Monday, 21 October 2013

Edinburgh's Quality Bike Corridor

Not worth the paint

There has been a lot of talk recently about why painted bike lanes are largely, well, not worth the paint they're painted with. This has largely been prompted by the tragic deaths on London's blue-paint network, also known as Barclays Cycle Superhighways. There's a good analysis of why paint (in any colour) is not a solution here.

Today, I'm going to be looking at Edinburgh's flagship infrastructure. The 'Quality Bike Corridor' (QBC). Why now? Because if I cycle to work (Brompton pending - I'm currently walking) it'll largely be on this route. And because I walk along this road every day and witness what a disaster it it. Finally, because a lot of cycling money was spent on it, and that shouldn't be allowed to happen again.

This scheme has been covered by others before, doubtless better - firstly here and also here.

Laudable aims

The choice of route for the QBC seems very sound. It connects two campuses of Edinburgh University, approximately 3km apart. Students are great targets for cycling and 3km is a nice distance to cycle - about half an hour to walk, or 12 minutes on a bike. Two trips a day make a 3 hour a week time saving. With the right approach, this could have been a massive success. 

There's also a primary school along the route (Sciennes School), so a great opportunity to encourage cycling to school. Finally, since one of the campuses is next to the city centre, it's perfect to connect parts of South Edinburgh (eg Blackford, Mayfield and Newington) to Princes Street and Waverley Station.

You can view the route here, on Google Maps.

The Problem

So many, it's hard to know where to start. Let's take a look at a few pictures.

Can't see the QBC? You're looking at it!
Unfortunately, there's no room for a cycle lane on both sides of the road here. Well, certainly not where you have a right turn lane and a traffic island which usefully doubles up as a dangerous pinch point. This is a great example of prioritising motorists (those behind someone turning right) over cyclists. If we don't prioritise cycling on a flagship scheme, when do we? Disgraceful, and a potential accident spot.

Just duck under the van!
What do you mean your granny wouldn't cycle here?
I didn't bother to check if this parking was legal - there's a fair amount of legal and illegal parking on the QBC. Cyclists are forced into the main carriageway frequently. It's a recipe for disaster. Edinburgh Council's FAQ on the QBC asks, "Why are people parking on the route?'. The answer is interesting, in that instead of focusing on safety, it focuses on speed. They've missed the point. "Cycle lanes provide a fast way of getting along the route. These are protected from parking by yellow lines during the day – the time when road traffic is heaviest."

Of course, parking on a bike route shouldn't just be discouraged by law (and certainly not only at certain times!!!), but made impossible or completely unnecessary by infrastructure.

From  Cyclists in the City - how it's being done in New York
The above picture shows how it should be done - notice the parked cars are between the bikes and moving traffic - actually increasing the cyclists' safety. Also, the bikes are travelling the opposite direction to the parking, so the chance of 'dooring' is reduced. The excellent buffer area helps here too.

Roadworks Ahead - Cyclists squeeze by
This is an easy-fixed problem (move the damn sign), but it is a good indicator that the council don't take the QBC seriously. They'd never block 70% of a car lane with a sign, so why do they think it's acceptable to do it to cyclists?

From Google Maps
Finally, this surprisingly dangerous junction. There are a few similar examples. Notice the widening of the car lane just before the junction, so that it's wider than required for one vehicle, but not quite wide enough for two. It seems drivers frequently cut across the cycle lane, to undertake vehicles turning right or to turn left themselves. The nearest near miss I've seen on the QBC was at a junction of this style, where an undertaking car had to stop very suddenly to avoid a cyclist on their left. It's not good enough.

I've seen some brave parents ride to school with their children on this road. I've seen them overtake a parked lorry, then be overtaken by a double decker bus. To be frank, my heart has been in my mouth watching on a few occasions. I love cycling - heck, I write a blog about it! - but I don't think I could do it if I had kids of my own. It'd be walking, or yet another car on the school run. And that's sad.


As you can doubtless see, this flagship scheme is full of compromises. Motor traffic is almost never impeded. The closest thing to inconveniencing motor traffic is a 20mph limit along part of the route, which appears to be almost universally ignored. Perhaps the lanes have been narrowed, but they're not terribly narrow now. The aforementioned FAQ mentions this issue:

"Why aren’t the cycle lanes continuous all along the route?
Some sections of road along the route are not wide enough for cycle lanes in both directions, even when the width of the road for car users has been reduced. Where this is the case we have introduced a 20mph speed limit (see below)."

As we know, 20mph are a good thing for cycling. But in this case, I'd argue that they're useless. Firstly, because the volume of traffic is still far too high. The start of this blogpost gives some idea of the number of vehicles that we should consider too high, even with a 20mph limit.

The second reason they're useless here, is that they're widely ignored and there doesn't appear to be any enforcement of them. You could call it box-ticking. That's what it seems like.

Essentially, when we have to compromise, it's people on bikes that lose out. Given that we're trying to encourage cycling and discourage use of polluting, traffic-causing, obesity-raising vehicles, that doesn't make sense to me.

Welcomed by...

SPOKES, who are the most prominent cycle campaign in Edinburgh responded to the proposals quite tamely. You can read it yourself here. They do suggest improvements, but this is not the complete rejection of a waste of money that this scheme deserved. Again, I'll link to a spot-on blogpost about responses to the QBC.

The solution 

The real solution is easy. Perhaps not politically, but in terms of having an environment where cycling is safe and feels safe. Even more frustratingly, Spokes know the solution - one of their members posted it on a comment on a local councillor's blog! I'll quote:

Biggest problem is car parking - tackling this needs political courage - that is the main reason why QBiC was too timid - it's a decision for the politicians, not the officers! Another powerful but politically difficult option would be to not allow through motor traffic in the narrow section - or make it bus/bike/walk only - after all, there are 2 other parallel north-south roads available for cars!

There are two parallel roads. Let's look at one on Street View.

The road cars should be on, from Google Maps
The bus lanes are only active during the morning and evening weekday peaks. This road (the name changes a few times, but the configuration is the same) runs along pretty much all of the QBC. The fact that we're having to debate this is insane. Motor traffic goes here, cyclists and access go on the QBC. Enforce it through bollards, or making the QBC road alternating one-way for vehicular traffic.

This option should have been top of the agenda, yet it wasn't even on the agenda? Why not?

Here's a very rough diagram to show the idea.

Simple Solution? Arrows are on the QBC route.
Making the street (designated the QBC) alternating one way would give extra road space (to be given to high-quality cycle tracks) and massively reduce the amount of traffic on the road. 

Nervous about it? Want to try before you buy? Just get some no-entry and one way street signs and a bit of paint. Try it for 3 months, 6 months, whatever. This fantastic TED talk shows how New York do things quickly and cheaply with paint first. When they can show that the new design works better, they can make the changes permanent. If the data shows otherwise, it's easy to rollback and lessons can be learned.

Let's not waste another £650,000 (including money from the Scottish Government and Sustrans) on rubbish like this again.