Let’s get vehicular

The new edition of Cyclecraft was published last week. I haven’t had a chance to give it a good read yet, but at first glance it appears to contain much of the same dogma previous editions contained. For instance, the obviously untrue –

No alternative to the general road network has yet been devised which is as safe or advantageous overall for cycling

There is, however, this interesting – and quite correct – observation –

In countries renowned for cycle-friendly infrastructure, such as the Netherlands, vehicular design is the norm and can be used safely and easily by a broad range of people cycling. In the UK, unfortunately, most cycling infrastructure is pedestrian in design and this can have serious consequences for both safety and easy of use at typical cycling speeds.

The word ‘vehicular’ here might send shivers down the spine of some, given its long association with ‘vehicular cycling’ – an ideology that suggests ‘cyclists fare best when they act and are treated as drivers of vehicles.’

But Franklin is exactly right to point out that the success of cycling in the Netherlands (and a large part of its universal appeal) lies in vehicular design – treating bicycles as vehicles capable of speed, and designing accordingly.

It means that when they bolt a cycling bridge onto a railway bridge, it looks like something you could drive your car along.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 00.46.03Or that when they build a path through a forest, it has a good tarmac surface.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 00.46.52

Or, when a cycle track meets a road, it just looks like something you would ride your bike across, not a fudged compromise.

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 00.47.48In short, it means designing for something substantially faster than walking; no sharp bends, no sudden turns, better visibility where conflict might occur, and so on.

Cycle ‘infrastructure’ in Britain is so unattractive because it doesn’t achieve this. As Franklin argues, it is pedestrian in design, and people cycling are merely given permission to use it. Be it shared use pavements when things get a bit difficult –

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 00.49.51

Or toucan crossings that are obviously designed for pedestrian use, with sharp corners –


Or extraordinary turn-on-the-spot markings –

DSCN8283Or side road arrangements that treat you with contempt –

DSCN0095They all fail the attractiveness test because they require you to cycle like a pedestrian; so awkward and inconvenient you might as well walk.

The genius of the Dutch system of bicycle provision is that it caters for vehicular cycling, while simultaneously ensuring that it is suitable for all users. It’s fast and direct, yet also provides the subjective safety needed to make cycling feel safe and pleasant, for all, however old or young. Proper cycling infrastructure should allow you to go as fast or as slow as you want, comfortably, without fear or harassment, and this is what the Dutch aim for, and usually achieve. It means that you will see fast cyclists –

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 01.02.46and slow cyclists

Screen Shot 2014-07-01 at 01.03.24using exactly the same infrastructure, while cycling at very different speeds (these two pictures were taken within about a hundred metres of each other). And both parties are comfortable – although in different ways.

‘Vehicular design’ doesn’t mean designing out other forms of use, like dawdling, or slow leisure riding, any more than well-designed pavements that allow fast walking or running design out the ability to linger. It means accommodating all forms of use; treating cycling as a serious mode of transport.

‘Vehicular’ shouldn’t be a dirty word.

This entry was posted in Cyclecraft, Infrastructure, John Franklin, Subjective safety, The Netherlands. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Let’s get vehicular

  1. I fear the word “vehicular” because it will be used to chuck us back on the roads, this is the reason Franklin uses it – an excuse for refusing to support good infrastructure for all this time; bad infrastructure exists so we mustn’t ask for good.

    One detail: cyclists fare badly when treated like pedestrians here because pedestrians in the UK are treated appallingly. For example there’s a real mix of good and bad in Japan, but most major roads will have a wide shared pavement, priority maintained across side roads and single crossing phases. Cycling is slow, but safe and continuous. Children ride to school, mothers transport infants, elderley people do their shopping by bicycle.

    Perhaps, if we are to succeed, we need to insist on better standards for pedestrians too?

    • Yes, I should have mentioned that a good number of the problems come from pedestrians being designed for badly too; it’s just that these problems are amplified when cycling has to use this same design too, both through conflict with pedestrians, and also because of the additional difficulty of manoeuvering.

  2. cyclestrian says:

    Worse than treating you like a pedestrian, it treats you like a UK pedestrian – way off desire lines, no priority, long waits.

  3. Paul M says:

    If I recall correctly, Franklin has previously opposed proper cycling infrastructure, and has used his considerable influence as a (paid) consultant to local authorities etc to suppress any revolutionary notions of providing it. That suggests that he has at least taken the road to Damascus even if he has yet to arrive there.

    Forester on the other hand continues to spout such poisonous trash even now. Hopefully his wit and wisdom has little traction over here, and his revised-edition book (“Effective Cycling”?) only minimal circulation.

  4. Paul says:

    I recall an excellent guide for cycle provision – design as for cars but scale down by 50%.

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      I would agree with this! I’ve often thought the ideal width for a cycling ‘road’ would be approx the same as a single lane on a normal road.

      • Andy R says:

        Hmmm…3.65m for two-way movement might be a tad ‘skinny’.

        • MJ Ray says:

          Yes but still better than the 3m councils still think is good – which it isn’t, even if it is better than the current average.

          • Mark Hewitt says:

            Yeah consider the picture of the cycle path alongside the railway above. In the UK it would be half that width, of course still two way and full of pedestrians and dogs, and of course, broken glass. But even then it would still be good by our standards.

          • At a Planning Committee earlier this week I pointed out that the DfT recommended minimum width for a footway is 2.4m, so the 3m the Council were proposing for shared-use pedestrian/cyclist was inadequate. The response of the Highways officer was that any wider than 3m and there was risk of people parking cars on it! Given they’re already parking cars on the 2.4m shared-use footway by the A167 in Durham I look forward to the Council narrowing it to 1.5m to deal with the problem.

            • MJ Ray says:

              That is particularly illogical. Don’t they get to keep some % of the parking enforcement fines? I’ve heard of other councils using that to match-fund the various grants that are available from time to time… so I say come on, make it wide enough for cars to abuse and then a bit more. Then we can still get past, but it’ll fund more cycleways!

          • feynman says:

            Of course, if you keep an open mind in the end you will end up that you need roads for cycling so it is true that no alternative to the general road network has yet been devised which is as safe or advantageous overall for cycling.

    • Narayan Donaldson says:

      That’s exactly what we do here in Ontario, Canada. Engineers may be unfamiliar with cycleway design, but they do know how to design roadways and they can divide by two. A standard mixed-traffic lane is 3.5 m, therefore standard bike lane is 1.8 m. Similarly, a minimum-width mixed-traffic lane is 3.0 m and a minimum-width bicycle lane is 1.5 m. And on bicycle paths the trend continues with the traffic signs (exactly the same, but half-size) and line striping (dash length is scaled by exactly half). The curves are designed using exactly the same formulas, but using a design speed of 20 to 50 km/h (depending on context and slopes, etc), rather than 50 to 120 km/h.

      The main issue with this method is that there is no concept of subjective safety in road engineering, which has resulted in engineers building bicycle routes almost entirely of on-street bicycle lanes, even on fast and busy roads where they provide insufficient separation to be attractive to the general population. Fortunately education about subjective safety is spreading rapidly and designs are improving accordingly.

      • Narayan Donaldson says:

        Here’s a quote from the City of Brampton’s bicycle path design guidelines:
        “Most recreational cyclists can maintain a speed of 20 to 25
        km/h, while utilitarian and fitness-oriented cyclists usually
        travel at higher speeds. In order to ensure that the trail system
        is safe for all users, a minimum design speed of 40 km/h
        should be provided. On descents with steeper grades
        (exceeding 4%), the design speed should be increased to 60
        (40 km/h = 25 mph; 60 km/h = 37 mph)
        Other municipalities in Ontario generally have similar rhetoric, and based on the designs I’ve seen, it’s fairly common across the continent. Perhaps pointing out to British road designers and legislators in that reasonable design speeds are the norm not only in The Netherlands but also in other car-centric jurisdictions will help them change their ways.

  5. dr2chase says:

    WTF is it with all those railings you have over there? Those look like dangerous obstacles to cyclists, yet not enough to stop an off-course auto. As a pedestrian, I think I’d feel compelled to hop them “just because”.

    • Supposedly to keep pedestrians safe, more often just to contain them and keep them from crossing where it makes most sense to cross. And yes, cyclists have died when they’ve been squashed against them.

      They are, thankfully, going out of fashion. I find almost all road improvement schemes around here take the opportunity to remove them where they exist.

      • MJ Ray says:

        As I understand it, highways engineers want to remove them, but Norfolk’s safety audit team is still insisting on keeping them on corners because of some oft-disproved belief that they stop motor vehicles driving up the kerb when turning. Result? Months of picking my way around twisted metal after a motor has hit one. 😦

  6. Richard says:

    Good article. It reflects my thoughts entirely, which as I am one of the mini Holland cycling officers (Kingston) must be a good thing.

    There’s another message in here too about delivering wider benefits to all street users particularly pedestrians, something that’s high on the local agenda. What I found interesting in my own recent trip to the Netherlands and Denmark via Germany (cycling) was the potential conclusion that it is easier in financial terms, since the benefit returns are higher, to build cycling infrastructure than pedestrian infrastructure, on the the understanding that the cycling infrastructure is primarily for cyclists but pedestrians may use it too, rather than the other way round. A centre line is provided to indicate the primary user, but footway and cycle track (or lane) are separated in built up areas where there are more pedestrians. In this way, roads are cycle-proofed outside of towns and cyclists are properly catered for in town.

    More widely than that though is my question: just why do Dutch and Danish politicians support cycling and indeed increasingly so? What benefits to they see? The whole thing could so easily have gone in a UK direction of decline and could still perhaps. What about the US with cities now apparently vying with each other to be the cycling capital of the nation? It can’t surely have just been the vehicularist cyclists who influenced design policy and cycling politics before but have been shown to be wrong, as suggested in City Cycling (Pucher and Buehler 2012) can it? There must be something else at play here, perhaps it’s Jan Gehl? Maybe it’s better design guidance and public understanding? At any rate, I guess we’d like some of that magic. I even asked a native Dutchman (a student this evening in London) what he thought. His suggestion was that politicians in Denmark and the Netherlands are socialistic to the extent that even right wing politicians are less right wing than our Labour Party and therefore more likely to support social modes such as public transport and cycling. Is this true? We need to know, and what messaging must therefore apply to win political momentum?

    • pm says:

      “What about the US with cities now apparently vying with each other to be the cycling capital of the nation?”

      Is it at all possible that this owes a lot to the fact that the US has multiple major urban centres, which actively compete (as you allude to here) with each other to attract tax-paying businesses and individuals (particularly, perhaps,the young educated individuals who are quite likely to cycle?). Whereas in the UK, cities just don’t compete with each other in that way (perhaps mostly because London just instantly wins any such competition without even having to make an effort)

    • Paul Luton says:

      Your native Dutchman was too young.

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