I went to an interesting talk at the Guardian’s offices in London yesterday evening, entitled ‘What Can We Do to Get More People Cycling in London?’, featuring a panel of Chris Boardman, Andrew Gilligan, Rachel Aldred, Peter Walker and – as the token ‘opposing’ voice – Steve Macnamara of the LTDA.
The debate was wide-ranging, and largely consensual, with even Steve MacNamara stating that he ‘agreed with 90%’ of what Transport for London was building in central London, and making the reasonable point that taxi drivers don’t really want to be sharing space with people cycling on main roads – it doesn’t really work for either mode of transport. He also made the case for more cycling across London, arguing that more cycling means fewer motor vehicles on the road, and that (humorously) ‘we don’t really want anyone else on the road apart from cabbies’.
But a feature of the discussion that leapt out – for me at least – was delivery. For instance, despite Chris Boardman’s willingness to see improvements in his home town, any potential for change petered out in the face of council indifference and reluctance to do things that weren’t officially approved by central government.
Andrew Gilligan stated that he was ‘jealous’ of New York’s Janette Sadik Khan, who had control over all of that city’s roads, while in London TfL only controls about 5% of the road network. That means boroughs have a big say in whether schemes go ahead, and can effectively block cycling infrastructure if a few awkward individuals have a particular antipathy to it. This is the reason the E-W Superhighway completely bypasses the borough of Kensington and Chelsea, for instance, and why Superhighway 9 was cancelled.
And while there is obviously some very exciting stuff happening on a number of roads in central London, delivery in outer London is very patchy indeed, even when schemes are on TfL roads, designed by TfL. A case in point is the A24 in Morden. This is a road where, way back in 2012, TfL proposed some very poor changes ‘for cyclists’, which I reported on at the time. It essentially consisted of retaining 3-4 lanes of motor traffic, with shared use footways and narrow cycle lanes – repeatedly interrupted by parking bays – running in parallel with each other. I wrote that
with just a little more imagination, and a bit more budgetary commitment, there is great potential for good, separated infrastructure, suitable for all cyclists of all ages and abilities, to be provided along this road. The consultation proposals also bear the hallmarks of compliance with the Hierarchy of Provision; that is, conversion of pavements to shared use in the event that the authority responsible is unwilling to reduce traffic, slow it, or reallocate carriageway space. Likewise it is presumed that those using the pavement are willing to sacrifice their journey time for the privilege of cycling away from traffic.
I also wrote that
I’m not entirely convinced that the A24 immediately to the south of this area has to remain a four (and in places, five) lane road. There is scope for the reallocation of a vehicle lane for a cycle track, at least along the section until the junction with Central Road (but note that reallocation is not strictly necessary, given the existing width available).
I reached that conclusion because, although this road is 3 or 4 lanes wide at the moment, long sections of it are effectively only 2 lanes, because of the parking bays that take up most of one lane.
Well… it turns out that there is a new consultation on this road, or at least a part of it – the southern end – and the proposal is indeed to reduce the four lanes for private motor traffic to just two. But what is proposed for cycling is barely any better than before.
We have a mandatory cycle lane, yes. But it is directly on the outside of parked cars, in a dangerous position, rather than between those cars and the footway.
There’s a bus lane in the opposite direction, which wasn’t there before, but that is the extent of the cycling provision. Right at the bus stop itself, the footway becomes shared use. A ‘bus stop bypass’, but not a very good one.
And that’s pretty much the extent of this scheme – a bus lane in one direction, and an unfriendly and dangerously-positioned cycle lane in the other.
A cycle lane which also gives up at a bus stop –
And in the opposite direction, a cycle lane starts from behind a parking bay, leading you into a three lane-wide ASL. Good luck turning right here.
Given the width of this road – it is really very wide! – and the fact that two of the four lanes for motor traffic are now being lost, this is pretty thin gruel.
The wide grassy median is of course being retained too – valuable space that could have been used for cycling, and would also help to reduce vehicle speeds if it were to be removed.
This is the second attempt at sorting this road in barely three years, and although it is progress of a some degree, what is proposed is very far away from the kind of inclusive cycling design that we are starting to see in central London, and in other British towns and cities. We need more – a lot more – of this higher-quality infrastructure if cycling is going to continue growing; it’s the only thing that will reach those parts of the population that aren’t cycling now. Cycling in bus lanes, or cycling between parked cars and fast motor traffic, on busy roads really isn’t going to cut it.
I’m not quite sure what the root problem is with this scheme. It might be that it hasn’t been allocated enough funding to alter the road properly, to create decent, parking- and kerb-protected cycleways in both directions, and to remove the median. It might be that officers and planners just don’t care enough. Or it might be that there’s only a relatively small amount of people in TfL who ‘get’ how to design for cycling.
Whatever the explanation – it’s still not good enough. If you can, respond this evening to the (very brief) consultation, saying exactly that.
John Dales’ recent column for TransportXtra argued that the term ‘shared space’ should be quietly phased out. In fact he doesn’t even use the words in the article, replacing them with Sh… !
… the use of the term Sh… has increasingly become a hindrance to the creation of better streets for all. That’s not just my opinion; it was shared by most, if not all, of the 50+ attendees at a street design seminar I spoke at last month. It’s a term that has led to babies being thrown out with the bathwater; it has led to schemes being implemented that some people find particularly difficult to use; and it has led to streets being shunned by people who could enjoy them simply because they assume, from the description, that they won’t.
I think this is exactly right. ‘Shared space’ (or Sh…!) has become a catch-all word for street treatments that apparently solve problems, or make roads and streets better, often with little regard for the context or nature of the roads and streets in question. I’d much rather see highway engineers and urban designers looking at what works for all potential users, rather than employing ‘shared space’ in the hope that it works (or at least won’t make things worse). In particular, I’d like to see an abandonment of the lazy assumption that ‘removing things’ – crossings, signs, distinction between footway and carriageway, and so on – will always represent an improvement.
To be clear, I think some of the things that might fall out of the ‘shared space’ toolbox do work, in certain contexts. I think there can be a role for reducing the height difference between footway and carriageway in low traffic environments. For one thing, it makes it easier for people with mobility issues to get from one side to the other.
There’s also a role for reducing visual distinction between carriageway and footway, again, in low traffic streets. It makes it clearer to drivers (and indeed to people walking and cycling) that this is a different kind of environment, and different behaviour should be expected.
These are all sensible techniques that can be used to improve streets, and they work in their own right. The problems start to emerge, however, when ‘shared space’ (or Sh…) is picked up and used in an attempt to solve the problems with a road or street, ignoring the reality that some of the elements that come with it might actually be poor design solutions for the particular context.
I’m thinking here particularly of Frideswide Square in Oxford, where a ‘shared space’ design has been pushed through with little sensitivity for the needs and wishes of the users of this busy area. Cycling – a significant mode of transport here – has been totally ignored, despite vociferous objections, with no cycle-specific provision. Crossings of the roundabouts – the main route into the city centre from the train station, and from the west – are ‘informal’, which essentially means pedestrians have to make their own way across busy roads without the reassurance of a zebra crossing, or other types of formal crossing.
Lower Clapton Road scheme looks similar to recent scheme in Oxford. Not good for vulnerable pedestrians or cyclists pic.twitter.com/KiioXbnzNH
— Hackney Cyclist (@Hackneycyclist) February 1, 2016
The overall ‘vision’ – a nice-looking, symmetrical road layout, with pretty paving – appears to have been more important than actual usability. The ‘shared space’ concept trumps the concerns of users.
That’s why the term itself is a hindrance; it appears to have limited the ability of the people responsible for this road design to think clearly about what kind of road design would actually work best. And at the other end of scale – exactly as John suggests – lumping all this together as ‘shared space’ can lead to people being afraid or scared of streets that are very different in nature and character, simply because they’ve been proudly described with exactly the same term.
So the ‘shared space’ term inhibits clear thinking about how we want our roads and streets to work, and how to go about achieving the best outcomes.
A good example of this is the recent changes to Seven Dials in Bath, allegedly improvements for walking and cycling, paid for with £1.2 of DfT ‘Cycle City Ambition’ cash. Apparently the plan was to
re-establish Seven Dials as a key public space with a greater focus on cyclist and pedestrian needs through the use of shared space, which ackowledges the significantly higher pedestrian to traffic ratio. Conventional road signage is removed and perceived hierarchies between users are broken down, enabling greater freedom for pedestrians to use the space. This is encouraged through the use of surfaces and street furniture which reduces the distinction between road and footway.
Here we see the classic, quasi-religious belief in the magical properties of ‘shared space’ to break down ‘perceived hierarchies’, simply by ‘removing stuff’. This ‘ breaking down’ turns out, in the same paragraph, to be merely ‘encouraged’. It’s up to the individual to challenge the perceived hierarchy, rather than the road or street changing it for them.
On the approaches to this scheme, there are signs asking or advising us (certainly not telling us!) to ‘Share Space’.
Unfortunately, despite the flush surfaces and new paving, there was little sharing in evidence, largely because the section of road in the distance is a busy bus corridor.
Queues form behind these buses, creating ‘platoons’ of private motor vehicles too, an impenetrable stream of traffic that essentially makes it impossible to cross the road, despite signs informing you that this area is ‘shared’.
The amount of motor traffic suggested that this is a busy through-route – at least, with the way the roads are currently configured. I don’t really think there’s any ‘greater freedom’ for people to walk across this space than there was before, when the road was surfaced with asphalt, or that any ‘perceived hierarchies been broken down’. A bus is still a bus, cars are still cars, and you will keep out of their way, even if the road they are being driven on looks a bit more like the footway you are standing on.
If the council here were really interested in ‘breaking down hierarchies’, then this kind of scheme should surely involve crossings that establish pedestrian priority, rather than attempting to do so. (Or measures to reduce the amount of through traffic). But that kind of pragmatism is harder to achieve if you are setting out to build a ‘shared space’ scheme, which in John’s words can often lead to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. The concept is everything; what might actually work best is in a given location is secondary. ‘Removing’ must be good, because thats’ what ‘shared space’ involves; ‘adding’ a crossing stands contrary to that dogma.
What was most interesting to me is that, just around the corner from this expensive new ‘shared space’ scheme, there are a series of streets that appeared to be genuinely shared, with pedestrians crossing when and where they wanted to.
These are streets where people are quite happy to linger in the road, even if they don’t have the design cues associated with ‘shared space’. They’re happy to do so because there are very low motor traffic levels on them; measures have been taken to eliminate through traffic.
But although there was more sharing in evidence here than in the ‘shared space’, these aren’t particularly sexy streets. The road surface is crumbling asphalt, and they could certainly do with sprucing up. In fact, they’re precisely the kind of streets that would benefit from less (or no) distinction between footway and carriageway, and surfacing and paving that would make them look more like ‘rooms’ than ‘roads’. That’s fine! These are design elements that would make the environment better, given the background context and the nature and function of these low-traffic streets.
The issue is when the same design elements are lumped together and used in the hope of fixing problems they can’t possibly solve, particularly on busy streets. Yes, they might improve things a bit, but if you are spending millions of pounds on a short stretch of road, you really need to engage with what it is you are trying to achieve, rather than supposing that a pretty street design that looks a bit less like a road is automatically going to be better for users than a design which might involve thinking outside the fixed template that the ‘shared space’ term implies. And that might be why the term itself is a problem.
This (short) post is going to look at a paradoxical situation in British road road design, one that means that a very dangerous way of dealing with turning conflicts is legal, while a much safer way of dealing with those turning conflicts is illegal.
Here’s the legal situation. Take any signal-controlled crossroads. It’s perfectly acceptable to paint a cycle lane, against the kerb, on the inside of a lane of left-turning motor traffic. We are then quite happy to release, with a green signal, both a person on a bike in that cycle lane – who might be going straight ahead – at exactly the same time as a driver turning left from the lane on that cyclist’s right.
We even do this with fairly new road layouts.
In other words, we’re completely okay with this kind of conflict being designed into new roads, as long as there’s only a line of paint separating you from the bus or the lorry waiting alongside you on your right.
But let’s say we change this arrangement slightly; change the position the person on the bike is waiting at, relative to the driver of the car, bus, or lorry. Something like this.
The person cycling is moved forward into the junction, where the driver can see them, so far forward, in fact, that if they get a green light simultaneously, the person cycling will have cleared the junction before the driver makes his or her turn. Even if they do happen to meet, they will do so at a perpendicular angle, so both parties can see that a conflict is about to occur, and adjust their behaviour accordingly. There’s even a nice BicycleDutch video explaining the advantages of this design.
But of course in Britain it’s not possible to do this, because it amounts to a ‘conflicting green’. Drivers turning left with a green must not meet someone crossing their path with a green signal.
So there we have it. It’s completely acceptable for drivers to turn left across someone cycling if that person on a bike is right next to them, separated only a bit of paint – that’s not a conflicting green. Meanwhile if that person on a bike is situated in a much safer position, more visible, and more likely to be out of the driver’s way before the turn is completed – that is a ‘conflict’, and not legal.
Such is the British approach to road safety!
What does ‘mass cycling’ mean?
It doesn’t mean everyone has to cycle, for every single trip. It’s worth bearing in mind that, even in the Netherlands, where cycling is a universal mode of transport, cycling only accounts for 27% of all trips the Dutch make. The Dutch drive, they catch buses, trains, trams, and walk, just as much as we do. Car ownership levels are very similar to Britain; the train network is extensive and efficient; and it’s easy to walk around.
These are all ‘mass’ forms of transport here, just as they are there. The difference is that, for the Dutch, cycling is essentially an optional extra that they are able to take advantage of. That 27% figure represents the proportion of all trips that cycling makes sense for. The Dutch will only choose cycling when it is the best option, not because they have any kind of innate attachment to the bike, or because they are ‘cyclists’. They have cars, and use them when they make sense; likewise they will cycle or walk, when that makes sense.
So ‘mass cycling’ simply means that everyone has the option to cycle, for any given trip, in much the same way that walking, driving and public transport are already available. It is about having transport choice; a better range of transport options to pick from.
I think this is often lost in debates about cycling, particularly in the way we refer to ‘cyclists’ and ‘motorists’ almost as distinct categories, and present binary oppositions like ‘bikes vs cars’. This is something that both cycling campaigners do, and opponents of designing for cycling, who are all too happy to point that people can’t cycle for every single trip, or that cycling isn’t a universal solution. It is deeply unhelpful – it creates the impression that to be ‘a cyclist’ you must cease to be ‘a motorist’, and vice versa.
Building cycling infrastructure isn’t about forcing everyone to be ‘a cyclist’, but about creating another transport option for people to get around, alongside walking, driving and public transport. Doing so reduces pressure on the road network for people who are driving; the same people who might be cycling for a different trip.
The problem in Britain is that this beneficial extra option simply isn’t available to most people, because of the hostility of road conditions. Cycling just isn’t a practical or easy mode of transport for the vast majority of Britons. 79% of British women never cycle.
The elderly man in the photograph below is cycling into the city of Delft, from a village about three miles away.
He could get public transport; he could drive. He has chosen to cycle, however. This isn’t an option available to his equivalent in Britain, because thunderous main roads, with HGVs travelling at 80km/h along them, do not have this kind of separated provision alongside them.
Likewise here in the town of de Bilt a couple are using the cycling infrastructure to get into the town centre – because it’s easy to do so. The cycling infrastructure happens to work wonderfully well for people who aren’t using bicycles, too. This is a trip that might have been driven, or involved public transport, but was cycled instead.
In Assen, children cycle to and from primary school in huge numbers, rather than relying on their parents to ferry them to and fro at the start and end of the day.
It’s so easy to do this that these children are actually heading home for lunch; cycling provides an extra amount of flexibility into the daily routine. Parents would have to make six driving trips every day without the presence of cycling infrastructure that allows their children to cycle independently.
Likewise teenagers can get around to after school activities, completely independently – for instance, hockey practice.
Obviously their parents could choose to drive them, but cycling creates more flexibility. Stand around in any Dutch town or city at around 4pm and you will see children and teenagers cycling around in all directions, heading off to sport, music practice, leisure, visiting their friends, all completely independently.
There is no parents’ ‘taxi service’. Children just get about by themselves, because it is easy and safe to do so. This stands in stark contrast to the situation in Britain, where over 50% of trips British children make are in cars – being driven! This is a tremendous waste of effort.
And for adults who might well have driven to and from work during the day, cycling represents a wonderful way to get in and out of town in the evening, without worrying about parking, or having a drink. Bars and restaurants in Dutch towns and cities are surrounded by swathes of bicycles of an evening; people who have driven through the day, and yet chose to cycle here in the evening, because it is their best option for a night out.
Cycling is also perfect in combination with other modes of transport in the Netherlands – it’s easy to get to train stations and find parking spots, without worrying about delays caused by congestion or having to rely on other people for a lift.
And in general the bicycle is a fantastic way to make short trips if you don’t want to have to worry about congestion or delay on the road, or paying for petrol, or finding a convenient parking spot, or hurrying back before ticket runs out. It’s the ultimate in reliability.
But, crucially, this flexibility is in addition to other modes of transport, not as a replacement for them. Mass cycling is about making life easier, creating conditions that allow everyone the freedom to choose a practical mode of transport, when it suits them. It most certainly isn’t about converting everyone into a ‘cyclist’ or expecting them to cycle for every single trip. It’s about choice.
Between 2011 and 2014, a relatively short 2.5 mile stretch of the A23 (the trunk road running between London and Brighton, on the south coast) was widened from two lanes in each direction, to three. This was a £79 million project – the plans for which are available here – which brought this short stretch of 4 lane dual carriageway into the line with the six-lane nature of the rest of the road. The A23 is now very much a motorway-style road.
Part of this upgrade included a properly separated walking and cycling route. Prior to the widening project, if you wanted to cycle along this stretch of the A23, you had to do so… on the carriageway itself.
This road carried (and still carries) around 60-70,000 vehicles a day, travelling at high speeds, so really, anything would be an improvement, compared to cycling in this kind of environment, which is only something the most hardcore nutters would even consider.
I’ve been told that the Highways Agency are proud of what they’ve done for cycling as part of this project – that they think it’s really excellent. So, my curiosity piqued, I headed out to have a look at it.
The first thing to say is, it’s much, much better than anything else I’ve seen built for cycling in this area. There aren’t any barriers along it, the path is smooth, and it looks like it’s been well-built (I guess it helps if motorway contractors are building it as part of a much larger scheme), and it’s reasonably direct. I’ve been passed comments by local cycling campaigners who have used words like ‘excellent’ to describe it, and ‘pleasantly surprised’.
To be fair, I was actually pleasantly surprised myself – it was better than I expected. But (and here’s the ‘but’) – ‘much, much better’ than infrastructure that’s been built in West Sussex is the definition of faint praise. It’s not really that hard to exceed expectations here, because the infrastructure is either non-existent, or dismally bad – even stuff that’s being built in 2015.
So while this section of the A23 is usable, and good by local standards, by Dutch standards – and by the standards we should be aspiring to – it’s pretty poor. It’s not of an acceptable width, and on the few occasions where it does have to deal with ‘technicalities’ (i.e. crossing roads and entrances) it fails dismally.
I’m reluctant to criticise the Highways Agency here. They have at least thought about designing for cycling, and done a reasonable job. But given that this was a £79m project, involving substantial engineering, basics like building the path wider than an (in my opinion, unsafe) width of two metres should really have happened as a matter of course. It would have cost next to nothing extra, in relative terms, set against the massive overall cost. But let’s have a look at it.
I cycled from south to north, and then back again; most of my photographs were taken on the northbound trip. I joined the scheme pretty much where it starts, at the ‘Warninglid’ junction, where the Cuckfield Road crosses the A23 on a bridge.
It was a little unnerving cycling down here, towards a slip road onto a massive trunk road. It just didn’t feel like somewhere you should be on a bike, given the long history of abandoning cycling on these kinds of roads in Britain. It’s the kind of environment I’ve approached in trepidation before, carefully assessing where I might need to bail out and retrace my steps. But sure enough, at the roundabout there were small cycling signs pointing in the direction of Handcross, sending me down a service road, marked as a ‘dead end’.
This turned out to be absolutely fine. The service road leads to two businesses – a car dealership, and a garden centre. That’s it. The entrances and exits to these businesses that used to exist on the A23 have been closed off, and the A23 is fenced away, on the right.
I only met one vehicle going down this stretch of road. Perhaps the road itself it could be designed a little bit better. The limit is marked at 40mph, which seemed a bit too high for a cycle route, and given the likely volume of motor traffic here it might make more sense to adopt ‘Dutch style’ cycle lane markings on either side, and no centre line. But despite that I think it works – service roads like this can be good cycling environments if traffic volumes are low, and that appears to be the case here.
At the end of the service road, there is another set of (confusing) ‘dead end’ signs. If you’re walking or cycling, again, you have to ignore these, because the ‘dead end’ is your route.
As the service road comes to an end, you are directed onto a 2m path, pretty close to the A23, but still shielded by a wooden fence. It feels okay, but (and this is my major quibble) it’s just not wide enough for a two-way path.
The path then meanders around a spill pond, presumably designed to ‘capture’ run-off from the A23 to prevent flooding. This pond must requires motor vehicle access, because the path immediately widens to 4m.
This was the best bit of the entire ‘upgraded’ route. The path was beautifully wide and smooth, and a good distance away from the A23 itself. We then meet Slaugham Lane, a minor country lane that used to have entry and exit slips onto the A23 – dangerous ones, which have sensibly now been closed, just like the direct entry and exit points for the garden centre, which is now only on a service road.
This is the right thing to do – it doesn’t make sense to have a motorway-style road butting immediately onto a small country lane, or onto businesses. There were some local objections to the loss of this junction, because they now have to drive further, but if you’re going to turn an A-road into something like a motorway, then that should also mean decreasing the number of access points. Motorways (and trunk roads) should be for long-distance trips, not for enabling short ones.
This ‘closure’ now means this country lane is completely separated from the A23 (except on foot and bike, of course), so it’s even quieter than it was before. This is definitely a positive outcome. We do, however, have to cross under the A23 (on the bridges in the photograph above), because the path switches sides and continues northwards on the other side of it, the east side.
Here we turn left onto the old entry/exit slip road leading back up to the southbound A23, which is now only an access to a farm and to the continuing cycle path beside the main road. (Annoyingly, it’s another misleading ‘dead end’ sign).
This section is, unfortunately, not as good – we’re back to a measly 2m. Meanwhile the farm has a nice and generous new 4m concrete road, as if to say, here’s what you could have won.
And it is very close to the road. HGVs come whistling past you a few metres away, as there’s no hard shoulder.
People commented on Twitter when I shared this picture that they would ‘take this’, given that it is on the correct side of the crash barrier, and that many UK A-roads don’t have anything like this, at all. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think our current low horizons and low expectations should mean being satisfied with something that is substandard. It can and should be better. In fact at this width I think this path is dangerously narrow for two-way cycling, given that this section of the A23 is on a reasonably steep hill.
This is what a path beside a major road should look like.
Wide enough to not have to worry about oncoming traffic. But clearly the people who built the path beside the A23 think, like me, that it is dangerously narrow, because there are six ‘SLOW’ markings painted on the path in the downhill direction.
It’s very easy to pick up speed here, given a continuous gradient of 6-8%. Just freewheeling on the way back down my speed quickly got up to 20mph, which felt very fast on such a narrow path. If I’d met anyone coming the other way I would have felt the need to slow down a lot more, and that’s really not good enough on a path built beside a motorway, designed for 70mph+ speeds. It’s the same basic template as the motorway – no bends, good sightlines – that should allow high speeds, but the width is so miserly ‘SLOW’ signs have had to be painted on it. That’s pretty embarrassing.
Slightly alarmingly the path is littered with debris from motor vehicles, particularly the legacy of HGV tyre blowouts. This reminds you just how close you are to the road, in case you had forgotten.
On the approach to Handcross, the northern end of this upgraded and ‘cycle proofed’ road, we encounter the one and only side road this project had to deal with. And it’s a big fat failure.
The cycleway quickly shows its true colours, reverting to footway-specific design, with sharp corners, no markings to indicate what you should be doing if you are on a bike (just like a pavement) and some tactiles to bump over.
This isn’t even really a side road; it’s just an entrance to a business, and not even a major one at that, just a chap selling vintage sculptures out of what looks like a a caravan. I suspect it would be quite easy to give cycling priority across the side road, given the very, very limited use of this entrance, and the fact it’s on the slip road, not the A23 itself. But priority or no priority isn’t really the issue. I wouldn’t have minded a two-stage non-priority cycle crossing. The real problem here is the ambiguity, and the lazy, easy (and crap) option of just designing a footway and then plonking cycling on it with a blue roundel, the kind of thing that is just so awfully typical in new ‘design’ for cycling in places that just don’t care. A two-way cycle-route crossing an entrance like this could be so much better.
So the ‘test’ of the one side road that had to be dealt with was flunked. That’s not particularly confidence-inspiring, if the Highways Agency think this a good scheme.
The path then goes up the slip road coming out Handcross village. Unfortunately the path stops halfway up the slip road, meaning you have to cross it (heading either south or north) just at the point motorists are accelerating towards motorway speeds, to join the A23.
Again, this is poor design. Cycling out of the village in the direction the photograph is taken, I have to look back through 180° over my left shoulder to see whether any motor vehicles are coming (at ever increasing speeds at this point) before attempting to cross, again on some bumpy tactiles that require 90° turns. ‘Box ticked’, in that some ‘cycle provision’ is here, but if this is the kind of thing that the Highways Agency are doing across Britain, then I think we should be concerned.
From what I’ve seen from this short stretch of the A23, ‘providing for cycling’ seems to involve putting a 2m footway alongside the road in question, designing it for walking, and then…. just allowing cycling on it. The sections of this ‘improved’ stretch of the A23 that are good – the service road, and the access road to the pond – are good simply because they’ve been designed for motor vehicles. If people weren’t going to be driving on these stretches, they would be the same 2m path as the rest of it. And of course the ‘cycle provision’ disappears at junctions, where you have to cross the road like a pedestrian. For schemes beside trunk roads – fast, arterial roads – that simply shouldn’t be happening.
The other problem – and this isn’t the Highways Agency’s fault – is that these schemes are built in isolation from the surrounding area. So while this section of cycle facilities – despite its faults – does allow people to cycle along the A23, it simply doesn’t connect up with anything else, because it is surrounded by roads and bridleways controlled by West Sussex, who are still living in the Dark Ages as far as cycling infrastructure is concerned. Really, the Highways Agency’s engagement with ‘cycle proofing’ has to extend to the surrounding network controlled by local authorities, otherwise it is pretty meaningless – you simply won’t be able to get to the roads that are ‘cycle proofed’.
So it’s a start. But there’s a huge amount of room for improvement.
For a while now, we’ve been looking for a bike for my other half. She hasn’t owned one since she was a child, but she’s started enjoying cycling again when we’ve been on holiday. We’ve hired bikes in the Netherlands, where she’s been able to ride without any difficulty at all, despite being off a bike for decades, and we’ve also hired them in Bath, where we’ve made use of the Two Tunnels path to get out into the countryside in traffic-free conditions.
She wanted something that was quite small and easy to manage, but also something that was obviously practical. A good number of modern Dutch bikes didn’t really fit with her – they looked clunky and heavy. She liked the look of old-fashioned bicycles, with more slender steel tubing. Peering at bikes as we walked around Dutch cities, we did spot some candidates – in particular, this bike we saw on the Oudegracht in Utrecht.
It was just right. Cute-looking, old-fashioned, small and nimble (and – to my eyes – practical!)
We spotted another one of these bikes in Gouda, and a bit of investigation revealed that they are Roetz bikes. It turns out that the reason these bikes look old-fashioned, despite being new, is because they are old. They are recycled bikes. The frames are second-hand, and have been restored, and fitted with new components. It’s a really nice idea – giving an old or discarded bike a new life.
So once we got back to the UK we set about ordering one of these omafiets! You can choose your frame colour, and what kinds of components you want. We opted for a basic black, and chose the ‘geared’ option (as opposed to a single speed, coaster brake version, which she didn’t feel she would be comfortable using, and is probably legally suspect in the UK), along with a practical rear rack.
It was quite a wait for it to arrive from the Netherlands, but it was well worth it, because it’s a really beautiful bike.
It looks, well, like an old bike, partly because it is (the frame being recycled), but also because the modern components are in keeping with it.
The hubs, gearing and brakes are all Sturmey Archer, and feel satisfyingly dependable. The brakes are drum brakes, within the hubs, meaning there’s no messy brake dust mucking up the wheels.
It’s a five-speed rear hub, with a clunky, certain, twist grip on the handlebars.
The chain is fully enclosed in a Hebie Chainglider, meaning there’s no need to worry about clothing getting oily or greasy.
There’s a convenient AXA wheel lock with the ability to ‘plug in’ a chain, meaning you can either take the key out and leave the bicycle parked up (but unable to be ridden), or lock the wheel in combination with chaining it to a suitable object.
The saddle is lovely and comfy, a Dutch-made sprung leather affair. The rear rack (as you can see) comes with elastic straps to hold items on the top.
All the cabling is completely enclosed, meaning it’s protected from the elements. And there are some lovely details that give this bike a real ‘vintage’ feel, particularly the shiny handlebars and bell, the laminated wooden mudguards, the cream tyres, and the cork handlebar grips.
I have made a couple of ‘upgrades’ since it arrived. It did come with a kickstand, but a single leg one that, while perfectly adequate, isn’t quite as good as the Hebie ‘twin leg’ design that’s now fitted.
The other was to change the lighting. The bike came with some really good Spanning lights, mounted solidly (and permanently) on it. They were battery-powered, and nice and bright. It wasn’t really necessary to change them, but I wanted a fun winter project, so I offered to change the bicycle over to dynamo power, meaning the lights will just come on as soon as she starts pedalling, with no need to worry about switches, or ever replacing batteries (she was worried about being forgetful!)
The change was simple enough, but did require rebuilding the front wheel with a (Sturmey Archer) hub dynamo. (I like building wheels). The Spanninga lights were switched for a B&M Secula rear light and Lumotec front light, in a ‘classic’ housing, shown below.
This is the light I’ve got on my own omafiets, and it really does the job – it’s nice and bright, with a standlight meaning it keeps running for at least five minutes once you’ve stopped, and even a ‘sensor’ system that turns the light on automatically if it gets a bit gloomy.
With the reflective strips built into the (Marathon) tyres, the reflectors in the pedals, and the front and rear reflectors, this is a nicely visible bike under all conditions, despite its vintage appearance.
It’s a modern machine, built around a classic frame.
My omafiets is larger and heavier, so on the few occasions I’ve been able to ‘borrow’ it I can say that it’s a really fun ride, a smaller, bouncier version of my own bike, but still upright and comfortable, with the classic riding position that we basically got right in the 19th century.
The only problem now is that we just need to find somewhere for her to ride it. The choices of routes in Horsham are (sadly) pretty limited (or even non-existent) for someone who really doesn’t want to ride on busy roads. It’s frustrating seeing her enjoying herself on the (reasonably) quiet residential streets around where we live, but being unable to go anywhere else in the town, without walking. It’s a bike that deserves to be ridden, on quality infrastructure.
This is a piece about the unhelpful problems Transport for London have (partly) created for themselves by developing separate ‘Superhighway’ and ‘Quietway’ concepts, but it’s more broadly about terminology, and how we should think not in terms of separate classes of provision for cycling, but in terms of a uniform network, suitable for all potential users, even if it is composed of a variety of types of treatment.
Some of these problems originate with the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling, which contains some curious distinctions.
We will offer two clear kinds of branded route: high capacity Superhighways, mostly on main roads, for fast commuters, and slightly slower but still direct Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
Here we see a puzzling split – that Superhighways are for ‘fast commuters’, while Quietways are for those ‘wanting a more relaxed journey’. This distinction is reiterated, in different words, in the Mayor’s own introduction –
There will be greatly-improved fast routes on busy roads for cyclists in a hurry. And there will be direct, continuous, quieter routes on side streets for new cyclists, cautious cyclists and all sorts of other people who would rather take it more slowly.
But these kinds of distinctions are unhelpful. It suggests Superhighways are unsuitable for people who aren’t tearing to work in lycra, and also that Quietways are not for people who might want to get somewhere in a hurry, but instead only for cautious types, or those new to cycling as a mode of transport. And it is actually leading to worrying problems of understanding (or, more cynically, wilful misinterpretation for political expediency), particularly by prominent members of the Conservative party in London, all describing Superhighways as some kind of Mad Max-style environment where testosterone-fuelled men in lycra go to lock handlebars with one another.
Here’s mayoral candidate Zac Goldsmith arguing that Superhighways have an ‘aggressive’ nature, and that Quietways would be ‘less intimidating’. And more recently on LBC Goldsmith made similar claims, arguing that
I know plenty of cyclists who don’t like to use [Superhighways], they prefer quietways, they prefer to go down more gentle routes.
Meanwhile Conservative Assembly Member Andrew Boff has been telling the Assembly (08:15) –
We do not design London’s roads with the inspiration of Formula 1. So why are we designing Cycle Superhighways with the inspiration of the Tour de France? And that is where people can go as fast as they need to. They are… in many ways, they are seen as concessions to the testosterone-driven, lycra-clad cyclists…
… the inspiration is seen by residents as that is what Superhighways are about. Going as fast as you possibly can down those routes.
While Assembly Member Roger Evans appears to be even more confused (14:20) –
The cycling lobby seems to be full of people who want to get out there and claim their piece of the road, and mix it with the HGVs, and the buses, and the cars, and fight for that piece of space they want. I think we should be listening to the people who would cycle in quieter conditions and safer conditions, if they actually had those schemes planned. So I’ve nothing against segregation, but Andrew [Boff] is right when he says it should be for everyone and not just the Tour de France fans.
All three – Goldsmith, Boff, Evans – paint a remarkably similar picture of Superhighways. Aggressive, inspired by the Tour de France, people going hell for leather, fighting for space. Not a place for those people who prefer a ‘gentler’, ‘less intimidating’, ‘quieter’ experience. Evans even goes so far as to argue that the ‘cycling lobby’ actually enjoy the adeline-rush of mixing with HGVs and buses, presumably enjoying that kind of experience on the Thunderdome of the Superhighways too.
This is all bollocks, of course. The ‘new generation’ of Superhighways are converting unpleasant, hostile main roads into environments that will be suitable for anyone to ride in. There was not a cat in hell’s chance that I would have ventured anywhere near the Embankment, or the junctions at either end of Blackfriars Bridge, or the Vauxhall gyratory, with my genuinely nervous-on-a-bike partner, but we’re already planning cycling up and down the Thames once the weather gets a bit warmer, because the new cycleways are somewhere she will be entirely happy to ride.
Far from enabling hostility and aggression, they’re doing precisely the opposite. And even if some people using them might be doing so in lycra, or cycling fast, mixing with them is far, far more preferable to the alternative – mixing with motor traffic travelling much faster.
We can see just how silly these arguments are if we imagine that for – whatever reason – there weren’t any footways along the Embankment, and the only people on foot there were hardcore joggers, mixing it in the road with motor traffic. If Transport for London came along with a suggestion to build a Pedestrian Superfootway along the river, separating people from motor traffic, would Goldsmith, Boff and Evans argue that such a scheme would be a ‘concession to testosterone-driven lycral-clad joggists’, or that most such a footway would have an ‘aggressive and intimidating’ character, and that footists prefer gentler routes? (Or that the joggist lobby seems to be full of joggers who enjoy fighting for space with HGVs?)
Whether these kinds of arguments flow from basic ignorance about the purpose and function of the new cycling infrastructure in London, or whether they are simply a figleaf for a more general reluctance to repurpose road space, I can’t say, but they have to a certain extent been enabled by the language that Transport for London have themselves used in describing Superhighways – calling them ‘fast routes for commuters’, ‘for people in a hurry’. Almost exactly the same kinds of descriptions that are being used by Goldsmith, Boff and Evans.
But it doesn’t stop there. The problematic language used to describe Superhighways applies in parallel to Quietways, and has opened up opportunities for misunderstanding (or deliberate misinterpretation) in much the same way. Remember that the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling suggested that TfL will offer
Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.
The Vision – after enthusing about London’s ‘matchless network of side streets, greenways and parks’ – states that
A cross-London network of high-quality guided Quietways will be created on low-traffic back streets and other routes so different kinds of cyclists can choose the routes which suit them.
Again, ‘different kinds of cyclists’ shouldn’t have to pick and choose a route which might suit them – anyone who wants to ride a bike, whether they are confident or experienced, or just starting out, shouldn’t have to choose. Any part of the network should reach a basic high standard of suitability for any potential user, whether it’s on a main road or on a side street.
But the bigger problem here is that while ‘Quietways’ are themselves being (wrongly) presented as some kind of attractive, gentle alternative to the cut-and-thrust of the Superhighways, the Quietway concept is itself being misunderstood, again because of this TfL language.
‘Creating routes on low traffic back streets’ ducks the central problem that most of the genuinely direct ‘back street’ routes in London aren’t quiet, at all. If they are direct, then drivers will be using them, because they’re useful. To create direct Quietways that are also genuiely quiet will actually require interventions to remove through motor traffic. So while, as Paul Gannon astutely observes, Quietways might be ‘the ideal solution for less confident politicians’, they require just as much political commitment as main roads themselves. London’s (potentially useful) back streets aren’t quiet, and they need action to change them, just as the main roads do.
Here’s just one example of how the ‘Quietway’ concept lends itself to being misunderstood. It’s a blog by a Hackney resident, opposed to the ‘filtering’ of Middleton Road in Hackney, which will (potentially) form part of Quietway 2.
my neighbour made probably the most sensible suggestion of the night. He had no axe to grind so listened intently to Hackney’s presentation. He noted that the Quietways initiative was Boris Johnson’s (not Hackney’s). And that the scheme didn’t require road closures at all – simply the routing of cycleways along roads with under 2000 vehicles a day. Middleton Road was currently 4500 a day (though the council/activists had inflated this to 6000 in their propaganda). Pushed by the activists, the solution had been to close Middleton Road when, as he quietly pointed out, if you moved the cycleway to any other road in the area, the vehicle count fell to just a few hundred. No other change was required, allowing the activists to create their “mini-Holland” without turning other peoples’ lives upside-down – or have I missed the point? [my emphasis]
This resident evidently thinks that because ‘Quietways’ should be using ‘quiet streets’, they should simply be re-routed onto the quietest possible streets in any given area, rather than requiring any kinds of interventions at all on busier roads.
The weakness of language that Transport for London have used themselves has created opportunities for what I might call a ‘double shunting’ of cycle provision. Firstly, shunting it away from main roads onto ‘gentle’ Quietways. And then, secondly, those ‘Quietways’ themselves get shunted away from routes that make the most sense, onto less direct roads that are already quiet – quiet because, of course, they’re not very useful routes for anyone. Those who are hostile to, or uncertain about, loadspace reallocation schemes on main roads can point to Quietways, and people who don’t like the idea of ‘their’ roads being ‘closed’ can point to London’s apparent ‘matchless network’ of already quiet streets as alternatives.
These problems have arisen because the terminology used in the Mayor’s Vision for Cycling has opened the door to this kind of ‘divide and conquer’ approach. It could have been avoided – and I think it can best be addressed – by starting to talk in terms of networks, rather than routes, and about high quality provision which limits interactions with motor traffic, regardless of the road or street context. Obviously this will require different kinds of interventions, but we shouldn’t parcel those types of interventions up into distinct categories of route. A typical journey from A to B in an area with a high-quality cycle network will be made up of cycling seamlessly between these interventions, without even noticing it.
I’m hopeful that networks, and network-style thinking, will naturally start to develop as the density of suitable routes increases, at least in central London. There are some obvious gaps that will present themselves, and need filling in, as the new protected cycleways on main roads are finished. But in the meantime it would be helpful if distinctions between Quietways and Superhighways could melt away, replaced with a concept of high-quality provision for all potential users.
Cycling infrastructure isn’t just about the ‘conventional’ design of protected tracks alongside main roads. Good cycling conditions can also be achieved with other measures, particularly through the use of roads that have very low motor traffic levels.
Typically this will take the form of access roads in residential areas, away from main roads, designed in a way that ensures motor traffic is only accessing these streets, rather than passing through to somewhere else. But there’s another form of this kind of ‘low traffic street’, one that runs parallel to main roads – the service road. While protected cycleways and filtered streets are now part of the cycle campaigning vocabulary in Britain, the service road really hasn’t featured much, at all. Which I think is a pity, as they really are an ‘easy win’ for cycling; they already exist alongside many main roads that aren’t suitable for cycling, and would only need a small amount of work to adapt them as good cycling environments.
I was reminded of this as I was sat on a (rail replacement) coach from Harwich into London, having coming back on the ferry from a visit to the Netherlands. The coach essentially followed the A12 into central London, and for stretches of the A12 in Dagenham, there are service roads alongside it.
They would be perfect for cycling infrastructure, a way to travel along this pretty horrible main road in relative peace and security. Unfortunately they look like this.
The service roads are blocked off – which is the right thing to do, in general terms, because you don’t want people buzzing along them in motor vehicles, instead of using the main road. A service road should only be used by a small number of motor vehicles, accessing a small number of properties along it – that’s why it’s called a ‘service road’, after all.
But they’ve been blocked off in a way that blocks off cycling too. The barrier should go, and be replaced with something that allows the easy passage of walking, cycling (and other mobility aids) while still preventing motor traffic from passing through.
This would really be an easy win – there’s no need for a huge amount of re-engineering of the street, and it wouldn’t present a great deal of political difficulty, because the service road is already blocked off, so motorists aren’t losing anything. And I imagine much the same is true for many, many other service roads across Britain.
We were shown a good example on an Infrastructure Safari during the Cycling Embassy AGM in Newcastle a few years back. The Great North Road (the old A1, before it became bypassed) north of Gosforth was built with a service road.
As is clear from the photograph, this is a very relaxed, comfortable cycling environment, alongside a fast (40mph) dual carriageway, composed of four lanes. Only a small number of properties (those on the left) are accessible by this road. It’s in a better condition for cycling than the Dagenham example, with better transitions between the sections of closed off service roads, although at the end it does die a death, without considering cycling. The plan was (or is!) to make it part of a cycle route running north out of Newcastle – I confess I’m not up to speed on what’s happened since we visited but, just like the Dagenham example, this would be another easy win. The cycle route is effectively already built – it just needs a little tidying.
Perhaps the best example of a service road I’ve encountered, however, is of course in the Netherlands, in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It’s the one described in this post by Bicycle Dutch, with an accompanying video.
Note that the ‘upgrade’ that has taken place is really just an improvement of the surface, and with a change in colour to make it more explicit that this is a cycle route. The basic building blocks of a good service street for cycling – smooth transitions between the sections of service road and cycle path, and filters to stop people driving all the way along the main road in parallel – were already in place.
This particular service road featured as a Good Facility of the Week. Because service roads don’t touch main roads, it’s also easy to convert them into good walking environments, with continuous footways across the side roads.
This service road transitions easily into cycle path, and back into service road again (my one very minor criticism here is that the post may not be not be necessary, given the width of the path – it’s unlikely drivers will attempt to drive down here, although I could be wrong).
Where the service road meets a major junction, drivers are prevented from continuing along the main road. The two sections of service road on either side of the junction are only ‘joined up’ for walking and cycling, which helps to keep motor traffic levels low on the service road.
The final advantage of service roads is that – because they are relatively wide – they can easily be used for two-way cycling, on either side of the road (or both sides, if there are service roads on each side). Here’s an example in Assen – two-way cycling is allowed on this service road. Note that there is also some (fairly old) ‘light segregation’ on the other side of the road, in the form of concrete blocks, which allows (one-way) cycling on that side too.
Of course the Dutch still get things wrong (or haven’t got around to putting things right yet). Here’s a fairly strange example of cycle lanes on a fairly busy road in Zwolle, when there’s a good service road on either side, going unused.
It would be better to take cycling off the main road, removing conflict with motor traffic, and placing the cycle route on the service road, which has a bumpy service at present, but could be upgraded to smooth asphalt.
I’m sure I’ve seen this same mistake being made in new UK cycling schemes – painted lanes being proposed on main roads, when there is a service road alongside – although I can’t quite remember where! Perhaps you can remind me in the comments, along with other examples of service roads that could be easily ‘upgraded’.
Service roads certainly shouldn’t be overlooked as cycling infrastructure. They are much better cycling environments than painted lanes alongside motor traffic, and most of the physical engineering – the separation from the main road – is already in place. They only require a small amount of adjustment to make the transitions easy, and as I’ve already said the ‘political’ cost is minimal, given that driving isn’t made any worse (and arguably better if encounters with people cycling on the main road are removed).
On a recent trip to the supermarket I happened to notice a driver turning into the car park at roughly the same time as me. Obviously this isn’t something you would normally dwell on, but in this particular instance I happened to notice the same driver entering the supermarket building itself some time later – when I already done a good deal of my own shopping.
What had happened? Well, I can park my ‘vehicle’ right by the entrance of the supermarket, something the driver wasn’t able to do.
They had obviously had to circulate around the car park, looking for a space, parking their car, and then walking all the way back to the supermarket entrance.
This set me to pondering on a bit of maths in an attempt to establish just how quick a car is at short trips, compared to cycling. You might think a car will ‘obviously’ be quicker at getting from A to B – after all, it just goes faster. But as my anecdote hints at, the basic problem this straightforward analysis overlooks is… parking.
Cars are big, and difficult to store. That means when you get to where you actually want to go to, you won’t actually be able to get there. By that I mean, it is very, very unlikely that you will be able to park your car right where you want to go to, either because someone else has got there first, or because there’s so much (induced) demand for parking where you are going to it has to be spread out over a large area (or on multiple levels), or because the area you are going to is somewhere that restricts parking altogether, because it’s not very nice when streets you want to visit are clogged up with cars that are either parked, or being driven around in search of parking spaces.
This isn’t the case with cycling; you will almost certainly be able to park exactly where you want to, especially if you have the kind of bike that has a built-in lock (the convenience of which I’ve written about before). So we have to factor in something ‘extra’ into the time taken to get from A to B by car – the time you are walking to or from your car, once you have parked it, to actually get to or from ‘B’.
So I came up with this rough little equation to establish the distances at which cycling time is approximately equal to driving time, adding in the extra walking time involved with driving. It equates cycling time (on the left) with driving + walking time (on the right).
Now we can plug in some values. If we take cycling speed to be 10mph, walking speed to be 3mph, and driving speed to be 20mph, we get the following –
And with a bit of rearranging, we arrive at –
What does this mean?
Well, it tells us that for our starting assumptions of speed (20 for driving, 10 for cycling, 3 for walking), cycling time is equal to driving (+ walking) time when the walking distances is 0.15 of the distance from A to B.
So – to take an example – let’s say I had to choose between cycling or driving for a short trip from A to B of 1 mile. In this case, if the walking distance from the parking to the destination is 240 metres (0.15 of 1 mile), then I can expect to arrive at the destination at exactly same time if I cycled or drove. If the walking distance is greater than 240m metres, then obviously the bike will be quicker.
For shorter trips the equation obviously tilts further in favour of cycling – for a trip of half a mile from A to B, you’d have to be able to park within about 100m of the actual destination for driving to match cycling.
How realistic is this? I think it’s fairly accurate, and if anything a little generous towards driving, for a couple of reasons –
To return to my supermarket example, I think the driver who entered car park at the same time as me probably had a walking trip of around 100m – a reasonable assumption based on the size of the car park. I’ve shown a typical ‘walk’ below, from the mid-point of the car park.
Of course the driver would have to have driven to this spot, and maybe a bit further, circulating around to look for it. That means if we both had to travel half a mile to get here, he would have gained nothing (in time, at least) by driving.
The equation tips further in favour of cycling when we examine ‘as the crow flies’ distance, rather than the actual travel distance, because driving – even somewhere as car-friendly and cycling-hostile as this town, Horsham – tends to involves longer routes than cycling. To take just one example –
Here a short car trip to Sainsbury’s of nearly one mile is significantly longer than one by bike, principally because someone on a bike can use the short cut indicated by the red arrow, but someone driving can’t. The ‘crow flies’ distance here is around 600m; the cycling distance approximates to 900m, while the driving distance is a far less favourable 1400m.
The red arrow is actually an example of filtered permeability – a residential area which drivers can access with their motor vehicles, but can’t drive through. This makes it a pleasant area to live in, and has the side benefit of making cycling and walking trips more closely aligned with ‘crow flies’ distances, compared to driving.
This whole mathematical exercise got me thinking about filtered permeability in a different way. Essentially –
Filtered permeability only ‘punishes’ the kind of car trips that weren’t worth making in the first place.
Yes, filtered permeability will make your 0.5 mile car trip significantly longer, perhaps even twice as long. But that’s the kind of car trip it really doesn’t make sense to drive, because cycling will almost certainly be quicker over that distance, once we factor in the kind of details considered in the maths here. This is, in fact, precisely the case with the example I’ve used above. A car trip from A to B (Middleton Road to Sainsbury’s) would actually be costly in time terms, compared to cycling, even without any filtered permeability in place.
For longer car trips, however, of say 2-3 miles, the effect of filtered permeability is more negligible, perhaps adding only 5-10% to the overall journey time. So filtered permeability is only really a ‘problem’ for driving for those trips that are actually more time-consuming to make than going by bike, or even walking.
Now of course I fully acknowledge that cycling isn’t an option for most people in urban areas because of the hostility of road conditions – indeed, that’s pretty much what this blog is all about. So the kinds of comparisons here won’t work for most people, simply because they have to choose between walking and driving, and the equation here isn’t anything like as favourable as a cycling/driving comparison, because of the lower speed of walking.
This might explain why new ‘filtering’ schemes attract such a great deal of opposition in Britain; it’s because people are driving short trips of under a mile, and because the only realistic alternative is walking. Cycling is the missing piece of the puzzle, one that will unlock the benefits of ‘filtering’ and demonstrate just how inefficient short car trips in urban areas actually are, compared to the alternatives.
Of course to unlock that potential cycling has to enabled, and that means constructing environments that work for all users – protected routes on main roads, and genuinely quiet routes on residential streets, which will involve (ironically enough) filtered permeability. So this is something of a chicken and egg situation – the arguments in favour of filtered permeability rely partly on the benefits of a mode of transport that people aren’t currently prepared to use, and won’t be using until these kinds of schemes are in place.
But I think it is certainly helpful to consider just how painful driving is, in time terms, for short trips, when arguments and discussions about ‘filtered permeability’ are happening.
Every time I write something like this, or tweet something like this,
— Mark Treasure (@AsEasyAsRiding) January 27, 2016
… I tend to get replies or responses that fall into the following categories –
I think I covered most of these objections in that previous (long-ish) post, but it’s probably worth clarifying here exactly what types of routes should be surfaced properly, and which ones shouldn’t be, because I obviously don’t think all rural paths should have a smooth tarmac surface, and I also think people should have fun places to ride mountain bikes (guess what – I have a mountain bike myself).
The distinction is between routes that some have kind of utility function, and those that are pure leisure routes.
What do I mean by this? Perhaps the best way to describe it would be that utility cycling involves using cycling as a tool, a means to get from one place to another, to perform activities unrelated to cycling. By contrast, leisure cycling means that riding a bike itself is the goal.
An example of a utility route would be a path that connects a village directly with the nearest town. This kind of path would be used by people doing shopping by bike, instead of by car, or by kids cycling to school, instead of being driven. It might, alternatively, be a path between an industrial estate on a ring road, and a town centre, or a new housing estate and a shopping centre. I’m sure there are countless other examples, but the essential point is that these are routes that will be used by people for whom cycling is a means to an end (getting from A to B) rather than as an activity, in and of itself.
Leisure routes don’t fit into this category – they are routes that might not go from anywhere in particular to anywhere else in particular. They might, for instance, arbitrarily join up between two country lanes, or wind through a forest. Or – to pick a really obvious example – they might wind along a mountainside ridge. Somewhere people will only be riding for ‘leisure’, and certainly not for ‘utility’.
Now of course utility routes will obviously also serve a ‘leisure’ function, because they will inevitably connect up with ‘leisure’ paths, and riding a bike is, in and of itself, fun. People will ride along paths that are utility routes simply for the pleasure of riding a bike, in just the same way that they will ride along roads for fun, roads that have a ‘utility’ function. And likewise people performing tasks by bike will also be engaging in leisure cycling when they do so – these are not hard and fast categories.
The essential point, however, is that a route that has an obvious utility function should be designed for utility, even if it is used by people for leisure.
So a path that forms a direct connection between two towns, or two large villages, should be designed in a way that allows people to get from A to B along it without having to dress up in special cycling clothes, or without buying a special all-terrain mobility scooter (which someone seriously suggested in the comments below my last piece). These kinds of paths should be designed for the destinations at either end of it. Utility should trump leisure, even if the path in question is currently a muddy bog that people enjoy using on mountain bikes. We don’t design roads between villages and towns like this –
simply because people who own Landrovers enjoy mudplugging along them. We design them to allow people to drive from A to B along them without even thinking about buying a special car, or taking special clothes and equipment with them in case they need to dig their car out of some deep mud.
If you don’t think utility routes should be surfaced properly, that is precisely what you are demanding of other people. That they should get overalls and wellies on, and hose off their bikes afterwards (assuming they have a mountain bike in the first place), just to go the library, or visit the doctor, or go to school, or get to the train station. Or that they should somehow drive around the supermarket in a mobility scooter covered in crud.
These are all hypotheticals, of course, because it’s pretty much inevitable that these people won’t be cycling at all, even if they wanted to. That’s the outcome. Imagine this mother cycling like this –
She simply won’t be there – she’s not going to go and buy and mountain bike, wellies and overalls. She’ll be in the car instead.
Although it might not be obvious, the path in the photo above is a screamingly obvious utility route. It’s an old railway line that connects a series of towns and villages, and used to join the (still-existing) mainline railway to London.
Partridge Green, which is at the southern end of the section I’ve marked, has a population of around 3,000 people, and (of course) used to have a railway station. Likewise, Southwater, roughly where the white box is, has a population of over 10,000 people, and no railway station. From Southwater to the railway station at Christ’s Hospital (an hour from London, and a settlement in its own right) is around 2 miles, a flat, easy trip by bike, with minimal interaction with motor traffic.
Perfect for commuters, families going for a day out by train, people visiting the leisure facilities at Christ’s Hospital, and vice versa. Except the route looks like this.
Now to repeat, that doesn’t mean all paths in rural areas should be surfaced in this way. The Netherlands does not do this. There are paths all over the place, winding through forests across downland, alongside beaches, through fields, which are perfect for charging around on, with mountain bikes or cyclocross bikes.
These are the paths that don’t really go anywhere, or that have a very good parallel alternative in ‘utility’ form. Often these leisure routes will have an asphalt path in parallel.
To be clear however, these are not ‘utility routes’, or part of any region’s cycle network. The asphalt strip simply allows people on ‘ordinary’ bikes (and indeed on mobility scooters, and other types of cycles) to use these some of these leisure routes, alongside mountain bikers.
The overall point is that the Netherlands has not ‘lost’ anything by surfacing utility routes properly. The extensive leisure route network sits alongside the main utility network, and the distinction between the two is not blurred. The quality of routes that people need to use to get from A to B is never sacrificed.
Yet in Britain there’s a startling parallel with those tired arguments that claim we don’t need cycling infrastructure in urban areas, because we hardly ever see anyone cycling in urban areas. In precisely the same way, we seem to believe that useful, obvious routes between destinations should continue to effectively deter almost the entirety of their potential users, simply because that route is dominated by the type of cycling that its current state will only ever allow.
So, as promised here is the second and final part of my cycling trip between the Dutch cities of Zwolle and Assen, in July last year – part one here. As already mentioned this was about 45 miles, and done at a steady and relaxed pace on a heavy Dutch bike.
In the ‘first half’ post I’d got as far as the town of Meppel. This is in fact only about one-third of the way to Assen from Zwolle –
– but this part of the route contained most of the ‘interest’ of the day’s journey, because (as we shall see) there wasn’t a great deal that was remarkable between Meppel and Assen, given that my plotted route consisted entirely of a beautiful cycleway running parallel to a fast and (mostly very straight) main road.
Meppel was effectively bypassed again on a small main road that skirted the town centre; a road with industrial units that might have been quite unpleasant to cycle on. As it was I had quite an old ’tiled’ style path; definitely not as good as smooth asphalt, but still preferable to the road, especially given the type of traffic on it. (Incidentally the van parked on the cycleway in the photo appears to be a ‘path inspection’ vehicle).
Leaving Meppel I was quickly onto the infrastructure that would carry me all the way to Assen – a cycle path fully separated from the main road that speeds north, the N371.
As with all Dutch cycle paths alongside main roads, this was essentially designed like a road for cycles; 3m wide (or more), but with no separate pedestrian provision. There aren’t many people walking here, given the rural nature of this area, and any pedestrians simply use this ‘bicycle road’. Where pedestrian numbers are higher, the Dutch will of course provide a separate footway.
As had been the case throughout the day, there were plenty of HGVs on the main roads, and on this one like the others. To give some indication of the level of comfort Dutch infrastructure provides, this situation in the photograph below felt like a ‘close pass’, given the way the HGV seemed almost to be coming towards me as it came around the bend, at 80kph.This despite the presence of a reasonable large verge separating me from the vehicle. Most likely in the UK I would have actually been on the road in this situation, or at best on a shared use footway directly adjacent to it.
Typically the separation from the fast main road itself was much greater. In the photograph below, the road is actually on the other side of the canal (which ran in parallel with it all the way to Assen) you can just about see an HGV directly above the boat. Note here that there is also a service road for properties on the left, entirely separate from the cycle path.
While there was obviously priority over private properties and minor roads and tracks, at more major roads the cycleway lost priority.
This didn’t feel like a particular problem to me; I might actually have felt quite exposed venturing out across the road, having to assume drivers would yield, especially on such a straight, fast main road. It was easy enough for me to gauge for myself when it was safest and easiest to cross these few interruptions. (All roundabouts in the north of the Netherlands are treated in this way – with no priority for cycling).
Mostly, however, tedium was beginning to set in. This was by no means arduous or hazardous cycling, using such well-designed infrastructure on a beautiful day. But unfortunately this was mile after mile with only the occasional bend or junction to divert my interest – I even found myself counting trees to keep myself occupied, working on the assumption that counting one hundred trees would equate to roughly a kilometre or so, ticking off the tens of kilometres remaining to Assen.
Happily, as planned, I soon met David Hembrow coming the other way to meet me, and we immediately diverted away from the main road, taking a winding scenic route through the countryside before heading into Assen.
We used a variety of types of path, but all of them were wonderful to cycle on. The example below is a new strip of farm access road, complete with tractor tyre marks in the mud to the sides. The strips either side of the brick paving in the middle are (of course) billiard-table-smooth concrete.
As on the earlier part of the journey from Zwolle, even tiny recreational paths also have a smooth concrete or tarmac surface. You will occasionally have to ‘single up’ as you meet people coming the other way, but these are not utility routes, so the amount of cycle traffic is very low.
And again, as with earlier in the day, there were plenty of people out cycling in the afternoon, enjoying the Drenthe countryside – mostly elderly couples, and kids.
The connection between these rural areas and Assen itself is painless; both the motorway skirting Assen, and the city’s ring road, were negotiated with underpasses.
And in the blink of an eye I was in the centre of Assen.
If I had to do this route again I would probably avoid cycling along the N371 for so long; not because it was difficult or hazardous (far from it), but because it did get quite boring. It was certainly the quickest way, but it might be worth venturing cross country, just to make the route a little more lively. That said this second half of the trip was almost entirely free of interactions with drivers, given most of it was on fully separated paths, either alongside the main road, or through forests and fields. It was a lot of fun!
Hackney Cyclist has recently put up a series of blogs on his experience of cycling between Dutch cities. They’re well worth reading in detail, and they’ve inspired me to do the same for a ride I made last summer between the cities of Zwolle and Assen, in the north of the Netherlands.
This is a distance of around 45 miles, or 70 kilometres. I did it on my omafiets, shown below during a ‘rest stop’ on this ride.
As you can see it has two full panniers carrying everything I needed for a week’s worth of cycling (this was part of a trip that included visits to Rotterdam, Utrecht, and a three days in Assen and Groningen on a David Hembrow study tour). I was wearing ordinary clothes; I’ve never felt the need for special equipment or special bikes when doing these kinds of distances in the Netherlands because the environment allows me to go at a smooth, relaxed and consistent pace, never really exerting myself. Indeed, part of the fun of these trips is covering large distances as a ‘wheeled pedestrian’, hopping on my heavy machine straight after breakfast without even really thinking about it, and heading off over the horizon.
l left the centre of Zwolle on one of its ubiquitous bi-directional cycleways. Zwolle itself is very much a mixed bag; some really high quality new stuff, mixed with some low-quality infrastructure – just paint, essentially – that is very dated and often left me feeling quite exposed.
Heading north, I turned off this path onto an access road, with no centre line, and cycle markings at the edges.These kinds of markings have recently hit the headlines, so to speak, having been employed on a main road in the north of England. That’s a very different context from this street, which only serves a handful of properties, and is very quiet.
My route then took me onto a temporary path, and the crossing of the main road that has been upgraded, as described here, and shown in the video below.
On the other side of the road the cycle path climbed gradually, reaching a high bridge that took me over a large canal. There was a fast, busy road alongside me here, but cycling was comfortably separated from it.
In the distance in the photograph above is the impressive cycling suspension bridge shown in this Good Facility of the Week. You can cross a large junction on this bridge to enter the suburb of Westenholte, or you can veer around underneath the bridge to head north out of the city, as I did. Note the two very different types of cycling!
The path continued on seamlessly, bypassing a roundabout without me having to go anywhere near it…
… before leading me onto another access road, this time in a new development.
Again, just as with the example before, these markings are only appropriate on these kinds of quiet streets. Motor traffic (as can be seen) stays out of the lanes, because there is rarely oncoming motor traffic. This particular street only serves the dwellings on the left here; it is closed at the far end with a bollard (which retracts, only to allow buses to pass).
From here I left the city completely, moving onto a beautiful access-only road running beside a branch of the Ijssel river.
Motor traffic can use this road, but again, only around a handful of houses along here (a white one can be seen in the background) and I didn’t encounter any drivers along it. At this point, in fact, I still haven’t had any encounters with motor traffic, at all, nor have I even had to stop. My journey out of the city has been blissfully smooth and painless.
Checking my directions carefully on my phone, I eventually find the correct country lane I need to take to head towards the town of Hasselt. Even this quiet little lane has had a smooth concrete cycleway added alongside it, within the last few years. This concrete is actually smoother than the tarmac of the road.
This lane took me to the busy N331 road (‘N’ is the Dutch equivalent of a UK ‘A’ road), which was carrying plenty of fast, intimidating HGVs. Naturally enough, however, I had some parallel provision in the form of a service road, some distance from the main road itself.
In this agricultural part of the country these service roads are used by farm traffic, too slow for the fast main road – and obviously by any residents who live along the service road as well. This led to my very first shock of the day, an overtake from a large tractor pulling a vicious-looking piece of equipment, perhaps only a foot away from my left elbow. (The farmer had obviously momentarily forgotten about strict liability, which makes everyone play nice in the Netherlands).
Happily this service road ended as I arrived on the outskirts of the town of Hasselt, and I was back on a cycleway, which followed the N331 as it bypassed the town.
I was treated to a lovely, almost stereotypically ‘Dutch’ view of Hasselt as I crossed the river, and here I made my first (entirely voluntary) stop of the day. I’d made great progress – not with any great speed while cycling, but without ever having to have stopped moving.
Leaving Hasselt I was back on a service road again, parallel to the main road, and this one was definitely uncomfortable by Dutch standards, with what seemed like a large number of vehicles turning in and out of it at a busy junction which I had to cross, feeling quite exposed. Just like the overtake from the tractor driver, this was another bump back to earth, and it felt distinctly ‘British’. Note how the drivers are driving on the cycle markings – a clue that they aren’t appropriate.
From here, though, I was rewarded with perhaps the best cycling of the day, winding my way towards the next town of Meppel along a combination of tiny, tiny little tracks through the countryside, and broader farm roads, again only used by farmers to get to and from their properties, and not used by people cutting through, avoiding main roads.
These little tracks were surfaced with beautifully smooth concrete – this might be the ‘countryside’, but the surface was wonderful to cycle on.
It’s important to note that paths like these are merely ‘recreational’ routes, and are definitely not part of any formal or official utility cycle network. That’s why they are often not particularly wide, because they aren’t being used heavily – only by people like me taking the scenic route, or people cycling around for leisure. (The width isn’t a problem because you are unlikely to encounter someone coming the other way). In essence they are a nice ‘extra’ on top of the dense grid of utility routes.
Indeed, as I got closer to Meppel I joined one of these ‘proper’ routes, a much wider concrete path, with lighting – even though I was still in the countryside,
… cycling past herons…
… distinctive cattle…
… all on gloriously smooth paths, even the farm roads themselves, composed of wide concrete that I just rolled along on.
These little lanes had no motor traffic at all on them, but I still managed to suffer a close pass from a lady in a battered old Ford Fiesta, who then immediately turned left, right in the midst of her attempted overtake, into the farm where she evidently lived. Again, that hallowed ‘strict liability’ effect was evidently only intermittently effective…
On the outskirts of Meppel these tracks and paths joined a tarmac road, busy with leisure cyclists of two distinct types – elderly couples, and people whizzing past them in lycra, both groups enjoying the morning sunshine.
I’d reached Meppel – about 30km from Zwolle – having only had four or five direct encounters with motor vehicles (unfortunately, most of them quite bad!), and with only having had to stop a handful of times, whisked along on a combination of genuinely impressive cycle engineering on a grand scale, right down to modest, tiny paths in the middle of nowhere.
Part 2 – in which I cycle from Meppel on to Assen, with a diversion along the way – to come!
Last week I wrote about Transport Tribalism, the curious habit of parcelling people up according to the mode of transport they are using – even defining them by that mode of transport. It was prompted by articles from Linda Grant and from David Aaronovitch, the latter a plea that polarised viewpoints should be avoided. I attempted to argue that Grant’s article itself was itself an example of just that kind of polarising, simplistic, black-and-white moralising that Aaronovitch was objecting to, in that it presented ‘cyclists’ as a unique kind of human being, without ever appearing to realise that human beings are multi-modal, and that they carry their characteristics with them as they switch their mode of transport. An ‘angry cyclist’ is really just an angry human being, who might have an ‘angry busist’ the day before – except of course we don’t ever describe people who get the bus in this way, because it’s faintly absurd.
At the end of the post, I said I would explain why this way of looking at the world is problematic, and why so many ‘cyclists’ (really, people who happen to feel strongly about using a bike for certain kinds of trips) objected to Grant’s article.
Mainly, it’s because it has consequences. Aaronovitch was fairly dismissive of any potential negative outcomes from Grant’s piece. He wrote
Some accused her of inciting attacks on cyclists as though maddened drivers would mow down anything in lycra while shouting “THIS IS FOR LINDA!!!” One man compared what she had done to the hate-articles which accompanied gay-bashing in his native Ireland back in the old days.
Now I can’t imagine any driver choosing to attack someone on a bike specifically because of an article in the Guardian – one by Linda Grant, or otherwise. Nor can I imagine some kind of strange vengeance attack, getting retribution ‘FOR LINDA’. But that wasn’t really the objection. It’s not that an article like this would lead to any specific incident. Rather that it, and the countless others like it, contribute to an already fairly poisonous background climate surrounding cycling, that reinforces prejudice.
We live in a world where people are apparently willing to use their cars to bully people on bicycles, even using their cars as a weapon to attack them, and undoubtedly many will do so because of their general attitude to ‘cyclists’ – an attitude that will be framed and shaped by the things people read, and see.
A recent trial provides a case in point. Last week a delivery driver was found guilty of careless driving, following an incident in which he knocked a woman off her bike at the Bank Junction in the City of London. The evidence presented – which included onboard video camera in the van) – is strongly suggestive that this was quite deliberate, even if the driver himself was only found guilty of careless driving.
The onboard CCTV camera in Baker’s van captured the delivery driver saying ‘Oh God’ as she moved in front of his vehicle. As she moved off and signalled to turn right, Baker was heard to say: ‘Come on get out of the bloody way’ and beeped his horn.
Mrs Kempster told jurors: ‘I got a beep which I regarded as an angry beep which I was rather annoyed about because it was a hugely busy day and I knew I was cycling impeccably. I am afraid I made an unsuitable gesture and stuck two fingers up. I continued and heard a roar of the van coming up my side. Then he slowed to my speed and came closer and closer getting towards the edge of his lane, then he must have been in my lane.’
… Baker carried on driving until a motorcyclist caught up with him and tapped on his window to tell him he had knocked a cyclist off her bike. The delivery driver allegedly replied: ‘Really, did I? Did she not run into me?’
In the context of discussion about attitudes towards people riding bikes, this particular passage is instructive –
In interview Baker admitted cursing at the cyclist and spoke ‘disparagingly’ about cyclists in general, the court heard. He also admitted hearing a bang but claimed he thought he had driven over a manhole and didn’t realise he had knocked the cyclist off. Prosecutor Martin Hooper said Baker was ‘rather irritated by this cyclist in particular but also cyclists generally.
How much did Baker’s general dislike of ‘cyclists’ (note, any person moving around London who happens to be on a bike at the time Baker encounters them) contribute to this incident? It’s obviously impossible to say, but it’s more than plausible that a person harbouring an intense dislike of users of a particular mode of transport is more likely to be involved in this kind of incident than someone who is more equanimous.
What is certain is that people behind the wheel of a motor vehicle will yell at you, or abuse you, or bully you with their vehicle, simply because you happen to be on a bike. I know this, because it has happened to me. I have been going about my business quite blamelessly, when someone decides to punish me with their vehicle – and when I ask them why, the justification is almost always along the lines of the general behaviour of ‘cyclists’, not anything that I myself had done. Whether it’s ‘you all go through red lights’, or ‘you mow down grannies on the pavement’, their behaviour towards me is rationalised by the bad behaviour of complete strangers, who simply happened to be using the same mode of transport as me. To these particular drivers, I am an embodiment of ‘cyclists’ and all their ills. It’s similar to the kind of ‘outgroup’ thinking that leads to abuse and attacks on innocent, but visible, members of a particular minority group following an atrocity committed by a member of that minority group – even if the outgroup identity of ‘cyclist’ can be shed at a moment’s notice simply by stepping off the bike.
To be clear, Grant’s piece – despite the fact it contained well-worn tropes like ‘lycra-clad cult’ – wasn’t particularly bad, as least as far these kinds of articles go. I’ve seen much worse. But as I’ve mentioned earlier, it all adds up to a kind of toxic soup, one that serves to reinforce hostile attitudes, and even to inflame them.
My personal view is that hostility towards people cycling, of the kind that Dennis Baker displayed, is almost entirely a symptom of a crap road environment that fails to take account of cycling as a mode of transport. It’s an environment that pushes cycling and motoring into the same space, two modes of transport with disparate requirements that are not suited to being treated in the same way. It’s an environment that pushes cycling onto the pavement when things get a bit too tricky, lumping it in with pedestrians in a way that again creates needless conflict. It’s an environment that inevitably restricts cycling to a small minority of the population, fertile grounds for outgroup thinking – phrasing like ‘them’, ‘they’, as opposed to ‘us’ and ‘we’. To me it’s not the least bit surprising that people walking and driving hate ‘cyclists’, because the needs of anyone choosing to use a bike are rarely catered for in a sensible way.
But newspaper articles that present ‘cyclists’ as some kind of uniquely awful species on our streets certainly do nothing to ameliorate that hostility, and just as problematically, they make attempts to improve our streets, so that they work for all users, even harder. Witness the way improvements in London are being presented as ‘for cyclists’, particularly by hostile parties on social media, but also by journalists on mainstream newspapers.
The battleground for the clash of commuters is Victoria Embankment, where the two-wheeled Utopia of a Cycle Superhighway is being built, and it is causing all manner of discord.
On one side are the high achievers reliant on Porsches and petrol to glide between engagements. Pitted against them are their cycling evangelist colleagues, Lycra-clad executives who splurge their bonuses on 1,000-pound Brompton bikes or fixie racers, pedalling their stress away by turning the city’s roads into race tracks.
Of course, current users of the Embankment are probably disproportionately composed of males, on faster bikes, principally because this was a very hostile road to cycle on. But the Superhighway isn’t really ‘for’ these users. It’s for everyone, for anyone who might want to ride a bike, whether they are a City type on an expensive carbon racing bike, or families with children.
— Christopher Day (@IndieChris71) December 30, 2015
The potential users of cycling infrastructure like the ones shown in the photograph above disappear from view when the debate is narrowly focused on current users of bicycles in London, and their apparently unique mode-specific ills. Debate framed in this way not only contributes to a more hostile environment for existing users, but also makes the struggle to open up our streets to anyone who wants to ride a bike even harder. That’s why it’s problematic.