I was in Leicester last week and (briefly) managed to look again at some of the cycling infrastructure the city has been building recently. There is an impressive-looking cycleway, complete with bus stop bypass, on Welford Road.
Like other new cycling infrastructure in the city, it has been built with distinctive, Dutch-style red asphalt, making it obvious that this isn’t part of the footway, and something that’s different from the road. The kerbs have also been designed well – low-level, and forgiving, meaning they can be ridden over without crashing, and also that the full width of the cycleway can be used, while retaining a height distinction from the footway, and the road.
This is something London hasn’t quite got right. The cycleways in London are of the same colour tarmac as the road, which has led to a number of incidents (presumably, mostly innocent) in which drivers have ended up using the cycleway, instead of the road. The kerbs alongside the new superhighways are also problematic, particularly on the section along the Embankment.
The height difference between the footway and the cycleway along here means that the effective width of the cycleway is reduced. At the narrower points of the superhighway here – around 3m wide – the usable width is reduced down to about 2.5m, which is pretty narrow for a two-way path, especially one that is only going to get a lot busier.
But unfortunately Leicester somehow manages to convert their beautiful cycleways, with their lovely kerbs, into a horrible mess at the junctions. Here is an exit-only side road from a residential street, that few drivers will be using.
That red tarmac comes to an end, merging into a shared use footway across an expanse of tactile paving, with no priority for walking or cycling across a minor side street. Not comfortable to cycle across; confusion and conflict with people walking, and loss of priority, and momentum.
I noticed that the same kind of problem appears at signalised junctions. Again, the answer in Leicester seems to be ‘give up’, and treat people cycling like pedestrians.
The red asphalt comes to an end, you merge onto a shared use footway, and cross the road on a toucan crossing.
It seems a little unfair to criticise Leicester here, because they are doing an awful lot more than most towns and cities across Britain, reallocating road space to build cycleways, and making a genuine effort to start prioritising cycling. But these kinds of junction designs just aren’t good enough.
Meanwhile London – while it might not be getting the designs of the cycleway kerbs and surfacing right – is doing precisely the right kind of thing at junctions, keeping cycling distinct from walking, and ensuring that cycling has clear priority.
Here an exit-only residential side street – very similar to Leicester – is treated in a very different way. There is no tactile, no giving up, no merging of walking and cycling. Both footway and cycleway continue clearly across the side road.
Nor is there any merging of walking and cycling together at signalised junctions. The two modes are designed for separately.
So London is getting some things exactly right, and other things a bit wrong, while Leicester is getting some things exactly right, and other things a bit wrong.
I suspect a large of the difference here probably flows from the starting premise. London is quite explicitly building roads for cycling, something that is obviously carriageway, designed and built like you would build roads for motor traffic. That’s good for junction design, less good for details like kerbs. Meanwhile Leicester appears to be building what amount to enhanced footways; cycling accommodated on the pavement, but in a well-designed and visually-distinct way. Until, that is, you encounter a junction, where that cycleway reveals its true colours as a bit of footway.
Two different approaches, both with mixed success, succeeding and failing in different ways. Really, London should just carry on doing what it is doing, but making sure that the cycleways are built slightly better, with higher quality kerbs, while Leicester should look to London to see how to design junctions. Combined, the two cities might actually be producing the genuinely excellent cycling infrastructure you see in cities like Utrecht.
So the question for Britain is whether this is really a sensible way to proceed. If two of the leading cycling cities in Britain – two places showing willingness to change their roads, and to experiment – are still managing to get things wrong, but in different ways, doesn’t that suggest a desperate need for some of kind of national pooling of design experience and expertise, so that both cities are arriving at the best possible outcomes, and – perhaps even more importantly, towns and cities across the country can get things right straight away, without making the same kinds of mistakes as the leading cities?
It’s admirable what Leicester and London are doing, but – particularly in the case of Leicester – a lot of what they’re doing simply isn’t up to standard. They’re fumbling towards the light, and if willing authorities are still struggling, the outlook for places with little or no interest or expertise in designing for cycling is desperately bleak.
It really doesn’t have to be this way. We know what works. We know the best ways to build cycling infrastructure, because we’re now actually getting it right in Britain, even if we’re not getting absolutely everything right in the same place. So rather than leaving local authorities to stumble upon it – and probably get a good deal of it wrong, even if they’re trying their best – why on earth are we not putting all the good stuff in one place? In some kind of easy-to-use manual, showing local authorities the absolute best ways to deal with side roads; to deal with signalised junctions; to build kerbs; and so on. All of the kinds of things that local authorities across the country are having to find out for themselves, in a ridiculous duplication of effort, with poor and wasteful outcomes.
‘Localism’ should really mean giving local authorities the freedom to build high quality cycling infrastructure, drawn from design elements included in Department for Transport-endorsed standards. It certainly should not mean leaving local authorities to work it all out for themselves, one-by-one. Because that’s just idiotic.