A Superhighway that isn’t

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with ‘backstreets’ routes for cycling. Some of the highest quality routes I have cycled on in the Netherlands have been of this form, running away from main roads, passing through residential areas and parks.

A fietsstraat in Nijmegen

A fietsstraat in Nijmegen

A fietsstraat in Utrecht

A fietsstraat in Utrecht

These routes are excellent because they are direct, continuous, and involve little or no stopping. This is, in fact, an advantage over routes on main roads, which because they will be accommodating more traffic tend to require traffic signals, which unnecessarily delay cycling. They also have filtering, either in the form of physical blocks to stop motor traffic (the street in Nijmegen is closed at the far end to motor traffic), or simple signed exclusions on motor traffic, as on the pictured section of the Utrecht fietsstraat. Motor traffic can drive on this fietsstraat up to this point, but must turn left at the junction. The purpose is to keep motor traffic levels low enough for cycling on fietsstraats to be a comfortable experience for everyone.

I haven’t had a great deal of time to look in detail at the newly-released proposals for Superhighway 1, but it is quite obviously ‘a backstreets route’, running away from the A10, the most direct, north-south route that Superhighway 1 parallels – and indeed the road that CS1 is in fact an the obvious and explicit substitute for. Some parts of it – especially in Haringey – appear to be desperately poor. Meandering through the backstreets, Superhighway 1 has to take a turn up this tiny alley to avoid the A10 –

This can't really a route for a Superhighway, can it?

This can’t really a route for a Superhighway, can it?

… and when it does run alongside the A10, it looks particularly shoddy, nothing more than a minor tidying of the existing (and deeply substandard) shared use arrangement on the footway.

That stuff on the western footway is apparently a 'Superhighway'

That stuff on the western footway is apparently a ‘Superhighway’

The route in Hackney is a little better, but it is still meandering, it loses priority when it crosses major roads (a broader issue with Quietways), and, while there is some new modal filtering, it does not have a great deal of it. For instance, there is no filtering at all between the new closure where Pitfield Street meets Old Street, and Northchurch Terrace, a straight road of over a mile, open along its length to all motor traffic, in both directions. It’s not clear how quiet this route is actually going to be.

And of course there is the issue of whether this route even deserves to be called a ‘Superhighway’ at all. From the Mayor’s 2013 Vision for Cycling

We will offer two clear kinds of branded route: high capacity Superhighways, mostly on main roads, for fast commuters, and slightly slower but still direct Quietways on pleasant, low-traffic side streets for those wanting a more relaxed journey.

From this definition, Superhighway 1 is most definitely a Quietway, not a Superhighway. It runs on low-traffic side streets for almost its entire length, barring a short stretch on the footway of the A10 at Seven Sisters. It is not ‘mostly on main roads’.

I think this risks damaging the whole concept of Superhighways, and indeed opens the door to a return of the failed LCN+ approach of routing cycling onto wiggly backstreet routes that are less attractive than main roads, and (because of an absence of provision on main roads) don’t form part of a coherent network. Read this from David Arditti on the failures of LCN+, and it all starts to sound eerily familiar.

Since the LCN+ strategy was basically not about segregation, or even road-space reallocation, there was no coherent picture to put to councils, be they pro or anti-cycling, of what was supposed to be put in place on proposed main road routes like LCN+5 on the A5, and in the end it became a strategy just to spend the money somehow. The money for the A5 route just got spent on a few blue signs, cycle logos on the road, and speed tables on side-roads in Brent – none of which did anything to make cycling no the A5 any better.

For ‘A5’, substitute ‘A10’.

To repeat, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with routes away from main roads. High quality routes on minor roads can make sense. But they certainly should not be used as a substitute for addressing barriers to cycling on what should be more attractive, direct routes. And this appears to be precisely what is happening with Superhighway 1 – it has been shunted onto backstreets because of political opposition (and probably because of opposition from within TfL) from running it on the A10.

I don’t think the distinction between Quietways and Superhighways is particularly helpful, in general, but if these terms are going to be used, then in its current form, this route through Hackney and Haringey simply shouldn’t be labelled a Superhighway. It should be called a Quietway, because that’s what it is.

Calling it a Superhighway opens the door to other boroughs putting ‘Superhighways’ on fiddly back streets routes as a convenient way of avoiding the barriers to cycling on their main roads – a return to the LCN+ strategy of avoiding hard choices. That’s really not acceptable.

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17 Responses to A Superhighway that isn’t

  1. Kie says:

    Worst of all is if they don’t close the back streets to through traffic aka rat runners, some drivers behave worse when they think there are no extra witnesses.

    Back roads, long route, but not really a quiet route.

    • Mark Hewitt says:

      Indeed, you can’t just take one bit of the Dutch system without understanding it as a whole, and routes down back streets are only suitable because motor traffic is kept to an absolute minimum.

  2. Mark Hewitt says:

    Underlines the point, if more evidence were needed, that we need national standards for cycle routes, and what is expected of them. You join a motorway and expect certain standards of it, the same should be true of cycle routes.

    • Phil Jones says:

      It’s got nothing to do with standards. The issue is political, not technical.

      • pm says:

        But surely, the existence or non-existence of national standards is a political issue? The decision to leave things to a local level is often a sign that they aren’t considered important, politically.

        • pm says:

          Oh, and consistency between different localities is surely fairly important for a transport network?

          • Phil Jones says:

            Standards aren’t the law. Even the Highways Agency departs from its standards when it sees fit to do so.

            And no, I’m not sure national norms are essential to achieving good cycling levels. Malmo and Lund are 10 miles apart. They both have high cycling levels but use different standards.

            • pm says:

              I don’t know that I’m confident enough or feel strongly about this to argue with you. Am not really sure about it.

              But in London its not 10 miles between authorities, but a matter of yards. In fact you can have 3-or-4 different authorities controlling different roads within a very small area, and you could well have no political say over the rules even on the road where you live. I don’t think the GLA has really solved the mess created by the abolition of the GLC

              • Dan B says:

                Absolutely. Just keep an eye on the Waltham Forest Mini Holland plans – there are plans for a protected cycle route on Lea Bridge Road, which will not be continued as the road crosses into Hackney.

      • Mark Williams says:

        Although it is noteworthy that TFL put out a consultation on London Cycle Design Standards last year and then appears to have quietly downgraded the recently published final version to be little better than the 2005 version, these new proposals do not even appear to meet those standards. Perhaps it really is the case that London councils and TFL (the permanent civil service who actually prepare the designs and operate according to their own agenda, entirely independent of the figurehead councillors who merely fail to control them) are as incompetent at designing for cycling as elsewhere in the UK? Time to start naming and shaming the individuals involved…

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        That’s a bit disingenuous: “expecting certain standards”, is not the same as “applying certain standards”.

        • Mark Williams says:

          In a technical field, a standard which exists but which is not obligatory and is ignored far more often than it is adhered to might as well not exist. Certainly the manpower and expense which has gone into writing and maintaining it is almost entirely wasted. Similarly, a standard which is so vague and subjective that it’s hard to tell the difference between someone following it assiduously and someone just making up designs as they go along (or a cat walking across their keyboard) also might as well not exist. Complaining that insufficient distinction is drawn between `applying’ such a weak standard and `expecting’ something meaningful of the outcome; now, that might be considered a bit disingenuous.

          The comparison with deviations from DMRB could not be more stark. Any designer doing so has to generate so much paperwork beforehand and still endure such a barrage of abuse when the motoring public get to see it, that they are rarely inclined to do it.

          Mark Hewitt is right, we could do with something more akin to DMRB for cycling (and, no; neither LCDS nor any of PJA’s `guidelines’ are even close to providing it in their present forms). Otherwise the designers will forever be repeating the same old mistakes and we shall always be obliged to go back to first principles to point them out. Phil Jones is right insofar as the geographical extent for a given standard is less relevant—although it is difficult to imagine the circumstances in which a small country such as GB would want or need more than one (or, indeed, why that one cannot be adopted wholesale from NL for example).

  3. James says:

    I get the impression that the designs of most of these are done by the individual councils judging by the quality of the drawings which look more like ‘mock’ tfl rather than the real tfl designs such as at the main junction near old street or the actual EW/NS drawings. Perhaps they are using different software or whatever and putting Johnston font in blue boxes to make it more tfl-esque. Either way, it means that there because tfl are not designing it it means that the knowledge and expertise will be lower and hence the designs are poorer. This needs to be tackled now as the majority of future schemes will be executed more often than not on council owned roads

  4. Har Davdis says:

    After years of neglecting the bike as a serious mode of transportation, the only thing cyclists in the UK get is fluff. Superhighways, who needs them? What’s needed is a complete overhaul of existing infrastructure, so people can ride wherever their fancy takes them, like the Dutch do.

  5. Joe says:

    Comes as no surprise to me. BoJo is a Bull**** peddler of the highest order. If any person actually believed in his promises & voted for him, then they are truly naive.

  6. Notak says:

    Not being a Londoner, I don’t know much about these Superhighways – except they have blue paint! But I did read somewhere recently that a mistake made in the early days of Copenhagen’s cycle routes was to build paths to a very high standard parallel to main roads. They found they weren’t used – people preferred to carry on riding along main roads, with the traffic, than use minor roads even with the new paths. A reason for this wasn’t given, but I’d surmise it’s quite simple – what makes main roads main for drivers also makes them main for cyclists and pedestrians; the presence of destinations, in shops, cafes, pubs, cinemas, and so on. The feeling of security from the presence of other people and decent lighting must also be a factor. Not to mention that main roads tend to be the most direct routes (or some combination of the flattest, shortest or fastest) between districts (or between towns if we look at rural A and B roads). After all, we tend to see more pedestrians walking along main roads than side streets – it’s nice to take a leisurely stroll but more often we tend to be trying to get somewhere.

  7. mikey bikey says:

    Thanks for showing the derisory Cycle SubLowWay for Haringey. There seems no real intention to provide good infra, just PR coming up to election time. The laughable cycle ‘facilities’ on the ex-gyratory were evidence enough. Good that cycling media are calling these sub-standard constructs out for what they are. To only display their faked renderings with their false labels helps perpetuate their intended illusion. Better if all media made ones with the correct standard of provision shown too, labelled ” this is how it should be, not the faked SubLowWay pic above ” ? Like ‘Maidstoneonbike’ blogspot for example.

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