Revolutionising the road junction – deep inside TfL’s secret lab in Berkshire

Dutch style roundabout at TfL testing facility. Photo via Cyclists in the City

Guest post by Jude from the Cycling with Heels blog.

When I read back in April that Transport for London were trialling some new cycle-friendly roundabouts and junctions, my first thought was, wow! Where do I sign up? My second thought was, it’ll never happen. They’ll be inundated with cyclists wanting to take part. I’ll never hear back from them.

And for nearly two months I didn’t. I’d almost forgotten about it when an email unexpectedly popped up in my inbox from Transport Research Laboratory, who are carrying out the trials for TFL. Upcoming junction trials – would I like to take part? Well, yes, indeed I would.

And so in early July my trusty steed and I boarded a train and headed out to TRL’s secret testing facilities. Their HQ is located on the appropriately named Nine Mile Ride, somewhere between Bracknell and Wokingham, in Berkshire. An ultra modern office building sits next door to a small network of former A-roads, now transformed into a mini test circuit. The whole complex is surrounded by woodland and is remarkably peaceful.

Cyclist riding around a bus stop in TRL testing facility

In other words, it’s about as different from the centre of London as you can imagine. Well, apart from a mocked up London bus stop, that is, complete with cycle path running behind it. Sadly I didn’t get to try that one out, nor did I get to have a ride on the magic roundabout. Instead I was testing some new cycle-specific traffic lights.

Traffic light for cyclists

Image via Cyclists in the City Blog

The design of the trial was very simple. There were eight numbered routes to follow, all of which passed through one four-way junction. As well as ordinary traffic lights, this junction had been fitted with eye-level cyclist lights on all four approaches. Each of the eight routes – two for each approach – was designed to test a different scenario: turning left, going straight on, turning right, crossing lanes, crossing on-coming traffic and approaching from a one-way street or from an ordinary two-way road.

There were eight cyclists taking part, and we each completed all eight of the routes three times in total. The first two times there were cars on the routes as well, but on the third time we were on our own. The phasing of the lights was also changed ever so slightly on each of the three sessions, to give us a head start on at least one of the run-throughs.

The final part of the trial involved completing an in-depth questionnaire. This asked us about our normal cycling behaviour – such as whether we ever run red lights and if so, why – before asking us a set of detailed questions about all eight of the routes. It’s probably the most I’ve ever thought about a single junction.

Before going to the test facility, the cynic in me had wondered why TFL was going to so much effort and spending so much money on these trials. Surely they could just look at other countries, such as the Netherlands, and copy what works there.

But once I got there, my cynicism melted away. OK, what they’re testing – or at least the bits I saw – was not particularly innovative, and much of it is already in place in cities like Copenhagen or Amsterdam. But to actually see a mocked up London bus stop with a cycle lane that goes behind it, and to think that one day that’s what a real London bus stop might look like – that was genuinely exciting.

It’s probably going to be at least a few years before any of what was being tested makes it onto our streets, and there’s no guarantee that any of it will. But by carrying out these trials TFL is showing that they are committed to improving cycle safety in London, and to listening to cyclists. Far too many cycle facilities have been designed by people who aren’t cyclists, who don’t understand our needs and don’t listen when cyclists try to tell them when something isn’t safe. Now, at last, we’re getting the chance to have our say. And that has got to be a good thing.

See also: Jude’s chance encounter with a rather famous London cyclist

For more information about the trials, visit http://www.trl.co.uk/cyclinginnovationtrials/. To participate in these cycle innovation trials, email getinvolved@trl.co.uk

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17 Responses to Revolutionising the road junction – deep inside TfL’s secret lab in Berkshire

  1. Andrea Casalotti 23/07/2013 at 9:32 am #

    1. Do the Dutch waste so much money in unrealistic mock-ups?
    2. You can canvass cyclists’ opinions and proposals in London, rather than Berkshire

    The British are very good in fooling people by seemingly doing things, but in reality maintaining the status quo.

    • Massimo 23/07/2013 at 1:49 pm #

      The Dutch do have similar facilities such as the Rijkswaterstaat Test Centre. It is entirely reasonable for initial testing to be carried out in a controlled environment.

      • Andreas 23/07/2013 at 2:14 pm #

        Whilst converts to the Dutch way of thinking about road design don’t need convincing I’m sure there are many government departments in the UK who need this kind of testing to take place before it is approved for wider use.

        • Dave 24/07/2013 at 2:35 pm #

          It’s not just about proving the vision: road markings, layout and signage need to be consistent, so that road users aren’t flummoxed when they reach your newly designed infrastructure.

          The TRL will be testing not only to see that it ‘works’ to make cyclists safer, but also to see how cyclists, motorists and other users respond to the new infrastructure when they’ve never seen it before. If the approach is sufficiently consistent with the rest of their experience of the road network and their training (if they’re drivers) for their response to be ‘correct’ (i.e. they stop and give way where they should do, they go when they’re meant to, etc), then it’s a safe design that can be used.

          The reason why Andreas went through the same course several times with slight tweaks will, I suspect, be a way of the TRL modelling either different responses from the road users, or of different rates of flow on traffic levels. This is all important stuff!!

          I’m a major supporter of Dutch style infrastructure, and agree with the urge to have it yesterday rather than messing about – but it’s in everyone’s interest for the implementation to be thought through. If dumping new infrastructure onto the streets untested caused confusion, or led to uncertainty about what the correct behaviour at the new layout should be, or abnormally large levels of congestion, that would ultimately be a negative outcome for cyclists.

        • Andreas 25/07/2013 at 7:05 pm #

          A well considered reply Dave, thanks for weighing in to the conversation with your thoughts.

  2. Highwaylass 23/07/2013 at 11:01 am #

    It’s great that TfL are doing tests, but what is the point of testing street lights without motorcyclists? As a biker and a cyclist, it seems to me that street lights are one of the key places where conflict exists, as both types of two-wheeler want to be at the front ahead of the cars.

    • Andreas 23/07/2013 at 2:16 pm #

      I imagine there is testing for interactions between motorcyclists and cyclists too – though I guess we’ll have to wait and see how people act in the “real world” rather than a test environment where they have people watching them.

  3. Tom de Pelet 23/07/2013 at 1:44 pm #

    The cycle lane behind the bus stop idea is utterly ludicrous. Pedestrians will mill around in the bike lane and it will necessarily bring cyclists into conflict with pedestrians far more than happens at present as pedestrians would be forced to (jump a)cross the bike lane. The pedestrians, far from being safe when they get off the bus, would find themselves stranded on a tiny island with danger all around them and in many cases will be hidden from the cyclist’s view by the bus stop. A cyclist would have to cycle at maximum of walking pace to negotiate this death trap. I cannot believe my taxes are being wasted on people to dream up this incoherent, expensive and illogical rubbish. I could go on…

    • chris 26/07/2013 at 11:47 am #

      Conflict between pedestrians and cyclists is much preferred to conflict between cyclists and buses.

      There have been untold times when I have experienced first hand, or witnessed, buses trying to left hook cyclists because they wanted to pull into a stop rather than wait for the cyclist to pass.

      • Jim 26/07/2013 at 12:20 pm #

        Tom is making a good point, the design sends cyclists through the area where passengers are alighting and boarding and logically cyclists will only use it when there is a bus at the stop.
        Pedestrians won’t observe the cycle lane either due to general unawareness or being physically crowded into the lane.

        The logical thing is for buses to pull off the road. This was moved away from to stop buses being delayed rejoining the traffic but could be solved by traffic lights that proritise buses pulling out, there’s an example in Wimbledon town centre.

        As for being left-hooked by buses pulling in, that’s a matter of driver and cyclist education. Drivers should be more considerate but also as a cyclist you can prevent this by “taking the lane” when you realise this might happen, I concede that this is an advanced technique that doesn’t appeal to more nervous or slower riders.

        • chris 01/08/2013 at 9:24 pm #

          The whole point of new measures that are being put forward (not by TfL, who have a terrible record and should be prosecuted for corporate manslaughter frankly), is to create an environment which is conducive to getting more people cycling. The main reason given by people why they wont cycle is because its considered too dangerous on the roads.

          Suggesting that people use an advanced technique rather than creating facilities that separates vulnerable traffic at points of conflict is counter productive and vacuous.

          >>”As for being left-hooked by buses pulling in, that’s a matter of driver and cyclist education.””

          That really is a dumb comment.

          When you can design infrastructure to remove such issues, you do it rather than leave it down to people or ‘education’. It removes any possibility of ‘punishment passes’, which I have experienced several times from bus drivers.

  4. The Ranty Highwayman 23/07/2013 at 6:05 pm #

    The bus stop at TRL doesn’t have a large enough island for many busy London bus stops, but that is not the point, it is the concept being tested.

    If done right, it means cyclists are not overtaking and being overtaken by buses, nor are passengers being forced into conflict where the footway is shared. This will work in the UK.

  5. Tammela 23/07/2013 at 8:15 pm #

    It is inspiring to hear that they are actually doing useful mock-ups and testing. Makes me hopeful that one day the London streets will be safer and more pleasant for cyclists.

  6. Arjun 26/07/2013 at 12:10 pm #

    Tbh all they need to do is widen path ways to allow for bikes… why would you want to change the whole road and cause road works and cause traffic increasing pollution and grid lock loosing people money just to satisfy cyclists?? we pay Road tax for the Roads to be good for CARS not cyclists! once they pay go it it’s ok… but seriously your wasting my money and your time on things that can be changed with less time and less money.. apply common sense to things you do any things would work once in a while!
    So the solution is simple…
    Widen the Pathways to accommodate Cyclists!!!
    don’t have to build new roundabout new paths now roads new curbs new lights hire people to work the lights..
    WASTE OF MONEY !!!

    • Big Al 30/07/2013 at 1:50 pm #

      Cyclists have a right to use the roads, get over it! Besides it’s illegal to cycle on footpaths. Do you seriously think your VED goes on maintaining roads?

  7. Phil 26/07/2013 at 1:49 pm #

    Arjun, calm down. Road Tax was legislated out of existence in 1937- roads are maintained out of council tax, so we’re all paying for them. Cyclists have as much right to use and expect a safe road as the engine-driven vehicles they preceded, and they are the road users for whom roads were originally metalled.

  8. Andreas 26/07/2013 at 2:09 pm #

    Arjun – if you think this is about benefiting those few existing cyclists, you are missing the point.

    It’s about making cycling more appealing to a wider group of people who are currently too scared to cycle to school, work or to the shops. The benefits will be felt by wider society – car drivers will have less cars in front of them as more people will be on bikes, kids will breathe in less fumes and have fewer asthma problems, they’ll be less pollution related health problems. The undergrounds and buses will be less congested. The cost of living in London will come down as more people get their daily exercise and so put less of a burden on the NHS that we all pay for.

    If we don’t take this step, congestion in London will just get worse as the population is due to dramatically increase.

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