I was prompted to write this post after looking in detail at a number of scheme proposals – both cycling schemes and more general transport/streetscape schemes. It seems to me that cycling still isn’t usually mainstreamed, even into the cycling schemes! Hence this is my attempt to put down some ideas about how planning for cycling might work better. I’d like to feel that there is a process which sets a high general standard for cycling environments, which can then be negotiated down where necessary; for example, where there are high quality alternative cycle links nearby. At the moment, it seems like what’s happening is still often piecemeal, limited and small-scale negotiation up from ‘not very good at all’. I don’t think this approach to provision will get us to the necessary transformation for cycling. It risks wasting the time and energy of a lot of talented and hard-working people (planners, engineers, policy-makers, advocates…) to little effect.
1. Like two-way pedestrian flows, two-way cycle flows should be the default, whatever the restrictions on motor traffic.
2. A clear level of service indicator should be applied initially to all links within a well defined core cycle network, as well as being used to ensure general transport/streetscape schemes improve conditions for cycling elsewhere.
3. At the heart of this indicator should be the maximum speeds and volumes of motor traffic with which cyclists are expected to share space. These criteria should be set at a level that would enable mass cycling, passing the ‘unaccompanied twelve year old’ test. (‘Would you want a twelve year old to cycle here on her own?’)
4. Supplementary criteria within the full indicator should relate to other dimensions of cycling environment quality; for example, air pollution levels, surface quality, cycle capacity.
Why aren’t we designing for cycling?
Because of my various hats (academic, advocate, user) I’m increasingly shown schemes and asked to comment on them. Some have been more general transport schemes on which a ‘cycling perspective’ is sought (e.g. these two in Westminster). Others have been cycling schemes; for example, one South of the river, which I can’t name here.
I have to say I’ve been disappointed in many of the schemes. In one sense it is good that cycling representatives/experts/users are consulted. But (a) it needs to make a difference on the ground, and I’m not convinced this is happening yet, and (b) more consultation is not inherently always good. I don’t want to be consulted on a daily basis on how my council sort out every detail of their services, I want them to provide good services (that’s their job) and only ask for my input when necessary. Clearly we’re not at this stage in respect to cycling. While there’s been a broader shift in attitudes to cycling policy in London (and some other places in the UK), this hasn’t generally fed through into street design and planning.
So how do we get there? How can local authorities build cycling in to what they do, so that experts/advocates/users’ expertise and experience can be drawn on in a targeted manner, rather than struggling to add cycling into schemes post hoc?
The South London example I mentioned is a cycling-specific scheme on a busy road, which plans some protection for cyclists along the way (acceptable width separated tracks/semi-segregated lanes). So far, so good. However, whenever it becomes a bit harder to provide space for cycling along the way, the ‘cycle facility’ disappears; cyclists are then forced to move out and overtake parked vehicles, jostling with motor traffic in a narrow carriageway where peak traffic volumes mean there will be one motor vehicle every couple of seconds. Would you want your twelve year old child to ride to school in that kind of cycling environment? (And why are these kinds of conditions permitted to exist on recommended / signed cycle routes?)
As an aside – I wonder whether a test of subjective safety might be conducted while writing up scheme plans. Replace ‘cyclists’ with ‘your children’, ‘your Granddad’, ‘little Kevin’, ‘your Aunt’, and so on. For example,
“Cyclists will benefit from an ‘early start’ facility allowing them to set off up to 5 seconds before motor traffic” would become “Your children will benefit from an ‘early start’ facility allowing them to set off up to 5 seconds before motor traffic”. “Cyclists will ride in the widened left-hand general traffic lane” would become
“Your Granddad and Aunt will ride in the widened left-hand general traffic lane”. The ‘subjective safety’ test here would be – if the rewritten sentence is amusing, something has gone wrong.
I worry that we are still not designing for cycling, even when we’re trying to. As per Mayor’s Vision, we’re meant to be planning for a wider range of cycling abilities and preferences. Not just planning for a minority – which I believe is a very small minority of even current cyclists – who actively like fighting motor vehicles for space alongside parked cars whose doors might open at any time. So in South London, if we are to maintain a road with high volumes of motor traffic, this would mean providing high quality protected space for cycling. In my view there really is no point providing two-thirds of a small scheme to this standard and the remaining third to the standard of ‘paint some bicycles on the street to remind drivers there may be a cyclist trying to squeeze through the traffic queue.’
Of course, if the street in question were very quiet – it isn’t – then painting bicycles on the street might be fine. There would be no need for protected space if, as in De Beauvoir Square, Hackney, motor vehicles have been largely excluded from the route (due in that case to a well planned closure of streets to motor traffic providing a relatively direct and easy to follow E-W route for bicycles).
So, what would I like authorities to do when planning for cycling in the context of specific schemes?
First, networks. Of course, planning needs to be network and integral. We need to be aiming at a dense network of routes that are positively welcoming for cycling. Ideally, as in The Netherlands, pretty much any road or street would be suitable for pretty much any cyclist, thanks to a combination of filtered permeability, street design, protected facilities for cycling, and restrictions on on-street car parking; with specific solutions used depending on the type of road in question. I would view a Bike Grid (or core cycle network) as a step on the way there – a network of routes that is safe and pleasant, with a regularly monitored service standard that needs to be met throughout that network (no weak links – the idea being that you’d be confident that wherever you went on the Bike Grid, you’d get a good cycling environment).
But given an authority is developing a scheme, either specifically for cycling, or a broader streetscape/transport scheme, how can its planners best check what they should be doing from a cycling perspective?
My first point is network-related. Always, always, two-way cycling should be permitted, to maximise the potential cycling network, whatever else you do. Decades of planning for cars have left a legacy where too often the direct route is a car route and cyclists are expected to wiggle, even though we are meant to be promoting cycling, which involves physical effort and so should be made as easy and direct as possible. (Moreover, many cars now have GPS, making way-finding through complex road systems relatively easy, while cyclists generally don’t, so expecting them to cope with different routes for different directions creates additional disbenefit). Allowing two-way cycling is one small and relatively easy way of starting to redress the balance.
Contraflow cycling has been implemented safely in the City of London even on very narrow streets. Further afield, in higher-cycling countries it’s assumed that you provide two-way cycling throughout the road network. Contraflow cycling should be a no-brainer: insisting cyclists travel in one direction only should be seen as being like insisting that pedestrians only walk in one direction where there are one-way streets. (Of course, in very rare occasions we do – usually temporarily – limit pedestrian movements in this way, and I’m happy to concede that in perhaps one in a thousand cases we may need to maintain one-way cycling).
So, this would be the first thing I’d recommend the authority do. Wherever changes are being made and one-way cycling still exists, legalise contraflow cycling as part of the scheme. There should also be an authority-wide programme to legalise contraflow cycling more broadly. But a scheme should never be proposed that retains one-way cycling restrictions, unless accompanied by some excellent and evidenced reasons.
Second, analyse motor vehicle speeds and volumes. In London, we are lucky – there is a relatively large amount of data on motor vehicle volumes, and authorities have privileged access to this data. I would expect that when developing a scheme with cycling in mind (whether or not it’s primarily a ‘cycling scheme’), the authority would first of all examine motor traffic volumes and speeds on the route, and ask the question – Is this road or street suitable for mass cycling? (Or, would I want my twelve year old son to ride his bike here?) The second question should then of course be, how are we going to make sure it is suitable?
Unfortunately, the schemes that I get shown rarely have (current or projected) motor vehicle speed and volume data attached to them. Yet this is fundamental in assessing whether cycling is suitable only for the 2% (who can cope with narrow cycle lanes on busy multi-lane roads – although many would rather not), or also for the 90% (who need calm and pleasant routes, however achieved). Once the traffic environment is considered, for most of the schemes I have seen, the routes in question are not now suitable for mass cycling, nor will they be after the proposed changes have been made.
One problem seems to be that the process still encourages planners to think about cycling last, even for ‘cycling’ schemes. Perhaps we need something like ‘Bus Priority’ for the core cycle network, and for any additional schemes where there’s a serious intention to cater for mass cycling.
Cycle Priority would mean that very early on, cyclists’ needs would be considered – initially, the need for cyclists not to have to share space with high volume or high speed motor traffic. So, for the South London scheme I mentioned, one option would be to gate the road, closing it off to through motor traffic, while retaining access for the (relatively infrequent) buses and emergency service vehicles. This would likely make motor traffic speeds and volumes low enough for cycling to be pleasant and safe for most potential cyclists.
Another option might be to move on-street car parking to side streets, generating sufficient space for high-quality protected lanes or tracks along the full length of the scheme. As a cyclist, I don’t have an immediate preference for either option. While both separate cyclists from excessive volumes of motor traffic, one involves ‘segregation’ and one doesn’t. But either (done well! – with no bumpy, obstructed lanes, or cycle-unfriendly pinch points, etc.) could create a route where cycling is inclusive, convenient, quick and pleasant. Perhaps, if the cycle planning process had taken the steps I suggest here, the next step would be to consult local residents to find out which they prefer.
Ensuring Network Quality
How do we ensure that in Andrew Gilligan’s words, London’s cycle network is ‘done well’ this time? Once a core cycle network has been defined, it can be tested in two ways.
Firstly, how good is the network as a network – its ability to serve key origins and destinations; its density and directness – how the whole system functions as a network. The Dutch CROW manual, among other guides, has suggestions as to how we can measure and evaluate these kinds of network attributes. Planners can also regularly monitor what proportion of cycle traffic actually uses the network, as another way of checking that it actually covers the majority of journeys people want to make.
Secondly, the quality of the individual sections or links, which is what I’m focusing on here. For this, the key test would be the speed and volume of motor traffic with which cyclists need to share space. Like network coverage, this can be monitored and updated over time. We can imagine a map showing sections in green (where speeds and volumes are sufficient), amber (to be monitored closely as speeds or volumes are approaching the trigger point) and red (sections awaiting improvement).
Of course, we don’t just want to know that there is protected infrastructure or a quiet street – the quiet street may have uncomfortable speed humps, or the protected infrastructure may be poorly maintained, for example. So more criteria will be needed to assess section links (see the LCC’s Love London, Go Dutch matrix as an example of such criteria, designed for use in assessing scheme proposals). We can imagine a second map showing to what extent the network meets the expanded set of criteria, and this data, reviewed regularly, could be a trigger for targeted, often relatively small-scale improvements.
Final thoughts? If we get the broad framework right, ask the right questions, we collect the right data, regularly assess and review how we’re doing, constantly improve… I think we can do anything. London – with which I’m most familiar at the moment – has impressive networks of cycling expertise and experience, and pockets of strong political and policy commitment. If we create good networks, the strength of our growing cycling cultures mean the potential for growth is substantial. But if we keep on in the same, piecemeal manner, with processes that keep putting cycling last… I think we will fail. In twenty years’ time what has happened recently will look like a blip and people will wonder why we ever thought it would be different this time. Here’s hoping for the former.