Interview: Brian Deegan, Cycle Planner/Engineer

In his last job, at the London Borough of Camden, Brian Deegan made a name for himself as an engineer who understood cycling and who was prepared to push the envelope on street design. His unusual (for London) solution in Royal College Street is due to open this summer. Deegan is now working as a contractor for Transport for London and among his tasks will be to progress the new ‘Go Dutch’ approach in TfL schemes and to contribute to the revision of the London Cycle Design Standards. He spoke to London Cyclist’s Tom Bogdanowicz.

You’ve established a reputation as an engineer who is innovative and who understands the cyclist’s needs – what’s different about your approach? 

Well I cycle and that’s got to help. I just picture doing every single movement on a bike, because I know that cyclists will do every movement, at  junctions in particular — so (I ask myself) have all those movements been designed for? At Camden we used to get asked ‘why this cyclist stuff?’ and I would say’ look at our policy — our (Camden) Transport Strategy says pedestrians first, cyclists second, public transport third and then private motorcar use.’

So you just incorporate that into your design really; pedestrians are fine when they have the right amount of footway, cyclists need to make all their movements and, obviously, if there is a bus route you bring buses up a bit higher in the equation. And then, how do I manage the car flow through there as they (cars) can take care of themselves because our roads are basically designed for cars. My dad was a civil engineer, he built a lot of the roads in this country, and I see myself as retro-fitting those roads for more sustainable options. And the first thing to do is to get the engineers out on bikes.
What have you learned from infrastructure design on the continent?

The overall Dutch principal is that cyclists are like water. I spent about a week with Dutch engineers and designers: they always consider the quickest route between places. You can either try and control that and stop it and make people break the rules, or accommodate it.

I remember saying to Dutch engineers: “Well cyclists don’t stop at the lights.” And they said: “Well what’s the matter with your design?” They meant what was I doing in the way of designing road infrastructure that is making cyclists feel it’s better to break the rules. Or “is the signal timing  too long?” — if you come up to a signal and you are waiting 120 seconds to cross you are more likely to jump it, not like in Holland or Denmark where the most you wait is 40 seconds. So now I ask myself ‘what am I designing that’s making people go wrong?’.

Transport planners often cite the need to maintain or increase motor traffic capacity as an obstacle to building better and safer infrastructure for cycling — how can this be overcome?

The example I would give is Camden Cycling Campaign who understand signal functions and will turn up at meetings and when you say you can’t do that to capacity, they will say ‘we actually did our own counts this morning and if you extend the intergreen (time between green signals) there and change the functions — the lights and the phasing — then it can work.’

It is a concern, we do have to keep vehicles moving, we have to deal with the situation that is there as well, but we are building for growth in cycling and we have to model that into the situation. So I think there is a thawing of attitudes with respect to capacity being the only major concern at junctions.

Despite all the growth in cycle use we still see traffic schemes that disregard or forget the cycle user — you’ve worked for a local authority, what is the best way of ensuring engineers deliver schemes that are cycle-friendly?

The key to get across is that at all schemes are cycling schemes. Every scheme, if it is being road safety audited needs to consider the movements of cyclists. No matter if you are doing road safety schemes, if you are doing routes to schools, if you are doing bus schemes, you need to know about the moves of cyclists and their specific ways of functioning.

Government rules and regulations are blamed by engineers for not coming up with more innovative solutions – is this insurmountable? 

No, it's not. When you actually meet these people and you make a sound, reasoned argument for innovation, a lot of the times they will listen. The DfT Signing the Way document had a section saying if there were experimental designs they would support them and they would look to trial them and that was the case for me on Royal College Street. [Deegan says he expects the new scheme ,which includes cycle lanes protected by planters to be ready at the end of July. He also points out that road maintenance costs will be much lower because 50% of the road space is only going to be used by cyclists]. 

During the 1960s roads and junctions were designed to enable drivers to go fast — given the Mayor is now supporting 20mph zones and 20mph on some TfL roads, will we see roads designed to encourage slower not faster driving?

Absolutely. People say ‘we’re in central London, no-one is going at 20mph anyway, you’d be lucky to get up to that speed, what’s the point of a limit, it’s not going to  change anything’. But it changes everything as a design engineer: you have a completely different palette of options when you are designing a streetscape.

If I get given a street and am told it has a 20mph limit that affects all the junction radiuses (corner angles). I can tighten everything up, it means I can have areas where cars and pedestrians and cyclists negotiate for space, it changes the whole rules of the game.

If it's 30mph I’m going to have to control everything, I’m going to have to have signalised junctions, I’m going to have to illuminate everywhere and I’m going to have to put in radiuses that refuse vehicles can take at 30mph because that’s the design speed of the road. All these things that people don’t like about a street environment is about having to design for 30mph, which means we have to protect people from it.