The case for minimum standards

blogged for the Cycling Embassy last week about the value of new audit tools, from TfL, and in the Welsh Active Travel Design Guidance.

These tools allow professionals and cycle campaigners to objectively assess the quality of cycling provision, scoring routes out of 100, and 50, respectively. If a route scores less than 35 out of 50 under the Welsh Guidance, it should not be classified as a ‘route’, or be included as part of a cycle network.

I was reminded of the potential uses of these tools by some discussion on Sunday about the National Cycle Network, and how, while some bits of it are genuinely excellent, the Network as a whole is diminished by the inclusion of sections that simply aren’t up to scratch.

Take the National Cycle Network around Bath. Some of it is genuinely high quality, like the traffic-free Two Tunnels Route 244.

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 17.18.53

Wide, direct, smooth surface, no interactions with motor traffic. Perfect.

But some bits of it aren’t, like this section of NCN 4, which runs into the centre of Bath on a very busy road, with a significant proportion of the motor traffic composed of HGVs.

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 17.24.56

Not the sort of environment most people are going to feel comfortable cycling in.

A signed part of the National Cycle Network.

A signed part of the National Cycle Network.

This is actually Bath’s inner ring road, the A36. This stretch would almost certainly fail to meet the minimum standards set out in the Audit Tool. There’s just too much motor traffic, it’s too fast, and there are too many additional hazards, like car parking and junctions where there are turning conflicts.

Yet looking at the map, this section (circled) is included in the network, as part of NCN 4.

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 16.00.28

I would assume that this is for reasons of continuity – it makes no sense to have a route that has breaks in it. But there are downsides to this approach.

First of all, it means people can have little confidence in the quality of the network. If parts of it are this bad, how are they to know how much of it is equally bad? What are the criteria for including bits of roads as parts of a ‘Cycle Network’? Having low-quality, or even hostile, sections included downgrades the ‘brand’ of the National Cycle Network, as Joe Dunckley argued.

Secondly, it suggests that a ‘network’ actually exists, when, in reality, there isn’t much of a network, at all, if parts of it are difficult to negotiate, or actively hostile. It suggests that the job has been completed, that journeys can easily be made from A to B on the ‘National Cycle Network’ – politicians can even boast about it.

Sadly even Sustrans themselves fall into this trap, claiming that ‘The National Cycle Network passes within a mile of almost 60% of the population’ – by implication, we have a functioning network already, rather than a bits-and-pieces affair of highly variable quality, that quite often doesn’t really go anywhere near where people live and work.

By contrast, if only the parts of the network that actually met minimum standards were included, we would have a truer picture of state of the network, and of inclusive conditions for cycling more generally. Marking up ‘networks’ that simply don’t work for most people gets us nowhere, and in fact lets politicians and councils off the hook.

The council where I live drew up what can only be described as a farcical ‘network’ map, composed of sections that sometimes link up (but sometimes don’t), and even sections that are ‘proposed’ (we’re still waiting!).

Screen Shot 2014-10-19 at 17.56.48

This map has, however, quietly been withdrawn, once the council discovered that cycling in some areas of the town centre (as marked on the map) wasn’t technically allowed. Rather than changing TROs to make cycling legal… it was easier to make the map disappear.

I recently assessed the best part of this ‘network’ with the Welsh Active Travel Guidance tool – it scored 24.5 out of 50, well below the minimum threshold of 35. So in truth Horsham doesn’t have a cycle network, at all, when even the best parts of it are so far below a minimum standard. It’s for the best the map has vanished.

This kind of objective quality control would also mean that councils could no longer get away with boasting about how many miles of cycle lane they’ve put in, if the ‘network’ they produce doesn’t meet minimum standards. If a route composed of painted lanes doesn’t score over 35 out of 50, it’s not fit for purpose.

A 'cycle lane', included in Horsham's network map. This would fail objective standards for inclusion.

A ‘cycle lane’, included in Horsham’s network map. This would fail objective standards for inclusion.

For all these reasons, I think a ‘downgrading’ across the country to a much smaller cycle network, composed of the bits that are actually of a suitably high standard, would be beneficial. It would be an accurate reflection of where Britain’s cycling provision actually stands, and would act as a spur for genuine improvement.

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20 Responses to The case for minimum standards

  1. Mark Hewitt says:

    It’s insane that there is no such thing as a minimum standard anyway. How councils can get away with putting up blue “cycle route” signs on a busy road and claiming it’s done is beyond me.

    On the whole we have a good road network in the UK consistent across the whole country, that didn’t come about by accident, we have standards such as the design manual for roads and bridges which makes sure that you can’t label a dirt track as a motorway etc. Proper cycling provision can only come about in this way.

  2. geoffrone says:

    There may be a problem in this approach, which Carmarthenshire Cycle Forum highlighted in our response to the guidelines, insofar that it gives planners (and mappers) a “get out of gaol free card”. If a short stretch of route physically cannot be made to fit the guidelines, for example part of NCN Route 4 not 300 yards from where I sit now, could that negate the entire route? In this particular case the shared path travels alongside a waterway and passes under two bridges. Where it travels under the bridges the path narrows to less than four feet wide (the usable path is probably less than two feet). There are also pedestrian pavements with very low footfall alongside some main roads that could be used as shared use paths but which could be construed as failing the current guidelines and therefore not being included in any mapping. I appreciate the need to campaign for the gold standard but the Active Travel Act would fail if you could only be Active on 10% of the planned routes – and I think that there would be 22 very happy highways senior executives across Wales if that happened.

  3. geoffrone says:

    I should of course pointed out a solution to the dilemma I’ve created and it is the one that we are following here. The Carmarthenshire Cycling Forum works closely with the relevant highways team and has been able to input into the County plan. It isn’t ideal and we are learning much about the levels of pragmatism required due to fiscal constraints but if this approach could be written into law so that real “cycle proofing” has to be approved by real people who ride bikes then we may be able to get moving.

  4. Angus Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:

    This is my big worry with the Quietways.

    They are intended as being suitable for family rides, and for less confident or inexperienced riders. I’d like to use them in that way, but if there’s no minimum standard and I’m planning to ride with the kids, or lead a group of inexperienced adult riders, it’d be irresponsible not to recce first.

    And if I have to recce, then frankly what’s the point?

    I don’t have to do any kind of analysis on a bus network map to know that, sooner or later, there will be a bus to take me from A to B.

    Nor is that necessary on the Tube map, unless you’re a wheelchair user – who admittedly get a pretty awful deal there.

    So if I can’t look at a Quietways map and know for sure that a rider meeting a given minimum standard can ride it in comfort and safety, then frankly I might as well throw away the Quietways map and look at a generic road map or the Cyclestreets app.

    This poses a problem for campaigners as we have no real yardstick to measure the Quietways against, to determine whether they’re good enough. Looking at the plans for the Waterloo – Greenwich route, for example, it’s probably good enough for most 11 year olds to ride with an adult, but not good enough for most 6 year olds without removing more through traffic than they currently plan to. However, in the absence of any level of service, it’s impossible to know if it makes the grade or not.

  5. The problem with the Horsham ‘routes’ is that they are neither of good quality, nor do they indicate the best way for cyclists to get from one place to another. I can tolerate a ‘route’ being marked if it helps me find the least worst way through, even if sections of it need to be flagged up as being sub-standard.
    There is no point in the councils’ and central money being used to produce user maps that randomly highlight the existence of unlinked bits of road where there happen to be some bits of sub-standard infrastructure.
    Nor is there any point in using precious funds to print wildly inaccurate maps: the one you show had fundamental flaws, so does this very recent ‘fantasy map’,d.ZGU
    which has a number of glaring errors including a cycle route up a gated private road (the owners actually went to the High Court to establish their right to keep the public out).

  6. Paul M says:

    “Network” is certainly a much-abused word. When I was researching the history of the construction of the Hindhead Tunnel, which was opened in 2011 and enables the A3 to bypass the old traffic bottleneck around the Devil’s Punchbowl and the Hindhead Crossroads, I cam upon a map prepared by the Highways Agency which showed how the cycle paths provided as part of the construction would link to the “wider cycle network”.

    What the map then showed was the combination of existing metalled byway (or “quiet lane”) and a new residents’-access-only road (Punchbowl Lane) which was formed from what remained of the old trunk road, with various off-road shared-use paths heading south from the centre of the village, and in effect all the local bridleways.

    Only thing is that many of these bridleways are impassable to all but the most skilled of off-road riders using top quality suspension mountain bikes. Many of them are not even suitable for equestrians. All of them are muddy most of the year, and winding, and they don’t really go anywhere of interest beyond pure leisure exercise.

    When the tunnel scheme was sent for public enquiry, it came out again having lost most of the precious few concessions to cyclists that had been in the original proposal, notably to 4×4 users, and without a single one of the requests made by Sustrans and CTC locally being granted. the only reason there is any cycle provision there at all is because the A3 as public highway is open to all traffic. The tunnel is not – nothing with less than a 50cc engine is permitted to use it – so the HA had a statutory obligation to provide a route to bypass the tunnel and so permit anyone insane enough to cycle on the A3 dual carriage way to carry on through.

    That is what we call a “cycle network” in this country.

  7. Tim says:

    This is bang on and I’d been thinking much the same since reading your CEoGB post.

    I’ve often heard bad cycle infra – facility of the month type stuff – blamed on councils trying to meet arbitrary targets of x miles of cycle lane, with no regard for quality. Disjointed sections of painted cycle lane and so on.

    Now I don’t know if these kind of targets really exist, or what form they take if they do, but a threshold for quality could potentially make a target (or a claim) actually mean something.

  8. Jitensha Oni says:

    I would wholly support the idea that now we have the tools they should be used to audit plans, and those which fall below standard should be rejected* but it also sounds like you are also saying that LAs and others shouldn’t produce maps of routes, which I would disagree with. Instead, since people cycle anyway, what I do think should be done is that the maps give them an indication of the quality of cycling experience they will have, whether as a result of audits or not.

    *a small glitch as geoffrone posits should not prevent a high score.

    To expand. Mostly I agree with what Angus Hewlett says, but in London terms it may be reassuring for the Quietways that the exisiting LCN does offer a consistent (if hardly top) quality experience. You know what you’re going to get, and can plan accordingly fairly confidently. I don’t think this can be said for the NCN. Taking the Bath example of the OP, the problem is that there is actually no indication of quality on the map representation shown – you have to go to Cyclestreets for that and then even that doesn’t show differences in quality within the class of dedicated tracks on the map (though to be fair it usually does in the text explanation in a tl:dr way). Colour coding, maybe like a piste map, but along each route on a map as conditions varied would be very helpful: colours representing quarters of the audit scores, or a simplification of the scores? So, for example, the Bath route might be green until it reached the ring road, where it would presumably go black.

    The Bath example raises an extra issue, though, which may not be obvious from a simple audit. If you look for routes on that portion of NCN4 on Cyclestreets, the balanced and quietest options take you off it to avoid the ring road. So the problem there may be that NCN4 should use other roads along certain stretches. I can think of a similar situation in Weybridge.

    Of course you might argue for putting in some excellent infrastructure on the ring road to maximise cycling efficiency (I would anyway, but not give it an NCN label). But would you and your family actually want to cycle alongside the traffic as shown on the photos when other options are available, especially on a National route which would not be necessarily be intended solely as a commuter route?

    a) time for a rethink of NCN routing in some places perhaps?
    b) no need downgrade the network IMO, just show how bad it is, by something like a colour coded audit map. There are only so many styles of road and paths so a database of broad categories should easy to assemble and map, though the initial conditioning period could be quite strenuous.

    • Angus Hewlett (@angus_fx) says:

      I don’t know whereabouts in town you are, but here’s my commute – from beginning to end on a single LCN designated route:

      – a mile of 30mph “A” road with no cycle lane

      – a mile and a half of reasonably quiet 20mph back roads with a Zebra to cross a main road (due to be upgraded to a bike-Zebra at some point), with a useful nearly-Dutch bypass of a fast multi-lane roundabout (I say nearly-Dutch, it doesn’t go round all sides of the roundabout, but does allow you to bypass it entirely in both directions if you’re following the LCN route).

      – a half mile section of shared footway along a wide, busy, nominally 20mph “B” road, which almost nobody riding the full route uses (because if you can cope with the earlier “A” road, riding on the carriageway here isn’t too bad).

      – then the shared footway disappears entirely and you have to ride in the carriageway on the B-road anyway

      – a couple more 20mph back roads

      – a lovely half-mile section of traffic-free Greenway

      – some busy-ish back-roads with vague but futile nods towards filtered permeability

      – a few miles of quieter back roads and a park, punctuated by a brief poorly signed dog-leg on a 20mph “A” road (where you’re allowed to ride on the pavement and use a Toucan, but it’s not well signposted and at busy times there are too many pedestrians to be able to do so considerately), and an fiddly unassisted crossing of a fast B road, which could easily be Toucanised but the LCN funding stopped before they got the money to do so.

      – a shortish but busy on-carriageway bit with a tricky right turn, a 20mph limit nobody obeys, and lots of buses and construction lorries

      – a track along the inside of a wide pavement leading to a crossing that’s meant to be a Toucan but isn’t

      – a couple of back streets, a signalled crossing and then it joins one of the Blue Paint superhighways for the final mile of the route.

      So in this case it’s nothing but consistently inconsistent. Other LCN routes I’ve ridden are similar although perhaps not quite so extreme in variation; all but the first of the above segments fall under a single borough, although some is TLRN. On the plus side, the route is fairly direct by LCN standards, and has a fairly good safety record with the kind of user it attracts (at least after the first mile), but in terms of consistency I’d get about the same from sticking pins randomly in an A to Z and avoiding the obvious dual-carriageways and multi lane main roads. The only guarantee I get from this is, “we won’t put you on an unsegregated, busy 30mph A-road unless you’re in Croydon in which case, tough luck”. On that basis it’s hard to know that an LCN route would be OK to ride with under-15’s or adult novices without a recce.

    • Yes for some colour coding for route quality!

  9. Phil Jones says:

    I’m interested that you used the draft Wales tool, Mark. How did you find it? The final version will change in some areas but the basic format (HT Brian Deegan) is unchanged.

    The 70% score threshold was somewhat arbitrary but Wales Govt have gone for it, and will be looking for feedback from authorities and others who’ve used it.

    The key question is: what does a 50% route feel like to ride?

  10. AWavey says:

    totally agree there should be a minimum standard, I got caught out a few weeks back planning a ride along a national cycle route which even boasted some vehicle free sections, that Id assumed just met some kind of normal cyclability assessment to be even considered a valid route.

    The first section was reasonably fine, with some standard cycle lane facilities, but before long I found I was just cycling along a normal country back road with cars passing breezily closely at 60mph,with no cycling provision at all. Then we joined the first vehicle “free” section, which was just a set of concrete slabs laid badly with plenty of pinch puncture style gaps/drops, that led you directly on to a dual carriageway crossing.

    now when Id recce’d the route on google maps,because the cycle route was on vehicle free section at this point the google car had no record of it,and Id assumed as a national cycle route, it meant there would be probably be some safe cycling facility way to make the crossing, like an underpass maybe. Bad assumption, the route simply forced you to either turn back or cross straight across the dual carriageway, albeit with enough space to pause and catch your breath in between the carriageways…but it still meant you had to cycle or run with your bike from a standing start across two lanes of heavy traffic heading towards you probably doing about 60mph(its one of the main dual carriageway roads in the area and a section of road notorious for bad accidents) , in whatever gap you felt was big enough to make it. I dont even think theres a caution cyclists maybe trying to cross here sign to warn people on the road that cyclists might suddenly (literally) appear from the bushes on the side of the road in front of them. theres no way youd consider even using that crossing with children or inexperienced cyclists yet theres no warning at all thats what youll face on that route.

    so made it across the other side, and end up on a road which turns out to be a dead end though check the map, definitely in the right place,the route goes through here and is meant to be vehicle free again,so where is it, suddenly spot a sign directing us across some ploughed fields,its basically an off road dirt trail section that doubles as a bridleway, thats full of broken flint stones, fortunately I was riding my MTB/hybrid, had I been on a road bike Id have had to pick it up and walk it, but again there was no hint on the route that its anything like that, or may not be suitable for all bike types.

    I rode a different way home, which was far quicker too

  11. Dan B says:

    As the “new” quietways will broadly just follow the old LCN, does a quality audit exist of that? Or actually, after a quick internet search, does anyone know of an online map that shows where the LCN goes at all? I have a feeling that part of the proposed Bloomsbury-Walthamstow route will use a bridge that has steps…

    • Michael J says:

      Do you mean up by the Lea Valley? I think the bridges picked are ok, but can’t remember for certain. (Although the NCN 1 route in that area does include narrow bridges with steps, and that 5ft high underpass).
      One of the two proposed quietway routes does include that wonderfully quiet stretch of Mare Street past the Hackney Empire up to Narrow Way to add a bit of excitement

    • @angus_fx says: – you’ll find it all on there plus various other routes and paths.

  12. Sam says:

    Great post. I await the segregated paths built to quality standards patiently.

    If anyone is going through Bath on the NCN4 (riding West towards Brizzle), I can recommend staying on the Kenent & Avon canal path. It goes under the A36 – very magical – and joins up with NCN4 at the South of the city. There’s one flight of steps and two road crossings but it’s worth it to stay traffic free and enjoy the views across the city from the raised canal.

    The ride between Portishead and Devizes on the NCN4 and 26 (I think) taking in Bath and Bristol for pints and grub is a corker.

    Happy cycling.


  13. The question of what we do with the existing network as standards improve us a very real one. In some cases with the NCN funding amd local authority support was won on the basis of building very long routes. In some cases these routes are seen as tourism assets even though quality is variable. NCN1, part of the European “North Sea Cycle Route” is one extreme example, where the only realistic chance of finding the long term funding to fix the more remote bad bits is by retaining it as a long continuous route, which means keeping the bad bits……

    Local authority cycle maps contain many well meaning examples of roads being mapped as part of a network when they are substandard for cycling. What then happens is that property developers use a snapshot of the map in their transport planning documents to show that a site is accessible by bike, when for many people that isn’t true. End result is more trips by car and the viscous cycle continues.

    For two new urban NCN routes that I am involved with building we will shortly need to start signing triggered by construction of some good quality sections. In all probability we will sign beyond the end of the “good bits” because there are important destinations nearby and we need to get people using what we’ve built. (NCN numbers in brackets for sections not yet bought up to standard).

    Awareness among local authorities that we are building a grid, not “routes” is low. A grid is a complicated concept to explain but a route is not. This feeds through into efforts to promote investment and creates pressure for long lines on the map.

    One idea that has been put forward in Northumberland is changing how we sign the long tourist trails so that different coloured signage is used for sections with an unbound surface. This doesn’t however deal with on road sections which are not to standard. NCN10 on road towards kielder is a prime example, for a section it shares the main car route, it would be exceptionally difficult to justify investing hundreds of thousands£ to fix this because there are many more deserving projects closer to where people live. The tourist authority values the route and indeed wants to promote it more. Sustrans and the forestry commission are on site at the moment improving a section up at the scots border using a small sum of money donated for “the NCN” but it will be done to the same spec as the lakeside way, not tarmac. Building this to the same spec as an urban route when the next 13 miles is the lakeside would be barmy even if we did have the cash. As someone pointed out on twitter this dilema is less of an issue in the south-east but very relevant for the rest of the country.

    People should understand that “what do we do with the NCN” is a hotly debated topic in Sustrans to which there is no right or wrong answer that could be applied everywhere. My own view is that substandard urban sections should only stay in if there is a plan in place to fix them. To implement a policy like this will mean a lot of work auditing routes with local authorities and beginning to design fixes I.e. it will cost money and take a lot of negotiation with local government. Right now do I have the time and resources to do this, do most local authorities, nope.

  14. malaconotus says:

    Can anyone point me to either of these tools in excel format to save a lot of cutting and pasting and formatting?


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