Underpasses have a pretty dreadful reputation in Britain; a reputation so dreadful that councils, planners, developers and highway engineers can point to public attitudes and say ‘people don’t like underpasses! Why should we provide them?’
But – just as with cycling infrastructure in general – poor implementation of a particular concept doesn’t mean that concept itself should be ruled entirely. Britain has, in recent history, built a great deal of pretty awful attempts at protected cycleways on main roads, but that doesn’t mean protected cycleways aren’t a very good idea, if they are implemented properly.
And precisely the same is true for underpasses. All too often British underpasses are murky, poorly lit, prone to flooding, inconvenient, socially unsafe – or all of the above.
These are the kinds of pictures developers and councils use to argue that pedestrians (and people cycling) prefer at-grade crossings – crossings at surface level, where motor traffic has to be dealt with at signalised crossings (or just by dashing across the road).
Just one of example of this is the argument by a developer that
‘At grade’ crossings are generally more attractive to pedestrians and cyclists due to reduced distances and the avoidance of ramps or stairs, so are the preferred solution.
Of course, this is context-dependent. Underpasses shouldn’t be used in town centre locations. These are places which should not really be carrying the motor traffic levels that make underpasses an attractive alternative (or should be an attractive alternative).
However, if the road being crossed is a major through-road, or a very busy distributor road, typically with high motor traffic speeds, then I would argue that underpasses (and to a lesser extent bridges), rather than surface crossings, are actually essential.
For a start, failing to provide an underpass doesn’t magically address the severance problem presented by the road. It still has to be crossed, and that will be much more inconvenient with a series of signalised crossings, which will introduce delay (how much delay depends on the number of crossings and the willingness of the highway authority to allocate time to walking and cycling across busy roads).
Underpasses present no delay whatsoever – as they are totally separate from the road system, they can be cycled (and walked) through with impunity.
Likewise underpasses present none of the safety issues that might arise with an at-grade crossing, particularly the temptation to dash across the road if (as is most likely) there is considerable delay waiting for a green signal to cross.
And underpasses do not have to look like the dirty and grimy British examples presented here. They can be light, airy and well-lit.
This same underpass is also surrounded by housing, is open, and overlooked – it feels like it is connected to the neighbourhood, ensuring high levels of social safety.
So, in short, the problems with ‘British’ underpasses are not innate problems with underpasses in general. With care and effort (and expenditure!) underpasses can be genuinely attractive and safe, particularly because they do not involve interactions with motor traffic on the fast and busy road that would have to be crossed at surface level.
And underpasses can also be used strategically to privilege walking and cycling, by creating direct routes that simply don’t exist for motor traffic. The underpass that features in these three photographs here is a brilliant example. It forms part of a dead straight desire line, connecting the centre of one new development with the centre of another, crossing a four carriageway N-road (the equivalent of a British A-road), a railway and a service road.
This route does not exist for motor traffic, which has to go the long way round, using the N-road (a through-road) that the underpass itself passes under.
Underpasses can obviously be poorly designed, and placed in locations where the priority should be to create an attractive surface environment, with reduced motor traffic levels – particularly within urban areas.
But that should not blind us to the fact that they can and should be used strategically as part of safe, convenient routes for walking and cycling, where major roads that are in the right places (bypasses, for instance) have to be crossed, providing direct routes for these modes that don’t exist for driving.
Is it business-as-usual for cycling ‘improvements’ in London, away from the high-profile cycle routes that are currently being built in the capital? Last week Transport for London released plans to improve Cycle Superhighway 7 in Balham which are, on the face of it, deeply disappointing.
They’re disappointing principally because space has been found for cycling here; the proposals largely involve a 2m mandatory cycle lane, which doesn’t allow driving within it. But the space that has been found – in one location, by taking away a motor vehicle lane that is currently painted blue and turning it into a genuine cycle lane – really should offer a much greater level of comfort and safety than what is proposed.
Why does the cycle lane on the right run on the outside of a parking bay, for instance? Why is there no bus stop bypass on the left?
The asterisk by ‘mandatory cycle lane’ directs us to this footnote –
‘It is not possible to provide a segregated cycle lane at this location due to access to residential properties being required’.
Well, this is pretty silly.
Presumably this claim is being used as a convenient excuse for not doing better than some paint on the carriageway, rather than actually being made in good faith, because it is of course entirely possible to build cycleways past residential properties, safely, and while still allowing residential access. If this wasn’t the case, then the Netherlands would not have been able to build any cycle infrastructure in urban areas!
Looking at this location on Streetview, it’s clear there is no shortage of space (that’s why 2m mandatory lanes are possible) and also that there really should not be any difficulty in providing kerb-protected lanes instead, with dropped kerbs to allow vehicular access to properties.
We don’t even need to look abroad for examples of how this might work; Old Shoreham Road in Brighton and Hove is composed almost entirely of residential properties, yet somehow the council has managed to build cycling infrastructure along the length of the road, without any problems – with, yes, dropped kerbs for access to residential properties.
So this is a pretty dismal and lazy excuse from Transport for London – can’t they come up with better proposals?
Is it possible to build 4 miles of ‘cycle route’ with £300,000 of investment?
Obviously not; the answer is plain from a brief glance at my post from Monday. Spreading small amounts of money thinly will unfortunately achieve absolutely nothing. Problematic junctions and genuinely hostile roads will remain problematic and hostile, and crap bodges put into place in a half-hearted attempt to deal with those roads and junctions will amount to a waste of money; redundant, confused designs that would immediately be ripped out and replaced under any genuine cycle-friendly design.
Sadly, in most of Britain, this is where the ‘investment’ in cycling (what little of it there is) is going – down the plughole, on these crap bodges. There are undoubtedly countless examples of this kind of waste, but for me one design in particular exemplifies it. The ‘jug handle’ turn.
The ‘jug handle’ also features (inevitably) in Sustrans’ latest design guidance –
… and in a slightly different context (but equally ‘bodge-like’) in Transport for London’s new Cycle Design Standards.
Here is the description of this piece of design from LTN 2/08 –
Where cyclists travelling along a busy carriageway need to turn right to join a cycle track on the opposite side, it may be appropriate to get them to the central refuge via a jughandle turning on the nearside (see Figure 10.4). This gives them a safe waiting area away from moving traffic and provides good visibility for crossing the carriageway.
I’d disagree immediately with the final part of this paragraph; waiting in an almost parallel position to motor traffic thundering over your right shoulder does not give you ‘good visibility’. Genuine ‘good visibility’ would be supplied by a perpedicular crossing arrangement, like this –
… and not by something that requires you to crane your neck to look backwards over your shoulder.
But this isn’t my main issue with ‘jug handles’. It’s that, in their own terms, they are set up to fail; to be redundant pieces of design.
Note, first of all that they are to be employed on ‘busy roads’; roads where it is difficult to make right turns. Allegedly the jug handle makes it easier to cross, but in truth all it does is provide a safer place to wait than simply parking at the side of the road (as shown in this fairly horrific British safety film from 1983).
So, really, these are roads that should have some form of cycling infrastructure alongside them. If they are busy (and hostile) enough to merit a ‘jug handle’, then – in the interests of making cycling genuinely safe and attractive – these roads should have cycleways running alongside them, or motor traffic levels should be reduced to make cycleways (and indeed ‘jug handles’) redundant.
The ‘East-West’ route in Horsham has a number of new ‘jug handles’. The one that has been installed on North Street by the railway station is clearly somewhere that needs cycleways instead of ‘jug handles’.
This road is very busy; the main route north out of the town centre, carrying HGVs, buses, and plenty of general motor traffic. So the small number of people who are confident enough to cycle along it in the existing 80cm cycle lane will not be slowing down to bump up onto a cruddy piece of tarmac plonked in the verge, coming to a complete stop to make a right turn; they will just turn right regardless, avoiding it. And anyone who doesn’t fancy cycling on this road (the vast majority of people) won’t be helped by this new bit of infrastructure, because they won’t be cycling here in the first place. The ‘jug handle’ is therefore utterly redundant; a complete waste of money.
And there’s another ‘jug handle’ on Blackbridge Lane. This road is not as busy as the former example, but still carries enough motor traffic to merit (in my view) some kind of protected space for cycling, or (failing that) measures to reduce through traffic.
This particular jug handle requires you bump off the carriageway, give way at a minor side road…
But as with the North Street example, I cannot see anyone actually using this bizarre bit of design. Why? Because anyone cycling along Blackbridge Lane will, by definition, be confident enough to make right turns from the carriageway itself, without inconveniencing themselves by going onto a bit of ‘infrastructure’ that requires them to give way to traffic from four directions (two on the side road, two on the main road), rather than just one.
This much is plain from the approach to this ‘jug handle’, where people cycling are already expected to cycle in the middle of the road, to negotiate a parking bay.
The hostility of this road means that the people the ‘jug handle’ is intended to help simply won’t be cycling on it. They will be on the footway here –
… or they simply won’t be cycling at all.
Perhaps ‘jug handles’ – like similar kinds of bodges – allow councils to pretend that they are actually achieving something, or making a difference. But in truth money is being poured down the drain. Do it properly; or don’t bother.
This Saturday the Horsham District Cycle Forum are organising a ride along the route of the town’s newest piece of ‘infrastructure’ – our ‘East-West’ cycle route across the town, funded by a Local Sustainable Transport Fund grant from the DfT to the tune of several hundred thousand pounds.
There is so much wrong with this ‘route’ it’s hard to know where to start; indeed it might even be more productive to focus on the short stretches of it that are not disastrous.
Even the route itself is shambolic. It doesn’t address any of the barriers to cycling that already existed in Horsham. Instead, it dribbles around on back streets, aimlessly wiggling its way from one side of the town to the other, quite deliberately avoiding areas where something substantial in the way of physical engineering would have been required.
The original route plan was reasonably direct – a genuine east-west route across the town, along the A281, the main road heading west out of the town (although conspicuously meandering away from the large roundabout across the town’s bypass).
But this would have required some engineering work – ‘widening’, as you can see on the proposals – so this was inevitably abandoned, with the route instead meandering hopelessly around the edge of the town.
This makes the ‘cycling route’ more than twice as long as the ‘driving route’ between the start and end points.
As the Tour of Britain rolled through the town late last summer, this nonsense was proudly on display at a council stand.
While I was taking this picture, I overheard someone chuckling slightly, and pointing out that ‘it’s not particularly direct’. To which the response came, ‘yes, it’s so it avoids the busy roads.’
In other words – avoiding the roads that are the problem.
Which is true, to an extent – this route does its very best to avoid providing new physical improvements to hostile roads. But because of the relatively small amount of money that has been put towards this route, it still ends up resorting to ‘on road’ cycling on roads that can be busy (and are) at peak times. Roads that are hostile enough to force parents with their children onto the footway.
If you are expecting people to cycle on these kinds of roads, then it’s really quite baffling why the route wiggles around in such a desperate attempt to avoid roads of near equal hostility, until you appreciate the process behind developing this route. Namely; two points have been picked on a map, and a line of least resistance has been drawn between the two.
That means giving up at places where it got too difficult. This route involves dismounting and walking in two separate locations.
Both these sections of the route are vitally important in their own right. Safe crossings of the railway line are desperately needed; likewise a safe route from north to south through the town centre is also required.
But both these challenges have been ducked; new ‘No Cycling’ signs have been erected, presumably with the cost drawn from the DfT’s cycling funding. It was just too difficult and too expensive to bother attempting constructive solutions to these problems – it’s plainly easier to ask people to give up, even if that does make a complete mockery of the alleged ‘cycle route’.
The councils’ decision to use the money from the DfT on as long a route as possible, rather than concentrating that cash on concrete improvements to one particular road or issue, has backfired spectacularly. The money has dribbled away to nothing, spread so thinly people who cycle regularly in the town are not even aware that a new route is in place.
The quality of the route as a whole is woeful, with ‘new’ bits that are bodged, and hopeless pre-existing bits of crap remaining in place.
Existing, dire ‘infrastructure’ has been cobbled into use to make up this route. A particular favourite of mine is this bit of shared use footway, with a ‘bidirectional segregated cycleway’ painted on it, which of course gives up at a very minor cul-de-sac entrance, containing only around 20 dwellings.
Attempts to persuade the council to make this a continuous footway/cycleway across this junction fell on deaf ears.
Because the ‘cycling side’ is furthest from the carriageway, that’s naturally the area pedestrians walk on – a recipe for conflict.
Sadly the brand new stuff is just as hopeless.
Meanwhile a brand new bridge that forms part of this route (over the town’s bypass) has come ready made with zig-zag barriers built into it.
This ineptness makes for a tragic contrast with the background in this photograph; here the town’s bypass has been widening to eight lanes from its previous four, and a large grade separated roundabout has been added; precision engineering, at tremendous cost. Yet woeful design when it comes to cycling and walking.
There might be some progress happening in some of Britain’s cities, but out here in the sticks, with pitiful levels of funding, and basic ineptitude when it comes to making decisions about how to spend it, and how to design infrastructure, it still feels like we’re a million years away from getting anything like this in our town.
So please come and join me and fellow Horsham cycle campaigners for a good laugh on Saturday (you have to laugh, or otherwise you’d cry).
We’ll be meeting at 1:30pm at Forest School (the notional ‘start’ of this route, although typically there isn’t actually any infrastructure at all to speak of to connect this school with the town), which is a short five minute cycle from the town’s train station. We’ll be passing back past the railway station (through the aforementioned underpass) if you are late arriving.
The pace will necessarily be slow; and we will be stopping for tea and cake at the end, segueing seamlessly into a pub for those who wish to hang around. Do join us.
There was interesting detail buried in Bicycle Dutch’s (as usual, excellent) explanation of the evolution of a street in Utrecht, the Mariaplaats.
[Before the 1980s] much of the street’s width was allocated to the private car. Lateral parking on both sides of the street and enough space for higher speeds for motor traffic. In those days the speed limit in cities was 50km/h everywhere. In the late 1980s the city tried to improve the situation by building a cycle track. This was even improved in the early 1990s with a surface of smooth red asphalt. But the cycle track was gone again early in the 21st century. Under the Sustainable Safety policies all streets in the country had to be categorised and this street was to be place and not for traffic flow. That meant the speed had to go down to 30km/h and separated cycling infrastructure became unnecessary, unwanted even, so the cycle track was removed. [My emphasis]
We can see two of the stages described here in the photographs Mark provides.
But as Mark explains, Sustainable Safety – which is actually a relatively recent policy in the Netherlands, only beginning in the late 1990s – means that every road and street in the Netherlands has to be classified by function, with every road and street only having a single function. This principle is called ‘Monofunctionality’. Roads should either be access roads, distributor roads, or through roads. Access roads are just that; roads only designed for access to the functions on it, be they residential properties, retail, schools, or work. They should not carry motor traffic travelling elsewhere.
Quite clearly under this system the only proper function for the Mariaplaats is an access road. It is very close the city centre, and should not be carrying through traffic. So the road has been changed accordingly, ever since it was classified as an access road. The situation today is very different from both 1965, and from 1990.
Sustainable safety has – quite properly – led to the removal of cycling infrastructure.
As you can see from the photograph above (taken, funnily enough, just after I had stopped for a drink with Mark himself on this very street!) there is now no cycling infrastructure to speak of here. It is not necessary, because motor traffic has largely been removed. The road does still serve an access function for motor traffic – in particular, it is the access route to a pretty ugly concrete multi-storey car park – but levels of traffic are very low, low enough to make sharing the carriageway perfectly acceptable. The great majority of the parking has also been removed.
That means that carriageway itself is quite narrow, as Mark explains, and also that much more space can be allocated to people, and the activities on the street. The difference with 1965 and indeed with 1990 is remarkable. Properly applied, Sustainable Safety makes cycle tracks unnecessary on the majority of streets in urban areas; these are streets that are designed, instead, to remove motor traffic. The flipside, of course, is that Sustainable Safety makes cycling infrastructure very necessary on distributor and through roads.
I think this is a vivid demonstration of the importance of these kind of road classification principles, a policy that we should adopt in Great Britain. In particular, it makes the development of a high-quality cycling environment, suitable for anyone to use, almost a by-product of the higher principles of Sustainable Safety. Access roads should by definition be safe to cycle on; distributor roads and through roads should automatically have cycling infrastructure alongside them.
But more broadly a policy of compulsory classification would remove the fudging over what our roads and streets are actually for – a fudging that I have called ‘placefaking’, that all too often squeezes out the necessary improvements for cycling, and indeed for people in general. ‘Placefaking’ has two fundamental problems –
Changes to Britain’s roads and streets under a policy of Monofunctionality would obviously not have to be immediate; we can see from the Netherlands that it has taken decades to finally arrive at the finished article. But classifying road types is a fundamentally important starting point; councils would have to set out how they think their road network should work, and all planning and highway improvement decisions made after that decision should tend towards that end point.
I suspect most people who read this and similar blogs are familiar with the term ‘filtered permeability’, and what it implies.
Maybe a better term is required; perhaps it isn’t particularly easy for the general public to grasp what it means. But it is certainly better than ‘road closures’, which has been used, problematically I think, to describe elements of the improvements in Waltham Forest. This is mainly because roads that have been filtered aren’t ‘closed’; they are still open as they were before to walking and cycling, and are still accessible to motor traffic, albeit by slightly longer routes than before.
This ‘filtering’ can be achieved in a variety of ways –
The first form of filtering is quite obvious; the second perhaps not quite so obvious. Recently I illustrated how a large residential area in the centre of Utrecht has had through (motor) traffic entirely removed from it, with the use of one-way flow for motor traffic, arranged in different directions.
The result is streets are that pleasant and quiet; safe enough for children to play on, even without any physical barriers on the street.
The final alternative is a simple signed restriction on motor traffic, without any barriers at all.
In urban areas, this kind of filtering has to be used carefully, I think, as signs like this are easy to ignore, or misunderstand. They should really only be applied on streets that look like places you shouldn’t be driving through; simply putting up this kind of sign on a conventional road isn’t going to be very effective.
“Pedestrian Zone” https://t.co/q3QvEQ7DeP
— Joe Dunckley (@steinsky) September 7, 2015
But in rural areas in the Netherlands, and indeed elsewhere in Europe, this restriction is quite common, usually because it makes basic sense, once motor traffic has a faster parallel main road. We haven’t got around to employing this kind of restriction in Britain.
Having looked at ‘how’, the obvious next question is ‘why’?
From a cycling perspective, the main function of filtered permeability is essentially to create streets that are attractive to use, that can form part of a usable network composed of these streets, and protected cycleways on main roads. Filtering still allows motor vehicle access, but reduces motor traffic to a level comfortable enough for cycling to be a pleasant experience on the street, for anyone. This has been described as 100% separation by David Hembrow, and is also neatly summarised by Steve Melia in his new book, Urban Transport Without the Hot Air.
Separating cyclists from traffic does not mean building separate cycle paths on every street; separation can be achieved by strategically blocking streets to through traffic. The Dutch (in particular) have gradually built a network using a combination of quiet streets and separate cycle paths, which enables most people to avoid traffic almost all of the time – and to do so without significant detours.
Filtered permeability, combined with physical separation on main roads, creates a dense grid of cycle routes, a cycle network that connects up all the start and end points of potential cycle journeys.
Melia also makes the point that, while filtered permeability is an important part of a policy that creates direct cycle journeys, it also serves to make journeys by car less direct, and that this serves to make journeys by bike (and also by foot) relatively more attractive than they might otherwise have been.
This probably does have some kind of effect, although I think we should be very wary of overstating the ‘discouraging’ effect of making car journeys about 10% longer (or more, for very short car trips). Once you are in a car, it really isn’t all that much hardship to do a little more distance, because it does not involve any physical effort (which isn’t the case with walking or cycling). In addition you will find in the Netherlands that the routes drivers are directed onto, away from the residential or access streets that are no longer through routes, are specifically designed to allow easy, faster driving. In urban areas they will be 50km/h limits (~30mph), they will not have people cycling on the road, and they will add very little to journey times, despite being longer routes. What is really important is that bicycle journeys are as direct as possible; not that car journeys might be slightly longer in distance (if not necessarily in time).
Another reason ‘why’ is that this isn’t just about cycling, at all, as can be seen from the photograph of the street in Utrecht. Removing through traffic means that streets are safer, quieter, and more attractive, places where children can play, as well as cycle to and from their front door, in comfort. These kinds of benefits need to be captured more by an alternative term for ‘filtered permeability’ – whatever that may be.
One final (and I think unexplored) effect of filtered permeability may be on vehicle speeds. My hunch is that simple conversion of streets that once formed through-routes into access-only roads will have a lowering effect on vehicle speeds, even without any other changes to the design of the road or street.
I think this might be the case for two reasons in particular.
Warren Street in London seems to me to exhibit these potential effects.
Prior to this filtering, this street was an attractive shortcut for people travelling north, then west, out of central London – it allowed drivers to bypass the traffic signals at the junction of Tottenham Court Road and Euston Road, and also to bypass any congestion on Euston Road itself – the route shown in red. Motor traffic should be taking the route shown in green.
The bollards positioned halfway along Warren Street have changed this situation – they have removed it as an option for motor traffic attempting to bypass Euston Road, and the junction on it. The bollards (marked in blue) mean drivers now have no option but to use Euston Road.
What effect has this had on Warren Street? This is purely subjective, but my experience of this street is that, as well as greatly reducing motor traffic volume, motor traffic speed has reduced as well, without any other changes to the street (as you can see from the photograph). This might be due to a combination of changing the users of the street, as well as halving the length of road drivers can accumulate speed on.
What I would like to see, the next time a closure of this kind is implemented, is monitoring of vehicle speeds, to confirm whether this effect on speed is genuine, or imagined. The street itself shouldn’t be changed (at least initially) so the direct effects of filtering on speed can be examined.
Of course, there might have been research of this kind already that I’m not aware of – in which case, let me know in the comments!
We ask the new Mayor to support our calls for reducing danger at source, for the safety of all road users as part of implementing a sustainable transport system:
NOTES FOR EDITORS AND MAYORAL CANDIDATES:
“We need to go further than highway engineering to look at law enforcement and other ways of reducing danger at source, ” says Lord Berkeley, RDRF President, ”We also need to have a new way of measuring road danger, and include the other threats to human well-being from road traffic as part of the Mayor’s commitment to a healthy and civilised transport system”.
Way back in 2003, the north side of Trafalgar Square – the portion in front of the National Gallery – was pedestrianised, with the road running in front of the gallery, that severed it from the square, removed.
Before the scheme was even implemented, it was ‘feared’ that gridlock would result, and indeed gridlock in the area continues to be blamed on the closure of this small stretch of road, particularly by cab drivers.
But even before this section of square was pedestrianised, gridlock still occurred.
Trafalgar Square has always been clogged, even as far back as the 1940s.
If this short stretch of road in front of the National Gallery were to be reopened to motor traffic, perhaps motor traffic in the area might flow more freely for a short period, but after a while the ‘extra’ road space would inevitably fill up again, returning the square to its previously clogged state.
This is the nature of demand for road space in central London; demand for driving in London outstrips the amount of road space available (or that ever could be available), so whatever amount of road space that is provided, large or small, will just get filled.
The problem is that drivers in London don’t see things this way; the congestion they are sitting in must have been ’caused’ by this or that closure; that subtle change to the way the roads are arranged; that extra bit of pavement that’s been created; or, pertinently, that new bit of cycle infrastructure.
2) Every queue of traffic once the Cycle Superhighways have been complete will be credited to them. After all, there were no queues before.
— aviewoflondon (@sw19cam) September 4, 2015
This applies outside London too, of course. The inner ring road in Horsham has recently been subject to roadworks – minor changes to install a better pedestrian crossing – reducing its four or five lane width to just two lanes, in places.
This overlooks the fact that roads in the town are regularly congested, even in the absence of roadworks. Again, demand outstrips supply, so people driving on roads in Horsham have in a sense ‘adapted’ themselves to the available supply of road space. We are seeing the temporary effects of some reduction in that supply. I say ‘temporary’ for a couple of reasons.
Firstly, these roadworks are on a road that didn’t even exist until the mid-1990s. It was bulldozed through, demolishing buildings, to bypass an existing two-lane road, and to open up access to a new Sainsbury’s supermarket. So it’s entirely possible to argue that traffic capacity – even with the roadworks – is still greater than it was in 1995. The new, wider road, has just been filled up in much the same way as the old one was; the difference is that this new road is four lanes wide, rather than two lanes wide. The roadworks – which are visible from your car, as you sit, stationary, in congestion, appear to be the proximate cause of your delay, but in reality motor traffic congestion is inevitable in urban areas. The number of people who might want to drive outstrips the amount of space we can give them, or at least should be willing to give them, without destroying the fabric of our towns and cities.
Secondly, people are rational. They will not sit in congestion, day after day, month after month; they will adapt. (Or at least, many will – and that will be enough). They will choose a different time of day to make their journeys by car. They will choose a different route, by car. They may even choose a different mode of transport (heaven forbid).
Problematically, this kind of behaviour is not addressed by modelling of road- and junction-changes. For instance, the ‘delay’ forecasts produced by Transport for London for the new Superhighways – which generated alarming headlines – assumed that people’s behaviour was fixed. That they would not change their time of travel, their route, or even their mode of transport.
Short-term increases in congestion caused by lane closures due to roadworks, or permanent reallocation of road space, will inevitably smooth out over time as people adapt, even if at the time it is apparently ‘obvious’ that those changes have created a ‘gridlock’ that would exist anyway.
I remember David Arditti once describing the experience of viewing pictures of Dutch cycling infrastructure, while sitting in a British conference a few years ago, as like seeing scenes beamed back from another planet – such was the difference between the road- and streetscape that we were seeing on the projection screen, and the familiar British roads and streets that we had encountered outside the venue, and indeed in the places where we live.
Much as I am now reasonably familiar with the Dutch city of Utrecht, every visit I make there has the a similar astonishing impression. Despite only being a mere 200 miles or so, as the crow flies, from south east England, the difference in the nature and character of the cycling environment in this city, and the nature and character of cycling in it, is so mind-bogglingly different to towns and cities in south east England, it really is like being on another planet. Indeed, as I write this, I’ve noticed a new piece by Andrew O’Hagan for the LRB which contains descriptions of London cycling so utterly at odds with nature of cycling in Utrecht – as we shall see in the pictures that follow – that the two places really could be on different spheres.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Utrecht is, of course, the staggering volume of people cycling, especially in rush hour, but also throughout the day. I have observed before how the ‘boom’ in cycling in London is essentially a commuter boom, limited to central London, and to the rush hour; cycling disappears from central London after 9am. This isn’t the situation in Utrecht; cycling is omnipresent, with what seem like continuous flows along the main routes throughout the day.
This is the case both on the main roads – which naturally have separate cycleways – and also on the streets which form useful routes, but have low motor traffic levels.
At peak times the flow becomes a flood, a dense mass of people on two (or more) wheels.
As is clear from these pictures, the other reason why cities like Utrecht feel like another planet is the character of the cycling itself. People who are cycling are dressed just like pedestrians. Helmet-wearing, and hi-viz clothing, are totally absent. As Chris Boardman puts it in this wonderful video –
I’ve spent a couple of days riding around the streets of Utrecht, and I’ve seen tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of bikes, but I haven’t seen a single cyclist. I’ve just seen normal people, in normal clothes, doing normal things, dressed for the destination, not the journey. The bicycle is a simple, fun and inexpensive way to get from A to B.
Indeed, the only hi-viz clothing I saw in five days in the city was worn by police officers, and by the construction workers directing people cycling at the temporary junctions through the construction site by the railway station.
Apart from racing cyclists, heading out of the city in lycra of an evening, helmet wearing amongst adults was non-existent; amongst children, a tiny minority of those perched on their parents bicycles had been given a (usually far too large) helmet to wear. Children riding independently, however, were also entirely unhelmeted.
The behaviour of people cycling is also ‘pedestrian’. By that I don’t mean that they travel at walking speed, but that they engage in activities they would be engaging in, if they were walking. Chatting side-by-side; listening to music; eating; carrying objects; talking on phones; travelling along with a dog beside you; and so on.
This behaviour, and this absence of safety equipment, isn’t because of any innate rebelliousness, or lack of concern for safety. People are just responding to the environment they find themselves in. Cycling in the city looks and feels safe – principally because, thanks to the design of the environment, it is safe. Interactions with motor traffic are minimal, or non-existent. On the main roads you are clearly separated from it, as in the photograph above; on side roads, design ensures that the only motor vehicles using these streets will be doing so in order to access properties on it, meaning motor traffic levels are very low. People can relax, everywhere, and that is reflected in how they behave.
Likewise, a good sign of a safe and attractive cycling environment is that children who are old enough to ride a bike do so themselves, rather than being ferried about on their parents’ bikes. Perhaps this wasn’t quite as common here in Utrecht as in a city like Assen, (this may have something to do with slightly longer trips in Utrecht, it being a larger city) but nevertheless young children riding independently was a common sight.
My impression was also that women formed a distinct majority among people cycling in the city – certainly during the day. Rush hour was more balanced, but it was not unusual for me to arrive at traffic signals and find myself the only male queuing at the lights.
Cycling here is a mode of transport for everyone. Nobody is excluded from cycling. From what I could see ethnic minorities were cycling around just the same as everyone else, on exactly the same types of bikes, in the same way.
For those with mobility problems who can’t ride a conventional bicycle, the city is far, far easier to navigate than a British one – an environment designed for cycling is equally suited to hand cycles, mobility scooters, assisted trikes, and powered wheelchairs.
Law- and rule-breaking by people cycling is at a very low level, mainly because there are few laws to break, and because the city is set up in favour of people cycling and walking. The environment supports you in where you want to go, in safety and comfort; you don’t have to choose between bending rules and avoiding danger, or avoiding inconvenience, because safety and convenience is built into a ubiquitous network. Where there are rules that people can break, people generally obey them, because the rules makes sense, and because there are reasonable alternatives. (There are, of course, anti-social idiots on bikes, but they are drowned out by the mass of everyday people behaving normally and sensibly).
To give just one example, cycling is banned on a busy shopping street during the day, and from a short period of observation, I would estimate that around 90% did comply with the rules, and dismounted.
But this isn’t because Dutch people are any more compliant with rules than Britons; if you are travelling in this direction by bike, there is a parallel route just yards away where cycling is allowed, so naturally people travelling through will use that route instead. The people dismounting on this street are happy to do so because they are only travelling a short distance to shops on it. This contrasts with the typical British situation, where cycling bans are implemented on pedestrianised streets which are very often the only attractive and safe route from A to B. If you want people to obey rules, they have to make sense.
Admittedly this ubiquity of cycling (and of mobility aids on cycling infrastructure) does present some problems. The huge flows can be mildly irritating for people on foot at rush hour; there were some occasions where I had to wait 30 seconds or more to find a suitable gap to cross a cycleway safely, as did others.
To be clear, this is only a problem that exists for a short period of the day, and even at these times natural gaps do present themselves, and the wait is, of course, much shorter than one might expect at signal-controlled crossings of a road carrying around 50,000 people per day (on buses and on cycles). But I did find myself wondering if there are ways of resolving this issue.
Other problems present themselves in the volume of bikes parked on some streets – especially the narrower ones that still serve a through-function. Voorstraat, in particular, is not a brilliant pedestrian environment. A genuinely narrow street has one-way flow for all traffic, including cycles, a protected cycleway running in the opposite direction, and ungenerous pavements. Notably, a supermarket on this street had at least 100 bicycles parked outside it.
The pavement on the other side becomes increasingly narrow, with bicycles leant against buildings; buses thunder through on the road, heading towards the centre of the town, combined with access motor traffic. On an earlier trip a few years ago, I saw children cycling on this road, being tailgated by one of these buses.
It’s a far from brilliant cycling or walking environment. But the problems with this street would be much, much worse without the levels of cycling in the city. That supermarket would have cars coming and going, clogging the street. There would be most likely be two-way flow for motor traffic, presenting more danger and difficultly to people walking on the pavements.
Indeed, in general, the minor irritations and inconveniences one experiences on foot are vastly outweighed by the benefits cycling brings. Mass cycling goes hand-in-hand with a highly pedestrian-friendly city. The entire ‘old’ city centre of Utrecht is effectively an autoluwte, or ‘nearly car free’ area.
You can drive here, either to car parks, or simply to access properties; but from the way the streets are arranged, you won’t be driving through. Motor traffic in this red area is therefore at a very low level, meaning roads that at face value are ‘shared’ with motor traffic aren’t really shared at all.
It’s very easy to wander from one side of this area to the other without encountering a single traffic light. Indeed, there are only a handful of junctions with traffic lights within the ‘zone’. That means there is little or no delay to journeys on foot or by bike within this area. It’s cycling that allows mobility into and across it, that provides the viable alternative to the car, and that means, consequently, it is such an attractive environment. It is ubiquitous cycling infrastructure, allowing easy, comfortable and painless door-to-door journeys, that actually contributes to ‘placemaking’.
It should be stressed that this is a city of some 340,000 people, not some minor town. Utrecht ranks just outside the top ten English cities in terms of population. Yet it feels extraordinarily calm, peaceful, and civilised. Sitting at a bar of an afternoon, you can see people travelling past spotting each other, waving, saying hello, or stopping for a chat. Transport here brings people together, rather than separating them.
There was a typical August ‘silly season’ story last week – the idea of women-only train carriages, prompted by some comments from a Labour leadership candidate that were seized on and used to generate ‘news’ at a typically quiet time of the year for the media.
Without wishing to re-hash that story, there was an interesting comment on it, in relation to cycling design, from @accidentobizaro –
If we agree solution to drivers harassing cyclists is segregation, why shouldn’t solution to men harassing women on trains be same? #thought
— Andromeda (@accidentobizaro) August 26, 2015
This is a thought-provoking point; it implies that people who are in favour of separating cycling from motor traffic (at least on busier roads) should also be in favour of separating women from men on trains (if women want to be separated).
But I don’t think the analogy quite stands up. ‘Harassment’ is of course one reason why separation of modes makes sense. Walking on footways greatly reduces any harassment you might receive from drivers. So, with an equivalent separation of cycling from driving, harassment from drivers will diminish in the same way.
But, with train passengers, I suspect most people don’t think women and men should be separated on trains, because the behaviour that is causing the problem should be addressed in the first place. Men should not harass women; if they do, they should be dealt with, rather than providing a separate (and allegedly safe) space for women.
But harassment is not the only reason why separation of the kind shown in the photograph above is provided. Even if we could stop drivers harassing people cycling, separation is still vitally important. We can see why by entering an alternate reality, one where ‘train separation’ is being argued for. But this is an alternate reality designed to resemble the situation on British roads.
Let us imagine a situation in which a good number of people in train carriages are in the habit of… throwing and catching bricks. Not all, but a sizeable proportion. You could say, it’s what the British do, on trains. (A bizarre situation, but bear with me).
The vast majority of people throwing and catching these bricks are doing so with regard for other people. They’re doing it carefully, and trying their best to ensure their bricks don’t hit other people, be they brick-throwers, or non-brick-throwers.
But of course a tiny minority will throw their bricks recklessly. These are the anti-social minority, who don’t really care about other people, and are just lobbing their bricks, willy-nilly, without thought for others.
Let us imagine Britain has clamped down on this behaviour, over a period of decades. There are stiff penalties for reckless and anti-social brick throwing; repeat offenders are banned from trains.
This policy has been a success for a long time. Dangerous brick-throwing is almost entirely eliminated. The only people throwing bricks on trains are doing so carefully. You will almost certainly never encounter a reckless brick-thrower on a train. Only considerate, thoughtful ones.
Despite this success, let us now suppose that people have lobbied – successfully – for train carriages where you won’t encounter brick-throwers.
Would you choose to carry on sitting in the carriages with brick-throwing, or would you now opt to sit in these new carriages?
We might go further and even imagine that all brick throwing in train carriages will – at some point in the near future – only be carried out by robots, highly advanced robots, who will never make a mistake with their brick-throwing, and will never hit a fellow passenger. You would be perfectly safe to sit in one of these carriages.
Again – would you choose to sit in this brick-throwing carriage? Or would you instead opt for the carriage without brick-throwing?
The answer to both these questions is surely quite obvious. Faced with a choice between a environment in which potentially dangerous objects are occasionally coming close to you, and an environment in which these hazards are absent, nobody would opt for the former environment – even if those objects are being thrown by human beings who are carefully considering your safety, or by perfect robots.
This is why separating cycling from motor traffic is important. While bad behaviour and harassment by drivers is undoubtedly an issue, the bigger problem is that cycling in motor traffic is de facto needlessly stressful, regardless of how well or badly motor vehicles are being driven around you. The experience of cycling in motor traffic may not strictly correspond to sitting in a train carriage where bricks are occasionally being thrown – benignly, and competently – but the reasons why people might want to avoid such a train carriage correspond closely to the reasons people want to avoid cycling with motor traffic.
It’s the knowledge that you might come to harm; the visceral sensation, rational or irrational, that your safety lies in the hands of other people. It’s the uncertainty and stress of having to negotiate your way through environments where heavy objects are travelling at different speeds, and angles.
These problems might be ameliorated by perfect behaviour, but they will still remain to a large extent, even if motor cars were driven by robots. It’s why we don’t stand close to the platform edge when a train is arriving, even if it might be perfectly safe to do so – the human body instinctively flinches away from heavy objects that are travelling at greater speed, and that have the potential to injure you.
We also want some leeway of our own to engage in less than perfect behaviour. It’s stressful having to maintain constant vigilance, and ‘correct’ technique. We’d like to be able to look around at our surroundings; to pay a little less attention to ensuring that we don’t come to grief. To lower our guard.
The Dutch cycling environment (when it is done right, of course – the Dutch still have problems, and still make mistakes) removes these kinds of stress from everyday trips. It makes ordinary journeys a relaxing and painless experience, free from concern or worry, from door to door.
This is what I enjoy so much about cycling in the Netherlands, wherever I go, be it countryside, suburbs, or city centre – it’s the total relaxation, the complete lack of stress.
There are exceptions, of course. What might actually be relatively comfortable environments, by British standards – low speed roads, with quite low traffic levels – leap out jarringly from the smooth, comfortable background experience.
Nobody was misbehaving, or driving badly, on the road in the picture above, but cycling along it felt so much more unpleasant than the rest of my journey that day. The uncertainty of worrying about parked vehicles potentially moving in and out; whether drivers were going to turn across your path into side roads; whether the cars, buses or lorries behind you were going to get too close, or attempt to overtake inappropriately. The ‘concern load’ was so much higher here, I simply wasn’t able to enjoy myself. But this is pretty much the everyday experience of cycling in urban areas in Britain.
While I can tolerate cycling on these kinds of roads, it’s precisely these raised stress levels that put the vast majority of people off, entirely. I can adapt, and put up with it; they simply won’t cycle, at all. That’s why cycling levels are so pitifully low in Britain. Mass cycling depends on low-stress environments; streets and roads that invite cycling, and make it as comfortable and enjoyable as possible.