We didn't mean to go to Stevenage

An unexpected family issue needed my urgent attention in Stevenage. I could have gone by taxi, train, car or any number of modes. As Brown Bike had never been to my home town, but had heard about the marvellous cycle tracks, he was eager to go. So off we went.

The trip was 49.99 km (BB is very precise), and would have been shorter if we hadn't ridden off the edge of the map so I needed to dig into my rusty memory. I haven't cycled in Stevenage in something over 30 years, which was before Brown Bike was a twinkle in Mr Raleigh's eye.


Here's my junior school, where I took my Cycling Proficiency badge. That was nearly half a century ago, and BB thinks I need a refresher course. I think he just wants to show off at a Bikeability session.

The old town (at the north-west corner of present-day Stevenage) was built before bikes were invented so it has ordinary roads. The new town was built as a post-war London overspill with most development in the 1950s and 60s. The planners said, "Motor cars are the future. Let's give them the space they need by getting bikes out of the way."

Perhaps they didn't really say that. Perhaps they said, "Bikes are declining in popularity, losing out to cars. Let's halt the decline by providing dedicated tracks for bikes."

Whatever the motivation, they did provide cycle tracks, and jolly good they are too. BB loved them. They run parallel to the major through-roads, with grade-separated crossings of major roads. That is planner-speak for "bikes go under roads". The underpasses don't need to be much taller than the cyclist, so are much cheaper (and less hilly) than bridges over the roads, which would need to be tall enough for buses to pass under.

To add to BB's enjoyment, the tracks tend to meander so they don't get in the way of the roads. In addition, roads sometimes go through cuttings (because cars aren't good at hills), so the cycle track is then above the road level, drops steeply down for an underpass, then rapidly rises again. This is good because it keeps the cyclist awake and helps us grow strong.

Parts of the old town have been improved for motorists, and segregated cycling has sometimes been shoehorned in.

In places, BB did his famous impression of a dalek ("Well, that's blown our chances of conquering the universe"). Stevenage hasn't adopted the new-fangled idea of wheel channels beside steps.

BB rests against the handrail of a flight of steps, where a sign informs us "CYCLE TRACK AHEAD". Which is strange, as BB is already on a cycle track, and the steps lead only to a wire fence.

Cycle tracks generally have adjacent pavements, but not always. Besides, pedestrians often prefer the track to a footpath.

Here, one cycle track descends steeply and joins another (which is also descending) at a sharp angle. A recipe for an accident, despite the "give way" marking. Hence the barriers to slow reckless cyclists.

This is weirder. A T-junction of cycle tracks, with footpath opposite. Why does the cycle track "END"? It doesn't, not really.

Cycle tracks usually give way to minor side roads, such as here at Gunnels Wood Road where a car dealership has separate entrance and exit, so there are two give way points. However, motorists are shown the "elephants feet" markings which alert them to the cycle track and may even confuse them into giving way.

The cycle track here runs through its own cutting, and the flying butresses keep the two sides apart. Perhaps the designer would have preferred to work on cathedrals.

A very messy T-junction. The purpose seems to be to slow any cyclists who wish to travel on the same route as the main road (which is Gunnels Wood Road, at the junction with Whittle Way). Cyclists are forced to dog-leg away from the junction. Barriers prevent impatient cyclists taking the pedestrian route instead. Note the jogger taking the cycling route. Judging by a damaged railing and bollard, motorists may be just as confused as the rest of us.

On the left of the picture is a pedestrian underpass to reach the other side of the dual-carriageway. No wheel channel.

A little further south on Gunnels Wood Road, the pedestrian space (the darker area in the photo) is generous to a fault. Even so, the three women evidently prefer the cycling space (the lighter area).

This is a little strange. From left to right: a dual carriageway, a footpath, a crash barrier, and a cyclepath. This is a bridge over another road (Broadhall Way over London Road). I don't understand why the crash barrier is between the pedestrians and cyclists. Do they need saving from each other, but not from the motorists?

BB enjoys the view of "Stevenage Retail Park". If you peer at the photo, you can see that a cycle track crosses this branch of the roundabout, but cyclists are advised to dismount. Thankfully, this sign is fairly rare in Stevenage.

But here is another of the wretched signs. The track on the right leads down to the roundabout, as seen in the previous photo. This is a cycle track T-junction with the minor complication of a footpath adjacent to the major track. Why are cyclists advised to dismount?

A well-known supermarket provides acres of car-park and six cycle racks. The triple rack on the left was bolted down but the bolts were loose. BB preferred the security of a proper Sheffield stand. There were seven abandoned locks.

A security guard told me off for taking this photo, claiming I needed permission. Apparently people take photos of the main entrance and post them on the net, after overwriting the shop's name with their own writing. So I won't name the shop, but it rhymes with "Mesco".

A commonly-provided pedestrian cut-through from a residential area to the footpath and cycle-track parallel to a main road. Good idea: walkers and cyclists have a short-cut where motorists have to meander around to reach the main road. But the chicane makes the cyclist dismount. Why? Why not make it wide enough for cyclists and walkers?

Shephall Way has fairly recently gained these islands, making one direction of motorists give way to the other. The cyclist cut-through is always on "give way" direction, so cyclists never need to give way. Brilliant!

In Fairlands Valley Park, cycling is allowed on some paths but not this one. The sign says, "Risk of drowning". I like to think it's a likely penalty for illegal cycling but it's more likely to be a caution about the lake ahead.

The town centre shopping area is pedestrian-only. I saw a handful of people cycling there, and pedestrians didn't seem to care. Since my time here, the wheel-bender bike stands have been removed, but there is suitable street furniture for those of us who use bikes as shopping trolleys.

The Borough Council's Cycling in Stevenage refers to the Stevenage Cycling Strategy (2002), which notes that:

6.3 One of the greatest attractions of cycling is its door to door nature. To preserve this advantage it is important to allow cyclists, within reason, access to the pedestrian malls. To enhance ease of access, good quality and convenient cycle parking is essential and should be well distributed throughout the shopping precinct and should be served by defined cycle lanes through pedestrian areas. Cyclists can then park near to the shops they wish to visit.

Sadly, these and many other good words have not been implemented in Stevenage.

I don't think horses and traps are legally allowed on cycle tracks, especially not driving on the wrong side, but I don't suppose anyone cares.

Brown Bike said he enjoyed the Stevenage experience of whizzing along cycle tracks without having to bother about motorists or even other bikes. True, he encountered rather a lot of pedestrians, but they seemed reasonably polite and predictable. "After all," he said, "if the tracks aren't used by bikes, it's good that someone else uses them."

That's a bit unfair. We did see some cyclists. But about ten times as many pedestrians, and ten times as many cars as pedestrians. Modal share of cycling in Stevenage is about the same as anywhere else in the UK.

The cycle track network certainly isn't perfect. It doesn't extend to all parts of the town, it isn't always connected, signposts are vague or absent, traffic signs are sometimes illogical, there are too many give-ways at minor roads, and maintenance isn't great (but not much worse than the roads). But it's pretty good, and there is far less broken glass than when I was a lad. Why isn't it thronging with cyclists?

Non-cyclists usually say they don't cycle because they fear the motorised traffic. Stevenage residents shouldn't share those fears. Major routes have segregation. Lesser roads sometimes have traffic-calming. Purely residential streets are often not through-roads.

However, in Stevenage, cars are generally faster than bikes. The differential will be higher than other towns, because bikes are kept out of the way of motorists, and a cycle trip on the tracks is longer and hillier than the same trip on the roads. Cycle tracks are slower than roads. True, cyclists could ride on the roads. Stevenage hasn't "gone Dutch" enough to ban cycling on roads that have cycle tracks. But cyclists don't, as far as I can see. They stick to the tracks.

I conclude (and BB agrees with me) that providing segregated facilities, however wonderful they might be, isn't enough to make people swap their cars for bikes. To do this, the bike must offer significant advantages. Health and economics aren't powerful enough. Cycling also needs to be faster than driving. Lesser roads should always have traffic calming; residential roads should never be through roads.

BB thanked me for showing him around my memory lanes, and I thanked him for the ride.


16 comments on “We didn't mean to go to Stevenage”

  1. Mary wrote:

    An excellent tale again Alan, Ive missed your stories and fun on Ruby and BB. How is Ruby by the way?

    On the traffic calming front, its great to see the slip way where a cycle can get through safely where the road has been purposely narrowed for traffic. The powers who be have just finished putting in islands where roads approach a roundabout where I live, and I have to get past daily now, and Im sick of almost getting crushed against the pavement, or getting a horn blasted at me if I ride in the middle bit. (Im sticking to the middle bit, as its better for reaching my next birthday doing that).

    You and BB had a grand tour of your home town.

    I did like the 'death by drowning' should you cycle in this bit! 🙂

  2. Doug wrote:

    Really interested in this as I now work in Stevenage, although occasionally we hear "St. Evenage" from some people!

    I haven't discovered any bike shops as yet, which seems both surprising and a bit of a shame for such a town. There must be an LBS there somewhere, surely? Halfords, of course, is there on a retail park.


  3. Alan wrote:

    Ruby is probably feeling deserted, never having had to live on her own (while she's been with me). I hope she isn't tearing up the furniture. I hope to see her in a day or two when I start driving stuff around the countryside.

    Driving! Eek! I'm out of practise. Mum gave me a driving lesson the other day.

    Cycle by-passes are good if they are kept clear of debris. Stevenage seems good at that — better than Papworth, anyhow. Then we sometimes clash with cars who overtake us while we are both at the pinch point, and we are unclear who has priority.

    Hi Doug! Once upon a time, the High St in Stevenage old town had Borman's. Alas, long since gone. Mum says there is now a good LBS at the Glebe, which is on Chells Way. See the map (with "cycle shop" symbols) at http://www.stevenage.gov.uk/content/15953/16118/33198/Stevenage-Cycling-Map-with-Key.pdf

  4. Hilary wrote:

    I conclude (and BB agrees with me) that providing segregated facilities, however wonderful they might be, isn't enough to make people swap their cars for bikes.

    An interesting observation. Fear of cycling on busy roads is always the main reason people give for not cycling – I suppose they aren't going to admit to just being too lazy to get out of their car!

    Do I detect a fellow Arthur Ransome fan? 'We didn't mean to go Stevenage' sounds awfully like 'We didn't mean to go to sea'! 🙂

  5. Alan wrote:

    Yeah, Swallows and Amazons rule, OK! I nearly called it "We didn't mean to go to Ste ... venage" but feared that would confuse the search engines (as well as many readers).

  6. Patrick wrote:

    I've never believed in segregation. As Hilary suggests, people are just too lazy to bother with cycling for utility reasons. The 'danger' argument is trotted out because it's the easiest excuse. Hardly anyone promoting 'going Dutch' has been to Holland. If they had they would see how that country is fundamentally different to the UK, in particular: travel distances, topography, and the fact that it's pointless trying to drive into towns ringed by canals. The chance of the UK turning itself into a bigger version of the Netherlands and for mass cycling to take root is nil.

    Alan, this is a most interesting Post! The photos illustrate the nonsensical waste and sheer ugliness that results when British highway designers attempt to provide separate facilities for cycling. I accept there are circumstances where cyclists need a separate lane – at roundabouts for example, and fast dual carriageways, where a national design standard should apply (and can apply) – but generally "good quality and convenient cycle parking" is the most basic requirement. What is the point of promoting cycling as a convenient mode of travel for short journeys (utility cycling is about short journeys) when there is nowhere to leave your bike? The other important step (IMO) would be the enforcement of appropriate penalties for motorists who commit offences against cyclists.

    Anyway, it's good to hear that Brown Bike is still itching to go! Nice to see some sunshine as well.

  7. Chris wrote:

    “… Eventually motor cars will have to go. When is a matter for speculation and debate...

    In consequence the immediate solution is to design total transportation systems in which the needs of all road and path users are met separately and without conflict. This is done by creating independent roads for motor vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians. Use of one particular type of road is not obligatory; the charm of the system is that it works so well that most road users prefer to use the carriageway designed for them.

    A dream? It has been done. Stevenage, Hertfordshire, a town of some 72,000 souls sequestered 32 miles north of London, is a transportation dreamworld, a kind of magical Walt Disney fantasy in which everything flows with perfect smoothness and problems evaporate….

    … there is not one single traffic, cycle or pedestrian stoplight or sign in the entire town. The flow of these different kinds of traffic, even at rush-hour periods, is so smooth and even that there does not appear to be anybody around. What rush hour? One asks, looking around for lines or packs of traffic. There are none. There is no congestion because nothing ever holds still.”

    Richard Ballantine, 1979, Richard's Bicycle Book, London, Pan Books Ltd

    Wow. I remember reading this more than 30 years ago, but I can't remember exactly what I thought of it. Perhaps I was spoiled – where I lived then there really wasn't a big problem with cars and cyclings mixing. At least I ddn't think so back then.

    A very enjoyable read, Alan. I may have to put together something similar for the Big Smoke near me 🙂

    I notice that on another blog to which you have contributed someone else has passed comment on Stevenage, and how it didn't turn out to be Ballantine's transportation dreamworld after all. In later editions of the book Ballantine has calmed quite down a bit when writing about Stevenage, and those roundabouts.

  8. Kern wrote:

    A good outing, a good report, and good distance. As I recall, 49.99 km is a significant increase for you Alan. We will take this as an omen of good health. Stevenage looks pleasant, whether you meant to go there or not.

    I have no idea who Arthur Ransome is.

  9. Patrick wrote:

    Richard Ballantine, 1979, wrote: Use of one particular type of road is not obligatory; the charm of the system is that it works so well that most road users prefer to use the carriageway designed for them.

    Does it not seem wasteful, in the long run, to install different types of 'road' for different types of vehicle? Or are we stuck with cars and bikes forever? I'm thinking not so much as a pro-cycling person as someone who cares for the general built environment and what the 'country' looks like. I think this concern (of mine) is as much a reason for my anti-segregation views as anything else. No-one can be sure how human transport will develop in the future and it would only take a new type of vehicle to render separate roads redundant. The Dutch system is only 100 years old and that isn't long in the context of 'the road' as a human invention. Imagine the implications, the disruption, the cost, etc, in reconfiguring a nation's vehicle-specific infrastructure. It's not only what we see on the surface, it's all the services underneath, not to mention millions of street trees. What a mess.

    The 'road' should be preserved as dignified passage over the land and we must organise things so that different types of vehicle can co-exist on a single, simple road surface. Horses included as well. Alan's Post, IMO, supports this view. I would allow a few exceptions... such as no bikes or horses allowed on motorways, and bike-friendly roundabouts. Roads for cars, roads for buses, roads for bikes, etc etc seems a bad idea. We didn't mean to go Stevenage is a nice metaphor.

  10. Doug wrote:

    Since my earlier comment I've now cycled to my work in Stevenage a couple of times and interestingly enough along some of the cyclepaths in the photos. Or, at least I think they are the same (Gunnels Wood Road) as they all look a bit like each other.

    I admire the vision of trying to design a cycle-friendly transport system. However I found it hard to navigate my way around: each of the junctions were beneath the road level and I had difficulty in knowing where I was since the only clues were the tops of some buildings which I didn't recognise! Nevertheless a worthwhile experience.

    I'm really please I've done this a couple of times now. I'm really appreciating some of the Hertfordshire villages and rolling hills even more now.

  11. Martin wrote:

    I’ve lived in Stevenage for the last 25 years. I like these cycle paths that run along side the main arterial routes around the town. It’s a shame that they weren’t extended to provide quite the same coverage for the estates that were built since the 1960’s. There is little provision within the estates but the traffic flow there should naturally be calmer.
    The signage is a bit haphazard but the estates are colour coded and there is a Borough Council PDF map.
    I daily cycle commute to Welwyn Garden City working shifts so I see only a few other cyclists out and about. However this week I found myself out and about at 7.45am it was quite amazing at the number of cyclists flooding down the cycle path towards the town.
    Last year when I couldn’t drive (medical revocation), I would go and do the weekly shop and call my wife up to come and collect the shopping ( I couldn’t justify a cargo bike 🙁 ). She would only just beat me back to our home ( 2 miles away up hill), so cycling isn’t necessarily much slower. It might have been deliberate to make me carry all the shopping inside. I agree with you conclusion we are a car centred society.

  12. Sam wrote:

    I lived in Stevenage as a child and cycled to school everyday in the 70s and 80s, along with my friends. I really miss that part of living there. I cycle to work in London but feel that it possibly isn't worth the risk, even though I love it. I think the cycle paths of Stevenage enabled children to cycle about and have freedom. Something roads will never allow.

  13. Andrew wrote:

    I think this is an example of mediocre execution. Towns in the Netherlands had to invest significantly in much higher quality facilities (from signage, to road surface, to better ways of getting on and off the tracks) than this to keep their modal usage as high as it is. Not to mention more coherent laws for when there are no cycle tracks – 30 km/h suburban speed limits for example.

    I think Western society in general is becoming lazy/unfit etc. But there is something new that is getting people back onto bicycles, especially the older generation: Electric bicycles, with recent battery technology. I wonder if growth can be achieved in Stevenage with some social entrepreneurs aggressively marketing electric bicycles.

  14. Doug wrote:

    Back to this article from last year, which I now remember well!

    I cycle to Stevenage once a week and certainly appreciate the cycle paths and the foresight in putting them there in the first place. A few times I have found myself cycling on the roads on a kind of "auto pilot" as if I'm driving my car. I can tell you it feels weird when I realise, as people in cars give me even weirder looks!

    As good as the cycle paths are, one of my colleagues swears he'll never cycle anywhere in Stevenage for fear of being run over. To me that sounds like another daft excuse as Andrew in the above comment correctly points out about people becoming lazy and unfit. Although it's a bit of a generalisation, I think he's right.

  15. Chris wrote:

    Andrew wrote: I wonder if growth can be achieved in Stevenage with some social entrepreneurs aggressively marketing electric bicycles.

    By chance I rode an ebike for the first time this week, in the Black Forest (or the Schwarzwald as they say on the radwegs). I don't know if these bikes are particularly expensive – and no doubt they will get cheaper – but isn't the cost of charging them going to be prohibitively expensive as energy prices continue to rise (comparing the cost of buying and running one to a conventional bicycle, rather than to a motor car)?

    The model I hired had four settings: 'high', 'standard', 'eco' and 'no assist'. I can see how new or returning cyclists might make use of the high setting until they build up some fitness, thereby gradually lowering their electricity usage. And I suppose cheeky commuter types might charge their batteries at work.

    But I'm not convinced ebikes are the future, I'm afraid (although I do know of one of our CTC member group who bought one because otherwise he wouldn't have been able to keep up). Am I being a sniffy purist in regarding them as being no more than a stepping stone, or supplement, to 'proper' cycling? I don't know, but I can't, for instance, see anyone easily carrying the model I hired up a flight of stairs. Mine was extremely heavy. And riding on the setting 'no assist' was like pushing a tank uphill. I am, however, happy to be wrong about ebikes; riding an ebike is better than not riding at all, I suppose.


    A hired ebike, not in Stevenage

  16. BARRY JACKSON wrote:

    Can anybody tell me what the speed limit is on stevenages cycle paths for "motorised vehicles ie mopeds and council operated vehicles like lawn mowers etc.....reason i ask is a friend of mine had had his dog run over and the person driving this vehicle said that they are allowed to drive at 40 to 45 mph which was i gather about the speed that he hit the dog, 40 seems excessive for a cycle path to me if somebody could clarify what the speed limit is and possibly a link to where it can be confirmed i'd be very appreciative.
    Thank you in advance

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