A Question of Priority

Across Britain we're starting to see the first signs of new cycling infrastructure - cycleways on main roads, protected from motor traffic, being built in cities like Bristol, Manchester, Leicester, Brighton and London.

However, a slightly unresolved question with these relatively new forms of cycle provision (new for Britain, that is) is what happens at junctions, both major and minor – how priority and continuity is ensured for people cycling. It's all very well providing comfortable and safe conditions between junctions, but that isn't much use if that safety disappears at the junctions, or crossing those junctions involves delay or inconvenience.

The Embassy would like to examine this issue in detail, dedicating an afternoon at our Annual General Meeting in June this year to a serious look at the issue of priority for cycle infrastructure. With that in mind, I hope to set out some of the background here.

There are good examples already in Britain of how this can – and does – work, both at major and minor junctions.

Side road priority

Our guest post from a highway engineer has set out the ways in which side road priority can already be arranged, legally, in Britain

Conventional road markings can be used, with or without a 'set back' distance from the road, allowing drivers to yield to the cycle track, and to the road, in two separate stages, with the cycle (and pedestrian) crossing of the side road at continuous, higher level - which means drivers have to go up and over a hump.

Geometry for junctions of this form should involve forcing drivers to slow as much as possible, and to align them perpendicularly with the track they are crossing. Likewise priorities should be made clear, rather than left ambiguous.

An alternative approach, set out in both our guest post, and in this post from Ranty Highwayman, is to 'embed' a cycle track within a continuous footway treatment.

We don't know of any examples of this type in the UK - please let us know if they do exist! However, they would be legal, and continuous footway treatments are now appearing in the UK (albeit without cycle tracks in them). This can be done - see the photographs of Brommel's Road in Clapham, by Ranty Highwayman, below.

Bromell's Road Ranty Highwayman

In addition, conflicts where cycle tracks cross side roads can be minimised by limiting the number of turns motor vehicles will be making. This might involve making the side road one-way on entry or on exit, or measures to reduce the amount of motor traffic using the side road in general, or indeed simply closing the junction entirely to motor traffic. These are all options currently available in Britain, to anyone designing cycling infrastructure.

Major junction priority

Options at larger junctions are perhaps more limited, however. We do not currently have guidance, or standards, from the Department for Transport, that adequately covers the range of ways that cycling should be designed for properly at signalised junctions, or at roundabouts. That's not to say we can't give people cycling priority, however, even if the designs that are emerging are not in any handbook.

The East-West and North-South Superhighways represent excellent examples of how cycling can be given priority through junctions, without turning conflicts, under current British rules.

Often this will involve banning turns for motor traffic.

Blackfriars Road Superhighway 

Alternatively, left or right turns for motor traffic can be separately signalised.

Superhighway 2 separate signalisation 

Priority can also be given at roundabouts. Another guest post from our highway engineer showed how this can be arranged, legally.

Since that post was written, the combined 'cycle zebra' has emerged as a way of giving cycling priority, which could work at roundabouts.

The unfamiliarity of this kind of design may represent a problem, however; it is an entirely new kind of priority crossing, and does not come with the well-known 'Give Way' triangles and double dash markings. And in general, introducing priority for annular cycle tracks around roundabouts for cycling should be treated with caution, and designed very carefully.

Well-marked bi-directional crossings, that cross roundabout arms in two separate stages, without priority, like this type of crossing -

... will be a safer option, and often as convenient, although priority can and should be given to cycling at crossings where convenience may be sufficiently compromised.

Why isn't priority happening, everywhere?

This brings us to the question of why priority for cycling at junctions is so rarely implemented in Britain, despite the tools often being available.

Is it due to caution on the part of designers and engineers - an unwillingness to risk a kind of design that is (sadly) unfamiliar on Britain's roads? 'Not tried here' may be a powerful argument against employing a kind of design, especially if there is a fear that something could go wrong. Alternatively, and just as plausibly, it could be because these kinds of designs do not feature in highway engineering guidance, and it is therefore left up to bold engineers to come up with their own improvised solutions. A case in point here are the Superhighway plans for London, which are unconventional, and presumably have had to be developed from scratch.

Equally, there may be genuine legal problems for certain kinds of priority - which aren't allowed under current British rules. Dutch signalised junctions will often run with two stages only - motor traffic will progress N-S, and then in the second stage will progress E-W. People walking and cycling will tend to have priority over turning traffic in these situations.

While expecting turning motor traffic to yield at signalised crossings - with green signals for both the turning traffic and the pedestrians/cyclists crossing - is a very common arrangement across most of the western world, it is something that is not implemented in the UK. This is a genuine legal barrier, although one for which (as the Superhighways have shown) has potential work-arounds, either with banned turns, or separate signalisation. Equally, simultaneous green arrangements (which the consensus seems to be would be legal in the UK) represent another opportunity to remove turning conflicts. Early forms of this kind of design, with protection, and signal-separation, are appearing in documents like the London Cycling Design Standards.

A final, potential, argument is that British 'culture' just isn't ready for cycling being given priority at side roads, in particular. That it simply isn't safe to expect drivers to give way, because British drivers are used to asserting priority.

Well, they're used to doing it primarily because that's what the language of British roads almost always tells them to do. Cycling infrastructure almost always gives up at side roads, and consequently we shouldn't be surprised when drivers fail to yield. They're not being told to do anything else.

Indeed, I suspect a large part of the problem at junctions where cycling is actually alleged to have priority (where priority is hinted at) is that we've simply designed these junctions quite badly. Either the geometry is too open, or the priority is ambiguous, or - frankly - there's simply too much motor traffic turning into a side road to make it comfortable or safe. Or all of the above.

These problems are not insurmountable - we just need to design better. Alternatively, we could, of course, wait around for drivers to start behaving better, spontaneously, but that seems like quite an unlikely prospect. And even if you subscribe to the argument that our 'driving culture' just isn't ready for cycle priority, design is actually the best way of changing that culture, and improving behaviour. We cannot rely on wholesale driving training of the entire country. 

Design is really the only way out of this quandary - design that rewards the kind of driver behaviour we want to see, and reduces the ability to drive badly. Design must come first; design that is clear and obvious, that minimises risk when things go wrong, and (perhaps most importantly) genuinely puts cycling and walking first. 

Prior to our AGM discussions of these issues, we'd like to examine them through the medium of... Twitter. We plan on holding a Twitter hour on Friday 3rd April, at 8pm - similar to our last Twitter discussion of the London Cycling Design Standards last year, which was productive.

Please do join us to thrash through some of the issues - it will help us to finalise our agenda for the AGM, and to clarify things we may be missing, or need further discussion.

And, of course, please do come along to Leicester for our AGM!