Three months ago, after a four decade wait, pedestrian crossings were finally installed at the Bow Roundabout. Previously we had to take our chances dashing through the gaps between the traffic, and there's a lot of traffic because this is the junction of the A11 with the A12 dual carriageway. But now we can simply press some buttons and wait, our safe passage across this killer gyratory assured. Or at least that was the plan. How do you think it's turned out?
Previously there were eight unsignalled crossing points, in pairs, arranged in a big loop around the four arms of the junction. Crossing each arm took two goes - one at traffic lights and therefore safe, but one a madcap scary rush requiring psychic ability to predict which of the swirling vehicles might be about to turn off the roundabout next. It wasn't fun, but the able-bodied amongst us generally coped, and those in wheelchairs stayed away.
TfL's solution has been to convert the "O" into an "H", with pedestrians directed across the centre of the roundabout for the first time. Not everybody has to go this way, only those attempting to cross between Bow and Stratford, but that's the majority of the pedestrian flow, so it's a significant change.
Those crossing Bow Road have it easier, now with two push-button pedestrian crossings to help them. One of these was added at the existing traffic lights, slightly modified, while the other is freshly installed and intermittently stops the traffic. Those crossing Stratford High Street have a very similar set-up, passing underneath the flyover in two relatively simple steps. But anyone attempting to walk between Bow and Stratford is now expected to cross onto the central reservation under the flyover, cross to the centre of the roundabout, then depart the centre of the roundabout and finally head back to the edge on the other side. This requires four crossings rather than the original two, but is guaranteed to be safe which the original route never was. Here's the original route.
Last time I wrote about the changes I wondered how TfL were going to dissuade people from taking the original route. Would they add bollards or bobbles or barriers to physically dissuade people from the more direct path, or would they add signs saying "For your own safety don't go this way, take the safe route across the centre of the roundabout"? It turns out they did neither. Instead they got workmen to dig up the dropped kerbs and tactile paving, and to erase the LOOK RIGHT signs they'd painted only a couple of months before. And all they left behind was a normal kerb - no notices, no signs, indeed nothing special whatsoever.
This kerb should definitely be enough to persuade someone in a wheelchair to take another route. It might be enough to persuade someone with a pushchair to take another route, although the new kerb's manoeuvrable enough to be ignored. But it's not been enough to persuade able-bodied pedestrians to walk elsewhere, indeed they probably haven't noticed the kerb's been tweaked at all. So you can probably guess what the end result of all this expensive roadworks has been. The vast majority of pedestrians crossing between Bow and Stratford completely ignore the new crossings via the middle of the roundabout and continue to take the dangerous route around the edge.
And who can blame them? The new route involves twice as many crossings as the old. The new route is longer. The new route starts by going perpendicular to the way you're expecting to go. And the new route isn't obviously signposted, despite a plethora of maps and information boards having been plastered beside the road and under the flyover.
The expectation was that pedestrians would interact with a series of five Exit Numbers, as if this was a subway ring, then realise that to reach their Exit they had to cross first to the centre. But nobody really sees their passage this way, instead instinctively walking past the maps and boards and numbers to reach the corner of the roundabout which is where they'd expect to cross. And once here they take the old route, because the new route is now behind them, and many of them probably don't even realise it's there.
I've been down to do a quick survey to show you what I mean.
» I went down for ten minutes before the evening rush hour. During that time 13 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and all of them walked around the edge of the roundabout, ignoring the new safe route across the middle.
» I went down for ten minutes at the start of the evening rush hour. During that time 23 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and 20 of them walked around the edge of the roundabout. This included a mother with a pushchair who risked all rather than take the meandering four-step diversion. Only three people took the approved route across the centre of the roundabout, one a schoolchild, another a more elderly lady.
» I went down for ten minutes at the end of the evening rush hour. During that time 30 people crossed between Bow and Stratford, and 26 of them walked around the edge of the roundabout. Again this included a mother with a pushchair who chose not to take the safe four-step route. Only four people took the approved route across the centre of the roundabout, again a varied mix of age and gender.
I should add that during my survey 32 different people crossed either Bow Road or Stratford High Street - simpler journeys which don't require diverting to the centre of the roundabout. These two-step routes are now much safer than before thanks to the new lights, which have not been installed in vain. Even so most of these people never stopped to push the button, let alone wait for the lights to change, instead dashing across during a gap in the traffic as before.
But this still leaves a total of 66 people crossing between Bow and Stratford over the space of 30 minutes, and an astonishing 89% of them walked around the edge of the roundabout.
All the evidence suggests that TfL have spent a large amount of money at the Bow Roundabout building pedestrian crossings that most pedestrians aren't using. In particular they've created a safe route across the middle of the roundabout, and the vast majority of people are ignoring it in favour of the previous more dangerous route.
Local residents can't have failed to notice the new lights - they've been operational for almost three months. But maybe they haven't realised how the new lights are supposed to help, or more likely they do realise and aren't interested, preferring to take their chances in the traffic as before. Of greater concern, pedestrians arriving at the junction for the first time probably don't understand where they're 'supposed' to go, so continue to follow the desire line route, unwisely taking their chances with an unfamiliar junction.
Do we blame the signage, which is counter-intuitive, ill-positioned and easily overlooked? Do we blame the underlying concept, sending pedestrians via an unexpected route rather than adding traffic lights around the edge? Do we blame the expectation that people will walk a longer distance to follow a safer route? Do we blame perception of risk, whereby people assume they'll manage to slip safely across the oncoming traffic because so far they always have? You might blame the lack of barriers, although I'm rather pleased there aren't any and we've been left to make our own choices. A nudge is usually better than coercion, except in this case the nudge may be too small and the new route is being ignored.
After years of waiting dangerously, it's truly excellent that there is now a safe pedestrian route across the Bow Roundabout. Anyone with mobility issues can now cross successfully from one side to the other, whereas previously they'd have been driven away. But as projects go, this cunning H-shaped crossing is proving an expensive practical failure, as local residents continue to sacrifice their safety to save some time. It's a solution which delivers, but isn't working.