The best of the new cycling infrastructure in London is almost entirely composed of bi-directional cycleways, placed on one side of the road. This includes pretty much the entirety of CS3 and CS6 – the former running from Parliament Square to Tower Hill, the latter from Elephant and Castle to just north of Ludgate Circus.
Bi-directional cycleways are often not the best design solution, but the decision to go with bi-directional cycleways is not an accident. Undoubtedly people at Transport for London have thought long and hard about the best way to implement cycling infrastructure given current UK constraints, and have plumped for two-way as the most sensible approach.
To be clear, bi-directional cycleways do have serious downsides – they can lead to more conflict at side roads as cycles will be coming from unexpected directions, and pedestrians in particular may find them harder to deal with. Head-on collisions with other people cycling are also more likely. On ‘conventional’ streets – one lane of motor traffic in each direction – uni-directional cycleways are clearly preferable, all other things being equal.
However, bi-directional cycleways do also have advantages, and one in particular that has probably swayed the decision-makers in London. It’s touched upon in this excellent summary of the advantages and disadvantages of bi-directional and uni-directional approaches by Paul James –
Depending on the roadway in question you could have less junctions to deal with, if you have many turnings on one side of the road, running a bi-directional cycleway on the opposite side so as to save on conflicts might be a good idea.
This is clearly the reasoning behind putting a bi-directional cycleway on the ‘river’ side of the Embankment. There are no junctions to deal with, cycling in either direction, so even though people are cycling on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, heading east, that’s a lot safer (and also more convenient) than having to deal with all the side roads that do exist on the non-river side of the road.
But this isn’t the only type of conflict-avoidance that explains why bi-directional cycleways have been chosen in London. Bi-directional cycleways also reduce conflicts at junctions that have to be signalised, by ‘bundling up’ all the cycle flows on one side of the road. This is actually very important, thanks to the limitations of current UK rules, and it’s the subject of this post.
In all the countries in mainland Europe (and also in Canada and the United States) it is an accepted principle that motor traffic turning right (the equivalent of our left) with a green signal should yield to pedestrians (and people cycling) progressing ahead, also with a green signal. Here’s a typical example in Paris; the driver is turning off the main road, with a green signal, but pedestrians also have a green signal to cross at the same time. The driver should yield (and is).
This approach actually makes junctions very straightforward, and efficient. A complete cycle of the traffic lights at a conventional crossroads requires only two stages to handle all the movements of people walking, cycling and driving. In the first, walking, cycling and driving all proceed north-south (with all ‘turning’ movements yielding to ‘straight on’ movements), and in the second, the same, but in the east-west direction.
Compare that with a typical UK junction, which will have three stages (if it takes account of pedestrians at all) and ignores cycling altogether, lumping it in with motor traffic. First, motor traffic (with cycling included in it) going north-south; then, motor traffic heading east-west; then pedestrians finally get a go on the third stage, with all other movements held.
This arrangement obviously doesn’t allow any turning conflicts (apart, of course, from motor vehicles crossing each other’s paths) – pedestrians don’t get to cross the road until all motor traffic is stopped, with an additional third stage. (This is, effectively, a ‘simultaneous green’ for pedestrians, although we are rarely generous to give pedestrians enough signal time to cross the junction on the diagonal).
And this gives us a clue to the problem when it comes to adding in cycling, when these kinds of turning conflicts aren’t allowed. You either have to add in stages where motor traffic is prevented from turning, or you have to stop pedestrians from crossing the road while cyclists are moving. Both of these approaches would add in a large amount of signal time, and would make for inefficient junctions.
One possible answer is including cycling in the ‘simultaneous green’ stage, but with sensible design – cycles moving from all arms of the junction at the same time as pedestrians have their green, and pedestrians crossing cycleways on zebra crossings. For whatever reason (from what I hear, DfT resistance) this kind of junction is still not appearing in the UK, forcing highway engineers to improvise within the constraints of the current rules. As Transport for London have done.
If we are trying to build uni-directional cycleways, those UK rules effectively mean we either have to ban turns for motor traffic, or we have to employ very large junctions indeed, to handle signalising different movements. Take the Cambridge Heath junction on Superhighway 2, which has to use three queuing lanes for motor traffic in each direction. One for the left turns (which have to be held while cyclists and motor traffic progress ahead), one for straight ahead, and one for right turns (which have to be separate from straight ahead movements, otherwise the junction will clog up).
That’s an awful lot of space when you add in the cycling infrastructure – space not many junctions in urban areas will have.
In an ideal world – and with sensible priority rules – these junctions could just be shrunk down to two queuing lanes in each direction. A left turning lane combined with a straight ahead lane, and a right turn lane. All these lanes would run at the same time as cycle traffic progressing ahead (as well as pedestrians), with the left turners yielding.
Unsurprisingly this is – of course – how the Dutch arrange this kind of junction.
This is much more compact than the kind of ‘Cambridge Heath’-style junction that we are forced to employ in Britain.
But, given that we unfortunately can’t do this, and that we rarely have the kind of space available that there is on Superhighway 2, bi-directional cycleways are the most obvious answer. As I hinted at in the introduction, this is why they’ve been used by Transport for London – they’re not stupid!
Let’s take one of the junctions on the North-South superhighway, at Ludgate Circus. Space here is much more limited than on CS2 – we can’t add in multiple turning lanes – so that means, given the constraints of UK rules, a bi-directional cycleway is the most sensible option.
Only two queuing lanes for motor traffic are required, in each direction, making this arrangement much more compact. It helps, of course, that a bi-directional cycleway is more space-efficient than two uni-directional ones, but the main win here is the fact that all the potential conflicts are ‘bundled’ on one side of the road. That means motor traffic flowing south doesn’t have turning conflicts on the inside.
Clearly, as I’ve outlined early on in this post, bi-directional cycleways will, more often than not, be less desirable than uni-directional ones, in urban areas. But they are currently – thanks to UK rules – probably the best way of building inclusive cycling infrastructure when space is genuinely limited, as they are the simplest way of side-stepping around British priority rules. (An additional benefit is that they will typically only involve converting, at most, a single lane of motor traffic, which helps when it comes to persuading reluctant local authorities worried about retaining capacity for drivers.)
Perhaps the way forward is to continue building bi-directional cycleways, but keeping in mind the possibility of adapting bi-directional designs into uni-directional ones, if and when UK rules become more flexible, or if and when ‘simultaneous green’ arrangements start to appear.
Namely, the claim that Mayor Boris Johnson exacerbated the problem of congestion in London
by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% on key routes through the introduction of cycle superhighways [my emphasis]
Elsewhere in the report [p.26] this claim is even wilder –
… by removing the western extension of the congestion zone and by reducing road capacity in central London by 25% through the introduction of cycle superhighways
I’m not even going to bother with that one, because it’s so plainly ludicrous (at best only 3% of roads in central London have protected cycleways) and because it is most likely the result of a mistaken omission of ‘on key routes’.
But even the former claim is mysterious. Given that there are effectively just a handful of new superhighways in central London – CS5, CS6, CS3 and parts of CS2, how on earth has a figure of ‘reducing road capacity in central London on key routes by 25%’ been arrived at?
Charitably, we might interpret the claim as being a reduction in capacity on some key routes in central London by 25%. (This is an explanation some of those who have disseminated the statistic are desperately falling back on). But if that was the claim that was being made, why isn’t the word ‘some’ actually included, anywhere in the report where this claim is repeatedly made?
Further, in the context of the passage, the implication is quite clear – road capacity has been reduced on key routes by (allegedly) 25% overall, enough to justify comment. To put this another way, if road capacity had been reduced on just a handful of main roads, why on earth would that merit comment in a passage about London-wide congestion? This attempt at an explanation is incoherent.
We then come to the problem of ‘key routes’ themselves. Funnily enough TfL were careful to avoid ‘key routes’ for buses as much as possible when they build the E-W and N-S Superhighways, as you can see from this map of key bus routes, spotted by Jono Kenyon.
These high-profile interventions barely co-exist with these key bus routes, using routes where there is relatively little (or no) TfL bus activity. If there has been a reduction of 25% on ‘key routes’ it isn’t the ones buses are using. The Embankment, which has seen a reduction in the number of motor traffic lanes (a very different thing from capacity) from 4 to 3 (a potential source for a ‘25%’ claim) is very much not a key route for buses.
So where did this dubious statistic even come from in the first place? The answer (thanks to some digging by Carlton Reid and Peter Walker) appears to be from a Transport for London presentation made by Helen Cansick to the London Travel Watch board, on May the 12th last year.
… the 25 percent statistic is not as robust as it was portrayed in the bus report. For a start, it’s not from a written source. Professor Begg told BikeBiz:
“The statistic comes from Transport for London. Helen Canswick of TfL network management gave a presentation to London TravelWatch at which she was asked what the reduction traffic capacity would be as a result of roads modernisation. She told members they had modelled a reduction of network capacity in the central area of 25 percent.”
Extraordinarily Begg himself confirms here that “the statistic” is actually about reduction in capacity due to the road modernisation programme – a programme that encompasses improvements for cycling, but also public realm schemes and improvements for walking and public transport – and, err, road schemes.
This much is plain when we look at the minutes of the meeting during which the Canswick presentation was made.
The Policy Officer asked what the total reduction in road capacity would be under the modernisation plan. Ms Cansick said that following completion in December 2016 there would be a reduction of road capacity for motor vehicles of 25% within the inner ring road.
Exactly the same statistic that Begg says he used (albeit erroneously). Who might this Policy Officer be?
— Peter Walker (@peterwalker99) June 13, 2016
Vincent Stops is of course a London TravelWatch policy officer, one who was present at that meeting, and clearly the person who passed the ‘25%’ statistic on to Professor Begg.
The only remaining question is at what point a figure about 25% reduction due to TfL’s overall road modernisation programme became converted into a 25% reduction due specifically to cycling infrastructure, as the claim appeared in Begg’s report.
If by any chance you’ve missed it, do please read Paul Gannon’s forensic analysis of a report produced by David Begg for Greener Journeys, entitled ‘The Impact of Congestion on Bus Passengers’. I don’t really need to add much to what Paul has written; he has done a great job wading through the detail of a report that has some fairly odd things to say about cycling.
However, there is a curious case of repetition that bears further scrutiny. This paragraph appears on page 30 in the Begg report –
What is less well-known is how relatively affluent cyclists in London are compared with bus passengers. Transport for London describes the London cyclist as “typically white, under 40, male with medium to high household income”. A report by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine’s Transport & Health Group in 2011 describes cycling in London as disproportionately an activity of white, affluent men.
It’s a passage that corresponds closely to this one in a Dave Hill piece from October last year –
A study by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) published in 2011, explores why in London “cycling is disproportionately an activity of affluent, white men” or, as Transport for London (TfL), has put it, why the London cyclist is “typically white, under 40, male, with medium to high household income.”
Exactly the same two sources on class, gender and ethnicity and, more tellingly, exactly the same two quoted passages, from those two sources. These are essentially two identical paragraphs, barring some shuffling and switching of words.
Coincidence? That seems extraordinarily unlikely, given a) the wealth of material out there on class and ethnicity, b) the age and relative obscurity of both of these sources, and c) the small chance of these two identical quotes being plucked from them. The blindingly obvious explanation is that exactly the same person has supplied exactly the same two sources to these two different parties, who have both parroted it uncritically.
This wouldn’t matter if the evidence being cited was convincing. However, (and sadly for both Hill and Begg) it isn’t.
As Paul points out, these sources are being used by Begg to present ‘cyclists’ as a more influential lobby than bus users by virtue of their class and wealth; to argue that they have more ‘power’ than bus users and are hence able to twist the urban transport agenda to their advantage more effectively than bus lobbyists. The section on cycling affluence in the Begg report follows closely after this assertion –
The more affluent and generally well-educated the traveller, the more vocal and powerful a lobby they form to be able to effect change that is advantageous to their choice of mode.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that they appear to be being fed exactly the same information, this is also a line of argument used by Hill.
@joelcacooney Middle class professionals dominate London cycling demographic. That's why they are listened to & bus users are ignored.
— DaveHill (@DaveHill) June 7, 2016
And this fairly explicit agenda was ‘recycled’ in an extraordinary TransportXtra piece that extends the class-based argument to Britain as a whole.
Unfortunately – at least as far as London is concerned – this ‘argument of power’ is far from persuasive. Even if we accept that the cycling demographic in the capital is ‘dominated’ by influential middle class professionals, the number of people cycling in London is still tiny relative to those taking the bus (a point that bus lobbyists are of course more than happy to point out). Around ten times more journeys are made by bus every day in London, compared to the number that are cycled. This means that the number of middle class professionals taking the bus in London will far outweigh the number of middle class professionals who cycle, given that ‘bus passengers are not primarily those on lower incomes, but are representative of the profile of Londoners.‘
What we are left with, then, is the deeply implausible assertion that the ‘influentialness’ of a middle class professional transport lobby flows not from its actual size but from the extent to which it ‘dominates’ its mode of transport. By this logic, if a town has just 100 cyclists (70 of whom are middle class professionals), and 1000 bus users (500 of whom are middle class professionals), its ‘cycle lobby’ will be more influential than its ‘bus lobby’. Make of that what you will.
We might also point out that ‘the London bus lobby’ isn’t simply composed of bus users; it’s also composed of large and relatively powerful bus companies – companies like Stagecoach (2015 revenue, £3.2bn; operating profit, £225m), Abellio (a subsidiary of the Dutch national railways group) and Arriva (a subsidiary of the German national railways group). By comparison, the London cycling lobby has… well, membership organisations like the London Cycling Campaign, and individual campaigners and bloggers. If this motley lot are more influential than bus companies, then I’m a Dutchman.
As for the evidence itself used to make the claims for the influential, well, they are unconvincing. As Paul observes in his piece, the statistic ‘only 1.5% of those living in households earning under £15,000 cycled compared with 2.2% of those living in households earning over £35,000’ doesn’t even appear in this study – it appears in another study (this one) that is merely referenced by the first LSTHM study. Paul points out how this statistic has been presented omitting the detail that, in households with an income of £15,000-£35,000, the cyclist percentage is virtually identical to that in households earning over £35,000 – 2.1%, compared to 2.2%. Even if we take these kinds of differences seriously, they really are negligible in the context of overall cycling share – see how these statistics look when they are presented as below.
Remember, it is actually being argued here that almost imperceptible differences between income groups at very low overall levels of cycling somehow makes the cycling lobby influential.
Cycling is not ‘disproportionately’ an activity of the affluent. Unfortunately, nor is it ‘disproportionately’ an activity of ‘whites’. More recent TfL research – from last year, not from 2011 – found that ‘cycling levels among BAME Londoners and white Londoners are very similar’ and that ‘there is also very little difference between white and BAME Londoners in frequency of cycling’.
The evidence that cycling is ‘disproportionately’ the activity of allegedly more influential members of society is weak or absent, and even if were present, the theory of ‘cycling influence’ fails to explain how an allegedly powerful cycle lobby is so influential despite being so relatively tiny compared to the numbers of similarly influential people taking the bus.
So here’s the thing. If bus groups want to lobby for more bus priority, they should do exactly that. They should lobby for bus lanes at the expense of private motor traffic, not at the expense of cycling. Crucially, they should be arguing for these bus lanes alongside cycleways, rather than instead of them. If you are concerned about the flow of buses, bus lanes full of people cycling are not efficient, and if you are not providing cycleways, that is where the people cycling will be. They won’t disappear into thin air; they will be in your bus lanes, holding up your buses.
So I’d like to see a bus lobby that is arguing for the right things – a coherent, fast system of bus priority at the expense of private motor traffic, rather than at the expense of cycling. I don’t want to see a bus lobby that is relying on dubious sources to launch a misguided and counterproductive class war against other modes of transport.
If you read the headlines, you might hear that Transport for London are spending ONE BILLION POUNDS ON CYCLISTS. Or that they are spending FIFTY MILLION POUNDS ON ONE CYCLE ROUTE FOR CYCLISTS. Crazy, right? That’s a huge some of money to be spending on a cycle route. What have cyclists done to deserve all that cash?
One response is of course to point that these big, scary sums of money are actually quite trivial in terms of the overall transport spend in London. Ranty Highwayman has already done the sums, so I don’t have to go over the same ground, but to take just one example, just stopping the Hammersmith Flyover from falling down cost £100 million – basic road maintenance on an ageing bridge for motoring easily outstrips all the spending on cycling infrastructure in London, thus far.
But another way of approaching this issue is to place ‘spending on cycling’ in historical context. Let’s take, say, the Blackfriars Underpass, just one small part of the contemporary east-west Superhighway route. It was built in 1967, to facilitate the flow of motor traffic. As is apparent from the film below, the convenience, comfort and safety of anyone walking and cycling in the area did not feature in the scheme.
In ‘1967 money’ it cost £2.6m, which funnily enough is equivalent to around fifty million pounds today – more than the entire cost of the east-west Superhighway itself.
Or take the aforementioned Hammersmith Flyover, a structure designed purely to facilitate the flow of private motor traffic, built in 1960 at a cost of £1.3m, which in today’s money equates to around £27 million. For – effectively – an 800 metre bridge across a roundabout.
Or take Park Lane, widened at around the same time to six lanes, at the expense of 20 acres of Hyde Park and a number of buildings, at a cost, in contemporary terms, of roughly £21 million, again for a very short stretch of road.
Or the Westway and West Cross Route, part of the (aborted) inner London motorway box, built in the late 1960s at a total cost of £36.5m, or around half a billion pounds in today’s money.
I could of course go on, listing scheme after scheme just in London, without even touching on other major projects in other British towns and cities. In reality, the twentieth century was a period in which our entire road and street system was reshaped and rebuilt to favour motoring, at enormous expense, and at tremendous cost to cycling in particular, but also of course upon walking.
Roads did not spontaneously arrange themselves into the kinds of form shown in the picture above. Political decisions were taken to shape our towns and cities around the car, a programme that required vast sums of money to be spent. ‘The natural order of things’ that is today being challenged by a small number of cycling schemes on a tiny, tiny proportion of the overall road network is not ‘natural’ at all – it’s the outcome of political choices, made over several decades. Just because we’re living in that environment today without appreciating how it came into being doesn’t make those political choices any less real.
Another picture from “Carscapes”, of Leeds today. The war on the motorist in evidence pic.twitter.com/O2KUsvcU
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) February 15, 2013
It’s also worth pointing out that, at the time many of these decisions were being made, the motor car was still very much a minority mode of transport.
At the time of the ‘Traffic in Towns’ report in 1963, there were only 6.4 million cars in Britain, for a population of 54 million people. Of course, car use was growing, and may have continued to grow, even without any of the changes to the built environment that were occurring both before and after the Buchanan report. But I think it’s reasonable to point out that, essentially, you end up with the kind of transport use that you plan for. If you build very big roads in your towns and cities that make it easy to drive about, and difficult or inconvenient (or even dangerous and intolerable) to walk and cycle about, then we shouldn’t be surprised which mode of transport people decide to use for short trips.
As well as undoing the twentieth century’s failure to consider existing, established modes of transport in road design, the investment in cycling infrastructure that is taking place in Britain (albeit barely scratching the surface in London and a handful of other cities, and non-existent pretty much everywhere else) is really just an attempt to tip the scales slightly back the other way, towards a mode of transport that has never seen investment in any significant way, and that was erased from our towns and cities by an enormous historical programme of investing in motoring that we don’t notice today because its effects upon our built environment are so ubiquitous.
I first heard of Klean Kanteen via Lovely Bicycle. They are available here in the UK (including in a few bricks and mortar shops) but as they are made for the US market, their capacities are made to crazy US units, rather than sensible, rest-of-the-world metric.
Vacuum flasks are nothing new, but the majority of vacuum flasks on the market are aimed at people who want to carry hot, still drinks and are often sold with lids intended to double up as cups to drink from. Something I wanted for a long time is a vacuum flask for cold, possibly fizzy drinks and which I could drink from directly whilst on the go, rather than using a separate cup. One of my main aims was to reduce the number of cold drinks I purchased whilst out and about on warmer days, partly to save money and partly because of the tendency of many shops to use broken/ineffective drinks chillers (Boots and Superdrug, I am looking at you).
Eventually, I found out that Klean Kanteen made insulated versions of some of their bottle sizes. The size I bought (nominally 591 ml, 600 ml in practice) came with a loop carabiner lid, and I was not sure if the lid would be ok with fizzy drinks. However, I saw that a larger version of the same bottle (but with a swing-top lid) was being sold by Klean Kanteen as a growler* for carrying (fizzy) beer.
For a while I used the loop carabiner lid, but the seal on this did not do very well with carbonated drinks; the lid had to be screwed down very tight to prevent the pressure leaking out and when it was opened, a small part of the seal would often unseat before the rest, sometimes resulting in a highly directional spray (especially after riding the Brompton over cobbles). This happened in quite spectacular fashion as a sat in the quiet coach of a Virgin Pendolino to Edinburgh, spraying two fellow passengers with a fine mist of Pepsi Max. After this, I decided to give the Swing-top lid sold with the Klean Kanteen growlers a try instead. The addition of the swing-lock cap produces an ideal solution for keeping cold, fizzy drinks cold and fizzy for an extended period of time (6+ hours has been no problem). Occasionally, I have also had coffee in the bottle, which stays hot enough for me for at least four hours (and possibly a fair bit more too). A few times, I have even used it for beer.
Another feature of the flask which I like is that it is constructed from 18/8 stainless steel, inside and out. Whilst I suspect that the recent hysteria about BPA is overblown, I do not like the flavour-retention which happens with re-usable plastic bottles. Aluminium bottles can also have this problem, as they require lining and this lining is usually made of some sort of plastic. The advantage of stainless steel is that it does not retain or impart any flavour on the contents of the bottle and is resistant to corrosion from the sorts of things you are likely to store inside the bottle and also the sorts of conditions the outside is likely to be exposed to. It is also durable, I have dropped mine a few times and whilst it is dented, it still functions perfectly well.
This bottle really works well for me, I use it everyday. I even took it with me when I had to travel to Japan for work in early May, which allowed me to really maximise the benefit from the airport lounge access I got as a random bonus checking in.
*Growlers are vessels for transporting draught beer from a bar or brewery for later consumption elsewhere. I suspect that the name may be hindering their uptake in the UK somewhat.
One of the most remarkable things about the new cycling infrastructure in London is not just the numbers of people using it, already, but the way it is being used spontaneously, by a wide range of users. Not just by tourists hopping onto hire bikes –
but also by people using many different kinds of transport. Scooterists.
— Laura Warrington (@themovingparade) May 24, 2016
— Adam Reynolds (@awjre) May 25, 2016
Mobility scooterists (even if they are let down by cycling infrastructure disappearing).
Handicapped mobility scooter suddenly has to merge w/ traffic bcos segregation disappears at Whitechapel market CS2 pic.twitter.com/zmkvPuDoIc
— Two Wheels Good blog (@TwoWheelsGoodUK) May 22, 2016
And even horseists.
— david dansky (@FixedFun) May 23, 2016
As well as, of course, the myriad types of cycling device that are starting to appear now that conditions are so much less hostile.
So although this is formally ‘cycling infrastructure’, it’s really more pragmatic to describe it as a bit of street space that’s useful for all those ways of getting about that aren’t motor vehicles, and aren’t walking.
It even makes sense for people to jog in these lanes, at quieter times – joggers are faster than people walking, and they can make their own decisions about when it is comfortable to use cycling infrastructure, and when it isn’t. Anecdotally, I think fewer people are jogging in them now they are busier (and indeed open!), but there’s no particular reason to get territorial. It’s space that can and should be used by modes of transport that don’t mix well (or safely) with motor traffic, and don’t mix well with people walking either.
So in a subtle way, this infrastructure is improving the pedestrian environment, by incentivising all these ‘awkward’ uses of footways into a much more appropriate space – including the obvious legal (and illegal) cycling on the footway, but also scootering, skateboarding and mobility scooters. If there’s cycling infrastructure alongside a footway you are walking on, you will only have to deal with other people walking.
It’s also showing that – despite the persistent stream of media noise about the alleged threat posed by speeding London cyclists – people are quite happy to share space with people cycling, in a way they plainly wouldn’t with motor traffic. People jogging, scooting, wheeling, skateboarding, and just travelling along a little bit faster than walking, all using cycling ‘space’, is really objective proof that cycling does not present a huge amount of danger. If it was that terrifying, all these people would still be using the footways.
This isn’t road space reallocation ‘for cyclists’ – it really doesn’t make sense to frame it so narrowly. Rather, it’s more space for all those people who wanted to cycle (because frankly cycling is a brilliant way to get about) but were put off by frankly horrible conditions, and just as importantly, more space for anyone who wants to travel around in a way that doesn’t quite fit with walking. Simultaneously it therefore also represents a freeing up of pedestrian space.
It’s just better for everyone.
The National Propensity to Cycle Tool (PCT) is a powerful planning tool which shows existing commuting cycling trips (based on mapping the 2011 census), and then uses that data to illustrate where the main cycle flows are, or should be, and therefore where cycling infrastructure should be prioritised.
Importantly, it doesn’t just cover existing cycling flows; it can be updated to show what (commuter) cycling levels would be like if we had the same propensity to cycle as Dutch people (adjusted for hilliness), and where people would choose to cycle, based on directness.
The purpose of the route allocation is to see on which routes the most provision might be necessary as cycling grows rather than to show where people currently cycle. We recognise that many people currently choose longer routes to avoid busy roads. But for cycling to reach its potential safe direct routes are needed. The Route Network layer is therefore intended to show where (on which routes) investment is most needed rather than where people currently cycle.
I’ve been playing around with it over the last few days, based on the town of Horsham, and the results are quite instructive. Based on the census results, cycling to work levels are currently a fairly miserable 3% of all trips to work in the town centre.
I say ‘miserable’ because the town is flat and compact – only around 3 miles across, and with all trips (even from some surrounding villages) less than 2 miles from the centre.
Despite this favourable geography, the town (population around 60,000) is dominated by car commuting – between 40 and 50% of trips to work are driven.
The Propensity to Cycle Tool is great because it allows us to visualise alternative scenarios, and how to prioritise designing for them. We can plot the cycling trips currently being made from area to area (in the 2011 census) as straight lines.
Then (and here’s the clever bit) we can see how those trips would be made by the most direct routes, mapped onto the road network.
The levels of cycling can then be changed by shifting from the 2011 census to either the (unambitious) government target of doubling cycling levels, ‘gender equality’, ‘Go Dutch’, or ‘Ebikes’.
What is really interesting (but unsurprising) is that the routes being taken don’t change as the levels of cycling increase, as you can see from the ‘Go Dutch’ scenario shown above. It’s unsurprising, of course, because people will still choose the direct routes, regardless of whether they happen to be part of a small number of cycling commuters, or part of a town with mass cycling. Why would they change to less direct routes?
The great thing about this tool is that it shows exactly where interventions should be prioritised. I can see clearly from the map above that two of the most important routes (at least for commuting) in Horsham are the two roads north of the town centre – North Parade, and North Street.
It just so happens that these are two roads where there is plenty of space to incorporate high-quality cycling infrastructure, with only the loss of some grass, and central hatching – and the existing, poor, cycle lanes.
So if, for instance, we were looking to prioritise where to invest in cycling infrastructure for the most benefit (rather than just looking to do tokenistic improvements ) these two roads would be among the main priorities. The PCT tool even allows you to click on the roads in question, to bring up helpful information. For instance, ‘Going Dutch’ would mean taking nearly 200 car commuters off this particular road.
If it wasn’t already clear, main roads are quite obviously where interventions are required, and where they will be most useful. They are main roads for a reason; they tend to form the most direct routes, and they also connect between the places people are coming from, and going to. The Propensity to Cycle Tool isn’t really showing the equivalent of back street, or ‘Quietway’, routes. The cycle flows are all on the major roads, or on the distributor roads that connect up residential streets.
What will make this tool really powerful is when it is released in ‘Version 2’ next year, because it will incorporate other journeys, not just commuting – because obviously only a minority of the trips we make are actually trips to and from work.
Version 2 will go beyond commuting data to incorporate other trip purposes, including education trips at route and area level and other non-commuting trips at area level.
Apparently commuting flows are actually a good approximation for travel flows in general, but incorporating trips for education, leisure and shopping will make the case for cycling even more powerful.
I was in Leicester last week and (briefly) managed to look again at some of the cycling infrastructure the city has been building recently. There is an impressive-looking cycleway, complete with bus stop bypass, on Welford Road.
Like other new cycling infrastructure in the city, it has been built with distinctive, Dutch-style red asphalt, making it obvious that this isn’t part of the footway, and something that’s different from the road. The kerbs have also been designed well – low-level, and forgiving, meaning they can be ridden over without crashing, and also that the full width of the cycleway can be used, while retaining a height distinction from the footway, and the road.
This is something London hasn’t quite got right. The cycleways in London are of the same colour tarmac as the road, which has led to a number of incidents (presumably, mostly innocent) in which drivers have ended up using the cycleway, instead of the road. The kerbs alongside the new superhighways are also problematic, particularly on the section along the Embankment.
The height difference between the footway and the cycleway along here means that the effective width of the cycleway is reduced. At the narrower points of the superhighway here – around 3m wide – the usable width is reduced down to about 2.5m, which is pretty narrow for a two-way path, especially one that is only going to get a lot busier.
But unfortunately Leicester somehow manages to convert their beautiful cycleways, with their lovely kerbs, into a horrible mess at the junctions. Here is an exit-only side road from a residential street, that few drivers will be using.
That red tarmac comes to an end, merging into a shared use footway across an expanse of tactile paving, with no priority for walking or cycling across a minor side street. Not comfortable to cycle across; confusion and conflict with people walking, and loss of priority, and momentum.
I noticed that the same kind of problem appears at signalised junctions. Again, the answer in Leicester seems to be ‘give up’, and treat people cycling like pedestrians.
The red asphalt comes to an end, you merge onto a shared use footway, and cross the road on a toucan crossing.
It seems a little unfair to criticise Leicester here, because they are doing an awful lot more than most towns and cities across Britain, reallocating road space to build cycleways, and making a genuine effort to start prioritising cycling. But these kinds of junction designs just aren’t good enough.
Meanwhile London – while it might not be getting the designs of the cycleway kerbs and surfacing right – is doing precisely the right kind of thing at junctions, keeping cycling distinct from walking, and ensuring that cycling has clear priority.
Here an exit-only residential side street – very similar to Leicester – is treated in a very different way. There is no tactile, no giving up, no merging of walking and cycling. Both footway and cycleway continue clearly across the side road.
Nor is there any merging of walking and cycling together at signalised junctions. The two modes are designed for separately.
So London is getting some things exactly right, and other things a bit wrong, while Leicester is getting some things exactly right, and other things a bit wrong.
I suspect a large of the difference here probably flows from the starting premise. London is quite explicitly building roads for cycling, something that is obviously carriageway, designed and built like you would build roads for motor traffic. That’s good for junction design, less good for details like kerbs. Meanwhile Leicester appears to be building what amount to enhanced footways; cycling accommodated on the pavement, but in a well-designed and visually-distinct way. Until, that is, you encounter a junction, where that cycleway reveals its true colours as a bit of footway.
Two different approaches, both with mixed success, succeeding and failing in different ways. Really, London should just carry on doing what it is doing, but making sure that the cycleways are built slightly better, with higher quality kerbs, while Leicester should look to London to see how to design junctions. Combined, the two cities might actually be producing the genuinely excellent cycling infrastructure you see in cities like Utrecht.
So the question for Britain is whether this is really a sensible way to proceed. If two of the leading cycling cities in Britain – two places showing willingness to change their roads, and to experiment – are still managing to get things wrong, but in different ways, doesn’t that suggest a desperate need for some of kind of national pooling of design experience and expertise, so that both cities are arriving at the best possible outcomes, and – perhaps even more importantly, towns and cities across the country can get things right straight away, without making the same kinds of mistakes as the leading cities?
It’s admirable what Leicester and London are doing, but – particularly in the case of Leicester – a lot of what they’re doing simply isn’t up to standard. They’re fumbling towards the light, and if willing authorities are still struggling, the outlook for places with little or no interest or expertise in designing for cycling is desperately bleak.
It really doesn’t have to be this way. We know what works. We know the best ways to build cycling infrastructure, because we’re now actually getting it right in Britain, even if we’re not getting absolutely everything right in the same place. So rather than leaving local authorities to stumble upon it – and probably get a good deal of it wrong, even if they’re trying their best – why on earth are we not putting all the good stuff in one place? In some kind of easy-to-use manual, showing local authorities the absolute best ways to deal with side roads; to deal with signalised junctions; to build kerbs; and so on. All of the kinds of things that local authorities across the country are having to find out for themselves, in a ridiculous duplication of effort, with poor and wasteful outcomes.
‘Localism’ should really mean giving local authorities the freedom to build high quality cycling infrastructure, drawn from design elements included in Department for Transport-endorsed standards. It certainly should not mean leaving local authorities to work it all out for themselves, one-by-one. Because that’s just idiotic.