After Cycle Superhighway 2 claimed its first death, we got London's very first cycle early-start lights. When that didn't quite work they came back and added extra signs to try to explain which lights meant what. Then when that still didn't work they planned something even more innovative - the UK's first ever low-level cycle lights. And that's what's just been installed, on either side of the Bow Roundabout, ready to kick into action later this month.
They're essentially miniature traffic lights, a bike graphic embedded into each, and positioned much lower than usual. The idea is that they appear at cyclists' eye level, repeating the signal shown above to make clearer whether or not it's safe to proceed. That's the idea anyway.
Other countries have had these low-level signals for years, but they're new to the UK because they couldn't go ahead without government approval. The DfT have been trialling them off-road at a specially constructed junction - they have a 'laboratory' in Wokingham for this kind of thing. Apparently over 80% of cyclists said the low-level signals were a good thing, so last month the Transport Minister gave his approval to trying them on an actual junction on actual cyclists. Hence TfL's experiment at Bow.
Workmen were busy installing them over the weekend while officials in hi-vis jackets stood around and watched. It was as if someone had installed a temporary car park underneath the Bow Flyover, complete with a police car keeping an eye on goings on. Police presence had been essential during the actual installation phase because that meant turning off all the lights, leaving traffic to nudge its way around the Bow Roundabout unguided. It's all back to normal now.
The new low level repeater signals have been added to three existing traffic light poles on each side of the roundabout. The first has been attached to the traffic light in the filter cycle lane, which is where cyclists are supposed to stop if the main body of traffic is heading onto the roundabout. They don't always, because stopping when everyone else is going is counter intuitive, indeed highly frustrating, hence the new low level signals are supposed to remind cyclists that red really does mean stop. They may do a better job than the additional yellow sign that used to read CYCLISTS STOP ON RED (which I notice has been removed). Or they may not.
The second low level signal has been added to the pole on the leftat the entrance to the roundabout. This should be perfectly placed to alert cyclists entering the danger zone that the lights above their head are actually red, or actually green, whatever. It's been all too easy for cyclists to dismiss this second stage of lights because they've just ridden through one that was green, so why on earth would the next be red. If the second light now shows a picture of a red bike at eye level, logic has it, cyclists are much more likely to realise they have to stop, or to behave themselves and hold back. Well, that's the plan.
And the third low level signal has been added to the pole on the right at the entrance to the roundabout. This seems bonkers. No cyclist should be anywhere near the right hand lane, absolutely none whatsoever. They'll all be on the left, because that's where the filter lane deposits you, and that's where the segregated bike lane is ahead. The only purpose of this third low level light, it seems, is to tell waiting vehicles what cyclists are doing at the moment. It's possible that drivers will be more cautious if they see a cycle light turn green before their own light changes, but I'm not convinced, and this third light seems entirely superfluous.
There are still two CYCLISTS STOP ON RED signs in place on the eastbound, or at least there are at present - they may not survive the implementation phase. One's on a pole behind the front left low level signals, the other in the centre of the roundabout. As I said it's proved important to remind cyclists that the second set of lights isn't the same as the first, which is why TfL were forced to add the yellow signs belatedly to their original design. Perhaps the low level lights will perform this function, or maybe the fault runs deeper than that in the design of the entire junction. Until this weekend each approach to the roundabout featured seven different sets of lights, a forest of competing signals, each angled towards cyclists and/or drivers. As of yesterday there are ten, three of the new low level kind, one other just for cyclists, some solely for drivers and the remainder for both. It is potentially even more confusing than before, but TfL hope not.
Traffic signals at the Bow Roundabout are certainly innovative, but that's because the original set-up didn't work, and the first round of improvements didn't either. Cyclists new to the junction haven't found it obvious precisely how to react, potentially putting themselves in danger if they ride through the second red. And regular cyclists have got blasé, realising that they're several metres ahead of the traffic waiting behind, and slipping out onto the roundabout whenever there's a gap. Some might even have got annoyed, because these innovative signals are 'always red' for cyclists. Either you get stopped at the first set, or you sail through and get stopped at the second. It is perhaps unsurprising that not everybody waits.
A brand new CCTV camera has been installed outside McDonalds to keep an eye on how cyclists react to the new lights. Last time TfL made tweaks they installed a temporary camera with a generator, but now there's a proper camera with a pole and wiring embedded in the pavement. This is only an experiment, after all, and the DfT are keen to see how things work before rolling things out elsewhere. Eleven other sites in London are pencilled in for these low level cycle signals if all goes well at Bow, and perhaps elsewhere across the country too.
I should point out that the low level lights aren't yet operational. Shortly after being installed the signals were covered over with black plastic, pending introduction to service later this month. I should also point out that this upgrade does absolutely nothing for pedestrian safety, there still being absolutely no safe means of crossing the roundabout on foot. But for cyclists there'll soon be the chance to ride down to Bow and be a lab rat in the road planners' latest experiment. Or just carry on cycling over the flyover instead, like most of you do, until there's a proven safe solution at ground level.