Friday, January 24, 2014

The Human Scale - Thoughts from a 5 year old

262/365 Night cycle

Last night I and 1,100 others packed into the Hackney Empire to watch a screening of The Human Scale - a film by Andreas M. Dalsgaard about how cities work. It focusses around the work of Danish architect and professor Jan Gehl who has studied human behaviour in cities through 40 years. He has written several books on how modern cities work against human interaction and intimacy, and argues convincingly that we can build cities to take human needs on board. The gist of the film is that when we plan on a human scale, rather than on a scale for buildings or cars we improve our cities and that it's actually cheaper to plan for humans than cars. The film covers case studies from various cities around the world, looking at mistakes that have been made, and in some cases how they are being corrected.

It was an absolutely fascinating film, and inspiring as to how cities can be changed to work for people not cars. We then had a panel discussion, which was a little less so! It was chaired by Dave Hill from the Guardian, who made a good job of getting questions from all levels, including our own up in the Gods. All of the participants, including Gehl himself unfortunately, seemed to fall into the trap of believing some of the nonsense we've heard spouted recently that London's streets are too narrow to adapt for cycling for example. This is of course only the case if you continue, as TfL seem to be doing, to prioritise the movement of cars and motor traffic over the movement of people.

The other thing Gehl picked up on, which is spot on, is the difficulty that the Mayor of London has compared with, say, the Mayor of New York, that he basically has next to no powers to make the 32 boroughs and the City of London actually do anything. This means that for change to happen we are dependent on people in the boroughs being forward thinking and open to making brave changes. I think it's fair to say on that that some boroughs are braver than others. You can see an example of this in the allocations of money for cycling recently granted to boroughs, based on their own bids for cash. The disparities in funding show the disparities in ambition. Of course Boris himself spouts grand aims about cycling and so on, and then in the next breath backs ridiculous road building schemes that forget that people actually live and go about their daily lives right next to the pollution spewing out of these monstrosities. And Lewisham council's lack of ambition for a cleaner healthier borough shows in their unwillingness to back a 20mph speed limit on the borough's roads, despite all the evidence of the benefits this would bring. (To give them their due though at least they see a bit more sense than their neighbours on daft ideas about expanding roads!)

But why 'thoughts from a 5 year old'? Well, this morning I was chatting to my daughter as we walked to school and she was asking about the film I'd been to see the night before. "Oh, you won't be interested in that," I said. But she continued to press for explanations, so I told her what it was about. "I am interested!" she exclaimed, putting me firmly in my place. So I asked her what three things she would do to improve Catford. These are her ideas:

1. Empty the bins and take them off the streets when they're empty so they don't smell

2. Put up signs everywhere saying "Welcome to Catford"

3. Plant more trees on the streets to get rid of the air pollution.

Add to that getting rid of a few more of the cars and I think we have the start of a plan.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Operation Safeway and me

(photo courtesy of bitospud)

In November last year, six cyclists were killed on London's roads within the space of two weeks.  This prompted the Met to launch "Operation Safeway", an initiative designed to put police officers at key junctions across London to dish out advice to cyclists and drivers about cycle safety. In Lewisham (to my eyes) this mainly seemed to involve standing around at Loampit Vale and at Courthill Road, occasionally talking to cyclists and ignoring drivers who stopped in the cycle boxes at these junctions...

A couple of weeks ago the police revealed the results of Operation Safeway. Lots of advice was given out as well as some fixed penalty notices for not having lights, cycling on the pavement etc. More FPNs were given to drivers than cyclists overall, which is something I suppose.

I thought now might be a good time to write about my own experiences with Operation Safeway and what happened next... I use both Courthill Road and Loampit Vale. At Courthill Road I cycle on the road. Despite it not being a particularly pleasant junction, I've never felt that unsafe there. At Loampit Vale it's a different matter. Shortly after I started cycling to work back in June a cyclist was killed at the junction there with the driver of the car failing to stop. The roundabout that has to be navigated if you're coming from Catford is also pretty unpleasant. But there's an alternative - the Waterlink Way, or London Cycling Network route 21, is Lewisham council's flagship cycling route. They even produce a fancy leaflet to encourage people to use it. It's also part of the national cycle network, which I believe is operated by SusTrans. When I cycle to work, I use LCN21 to avoid the roundabout, and cross using a pedestrian/cycle shared crossing at Thurston Road to continue on the Waterlink Way up to Deptford. This part of the route passes the new Glass Mill leisure centre and is shared space for cycling and walking.

I came across the police monitoring this route on 2nd December in the evening, when I was stopped by an officer who told me I wasn't allowed to cycle on the pavement there. I pointed out that it was shared space and was allowed to continue on my way. However, I decided to take it up with the council and London Assembly members, as I felt that if the police carried on telling cyclists they had to use Loampit Vale and the roundabout that would be dangerous. I emailed four assembly members and my local councillor on 3rd December. I had an immediate response from Caroline Pidgeon, Deputy Chair of the Transport Committee saying that she would take this up with Transport for London. Lewisham Council also took up the case with the Met. I also heard from Val Shawcross within a few days, saying that she'd had a number of similar complaints from across London and that she'd raised it with Boris's cycling commissioner, Andrew Gilligan. He'd also received a number of complaints. Darren Johnson and Jenny Jones also raised the issue in the assembly through the Police and Crime Committee. I passed the info on to the London Cycling Campaign too. They also raised it with the Met.

I heard from Caroline Pidgeon again last week when the Met came back to her with some further information about their briefings for LCN21. This is what they said:

"We have had at least one of the sites where our officer has misdirected cyclists from what was in fact a shared space on the pavement onto the road. That was brought to our attention.  One of the traffic inspectors visited the site and saw that we were wrong and we put it right for the briefing for officers there later." A full transcript of the session can be seen here – the discussion about cycling starts about half way through.

The Met have now provided further detail to say that:

"The additional briefing was specifically about the correct use of LCN21.  It was done by 2pm on 3 Jan.  It contained detailed instruction on LCN21 and how it operates at this location.  It also contained several photographs of the location and the signs.  The briefing also highlighted the circumstances of the fatality in June."

I hope that the briefing was done by 2pm on 3 December rather than January, otherwise we've had a whole month of the police sending people the wrong way in Lewisham...

I was impressed with the response from the council, LCC and 3 of the 4 assembly members who got back to me. And I'm glad that the Met have changed their briefing too. I'm still waiting for Len Duvall to reply to my email.

Update 30 Jan: Len Duvall's office contacted me to say they couldn't find a record of my email and could I please resend it. I did, pointing out that the issue was pretty much sorted for now. I received a long and detailed response about all sorts of things to do with cycling in Lewisham. But that's for another post.