The steps

There is a small entrance to the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, from St Giles’. It brings you into the grand central courtyard from the east, through a corridor in the building, rather than via the direct and obvious entrance from the south on Beaumont Street.

Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 22.58.58

The view into the Ashmolean courtyard from St Giles’

On my recent visit I noticed that a walkway has been built across this corridor, linking the main Ashmolean building (to the left) to the wing of the building, on the right. Screen shot 2014-02-04 at 22.58.09
This obviously makes it more inconvenient to walk along the corridor, than to pass across it.

Presumably these steps – or walkway, depending on your perspective – have been installed to allow step-free access throughout the museum buildings. The ‘extra’ steps for people passing along this corridor, rather than across it, are not much of a problem for those who have already come up the ten or so steps from the street. Anyone who can’t manage steps will be entering the museum from the main entrance on Beaumont Street, up ramps.

But the arrangement got me thinking about priorities, and about choices.

For short trips, most people have the option to walk or cycle to their destination. It’s technically possible to walk or cycle short distances. A great percentage choose not to, however – nearly 40% of all trips under 2 miles in Britain are driven. But why?

Because we’ve built steps across their routes – steps that make driving easier. Driving has the smooth, continuous route on this walkway, while walking and cycling have to struggle up and over the steps built for it. The ease and convenience of driving has been purchased at the expense of making walking and cycling more difficult, and more hazardous.

A concrete example. Take this roundabout in Didcot.

Screen Shot 2014-02-05 at 12.01.35

Courtesy of Google Streetview

It’s possible to walk or cycle from left to right, across this roundabout – but you have to come a huge distance out of your way, push a button, wait for a crossing signal, then travel back up to where you actually want to go. Driving from left to right, on the other hand, is a more-or-less direct route, that can be taken at speed.

This is the way we design for walking and cycling in Britain, in microcosm. It has to fit in at the margins, fenced away, and given indirect routes that skirt around and yield to the ‘dominant’ mode of transport, motor traffic. While this continues, all the talk of ‘encouraging’ and ‘promoting’ walking and cycling will ring hollow.

Pictured below is the junction between Biltstraat – a main road in Utrecht – and Goedestraat, a residential side road.

IMG_2751It doesn’t even look like a junction, because the cycle track and the pavement extend across the side road. It’s driving that has to go up and over the steps, while walking and cycling has the level walkway.

Yet at equivalent junctions in the UK we seem to go out of our way to make walking and cycling hostile and unattractive.

Courtesy of Google Streetview

Courtesy of Google Streetview

This is the junction of Ashley Road and The Parade in Epsom. Ashley Road is a one-way road, that forms part of the A24 gyratory in the town. Needless to say cycling here on this fast and busy road is inadvisable if you are not confident. The Parade, on the left, is a residential side road – actually a dead-end. But it has a ludicrous flared treatment, and barriers to stop you crossing in the most natural place.

Walking and cycling are eradicated by this kind of design, just as they are in Horsham, where simply crossing the inner ring road into the town centre from the west means the use of four separate signalled controlled crossings.


In urban areas in Britain, it’s driving that has been given the most convenient and direct routes, without delay, diversion, interruption or inconvenience. It has been put up on the walkway, at the expense of walking and cycling, so it’s no surprise that it continues to dominate as a mode of transport, while walking dwindles and cycling remains essentially non-existent.

The steps need rearranging.

This entry was posted in Car dependence, Guardrail, Gyratories, Horsham, Infrastructure, Subjective safety, The Netherlands, Walking. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to The steps

  1. Alex says:

    Haringey can easily match those examples you use. This junction here requires people crossing one road between the shops and the park to wait at five different signalised crossings while each arm of the junction gets at least one green light phase:
    And this entrance to a car park has an extra wide radius to allow people to drive at top speed, with railings to discorage the impediment of pesky people walking to the tube station or school:
    Disgusting that this is in a borough where the vast majority of people don’t even own a car.

    • michael says:

      A lot of inner London is like that. Locals don’t drive, but TfL (and even the local council’s) priority is for outsiders to be able to drive through it as quickly as possible.

      The traffic-light controlled pedestrian crossings seem wasteful for everyone. As a pedestrian you press the button, then are forced to wait several minutes for no good reason (I pressed the button to tell you I am here, why should I have to wait while cars that arrived _after_ me get priority?).

      You end up crossing during a gap in traffic, then five minutes later, when you are long gone, the lights finally change, requiring the motorists to now stop even though there’s now nobody there waiting to cross! Everyone’s time is wasted.

      How is this an improvement over a Zebra where motorists are supposed to stop as soon as you go to cross, but can then drive freely if there’s nobody wanting to cross?

      • Tim says:

        I have always wondered about the logic here. Okay, maybe where there is a constant stream of pedestrians wanting to cross you need to group them a little to let the cars go sometimes. But if the pedestrian crossing has not been triggered for a while why-in-the-name-of-of-all-things-holy do I have to wait after pressing?!! What does this wait achieve, apart from winding me up (as cars that arrived later carry on through, as you state).

        There’s a crossing here – – where the lights change as soon as you press the button. Has done for years. Works fine. I have no idea why this isn’t the norm.

        ime traffic lights are generally a hugely inefficient waste of time, which go green when no-one’s waiting, at the expense of people who would like to go.

      • Accidents stats show Zebras are less safe than signalised crossings. There are enough knob-ends around to have ruined the concept for everyone.

        When I was learning to drive I was told to slow down if it looks like someone might want to cross on a zebra, so you are ready to stop. Too often when crossing I have to make eye contact with driver, step out and and pray, as it’s obvious that if they think they can avoid stopping, they will. Must be horrible for more vulnerable pedestrians.

  2. Ricardo says:

    Funny how your description of Britain fits Coimbra (in Portugal) perfectly! And sometimes even if you push a button to cross the road at a traffic light you will have to wait and wait (and wait more) to get a green pedestrian crossing light! Conclusion: Planning people haver never walked in those kind of places. They must drive through them…

  3. Jason says:

    Until I started cycling almost 2 years ago and started reading blogs like this I didn’t remotely consider the points you have mentioned – in my mind the way things are is the way things are done…not once did I ever think that our towns and cities could be changed drastically for the better by prioritising walking and cycling…even though the nicer parts of town were always the car free bits.

    People need waking up to this…car culture is too ingrained in our society, they need to see the choices we have.

  4. ezpc1 says:

    Hear hear!
    Couldn’t agree more.
    I’m afraid we have become so used to “modern” street planning, audit was termed in the 60’s, that we often just accept it as the norm in terms of road layout, street furniture, etc.
    As an architect, I come across this issue day in day out where more progressive human friendly design gets vetoed by the roads department of your local authority because it does not conform to its highway standards.
    Thankfully this is slowly changing and more human scale pedestrian friendly lanes and access ways are being considered but the onus is ALWAYS on the designer to prove vehicular access can work (motor vehicles that is) and not on – is this’s pleasant and safe streets cape for people to live work and play in?

  5. It’s interesting how it’s our supposedly human size medieval streets that they are so precious about saving for cars. Making streets fit for humans can be done, and once people get used to using their feet or riding bikes, you don’t see anyone complaining either. The opposite, plus it’s much quieter and cleaner.
    What would happen if, like in NL, you couldn’t park all over the pavements like they do in cities all over the UK? Bristol being particularly bad but I think that’s also where pedestrians end up in the road or just don’t walk anywhere, because the fall out to having so much car use, is they are left absolutely all over the place. I’d like to see a ban on pretty much all on-street parking unless there’s actual parking bays designed into the road. It would be good to do some sort of visual demonstration where you replaced all the cars on a street with bales of hay or washing machines, just to illustrate how bloody annoying they are just left everywhere.

  6. Jo Wood says:

    Nice reminder for us to reassess our priorities in street design and not to tolerate a status quo that acts against us when we walk or cycle. Also relevant to this discussion is the redesign of the Poynton street environment in Cheshire:

    As well as being an uplifting example in the most challenging of environments, it is also a reminder that what benefits us when we are walking and cycling need not be an “us and them” battle between motorised and non-motorised street use.

    • Matthew.W says:

      £4m for a bit of fancy paving!
      All the pedestrians are using the ‘thank you for not killing me’ wave as they scurry across the road trying not to slow down the traffic too much.
      Cyclists I spotted in the ‘after’ shots are either still on the pavement (10:18 & 11:00) or hardened road warriors (10:23, 10:32 & 11:11) and likely to have been on the road anyway.
      Jessica Duffy (@10:11) hasn’t been encouraged to cycle even though her car journey is only 10 minutes.

    • Adam says:

      Poynton always seems to be put forward as a success, which is odd because it’s still a really unpleasant place to cycle. Cars still dominate and it still feels hostile to try to cycle through it. It might be fine for people who are already confident cyclists, but it doesn’t make it feel safe or pleasant enough for an ordinary person to start using a bike to get around, or for people to let their kids use it.

    • Tim says:

      I didn’t like it when I drove through either. It just makes everyone who’s unfamiliar with it slow down by using confusing non-standard (very expensive) infrastructure (and no signage). That’s hardly a reliable plan to roll out consistently across the UK.

      And I certainly wouldn’t let my kids wander across the centre of Poynton without supervision. That kind of shared space works OK in places which aren’t that busy anyway, but notably you won’t see much of it in the Netherlands.

      We need prioritisation of sustainable modes of transport (walking and cycling) and better nationally agreed tools and standards to implement that prioritisation.

  7. rdrf says:

    I would spend more time focusing on how motoring is favoured against cycling/walking by (a) being heavily subsidisd (by excessively cheap petrol, not having to pay for parking in public space and other “external” costs and (b) having the persistent rule and law breaking by its users tolerated and accomodated.

    • fonant says:

      Not sure I follow the logic.

      (a) Cycling isn’t heavily subsidised, but it’s still an awful lot cheaper than motoring, so cost-wise cycling wins every time.

      (b) Cycling also has persistent rule and law breaking by its users, and these are tolerated (in between occasional crackdowns) and accommodated (we’re allowed to illegally cycle on the footway on our way to and from school, because it’s the only safe thing to do). So a 1 – 1 draw here between motoring and cycling.

      Where cycling does lose out big time to motoring is in:

      (c) space allocated (motoring: lots, cycling: nil)
      (d) continuous and efficient routes (motoring: 100%, cycling: hardly any, lots of CYCLISTS DISMOUNT)
      (e) real and perceived danger (motoring: none, cycling: lots).

      All of these massive disadvantages for cycling (c) to (e) are caused directly by the design of the road environment, as described in this excellent article.

      • michael says:

        I really don’t see there’s much of a disagreement between the two of you there.. All those factors are important.

        Motoring is subsidised to a huge degree, and that affects the choices people make. And road rules are really barely enforced at all.

        And the space allocation question is really the subsidy question in a different form – disproportionate share of a public good like land is one of the major forms the subsidy takes.

        The question is though, how on Earth to change that situation?

        • Tim says:

          The government could stop sucking up to drivers by holding off previously-budgeted-for petrol tax increases for starters. In these “times of austerity” cancelled tax increases leave us all worse off elsewhere.

  8. Dermot says:

    Really good article.

    The overall issue currently with walking and cycling is that it’s so disparate by nature it’s improbable to expect a large enough number of people to be vocal enough on such junctions as above to bring about real change. This only ever occurs if a current busy junction changes for one reason or another.

    The system is not proactive in inducing demand for cycle and walk trips so will in most part only provide token facilities if can get away with it. The system is self reinforcing of the car due to the number of vested interests it involves from developers, residential, commuters and businesses.

    If local groups were set up with the specific targets for increasing walking and cycling, it would give a strong mandate to push for upgrades on a number of blackspots you bring up. Only by connecting the upgrade of these junctions to the latent demand for walking and cycling, and to a network wide strategy rather than looking at them in isolation, can we break the cycle of poor design and secondary facilities in the long run. Individuals can’t do this. It must be community lead.

  9. Greg Merritt says:

    Lovely piece. Simple, clear, and profound. Thank you!

  10. Paul M says:

    Perhaps we should rejoice, a little, in the response of TfL to the Elsinore Way scheme in Richmond. See here for details
    They have listened to representations and changed the layout of a cycle track to make it continuous and require the highway to give way to it – a slightly curious arrangement with regard to traffic turning into the side road, requiring the cycle track to be set back a little from the junction, but at least it permits the track to be continuous.
    It is only one example, of course, but as they say, even the longest journey starts with a single step, and perhaps it merits encouragement with a positive response via the link above?

  11. dave says:

    As an infrastructure designer and cyclist the UK is very slow if not Neanderthal in its standards and it needs a huge culture change in how the streetscapes are designed to move away from reliance on the car for local journeys no wonder obesity is rife I pass a number of schools on my 10 mile daily commute avoiding all the illegally and dangerously parked cars right outside schools

  12. radwagon1 says:

    Know that Didcot roundabout well!

    Just to repeat the same message, there’s a NCN route through this junction that involves going over 2 crossings and doing a total of the equivalent of 8 right-angle turns.

    You can just make out the path going into the trees on the other side of the roundabout which connects with the cyclepath on the left of the road in this view.

    Coming down the path opposite brings you to the roundabout but it’s barriered off. So, 180 degree turn back to the crossing. 90 degree turn on and 90 off the crossing. Then 90 turn up the side (on left in the picture), 90 turn on and 90 off the second crossing. Finally, a 90 degree turn back onto the route ahead (the cyclepath on the left of the picture).

    I rarely do that route, but do follow another route that goes along the road to the left of this picture. Thankfully it’s only 1 crossing and 5 right-angle turns, although that still shows how poor the design is here.

    Here’s a clip coming from the left road in the picture and going up the path opposite.

    And here’s going the other way.

  13. rdrf says:

    Replying to fonant:

    1. It is crucial to point out how motorists don’t pay what conventional economists call “external costs” – although I think we need to go further than that. Addressing this issue has a lot of benefits, not least hammering the “I pay a tax” argument.

    Actually, cycling is NOT that much less costly than motoring, and this is one of the reasons that poorer people don’t cycle. There is a BIG demographic problem with C’s and D’s cycling far less than middle class people. And it’s unfair anyway! The CTC and LCC and others have argued for years that cyclists need 20 – 25p a mile mileage allowances – you can drive a fuel efficient car carefully for less than twice that. In fact, if you work out the costs of a user-friendly bike, breathable waterproofs to put over normal clothes, locks, maintenance etc. it builds up a lot.

    Relative costs is important.

    2. Law breaking. Again, as someone concerned with the safety of all road users I am against law breaking from those most likely to hurt/kill/endanger others, which means the motorised.

    There is a fundamental difference between law and rule breaking by the motorised and that by cyclists in terms of its effects on others.

    Anyway, as Operations Safeway, Grimaldi etc. show, cyclists committing relatively trivial offences DO get jumped on in crackdowns.

    Both of these point towards discrimination. This discrimination extends throughout society: take, for example, home parking. Most motorists have more or less free parking at home, but cyclists tend to have problems with secure and convenient home parking.

    I think it deeply mistaken to miss out on all this. Indeed, insofar as you want to talk about the way the highway is laid out, this is simply one part of the inequity of the relationship between motoring and other modes (or, if you like, the discrimination in favour of the motorised against others).

  14. Tim says:

    For a more through comparison of how the Dutch do things, this recent Bicycle Dutch post seems very relevant.

    Riding five kilometres into town and having priority all the way. So it is possible, even if we can only dream about it.

  15. Jitensha Oni says:

    Epsom (and Ewell) is an interesting example. The Borough has 13 wards. The central ward is Town and includes the gyratory of which your photo shows part. This essentially lacks any cycling infrastructure. Yet the western wards have a network of cycle ways that are among the best in the country (given that none have priority over roads that motors can use etc). The eastern wards are not so comprehensively (artistic license) fitted out, but they have bits. In the west, we even have what must surely be the holy grail of many campaigners, this:

    The point I’m making is that Town ward uniquely in the Borough has nothing for cyclists, even round the horrendous gyratory. Cycling, if not prioritised, has at least been considered in adjacent wards, but not Town. This has to be by design. Now they’re complaining about parking, parking charges and poor business.

    Go figure!

  16. King B-Sync says:

    This lecture explains how the street was lost to the car, and how 90 years ago if you asked “what is the street for” – folks would say: “the street is for children to play in”!
    Its american, but our past mirrors theirs in many ways….

  17. King B-Sync says:

    This lecture explains how the street was lost to the car, and how 90 years ago if you asked “what is the street for” – folks would say: “the street is for children to play in”!
    Its american, but our past mirrors theirs in many ways….

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