Following on from “Cut the Crap”, here’s a more in-depth look at a specific piece of crap, and how it does more harm than good.
This is an appalling piece of design, for a whole host of reasons. Fundamentally these boil down to the nature of a pinch point, the clue to which is in the name: the traffic is “pinched”. The lane width is reduced and the island in the middle of the carriageway prevents anyone moving outside of the lane.
This means, crucially, that for the driver of a motor vehicle to pass a cyclist at a pinch point is extremely dangerous. Not only does it require a very small passing distance, it also means no-one can divert from their course. This can have fatal consequences. (Though, of course, when it does, the law will not blame you in the slightest for driving into someone else and killing them – but I digress.)
Yet this paint on the road divides the lane very clearly into two smaller lanes. In the gutter is a very narrow lane, clearly marked with a pictogram of a bicycle; whilst the remaining tarmac is untreated. Between them, a line marks the boundary of these two territories.
The visual message, writ clear, is this: The pink bit is for bicycles, the rest is for everything else; and if we all stick to that then everything will be just fine.
People like lines. We refer to lines. They are things we can point at when we’re saying things. When you’re in a ton of crumple zones and air bags, the line acts as your legal reference point: if you’re in Your Lane, you’re ok; if there’s a collision, you’ll have done nothing wrong, because someone else must have entered Your Lane.
And so the road sends the message that cyclists belong in what looks like about half a metre of tarmac in the gutter, and that’s Their Lane, and the rest is Your Lane. It suggests that you are entitled to Your Lane. No matter what. (Remember that Bikeability training recommends that secondary position, the leftmost one, is “not less than 0.5m to the edge of the road” – ie roughly where the lane divider is. Also note that 0.5m is narrower than most bicycles’ handlebars.)
And entitlement is a curious thing. It manifests itself in potentially homicidal behaviour. I’m reluctant to give any oxygen to clickbait, but professional troll Graham Mack provides a shining example of the sort of sociopathic attitude of irresponsibility and endangerment which is fuelled by painting ghettos on the road.
What to do
Best practice for approaching pinch points on a bicycle is this: do a shoulder check, move out to the middle of the lane (primary position), and move back towards the kerb (secondary) when it’s safe to do so. Try doing that when you’re out of your ghetto and Graham “I can’t possibly lift my right foot” Mack is behind you, no doubt honking his horn and turning the air blue and generally having a tiny penis about the whole affair. There’s an appealing glint of schadenfreude in there if you’re thick skinned, but the reality is that when you claim the lane you need the balls to risk a stiff verbal assault, if not a physical one. It’s not for the faint-hearted.
So, if that’s best practice, why don’t we design for it? Why don’t we create a treatment for the carriageway that reinforces people’s right to the lane, and reinforces behaviour that is safer?
Curiously, this would be possible with only a little more paint.
Here’s the existing treatment.
But why not something like this?
Here, there’s a visual break in the “default” lane: vehicles have to traverse pink tarmac. Moreover, they need to give way to it. If there’s nothing there, you can just crack on (it’s only paint, after all), but if there’s a cyclist, there’s a clear signal that Their Lane expands and Your Lane gives way. It lays out the permission and encouragement to behave in the safe manner that is recommended for both cyclist and driver, and—look! lines!—there is something to point to. If there’s a collision, the likely fault is clear: the driver didn’t give way.
There’s no delay to traffic, no loss of tarmac for anyone, no oppression of the vulnerable, no reinforcement of any false sense of entitlement, minimal lack of clarity in a collision, and no undermining of people who behave in a defensive manner or those who train them to do so.
And all for a slightly different stroke with the roller.
Hawthorne Avenue is a prime example of where paint has been made to make things worse—more dangerous—where it could be used to make things a little safer. It’s been applied in a way that precisely contradicts behavioural advice when it could reinforce it. And to exaggerate the insanity, the treatment is applied only at the most dangerous point on the road. It’s a perfect storm of perverse design; a fail so monumentally epic that it’s hard to believe someone wasn’t actively trying to make things worse.
No, but really… what to do?
Of course, the above solution is still pretty poor. The gutter lane feeding into the pinch is just the same problem stretched out along the road, for a start. And sharing isn’t ideal anyway.
Indeed, sharing hardly seems necessary in this case. Go on, have a browse round Hawthorne Avenue. Look at all that space either side.
If you measure the carriageway and the pavements either side, then (assuming the lanes are a standard 3m each) you find that the road and pavements occupy 13m of width in total.
I reckon we can do something with 13m.
OK, it’s 13.8m. I’m grabbing a bit over a foot either side. But hey: there’s the same road, but we’ve got proper segregated bike lanes either side, and a pavement too. Take a look down Hawthorne Avenue and you’ll notice there’s room for this along its entire length. I’ll leave it up to you to imagine the raised tables at side roads with cycle lane priority: there’s loads of space for those as well.
What’s the point?
The point is this: so often it’s very feasible to do it properly. Segregation, priority, space. But even when a highway designer or a local authority feels it’s necessary—for whatever reason—to provide for cycling on the main carriageway, it’s not hard to do so in a way that reinforces safe behaviour even without making any imposition on motor traffic beyond the most basic safety.
My sketch may not be a great solution—it’s not segregation—but it shows that paint can at least be used to reinforce safe behaviour rather than dangerous.
Yet the onslaught of antipatterns, of harmful paint and harmful constructions, is relentless. On it goes. And we all feel the pinch.
Addendum (26 September)
As noted by one of the commenters below, not even a day had passed since writing this post before someone on a bicycle was killed on an almost identical pinch point, also in Gloucester (reports: BBC, Gloucester Citizen).
Local authorities seem not to be held accountable for their massive and obvious failings in creating safe environments. Yet another person has died because the approach taken is a lick of paint that opposes every single piece of best practice available.
A slapdash job they may have done, but that’s not pink cycle lane paint on their hands. It’s blood.