32 Responses to They built it, and they didn’t come – the lesson of Milton Keynes

  1. Luke says:

    I don’t know Milton Keynes well, but my one experience of driving through it was that there was no traffic. It’s easy to drive around and you can park easily. What’s unusual for a British and probably European town is not really the bike lanes, it’s the ease of driving. If you own a car, that’s the sensible and pleasant way to get around (I’m ignoring health, environment, whether all towns could be like that). A paradise has been created for cars and, lo and behold, people drive rather than ride bikes. Who would have guessed it?

    • Luke says:

      PS Having seen a post below, can I make clear that I am not in any way criticising your excellent explanation of why the bike lanes aren’t inviting. And I agree that without the (uninviting) bike lanes, the proportion of bike trips would be about 0%. I just thought that there is another reason why MK is not really a good basis for argument.

    • I know Milton Keynes pretty well as an obstacle to my journey too and from Bedford. It’s an obstacle on a bike, it’s a lesser obstacle in a car. There’s a lot of traffic, at any time of day, and the grid system ALWAYS spews you onto a extended tailback by the M1. The driving style witnessed between roundabouts on the way to the traffic jam is pretty unpleasant, and with the filtering at gyratories and roundabouts this is one place where you feel you ought to be wearing a helmet, as a driver. On a bike, I’ve not tried to cross, because navigation looks to be a nightmare, in all the ways Mark has pointed out, even from my attempts to consult a map of the system. I’ve skirted it. By contrast, Fietspad navigation around Rotterdam/Delft/Hague/Amsterdam I found pretty easy, even without detailed maps – and the only big underpass I immediately recall was the Maas tunnel. Not comparable systems At All.

  2. davidhembrow says:

    I’ve been meaning to write about MK for some time. You’ve done a good job. When I cycled there, I also found a cycle-path which ended with stairs and hopeless junction design.

    Remember who designed the place. Derek Walker was the first Chief Architect. He designed the city on an American style grid because he was influenced by the Californian Melvin M Webber who he called “the father of the city”. Melvin M Webber was known for pioneering “thinking about cities of the future, adapted for the age of telecommunications and mass automotive mobility” and the “Non-Place Urban Realm”. It was only later in his career that he came to regret “the car-focussed implications of his early work”.

    Milton Keynes was designed for mass motoring, not to enable mass cycling. It should be no surprise to anyone that the result matches the aims of the architects.

    Unfortunately, it is yet another example of the UK looking across the Atlantic for inspiration which could better have come from across the North Sea. Back in the early 1970s, the Netherlands was already experimenting with woonerven and other forms of filtered permeability . Even forty years later, when the relative success of such policies is so obvious, it is still difficult to explain these concepts to people from Britain, and even now I still read examples of British people thinking that the US is the place to look to for inspiration.

  3. monchberter says:

    I think you nailed it at the end. Milton Keynes, despite rationale that it should be adequately structured with off road cycle paths is even more in thrall to the car than anywhere else. I’d imagine that when people move there they bring with them their own preconceptions about the place that it is somewhere where car use is facilitated and expected to get anywhere. Why would they then choose to cycle when it’s even easier to use the car than anywhere else?

  4. amcambike says:

    Here’s David Arditti, with the position that people in the Netherlands cycle because of cycle paths. A long quote, but worth it – because he does seem to exemplify those cycle advocates in English-speaking countries, who look to the Netherlands as a model for an infrastructure-oriented cycling policy.

    “I don’t quite see why some people invest so much intellectual effort in trying to show that the Dutch cycling success is due to anything but the obvious factor. The key difference between the Netherlands and the UK is not planning, it is not distances, it is not need to travel, it is not ease of motoring, it is not motorist behaviour, it is not law, it is not culture, it is not history. … It is the cycle infrastructure: the vast and comprehensive network of paths, tracks, lanes, bridges and tunnels, that makes everywhere accessible by bike, easily, smoothly and safely. Doubting this is like questioning why Venice has boats rather than cars.”

    “Far from there being “no evidence” that the construction of cycle tracks ever increased cycling, it seems to me that every single video ever placed on YouTube of cycling in the Netherlands in traffic-free space is evidence of this. …

    “If you still doubt all this, you need to go and experience it. Saddle up in Holland, and feel it. … Experience how safe it feels, how stress-free it feels, how relaxed and wonderful it feels, after cycling in other, less-enlightened nations, and think about how it would affect your travel choices if you lived in that environment, and how you promoted the travel choices of others – your relatives, friends, above all, your children. Think about those mothers and fathers allowing their 8-year old and even younger children to go to school by bike by themselves. Do you really believe they would do that if it were not for the cycle paths? Do you really believe they would do that if it were not for the almost total separation from threatening motor-traffic interactions that Dutch cyclists enjoy wherever they choose to go? I don’t. I think the position that the Dutch 28% cycling mode share is not very largely the result of the construction of the segregated cycle infrastructure is manifestly absurd.

    • Do you think David Arditti is saying that cycle paths, and segregation more generally, make cycling more likely, or do you think he is saying that cycle paths ’cause’ cycling?

      • amcambike says:

        It certainly sounds like the last, since he attributes the high cycling rate to the segregated infrastructure. More relevantly, he is convinced that cycle infrastructure to Dutch standards would result in ‘mass cycling’ in Britain, by which he seems to mean a comparable trip share (26% in NL).

  5. Great post! It brings up a bunch of great points.

    I would stay away from any American city models right now. We are trying our best to pull from the best European models to help fix what the car model style of development has done.

  6. OldGreyBeard says:

    I have cycled on the Redways and as I live near MK I do visit by car for shopping, theatre & OU tutorials. The only deterent to using the car is the cost of parking in the centre and the ease with which it is possible to get lost. Everywhere looks the same! It is vital to remember which Horizinatl & Vertical roads you need.

    The Redways do suffer all the problems you identify: they are shared with pedestrians, they go up and down alot, they usually mimic the grid system rather than taking direct routes and the signage is awful. Usually it only signs to close places rather than destinations such as the station or shopping centre. It is absolutely vital to have a Redway map!

    Not all the Redways give way at every side road. In fact it seemed to me that it was the older ones that didn’t.

    The biggest problem is that the distances you have to cover to get anywhere are much larger than for an older city that wasn’t designed with the car in mind.

    I’ve never been cycling in Stevenage but its something I intend to do.

  7. Charley says:

    I live in Milton Keynes, and I think very differently to some of the venom spouted. One of the reasons I decided to move here was because of the segregated cyclepath network. Cycling here is not considered ‘weird’ or ‘sport’, but something that everyday people do. Throughout CMK, bicycle parking is the nearest to the building access, ahead of disabled or general-need car parking, rather than ‘hidden’ somewhere near the bins or round the back as an inconvenience. In the middle of the CBD (CMK) we have ‘Gear Change’ – storage, repairs, changing/shower facilities, route information) for a number of years.

    From my home to Central Station takes 12mins, just under 2 miles, without crossing any major roads, and only giving way to two estate distributors (30mph) and one cul-de-sac (10mph) roads. There is a north-south redway through CMK (following the V6 Grafton Street), and funding will come forward before 2014 for a segregated east-west redway along Midsummer Boulevard (NCN Route 51, currently using a mix of calmed parking access roads and bus lanes). One only has to visit the Station Square, which has masses of well used open and covered cycle parking, as well as ‘fly-parking’.

    Modal share for journeys to school is actually 6% (cycling) against 57% (walking). That data comes from the 2009 MKC School Census. We need to convert some of those walking into the cyclists of the future. We have a higher than national average of cycle ownership. 10% of residents walk or cycle to work, but this rises to 13% for those also working in MK.

    The route featured in this article was to be upgraded as part of a failed LSTF bid into an ‘Priority Express Route’ with more visible, direct routing, surface and lighting improvements, wider and straighter paths, and priority over side roads (through revised road markings). Despite DfT turning these proposals down, MKC has benefitted from bringing forward Infrastructure Tariff receipts (due to the amount of housebuilding – highest receipts in the South East) and going ahead with these improvements earlier.

    It isn’t perfect, but it is a damn sight better than elsewhere. You can even take a (self-guided) integrated bike-hotel holiday here.

    • OldGreyBeard says:

      “It isn’t perfect, but it is a damn sight better than elsewhere.”
      I’d agree with that. But why such low numbers cycling with such facilities? Why don’t people cycle?

    • Thanks for commenting, Charley.

      I think it’s good to get things in perspective – I suppose I have been a little harsher than I need to be on Milton Keynes, mainly because I was responding to arguments that suggest it is perfect, or at least as good as anything in the Netherlands, and that consequently it ‘proves’ that off-carriageway infrastructure does not enable (and might even discourage) cycling.

      Milton Keynes is not perfect, but it is true that I was able to cycle around the town without (much) engagement with motor traffic. As I said, that could explain why the level of cycling there is higher than might be the case if the network of paths was not there at all. Other new towns, like Crawley near me, have nothing like such an extensive network, and the bicycle modal share there is substantially lower than Milton Keynes.

      However, it is difficult to navigate unless you know what you are doing, many of the routes I came across were needlessly arduous or dangerous (although it is undoubtedly good that attempts are being made to improve them), and there is the added problem of ease of driving. The impression I got was that, unlike in the Netherlands, where infrastructure is designed to privilege and facilitate bicycle use, the network was fitted around car use.

  8. charlie_lcc says:

    Great post, getting at the real substance rather than the polarised ranting.

    I agree MK is a planned disaster zone, public transport doesn’t work well with 9% travel to work share. Despite the comments above, cycling to work share is only 4%, lower than in neighbouring areas without Redways (eg. 16.6% in Central Bedfordshire). Part of the risk comes from the sharp contrast between segregated paths and a few hazardous junctions.. The mode share for car travel to work is around 73% one of the highest in the area. MK also has a poor health record with one of the highest levels of lung disease and trauma.

    Stevenage is somewhat better, the segregation is more complete, except in the new areas of town. However wayfinding is difficult and confusing and the cycle network has very poor linkages to the shopping areas and station. The network is less hazardous than MK but not really useful. Driving is very easy, when I was there many people drove to work, drove home for lunch and then back again!

    Going Dutch is not really about segregation. It is about planning for people to have easy, safe access to wherever they want to go. Most injuries happen at junctions so the Dutch concentrate on getting the junctions right – the opposite to standard UK cycle provision.

    Dutch junctions are designed to be low speed, to separate cyclists and pedestrians from motors by signals, or lanes where the speeds cannot be kept safe enough for sharing. The main roads are faster and have great segregated cycle lanes as so often shown by Hembrow and amcambike but often the photos show few cyclists. Most of the cycling happens in the denser areas where there is a mix of provision. Filtered permeability with safe junctions is as important as the segregated lanes.

    The growth in cycling in Hackney has been stunning. Filtered permeability has opened up cycling access to huge areas but it is still constrained by the failure to make many main road junctions safer. Car use for travel to work is well under 20% with 39% of residents using public transport and 44% walking or cycling.

    What is truly encouraging is that the areas of the borough with good cycle access are thriving while those with good car access are as miserable as ever. Hackney’s rating on the index of multiple deprivation is second worst in the UK yet many people who cycle find that it is a great place to live.

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  10. Mike Chalkley - Chair Bournemouth Cycling Forum says:

    It’s only when people get out of bed in the morning and think “shall I cycle or drive” and the answer is an obvious “drive because it’s easier/faster/nicer” that things will change. Cycling infrastructure is an essential part of this but so is planning that reduces the ease of driving (as David Hembrow has so eloquently illustrated… (http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/03/cycling-vs-driving.html)
    We have so far to go in our country. In the local paper 2 days ago – a story of a child crossing the road to catch a bus, run over by a car (fortunately only a broken leg) spawned hideous online comments (“if he runs into the road it’s his own fault”, “just be responsible for your own actions and learn how to cross a road without getting hit by a car” etc). Just up the road from me there’s a ‘Lollipop Lady’ on the main road at school time, 20 yards before there are big flashing signs pre-warning drivers (?!?) – why have we let our roads become such a dangerous place for children that even a manned crossing is a hazard?

  11. OldGreyBeard says:

    Interesting how the debate about cycling facilities is becoming more sophisticated i.e. a toolbox of approaches from filtered permeability to total segregation.

  12. PaulM says:

    Blimey – are you going into competition with Vole-o-speed?

    Reading down the first half, I was thinking “yes, yes, but – what countervailiing factors are there to explain why the red paths don’t produce more cycling?” I was thinking about Oxford and Cambridge, both cities I used to know well, where it is fairly obvious why bicycles are popular despite relative paucity of cycling infrastructure, of the segregated variety at any rate – street plans which were not designed for cars, lack of car parking for all potential car users in the cities, and large student populations which, by and large, can’t afford to own a car.

    The answer is interesting – if I understand it right – that you need also to make cycling *relatively* attractive, as well as absolutely so. Shorter distances for walkers and cyclists than for cars, easier availability of parking for bikes than for cars, car-parking charges, etc. I assume that MK is now beyond redemption, but if we assume (I hope) that the era of the Le Corbusier-inspired “new town” is firmly in the past, and that we have reached, or will soon reach “peak retail-park”, so we can start to focus again on traditional towns and suburbs, maybe there is still hope.

  13. Simon Parker says:

    Hi Mark, great post, as always.

    The key to safe cycling – as the CEoGB policy bash recently affirmed – is in the way that junctions are made to work. However, the bits in between are also important as well. Alongside roads with high volumes of traffic, or with high speed limits, the Dutch favour the provision of segregated cycle paths. In residential areas they apply the concept of filtered permeability – “where it is used to keep the number of motor vehicle journeys to an absolute minimum.” Done properly, this means that “certain (short) car journeys become progressively more difficult, but not necessarily impossible”.

    By all accounts, in Milton Keynes they have done the first but not the second – OldGreyBeard suggested that the only deterrent to using the car in the centre is the cost of parking and the ease with which it is possible to get lost – whereas in Hackney they are doing the second but not the first.

    It is significant that 50% of all car / bus / cycle journeys in London are under two miles. Where there is filtered permeability, the bicycle is by far the best and easiest way to make these sorts of journeys.

    Also significant is that 30% of all car / bus / cycle journeys are between two and five miles. Reading your account and the subsequent comments, I was struck by how difficult wayfinding is in both Stevenage and Milton Keynes. TfL research has shown that “not knowing where to cycle” is as much of an obstacle as a “lack of cycle lanes”, and a bigger obstacle than a “fear of being knocked off one’s bike”.

    The one thing the Dutch didn’t do when they set about removing the hegemony of the car was wave a magic wand. It takes time, money, and a lot of political will to develop the cycling environment to a standard where eight year-old children can ride to school unaccompanied, especially in a city the size of London, and for this reason doing as much as possible at least cost first has much to commend it.

    Charlie Lloyd says that Going Dutch “is about planning for people to have easy, safe access to wherever they want to go.” The seminal work on the development of cycling in the urban environment, ‘Cycling: the way ahead for towns and cities’, calls this the ‘voluntarist policy’. It involves just three stages:

    1. Analyse journeys—origin/destination;

    2. Plan the network; and,

    3. Implement the network on the basis of priority interventions and a timetable.

    “The network can be introduced on the basis of an overall plan (preliminary plan). Ideally, such a plan ought to be based specifically on cycle routes that have been studied [...]. If it is not possible to systematically remodel the entire network to better meet the needs of cyclists, specific action can be taken on each occasion that works need to be done. Most of the time, the additional expenditure needed to meet the requirements of cyclists is comparatively minimal.”

  14. I’d like to add in your example of 10mile un-interrupted journey I’d plonk for my bike – it would be like a dream TT course! Personally I think wind direction would be the big decider for me ;-)

    Great post, finally got to reading it through after starting at work the other day during lunch and running out of time.

    Attending The Big Ride and taking my eldest up to town via one of the feeder rides has been a real eye-openner for me in regards to cycle routes for “normal” people vs. the routes I use (predomiantly main roads and CSH’s) as an experienced rider. I think the fact that I felt a) so damn scared of taking an 11 year old out on non-CSH main roads (not that I’m sure I’d be 100% happy on the CSH’s….) and b) so much more relaxed on the back roads it’s given me a new view on cycling as a mode of transport. it doesn’t have to be about racing around, taking the lane and worrying what the car behind is doing.

    I may try and get a blog post together myself to try and better explain the idea as I tried to explain to Isobel (the eldest!) on the way home how the Dutch use filtered permeability when I found some fairly good examples right on my doorstep (ironically on roads I don’t normally use as I stick to the main road!) which would serve to demonstrate how you can ease the passage for bikes whilst effectively blocking the route for cars. Instead of yelling instructions of “wait there/don’t do that” I was actually able to chat with her in relative peace and quiet.

  15. simon amner says:

    Hi thanks for a really interesting discussion. I moved to Milton Keynes three and a half years ago from Walthamstow in East London, and I thought my own experiences might be a useful contribution to the article. I have two kids, 5 and 7, so the youngest doesn’t feature in discussions about travel to pre-school in Walthamstow, but myself or the wife used to take our eldest to pre-school in her pram walking through the back streets before crossing a very busy main road to the pre-school. The entire journey was dominated by cars themselves, the noise of passing cars and the exhaust from vans etc. Amazing how a smoky exhaust you may not have noticed before kids becomes extremely frustrating when your darling daughter is in her pram at the same height as it…anyway I wouldn’t have dreamt of riding that route, even though most of it was relatively quiet back roads because the cars could move fast along them and every single road had cars parked all the way along each side, so you were always leaning out from between two cars to see what was coming. If a car chose to be intolerant of a cyclist on these roads then the cyclist really had little room for manoeuvre.

    So three and a half years later we are in Milton Keynes with both kids at the same primary school around two miles away. If the weather is ok we can cross one busy road (wheeling the bikes) and then use a mixture of footpath/redway/redundant railway route/parkland (with hard surface paths throughout it) to take us to within 30m of the school gate. In short it is an almost traffic free route and one on which the biggest danger to my kids is high speed cyclists who don’t have or use a bell to warn my wobbly kids that they are coming past them.

    I agree that the redroutes are poorly signed, I’ve spent many a journey swearing even with a redroute map in my hand, and they can be frustrating the way they chop around, but with a bit of fortitude and an extra time allowance for unfamiliar routes, we’ve found that MK is quite good fun to cycle around.

    For us so far the relative ease of cycling has enabled us to remain a one car family, where the norm here is two. I should also add that after living in very central London and then slightly less central London for twenty odd years MK is an ABSOLUTE delight to drive around, as many of the posts testify it is built for the car and you can commute across the entire city very quickly, not green but when in Rome I’m afraid…I am also sorry to say that roadside shrines are commonplace as well, the fast roads here are regularly lethal to pedestrians, cyclists and drivers alike.

    Just to finish it’s worth mentioning that in MK anyway the canal network gives even more scope for movement around the city as they’ve all got clear paths along one side at least.

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  18. Alan says:

    I used to work and cycle in London. Journeys I made in London on a usual basis include Canada Water (Rotherhithe) to Roman Road, E3 (both via Tower Bridge and Rotherhithe Tunnel), Canada Water to Fulham Broadway (uasually via Vauxhall Roundabout then Battersea Bridge), Canada Water to Hoxton Square (via Tower Bridge and Bishopsgate), Canada Water to Victoria (via Waterloo Bridge or Westminster Bridge). All these routes passed through major roundabouts and/or one way systems with multiple lanes and feeder roads from both directions of the road. Then I moved to Milton Keynes.

    I read about the red way routes and then tried them. Most of the main roads in Milton Keynes have 40-60mph speed limits, and as a previous poster mentioned, compared to London Traffic is almost non-existent: eg Central London to Hampstead by car (depending on time of day) about 40 minutes to 1 hour (distance about 6 miles) in comparison to North Milton Keynes (Bradwell) to South Milton Keynes (Bletchley) any time of day, 10-15 minutes. Anyway back to the red routes, they are poorly signed, stop abruptly with no indication which direction you should take and have breaks en-route (like the stairs) that make no sense. Coupled with the fact the red ways are next to pedestrian paths means that at several points during your journey by bike there are people walking on the red ways and not giving way to the cyclist. Also the red ways usually add anything from a quarter to half a mile to a typical 4 mile trip.

    At this point I must also point out the even with the many potholes and irregular surfaces in the London road network, it is like riding on glass compared to the MK red route system.

    With my previous list of London routes by bike, a similar route by bike commutes in MK reads something like this: Bradwell to Centre MK (3-4 miles) about 20-25 minutes; Bradwell to Bletchley (about 7 miles) about 45 minutes. Compare this to Canada Water to Fulham Broadway (7.5 miles) about 35 to 40 minutes. Incidentally the route taken in MK were using the red route cycle paths. Despite having the experience of riding in and around Central London, I’m not inclined to try the main roads that criss cross MK. Incidentally I also drive and note that the drivers in MK are slightly crazier than those in London, as hard as it maybe to believe.

    So In summary the Milton Keynes “solution” is not really that, its a “tack on” that is ill thought out, poorly executed and extremely badly maintained. The MK thing should never be used as an example of what is available in the UK compared to the Dutch system.

  19. Matt Hodges says:

    I visited MK once staying overnight at the Youth hostel. With no map of the redways and only a regional road map I found it necessary to use the main roads initially then to follow my nose. Pedestrians I asked didn’t seem to know there was a YH. The next day after studying the local map on the hostel wall I tried to use the Redways heading out of town in the Newport Pagnell direction. It was pretty hopeless with signs only for local, to me unknown, names and in the end I resorted to the main roads and a compass.

    Having said that, I don’t think cycle routes anywhere in Britain are much better. I have given up on segregated cycle routes in most counties from Cornwall to Inverness. The signing is usually hopeless and they often have barriers that are difficult or impossible to negotiate with a loaded recumbent tandem trike though that wasn’t the problem with the redways.

    Despite the above I do see potential for good segregated cycle routes. In nearby Lancaster we have some excellent railway and canal paths which are well used by both pedestrians and cyclists mainly because the road system is diabolically congested. This is the driving force behind the increase in cycling in Lancaster. It is by far the fastest way to travel between Morecambe and Lancaster and is competitive on any route where the car would have to negotiate the Lancaster Giratory traffic jam.

    So do I think we should have more segregated cycle routes in Lancaster? Yes, but very few are possible in an old city. We can’t knock down listed buildings to push through cycleways. But we can and should increase the permeability of the city centre for cycles by allowing cycling on what are now pedestrianised streets and by blocking motor rat running in the surrounding minor roads. Segregated routes are not THE answer to increasing cycling but they can be a very useful part of the answer particularly when combined with motor vehicle congestion and high parking charges.

  20. steve bliss says:

    Some great comments on MK here. I work in the city but mostly commute by car. The redways are a fantastic way of getting around even if they aren’t anywhere neasv as good gas Holland.

    I think its too late to do anything regarding gradients but certainly junctions and local signs could be improved – I still get lost and make wrong turnings to bus stops etc!

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  22. Phil says:

    I’ve just found this article and a great one it is. I’ve lived in Milton Keynes for around 20 years and have cycled around the town quite a lot accepting its faults. While commuting to London I cycled 4 miles to the railway station in my trustee Brompton and didn’t realty have any issues … Until the winter. The redways aren’t treated for ice or snow so I always used the roads then. I won’t take my road bike on the redways though for 3 reasons
    1. Surface quality is poor and I was forever truing the wheels
    2. Pedestrians walking dogs are a major hazard especially with those fancy extending leads – the dog owner is on one side of the redway and the dog way over the other side with lead in between.
    3. Pedestrians are unable to walk straight and regularly swing from side to side even when sober and lost of them do not know cycles can ride on them.

    But the reason I love the town is the ease of car use and because of the contrastes between road and redway design this will never be a major cycle town.

  23. OldGreyBeard says:

    Stevenage is more of a conundrum than MK in many ways. It has properly segregated cycleways with grade separated junctions with gentle inclines. Even the later extensions to the core network are no worse than many places, yet cycle use is no higher than anywhere else. The question is why? I would really like to know.

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  25. Steph says:

    I think no-one has mentioned the fear of crime that poorly designed segregated cycle paths can generate yet. Not entirely unjustified either if ‘redway crimes’ reported in the MK local press and TVP league tables are anything to go by. Being within sight of passing motor traffic paradoxically perhaps makes me feel less likely to be a victim of day light robbery.

  26. Chris says:

    Milton Keynes is the easiest place to drive. Without the redway system I would rarely use a bike. The main problem is the lack of a secure place to leave your bike at your destination. By size Milton Keynes is large, 10 miles across, making it a challenge for most people on a bike. I am sure that without redways cycle use would be much less than the average town or city. They are a good recreational resource.

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