Friday, 28 October 2011

The silent majority

On my ride to work this morning, I saw a couple of women waiting at the bus stop. I never try and guess people's ages because I generally offend. If I were to hazard a guess though, and I mean this with the utmost respect, I'd say they were in their sixties. After 9 o'clock in the morning, you see lots of women (and men) that age at bus stops and on the bus.

You never see them on bikes.

In the mornings, I also see plenty of children going to the local primary school. Many are on foot, a few are on scooters and a few are on bicycles wobbling down the pavement while peering under the rim of their helmets. The children are squashed with their parents on narrow pavements while cars sail past on the road with other children strapped into their back seats. The cars are often slowed though because there are so many of them. Long lines of cars are parked on both sides of the road and there is generally a queue of cars near the front gate of the school.

Every time the children on foot need to cross the road, they have to stop and wait for a line of cars. The only exception is the one crossing that is staffed by Year 7s with stop signs and fluoro jackets. The only pity is that the crossing is close to useless. It is right opposite only one of the school gates and by that point most children are on the side of the road they need to be.

I mention this, as I have done in the past, because it is the women at the bus stop and the children exposed to the danger of motor vehicles outside their schools who should be considered first and foremost in urban planning decisions.

There have been a few articles recently about how few children walk or cycle to school in Australia. One was on The Conversation and another in the Sydney Morning Herald. The answer to the question is quite simple and is summed up in one of the comments in the SMH article:

Give us safer and less polluted roads, and we will be able to send the kids to school on their bikes. Until then, I am not going to risk my kids because of a useless government.

A little hearsh perhaps but completely rational and completely correct. We can criticise the parents driving the lines of cars outside schools each morning but who is going to be the first to change?

In the same way that the tax system can be used to encourage or discourage certain behaviour, I think you can encourage certain behaviour by designing the built environment in a certain way.

In residential suburbs in Australia, we could start with two very easy steps. The first is to install pedestrian crossings at each intersection, especially those close to schools. It's not enough to have one token crossing that motorists are not even required to stop at unless stop signs are being held up. What is required are crossings on each side of an intersection (3 on a t-junction and 4 on a normal crossing) that require motorists to stop if a person is waiting to cross.

The second step is to block streets to though traffic. War on the Motorist made the (very good) point recently that there is a difference between roads, streets and lanes:

Roads are for travelling between places; streets and lanes are places, and to be driven on only for property access and loading.

In other words, our residential streets are places where people live, meet and go to school. Once that is recognised, it is obvious that they should be blocked to through traffic. They are not thoroughfares.

Those two things, while very simple, would make a huge difference. They would only of course be a start. After that, you start working in earnest on "roads". What is the purpose of the road? What sort of traffic should be on it? Should that include heavy trucks? What is the appropriate speed? How do we define the space for people walking, those using bicycles and those using cars?

Absolutely vital is to consider the women at the bus stop and children. That is the mistake we make at the moment. Adelaide City Council is to be congratulated on its plans for cycling over the next two years epecially the fact that its plans are "being treated as an interim guide while a major cycling infrastructure plan for the next three years is completed". Note though, they say "The council will set up a reference group to oversee the works and liaise with cyclists and the State Government to ensure community needs are met."

Please don't just liaise with cyclists. Liaise with the women at the bus stop and the majority of the population who might well use a bicycle more if it were made easy.

On a lighter note, the brilliant photographer, film-maker and general all-round groovy person Marc from Amsterdamize has put together another great video. This time to the music of Jack Johnson. Watch and enjoy:

We're Only Human from Amsterdamize on Vimeo.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Contrary to popular belief ...

If you have any interest at all in taming motorised traffic and providing freedom of transport choice for everyone, you will know about David Hembrow's blog and the brilliant videos by Mark Wagenbuur.

His latest video will I am sure become a classic. It is discussed in the latest post on A View From the Cycle Path. It's all about how the Dutch got their fabulous cycling infrastructure. It's not because "the Netherlands is a flat country with its towns close together". It is because of deliberate political decisions in the 1970s to move away from streets designed for motorised traffic flow at the expense of people not in cars, which is what we still do.

Getting things changed didn't happen overnight. It took a decade. It may well take that long here but I'm fairly certain it will happen.


Thursday, 20 October 2011

An index of friendliness

Copenhagenize Consulting recently published its 2011 index of Bicycle Friendly Cities. Amsterdam is at the top with Copenhagen a close second with places like Rio, Vienna and New York coming up the rear. They rated 80 cities around the world but purposely included major cities because of time constraints. As they say, smaller cities like Groningen or Malmö would have been at the top of the list had they done so. In fact, it's probably safe to say that the list would have been full of Dutch cities.

They spent some time putting together a list of 13 criteria by which each city would be assessed. It's worthwhile to see how we would rate. Here are a couple:

Perception of Safety:
Is the perception of safety of the cyclists in the city, reflected in helmet-wearing rates, positive or are cyclists riding scared due to helmet promotion and scare campaigns?
Rated from mandatory helmet laws with constant promotion of helmets to low helmet-usage rate.

As one of only two countries in the world with national helmet laws, we would have to get a zero for this.

Bicycle Infrastructure:
How does the city's bicycle infrastructure rate?
Rated from no infrastructure/cyclists relegated to using car lanes to high level of safe, separated cycle tracks.

Adelaide would have to rate quite low with this but as I say below, we have people at the Adelaide City Council who I think get it.

Urban Planning:
How much emphasis do the city's planners place on bicycle infrastructure - and are they well-informed about international best practice?
Rated from car-centric urban planners to planners who think bicycle - and pedestrian - first.

Again, we would have to rate low but we at least have people in the city council who seem to understand this. Sometimes it pays to whinge. I wrote to the city council recently to complain about the North Terrace Frome Street intersection. It is where the one separated bike lane we have in the city comes to an abrupt end (on a hill) and turns into nothing once you get across the intersection. Not only that, the road narrows to leave you squashed into the gutter unless you puff and pant to get up the hill before the cars and "take the lane". By doing that you're well and truly placing your life in the hands of the motorist behind you.

I got a favourable response saying that, in not so many words, they felt my pain and shared by concern. They even liked my idea of having a separate traffic light for people on bikes that allowed them to get across the intersection before cars were allowed to.

A week later I was sent a copy of the council's Bicycle Action Plan for 2011-13. The budget for the plan for 2011-12 (while modest) is allocated while the budgeted amounts for the following year are as yet only indicative. Nevertheless, if the money can be found it is a significant improvement. For example, the budget set aside for Frome Street in the 2011-12 financial year is $20,000 (for design) which increases to $100,000 in the following year for construction. While an improvement, it is still a very small amount in the scheme of things.

The plan includes extending the network of on-street cycle lanes. The painted lanes we have (often in door zones) are far from ideal (in fact they're largely useless) but they are at least something. I'd just love to see them put on the other side of the parked cars. The plan also includes installing and testing alternative forms of lane demarcation on Morphett and Franklin Street. I look forward to seeing what that involves. I hope it is more than the green carpet we see in a couple of places.

It would be easy to complain that it's far from enough (which it is) but Adelaide City Council is working with a fairly miniscule budget. The plan also only covers two financial years after which you'd hope that a new one will be developed. This and what they are doing with the Picture Adelaide Program (see the previous entry) shows that we are making at least some progress.

The shape of things to come - eventually
Via Amsterdamize

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

The voice of the people

Until now, any article in the local newspaper about bicycles, bus lanes or any effort to make our streets more inviting to human beings rather than motor vehicles is met with the same, tediously predictable comments (with some notable exceptions of course) about motorists paying for the roads, cyclists never obeying any road rules and nearly killing people, and so on.

The tide might be changing though.

A recent article was about bus lanes. The Chief Executive of the Department of Transport, Rod Hook, suggested that dedicated bus lanes and bus stops may be the answer to city traffic congestion. He is without doubt correct. Interestingly, the online poll on the same page was overwhelmingly in favour of bus lanes. Looking through the 50 comments, quite a few posters are in favour. Some even go so far as to suggest removing on-street car parking (another good idea).

A more recent article is about Jeff Shumaker who is the deputy chief urban designer in New York City's Department of Planning. He suggests creating a better balance among the needs of cars, bikes and pedestrians. Crazy, I know. Of the 23 comments at the time of writing, there were a few of the usual boring type, eg: "It wont change the fact that bike riders dont follow the road rules. The leg shaving skinny mocca latte drinkers have no place on the road."

Quite a few though were bang on the money, eg: "if Adelaide had bike lanes like those in the photo attached to this article you would find a lot more people leaving the car at home and cycling around Adelaide."

Adelaide City Council launched its Picture Adelaide program not long ago. It has its own website and iPhone app. With the app, you can take a picture of somewhere in the city and send off a comment with it about how it could be improved, what's good about it and so on. The program has been going for a few months now and all the comments have been collated and summarised. The heading "Getting Around" interested me most of all. This is what it says:

You told us about…
40 km speed limit; fewer cars; more trams; more one-way and closed streets and lanes; bikes and walkers everywhere; free electric bike and car recharge stations; more bike hire and storage areas; free public transport within the city; well-lit, shaded, clean and safe bicycle tracks, paths and laneways.

Interesting, isn't it? Nothing about more car parks, wider roads, higher speed limits and all the rest of it. The clear message is that of a friendlier and more human city. Adelaide's Mayor ran for office on a platform that was all about this. I hope he can keep the momentum going.

The next stage of Picture Adelaide asks three specific questions. One is "Where would you improve bike lanes?" The obvious answer is "everywhere". Add your comments while you can and make sure you tell them what "improve" means:

(Borrowed from a commenter on Adelaide Cyclists)

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Minimising risk

A report on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's website begins by saying "A woman died Tuesday morning when her bicycle collided with a car door". Read a little further and you see that that is not what happened at all. The door was opened in her path.

I remember a similar story in German about 20 years ago. A woman was knocked off her bike by a car door being opened. Her young child, who was in the child seat on the back of her bike, was killed by a passing truck.

We can all tell stories of doors being flung open into our path. Many of us avoid or reduce the risk by riding further to the right, sometimes outside of the (very narrow) bike lane. The lanes are useless.

If a person is injured at work because of a faulty system, the employer can be prosecuted and fined a lot of money. They are then expected to take measures to reduce the risk of the same type of incident occurring again. For example, recently an employer was fined $33,750. A 57-year-old employee suffered concussion and deep tissue damage to his neck and back when the ladder he was standing on broke while he was unslinging a load of steel tubing that had been placed in a stillage located on a rack. The company was prosecuted because it failed to ensure a designated area was marked and used for loading and unloading tubing from stillages at ground level, and to prevent employees from using ladders to reach stillages and/or sling tubes instead of moving the stillages to ground level.

Read that again, fined $33,750 because it failed to prevent its employees from using ladders instead of bringing things down to ground level. And rightly so you might say. Employers should do everything they can to ensure their employees are safe. I totally agree but somehow those types of rule do not seem to apply to cyclists. There are sources of serious danger all over the place that could be minimised with proper design. Instead of a bit of thought and money being put into these things, cyclists are just expected to fend for themselves.

When you're dealing with occupational health and safety, the guidelines are always the same. Once you have identified the risk, there is a heirarchy of measures you use to deal with it. You ask yourselves the following questions:

1. Can we eliminate the hazard? If no:
2. Can we substitute the hazard? If no:
3. Can we use engineering controls? If no:
4. Can we use administrative controls (Safe systems of work, permits, signage)? If no:
5. Can we use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)?

The third is the most obvious. Using engineering controls means designing a system that does not put cyclists in a position where every single parked car they pass is potentially going to knock them over into the path of traffic. In this country, we have gone straight to the fifth. We've got the fluoro vests and helmets but they're what you do when the other more effective ways of reducing danger are impossible. Are they impossible? Didn't think so.

I fear this sort of thing will keep happening.

(Picture from an article in the Courier Mail on the same subject)

Monday, 3 October 2011

Peter Goers

Peter Goers is erm different. You can hear him on ABC Radio in the evening. He's a slow talker which makes it very relaxing. He is a refreshing antidote to radio hosts who shout at you at a million miles an hour.

He's also famous for driving a really old Volvo around. We know this from his page in the Sunday Mail. Peter is a friend of the motorist and has written in the past about how unfairly they can be treated.

On his opinion page is a little box with the heading "What's hot and what's not". This week, Peter told us that bike lanes are not hot. He says:

Bike lanes aren't very widely used. Parking is more valuable so let's get rid of them.

Suggesting that bike lanes are not widely used is a very easy mistake to make. What Peter might mean is that he does not see bikes banked up in them. If that is so, it is for obvious reasons. Only Copenhagen has recently complained of too many bikes. We are very far from having that problem.

Similar complaints were made not long ago about a bus and taxi lane that was put on the M4 motorway outside London on the way to Heathrow airport. There were lots of complaints saying that the lane was mostly empty and that cars should be allowed to use it again. Instead of properly analysing it, the Government listened to the whining and reopened the lane. The effect was to slow traffic down for everybody. Peter should be careful what he wishes for.

It's the second sentence in Peter's comment that confuses me though. It is as if parking and bike lanes are mutually exclusive. We all know they're not. On some roads, the bike lane will be painted between parked cars and moving traffic. They are useful because theu provide some protection for the parked cars. In other places, parking lanes are the bike lanes. Here's some top class cycling infrastructure in Medindie:

Describing parking as "valuable" is interesting but probably correct. I took this photo of the car park to a Government office on Main North Road the other day:

Nobody uses it because it's too far to walk from it to the extrance to Target. It would take at least two minutes. The only cars that are ever parked there are these Government Toyotas. They are alwasy sitting there. If built on, that land could fit a whole bunch of townhouses. At $300k a pop, that's probably a couple of million dollars worth of land. The cars are all nearly new. My estimate would be that they each cost between $25k and $35k depending on whether they're Corolla or Camry (I'm sure that's pretty conservative).

So you're looking at about $200,000 worth of cars sitting on land worth seven figures.

And that's on a public holiday when the office is most definitely shut. "Valuable" is certainly one way of describing it.