Gridlock

Along with concerns about surrendering the road to motor vehicles, one of the main reasons for opposition to the physical separation of cycling from motor traffic is a fear of being ‘held up’.

This is the worry, from people who cycle already, that their journeys will be slowed down, by being blocked on narrow cycle infrastructure by people who can’t cycle as fast as them. I’ve attempted to dispel this notion – at least with regard to Dutch cycle infrastructure. Separation from motor traffic should not mean that you are impeded.

But with the tube strikes over the last couple of days, it’s quite clear that physical separation of cycling would provide considerable benefits. The pictures of Superhighway 7 in particular that appeared yesterday show the uselessness of ‘cycle routes’ that become clogged by motor vehicles.

Northbound Superhighway just visible, under several buses. Look where the cyclists are

Northbound Superhighway just visible, under several buses.

Danny Williams also took a picture of Superhighway 7 yesterday -

Contrast this with the videos that have emerged of people cycling along the segregated sections of Superhighway 2 over the last few days. The segregation is far from brilliant (indeed in places it is worryingly bad), but cycling has flowed smoothly and easily past static motor traffic.

I suspect this uselessness of the original Superhighways was built in from the start. There’s a very revealing interview with TfL by Andreas of London Cyclist, dating back from when the Superhighways were launched, in 2010. TfL provide this justification for not segregating the Superhighways -

Segregation however, is not something that is being considered for the cycle superhighways. TfL said the routes are simply not being used frequently enough to warrant separation of traffic. It is only during peak hours that you will see many cyclists in the lanes. TfL claim that segregating the lanes would create many problems for loading vehicles. They also claim that cyclists don’t want to be treated differently to other vehicles.

The implication of this is essentially that cycling was not considered enough of an important mode of transport in its own right to necessitate space being set aside for it – ‘routes not being used frequently enough’. TfL believed that the space properly-designed Superhighways would have taken up needed to be used instead for motor vehicles. Indeed, despite much progress in the last couple of years, this is probably the prevailing attitude within the organisation.

But I think we’ve seen over the last few days how wrong-headed this approach is proving to be. Despite the chaos on the transport network, with very little tube network running, desperately overcrowded buses, and clogged roads, cycling remains a non-option, principally because cycling through traffic – even traffic that is mostly stationary – is just deeply unattractive for most people.

I noticed that David Arditti left a comment below that London Cyclist article, in July 2010, which sums up the problem.

The big thing that tends not to be understood in the UK about segregated cycle lanes, Dutch-style, is that their main purpose is not safety, per se, as cycling is inherently quite safe anyway, it is the prioritisation of space for cycle traffic. It is, in other words, to give the bike a competitive advantage in the struggle for space on the roads, which makes bike journeys quicker and more efficient, as well as more pleasant. There is no other effective method of preventing parking, loading, queuing, bus and taxi stopping in cycle space, and general obstruction by motor vehicles, other than physical segregation. This is why it is used so extensively on the continent. It is not that the continentals have some malign control agenda to push cyclists off the general roads. Arguments that segregation slows down fast commuter cyclists are incorrect. It only has this effect if badly done, with insufficient capacity or other design faults. Fast commuter cyclists benefit equally with slower cyclists from the advantages that proper continental-style cycle tracks create. [my emphasis]

It’s hard to put it better than that. Space for cycling is needed for competitive advantage; to ensure that it isn’t impeded by congestion, and that journeys by bike are painless and pleasant.

This applies in the Netherlands too, where long queues of vehicles can easily be bypassed on cycle tracks – so easily you forget there’s actually ‘congestion’ on the road network.

DSCN0285If we’re serious about shifting people from private cars to cycling, then we need to insulate cycling from the negative consequences of driving – and that includes gridlock.

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22 Responses to Gridlock

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    But it’s certainly policy all over the UK not just in London – especially not just in London, that any cycling provision must not cause any difference to motor traffic whatsoever, hence the introduction of shared use pavements etc.

  2. Absolutely, but you’ve picked out the key point “They also claim that cyclists don’t want to be treated differently to other vehicles.” The failure of cycling campaigners to agree on this point is disastrous for progressing to protected lanes and providing truly dedicated space. We need to demonstrate that the vast majority of people want this infrastucture. TfL have a legitimate reason to be confused: it is (or has been) the campaigners’ fault. Hopefully, this is starting to change though.

  3. Paul Gannon says:

    In an otherwise excellent posting AEARAB seems to suggest in this post that fast urban cyclists shouldn’t worry about being slowed down if there is widespread introduction of segregated tracks. I fear that this is an exaggeration.

    I must emphasize that my comments should not be construed as being against segregated cycle tracks. This is not the case – my view is bring them on as fast and as widely (and at as high quality) as possible.

    But I do think we should acknowledge that segregated tracks will have the tendency to reduce the spread of cycling speeds in busy urban environments (the very places we should hope to get tracks in asap). Very slow cycling will become awkward and so will much faster cycling. This will be the result of the imposition of the speed of the mass in a mass cycling culture.

    The best way to understand this is to do what very few Brits get the chance to do, namely to cycle in a busy Dutch or Danish or other well-catered for city in the rush hour. The experience is usually highly unsettling for most Brit cyclists because they simply aren’t used to the need to make very rapid decisions in response to the movements made by the mass of other cyclists around them.

    This has absolutely nothing at all in comparison with a group of fast racing cyclists moving unison. The rush hour mass of cyclists is moving in diverse directions – and at a reasonably rapid rate if considerably slower than the racers.

    The mass cycling culture determines the speed of cycling by being as fast as it can be given the circumstances and the need for razor-sharp reactions and awareness of what is going on around you. The Dutch may make it look easy, almost like a well rehearsed ballet at major junctions, but that’s because of years of learning and developing of ‘tacit’ comprehension.

    Fast urban cycling is only feasible in a world with a handful of cyclists. It will become more problematic if we increase cycling levels in the UK. Let’s face up to it and say to fast cyclists who don’t want cycle tracks, ‘sorry, but if we’re going to have a mass cycling culture it will pressurize all cyclists to blend in with that culture’.

    • congokid says:

      The point I take away from the article is that proper segregated infrastructure that encourages mass cycling is to be welcomed, for the alternative is just as described above – in gridlock, or even just everyday heavy traffic conditions, any cycling becomes very difficult if not impossible.

      I don’t think the aim should be to preserve cycling for a few fast cyclists at the expense of the needs of the many – most of whom currently don’t ride bikes at all but could be persuaded (or permitted) if safe infrastructure existed. Young cyclists for example would then be able to begin learning this ‘ballet’, rather than wait until they’re old enough to cut the apron strings and participate in the somewhat deadlier ballet we currently have to put up with on congested or high-speed roads.

      I suppose we could always ensure that faster cyclists continue to have the freedom to use motor traffic lanes and take their chances.

    • D. says:

      What is a “fast commuter”?

      I’m faster than some, on my hybrid, but slower than others (mainly the greased up lycra-clad roadies) – and I imagine most people share that experience.

      Sometimes I enjoy just pootling along, other times I want to go faster. And, this morning, I was way faster on the footpath/cycle-path than all the cars sitting in line waiting for temoporary traffic lights to change :-)

    • spoquey says:

      I find that depressing. I am no spring chicken, but I want to cycle as fast as possible whenever I can. I don’t want to be penned in, restricted by other slower cyclists or to worry about faster cyclists thundering up behind me, who can’t manoeuvre round me because of the ridiculously narrow cycle lane that the relevant highway authority has decided is our quota. I don’t want to have to cycle slowly through stupid bendy crazy golf paths around bus lanes.

      I hope I am not the only one who wants at some point in my life to be able to cycle on straight, generously-proportioned, un-potholed main roads, along with children cycling to school and vehicle drivers who know that if they put a foot wrong they will lose their licences. Shangri-La.

      • Dan Bassford says:

        We need to stop talking about “ridiculously narrow cycle lanes” as if that’s what segregation means. As a ‘lycra-clad roadie’ I’d say I’m exactly the ‘fast urban commuter’ described above. I want to be safe and get from A to B. Occasionally I ride a utility bike with panniers in my normal clothes. I still want to be safe and get from A to B. The difference in the 7 mile journey into Central London on the 2 bikes is about 5 minutes. High quality integrated segregation is suitable for all.

        The reason I’m a lycra-clad roadie when commuting is mostly because I need to be able to react to bad driving and get myself out of trouble (some of this is due to infrastructure – a right turn at 3-lane roundabout). I can’t do this on my utility bike, and don’t want to have to do this anyway. With good segregated infrastructure there’s no need for this. If the environment was cycle-friendly I could ditch the lycra and helmet; after all I don’t have special ‘getting the bus’ clothes!. Near-misses and close overtakes would be a thing of the past and not a near-daily occurrence.

        I will cycle in London no matter what. Most people (as a girl at work said in the week) “wouldn’t cycle in London if you paid me”. These are the people we need to improve the environment for. And if it works for them, it’ll work for me too. If it doesn’t work for me, it won’t work for them either.

    • This is a very disappointing response, Paul. It’s not true at all that cycling is “fast” in the UK. When I returned to the UK last year I was astounded by how slow it is. In six years of absense, I had forgotten about the inconvenience of British city cycling: Stop, start, stop, start.

      Because cyclists are required to use the same routes as drivers in Britain, bikes stop at the same intersections as cars and this causes the average speed of cycling is very low.

      By comparison, here in the Netherlands, I rarely have to stop at all on my journeys. By comparison with driving, cycling is very convenient here because it is possible to ride continuously and without stopping. This is in large part the case because the routes for cycling are unravelled from motoring routes.

      It’s possible to ride on a direct, nearly straight-line route from a village outside a Dutch city to the city centre without seeing a single traffic light, let alone having to stop for one. Infrastructure like this allows for real efficiency. Real speed. It’s not the same at all as the frantic sprint from traffic light to traffic light which you see cyclists indulging in in cities like London.

  4. Fast commuters are worried about being slowed down not because it’s an inherent part of cycle segregation but because TFL will implement it so poorly that cyclists will be given the lowest priority. TFL prioritizes motor traffic over all other uses, there’s no reason to expect that wouldn’t continue if cycle traffic is segregated.

    • Paul Gannon says:

      If that were true all cyclists would worry about it, not just ‘fast commuters’. Anyway you’ve got cyclists (& pedestrians) at the bottom of the pile that at the moment. Introducing high quality cycle networks allows us to challenge existing priorities cos it’s a challenge to the existing system.

  5. Patrick O'Riordan says:

    In my opinion TfL will just view the gridlock during the tube strike as an exceptional case and won’t draw any conclusions regarding the relative priority of bicycles and motor traffic.

    I don’t know what the increase in motor traffic was but the resulting gridlock perfectly illustrated the folly of encouraging more motor traffic into central London.

    I reckoned there were 3 to 4 times more bikes than I have seen previously crossing at Hyde Park Corner. As a previous post mentions, there was a “ballet” between crossing cyclists that seemed to work quite well, but the sheer number of cyclists looked quite intimidating to the pedestrians trying to use the same crossing.

  6. Dermot says:

    I have to make journeys through rush-hour traffic on a bike pulling a trailer, and I must say that separation would make these journeys much easier and faster, even if the “running” speed was lower than on the road itself. Filtering is difficult with any sort of long bike.

    Just out of interest: the general experience in the UK seems to be that attempts at separated infrastructure are marred by lip service, and loss of priority at every junction, however minor, sometimes even down to driveways. Junctions with bad infrastructure have elevated chances of collision, or are cumbersome and slow. What is the proposal to prevent further attempts at separation ending up like this? Because the cycling groups who point out that the lip-service separation is worse than using the road have a point, I think.

  7. Sarah S says:

    As somebody who cycles on the continent, but not in the Netherlands, I can readily come up with lots of examples for segregated infrastructure in my local area that make very little sense unless one sees them as “representative of a malign control agenda to push cyclists off the general roads.” I try not to attribute that which is adequately explained by stupidity to malice, but the latter explanation often seems very plausible indeed.

  8. Firstly. Excellent article. I kinda feel like saying who gives a **** about fast cyclists, despite that I feel the British sense of politeness will take over and the slow cyclists will speed up and the fast ones will slow down a bit and a middle ground will be found, and the fast cyclist might even enjoy it and take off their lycra and stop having a shower and look around and enjoy their journey a lot more. If the lanes are wide and well made they should be able to overtake anyway.

    • Dan Bassford says:

      YES! Wide lanes (2m+) with hard segregation will allow the people too scared to cycle now to get on a bike.

      When I’m driving I don’t aim for 70mph no matter what. Even 20mph is too fast for some situations – especially heavy urban traffic. Vehicle throughput is higher at lower speeds anyway, and it’s the same for bikes.

  9. paulc says:

    get thos buses OUT of the cycling infrastructure…

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  11. David Cohen says:

    Excellent article, but in a way, it still highlights one of the issue that plagues so much of the debate, and that is the fragmentation of cycling ‘culture’ in the UK – it’s tentacles reach alarmingly into places you’d never dream – both from the pro- and anti-cycling lobbies. This is what’s so much of a distraction.

  12. Dan says:

    Thanks for the article.

    My feeling, as a service designer and a cyclist in London for forty plus years, is that we do need segregated routes on busy roads – although light segregation using planters and armadillos is perfectly adequate and far more cost effective than digging up roads to install new kerb sets (as royal college street – http://www.camdencyclists.org.uk/newsitems/ccc/royal-college-street-cycle-track) . But, the segregated network does not have to be totally unified.

    Many areas of London have small quiet back streets that don’t need to be segregated at all. But they do need markers to indicate that they are meant to be quiet streets for everyone (from pedestrians to delivery vans) – ie we need a common language to indicate common aims and needs.

    Our students at the RCA have developed a proposal that builds on some of these ideas and integrates community hubs, maps and apps that feed into a crowd-sourced and community backed network. Would be happy to share this.

    As an aside I think we need to make all one way streets two way for cyclists. Minor one way streets should be part of a quiet network while major one way streets should have space for light segregation.

    With regards to fast cycling, I personally move out into the wider street if I need to go faster as I feel capable and competent to deal with traffic and to assert my space on the street.

    Overall, our objective should be to make cycling safe for all, but especially to focus on non cyclists and beginners who need to feel that there are routes that especially focus on their needs and concerns.

    • Dan Bassford says:

      A ‘joined up’ network needs to be joined up at street level, not just on maps. Anyone should be able to ride and follow a logical route to their destination. It certainly needs to be a continuous route that doesn’t just spit cyclists out into roundabouts, junctions or main traffic as happens now.

      I agree about planters and the like for a short-term quick fix, but in the longer term hard segregation on busy roads and filtered permeability are likely to get more people on bikes.

  13. out of interest, do you know how the needs (or desires?) of taxis dropping off/piucking up and kerbside loading for businesses etc are dealt with in the Netherlands? it seems contradictory to having comprehensive and unbroken, unobstructed segregated cycle routes adjacent to the kerb.

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