DB32 and ‘sufficient cycling demand’

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 It has (in theory) been superseded by the Manual for Streets guidance, in the design of residential streets.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.

People are free to cycle here. Unsurprisingly most choose not to.

People are free to cycle here. Unsurprisingly most choose not to.

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.

Screen Shot 2014-07-10 at 22.55.14

What cycling can look like, if you design for it.

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9 Responses to DB32 and ‘sufficient cycling demand’

  1. I went to Cambridge on Monday for Le Tour and of course, you could hear the difference, it was quieter without all the cars, just like Utrecht!
    The main thing that struck me was that the cyclists there to visit, either just coming in by bike or all kitted out in their best Lycra, all seemed to be in the way – totally un-provided for by and large, both in general and during the close down – they closed the catholic church junction, leaving the road wide open for vehicles coming and going from Parkers Piece but squeezed everyone, including the cyclists, onto barrier corralled pavements. Other than the extra bike parking apparently they laid on, they didn’t cater for visitors with bikes at all. No self respecting person with a grands worth of road bike is going to lock it up behind some tent! I’m curious next year in Utrecht how it gets done, will they ban all visitors with bikes or assume half the visitors will be using them either to get around or to pose with in Lycra? Will the road closing and security factor both pedestrians and cyclists?
    Bikes just seemed out of place in the UK and in the way, and coming from a total bike lover, used to lots of bikes in Holland, this is why it seemed so wrong. How, even in Cambridge, the so called cycling capital of the UK, bikes seem to impose themselves on the infrastructure as oppose to being part of the transport structure – thanks to the local authority. Oh and I’m told all those extra police and barriers to keep all the visitors be they on foot or by bike, off the roads was paid for from the cycling budget!!!
    Having to travel further, on roads not designed for cycles (or walk on roads where you are being blown and it’s so loud you can’t hold a conversation), does mean that any normal person will choose to drive.
    I’m looking forward to being in Utrecht very soon, where there’s a supermarket round the corner wherever you live and a 10 minute bike ride, either away from traffic or on access only roads to a place, where it is a place and I can lock up my bike and go and enjoy the place!

  2. Hi MArk, reading your post prompted me to jump into the comments box to see if you or other commenters knew; when the Kindermoord movement in Netherlands got in full swing, or whatever stimuli arose in NL or DK to commence the creation of the current philosophy and physical arrangements….was it achieved by their central government mandati9ng it to regions or municipal authorities, or was there a general movement towards cycle friendly urban areas at the local level by those same regional authorities? wonder if anyone knows.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Try this…


      A significant difference to the UK was that there doesn’t appear to have been a bunch of different cycling lobby groups with different agendas all of whom “speak for cyclists”, or at least the movement united them. It had one clear message (which is what politlicians at all levels like). Donnachadh McCarthy’s Stop Killing Cyclists is the nearest thing we have had for decades, and is a great idea if you include the obese, those affected by pollution and the like as cyclists who are being killed without having pedalled for a long time, but it’s late on the scene, and I fear it’s being drowned by an ideological/theoretical racket.

      • jimmy-j says:

        Hmm, do you actually have any evidence to back up this ‘campaigner agenda’ argument? From what I can gather, a key difference between the UK and the Netherlands is that cycling levels in the NL never fell below 20%, even at their lowest, so there was always a strong cultural acceptance of cycling in the population and the media. Compare that with the ridiculously low levels of cycling the UK, eh. Below 1% nationwide. How do you make 1% mainstream? It’s not happened yet…

  3. Jitensha Oni says:

    “If only a handful of people were cycling in an area in 1977 – well, tough luck, no cycle provision for you!” – and if you thought you could use the footpaths, we’ll make that illegal.

    This is a fascinating post and, I feel, a key insight. I can see the application of those 3 paragraphs nearly everywhere around me, particularly 3.20 with regard to schools. On a regular morning commute I make, there’s a set of kids who are driven to the start of the infra, take their bikes out of the backs of the cars, and then cycle on the infrastructure to school. Presumably the reverse happens in the afternoon. Now that is depressing.

    However, 3.19 is a potential problem for any kind of active travel. If a housing estate stands in the way of you and your destination, there is a fair chance that that there will be at least a footpath at the end to link through. Here’s a nice pair of links on a relatively modern estate which encourages active travel


    But “a fair chance” is far from certainty – too often, any active traveller has to take the same less direct line as motor vehicles, usually with lots of traffic signals to wait at. This is not simply a case of there being insufficient demand, it is, as far as I can see (and as you allude), either a complete absence of consideration, or even deliberate blocking, of active travel. So, combining all three DB32 paragraphs you quote, here we have a network of paths in the west of the image (in nice parkland) that ONLY runs to the school in the southeast corner – there is no public way from the paths to Christ Church Mount that doesn’t follow the carriageways (i.e. in essence it involves travelling 4 sides of a square from one apex).


    Extreme perhaps, but you can probably think of similar. The point here in terms of your post is that, if you don’t cater for any active travel demand from the outset, construction of non-carriageway projects may make it extremely difficult to subsequently find the space for a network that could compete with car travel in most people’s minds. For the above case, you’d have to buy some land from the property owners on Christ Church Mount to get a public way through and the plots are quite narrow. Because of the application of DB32, the chance to provide the best space for cycling may have gone for decades in some area.

  4. Salts says:

    Great post, and I absolutely love that last picture! How could anyone oppose striving for a future that looks like that?

  5. patrick field says:

    “In truth, cycling had become unpopular by 1977 because it was a pretty awful experience.”

    If this assertion is based on historical evidence I’d be interested to know what it is.

    • Fairly simple – increasing density of motor traffic on the road.

    • As someone who had to cycle to school with my Dad on a Tandem from 1979 through rush hour Reading, by that point, my Dad was already saying “if you want to kill someone and get away with it, do it in car” and I saw and breathed it all in first hand. It seemed like madness if you weren’t sitting in a car. People thought we were crazy and cyclists were invariably very hardy, intellectuals or just plain too poor to afford even to travel by bus.
      I visited the Netherlands for the first time in my teens in the early 80’s, I got to ride a bike with other people my age who didn’t think I had a death wish.
      My Mum’s been in the Netherlands since 1983 and she’s never adopted the Dutch way and by the time she was my age had crippling thrombosis. I have the same thing but it’s never developed because I’ve insisted on cycling – I see the thought of thrombosis worse than being hit by a car. I’ve been nearly dead many times, some would say I should probably get tested for ADHD. My mum took her English attitude to traffic with her to Holland and called all the mums on bikes with a kid at each end “suicide mums” it was obvious that to her, with her experience of cycling in England, she couldn’t see the advantages of not driving.
      She has an amazing road bike still in her shed, a Macleans track bike, I wonder what happened in the 70’s to her that she’s rarely got back on a bike since then.
      Especially for women, you generally don’t need many near misses to put you off entirely.
      We have lost nearly 2 generations of cyclists to cars and it would take the sort of reforms they’ve started to use for smoking or child protection, with little or no notice to public opinion or profit to turn it round.
      It would have to be unpopular in the eyes of many, before proper segregation and strict limitations on through traffic could return cycling levels to where it was in the 1950s. Public opinion and profit would, of course follow.
      Giving all the responsibility to the local authorities who are notoriously worried about public opinion and car centric….because rich older people always drive, can’t have helped. That and the way they are funded.
      When I move back to Holland next week, give me a few months and I’m going to see what can be done with that Macleans, it might take a while, it might end up becoming my eldest son’s first road bike. In the Netherlands, not in Cambridgeshire, I’ll get to do the sort of bike riding with my kids I’ve always dreamed of.

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