A kerb nerd protests

The epithet ‘kerb nerds’ seems to have been coined to describe those people who think that, on roads that carry a certain volume of motor traffic, travelling at a certain speed, cycling as a mode of transport should not share the same physical space as that motor traffic.

This label tends to ignore the fact that the Dutch model of cycle provision – which ‘kerb nerds’ like me tend to highlight as best practice – actually involves a surprisingly small amount of this kind of lateral separation. The Dutch employ other methods – usually falling under the umbrella of ‘unbundling’ – to separate cycling from motor traffic. Motor traffic is removed from the vast majority of streets in urban areas, concentrated on a larger grid of distributor roads, or displaced onto through roads. (Bypasses genuinely are bypasses in the Netherlands).

Physical separation, through removal of motor traffic. 'Kerb nerds' want this too!

Separation, through removal of motor traffic. ‘Kerb nerds’ want this too!

‘Kerb nerds’ don’t believe in cycle tracks everywhere. They’re just another tool in the toolbox – one which, for some reason, a certain group of cycle campaigners insist on ruling out anywhere.

Beyond this basic misunderstanding, the label ‘kerb nerds’ also serves to overstate the important of kerbs in creating physical separation on the routes that actually require it. I suspect the problem here is that the people most vigorously opposed to ‘kerbs’ are only aware of the kind of physical segregation they see on a day-to-day basis, in the places where they live in Britain. (This is the most charitable explanation – wilful ignorance of Dutch practice is another).

This is the kind of physical separation they might be imagining – a hard step down into the carriageway, then a hard step back up over another set of kerbs.

The old arrangement on Royal College Street, Camden

The old arrangement on Royal College Street, Camden

I can only assume it is this type of cycle provision that – to take just one example – Councillor Vincent Stops of Hackney has in mind when he writes things like -

The problem with kerbs
At the heart of the cyclecentric, separated space campaign is a desire to see additional kerbs installed to “protect cyclists from motor vehicles” or for cyclists to be diverted onto the pavement in tracks, for example around the back of bus stops…  This is said to benefit cyclists, but ignores the problems that will be caused to pedestrians, particularly older people and the visually and mobility impaired. Pedestrians (whom hitherto transport planners have put at the top of the transport hierarchy) want to see wide, level, continuous and clear pavements and to be able to cross the street at will. Pedestrians do not want additional kerbs and complexity introduced into the street. Pedestrians do not want to have to look out for cyclists on the pavement, nor do they want to have to cross a cycle track and perch on a foot wide kerb before crossing the carriageway.

The introduction of kerbs and the paraphernalia of separated tracks flies in the face of years of work to establish that our streets are not there simply to cater for movement, but are also places for public life. Just at the time that walking policy has made a shift towards reduced segregation – for example by  the removal of guard railing etc. – and more shared space some cycle bloggers and campaigners want to shift cycling provision towards more separation.

His post has this picture of a ‘cycle track’ in it, apparently to demonstrate what ‘kerb nerbs’ want to install on every street in London.

Courtesy of Vincent Stops

Courtesy of Vincent Stops

This is the contraflow cycle track on Pitfield Street, Hackney, which Cllr Stops writes

serves a cycling function, but by no stretch of the imagination can this be described as an attractive and walkable street. For able bodied pedestrians it’s horrible to cross, for older people and disabled pedestrians it is un-passable. It is poor urban design.

Here’s the thing – kerb nerds would agree with this description.

There shouldn’t be any need for this kind of treatment on Pitfield Street – it could have motor traffic removed on it, through filtered permeability, or through opposing one-way systems. The parallel main roads, the A10 and the A1200 should be taking the through traffic.

But more than this. Cycle tracks do not need to look like the one Pitfield Street. They do not need to resemble ‘trip hazards’, or obstructions.

Good cycle tracks – the kinds ‘kerb nerds’ want to see – are not something anyone will trip over.

Trip hazard? Or somewhere children can cycle? You decide

Trip hazard? Or somewhere young children can cycle independently? You decide

No trip hazards here either.

No trip hazards here either.

Now of course it is undeniable that cycle tracks represent something ‘extra’ to cross, if you want to walk from one side of the road to the other. But this isn’t necessarily worse. How much harder is it to cross a busy road, with cycles in the traffic stream, than it is to cross the road in stages, with cycles subtracted from that general traffic stream? (Indeed, how many people on that route are cycling, instead of driving, because the environment is attractive to do so?)

Crossing a busy road, Dutch-style

Crossing a busy road, Dutch-style

And, rather than presenting barriers to Dutch people with mobility problems, cycle tracks are liberating – they are an excellent way to get about.

DSCN0178

Do cycle tracks need to be a problem for the mobility impaired?

If cycle tracks are designed well, then the distinction between ‘pedestrians’ and ‘cyclists’ disappears. Cycle tracks are simply another way for peopleeveryone - to get about, not just ‘cyclists’.

Only if you have a fixed conception of what a ‘cyclist’ could possibly be would you describe cycle tracks as ‘cyclecentric’. They aren’t barriers; quite the opposite.

The Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has more detail on what good cycle tracks should look like.

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This entry was posted in Cycling Embassy Of Great Britain, Cycling policy, Infrastructure, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to A kerb nerd protests

  1. paulc says:

    Who else benefits from Dutch style cycling infrastructure?

  2. paulc says:

    oh noes, there were some kerbs in that video above ^^^^^^^

  3. A very good blog post as always. To me it just reinforces how few people “get it” about mass cycling in the UK – even those with influence. We’ve seen the CTC and Sustrans rightly get hassled on social media this week for their part in approving dangerous infrastructure. 60 plus years of motor centric planning have created such a failure of transport planning and understanding and vision regarding cycling that posts like this are invaluable in helping educate more people.and helping people to understand a whole difference scale of thinking is required. Not to mention that the Dutch have solved these problems already and that Britain really doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel (no matter how much it seems to think it should). Keep up the great work!

  4. miguelmacsporran says:

    The answer to the problem of the danger posed to vulnerable road users by the drivers of motor vehicles is not separation. The folks arguing for Dutch style segregation will be still be arguing for it in ten, twenty, thirty years because there is neither the money nor the space for it. Not in London, Not in York. If you want to put a cycle path alongside every dual carriageway go ahead, but in our streets? It’s not going to happen, and you need to get real.
    By all means redesign our streets to give priority and deliver safety to peds and pedallers. No-one would argue against that – but make no mistake, the answer to the danger posed by drivers is to curtail driving, by education, by the adoption of ‘presumed liability’, by proactive policing and enforcement and by road pricing. But mainly by education. Education worked for seatbelts, it worked for drink driving and it can work for road safety.

    • “The folks arguing for Dutch style segregation will be still be arguing for it in ten, twenty, thirty years because there is neither the money nor the space for it.”

      Thanks for the insight into the defeatist mindset that largely explains why cycling is in such a dismal state in this country.

    • paulc says:

      The Dutch achieved it by taking lanes away from motor traffic. There’s plenty of space in our cities for this when you do that.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Here you go: Dutch-style segregation in a nutshell.

      http://goo.gl/maps/4tXIe

      Pretty much exactly what you have just described (and do have a look at the other side of the archway).

      But sometimes you can even ride on the road 8-O…

      http://goo.gl/maps/EfnzR

      ————————-
      On the trip hazard business – a few UK high streets have their footways well enough paved/tarmaced so that they don’t present a trip hazard, but not all do. My mother-in law (then in her 80s) once broke her wrist tripping on a wobbly paving stone in the middle of the footway. So if anyone is going to start mud slinging about trip hazards they better be sure they don’t have any potential “compensation magnets” on their streets.

      This is the UK by the way:

      http://goo.gl/maps/Kd8uC

    • Dan Bassford says:

      “there is neither the money nor the space for it. Not in London, Not in York. If you want to put a cycle path alongside every dual carriageway go ahead, but in our streets? It’s not going to happen, and you need to get real.”

      Did you read the article at all? Nobody is calling for cycle tracks on every street in the country. What is required is a reduction of motor traffic volumes and speeds in residential areas through filtered permeability. Education and legal changes like strict liability could be enacted for free, almost overnight, but do nothing to the subjective feeling of safety felt by riders. I’m certainly not arguing against these things but it isn’t an either-or situation.

      The argument that “there isn’t the space” is also flawed. The isn’t the space IF you maintain the space available to motor traffic. If you reallocate this space and use it for pedestrian and cycle traffic then suddenly there’s plenty of space. Driving becomes harder, slower and less attractive. Cycling becomes safer and more attractive and much easier and faster than driving.

  5. Tim says:

    Maybe I’m kerb-nerdier than you, but looking at the two “no trip hazard here” photos above I have the following issues with my experience of examples of similar infra in Manchester.

    – Photo 1: Full of cars pulling over to park/stop/wait/etc (often despite a small “dropped” kerb in places). Steep kerbs present a clear physical barrier for motor vehicles, in a country where enforcement of mandatory cycle lanes is legally difficult (or non-existent).

    – Photo 2: Full of pedestrians meandering into the cycle path resulting in a “shared-use” mess with conflict and both parties blaming each other. Admittedly in the place I’m thinking of the cycle path is less well marked – no change of surface treatment and the paint is a little worn – but ime people just don’t look down, unless to not do so will result in them falling over. I’m fine with a trip hazard if it makes the distinction clear. No-one complains about the “trip-hazard” between the main carriageway and the footway (pavement). Kerbs indicate a kind of “mini-road” sending a subconscious message to pedestrians to look before stepping out, or to just stay off the cycle path.

    I would agree that removal of through motor traffic could and should work, but in places where that just won’t happen for whatever reason, my only issue with UK kerbed cycle paths is that they’re generally far too narrow (as in Stops’ example). In Manchester I’m very much pro-kerb because the other suggested options are so much worse (plastic wands, substandard “armadillos”, high planters, etc). As paulc notes, videos of Dutch infra have lots of kerbs in them.

    And the new-to-me term “kerb-nerd” is just the kind of rudeness I can happily ignore, but if we are to use the term perhaps you’re getting ahead of yourself to imagine you represent all kerb-nerds?

    • The two problems you detail – parking on cycle tracks, and people walking on them – just aren’t a problem in the Netherlands. And, as far as I am aware, they aren’t a problem with the new cycle tracks on Old Shoreham Road in Brighton.

      Why might this be? There probably isn’t a simple explanation, but enforcement and familiarity are probably the most reasonable. I don’t think it’s a great idea to suggest we should be making the environment more obstructive and difficult to navigate, to compensate.

      I’m not arguing that kerbs shouldn’t exist – I’m just saying they should be easy to traverse. Take a look at that video again.

      • Tim says:

        I agree with this. I think changing national legislation to make enforcement easier is important – it should be as unacceptable to stop in a cycle lane as it is to stop in the middle of the road. But that’s a hard one to tackle. And when does the familiarity come about? Because again, until that time this is just on-pavement shared space with all the inherent limitations that entails, and many current cyclists will understandably argue strongly against those kind of cycle paths.

        So in the meantime I think kerbs have their place. I think they obstruct just the right amount – enough to notice, but seriously, they aren’t that “difficult” for most people to navigate. They’ve been quite popular on pavements for a very long time. But yes, I guess ideally a bigger kerb facing the “road” especially where parked cars are an issue (and/or perhaps protection from trees/parked cars/etc), and a smaller (possibly angled) kerb internally for the cycle path.

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  7. All these kerbs are a nightmare with pushchairs and young kids walking too. This country can’t get their head rounds the fact that the Dutch have done it, so just copy it. You have adequate separation, use of different surfaces and shades of paving communicate the change to cycle path. They don’t use horrible shades of green and blue which is another thing that puts all this ‘special provision’ look irritating and over the top.
    The trick is reducing the through traffic first – they are still effectively dealing with many times the traffic that needs to be there in the first place. That’s the bit that hurts politically.
    The complete inability for planners and road designers here to put a road space together that doesn’t put all the users into conflict with each other is concerning, frightening and fundamentally what we are up against.
    I fear that unless they take infrastructure and environment out of the political agenda and leave it to the experts, we will all be at the mercy of the Daily Mail.

    • fonant says:

      The problem with UK road planners is that they still think they can design a pleasant shopping street with vibrant shops and cafes, but at the same time make the street work as a major motor route for people in cars and lorries who are just passing through.

      We have to stop making roads that are for parking, shopping, walking, crossing, buses, loading, through traffic, living on, etc. all at the same time. That worked fairly well before the motor vehicles came along, but it doesn’t work with through-traffic motor vehicles included.

      The message has sort-of been heard, in that many towns now have pedestrianised their main shopping streets. But for some reason this success, a result of designing a street for a single purpose (and keeping motor vehicles out unless it’s a through route), is ignored routinely.

      Do UK town planners dislike what the Dutch have achieved? Or is it just a huge issue of “not invented here” syndrome?

      • paulc says:

        this is a bit of “shared space” in Gloucester:

        http://goo.gl/maps/PoY9i

        they took away a light controlled crossing here and although it looks nice, is now an absolute nightmare for pedestrians, especially blind ones… Note, no kerbs, but the cars even though there are shared space warning signs do NOT yield and even get very annoyed when pedestrians wander across.

        Here is a more successful feature of central Gloucester:

        http://goo.gl/maps/9irdT

        coming UP Southgate street towards the pedestrianised area. Cars are permitted here, but is very obvious that they are on notice and can’t just throw themselves about willy nilly.

        and here’s the actual entrance to the proper pedestrianised area:

        http://goo.gl/maps/8Cokf

        Cycles are only allowed during certain hours. You have to dismount and walk your bike outside those hours.

        Again there are no kerbs :)

    • Tim says:

      Christine, when going down a kerb try tilting the buggy back a bit so the weight’s on the back wheels, move the front wheels past the kerb edge, and then lean the buggy forward until most of the weight is on the front wheels before continuing. Going up a kerb works in much the same way, although you could try just one corner wheel first. I don’t usually need to slow down. Oh, and my daughter is about 18 months old; she’s not completely steady on her feet yet but she can do kerbs. Plus any half-decent facility would have gaps or ramps/raised-sections anyway.

      Hopefully not worth having nightmares about. Conversely my nightmares are about being hit by cars and buses while trying to use substandard cycle facilities clogged with motor vehicles while taking the older one to school on the bikes… Any physical barriers between us and the road are very welcome.

      I wonder, is this the point where, despite hopefully agreeing on “segregationism” we get schism between the kerbists and the non-kerbists? Brilliant…

  8. Paul Gannon says:

    I suspect that Cllr Stops’s rant is not an example of rational kerb-concern but a symptom of chronic segrephobia; if we were implementing the type of facility shown in the posting photos Cllr Stops would likely be complaining about different colours destroying the aesthetics of tarmac street scene or some such stuff.

    As he says, “Pedestrians do not want additional kerbs and complexity introduced into the street. Pedestrians do not want to have to look out for cyclists on the pavement, nor do they want to have to cross a cycle track and perch on a foot wide kerb before crossing the carriageway” Knock out the references to new “additional” kerbs & cycle tracks, & all he says can be applied to any other ways of marking out safe & attractive space for cycling.

    He also says: “Just at the time that walking policy has made a shift towards reduced segregation – for example by the removal of guard railing etc. – and more shared space some cycle bloggers and campaigners want to shift cycling provision towards more separation.” Clearly, as I say, Cllr Stops’s views are derived from his irrational segrophobia.

    Despite his reference to ‘shared space’ (while excluding sharing pavements between cyclists & pedestrians), I suspect Cllr Stops’s dislike of kerbs will not extend to removing kerbs separating pavements & motor vehicle carriagegeway, once he’s got rid of railings (cf is dislike only of ‘additional’ kerbs, not all kerbs). Or does he plan to end all separation on Hackney’s Streets by removing all pavements? I doubt it somehow, & detect inconsistency.

    In other words, kerbs are just an excuse for Stops – and his like-thinking counterparts in Westminster – which raises the intriguing question of how come the richest & one of the poorest boroughs share kerb-hate & segrephobia?.

    Re, the topic of the posting, the argument is overdone as pointed out by other comments referencing the plenty of kerbs you’ll find in the Netherlands, but the main point is valid. However, it’s horses for courses & will depend on the circumstances. In a culture where the Secretary of State for Communities encourages & condones illegal parking, kerbs are a useful way of signifying & enforcing, ‘motors must not encroach here’.

    One of the things I tried to promote when proposing Royal College street & Bloomsbury tracks was that the junctions should be raised to pavement level & redesigned so that pedestrians could gain priority at junctions over motors. The sharper the rise up to the pavement crossing level the more it would help encourage motors to cede priority. My ideas weren’t taken up, but I still think that if councillors, such as Stops, who profess concern for pedestrians were to think seriously about the problems of being a pedestrian in the UK, & inner London especially, they would soon come to realise that junctions are the very worst feature of pedestrian life & they could help by re-designing junctions to introduce cyclist & pedestrian safety and priority. We will have to adapt Dutch practices to our cultural environment & driving style.

    Worrying about kerbnerdia in Britain is a bit like worrying about whether your sandwiches contain organic cheese or not as you prepare for a picnic at Fukishima. Rampant, irrational segrephobia is a much more worrying condition.

  9. Dan Bassford says:

    There’s a pretty good example of a ‘Dutch-style’ segregated cycle track in Waltham Forest on Orient Way and Argyll Way. At pavement level and away from the road, wide and with a very low kerb to a pedestrian pavement. There’s still the problem of priority at junctions, the start and end of it and of road signs set into the middle of it, but it’s better than most. Importantly it FEELS safe and easy to ride on, at any speed.

  10. platinum says:

    Pedestrians do not want to have to look out for cyclists on the pavement
    How great it would be if a politician said “Cyclists do not want to have to look out for cars on the road”?

  11. disgruntled says:

    It also seems to me that if you were visually impaired, having the swift silent things in one predictable place in an easily detectable cycle track would be much easier to handle than having them mixed in with either pedestrians or traffic, where it’s harder to tell where they are. But maybe that’s something to discuss with the RNIB

  12. “Pedestrians (whom hitherto transport planners have put at the top of the transport hierarchy)…”
    – What tosh. There’s a formal sense (official fiction) in which this is so, but everything from light timings to highway-code hi-viz advice invites you (or a jury) to think that a dead pedestrian is an irresponsible road user- while a colliding car houses an unfortunate driver. The thought that it constitutes speaking up for the pedestrian to hallow this hierarchy of which motors are the chief beneficiaries is, frankly, bonkers. The oddity is that there is also sense in the mix.

    On one hand what we have from Cllr Stops is the conviction that ‘kerb nerds’ are a sort of Bolshevik band that, as confirmed by some invented letter from an invented Dutch Propaganda minister called Trip Hadtsard Zinofiets, plan to impose a *foreign solution* upon John Bull and shank’s pony. The solution being foreign, there’s little limit to the extent to which it can be misrepresented and accused of aggressive intentions towards the natives.

    On the other, Cllr Stops is able to see that there is something broken about the current UK street-scape, and lots of the solutions he proposes are entirely sensible. It’s the conviction that he has to re-invent, and is re-inventing, the business of filtered permeability which is most galling.

    Perhaps, if Scotland leaves the UK, the Netherlands would consent to keep us company instead? Only this, I fear, would fully address the amour-propre at work here.

  13. Matt says:

    I guess politicians views vary. We have just lost a battle with our councillors and agreed to put kerb separation AND a fence between a new cycle path and carriageway. Neither are necessary but without a high level of physical separation we wouldn’t have secured funding.

  14. Buffalo Bill says:

    Nice post. Worth mentioning that Councillor Vincent Stops completely agrees with you about the example of Pitfield Street, i.e. that it should be filtered with some bollards in exactly the same way as Goldsmith’s Row recently was, and all of the complicated street furniture (kerbs, speed bumps etc) removed. In my view, the real problem of building a cycle-friendly infrastructure in London is going to be integrating with the bus network – for example on Clerkenwell Road between Goswell Road and St John Street. TfL planners & Andrew Gilligan have made it clear “whatever infrastructure is going to be put in to support cycling in London, it will not be allowed to inconvenience bus passengers or pedestrians. This almost certainly means no diversion of bus routes to permit the installation of segregated tracks.”

    http://buffalobillbikeblog.wordpress.com/2013/06/09/2nd-hackney-cycling-conference-a-biased-subjective-report/

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