A paper presented by John Franklin to the CCN/CTC Cycle Planning Conference, Ryde, Isle of Wight, 5th May 2001
During this presentation I'm going to be looking at the quality of the cycling environment in Britain today; the effect and consequences of low standards; why there was no engineering National Cycling Award in 2000, and give some suggestions for action.
Here we are in 2001. Government has confirmed its commitment to triple cycle use by 2010. Most local authorities now have some sort of pro-cycling policy. And cycle facilities and traffic calming are being introduced as never before.
There is an increasing amount of cycling infrastructure about. However, the average quality of what is provided is extremely low. Many highway authorities give priority to moving cyclists onto footways and other shared-use paths. Cycle lanes are invariably less than 2m recommended width. Centre island and 'squeeze' points on the road system are becoming common. (The latter was dealt with in depth by Robin Field at a previous conference. I endorse what he said, but will not repeat it here.) At best, minimum standards have become the norm.
From feedback I get from cyclists, there is increasing dissatisfaction with what is being provided. There are also more and more reports of increased aggression from drivers towards cyclists in the presence of facilities. At the beginning of this year I recorded instances in 30 towns across Britain in under a month. Cyclists have been banned from a number of roads in the past few years following the creation of cycle routes. And in December 2000 there was a Parliamentary Question aimed at obliging cyclists to use cycle facilities. In coming years I have little doubt that an increasing amount of our time will be taken up fighting to retain the right to use the roads.
Why has this come about? I would cite three reasons. Firstly a lack of experience and in particular real interest in cycling amongst local authority officers and politicians. Cycling is beset with myths and prejudices, not to mention conflicting lobbies. Secondly, there is widely seen to be a need to do 'something' - substitute, anything - for cycling in order to obtain funding from Local Transport Plans and other grant sources. Those who have pushed for minimum cycling budgets have a lot to answer for! Thirdly, and more generally, cycle campaigners have asked for it! "Give us lots of cycle facilities", many have argued with few qualifications. That's what we've got, maximum facilities for the money available - quality has taken second place to quantity.
There are many wider consequences following from so many low standard facilities. There is a particularly adverse impact on vehicular cycling, which has been backbone of British cycling over generations. Low quality facilities are now forcing some cyclists from roads in way that traffic never has. There are disproportionate problems for new cyclists. Facilities are often introduced under the guise of encouraging people to cycle, but many facilities require advanced skills to minimise their safety limitations. Low quality and inexperience do not go well together. In some places cycle lanes and the like have led to less cycling.
Considerable opportunities have been missed for greater and wider benefits, especially through speed reduction. The insistence of one organisation in pressing for a new cycle path in one place I know has taken pressure for traffic calming that is supported by a much wider community. The cycle path, having been provided, is little used. Low quality facilities are a cheap and convenient way sweetener to continue with pro-car policies. Labour and Conservative manifestos for the coming General Election are using the 'green effect' of cycle lanes and the National Cycle Network to offset criticism of more roads and speeding up traffic. Finally, though there has been minimum impact to date, the non-use of facilities can be expected to be used increasingly against cyclists in crash claims, just as is the case now for cycle helmets.
For the second year running, no engineering award has been made in the National Cycling Awards for 2000 - a reflection of typical quality of what is being provided. On face of it there was much good intention, but schemes failed against reasonable standards, even though some were supported by local cyclists. Many schemes introduced new hazards or restrictions on where cyclists could ride.
Without naming locations, here are some of the shortcomings of schemes that were nominated last year. Many included shared use paths and footways, invariably of sub-standard width. Many included cycle lanes which were well under the 2m recommended width. Where cycle lanes ran adjacent to give-way lines at side roads, there was no escape space at the very places which are the number one location for cycle/car crashes. Some schemes increased complexity for cyclists or motorists or both. Greater complexity invariably means a greater chance of someone making a mistake. Visibility for cyclists was often poor, justifying the barriers that were placed in some places.
Justification for some schemes was unclear. Sometimes there did not seem to be a problem that was being overcome. There were frequently simplistic assumptions about safety and use. Typically 'out of traffic' was assumed de-facto to mean safe. Many facilities required cyclists to ride in a way contrary to the rules of the road. Some seemed likely to tempt aggression from drivers.
Despite all these things, we thought we had a winner & until, that is, we made a site visit! We discovered that a bus lane had been introduced on a parallel road and cyclists were barred from using it. The local authority did not want cyclists on the roads after spending money on a new cycle path. Needless to say, CCN and the CTC could not condone this attitude through the presentation of the National Cycling Award
So what can we do to improve life for cycling? First, don't endorse low standards. You have the same right to high standards and a decent environment as any other road user. Don't be afraid to say 'no'. Facilities invariably get worse with time, not better. Ask for a copy of the safety audit and read it. Be realistic about what a scheme is likely to achieve. Is there money and space for high quality facilities? Who will they really benefit? Could a non cycle-specific solution give more useful results? Think twice - preferably more - before advocating redistribution of the carriageway. This is the main driver for the mess we're getting into!
What are the most important things to consider?
Cyclists need at least 2m clear width for comfort and safety. Without cycle facilities this is what you will normally get on most roads. Cycle-only space, such as cycle lanes, must encompass this whole requirement in their width for you can expect nothing outside. Except when overtaking or changing lanes, you should not have to look through more than 90° to be sure that no other road user might conflict with you. New cyclists and children find it difficult to survey following traffic; don't force them to change lanes frequently just to go ahead, nor put them into other situations they can't handle. Cycles don't turn on the spot, and sharp bends are invariably accompanied by difficult visibility. 6m is the minimum radius a cycle should have to negotiate.
Keeping left is probably the most important rule of the road, but cyclist adherence to this is deteriorating fast. Two-way paths need centre lines even more do than roads. More casualties happen due to poor surfaces than motor vehicles. Don't accept cycle paths that cross joins between surfaces at anything other than 90°. Even flush joins which all should be erode over time. Even surfaces are important not just for comfort, but so that you are not distracted from traffic. A pretty red or green surface doesn't compensate for the effect of a rough surface.
Finally, if cyclists have to follow two sets of rules you can bet there'll be trouble. The Highway Code sets out the established rules of the road. Any route for cyclists must be 100% compatible.
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