Thursday, 11 July 2013

Bus flags or Bicycling Nirvana?

The bulk of this post has been moved to -

My visit to Centro towers for the Transport Planning Society's discussion on local sustainable transport funds revealed a great deal about how the organisation currently prioritises its work. 

The first piece of evidence was the row of just 4 cycle stands outside their offices, with only one of them actually being used, despite the event being specifically about local transport infrastructure, of which cycling is a very major part (in our defence, the two of us known cyclists at the event came from Coventry and Wolverhampton - a distance which might be child's play on the Dutch network, but which is torture in the West Midlands). 

Let's hope that next time Centro give us a slide on the issue, they include some or all of the following as absolute bare essentials for a cycle friendly city:

  1.   Fully segregated routes.
  2. Cycle lanes on roads (where the 3v's are lower than above – volume, velocity and vehicle size).
  3. Junction improvements (essentially more important than both of the above).
  4.  Filtered permeability – without understanding this crucial part of the urban planning process, the more visible cycle lanes are a waste of time).
  5. Secure cycle parking.
  6. Green corridors and linear parks.
  7. Using the planning process to get the best quality urban environment.
  8. Automated cycle hire.
  9.  Integration between cycle networks and public transport.

When these core issues are each addressed, then we are well on the way to developing a cycling Nirvana. At this point, I would love to see Centro install some solar powered cycle counters, as these are the our equivalent of those bus flags.


  1. Ten years ago I worked for a company who made real time public transport signs. A small group of us (I did the software) designed a solar powered bus flag but unfortunately just a few weeks from completion of the project it descended into a farce. Some managers actually suggested that a mains powered flag with a solar cell on it purely as decoration would suffice to look "green". Eventually they gave the project to external consultants who managed to build something so startlingly inefficient that it required a bus-stop sized set of solar panels to run it rather than the much less expensive A5 size panel built into the flag which our own design would have used. But this was actually considered to be "better" because it cost more. i.e. the council would be screwed out of more money to install it.

    This sort of thing may fool some people, but such inefficiency is not "green" by any stretch of the imagination.

    Not long after this I packed the job in. I had started there because they were an ethical business but it was no longer a company that I wished to work for.

    Anyway, look out for this sort of thing. There are people out there who will green-wash anything. Just because it's "solar powered" that doesn't mean it's doing anything good - and I'm an enthusiast for real life solar power.

    So what's the moral in this ? Mainly, we have to beware of hype.

    Solar powered counters are in themselves pointless. They're more likely to be an indication that your council fell for the sales patter of a company than that they've got the right idea about how to provide for cyclists.

    What cyclists really need is a high density of good enough infrastructure that people will cycle combined with a good way of finding accurate stats. There already exist inexpensive and discrete mechanical counters which give reasonably accurate stats with known error margins. They can be put in place for long periods of time and progress can be assessed.

    These things can be used in one location one year, another the next year, returning every so often so that you can tell what changed when the same counter was placed in the same location on a different date. They're a tried, tested and reliable technology and being mechanical they're just as "green" as anything solar powered. They're not much use for hyping up things that don't necessarily exist, though...

  2. Solar power is appropriate in places where a grid connection would be very expensive. E.g. where miles of a new cable is needed which won't be used by anything else.

    I'm not against putting cycling and walking in one category as long as everyone realises that cyclists travel at a far greater speed than pedestrians and require smoother surfaces. Only where pedestrians numbers are low and widths adequate will shared pedestrian/cyclist use bring more benefits than evils. Nevertheless there are respects in which cycling and walking are similiar. They both have a good public health justification (very important once you consider the resources which people are willing to spend on health), are low pollution, are indiviudal rather than collective (cf buses and trains) and have been overlooked for years as means of getting from A to B.

    I don't agree that junction improvements are always more important than cycle lanes or dedicated cyclists' paths. Hearsall Common in Coventry provides an example. The road is rather narrow and busy; so a separate route for cyclists is good. But the traffic light junction at the Hearsall Common / Queensland Ave. junction is no more difficult than the standard light controlled junction with four single-lane 30 mph roads. Perhaps if there were more cyclists using it, a on-carriageway cyclists only phase would be a realistic demand, but there are far more pressing issues for Coventry's would-be cyclists.

    In my experience the debate about cycle infrastructure is bedevilled by inappropriate generalisations. Each part of the infrastructure needs to be examined carefully and the possible solutions individually assessed rather than assuming a simple off the shelf solution is self-evident.