We should be concentrating on reducing speed and volume of motor traffic

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Common claims and canards > Alternatives to cycling infrastructure > We should be concentrating on reducing speed and volume of motor traffic

Summary of the claim

“Constructing segregated facilities for cycling is not the way to help cyclists or create modal shift to cycling. We should instead be campaigning for reduced speed and volume of motor traffic. This both pulls people to cycling, by removing road danger, and pushes people away from driving, by making it more difficult.”

It may further be claimed that: “The Dutch cycle because the roads are traffic calmed and it has been made difficult to drive, not because of the cycle paths.”

Example sources

The hierarchy of provision, endorsed by the Department for Transport and many cycle campaigners, considers reduction of speed and volume of motor traffic a preferable intervention to construction of dedicated infrastructure.

Summary of responses

  1. The Cycling Embassy absolutely support the reduction in speed and volume of motor vehicles. For most of our supporters, the ultimate aim is to create more liveable places, which maximise health, wealth and happiness. The current speeds and volumes of motor traffic in the UK are the major barrier to that.
  2. But it’s more complicated than this. There are many different ways to reduce the speed and volume of motor vehicles, including by the reallocation of road space for cycle paths. Which approach is more appropriate, or more politically achievable, will vary according to road and situation. On some roads, cycle paths will be best or most achievable route to traffic volume reduction.
    1. Modal shift to cycling is a means of reducing traffic volume. Relying on reducing traffic volume to enable shift to cycling creates a chicken-and-egg problem. Britain’s ‘A’ roads and major city arteries are a long way from the level of traffic reduction that would be required to support mass cycling. On those main roads, separate cycle tracks and paths are more achievable solutions.
    2. Traffic and speed reduction are not simple as a speed limit sign and taking away some cars. For speed and traffic reduction to actually be effective there would need to be widespread reconstruction of main roads to reduce their capacity and make speeding physically impossible. This would be just as expensive as constructing cycle tracks, would be far more politically unpopular, and would have side-effects that are bad for cycling.
  3. The Dutch have not made driving as difficult as is claimed. Although they have done extensive work to calm and keep through traffic off minor roads, like residential streets and medieval city centre streets, the design and capacity of their main roads is very advanced. The noticeable difference between the UK and the Netherlands is not in how difficult it is to drive but in how easy it is to cycle.
  4. It is not merely the speed and volume of traffic that is the problem. Large vehicles — trucks and buses with blind spots — are a great source of danger and discomfort at any speed. And careless, dangerous, inconsiderate and aggressive driving can occur regardless of speed limits or traffic volumes. Any attempt to make cycling safer and more inviting by traffic speed and volume reduction would also have to address issues like these.

In more detail

There are two principal aims of cycle campaigning: improving safety and convenience for cyclists, and creating modal shift from car to bicycle. Individual campaigns and campaigners might be interest in both or just one of those goals. Generally those who wish to create modal shift do so because of the negative health, environmental, social and economic consequences of a car-centered transport system: when there are fewer cars, places become more pleasant and liveable. And those who wish to create shift from cars to bicycles generally recognise that traffic is itself the major barrier to more journeys being made by bicycle in Britain. Busy roads are uncomfortable and fast cars are dangerous; all but a small minority simply refuse to use bicycles on them.

The challenge for advocates of mass cycling is therefore to overcome this barrier — to make it so that people can choose to use a bicycle without having to ride with fast cars in busy traffic. There are several different ways in which the barrier could be lowered, and one of them is to reduce the speed and volume of traffic on a road. At the Cycling Embassy we think it’s a good thing to be asking for. But there are several reasons why we think it is just a part of the mix of solutions that we need, and not a plausible alternative to asking for quality segregated cycle tracks.

Traffic and speed reduction: it’s a bit more complicated than that

What works where: the hierarchy of provision versus sustainable safety

When considering which interventions would work at achieving better conditions for cycling and an increase in cycling rates one must start from the reason why cycling declined and why most people no longer cycle. By far the most commonly given reason for not cycling is that the conditions on the roads are too hostile: large volumes of motor traffic driven at high speeds (and too closely to cyclists, and generally driven dangerously) create uncomfortable and frightening conditions. Reducing the volume and speed of motor vehicles is therefore a theoretically plausible method of helping cycling if such an intervention reduces fear. However, there are problems with how effectively traffic and speed reduction translates into a reduction in fear, and in many places curbing motor vehicle use and changing driver behaviour are very difficult campaign aims to achieve.

Reducing traffic volume is commonly done by either reducing road capacity, increasing the cost of driving or making driving less convenient. Reducing road capacity without simultaneously providing dedicated cycle infrastructure means reducing the capacity for cycles as well as cars, HGVs and buses. This approach is not really feasible without simultaneously providing separate cycling infrastructure because inevitably leads to greater conflict between cyclists and other road users. Making driving less convenient by instigating circuitous routes in dense urban locations is also going to make cycling less convenient unless dedicated infrastructure is provided for cyclists to bypass these routes. Increasing the cost of driving would reduce the volume of motor vehicle traffic and improve conditions for cyclists, but politically it is difficult to use this approach alone to reduce motor traffic volume3.

Reducing traffic speed is commonly done by narrowing the carriageway (either with kerbs or with white lines). The white lines method of reducing traffic speed is how many of the UK’s existing awful cycle lanes were actually created; their primary purpose is traffic calming, the bicycle lane aspect is more of an afterthought. Without a separate infrastructure provision for cyclists, reducing the width of the carriageway is undesirable because it brings cyclists into conflict with other road users. Another option is to keep the road width but reduce the existing speed limit. The problem with this is that the width of the road has a psychological effect on drivers’ perceptions, making them feel safe to travel at higher speeds1. Enforcement through speed cameras can help keep drivers in line with the lower speed limit, but they are costly, politically unpopular and drivers commonly flout the law during the stretches between speed cameras.

By providing dedicated infrastructure for cyclists, driver behaviour can be modified on an unconscious level through changes to the infrastructure without degrading the cycling environment. Narrowing roads does not bring cyclists into conflict with other road users when cyclists are provided with separate dedicated cycle infrastructure, but still have the effect of slowing other traffic. This allows conditions for those on foot to be improved (by reducing motor traffic speed) without making cycling inconvenient, undesirable or less safe at the same time. Narrowing the width of the entrances to side roads from main roads forces drivers to make the turning manoeuvre at a lower speed, reducing the possibility of conflict with cycle lanes as they cross side roads (with right of way given to the cycle road). There are many other small infrastructural tricks like this used in segregated cycling cultures.

On smaller roads, or roads where separate cycle infrastructure cannot feasibly be provided, motor traffic volumes are reduced through the use of one-way streets with exemptions for cyclists, sending motorised traffic along inconvenient circuitous routes whilst still providing cyclists with a direct and convenient route through. This is broadly the aim of existing campaigns such as 20’s Plenty For Us, however without also providing separate infrastructure for cyclists on faster and busier roads, the scope of this campaign to increase cycling rates is limited, as fear of traffic on those faster and busier roads is the main barrier to the uptake of cycling2


1 Road width and speeding

2 Fear of Traffic Biggest Barrier to Uptake of Cycling

3 Fuel Protests