I recently acquired a copy of Residential Roads and Footpaths: Layout Considerations. Exciting.
It’s a 1977 Department for Transport publication, perhaps more commonly referred to as ‘DB32’ (Design Bulletin 32). It has (in theory) been superseded by the Manual for Streets guidance, in the design of residential streets.
It is perhaps most notorious for a fairly ridiculous visibility splay recommendation – that the SSD (sight stopping distance) on a road with a speed limit of 30mph should be 90m. That is, a driver on a minor road arriving at a major road with a 30mph limit, waiting at the junction, should have a clear view for 90m, up the major road. This inevitably creates big, open junctions, and the temptations for drivers to travel faster, and with less care – because it feels safer for them to do so. John Dales has written recently about how this guidance is still being adhered to.
But I was really more interested in what a 1977 DfT document about roads and streets in residential areas had to say about cycling. And it’s really quite depressing.
Here it is –
Provision for cyclists
3.18 The need for the provision of a separate cycle network rather than the use of the urban road network is a matter for local authorities to decide in the light of their overall transportation planning and considerations of cyclists’ needs and safety. In some areas the use of cycles is well established whilst in other areas the terrain may be discouraging to their use.
3.19 Where there is likely to be a sufficient cycling demand in new housing schemes and where an existing cycle network terminates at, or is adjacent to, a new housing development, consideration should be given to the need to link the scheme to it, or to extend it.
3.20 In addition the provision of comparatively short lengths of segregated cycle routes may be sensible in the immediate vicinity of schools or shops to allow cyclists to disperse in a variety of directions in greater safety than would otherwise be possible, provided the use of cycles is sufficient to warrant such provision.
Paragraph 3.18 contains the now familiar ‘up to local authorities to do as they see fit’ mantra. If you are a council, and you don’t want to bother with designing for cycling, go right ahead!
And because the vast majority of local authorities didn’t want to do anything to cater for cycling, consequently nothing happened. The DfT guidance here shrugs and looks the other way; it just doesn’t care, because cycling is a mode of transport they didn’t care about. It could be forgotten – and was.
The next two paragraphs betray a form of thinking that unfortunately lingers to the present day – namely, that local authorities and planners only need to cater for the cycling that might currently exist, and need not cater for it at all, if there isn’t much of it. Paragraph 3.20 is particularly awful, with its comment that cycle provision ‘may’ (may!?) be sensible, ‘provided the use of cycles is sufficient to warrant such provision.’
If only a handful of people were cycling in an area in 1977 – well, tough luck, no cycle provision for you!
Similarly, paragraph 3.19 ponders whether there might be ‘sufficient local demand’ to merit catering for cycling, without apparently stopping to consider whether the designs being advocated in DB32 might do anything to increase or suppress cycling levels, in and of themselves. It’s almost wilful blindness.
It is this failure to recognise that the transport choices people make are not innate, but are instead a product of the environment that people are confronted with, and that has been designed for them, that persists today. We’ve had decades of planning that has assumed that people want to drive for short trips – indeed, that children want to be driven for short trips, rather than cycling independently – without ever stopping to consider whether those choices are really choices at all. Planning that hasn’t considered that many people might be driving these short trips not because they have freely chosen between driving and cycling (for instance), but because the quality of the alternatives has been eroded so much they have become too unpleasant to bear.
Cycling was rightly seen as unpopular by the authors of guidance like DB32, but the actual reasons for this unpopularity were misdiagnosed, or completely overlooked. In truth, cycling had become unpopular by 1977 because it was a pretty awful experience. It wasn’t that people had realised that driving was innately superior, and consequently logically discarded their bicycles; driving isn’t, for many types of trips. Cycling had just been squeezed out of the way roads and streets were designed, and by the amount of motor traffic that was arriving on them.
And it is this same form of thinking that has to be battled against today. Cycling is a mode of transport that, by and large, doesn’t exist in Britain. But that’s not because it’s innately unpopular. It’s because it hasn’t been catered for, for decades. By analogy, bus travel in London is, today, immensely popular, but it is easy to imagine a parallel world in which bus lanes didn’t exist, in which buses were smelly, and slow, and dangerous, and socially unsafe – a world in which very few Londoners used buses, at all. We created a system in which bus travel was made attractive and obvious, and people flocked to them.
Let’s not be like the authors of DB32 and imagine we can’t do the same for cycling.