Tag Archives: Transport

The Problem of Cycle Complaining

I’ve been involved in a small amount of cycle campaigning over the last few years, and one theme comes up over and over. To coin a new phrase – there’s too much “cycle complaining” and not enough “cycle campaigning”. By “cycle complaining” I mean where well-intentioned people just draw attention to problems – poor junction layout, narrow lanes, aggressive driving – without either talking about the good stuff or actually doing anything to help fix the problems they identify. It also gives other cycle campaigners a bad name, since the complainers come across as confrontational and obstructionist, and I only need to read my twitter feed to realise that most times cycling campaigning is mentioned, someone somewhere is complaining about something and concrete suggestions are few and far between.

One example that particularly struck a chord was when I went along to a local campaign group meeting to discuss some new developments our local highways authority (in this case TfL) were making. On one road the proposal was to remove a 1m wide “cycle gap”, and the 3ft steel bollard that was slap bang in the middle of it, and add a proper contraflow cycle lane instead. The campaign group were going to formally object to the improvement since it the resulting lane wasn’t quite wide enough for their liking – despite it clearly being an improvement over what was there already. I was slightly shocked, but on further discussion realised that their position was more of a battle-hardened “cycle complaining” mentality than anything they could rationally justify about the matter at hand. Which got me thinking.

Cycle campaign groups are at a huge disadvantage when discussing plans with local councils. Even when TfL showed us some sneak peaks of the roadway engineering diagrams it was tough for the campaigners to deal with them effectively – they were just printouts, not the actual files; even if they had been CAD files there was nobody there who would be able to examine them or draw the suggested amendments. Ideally a campaign group could respond by saying “here are the places where the proposal doesn’t meet standard X, AND here are our suggestions for improvements we’d like to see”.

This works on a wider scale too. If a council approaches a cycle group to ask where they would like more bike parking installed, the cycle group are unlikely to be able to help much more than just saying “roughly here” (even supposing they maintain a list of sites), rather than “here, have some CAD files for our top ten sites prioritised using density analysis of existing locations” . If a cycle group want to approach a council to convert one-way roads into two-way, they are unlikely to have the traffic simulations to show the five most useful changes. There’s just a huge gulf in tools and technologies available to each side, so when the only way things work is for one side to suggest and the other to accept/refuse, it’s easier to see where so much reactionary complaining comes from.

Enter the guys behind CycleStreets, with their “Helping campaigners campaign” proposal. You can read it for yourself, but in summary is a web-based tool to track, manage and develop solutions to infrastructure problems facing cyclists. While it’s not a panacea for everything I’ve discussed, I think it’s a hugely important step forward for all cycle campaigning groups. Their proposal has been short-listed for the GeoVation awards finals in two weeks’ time and I wish them the best of luck, the funding from that would really kick things off. If you want to show your support then go for it, through your blogs, twitter or however you see fit. Even if they don’t manage the grand prize I hope to see their proposals come to fruition in the near future, especially given their track record of getting things done. I hope to get the opportunity to help their ideas see the light of day – it will be an excellent tool to help turn cycle complaining into the results we want to see.

8 Minutes to Addressing

Last week I was watching a(nother) emergency-services documentary, “8 minutes to disaster“, charting the trials and tribulations of an ambulance crew around Reading. The titular time-frame refers to the central mandated target (grumble government bureaucracy grumble) of how long the crews have between receiving a top-priority call and getting to the scene of the incident. In amongst much of the usual diabolical behaviour of drunken idiots in proximity to the NHS, there was one scene in particular that struck me. Mainly because I see most things through an OpenStreetMap filter nowadays, but…

The ambulance crew were responding to one such high-priority call, to respond to house 54 on a street of which I can’t remember the name. They had been told it had a brown door, and when they found house 53 with the other half of the semi having a brown door, they jumped out and started pounding on it. A few seconds later a neighbour helpfully pointed out that it was an unmarked “53a”, so they jumped in the ambulance, and set off again. Finding house 54 further down the street, they again jumped out, but the wrong colour on the door gave the first indication they were now on the wrong street, so jumping back in the ambulance and taking the other fork in the road got them to the correct house 54, with a brown door, and when they finally got to the patient, he was dead.

Now admittedly the patient in question had been dead for a few days, so 3 minutes of faffing around didn’t cause him any significant ill effects, but when the first scene of the program was a man quite literally bleeding out, it shows such things can make all the difference. And I was surprised that the crew didn’t have some massively overcomplicated, Accenture-procured multi-million pound GPS system that had house numbers built in. Actually, now I think about it, it’s probably best they didn’t – having been involved in the periphery of a few NHS IT projects, I can say they are the best way yet conceived of turning gob-smackingly large amounts of taxpayers money into things that simply just don’t work. So these paramedics are probably better off with a consumer device that other consumers have willingly chosen to pay for with their own hard-earned cash, rather than involving bureaucrats, even though it can’t help them find particular houses in a timely manner. I’ve seen similar issues on other emergency-services documentaries – police getting stuck in housing estates due to barriers simply not on their commercial GPSes.


So the OpenStreetMap tie-in comes from having spent the last few weeks starting to look into what comes next for OpenStreetMap after we’ve mapped every road, pub and cycle route in the country (hey, what seemed wildly ambitious just two years ago is becoming increasing routinely anticipated), and what’s technically known as “Addressing” is part of that. It involves taking things one step further than just knowing where each road is, and getting to the point where we know where each house on each road is. Now that’s a whole lot of work, but in bits and pieces across Europe OSM volunteers are starting to try things out. Dave has made a start around our area – see his sketch above – which is made up of fiendishly complex blocks of flats and Matt has done some stuff near our office. Frederik and Jochen from GeoFabrik have even made a tool for helping spot mistakes in the data. There’s a lot of potential here, but a lot of hard work, but with everything in OSM it’s a case of when, not if.

So here’s hoping that in the next year or two we’ll see consumer devices working from the world’s best global community-generated open-source mapping-cum-routing-come-addressing-cum-everything-else dataset, helping ambulance drivers (and pizza delivery guys, for that matter) from here to, well, everywhere. And maybe it’ll be only a few years between us saying “OpenStreetMap is pretty accurate, but I wouldn’t use it for routing ambulances” to saying “OpenStreetMap is pretty accurate, especially for routing ambulances”. It’ll be awesome.