The astute amongst you will realise that Bedford is not all that close to Glasgow.
However, as we’ve recently discovered that our regional transport planning partnership SPT have forgotten what they’re meant to be doing, I felt a bit of schadenfreude would do us all good. Here’s the gist of what’s going on:
- There’s a £20m pot of Department-for-Transport money called the Cycle Safety Fund. It’s available to local authorities to do imaginative things with, providing their idea improves safety for those on bikes. To help the DfT select proposals, they asked Sustrans to manage a panel of cycle ‘experts’, including all the usual suspects like CTC and British Cycling.
- The last batch of funds was dished out mid-2013.
- CTC claim the entire process was dodgy, with “worryingly low” ambition in the proposals, a “ludicrously short timeframe” in which winners could spend their cash, and a set of regulations that hamstrung the whole thing. Rather than tell DfT this, the expert panel decided to just approve the best of the bunch.
- As a result, Bedford got £300,000 to build a Dutch-style ‘turbo roundabout’. As the name suggests, this is a Dutch design not in any way designed to make things safer for cyclists.
This has recently come back into the news as Bedford Council revised the design to make it even worse.
David Hembrow has written extensively about this, as has The Alternative DfT (who gave the subsequent fallout the inevitable turbogate nickname). Go there for some educated, in-depth opinions and details of who to contact to grumble about all this. Stick with me for a short summary and the odd joke.
(By the way, this is written from the British viewpoint of driving on the left and clockwise circulation. Just in case you’re here from foreign parts…)
What’s a turbo roundabout, then?
It is a Dutch design, so Bedford council at least got that right.
Turbo roundabouts are intended to guide a lot of motorised traffic through a roundabout at increased average speeds and with fewer conflicts at the entrances and exits. They do this using solid white lines, plastic mandatory lane dividers, and extended islands; forcing users into fixed, spiralling paths. When joining you can be much more confident about the intentions of drivers already on the roundabout, as most of the time they only have one possible option. Therefore joining traffic spends less time stationary waiting for for a gap to merge into.
But aren’t all Dutch things great for cyclists?
Aha; a common misconception!
In complete contrast to the UK, the Dutch believe that the only way to safely coordinate high speed cars with slower cycles is to physically separate them. Therefore almost every road will have a parallel cycleway and it is a legal obligation for those on bikes to use those cycleways rather than the main road surface.
This works because their cycleways are comprehensive and high quality—in many cases bikes have infrastructure which takes the more direct route at the expense of motorised traffic.
In the UK we instead go with a concept called vehicular cycling, where you’re forced into treating your bike like a slow, squishy car. Staying safe means being bold (foolish?) enough to position yourself centrally on many roads and ‘taking the lane’.
Turbo roundabouts are used occasionally in the Netherlands to deal with heavy motorised traffic in non-urban environments. Cycles and pedestrians are kept well away. If you think of a turbo roundabout as a motorway, you get the idea. David Henbrow has a series of diagrams on how the Dutch cycleways avoid the turbos here.
The Dutch wouldn’t dream of trying to incorporate cycles safely onto a turbo roundabout—it just wouldn’t work.
So how is Bedford going to make this work for cyclists?
See, Bedford missed the point that turbo roundabouts are safe for cyclists because cyclists are provided with faster, safer alternative routes. Cyclists shouldn’t ever have to use a turbo.
Bedford is just going to mix everyone all up together and see what happens.
Here’s how the Union Street roundabout looks now:
and here’s how it’s going to look:
Remember I mentioned vehicular cycling above? The designer of the Bedford Turbo (Patrick Longwood) states that “so as long as cyclists are happy to take primary position in front of traffic, they will be safer” (no, really, that’s what he said). If you’re not happy to push out into the centre of the lane, then you’ll eventually get run over.
It’s even worse if you’re trying to turn right on a bike. Realising that many cyclists are unwilling to move into the right hand lane of a dual carriageway, we have rule that those riding bikes or horses may stay in the left hand lane and signal right if they intend to continue round the roundabout (rule 187 of the Highway Code). Of course, you can’t do that with this turbo, as the traffic islands force you off.
Looks like granny’s going to have to get her girl-racer on and get into that outside lane if she wants to turn right, eh?
Why has the council done this?
Two reasons, I reckon:
- They clearly have a traffic flow problem. This is, after all, the A6. Turbos allow more cars through than a conventional roundabout whilst keeping the occupants safer (at the total expense of non-motorised road users).
- Because it’s a Dutch design, Bedford can spout nonsense like calling this an innovative new junction that will make a significant improvement to the safety of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists (said here). This gives them access to a few extra pots of money like the Cycle Safety Fund, even though their design doesn’t deserve it.
Cheeky? Lazy? Negligent? Your choice!
Any other thoughts?
You know me too well… I’ll pick just two.
Bad statistics means bad designs
Patrick the designer expanded a bit on why he felt it was OK to only cater for experienced vehicular cyclists with his turbo (he calls them ‘quick cyclists’). He said:
The current division of cyclists in Bedford is around 60% Quick cyclists and 40% Quiet cyclists (on the basis of a survey of station cyclists and an analysis of road usage)
He says goes on to say that the quiet guys can just dismount and walk all the way round the edge (presumably confusing ‘quiet’ with ‘happy to take all day to go anywhere’).
Patrick. For the sake of everyone who lives in Bedford, go and read about selection bias. Here’s a quick guide to your big errors:
- You sampled cyclists at the railway station (assuming that’s what station cyclist are), so you probably got mainly commuters. People who cycle day in, day out. They’re pretty confident, and in a hurry either to get to work, or to get home.
- You only sampled people who already cycle. What about everyone sat at home who would consider cycling, if only the designers would provide them with safe, sensible routes?
I cycle every day in Glasgow, so by necessity I’m a vehicular cyclist. I like to think I’m pretty good at it.
It doesn’t mean I enjoy sprinting uphill in the outside of the lane with a bus revving behind me.
Mistaking slower roundabout speed for safer conditions
The CTC have been caught out by this in the post they scrambled out to defend their decision to back the design. They state that because cars will be forced to spiral slowly rather than speed straight across the roundabout, everyone will be safer.
The problem is that the slower stream of traffic doesn’t stop. Of course it doesn’t—otherwise how could the overall speed through the junction be faster? Turbos deal with high volumes of traffic by creating an endless flow of nose-to-tail, 15 mph cars in all lanes, with none of the usual big gaps for cyclists to aim at.
Let’s hope our granny from above gains the ability to instantly accelerate from standing to 15mph, along with her new girl-racer attitude.
You mentioned Bedford have revised the design?
In response to concerns that motorcyclists might fall over if they tried to drive over the plastic lane dividers, the latest design removes them.
So it’s not really a turbo any more anyway. It’s just a big ‘ole roundabout with some psychedelic spirals painted on. Which I’m sure won’t be confusing at all.
Good luck, folk of Bedford!