Cycling: Why Bother?

There’s high-level support, even some serious money for improving conditions for cycling. But if cycling isn’t really your city’s thing, you might well be wondering whether it’s worth all the fuss.

Let’s step back, and start with the idea that excessive reliance on the car is bad for cities. Providing for cars takes a lot of space, and makes for an unattractive city. It’s almost impossible to make it work, so we just end up with congestion. The space that’s devoted to car parks, roundabouts and flyovers could be put to better use. There’s popular support for change, as long as it’s done gradually. But is the solution bikes, or buses, or walking, or trams?

Clearly some people think cycling is the solution. Many people report how wonderful it is to cycle in Amsterdam or Copenhagen. And then they start talking about how the streets need to be completely rebuilt. They talk about making busy roads fit for cyclists from age 8 to 80. It’s certainly an attractive idea, but it hardly commands majority support, not yet, maybe not ever. It’s not just the cost; rebuilding streets is highly contentious. No wonder politicians are doubtful.

Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just persuade people to use public transport? We’ve got a lot of buses, and fairly good train services in the larger cities. Do we really need to make space for bikes as well? How much space is really needed? And where?

The answer partly depends on the size of the city. Bigger cities rely more on public transport, because there are substantial numbers of decently-long commuting and shopping trips into the city centre. However, public transport suffers from overcrowding in the peak, and poor loads off-peak. And if the buses get stuck in peak traffic, the service will be barely commercial. It would work better if cities were denser, so everyone could walk to a convenient, high-frequency bus or tram stop, with a short ride to the city centre, but British cities aren’t built like that.

Public transport can’t do the job on its own. It struggles to provide for peak loads, and it can’t provide a comprehensive service for shorter journeys in the suburbs: they’re just too dispersed. In some ways, short journeys in the suburbs could be provided by driving: suburban car-use is less of a problem. But it’s still enough of a problem that main road junctions are oversized, that too much land is lost to parking, that the road environment is noisy and unpleasant, and that anyone who can’t drive is marginalised. So one of the main roles of cycling is to make suburbs more pleasant: to cater for local journeys to school, to the shops, visiting friends, and to the station.

The other potential main role for cycling is to take some of the peak load for journeys into the city centre. This works better in smaller cities, but helps in bigger cities too. Primarily this works for shorter journeys up to a couple of miles (eg Hackney to the City), and will mostly appeal to younger adults. It can also be about longer journeys, but this will tend to be the preserve of a smaller number of keen and fast cyclists. London’s Superhighways are attempting to provide for this market, but it’s not easy: there are some very large roads, and nasty junctions.

One of the key differences between British cities and the likes of Amsterdam and Copenhagen is the scale of existing public transport services. In Britain, we’re used to buses coming right into the city centre. By contrast, public transport services scarcely get into the tight-knit streets of central Amsterdam or Copenhagen: if you want to get that close, you have to cycle. While there are disadvantages with having buses in amongst the shops, it’s highly effective, so we’re not likely to switch wholesale to cycling.

So there does seem to be a role for bikes in reducing our reliance on cars, but it’s probably not the same as in the Netherlands. The biggest role for the bike is probably in the suburbs, and a lot can be achieved by making local roads 20mph and generally taming the traffic. One of the key markets is teenagers: giving them freedom to get about without relying on being driven everywhere. That’s not just about getting to school – it’s also important that access to the local town centre is possible. That means taming the local main roads, but probably using low-cost techniques, like cycle lanes and zebra crossings – as part of a general treatment to make them more pleasant for walking as well. Junctions can be tricky, but there’s usually a viable solution for straight-ahead moves that teenagers will find manageable. It’s not usually possible to make the main roads comfortable for family cycling, so to develop a full cycling culture, there need to be quiet routes as well, making a dual network.

The other main role for the bike is for commuting trips into the city centre, so as to reduce the pressure on public transport. For smaller cities, this is much the same as getting teenagers to the shops. As cities get larger and roads get busier, it becomes progressively more complicated. It may be possible to make routes on less-busy main roads, or provide segregated routes alongside multi-lane roads (though this is usually harder). A certain amount of traffic management may be required to concentrate traffic on the bigger roads, and make more space on the less-busy main roads. Junctions are critical, especially roundabouts and gyratories, because the straight-ahead move doesn’t have priority. Traffic lights are generally preferred, though issues with left-turning traffic will need to be addressed. In the largest cities, on the busiest roads, it can be almost impossible to find an acceptable solution. So the best approach is to concentrate efforts on the most-viable corridors, perhaps focusing on routes where there’s a reasonable population of young professionals, since these are the most likely to start cycling.

Is cycling worth the bother? Yes. It’s essential to moving away from reliance on the car. We have allowed the car to take over our cities, and it isn’t attractive. The easiest, but perhaps not the most obvious place to start is in the suburbs. Cycling is also valuable to support public transport for peak commuting journeys. This is harder to achieve, but can be done, by concentrating on appropriate routes, and bringing them up to sufficient standard.

Urban Roundabouts 2

Quite often there isn’t room for a Dutch-style roundabout. The Swiss have experimented with the geometry of roundabouts to make them as cycle-friendly as possible, with cyclists still on-road. This is unlikely to be comfortable enough for family cycling, so alternative quiet routes will also be needed that avoid the area.

The roundabouts need to be big enough so the entries can be tight, but not so big that cars try to overtake bikes on the roundabout. The diameter of the roundabout should be 24-34m, and the circulating carriageway should be no-more-than 8m wide. The Swiss advice is that exits should be quite open, to avoid the risk of cyclists getting cut up on exit. The design can cope with quite high traffic levels – upto 30,000 motor-vehicles per day, according to the Swiss.

This is a sketch design for a pair of mini-roundabouts in Marston, Oxford. The give-way lines have been moved back to make a bigger roundabout with a solid island, and the number of approach lanes reduced to one on each arm. Cycle lanes have been added on all the approaches. The road between the two roundabouts has been narrowed and angled, to slow the traffic.

The original aerial imagery is from Google Maps.

Urban roundabouts

Roundabouts are often used to reduce congestion, but conventional UK designs aren’t cycle-friendly (or pedestrian-friendly). The Dutch have developed a design for an urban cycle-friendly roundabout, but it takes quite a lot of space. The full design has a completely-circular cycle track, set back from the roundabout by 5m (one car-length). The minimum size for the roundabout itself is 25m diameter, with a 13m island. Including pavements, you need a minimum 45m diameter.

This is a sketch design for the junction where Barns Road meets Between Towns Road in Cowley, Oxford. The junction is moderately busy, and is currently a mini-roundabout with a bypass lane. The roads in the area are unnecessarily wide, and there are no reasonable quiet routes. So it makes sense to provide segregated cycle tracks along Between Towns Road, and make the junctions as cycle-friendly as possible.

A full Dutch roundabout doesn’t fit, but by judiciously distorting the circular cycle track, it can just about be squeezed in. It is important that the cycle track splits several metres before each crossing, and cyclists approaching the crossing shouldn’t have any sharp turns. This makes it clear to motorists that the cyclist is crossing, and they should give way.

The roadway had to be extended by a few metres northwards at the junction, into a grassed area. The original aerial imagery is from Google Maps.

Crossing the Ring Road 2

Market towns often have a single-carriageway ring road or bypass with roundabouts. This will usually cross the route between nearby villages and the town, for instance for going to secondary school, visiting friends or shopping.

Speeds will typically be 40mph, with flared entries and exits, and these roundabouts are not-at-all pedestrian or cycle-friendly. A Toucan crossing could be provided a little way from the roundabout, but this will typically be considerably slower than risking the roundabout, as well as moderately expensive. The junction could be converted to traffic lights, but this costs even more.

This is a sketch drawing for the Wootton Road roundabout north of Abingdon. The design is close to the Dutch standard design for such situations, with bottle-shaped islands on each arm to slow the traffic down, and cyclists on tracks, giving way to cross each arm. Most cyclists will go north-south, and will have to give way twice in quick succession at relatively stress-free crossings. This compares reasonably to having to give way once to enter the roundabout.

The green areas are road that would be returned to grass. The existing cycle tracks/pavements and crossing points have been used.

The original aerial imagery is from Google Maps.

Crossing the Ring Road

Although most cycling is within cities, there’s no reason why the outer estates should be cut off, and every reason to encourage people to cycle out into the countryside. In an ideal world, there would be excellent tracks, bridges and tunnels alongside the main roads, but sometimes there isn’t space. Quite often the existing junction is a simple oversized roundabout. How do we make that cycle-friendly?

This is a sketch design for a roundabout to the north of Oxford, where Banbury Road crosses the ring road. A number of Oxford’s peripheral roundabouts have already been signalled, and a couple have had lanes cut through the middle (known as hamburger roundabouts or throughabouts). But the best that’s been achieved for cycling is staggered Toucan crossings. Can we do better?

The cunning aspect of the design is skewing the straight-ahead throughabout lanes, so there’s a gap between the two exit lanes. When traffic is flowing from the ring road entries (east-west), there should be very little traffic wanting to use the conventional roundabout exit lanes. So those exits can have a red signal, for cyclists and pedestrians to cross. When traffic is flowing from the radial entries (north-south), the other ring-road lanes all have a red signal, for cyclists and pedestrians to complete the crossing. With good separation between the two crossings, they don’t need to be staggered.

Original aerial photography from Google Maps

Cyclists are from Mars

(and Earth, and Venus, and Mercury)

In an important 2010 report which deserves a wider audience, the UK Department for Transport (DfT) identified four different types of adult cyclist, based on how they cycle, and in particular how they feel about sharing the road with other traffic.

The four behaviours that DfT identified were Assertiveness, Guardedness, Avoidance and Opportunism. You can simplify that slightly to Skilled, Careful, Scared and Wild. But even those descriptions are quite hard to remember, so I’m going to translate it into something more memorable: Cyclists are from Mars, Earth, Venus and Mercury.

Martian cyclists (assertiveness) are those that have done the training. They look behind regularly, they pull out early to pass parked cars and to turn right. They know how to tackle roundabouts.

Earthian cyclists (guardedness) are comfortable enough about other traffic that they’ll cycle on busy roads, as long as they can keep to the left, out of the way. They’re only happy turning right if the traffic is going really slowly. They hate roundabouts.

Venusian cyclists (avoidance) don’t venture onto main roads at all. They only cycle if there’s a quiet route, preferably off-road. They will cycle on the pavement of main roads, and use crossings, but are likely to switch to an alternative mode, if they can’t find a reasonable route.

Mercurian cyclists (opportunism) are typically young men in a hurry. They don’t really care about the rules of the road, and just go fast by whatever route is available – inside, outside, on the pavement, whatever.

As always with attempts at segmentation, these four types actually lie on a continuum, and some people will adopt different behaviours in different circumstances. But thinking in terms of these four types helps to ensure we cover the range of cyclists. The research was qualitative – it was based on small group discussions in a range of different towns. No attempt was made to quantify the numbers of current or potential cyclists that are in each group. In many UK towns, with hostile road environments, the Mercurian and Martian cyclists are likely to predominate.

However, one thing this does highlight is the problem with talking about cycling: different types of cyclist might as well be on different planets, for all the understanding they’ll get from other types of cyclist.

To give a practical example, where I live, there are two roads you can take into town: Hythe Bridge Street and Park End Street. One of the standing debates in my household is: which is the better way to cycle into town.

To get to Hythe Bridge Street you go straight-ahead at the big junction outside the station, and then join the heavy traffic along Hythe Bridge Street as it narrows. There are no cycle lanes and a couple of pinchpoints. At the end of Hythe Bridge Street, the traffic is forced left round a tight bend, there’s a Pelican crossing, and there’s a gap for cyclists to go straight, and into town.

To get to Park End Street, you have to pull out into the traffic approaching the big junction to fork right into the bus area. You then have to get past the bus stops and through another set of lights. There’s not much traffic on Park End Street, and there are cycle lanes, but there’s often loading, and some buses go a bit fast.

My partner prefers Hythe Bridge Street (and I think she’s mad). I prefer Park End Street (and she thinks I’m mad). The reason is that I cycle like a Martian – pulling out and watching a few buses seems the easiest. Whereas my partner cycles like an Earthian – keeping straight ahead and turning right in slow-moving traffic is easiest.

Almost all cycle campaigners (and cycling officers) are Martians. Most of them can understand that other cyclists are different. But they generally fail to understand how they are different, and how prevalent the different types might be.

Our experience in Oxford is that Earthians predominate. Oxford has about 20% of commuters cycling to work (28% in some wards), and 30% of adults using a bike at least once a week. Most of them cycle on main roads, but there’s very little take-up of adult cycle training. The reason that cycling has become normal for Oxford’s middle classes is that the roads have been adapted to make “Earthian” cycling a reasonable thing to do. We no longer have any gyratories, and our only major roundabout has been tamed (mostly). You can go straight-ahead at almost all main junctions without difficulty, and rarely get forced into making an uncomfortable right turn.

Oxford’s approach to infrastructure has always been quite pragmatic. A lot of painted cycle lanes and bus lanes were marked out in the eighties, and they worked well-enough (for Earthians). Separately, a number of quiet routes were developed, focused on schools. These also worked well – for children, and for some adults (a mixture of Venusians, and others who found them to be useful short-cuts). So these routes have been extended and linked up to make a quiet network, mostly by providing crossings of main roads. It has developed into a dual network.

The initial idea of the dual network was that the two parts were equally important. We thought that new cyclists would be Venusians. But it has become clear over the years that – for adults – the main road network is considerably more important. This is partly due to the circuitousness of the quiet network, but it is also because Earthians appear to outnumber Venusians, by some margin.

It may be that there are a large group of potential Venusian cyclists that aren’t being catered for. But for whatever reason, they aren’t speaking up. Perhaps they can see for themselves that the space isn’t really there. Perhaps they’re settling for the circuitous quiet routes. Perhaps they’ve converted themselves into Earthians. Or perhaps they walk, or catch the bus, or drive.

Instead, the local pressure is to fill in the gaps in the main road network – to deal with the remaining parking on the main roads, if possible, and provide more cycle lanes. There is also support for 20mph limits on side roads, and a range of techniques for slowing traffic on main roads.

For other cities wanting to improve conditions for cyclists, and struggling to find the space and funds to do so, it would be sensible to think carefully about the type of cyclist you are trying to provide for. By understanding and catering for the specific needs of Earthian cyclists, you are likely to be able to make cycling viable for a substantial portion of the adult population. Trying to provide comprehensively for Venusians in congested main road corridors is much more difficult.

So what are the key things that make the roads tolerable to Earthians? The main thing is that the default route at all junctions needs to be straight-ahead. After all, for most journeys, you mostly go straight. This is actually quite simple, and just-about permitted by the regulations: paint the cycle lane across the junction. If it is clear where the straight-ahead cyclists are going to go, then motorists are perfectly capable of finding a way round them. That can be made to work at most urban traffic lights (the Germans have a range of designs). Roundabouts and gyratories are harder, but the principle is the same: always give priority to bikes going straight-ahead over left-turning traffic. Dutch-style roundabouts meet this criterion. Gyratories generally don’t, but it may be possible to adapt them so that they do (or even better, get rid of them).

Earthians are less particular about what happens between junctions. The various degrees of segregation don’t matter very much to them, as long as they have a clear path, and traffic is keeping to 30mph (or preferably a bit slower). The main improvement is to regulate parking, and paint continuous cycle lanes. Gaps in the cycle lanes for zig-zags and bus stops aren’t ideal, but they’re not critical.

If cities want to make real progress towards getting a good proportion of people onto bikes, they should focus on providing for Earthian (ie careful adult) cyclists – there are plenty enough of them – and focus on the key things that make Earthian cycling tolerable: cycle lanes and straight-ahead priority at junctions.

Cycle-friendly main roads 2

In contrast to Oxford, most UK cities are quite hostile to everyday cycling. There are no cycle lanes, so the traffic has too much space and goes too fast. There are roundabouts, where you would worry about cars pulling out on you, and gyratories, where would you get cut-up. For example, here’s a map of Worcester:

Hardly any solid red lines (cycle lanes). Lots of black (roundabouts) and blue (gyratories). It’s clear that Worcester is the sort of place where young men might be brave enough to cycle, and some others will venture out on the quiet routes, but there will be little “everyday” cycling; the main roads don’t even begin to be cycle-friendly.

Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, Cartography (c) Richard Mann

Cycle-friendly main roads

Map of main road cycle lanes / roundabouts

One of the trickiest tasks in moving towards a Transport Paradise is adapting main roads so they are pleasant enough places for adults to choose to cycle. The critical things appear to be providing some form of clear space for cycling alongside traffic, and removing gyratories and tightening the geometry of roundabouts.

Oxford has progressed further with providing cycle lanes, removing gyratories and tightening roundabouts than any other UK city. On the map above, urban main roads are shown with dotted or solid red lines next to them. Solid red lines show where there are cycle lanes (or priority cycle tracks). Roundabouts are marked in black (unless they have priority tracks or tight geometry), and gyratories are in blue (there aren’t any).

In terms of making its main roads cycle-friendly, Oxford is just over half-way. There are quite a lot of cycle lanes, no gyratories, and few roundabouts. A key roundabout at the centre of the map has been partially tightened.

Map data (c) OpenStreetMap contributors, Cartography (c) Richard Mann

Dividing Cycle Lane Across Junction

Dividing Cycle Lane at junction

This cycle lane continues across the junction, and divides in two, giving continuity to both routes. The division provokes a high level of signalling by left-turning cyclists, even though they have little direct interest in doing so. The clarity of the markings leads to drivers of left-turning motor vehicles giving way to cyclists going straight ahead.

Cycle Lanes across Junctions

Painting a cycle lane across a signalled junction

Cycle lanes can be painted across junctions, to give a sense of continuity to cyclists, and remind left-turning traffic that they should only overtake if it is safe. This arrangement has been installed at three junctions in Oxford that had accident problems with left-turning vehicles, with positive results. The cycle lane is interrupted only for the ASL and the crossing.