We don’t need ‘innovative’ solutions – just copy what works

We saw yesterday what Transport for London have been asking the Transport Research Laboratory to test for them.

Dutch Style Roundabout

It is an almost exact copy of a conventional Dutch roundabout with perimeter cycle tracks. They have even copied across the Dutch road markings, which I suspect may have created some uncertainty amongst the test drivers, as the ‘sharks teeth’ give way markings are quite different to the British version. The roundabout, we are told, will subsequently be tested with standard UK road markings. The only addition appears to be a forest of Belisha beacons marking out the zebra crossings (and some luminous jackets and helmets).

Andrew Gilligan made a publicity visit to the site, testing it out for himself, before giving interviews with both BBC and ITV News. I think he did an excellent job in presenting the case for this design, pointing out that (most importantly) it will make what are currently big, scary roundabouts places that anyone on a bike will feel happy negotiating. He also argued, persuasively, that this design will yield instant safety benefits, even taking into account the immediate unfamiliarity of users. It forces drivers to take the roundabout slowly, and cyclists crossing exits and entry points are always directly in a driver’s eye-line, and will cross paths at right angles. If you compare this design with the current nightmare roundabout at the northern end of Lambeth Bridge (covered here and here, the video amply demonstrating what Gilligan calls a ‘Darwinian’ approach to road interaction), there is no contest in terms of safety and amenity.

It’s very pleasing to see Transport for London engaging with designs that have been proven to work, and the City Cyclists blog is correct to say that this is a huge step forward. The Netherlands has history and expertise in making the street and road environment safe and pleasant for cycling. They’ve made mistakes that we don’t have to, because we can simply copy their superior end product. So we don’t need ‘innovative’ solutions, when there are proven and established solutions already available.

That brings me to a flyer that was distributed on every seat at the recent Cycle City Expo in Birmingham, which suggested it was time to ‘put cyclists in the middle of the road’. The link on the flyer takes you here, to TTC transport planning. The website states

As a profession we are getting better at providing safe and well designed cycle provision, however cars are still viewed as ruling the road and current design guides and standards for on-road cycle facilities more often than not place cyclists on the nearside lane where they are required to deal with surface hazards and drainage services. In order to ensure that people have priority and feel comfortable when they are cycling we need to be more innovative and adventurous in our approach to providing for cyclists.

Just what kind of ‘adventurous’ provision for cycling is being proposed quickly becomes clear –

One particular exciting, innovative and possibly controversial way of putting cyclists first is by designating a central lane for bicycle traffic, which involves:

  • Central cycle lane;
  • Cars using narrow lateral lanes, but can straddle the central cycle lane;
  • Overtaking of cycle prohibited; and
  • Speed limit reduced to 20 mph.

A ‘central lane for bicycle traffic’.

The reason these kind of designs are ‘adventurous’ and ‘innovative’ is because they are bad. They are ‘adventurous’ only because countries with proven experience of designing for cycling would not even contemplate employing them.

Further detail on this scheme is provided by a set of presentation slides, available here. The idea seems to be based around the assumption that putting cyclists at the side of the road is bad, because it means that ‘cars rule the road’.

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 11.50.30Well, those are all plainly awful solutions (the last isn’t even a solution at all). But that doesn’t mean that ‘putting cyclists in the middle of the road’ is automatically better; for a start, we can put cyclists at the side in well-designed ways. Pointless, or intermittent, paint, that puts cyclists in dangerous positions, is not the only way of doing things.


But the presentation suggests that ‘putting cyclists in the middle of the road’ already exists in Europe as a strategy, even in the Netherlands.

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 11.56.42

The picture on the left looks to be from France; the picture on the right is of a fietsstraat in the Netherlands.

It appears, however, that the concept of the fietsstraat has been fatally misunderstood. The fietsstraat does not place cyclists ‘in the middle of the road’, ahead of motor traffic. A fietsstraat is, conceptually, a bicycle track on which motor vehicles are permitted to drive. Crucially, the only motor vehicles doing so will be those gaining access to properties along the fietsstraat; a fietsstraat is never a through route (the concept is illustrated well in this Bicycle Dutch post).

So the reason cyclists are in the middle of the road in that slide is principally because they know they will not have any motor traffic behind them, beyond the occasional resident. Being in the middle of the road flows naturally from the relaxed environment. How relaxed will the TTC scheme be?

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 12.03.32

‘Street open to all modes of transport’.

That is, the complete opposite of the fietsstraat, which makes sure the street is not open to all modes of transport.

The scheme smacks of ‘assertive cycling’ being forced upon cyclists who don’t want to be assertive in the first place; it puts markings on the road to position cyclists slap bang in the middle of the road, while motor traffic is tempted to undertake in lanes that are just wide enough for doing so (why would you even need signs telling motorists not to do this?)Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 12.07.21

Using cyclists as mobile traffic calming is a bad idea; it’s not good for motorists, and it’s not good for cyclists. To expect cyclists – even those who currently cycle, let alone those who are too nervous to ride at present – to hold a position in the centre of the road with a queue of traffic behind them is deeply unrealistic, as well as a suboptimal solution for making cycling attractive. You make cycling a mode of transport that people might want to use by increasing its comfort, not by forcing those on bikes into ‘dominating’ the road when they almost certainly don’t want to.

The ‘scheme’ even seems to accommodate on-street parking –

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 12.12.19Which may, paradoxically, make it slightly safer by discouraging dangerous undertaking. The end result, however, is something rather similar, if not identical, to existing residential streets with parking on both sides, something the final slide (unintentionally?) acknowledges –

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 12.14.42

A central area to cycle, by default. Not exactly a great leap forward.

Employing a central cycle lane on streets without any car parking is not a ‘continental’ solution. The Dutch fietsstraat, so badly misinterpreted here, relies upon the removal of motor traffic, not the positioning of cyclists in front of motor traffic still free to use the street as a through route.

We don’t need ‘adventurous’ new designs, we need ones that work already, and that make cycling a pleasant experience. If you are deliberately choosing to force cyclists to cycle in front of motor traffic, you’ve already failed before you’ve even started.

This entry was posted in Absurd transport solutions, Andrew Gilligan, Infrastructure, Safety, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Transport for London. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to We don’t need ‘innovative’ solutions – just copy what works

  1. livinginabox says:

    Using cyclists as traffic calming isn’t going to work. I expect that almost every cyclist will know the experience of being followed very closely by an impatient raging motorist, possibly one who is revving their engine, possibly combined with hooting and shouting expletives or threats to kill. I am a confident cyclist and even I can get unsettled by such deliberate harassment.
    Will this work for new, inexperienced cyclists? For women? Or for young children?
    No of course not.
    Will it enable one to enjoy the true care-free experience of cycling? Hardly.

    Such an arrangement is doomed to fail unless every cyclist is closely accompanied by a Bobby on a bike.
    One can only conclude that it is meant to fail.

    One cannot help but suspect sabotage.

    • Paul M says:

      No indeed, but it is a fairly commonplace traffic management trick these days. Take a look at Cheapside, where lane narrowing had use of cyclists to calm traffic explicitly in mind, I understand same applies to Ken High St (same designers) and Pall Mall/Picadilly, and some while ago to Strand – all now deeply unpleasant places to cycle. The City of London has again been advocating lane narrowing in some of the proposed designs for areas like Bishopsgate, where they have been “consulting” recently. Despite numerous objections ot the narrowing schemes, citation of TRL research which shows cyclists loathe lane narrowing and pinch points, they persist in projecting these schemes as “beneficial for cyclists”

    • michael says:

      “Using cyclists as traffic calming isn’t going to work.”

      Yet this is what is done, time and again! It always leaves me feeling furious.

      Why do road traffic engineers find it so hard to grasp the concept that people don’t like being used as means to an end? They need to reread their Kant.

      • “Using cyclists as traffic calming isn’t going to work.”

        That’s what the planners in Leeds have been doing for years. Too many pinch points on too many steep roads leading to conflict.

        Fortunately, there seems to be a step change in the thought processes and planners are now actively engaging cyclists for input. We have the Tour de France starting here next year, our first ever Sky Ride this July and the council (and others) have just submitted a bid for cash from the Cycle Cities Ambition fund. All these are influencing the mindset of officials.

        Nothing concrete yet (except bollards!) but looking more positive than it has for years.

  2. Yes, you are right. There is nothing very new here. This is almost the same as what we do at the moment, extensively in London, with cycle symbols painted in the middle of heavily-parked minor roads, which are supposed to give the message that “cyclists have the right to cycle in the middle of the road”, but which don’t remove the conflicts. The new element here is making it (apparently) law that cyclists must not be overtaken, and the provision of a new sign. But is this really new either? It could probably already be interpreted as a violation of the Highway Code for motorists to overtake in insufficient space on roads on which these cycle logos are marked, but nothing ever happens about it. A new law would have to be strongly enforced to work. Think of the experience of the (non) enforcement of ASLs.

    Actually I think there is a case for the law to create a class of “cycle street”, like the Dutch fietstraat and the German fahhradstrasse, where overtaking of bikes is forbidden. But it’s not a complete solution in itself, as you say, it has to go along with network design that seeks to direct cars onto different routes. Otherwise you just end up with a heap of conflict, and rules supposedly to protect cyclists which no-one has time to enforce.

  3. davidhembrow says:

    I am given to wondering if the chap who runs “The Transportation Consultancy” has actually been to the Netherlands. The photos appear to have a number of different sources, and one of them is mine, taken uncredited from one of our webpages. It absolutely does not represent what he’s describing.

    There are no centre of road cycle-lanes in the Netherlands (well, not any longer, anyway). It’s simply a bad idea.

  4. fonant says:

    Rather sweet that they think all motorists will obey the “no undertaking” signs. In the real world you can bet that the few cyclists brave enough to make themselves a rolling roadblock (or who can maintain 20mph comfortably) will have to deal with extremely dangerous overtaking by motor vehicles and motorcycles on both sides.

    Of course this idea makes the cycling environment even less attractive to ordinary people who just want to ride their bicycles for local transport. Spectacularly bad idea.

    “Transportation Consultancy” eh? Have they actually tried this idea in real traffic themselves? I suspect not.

  5. I have looked at their website – the contact is a mobile phone number – looks like a one man band trying to drum up work…

    One tiny point, when putting in a non-separated route on a (genuinely) quiet backstreet, even with parking both sides, the odd cycle logo can be helpful to help navigate the route – I not everyone’s cup of tea, but they can be useful sometimes.

    • Fred says:

      I like pictures of bikes in the middle of quiet roads telling people they’re there to be shared. The guys from this company don’t actually say whether they would ban cyclists from cycling nearer the edges of the road. Are we sure it isn’t a joke?

      • Fred says:

        In fact, looking at their design, putting cyclists in the middle serves no useful purpose at all, simply banning cars from overtaking would (if anyone took any notice) achieve the same result. I guess they assume people will break the rules and want cyclists to volunteer to be mobile bollards, but if they assume no one will follow this set up, why do they bother suggesting it?

  6. Fred says:

    Who are these adventurers and do they have any qualifications? It seems they’re well out of their depth. I propose that roundabouts would be safer if each one was policed by a traffic warden riding a unicorn and the cars reversed around them anticlockwise while cyclists picnic in the centre.

  7. Ria Glas says:

    Dear mark,
    In a Dutch fietsstraat there is normally no parking of cars next to the street. There are hardly any streets where bycicles cannot be overtaken by a car and if that is the case, “salmoning is impossible as well. One way streets for car AND bike. The street can be max 300 m long.

    When there are fietsstraten where cars ride in 2 directions there can be max 500 cars per day. And at least twice as much bikes as cars.
    On one way streets it is easyer: Then you can accept 2.000 – 2.300 cars/day on that Fietsstraat and the length can be “endless”. But still: at least twice as much bikes as cars.
    Cars and bikes from the other direction must be able to pass each other. Thus you need a road of about 4 m wide. Maybe lined with a “kantstrook” of 50 cm on each side, so that passing a truck is no problem either.
    A fietsstraat is not grounded in the law, there are no separate laws for it. Overtaking bycicles is thus not forbidden. If the street is narrow and the bicylcists rides in the middle, it is impossible to do so without hitting the bicycle. As that takes a lot of time for the car driver, (police investigating, ambulance…) that does not happen (here).
    I like this solution: http://goo.gl/maps/ZG1VB (use streetview). the few cars that come here behave good.

    Broad streets lead to high car speeds and must be avoided.Lots of cars are incompatible with a fietsstraat.

  8. Anoop says:

    In essence, the Dutch system consists of:
    1. High quality segregated routes along main roads and at major junctions — for subjective safety and convenience
    2. Minor roads are useful through routes only for cyclists and pedestrians; motor vehicles can only use them for access to properties — this makes cycling more convenient than driving for short journeys. On such streets motorists should not have much incentive to overtake cyclists because they are just making their way to or from the main road and are not actually going anywhere yet.

  9. zeraien says:

    I kind of like this idea from Barcelona:

    It is a segregated two way bicycle track in the middle of a boulevard.
    I suppose that as long as bicycles have proper signal timing and proper ways to make left/right turns, it could work.

    Or not? I’m curious what others think.

    • davidhembrow says:

      Personally I think it’s rather a silly idea and apart from sheer novelty value I can’t see what the advantage is supposed to be.

      You’ve noted the problem with left and right turns – not a minor matter – but there are other questions begged by such a design. For example:

      Is the centre of the road the most pleasant place to cycle ? Does it feel safe when one is surrounded on all sides by cars ? Does this lead to the entire population cycling ? Does it make it easier for cyclists to make direct journeys and avoid traffic lights faced by drivers ? Are people more likely to cycle if the cycle-path is positioned such that the air filled with fumes and noise than if the cycle path was elsewhere ?

      Does Barcelona lead the world in cycling ? The answer to that question is also firmly “no”, and it never will while the country seeks to find novel but below average solutions to problems which have already been solved. Though it’s not perfect either, the Netherlands remains the best place to look for inspiration and examples which work.

      • zeraien says:

        Thank you David for the detailed perspective.
        Of course the Netherlands is the leader and I see many fantastic solutions there. I am also an avid reader of your blog, and most of the links you posted are already purple in my browser ;-).
        That said, I’ve often wondered whether placing cycle tracks in the middle was a viable idea, if only as a way to avoid the danger of right turning vehicles (which of course the Netherlands solves nicely with separate traffic signals).

        While I personally would not feel intimidated cycling in the center if there was proper separation (most cycle provision in Stockholm is painted cycle lanes outside parked cars), I do see your point. And of course, the right and left turns, as well as being able to cycle “outside” certain traffic lights will most likely be an issue… And there would need to be dedicated left and right turn signals at every intersection to allow to safely leave the center of the road…

        And @esde84.co.uk’s point of not simply being able to turn onto a street, and also not simply being able to stop at a shop or cafe or to park easily, would be a pain.

        Thank you both for helping me structure my thoughts on this matter! 🙂

    • esde84.co.uk says:

      I rode a similar style segregated path down the middle of a street in Paris (along Blvd Gouvinon-Saint-Cyr next to the Palais des congres, if it helps finding it on a map).

      At first I thought it was great, but it suddenly became really annoying when I passed the street I wanted to turn on to, with no where to escape, even if there was a gap, I would have to cross the motor lane which the path avoids.

      It would have been much more sensible to have the path at the side of the street. It would still take up the same amount of space and would be easier to access any side streets, bike racks, shops etc.

      • zeraien says:

        Thanks for giving a personal perspective, you and David have convinced me that it’s a bad idea.

  10. USbike says:

    What a silly idea of “putting cyclists first,” in front of cars, literally. It always baffles me to hear opponents of cycle tracks argue (often erroneously) that they are a bad idea because they only serve to get “cyclists out of the way of cars.” So essentially, they would prefer to be in the way of 4000 lbs of moving steel instead. Clearly, the woman in the 4th row of photos (left panel) is having such a blast being tailgated by all those motor vehicles, the Dutch would all die of envy that they never get such an experience. And a movable traffic calming device for the city. What a plus!

  11. rich257 says:

    What a spectacularly bad idea. At the moment in parked-up streets I have to play chicken with on-coming cars and take an assertive position so they will actually slow down and move over. Now I will have to look out for cars pushing past from behind as well as heading straight at me from the front.
    I see the scheme abandons you at the beginning and the end too. There’s no way anyone would let children cycle in this middle lane so it’s not fit for anyone else and it won’t encourage new people to cycle. I would expect experienced cyclists to ignore it because it’s too dangerous.

    • michael says:

      “At the moment in parked-up streets I have to play chicken with on-coming cars and take an assertive position so they will actually slow down and move over. ”

      One of the things (along with a proclivity for parking absolutely anywhere they feel like) that most infuriates me about UK drivers. Whatever happened to the part of the highway code that says ‘if on the wrong side of the road due to passing an obstruction or parked vehicles, give way to oncoming vehicles’? When did it acquire the addendum ‘unless the oncoming vehicle is a bike, in which case just drive straight at them at high speed’?

  12. Pingback: Don’t misunderstand the Fietsstraat | As Easy As Riding A Bike

  13. PaulC says:

    UK authorities in general seem to have enormous problems with the concept of learning anything from other countries, particularly European ones. To my simple mind, broadly speaking, the Netherlands have over the years figured out what works to get the general population out on bikes, in large numbers, safely. Let’s just copy that, as the article puts it so well.

    My only proviso would be not to rely on the Great British Driver to obey any rule which they think they can get away with breaking. Which suggests to me the need for decent infrastructure backed up with the minimum of rules and signage, rather than half baked infrastructure reliant on unenforceable rules. A central cycle lane comes firmly in the latter category. If it doesn’t work for an 8 year old child, then it’s a rubbish solution, seems like a good rule of thumb.

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