The Embassy's Brighton Infrastructure Safaris

On the weekend of the 7th and 8th June, the Embassy descended on Brighton for our AGM. As is always the case, the weekend was interspersed with 'infrastructure safaris' - gentle rides to take a look at what is (and what isn't) being done to make cycling a viable mode of transport, and a useful way to escape from meetings in a stuffy room on a sunny day. 

The Ranty Highwayman has provided a tremendously detailed write-up of the trips, in three parts - Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3. Please give them a good read. I thought that here I would provide a more general flavour of the weekend safaris.

Brighton is a place that has done much, much more than most other places in Britain to make cycling more attractive for ordinary people, and you get the impression that the council genuinely wants to make a difference, and has a good idea of how it should be achieved.

However, what was apparent from our weekend visit is that a great deal more needs to be done. The good bits that do exist in Brighton are isolated pockets, for the most part, not connecting up with each other in a useful way. It was quite depressing that a city where some considerable effort has been made was still pretty awful to cycle around in many places, and certainly not suitable for all. 

But frustratingly it seems that Brighton is being held back. Good schemes that the council wanted to implement have been temporarily shelved because they lost out in a bidding process. This points to the absurdity of the way cycling is currently funded in Britain; a willing council that wants to do more has to sit on its hands because of a stop-start funding process. Unfortunately this means that planners and engineers who have good local knowledge and understanding then move on elsewhere. 

One of the good schemes we looked at is the Old Shoreham Road. A smooth cycle track has been built on the existing carriageway. 

For me the most interesting aspect of this track is that - unlike the substandard cycle tracks that often get built with sharp kerb upstands on both sides, like the Tavistock Place track in London - you can cycle right on the edge of it. The kerb is low to the left of the track, and the track is flush at the carriageway side, albeit with a small upstand from the carriageway. So it feels wonderfully wide, and it is quite possible to cycle three abreast, at least on this wider section. There is no reason why cycle tracks in Britain can't be built to this standard, or better.

The main issues - as always - are with the major junctions, which revert back to bog-standard ASLs, with a lead-in cycle lane (a heavy shower before we set off seems to have given my camera a gremlin, randomly adding an effect which makes it look as if my photograph was taken in 1984. It wasn't, I can assure you).

The only concessions here are shared use pavements on each corner of the junction, allowing a 'free left turn', albeit in a rather unorthodox way, and a green 'headstart' filter, which gives people cycling a few seconds headstart into the junction, before the main signals turn green. Interestingly a number of our group didn't realise these lights existed, and thought I had jumped the lights. 

As you can see from the picture above, a headstart filter - and ASLs in general - are quite useless when the signals are already green. There just isn't the necessary comfort or safety, and you have to engage with traffic turning across your path. Furthermore ASLs are an intervention that are only effective -as far as they go - with limited numbers of people cycling. As we discovered, they simply can't cope with our large group of around thirty people.

There are similar issues on The Drive, which leads north from the seafront to Old Shoreham Road. Here, a lower quality cycle track - with drains in it, and high kerbs - again peters out at the junctions, with left-turning traffic moving across cycle traffic progressing straight ahead.

These are important issues - a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and if junctions are offputting, it doesn't really matter how good the quality of the cycle track is in between them. Junctions are something that need to be got right, and at the moment there is a shortage of guidance on how to do them properly. Brighton seems to us to be the ideal place to trial separate signalisation of cycling movements; either 'simultaneous green' or separating of left turns.

We also took a look at some simple 'except cyclists' exemptions to an area of one-way streets, the North Laine. These are quiet residential streets, and it was an easy and obvious step for the council to simply allow cycling in both directions on them. Unfortunately it seems that a driver chose to follow us 'the wrong way' down one of these streets, causing a stand off between himself and a van driver!


Other points of interest on the Saturday tour included the New Road 'shared space' scheme, an environment that works well for people walking and cycling not just due to the surfacing, but also because it makes very little sense to drive through it. Human beings naturally predominate.

The new 'Seven Dials' roundabout was also interesting from a cycling campaigning perspective. A dangerous and unpleasant roundabout for pedestrians and cyclists has genuinely been improved, with guardrailing removed, zebra crossings added, and a low-speed design. But despite these improvements, it still falls far short of what should be expected for genuinely inclusive cycling.

Indeed, many of us remarked that cycling seems to have essentially been ignored in the design process, with no cycle lanes on entry or exit, and no contraflows on the one-way streets that join the roundabout. It felt like a large opportunity had been missed. Perhaps at some future juncture the roundabout can be improved, but we wondered whether future cycle provision will have to go through a series of iterations and improvements to get to a point where it is actually acceptable.

On the Sunday our Safari took us to the Lewes Road scheme - principally a bus priority scheme, with a continuous bus lane replacing a general motor traffic lane in each direction on this dual carriageway, but one with significant benefits for cycling. However, while the bus stop bypasses are excellent, and the best feature of the scheme from a cycling perspective, the rest of it isn't up to scratch.

It was fine for most of us to use a cycle lane inside a bus lane - indeed, it was quite pleasant not having to worry about obstructions or hazards, like parking and pinch points - but buses do travel quite close to you, and at some speed. 

It's certainly not 8-80 provision, although - again - this is not Brighton's fault. They didn't have the funding to be bolder, and I think they made wise use of the money they had, doing the bus stops well, and doing the best they could with the rest of the cash.

Additionally, while the scheme is good, and serious improvements are planned for the horrible Vogue gyratory (including another busy bus stop bypass), the scheme is severed from the centre of Brighton by the rest of Lewes Road, which is busy, has plenty of loading and parking bays, and at the moment only has an intermittent cycle lane that isn't attractive or safe where it does exist.

So Brighton gives an indication of the scale of the task ahead, and also of the problems willing councils face in pushing their schemes through. It gives the impression of a city trying to make a serious difference, but faced with the problem of tackling decades of motor vehicle-centric road planning, and stop-start funding.

It was a fascinating weekend, and as always, the sun shone on the Embassy! Thanks in particular to Mark Strong and Dani Ahrens for providing local knowledge - and also to the Ranty Highwayman for his excellent technical posts!