Monthly Archives: September 2020

Towards safer streets: the Highway Code and cycle lane proposals

Park City Bicycle. Photo: Mohamed Hassan

One of the most noticeable aspects of lockdown was the reduction in traffic on our streets, and the attendant increase in wildlife. After the initial lockdown period ended and people started going about their business a little more, councils throughout the UK started narrowing roads, and widening cycle lines, at least temporarily. This has provided a boost for environmental campaigners wishing to reduce car usage and increase healthy forms of transport.

This is the context for the current open consultation on the Highway code. We should see this as part of the government’s stated drive to make people healthier and protect the NHS during the Covid-19 crisis.

What is its purpose?

The aim is to improve safety for vulnerable road users: pedestrians; cyclists and horse riders. Here are the main proposals, as laid out on the page linked above:

  • introducing a hierarchy of road users which ensures that those road users who can do the greatest harm have the greatest responsibility to reduce the danger or threat they may pose to others
  • clarifying existing rules on pedestrian priority on pavements, to advise that drivers and riders should give way to pedestrians crossing or waiting to cross the road,
  • providing guidance on cyclist priority at junctions to advise drivers to give priority to cyclists at junctions when travelling straight ahead
  • establishing guidance on safe passing distances and speeds when overtaking cyclists and horse riders

As can be seen, these proposals are not set out in terms of their environmental impact; rather, they are about safety and equality. However, it’s obviously the case that any proposals that mitigate against the tendency of car drivers to assume they have greater rights than other road users will have the capacity, in however small a way, to contribute to the general cleaning up of our roads.

Furthermore, how we behave on the roads is shaped by the Highway Code, both in terms of how we treat each other, and how we are policed. Alongside the review, there are £50 bicycle repair vouchers available and design guidance for cycling infrastructure.

This is Cycling UK’s take on what is meant by “a hierarchy of road users”:

“Pedestrians, in particular children, older adults and disabled people, followed by cyclists, horse riders and motorcyclists. It wouldn’t remove the need for all users to behave responsibly or give priority to pedestrians and cyclists in every situation, but it would ensure that their needs were considered first.”

It has been pointed out by campaigners that this does rather give the impression that some road users are more important than others, and that therefore “a hierarchy of responsibility” would have been a more appropriate phrase.

New rules for drivers as part of the review include a designated amount of space to give cyclists when overtaking that increases with speed and drivers not being allowed to turn left across cyclists at junctions. Cyclists will now be permitted to filter through traffic on either side of slow-moving vehicles, and to ride two abreast, with the idea being that this reduced the amount of time the driver needs to spend in the opposite lane to overtake.

It is something of a truism to state that anything increasing cycling safety has the capacity to increase the number of cyclists on the road. Currently, two thirds of adults questioned in England feel that cycling is dangerous. This is a 5% annual increase.

Therefore, alongside the consultation on the Highway Code, the government has pledged £2 billion in spending on protected cycle lanes, as well as a regulator to stop councils building substandard cycling and walking infrastructure.

An opportunity missed?

However, it’s not clear if that’s enough. Ruth Hannan, a community campaigner I spoke to in Manchester, felt that the opportunity that Covid-19 presented to really make cycling part of the infrastructure via a genuine culture change has not been taken up. One issue mentioned was the lack of citizen engagement and caving into political pressure.

More positively, she felt that the proposed change to the Highway Code was to be welcomed, as it will embed cyclist safety in law. Despite this, there will be challenges, as there will still be too many cars on the road. Around £6 – £8 billion is needed over the next 5 years to double cycling levels, according to both the government’s own figures and cycling campaigners.

Chris Heaton-Harris, the transport minister responsible for cycling, had this to say when announcing the spending:

“I know from talking to people, and looking at my very active cycling social media response, that dedicated infrastructure is essential to make people feel safe. One of the big parts of this investment is to try and make the streets safer for people to cycle on. I tend to believe that in cycling, it’s very much Kevin Costner, Field of Dreams territory: if you build it, they will come.”

It remains to be seen whether this is the case, of course, and indeed if the proposed spend is adequate. We don’t have the figures for 2020 yet, but it is the case that there hasn’t been any significant uptick in people cycling in the last half decade. The evidence we have all seen with our own eyes these last 6 months points to a change in this regard, but sustaining it is of course the challenge. Given the obvious health and environmental benefits of cycling – and more generally not being in cars – it ought to be an urgent task for government, in these pandemic times.

The London Energy Transformation Initiative (LETI): towards a cleaner UK

The London Eye. Photo: pixabay

What is it?

The London energy Transformation Initiative (LETI) is a voluntary network of over 1000 professionals working in built environment towards a zero-carbon future. It comprises developers, housing associations, engineers, architects, planners, sustainability professionals, contractors and facilities managers. It is supported by both the GLC and its constituent boroughs.

What is its purpose?

It was set up to compile evidence-based recommendations towards the London Plan and the London Environment Strategy. Here is an indicative section of its mission statement:

→  engaging with stakeholders to develop a robust and rapid energy reduction approach, producing effective solutions to the energy trilemma of security, sustainability, and affordability

→  working with authorities to create practicable policy alterations to ensure the regulatory system is fit for purpose, placing verified performance at its core

→  encouraging and enabling collaboration between built environment professionals

→  providing technical advice to support exemplar developments, enabling pioneers who aspire to go beyond the current regulatory frameworks”

What is it up to in 2020?

Quite a lot, in short. First, it is of interest to consider how its work fits in with that done by UKGBC, who were the focus of our attention in a piece last month on this site. Of course, they’re both working towards the same goal: a zero-carbon future. With this in mind, both organisations collaborated towards the end of last year on a short paper entitled Ten Key Requirements for New Buildings, which builds on the UKGBC’s Net Zero Framework.

Also new this year is LETI’s Climate Emergency Design Guide and its Embodied Carbon Primer. Here’s what they both offer.

The former should be fairly self-explanatory, but here are some key takeways. It covers five areas:

  • Operational energy
  • Embodied carbon
  • The future of heat
  • Demand response
  • Data disclosure

The requirements pertaining to four areas of operation: small scale residential; medium/large scale residential; commercial offices; schools. Part of the thinking here is showing the wider world that the industry is thinking collectively about how to design buildings, and isn’t just reacting to government guidelines. LETI thinks that in order to meet climate change targets, 10% of new projects ought to be designed with these requirements in mind. That seems realistic and, it is to be hoped, achievable.

The Embodied Carbon Primer is effectively an add-on offering supplementary targeted guidance for people wanting to explore this aspect of sustainability in greater detail. LETI takes the view that there is something of a knowledge gap regarding what is needed to make reductions in this areas, so this short document is an intervention to address that. As they say themselves: “the leap of knowledge and skill required to be able to fulfil this goal is still relatively large, but far from insurmountable”.

Like much of the guidance out there in the field, there is a confluence of grand targets and empirical hard-headedness: yes, there is work to be done in getting where we need to be; no, that doesn’t mean we can’t achieve the targets, specifically the principal one of net zero carbon by 2050. LETI believes this means that by 2030 all new buildings will need to operate at net zero. Why? Because each new building not operating at net zero represents an increase in total carbon emissions. Therefore, there needs to be a shift in how buildings are designed, constructed and operated, as soon as is feasible. This will also limit future spending on retrofitting buildings that are not fit for purpose.

There are other publications on its website, of course, not least its consultation response to the draft London Plan in 2019. The importance of that plan cannot be overestimated, given London’s size and strategic leadership role in the UK. Have a look at a recent article on our site pertaining to this.

LETI wants you to get involved, and there are many different ways of doing this, from volunteering your time to attending workshops. See here for details.