Crossing the street in Cardiff is an exercise in frustration

I wanted to reflect on something from our recent visit to Cardiff.

Some of central Cardiff is pedestrianised, which is great. Many other areas have nice wide footpaths.

It would be near-perfect for walking… if at most intersections the traffic lights weren’t designed to be so pedestrian hostile.

It’s as if the traffic engineers either hate pedestrians, or have done everything they can to theoretically prevent car and pedestrian accidents.

But in the process they’ve created an environment where people have to wait for so long to cross the street that jaywalking is widespread.

Cardiff staggered pedestrian crossing

Beg button x 2

What’s the only thing worse than waiting for a traffic light to cross the street? Waiting for two traffic lights to cross the street!

In Cardiff, many intersections have traffic islands, and the pedestrian crossings have all been designed to be staggered, with the lights programmed to give a green man at different times.

Rule 28 of the UK Highway Code says:

When the crossings on each side of the central refuge are not in line they are two separate crossings. On reaching the central island, press the button again and wait for a steady green figure.

The proliferation of this design in Cardiff means that at most spots as you cross the street, provided you obey the green/red man, you have to wait twice, and the way these are implemented, the wait is often for an extended period of time — even when there’s no traffic coming.

I suspect it’s used to minimise accidents caused by inattentive drivers:

  • For instance at a three-way (T) junction, you might have a three part cycle with each road having equal green time.
  • Then you fit the pedestrian cycles around it: on any one of the three roads, two-thirds of the time, people can cross in front of the stopped cars.
  • Only when those cars get a green can you cross the rest of that road. So you’ll never make it across the entire road in one go.

They’ve set up similar programming at many four way intersections.

Yes, it theoretically cuts vehicle conflicts with other vehicles and pedestrians, and probably maximises vehicle throughput where there are a lot of turning vehicles.

But should that be the top priority in a dense city centre?


Pic from Google Streetview — On the main road from Cardiff city centre to Cardiff Bay. The pedestrian light nearest the camera is red; the other one is green.

This setup is beyond irritating when you’re trying to walk around. Often there will be a long wait for two separate green men despite there being little or no traffic.

It’s a very poor experience for pedestrians, and does nothing to encourage walking.

Thankfully such a design is rare in Australia. The only time you’re unlikely to get all the way across a divided road is if you’re not a fast walker, and you’re at a very wide road, perhaps 4+ lanes each way plus a wide median.

Traffic light design

Apart from how they’re programmed, some of the traffic lights have their green man display not on the opposite side where it’s easily seen, but on a display next to the button.

This is quite low down and can be difficult to view when other people are waiting.

Cardiff pedestrian signal mounted on pole

It’s also completely counter-intuitive to watch for a light that’s off to your side, rather than in the direction you’re wanting to go.

Combined with many traffic lights not having audible prompts (near-universal in Australia), this leads to people not even noticing when the traffic light eventually allows them to go.

Not all the crossings in Cardiff had this design. It’s not clear to me whether this is the new standard, or one of several standards, depending on context. We saw them elsewhere in Britain, though I don’t recall seeing any in London.

(See an example, with an additional indicator further up the pole, outside Cardiff Castle.)

Outcomes?

In this kind of walking environment, it quickly became apparent that many of the locals jaywalk regularly – and I can’t say I blame them. It was positively painful walking around and obeying all the traffic lights.

Widespread jaywalking means that the safety benefit (if indeed that was the motivation for these designs) is completely undermined.

I saw similar issues elsewhere in the UK, but to nowhere near the degree they’ve done this in Cardiff.

I don’t know the history of this, and whether there have been objections from the locals – I searched online a bit, didn’t find anything.

It’s unlikely it would ever happen, but if I ever end up living and working in Cardiff, I think I’ve found my first advocacy campaign.

Cardiff is a lovely city. But it treats its pedestrians with contempt.

Time for a Bath

Friday morning in Cardiff, yet another warm sunny day — I was in danger of getting sunburnt. The locals all swore it was highly unusual to have this much sun — apparently “sunburn” and “Wales” are words not often found in one sentence.

Time to head elsewhere, but first, one more walk to Cardiff Bay to stretch the legs.

We walked past the BBC Cardiff studios, wondering if we might spot any clues as to the production occurring inside. No, of course not.

So, back to the house, we packed up our bags and walked to Cardiff Central station.

By the way, Cardiff Central, like numerous other British stations, has a platform zero… mind you, apparently it doesn’t have a platform five. I assume they’re very cautious about renumbering platforms when new ones are added. (Some Melbourne stations also have missing platforms.)

Cardiff Central railway station

The train to Bath arrived, and a crowd surged forward to board it, including a school group. It seemed most people were going for a carriage with lots of “Reserved” tickets displayed on the seats. Hmm well maybe they’d reserved those seats.

But I noticed the train was relatively empty in the first carriage, so that’s where we headed, easily finding four seats to settle into and enjoy the scenery.

At Newport I spotted a freight train running through an adjacent platform, doubling as a moving billboard promoting freight by rail.

Our train zoomed towards England (to Portsmouth, to be precise), under the Severn, then into the main station of Bristol, known as Bristol Temple Meads, named after a nearby church. “Meads” is apparently a derivation of the word “meadow”, rather than a reference to alcohol. Hic!

Something I don’t think we see at home: from Bristol our train reversed when departing. Our front carriage was now at the back of the train.

We arrived at Bath Spa, a small but busy station. Why is it called Bath Spa and not just Bath? Because there used to be a separate station on a separate line elsewhere in Bath called Bath Green Square, and they didn’t want people getting confused.

Bath Spa railway station

Polite Box - information booth in Bath

The streets were just as busy as the station. Clearly this was a tourist town. We rolled our suitcases towards the hotel and dropped our bags, as it was too early to check-in.

Backtracking, we found a lunch place on Pulteney Bridge, which is one of those stunning bridge structures you only see in Europe.

Pulteney Bridge, Bath

After some food we explored the busy streets of Bath. The whole place is just picturesque to the max.

There have been settlements in the area since the Iron Age, and the Romans developed baths around the natural spring (hence the city name, though they knew it as Aquae Sulis), but what’s most immediately striking is the architecture: near-identical facades using the local stone, built mostly in the 1700s, and largely preserved since then.

Yes, it’s touristy. But the rapid expansion of this style of building is actually due to tourists — as the spa waters attracted visitors, accommodation needed to be built to cater for them.

It’s just beautiful to look at, and proof that medium-density buildings don’t need to be ugly — though of course you’d struggle to build anything quite this aesthetically pleasing today.

Circus, Bath

George Street, Bath

Henrietta Street, Bath

What’s doubly amazing is that you look to the distant hills and see the same style, so it’s not confined to the centre of the town, though there are some spots out of view where less attractive structures such as big box stores, large car parks and other abominations have been placed.

Henrietta Mews, Bath

Booking hotels

In the past for hotel bookings I’ve used LastMinute/Wotif/Expedia — they’re all the same company, showing the same results using slightly different fonts and icons… This time around I wanted to book a double room and a twin room, and these sites don’t make it easy.

I discovered booking.com, which does let you easily search for different room combinations. This is so amazingly useful that I’m surprised the others haven’t got this feature. I’ll stick to this site until they do, at least when I need a mix of room types… mind you, having got home I’m now getting near-constant promotional emails encouraging me to book another hotel in Bath. Surely they must have the intelligence to know that’s unlikely to happen any time soon.

So we headed back to the hotel to check-in. I’d booked this hotel for price and most importantly, location – I really like to be walking distance to the city centre and the station, it makes it so much easier.

Location was good, price was good. Facilities a little basic, but okay. And it was in a traditional Bath stone building.

But there’s always a catch, right? In this case, it was heat. After a warm spell, the hotel was very hot in the upstairs rooms, and the windows wouldn’t open very far to let in the breeze. Air-conditioning? Hahaha… no.

We found two fans in one of the rooms we booked, but when we asked if there were any more, the otherwise very helpful staff said no, they weren’t allowed to give us fans. WTF? In our case easily solved as we moved one of the ones we had to the other room, but you have to wonder what was going on.

At least there was WiFi. It’s officially only available in the lobby, but we managed to get it from one of our rooms on the floor two levels up.

I must say, the TripAdvisor reviews are pretty cruel. But I guess it’s the most annoyed people who bother to leave reviews. Ultimately, Bath is an expensive tourist town, and this was an affordable option near the city centre.

Henrietta Mews, Bath

Statue of Queen Victoria, Bath

To the tower

We headed out again, and I found an ATM (oh sorry, a cash point) to get some cash. This was not a success – the machine went through the motions, but at the end of the transaction gave me neither the card nor the cash. Fortunately the attached bank branch was open at the time, and I was able to plead with the staff to retrieve the card, which they did. Being without an ATM card so far from home would not have been fun.

Memo: don’t use another Natwest machine, at least not when the branch is closed. I found another bank’s machine and it worked perfectly.

Bath Abbey, from the Roman Baths

Exploring some more, we found ourselves in Bath Abbey — beautiful inside, but we also bought tickets to climb the tower.

It’s steps all the way up of course, of varying steepness and levels of comfort and spaciousness. I couldn’t help notice that the ladies in the gift shop who sold us the tickets were of senior years, but the guides (who climb up and down all day) were somewhat younger. It must be a good aerobic workout.

On the way up we got to see the clock from the inside, and the various bells, but by far the highlight was the view from the top, which was spectacular.

And by the way, if ever you want proof that a phone camera is out-done by a proper DSLR camera, this picture in particular should prove it. See it larger in a new window.

Bath, view from Bath Abbey

Roman Baths, Bath (showing viewing deck added in Victorian times)

Back down the bottom, we kept exploring.

We wanted to look at the Roman Baths, but they were very busy, so we left it for later, instead roaming the streets, continuing to admire the architecture.

Near the Roman Baths, Bath

Royal National Hospital for Rheumatic Diseases, Bath

I found a retail outlet of Charles Tyrwhitt. This is the mob who sell a lot of mail order shirts in Australia, and ever since I bought some (they’re quite good) have bombarded me with emails and paper catalogues every few weeks.

It’s like they expect you to buy shirts, lots of shirts, every month of the year. Guys, I love your shirts. But I don’t need any more shirts right now.

Charles Tyrwhitt, please stop sending me catalogues! (Nah, I love them really)

Queen Square is a small oasis of calm near the town centre, with an obelisk in the centre built in 1738 to honour the Prince Of Wales. We also found Royal Crescent, which has the Bath picturesqueness dialled up to eleven — I’m guessing the homes here don’t come cheap.

Royal Crescent, Bath

Royal Crescent, Bath

Marlborough Buildings, Bath

And we encountered a squirrel, of which I took far too many photos.

Squirrel in Bath

Time for some dinner, and we found a pub to settle into, then a quick walk along the riverbank (more of that tomorrow), and back to the hotel to rest.

Battling the buses

(Backdated. Posted 4/8/2017.)

We’d be leaving Cardiff the next day, so before heading out we decided to get some laundry done. This is one of the benefits of Air B’n’B over hotels – at least if you’ve booked somewhere with a washing machine.

Then, what excursion today? We’d considered trying to get to Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch, which as many would know has the longest place name in the world, though it’s known as the far snappier Llanfairpwllgwyngyll for short. (Disappointingly the long version was made up for promotional purposes in the 1860s.)

Unfortunately, this is right across the other side of Wales, it was almost 5 hours by train to get there. Even driving takes over 4 hours.

Instead we decided on St Fagans museum, just outside Cardiff, which is a kind of multi-timezone Sovereign Hill (but without the gold). On a huge property they have 40-odd buildings from lots of different periods of history, from the Iron Age to the 20th century.

The bus to Pengham Green via Splott

We didn’t catch the bus. I blame Margaret Thatcher.

St Fagans is about 7km from the centre of Cardiff, and the only public transport mode serving the site is local buses.

Most bus services in Britain were privatised in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher — with London being a notable exception — they have private operators but planned and controlled centrally.

In most of the bigger cities, the network is split into multiple bus operators, and they all do their own thing. In most cases they do not have common fares or ticketing, and in some cities they’ve had disputes to try and compete for customers. As recently as last decade, some bus company managers were jailed due to related unsafe practices as part of their battles with other operators.

Consistent with this model of deregulation, Cardiff has numerous bus operators, and they all have different tickets and fares.

This works against public transport patronage. Can you imagine if every highway and freeway was run by a different toll company, with different incompatible payment options? Or if you could only send SMS messages to people on the same phone network as you? (Actually this was the case before April 2000)

Planning and operating a common network makes it easier for users to use the service, encourages more patronage, and more income for all the operators.

In this case, we wanted to get from Cardiff Bay to St Fagans. Frequent bus route 6 (“Baycar”) run by Cardiff Bus goes to the station (fare £1.80), and connects (in the spatial sense only) with buses to St Fagans run by Easyway. But they are run by different operators, so you pay two fares.

Depending on which bus you catch back, you could be using a third operator (New Adventure Travel), with another separate fare.

Timetable information is easy to find online via Google Maps and the official site Traveline Crymru. But for two of those three operators, fare and ticket information isn’t available (though Traveline are apparently working on it). I had no idea what I’d need to pay. Perhaps about £2, but was it cash only? Did they accept cards? Probably not. Did they give change? Did they accept large notes? What cash did I have on me, anyway?

So the prospect was trying to pay multiple fares with cash (awkward) and times four people (expensive) on a two-bus trip (time-consuming)…

(Later on I found there is a £8.30 Network Rider Ticket that’s valid on multiple operators… but not all of them. It covers all the operators I mentioned above, but not all their routes… confusing much? And if the plan was for three trips at about £2 each, then that’s not actually a very good deal. And where do I buy this ticket? On the buses, or elsewhere? Oh and by the way, at least one bus operator lists this at the old £8.00 price.)

And the clincher was we were late getting out of the house… so I gave up and called an Uber. It came a couple of minutes after we called it, took about 20 minutes, and cost £16.30, direct off my credit card. For the four of us, not much more expensive than the, perhaps, £14 in bus fares, but also quicker and more convenient.

Iron Age round houses, St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans Museum, Cardiff

St Fagans, to rhyme with Baggins

We saw various parts of suburban Cardiff on the way to the museum (including, up close, for the first time since our trip started, a British railway crossing – rare in urban areas, but there are a few on the less busy lines in regional areas).

On arrival at the museum, our Uber driver remarked that he’d lived there for 20 years, but “I’ve never heard of this place.”

It was pretty warm, and we did a lot of walking around the museum looking at the various buildings, as well as some amusing placement of (fake, presumably) dinosaur tails.

St Fagans Museum: Dinosaur tail

It was kind of interesting. But it’s very widely spaced out. Admittedly this does give each site a nice sense of isolation, but it also means you have to walk a long way to see anything.

I may be a total philistine, but I have to confess, even though the museum was free, and parts of it were interesting, I’m not sure I’d go back. (Which you could interpret as: if you’re in the area, don’t bother trekking out there unless you’re super-keen and there’s nothing else to do.)

Plymouth Arms pub, St Fagans, near Cardiff

On the recommendation of some neighbourly builders, lunch was at the Plymouth Arms, a rather lovely pub just outside the eastern gate of the museum. Tasty. Mushy peas is a UK tradition I think we should adopt in pub meals here.

I thought we’d catch a bus back to the city centre. The buses from St Fagans back to central Cardiff are theoretically every 20-30 minutes, but I discovered that during school terms, there’s no bus between about 2pm and 4:30. Evidently the buses go off and do school runs.

This is perhaps understandable from a purely economic point of view. But it’s poor service to museum patrons.

Another bus runs from nearby, but only about every 2 hours. It was due in an hour.

I tried to call an Uber. A driver accepted (12 minutes away) then cancelled on me. I tried for a few minutes, but no others responded. Hmmmm. Could it be that, 7km from Cardiff City Centre, we were just too remote for Uber?

I had no idea what the local phone number was for a cab… nor whether they’d take a credit card. This of course is the benefit of Uber in an unfamiliar city.

So we decided to look around the museum gardens and mansion house a bit more (it’s all very Downton Abbey), then catch the bus.

The bus – assuming I’d read the timetable correctly – rocked up 5 minutes early – thankfully we’d reached the stop early. The bus driver seemed surprised to be getting any passengers :-/ Oh well, at least the fare was an even £2 each.

On the bus from St Fagans to Cardiff

War memorial, Cardiff

It took us into central Cardiff pretty quickly and we had another look around the shops to find a cold drink.

Then we walked up to the National Museum. Somehow the day had got away from us, and we only had about half-an-hour before closing time – only had time for a quick look around.

Doctor Who fans might recognise the museum as one of those used for The Pandorica Opens/The Big Bang, the final episode of Matt Smith’s first season.

National Museum, Cardiff

In fact, there are Doctor Who and Torchwood shooting sites all over Cardiff and the surrounding area. Turns out there’s a web site tracking them all: Doctor Who Locations.

As we continued to wander the streets, we spotted another location: the University of Cardiff, which doubled for Bristol University in the most recent Doctor Who season.

Walking past the Cardiff Police headquarters we noticed a film crew packing up their equipment, including uncovering the “Cardiff Police” sign, which had been disguised as “Bristol Police”.

I’m not sure what had been filmed, but a number of productions are based in Cardiff apart from Doctor Who, such as Sherlock and hospital drama Casualty.

Police station, Bristol. No, actually Cardiff.

A little more exploring of the city centre, and grabbing a takeaway dinner along the way, we headed back to our accommodation to relax for the evening and prepare to head for our next destination.

Cardiff Who?

(Backdated. Posted 31/7/2017)

Oh the joys of jetlag. Having gone to bed at 8pm, I woke at about 5am. But being summer, it was already light.

Eventually it seemed like a half-decent time to get up and out, and we prepared for our mission.

Why had we come to Cardiff in the first place? And at the start of the holiday? Because of the Doctor Who Experience. It’s been at Cardiff Bay since 2012… but the lease runs out this year and it’s closing.

For a family of Doctor Who obsessives, who on this trip would be coming to the west of England anyway to visit family, including this was a no-brainer.

Cardiff: Doctor Who Experience

Cardiff: Doctor Who Experience - bus stop
(Can I get a photo combining Doctor Who and public transport? Yes! Note the bus stop passenger information display.)

Back when I was planning the holiday earlier this year, they’d only confirmed open dates until the first week in July. Way back in 1999, we narrowly missed out on going to Legoland, and I wasn’t going to risk a repeat. So I planned the holiday around ensuring we got to Cardiff first for the Exhibition before it closed.

After booking everything in, including accommodation located about midway between the city centre and the Bay (an easy walk to both)… it was announced the exhibition will be open until September.

No matter, we’d made it there, and we were damn well going to enjoy it!

So on our first full day in Britain, we walked down and arrived just as they opened, for our pre-booked 10am entry.

The initial part of the Experience is a kind of interactive experience thingy. They ask that people don’t record/photograph, so as not to give it away. So I won’t blog about it either, but it’s good!

Then you pass into the exhibition hall, which is a bit like the Sydney Doctor Who Festival we went to in 2015: Lots of displays, costumes, monsters, models from the series, both the “classic” (1963-89) and new (2005-) episodes.

Being adjacent to the studios where they actually produce the show helps them keep the displays completely up to date – costumes from episodes only aired weeks before were on display. And there are plenty of opportunities for photos, with or without your own ridiculous posing with them.

Police boxes, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

1980s TARDIS console, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Monsters, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Two Davroses, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Costumes at the Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Costumes from "World Enough and Time", series 10, Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Doctor Who Experience, Cardiff Bay

Of course you exit (eventually) through the gift shop — merchandise galore, including some items you don’t normally see at other shops — it was only the thought of my limited suitcase capacity that stopped me going crazy with a credit card.

And there’s a chance to sample a welsh cake in the cafe. Nom nom nom.

Welsh Cake

It was lunchtime by the time we exited, and we grabbed a bite to eat nearby at a takeaway place, and ate in the park as we watched three blokes who, having a lunch break from a nearby office, tried to get their throwing toy down from a tree.

We then walked into Cardiff’s city centre to explore some more, and up towards Cardiff Castle.

St Mary Street, Cardiff

St Mary Street, Cardiff

One of the local breweries is called Brains, which results in some amusing signage around the place. Makes it look like alcoholic zombies have taken over.

Brains Beers advertising, Cardiff

The Goat Major pub, Cardiff

Cardiff Castle

At the northern end of the Cardiff CBD is Cardiff castle, an impressive structure, overlooking one of the main streets. And like many large old buildings, it’s evolved over time: it was a 3rd century Roman fort, then got an 11th century castle, with various changes and upgrades along the way, then the development of a Georgian mansion in the 18th century.

After a quick look at a display of wartime memorabilia under the visitor centre, we did a tour of the mansion, which showed off some of the amazing decorations inside the building.

Cardiff Castle

Decorations inside Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

Then a climb up into the keep. Signs warned of ever-steeper steps up – back in the day, they certainly didn’t design these buildings for ramp accessibility — more like to defend against attackers.

If you make it all the way to the top there are some great views of Cardiff.

Steps inside Cardiff Castle

Cardiff Castle

View from the top of Cardiff Castle

After the castle, we had a somewhat early dinner at a nearby famed Italian restaurant called Cafe Citta – it’s lucky we were early or we wouldn’t have got in – this was utterly delicious. Thanks jetlag!

Laneway art, Womanby Street, Cardiff

Parking officer in Cardiff orders vehicles out of a pedestrian area

It was still light, so we walked back towards Bute Park, along the way watching a parking officer enthusiastically ordering a car and a van to leave a part time pedestrianised zone. I wonder if he’d like a job in Melbourne? We could do with some like him.

Bute Park sits between the Castle (it was once part of the grounds) and the Taff river. It was a warm evening, and lots of others were wandering around the park enjoying the sunshine.

Bute Park, Cardiff

River Taft, Cardiff

A walk home, and bedtime by 9pm – still jetlagged, and still sunshine outside.

With the long days, it would be some time into the holiday before we would actually see the night sky. Certainly not tonight.