Cycling infrastructure isn’t just about the ‘conventional’ design of protected tracks alongside main roads. Good cycling conditions can also be achieved with other measures, particularly through the use of roads that have very low motor traffic levels.
Typically this will take the form of access roads in residential areas, away from main roads, designed in a way that ensures motor traffic is only accessing these streets, rather than passing through to somewhere else. But there’s another form of this kind of ‘low traffic street’, one that runs parallel to main roads – the service road. While protected cycleways and filtered streets are now part of the cycle campaigning vocabulary in Britain, the service road really hasn’t featured much, at all. Which I think is a pity, as they really are an ‘easy win’ for cycling; they already exist alongside many main roads that aren’t suitable for cycling, and would only need a small amount of work to adapt them as good cycling environments.
I was reminded of this as I was sat on a (rail replacement) coach from Harwich into London, having coming back on the ferry from a visit to the Netherlands. The coach essentially followed the A12 into central London, and for stretches of the A12 in Dagenham, there are service roads alongside it.
They would be perfect for cycling infrastructure, a way to travel along this pretty horrible main road in relative peace and security. Unfortunately they look like this.
The service roads are blocked off – which is the right thing to do, in general terms, because you don’t want people buzzing along them in motor vehicles, instead of using the main road. A service road should only be used by a small number of motor vehicles, accessing a small number of properties along it – that’s why it’s called a ‘service road’, after all.
But they’ve been blocked off in a way that blocks off cycling too. The barrier should go, and be replaced with something that allows the easy passage of walking, cycling (and other mobility aids) while still preventing motor traffic from passing through.
This would really be an easy win – there’s no need for a huge amount of re-engineering of the street, and it wouldn’t present a great deal of political difficulty, because the service road is already blocked off, so motorists aren’t losing anything. And I imagine much the same is true for many, many other service roads across Britain.
We were shown a good example on an Infrastructure Safari during the Cycling Embassy AGM in Newcastle a few years back. The Great North Road (the old A1, before it became bypassed) north of Gosforth was built with a service road.
As is clear from the photograph, this is a very relaxed, comfortable cycling environment, alongside a fast (40mph) dual carriageway, composed of four lanes. Only a small number of properties (those on the left) are accessible by this road. It’s in a better condition for cycling than the Dagenham example, with better transitions between the sections of closed off service roads, although at the end it does die a death, without considering cycling. The plan was (or is!) to make it part of a cycle route running north out of Newcastle – I confess I’m not up to speed on what’s happened since we visited but, just like the Dagenham example, this would be another easy win. The cycle route is effectively already built – it just needs a little tidying.
Perhaps the best example of a service road I’ve encountered, however, is of course in the Netherlands, in the city of ‘s-Hertogenbosch. It’s the one described in this post by Bicycle Dutch, with an accompanying video.
Note that the ‘upgrade’ that has taken place is really just an improvement of the surface, and with a change in colour to make it more explicit that this is a cycle route. The basic building blocks of a good service street for cycling – smooth transitions between the sections of service road and cycle path, and filters to stop people driving all the way along the main road in parallel – were already in place.
This particular service road featured as a Good Facility of the Week. Because service roads don’t touch main roads, it’s also easy to convert them into good walking environments, with continuous footways across the side roads.
This service road transitions easily into cycle path, and back into service road again (my one very minor criticism here is that the post may not be not be necessary, given the width of the path – it’s unlikely drivers will attempt to drive down here, although I could be wrong).
Where the service road meets a major junction, drivers are prevented from continuing along the main road. The two sections of service road on either side of the junction are only ‘joined up’ for walking and cycling, which helps to keep motor traffic levels low on the service road.
The final advantage of service roads is that – because they are relatively wide – they can easily be used for two-way cycling, on either side of the road (or both sides, if there are service roads on each side). Here’s an example in Assen – two-way cycling is allowed on this service road. Note that there is also some (fairly old) ‘light segregation’ on the other side of the road, in the form of concrete blocks, which allows (one-way) cycling on that side too.
Of course the Dutch still get things wrong (or haven’t got around to putting things right yet). Here’s a fairly strange example of cycle lanes on a fairly busy road in Zwolle, when there’s a good service road on either side, going unused.
It would be better to take cycling off the main road, removing conflict with motor traffic, and placing the cycle route on the service road, which has a bumpy service at present, but could be upgraded to smooth asphalt.
I’m sure I’ve seen this same mistake being made in new UK cycling schemes – painted lanes being proposed on main roads, when there is a service road alongside – although I can’t quite remember where! Perhaps you can remind me in the comments, along with other examples of service roads that could be easily ‘upgraded’.
Service roads certainly shouldn’t be overlooked as cycling infrastructure. They are much better cycling environments than painted lanes alongside motor traffic, and most of the physical engineering – the separation from the main road – is already in place. They only require a small amount of adjustment to make the transitions easy, and as I’ve already said the ‘political’ cost is minimal, given that driving isn’t made any worse (and arguably better if encounters with people cycling on the main road are removed).