Get Britain Cycling: "redesigning our roads, streets and communities"

Via the CTC I received an email from Jon Snow the other day informing me that the All Party Parliamentary Cycling Group (APPCG) is aiming for 10% of trips by bike by 2025 and 25% by 2050, and £10 per person per year in funding for cycling. Those are the headlines of the APPCG's Get Britain Cycling report which calls for a response from the Prime Minister and a radical transformation of streets and roads, as well as training, promotion and marketing to shift the culture on our roads. CTC, the national cycling charity, is calling on David Cameron to act and urges the Government to implement the report's 18 recommendations. Urgent action is required to address "Britain's chronic levels of obesity, heart disease, air pollution and congestion" to catch up with other countries in the developed world, etc etc.


Jump to conclusions »

Licensed vehicles in the UK rose from about 4 million in 1950 to over 34 million in 2010, not because cycling became less popular but because motoring became more popular, though the effect was the same: in the early 1950's cycling accounted for 12% of distance travelled – by 2010 it was only 0.5%. The APPCG says something must be done. Recommendations for...

  • 20mph speed limit 'default' on urban streets and
  • 40mph on many rural lanes

... should be supported by anyone who cares more about road safety than getting there in the shortest time possible (I do). This is good for cycling regardless of whether you believe in bicycle infrastructure or not. The same with:

  • HGV safety 'through driver training and vehicle design' and
  • 'strengthening the enforcement' of road traffic law.

Those proposals alone seem reason enough to petition the Prime Minister, who's already said "we need to get behind campaigns like this." Perhaps he will sign the petition himself and really 'get behind' it. However, I'm interested in what has happened – and what might happen – to the 'fabric' of roads and streets. Dismay as much as interest because here, Get Britain Cycling recommends things I disagree with, in particular:

Local authorities should seek to deliver cycle-friendly improvements across their existing roads, including small improvements, segregated routes, and road reallocation.

'Cycling Strategies'

I have found what I think is my local Council's 'Cycling Strategy' for 2006/07 – 2011/12:

  • The Council will improve the environment for cyclists in the following ways:
  • reallocating road space in appropriate locations;
  • requiring new development to make appropriate provision for secure cycle parking;
  • protecting existing cycle routes from development;
  • requiring new development to make appropriate provision on and, where appropriate, off site for cyclists;
  • assessing the impacts of new development on all highway users, including cyclists;
  • supporting the development of a cycle route network in accordance with the Council's Cycling Strategy.

I suspect this Council is typical of many if not most local authorities. They have no money (nor the prospect of any money) to do anything for cycling, they don't want to do anything, and even if they had, and did, they are not capable of putting it into practice. The amount of money needed to implement their own Policy, let alone Get Britain Cycling, is astronomical. So astronomical there would be public uproar at the wastage of funds and the disruption it would cause over many years, possibly even decades. "Redesigning our roads, streets and communities" is pie-in-the-sky.

From the report: "We were struck by the Highways Agency witnesses' candour in acknowledging that most of his profession had little knowledge or training in how to design for cycling."

Urban mess

The following photos illustrate the terrible mess(1) the Council(2) has made since the days when a street was an elegant strip of asphalt (or cobbles) with a neat pavement each side.





I know this town well. They are the roads, more particularly the junctions, that anyone cycling from suburbia into town must use. There are no parks or disused railway lines as alternative places for cycle paths (although the town does have parks and disused railway lines). Hardly anyone cycles across these junctions, or even along the roads. The APPCG is saying, I think, that the Council should reallocate road space to introduce cycle-friendly segregated routes in these places so that more people will cycle to work, shops, etc. Even more kerbs, lanes, painted lines, signs, traffic signals, bollards and other barriers to add to the mix without even knowing whether it will make any difference to the number of cyclists.

When David Cameron became Prime Minister he spoke about The Big Society – a phrase that is rarely mentioned now but I think I remember the idea: something about local issues being sorted out locally under local democracy. In my opinion English local democracy is one of the finest models that exist. It is, or was, as clean as a whistle and as publicly responsive and accountable as anything can be without daily elections (nobody wants that). That is why the Council's 'Cycling Strategy' is a piece of paper that no-one has any intention of putting into practice: unwanted(3), unaffordable.

The ugly roads junctions illustrated in the photographs do actually work. They are market driven. When the Council's engineers haven't got the timing of traffic light sequences exactly right the democratic process, helped along by the local press, ensures it gets fixed straight away. When somebody trips over a kerb or falls in a pot hole the hazard is removed the next day. No-one complains about the visual mess the roads now are, that there are too many signs and so on (though I have read complaints about the nonsensical green-painted zones set aside for bicycles – the only reason I can imagine why they've not been removed is that cyclists are perhaps seen as a persecuted minority with a soft spot amongst Councillors).

Do it right (or not at all)

I don't share David Hembrow's 'view from the cycle path' on many things but I agree with some of what he's written in an article on 1 April 2013: "It makes no sense to campaign for something which isn't actually good enough." It makes no sense to do something which isn't actually good enough. It is better not even to start.

David wrote: Campaigners should be inspired by the best of Dutch infrastructure and be wary of distraction by things which don't have a proven record of success.

Unfortunately there sometimes seems to be a lack of "quality control" when people are inspired by what they see in other places, including what they see in the Netherlands.

That's the crux: quality control. The Netherlands knows how to segregate cyclists properly, uniformly across the whole country (more or less). It began in the 19th century and began again in the 1970's. I don't know the detailed history of cycling in the Netherlands but I have cycled there. My impression is that 1970's Dutch pro-cycling campaigners were pushing an open door. In Dutch cities for instance, 30% of traffic was already on bicycles, compared to about 5% in the UK. Everything about the Netherlands says "bicycle" – not just its culture but internal geography and how that country is put together. Investment to do things properly was politically desirable in a way that is unimaginable in modern Britain:

Bicycle superhighway, Haarlem

Doing it Dutch: Haarlem, Netherlands (no half measures)

Suspension bridge for bicycles

Doing it Dutch: I've forgotten where (bicycle bridge)

Bridge to Utrecht

Doing it Dutch: near Utrecht, Netherlands (bike equality)


Doing it Danish (gorgeous highway design in Denmark)

Maybe The Big Society really will produce local infrastructure solutions in keeping with Get Britain Cycling and to a proper standard in some towns. I don't think it will happen in my town. I would prefer to wind back the clock and restore the roads to the simple formula that existed for a few hundred years until the 1960's when highway planners, inspired, I think, by the Buchanan Report, began to lie down for the motor vehicle. I am not against motorised travel. Motorways are a success story and in many places a thing of beauty. To be able to cross the country at speed in my car (actually a van) with the bikes inside, safely and cheaply, is something I would rather not give up and of course few people, regardless of their politics and environmental credentials, would easily give up the conveniences they enjoy by other people driving on the roads, delivering goods, etc. To that extent we are all hypocrites.

I've signed the petition to the Prime Minister as I fully support the APPCG Get Britain Cycling report's ideas for 'Safe Driving And Safe Speed Limits' and 'Training and Education'. That can do nothing but good, not just for cyclists but for civil society. I suppose I'm also in favour of 'Political Leadership' on those issues although I am not sure how far it's the government's job to tell people how to live their lives.

See how this petition is doing compared to other petitions »
(100,000 signatures will trigger a debate by the Backbench Business Committee)

Further notes added later.

Up the Junction

(1)Clarification of terrible mess (most drivers perhaps don't notice). The junctions shown are problematic for slow utility cyclists, especially during the rush. It is partly the long travel distance across from the start of the 'off' slip road to the end of the 'on' slip road (you risk being knocked off) and partly because it can be hard to safely reach the 'forward' bike lane from the inside bike lane on the approach road because of traffic turning left. On a bike, the only safe place is 'primary' position and many cyclists are nervous about it. The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the slip roads are to keep traffic moving as quickly as possible (for 'thoughput' – roundabouts are the same of course). The result of these sweeping turns and extra lanes for motorists turning left or right, plus the central reservations for lights and pedestrian refuges, is obvious – huge areas of tarmac where a simple crossroads used to be. All that, and the sight lines required for fast-moving vehicles, means that buildings which once stood on the corners and were designed for corners have been demolished and you are left with bits of grass and bushes littered with rubbish – no man's land. It is the ruination of what once was 'urban fabric'.

It has already been argued (not by me but I agree with it) that the preoccupation of highway planners with traffic flow may be self-defeating: one junction works better but it only puts pressure on the next. All that happens is that more traffic arrives at the next constriction and when that is 'improved', to the next, and so on. Then more vehicles come onto the roads due to their increased capacity and the whole cycle of expansion begins again. Overall, nothing is really gained; just more people in traffic jams and less fewer buildings.

(2)My local Council actually does a good job across a very wide range of services, like most, I suspect, and they are working with tighter budget restraints than ever before. The highways department will be doing its best between the proverbial 'rock and the hard place'. They are expected to try to keep traffic moving and that is what they do, otherwise they get bad press and complaints from angry motorists. Towns are in competition with each other to attract investment and developers don't want to invest in a town with a reputation for logjams. These priorities mean the 'terrible mess' is probably inevitable.

(3)I'm sceptical about surveys that report how people say they would ride bicycles if only it felt safer, with paths just for cycling and protected from motor vehicles, or if it wasn't so hilly, or if the weather was better, or if there was somewhere to leave their bikes at work. A lack of bike parking does seem a pretty good reason but generally I think many people just don't fancy doing anything physical if they can avoid it and that is often the real reason. Drivers tend to park as close as possible to where they are going, to avoid walking any distance. On warm summer evenings or sunny weekends only a tiny minority walk on the hills only a mile from their homes. Leisure-wise a large part of society seems happier going shopping in the car and watching TV in the evening. It seems unlikely everyone will jump on bicycles if only the Council would build some protected bike lanes.

A note about roundabouts. I doubt they can ever work for cyclists as they are designed in the UK. A cyclist going round one is vulnerable to traffic going off left and this vulnerability is by design (it is not only cyclists who are vulnerable either). There is a fault in the concept. As everyone knows, the whole idea is to keep traffic moving with the minimum stopping and a car going left obviously has to stop, or at least slow right down, to avoid a cyclist who is not going left. The speed difference between motor vehicles and bicycles means it's almost impossible for a cyclist to safely cross to the 'outside' lane of a busy roundabout (the lane nearest the centre) to make way for left turning traffic. So I think here is a case for proper segregation, not only where particular local authorities decide to do it piecemeal but as a national standard, at least for certain categories of roundabout – ones with two lanes, say. There may be other road design concepts unsuited to cyclists and motorists sharing the same surface: fast dual carriageways for example (Dutch-style roundabouts being tested).

My former profession was architecture (mostly in the public sector). Since the 60's I've seen the transformation of towns from 'organic' centres for social interaction into compartments where we have forgotten how to 'rub up' against each other. Motor vehicles and people especially, but also places for living and places for work. Of course we've had to deal with industrial and noise pollution but in the process, modern town planning has helped to fragment society and reinforce the concept that the resolution of conflict is somebody else's problem. I am not a student of these things and academic research might explain it better; it's just a gut feeling based on observation. Something has gone wrong and "redesigning our roads, streets and communities" is only more of the same.

"Cycling becomes part of a moral critique of technological society, specifically the car, and the search for and performance of a more authentic, less alienated everyday life ... The bicycle is not the object, but the vehicle on which these social movements travel in pursuit of their objectives."

Dave Horton, Thinking About Cycling: Social Movements and the Bicycle

The pre-1960 'mass cycling' in Britain will not return in the forseeable future. The affordability and convenience of the private car has seen to it. When oil runs out it will be replaced by other forms of energy, not a return to human power. There may be signs that the saturation point will soon be reached but infrastructure-wise the die is cast. We made our choices in the 1960's and 70's when the Dutch made theirs. Besides, the realistic alternative to private transport by car is not bicycles but public transport: buses, trains, and taxis. The travel distances between people's homes and destinations such as work, the supermarket, the health centre, together with the hilly nature of many parts of the country, mean cycling is too physical and time-consuming to be a natural choice of personal transport.

Still, cycling in the UK seems alive and well. It is not about numbers and percentages but how accessible cycling is – if that is what you choose to do. 'Mass cycling' is a political concept which assumes a social purpose and some kind of 'high ground' to be gained, and 'tackling obesity'. That is not what cycling should be about. It is not a philosophy or a cure but a freedom. I don't think it matters much how many people go cycling as long as you're free to do it and there are places to go. Behaviour matters more, whether you are driving, cycling, or walking: 'civil society'.

(I have tried to find out how cycling statistics are collected in Britain because I have never seen anyone doing a cycling survey. The nearest I got was that urban trips under 5 miles are what is measured in the National Travel Survey for "trips by bike." If this is true, most leisure cycling seems excluded. It would be interesting to know the average commute and shopping trip distance, regardless of mode of travel, in the UK compared to the Netherlands. There isn't much mountain biking in the Netherlands but it's popular here: the International Mountain Biking Association UK has estimated some 11 million MTBs in working order are owned by British adults with 78 million off-road rides per year. Somehow, off-road cycling tends to be ignored in official cycling statistics.)

In conclusion (mine at least)

  • Slower speed limits, HGV safety, and enforcement of road traffic law with meaningful penalties would improve conditions for cycling on roads and might even increase the number of people cycling. And it's affordable. Long overdue, worth doing.
  • There are more important social and economic priorities than building Dutch bicycle infrastructure. Except for a few places in a few towns it will not happen because it's too expensive and the majority of voters don't want it. Accept this, move on.
  • Cycling is one of the most affordable and accessible leisure pursuits there is and puts individuals and groups out into the Green and Pleasant Land. When we learn to mingle better on roads and streets, society will be all the richer. Find a bicycle, go cycling.

Related (by Patrick on this website):
CTC strategies, the parliamentary enquiry, The Times, going Dutch etc (2012)
2011 Transport White Paper: what's for cycling? (2011)
Simple Streets: Where Less Is More (2011 Cycling Mobility Magazine article)
Politics of cycling policy (2010)
Vehicular Cycling (Bicycle Driving) (2010)

Of relevance on other websites:
What It Really Means to Go Dutch (2013 Bike Show interview with David Hembrow)
How Stevenage went Dutch 50 years ago and failed (Carlton Reid 2013)
CTC on segregation (2012 CTC Forum discussion on cycle lanes)
Roads to Ruin (George Monbiot 2011)
Cambridge Cycling Campaign Manifesto for cycling provision (2005)

4 comments on “Get Britain Cycling: "redesigning our roads, streets and communities"”

  1. Hilary wrote:

    I think your conclusions are spot on Patrick.
    I've signed the petition but I think that the length of time its taken me to comment on this post reflects my lack of real interest in the subject because, as you say, the government doesn't have the necessary money and, if it had, the majority of people would prefer it to be spent on something else. I think the answers to surveys that say 'I would cycle if only it wasn't so dangerous, hilly, cold, wet, hot, sweaty' are just people trotting out the 'correct' answers. The truth is more like 'I'd much rather drive my car thank you very much. I didn't pay £10,000 or more for it to leave it in the garage and ride a bike'. Jeremy Clarkson would happily admit this but few others will.

    It would be lovely to have safe cycle routes through all UK towns and cities but I won't hold my breath.
    I'm off to ride my bike! 😀

  2. Patrick wrote:

    Thanks Hilary. It would be lovely but...

    The necessary money. Get Britain Cycling wants central government spending of at least £10 per head of population per year to 'boost cycle use', increasing as cycle use rises. That is £0.6 billion per year to begin with. Councils would decide how the money is spent so [quote] researchers can evaluate different strategies and compare different types of infrastructure provision and 'promotional strategies' (which seems a good idea as these are the Councils who have "little knowledge or training in how to design for cycling"). If London's Cycle Superhighways cost £2M per mile, £0.6 billion would pay for 300 miles of 'superhighway' – 3,000 miles over ten years – but would leave nothing for anything else. So we might get, say, 150 miles of superhighway per year for £10 / head. Britain has about 140 urban areas with a population over 50,000, making an average of just over one mile per urban area per year. That's not much. I don't know if everything has to be a 'cycling superhighway' but presumably a lot of it does (I'm not sure what the difference is between a normal segregated bike route and a 'superhighway' – perhaps none).

  3. Chris wrote:

    A while ago I wrote a post that included a piece about what I saw as a dangerous roundabout design in Hull. Mercifully, no one has been seriously injured there (as far as I am aware), but at another roundabout with the same baffling road markings a cyclist was killed over the Easter period. Here is a short report from the local newspaper, together with predictable responses from those with their partisan views.

    I have no idea if the roundabout design directly contributed to the cyclist's death, and I doubt that we will ever find out.

    Images from the roundabout I sometimes use, with care:

    Clough Road roundabout cycle lane

    On the south carriageway just over the bridge looking to the west

    Clough Road roundabout cycle lane

    Looking back at the bridge from a pedestrian crossing

    Clough Road roundabout cycle lane

    On the north carriageway – bridge behind you – looking to the west


  4. Patrick wrote:

    Yes, it's a shambles. The APPCG's Get Britain Cycling report says:

    Revise existing design guidance, to include ... continental best practice for cycle-friendly planning and design, and an audit process to help planners, engineers and architects to think bike in all their work.

    [The] little knowledge or training [amongst planners and engineers] in how to design for cycling [will] need to be remedied.

    It will take a while to remedy. In the meantime my £10 per year will go towards more poorly trained highway designers. There does need to be an audit process but it must be independent. It is no use designers auditing themselves, as they do now.

    It's hard to see how the Hull roundabout above can be made safe to cycle on without a complete redesign. I wonder why it's so big (as there isn't much traffic).

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