Voice of the Month: Dr Rachel Aldred from the University of Westminster explains why 'space for cycling' is so important at Aldgate

Dr Rachel Aldred (pictured below) is senior lecturer in transport at the University of Westminster, as well as being a London Cycling Campaign trustee. Here, she looks at plans for the Aldgate gyratory, and explains why 'space for cycling' is so important. This article originally appeared on her blog.

Please respond to the consultation on Aldgate on the City of London website.

Currently, Aldgate High Street (or rather, one-way system or 'gyratory') is a horrible, hostile place for walking and cycling.

The first time I encountered it and tried to cross it, I felt like I’d stumbled across a relic of the motorway era. I was confronted by multiple lanes of growling motor traffic, air thick with fumes, a mind-bogglingly complex subway system (in which I got lost, emerging where I started), and no way to easily and safely take a direct route across.

So recent plans to redesign the area and remove much of the one-way system are welcome, especially the new public space which will open up a north-south pedestrian and cycle route.

Below is a visualisation produced by the City of London showing how that space could look - the graphic shows the view looking east along Aldgate High Street).

The pedestrian plaza to the left of this picture does indeed look great, and creates a safe and pleasant through-route for cycling and walking.

The the problem is the roads: the ‘highway changes’ plan by contrast falls way short of providing safe space for cycling. If riding the current one-way system feels like cycling in the 1960s (when cycling was in freefall and motor traffic multiplying), riding the proposed highway layout will feel at best like cycling in the 2000s, far from the major improvements we’ve been promised either in the Mayor's Vision for Cycling or by his Love London, Go Dutch promises.

Let’s remember that Aldgate High Street (a) is a busy road with 500 HGVs per day and (b) leads to Cycle Superhighway 2, one of the Mayor's flagship cycling projects.

This is a route which - if improved - has the potential to become a major cycle commuting corridor, carrying thousands of cyclists at peak hour. This area links Central and Inner London, where we have seen cycling rising and motor traffic falling for many years.

Despite broader rises in cycling locally, cycling rates on Aldgate High Street have remained static for 12 years, indicating the suppressed demand along this corridor. There is a clear case to ensure the cycling environment here is as good as we can make it – to full Go Dutch standards. Everything indicates that ‘build it and they will come’ would work at Aldgate.

But rather than going Dutch, the Aldgate highway plans (above) repeat many of the mistakes that have already been made for cycling in London. Here’s why I think this isn’t satisfactory.

The London Cycling Campaign’s Love London, Go Dutch matrix highlights two crucial criteria for calm junctions:

  • First, the left-hook risk must be eliminated. This is the classic pattern of many cycle collisions in London, and there’s no excuse to build new major junctions where this still happens.
  • Second, cyclists should not come into conflict with motor traffic when they wish to make a right turn; a hazardous and intimidating manoeuvre, especially when it means crossing two or three lanes. 

These two criteria are crucial to building acceptably safe junctions. It’s welcome that Transport for London has requested changes to Department for Transport regulations that will make designing excellent Dutch-style junctions easier, such as low-level cycle traffic lights. In the meantime, we can still create junctions that are much safer for cycling than the UK has traditionally built.

Other important Go Dutch safety criteria relate to the degree of protection afforded people on bicycles making other kinds of junction movements. Having to ride straight on as part of a stream of fast or busy motor traffic (particularly with multiple lanes and/or parking soon after the junction) affords little margin for error. This should be designed out of junctions too, especially when a junction forms part of a key cycle commuting route alignment.

The Dutch approach of sustainable safety holds that errors (whoever makes them) should not lead to a vulnerable road user being killed or seriously injured. This seems a particularly good principle for junction design, given the high proportion of injuries that currently occur in these locations.

Clearly, safety criteria are only part of providing a good cycling environment. Much of the rest of the LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch campaign rightly deals with other issues such as priority and fast passage, also important for creating a culture of mass cycling.

But junction safety is crucial; and when we use Go Dutch criteria to judge plans to redesign busy junctions, it becomes clear that the established default position - providing Advanced Stop Lines and intermittent, unprotected cycle lanes (as in the Aldgate plan) - is, at best, missing the point at best.

That kind of infrastructure doesn’t design out conflict: on the contrary, it can even aggravate left-hook hazards because feeder lanes can position cyclists in the worst possible place in relation to left-turning vehicles.

So how come these designs keep coming back, like Freddy in the Nightmare on Elm Street series?

While I’m discussing Aldgate here, because of its timeliness and importance within the route network, there are many old-school designs appearing all the time, alongside some good ones (including the good work City of London has done creating so many cycle contraflows elsewhere in the borough).

As a researcher, why this happens is of great interest to me. It seems puzzling: many engineers, planners, policy-makers and designers really want to do good things for cycling, and increasingly it’s acknowledged we need Dutch-quality designs to minimise risk and create a mass cycling culture. 

So why do we keep seeing the same old plans, the same old problems?

Is it cultural inertia? Organisational systems that haven’t changed? What contribution are traffic modelling methods making? Is cycling policy still stymied by a continuing imperative to maintain motor traffic capacity, even though traffic levels have fallen, and getting people on to buses and bikes can vastly increase people carrying capacity?

With my advocacy hat on, though, I’m less bothered to unpick all the different reasons for stasis. I wonder instead: how can the problems these designs pose for cycling be more clearly and effectively spelled out? How can the potential deaths and injuries of people cycling, as well as the many people deterred from cycling, be made more visible within a process which so often marginalises them?

A process that calculates ‘stacking’ of motor vehicles, and delays to drivers, and writes them large in diagrams and in apparently unchallengeable numbers (which yet, as we know from national traffic forecasts, may well prove unfounded...).

Using the 'Go Dutch matrix' to show a junctions is unsafe

So here’s a contribution to visually representing what’s wrong with the Aldgate plans using the Go Dutch Matrix. (I believe a related system, based on a Level of Service assessment, is being tested for use in the London Cycle Design Standards.)

The diagram below shows all potential cycle movements at just one of the junctions on the Aldgate proposal, the one between Aldgate and Mansell Street. Note, the east-west route (top-right to bottom-left) is a continuation of the Cycle Superhighway 2 alignment, not just any old road. 

I’ve used five of the criteria from the Love London, Go Dutch matrix to explore this one junction. Note, this single junction analysis isn't intended to ignore problematic issues elsewhere, such as the one-metre cycle lane alongside an HGV loading bay, highlighted by Danny Williams of Cyclists in the City.

Rather this particular analysis shows that of the 12 possible cycle movements at this junction (three for each arm: left, ahead and right), 8 of these fail the Go Dutch criteria, with 4 being poor (shown in orange) and 4 more marked up as very dangerous (left-hook hazards, right turns across motor traffic lanes, which are shown in red). The other 4 movements are banned (shown in black).

This is a junction design that builds in unacceptable risks for any cyclist unfortunate enough to have to use it. 

You can read my full analysis here, which explains that at a junction with such high levels of motor traffic, separation is necessary to make cycling safe. 

I acknowledge that the new design it’s an improvement on what currently exists (what wouldn’t be?) but substantial risks remain and we owe it to future cyclists (and people who won’t be able to cycle in these places, unless we achieve change) to speak out against this.

The London Cycling Campaign's 'Space for Cycling' protest rides are drawing attention to designed-in dangers like these being proposed. Please take part in the next major ride planned for Monday 2 September

And please respond to the City of London's Aldgate consultation, and respond to other consultations (either to criticise or to praise, where they get it right), and tell your councillors, Assembly Members and MPs that 'less-atrocious' isn’t an acceptable standard for cycling infrastructure any more.