The DfT’s crap cycling manual

No sooner had I posted a list of things for Norman Baker and his colleagues to be doing — to prove that they were doing things that will actually make a difference, rather than just passing the buck to under-resourced and poorly supported local authorities — than they acted. Baker and road safety minister Mike “Petrolhead” Penning have written a letter to local authorities, encouraging them to, er, look at their junctions and invite businesses to sponsor cycle lanes.

I don’t think many people have fallen for this charade. There is little point in simply suggesting that local authorities rebuild junctions. If they did — and they’re not going to on any significant scale unless and until they find the money from somewhere (and that’s unlikely to be from sponsorship), but suppose they did… — they would go through the normal design process and, er, the instructions would tell them to build the same cycling hostile crap as before.

There are reasons why we have atrocious junctions and crap cycle facilities. Our engineers and lowest-bidder contractors have been trained to build these things. They are also told explicitly not to build the sort of high quality infrastructure that we need. If we are ever going to make any significant advance, the government — central government — needs to do something to help our engineers into the 21st century. The first and most obvious step is to revise the guidance — the manual — that makes local authorities build crap.

The Department for Transport have, over the years, produced a number of guidance documents that tell council officers and consultants how to build roads and streets. Things like the “Design Manual for Roads and Bridges”, which tells you how to build a motorway… or city streets, if you like your streets to look and be used like a motorway. Better streets are built according to the principles of the more modern and civilised “Manual for Streets 2”.

“Cycle Infrastructure Design” (PDF) — commonly known by its serial number, “Local Transport Note (LTN) 2/08” — is the document which sets out the principles for building for cycling, and all the technical details of the government’s recommended facilities. The devolved administrations in Scotland and London have produced their own manuals which vary slightly from LTN 2/08.

Some cycle campaigners are fans of LTN 2/08 and think that if only it were strictly followed things would be better. In their briefing to The Times last week (PDF), for example, cyclenation say:

DfT publication LTN 2/08 (Local transport note no. 2, 2008) is generally good at setting out guidance for cycling provisions, but frequently goes unheeded.

I understand where cyclenation are coming from, and I think no ill of them for writing this. Because most British main roads and cycle facilities are even worse for cycling than LTN 2/08 recommends. Following the manual would be an improvement. But not much of an improvement. Saying that LTN 2/08 is good shows just how abysmally low our expectations have sunk.

The manual largely consists of guidelines rather than strict rules, and the guidelines are frequently broken. Certainly there are, as the cyclenation briefing says, cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with crap cycle facilities. But there are also cases where the guidance has gone unheeded and we have ended up with something far better than would have be provided had it been followed: some of the best (and yes, in this country “best” is hardly “great”) examples of on-street infrastructure — the tracks on Camden’s Royal College Street, for example — break all of the rules of LTN 2/08. And all too often — through a combination of poor training in how to use the guidance, competing political demands like “smoothing traffic flow”, and the many fundamental failings of the guidelines themselves — the guidance is heeded, and the result is still a crap cycle facility.

Because LTN 2/08 isn’t good. It frequently endorses the wrong things. It recommends against international best practice infrastructure and omits almost every detail of it. And it fails right from its first fundamental principles, which is why anybody can “heed” the guidance and still build whatever crap they like. I think that LTN 2/08 is a greater hindrance than help for cycling and that replacing it is a necessary step.

The introductory section of LTN 2/08 is the most widely endorsed. It contains a series of underlying principles for designing for cycling. Some of it is very good — the need for “convenient, accessible, safe, comfortable and attractive” space for cycling, for example, and the need to think at the level of the network, not just streets and routes. There is something of a disconnect between these principles and the rest of the guidance, and the good principles rarely shine through in the built designs. But it is also far from the case that the underlying principles are all good.

The first problem that leaps out while reading the introduction is the Hierarchy of Provision. I’ve written before about why the Hierarchy is the wrong approach to the problem, so I won’t here, except to reiterate that the Hierarchy is not fit for the role that it has been given — that of central formula for deciding which solution is appropriate — which is one reason why so many inappropriate solutions have been implemented.

The second fundamental problem is that LTN 2/08 endorses “dual networks”. It correctly identifies that different cyclists have different needs and abilities, but from this fact it draws some very wrong and damaging conclusions. “Some cyclists are more able and willing to mix with motor traffic than others. In order to accommodate the sometimes conflicting needs of various user types and functions, it may be necessary to create dual networks offering different levels of provision, with one network offering greater segregation from motor traffic at the expense of directness and/or priority.” That is, new, nervous and child cyclists will be grateful for a crap facility that gives way to every side road, or a winding backstreet route, while confident cyclists will want to be in their natural place — on the road, with the traffic, riding in the vehicular style. Indeed, the former category are expected to eventually cast off their training wheels and graduate into the latter  category.

I would have hoped that “dual networks” could have been the one thing that might be able to unite cyclists in opposition. As cyclenation say in their briefing to The Times, crap cycle facilities can do more harm than good when other road users get indignant at your refusing to use them. But I know there is one cycling campaigner and consultant who is proud of his dual network, and just in the past few weeks LCC’s Go Dutch campaign has also taken a turn down the dual network path. I think this is the wrong path: when you stop designing infrastructure that’s good enough for everybody, you tend to end up with stuff that’s good for nobody.

The effect of the “dual networks” principle in LTN 2/08 is that neither “network” is satisfactorily designed. The low-traffic “network” can be designed down: it can concede priority, take circuitous routes, share busy pedestrian spaces, and even advise dismounting — yes, LTN 2/08 says elsewhere that those solutions are undesirable, but, hey, this is just the training network, they’ll soon graduate onto the road so what does it matter? And when it then comes to fixing the main roads and busy junctions, engineers will “take into account the type(s) of cyclist expected to use it”, conclude that the inexperienced and nervous cyclists will be usingthe other “network”, and design the roads and junctions accordingly. You can see the wretched result of the dual networks principle all over our cities — famously on the Euston Road, where the cycle route leads you along “a sort of fiddly thing”, while Real Men like Boris Johnson prefer to “scoot down the underpass“.

Theoretically the dual networks don’t have to be substandard, of course. But if you design infrastructure that isn’t substandard, there’s just no need to think in dual networks. The Dutch also recognise the variety of cyclists. Their engineering manual recommends designs of sufficient quality to accommodate that variety. Their designs work. The idea that cyclists will want to graduate on to vehicular cycling — that it is aspiration rather than a survival strategy — is perhaps one of the reasons why LTN 2/08 entirely omits quality separated infrastructure… except where it gives spurious reasons not to consider it.

The authors of LTN 2/08 have obviously not looked at Dutch solutions or the Dutch manual. There are a total of three references to the Netherlands and three further references to the continent in the document. Three of those references are about cycle parking. One is in an aside about roundabout geometry. A Dutch study measuring overtaking distances — probably irrelevant to current British conditions — is mentioned. Finally, the authors have this to say about modern European cycle track design:

“As a result of concerns over the safety of parallel cycle tracks crossing side roads, it is becoming common European pratice to reintroduce cyclists to the main road in advance of a junction. Cyclists pass the junction on the carriageway and then rejoin the cycle track.”

It’s just bonkers.

The final fundamental conceptual problem with LTN 2/08 is not explicitly stated, but is written right through the guidance. Despite being the cycling-for-transport infrastructure guidance, despite being introduced with a reminder of why cycling should be supported, the document just doesn’t treat cycling as a serious form of transport. That’s not a problem specific to LTN 2/08, obviously, and it will take more than just revisions to a document to change the entrenched culture of the nation’s highways departments. But it’s especially dissapointing to find the document so riddled with it. It is clear that the authors are stuck in the car-centric paradigm and lack imagination for how things could be.

“Advisory cycle lanes,” for example, “are not recommended where they are likely to be blocked by parked vehicles.” Not, “car parking should be restricted in cycle lanes.” We’re told that we like cycling in bus lanes: “They are preferred over off-road facilities as a result of the advantage of remaining in the carriageway and therefore having priority at side roads” [my emphasis]. This is the guidance for providing for bicycles and it can not even imagine a world in which bicycles might have priority over turning vehicles. This is especially bizarre given that, technically, pedestrians have priority over turning vehicles — though pedestrians bold and brave enough to take it are ever rarer. To me it seems so blindingly obvious that the natural arrangement would be that anybody continuing straight would have priority over those turning, regardless of the means of travel of either party. The authors of LTN 2/08 can’t imagine that world — can’t imagine that there could be any alternative to our might makes right of way world.

What of that top-of-the-hierarchy solution, “reducing traffic volume”, if highways authorities can’t even imagine a cyclist having priority over car parking or motorists leaving their driveways? This is a problem that obviously goes far wider and deeper than this one document — Karl’s experience of the LTN 2/08 in practice illustrates the cultural problem we face. But replacing this document has to be one of the first steps to changing that culture. This is the document that Norman Baker says “provides comprehensive good practice advice on a range of practical infrastructure measures to help cyclists,” when he tries to shrug off the Cities Fit For Cycling campaign. It doesn’t. It’s part of the problem, and it’s his problem.

These are just the problems with the fundamental underlying principles. Just wait ’till I get around to listing the ridiculous details — the crap facilities it recommends and the almost complete absence of of best practice solutions from this “comprehensive good practice” guide…

26 thoughts on “The DfT’s crap cycling manual”

  1. I understand your frustration, but this really has nothing to do with the lowest bidder getting a job to build a road or intersection or an engineer designing something you don’t like. We bid jobs from plans. Those plans are made according to the wishes of those paying to have the road redone (your local municipality). If you want to be angry at somebody, follow the money to the start. Everyone in construction is limited by the budget and what the people paying, want. We can’t just willy-nilly decide that the people who are paying the bills are stupid so we’re doing things our way.

    Lastly, we’re not “trained” to build things you don’t like. We’re trained to follow a very specific set of plans and site documents that show exactly what the people with the cash want.

    1. I *am* getting angry at the people making the plans. I’m being lazy and using “build” and “design” as synonyms for those drawing the plans. Sorry if that wasn’t obvious enough. I thought it was. The drawing of those plans is increasingly outsourced to engineering firms — their logos are all over the local authority plans that come up in public consultations — hence the “lowest bidder”. Again, it wasn’t referring to the folk who pour the concrete.

  2. As a motorist, I have a long standing question that you might be able to clear up:

    Why is it that when a highways planner says “smooth traffic flow”, they almost invariably mean “traffic travelling at 30 mph or faster”?

    I’ve driven city road setups in France where the smooth flow speed of traffic is naturally around 20 kph, and it’s *so* much easier to interact safely with cyclists and other slow-moving vehicles when the smooth flow of traffic is at a speed they can keep up with.

  3. Joe, thanks for an excellent post. Obviously we need a new version of LTN 2/08. But since DfT is unlikely to re-draft it off its own bat, perhaps people outside central government should get together and draw up a new and better version.

    If it’s done in association with the all-party parliamentary cycling group it could be semi-official, a bit like the ‘practitioners group’ that drafted the new planning framework (but hopefully with a much better result). An alternative approach would be to wiki-fy the existing text and let anyone have a go at it.

  4. Clearly, the replacement document for cycle infrastructure needs to be written by utility cyclists and heavily based upon the Dutch pattern. Quite simply, we think we know better than the Dutch, when they have demonstrated time and again that they almost always know better. I use the ‘almost’, because nobody is perfect and presumably even the Dutch make mistakes. However, I have yet to see an integrated, purpose-made, cycling network in the UK. Designers and planners should be designing infrastructure suitable for everyone to use everyday.

    In the UK, we have sub-standard, often dangerous, cycling infrastructure that was poorly designed, poorly planned, often useless, not integrated [i.e. discontinuous] and essentially useless.

    Reference: facility of the month.

    I would cite ‘A view from the cycle path’, but for reasons I do not understand David H. has decided to delete it and furthermore block the wayback machine from archiving it. An action that I find utterly mystifying for someone who has worked so hard in advocating cycling.

  5. The original point of the dual network was precisely to avoid pavement conversions that give way at every side road, since they don’t work for either fast cyclists (too slow) or cautious cyclists (too much traffic around).

    The other point of the dual network was to make it impossible to ignore the need to adapt main roads for everyday adult cycling. Very few places in the UK have successfully adapted their main roads, because they haven’t figured out what they are trying to achieve (let alone whether they can afford it). The big problem has been getting anyone to do anything coherent to the main roads. Mostly councils just make a few back routes, and only a tiny number of people use them.

    The key problem is persuading local authorities to adapt main roads in anything approaching a coherent manner. If they have a coherent understanding of what they are trying to do, they’ll figure out a decent way of doing it. The guidance is just there to stop them doing anything too abysmal in the mean time.

    If a local authority wants to coherently build a network of tracks and signalled junctions alongside all it’s main roads, then everyone’s happy. But if they don’t feel able to do that, the dual network gives them a framework for coherently providing for the variety of cyclists.

    1. Indeed – if only car drivers had some means of finding out that official recomendations are that they should be 2 metres (half of the dynamic width of the cyclist plus 1.5 m from the outside of that width) from my wheels when overtaking at 30mph. And if only we could find some means of forcing them to care. But DafT thinks this is the sort of information which belongs in an obscure and widely-ignored manual for designers rather than in every motorist’s head.

      (Perhaps I should more often use what limited segregated facilities there are on my normal commute – though that involves cycling over 3 cattle grids which have narrow gaps right next to them, forcing me to slow down and wobble – see dynamic envelope – just when I’m scared to put my foot down to balance in case I get it stuck in the cattle grid).

  6. It is very clear that the “dual network” approach has failed miserably, wasting large amounts of money in the process. Rather than throwing good money after bad, we should look across the North Sea at places that really work and follow their best practice.

  7. “As a result of concerns over the safety of parallel cycle tracks crossing side roads, it is becoming common European pratice to reintroduce cyclists to the main road in advance of a junction. Cyclists pass the junction on the carriageway and then rejoin the cycle track.”

    This is a very interesting quote from LTN 2/08 (10.4.1), if you’ve read the CROW manual you can almost see how the writers came up with it. Figure 22 of the CROW on page 193 has a diagram that shows a separate cycle track merging back into a 60km/h road 30-50m before a junction. What isn’t obvious from this diagram is that it’s sitting in a section about intersections between rural access roads, ie. <500pcu/hr non-through routes with informal right-of-way at the junction (no markings, give way to the right), where separate cycle tracks are rare (only if there is lots of farm traffic).

    If you look at the diagram out of context, it looks like it's suggesting not to continue cycle tracks through junctions on any 60km/h road. Maybe the LTN 2/08 guys only had a Dutch language version of the CROW manual ;)

  8. Great article. Now that the All Party Parliamentary Grop on cycling has launched an inquiry into cycling, shouldn’t we ensure that the DfT manual is on their agenda? Surely if anything came out of the APPG inquiry a policy/recommendation to rewrite this would be an important step. It would be sad to see all the current focus generated by the The Times to result in positive political commitments that are then really badly implemented.

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