Tuesday, 29 March 2011

An interesting question

Under this headline: EU plans to ban all petrol and diesel cars from cities to force drivers to go ‘green’ today's Daily Mail asks "Is the EU's proposed banning of petrol- and diesel-powered cars a realistic objective?"

You can vote either Yes or No - here.

Please don't bother to read the article - it doesn't bear much relation to the actual EU proposals, so it's better use of time to read the original EU document here.

It's all a bit turgid, but the general theme is straightforward: we largely take our freedom to travel and mobility for granted. Our lifestyles and our economy depend on it. However, long-term uncertainty about fuel supplies, environmental impacts and congestion mean that we are going to lose this freedom unless we do something. And there are a lot of things we can do like providing alternatives and encouraging people to use them. It helps to coordinate some of these activities internationally.

Those are hardly contentious ideas, but perhaps a shade too subtle for the Daily Mail to grasp.

The Daily Telegraph carried a similar article. That's not worth reading either, but it has been collecting an entertaining set of bizarre comments (well over 1,400 at present) here.

A l'eau - c'est l'heure

Some of the old Bartholomew maps show a limited amount of information on the depth of the sea around the coast. For my first attempts at emulating this I just created a low-water line from the Ordnance Survey data for Local government Boundaries (which mainly extend to the low-water mark).  It looked about right, but it seemed like a bit of a fiddle.

I thought I ought to be able to do better, so I set off to see what data I could find on the depth of the coastal waters around Britain. I found what I thought I wanted on the Emodnet site. And so began a long tortuous process of trying to understand how to get this data into a format that I could process and add to my rendering.

I'd used SRTM2OSM to calculate the land contours, because for those I was starting from SRTM data, and it seemed to be an easier solution than using GDAL. The Emodnet data isn't in the same format, so this all turned into a bit of an exercise in understanding different data formats, and how to convert and manipulate them using the GDAL toolset.

After a lot of effort I've ended up getting something working. The results aren't entirely convincing, but after a lot of false starts I've ended up a bit surprised that I could get anything at all produced.

The results for the Farne Islands, off the Northumberland coast, are shown above.

I've also rendered some larger versions covering more of the coast around  Northumberland, and the South Lakes.

Meanwhile, back on land, I have also generated a map of my local area, up to the  Chilterns. I've tried using an extract of this as a road map. It certainly has limitations, but it is usable, up to a point. Printing off extracts at 300dpi produces roughly the right scale for 1/2" to the mile. I don't think it would be wise to recommend any of these to a sailor though.

Sunday, 27 March 2011

Some shared use paths

I said last week that it was becoming rare to find things around here that I can add to the map while cycling. I was wrong.

Now that I've looked a bit harder there is quite a lot that I can add from a cycle. It's the ITO OSM analysis that opened my eyes to how much could still be done on the bike. I thought we were doing better around here, but my local authority area currently ranks as 74% coverage. That's better than about half of the local authorities analysed by ITO, but not as good as the other half.

Close to home there are a few minor inconsistencies, but on the whole things aren't too bad. There are more areas that need attention on the edge of Windsor and Ascot. Either is a nice distance away for a gentle couple of hours ride on a Sunday afternoon. So I extracted the ITO report, printed it off, left it on the printer (oops) and set off.

I headed first for Winkfield, where I knew there were a few gaps. Realising that I'd left the ITO report at home didn't exactly make things easy. So after a bit of a ride around, I set off for the centre of Windsor.

I don't often ride into Windsor from that side, but whenever I do it strikes me as being a bit of a strange ride. The first part looks like it should be quite a good road, but in reality it's not great. It's wide enough to encourage fast driving, but narrow enough to force cars to overtake very closely. After Legoland the road narrows, and drivers are faced with a slow crawl towards the town centre. Cyclists, though, gain access to a shared-use cycle path. My nasty side enjoys gliding past a queue of cars that have been rocketing past me earlier.

As I passed the queue of cars it dawned on me that I'd noticed a few shared-use cycle paths that don't appear on the map. So I traced the ones I found as I crossed Windsor. When I got home I found I was right. None of the ones I traced had already been added. They have now.

And for another day there is still a list on the printer of the inconsistencies that ITO have identified (if nobody else gets there first).

Sunday, 20 March 2011

Look mother, no hands

I started collecting data for OSM over three years ago - partly to encourage myself to overcome my natural inertia, and get out on the bike more. Inevitably I got hooked, and it all took on a bit of a life of its own. Over the last three years I've added a bit, but meanwhile an astonishing amount of detail has been accumulated around the area where I live. There are still things missing, but most of them would best be added on foot, not a bike. It has become quite rare to find things that I can trace while cycling.

I still need to get out on the bike though - if only to keep my personal Travel Time Budget in balance. So off I trundled to Eton and Windsor this afternoon, for a couple of hours easy riding on a fine day.

The route is familiar, and you don't expect many surprises on a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the Thames Valley, but I did find an area that hadn't been mapped. It's a residential caravan site, next to the river on the edge of Windsor. It's all very tidy, and pleasant, with more garden gnomes than you could shake a stick at. So I cycled round, logged the service roads on the GPS, and added it to the map when I got home.

The other memorable sight was watching somebody changing their T-shirt as they rode towards me. People riding without holding the handlebars always impress me, because I cannot do it (or at least not for more than a second or so, which doesn't count). But I've never seen anyone change their T-Shirt while riding before.

H. G. Wells famously said that when he saw somebody on a bicycle he did not despair for the human race. Well if the human race has evolved to the point where we can change our clothes at the same time as riding a bicycle we need have no fears. The next generation should be capable of anything.

Saturday, 19 March 2011

Travel Time Budget

For much of my working life I've spent an hour or so a day travelling to and from work. For a long time it was much worse - I used to spend several hours a day commuting. That was a bit of a pain, but it stopped more than ten years ago, when I moved to a job in Paris. Over there, the daily commute became much easier, because I lived close to the office, but every couple of weeks I would have a much longer journey back to the UK. Averaged over a month, I probably spent about the same amount of time travelling as I had in the UK.

My brother has just pointed out that it's possible that I have an innate need to spend an hour or so travelling each day. And so might you. It's all explained here.

On average, apparently, people spend about 1.1 hours per day on the move - regardless of their nationality, culture, economic system, or era. As travel has become faster they have tended to travel further - but the time that they spend travelling remains fairly constant.

Just over an hour a day comes to almost 8 hours a week. When I was spending more than twice that commuting it certainly felt like too much. These days I mostly work from home, and I doubt if I have to do more than a couple of hours travel in a normal working week. By the weekend that means I am falling short of my Travel Time Budget by about 6 hours. Which neatly explains why I enjoy spending one day of the weekend out on the bike. It seems that it's all part of some primeval need to balance time spent exploring with time spent hanging around the cave.

I've not been keeping count, but during the last week I probably spent less than an hour on necessary travel, then almost five hours today cycling (slowly) out to Christmas Common and back for fun. I followed the route that I tried to follow a few weeks ago, but this time I managed not to get lost. It was a lovely day for a ride - just a little bit of cold in the air and a slight wind, but clear and sunny, and lots of other riders out and about.

I thoroughly enjoyed myself, but more to the point, I am now only a couple of hours short of balancing my weekly Travel Time Budget, and tomorrow is another day.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Philately will get you nowhere

We are doing a lot of sorting out at the moment, and in the process I came across my old stamp album.  There are several pages that feature Colin Firth. This dates from the 1937 Coronation, where he appears alongside Helena Bonham Carter. Others cover the centenary of the first postage stamp in 1940, victory celebrations in 1946, the 1948 Olympic Games and the Festival of Britain in 1951.

This is how I laid out one of the pages.

The earliest stamps in the collection start at around 1934, with George V. It runs up to the mid-sixties, with a set of first day covers addressed in my teenage handwriting. By that time I was becoming interested in other things. I don't really remember, but I suspect that at about the same time as I stopped collecting stamps I also gave up cycling for about 40 years. Foolish boy.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011


I'm still struggling with labeling roads and rivers, still losing some of the cycle paths, and there are numerous other things that need tidying and fixing.

This stuff certainly exercises the little grey cells.

On the other hand....

And while it was all churning away I managed to get out and cover about 20 miles on the bike to check out the real (316,800* inches to the mile) world.

*Oops, don't know where that came from - it should, of course be 12 inches times 3 feet times 1,760 yards = 63,360 inches to the mile. Thanks to Ed for pointing it out. No wonder I'm having so much trouble getting this stuff to work properly

Sunday, 13 March 2011

Homage to John George Bartholomew

I mentioned a few weeks ago that I have a fondness for the old Bartholomew's 1/2" maps. It seems I am not alone. They haven't been published for over 30 years, so any we find in second-hand bookshops are hopelessly out of date. Even towards the end of their life they were beginning to get a reputation for being a bit unreliable. But back then apparently their fans were still so keen on them that they used to buy new Ordnance Survey maps so that they could transfer the details to their old Bartholomew's maps and continue to use them.

The obvious question is whether something similar could be produced today, using Open Street Map data. Naively I decided that I would try to find out, without really understanding what I was getting into.

There are some obvious differences between then and now. The basic design of the Bartholomew 1/2" dates back around a century, so they didn't have to cater for motorways. Road networks in towns are much more extensive these days than they were at that time. There have been changes in the type of information that is important now, compared to the information that was important then. They seem to label country estates, for example, and they used to mark Inns, but not Car Parks.

Apart from those changes, I've had to cope within my own limitations. I had created databases from OSM data before, so I know how to do that. I've become reasonably familiar with Postgis, and with some of the other tools that I needed. but I knew nothing about generating contour lines, and I hadn't used Mapnik until a week or so ago. There's a lot of useful information around, but it's been a steep learning process, and the old computer has been churning data for days on end.

I've made a start now, but there is still a lot that needs fixing. I haven't tried to get layers working yet, and I haven't put any labelling on the roads. Colours and icons could do with a lot of tuning, the scaling is only approximate (at 300dpi), it needs a legend, and copyright, and there's more detail to add. It only looks vaguely like the originals, and I'm not sure how much closer it can get.

Having said all that, I'm quite pleased with my first attempt. The basic mechanisms are up and running. I've learned a lot. Most of all, I've learned to respect the skills of the people who put the original Bartholomew's maps together at the end of the 19th century (and those who are putting together today's digital maps and tools).

There's a bigger  example of how I am getting on, which covers a few square miles north-west of Maidenhead here. I've coloured the Motorways (blue), Trunk roads (green), Primary and Secondary roads (brown and yellow). Cycle routes are in Red, dashed if off-road, though I notice some are missing, which is something else to fix.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

More routes

We visited Barters second-hand bookshop in Alnwick a couple of weeks ago. They have a "Cycling and Extreme Sports" section. It's a daft category, but in it I discovered this CTC route guide from 1980 by Christa Gausden and Nicholas Crane. At the time they had worked in the CTC Touring Department. Nicholas Crane must then have been in his mid-twenties.

The book is thirty years old now. As evidenced by the 118 cyclists on the front cover it's somewhat dated. But then the same could be said of me, so I like it. It took quite a clever approach, and they carried it out well.

The nearest equivalent that I already had on the shelf is "Lonely Planet: Cycling Britain". Apart from being from different eras, the two books differ in their approach. The Lonely Planet Guide is constructed around 29 longish routes, each designed to take about a week. It describes these in some detail, with elevations, information on places to stay and other facilities, and suggestions of places to visit. The result is useful, and practical - if a bit prescriptive.

The CTC guide on the other hand, was constructed around 365 shorter rides. Most of these would take a day or less to cover. I suppose you could ride the whole lot in a year - if you were minded to. The sections join together, so the idea was that readers would arrange different elements to assemble a longer route which suited them. Maps show the different ways that sections interconnect, but the text only provides a limited amount of information on facilities and other local highlights.

Both books cover England Scotland and Wales. The Lonely Planet guide includes routes in Northern Ireland, but the old CTC guide covers the whole of Ireland.

For anyone that wanted a book to help plan a route in the UK today the Lonely Planet would be the obvious choice, but the old CTC guide offers an interesting alternative. The routes were tested thirty years ago by members of the Cyclist Touring Club, but the network of minor rural roads can't have changed that much over the last thirty years. So with a degree of checking against modern maps it should still have some value.

Locally the choices cover some of the routes that I have already discovered for myself, as well as some that I haven't (yet). Part of the appeal is that this way of constructing new trips out of bits of old ones is similar to the way that I plan my own outings: though in my case the different sections are all floating around in my memory, rather than being properly documented. I like the approach. I reckon it was worth a couple of quid, and it should be a useful addition to the shelf.

Sunday, 6 March 2011

Bike touring, the new rules

Each of the last couple of years I have taken a week out for an extended trip on the bike. Once along the Sustrans Coast and Castles route from Newcastle to Edinburgh, and once down the west coast of Scotland from Fort William, via Mull and Arran and back to Glasgow. I have thoroughly enjoyed both trips. In their own way each was a bit of an adventure, and a pleasant break from the normal routine. I have happy memories of glorious scenery, and lovely people.

It's the time of year when I start thinking about where to go next, and there is an article in today's Sunday Times about bike touring. I thought it might help. What a fool I am.

It turns out that I've been doing this all wrong.

Firstly, I'm told that nobody with an ounce of style would be seen dead on a pushbike with canvas panniers. Well I wasn't seen dead on the last two trips, and hopefully won't be this year either. But I was certainly seen on a pushbike with canvas panniers. I'm well aware that I don't have an ounce of style, and as far as I know, I never did have. Sometimes I accidentally find myself in a situation where that matters, but I try to avoid them as far as possible. But it had never occurred to me that it might matter on a cycle touring holiday. However, I now know that bike touring is being reinvented for new generation. It's all about extreme off-road adventure riding, which requires special equipment such ultra-light handmade panniers that are designed for the most demanding harcore riders.

What I did wrongThe Sunday Times alternative universe
Visit parts of the country that I think I will like, and which I can't easily reach from home on a shorter ride. Choose a route and a pace that I can happily cope with, and enjoy.Undertake a challenge ride, where the rules are fairly relaxed. (Rules?!?)
Enjoy travelling at a speed where I could stop and look at things, leave time to take advantage of the unexpected, and have conversations with people I meet on the wayRide 100 miles a day, and aim to set new records for distance and time.
Wear clothing that means I can happily cope with unpredictable weather, and even if I get a bit  bedraggled, its no worse than when I set off.Style is all important. At all costs avoid looking like a retired geography teacher.
Carry everything I need in ordinary, practical, canvas panniers, available from any local bike shop, or widely on t'interweb Must have ultra-light hand-made panniers, that are almost impossible to obtain
Stay in cheap and comfortable B&B or convenient inns. Eat whatever local produce is available for lunch. Pack some nice chocolate to cheer myself up when things go awry.Overnight in super-technical bivouacs.

Don't eat cheese sandwiches. (Its not clear why this has become important, other than the fear of a journalist mocking).

Perhaps my best bet this year is to find the remote places where there will be nobody to laugh at my obvious lack of cool, or places that appeal to retired geography teachers where it seems I could fit in nicely. Any suggestions?

Thursday, 3 March 2011

On the one hand this, on the other hand that

In our local paper today there is a letter that supports the development of dedicated cycle lanes, on condition that cyclists are forced to use them. I suspect this is a fairly common view among road users who don't cycle. They see dedicated cycle lanes as a means of getting bicycles out of the way of cars.

That's not how cyclists see things though. Many are keen to see more cycle lanes because they want to encourage safer everyday cycling. Others oppose them on the basis that it is important to preserve the right to use ordinary roads. None (as far as I know) want them to be mandatory.

The debate can get heated, and I can see persuasive arguments from cyclists on both sides. Many people find busy roads frightening, and they have good cause. Letters such as this one show that there really is a need to defend the general right of everyone to use the roads.

It feels like one of those discussions that will never be resolved as matter of principle. When it comes to questions of how best to improve a specific stretch of road then I suspect that the issues are relatively straightforward, but when arguing about generalities, both sides have their point, and the debate will no doubt continue.

Sitting on the fence about the principle doesn't stop me disagreeing strongly with this particular letter though. Part of the writer's case is to (perfectly correctly) point out that some cyclists ride irresponsibly, and thoughtlessly. They are also right to point out that a cyclist using an ordinary road can slow down the traffic.

So much is unarguable - but so what?

Cyclists inconvenience car drivers. Car drivers inconvenience buses. Buses inconvenience lorries. Lorries inconvenience people riding horses. People riding horses inconvenience steam traction engines. Steam traction engines inconvenience white vans. White vans inconvenience cyclists. Come to that, some cars inconvenience other cars. And so on. We all share the roads, and I'm afraid we all just have to learn to live with others who share them as well.

Inconvenience has nothing to do with removing a general right to use the roads. Poor behaviour has nothing to do with deciding the best way to facilitate different types of road use.

The logic of the letter implies that decisions on the design of the transport network should be based on the levels of courtesy that different types of road user exhibit, and the level of inconvenience they cause. That seems a most peculiar view to me.

Apart from anything else, if it was pursued to its logical conclusion, I'm not sure that car drivers would fare very well. If I was to say "Some car drivers throw litter out of the window, and exceed the speed limit..." it would be true. And if I concluded "...therefore we should exclude all cars from the A4" it wouldn't quite come over as a rational argument.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


We were away from home for a few days last week, and since we got back I've not been very organised, so I've only just got round to catching up on some of the emails that I missed. Among them was a link to the Edinburgh Innertube map, from The Bike Station.

It looks good, and I'm intrigued to know how such a different approach works out in practice.

I can imagine it being useful on some journeys for some cyclists. It doesn't show anything other than the cycle routes, which keeps things simple. So for anyone who knows where they want to get to, and has a rough idea of the street layout, then it certainly reduces things to the minimum. As long as each of the junctions is sufficiently well signed I can see it working quite well. Without knowing the area it's hard to judge though.

Apart from its practical use, this is also quite an unusual take on things. I can see something like this provoking people to take a fresh look at the routes they might be able to use. That in itself is no bad thing. It also seems to be gaining quite a lot of attention, so it must be helping the Bike Station to spread the word. No bad thing either.

The other thing that occurs to me is that, around here we seem to have quite a lot of bits of cycling infrastructure, but getting from A to B often involves finding a decent way of connecting them up. Something along these lines could be quite a good way of working out where there are gaps in the network.

Of course for general getting around, there is always the usual alternative to fall back on, along with increasingly sophisticated support for journey planning. OSM has a reputation for being particularly thorough in its coverage of Edinburgh, and I suspect that if I was trying to find my way around up there then  it would still be my preferred choice. It's always nice to see some different thinking though.