This blog is London-based, and so nearly all the cycling discussion on it is about London. I have often thought of, and intended to write, articles concerning more rural areas, but I never seem to get round to doing them, because other things happen, locally or nationally.
However, I was reminded of something when I read, through Twitter, on Wednesday, this very brief and sketchy news of the death of a cyclist in Shurdington, near Cheltenham:
A cyclist has died in hospital following a collision on the Shurdington Road in Cheltenham yesterday afternoon.
The collision happened at approximately 3.05pm at the traffic light controlled crossing between Cotswold Van Hire and Shurdington Car Sales and involved a cyclist and a red mini.
The cyclist, an 87-year-old local man, was taken by ambulance to Frenchay Hospital in Bristol but sadly passed away a few hours later.This gentleman was probably the 115th cyclist to be killed on the roads of the UK this year. What I was reminded of was the fact that I visited Shurdington last year. I cycled there from Cheltenham Station, and I took a few pictures, with the idea of writing a blogpost about the standard UK rural or semi-rural environment for cycling, and what needs to be learned from Dutch planning if we are ever to improve it. This sad death, though potentially unrelated to my points, brought this back to mind.
Shurdington is a village in the Cotswold Hills between Cheltenham and Gloucester, four miles from Cheletenham town centre. The only way to get to it from Cheltenham is on the A46. There is little more than a mile of green belt between the edge of the Cheltenham suburbs and the beginning of the village. Then there is only another mile of so of the A46 before you come to villages that are suburbs of Gloucester. The A46 is the only way to get there also. All this is so typical of so many villages in England: sandwiched between larger centres, preserved as marginally rural by the preservation of tracts of green gelt but part, in reality, of a much larger urban sprawl. Exactly the same could be said about most villages in the denser parts of the Netherlands. The overall population density is probably similar.
|Map of Shurdington, from Google|
Here is a Google Streetview picture of the location of the fatal crash, according to the report. It's where it says "Cheese Rollers Inn" on the map above, on the A46 towards the bottom of the map.
It's a nice enough village, with a very pointed church spire, a village green, and charming, almost traffic-free lanes (because they lead nowhere) that would be fine for cycling.
But what's wrong with Shurdington is the classic thing found in a thousand and one English villages: it has as it's spine, one straight, not very wide, heavily-trafficked through-road with narrow pavements: the A46. There's no other way to get anywhere, and no alternatives for cyclists, walkers and horsesriders; there is no space for cycling, and absolutely nothing to physically slow traffic down, just "30" signs, "slow" signs, and red painted "slow" markings on the carriageway.
It's horrible to cycle on. The next picture includes the only other cyclists I spotted on my trip. The pavement is not officially "shared", but I cannot blame them for cycling on it.
As can be seen, in the gap between the village and the town, there's space by the road to provide another footpath, or to provide a cycle path instead, but this is not done. In the village itself the properties are close to the road, and it would not be possible to create cycle paths.
The reaction of any English local authority to this deficiency of safe pace for cycling, if it considered it at all, and tried to remedy it, would almost certainly be the creation of shared-use pavements as defined in the 1980 Highways Act. In other words, it would just legalise, with signs, what the man and child on bikes in the picture above are doing. But this, the standard UK approach, the only one the government really empowers and encourages local authorities to adopt, would be the wrong approach.
For one thing, though not too bad on the fringes, where the man and child were when I took the photo, you would get issues in the village centre (where the crash occurred), with the many crossovers and other activities. For another thing, this would not address the real issue: the untrammelled domination of the village by through-going motor traffic often, or perhaps usually, doing over the speed limit.
I visited Shurdington just after I had been on the study tour in Assen, in the Netherlands, run by David Hembrow, author of A view from the cycle path, with other members of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain. It struck me as a salutory comparison to we had seen of the Dutch semi-rural environment on that tour: so typical of the UK, and so unsatisfactory by comparison. I've shown these pictures before, but here they are again, to make that comparison.
Here we have the road to Loon, a village near Assen. This road has far lower traffic than the A46, but, between the towns, where there is space, wide, excellent cycle paths are provided on both sides, well separated from the road. They could be walked on, but they are not engineered as pavements on which cyclists are allowed to ride (UK-style shared-use paths), they are engineered as cycle paths on which people are allowed to walk (or use low-powered mopeds, mobility scooters etc., a very important use of these paths, as Bicycledutch explains).
In Dutch villages, like English ones, often properties are too close to the road to allow separate cycle paths to be fitted in. The Dutch solution is not to give up, it is to control cars. Cyclists are re-introduced to the road, and they must share space with motor vehicles, but things are done differently in the Netherlands, and the effect on the perceived and absolute safety of cycling is very different.
The cycle path can be seen on the other side of the road here, at the point at which it enters the village of Loon. The cycle paths on both sides of the road are taken comfortably round the traffic-calming feature. Cyclists are integrated into the carriageway on the other side of this. The pinch-point, with considerable deflection, forces cars to slow down. The limit is 30kph, 18mph. The change in road surface, to the tiles, which make it slightly noisy and rough to drive a car at a greater speed, emphasises the change in the nature of the space. This contrasts with a road like the A46, which blasts through the village of Shurdington with almost no change in character between the inter-urban sections and the residential sections, and with nothing to make traffic to slow down other than optimistic signs, which even if they work will still allow traffic to travel at the excessive speed of 30mph.
The problem with making these sorts of comparisons, as we found in the Cycling Embassy group, is that British people will always say, of a place like Loon, "Well this is different, isn't it? This is not a comparable location. This is out of the way, and traffic levels are far lower here – you can't really compare it". It is very hard to compare, because four decades of radically different transport planning in the Netherlands has made everything different. There is far less traffic here, though this is a comparable village to Shurdington, in a comparable relationship to the towns of Assen and Groningen as that of Shurdington with Cheltenham and Gloucester, and this is is the comparable road to the A46 in the Assen/Loon context.
Why is there far less traffic here? It's in part because the alternatives to the car for local travel have been made accessible and attractive to all. It's also in part because the longer-distance traffic, between Assen and the other towns in the region, has been deflected onto other, bigger roads, by determined, systematic policy.
And here is the other part of the UK planning failure for rural roads. We have built the motorway and trunk-road alternatives, but we have kept the rat-runs open unaltered. The A46 is the old road between Cheltenham and Stroud. It should and could have been completely bypassed by the construction of the M5 motorway.
Traffic can get from Cheltenham to Stroud using the A40, the M5 and the A419. There is no reason to keep the old, narrow A46 through the villages of Shurdington, Coopers Hill and Painswick going as an alternative continuous through-route, with a minimum speed (not enforced) of 30mph. These villages could all be accessed by car through the grid of bigger roads. This is a fundamental difference between British and Dutch planning: the British usually allow a number of alternative through-routes between centres, and allow all the routes to fill up with traffic, no matter how unsuitable they may be, while providing no dedicated cycling alternatives. The Dutch both provide the alternatives and restrict the motor through-traffic to the most appropriate routes, by means either of actual road closures, or re-engineering to change the character and attractiveness of the roads as through-routes, with lower, better-enforced speed limits.
It's a long way from the flatlands of the Netherlands to the rolling Cotswold hills, from the bricks of Assen and Loon to the honeyed sandstone of Cheltenham and Shurdington. There are fundamental differences in the land that mean that England will never be like the Netherlands. But there are psychological differences that are not so basic. With a long enough period of intelligent transport planning, I believe we could make cycling in the English countryside almost as attractive as cycling in the Dutch countryside – more so, if you like hills!
Quality cycling infrastructure, better planning, and a better general quality of our public built environment is desperately needed in English cities for the future health of our nation – but if there's one place it's even more needed, it's in the English countryside.
In case commenters are tempted to go down such roads, I'm not interested in pernickety debate about how big various settlements are, or in exact population densities, or how things in one place are not quite the same as in another for reasons people of a certain disposition are good at pointing out. Such debate will not invalidate the general points, so I will ignore it.