Greenwich Thames Path cyclists told to make way for driverless cars

Driverless car, 9 February 2015

Greenwich Council is quietly doing some very good things on cycling – like boosting cycle lanes, and experimenting with new on-street parking facilities.

But it’s still capable of doing some very dumb things – such as closing a cycle lane on the Greenwich Peninsula so it can be used for trials of driverless cars.

The council won a bid last year to test out the technology, getting an £8 million grant to carry out the tests.

gt_driverless609

In December, the council’s weekly newspaper Greenwich Time claimed the trials would not take place on public roads.

Thames Path, 9 February 2015

But a stretch of dedicated cycle path next to the Thames Cable Car has been commandeered for the tests, with riders told to share an adjacent footpath with pedestrians.

Thames Path, 9 February 2015

There was no consultation about the decision, instead there’s just a tiny notice on a lamp post and cycle markings scrubbed out and replaced with the word “SHUTTLE”.

The notice cites “danger to the public” for the decision. But if the trial’s organisers think they can avoid danger by closing off a length of cycle path, they’ve chosen the wrong place.

I cycle along this stretch regularly, and most days there are pedestrians wandering into the cycle track – often glued to tablets with headphones plugged in.

Thames Path, 9 February 2015

In fact, when I first saw the closure yesterday, there was a small child crawling over the “SHUTTLE” marking. Returning home in the evening rush hour, there were plenty of people wandering down the cycle path.

The trials appear to have begun yesterday, with tourism agency Visit Greenwich posting a video today.

Nobody walking in the path this time, but sooner or later somebody’s going to get a shock when they look up from their phone. As driverless technology evolves, it’s going to have the potential to clash with other road users – four-wheeled, two-wheeled, or two-footed.

Greenwich’s decision to prioritise driverless cars over cyclists and pedestrians without consultation, while on a parochial level is pretty much typical of the way it does things, isn’t a good omen for the future.

In the meantime, if you’re walking along the Thames Path any time soon, keep an eye – and ear – out for a little driverless car…

Thames Path, 17 February 2015

Update, 17 February: The path has now reopened. So what was all that about, and was it really worth burning off road markings, putting on new ones, burning them off again and reinstating old markings? A weird episode.

20 comments

  1. David Riddle

    Loads of questions here.. does anyone have the answers? Who/what is this for? Is it a charged service? Is it actually operational or just trundling along going nowhere in particular and empty? How do users get on or off? What exactly are the safeguards to avoid small children crawling I front of it being run over? Bit speechless really!

  2. Steve Hathorn

    Good God, people. This mindset would see us still riding horses.

    It’s a *500m* stretch of cyclepath *temporarily* closed to allow a very exciting piece of cutting-edge technology to be tested. We have the privilege of seeing something that is going to revolutionise road transport in the very near future, must we moan about this too?

    David Riddle, it’s to trial the technology before using public roads. It is not a charged service as it is just going up and down the cyclepath. People use the doors to get on/off once the vehicle has stopped, as with a driver-operated car. And it is loaded with sensors which will bring the car to a quick stop if someone or something gets in its way.

    Driverless cars have been operating on the crowded public highways of San Francisco for a long time now, where they have driven hundreds of thousands of miles *without a single accident* – Correction, one stationary driverless car was rear-ended by a car caused…by a human driver not paying attention.

  3. Chris 2

    Welcome to the future! Given the trial is designed to test these vehicles ability to (one day soon) navigate on the open road, it seems a little short-sighted to close off the path. It would have been better, surely, to test the software’s ability to identify and navigate road hazards (such as other vehicles), with a human driver on board in case of emergency.

    I suspect the decision to close off the cycle path was that of the Council’s rather than the manufacturer of that cars given they undoubtedly will have pedestrian avoidance systems installed.

    Why undoubtedly? The answer to that also answers David’s question above. The technology for driver-less vehicles has been in existence since the 1980s. Some of this automation is creeping into mainstream vehicle production – for example there are already car’s on the market with collision avoidance systems that will automatically apply the breaks where an imminent collision is detected, and those that can park themselves semi-automatically. It’s not the technology that’s lacking, its the law, which is why this test is happening, for the most part, on the private land surrounding the O2. Still, shame about the cycle lane.

  4. runner500

    Tend to agree with Steve H, the path is fairly wide there, however, I don’t understand why it needs to be a full closure – i.e. only close it 10-4 Monday to Friday and avoid the heavier usage periods on the path. Compared it with the length of closure for the dangleway around the same point which went on for months and months.

  5. Paul

    You say Greenwich got £8 million grant. Can’t see the issue. The paths are very wide here. Good on Greenwich for being at the forefront of new technology. Creates a good national impression of Greenwich

  6. Darryl Chamberlain

    Everything is geared at gaining a good national impression without thinking through the local issues, though.

    There is a reason why cyclists and pedestrians have separate paths here – nobody wants to share a footpath with cyclists haring down it, no sane cyclist likes sharing with pedestrians. Taking space, however small, away from either is a backwards step.

  7. Kate

    doesn’t sound like it’s going to make much headway if it has sensors which make it stop every time it senses a person! Hopefully a way can be found to share the Thames Path with cyclists. Thanks for keeping a beady out Darryl on encroachment of cyclists’ enjoyment of the Path. It’s not as much fun as it used to be, due to all the housing development. It now feels very Developed Royal Greenwich. I miss my rusting hulks of metal, odd, discarded chairs and the guerrilla knitters’ fine efforts – and the quiet.

    Unlike Royal Parks, I do think Council seem aware that there are quite a number odd people out there who cycle! For some time, I’ve wanted to ask you what you made of the deliberate lack of maintenance of what used to be road marked cycle paths in Greenwich Park eg the main though route from the Vanbrugh Gate (that they tried/failed to block with a cattle grid a few years back) on Maze Hill which runs to the Avenue? Greenwich Cyclists group are of the view that informal shared use is a good thing. I’m not so sure. I’ve had irate pedestrians berate my slow self as they haven’t seen the tiny sign on the little post. Still don’t understand why the very wide avenue (turn right at the very bottom of it and you get to Park Row Gate) that skateboarders fly down is off limit to cyclists either.

  8. Simon H

    The Royal Parks would rather that cyclists didn’t exist, see their obstructionism over the E-W Cycle Superhighway. A shared path for them is probably a prelude to banning cyclists entirely (“putting pedestrians at risk”).

  9. Rob

    So Greenwich are the lucky ones to be testing this fantastic new texhnology. I’m glad to hear it! What they failed at is A) where they’re testing it and B) not finding out the public’s respone before closing a cycle lane! They are there for a reason! So many accidents were happening because cyclists were sharing with pedestrians, hence why the cycle path is there in the first place! Surely Greenwich could have found a carpark or somewhere less publicly used to test this driverless car??

  10. Darryl Chamberlain

    Watching the TV coverage, it seems even weirder that they’re content to have the cars trundling across Peninsula Square – where pedestrian movements are pretty erratic, as they should be in a “public” square – yet have to shut off a cycle lane, where cycle movements (or joggers’ movements) are fairly predictable. It may be the council being worried about litigation from any accidents, while Peninsula Square is private property.

    Strange business all round.

  11. tony

    Thank you to Steven for good old fashioned perspective and common sense.

    This article reminds me of the fear of trains and how they would set fire to the countryside and scare the live stock.

  12. Paul

    “nobody wants to share a footpath with cyclists haring down it,”…..can I suggest you slow down then? It is temporary, the path is wide enough and the experiment is looking to the future. Something to be applauded not lambasted.

  13. Darryl Chamberlain

    Is the experiment being lambasted? No.

    But what is the point of having a cycle lane, and promoting cycling, if you are needlessly closing that cycle lane because of a “danger to the public” which doesn’t seem to exist?

  14. IslandDweller

    What on earth is Greenwich playing at? The future has to be a reduction in car usage in central London. What possessed the council to think this is an appropriate technology here?
    Steve at 1717 yesterday. How will revolutionise traffic in London? A car stuck in traffic belching out pollution is a car stuck in traffic – whether there’s a human or a computer driving it.
    I’m spitting mad about this – it probably shows.

  15. Paul

    Darryl, I just find your argument, in this case, rather short sighted. You say ‘needlessly’ in regards to closing the cycle lane when the need is to test new technology. The danger to the public is that the technology is new and could go wrong making the vehicle potentially unpredictable and a potential threat to safety.

    Not everything can be geared to just the cyclists perspective and Greenwich do do good work in that regard and are trying to be even better.

    IslandDweller…..I don’t know if you have just misunderstood the purpose of the scheme but it clearly states that “the purpose of the trials is to demonstrate the benefits of driverless vehicles…” Doesn’t say ‘cars’ so could be adopted by public transport that could reduce the number of cars on the road if proved to be beneficial. The vehicles are also electric that could reduce exhaust emissions which is another of this blogs (and mine) long standing issues.

    What is wrong with cyclists slowing down, pedestrians paying more attention to their surroundings and being mindful of said vehicle and cyclists?

    I’m a pedestrian that is quite content to share my walking space with considerate cyclists but that is the point, I don’t consider it to be ‘my space’ – and neither should cyclists.

  16. Darryl Chamberlain

    The trouble is, Paul, is that (judging by TV coverage) the driverless vehicles seem to be able to pootle around Peninsula Square and Cutter Place without issue – so why the need to inconvenience people on another path? Cyclists have long fought for segregated space – removing even the smallest spot is a retrograde step, when other spots could have been used, or they could have just allowed the vehicles to share with pedestrians and cyclists. Pedestrians shouldn’t have to put up with it, either.

    It’s a small issue, but it’s a symbol of a much bigger story of poor communication and a lack of understanding. Some advance notice, some detail about why a small bit of path has to be commandeered would have gone a long way. Sadly, that wasn’t the case.

  17. MJ Ray

    Quite right Paul! What is wrong with cyclists slowing down to walking speed? And actually, then they wouldn’t need their bikes so we can just ban cycling entirely. If they need to get anywhere quicker than walking, they should just use cars, right?

  18. David

    All over? What’s with the hoardings and blockade now sited on the cycle path? The cars got stripped and the gizmo parts shipped out the country quicker than you can say Nigeria?

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