Tag Archives: transport strategy

The dangers of blue sky thinking

I should start this post by stating something very clearly – I am not a blue sky thinker. I not a person to ‘think outside the box’ or ‘delayer problems’ or whatever other management bollocks you like to come up with for it. But I am a supporter of it – thinking creatively on how to tackle known issues that are not limited by current thinking. It is healthy to challenge established thinking and procedures, and I fully support creative solutions.

Blue sky thinking and transport, in my experience, has a sticky history. Transport is a very practical business. It is driven by rules and procedure, with practical problems requiring practical solutions.

A recent announcement, or should I say re-announcement, got me thinking about the applicability of blue sky thinking in transport. Lord Foster’s latest (re)announcement of plans for SkyCycle, a network of raised cycle tracks above railway lines in London accessible by ramps to street level, certainly strikes me as a blue sky thinking project. Lord Foster does his best at a sales pitch for the project:

“I believe that cities where you can walk or cycle rather than drive are more congenial places in which to live, To improve the quality of life for all in London and to encourage a new generation of cyclists, we have to make it safe. However, the greatest barrier to segregating cars and cyclists is the physical constraint of London’s streets, where space is already at a premium. SkyCycle is a lateral approach to finding space in a congested city. By using the corridors above the suburban railways, we could create a world-class network of safe, car free cycle routes that are ideally located for commuters.”

SkyCycle

SkyCycle. Image from Foster and Partners

That distinguished architectural minds such as that of Lord Foster are paying attention to how we can make cycling safer in our cities should be welcomed. I have no doubt that he is a clever guy, but sadly this proposed solution shows the danger of blue sky thinking – by coming up with a radical solution to a problem, you don’t actually solve the problem.

Lord Foster actually puts the finger directly on the problem – making cycling safe. But this solution only tackles part of it. The fundamental problem that is not tackled is making our streets safe for cycling. I don’t imagine that Lord Foster pretends that this plan is the magic solution that makes everybody want to cycle, nor should it distract from making our streets safe. But making our streets safe for cycling simply has to take priority.

Reading the public information on the scheme, it is clear to me that rather than the focus of SkyCycle being on safety, the focus is on capacity and speed. Reducing commuter journey times and providing capacity for up to 12000 cyclists per hour are laudable aims, but I thought that we as transport professionals were moving away from simple speed and capacity to measure scheme success? Subjective safety and route attractiveness (and I don’t just mean that as in the colours on the route look pretty as indicated in artist impressions of SkyCycle) are just two further criteria that I can think of.

This is where the second issue of blue sky thinking comes into play – distracting from other, more comprehensive and meaningful solutions. Streets are where life in our towns and cities takes place, where vulnerable road users face the greatest dangers and are in greatest need of our expertise on making them safe. Junctions, lack of segregated links on major roads, and poor permeability are just a few of the myriad of issues facing cyclists everyday at street level. Shoving them up in the sky does not tackle any of those issues, and at worst will distract decision makers and funding providers from tackling these issues.

It is reassuring to see that, publicly at least, Transport for London’s response to the SkyCycle idea has been nothing beyond considering the idea, as highlighted by As Easy As Riding a Bike. Network Rail seem very supportive of the idea, and why not? What they will get is a way of reducing overcrowding on peak hour inner-suburban trains through building an asset that I am very sure they won’t be responsible for maintaining.

The final issue with blue sky thinking is that bad ideas – ok, perhaps not bad, but say less desirable – become implanted in the imagination, and once done so is very hard to shift. We have already mentioned this regarding zombie road schemes, where poor schemes developed with the best intentions never get fully killed off purely because decision makers think that it is a good idea, but is ‘not a priority right now’ or ‘there are not enough funds available’, without being given the thorough critical review required of every transport scheme.

It is often said that in transport circles there is a preference for projects that make a statement as opposed to projects that just get on with it quietly by simply working. Ask a politician to open either a new link road or a new cycle path, and most will prefer the former because of the statement that it sends out. Schemes that are ‘modern’ or ‘futuristic’ also score well on this, though how vertically-separated routes are futuristic is beyond me. Buchanan anyone?

That is my fundamental worry with SkyCycle. By focusing on a piece of infrastructure that is expensive and of little practical benefit, both attention and funding will be drawn from proven, tried-and-tested, and deliverable schemes that will deliver real benefits to cyclists.

Blue sky thinking in transport is great, as it allows us to innovate and think of solutions to problems that can be delivered practically. But that is so long as such thinking is grounded in practicality. SkyCycle is a nice idea, but until we make our streets safer for cyclists, its going on my nice to have list.

Now, Lord Foster, can you come up with some imaginative ways to improve our streets for cyclists? That is something that I would be very interested in hearing.

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What makes a cycling strategy – Strategy commitment is defined when challenged

Andrew Gilligan

Its up to you

In delivering the objectives of the Vision, the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling gives strong hints as to what is the favoured approach. This indicates that segregation of cyclists from other traffic is preferred, particularly on major roads, that quietways should be as direct as possible, and that the most popular and dangerous junctions for cyclists should be tackled first with a preference to more substantial schemes at a few, rather than smaller schemes at a lot of junctions.

Saying words in a strategy, and saying what they mean in terms of delivery, is fine. In some ways that is the easy bit. But as I have continually said, getting buy-in to what the words of the strategy means is essential. And for that, you need a strong leader.

Ultimately, the responsibility for leadership on the delivery of the Mayor’s Vision rests with the Mayor himself. But much of the leadership responsibility for cycling in London now rests with the Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan. I have yet to experience Mr Gilligan’s leadership or engagement on cycling issues, so I will leave comment on that to other blogs.

What Mr Gilligan will need to show is reasoned leadership. Clearly he will be keen to deliver the Vision, but at the same time he needs to foster debate between different parties who have different priorities on what will be the best solutions to deliver the Vision. Even if decisions are taken that make one or more people or groups unhappy, its better they are unhappy and understanding than ignored and angry.

There is much evidence in the strategy that shows that even within TfL there is still much conflict when it comes down what the Vision means on the ground. No more so when the issue arises of cyclists conflicting with buses.

With the proviso that nothing must reduce cyclists’ right to use any road, we favour segregation. Most main roads in London are, however, also bus routes

Where it is not possible to segregate without substantially interfering with buses, we shall install semi-segregation

London Buses do have some perfectly valid concerns. They operate one of the densest and most popular urban public transport networks in Europe – certainly in the UK. The development of the network over many years has no doubt played a key role in overall traffic in London reducing. The network is prioritised throughout much of the central area, and anything that may delay bus routes is likely to incur extra operational costs due to more buses being needed to keep up the service frequency, and lost revenue. And it is much more desirable to have people travelling around London is buses than in cars.

I get the impression from the strategy that many of the more difficult infrastructure questions are being delegated to the London Cycle Design Standards, and so it should be. As i mentioned yesterday, it is not the place of strategy to outline solutions to every possible problem, least of all more detailed technical issues. So the refresh of this design guidance will be critical to the success of the vision.

But translating this vision even into this guidance will require strong and reasoned leadership, both at senior officer and political level. As Get Britain Cycling rightly states, without this leadership – even in the face of sometimes hostile opposition – any strategy is doomed to fail. Only time will tell if Mr Gilligan is up to the task.

What makes a cycling strategy – You can’t solve every problem

Crap cycle lane

I put this picture in because not only is it rubbish, but its funny too

The downfall of many-a transport strategy is identifying all problems that are related to that mode of transport or that particular issue.

There, I said. Now before you wonder whether or not I’ve been on the beer (it’s a work day, come on!), I will explain what I mean by that. My problem with transport strategies listing almost every possible issue associated with a chosen mode is that it actively encourages a focus on trying to solve all of them as well.

Now, you may think that is a good thing. And in a way you are right – in an ideal world we should look to tackle as many issues as we possibly can to encourage as many people to cycle as we possibly can. Many a time I have been asked by my delivery colleagues “what is our policy on this issue? Its not in the strategy”, so its tempting to write something, anything in your strategies to cover all bases.

But we don’t live in an ideal world. Transport budgets and staff resources are stretched enough already. Besides, do we really need a policy on every problem? Haven’t we got evidence and professional judgement to make those decisions?

A good strategy involves looking at the evidence base and from that determining what are the biggest issues that will stop us achieving the objectives. The remainder of your strategy is then built around tackling those highest priority issues. If there are spin-off benefits from this – and we know that cycling schemes have many – then fine. But focus is needed to target what resources that you have to what you want to achieve.

Rather amazingly, the Mayor’s Vision somehow manages to be both brilliant and poor at doing this. Reviewing the objectives, the quality of cycling infrastructure in terms of actual and subjective safety is a concurrent issue throughout:

London’s streets and spaces will become places where cyclists feel they belong and are safe

We will normalise cycling

 

We will segregate where possible

We will refocus to prioritise early and major improvements at and around London’s worst junctions,

Without seeing the full technical work and evidence base informing the decision to make improved infrastructure the priority, we can only assume that TfL have used a robust evidence base to support their decision. The Vision itself does offer clues that TfL is basing its approach on evidence. The review of the Junction Review process and learning the lessons of the London Cycle Network in delivering the Quietways are but two examples of this.

After starting off on this excellent base, the vision seems to go into bullet point overdrive. Issues are identified, before statements saying “we will do this” are offered. Perhaps its me, being used to the small resources of a rural shire authority unlike the big budgets of TfL, but a lack of the prioritisation of these other issues runs a big risk of simply blowing any post-infrastructure budget on anything and everything.

Smileage

Promotion can be very effective, but is it tackling key issues preventing people from cycling?

Focussing your strategy on key issues does not mean that you should neglect all the other issues that you have deemed less worthy of your attention. A key part of any strategy and its monitoring is a Risk Register identifying all risks that are likely to affect your ability to achieve your aims. Even if your response to a risk is just “keep an eye on it” that’s fine, so long as you are able to react when they do become a serious and persistent issue.

To say so as bluntly as that within a strategy is a difficult thing to do. You’ve realised its an issue, so why should you say you’ll do nothing about it? But doing so raises expectations that you will spend time and effort tackling minor problems, when the major problems should be your focus.

You may have noticed that so far, I have only fleetingly commented on the solutions offered in the Vision. There is a good reason for this. Solutions delivered on the ground are very much reliant on 3 things:

Without those 3, any scheme is doomed from the start. Hence why so far I have yet to focus on what Boris actually plans to do. In tomorrow’s post, that all changes…

What makes a cycling strategy – You can’t do it all on your own

Working together

Working together – that’s the idea, anyway

As many hours of frustration have taught me, the delivery of transport in the UK is far more complex than it should be. Just in the area where I work, we have us (the unitary authority), the Highways Agency, Network Rail, Train Operators and Bus Operators all delivering transport (that I can think of at the moment). Each organisation has varying levels of expertise in different fields, has different decision making procedures and responsibilities, and different powers of funding. Not to mention different priorities. 

For strategy development and delivery, this presents a major challenge. Successful delivery of a strategy relies not on just accepting the word of a strategy, but accepting the principle of its meaning amongst many different people and in many different organisations. Making streets safer for cycling is fine to accept, but accepting how this is done – whilst also making room for healthy debate – amongst many different delivery organisations is very tricky to do.

I’ll just come straight out with it: this is the one area of the strategy that I have the most concerns about, and poses the biggest risk to delivery. Whilst this is a vision for London, what must be accepted is that this is primarily a Transport for London document. The Mayor has the greatest degree of power over TfL, and TfL does have power to make changes on the strategic roads within London – the Transport for London Route Network (TLRN). But this network makes up but a fraction of the cycle network required to deliver the vision.

The strategy rightly identifies that the majority of the highway network is the responsibility of the London Boroughs, and consequently they are the most important stakeholders for the successful delivery of the strategy. As with all strategies, there are warm words about committing to work positively with the Boroughs to deliver the strategy, which is wishy-washy but fine. But unless the interpretation of the meaning of the strategy is communicated clearly, what you are attempting to achieve will be lost.

The different London Boroughs have some notoriety among bloggers of their varying standards of cycling infrastructure, and attitude to cycling generally. Unless I have misread the consensus view completely, Camden and Hackney are considered to be the better of the Boroughs for cycling (even if some consider them the best of a bad bunch), whilst other Boroughs are – how shall we say – on the must do better list.

This presents a clear challenge to TfL. How can it deliver the vision when the power to deliver and decision-making behind it rests elsewhere? Fortunately for them there are ways in which they can influence work outside of their direct control:

  • Supporting Borough officers by delivering and sharing best practice. Learning through doing, I think its called. And its the best possible way to learn and spread best practice. And based upon the fact that all us transport professionals are jolly nice fellows who are eager to learn, supporting Borough officers in this learning can only help.
  • Update the London Cycling Standards. Whilst its only guidance, doing this will go a long way to delivering better quality cycle infrastructure throughout London, and setting out what is expected of others looking to deliver the same. It is pleasing to see a commitment in the vision to revising this document.
  • Money. Working on the basis that power over schemes are directly related to where it comes from, TfL has significant influence. It can fund schemes itself, or use the existing Local Implementation Plan allocations to direct funding towards the sorts of cycling improvements that it wishes to see. Professionally, I would see this as very much the last resort, and it will cause no end of problems for relationships between the Boroughs and TfL, but it is an option.

And this is before we get onto the various legal powers that, if needs be, TfL can use on Borough highways to deliver infrastructure improvements.

Old Shoreham Road

More power to people who do this, please (yes, I know, its not in London)

Critical to the success of the strategy will be ensuring that the right people are given the powers, resources, and political backing in order to deliver the vision. The delivery structure for transport infrastructure improvements in London cannot be changed short of an Act of Parliament, so in the meantime the existing delivery structures need to focus much more on outcomes for cyclists.

A consistent conflict in project management is ensuring there is an effective balance between flexibility and firmness. In London, the delivery structures need to be flexibile enough so that the right people in different organisations are given freedom to deliver the cycling vision – even if this means ceding both funding and some decision-making power to other authorities. But they also need to be firm in what outcomes are expected, and what is meant by delivering a true cycling revolution in London.

All of this will not happen overnight. Culture change within organisations takes a long time, and appropriate methods of delivery take time to think through, set up, bed-in, and deliver. Rushing the job will lead to poor outcomes – just look at the first bash at the Junction Review for that. I would estimate that any such changes – should they be needed – will take at least 3 years to start seeing real benefits. But when the support for delivery is set up and running well, the benefits for cycling in London will be significant.

Time to get cracking.

In this post I have focussed particularly on the Boroughs and TfL, being the major parties who will actually deliver infrastructure and promotional measures in London. This is not to say that others do not play a role. Network Rail, the Royal Parks, Urban Design London, Sustrans, and the London Cycling Campaign are just a few I can think of. Apologies if I have missed you off!

What makes a cycling strategy – What you want to achieve guides all

Mayors Vision for Cycling

The sacred document

The importance of any transport strategy is that it provides a framework within which all decisions relating to that subject matter are made – a single reference point against which decisions can be justified. What you do should always be guided by what you want to achieve – your vision, your aims, your objectives. But what constitutes ‘good’ objectives, and how does Boris’ Cycling Vision measure up? Let’s have a look, shall we…

Its mostly about the evidence…

The most important thing is that objectives should be informed by high quality evidence. This involves setting a minimum standard for the quality of primary and secondary research, and sticking to it. Far too many based at least in part on research that is of questionable quality because it ‘is the best available’ or ‘there is no other research in its field.’ Poor excuses – poor research is poor research, and has no place informing policy development. Just see the quality evidence-free debate surrounding free town centre parking for evidence of that. It is always better to have policy informed by one or two areas of quality research than 10 poor studies.

There are many professional standards by which research is judged, and it is always worthwhile keeping on top of these. If you bash together a strategy in 2 days (not recommended), anything where you can interrogate the method and raw data yourself, peer-reviewed papers, and Government research is an absolute minimum. Not many strategies include a full reference list, plus Appendicies with full access to both research methods and data. And without spending countless days interrogating every data point yourself you cannot have 100% confidence that every sentence is supported by quality evidence. But flawed evidence sticks out like a sore thumb.

Looking at data presented to support the Vision’s approach, whilst there is much ‘clever use’ of statistics that raises some suspicion (173% increase in cycling on London’s main roads since 2001 is my favourite), one cannot identify any significant flaws with data sources used. For the lay person, it would appear that much of the points being raised, and reasoning for the approaches committed to, are not supported by evidence directly referenced in the document. I confess that in such cases, a transport professionals own knowledge is a supreme advantage to have, and one can reference to good studies supporting the approaches taken. But even accounting for that, there is no reason to not believe that much of what the Mayor is seeking to achieve is not in some way based upon good evidence.

…but partly about agreeing what is desirable

The importance of strategy is that it should set an overall framework within which all related The other aspect to objective setting is an ideological one. As professionals we are (or should be) guided by evidence. But even the best evidence can be contradictory, and decisions need to made as to what are the priorities. The outcomes of these discussions between professionals and with decision makers is then often guided by how people see the world, what is the overriding political focus at the time, and what is considered to be socially acceptable and ‘the norm’. Where such situations arise, they must be subject to extensive discussion before a general consensus on what the priorities are is reached.

Sometimes, an outcome of this are priorities which I lovingly refer to as Weasel-worded Guff. I know them, because I’ve written plenty of them. Stuff like “To improve conditions for cyclists that make it a more attractive means of getting around” means both nothing and everything. A good strategy commits itself through its objectives to set priorities, and explicitly states them. It may highlight areas where compromise is needed, but objectives are a statement of intent, and should be worded as such. Compromise still requires conviction, and strategies should be worded as such.

Your views on the objectives that result from this entire process depend upon how you view both the evidence, and your own priorities for transport. Based upon my own views of transport’s role in the world, I have to say that I am very impressed by the objectives – identified as ‘Key Outcomes’ – and the tone of the Mayor’s Vision.

The Tube Network for the bike strikes me as somewhat more of a marketing title than anything else, but the supporting text makes it clear what is intended by this. The language indicates a preference towards segregated, Dutch-style cycle routes over cycle lanes and semi-segregation. It also indicates how routes will be developed – superhighways forming the basis of the network, with supporting Quietways. Mentions of the taking traffic lanes on the likes of the Westway, and the now-famous concept design for Victoria Embankment have stimulated much debate about the commitment to these principles.

In terms of intentions, there is not much to argue over. There is sense in learning from those who have led the way for decades on investing in cycling – the Dutch. The development of a basis of a cycle network also makes sense, at least as a starting point. But as ever, the devil will be in the detail. Statements of intent in policy are fine, but the risk of not being able to deliver in accordance with these statements needs to be accepted. Adapting a full Dutch approach to each route being developed may not be possible in all circumstances (not least because of their current legality), so acceptable compromises will need to be negotiated and accepted. I will go into delivery in much more detail later this week.

Victoria Embankment cycle lane proposal

The Victoria Embankment Proposals

Safer Streets for the bike first reads first reads as the weasel-worded guff that I mentioned before. I mean, who doesn’t want safer streets for the bike? Regardless of what you think of certain schemes and strategies, no transport professional intends to make streets unsafe for anybody, and certainly don’t set out to kill people by their plans. But what is interesting about this objective is how it combines both subjective safety and ‘measurable’ safety.

Measurable safety has been easily defined and accepted for years – police records of collisions resulting in slight injuries, serious injuries, and fatalities. Or STATS19 as its known in ‘the trade.’ It has, rightly in my view, been used as a means of prioritising expenditure towards areas where collisions are numerous in terms of numbers and severity. One of my concerns about TfL’s Junction Review is that it is simply a list of junctions that TfL wish to improve. To see the prioritisation of major improvements and funding informed by evidence is a welcome step to rectifying this issue.

Subjective safety is a matter that too many transport professionals have struggled with. Most accept that road safety has a subjective element, and evidence suggests that subjective safety fears play a major role in the uptake of cycling. But many have also struggled with trying to marry subjectivity into seemingly objective mechanisms for assessing schemes. What the Mayor states in this strategy is that this isn’t that hard in reality:

London’s streets and spaces will become places where cyclists feel they belong and are safe…

This is a strong statement of the importance of the subjective when designing streets for bicycles. Designing to make streets subjectively safe for potential cyclists will take time, and a substantial amount of professional development for some engineers. But as schemes are designed and delivered with a focus on subjective safety, so the data required to inform objective safety analysis will grow. Not that there isn’t any already of course, but it would appear that TfL are committed to that. More on TfL committment to come later in the week.

Royal College Street

Plans for Royal College Street, Camden, where a feeling of safety is as important as actual safety

More people travelling by bike again strikes as somewhat wishy-washy at a first read. In particular I am not impressed to get people of all backgrounds to cycle. This strikes me as simply another way of saying “get everybody cycling” which is what every cycling strategy ever written has said. But a single key word in this paragraph sets it out from many others – normalise.

Normalising cycling goes beyond simply encouraging more people to cycle and making it an everyday activity for them. It is about making cycling an everyday part of the streetscene of London, and about making people accept cycling (whether they cycle or not) as such. Too much time (and vitriol) is wasted on phoney ‘wars’ between different users of streets, and not enough on acceptance. Transport professionals have worked hard for many years to reconcile different and opposing views – a good example of this being the recent work of Urban Movement and others on bike tracks and bus stops. Its is excellent to see a Mayor who is committed to making cycling a normality of every day street life:

Cycling will be treated not as niche, marginal, or an afterthought, but as what it is: an integral part of the transport network

At the very heart of this strategy is my belief that helping cycling will not just help cyclists. It will create better places for everyone

Better places for everyone provides the focus of the strategy on the wider benefits of cycling. I have no doubt about the much wider benefits of cycling: improved population health, possibly reduced crowding on public transport, cutting vehicle emissions where there is modal transfer, and improved quality of place on our streets. And there is much evidence to support many of these additional benefits, though I think more tree planting could be achieved without a cycle network!

Other cycling strategies do include the wider benefits of cycling within them. But what is impressive about the Mayor’s Vision is that by highlighting these wider benefits as a part of what he wants to achieve, Boris has given a clear message that these are as important as the direct benefits of cycling to current and potential cyclists. This is an important selling point for improving cycling: it is not a cycling infrastructure investment being made, but an investment in the economic and social infrastructure of a city, and an investment that benefits much more than just cyclists. Whilst many groups won’t be won purely because of a simple strategy, it at least gives TfL a sound policy basis on which to make these points.

In all, the Vision has made a good start. It knows what it wants to achieve, the language strongly indicates a committment towards its objectives, and for the most part it is supported by a sound evidence base. These strong objectives, and sense of what the vision wants to achieve, provide a good basis on which to start delivering the cycling revolution Boris clearly wants. But this is just the start, as we will explore throughout the rest of this week.

What makes a cycling strategy

Boris Johnson

My vision is rather good, chaps

A mere 5 weeks after it has been published, this week I finally got around to reading what seems to be the superstar of the transport strategy world at the moment: London Mayor Boris Johnson’s Vision for Cycling in London. That’s what being busy and being knocked out for a week with illness will do for you.

There has been quite a lot of debate across the blogosphere about the new strategy, with most being at least cautiously supportive of it. There are far too many good posts to list them all, but some good ones as a starter are those by David Arditti, Mark Treasure, John Dales, and Mark Ames. Yes, I know most of the examples I have given are cycle bloggers, but (a) they are bloody good analyses in their own right, and (b) who else is going to comment most on a cycling strategy?

Much of the comment thus far has been about strategy content – what it says and whether Transport for London and the Mayor actually mean to deliver the vision set out. But do nice words in a document a good strategy maketh? Clearly not, but if not then what does make a good strategy, and is Boris’ vision any good?

Now having worked in transport strategy for the better part of a decade, most people would assume that I know what the rules are for making a good transport strategy. I certainly know how not to write a transport strategy. You could pay me to write a Cycling Strategy within a day, but I can tell you now it will be based upon some research, my own knowledge, objectives I can write in my sleep, and no consultation – far from an exemplar strategy. But to be honest there are no hard-and-fast rules for writing the perfect strategy. Probably the closest I have seen is Sir Gus O’Donnells Ten Commandments of Good Policy Making, a fantastic read from 3 decades of experience in the Civil Service.

Having said all of this, I do believe that there are a number of guiding principles that make for a quality transport strategy that sets out a clear vision, and above all achieves it – or at least comes bloody close to it. After several attempts at knocking one together, I don’t feel that I can do the analysis of the Mayor’s Cycling Vision any justice with just one post. So over the course of this week, I will publish several posts covering these principles, which are:

  • What you want to achieve guides all
  • You can’t do it all on your own
  • You can’t solve every problem
  • Strategy commitment is defined when it is challenged
  • A strategy is not a document

The first post will be posted up later today, and at the end of the week I’ll try and tie it all together with some concluding thoughts on the vision. So, here goes…