Finally, almost a year since it first opened, TfL have rejigged the far end of Cycle Superhighway 2 at the Bow Roundabout. It took two dead cyclists to spur them into action, before they eventually came up with a scheme to introduce "cycle early-start facilities." Allow cyclists onto the roundabout just ahead of the traffic behind, they thought, and then those cyclists won't be accidentally squashed by left-turning vehicles. TfL have now carved a new segregated cycle lane out of the pavement, and shifted waiting traffic back to give cyclists a clearer run at the roundabout. The new layout opened last Friday, then promptly shut again, with contractors toiling over the bank holiday weekend to iron out some problems. They scraped new blue chippings off the road, and they shortened the end of the cycle lane barrier so that vehicles didn't keep running over it. And finally on Wednesday the new traffic lights were uncovered and the adjusted layout was properly launched. And are there still problems? Oh yes. Because the new cycle-friendly "improvements" at the Bow Roundabout aren't as good as TfL are about to tell you they are.
10 reasons why the new cycle-friendly "improvements" at the Bow Roundabout aren't as good as TfL are about to tell you they are
1) It's all incredibly over-complicated Where there used to be three traffic lights, now there are eight. Two guard the exit from the new cycle lane, where cyclists are supposed to wait if the main traffic is on green. Ahead are three more lights, these designed for vehicles only, which are generally at red only if the cycle lights are on green and vice versa. And then there are three traffic lights at the entrance to the roundabout - these were here before - and they're not quite in sync with any of the traffic lights behind. Eight lights in total, which could get very confusing, so TfL have shielded several lights from view depending on where you are. Some have shutters over amber and green, so they're visible only to traffic curving from the right. Another has lengthy curved shielding masking visibility from the cycle lane, so that only vehicles at the front of the traffic queue can see it. To add to the confusion, three of the traffic lights don't display a green circle, they display a green forward arrow. This suggests that you can only drive straight ahead, which completely isn't the case, so the presence of these arrows is baffling. Stumble upon this forest of lights for the first time and you'll quite likely be disoriented, wondering which of the various asynchronous lights are meant for you. Welcome to the new improved Bow Roundabout early-start facilities.
2) Cyclists aren't quite sure what to do There isn't another junction like this in London. It's new, and different, and original. This means that cyclists arriving at the lights have to work out what to do from the visual cues all around them. They're supposed to stop if their cycle lane light is red, even though the the other six traffic lights are green. They're supposed to carry on if their special cycle lane light is green, even though the other six traffic lights are red. It's not surprising they often do the wrong thing. Some cyclists hover in the cycle lane when it's at green, hesitant to continue. Some cyclists head forward a bit but not far enough, leaving themselves only fractionally ahead of the other traffic when the lights change. Some skip the cycle lane altogether and negotiate their way through the main body of traffic. And others get it right, waiting up at the front of the tiny strip of blue paint, ready for a quick getaway. I'm amazed how many completely different things I've seen cyclists do here, how many different ways there are to wrongly interpret this new junction layout. Everyone'll get better at it, more familiar, once they've ridden through a few times. But on your first approach, this genuinely isn't straight-forward at all.
3) Cyclists are misunderstanding what the lights mean and putting themselves in danger If you see a green bike symbol on a traffic light in a segregated cycle lane, obviously you cycle past it. And why wouldn't you keep going, because you've had the green light... straight ahead and onto the roundabout? The blue stripe in front of you does lead off most invitingly as the Cycle Superhighway continues. But then, oops, you're on the roundabout at the wrong time, potentially colliding with traffic swinging round to exit via the A12. I've seen several cyclists whizzing through the initial green light clearly unaware that the final set of red lights does actually apply to them. These final lights are ordinary traffic lights, no red bike symbol here, nothing specifically warning cyclists to stop. It's not TfL's intention that this new set-up is dangerous, but for those who misunderstand the mixed messages of the signals, it clearly is.
4a) Cyclists are jumping the first light It's naughty, jumping red lights, we know. But the lights in the cycle lane are only red while the lights for the main traffic are on green, and that's really annoying. Why should you wait everyone else sails through onto the roundabout? Why shouldn't you jump your red light and join them? 'Good' cyclists are supposed to hold back, then filter ahead and wait patiently for a minute while the whole cycle goes round again. It's no surprise to see several cyclists being 'bad' instead, jumping their red to hit everyone else's green, in order to get round the junction quicker. But then, hey presto, they're in precisely the position of danger that used to exist here before, as traffic turning left potentially cuts them up. 4b) Cyclists are jumping the second light It's naughty, jumping red lights, we know. But when you're lined up beside the roundabout, with all the other vehicles a few seconds behind you, why wouldn't you sneak onto the roundabout if the coast is clear? There's another segregated cycle lane round the edge of the roundabout a few metres ahead, so if you can reach that you'll be safe as houses. I've seen several cyclists take the opportunity to skip the red light at the roundabout when a gap in circulating traffic allows, most especially when absolutely nothing is coming. Time it right, however illegal the move, and jumping red is safer than waiting for green.
5) The gap between lights changing is rather short You might expect there'd be several seconds delay between cyclists getting the green light to venture onto the roundabout and the traffic behind getting the same. Not so. The lights behind change very swiftly, overlapping with the change in front. The thing that protects the cyclists isn't time, it's distance, with cars and lorries having to make up ten metres or so from a standing start to catch up. That's fine if cyclists have ridden right to the front of their advance stop box, but not if they've hung back. I've seen both hesitant and queueing cyclists caught up by the traffic behind, which has promptly attempted to turn left across their path. Obviously TfL don't want to hold up the traffic at the Bow Roundabout any more than they absolutely have to. But the two streams aren't as segregated, in time, as much as you might like to think.
6) The segregated cycle lane starts immediately after a bus stop This still amazes me. The new segregated cycle lane starts less than ten metres after a bus stop. If there's no bus, fine, you sail straight through. But if there is a bus, then you have to swing out to cycle round it, then swing back in afterwards (very quickly) to join the narrow lane. Meanwhile the bus that's been in the stop might well be signalling to pull out, across your path, leading to a very dangerous conflict. Thirty buses an hour pass this way, so the likelihood of a big red mobile obstruction is fairly high. At the moment this problem doesn't apply, because the bus stop's closed due to all the recent roadworks. Once it's reopened, I do genuinely worry how dangerous this switchback might be. But TfL appear to be doing all their initial safety monitoring before this potential hazard is back in place.
7) A large number of cyclists are still using the flyover instead There are two ways to cycle east past the Bow Roundabout. You can stay at ground level and negotiate the roundabout itself, with all the attendant dangers that still brings. Or you can risk cycling across two lanes of traffic to reach the central flyover, and whizz over that, which I'd say is still the chosen option for about half of the cyclists riding this way. There are no traffic lights up there, no left turning tipper trucks, and it's quicker, so it's the favoured option for many. Getting off the flyover at the far end isn't easy - there are serious risks here as well as on the approach. But it's interesting to observe how many cyclists are completely shunning TfL's expensive junction refit because they think there's a better (maybe safer) route over the top.
8) It should have been designed properly the first time There's going to be lots of positive spin in the media regarding this junction refurbishment. The first advance cycle lights in Britain, investing in safety, creating a better transport environment, pioneering technology, whatever. But the truth is, the original solution which opened here last summer (pictured) was woefully inadequate. Where now there's a segregated cycle lane, some cheapskate previously thought it fit to paint half a lane of normal traffic blue. Where now there are advance stop lights, cyclists were previously left vulnerable to left-turning lorries. The previous solution was pathetic, especially the clogged-up approach road, unworthy of the title "Cycle Superhighway". What we have today is being praised as good mainly because what it replaced was so poor.
9) There were two deaths here, but only one of the approach roads has been fixed. The latest roadworks only help to improve the eastbound slip road where Brian Dorling died. The westbound slip road where Svitlana Tereschenko died remains untweaked, apart from a few patronising yellow signs warning drivers to look out for cyclists. Apparently the westbound slip road will be modified, but not until after the Games are over. Stratford High Street is a crucial part of the main Olympic Road Network, which Bow Road isn't, so there'll be no physical tweaks slowing down the traffic until all the Olympic sponsors have gone home. Yes, there are yet more roadworks to come... it's not finished yet.
10) There's still absolutely no provision for pedestrians And after all this, Bow Roundabout remains just as dangerous for pedestrians to cross as it was before. If anything it's more dangerous, because the mass of new semi-obscured traffic lights on the eastbound slip road makes it even harder to judge when it might be safest to cross. But it seems there'll be no signalised crossings on any of the eight slip roads, because apparently "introducing a green-man phase for pedestrians on each branch of the Bow Roundabout was shown to create mile-long tailbacks reaching back westwards towards Mile End." I reckon it would be simplicity itself to introduce a green man phase on four of the eight slip roads, those feeding onto the roundabout, but it is alas true that crossings on the four exit roads would sometimes create major tailbacks. A lot of money has been spent at the Bow Roundabout attempting to improve safety for cyclists, now for a second time, and still not entirely successfully. But pedestrians must continue to risk their lives and take their chances, to cross a junction that remains nowhere near as safe as TfL are about to tell you it is.