Thursday, 26 May 2011

MP talks sense on cycling

MP AND keen cyclist Martin Horwood has hit out at "rubbish" cycle routes around Cheltenham.
He said the worst were in Albion Street and Lansdown Road which he said were so ridiculous they were virtually impossible to use.
He said: "My all-time favourite is in Albion Street which allows you to cycle around in front of a bush for three seconds and then lands you straight in front of oncoming traffic.
"I work round the corner and have never seen a cyclist daft enough to use it.
"A close runner-up is in Lansdown Road where the cycle lane, if you can make it out at all, invites you to leave the road, scythe through the middle of any unfortunate pedestrians, nearby bus shelter or pedestrian crossing and then sends you shooting straight into a traffic junction."
He said areas which are for use by cyclists should be paved differently and separated from the road by a kerb instead of being marked by paint.
He said: "I would like to start building the core of a real cycle network across Cheltenham and abolish the pointless collection of painted lines that everyone ignores.
"Even though this will be expensive enough to limit us to a few new cycle lanes a year, in 20 years' time we will have a decent set of cycle lanes instead of exactly the half-baked rubbish we have now."

I am amazed. This is the first time I have read such an accurate and coherent critique of standard UK "cycle infrastructure " (otherwise known as "cycle difficilities") from such a high-profile person. For "Cheltenham", read any town or city in the UK. Our cycle infrastructure is a national disgrace and an international joke. The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, as I have mentioned before, has been set up to try to address the root causes of this. It is ridiculous that the nation that once gave the world railways and tar macadam cannot arrange a sensible bike path in the 21st century. Many in the UK cycling world, however, react differently to the failure of our authorities to create usable dedicated infrastructure for cycling. Rather than press for it to be done properly, they insist that it will never work (contrary to all the international experience), that therefore cyclists should not ask for it in the first place, and that they are better off without it. The codicil to the Cheltenham story is that the treasurer of Cheltenham Cycling Campaign is the famous John Franklin, author of Cyclecraft and similar works, and perhaps the UK's leading opponent of cycle infrastructure (amongst cyclists).
He said: "Cyclists don't want cycle routes. The best thing is the general road network which should be made more suitable."
This is no surprise to those who know anything about Franklin. He claims to speak for cyclists, but he does not. He has not been elected by anyone (except perhaps Cheltenham Cycling Campaign). He has not analysed the opinions of cyclists nationally, and his viewpoint is an extreme one, but one that has exercised a bizarre authority and hold in the UK cycling world over the years. Franklin's views and influence, and what is wrong with them, have been analysed extensively here, here, here, and here (and probably other places that I haven't spotted as well).

Back to the poor cycle facilities of the UK, and how they could be made better. Here is an example from near my house, in the London Borough of Brent.

Kingsbury Road, north Brent
Actually, this is quite a good example, by UK standards. It is quite attractively done. It is a decent attempt to re-use an unnecessarily wide stretch of pavement (probably deriving from the filling-in of a service road at some time in the past) in a shopping street by reallocating it to cyclists. It is a reasonable distance from parked car door-opening, it leaves pedestrians with enough space, and trees and necessary street furniture have been usefully retained. Now, this facility did make Warrington Cycle Campaign's Facility of the Month page once, but that was because the phone box seen in the distance here had not, at first, been moved off the track, which it now has.

No, the problem with this bit of cycle infrastructure, as with most in the UK, is that it is too small-scale and incoherent. It is finished almost before it is started. It only runs for a couple of hundred yards, at most, before we meet the famous "Give Way" markings and tactile paving so familiar to all UK cyclists as indicating the limits of each disconnected, unsatisfactory bit of infrastructure. In this case, this is the view looking the other way.

More of the Kingsbury Road cycle track
The pavement continues on from here, just as wide, for anoher 300 yards, with no change of character. It would have been perfectly possible to continue the track as far as Kingsbury underground station (which would have been very useful), or further. But that was not the intention of the planners. For reasons I cannot fathom, their intention was that cyclists should be re-directed at this point on to the road, at this pelican crossing. Here the road is typically a congested channel of moving cars with only a small gap between them and the parking. Now most seasoned urban cyclists can handle conditions of this type quite easily, as I can, but the point is, that, if you are going to do so, you might as well do so for the whole length of the road, and get into the mode and mental state of controlling the traffic in the "primary riding position"for a good length of time, rather than schizophrenically diving off the road for a hundred yards to share the pavement-level track at slow speed with shoppers, prams and old people who wonder (forgivably, but unheedingly) onto it and into your path, before giving yourself more unnecessary danger by riding unpredictably (to a motorist, who probably is unaware of the cycle markings) off it again into the road and changing mental mode again totally to one of "controlling the traffic". It is this bittiness, this schitzophrenic "we're part of the traffic, no we're not, were mixed up with the pedestrian flow, no, now we're a fast vehicle again" issue that is the main failure of typical UK small-scale and incoherent cycle facilities, and what brings them into disrepute. It is the problem underlying most of what is seen on the Warrington comedy site. My friend Paul Gannon, who had lived in The Netherlands for a time, used to refer to this as "toytown infrastructure".

The Kingsbury track has pedestrians on it most of the time because they are, understandably, not expecting cyclists. That's because there are few cyclists on it, because the facility doesn't work well. And so it goes, in circular fashion, reinforcing the design failure. Better cycle tracks, of which there are one or two examples in London, lower the track to a level below that of the pavement, thus clarifying the pavement/cycle track distinction.

Walkers on the Kingsbury track

A better-designed example, Royal College Street, Camden Town
The Royal College Street example is much longer, about 500m of continuous, uninterrupted track. This is long enough to work and to make a difference. Sadly, this is the longest continuous high-quality cycle track in London. To make a big difference to the cycling experience, such tracks need to run for miles.

Here is another example in my area, but just over the border in the Borough of Harrow. This is a supposed cycle bypass facility for a very fast and dangerous roundabout, Queensbury Circle.

Cycle track by Queensbury Circle, Harrow
This cycle track is only a few dozen yards long. There are five such, on all the corners of the five-armed roundabout. Each little bit on each arm ends either at a pedestrian crossing, or just ends with nothing. They do not connect up with any other cycle facilities on the roads. What is this supposed to do?? I have talked to Harrow Council officers about this, and they (non-cyclists, of course) think that it is a good facility. But I have never seen any cyclist use it (there are very few cyclists in this area anyway). It is totally unusable. To use it a cyclist would have to become, effectively, a pedestrian. But to do this is to abandon the advantages of having a bike (speed and efficiency), and not gain the advantages of being pedestrian (small footprint, manoeuvrability, better attitude on average from motorists, and not being encumbered with a bike). Cycling can never be made to work by making cyclists hop on and off their bikes ever few yards, dodging on to the road and off it all the time. Having to get back onto the road typically creates more danger from motor vehicles than staying on it all the time. The other unsatisfactoriness with these attempted "solutions" is that they take the cycle space away from pedestrians, not motorists, who already have most of it. At Royal College Street the space for the track was taken out of the road. But in the Queensbury example above it is seen that the pavement has been completely replaced by the cycle track. So where do the pedestrians go? They are actually supposed to be behind the cars on the left, on the pavement behind the service road. Which means they have to keep crossing service roads to get round the junction, which makes it more dangerous for them. They prefer to occupy, of course, the space that has been painted as the cycle track. But it doesn't matter, because the cycle track is meaningless, being unused by cyclists, being unusable. And yet the (non-cycling) officers and councillors think this is a good cycle facility. Unfortunately, they lack the most basic clue about how a good cycle facility would actually work.

It is possible to satisfactorily resolves the conflicts between pedestrians, cyclists and motor vehicles at roundabouts. The Dutch have been working on this for decades: see this post by David Henbrow for the details. It is not very expensive and does not require huge engineering. It does require some engineering, and it would also require changes to the UK's Highway Code and possibly legal changes as well. You can see how it needs to work from this video of a roundabout in The Netherlands.

Note how the Dutch solution is smooth, large-scale (or maybe "appropriate scale") and continuous for the cyclists, not bitty and start-stop like the British attempts. Note also the important point that the Dutch track operates one way only, in contrast to the Queensbury one, in the direction of flow of the motor traffic, for logicality and predictability of movements for all road users. Note the carrying into effect of a simple principle that the slower road user is always to the right (would be left in UK), so, counted from the right, we get pedestrian space, cycle track, road. Predictable and logical, unlike the illogical mix-ups usually invented by UK planners when they attempt to get to grip with bike and pedestrian flows.

The need for legal changes before we can get this sort of thing here arises because it is necessary to establish, as seen in the Dutch video, and explained in the Henbrow link, clear legal priority for the cycle track where it crosses the arms of the junction. UK law on this point is currently muddy. Most experts think, however, it does not allow priority for cycle tracks over roads that they cross. But this is critical to making cycle tracks work, both at roundabouts and other types of junctions. Which is where we come back to our MP for Cheltenham. He clearly has some understanding of these matters. Can he start to persuade his parliamentary colleagues that local authorities need more help to create workable cycling solutions? They need the correct guidance, the correct standards, and they, and cyclists, need the support of the Highway Code and the law in making the facilities work. We are about 50–60 years behind the Dutch at the moment in this field. They could save us a lot of effort and give us, er, a crash course, to use an inappropriate phrase, if only our national politicians would let them. But if we go on thinking, with John Franklin, that we know all the answers in the UK, we'll keep getting further behind.

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