Odd Apple UX decision

I’ve often wondered why Apple inverts the “Stop” button and “Repeat/Snooze” button in their alarm and timer app. I usually end up repeating a timer by accident.



When Apple first announced the AirPods there was a lot of hyperbole in the media about them being Apple’s next big ‘wearable’ device. For a company that famously said that speeds an feeds did not matter, there was a of emphasis on the fact these headphones contained a “W1” chip that could do all sorts of smarts other headphones could not.

I use Bluetooth headphones extensively: at work I have a pair of over-the-ear noice cancelling headphones that double up as a headset for making calls. They are excellent at both cancelling the noise around me so I can’t hear it when listening to music, and also at removing external noise so other people can’t hear me when I’m phoning them. I also use a different pair for running – they are average sound quality, but they are sweat proof and let in external noise making them safe for road-running. Both these headsets have an onboard chip: The big ones I use in the office are able to tell me if I start speaking and my microphone is muted, alleviating the frustration of sharing your greatest idea on a conference call and wondering why nobody even acknowledged you. The sports pair aren’t as sophisticated but can tell me how much battery life I have left, telling me there is some smarts going on inside the headphones. So having ‘smarts’ inside a pair of headphones is nothing new. I’m sure they could come up with a brand name for their silicone chips to, but to me, the W1 in the AirPods is meaningless in of itself.

So what makes the AirPods better than any other headphones? It’s the integration between hardware and software – Apple’s usual strength. In this case not only the integration between hardware and software on the AirPods themselves, but also between the AirPods’ software and the iOS device they’re paired to.

My biggest frustration with existing Bluetooth headphones is that they stay connected to my phone when I’m not wearing them. How many times have I tried to use Siri, and realised after 3 attempts that it’s not working because I’ve left my Bluetooth headphones on and they’re still connected but in my gym bag. AirPods solve this beautifully.

The other big problem with Bluetooth that AirPods solve is pairing. Recent Bluetooth headphones are not difficult to pair: there’s no passcode (it was always 0000 anyway so it seemed pointless) it’s just a case of putting the headset into ‘pair mode’ and then choosing it from the Bluetooth menu. Unless you’ve paired it with another device since you last used it with the one you’re trying to use it with now, in which case you need to un-pair and re-pair. Usually you need to see a few error message before you realise this is the case. This of course means if you want to use them with that other device again you’ll need to repeat the process. Not a big hardship, but a small piece of friction that meant I rarely bothered to use my headphones with other devices. AirPods make switching devices as simple as selecting ‘Marc’s AirPods’ from a menu. No pairing, no need to remember about which device I used last. It’s not quite as magic as I had hoped for – it doesn’t just know I’m using an iPad now and so switch automatically, but hey you can’ have everything.

So overall I am impressed with my third set of Bluetooth headphones. The AirPods won’t replace my headset at work for calls, because I need noise cancelling at work. I will use them for running, walking and working out however. They are especially good around the house while doing chores etc. Their frictionless nature means I’ll use them whenever I would have just use the phone’s external speaker before. The quality of phone calls is surprisingly low, making me think Apple’s switching to a different Bluetooth profile or something. Hopefully this will be fixed in a firmware update.

Some other random thoughts:

– Siri is pretty unreliable, it’s generally not worth the hassle. In the rare case that it understands what I meant, the phone will often respond by displaying an answer on the screen, defeating the point of using the headset.
– They seem very secure in the ears.
– They look silly, but so did white earbuds when they first came out.
– i sometimes feel a bit self-conscious when wearing them, especially if I’m on a train wearing an Apple Watch and reading on an iPad. I feel like I’m in an Apple advertisement (though I’m not good looking enough to actually be in one).
– It seems weird that if I go for a run with my Apple Watch, and my iPhone, and use Siri on the AirPods, I can’t start a workout using AirPods because they’re connected to the phone. This says more about Siri’s inconsistencies than the AirPods.
– Opening the case near an iPhone causes a menu to show on the phone with details about the AirPods’ battery life. It doesn’t do this on iPads and Macs, presumably because it needs NFC, which they don’t have, but I’m not sure.

Running Gadgets

I’ve been getting into running in a big way over the past couple of years, and completed my first Half Marathon recently, I thought why not write a post about the various gadgets I use when running.

Apple Watch

Anyone who is into running will no doubt own a running watch of some sort. One I don’t see that much at events and running clubs is the Apple Watch. For me, the Series 2 with its built in GPS was a no-brainier. It’s a decent-looking watch that can serve as a daily fitness tracker, while also coming into its own as a way to measure runs. Starting a run is simple, and while on a run you can see your vital stats: current pace, average pace, heart rate, calories and distance are all available and you can add up to 4 stats to the screen at once. It’s actually quite nice that you can customise this screen, and and even remove stats so there are fewer than four, as sometimes it can feel like information overload. I have just my current pace and my heart rate. A handy, if not a little hidden feature is the ability to double-tap the workout screen and set a new ‘section’ – essentially a split. Once the run is finished a map of the route taken is shown, the marker is coloured from red through to yellow and then green, showing your pace from slower, average to fast. The weather forecast at the time alongside times for each kilometre (or miles if you have it set that way). That’s about it really – the Apple Watch isn’t able alert you when you’re drifting off your target pace as some dedicated running watches can, and the battery life will be severely drained if you run for more than about 30 minutes. My biggest complaint however is the reliability of the heart rate sensor. It seems to really struggle once you start to sweat, or if you’re running in cold, rainy or windy conditions (I live in the UK, so that’s basically 8 months of the year). Often I’ll look down at my wrist and see the heart rate greyed out where it can’t get a reading. Placing a finger under the watch to clear the sweat away seems to help, but it may well just be a placebo effect. On the plus side, being a fully fledged smartwatch, there are plenty of 3rd party apps available that could fill in at least some of these gaps. Nike Run Club is one of these apps, I’ve not tried it, but it may well (or at least could) implement features such as pace alerts. Of course as someone who was an iPhone developer a few years ago, I could roll my sleeves up and have a go at filling the gap myself, but that would be a lot of time and effort, but it’s good to know the option is there.
Overall, its a good running watch but probably not as good as a dedicated one, but then you probably wouldn’t want to wear a dedicated running watch all day long. So for me the balance of having a watch that is also my main watch outweighs the fact there are better running watches out there.

Wahoo Tickr – heart rate tracker

To mitigate the Apple Watch’s unreliable heart rate tracking, I invested in a separate Bluetooth heart rate monitor. It was also a good opportunity to get a ‘second opinion’ of my heart rate while running. As a former sufferer of Supraventricular tachycardia (SVT) I am fascinated by my heart rate, both when resting and when I’m exercising. The Tickr seemed like an affordable option that promised to work with the Apple Watch, and also with its own app for use without the Apple Watch. It seems to measure my heart rate accurately, at least while at rest. I’ve not been able to measure it manually while I’m exercising to compare, as when I stop to take my pulse my heart rate inevitability comes down. At rest though it’s as good as my manual reading. I also get the feeling it’s more precise than the Apple Watch when running. The Apple Watch seems to always show my heart rate as a familiar set of numbers: 52, 60, 82, 170 etc. while the Tickr will show a wider set of readings, making me think that it’s doing less averaging over time.
My only complaint would be the way it’s worn. It’s a strap you wear around your chest. I’ve found that the system for adjusting it is easy to accidentally change, but not easy to notice that you may have somehow loosened it. At least 5 times I’ve been out running and had to either stop to adjust it, or in some cases take it off because I didn’t want to ruin my time messing about with a heart rate tracker. One time I actually dropped the tracker without realising (it was hold and my hands were numb), thankfully, someone from my running club was behind me and noticed! This is the fatal flaw in the product, it needs a better adjustment mechanism and isn’t susceptible to accidental/gradual loosening over time.


I’ve been using the Plantronics Backbeat Fit since summer 2015. They are still going strong, and have survived many hot, sweaty summer runs, as well as cold, wet and windy winter runs. They use Bluetooth, and so the only wire is the one that goes around the back of your head from one ear to the other. This means the phone can be placed in a pocket or pouch, or even cooler, I can leave the phone at home and play music straight from my Apple Watch. Unfortunately Apple doesn’t support Podcasts on the Apple Watch, so I usually end up bringing the phone with me on long runs anyway. Unlike earbuds, the Backbeat Fit’s speakers point upwards into your ear, rather than directly down into your eat canal. This means you can still hear clearly what’s going on around you. This is great when running outside, in fact it is quite literally is a lifesaver when running on roads with no pavement. This design isn’t as good when you’re in a noisy gym that insists on playing awful dance music at maximum volume, but on balance I like the fact they are more open that most headphones. Even after 18 months of regular usage, they still get over 5 hours of battery life. Upon powering them on, a little voice tells you how much time you have remaining which is pretty cool. Like most Bluetooth headphones they do suffer from some Bluetooth quirks. Annoyingly if I leave them on but take them off, they stay connected to my phone, so I often find myself trying to invoke Siri using my phone’s microphone, and getting frustrated because it’s not understanding me, before realising the reason it can’t make out what I’m saying it because it’s trying to use the microphone on the headphones, which are in my gym bag.

And that is ist. I’m not going to go into non-gadgety stuff like trainers and running clothes.. because, well, I don’t really find any of that very interesting. Hope this was useful.  🙂

Apple Pay works over £30 in the UK

It’s still quite a common belief that Apple Pay only works for transactions under £30. Unlike standard contactless, there is no limit on Apple Pay transitions. The caveat being that the merchant need to have the latest kit, but many do. Your card provider may also decline unusually high transactions, but there is no set limit.

This is good as it brings closer a day when I don’t need to carry around my wallet. One of my biggest anxieties about not carrying a wallet is running low on fuel and not being able to refill my car. To that end, I’ve been trying out various petrol stations to see whether Apple Pay works over £30. Anecdotally,I’ve found that in BP stations the contactless sensor is switched off for transactions over £30, so waving your phone or watch in front of it does nothing. In Shell, it does work – usually to the surprise of the cashier  who was halfway through telling me “It won’t work for transactions over £30.” I’ve also paid for food in some local pubs, again to the surprise of the waiter.

So try it out in your local shops and see if they’re using the latest kit. You might find you can leave the wallet at home most days. Welcome to the future! 

2016 in Review

A lot of people are cynical about the whole ‘year in review’ thing. After all, what is a year but just another way we divide up time, like hours, minutes and months?

Of course a year is not an just arbitrary measure. A year is the time it took for our planet to orbit the sun. Just consider that for a moment. Then consider than our sun is itself orbiting a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, which is itself spinning and drifting through intergalactic space. You may think you’re going back to the ‘same place’ when you return to a familiar spot on earth, but in actual fact no person has ever returned to the exact same point in the universe more than once. Isn’t that just a mind-blowing thought?

I digress, though I think it’s important for us not to forget about our place in the universe when looking back on our past, and considering our future.
So here are a few moments of 2016 that stood out for me, looking back on some of the experiences I had last year.

ParadeJPG2016 started off in an unusual manner for me. Instead of waking up feeling dazed and hungover, I woke up feeling fresh and relaxed as I headed to London to see the New Year’s Day parade. It was the first time I’d seen it, and it was a really fun experience. How heartwarming it was to see all these people, some of whom had travelled a long way from across the globe, putting on a show for London. Topped off with some nice food and the fact that it didn’t rain, it was a fantastic day out. I would highly recommend going to the parade to see in the new year, as opposed to my usual style of drinking too much cheap Champaign and not really remembering any of it.

As January progressed I returned to visit a flat I’d seen just before Christmas with the intention of making an offer. It was a good size and a good price, although it was very close to a major motorway meaning noise from traffic could have been an issue, but I’m a realistic with these things and release you can’t have it all. There was a slight problem however. With it being a flat I knew there would be service charges and ground rent. I wanted to see what these were before I made an offer, as these could be an important part of my monthly budget. The estate agent couldn’t tell me, and weeks went by without them giving me any new information. I decided to take it upon myself to go to the block, and look through the main entrance in order to see if I could make out anything on the windows or noticeboards referencing a management company. Lo and behold, there was a leaflet with a phone number pinned to a notice board. I phoned the management company to ask them what their costs were and if they could tell me anything about the ground rent. The management company seemed surprised that the flat was even up for sale, as it was apparently reserved for a ‘Help to buy’ scheme where the purchaser only buys part of the property. This wasn’t what I wanted, and the estate agent disputed this. After about three weeks later I had a voicemail from the estate agent saying they had some ‘good news’ and that I should call them back. I didn’t. Something about this property and the fact that nobody else seemed to be putting in any offers smelt fishy. I’m glad I didn’t put that offer in now, as although it would have bend a good sized apartment, the commute to work would have been pretty crazy and the noise would have been unbearable. A lucky escape!

DB3As I set off on my journey to work on the morning of the 10th January, I put the radio on to hear David Bowie’s “Heroes” playing. Being a natural cynic, I thought to myself how bloody typical, he’s just released a new album and they’re playing one of his oldies. Then the song faded out and the radio DJ gave a recap of the morning’s grave news: David Bowie had died aged 69. Unlike any celebrity death before it, this really struck a chord with me. I found myself actually grieving for someone I’d never met. I think that it was partly because his music had been a big part of my life growing up, and also that I distinctly remember seeing him on the Jonathan Ross show in the early 2000s. I worked out that back then (it seems like yesterday) he was the age that my Dad is now. Those 12 or so years went by so quickly. It brought home how brief life can be, and that’s even if you’re lucky enough to make it to 68.

As March rolled around I decided to make a big change in my life and move back home. I had been renting a room since I split with my girlfriend a year earlier, and although the room was pleasant and the house was very clean and tidy with good people as housemates, I knew that by moving back home I could save shedloads on rent and top up my savings with the hope of putting down a deposit on a nicer house, or even just reducing the amount I’d need to borrow on a half-decent house. Moving home after 4 years was weird at first, but after about a week it became routine. It’s amazing how quickly you fall back into old routines. I was blessed to have family who live so close and who had room for me.

What’s the first thing I did having moved back home, with a lot more disposable income burning a hole in my pocket? Book a holiday of course! I was originally intending to do a bit of solo-traveling, but when I told a friend I mine that I was thinking of going to Barcelona, he said he’d come too. It was my first visit to Spain, and based on my experience of Barcelona I think it’s a beautiful country. So much culture and great architecture in such a short square mileage. I’d definitely like to go back again sometime soon. Highlights include exploring the seafront, the art galleries and touring the Nou Camp.

As May drew to a close and the beginnings of summer could be smelt around the corner, I took a trip to Swansea to see the Manic Street Preachers at the Liberty Stadium. The Manics are my favourite band, and this was like a mini-festival exclusively for die-hard fans of the band. It was here that I got into Public Service Broadcasting who were the first support act. I’d seen them back in 2013 also supporting the Manics, but it wasn’t until this gig that I fully appreciated their music. The next support act were the Super Furry Animals, who to be honest I don’t care much for, but they’re a decent enough warmup act. Finally the Manics came on and played their colossal 1996 album “Everything Must Go” – it’s crazy to think that it’s 20 years old now. It was here that my brother asked me to be his best man for his wedding next year. A great night, with a festival like atmosphere, despite the rain.

At the beginning of June I went to a Podcast meet up in London. It was great to meet Federico Viticci from the Connected podcast, as well as chat to other listeners of the show. Not many of my friends share my interest in technology so it was good to be able to fully geek out while enjoying a few beers and some food.

10kThe summer was pretty quiet for me. Still focusing on my saving and having already been away to Spain back in the spring, I wasn’t planning on going on holiday again. I did get convinced into running a 10K run at work, however. I’m really glad I did as it was a lot of fun and has definitely whet my appetite for taking part future events. Until then I’d been focused on running as a solo activity. Even now I enjoy the ‘me time’ that I get with running, but running with other people and with people cheering me on from the sidelines was a cool experience and one I’ll hope to repeat. Who knows, maybe a half marathon could be on the cards in 2017?

In the last week of August I put an offer in on a flat I’d seen and to my amazement it was accepted. This one felt right in a way that the first one didn’t. It was in a semi-rural location (By that I mean quiet, surrounded by lots of trees and single-track country roads, but it’s half a mile from a train station and it still has fibre broadband.) and has a garden and a garage. The commute was going to be an extra fifteen minutes into work, but that’s a small price for living in a good location (When your neighbour’s car looks like it might have cost half the value of your house, you know it’s a pretty decent area!). Unfortunately being a leasehold the mortgage agreement took absolutely ages to go through. I waited with baited breath.

While taking a week off on the Isle of Wight (My parents have a place there so it’s a pretty cheap week away.) I received a text message from my boss asking if I’d be free to go to Santa Cruz for a few days in a in two weeks time in order to take meetings with clients. Obviously I didn’t have to think much about the answer to that one. I was lucky enough to be able to tack on a few days holiday before the business meetings, and stayed up in San Francisco for four days. I really love the States, especially California so I was not going to let any chance to visit again go by. The meetings were a success and Santa Cruz was a beautiful as everyone had told me it was. It felt more like California I know from Beach Boys songs than San Francisco or Los Angeles, with the prominent surfing culture and the frequent smell of weed! San Francisco was equally as exciting, such a great vibe down on the bay-front. Although it’s full of English people. I sat down at a bar in a diner and to my left was a bloke from the same town as me int the UK (he’d even done the same 10K I’d done a few weeks earlier), and to his left (but not with him) was a British girl who lived about 60 miles north of where I live. What a crazy small world it is.
As October began I’d still not made any progress with the mortgage offer – it seems mortgage companies are in a unique position of power. There’s not a lot of market forces driving them to offer a good service, as people are just going to go with the best rate. Not having bought any new technology this year so far, I splashed out on a new Apple Watch Series 2. Better to make the most of not having a mortgage while I can, I told myself. The original version had become my favourite gadget. I find the idea of a smart watch so much more compelling than a phone. A computer that’s always on, and always on me. The new model was properly waterproof and can measure swims, it also has a markedly better battery life. I went for the stainless steal model this time, as I think it looks classier, i was wiling to pay the extra this time as I now know that it’s money well spent. When I bought the original model last year I wasn’t sure if it would be that useful so I just went for the cheapest version. It should last me at least 2 or 3 years if I look after it. Unless Apple release one that has cellular connectivity, I really can’t see a reason to upgrade again any time soon. Overall I’m super impressed, I just wish it could work without a phone so I could have my watch on me at all times for communication needs, and just use an iPad when I need to do something more complex.

Towards the end of the month I went to see the Duke Spirit in London, another of my favourite bands. Being a London based ‘art rock’ band the crowd were quite a bit different to what I’ve come to expect at Manics gigs – not much in the way of a mosh pit, but still great music and some good support acts too.

robot_aiNovember was also pretty quiet for me. Apart from regular calls to nag my mortgage broker of course.  I found my work getting more interesting. Working with the latest craze in tech, ‘Artificial Intelligence’, otherwise known as Machine Learning: The ability to use clever probability mathematics to make computers do human-like things such as image recognition and language translation. Some say it’s nothing more than brute force statistics, no different to a weather forecast. Others think it really is the key to inventing machine intelligence. Whatever you call it, I think it’s reached a point where the Internet was in 1998. Nearly every startup for the next 15 years will be taking an idea and applying machine learning to it, just as they have done with the Internet during the past 15 years. It’s super cool, but also a but scary. Bus drivers, airline pilots, lorry drivers (to name a few) will likely loose their jobs to machine learning algorithms during the next 15 – 20 years, if the technology continues to progress at the rate it is now. Does this pose an existential question to our consumer-based society? With fewer jobs, how does anyone earn any money to pay for those automatised taxis? Or will the AI revolution, like the industrial revolution before it, create a multitude of new jobs we can’t even begin to imagine today? I’ve no idea, but I do know it’s an exciting time to be working in the tech industry.

As the year drew to a close, I finally completed on my flat purchase. I’m still using an upside down cardboard box as my coffee table, but I have all the basics: A fridge, a cooker and Internet access. I’ve never lived alone before but I’m actually quite enjoying it.

Overall I feel that 2016 was a transition year for me personally. I moved on from some old friendships, formed new ones, and moved into a new home. I feel I’ve gown as a person more than any other year. I realise I’ve been incredibly lucky to have visited some cool places and purchased my own flat. That said, I’m a strong believer that what you own, or the destinations you’ve visited is not a measure of success or happiness. Having good friends and family coupled with good health are all that really matters, the rest is just a nice bonus. A technique I’m going to try for next year is to write an idealised version of 2017’s review before 2017 starts, and then try and make all the things I want to do actually happen.

Congratulations on making it to the end of this article, wishing you Happy New Year!

Improving digital media rights

In an age when streaming services are all the rage –Netflix, Amazon Prime, Spotify et al, I still feel as though there are certain works of art that I want to own and not just rent. With music, this is a pain free process as most digital music is available to purchase is free of DRM (Digital Rights Management). DRM stops digital files being copied, with an aim to stop piracy. In reality though, if you look hard enough (you don’t have to look that hard) you can still find most popular digital media available for free on pirate sites. DRM doesn’t work. Thankfully the music industry saw the light and you can now buy DRM-free music from iTunes, Amazon and many other providers. The film, TV and book industry haven’t been so forward thinking however. There are no services that let you purchase a film legitimately without DRM. Why is this a bad thing? DRM stops unauthorised copying, which is fine by me because I don’t want to make any unauthorised copies. The problem is, DRM also promotes vendor lock-in. This means if I buy a TV show from my iPad, and then years later decide to switch to Android, those videos are stuck within the Apple ecosystem. If I buy a book on Kindle, but decide I would rather use some other make of e-reader, I’m not able to take my Kindle collection with me.  
Some services like Amazon Music and Google Play do offer cross-platform apps, so if I bought a TV series on an Android phone, I could watch it on an iPhone – but only using the Google app. If one day Google decides to stop supporting iPhone, I’m out of luck.

So what to do? Our governments seem keen to pass laws which promote and support DRM – I can understand this. An economy where goods are easy to steal and stealing is virtually undetectable – an economy based on good will if you like, is probably not an experiment they want to attempt. But what if they also passed laws that promoted consumer rights; rights not to be locked into a single platform? In this world, any digital goods purchased from one platform would be available to download again from rival platforms at no cost. If the other platform is somehow better (e.g. higher definition) then of course users would be expected to pay for the upgrade (though, I would expect the original version to still be available), but if it’s like for like, then consumers would have the right to transfer their purchases to as many platforms as they wish. This could be backed up by a common verified email address or block-chain style database, with safeguards in place to prevent abuse. It could be done, and it would make digital media much more competitive, improving the experience and price for consumers overall.  

Will it happen? Let’s say I’m not optimistic.

On the plus side

Over the past year or so you may like me, have found that it has been easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we’re all doomed. For me in particular; on the eve of becoming 30, I went from being someone who was in a steady relationship with aspirations to buy a house and have children, to being single and living in a rented room. This, coupled with constant negativity in the media can wound up making me feel at times a bit down and hopeless. Climate change, terrorist attacks, rising rents, rising house prices, the increasing disparity between rich and poor – it can all get a bit too much. Especially when all of your friends seem to be buying houses, getting married and making babies, while at the same time you just seem to be getting older.

Take a step back however, and you may realise that this doom and gloom is often nothing more than a distortion of reality. The human brain is hardwired to focus on what it hasn’t got and to always want more. It’s why the human race migrated and populated each and all of the continents on earth and eventually landed on the moon. To be dissatisfied with what you have and to strive for better a is natural behaviour. That doesn’t mean it’s always a useful behaviour. Just as aggression can be put to use in driving someone to do well at sport , it can also be incredibly destructive.

One-hundred years ago, my great-grandparents were born at a time when the average life expectancy in the UK was around 55 (This figure is sadly skewed because so many unfortunate children died young of diseases which have now thankfully been eradicated.) In just four generations the quality and length of life somebody can expect to live in the UK has increased dramatically. This really is a good time to be alive. Being born in the UK, one of the most prosperous countries on the planet is incredibly lucky. Most of us have the opportunity to visit many wonderful places – if I were to put my home ownership ambitions on hold for a bit, I could probably afford to visit many more far-flung parts of the world.  Low cost travel is something we now take for granted, but it’s something our ancestors could only dream of. You only have to go back a few more generations to find a time when visiting the next town was a special event. [1. While saying that, I do think it’s important not to define oneself based on where you’ve been. The ‘where’ is meaningless. If you visited Mexico and spent the entire time in a 5 start hotel complex, then did you really visit Mexico? You might have a good tan, and if you enjoyed yourself, then that’s all that really matters – this underlines why listing places you’ve been in an effort to define yourself is a futile exercise.]

So why am I writing this? Because frankly, over the past year I found that I became obsessed with what I thought was missing in my life, and forgot to be grateful  for what I actually have. If you have good friends, good health and a good job, then count yourself lucky too.

A technologist’s take on the A329M changes

Recent changes to the A329M have been completed, to much disapproval from local residents, including myself. At peak times, what was a 15 minute journey from Winnersh to neighbouring Bracknell can take over twice as long as it once did.

What has changed?

The A329M was until recently a two lane ‘duel carriageway’ that ran all the way from Reading to Bracknell. The A329M was originally intended to directly link the M4 to the M3, but these plans were scaled back in the 1970’s, no doubt due to costs (and you can bet local residents probably weren’t too happy about another new road being built through their town either). What’s changed recently is that just after the Winnersh junction, the left-hand lane has been turned into dedicated slip road to enter the M4, with the first exit taking you onto the M4 towards London, and the latter taking you onto the M4 towards South Wales. No longer is the A329M a duel carriageway for its entire stretch.

This has caused two problems:

  1. Traffic jams for those who want to stay on the A329M and head towards Bracknell.
  2. Increased ‘last minute’ lane changes by drivers who are unfamiliar with the new layout, or decide to change lanes at the last possible moment, one assumes to avoid sitting in the traffic jam (see problem #1). Many feel this is dangerous.

But why was this change made in the first place? The reason is that trying to join the A329M Bracknell-bound from the M4 could frequently take a ludicrous amount of time, often over 20 minutes to travel a what can’t be much more than a quarter of a mile along the M4 > A329M slip road. I know this because in a previous life, I used to take this journey daily. I also know many other people who travel from Reading to Bracknell via the M4 who shared this experience. One day a friend suggested that instead of leaving the M4 and keeping right to go towards Bracknell and sitting in the traffic jam, I should instead take the left lane back towards Reading, traverse the A329M back up a junction, exit at Winnersh and get back on in the Bracknell direction. To my surprise, this was actually about 50% faster than sitting in the queue to get on to the Bracknell-bound A329M directly from the M4. I would often do this and take note of a distinct HGV or van, so as I cruised by on the A329M I could look over at the traffic jam on the slip road and see how far the queue had progressed. The HGV would usually only have made it halfway through the queue.

So it is clear to me that there was a problem to be solved. The Highways Agency were not having a jolly when they decided to make this change, they had to do something – if it was quicker to take a ~2 mile detour to Winnersh and back than take the slip road, something was clearly very wrong.

So rather than simply moaning at the Highways Agency, I wondered what could actually be done to solve the problem? How does one even measure that a problem like this is solved? As the quote goes “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time”. Until we all go to work in automated, computer-controlled flying drones, there is always going to be some congestion as everyone decides they want to get to work for exactly the same time as everybody else each day.

Please bare in mind I approach this as someone who is interested in problem solving, but with no expert knowledge in large construction projects (I build software for a living, not roads) – but I thought it would be a fun thought experiment if nothing else.

How to solve it?

Our first problem – the traffic jam. This would seem to be caused by the fact that the volume of traffic (that’s us, traffic is just another word for people, remember) is too great for the road. How could this be solved, while not reverting the M4 > A329M junction back to it’s untenable situation?

The problem is that people actually get into the right-hand lane too early. I understand why they do this; to stay safe, it’s polite, and because the road signs encourage drivers to do so. However, from a pure ‘volume of traffic’ point of view, if we could encourage people to use the both lanes right up until the last minute, and to merge in an organised and safe fashion, studies show this would reduce queues because it makes use of the full capacity of the road.

This brings us to our second problem – aren’t those last minute lane changers dangerous? Obviously if you’re reversing up a slip road then you’ve left it a little too late, that is dangerous. Surely there’s nothing wrong in theory with changing lanes at the last moment, as long as it’s a considered manoeuvre? In order to encourage this, I would suggest that instead of going to the M4, the left-hand lane ends up merging into the right-hand. This gives drivers in both lanes the responsibility to merge. At peak times a speed limit would need to be lowered to 40MPH (enforced by average speed cameras) to aid safe merging, and also to help drivers in the right lane refrain from powering straight into the slower moving traffic that’s entering from the M4 further down, braking hard and causing tailbacks as the breaking forms a wave that spreads along the rest of the road. They may be unpopular, but variable speed limits have used to good effect on M25.

In Summary

  • The left-hand lane would have two distinct exits (instead of trailing off to the M4).
  • The land-hand and would merge into the right-hand lane.
  • During peak times a variable speed limit of 40MPH would be enforced.

I’m sure that much greater minds at The Highways Agency have considered this (and I say that respectfully). There is sure to be a reason why this wouldn’t work. I’d love to know. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to try and keep all of us road users happy. I hope the problem is addressed, but for now my real-world solution has been to set off on my journey 30 minutes earlier and avoid the rush.