Monday, 5 March 2012

Cycle Segregation: A Way Forward?

I cycle (you know this already). I cycle on roads, off roads and on cycle lanes and paths. I tour, commute and shop on one bike, play on my road bike and MTB. I cover about 3000 miles a year. So I think I have a fair bit of experience of cycling provision in the UK. Most cycle paths/lanes are of poor design and quality - painted lip service to cycle provision - and a lot of UK urban roads designed with the motorist in mind and no thought for cyclists at all. You have to be confident, quick and thick skinned to use some of these roads. I am  a cycle convert though. I am happy to use my bikes in traffic (despite my recent left hook). I will cycle whatever and make the best of it. It doesn't mean I like it all the time.

Most non or occasional cyclists I talk to will not countenance cycling on the majority of UK main roads and cycling infrastructure. They find the idea mad, dangerous and suicidal. I understand why they feel this way. I will not let my young daughter cycle on UK roads, with my supervision, so why should I expect others to let their children? Why would a slow, under-confident 'leisure' cyclist choose to cycle a mile or so to the shops along a busy road when they can drive? How can these potential cyclists be encouraged to get on their bikes?

The Dutch, whatever your thoughts on how they do it, do promote cycling across a broad demographic. Up to the 70s however the car reigned supreme there as well. Some UK cyclists rubbish the Dutch style model for use in the UK despite their success. One of the main elements they seem to oppose is the segregation of cyclists and other traffic - completely separate lanes for cyclists rather than painted lanes on existing roads  common in much of the UK. They argue there isn't space and it will cost too much to provide. However, I fear what some cyclists are really concerned about is the loss of the right to use the road because of the provision of segregated cycling lanes and paths. I can totally understand this fear. I would much rather use the road than what passes for cycle paths/lanes on the whole. But there are some UK roads I am legally entitled to cycle on now I will not use anymore. I am just not that quick or confident to cycle on 50-60 mph dual carriageways for instance! In essence these roads are already banned to me. Just what is wrong with having quality cycle paths running alongside this type of road I wonder?

The suggestion segregation would not work in the UK in total nonsense IMHO. Promoting segregated cycle infrastructure in the UK as not about digging up and rebuilding all routes or barring cyclists from the roads. It is about applying selective segregation where it can work and would make a difference. In other places different measures would be needed to make cycling safer. Measures like: traffic calming, reducing speed limits, shared space schemes, increased permeability for cyclists, reducing HGV use at certain times/locations and so on and so on.

Increasing the number of cyclists and making it easier to cycle rather than use a car are things that can go a long way to aiding the environment and improving health. Segregation is just one tool in the box to increase cycling numbers. It should not be made out to be unsuitable for the UK because of the vested interests of a few fit and confident cyclists who fear they will lose out. Cycling should be for all who want it and the infrastructure should encourage this not and not limit it.


  1. However, I fear what some cyclists are really concerned about is the loss of the right to use the road because of the provision of segregated cycling lanes and paths.

    The simplest answer to that question I read somewhere on David Hembrow's blog...

    ...if the infrastructure where provided was up to Dutch standards, why on earth would anyone want to ride on the road?

  2. Let's not forget that the UK has a national network of some 15000 miles of signed routes for cyclists and is rich in ancient byways and lanes that carry no or little traffic. In terms of law and infrastructure, I believe cyclists in the UK can enjoy an enviable balance of safety and freedom. It is the ignorant and dangerous behaviour of a small minority of motorists and cyclists that demands remedy. The Germans have their "trust principle" that attempts to instil mutual trust between motorist and cyclist... could be a much cheaper and effective solution than segregation?

  3. Similar story in the Indian panorama too. Most city planners have not even heard of Cycle Segregation. Some highways do have bike-lanes but here, bike means motorbike and these lanes would be mostly taken over by rickshaws and sometimes even small cars!To gain the right to use the road, we have to claim the road in the first place. Invade it risking our own security. Sad story.

  4. In terms of law and infrastructure, I believe cyclists in the UK can enjoy an enviable balance of safety and freedom.

    Yes, but look at it practically Chris - to replace a car for short journeys (shops/school/short commutes/social trips & visits) with a bicycle...for most people that just isn't the case because they don't live along sleepy ancient byways. They live in built up areas of one sort or another :>/

  5. I grew up in the urban sprawl that is the Black County but well served with the biggest network of canal paths in the country. I lived in Uxbridge until a year or so ago and could cycle into central London safely via a combination of on and off road cycle lanes. I now live in Reading, which I think also qualifies as a built up area, and can cycle in pretty much any direction along cycle routes, byways and lanes. I am "most people"?

    1. Chris.

      I am not suggesting by any means that byways, lanes, canal paths and cycle lanes do not have a place in the cycle infrastructure but simply that we should have other options as well. Options that would encourage more people on to bicycles by making the infrastructure much more attractive for irregular cyclists.

      I know, where they exist, canal paths and old rail lines can provide useful traffic free cycle routes. However, even when they go where you want them to they are not always the most direct route and sometimes are difficult to negotiate in places. Quiet lanes don't get me around urban Manchester very much. The off road cycle paths near me are fun but not a viable option for most commuters, being muddy and circuitous. The cycle lanes are pathetic - too narrow, full of potholes, broken grids and general detritus, often blocked by parked cars and likely to disappear at pinch points just when they might be most useful.

      You and I are able to cycle on the roads as they are. A lot of people simply will not do that. Nor do they want to cycle an off road route that might double their journey distance compared to using a car. I understand that.

      Some fast A roads could easily have segregated cycle facilities running alongside. If such decent facilites existed I would happily use them and I'm sure they would be attractive to others as well. If that meant I was not allowed to cycle on that particular stretch of road, well that would be a small price to pay in my book. We don't cycle on motorways and some dual carriageways are just as fast as motorways so that would really be no loss to me. Is it to you?

      The segregation I envisage is targeted. It is an addition to the infrastructure where it can work. It does not call for cyclists to lose the right to use the road in general.

  6. In fact, only about 21% of the total Dutch road kilometrage is flanked by cycle paths: mostly arterial routes between towns and busy suburban streets (town centres tend to be pedestrianised anyway). Over the rest of the country roads are dual-use with a bike path painted down each side. The system works very well because wherever motor traffic is fast and heavy enough to threaten cyclists it simply can't get at them.

    The special pleading of our sport-commuters aside, I can understand segregated cycle tracks being viewed with some suspicion in the UK: on past form, many suspect that what we would get would be a sub-standard jumble of ill-planned, poorly maintained paths designed purely to get us off the roads. Likewise there's an understandable fear that Mr. Average British Motorist would interpret the existence of cycle tracks to mean that cyclists had been barred from all public highways regardless of whether they have a track running alongside them or not. But really, whether we like it or not, it's the only way ahead if we want to expand cycling beyond its present fit-youngish-male demographic. If we want the motoring lobby to acquiesce in width being taken from "their" carriageway to build bike tracks, then the only way to sell it to them is by taking bicycles out of the traffic flow on main routes. "Tracks of our own plus the public highway whenever we feel like it" is simply not going to be saleable.

    Please bear in mind that we have de facto exclusion of cyclists already on our main A-roads. Though it's not technically illegal to cycle on it, anyone who tried riding along the A12 near where I live would have their life expectancy measured in minutes not hours. Having no cycle tracks, the road is in practice closed to bicycles already.

    1. Vocus.

      Thanks for your considered reply. We are of the same mind.

      The de facto exclusion principle is something I have tried to explain to some road users but they just don't get it. It is my fault for being in danger because, a) I'm not fast enough, b) not taking primary, or c) daring to use that particular stretch of road with all that traffic (despite there being no actual legal restriction on cyclists).

      This little incident put me off certain types of roads forever. I now have a de facto ban of my very own in place. Lord knows what bans already exist in the minds of occasional/irregular cyclists. And, my point is, there are no practical reasons why quality, segregated cycle paths could not run alongside this road. Put decent ones in here and how many cyclists would choose to mix it with the traffic? Not many I reckon. It comes down to political and societal will at the end of the day.

  7. This defacto segregation due to fear extends for most people, sadly, across a great deal of the road network.

    While in the NL only 21% of the road network has segregated paths, you'd find that it's an extremely well used 21%. I'd like to see what percentage of kilometres cycled that actually relates to.

    I lived in Amsterdam and even in the city I used cycle paths a lot. Not in the very centre - the medieval core if you like - but outside that there are still a lot of paths. The clear guidelines on when segregation is required are very effective and you are pretty much guaranteed (in an urban context at least) that if there is no segregation, then there will be only a relatively small amount of very slow traffic.

  8. Your post resonated strongly with me, to the point that I can imagine having written it myself. I too am middle-aged (56). I commute a modest distance to work - 3 miles daily each way part of which is at either end of a train journey - and I probably also cover about 3,000 miles a year including other rides. My commute is a quiet lane at home end and a mixture of side road and busy main road at the London end, including the notorious Blackfriars Bridge.

    Over the years I have been doing this, my attitude has changed. Just as (I am pleased to say) my driving style has become more cautious and less pushy, I am now finding that on a bike, I am slowing down, becoming more nervous, and opting to get off and push in some places where previously I would have barrelled through in the saddle.

    I can cope with London because I am on the road when traffic is at its most congested and so slowest, and I can thread my way through quiet side roads - with some penalty in extra distance - rather than using the principal routes. I can cope with the town centre roads and streets at home, to pop down to Waitrose for example, because they are not really roads to anywhere in particular so stay quiet.

    And that's it. I would never contemplate cycling on any other A or B road in my home area, least of all a trunk road such as the A3 which passes not far away. I have been trying to get the attention of the Highways Agency to convert a footway alongside the A3 into a shared-use cycle path. It would be substandard but could be a start - certainly it could not be accused of compromising bolder cyclists' rights to ride the A3 itself, because no-one ever does.

    I don't hold out much hope though for much happening to the benefit of cyclists in my corner of Surrey. The big thing which fills the letters pages of the local rag at the moment (and if you want a blethering rant from some saloon bar bore, look no further than a Home Counties local newspaper) is parking - increasing charges for off-street car parks and introducing carges for on-street parking, especially around the railway station. In the same issue of our local paper you can have a letters page full of moaning about having to pay 20% more for car parking, or 80p per hour instead of nil to park on the street, and a front page reporting the abolition of yet another rural bus service, with attendant damage to a village community, loss of trade for its shops, and isolation of its young people from friends and jobs.

    Surrey CC currently has a deficit on its budget for parking enforcement. In other words, simply patrolling the streets to ensure that selfish motorists don't park where they block dropped kerbs, emergency access, bus stops, or residents' parking, costs money to the council taxpayer. Revenues raised from parking charges can't be used to subsidise the council tax (as some ignorami apparently believe) but they can be used to balance the parking account so that the subsidy doesn't work in reverse, and perhaps some funds will remain to keep those rural bus services alive. Or they could be used to provide some decent cycle infrasructure for young people who can't afford cars.

    The selfishness and meanness of some drivers (mainly more affluent and middle aged, much like me) is beyond belief.

    1. It's something you often see when some long-established pattern of thinking and behaving is on its last legs: the more plain it becomes that the bloody thing no longer works, the more passionately its devotees demand yet more of it. You used to hear much the same thing from old-style British Communists in the 1980s apropos of the Great Soviet Experiment once the tank tracks had palpably fallen off it: "Communism hasn't failed, comrade, it was simply never applied rigorously enough..."

      Over the next couple of years we may therefore expect to hear quite a lot of the argument that what we need is not fewer and smaller cars but more and bigger ones, and not cycle tracks but more eight-lane motorways; and not pedestrianised town centres but more car parks: much as in the USA every successive high-school shooting brings out the loonies bellowing that what we need is not fewer guns but more of them (...likewise that there's no such thing as peak oil, because some Russian professor or other says that the world is producing new oil all the time. Apparently). But it'll be increasingly shrill and desperate as petrol climbs inexorably towards £1.50, then £2.00 the litre.

      They've lost the argument and reality is winning: but they'll be in denial about it for quite some time yet.

    2. Paul.

      Happy to oblige. You can write the next one!