Monday, 11 November 2013

Would one radical change improve walking and cycling in the UK?

On 3 September 1967 traffic in Sweden switched from going along the left-hand side of the road to the right. What I'm proposing isn't as radical as that.

In the past months I've visited Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark as a pedestrian and as a cyclist. It seems to me that those walking and cycling in these three countries gain great advantage from the different priority rules these countries seem to have at junctions.

Our Highway Code tells pedestrians,
If traffic is coming, let it pass. Look all around again and listen. Do not cross until there is a safe gap in the traffic and you are certain that there is plenty of time. Remember, even if traffic is a long way off, it may be approaching very quickly.
At a junction. When crossing the road, look out for traffic turning into the road, especially from behind you. If you have started crossing and traffic wants to turn into the road, you have priority and they should give way
Motorists are told,

The implication is clear that pedestrians on the pavement and cyclists on pavement tracks approaching a junction should give way to road users wishing to turn.

As a consequence of this ruling, pedestrians walking or jogging along a main road have to slow down and check it's safe to cross, stopping and giving way to traffic wishing to turn. This burns a huge amount of energy, and also forces people chatting while walking along together to interrupt their conversation. 

In contrast, drivers going straight on maintain their speed and continue chatting with their passengers.

When the Highway Engineer designs a cycle track on a pavement, s/he will prudently place give-way markings wherever the main road intersects with a side road, however minor.

This makes the cycle track slow, uncomfortable (requiring the cyclist to twist their neck to see if traffic is turning in from behind), and demanding of great energy as Wikipedia explains:
Kinetic energy may be best understood by examples that demonstrate how it is transformed to and from other forms of energy. For example, a cyclist uses chemical energy provided by food to accelerate a bicycle to a chosen speed. On a level surface, this speed can be maintained without further work, except to overcome air resistance and friction.
The requirement to slow down at a junction then get back to cruising speed saps a cyclist's energy.

Given the disadvantages it is unsurprising that cyclists frequently prefer to use the road over cycle tracks in the UK.

The priority rule also has an impact on a parent's willingness to let a child walk or cycle along such a road, in fear that the child needing to cross a side road may incorrectly judge the speed or distance of a turning car, or even neglect (forget) to look at all. This impacts on children's mobility and their fitness and likelihood of walking or cycling in later years.

In comparison, as I understand it, countries such as the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany give all traffic (including pedestrians on the pavement and cyclists on a track) equal priority going straight on. The onus is on the person who wishes to turn to ensure that there is nothing approaching that they may turn into, whether they're on the road, pavement or cycle track. The walker, pedestrian, jogger, cyclists or driver going straight on needn't vary their speed, strain to look back, or interrupt their conversation at the junction.

To achieve this, those wishing to turn pay greater attention to pavements/cycle tracks and to lanes, including cycle lanes, so slow down to a greater extent than is customary in the UK. Equally drivers behind a turning vehicle seem much less likely to beep impatiently at a driver who is waiting for a reasonable gap.

This priority ruling brings further advantages at traffic light controlled crossings. In the UK we often have one phase of lights for road users going east-west or turning off, then one for those going north-south or turning off, then a separate pedestrian phase.The separate pedestrian phase means a long wait (two other light phases) for any user before it's their turn to go

The Danish don't use roundabouts, favouring cross roads as a safer option, and I observed a wonderful simplicity and efficiency in their system, due to the prioritisation I have described.

When the east-west road users have a green light, so do the pedestrians and cyclists on their pavement or track. The lights then change in favour of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in a north-south orientation. This allows those going straight on, by whatever means, to make rapid progress, having only to wait one light phase before it's their turn.

Taking the junction above as an example of a typical crossing,  the cyclists and any pedestrians approaching us from the north have priority over the lorry driver wishing to turn right. If the cyclist coming towards us wants to turn left he will stop alongside the cyclists waiting at a red light to go west-east.

The prioritisation means no separate pedestrian lights phase is needed, and as light phases in each direction are designed to be frequent but not overly long, cyclists are less inclined to jump the red lights as there is little if any time advantage in so doing. Equally the rapidity of traffic light changes means that cyclists are happy to use the cycle track against an occasional and marginal time advantage in using the road and the hassle of mingling with and working their way across lanes of motor-traffic..

I'm not sure that the UK can achieve the levels of cycling that it aspires to, or better facilitate pedestrians, without a switch in priorities at junctions such as that described. It's got to be easier than switching the side of the road we drive on and that's been done successfully before.

TfL have recently sent engineers and planners to look at countries making real progress with cycling and it'll be interesting to find out their take on this issue.

To the best of my knowledge none of the campaigning organisations are asking for such a change. What do you think?


HannahC said...

When the east-south road users have a green light, so do the pedestrians and cyclists on their pavement or track. The lights then change in favour of motorists, pedestrians and cyclists in a north-south orientation. This allows those going straight on, by whatever means, to make rapid progress

I'm not sure I understand, how does this facilitate cars trying to turn left or right, particularly at junctions where there might not be space to have a left/right filter to wait in? Also, the lack of pedestrian lights at busy junctions to provide an assured right of way at least some of the time might be difficult to manage for the old/slow/young/blind, although perhaps I'm missing something!

I think there is a wider issue of pedestrian priority for both car drivers and people on bikes. One of the problems I find with vehicular cycling is that you are often going quite fast and are 'thinking' like a car driver - for example, green light means go, go, go! As a cyclist, if I make a turn (particularly a left turn into a minor road on a green signal) and encounter a pedestrian crossing, my first instinct is often anger that they are in my way! Which is nonsense, obviously, because they have every right to be there, but that's what cycling in London traffic does to your brain. Asserting yourself against motor traffic can be difficult to 'switch off' when you encounter a ped.

HannahC said...

Apologies - I now see the bit about waiting for a space in the oncoming cars, foot, and cycle traffic before making a turn, please ignore my first para!

But that begs the question - isn't this design just creating more potential conflict, rather than less? If everybody plays by the rules and is considerate, it would work beautifully. However, in practice would it not end up the same situation that we have at the moment (cars push through, pedestrians hang back even though technically they have right of way) but with no green signals for pedestrians? Please accept my apologies if I've entirely misunderstood your proposal!

Charlie Holland said...

Thanks for your comments Hannah. I've now downloaded some Copenhagen photos from my trip there, added one to the blog and edited the text so hopefully it clarifies the 'Copenhagen turn'. The clear priority accorded to all people crossing straight on means that anyone attempting to turn who barges across that priority is indisputably in the wrong.

David Arditti said...

Thanks for this piece Charlie. Many others have made the same point before. I pointed out how crucial the junction priority system you describe is to the working of cycle tracks in Germany in London Cyclist Magazine (April/May 2009), and I discussed the same thing in a blog post about Copenhagen this year.

Though I don't recall LCC explicity calling for such a change from the UK government, I am sure CTC often has made this same point. Whether the pedestrain organisations have made it I don't know.

The problem is that quite a complex set of changes to road marking rules and conventions are required to bring this about, starting from where we are. Paul James analysed it in some detail in this post.

It certainly would be an idea to get a fresh campaigning push on this issue by trying to unite all cycling and pedestrian groups around it.

andreacasalotti said...

I am surprised of your interpretation of Rule 170. It clearly states that pedestrians have priority when crossing side roads.
I have never understood the sheepishness and cowardice of British pedestrians, when they allow drivers to turn without yielding. Sometimes when I walk across a side street and make sure that the turning vehicle stops, generating irate beeps, I have some idiotic British pedestrian telling me that I am wrong.
"Wake up" I tell them "or they will keep on killing you"
They don't understand, and as a consequence Britain has such a dreadful pedestrian killings rate.
What I am trying to say is that one of the reasons there are so many idiots on British roads is that British pedestrians let them bully us.
So, if you feel intimidated, walk with a cricket bat, and make sure that Rule 170 is respected. They will learn eventually.

Edward said...

It is already the law in Australia that motorists give way in those circumstances. Some motorists seem to be aware of the rule while others (most) are oblivious.

With an enforced rule like this, it would also be helpful to send a clear signal through road treatments. Junctions in the countries you mention are built in such a way that it is the path or raised bike lane that continues with the road being interrupted. The change in height is particularly useful in sending a clear signal about how has right of way.

Charlie Holland said...

Andreas, rule 170, point 2, says, "watch out for pedestrians crossing a road into which you are turning. If they have started to cross they have priority so give way."

It does not say, "Pedestrians approaching or crossing the road have priority."

I wonder whether case-law gives more clarification?

Neil said...

But all I need to do is step onto the side road and I am crossing and have priority. So with the speed differential any car approaching _should_ be judging whether they can safely complete the maneuver before I step out.

However, it does put you I at risk if the driver makes a mistake (so you need to assess how risky each incident will be and requires some confidence. Most people are timid partly because they don't want to take that risk. But I agree that then reinforces the perception that cars have priority.

HannahC said...

Ah - thanks Charlie, it's much clearer with the pictures! The zebra-type crossing certainly looks like it would reinforce pedestrian's right of way. I'd still be worried about left-hook (or right-hook, in the Danish case) risks for cyclists though, from vehicles like the red lorry in your picture - how do the Danes manage visibility issues?

bikeboxood said...

I agree with what you are saying. In fact, this very issue has bothered me for a long time. I am Canadian, and when I first arrived here 13 years ago, came very close to being hit by cars as I didn't realise I'd have to keep looking back for cars behind me who might turn into my path. This behaviour is unheard of in Canada - as it is unnecessary.

Another change I think would help would be to have stop lines BEFORE the pavement at junctions. Having them where the two roads actually meet means it feels natural for the cars to speed to across the area where pedestrians would naturally cross. I rarely feel safe crossing smaller roads for this reason.