Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Leith Walk, Don't Walk (or Cycle) - views on the consultation

Earlier this week, the City of Edinburgh Council launched a consultation exercise about its proposals for the revamping of Leith Walk.  

The exercise concentrates on the top of Leith Walk (junctions with London Road and Picardy Place) and the foot of Leith Walk (junctions with Constitution Place and Bernard Street), with technical drawings available to show what is being proposed at each of these junctions. Respondents are asked a series of (leading) questions about the proposals and whether they think they will improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists. There are additional comment boxes for those who 'disagree' with the statements. The consultation is open until the 13th of January 2013. 

There are no drawings available for the other parts of Leith Walk, or any holistic presentation or justification for the approach which has been taken.

I spent some time yesterday looking at the plans and composing my responses. My main frustrations and objections are as follows:

1. None of the junction layouts or designs presented appear to give the pedestrian or cyclist priority over other forms of transport, as required by Scottish Planning Policy and the guidance set out in 'Designing Streets'. Pedestrians are instead treated to dog-leg crossings, which are relatively narrow, with refuge islands at which to break their journeys (pretty much the same as currently on offer). There appears to be little attention given to desire lines, or creating the possibility for pedestrians to cross a junction diagonally. Instead, as before, pedestrians are required to make their crossings in two or even three stages - unlike cars, which of course will be able to traverse each junction in one easy step.

2. In relation to cycling, the drawings show that there is no continuous provision of cycle infrastructure along the length of Leith Walk. In addition, the design of the junctions - with ASLs, but little else - also fails to prioritise the cyclist over other forms of transport. This is exactly the opposite of what cyclists are asking for. Cyclists want joined up infrastructure, not adhoc bits and bobs - and the hope for this refresh of Leith Walk is that it would take this once-in-a-generation opportunity to make a significant change to the street layout, rather than just tinkering at the edges. The diagrams do not address this, but there is the unanswered question here of whether any of the traffic lights at these junctions would be phased to prioritise cyclists. Such phasing is standard in most Danish signalling systems.  

3. The provision of segregated cycle ways at the top of Leith Walk is a good thing. However, the way in which cyclists are then expected to negotiate the two roundabouts there is not. One minute separated from traffic, then next crossing various lanes of traffic to share a lane with buses. No, no, no!

4. The survey asks general questions about where cycle parking, street trees and greenery should be included. My view on all of these is 'everywhere', with significant concentrations of cycle parking close to main shops (e.g. Tesco), and secure cycle parking for residents too.

5. The proposals introduce further inconsistencies in the city's approach to marking bus and cycle lanes, by specifying that the bus lanes will be marked with red chips. This surface has been used to denote the cycle lanes in the Quality Bike Corridor, and should not here be used to denote space for buses. There needs to be a consistent approach across the city to the surface markings and colours used to designate space for buses, and space for cyclists. 

6. It would be useful for the council to set out its rationale to the redesign of Leith Walk alongside this consultation: with a clear statement of the policy objectives it is trying to meet, and any evidence for the way in which the design proposals put forward will help to achieve these objectives. In particular, it should justify the absence of segregated cycle ways along the length of Leith Walk; and the absence of diagonal crossing points for pedestrians. 

7. At the moment, the proposals seem very disappointing - tinkering with the current layout rather than taking the opportunity to reconfigure the space and really make it worthy of its name: Leith WALK.  If you want some ideas of how things could be done, then try watching this lecture - given in Edinburgh earlier this year - by the great Jan Gehl, who thinks places should be for people. 

Just following the rules...

I have a passing interest in cycling as a cyclist, as a (town) planner and as an academic. Twitter has much to say on this topic, and there are oodles of interesting folks and organisations blogging and tweeting about cycling.

I little while back I got involved in some twitter interactions with someone (let's call him 'Dan') who insists that cyclists do not need dedicated road space/cycles lanes. Dan's central argument is that if everyone (including cyclists) follows the Highway Code then there will be no problems.

Setting aside the real conversation I had with Dan, I thought it would be useful to consider this position in some detail: actually, it's a good question isn't it? If everyone followed the rules, would there be a problem?

At the moment, all road users with a driving licence have had to pass some kind of test including - in more recent years - a written 'theory' test as well as a practical driving test. So far so good. Everyone using the road should know about, understand and abide by the rules of the road, aka the Highway Code. 

Except that they don't. Every year in the UK hundreds of thousands of motorists are prosecuted for driving too fast; people are prosecuted for driving without insurance; they are prosecuted for drink-driving and driving without due care and attention; and for somehow breaking the rules. And every year a lot of police and local authority time and effort is spent enforcing speed limits, parking controls and other parts of the Highway Code. 

Yes of course, people *should* abide by the rules when they are driving - but the plain fact is they don't. That seems to me to be difficulty no. 1 with Dan's argument. 

In addition, pedestrians and cyclists don't necessarily have driving licences, so how can we expect them or require them to abide by the rules? Of course, quite a lot of people with driving licences also walk, and cycle, so that's okay. But what about the others - those who choose not to have a driving licence, or who are not eligible to apply for a licence because they are too young (e.g. they are a child) or they have some other factor which might affect their ability to drive (e.g. visual impairment)? Well, we might expect them to exercise common sense and an adherence to some norms of behaviour, but we can't actually expect them to know or abide by the rules in the same way, unless of course we require them to have a licence too.... So, there's difficulty no. 2: not all road 'users' are licensed, only the ones in charge of motor vehicles.

The final killer (literally) issue I have with Dan's argument, is that even if everyone follows the rules, mistakes still happen. You sneeze at the wrong moment; look left and not right; you are blinded by the sun or distracted by squabbling children in the back of the car. The problem is that those mistakes can cause accidents - and if you are cyclist sharing the same space as a bus or a truck - then those sorts of mistakes can cost your life. It makes little sense to me for the smallest, lightest and most vulnerable road users (cyclists) to share the carriageway with the largest and heaviest (e.g. buses). The Danes don't do it, neither do the Dutch. To them, the answer is really simple: keep them separate and you keep them safe. 

It seems simple to me too. Let's have a transport system which designs out some of the risks and which protects the most vulnerable (cyclists and pedestrians) by separating them from traffic. Then, it won't matter quite so much whether everyone follows the rules or not - we'll have a system designed to keep us *all* safer, whether we walk, cycle or drive. 

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

REF, ref, ref, ref...and ref

In Universities across the UK, much discussion, effort and work is currently going into thinking about REF, talking about REF and preparing for submissions to REF.

As part of that effort and discussion, there will be conversations about which staff to include and which to exclude from the final submission. 

Eligibility rules seem fairly straightforward: 2 categories of staff are eligible for inclusion: Category A staff and Category C staff.

Category A staff are defined as academic staff with a contract of employment of 0.2 FTE or greater and on the payroll of the submitting HEI on the census date (31 October 2013), and whose primary employment function is to undertake either ‘research only’ or ‘teaching and research'.

Good. That's fine then - everyone who is employed by a HEI is eligible for inclusion as long as they do research, or research and teaching. But wait.......

Research assistants, as defined in paragraph 80, are not eligible to be returned to the REF.

Oh. O K A Y. Really? Going on...

unless, exceptionally, they are named as principal investigator or equivalent on a research grant or significant piece of research work on the census date and satisfy the definition of Category A staff in paragraph 78. Research assistants must not be listed as Category A staff purely on the basis that they are named on one or more research outputs.

So research assistants can only be returned if they have been a PI, or done a significant piece of research, then. Seems fair enough, except that rule is not mentioned in relation to the rest of the category A staff (except ECRs - who are also subject to this rule about independent research) ....

I might be splitting hairs here, but hear me out. HEI's routinely discriminate against research staff, often diminutively called 'RAs', and prevent them from doing particular things, like having a permanent (or open ended) contracts and acting as principal investigators on research proposals. 

A few years ago, I was told by a university administrator (in an unnamed institution) that I could not be a PI on a proposal. There was no question. It was just not possible.  I still remember the feeling of having a very large rug pulled from under my feet, and the way that time slowed down a little bit as I took this statement in. Why? I asked. RA's are not eligible to act as PIs on research councils bids, came the reply.

Researchers are still told the same thing - even though it is complete nonsense. There are no research council rules which prevent research staff from acting as PI. Research Fellows and Associates take note. Do not believe *anyone* who tells you this - check with the funder. Some funders do preclude people from acting as PI on a grant which effectively pays their own salary, and some exclude the most junior researchers from being PIs. Others do not. E

Do you see a double whammy coming here? So, if you are in an HEI where they discourage  researchers from being PIs, then how do you become eligible for REF? If you are in an HEI which views all researchers, regardless of grade and experience as 'RAs' (=non-eligible) then how do you make your case for inclusion in REF? 

I hope I am wrong, and I hope that all those researchers that deserve to be returned in REF 2014 are included. But, based on more than 10 years of first-hand experience working in HEIs as both a researcher and a lecturer, my hunch is that there will be more than a few good researchers that are incorrectly overlooked because of these criteria. At the end of the day I am very, very suspicious of rules like this, which apply ONLY to researchers. If eligibility for REF is based on being a PI, or carrying out independent research - that rule should be for ALL academic staff returned to REF, and not just the ones with researcher in their job title, or who are new to the job (=early career researcher).