Dedicated cycle paths can not ever realistically be door-to-door for every journey

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Common claims and canards > Objections from cyclists to cycling infrastructure > Dedicated cycle paths can not ever realistically be door-to-door for every journey

Summary of the claim

When dedicated cycling infrastructure is called for as a means to overcome the barriers to cycling and enabling cycling as transport for all, it is frequently claimed that we could not put bicycle infrastructure on every road, because of the large size of the network and nature of many roads, therefore we could never give people traffic-free door-to-door journeys.

The implication is that this is a problem for those who are calling for the infrastructure. Some making the claim conclude that, because infrastructure can not be built everywhere, there is no point in building it anywhere. Others making the claim conclude that other policies will be needed — instead of or in addition to infrastructure — in order to help people overcome traffic as a barrier to cycling.

Example sources

  1. The comments of central London CTC campaigner John Snuggs.
  2. A claim that some cycle campaigners are demanding ‘protected bike paths, door to door.’
  3. Apparent surprise that the Dutch do not build cycle tracks on every single road.
  4. ‘If you expect door to door cycle paths you are dreaming’
  5. ‘It’s also worthwhile pointing out that the Netherlands doesn’t have segregated cycle paths that go absolutely everywhere’

Short responses

  1. Cycle tracks do not need to be door-to-door in order to be effective, they are required only where there are barriers to cycling. The main barriers to cycling are the busy main roads, and the fast cars and big lorries on them. It is those roads that need dedicated cycle tracks and on those roads that the campaign for such infrastructure is focused.
  2. The Dutch model which the Cycling Embassy supports does, in one sense, put cycle tracks on all “roads”, and it does effectively separate cycling from motor traffic for the entire journey. However, in this model, residential streets, country lanes, and shopping areas are not treated as “roads”, but as streets and lanes on which motor traffic, if it is permitted at all, is restricted and calmed. Cycle tracks on main roads are only half of the solution, but they are the half that has traditionally been ignored or done badly in the UK.

In more detail

The claims

Some British cyclists and campaigners argue that dedicated cycle tracks are the wrong solution to the decline and near-death of cycling in the UK, or that there are other, easier, policies which we should be pursuing instead of, or before, cycle tracks. Britain’s large network of roads, and the nature of many of those roads — especially narrow residential streets and winding country lanes — they argue, make it impossible to construct cycle tracks on all roads, and this is assumed to be a problem for those who advocate their construction.

Sometimes the claim is accompanied by comparisons with the Netherlands, the Western nation that has done more than any other to preserve cycling as an everyday mass transport mode, though two conflicting comparisons are commonly made. One cites the Netherlands as a more compact country with far fewer miles of roads than the UK, and so with a more manageable network of cycle tracks. The other notes that the length of the Dutch cycle track network is less than a quarter of the length of the road network, and concludes that Dutch cycling must be therefore largely be taking place on mixed traffic roads.

The claim is often used in conjunction with advocacy for investment in alternative policies, such as cycle training, shared space, or strict liability, which are suggested to be necessary for making cycling on mixed traffic roads attractive.

Not all roads are equal

We can not build cycle tracks alongside every mile of Britain’s road network. Nor would any advocate of cycling infrastructure want to. But we would not need to build nearly such a comprehensive, expensive or intrusive network of cycle tracks and paths in order to ensure that door-to-door cycle journeys can be achieved without having to mix with traffic in any meaningful sense. The reason is that not all roads are equal.

This is the flaw in the interpretation of the Dutch cycle track network statistic. It is true that cycle tracks accompany less than a quarter of Dutch roads. But those are the most important roads, and the most important cycle routes. To conclude from their length that they are unimportant would be equivalent to concluding that, because the British motorway network accounts for a tiny fraction of the British road network, our motorways are of no significance to national transportation.

In this country we have busy main roads, which often carry fast cars, buses and heavy goods vehicles. And we have residential streets, country lanes, and streets for retail and cultural use. These places are very different from each-other, and they present different sets of barriers preventing people from travelling by bicycle. Busy main roads account for only a fraction of the total network, but they form the most formidable barriers to cycling, while at the same time following the most direct and convenient routes, and linking the most important places. Those roads require dedicated cycling infrastructure separated from motor traffic. That such infrastructure could not also be constructed on all lesser streets and lanes is not important, for lesser streets and lanes carry fewer fast cars and large vehicles, and so are less of a barrier to cycling.

The Dutch model

Although in the Netherlands cycle tracks accompany less than a quarter of roads, it does not follow that the majority of cycling takes place on the remaining mixed traffic roads. Because the Dutch cycle tracks accompany the busy main roads, which form the most convenient and direct routes between the most important destinations, Dutch cycling largely takes place on those cycle tracks, and in many places they come astonishingly close to a complete door-to-door network.

But more importantly, on the remaining three quarters of the road network, cyclists are not mixed with traffic in the sense that a British road user would recognise. The Dutch model succeeds in separating cycle and motor traffic almost entirely, following simple and sensible principles that could equally be applied in the UK.

The Dutch principles start from an understanding of the barriers to cycling. Though there are several such barriers, the most powerful is traffic: big roads, fast cars, large lorries and sharing space with buses. Individuals have their own personal threshold of traffic over which they will not use a bicycle on a road. The Dutch have removed the barriers to cycling on all roads, but with a variety of solutions. On streets and lanes, they have reduced the volume and changed the nature of that traffic, bringing them within people’s comfort zone for cycling. But they recognise that the volume and nature of traffic on main roads will always be beyond the threshold at which people will feel safe and comfortable cycling, and so instead provide separate dedicated space for cycling.

This model, and that clear distinction between “roads” and “streets” and “lanes”, has been formalised by the Dutch with the Principles of Separation, and with the “Sustainable Safety” system which governs Dutch road and street engineering. The system starts with the clear categorisation of roads into either through routes for traffic, or access streets/lanes; and designs follow the principle of mixing different types of road users only where the speed and weight differential between them is within safe levels.

Sharing with traffic

Those who use this claim about limited possible extent of cycle tracks in debate are trying to make the point that, even with cycle tracks, cyclists will always have to “share with motor traffic” some of the time. Since motor traffic currently forms a barrier to cycling, they argue that even with cycle tracks, we will need other policies — such as cycle training or strict liability — to reduce those barriers, or to enable people to overcome them. But as we have seen, under the Dutch system, cyclists never have to “share with motor traffic” in any very meaningful sense.

The Cycling Embassy has a particular focus on Dutch-style cycle tracks and paths, which we advocate for Britain’s busy main roads. But we are equally keen to see the country learn from the other aspects of the Dutch model, including the reduction and calming of traffic on city streets and country lanes, so that the barriers that are preventing people in this country from cycling are completely removed. However, while Britain already has organisations doing excellent work campaigning for the latter, practical and effective policies for removing the barriers to cycling on main roads have been lacking, and this therefore features prominently in our campaigning.

Further reading