Out on my bike earlier in the week I came across a road closure on a country lane just south of Ashington in West Sussex – Hole Street.
As you can see, a diversion has been put in place. Not a problem, you might think, except that this diversion sends you directly onto the A24, which is a national speed limit dual carriageway, with no cycling infrastructure.
Not an enticing prospect, even at this relatively quiet time of day, even for someone relatively hardened like me. I just do not want to cycle on a road with vehicles like this bearing down on me at 60mph. (For the record, the road at this point carries about 35,000 vehicles per day, and – amazingly – about twenty very brave people cycling).
Essentially the authority (or individual) responsible for putting the ‘diversion’ signs out was only thinking about drivers. It’s simply not acceptable to divert people cycling onto a road of this character, even if – thanks to British road design and policy lagging somewhere back in the 1960s – the A24 is legal to cycle on, with no parallel provision.
I took my chances and ignored the ‘road closed’ warning, reasoning that even if resurfacing was taking place I could, at a push, walk past it. (As it happens, I didn’t encounter the closure before I turned off this lane, about a mile further on down the road.)
But as I pedalled along the deliciously quiet lane (with no through motor traffic) I dwelt on whether those ‘diversion’ signs should actually be permanent. After all, why should motor traffic be using this country lane as a through route, when there is a fairly expensive dual carriageway trunk road running in parallel? Indeed, would there even be that much difference in time if you asked drivers to take the longer (but faster) route?
When I got home, I took a look at Google maps. Here’s the section of country lane that was closed, with point A being where I encountered the ‘closure’ sign, and point B where that lane meets another ‘A’ road – the A283.
The ‘closed’ length of country lane here is 1.5 miles. What would be the alternative? Well, this is the ‘diversion’ that drivers are being asked to take while this lane is closed – the A24 (which I chickened out of cycling on) and the A283 – two sides of a triangle.
But what about in terms of time? The country lane, Hole Street, has a mixture of 40mph and 60mph limits, but really, it should be 40mph for its entire length, at most. At 40mph, travelling from A to B would take around 3 minutes.
Using the ‘main road’ route involves 1.5 miles on the 70mph A24, and then 1.8 miles on the 50mph A283, for a total time of around 4 minutes.
So – despite the extra distance – really not that much more time. And these are the roads that are designed for the through traffic – built and engineered to take heavy traffic. The country lane would be quieter and safer, not just for people using it on foot, horse, or bike, but also for the residents. Really – the kind of diversion that is currently in place should be permanent. Hole Street should be access-only, at all times.
This might sound radical, but it’s a common intervention in the Netherlands. While cycle paths alongside roads (main roads) are a visible and obvious intervention, the approach is quite different on country lanes, which are stopped-up, or simply signed as ‘residents only’, with drivers who are travelling through expected to take the long way round.
One of these examples featured as a Cycling Embassy ‘Good Facility of the Week’ – a country lane closed to motor traffic, except for residents, on the outskirts of the city of Utrecht.
It’s worth placing this example in context.
People cycling are obviously exempted from the closure – that means they can cycle from point A (where the photograph was taken) to point B, in a fairly straight line.
This isn’t really much of a hardship, however – the motoring route is a fast road (equivalent to a British A-road), with the added benefit for drivers of not having any slow vehicles on the road. Agricultural and bicycle traffic shares a separate path along this road (again, this featured in a Good Facility of the Week).
The system employed by the Dutch in this context isn’t about ‘punishing’ driving, but more about putting cycling and driving on separate systems, for safety reasons. On the main road, cycling has its own parallel provision, but on the narrow country lanes, motor traffic is cut out, and forced to use the longer route. Very often, that ‘longer route’ will in any case be more attractive than the direct route that has been closed, because it is wider and faster, and designed specifically take through traffic.
For instance, if you want to drive between the city of Delft and the new town of Zoetermeer, you are forced (or ‘forced’) to take the A12 motorway. An ‘as the crow files route’ is simply not available to you.
Naturally enough, the country lanes between the two urban areas, joined up with cycle-specific paths, form a direct cycling route.
But you wouldn’t really want to use these country lanes in your car, even if you were allowed to, because you have a very fast motorway to connect you – it doesn’t really matter that the route is less direct.
Diversions of this kind are an excellent – good for safety, good for drivers (who don’t have to worry about pedestrians, cyclists or horse riders on their faster routes), good for residents of the country lanes, and good for the people using those lanes to get about, or simply for recreation.
Perhaps we ought to look more closely at whether we can convert our temporary diversions of through motor traffic away from country lanes into permanent diversions – and indeed more broadly about what our country lanes should be for.