Thinking outside the box

Urban Design London have recently released some new guidance (in draft form), entitled the ‘Slow Streets Sourcebook: designing for 20mph streets’. This manual – like other ones I have commented on recently – has revealing design recommendations for ‘cyclists’.

These are the kinds of recommendations that show the authors are only really thinking about ‘cyclists’ as the people who are cycling already, not anyone who might want to ride a bike – from a very young child, to someone in old age.

To take just some examples from this guidance –

Carriageway widths below 3m encourage cyclists to take up the ‘primary’ position in the middle of the carriageway, making it more difficult for vehicles to overtake cyclists. [my emphasis]

Whether being used as a mobile roadblock is something the person cycling would actually enjoy is, it seems, not considered. Likewise, I doubt the authors of this passage reflected on whether it is reasonable to expect, say, a young child to take up a position in the middle of the carriageway in response to it being 3 metres wide.

A young child cycling beside a bus, in Utrecht.

A young child cycling beside a bus, in her own space, in the city of Utrecht. Should we be expecting children like her to cycle in the middle of the road, in front of that bus?

And, in a longer passage –

There are a variety of ways to indicate that the priority lies with cyclists and/or pedestrians and that drivers should slow down. Segregating or separating suchusers from vehicles may dilute their influence on driver behaviour. Therefore when thinking about designing for sub-20mph behaviours, integration may be the optimum choice. However, when designing with cyclists in mind, their needs should be fully considered to ensure that they are not put at risk.

Integrating cycling into narrower carriageways can encourage all road users to engage better with each other. This can also help retain a constant, but slower, traffic flow. This treatment is shown with a bicycle sign painted on the carriageway. Care is needed when designing junctions to ensure cyclists are visible and not ‘squeezed’ by turning vehicles.

There are some photographic illustrations of these kinds of designs.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 16.08.19

Unfortunately the narrow carriageways which ‘integrate’ cycling in this example – note the helpful bicycle symbols ‘encouraging’ people to take up the primary position – also appear to be rather busy in this particular location.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 16.10.59 Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 16.13.01

TfL run five or six bus routes along this road, in addition to the seemingly copious private motor traffic. Is ‘integration’ here really something we should be aspiring to? Is this the kind of environment that will appeal to people who currently don’t feel willing or able to cycle in Britain?

I doubt it. In truth these kinds of designs are a way of integrating existing cyclists into the road network; they are not conceived with the needs of those people who aren’t cycling in mind. Consequently they will do little or nothing to address the problem of Britain’s cripplingly low levels of cycling.

Of course, it’s hard to think outside the box; to think in terms of the people we need to get cycling, rather than the tiny minority of people who are currently bold enough to venture onto our hostile roads. We still tend to think of ‘cyclists’ and ‘cycling’ in terms of the people already doing it.

Without wishing to single any particular comment out, there was a delicious recent example of this way of thinking below Diamond Geezer’s detailed blogpost about the proposed Superhighway 2 upgrade between Aldgate and Bow roundabout.

‘John’ wrote

A busy cycle route yet I did not see any cyclists in your photos.

Well…. duh! The reason there aren’t ‘any cyclists’ is because the road in question is, well, atrocious.


This upgrade is needed precisely because there aren’t any cyclists; because it’s a hostile, scary and actually lethal road, even for those few who are brave enough to cycle on it. Yet ‘John’ appears to believe that proposals to build cycling infrastructure along this road are unjustified, because very few people are cycling there at present.

This kind of thinking is understandable from members of the public, who simply don’t see cycling as a potentially universal mode of transport, because they are not surrounded by evidence that it is. They need to be persuaded otherwise, to be shown how cycling could work for everyone, if we invested in changes to our roads and streets.

But a failure to ‘think outside the box’ is far less acceptable from politicians, councillors, engineers and transport planners – the people we are relying on to bring about the changes in cycling levels that they all say they want to see. This broader failure is displayed in a hostility to cycling that only makes sense when you appreciate that the objector is thinking in terms of ‘cycling’ as it is now in British towns and cities; something for fast (usually male) adults, or for anti-social yobs.

The town where I live has an unspoken policy of keeping cycling out of the town centre as much as is humanly possible, apparently on the grounds of it introducing danger and uncertainty to ‘pedestrians’. Their attitude betrays that they plainly aren’t thinking about these kinds of Horsham residents when they consider cycling –

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 17.11.17Instead they are thinking only in terms of the cyclists they encounter when they are driving around the town’s roads – people striving to travel at the speeds of the motor traffic that surrounds them. The councillors are not thinking outside the box.

The Royal Parks in London appear to be exhibiting a similarly close-minded view of cycling; in their response to the East-West Superhighway consultation (see this more detailed post from Cyclists in the City), they argue that Serpentine Road (among other roads and routes in Hyde Park) is

not suitable for larger volumes of cyclists because of the scale of other use such as including event activity and vast pedestrian movements

Given that the Serpentine Road looks like this

A very wide road.

A very wide road.

this objection really shows that the Royal Parks are thinking of ‘cyclists’ in terms of a stereotypical lycra-clad horde, tearing through the park, rather than as the kinds of people you see cycling on very similar routes in Amsterdam’s equivalent park, the Vondelpark.

Would these kinds of 'cyclists' be so objectionable on Serpentine Road?

Would these kinds of ‘cyclists’ be so objectionable on Serpentine Road?

The Royal Parks are not thinking outside the box.

Finally, here’s an example from New Zealand of a new ‘cycling’ scheme, built around catering for existing demand, rather than for the people we need to reach.

… let’s put it this way. I always know if a cycleway has been designed right. The #NinjaPrincess is my expert in such matters. She is one of the customers whose needs should be considered most highly when such infrastructure is being designed and built.

… It is certain that every box in the performance specifications, set by the traffic engineers, has been ticked. But that is no guarantee that it will be a design that is conducive to the wider range of the 8-80 demographic. There is a difference between surviving and flourishing.

So while I don’t pretend to have the expertise of the traffic engineers who have installed this new infrastructure, nor do traffic engineers have the same valuable world view that the #NinjaPrincess possesses. It would be nice to think that her view has some value in the process of designing and building cycleways.

Well, exactly. I have my own ‘Ninja Princess’ – my own barometer of whether a scheme that purports to ‘encourage cycling’ will actually do so. My partner. She can’t drive, so cycling can and should fit her like a glove for the short trips she makes in urban areas. But she doesn’t cycle where we live. When we go on holiday to Dutch cities, she’ll leap on a bike; likewise, when we find traffic-free trails in places like Bath or Bristol, she’ll pedal for ten, even twenty miles, without even realising it.


But please don’t try to ‘integrate’ her into carriageways like this.

Screen Shot 2015-01-08 at 17.00.23

As with the previous example of Hornchurch, this is not somewhere she is going to be happy cycling. At all.

You will fail. She doesn’t want to be ‘integrated’ – she just wants to feel safe and comfortable.

If we’re serious about increasing cycling levels in Britain, shouldn’t we listen to people like her? Think outside the box of existing demand.

This entry was posted in History, London, Subjective safety, Sustainable Safety, The Netherlands, Transport policy. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Thinking outside the box

  1. Jim says:

    How fast does traffic move on that Hornchurch road? It looks like the kind of street where even quite slow cyclists are going to find themselves held up behind cars at least some of the time – another argument for a proper cycle lane.

  2. Danny Yee says:

    All the this “shared space” and “integration” only makes sense on no-through-traffic residential streets carrying very limited numbers of motor vehicles. It’s a complete non-starter on any kind of arterial route.

    It’s just bonkers to argue that exactly the same design principles should be applied to a dead-end backstreet with almost no traffic and a major arterial carrying 10,000 motor vehicles a day, just because they both have 20mph speed limits.

    • meltdblog says:

      Australia has successfully added on road cycling lanes along roads up to and including 100km/h (60mph) simply by adding more width to increase the separation available at the higher speeds, it also makes use of the “breakdown” lane of many highways. Sydney tried some sections of cycling/car shared space at 80km/h (50mph) and it worked surprisingly well even on the A1. They can’t be the only route added however, while great for sporting or direct commuting separated paths need to duplicate those routes for recreation and utility users. Having switched back and forth between those modes myself I appreciated the appropriate routes where available.

      In slow back streets there should be no need at all for cycling facilities on the road, added connectivity and shortcuts of the roads with shared paths for pedestrians and cyclists can provide routes for those people not wanting to be on/near the traffic.

      Having only a single layer of government to contend with and higher funding/education/wages than the rest of the country Canberra leads with excellent cycle facilities and the local shared paths described above, followed by (in order of falling quality) Sydney, Brisbane, and worst up with Melbourne. I’ve only experience of the east coast cities but you can get a good feel from google maps set to bicycle route mode and viewing the satellite imagery.

      • Go take a survey of a random sample of the average population and see whether 95% of the people would be willing to cycle on it. I am pretty much certain that shoulder cycling is never going to be going above even 5% of people willing to cycle there, if it even goes about 2%.

        A separated cycle path is essential on roads with higher speeds, and given the kinds of roads your talking about, it is almost certain that they have too much volume, to share with cyclists. Rural cycling with cars mixing is possible only on the lowest volume 60 km/h roads, less than about 2000 vehicles per day, and even then, they need to be fairly spread out, maybe two or three per minute if even that.

        Above any of these parameters and separate paths are needed.

  3. bikemapper says:

    In asking the authorities to think outside the box, you want for them to provide the sort of infrastructure that would enable, say, your partner to cycle into Horsham town centre, or even, a young child to cycle beside a bus, in her own space, as in the city of Utrecht.

    The focus of the TfL-funded International Cycling Infrastructure Best Practice Study is, as the title suggests, predominantly on cycling infrastructure. I am not so much interested in infrastructure as I am in networks. Even so, there were a few things that caught my eye:

    “There is clarity about the overall cycling network (including planned future development), with connectedness, continuity, directness and legibility all being key attributes.”

    “Cities with the largest cycling levels and the most cycling-friendly street-use cultures have achieved that status as a result of policy and associated action over the long term, with an incremental approach to improving provision. Continuity of commitment to cycling as a desirable and benign mode, one worthy of major investment, is essential.”

    “Some cities have shown that it is possible to grow cycling levels significantly over just a few years by employing pragmatic, relatively inexpensive, and sometimes intentionally ‘interim’ means of securing space for cycling. Upgrading this infrastructure to the standard found in mature cycling cities is not precluded (and sometimes consciously provided for) by the measures initially used.”

    The idea of providing for that group of cyclists identified as the Interested but Concerned now, without even putting the basics in place first, isn’t a case of thinking outside the box, it’s a case of not thinking at all. As the TfL-funded study explains: “What is needed is concerted action, on several fronts, according to a clear plan, over the long term.”

  4. Jitensha Oni says:

    Indeed but how to give people like her a major political voice? They’re the silent majority.

    Otherwise, there’s more than one box that needs to be thought out of here, IMO. For example:

    In a larger box are things such as the nationwide use of harsh grey granite setts often in shared space projects (particularly nauseous to my finely aesthetically tuned sensibilities, in areas with typical brick & cream vernacular architecture); the philosophy (dogma) of narrowing carriageways and enormously widening footways in high streets without putting in cycle paths (though at least the kerbs have been moved in the right direction); and the Canal and River Trust and Royal Parks apparent anti-path-y (sorry) to good off-road surfaces and separate cycle paths, respectively.

    In smaller boxes within this are area-specific “Cycle Strategies” and their implementations. Because there is no CROW equivalent or Cycling England style oversight, this leads to lack of consistency. And within these boxes are ward and sub-ward variaitons, such as the lack of cycle lanes in the Hampton Wick area and their sudden appearance north of Teddington Lock; 20 mph residential roads west of Maple road in Surbiton, 30 mph to the east – even though Maple Road itself, a significant distributor, is 20 mph.

    And so on. If you look at overseas mass cycling cultures, part of the experience is a nationally consistent pattern; by Dutch standards it may often leave something to be desired, but I do believe the consistency has something to do with the uptake, as well as taking care of subjective safety, road danger and bikemapper’s networks.

    In summary:

    • bikemapper says:

      Jitensha, you ask how to give people like Mark’s “Ninja Princess” a major political voice. I think if we could get the support of a national newspaper, that would be a big help. Perhaps if one of the journalists at this newspaper could be encouraged to launch an e-petition, so that the politicians would be forced to have a debate, that would be better still.

      But oh no, we did all that. And looking back, nothing really changed. We’re still doing snippets, and when these bits and pieces don’t amount to much, we throw up our hands and pretend to be surprised.

      The striking thing about the image from Copenhagenize is what’s happened to the bicycle. I realised about fifteen years ago that routes need to be meaningful and direct before they are anything else (if routes are not meaningful and direct now, then most likely they will never be meaningful and direct; but if routes are not safe and comfortable now, there is always the possibility that this can be changed.)

      If we would accept the prudence of planning, studying and then “introducing” a network (to the point where it functions), then connectedness, continuity, directness and legibility would all be key attributes of our cycling environment, as it is on the continent. But no, from somewhere we have the idea that “networks sometimes come about in bits and pieces, rather than in one fell swoop.” Can anybody please point to a town or city that has successfully pursued this strategy?

  5. Notak says:

    Perhaps the best thing in that Slow Streets Sourcebook is the photo on p10, acknowledging, at last, the danger of the door zone. Shame they only allow 500mm for it.

    • meltdblog says:

      Or you can have the more usual zero clearance as here:
      The Australian guidelines are for 400-1000mm of clearance to the 1200-1500mm wide lane, but whats actually delivered is rarely whats promised.

      • Notak says:

        It sometimes scares me how unaware even very experienced riders seem to be of the door zone. I suppose I should look on the bright side and think that as they have been riding like that for half a century, it can’t be so bad! But still, I don’t like it.

        Of the examples I know personally, I think I find this the scariest:,-2.121937,3a,75y,90h,90t/data=!3m4!1e1!3m2!1s3imyaNz91SbevChovEUF0Q!2e0
        Yes, there is a clearance between parked cars and edge of bike lane, but minimal, and the lane itself is so narrow it gives nowhere to go. Worse, because there’s a kerb immediately to your left, you are trapped. Well, unless you can bunny hop, I suppose. Personally, I can’t, and I think a lot of people can’t. Of course, it runs out completely just when the road splits, which isn’t much help if you want to turn right. (In fact, that lane is so pathetic, I’ve never seen anyone use it.)

        • meltdblog says:

          Bizzare how that has the parking against it, then the parking switches to the opposite kerb when it isnt even contraflow. Also bonus points of disaster for terminating the path into an intersection without any further cycling infrastructure to continue the journey.

  6. Notak says:

    By the way, how do you post an image on here? Rather than a link.

  7. Jenny Barnes says:

    As someone who cycles, there’s a road I use in Godalming – at school times the pavements are too busy to cycle on , and the carriageway is one car wide, mostly, because the other half is used by parking. So I ride in the centre, of the lane, as there is not room to overtake safely. The aggression I get is really quite unpleasant, so the idea of even current cyclists acting as moving road blocks is not one I’m in favour of.

    • michael says:

      Always strikes me as odd that the slowish-moving cyclist is seen as obstructing the traffic, while the completely stationary parked cars are not.

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