Do you have a problem with ‘fast’ cyclists, or with bad design?

Fast cyclists, eh.

Whizzing around; speeding through; belting around corners; appearing out of nowhere; tearing along.

At twenty miles an hour, even. Sometimes.

Twenty miles an hour.

Hang on. Twenty miles an hour? Twenty miles an hour? Isn’t that the kind of speed society conventionally considers to be quite slow, at least when it comes to motor vehicles? Witness the frothing that presents itself any time a borough, town or city wants to lower a speed limit from 30mph to 20mph.

30mph is seen (rightly or wrongly) as a reasonable, normal urban speed; yet this is the kind of speed that ‘cyclists’ – even the fittest and most powerful – will struggle to attain under normal circumstances. Equally, 20mph for motor vehicles is seen as an acceptably slow speed, yet 20mph on the flat requires serious effort from someone cycling.

So is there really such a thing as a ‘fast cyclist’? How can it be the case that cyclists are considered ‘fast’, when they will almost always be travelling through areas dominated by motor vehicles travelling within the speed limit, yet at greater speed? (Sometimes much greater). What’s going on? Does it even make sense to refer to cyclists as ‘fast’ in this context? If cycling on the road at well under 20mph isn’t ‘too fast’, why should it be ‘too fast’ on cycle-specific infrastructure?

One of the most recent examples of the employment of ‘fast cyclists’ was in this press release from Sustrans about a new bridge in Bristol.

The project will coincide with the first installation of new lighting technology which is used in Copenhagen to encourage faster cyclists to slow their pace. The “green wave” lights will coordinate with the signals at the crossroads on Coronation Road so that cyclists flow more smoothly through the junction.

It turns out that the purpose of the lights is really just to pace people to the traffic signals (at what speed, it is not stated) rather than, specifically, to slow down ‘faster cyclists’ – so this is a poorly-phrased paragraph (and misleading about the purpose of this lighting in Copenhagen). But it fits with a general atmosphere in Britain of blaming people for cycling ‘too fast’ for a situation, attempting to slow them down, without any apparent assessment of why it makes objective sense, in urban areas, to slow down anyone cycling to a speed far below 20mph, when 20mph is the minimum speed limit for motor traffic.

What is really the issue is not speed; it’s poor design. It’s paths that are too narrow to safely accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, in the numbers that are using them. Witness the attempts to get people to ‘behave’ on the Bristol-Bath railway path – ‘anti-social’ issues that simply would not arise if the path was wide enough, and had a separate footway.

It’s poor sightlines, and pinch points, and sharp corners, that bring people into conflict, and necessitate the use of awful barriers and chicanes in an attempt to get people to moderate their speed.

Rather than building this path properly, with good sightlines, and smooth corners, it was done badly, with barriers begin added afterwards to slow people down to a 'safe' speed.

A sadly all-too-typical example.

And another one. Design a cycle path right next to a brick wall, creating a blind corner? Of course. Then add barriers to solve the problem.

And another one. Design a cycle path right next to a brick wall, creating a blind corner? Of course. Then add barriers to solve the problem.

Rather than designing paths to accommodate a range of cycling speeds, paths in Britain are, sadly, often designed for walking speed, and then impediments and obstacles are put in people’s way once it turns out that the natural cycling speed of most people is much higher, and consequently problematic.

It’s awful, and it’s still happening. As I type this, a brand-new walking and cycling bridge is being installed over the A24, the bypass around Horsham. It will have TWO sets of slalom zig-zag gates on the ramp.

I am not going to enjoy cycling on this ramp.

I am not going to enjoy cycling on this ramp.

Why is this? Simply because the bridge has not been designed properly; designed to accommodate people’s natural cycling speed. It will have a ridiculously tight, Alpe d-Huez series of mini hairpin bends at the bottom of the ramp.

Horsham has gained some hairpin bends. But not the exciting kind.

This ramp has come ready-made with obstacles attached to it, to slow people down, all because it has not been designed to accommodate normal cycling speeds in the first place. It’s as simple as that.

The vast majority of the people cycling in the Netherlands will not be getting near speeds of 20mph for everyday cycling. However, a minority will be (and may exceed that speed), and the infrastructure is designed in such a way as to accommodate those higher speeds, and to mitigate potential problems. I’ve set out in a previous post how this works; designing for the bicycle as a vehicle capable of speed.

More broadly, this is the kind of design that is good for cycling regardless of the speed at which people are travelling. The corners will be smooth, with sufficiently large radii, to make turns a pleasure, rather than an inconvenience. And conflict will be avoided, even at higher speeds.

Fast cycling down this ramp won't be a problem, because there's a footway, and the path is wide and open enough to make fast cycling safe

Fast cycling down this ramp won’t be a problem, because there’s a footway, and the path is wide and open enough to make fast cycling safe.

It makes cycling a pleasurable experience; there aren’t obstacles in your way, corners are not sharp, and momentum is not lost. Journeys are smooth and easy, be they on the flat, uphill, or downhill.

By contrast, cycling in Britain  appears to continue being accommodated within pedestrian-specific infrastructure, and is then hobbled to reduce the speed of people cycling to walking speeds.

The problem, therefore, is not with ‘fast cyclists’, but with completely inadequate design.

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36 Responses to Do you have a problem with ‘fast’ cyclists, or with bad design?

  1. Jason says:

    Great post, thanks for this. It sometimes feels like ‘faster’ cyclists get flack from all directions – including some cycle bloggers, when really we travel at that speed to make our longer distance commutes practical.

    • Michael J says:

      But some use speed as an erroneous argument against building cycle infrastructure, claiming they’d be held up. If proper Dutch-style infrastructure was built then average speeds for all would be higher, and they’d also have no problem overtaking slower riders.

  2. The poorly designed cycle path picture reminds me of the “excellent” cycle path through Tooting Common in South London. It’s a shared use path with a dividing line down the centre between the pedestrian and cycle sections. It serves 2-way traffic and provides a handy traffic free cut through from Bedford Hill and joins up with Cycle Network Route 5. The problem comes from the fact that the cycle path itself is I’d guess about 4-5ft wide, hardly ideal when you consider it’s for 2-way use! You are required to swap sides of the path at one point for no apparent reason and at night it varies from poorly to pretty much unlit which hardly makes it feel safe. Oh yeah at the area down by the playground isn’t really paved and is often flooded with a narrow muddy section through the middle which is the only way to get past the puddle for both cyclists and pedestrians! I’ve started using it as it’s slightly more pleasant then the CS7 route that I’d use otherwise.

    As for the whole “fast cyclist” debate it is rather amusing when you frame it as above, I do believe that wonderful Cyclecraft book mentions that riders “should be able to reach a sprint speed of 20mph” at one point however I’m happy to stand corrected. As you say 20mph takes a fair bit of effort on pretty much anything by a road bike, I’m currently riding a fixed gear bike, but with a fairly large gearing and even then 20mph comes up around 85-90rpm which is just about maintainable. Of course despite me doing that and being in 20mph areas I still get drivers rushing to get passed the “slow” cyclist.

  3. I made an observation that ties into this while watching cyclists at a busy intersection in Utrecht this week. Cyclists here go at a wide variety of speeds and yet somehow at junctions they all find a way to avoid each other. There appears to be a natural way, much like a flock of birds that there are rarely collisions. Where there is space to manoeuvre, it works, even of you mix a few wayward pedestrians into the mix.
    In the UK, by limiting the amount of space and making it hard to manoeuvre it causes much more conflict.
    Conversely on roads with motor traffic, where cars really don’t want their paint scratched, if you limit the space they occupy, they automatically slow down. Even boy racers and late mothers, their insurance premium is important to them.
    They need to apply the rules they made in the UK to traffic flow and swap them round. This would also allow other means than the car to compete time wise. Of course if the only vehicle able to do 60mph to the cost of everything else will get there first. Just not without taking a few human lives along the way.

  4. Paul M says:

    Funnily enough, I am now beginning to experience some issues with “fast” cyclists – or, at any rate, cyclists who are faster than me. It is not that they have got faster, rather that I have got slower as I get older and also less inclined to get into a muck-sweat just to save a couple of minutes on my journey.

    What happens is that someone will overtake me, sometimes very close – almost close enough for them to brush me as they pass. Occasionally close enough to disturb my balance so that if other factors also came into play, I might lose my balance and fall.

    If they are passing me on the outside, the potential consequences are minor – very irritating, but I am unlikely to suffer more than a bruise or an embarrassing prat-fall. Sometimes however I am passed on the inside – this often happens as I pass through the junction outside Blackfriars Station heading towards the Bridge. Again, in a confluence of factors, I could end up falling, but this time it could be into the path of a bus. Remember the prosecution of a BMW owner who “doored” a cyclist, pushing him under a bus so he suffered fatal injuries?

    I’m not happy about this kind of behaviour, and I rate it as low as close-passing by motorists, but I am a realist – human behaviour is not so easily changed, and reckless endangerment will still happen even if there is more “education” of motorists/cyclists, or tougher penalties. But what would substantially resolve it is simply to separate me from the secondary factor in the confluence – the passing bus. At that Blackfriars junction, for example, the proposed North-South superhighway would at least ensure that I did no worse than tumble onto the cycle track, the footway, or the median separating it from the road.

    • ORiordan says:

      I think there has been at least one fatality in London in recent years when a cyclist-cyclist collision led to one of the cyclists being run over by a vehicle and killed. I try to do shoulder checks regularly but am quite often surprised by faster cyclists whizzing past and there is always the risk someone might make a mistake and change lane position without a shoulder check. On the Embankment at the moment you get slower cyclists, quicker cyclists and cars so as you say, a tumble could be fatal.

      • Jason says:

        I dont think people understand how much room they need to give fellow cyclists when overtaking…or the need to shoulder check before moving out.

        Having said that if you use the CS3 – most of which is a narrow 2 way cycle lane, then you can’t give more than a foot or two of space when overtaking anyway if you want to stay on the path – it’s actually designed that way. Not gonna rant about Cable Street. Oh no. It’s lovely…

      • paulc says:

        it’s unbelievable the number of times I’ve been forced to ride over a grating or pothole because of an idiot overtaking me too closely… it’s ridiculous when fellow cyclists fail to give you sufficient wobble room…

        • Jitensha Oni says:

          It is annoying/potentially dangerous, but doesn’t that bolster Mark Treasure’s point about design, adding maintenence to the mix. Without the gratings and potholes, there would be less of an issue.

          • jeldering says:

            Indeed the bad road conditions, including various extra hazards such as fast moving traffic, cars parked in cycle lanes, motorists from side streets waiting with their car protruding half a meter onto the road, all make this extra space while overtaking necessary.
            In The Netherlands, however, on a cycle path, I find that 30cm of space is plenty as the speed difference is less, and there is no need deviate for obstacles, so people need less space around them.

            • This is a tricky one. I also notice that my perception changes with age, and it’s quite possible that as a 15 year old I often passed pedestrians or slower cyclists much closer and faster than I now feel comfortable with. One experience that made me think was when I was working in a care home and saw how elderly people were terrified by some cyclists in the park that I didn’t even particularly notice, due to slower reaction time, different time perception, and also often the experience that falling or being hit is not just the minor embarrassment that it is for strong and healthy people, but can lead to serious injury and immobilisation. So, now, whenever I’m around people I give a lot of space, observe them carefully (children? walking aids?) and if I have to pass within a metre or so, I would always slow down to just above walking speed, and have the fingers on the brake lever.

              However, coming back to the infrastructure issue, all these barriers usually don’t do much to mitigate these risks, they even increase it. They create pinch points where it is even more difficult to give enough space, but don’t stop inconsiderate fast cyclists: Many tend to speed up again immediately after passing the barriers, so the effect is limited.

              In the end, I think these barriers are meant to force people to be considerate, but you can’t enforce an *attitude* by infrastructure. You can discourage conflict (or encourage it in case of bad infra), so that inconsiderate behaviour has less effects, but you can’t easily change attitudes as such.

              Good conditions is also in my experience an important factor. In Edinburgh we have some offroad paths that are in principle wide enough to avoid conflict between different users, but are not maintained well so that the surface is cratered at the edge and grass starting to grow, reducing the usable width considerably.

  5. Jim says:

    A lot of measures to slow cyclists are indeed absurd – but there is a difference between a fast bicycle and a fast car in that the latter makes a lot more noise (and is larger and therefore easier to spot). So in certain cases – very busy pedestrian areas – what is an acceptable speed for a bicycle might arguably be lower than an acceptable speed for a car.

    • Dan B says:

      Hang on – you’re saying it’s MORE acceptable to drive a car through “very busy pedestrian areas” at 10mph than it is to cycle trough it at 10mph?! I genuinely can’t work out how you come to that conclusion, unless it’s from a “might is right” perspective.

    • pm says:

      If its a very busy pedestrian area the acceptable speed for a car is 0.

  6. cyclestrian says:

    Those chicane barriers are hazardous in themselves. I wonder if the engineers weighed the cost of accidents they cause against the danger they’re intended to prevent. Pass through these regularly enough on a bike, even at pedestrian speed and you’ll eventually hit them somehow. Exactly that happened to me, and it broke bones.

    They’re also inconvenient even not on a bike, e.g. when pushing one child in a buggy and holding the hand of another.

    Agree we should be doing this stuff properly.

  7. fIEtser says:

    This is especially interesting considering that the Dutch are considering implementing a speed limit on their cyclepaths, something which the Fietsersbond isn’t too happy with at all. Worst of all, it would be a rather low one too at only 25 KPH. considering mandatory helmets, insurance, and licensing too. If it can happen there, we’re in really bad shape.

  8. fIEtser says:

    Reblogged this on iNLand fIEts and commented:
    This is probably the biggest issue that differentiates a glorified sidewalk from a well-designed bikeway: the realization that bicycles are capable of good travel speeds. It is beyond time for bikeway networks to be designed for that.

  9. Joel_C says:

    Another great post. I wonder though why you haven’t elaborated further on the reason for the “Alpe d-Huez” ramp; namely, the presence of a large supermarket nearby and the accompanying car park, which appears to severely restrict the space in which the bridge is sited.

    In any sane society, the requirements for access to the bridge would outweigh the needs for convenient retail parking spaces. Room for a properly designed ramp would simply have to be found, either by the supermarket accomodating the bridge into the carpark, planning permission being denied (had the need for a bridge preceded the planning submission for the shop) or a compulsory purchase order for the required land.

    The latter option might seem extreme, but there are of course many precedents for this when transport infrastructure is deemed “essential” (i.e. roads and motorways, crossrail, HS2 etc.) – another illustration of the cinderella nature of cycle planning and investment.

    • The whole site is being redeveloped. As far as I know, there are no publicly available plans so it is impossible to know why the hairpin was put in -there is nothing obviously in the way. It may be to keep the far end of the site clear and maximise its development value. It may be to shorten the walking distance from the end of the ramp to Tesco. Who knows? Instead of just asking (repeatedly) to see the plans, perhaps the only way is to put in more FoI requests. They are time-consuming and likely to be seen as confrontational and, frankly, I just didn’t think to ask ‘Will there be zig-zag barriers and a hairpin on this bridge?’ We had been told verbally that it was just going to be a slightly wider version of the existing bridge (literally a few metres away) which has neither.

  10. meltdblog says:

    As a terminus treatment these staggered fences have an important role to play where the path end into a street or footpath, as few cyclists would obey a giveway sign so it forces people down to the safe speed to join the cross traffic. The lack of sight lines where buildings/fences/walls run along the path making them all the more important. But they are only a solution where total traffic throughput is very low.

    Good example of a staggered fence: Wide and easy to navigate, but it should not be needed in this long route with good visibility.
    Bad example of a termination:

    Speed is a much more complicated issue, particularly on shared paths. We have some very complex rules in Australia that push cyclists to the bottom of the priority order in most cases, so to reinforce that some more the shared paths are starting to add ridiculous “speed limits” such as this 5mph insanity
    Though the police are trying to enforce them I’m not aware of any fines or prosecutions and they have not responded with an official position of if speed limits can be applied to bicycles.

  11. D. says:

    My wife was reading over my shoulder and tutting as I read this. She queried the second picture – screen-shot-2015-01-23-at-19-22-36 – with the cycle path coming up the side of a red brick building with a blind corner. She said that cars have that all the time, in older villages, with the road coming up to a blind corner, and asked what was wrong with it and why cyclists expect better than motorists on the provision of such infrastructure. I ummed. Help!

    • jeldering says:

      Well I’d imagine that similar infrastructure for motorists would look like this: a short chicane in the road which doesn’t allow two-way traffic, is too small for HGVs and buses to use, and requires motorists to drive through at walking pace while constantly checking their mirrors not to hit fences at both sides. So in that sense: are we actually expecting _better_ than motorists’ infrastructure?
      Secondly, since cycling helps reducing pollution and road congestion, and improves public health, one could argue that cycling infrastructure should get preferential treatment.

    • meltdblog says:

      The stop line for a car at that sort of location would be right at the edge of the road so that the pedestrians have to give way and the car can pull out far enough to see around the corner before proceeding. For a quick example:
      Harper’s Ln Presteigne

    • pm says:

      As the other replies point out, motorists in such a situation would never have to deal with fencing forming chicanes right across their route. Usually in such cases of poor sight-lines the response is to make changes that put the burden of avoiding the danger onto the pedestrians while impeding the motorist as little as is possible.

  12. Chris says:

    “The problem is poor design.”
    “No the problem is fast cyclists.”
    “No the problem is slow cyclists and pedestrians.”

    Clearly it is none of the above on their own but combinations of them.

    I absolutely agree, in the long term much improved infrastructure is the answer. Hopefully the Infrastructure Bill with the Cycling and Walking Strategies amendment included will kickstart the process of getting it. However right now we have what we have in infrastructure, and slow cyclists and pedestrians can’t speed up. What seems to be missing is an understanding by fast cyclists that they need to slow down (and not feel frustrated) in areas of conflict. Same as you don’t drive your car at 50mph through the town centre.

    • Dan B says:

      How fast is “fast”? How slow is “slow”? I can happily ‘slow down’ to well over 15mph, which some would consider as both too fast and too slow.

      The issue IS bad design that means a difference in speed (actual, not subjective) of about 5mph creates conflict.

    • Joel_C says:

      The difference is that, in the case of highway engineers designing for motor vehicles, more often than not there’s a serious attempt to ameliorate problematic features through better design e.g. a narrow railway bridge causing a chicane might be widened – maybe even with it being replaced by an entirely new structure.

      With cycling and pedestrian infrastructure, very often these problems are merely entrenched further by attempting to accomodate and compromise rather than remove the problem.

      The main thrust of what (I believe) MT is getting at here is thus: despite official rhetoric, the continued use of absurd design compromises like those that have been employed on this new bridge clearly demonstrates that cycling is *still* not regarded as a serious transport choice by local authorities (and by extension, national government). All other concerns about people’s behaviour amount to red herrings.

  13. One point missing from the analysis: the kind of barriers that will effectively slow a standard two-wheeler make it impossible for a tricycle/ cargo bike / tandem to navigate. Since non-standard bikes are more likely to be used by particularly vulnerable riders, such as those with balance or strength issues or carrying children, it is, quite simply, discriminatory provision.

    This should be a much stronger strand in cycle campaigning: poor provision is annoying for most of us, but completely excludes others.

    • Cyclestrian says:

      Looking forward to a disability-oriented test case along these lines. I’d happily chip in a tenner or three if it results in councils having to provide better.

    • Notak says:

      Hence the phrase “tandem trap”. Unfortunately, I think this phrase is only current among “cyclists” – not even bike riders, but yer akshul cyclists, the keen ones – and, worse, the problem is that “bikes” are considered as one type, neglecting the existence of tandems, trailers, trikes, tagalongs, etc.

  14. Not sure it was mentioned in the comments, but chicanes are also a big issue for “slow” cyclists, as you are often forced to almost come to a complete stop and lose your momentum, which is particularly bad when it’s uphills. So while it may not appear much to slow down a cyclist from 10mph to 3-4 mph for a few metres, the energy needed to accelerate to your comfort speed again is equivalent to perhaps a few hundred metres additional distance.

    Cycling is best when you can go at a constant speed. Some people prefer 25mph and others 10mph but the point is that cycling is fairly effortless if you can go constantly at your comfort speed, but very tiring if you have to brake and accelerate all the time.

  15. tattoodaisy says:

    This is how bad, bad infrastructure can be (particularly barriers, which can do more than just slow a cyclist down) – 5 years ago now, but I don’t think I’ll forget reading the news about this young lad.

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  17. Notak says:

    “What is really the issue is not speed; it’s poor design. It’s paths that are too narrow to safely accommodate pedestrians and cyclists, in the numbers that are using them. Witness the attempts to get people to ‘behave’ on the Bristol-Bath railway path – ‘anti-social’ issues that simply would not arise if the path was wide enough, and had a separate footway.”

    It’s slightly ironic to mention the Bristol-Bath railway path in this context, as it’s actually a very well designed path, on the whole. Yes, it does have a couple of chicanes, where it crosses the A420 and a minor road near the brewery, but they are much easier to negotiate than those in many other places. It used to have some very restrictive stone barriers at the Bath end – so narrow I had to stop and squeeze through them with panniers, a tandem, trailer, etc would have been impossible – but those went several years, thank goodness. In fact, the path is remarkably similar in width and surface to the Dutch one in the photo.

    The calls for cyclists to slow down on this path have come from two sources: parents taking kids to two primary schools next to the track (one in Easton, one in Oldland) and, if anything more vociferously, from leisure cyclists aimed at roadie chain gangs which use the path for training on weekends. The problem here is probably down to a difference in perception – the chain gangs are going slow, for them.

    Which raises another factor, generally – speed is mixed because usage is mixed; there are roadies in training, commuters, leisure pootlers, families with small kids, dogs, teenagers. As far as I can see, they all have a right to be there (and on the street).

  18. The underlying problem is lack of properly designed facilities, but cyclists also have to understand that when using poorly designed facilities, especially busy ones shared with pedestrians, they do need to slow down, sometimes to walking pace.

  19. Notak says:

    It occurred to me today that not only are cycling facilities inadequate because, often, they are converted from pavements and paths intended solely for walking, but that all too often those paths are themselves inadequate for walking on. Try walking down a typical set of steps while holding an umbrella and passing another brolly-wielder. One or both of you will have to adjust your umbrella, move to the side, perhaps even stop to let the other pass. See also the width of a pavement next to a street. When the overall road width narrows, the pavement is made too narrow for one person to walk past another without stepping into the carriageway, rather than narrowing the carriageway. Of course, in terms of legal principles, this makes sense, as there is no law against walking in the road (in the UK) whereas it is illegal to drive (or park) on the ‘footway’. If only this were enforced… But at the same time, it would often be possible to keep a decently wide pavement – I only mean wide enough for one person to pass another, a mere four feet, say – if we did not insist on keeping two lanes of traffic (which we then fill up with parked cars, but that’s a rant for a different day).

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