Tommy-rot.

Monday, 12 November 2007


I'm just watching Dispatches, this week a special documentary about road congestion in Britain. It's a huge problem, causing so many problems to so many people.

So here's a question: if our government is concerned about congestion and pollution - as they certainly claim to be - why the buggery flip do they allow train companies to charge more for travel at peak times than at times nobody wants to travel? If we want fewer cars on the road during rush hour, which everyone agrees we do, the alternatives to driving can't cost extra, and so be disincentivized, at precisely the times they are most needed! Dur! Dur!

Top Gear: Who'd have expected it?

For those who did not see the weekly British televisual car-beatification ceremony that is Top Gear last night, it was rather interesting. The presenters set themselves the challenge of crossing the whole of central London using a car (naturally), public transport, a bicycle and - curiously - a powerboat. Now, we know that in challenges such as this the bicycle always always wins. I was just amazed that such a vehemently pro-car programme showed the bicycle trouncing all the other options. By a large margin. And the car being beaten by every other mode. Who'd have thought it?

What I want to focus on here is Richard Hammond's experience of cycling in London. I wrote here about some of the problems that city has with its cycle facilities, but it was very interesting to see on television somebody's frustration with such magnificent provision as cycle lanes which run for 5 metres then disappear, dumping the rider in traffic. Most interesting was his obvious anger at constantly stopping at traffic lights. The excellent book Bicycling Science (which sits on a shelf next to my desk - can you guess what the next book along is?*) contains this formula:

which describes the power used to ride a bicycle. This formula tells us many things, including that in general, stopping then re-starting a bicycle uses about the same effort as riding 100m. So stopping at just 10 junctions in a journey is as much work as riding a whole extra kilometre. The corollary of this? If your local authority is providing cycle facilities that make cyclists stop unnecessarily - for example, at every single driveway and side-road on a roadside cycle path - then it's just not good enough and you should demand your money back. And as for "cyclists dismount" signs, I just can't swear enough to express my contempt.

* The Bicycle Wheel by Jobst Brandt. If you guessed that correctly then I love you.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Bicycles and trucks

The tireless and all-knowing Dave Holladay asked me to co-sign a letter to today's London Evening Standard on how adding an extra set of little side-mirrors to trucks isn't going magically to stop trucks crushing cyclists with depressing regularity, as some people seem to believe. In my correspondence with Dave, I made a point about trucks which I think is important, and which I'd like to record here:

When I see vans and lorries with their "If you can't see my mirrors, I can't see you" signs, I am powerfully inclined to conclude that this simply isn't good enough: if you can't see me and I am in a perfectly reasonable place, your vehicle isn't suitable to be used in an urban environment. Full stop.

And this is the root of it: lorries and other large trucks are designed primarily for the motorway, and the vision they afford the driver is entirely suitable for this, as on a motorway the edges and immediate rear of one's vehicle are largely irrelevant. Lorries should therefore be seen much more like military tanks: great in the environments for which they are designed, but absolutely not suitable for coming into towns and cities. Economics notwithstanding, the "proper" arrangement should be that lorries report to distribution centres at motorway intersections and unload their goods to smaller vans for urban delivery.

So there you have it. Sorry Messrs Tesco, Spencer and Sainsbury - I know you don't like ideas like this. But you can console yourself with the fact your directors' continued affluence has vastly more influence on government policy than road safety, congestion or pollution ever will. And to head off your inevitable counter-point: yes, I will gleefully pay 3p more for each tin of beans I buy if it makes my roads better.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

Thought for the day

Removing cyclists from the road to protect them from traffic is like removing patients from hospital to protect them from MRSA.

Who said it? Me, just now in a meeting!

Friday, 21 September 2007

BBC Solent

I'm being interviewed on BBC Radio Solent tomorrow morning at around 1015. I'll be talking about how drivers and other road users interact in shared-space environments, i.e., streets where all the signs and markings are removed. Expect nervous excitement amongst the people of Hampshire, Dorset and the Isle of Wight all morning.

Targeting bad cycle lanes

The BBC today has a short video report on London's cycle lanes, which focuses on how cyclists often feel at risk when using them. Those of us who work in cycling know that feelings of danger are a huge deterrent to more people cycling. Now, as it happens, we also know that cycling is a lot less dangerous than it looks, and that any danger which does exist is far outweighed by cycling's health benefits: it is always much better for your life expectancy to cycle than not to cycle; but as long as people avoid bicycles because drivers choose to put them at risk, we have a problem that needs to be addressed.

The BBC report, with its London focus, got me thinking about a conversation I had earlier this year with a London-based road planner, whom I will keep anonymous. He explained how, although the various London Councils are all naturally in favour of increasing cycling, they generally try to make this happen through one simple system: lengthening the London Cycle Network, the city's network of cycle lanes and tracks. A longer LCN is the target because the number of kilometres of cycle lane in a city is easily measurable, you see - you can do it with a ruler - whereas aiming to make cycling 'safe', 'fun' or 'useful'... well, such vague hand-waving oogy-boogy concepts seem like voodoo to the leaden souls at the top of local government.

Because 'lengthening the LCN' has become synonymous with 'improving cycling' in the minds of decision-makers, London's road planners are under great pressure to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - onto every street. It doesn't matter if it is a good cycle lane, or one that flagrantly makes journeys longer and puts people in danger: if the LCN grows, it's a good thing. Exactly the same principle is driving so many other authorities around the country.

Right now I am submitting a funding proposal, with Lazio Regional Authority and other partners around Europe, to the EU. Our aim is to build research on all these other aspects of cycle infrastructure and to ask how can we best assess concepts such as safety, pleasure and usefulness. When we crack this issue, town planning might be able to get away from the cycle-lane-kilometre as the sole measure of success when it comes to catering for cyclists, who do, lest we forget, pay for these roads and 'cycle facilities', more than do motorists.

Finally, here's a short movie I spotted from my old home town of York, showing exactly why this stuff shouldn't be left in the hands of local authorities when their main aim is just to get a cycle lane - any cycle lane - down on the street. The last of the three examples irresistibly suggests the influence of health and safety inspectors - the one group of people who can make the Tomás de Torquemada look free-thinking and undogmatic.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

Cycle talk in Salisbury

Next Tuesday (25 September) I'm giving a talk on my cycling research, focusing on how drivers and cyclists interact on the road. This will include my work on drivers overtaking cyclists, as well as other really interesting research on driver-cyclist interaction. There'll even be some stuff hot off the presses (seriously - I haven't even done the analyses yet!).

The talk will be at a meeting of COGS, Salisbury's excellent cycle campaigning group, at the Methodist church in St Edmund's Church Street. I do hope to see you there at 7 o'clock. All are welcome, whether members of COGS or not.