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.