Two decades of the Redway cycle paths in Milton Keynes
by John Franklin
published in Traffic Engineering + Control, July/August 1999
Milton Keynes, a new town in Central England under construction since 1971, was designed more than any other town in Europe to facilitate use of the car. Modelled on Los Angeles, a grid of main roads criss-crosses the town 1 km apart, dispersing traffic in such a way that congestion is rare and traffic speeds seldom inhibited. These 'grid roads' are for the greater part subject only to the national speed limit (70 mph for dual carriageways), and there are large roundabouts at all principal junctions.
Although not barred from the grid roads, it was decided to meet the needs of cyclists and pedestrians by a separate network of shared-use paths, which thread their way through most areas of the town. The Redways - named on account of the colour of their surface - are generally 3m wide unsegregated paths with a tarmac (but sometimes blockwork) surface. Now more than 200 km in extent, this is one of the largest urban cycle path networks of its kind, built without the financial or land constraints typical of an existing conurbation. The great majority of grid roads are crossed by bridge or underpass, and in more recent development the paths are also separated as much as possible from local roads.
In addition to Redways, there are also leisure routes, narrower in width and with a loose gravel surface. These are more clearly aimed at the casual user and are not lit at night.
Redways were intended:
"to show for the first time on a city-wide scale how travel for pedestrians and cyclists can be made convenient, safe and pleasant. & Above all, accidents involving pedestrians and cyclists - particularly children - should be greatly reduced." (Ref 1)
However, the success of the paths in all these regards is highly controversial.
Cycle ownership and use
Cycle ownership in Milton Keynes is higher than the national average, at around 1.79 cycles per household (Ref 2). It is likely that this has been encouraged by the existence of Redways and leisure routes.
Cycle use, on the other hand, is a different matter. It is evident from casual observation that cycling is not a commonplace activity in the town. In most places Redways and leisure routes are little used and it is possible to travel many miles without seeing a cyclist.
Cycling accounts for only 3 per cent of journeys to work in Milton Keynes (Ref 3) . For these journeys, the grid roads and local roads are each preferred by nearly a quarter of cyclists, leaving the Redways with a little over a half of cycling trips (Ref 4) . The Redways do not seem to have had a special influence on people choosing to cycle for this purpose.
Furthermore cycle use for journeys to work is lower in Milton Keynes than in neighbouring Aylesbury Vale (4.0%), and significantly less than in Mid Bedfordshire (16.6%). Neither of the latter districts has a cycle path network.
The ease of making journeys by car in Milton Keynes is very likely a disincentive to cycle, but around a quarter of households do not have access to a car and in a large proportion of other households weekday car use is restricted to one person. Bus services in Milton Keynes are commonly regarded as poorer than in most towns, which might be expected to result in cycle use being more significant.
Comprehensive data about cycling for leisure in Milton Keynes is not available, although cycling is perceived only as a leisure activity by most people. Isolated counts suggest that even in favourable circumstances more than about a dozen cyclists an hour on most leisure routes is unusual. The principal exception to this is at Willen Lake, a parkland area, where on fine summer Sunday afternoons a moderate number of families cycle, but most of these arrive by car even from within Milton Keynes.
Although cycle sales are buoyant in Milton Keynes, so is the second-hand market. Cycle dealers report that many cycles they sell are returned after a few months with less than 100 miles of use. It seems that the experience of using Redways has not convinced these people that cycling should be an ongoing activity for them.
Most people perceive motor traffic to be the main danger to cyclists. Cycle paths such as the Redways, which keep cyclists away from motor vehicles, are therefore thought de-facto to be the safest routes for cyclists to use. In Milton Keynes considerable evidence has accumulated to challenge this view.
Stats 19 statistics
The most frequently cited data on traffic accidents is that gathered by the Police, using Stats 19 forms, and collated by the Highway Authority.
It is known that many accidents involving cyclists are not reported to the Police, but this is especially the case for accidents that occur on cycle paths where fewer than 3 per cent of accidents are believed to be reported (Ref 5). In particular, accidents that do not involve a motor vehicle are rarely recorded even when serious.
In Milton Keynes this situation has been aggravated by a frequent unwillingness on the part of the Police to accept accident reports from cyclists, especially when off-road. One fatality to a cyclist was not recorded as a cycling accident.
Notwithstanding these shortcomings, the Stats 19 statistics have recorded a considerable number of Redway injuries over the years. Table 1 lists the comparative accident performance of Redways, local roads and grid roads in the new town area.
|Year||Grid road||Local road||Redway|
|1988||13 (2)||22 (5)||13 (3)|
|1989||19 (2)||18 (3)||13 (3)|
|1990||26 (7)||13 (1)||18 (1)|
|1991||15 (2)||12 (0)||9 (1)|
|1992||12 (1)||19 (0)||17 (1)|
|1993||13 (1)||24 (1)||13 (1)|
|1994||25 (1)||16 (1)||24 (4)|
|1995||13 (1)||20 (0)||26 (6)|
|1996||16 (2)||21 (1)||10 (0)|
|1997||20 (3)||23 (1)||28 (4)|
Cyclist accidents 1988 - 1997
(Serious and fatal in brackets)
There have been as many, or more, serious accidents on Redways as on grid roads in five of the past 10 years, and more than on local roads in four years.
From 1987 to 1998 there were six fatalities to cyclists using Redways. Another cyclist was killed riding along a footway, having used this in preference to a low-trafficked road after leaving a Redway. There was also one death to a pedestrian using a Redway to cross a local road. By comparison, there was only one road cyclist fatality in the same area and period - a young girl who crossed a grid road at night out of fear of using a dark Redway.
Five of the cyclist fatalities was as a result of a collision with a motor vehicle. In the other two fatalities, no other vehicle was involved. In one case youths had placed a tree across a path at night, and in the other the cause is unclear, but drink was a factor.
Although the raw Stats 19 statistics take no account of the relative mileage cycled on the three types of highway, it is probable that this is more than outweighed by the considerable underreporting of Redway accidents.
An insight into unreported as well as reported accidents can be obtained from data collected by the Accident & Emergency department at Milton Keynes Hospital, and as summarised in Table 2. The distribution of cyclists injured is approximately equal between adults and children (under 17 years).
Cyclists attending A&E
Milton Keynes Hospital
It should be noted that accidents to Redway cyclists at road crossings are, for administrative reasons, recorded as road accidents. Also the road and 'other' statistics cover a geographical area much larger than the new town, to which Redways are restricted.
The ordinary hospital data is itself subject to underreporting and includes no information about injury severity. Two hospital-based surveys have looked into cyclist injuries in greater detail.
A one-month survey in 1991 (Ref 6) revealed 14 cyclist casualties on Redways, three of which resulted in serious injury. By comparison, in the Milton Keynes new town area there was just one slight injury on local roads and none at all on grid roads. There were also a further 15 Redway casualties recorded which have not been satisfactorily explained but which may have involved pedestrians or cyclists. Two pedestrians are known to have been injured on Redways during this month, one as a result of a collision with a cyclist.
A longer survey (Ref 7) took place from April to July 1992, during which period at least 281 people attended Accident & Emergency after a cycle accident. The distribution of accident locations is shown in Table 3. Once more, accidents to Redway cyclists at road junctions are recorded under road, and the road and 'other' accidents embrace a much larger geographical area. It is noteworthy that only 7 of the 13 grid road accidents involved a motor vehicle, and in one of these instances the cyclist was using one of the few at-grade Redway crossings.
|Other main road||8|
Location of cycle accidents April - July 1992
MK General Hospital
In 1993 a survey (Ref 8) asked cyclists about their accident experience in the previous year. The great majority of respondents were adults, so this section may be more indicative of adult experience than that of children.
Overall 27 per cent of respondents had suffered an injury accident on a Redway, against 6 per cent on local roads and just 3 per cent on grid roads. Damage-only crashes were also more common on Redways, with 25 cases reported against one on a grid road and none on local roads.
It might be thought that the relatively low accident rate for grid roads is because few cyclists use them and those who do so are relatively experienced. The survey suggests otherwise, as 43 per cent of respondents said that they cycle on grid roads at least once a week. It must be assumed, therefore, that these roads are regularly used by cyclists of average skill, a viewpoint confirmed by casual observation.
This survey also attempted to relate accident risk to exposure. Cyclists were asked to estimate the distance they cycle in a week on each of the three kinds of highway. Inevitably there will be a wide margin of error in these estimates, but there is no reason to believe that they favour one type of highway over another. Some cyclists were able to give a very detailed breakdown of their mileage.
Based on distance cycled and accidents suffered, Table 4 shows the relative accident performance of each type of highway, normalised in terms of accidents per million kilometres cycled.
|Highway||Injury accidents||All accidents|
Accidents per 106 km cycled
1993 survey of cyclists
Note: These figures are amended from those
published in Traffic Engineering + Control
This suggests that a cyclist is more than twice as likely to suffer an accident on a Redway than on an local road, with the grid roads being the least hazardous type of highway relative to distance cycled by a wide margin. Applying the same distribution criteria to the known record of fatal accidents, a cyclist is more than twice as likely to be killed whilst using a Redway as when using a grid road.
Causes of Redway accidents
Detailed examination by the author of 188 Redway and leisure route traffic accidents (the term traffic accident being intended to relate to accidents to cyclists whilst in the course of purposeful journeys as opposed to play activities) indicates contributory factors as shown in Table 5.
|Factor||All injury accidents||Serious or fatal accidents|
Contributory factors in Redway accidents
Poor visibility (particularly at junctions) is the biggest single cause of accidents, but other common causes include sharp bends, steep gradients, bollards, slippery bridges, loose gravel and mud. In short, features which are not compatible with the inherent limitations of a bicycle. The paths are often not suitable for typical cycling speeds. Some very serious injuries on Redways have been as a result of head-on crashes between cyclists, collisions with dogs, and eye injuries from intruding vegetation, all of which are rarely encountered on roads.
When collisions take place with motor vehicles, they are more likely to be serious at Redway junctions than on roads generally. This may be because a cyclist receives a greater impact when hit side-on at a crossing than in the glancing impact typical of road collisions. Raised crossings have proved to be a mixed blessing; cars usually travel a little slower, but cyclists often take less care and dash across without properly looking.
Inexperienced cyclists are particularly vulnerable on loose or uneven surfaces, such as are found on leisure routes. Machine-laid tarmac has proved to be the only type of surface to meet the approval of most cyclists, as well as best assisting cycle control.
The very poor user discipline on Redways is a common accident cause. The flouting of basic traffic practices, such as cycling on the left and using lights at night, is much more common than on roads. Children in particular often dash across road crossings without ensuring that there is no traffic. Users, perhaps under a false illusion of safety, often underestimate the hazards that are present and frequently have not developed the special skills needed to deal with them. Redways generally demand much more skill when cycling than most roads, not less.
The effect of Redway riding on the development of good cycling skills may be much more far-reaching than is discernible by looking at Redway accidents alone. Some of the most serious road injuries are known to have been suffered by people who normally cycle on Redways but who have been forced to divert exceptionally due to path closure.
Similarly, the increasing use by cyclists of footways, even alongside very low trafficked roads, suggests that paths such as Redways are no stepping stone to gaining the skills and confidence to ride elsewhere. Footway cycling was common in Milton Keynes long before it became so in other towns. In the author's experience, the growth of this practice has more closely mirrored the growth of cycle facilities (especially cycle/pedestrian paths) than traffic.
The sharing of Redways between cyclists and pedestrians is perceived by neither user as satisfactory, and the disquiet has grown rather than subdued with time. Complaints about cyclists riding too fast, with insufficient care and without using a bell are common, and this has resulted in petitions and the erection of barriers to meet public outcry. From the other point of view, only 1 in 7 cyclists finds sharing Redways with pedestrians satisfactory, and 1 in 3 perceive pedestrians as unpredictable and a danger. As many as 48 per cent of cyclists find children playing on the paths a nuisance.
There is no clear indication of the scale of conflict between the two groups that results in injury. The 1991 hospital survey showed that there were at least two (and possibly as many as 15) pedestrian Redway accidents in a month, and the local press from time to time carries stories of people who have been hurt, sometimes seriously, by cyclists. There has been no analysis of pedestrian accidents comparable to that for cyclists.
The experience of Redways over nearly two decades is that, whilst shared use is acceptable where the numbers of either user are very small and where cyclists travel only slowly, in general cyclists and pedestrians have incompatible needs that are difficult to reconcile in close proximity.
Amongst the public at large, 'danger' using Redways is more usually synonymous with a lack of personal security than the likelihood of vehicular accident. More people feel unsafe walking alone in Milton Keynes than in any other part of the Thames Valley police area, and the least safe places are felt to be the Redways (Ref 9).
Whilst the risk of personal attack is often exaggerated by press reporting, there are special circumstances on Redways that increase fear. One is the abundant and close vegetation next to the paths which make many Redways gloomy and hostile places, particularly at night.
It is also important that a person can deal with 'suspicious' circumstances incidents which usually hold no actual threat, but where someone is acting in a way that makes an oncomer unsure. Along a road it is usually a simple matter for a cyclist or a pedestrian to pass by at a distance. On a 3m wide Redway, there is no option that will put a sufficient space between the threatened and the threatening.
Attitudes of cyclists
The 1993 survey provided a broad insight into the opinions of cyclists in Milton Keynes. A previous survey in 1984 had shown similar results. Table 6 summarises the views of respondents with regard to their satisfaction with various criteria. With the exception of perceived safety, the Redways fare less well than roads in all respects.
Effort for cycling
Finding your way
Cyclists' satisfaction with criteria
Table 7 lists the proportion of people who found certain, specified, criteria a problem when using Redways.
Problems for cyclists using Redways
Experience has shown that Redways demand much more frequent cleansing than roads. In particular, they do not benefit from the 'free' sweeping carried out by motor traffic. The monthly sweeping of Redways has proved to be woefully inadequate.
Glass and thorns on paths lead to punctures that are a considerable deterrent to cycle use. It is estimated that punctures are around seven times more common on Redways than roads.
Funding Redway maintenance has proved to be increasingly a problem as council budgets have become tight. With their low use, it is difficult to justify spending an amount sufficient to keep abreast of the problems, and even cyclists often prefer to see the funds available spent on road maintenance. The result has been a downward spiral in both quality and use, which has also had an impact on safety.
The control of works by utilities and builders has also proved to be an intractable problem. Despite much effort on the part of all the authorities, Redways are not perceived as serious highways by most people, and little care is taken to prevent damage, fouling or obstruction.
Effect on the encouragement of cycling
Despite the lack of evidence that the Redways and leisure routes have led to much more cycling overall, 69 per cent of cyclists say that the Redways have encouraged them to cycle more (Ref 10). The explanation of this paradox would appear to be that the growth in cycle use induced by the Redways is mainly in the form of occasional short-distance recreational journeys, the sum of which is small at any one time. Most people consider the Redways to be less suitable for commuting and other enabling trips.
A common story is that use of the Redways and leisure routes has led people to become disillusioned with cycling for, having found such an 'ideal' system so difficult to use and unsuited to their needs, they have concluded that it must be they who are unsuited to cycling. Leisure cycling has not generated an interest in utility cycling; rather it has reinforced perceptions of how unsuited cycling is for such journeys. It may be more difficult than ever to get people who have experienced paths such as Redways to try cycling again.
Committed cyclists have long protested that Redways marginalise cycling, and have been used to penalise cyclists' use of roads, which has led to a climate of public opinion unhelpful to the encouragement of cycling. Each year there is a press campaign against cyclists who ride on grid roads, and recently, too, against those who cycle fast on Redways. Similarly, road problems for cyclists have often been ignored because there is an alternative Redway route. Yet as restrictions and traffic volumes have increased, experience has shown that many people transfer from road cycling to the car rather than to Redways.
Public surveys have shown that most people in Milton Keynes still support cycle paths as the best way to cater for cyclists (although the proportion expressing this view is noticeably lower than in other towns), but it is difficult to see how their idealistic aspirations could be better realised.
From the traditional viewpoint, Milton Keynes has the ultimate 'worst' and 'best' for cyclists. On the one hand is a high-speed grid road network, designed solely around the needs of motor vehicles and with large roundabouts at all principal junctions. On the other an extensive, purpose-built cycle path network, segregated for the greater part from fast traffic and constructed with few limitations of space or finance. If this is not the most perfect scenario for demonstrating how cycle facilities can remove the deterrents to cycling and achieve big gains in safety then what is?
But the reality of Milton Keynes over two decades shows a different story, and one that could be no less valuable in achieving a better understanding of what really is needed to encourage cycling. Far from leading to a popularist renaissance for cycling, there is much to suggest that the Redway network has suppressed cycle use, and lowered the public's expectations of cycling as a mode of transport.
The main benefit of the Redways has been to give a limited amount of additional freedom to children (particularly in the 6 to 15 years age group), and to those who cycle involuntarily but fear traffic. This freedom is, however, without a commensurate improvement to safety. There is much to suggest that use of the paths has inhibited the skills acquisition that is essential to cycle safely and more widely.
Indeed, the most alarming experience of the Redways is their accident record. Far from realising gains in safety, they have proved over many years to be consistently less safe than even the 'worst case' grid roads for adult cyclists of average competence. This is not an accolade for the grid roads, for their safety performance is not good in relation to lower speed roads of more traditional design. But the segregated Redways have proved to be worse.
A national perspective
There is a temptation to think that Milton Keynes is a 'special case' and that its experience is irrelevant elsewhere. But the cycling infrastructure in Milton Keynes is not inferior to that being implemented in many other places and certainly the constraints are fewer. Many cycle facilities do not achieve the use predicted, and are often ignored by existing cyclists. Major projects such as the National Cycle Network are facing increasing criticism with regard to quality and danger, and for not meeting the real needs of cycling.
At the same time, cycle facility accidents seem to be becoming more common throughout the UK. This should not be a surprise. The author has trawled research from across the world (Ref 11) and found little to support the hypothesis that separating cyclists from traffic improves safety, especially when account is taken of unreported accidents. Facilities do, however, seem to increase fear of cycling elsewhere.
There seems to have been little research into the deterrent effect that facilities may have on cycle use and competence. It may be difficult to comprehend that cycle facilities could lead to an overall decline in cycling, but the experience of Milton Keynes suggests that it may be time for this to be considered more closely.
Cycling Skills and Safety Consultant,
Author of 'Cyclecraft', a guide to skilled cycling technique (pub The Stationery Office)
201 Prestbury Road
Ref 1: Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Redway. Milton Keynes, June 1980.
Ref 2: TEST. Changed Travel Better World, a comparison of Milton Keynes and Almere, Netherlands. London, 1991.
Ref 3: 1991 census data.
Ref 4: Milton Keynes Cycle Users' Group. Peartree Lane cycle and pedestrian screenline count, April 1998. These figures have not been subject to significant variation since 1987.
Ref 5: John Morgan. Future of Cycling Conference, Institution of Civil Engineers. London, 1995.
Ref 6: Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Study of Milton Keynes Cycle Accidents, 1980 - 1990. Milton Keynes, 1991.
Ref 7: Vinson, M. Bicycle Accidents in Milton Keynes. Unpublished. 1994.
Ref 8: Milton Keynes Cycle Users' Group. Survey of a broad cross-section cyclists, 1993.
Ref 9: Milton Keynes Council and Thames Valley Police. Milton Keynes Crime & Community Safety Partnership Audit Report. Milton Keynes, November 1998.
Ref 10: as Ref 8.
Ref 11: A summary of research into cycle path safety may be found at http://www.cyclecraft.co.uk/digest/research.html.
Cycling Digest Infrastructure Index