What’s wrong with the header photo for this blog or the picture below? It’s of a Glasgow City Council advert on the side of a bus, photographed at Anniesland Cross by GoBike member Euan. To be exact, what’s wrong with it apart from the instant-gut response it provokes that cycling must be incredibly dangerous? Read on for an analysis of junction design, and just what it is about them that attracts injuries, by GoBike committee member, Brenda.
What’s wrong with this picture?(We’ll get back to that subliminal message later.) Take a close look at the junction.
Look at those geometric, perfectly sharp, 90 degree square corners. This is the epitome of a side road turning with tight radii. It gives pedestrians a short direct crossing. It requires drivers to slow right down to enter or leave the side turning, giving them time to look for people cycling past the junction, and making them less likely to left hook someone cycling on their nearside.
This is a cartoon version of a side road junction without traffic lights, but it’s not quite a fantasy. It’s the style of junction recommended by guidance such as Designing Streets (1), Scottish policy since 2010 (see pages 16 and 18), and by a 2020 Briefing Sheet (2) for professionals on street design standards badged by the Institution of Civil Engineers among others. Even Glasgow’s own Public Realm Design and Maintenance Guide (3) says this (p 42), “Junctions should be designed in order to both make people feel safe and actually be safe. …. Designers should therefore start with the tightest radii that they feel can be accommodated and not the most forgiving [for] motor traffic …”
This guidance is for streets generally (no special infrastructure for cycling) and it’s important for two reasons. The first is that there can never be protected cycle infrastructure on every street, so the design of ordinary streets and junctions must focus on safety for people cycling (and walking and wheeling). The second reason is that on streets where there is protected cycle infrastructure, junction design that requires low motor vehicle turning speeds supports the case for the cycleway to be continuous across side streets.
So what can we deduce from the choice of this ideal junction design to illustrate a council campaign? Is Glasgow committed to following the guidance, designing junctions for the safety of people cycling (and walking) and now moving on to reinforcing the message implicit in junction design with ads? Well – no.
Here’s a junction created in the last couple of years for new student accommodation on the Scotway House site between the Kelvin and Glasgow Harbour.
The road is Castlebank Street, right next to the Clydeside Expressway. There is nothing about it to encourage drivers to pay attention to their speed. The flaring trumpet mouth of the new service road invites drivers to swoop into or out of the turning, scattering people walking and cycling to and from the Riverside Museum. (As an aside, the green fingerposts along the footway give cycling times to various places, inviting cycling on the pavement, although there’s no indication that this is officially a shared surface, but that’s another story.)
Here’s another example. This is on Polmadie Road, it’s the entrance to a site repurposed with a brand new Starbucks.
This time the pavement has the appropriate signs for a shared cycling and walking surface, but look at the flared junction again. Drivers on their way to or from the M74 can just twitch a finger to turn in or out for their caffeine hit, barely moderating their speed or looking out for active travellers. Sadly, the next step here is quite likely to be the installation of railings to give people walking and cycling further to travel and still require them to cross the path of vehicles travelling too fast. When junctions are designed to be intrinsically safe, add-on ‘protective’ measures are not needed.
What’s going on? The council has plenty of great sounding policies about encouraging active travel. There’s no shortage of what looks like useful guidance on how to design streets that invite people to cycle or walk, and which feel safer for walking and cycling. Yet the same old dysfunctional, dangerous designs keep on being wheeled out. There’s no opportunity for public input when turnings like the Castlebank Street and Polmadie Road are created but campaigners have argued extensively for the design of safe side road junctions for cycle infrastructure on (for example) Sauchiehall Street, South City Way, St Andrew’s Drive and Byres Road. Responses from officials have included:
- The guidance applies only to new developments
- Refuse trucks have to be able to get round the corners
- Police advice is that what you want isn’t safe
- We could be sued if we do anything different from what’s established.
So here are suggestions – for officials (if you happen to read this) and for campaigners:
- Make it council policy that the guidance for new developments must be applied to every modification of existing streets
- Buy refuse trucks with rear-axle steering (or just be practical and accept that having to use part of the opposite carriageway is not a deal-breaker).
- Come clean about the precise source of this nebulous ‘police advice’ and, since it’s contradicting all the expert guidance, what the evidence is for it.
- Read the section at the back of Designing Streets about the risk of being sued (very slight).
And an extra one:
- Make road engineers accountable for prioritising the safety of foot and cycle traffic over the flow of motor vehicles.
It’s not as though there are no junctions in Glasgow with square corners. The older areas are full of them. Here’s one (in Hillhead) that has a good idea for stopping drivers cutting the corners.
Streets in urban areas aren’t motorways – drivers need to slow down before turning off the main road, not afterwards. The people with their hands on the wheel and their feet on the pedals need to have their brains fully applied to communicating their intentions to other road users through the way they signal, decelerate, brake and position their vehicles.
Going back to that bus ad, we might charitably see it as a sincere effort to alert drivers to the danger they pose at junctions to people cycling. Perhaps the intention is to create a safer environment for cycling so that more people will give it a go. It’s pretty much a disaster then that what most people’s brains will get from a passing glance is “Cyclists, injuries, 70%”. Clearly, a message on the side of a bus has to be in shorthand, but this one invites the inference that if you try cycling there’s a 70% chance you’ll be injured.
What about the usefulness of advertising as a way to change driver behaviour? Here’s what the Briefing Note (2) on street design standards has to say: “ Drivers drive according to the environment, including the width, and curvature of the road. Greater width, gentler curves, greater visibility lead to higher speeds, high-energy collisions and increased injury risk.” Driver behaviour at junctions is determined by the design of the junction, not by an ad on the side of a bus (if there’s evidence otherwise, let’s see it). The money spent on the bus campaign should have been directed at getting junction design that’s safer for people walking and cycling. And if the response to that is going to be that the funding for the ad campaign came out of a pot designated for “behaviour change”, getting designers to design good junctions is behaviour change too.
3. Glasgow Public Realm Design + Maintenance Guide Version 4.0 October 2020