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?