Tag Archives: cycle paths

The tragedy around The Commons

I did a video, because I was too lazy to think about and research and write up a topic properly, and because I needed something for testing editing software. It’s about shared use foot/cycle paths in parks. I know! Super exciting, right?

This means that I now not only hate the sound of my voice, I hate my mannerisms generally. I was not entirely unaware that smiling/grinning/laughing doesn’t look good on me, but, damn, I do all those other things as well?

But in a fit of reckless impulsiveness I thought I’d go ahead and publish it anyway.

It starts with an apology, but I’m really not sure that one is ever enough.

For more on the topic, see Jon’s post at Traffik In Tooting. The London Cycling Campaign discussion referenced is here.

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In case you missed it…

…I made a little video with the incoming chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, who you might also know as the author of As Easy As Riding A Bike

Full story here.

Dual networks and unravelling routes in Bristol

Stokes Croft

I promised to write up the other infrastructure safaris that the Cycling Embassy took while in Bristol for the AGM in May. David Arditti blogging about the safaris prompted me to get on with it. Previously I showed you the Railway Path. Left to come are a couple of rough and rambling posts, accompanied by Google Earth infrastructure safaris, on Bristol’s arterial cycling infrastructure (below) and city centre streets, hopefully leading to the properly thought out post that will eventually get to the point.

So on the Sunday morning safari we looked at the options for utility cycling between the city centre and residential and commercial neighbourhoods in the north of the city.

As before, for the details, pictures (mostly Mark’s and David’s) and video, it’s recorded as a virtual tour to be taken in Google Maps or downloaded for Google Earth: here is the Google Map tour.

The basic context is that we rode from the city centre through 5km of residential neighbourhoods until we hit the outer ring road. The latter is late 20th century car territory — motorway junctions sending out tentacles of dual carriageway distributor roads to roundabouts around which car oriented commercial development grows. Much of the British aerospace industry, a major Ministry of Defence office, retail and logistics businesses, offices and R&D for tech companies, and a large university rise from a sea of car parks out here in the “North Fringe”, just outside the city boundary in South Gloucestershire, where the council allows that sort of thing. The route we were looking at was therefore one of important traffic flows: two centres of employment (and culture and retail and education) and the residential neighbourhoods they serve.

There are several different arterial routes serving this traffic: of road, rail and cycleway. We headed north on the original artery — the traditional main road, the A38 Stokes Croft/Cheltenham Road/Gloucester Road (turning off onto the lesser Filton Avenue for a shortcut). Just a normal British urban arterial ‘A’ road, 2 lanes + 2 bus lanes where room permits, dozens of buses in peak hours, car parking in the off peak hours, row upon row of shops and houses and little residential side roads. Occasional token painted 1.2m advistory cycle lanes, of no use to anybody under the parked cars.

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We headed back on a new Cycling City funded cycle route, Concorde Way, on about 50:50 residential backstreets and 3.0-3.5m shared paths. The route is not bad. Nowhere near modern Dutch standards, obviously. There are a couple of little fiddly bits with toucans and pavements. There’s a street that’s used by motorists as a ratrun. There are paths as narrow as 3.0m shared between pedestrians and cyclists, despite this being a densely populated urban area. There are paths even narrower than that, briefly, where they reuse the 1970s subways under a motorway junction. There’s a new home zone built on a through trunk cycle route. I wish it were better, but I congratulate its designers for doing so well against all the odds, fighting the rules of British Highways engineering all the way. Aforementioned pinch points aside, it’s not too narrow, it’s not too slow, it’s not too unsafe, it doesn’t ever abandon you. It has advantages, like avoiding all the traffic signals you get on equivalent main roads. It’s a 5km cycle route that works the whole way, and which is enabling people who would not otherwise get around by bicycle to do so, while at the same providing a route that confident and speedy cyclists won’t turn their noses up at.

In that sense, this might look a bit like a case of unravelling routes: putting the cars somewhere else, where they can’t bother the people on foot and on bicycles.

But that this is far from having been satisfactorily achieved is illustrated by the fact that that there are at least as many people on bicycles on the old main road as there are on the dedicated cycle route. Because the cycle route’s one really big flaw is that it isn’t where most people want to be. It runs through a park by a river, through allotment gardens beside the railway cutting, across the wasteground underneath the electricity transmission lines and past the rugby practice field. Politically easy to achieve and physically easy to build, in places where there is little competition for the space. Whereas the main road runs past the shops, and the offices, and all the houses.

And so it appears that this is less like unravelling routes and more like dual networks: the idea that if you just put a basic cycle route on back streets and traffic-free paths to enable children and the less confident to train themselves up, eventually they become confident enough to man up and take the lane with the trucks and buses on Cheltenham Road. The difference is that in most other cases, the quality of the cycling infrastructure is cut to a bare minimum and then cut some more (because it’s just a training network, so what do things like directness and speed and comfort and capacity and actually going somewhere matter?), whereas this one is genuinely good and useful and nice, if you happen to be going in that direction.

It’s great that Bristol has built this, and the several other similar new arterial cycle routes. I don’t blame them for going for this stuff instead of the main roads at this point in time. It’s the politically easy low-hanging fruit of paths across parks, derelict railway corridors and wasteland; and the relatively cheap quick wins of filtered permeability and little paths and bridges here and there to join up riverside paths and quiet streets into longer routes. Of course you’d do those things first.

But the lesson from the Netherlands — who did all the experiments for us, decades ago — is that routes like these will only buy you so much modal shift, and they can’t deliver a whole Cycling City. For most people, if the cycleway doesn’t go where they’re going, they won’t cycle. What really starts to deliver impressive numbers is enabling cycling for all, not just the unusually confident and tolerant few, to ride on that main road, the one where the shops and the offices are, the one with all the residential streets running off it. And what really makes a Cycling City is not routes but a network: if people are to routinely pick the bicycle over the car without thinking or planning, they need to be confident that whatever their journey, especially those to places they’ve never been by bicycle before, they’ll be able to just get on and go without fear of being dumped in traffic on a dual carriageway or multi-lane roundabout.

There is one more artery in this story: the M32 motorway. I wrote about it before — how parks were paved over, railway viaducts blown up, and inner city neighbourhoods bulldozed as it was thrust into the heart of the city. After all the destruction it brought in its path, the final tragedy was that, far from being designed to relieve the old arteries and streets of traffic, allowing the likes of Gloucester Road to be reclaimed from the passing motorist by its residents and shoppers, the motorway was designed to pump an ever greater volume of traffic onto those streets. But it would not be at all difficult to start fixing that mistake — to reclaim the space needed for cycling on the main arteries by sending motorists to the motorway. Which is the point I’ll get to in a future post.

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The Great #CEoGBagm Railway Path Infrastructure Safari

Railway Path

The Cycling Embassy went to Bath and Bristol for the AGM, and around the discussion and decisions for the future, we had fun riding around a couple of my favourite cities pointing at the nerdy details of the infrastructure, seeing if there was anything to be learnt about what to do and what not to do. I promised to do write-ups of them, and decided to experiment with using Google Maps as a medium for doing a photo essay tour.

Link to the Google Maps photo essay tour.

You can take the tour by going through the pins in the left-hand panel, clicking them in turn to open the bubble with the information about each point of interest; alternatively, hide the panel, set your browser to full screen mode, zoom in at the Bath (eastern) end of the yellow line and start following it west, clicking the bubbles in turn for the information (some of them can be easy to miss when zoomed in, though). Or for a third option, click on the “KML” link to open it in Google Earth for easier zooming and panning around.

Railway Path

I prepared a lot of photos in advance (and then failed to prepare a blog post in advance), but didn’t manage to get everything. Thanks to As Easy As Riding A Bike and A Grim North for capturing all the photos that I’d failed to get.

If you like the format, I’ll do the other Safaris that way too.

Mangotsfield Junction

Caledonia Way

Another quick update on a Scottish cycle route, before I post my conclusions about them. This is the Caledonia Way, NCN78, a 350km route from Campbeltown and the Mull of Kintyre up the Argyll coast to Oban, alongside the sea lochs to Fort William, and up the Great Glen to Inverness. The Caledonia Way is being developed primarily to be a great all abilities tourist trail (though with uses as a serious local transport route), linking some great Highland landscape to the railway towns via a relatively flat route.

The intention is for the route to be on dedicated cycle paths and tracks throughout, except a few short sections where existing suitable very quiet lanes and streets exist. This is, of course, a similar aspiration to that of the National Cycle Network, but one that sadly hasn’t always worked out quite as intended.

But the Oban to Glencoe section shows how the Caledonia Way is doing. Here, the cycle route runs alongside sea lochs, going the same way as the A828, a non-trunk primary route which is not very busy but is in many places engineered for very high speeds. Over the past few years the road has been acquiring cycle tracks. The organisations involved have not compromised on acquiring the amount of land that is required to build something on which you can pass, overtake and ride three-abreast:

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Nor do they seem to have compromised on building all of the foundations, drainage and other structures that the route needs:

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Here, where the road went into an existing wood, the path has been threaded further back from the road, hiding the traffic a little…

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…but for much of the route cyclists don’t have to follow the road at all. The old Oban to Ballachulish railway also ran along here, and the cycle route has taken over the trackbed for several miles in a couple of different places:

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Sometimes it doesn’t follow road or railway, but takes its own paths of least resistance:

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There are a couple of places where the cycle tracks briefly get nasty. But the designers have at least proved that they understand what “minimum standard” means: the bare minimum which can be acceptable for those few yards where the expense of engineering out the geography would be unreasonable, not the sustained standard at which to build the whole route.

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Sadly there have been a couple of really embarrassing  prioritisation decisions, involving a (disused?) gated quarry road and one really very unfortunate little mess at a driveway (I’m hoping that this mess, which is next to the pinch-point above left and is only a short section of poor quality tracks between good quality railway paths, is just an interim link before something better can be done using the railway).

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But, on the new tracks and paths, those are the most notable issues in the 50kms between Oban and Glencoe. That is, on the new tracks. There are some at the Oban end that are several years older, and are your typical 2.0m pavement construction. I hope it’s not too late for those to be revisited by the new designers, who clearly have a better idea what they’re doing…

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But it’s not too late for everything to go wrong. Only a little over two thirds of the tracks and paths to bypass the A828 have been built so far, often leaving you back on the main road:

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Though Irish Navvies (no really, the contractor’s trucks had IRL plates) are out there right now building more of it (and the progress since I rode it in the spring almost two years is immense):

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And Oban to Glencoe is so far the only section of the Caledonia Way to have been built. Which brings me to my point — or will, when I get around to posting it.

Ceci n’est pas une piste de bicyclette

Sorry, I failed to post much because I’ve been on the road.  And sometimes the Sustrans paths.

NCN 68 in Kielder Forest, Northumberland

This is a forestry track, NCN 68, Kielder Forest, Northumberland.

I hesitate to criticise Sustrans because I know that they are good people, with an excellent idea — the National Cycle Network — and because they make delightful cycle routes when they are given sufficient money to do so.  I don’t want to harm Sustrans, I want them to do more, and I want them to be able to do it properly, with proper funding.

But this isn’t helping:

This is a bridleway, NCN 6 Sheffield-Manchester over Woodhead.

This is a bridleway, NCN 6 Sheffield-Manchester over Woodhead.

These are heavily eroded boulder steps covered in sheep poo, NCN 6, Woodhead.

These are heavily eroded boulder steps covered in scree and sheep poo on a 40% incline, NCN 6, Woodhead.

In Kielder Forest I met another pair of touring cyclists, with slicker tyres than mine.  They were following the NCN signs as far as the first town, where they would be seeking a road map for the remainder of their journey.  I met a pair of retired gents on racing bikes beside a road beneath the Woodhead route.  They laughed at me and my newly mud-caked tourer.

But I met nobody at all riding NCN 1 into Edinburgh, despite it being a sunny bank holiday sunday afternoon.  Clearly the locals knew better.

This is a railway station platform, NCN 1 Edinburgh.

This is a railway station platform, NCN 1 Edinburgh.

This is a car park.  NCN 1 Edinburgh.

This is a car park in a soulless modern cul-de-sac. NCN 1 Edinburgh.

But after a very long and circuitous route through every industrial estate and cul-de-sac in east Edinburgh, it did seem appropriate that the signs eventually directed the cyclist onto a station platform.  When I eventually reached the pub, Kim Harding laughed at me.

I know I’m not the first to point out that large swathes of the National Cycle Network are utter crap and can not possibly be defended as “cycle routes”.  And I know the reasons that Sustrans give for including them in the network — that they are “interim standard”, designed to show on the map what the completed network will look like, and that if you read the small-print on their website you would know in advance that these “cycle routes” can’t actually be cycled.

But that’s bollocks.  People see signposts for cycle routes at the side of the road, not small print on websites.  And having followed the signs,  the cycling tourists I met were giving up.  Not giving up on the forestry track but giving up on the National Cycle Network and Sustrans, which is a shame because they will miss out on the second half of the route, which was delightful.  It’s not hard to find people who have tried the National Cycle Network, found it impossible to use — or worse, found it injurious to bicycle or to self — and to whom the NCN and Sustrans names are now more mud than the paths.

This is something left over from the Spanish Inquisition, NCN 4, Reading.

This is a device left over from the Spanish Inquisition, NCN 4, Reading.

Signing the railway stations and car parks of eastern Edinburgh as NCN 1 means that nobody will make it as far as the lovely quiet road through the wonderful Moorfoot Hills.  Signing the hiker’s steps over Woodhead as NCN 6 means that people will abandon the NCN before they reach the Longendale rail trail.  The loose rocky towpaths of NCN 4 stand in the way of the excellent Bristol and Bath Railway Path.  Excellent cycle routes are wasted because when you see an NCN sign, you can’t take the risk.

I know Sustrans want to put better cycle routes there — and are slowly getting there, as the funding trickles in.  But in the meantime, signing this crap as cycle routes does massive harm to Sustrans, the National Cycle Network, and the very ability to build those better cycle routes that Sustrans wants.  Crap like this fuels the myth that cycle paths are by definition poor quality and undesirable, a myth that remains powerful amongst some sections of cycle campaigning and transport planning.

This is a flight of steps, NCN 1, Edinburgh.

This is a flight of steps, NCN 1, Edinburgh.

While on the road my extensive thinking time has been consumed with how to communicate effectively to other cyclists and campaigners the evidence for the benefits of proper cycling infrastructure  (more on that some other time). But any such attempt to communicate hypothetical high-quality facilities is going to have to fight all the way against people’s direct experience of crap like these routes.

These routes are not helping.  If it can not be cycled, take down the cycle signs.

Superhighways

Otherwise known as “motorways”.  Freeways.  Die autobahnen.  A road specifically designed for those whose journey takes them quite some distance, designed to carry a large volume of traffic at speed.  They have special engineering features and special rules and regulations.  Junctions are grade separated such that through traffic can sail past unperturbed; there are no zebra crossings for pedestrians, level crossings for railways; the carriageways are wide, to accommodate vehicles of a variety of speeds and power.  No bicycles, no farm tractors; cars and motorcycles must meet a minimum power requirement.

What’s a “cycle superhighway”?  What special engineering features and special rules and regulations are they marked by?

Blue paint.

Certain cycling campaign groups, political parties, and local authorities subscribe to a belief that cyclists should be on the road, in traffic.  There are good reasons for this belief, and I agree with it: the road is a much better way for a cyclist to get around London than any of the variety of styles of pisspoor cycling infrastructure put in by the boroughs, and we should certainly be doing all that we can to reclaim the City and West End streets from the Motorist for the people.  The problem is that the aforementioned organisations are dogmatic in this belief.  They believe that all cyclists should be in traffic, all of the time.  But a street lined with bus stops and 25 sets of traffic lights per mile is not the best that we can provide for cycling, any more than it would make a suitable intercity infrastructure for a Motorist.

A true cycle superhighway, providing an efficient and safe route between the parts of London where people live and the parts where they work, would have some specific engineering characteristics.  It would not be a lame blue strip along the side of a road, too narrow to accommodate the required volume of cyclists and variety of cycling abilities, surface smashed by the buses, air stuffed with the fumes of the trucks, too saturated with signals and crossings to allow reasonable journey times.  Nor would it be like the embarrassing wastes of money that are our current selection of useless and dangerous segregated roadside bicycle paths; the ones that weave through street furniture, over kerbs, in and out of traffic, and force the cyclist to stop to cross every small side-road.

A true cycle superhighway is a cycling freeway.  It is not shared with inappropriate transport modes: no cars, no buses, no motorcycles.  It does not have level intersections with roads: minor roads that cross its path cease to be through routes, while major roads fly over or under, with slip lanes for access.  It can accommodate high volumes and variable abilities — at least two lanes in each direction, with a verge for those who need to stop.  And it’s straight enough, flat enough, and smooth enough for people to cruise uninterrupted at speed.  It looks a bit like the Bristol and Bath Railway Path, the arterial cycle path through north-east Bristol along the route of an old railway: gentle gradients, gentle radii, and no level-crossings with roads.

If London were serious about cycle superhighways, that is what it would be building.  In the outer boroughs the superhighways would follow suburban streets that have been fully closed to other traffic — having the beneficial side-effect of making neighbourhoods more pleasant as they are freed from speeding taxis taking short-cuts through residential streets.  As they reached the inner boroughs they would converge to continue as elevated cycleways, often alongside or above existing railways — in the south, for example, three great arterial routes alongside the elevated railways that come in to London Bridge, Elephant & Castle, and Waterloo; finally converging, perhaps, upon a de-Motorised Southwark Bridge.

That would be expensive, compared to a few barrels of blue paint.  But the pay-out would be huge.  It’s called “investment”.