Cycling in the wrong direction

John Franklin

This article was written at the invitation of Traffic Engineering + Control for the Opinion column of its May 2001 issue

Cycle facilities are being introduced in Britain as never before. Government has confirmed its commitment to triple cycle use by 2010 and most local authorities have some sort of pro-cycling policy with schemes on an order paper with increasing regularity.

But whilst the quantity of cycling infrastructure is ever increasing, the average quality of what is provided is low. Many highway authorities still put most of their cycling budget into moving cyclists onto footways and other shared-use paths, which are problematic enough for people on foot, let alone for someone moving five times faster.

As the limitations of this approach become apparent, so cycle lanes are becoming la mode. Typically well under the recommended 2m width, these usually give cyclists less room than with no facility, as traffic drives up to the lane marking and may pass faster because its way ahead is now clear. Centre islands and road narrowings similarly decrease that most essential of all requirements for comfortable cycling  space, and introduce conflict where previously there was none.

Minimum standards have become the norm and the DETR/IHT guidelines*  the closest there is to decent objective standards for cycling (though criticised in parts for being too lax!)  are too often dismissed as 'pie in the sky' in a congested urban environment.

Feedback indicates that an increasing number of cyclists are becoming annoyed about the deterioration in the cycling environment. Roads that were tolerable, if not exactly pleasant, before cycle schemes were introduced have become much less acceptable with narrow cycle lanes added. There has also been a marked upsurge in aggression from motorists towards cyclists in the presence of facilities, for it is not surprising if some drivers expect cyclists to keep out of their way if any separate facility is provided. But so many new facilities make cycling more difficult and hazardous. They have led established cyclists to avoid particular roads in a way that traffic alone never did. Clearly the verdict of cyclists is being demonstrated more generally, for questions have reached Parliament as to why so many do not use the facilities that are being provided. The Cycle Campaign Network has launched a Campaign For High Standards.

Of course, most roads simply don't have sufficient space to provide wide cycle lanes or good quality facilities. The answer, however, is not to provide whatever might be squeezed in, but to tackle problems (where these really exist) in a different way. In particular, cyclists should be assisted to integrate with traffic through measures such as speed reduction and improved traffic management. In fact, the 'hierarchy of solutions' advocated by DETR/IHT puts these options first, with separate facilities of any kind a last resort. The segregation of cyclists is at best a very controversial subject, disliked by many existing cyclists and giving little real assistance to newcomers. It may well be that they do as much to put people off cycling, by reinforcing the falsehood that cycling with traffic is a 'dangerous' activity.

For the past two years it has not been possible to declare a winner in the engineering category of the National Cycling Awards. Despite the best of intentions, schemes fell down when judged against reasonable standards, and in many cases new hazards had been introduced. Cycling schemes that discourage cycling by making it more difficult or less pleasant are worse than no scheme at all. It is time to reconsider whether we're moving in the right direction.

John Franklin
Consultant in Cycling Skills and Safety, Cheltenham

*: Cycle-friendly Infrastructure, DETR/IHT, 1996.

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