'Turbogate' should represent an end to two-tier provision

'Turbo' roundaboutBy now, the dust is beginning to settle on the 'Turbogate' affair - the funding of a 'Turbo' roundabout in Bedford with money from the Department for Transport's Cycle Safety Fund. We've heard that the money had to be spent, and also that the design might, slightly, improve safety at this roundabout, for people cycling.

We would argue that on a roundabout carrying this kind of volume of motor traffic, cycling should be accommodated away from the motor vehicle carriageway, as a general principle. Yet the safety benefits for people who choose not to cycle on the roundabout are arguable. Much has been made of the fact that while cycling on zebras is not strictly illegal, drivers are only expected to yield to those using zebras on foot. If you wish to cycle across a zebra, you should yield to drivers. This is dangerously ambiguous; we have a cycle scheme where users could approach the crossing, each expecting the other to give way.

Furthermore, unlike on a Dutch roundabout with perimeter tracks, where cyclists will be arriving from the same direction as general traffic on the roundabout, people can cycle onto these zebras from the opposing direction - that is, away from the direction drivers will generally be looking in. On some arms of this roundabout, drivers have the certainty that vehicles will be exiting the roundabout, and their approach speeds may consequently be higher.

This is to say nothing of the conflict that is created between pedestrians and people cycling on shared use footways - conflict that is only avoided where usage is low. If the roundabout is to be used in signficant numbers by people cycling, a redesign will surely be necessary. This design embodies low horizons for cycling.

And this points us to the central issue here - what this scheme represents. Namely, an endorsement of compromise, and of fitting cycling around the margins. What will it actually achieve? How much more attractive is it going to be to cycle on the roundabout itself? How many people will be tempted to cycle on it, that don't at present? Why would anyone cycle around the perimeter, on footways shared with pedestrians, when in practice you might as well walk?

The changes proposed do little or nothing for anyone. This is why so many people are angry about this design, and the way its funding has been approved. It sends out a message that it is acceptable to use huge sums of money, specifically allocated for cycling, on a scheme that puts effectively puts cycling on the pavement (because only in the loosest sense imaginable can the changes to the roundabout itself be considered to be implemented 'for' cycling). The capacity of the roundabout for motor traffic is actually going to be increased.

Providing two different methods of negotiating this roundabout is an implicit admission that neither is acceptable. The scheme embodies the two-tier approach to cycling that, over time, has demonstrably failed to improve conditions for cycling. This kind of approach should be a red line on any kind of cycling scheme, and should not be endorsed, for reasons that Embassy board member David Arditti has previously detailed at length.

We know from looking at the systems of cycling infrastructure in the most successful cycling nations and cities that they design one network for cyclists, and only one, to one set of standards. They treat cycling as we treat motoring and walking, that is, as an essentially homogeneous activity facilitated on one network, built to one set of standards, for all those who do it. They recognise that cyclists, whether they be young or old, fast or slow, able-bodied or disabled, all need essentially the same things, in terms of a quality network that gives priority, directness, and both actual and subjective safety.

There is no question of us having a network of roads for “less confident drivers” and a different one for “fast and advanced motorists”, and this is how the places that get cycling right also treat cycling. They build cycle lanes, paths and tracks that work of all types of cyclists and all abilities at the same time, and have sufficient capacity to cope with all, taking the attitude that if it’s not safe enough for young children, it won’t be safe enough for anyone, and if it’s not convenient enough for commuters in a hurry, it won’t be an attractive option to anyone. They build up to a common standard that works for all, and don’t say “If you don’t like it, there’s always the busy, dangerous main road”.

We have a tradition in the UK of doing something different, and something odd, which has a history of failure. We have often tried to provide different tiers of cycling infrastructure, aimed at different “groups” of cyclists. This can take the form of parallel provision on the same road: you see things like a narrow, on-road advisory cycle lane on a busy road, typically blocked by parking, with shared pavement signage next to it, on a footpath that has been in no way adapted to make it sensible for cycle use, or to reduce potential conflicts with pedestrians. This is because planners believed that fast cyclists would want to be on the road, while for the others, a bit of paint on the pavement would do. A second form that parallel provision can take is the planners deciding that some cycle routes, engineered to certain standards, are the ones aimed at fast and confident adult cyclists, well-used to interacting with motor traffic, while other routes, typically, indirect ones, with many give-ways and obstructions and poor continuity, are the ones aimed at children and less-confident cyclists.

All such attempts at parallel provision, for what are perceived as different “types” of cyclists, tend to fail, because they are a cop-out. They always involve a trade-off between safety, or pleasantness, and directness, or speed, which would not be made in a quality network. We get left with main roads which are still the only practical routes for most journeys, but have not been made any safer with merely a few splashings of paint, and low-grade shared-use facilities that attract few cyclists, and stoke conflict with, and resentment from, non-cyclists.

The Bedford Turbo roundabout perpetuates this mistaken approach to designing for cycling, and legitimises it. Cycling will continue to linger in the doldrums as a mode of transport while it is planned for in such an incoherent manner. The roundabout should have been opposed for this reason.