Monday, 20 August 2012

A day at the seaside, and the ghosts of the city

I saw a lot of people on bikes on Saturday. Many of them were on National Cycle Network (NCN) Route 2 along the Sussex coast, between Worthing and Brighton, explored by the group I was with on the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain Infrastructure Safari led by Jim Davis. NCN 2 here is largely traffic-free, and it is, of course, only traffic-free space that gets people on bikes as a mass movement, as Sustrans, the charity behind the NCN, have always realised. It is sad that so many compromises and manifest inadequacies exist on all the NCN routes that I have seen, however, and this is particularly true of NCN 2 on the Sussex coast, fitted in cheaply inbetween existing infrastructure with inadequate capacity and too many conflicts and "cyclist dismount" locations (one would be too many).

This failure to accommodate the demand for leisure and commuting cycling space adequately in the UK limits the take-up of cycling, when we should be doing everything we can to encourage people to be more active. It is a crazy situation that comes down to the existence of inadequate political structures for delivering and funding desirable changes to our environment. To be attempting to develop a national stratgic infrastructure through a charity rather than government agency is crazy: and to say that is in no way to do down the great and noble efforts that Sustrans employees and volunteers make to at least deliver something.

This isn't working: trying to squeeze both pedestrians and NCN 2 on to the prom at Worthing
Jim Davis seemingly going apoplectic over inadequate infrastructure. The pink pavement and the grey beyond it is all supposed to be shared by pedestrians and two directions of cycle traffic
Money cannot really be spent and space cannot really be found for cycling on the Sussex coast, so this is the self-defeating result in too many places
Silly width restriction and crummy quality generally of NCN 2 at Lancing
It is particularly sad to see penny-pinching and compromises that will reverberate down future decades being built into new, expensive infrastructure. At the quaint town of Shoreham-by-Sea, the route needs to cross the harbour. A bridge built in the early 20th century about 1.5 metres wide currently carries two directions of pedestrians, cyclists (dismounted of course), buggy passengers, wheelchair and mobility scooter users, and pets. On a busy day the result is of course great frustration. The good news is that this bridge is going to be replaced with a new one costing £7 million, and work has already started. The bad news is that the new bridge will be only 4 metres wide. To many people I expect a 4-metre wide bridge for non-motorised transport sounds generous. But it is obvious to anyone looking at the situation now on a day like Saturday that is is not. It is a short-sighted penny-pinching compromise. Two directions of cycle travel over a long bridge on their own would need 3.5 metres, and the remaining 0.5 metres is not enough for the rest. We never seem to make bridges for non-motoried modes wide enough in the UK. We used to be a nation of great engineers: why can't we learn about this?

The existing bridge across Shoreham Harbour on the left, and the beginnings of the new bridge on the right
Some bikes look like this: another reason you need enough width on cycle paths and bridges
There is more frustration where the route is taken through Shoreham docks, on more 1.5m-wide gangways that are now required, on a busy day, to take a large volume of cyclists and pedestrians, and which are closed (opened up) to allow boats through the locks. This infrastructure was never designed for having a national cycle route on it, and though it is fun to watch the docks in action, if you are not in a hurry, it is poor that this is all we can achieve. It is symptomatic of the way the NCN has been cobbled together from mostly existing bits and pieces, rather than actually having been planned and built as the real national prestige project it should have been.

More dismounting and waiting, and waiting, at Shoreham docks.
What's needed at Shoreham docks is something like this wheeling-channel bridge provided for when a lifting bridge is up in Groningen, Netherlands.
My main criticism of Sustrans (and I make this criticism of their concepts in London as well as on the south coast) is that in the many places where there is no alternative to putting the routes on main roads, they seem to shy away from pushing for real changes to these roads (real changes meaning not just dabbing paint on the pavements), and they seem to have no adequate concept of how cyclists (including young children) should be accommodated there.This leads to a lot of what Paul Gannon used to call "toytown engineering", which may not be directly Sustrans' fault but that of local authority officers implementing their route proposals, but still seems a fundamental inadequacy of the NCN project. "Toytown engineering" refers to the familiar meaningless, isolated, little constellations of white lines and squiggles on roads and pavements that indicate impossible, impractical or foolish cycling manoeuvres and which baffle all road-users. This kind of nonsense is also very influential in spreading the myth amongst "serious" cyclists that "cycle routes (or cycle paths) are slow". They are only slow if they are no good, and Dutch cycle paths are very far from being slow.

Toytown engineering on NCN 2 in Brighton
The safari did visit some better cycling infrastructure, however. Where it reaches Brighton seafront, NCN 2 works better on its paint-segregated path as it is further from the sea than it is in Worthing.

NCN 2 at Brighton
Furthermore, the route connects to two other good pieces of infrastructure in the town, which show different effective methods of segregating cyclists from cars on main roads. The first is on Grand Avenue and The Drive and consists of one-way cycle tracks on both sides of the road at carriageway level, separated from the carriageway by car parking outside kerbed segregating strips about 1 metre wide. The segregating strips reduce the chances of cyclists getting hit by opening car doors, which is in any case unlikely because the parking is in the direction of travel, so it is only a passenger door that could open into a cyclists' path. One their wider section in Grand Avenue these tracks are wide enough to allow one cyclist to overtake another.

The beginning of the northbound cycle track on Grand Avenue
Grand Avenue and The Drive connect the seafront route to the other new facility, the route on Old Shoreham Road, created this year by the Green-controlled Brighton City Council. This consists of single direction segregated tracks on a road that passes three schools, the space having been taken by greatly narrowing the previously-existing carriageway. These tracks are at an intermediate level between carriageway and pavement, and are good-quality, with a smooth surface, and there is no adjacent parking. The side roads are either closed-off, with mode filters that allow cyclists through, or they have give-way lines which give the track priority. The centre line of the road has been removed, and this, combined with the narrowing, and the provision of a very wide zebra crossing on one place, has, according to local accounts, greatly reduced traffic speeds. At one traffic lights, an advanced green phase for cyclists reduces the potential for conflict between cyclists going straight on on the track and traffic turning left from the carriageway.

There are still problems with these facilities and they are not up to Dutch standards consistently. There is no help for cyclists turning from the track on The Drive to the track on Old Shoreham Road at the traffic lights, the right-turn here being executed in the normal UK fashion, with a cyclist needing to pull out across the lanes of general traffic. However there is enough here that is pioneering (for the UK), and effective, for these facilities to be given high marks.

Old Shoreham Road
Wide zebra crossing on Old Shoreham Road
But most of the people I saw on bikes on Saturday were not on the cycle paths of Sussex. They were  on the roads of East London, on which I made a journey for a different purpose on Saturday night. It was one of the hottest nights of the year, and everybody who had not left the stifling city for the seaside or the countryside seem to have decided to party that night. London Fields in Hackney was virtually one huge, spontaneous, communal barbecue. I suppose because people had decided to party, and drink alcohol, and thus could not drive (the suppression of drunk driving being one of the great UK road policy successes of modern times), that this, combined with the weather, and the temporary exodus of cars from the streets due to the Olympics and other summer factors, combined to produce a situation where people seemed to be on their bikes, at night, in huge numbers throughout Islington and Hackney.

These night-time cyclists are the ghosts of the city. They are not generally your type of dedicated, highly-equipped commuter cyclist. They will largely disappear when the traffic returns on Monday morning. Most people won't cycle when there are large volumes of motor traffic present. But for a while on a hot, relatively car-free Saturday night in East London these cyclists seemed spontaneously to have taken over the streets.

The lack of motor traffic did not mean conditions were very safe. I experienced a conflict with an aggressively-driven car at a pinch-point on a road by London Fields, where the driver did not seem to be able to predict, as I could, that we would both arrive at the pinch-point at exactly the same time, and that therefore he would not be able to pass me. And I witnessed plenty of danger due to fast driving on main roads at junctions. Getting large numbers of cyclists on to the streets and reducing motor congestion does not improve the behaviour of drivers of itself; there is no "safety in numbers" for cyclists in this sense, as the rising casualty rate for cyclists at the same time as a rise in cycling rates illustrates. The apparently better behaviour of Dutch drivers is not due to the large numbers of cyclists in the Netherlands, it is forced on them by better infrastructure design (for example, narrower carriageways and tighter and better-controlled junctions).

Despite the under-resourcing of cycling infrastructure, the problems of the political structures, and the absurd policies of London's Mayor (his latest brainwave being not fixing the roads but providing cycle paths alongside railway lines – and do we have surface railway lines crossing central London? – no we don't), there are some limited grounds for optimism about the future of cycling in Britain. There are one or two examples about of satisfactory infrastructure which could  be copied and extended. There is a massive popular desire for safe cycling space, particularly from families, which could start to translate into noticeable political pressure. There is the general feeling arising from the Olympic summer that it is the duty of government to provide for people being physically active. There is a more coherent world-view and platform from the various cycling organisations, as was apparent in the debate on cycling held in the London Assembly last month, part of their enquiry into the subject. And when unusual circumstances occur, the emergence of bikes in the inner London boroughs (but not yet in the outer ones) can be quite striking – possibly the austerity of recession also has something to do with this. But which way it will all go is still hard to predict.


  1. Your "this isn't working" comment about the Prom at Worthing shows the too-narrow bit of NCN2 east of the end of the Prom at Splash Point. In fact most of the time this works OK, although you can't ride a bike fast here (which is probably a Good Thing, and fine for most people on bikes) you can almost always make progress without needing to stop and get off.

    The Prom itself is working extremely well with shared-use cycling where it's wide enough: it's like a road with no cars! It's also, amazingly, about the only place in the whole of West Sussex where you can take your children for a pleasant bike ride to the shops.

    In both cases, if "working" means persuading people to use bicycles for local journeys instead of driving cars, then even with it's obvious limitations, NCN2 and Worthing Prom are a massive success. People of all shapes and sizes, on a variety of bicycles to match, are now using the south coast cycle route along here at all times of day and night. Yes, we need to build on this, and yes, the tracks need to be at least the minimum standard width, but it's showing that if you build safe routes away from cars people really will flock to them on bicycles in large numbers.

  2. Take a look at the Glasgow Connect2 project for an example of some Sustrans engineering which looks a lot like the tracks you helped build in Camden. It can be done.....