On the tram lines

“Don’t mention the trams…” was a bit of a running joke around my office for a while. One of the people I work with, in particular, could be guaranteed to go off on an enormous rant on the subject with minimal provocation. Now that the construction has finally finished, the opportunities for tram-based rants have, thankfully, decreased, but they continue to cause me a problem.

Or rather, the tracks do.

I’m really nervous that I am going to slip on the tracks and fall off. Now a low-speed fall in itself might be OK (see my pothole accident), but equally might not be (I have slight but permanent damage to one thumb after falling off on what we think was diesel). But what I really don’t want is to end up in a heap in the middle of the road with people trying to drive into the place I have fallen in to. Especially in the dark; one disadvantage of relying on the lights on your bike to make you visible is that they are not so much use if you have become detached from said bike.

I therefore always take the council’s advice and aim to cross the tracks at 90 degrees. This is all very sensible, but it isn’t what the drivers of the cars around me are expecting me to do. Coming from the Dalry Road at Haymarket, the natural angle to stay in the line of traffic would be about 45 degrees across the tracks. If I start in the left-hand lane and I go at 90 degrees to the tracks, it takes me away to the left of the traffic flow, and I then have to try and get back into it again before the lights change and traffic starts coming from some completely different direction. I have found that it is actually better to be in the right-hand lane, which is actually the lane that the right-turning cars use, then when I move left I’m still in the traffic lanes. It causes all sorts of confusion behind me, of course, because no one understands what I am doing and I can’t signal because I need both hands on the handlebars while going over the tram tracks. There are nice yellow signs saying “Cyclists beware tram tracks” but nothing about “Motorists allow cyclists time and space to cross tram tracks safety”. That would just be too much to ask.

However the junction that I really hate is turning right from Charlotte Square into Princes Street. In fact I hate it so much that I have started going round a longer way just to avoid it. I get into the right-hand lane at the South Charlotte Street exit but once I have gone slowly in a straight line I’m really in the middle lane of three, which is a lane you’d take if you want to go left down Lothian Road. But I don’t want to go left, I want to go straight on into Shandwick Place. I can’t use the straight-on lane, though, because it is full of tram tracks and then there’s some dodgy surface between the tram track bit and the non tram track bit. So once I am over the tracks I signal right (and usually get overtaken on the right by someone who thinks I’m about to move left) and cycle along the divide between the two lanes, while drivers blast past me on my left with no space (while I’m in rant mode, why do people think it is OK to whiz past me with no space when I am waiting to turn right? I might have one foot on the ground, but that doesn’t mean that being close-passed at 30mph+ is a pleasant experience.) And then, assuming the light to go straight on to Shandwick Place is red, I have to stand at the edge of the lane while people drive past me within touching distance until I get a green light.

Phew.

So, when I realised that I can go round Charlotte Square, though Hope Street and Queensferry Street and then left down Alva Street and William Street I was very pleased, even though it is a longer way round. That way, I get a single crossing of the tram tracks at 90 degrees. I can do that.

So, how would I fix these junctions? The first problem, of course, is that cyclists were not taken into account when the tracks were put in. But ripping up the tracks simply isn’t going to happen. My problem, certainly, is that I am having to deal with the tracks and traffic at the same time. In fact, I wonder if I find the two junctions particularly bad because I go through them after 7pm when traffic is lighter and people are able to drive faster and more aggressively. Certainly a simple fix, that would benefit existing cyclists though probably not attract any new ones, would be to add a 30 second bicycle only start phase to the Dalry Road lights. That way, if you were waiting at the lights, you could get over the tracks before the cars and so on started moving. I wonder if it would work? Or would everyone ignore it? You might need cameras to enforce it (cameras would be useful at that junction anyway, to enforce the yellow box…)

The Princes Street junction is much harder, though, unless you really reduce the amount of traffic going through there; or stop it altogether. But that’s a discussion for another post.

On getting away from traffic

I am a fully-fledged vehicular cyclist. Taking the lane, avoiding the door zone, tackling 40 mph roads with pinch points and keeping trucks at bay with a Hard Stare. Wriggly little back streets routes shared with pedestrians? Too slow. Not for me.
And yet. It is stressful, always having to fight for my space on the road. Having to be awkward, more awkward than I’d like to be, because I can’t trust drivers to treat my safety as more important than a few seconds of their time. So if the exaggerated stereotype in the first paragraph was ever true, it is becoming less and less so.

Take my journey to get to the swimming pool on Monday evenings. There are a couple of bicycle only cut-throughs that I use simply because that’s the most direct route. However when I get to the Meadows, I have a choice. I can stick to the road, which does have a painted bike lane, and is fine, a normal road with a painted lane, though in the summer in particular people often park (totally legally) in the lane so you have to move out and round them. And there’s a couple of sets of traffic lights, so you usually have to stop. The other option is North Meadow Walk, which was widened a couple of years ago and now has a cycle path on one side and pedestrians on the other. If it was in The Netherlands the whole thing would be twice as wide, of course, but for a British cycle facility it is pretty good. However I think my top speed along there is probably less than on the road because there are always pedestrians and as the faster and more dangerous path user I make sure to take plenty of care. I’m particularly cautious at the junction with Middle Meadow Walk especially since cyclists coming down the hill there can pick up a bit of speed.

So, my choices were usual road, or slower and mostly less stressful path. Sometimes I would go one way and sometimes the other. However, at the far end of the Meadows it used to be that you were back onto the road, and all the options involved having to take the lane because of parked cars, slightly uphill, on a poor road surface, with impatient motorists behind you, and lots of traffic lights. That was, until the Meadows to Innocent cycle route opened. (The “Innocent” is a cycle path on the route of the Innocent Railway. I don’t know why it was called the Innocent Railway.) When I first saw the plans my initial reaction was that this was a wriggly little back streets route that would be slower and less convenient than going along the road. Fine for families and less confident cyclists, but I’m used to the road, I will stay there. That was before I actually rode the route. Now I always go that way. Yes, it is further than going along the road, but the lights are pedestrian/cyclist crossings which change fairly soon after you press the button, while on the road you have to wait your turn with the traffic. But best of all, you are on quiet roads or little cycle lanes, so you don’t have to fight for your safe space. Those little cycle lanes are proper segregated lanes. Again, they are too narrow, but at 7pm there are not too many other cyclists and pedestrians around. I can imagine that if I was going that way at a busier time of day I might find the road more convenient.
The balance between speed and convenience is illustrated nicely by the fact that on the way home from the pool, when it is even quieter, I have so far always gone on the road. I should try the cycle route in the other direction sometime!

My choices when cycling from the station to the office in Livingston have changed, too. Up until recently, I’ve always gone along the roads, even though this means dealing with my 40 mph road with pinch points. I am not actually sure what has changed, there certainly has not been one particular incident that I can point to, I think I have just been worn out of fighting with traffic. So I have been using some of the shared use paths, away from the road, so that I can avoid the worst bit. (I could actually do the whole route on shared use paths, but the access to the office from the tarmac path is a little muddy path that I don’t want to use because I don’t want to get my bike and my shoes muddy. So I do the last bit on the road.) It is really very pleasant, away from the traffic, there are just a few dog walkers and some kids playing football, who asked me to name a footballer beginning with B – it took me a while to think of Gareth Bale – rather than impatient drivers who don’t think I should be on the road and don’t understand about passing space and pinch points. So I am sticking with going that way for now. However, when the ice and possibly snow arrive, I will be back on the road. The local council do grit and clear some of the paths, but I don’t think that the ones I use are among them. So I will be back on the road at that point.

So where are we, after all this rambling? I guess partly saying that this cyclist who cycles regularly in traffic doesn’t necessarily enjoy it and would be happy to get away from it, and that even not very good dedicated infrastructure can be better than nothing. Rubbish infrastructure, however, is worse than nothing…

On breaking the law

I had a bit of a go at a driver the other day. She was on her (hand-held, obviously) mobile phone and I was trying to get her to stop. The last time I did this, the man stopped rather quickly, but he was driving a van with company details all over it… the woman was in a normal car with no particular identification (apart from the number plate, of course…). Anyway the woman seemed to think that if she ignored me I would give up. Unfortunately for her, we were both waiting at a red light. I can confirm that banging on the roof of a car makes a really satisfactory bang… To be honest, in retrospect, I probably came across as a bit of a nutter, and I suspect that it is just as well I’m female – I would not like it if some angry man started banging on the roof of my car… Another time, in a traffic queue like that, I might try getting my phone out and taking a photo to go for the “post it all over the Internet” option. The thing is, I don’t suppose I have changed that woman’s mind about using her phone while she’s driving, and so I didn’t achieve anything. I do think that we need to object to phone use, and point it out when we see it, if it is ever going to become socially unacceptable. I just don’t think I went about it the right way that time. One thing I am glad I did, though, is say (well shout, really) “Stop breaking the law.” Perhaps that will make her think.

It got me thinking, too. I have an illegal manoeuvre that I make very regularly. I cycle the wrong way up a one way street. It is only about 10 metres long – that might make it worse, because I can and do quite easily push the bike up it instead. So the cycling up is just laziness. I have seen the odd driver go up there – it is not a regular occurrence, though. The reason it is one way in the first place (apart from being quite narrow) is that the exit at the top is really awkward with poor visibility onto a busy road. Not such an issue on a much more maneuverable bike, of course, but it is still a bit tricky, and so when it is busy I usually walk round the corner and into an ASL from which I can make a right turn in the usual legal manner. But, at 7am you can usually make the exit without getting off your bike.

I suppose the questions I am trying and failing to answer are; is minor lawbreaking like my one way street or the drivers I have seen go through red lights on pedestrian crossings once the pedestrians have crossed really worth making a fuss about? And, is it ok for me to criticise someone doing something properly dangerous like my phone woman, when I am not perfect myself? I think the answer to the second one is yes (well I would, wouldn’t I?) but the first one? I am not so sure. You could argue that 80kg of me plus bicycle is less dangerous than a tonne of car, or that I am only really risking myself, but I still think that there is a principle in there somewhere.

Mind you, I am still too lazy to walk 10 metres up a one way street…