Designing for cycling in its own right

Imagine that you are responsible for improving the walking environment in an area where walking rates are exceptionally low – perhaps making up around a few percent of all trips that are made.

You would probably start thinking about the kind of changes that would be required to make walking a pleasant, attractive and obvious option.

Routes for walking would have to be direct. They would have to be free from stress and danger, and obstructions. They would have to be convenient, and be of suitable width. And they would have to go everywhere that people needed to go.

A good walking environment

A good walking environment

You would, ideally, like to end up with a dense walking network, which has all these qualities. In short, you would be designing for walking, to ensure that it makes sense as a mode of transport in its own right.

After this period of abstract thought, you reach for your bookshelves, and pull out the official guidance, published by the Department for Transport – Walking Infrastructure Design.

You start reading the Introduction.

Planning and designing high­-quality infrastructure involves developing individual site­ specific solutions, but there are some common requirements that need to be satisfied. The underpinning principle is that measures for pedestrians should offer positive provision that reduces delay or diversion and improves safety.

Sounds good! You read on.

When designing improvements to walking infrastructure, the hierarchy of provision (Table 1.2) offers useful guidance on the steps to be considered.

Eagerly, you flick to this Table 1.2, which offers ‘guidance on the steps to be considered’. You discover that the first ‘step’ you should consider is

Traffic volume reduction

‘Traffic volume reduction’? You scratch your head.

This makes little sense. What does this have to do with walking, and improving the environment for walking? ‘Traffic’ (meaning motor traffic) is an entirely different mode of transport; shouldn’t a manual for improving walking infrastructure focus on precisely that?

Perhaps, you wonder, the Hierarchy of Provision in ‘Bus Infrastructure Design’ suggests considering first ‘train travel reduction’, or ‘plane travel reduction’.

But of course it doesn’t, and nor does ‘Walking Infrastructure Design’ (mainly because neither of these documents exist). However, Cycling Infrastructure Design does exist, and unfortunately it suggests you go about planning for improving the cycling environment in precisely this unfathomable way – by suggesting you reduce an entirely different mode of transport as a first step.

The Hierarchy of Provision

The Hierarchy of Provision

A strong objection here is that the Hierarchy is confusing policy with outcome. Reducing motor traffic should be the result of improving the environment for walking and cycling, yet it is presented here as the actual design policy.

But an even stronger objection is that the Hierarchy fails to focus on what it should actually be dealing with – the bicycle. In a recent lecture, Professor John Parkin described the Hierarchy of Provision as

a completely inappropriate way of planning for cycling. It denies the existence of cycling a a distinct mode.

Indeed, the Hierarchy represents

planning for cycling with reference to another mode, rather than designing for cycling itself.

It’s hard to disagree with this assessment. As I’ve argued before, the Hierarchy of Provision embodies the historical fixation of cycling campaigning on fighting motor traffic. The focus here is not on improving the environment for cycling, but on abstract goals that may, or may not, have side benefits for cycling.

It is woolly and unfocused, and when used as a planning tool we find that it is all too easy to skip through all the steps and end up right at the bottom, with the conversion of footways to ‘shared use’ – because this is the easiest option. Indeed, at this same lecture, a transport planner working for a client mentioned that the scheme she was implementing involved shared use pavements – not because this was the best design solution, but because that was what the council wanted. And the Hierarchy does little or nothing to stop councils plumping for this option.

At another lecture last week, I heard Keith Firth of SKM Colin Buchanan stating that

What’s great about the Hierarchy of Provision is that infrastructure is quite a long way down the list.

Well, this might be true in an ideal world, a world in which councils would actually consider the wholesale removal of motor traffic from their towns, reducing the need for the amount of physical alteration needed to the street environment. But unfortunately we don’t live an ideal world, and that means the fact that design solutions that might be very, very important in particular contexts are ‘a long way down the list’ is actually a serious problem.

Dutch town and city centres, while often largely devoid of private motor traffic, do not simply relegate physical infrastructure into last place. Even on wide roads that only carry a limited amount of motor traffic, we still find the same kind of cycling infrastructure that would be appropriate on much busier roads.


Nobelstraat, Utrecht. The road here is for buses and taxis only.

This kind of approach makes no sense according to the Hierarchy, because it is a combination of serious motor traffic reduction, and physical separation. The difference flows from the fact that the Dutch design for cycling. They design to make sure that cycling is comfortable, safe, attractive and convenient. They don’t design for it with reference to other modes of transport.

The other manifestation of the curious way we design for cycling around other modes of transport is the distinction we have between ‘on carriageway’ and ‘off carriageway’ provision. We can have ‘on carriageway’ cycle lanes that, protected by a kerb, amount to a cycle track. But we can also have ‘off carriageway’ provision that essentially amounts to the same thing.


New ‘off carriageway’ provision in Leicester

The distinction is hard to fathom, but it stems, again, from a failure to design for cycling as a mode of transport in its own right. ‘On carriageway’ means treating bicycle traffic like motor traffic; ‘off carriageway’ means treating it like walking traffic. In other words – how do we fit cycling in, around other modes of transport.

But we shouldn’t be thinking like this. We need a comprehensive approach to planning for bicycle use, that starts from the kind of thinking we would employ for designing walking networks, and ensures the quality of routes, whatever kind of treatment is appropriate at a local level.

We need to design for cycling in its own right.

Thanks to John Parkin for providing the inspiration for this piece

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9 Responses to Designing for cycling in its own right

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    Design in the UK has issues trying to put cycling in a box. On the one hand bicycles are vehicles which should be on the road. On the other hand bicycles are like pedestrians so should be off the road.

    The trick the Dutch have pulled off is that they don’t try and put it into either box, bicycles are their own box!

  2. Excellent way of putting the argument. Thanks. Desinging for bikes must be disconnected from whatever must be done for cars (including what must be done to restrict cars, for the benefit of us all).

    The Netherlands has achieved the highest cycling mode share in the world despite a distinct lack of anti-car policies.

    • Patrick O'Riordan says:

      I think in the UK, simply taking away road space from cars and allocating this to bikes would be seen as “anti car” irrespective of what any other policies were towards cars.

      • davidhembrow says:

        If that was all that happened here in the Netherlands, I don’t think the Dutch would be too happy either. In practice, though, that’s not what happens. Rather, you find that city centres are made more civilized for everyone, residential areas are made more civilized for everyone, and much effort is put into making sure that things like residents car parking spaces are preserved. The overall effect is less stress for everyone, not motorists feeling like they’ve been short-changed to benefit someone else.

  3. I’m really glad you’ve written this. I’ve long felt that the dual concepts of cycling being “on the footpath” and “on the road” are a real stumbling block in the UK.

    It certainly brings up some odd situations, such as that it’s a legal requirement to stop at (bicycle and general) traffic lights but a toucan crossing is only advisory, so you can legally cross on red, I believe.

    And by providing for cycling “on road” or “on footpath” means that a cycle route can repeatedly change from fiddly slow crap to dangerous fast crap.

    I wonder if it’s something to do with a reluctance to move kerb-stones? It certainly seems like there’s a mental block about doing that here.

  4. bikemapper says:

    I wonder if it’s something to do with a reluctance to move kerb-stones? It certainly seems like there’s a mental block about doing that here.

    As I understand it, a lot of the reluctance has to do with the cost.

    This road is in Cambridge. It doesn’t currently feature as part of the ‘cycle network’, but I very much think that it should do.

    If this road was in the Netherlands, what prospect is there that it would be put back in exactly the same way?

    To my mind, there is too much confusion in this country about Going Dutch and Gone Dutch.

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      Even when you do transition from road to pavement, it’s rarely flush with the road – is it really that difficult to make it level?

  5. You make a profound point. It’s similar to what I was on about in my post “Getting cyclists out of the way of cars: is it wrong?”. Both the Hierarchy of Provision, and the idea that it’s wrong to try to get cyclists “out of the way” of cars, are fundamentally motor-obsessed ideas, and manifestations of an old war, where cycling was viewed as being in opposition to motoring, and a sort of tool of the resistance (a very feeble one it turned out) to prevent the take-over of the roads, which “were not built for cars”, in a Quixotic phrase. But it’s a war that is unwinnable by bikes on these terms, and should be abandoned. Instead we should have intelligent design for cycling as an entirely separate concept, that simply seeks to make cycling itself attractive without fighting a war against cars. That’s really a definition of “Going Dutch”.

    As has been pointed out, in a practical situation in an old urban environment, making cycling work will often involve taking something away from car-drivers, but, as has also been pointed out, this need not necessarily make their lives worse, even if they never embrace the bike themselves.

  6. fonant says:

    Very good points raised. Cyclists in the UK are constantly pushed onto the footway because they get in the way on the carriageway, and off the footway onto the carriageway by the law. Cyclists do not belong on the footway, and they do not belong on the carriageway.

    The problem is a historical one: carriages were not allowed on the footway from the Highway Act 1835, way before bicycles or cars were invented. In 1888 bicycles started making an appearance, and as they had wheels and travelled at similar speeds to horses and horse-drawn carriages, they were classified as being carriages, and thus required to use the carriageway. Made sense at the time, but that is still the law 126 years later, even though modern “carriages” (motor vehicles) are now quite different to bicycles.

    UK roads and streets generally have:
    * Carriageway (cars, buses, lorries, horses, horse-drawn carriages, bicycles, mobility scooters on fast setting)
    * Footway (pedestrians, mobility scooters on slow speed setting)

    When in fact, to cater for cycling, we need what the Dutch and other European countries (and increasingly the USA too) have:

    * Carriageway (cars, buses, lorries, horses, horse-drawn carriages)
    * Cycleway (bicycles, mobility scooters on fast setting)
    * Footway (pedestrians, mobility scooters on slow speed setting)

    Cyclists need cycleways, and bicycles should not be classed as carriages any more.

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