Friday, 14 February 2014

Cycle paths, cycle lanes…; what about a network?

A BBC-journalist asked for "my perspective on the introduction on Dutch-style segregated cycle lanes in Bristol”. Wow; I felt things going wrong straight away! Let’s get this right. We have cycle lanes and cycle paths and we must not mix them up! Also, most British versions of both are really something completely different in comparison to their Dutch counterparts. Cycle lanes and cycle paths: these are their stories!

Cycle lanes:

A cycle lane is a reserved space for cycling on the road (possibly marked in red, green or blue colour). The problem with cycle lanes in the UK is that they are far too narrow. Often, the handlebars of the bike don’t even fit in the cycle lane, as shown in the picture on the right. This is not an isolated example. You can take this type of pictures all over the country, sadly. 
UK highway officials love to implement cycle lanes of a width of about 1 meter or less. The Department for Transport doesn't seem to understand that these lanes are lethal. Now, Dutch cycle lanes will be generally at least 1.5 m wide and those of just about 1.5 m wide will be found on roads with a 30 km/h (20 mph) speed limit only, not on roads with speed limits of 50 km/h (30 mph) or more. 

However, UK highway officials happily implement narrow cycle lanes on roads with 30, 40 or even 50 mph speed limits. This leaves cyclists very exposed to a large margin of driver’s judgement errors, as we have seen in the recent increase of fatalities in London on the so called Cycling Super Highways. In the picture on the right, traffic is allowed to go 50 mph and we even see a driver undertaking a lorry on the cycle lane here; nice! 


The faster the motorised traffic is allowed to go, the wider Dutch cycle lanes are. On roads with a 50 km/h speed limit (30 mph), Dutch cycle lanes will often be at about 2 m wide, even if this results in giving up two lanes for motorised traffic. In that case, you’ll see two wide red coloured cycle lanes on either side of the road, and only one lane for motorised traffic in the middle. Of course, if cars come either way, these will straddle the cycle lanes, but this won't be an option of there was a cyclist in the cycle lane. In that case, the driver coming from behind the cyclist will have to wait with overtaking, until the opposite flow has cleared. Thus the wide Dutch cycle lane protects the cyclist of being overtaken too close.

You'll generally only find cycle lanes in The Netherlands on roads with speed limits up to 60 km/h (so 37 mph). Also, they are generally only implemented on secondary roads, so talking "UK-language", on roads without the A- or B-road number classification. This is again where it goes wrong in the UK, as on-road cycle lanes are used on main through roads, where in The Netherlands, you'll find cycle paths away from the main carriageway on these routes; no cycle lanes!  

Another factor to take into account when thinking of on-road cycle lanes is that Dutch drivers are all trained to be on the lookout for cyclists all the time, making cycle lanes (in the Dutch set up) much safer to use. In Britain, it is the opposite. Cyclists have to watch drivers' behaviours all the time and have to check in which way their movements are going to affect them. 

The risk of being hit by side road traffic (minor roads and driveways) is also extremely high in the UK. This is why the Department for Transport has adopted the Bikeability cycle training as a National Standard. Bikeability recommends cyclists to take at least one meter distance from the kerb or road side and even move to the middle of their side of the road when approaching and passing side roads. 

This primary position, (in the middle of where a car would be driving) puts the cyclist in a position where they will definitely be seen by side road traffic. On top of that, Bikeability also recommends cyclists to establish eye contact with drivers in side roads and driveways, as "if they have seen you, they won't run you over". The problem with on-road cycle lanes is that these put cyclists in exactly the vulnerable position close to the kerb-side, where they'll be overlooked by side road traffic. 

In summary, the “Cycling Dutchman” is completely against on-road cycle lanes in the UK in the current established formats as:

- cycle lanes are consequently drawn too narrow 
- cycle lanes are implemented in high-speed or heavy traffic intensity surroundings, whilst in The Netherlands, you'll generally only see them in low-speed and medium traffic intensity surroundings
- cycle lanes expose cyclists to high risks regarding side road traffic with drivers overlooking and overshooting their minor roads/driveways
- cycle lanes create a mental pressure to cyclists to use the cycle lanes, even if these are not safe to use
- the general attitude of the British driver is not ready for safe use of this type of infrastructure, just as general speed limits, which are often too generous for the roads in question 

In this respect, a road without any line drawings (so also without the center road line) is much better, as this forces drivers truly to think about their vehicle width. This results into speeds that do more justice to limited road widths and other traffic on the road, including usage of the road by non-motorised traffic. An example on where the center road line has been removed on arrival in a village is shown here (Swimbridge, Devon).   

Cycle paths:

A Cycle path is an off-road cycling facility, away from the road. In Britain, these are always shared paths, often pavements, to be shared with pedestrians. Sometimes, these are also called "segregated shared paths" if a white line on the tarmac has been put in to separate cyclists from pedestrians. Have you ever seen this work? No! Pedestrians are all over the place and so are the cyclists.


So, that is why UK highway officials also came up with the rule that on their cycle paths, cyclists always have to give way to pedestrians. I don't intend to infringe on the rights of pedestrians, but the fact is that these "British Style" paths cannot be classed as true cycle paths "Dutch" sense. On a UK cycle path you can often only cycle at walking speed, so is it really a cycle path then? I don't think so. 


On Dutch cycle paths, you can indeed cycle at cycling speed, as the cycle path is generally separated from the pedestrian pavement by a kerb or vegetation area. If a pedestrian needs to cross the cycle path, they’ll do so as if the cycle path were a road. Note in urban places with limited space, like Amsterdam City Centre, you'll also find footpaths and cycle paths on the same level, but always with different pavement/colour styles to distinguish them from each other. 

This is where the classic tourist-Amsterdam cyclist-clash comes from; the tourists are not used to such infrastructure. Non-Dutch people don't understand that they are supposed to give way to cyclists when crossing a cycle path. Away from Amsterdam City Centre, you'll find cycle paths and footpaths nearly always clearly segregated from each other by either a kerb or vegetation area. Once you are used to it, the Dutch system makes for happy cycling, happy walking and, lets also not forget, happy driving.

In rural areas you'll see that pedestrians will also walk on cycle paths. In this case Dutch pedestrians are always aware of cyclists, meaning they keep a straight line on either side of the path and look over their shoulders before making any change of direction. Having been in the UK for 7 years, I recently slowed down for a pedestrian when cycling on such a Dutch path. "What is wrong with you? Just keep going!", the Dutch pedestrian said, clearly completely happy with cyclists riding past him every minute or two... 

The point I am trying to make here is that Dutch cycle paths keep the cyclists going, rather than making them slow down all the time. The British paths can be just a laugh, especially when all those crazy barriers come into the story; is this supposed to be a cycle path or what? Beyond the pedestrian and barriers issues, there are some other important factors which make Dutch cycle paths much faster and inviting to use than their British counterparts:

1. A general priority for cyclists on cycle paths above any turning traffic in and out of side roads and driveways, with clear priority markings on the crossings. Note Dutch cycle paths are always at the same level as the road, rather than coming down from a dropped kerb. Some isolated experiments show it is possible to introduce this priority in the UK, but you can see in the examples how it has been an uphill battle for the keen local authorities to stay within the official DfT-guideline.

2. At junctions with lights, one press on the button by a cyclist is enough to cross the whole road. In Britain you often have to press twice, only able to cross one direction of traffic per time. You often get stuck on a refuge island, forced to press another button to get across the next carriageway.

3. The surface of Dutch cycle paths is often just as smooth as the surface of the main carriageway. British cycle paths are often created by "recycled" road tarmac; being on your bike you feel the difference with every pedal push! Having this said, many cycle paths in The Netherlands are paved, also because of cost-implications. These are not always as smooth as the on-road tarmac, but at least they will be maintained, something that also gets often forgotten when talking UK cycling infrastructure.

4.  Cycle paths in The Netherlands together form a fully connected network, where there is never the need to cycle in heavy or fast moving motorised traffic. End of route signs, as you see so often in the UK (see picture), do not exist in The Netherlands.  You can read about the overall-continuity of the Dutch cycle network in one of my previous blogs about a typical Dutch bike journey.

All reasons together make that in The Netherlands even racing cyclists are happy to use cycle paths; they are quick, easy to use and reliable.

In summary, in The Netherlands:

* For any road with a considerable motorised traffic flow and speed limits above 60 km/h (37 mph), you’ll generally find a cycle path separated from the main carriageway.

* On any other road, where there is no cycle path available, the road will be traffic-calmed, with seriously reduced speed limits and sometimes cycle lanes "Dutch-style" as pictured on the left.

Back to the original question of  the BBC-journalist about “my perspective on the introduction on segregated cycle lanes”, I prefer British-style cycle paths very much above British-style cycle lanes

British-style “shared path” cycle paths, with all their shortcomings, at least give people of all ages and abilities the opportunity to cycle safely and without having to fear for motorised traffic. To “speed” these cycle paths up to Dutch style is a matter of evolution. We must not forget that the Dutch system is a result of a 40 years design evolution, forced by public pressure in the 1970s. In Britain today, we see some isolated examples where cycle paths get upgraded because of their intense usage.This is proof how this evolution will take place in Britain too.

It is impossible to “correct” five decades of true neglect in a short time. Fixing Britain’s "car only" road network back into a more cycle-friendly world is a mammoth task, but in my opinion it can be done easily and within current highway budgets if two principals were applied:

PRINCIPAL ONE: Make cycling a fully integrated part of transport policies. This can easily be interpreted as a hollow phrase, but its reality is simple. For every road being resurfaced, for every junction being re-designed, for every hole being dug in the ground; the question should be asked: How does this bit of infrastructure relate to cycling and what can we do now to make it better? 


After resurfacing a local road, do we blindly re-install that out-of-date center road line of the 1960s, or do we keep it out (saving money on paint!) and do we make the road a 20 mph zone, so it is becomes more a shared road for different modes of transport?

If we dig up a road to replace the mains and this road is normally pretty busy, can we perhaps come up with a different design for it and can we even create space for a cycle path after the digging is completed? Can we create a new car park nearby, to be able to use the space now used for on-road parking for a cycle path? It is this kind of continuous thinking and action what gradually transformed The Netherlands into the cycle-friendly place as we know it now. 


In the UK, I see too often how new housing developments being added to the current infrastructure without even thinking about how this will affect the traffic intensity on existing roads. It is nice to build a cycle path on a new housing estate itself, but if the only way in and out of the estate is via a road as pictured on the right, what is the point? The connecting cycle route to the places where the new residents will work, study and shop should be an integrated part of the development plan!

Every building project should be examined by a sustainable transport body seeing the bigger picture. A powerful local or regional cycling infrastructure commissioner is needed in every area to oversee any (re)construction projects affecting use of public space.  

PRINCIPAL TWO: We need local cycling networks which truly connects local destinations (public facilities as schools, shopping areas, offices, industrial estates and housing). These network often already exists on urban cycle maps and on on-line cycle route planners (I worked on several of them myself), but these are not very visible for the public.

Extensive signage (as is omni-present in The Netherlands) can make this network visible. Note this type of signage is nowhere present in the UK and is a relatively low-cost investment. This signage should show a network with a continuous quality of routes. It needs to represent a trustworthy brand, so something stronger than the British National Cycle Network, on which you never know what is going to happen next.

So, where this network is on- road, this road must have a reasonably low-traffic density with strict 20 mph speed limits and limitation of on-road car parking with clear lines of vision for cyclists. Where roads are busier, cycle paths are essential to make the links, even if they are of the British “shared path” type (we can work on “speeding them up” later).

Again, continuity is the magic word. If a compulsory purchase order is required to create a short, but essential cycle path link, so be it. UK authorities pamper private land owners far too much. UK cycle paths are cluttered with signs as pictured on the right and what is the point of it? Britain has probably the largest number of public footpaths of Europe, but when it comes down to cycle paths, the country depends on the willingness of some bloke in a big villa.  It is not right that the personal interests of a few can block some simple and essential infrastructure for decades. Note; we are not talking a new high-speed railway here; it is just a path where people can ride their bikes!

Only if this local network becomes visible for the public and is trustworthy (so no missing gaps and with reasonably direct routes), cycling in the UK will become a true and safe alternative for driving. A new range of signage, as displayed on the right, may well be the way to go. It is essential though the signage is not isolated to a few locations, but continuous over the full route, until the signed destination is reached. 


I put these principals into action by producing a vision for Barnstaple Town Centre with my friends of the North Devon Cycling Forum in 2014. Have a look at these two maps. The first map shows the current situation, with a town centre isolated from its surrounding areas, the second map shows a preview of our plan, in which the town centre could link to its surrounding areas for just over £ 800.000. 

If this cost is spread over five years, the cost per head of the local population would be just over £ 5 per yearThe recommendation by the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group is to raise cycling infrastructure expenditure to £ 10 per citizen per year, so this project would be half of the recommended expense; much better value for money than spending two million pounds on upgrading a local roundabout which only serves motorised traffic! 

Today, we see strategic thinking as this starting to take place in various London boroughs and cities which used to be (or are) so called "Cycling Demonstration Cities". If you are lucky enough to live in such a place, please spread the word about the benefits of your local schemes. It is not rocket science, but to convert all UK towns and cities, there is a very long way to go...

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