Tuesday 31 January 2012

Advanced Stop Lines: The Spawn of Satan?

Advanced Stop Lines (ASL) are the Spawn of Satan. There I've said it. I'm certainly not mincing my words.

So what exactly has led me to this opinion? 

First let me show anyone who doesn't know what an ASL is, a picture of one.

It's a pedal bus....honest!

Oops! Sorry, there seems to be a bus in that one. I'll try again.

There you go. It is usually a red or green zone in which is designated for cyclists to wait in when the traffic lights are red (yes a lot of us do stop!). It places the cyclist at the front of the traffic queue. The idea is that you are very visible to the traffic behind you because you are sat right in front of them. Most of the time that works really well. Unfortunately there is one minor problem if you have an HGV behind you.

The blind spot of an HGV marked on the floor

Ah. That's unfortunate the blind spot is exactly the same shape as the ASL. That is a bit of a problem, but that is not why I despise them so much.

There are many ways that you can categorise cyclists. Lycra clad cyclists, shopping basket cyclists, all the gear/no idea cyclists etc. The list is very long. However, when it comes to utilisation of cycling infrastructure (and I am ignoring anarchist cyclists who ignore all infrastructure) there are two types of cyclists. Experienced and inexperienced. There are significant differences in how these two groups use ASLs.

Some would disagree, but I'd class myself as an experienced cyclist. I've been at it for over 6 years now, and I try to keep myself safe. So what goes through my mind when I approach a junction with an ASL?
You can probably tell from the flow chart that more often than not I ignore the ASL. I either don't need it, won't gain any advantage by using it, or find it too dangerous to get to.

So what goes through an inexperienced cyclists mind when they approach the same junction?
OK, I'll admit I may have been a bit simplistic and made a huge sweeping generalisation, but there is some truth behind it. Many cyclists see ASLs as a target.

There is an ASL at the front of that queue, I'm damn well going to use it!

To be fair it's an understandable response. You would expect that cycle infrastructure was designed and implemented in such a way that it would make cycling safer. It is probably reasonable, as a new cyclist, to expect this.Unfortunately, this is often far from the reality. Left side feeder lanes are an excellent example of this. 

What a wonderful feeder this is. It's not only  extremely narrow and takes the cyclist right next to the wobble cobbles, it also incorporates its very own slippery yellow lines. Marvellous. But it gets worse. Look ahead. This feeder, and many like it encourages the cyclist to filter up the left hand side of traffic on approach to a left turn.

Let's imagine the cyclist filters up here and the lights change whilst the cyclist is still in the feeder (an inexperienced cyclist who hasn't worked out the timing of the lights). The cars start pulling off. The car that is now moving at about the same speed as the cyclist and is to the cyclists right is taking the left turn. However, this driver didn't indicate, which happens from time to time. The driver also hasn't noticed the cyclist to his left, which also happens from time to time. Unfortunately the cyclist hasn't been cycling long enough to develop fully operational cycling spider senses, and so doesn't anticipate the left turn. He keeps on pedalling.

The car turns and....crunch. One very hurt cyclist. 

Now imagine the same scenario except this time the car, is not a car, it's an HGV.......

But cyclists filter up the left hand side at junctions where there no ASLs!!!!

Correct. I still think ASLs are partly to blame for this. Imagine that the inexperienced cyclist has came across a few junctions where the infrastructure, that is surely designed to be safe, encourages them to filter up the left.  What do they then do when they come across a junction without an ASL? Filter up the left of course. It must be safe!!

I suspect this cyclist is a great believer in ASLs...

You can probably sense a pattern emerging now. It would seem I am not a big fan of ASLs. I haven't even mentioned the fact that they are generally ignored by drivers anyway, or that the painted surface is sometimes more slippery than normal tarmac or that their very existence sometimes antagonises drivers. I could probably write a book, just on ASLs.....probably not a very interesting book, admittedly.

There is, though, one final rusty nail that needs to be hammered into the coffin. For me, the worst thing about ASLs is that they waste time. No, they don't waste the time of road users. Yes I feel they waste time for the council employees that have to paint them, although that is not what irks me the most.

They waste huge amounts of cycle campaigner time. I am always saddened to hear of campaigners and campaigns who wave flags and claim victories when they have convinced a council to implement more ASLs. 

It's further proof of the councils commitment to cycling.....

Oh no it isnt!!

It is time, effort and money wasted on cycle infrastructure that is downright dangerous, encourages poor cycling practice and has probably contributed to the deaths of some inexperienced cyclists. The councils only implement them to tick a box. To fulfil a commitment that might just get the councillor a few extra 'cycling' votes at the next election.

It is time to stop wasting time with utterly useless infrastructure and think big. If we really want to increase the modal share of cycling then we need to put infrastructure in place that doesn't just tick councillors boxes, but it make cycling safer, easier and more convenient.  

This is why I now fully support the objectives of the Cycle Embassy of Great Britain. Not because I think we need another campaigning organisation, there are plenty of those to chose from, but because they will not accept second rate infrastructure.

Lets make a stand and Amsterdamize, the streets of Britain!    


  1. Are your ASLs also designed to assist with making two-step right turns? Someone of the ones in my city are designed for assisting a two-step left turn for our drive-on-the-right roads, which I've found a legitimate benefit for.

    1. Interesting you link ASLs with the 'two-step' or 'two-stage right turn'
      (2-step is a dance here ...).
      There was a proposal for a 'Retarded Stop Line' for motorists with a 'Keep Clear' in-between
      but it ended-up as a two-stage-right instead
      Note the cycle advanced stop, but no widened box !

      I've seen more on this kind of junction, but can't find it again.

  2. ASL's are a way to legitimise the practice of getting in front at lights - which should be done from the offside of the queue. That way if the queue moves off before you reach the front you drop back in when their speed matches yours.

    The alternative which is delivers in a few locations is to provide give way markings with an advisory cycle lane in an ASL box so that cyclists may legitimately cross BOTH stop lines and proceed if the road ahead is clear.

  3. I'm not sure I agree with the central core of your analysis - I'm an 'experienced' cyclist and I use ASLs all the time, and I just don't experience the problems you seem to. I certainly don't wait in the traffic more often than not as you seem to suggest.

    Whatever, however what I certainly don't agree with is the tone of your argument. Just a little bit patronising to anyone who doesn't cycle exactly like you don't you think?

    Sorry, this is a really negative comment, so I will add that I do enjoy your blog and thanks for taking the time to write it!

  4. Nitpick, the photo with the wobble-cobbles (very good! :) ) does NOT seem to have a left-hand turn, if you look at the traffic coming out of it, it seems to be a one-way street. ;)

    Excellent post, & pretty much fully agree!

  5. Tim,

    No problem with being negative! :-)

    Mind you the post was meant a little tongue in cheek with regards to 'experienced' and newbie. Just trying to make a point that for many ASL is seen as a target.

    I'd be interested to know though if you disagree with any of my flow chart.

  6. I'd consider myself an experienced cyclist - maybe only 30 years or so around Glasgow and Edinburgh - and I use ASLs all the time. Not generally from the left, which is the legal way to enter them but from the middle of the lanes or from the outside - the centre of the road. From there I'm right beside a driver and can enter the stream of traffic if it starts to move.

    I don't think ASLs create any more problems for cyclists that they wouldn't make for themselves in the absence of ASLs. These people, like the guy in the video filtering down the inside of a left-signalling HGV, would be filtering up the inside to take any little bit of advantage they think they might get. They are, essentially, motorists on a bike with the same mentality of making some illusory progress at any cost.

  7. Spot on David. I'd probably sum up your argument on ASLs as such:

    ASLs provide experienced cyclists a safe-ish place to filter down the outside to.

    ASLs provide inexperienced cyclists a moth to a flame style death trap.

  8. I don't really get ASLs, almost all of the time if I use them out just means that slightly more traffic will overtake me after the light goes green. They can be a bit useful when there are an excessive number of motorists clogging the roads up. My flowchart for ASL use is generally:

    Is there a motorist in the ASL?

    No: queue as normal.
    Yes: Filter to front and set off quite slowly when light changes to green.

  9. Good piece. Your flow chart does indeed correspond to the decision-making process I make at junctions with ASLs.

    The perhaps more fundamental thing that is wrong with the whole philosophy of ASL is that they put cyclists deliberately into the path of drivers. They are thus part of the thinking that wishes to use cyclists as rolling speed-bumps. They are part of a "mix cyclists up with cars as much as possible to calm the streets" philosophy that does nothing to make cycling feel like a nice, relaxed activity that most people would want to do.

    The modern Dutch approach, whereby cycle and motor traffic is separated laterally on the street and fed through the junction at separate times, is better because it feels nicer. You are not in intense, nervous competition with the drivers at that line trying to anticipate when the lights will change.

    ASLs are primitive pieces of cycle infrastructure that the Dutch have largely abandoned because they don't make for very pleasant cycling. We should copy modern Dutch designs instead.

  10. There's a related massive problem which is that ASLs and thus junctions are completely unpredictable for cyclists.

    First you have significant amounts of cycle lanes quite very explicitly, repeatedly, and consistently teaching you the message that if you have any place dedicated for cycling then it is most definitely going to be in left gutter.

    Then you come to notice ASLs with feeder lanes, which teach you that in some junctions you have dedicated lane to get ahead of other traffic (obviously you consider this safe — after all who in their right mind would dedicate a lane for cyclists if it weren't safe?!)

    Next you come across several ASLs without feeder lanes, so as you get more experience you learn to simply ignore (non-)presence of feeder lines because based on past experience they are not any reliable indicator for ASLs in the junction.

    So quite plainly the message is 1) there will be an ASL in the junction dedicated just for you and 2) your way to get there is on the left hand side.

    Somewhere around bikeability level 5 you come to realise you have to actively distrust any and all cycling farcilities provided in the UK, and on level 7 you instinctively know it's virtually all a joke. (Yes, I realise there's only up to level 3 regularly taught.)

    (Coming from Finland where the "shared path" sign actually means something — vast majority of cycle routes are on shared paths — it took me some time to learn the twisted sense of humour UK has when it comes to cycling infrastructure.)

  11. "It is time to stop wasting time with utterly useless infrastructure and think big."

    Here Here.

  12. My experiences on bicycle and motorcycle have taught me that getting caught between or next to traffic when they start to move is lethal. As your diagram points out, you need to know if you have enough red time make it to the front.

    The feeder lanes are almost always so thin, that if you get caught in one you find yourself too close to moving traffic. The feeder lane is the Spawn of Satan for me.

    However, once at the front, I appreciate the box. Without them you worry more that the driver behind will be getting impatient as you slowly get up to speed. The box legitimises your right or need to temporarily hold up the traffic.

    In general though, the ASL requires too much skill to use safely. They are a legacy of the John Franklin Cyclecraft days. Anyone with that level of skill can survive without them anyway.

  13. @Cottenham Cyclist - and there was me thinking ASLs were so that I, on my bike, wasn't held up by motorists slowly getting up to speed. If you pick the right gear going into red lights you can get away faster than most motorised vehicles without undue effort - which I presume is why motorists feel it necessary to rev their engines so loudly when they finally catch up and overtake.

    This assumes I'm not lurking in the shadow of a big truck or coach, of course, when the consequent quaking with terror means I am too distracted to pedal. I do try to avoid this situation, generally. Found this blog post really useful, as I've never seen a photo of an HGV blind spot and had no idea it was so bad in front as well as to the side. Will take even more care in future.

  14. Good to hear that you've come out against ASLs. They're just about the least effective type of cycling infrastructure imaginable. That they're still being proposed by people all around the world is ludicrous. That TfL proposes slightly warmed over ASLs at the rather large and horrific junction that is Bow Roundabout is still more ludicrous. ASLs are relatively uncommon in the Netherlands. Where they exist, they're old and likely to be replaced when the road is next worked on. We don't have any ASLs in Assen. Instead, we have safe mass cycling.

  15. My latest ASL problem is that there are a couple on my current commute (Edinburgh, Granton -> Muirhouse) from which you can't see the traffic lights. Found myself in front of a queue of cars who could see the "filter straight ahead" arrow when I couldn't. Possibly the most dangerous place for a cyclist - in front of pissed-off motorists.

  16. "Cycle advanced stop lines (ASLs) are frequently not respected by other road users and show little safety benefit, although the research in this area is particularly limited."

    Source: TRL Report PPR 580 Findings on Infrastructure and Cyclist Safety.

  17. My sister was cycling in Oxford and was in a ASL with a load of other cyclists when the bus behind them took off as the light changed and hit the ones in the back - game of dominoes ensued, in which my sis ended up rather battered.

    I've used them in Edinburgh, but find them generally a bit useless (sat in front of pissed-off motorists, oh dear!), and too often full of motorbikes.

  18. I was considering writing a similar blog, but you have said everything I wanted to to say about those stupid red boxes in Edinburgh.
    Being Danish, I know how cycling and cars can work together, so its a bit of a shame seeing the Edinburgh Council wanting to spend money on cycling infrastructure but the implementing these useless solutions.

  19. So the big problem are not ASLs as such, but that there is usually no safe way to get to them, and then to leave them again.

    Unless there is a wide cycle lane starting well before the junction and actually continuing on the other side too, to get to the ASL you have to take a lot of chances filtering through traffic that might start to move, and no guarantee that the ASL is actually free and not blocked by cars.

    Once there, when lights change to green, cars behind you will overtake just when you get to the other side of the juction, which is often a squeeze point with parked cars etc. Again there needs to be a separate cycle lane continuing through the junction to avoid this conflict.

    On the continent, ASLs are not used much, and generally only in combination with cycle lanes / feeders that start well before the junction and allows you to stay out of the motor lanes.

  20. Flow chart is good but missing a bit. Maybe you are aware but ignore it:
    Is this the same car I've got in front of in last few sets of lights and is he likely now to be pissed off at me a do a "punishment pass" ?
    If yes, wait behind him.

    I am not a fan of ASLs.

  21. Hello David, researching my latest blog, this comment from Charlie Lloyd, which rather suggests some conventional ideas about HGV blind-spots might be wrong. Thought you'd be interested to know. - Simon

  22. You make some valid points, but I think you over egg the pudding. As an experienced London cyclist, I often use ASLs, especially on narrow roads when the traffic is light to moderate. They allow to be first away from the lights and give me a clear road ahead, in pleasant contrast to being stuck behind slower moving vehicles spewing out shit in my face and blocking my vision. I also know when not to use them.

    I them moderately useful, but no substitute for the almost complete absence of any serious cycling infrastructure (which of course is THE central issue that underpins all others).

    Given the current road design in London, the safest way to ride is in primary position. However, this requires confidence, experience, and something I think is all too often left overlooked: speed.

    The closer you can ride your bike like you are riding a small motorbike, i.e. being able to accelerate quickly, reach 30mph and hold 25mph for a time, the safer you will be. The further you are from being able to match these speeds, the more motorists will attempt to bully you back into the gutter or attempt dangerous overtaking maneuvers.

    I find it absolutely terrifying when I have had to cycle slowly in London traffic, for example when I am riding with an inexperienced cyclist. You're caught between a rock: primary position, and a hard place: the gutter. You're forced to cut in and out of faster moving motor traffic as it pointlessly speeds from red light to red light, and jam to jam. Not a pleasant experience, but one which doubtless familiar to the new and/or slower cyclist, i.e. normal people, not club cyclists like myself.