Shared use and covert cycleways: how cycling on footpaths came to be officially recommended

A misunderstanding in the ’00s led cycling organisations to recommend against separating cycling from walking and aided the proliferation of bad shared use paths. We’ve made some progress towards correcting that mistake, but it lingers in Bristol’s covert cycleways.

For anyone who has been missing getting together for Infrastructure Safaris lately, here’s a reminder that I’ve put some on YouTube. The latest is about shared use and covert cycleways:

I won’t try to replicate the video exactly in written form, partly because the point of an Infrastructure Safari is to (virtually) ride along and see everything in context, but mostly because it largely covers topics that I and others have written about before.

Specifically, the infrastructure safari is about the variety of things that fall under the umbrella of “shared use” cycling and walking infrastructure, and how each of them in their own way create and exacerbate conflicts between walking and cycling by persistently bad design.

The early history of shared use, introduced as a quick and cheap way to convert pavements into “cycle tracks” at a time when it was assumed cycling was on the way out, I wrote about in 2012.

But there is one part of the story that I had thought had been written about, if not by me then by another blogger, but which now after some searching I fear perhaps hasn’t, and so maybe deserves a few words here. That is: the story of how design guidance and even cycling organisations came to endorse and encourage mixing walking and cycling rather than trying to keep the two separate.

For decades after their introduction, the norm for shared use paths was, to use the technical jargon, “segregated shared use”. This unhelpful oxymoron means paths on which cycling and walking are separated into their own space. This encompasses a great variety of designs, including those that have a proper cycleway and a proper footway alongside.

But in practice, the overwhelming majority of such paths were the crap facilities we know so well: 3 metre wide pavements and greenways with a white line painted down the middle creating a comically narrow space for each mode.

The design guidance for shared use paths, 1986’s LTN 2/86 and 2004’s LTN 2/04 specified the presumption should be in favour of separating the modes.

And that led to lots of problems. People inevitably can’t always stick to “their” side, but people also get territorial. Cyclists can’t really pass one another in 1.5 metres of space, so will use the walking side. Where sightlines are poor, this can mean last-minute evasive maneuvers. People walking together like to walk side-by-side, and groups especially spill over. People get distracted or lost in thoughts and don’t pay attention to a white line or subtle signage.

Studies started highlighting these problems with segregated shared use — particularly influential amongst them a study for the DfT by Atkins, which looked at a small sample of shared paths, all of them archetypal narrow crap facilities.

There was an obvious lesson to be learned from these studies: build paths wider than 3.0 metres, and with more robust separation than a white line. All of the conflicts were caused not by the modes being separated from one another, but by the fact that the modes inevitably failed to remain separated from one another in such narrow spaces. 

And yet we managed to take away an entirely different lesson: that it is best not to bother trying to segregate shared use, just mix the modes. Cycling Infrastructure Design, the DfT’s 2008 manual for crap facilities, removed the presumption in favour of separation and introduced the idea that it may be better to mix. Sustrans moved towards mixing in the ’00s and adopted a formal position against separating modes in 2010, based on their experience with routes including the Railway Path. Meanwhile, the Atkins study led to the DfT replacing LTN 2/04 in 2012 with LTN 1/12, which emphasised mixing modes. These moves also influenced the decision of the Royal Parks to remove separation on their much wider (but still only paint-separated) paths in 2017.

To be fair, some of the studies and guidance attempted to be a bit more nuanced: suggesting that widening paths is important where usage is high, and that mixing modes is a solution where physical constraints on width are out of the designer’s control. But nuance has never had a place in practice. Every time a design guide has specified technical minimum standards, alongside pages of nuance about best practice, the result is that infrastructure gets built to the technical minimum standards. And so, for more than a decade, rubbish 3.0 metre wide shared paths have proliferated where once rubbish 3.0 metre segregated paths would have been the choice. 

Things are changing. Last year’s LTN 1/20 swept away all the previous guidance, specifying proper cycle tracks in place of shared use pavements, and returning to a presumption in favour of separation of paths, but this time with proper guidance on their widths. Even Sustrans are very slowly and reluctantly accepting the inevitable and will be widening the Railway Path, even if they haven’t yet quite managed to shake off the dogma about mixing modes being a good thing.

But that leads to the other main point of the Infrastructure Safari: that when we build these proper cycle tracks and paths with separation, they need to be clear and legible to all. Covert cycleways will only perpetuate the conflicts that led to the big misunderstanding about separation vs sharing in the first place. Do watch the video if you’re interested in that story.

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