A visit to the Leeds-Bradford Cycle Superhighway

Last month I took the opportunity to cycle along the Leeds-Bradford cycle superhighway, kindly escorted by Martin Stanley of Leeds Cycling Campaign. While London’s cycling new infrastructure is hitting the headlines, there are other projects taking place elsewhere in the country, of which this is one of the more high profile (albeit for perhaps not all the right reasons).

Indeed, I did go with very low expectations – I’d seen the pictures being shared on social media and on blogs of what can only be described as very poor infrastructure. And it has to be said that the route between the two cities is not of a high quality, certainly nowhere near as high as the routes being built in London. Perhaps a lower level of quality might be expected given the lower level of expertise and investment, along with some ‘higher order’ problems we’ll come to in this post. But what was particularly frustrating for me wasn’t actually the low quality. It was the inconsistency. Some sections have been built and designed reasonably well. But other sections – dealing with identical problems – have been bodged, and bodged badly, which left me wondering why a more consistent level of quality couldn’t have been achieved.

We’ll come to these issues, and others, in the post, but all the same I did come away from the day cycling to Bradford and back feeling a little positive. This was, perhaps, just because the sun had come out in the afternoon, on what had started as a miserable day. But mainly I think it was because, despite all the flaws of this northern ‘superhighway’, I had managed to travel by bike between the two cities in some comfort, and with a reasonable degree of safety. Roads that I wouldn’t even have considered cycling on for pleasure, and would have struggled to justify cycling on for practical purposes – fast, busy roads – now have somewhere that it feels safe and comfortable to cycle, for the most part, and for all the flaws. That means cycling is a possibility, not just for more confident types like me, but for everyone else.

Despite the route only just having opened – and despite the bad weather earlier in the day – we did see people starting to use the cycling infrastructure. Not in huge numbers, admittedly, but enough to indicate that there is potential to shift and change behaviour, and the way people travel about.

 

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.22.57

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.24.07So, the good news is that there is now a long route consisting almost entirely of protected infrastructure, that could open up cycling as a mode of transport for ordinary people.

The bad news, however, is that the quality is patchy, and in places actually quite dangerous. As I’ve mentioned already, the frustrating thing is the inconsistency, in that good design and build quality was interspersed with bad. I’m not sure why this was the case; it might be the inevitable consequence of having to build what amounts to quite a long route from A to B in a short space of time, with a fixed budget, starting essentially from a very low base in terms of experience, knowledge and expertise in building cycling infrastructure – a problem I suspect that is pervasive across Britain, just because there is so little good stuff, and so few people building it. It also seems to stem from what I have heard is a reluctance to impinge on driving in any way along this route, which means that compromises on quality will be inevitable.

The reluctance to give even an inch to cycling from motoring led in many places to quite comical outcomes.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.24.52The photograph shows that, alongside a six-lane road for motor traffic, not only will users have to swerve around traffic light posts right in the middle of the cycleway, they will then have to deal with a ‘door zone’ (indicated by the pale surfacing) created by new parking bays installed on the road – parking bays that didn’t exist before, and that, if in use, will actually block in people parking legitimately off the carriageway. In the context of such an enormous road this is very thin gruel indeed, especially when we consider that on the opposite side we have to put up with just a shared use footway.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.25.54

The bus stop bypasses are definitely one of the more serious problems. Some of them are again just comically bad, absurdly narrow for one-way cycling, let alone two-way cycling.

Yes, that is a two-way cycleway

Yes, that is a two-way cycleway

At one of these stops, I heard a couple of men waiting fora bus grumbling about how ‘they hate cyclists – they’re even on the pavement now’ as we rolled past, and it was easy to understand the source of their annoyance, given that we were almost trundling on their toes, by design.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.27.41

In most of these cases, the failure to design a proper bus stop bypass, with adequate space for all users, seems to have flowed either from the aforementioned reluctance to take any space from motor traffic, or to spend any money adjusting kerb lines, or both – with, frankly, very silly results.

That's just one lane of motor traffic on the right, heading away from the camera. The 'bypass' is at most 18 inches wide

That’s just one lane of motor traffic on the right, heading away from the camera. The ‘bypass’ is at most 18 inches wide

The surfacing was also frustratingly bad. While very smooth in many places, other sections had a dreadful surface, that looked like it had been shovelled in and patted down – usually next to a beautifully smooth road surface.

The rain earlier in the day was at least helpful in showing up surface deficiencies

The rain earlier in the day was at least helpful in showing up surface deficiencies

Why could some parts be surfaced well, and others not? Did some contractors just not care?

Another problem with inconsistency – and a more dangerous one – is the design of many of the side road treatments, where the cycleway (either in uni-directional, or bi-directional form) crosses side roads. This was where the inconsistency was particularly stark. Some were designed reasonably well, with at least some degree of visual continuity, and the kerbs only stopping at the junction, ensuring that the geometry for drivers is reasonably tight.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.31.31Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.32.07

But far too many junctions appear to have adopted a design technique that involves simply stopping the kerbs some 20 or 30 metres before the junction, dumping you out onto a cycle lane, which felt horribly exposed.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.32.52

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.33.39This is, I suspect, the dead hand of LTN 2/08 informing design, with its recommendation that cyclists should be ‘reintroduced to the main road’ before a junction, passing the junction ‘on the carriageway’. Presumably the intention is to ‘reintegrate’ anyone cycling with motor traffic before the junction, but in reality no ‘reintegration’ or ‘reintroduction’ will take place. You are just left at the side of the road with no engineering or design to slow or modify the behaviour of drivers turning across your path. It’s bad, and dangerous, we simply shouldn’t be building junctions like this in 2016. We need continuity, clear priority, and design that slows drivers, and makes them careful. Not this.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.35.20

There are other (admittedly less serious) problems with visual continuity at side roads. Treatments that could work well are undermined by markings that still suggest people cycling should yield, when they shouldn’t.

Double yellows, the green paint and the kerb line all remove any visual continuity and priority for cycling

Double yellows, the green paint and the kerb line all remove any visual continuity and priority for cycling

The same problem again. Note that this is an exit-only side road

The same problem again. Note that this is an exit-only side road

Other mistakes point to a lack of experience in how to design for cycling. One stood out for me, shown in the photograph below.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.38.49

Here the cycleway (on the right) could merge into the cul-de-sac, a low traffic environment that could very easily form part of the route. Yet instead the designers have opted to continue the cycleway on a tiny, thin stretch of pavement on the right, sandwiched between parked cars and fast motor traffic only a few feet to the right.

Signs telling you where to go are helpful – but not when they are positioned right in the middle of where you actually want to cycle.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.40.32

Again, this points to a lack of experience in considering the specific needs and requirements of cycling as mode of transport, along with designing a cycleway that bumps up and down for every single residential entrance, leaving a corrugated cycleway!

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.41.15

One final, major problem is the town centre of Stanningley, about halfway along the route. Here there simply isn’t room for cycling infrastructure, so in brute terms the town has a motor traffic problem. There’s too much motor traffic on the high street, especially given the town has a bypass.

This motor traffic problem hasn’t been resolved. Instead the road through the town has been given a nice new gravel-infused tarmac surface (tellingly, the smoothest tarmac of the entire Leeds-Bradford superhighway!).

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.42.11

And the junctions in the town have been replaced with some very superficial hints at ‘shared space’ in roundabout form, a design that offers very little comfort to anyone cycling or walking. We saw an elderly lady hesitantly and very nervously attempting to cross the road here. To my mind a series of zebra crossings on the desire lines at the junction would be much more useful, and more beneficial to cycling too than the current half-hearted markings that are something of a free-for-all.

Screen Shot 2016-08-11 at 02.43.28

But really the problem is one of an excess of motor traffic – putting down nice, village-ish markings on what remains a very busy road won’t turn your town into a nice village, nor will it actually help people trying to get about within it on foot, or by bike. That motor traffic needs to be diverted onto the bypass, with access retained for residents and people visiting shops and properties.

More broadly, this fudge hints at some of the underlying problems with creating a high profile ‘route’ between two cities in a short space of time, given the inevitable problems of experience and expertise, combined with constraints imposed by councils unwilling to adversely impact drivers to even the slightest degree.

I came away from my visit to Leeds and Bradford with very mixed feelings. Positively, the route demonstrates that things can happen in other towns and cities across Britain, away from London, which attracts so much attention. Infrastructure can be built that will open up cycling as a mode of transport to people who might never have considered it. And there is at least now something established on the ground along these roads, good in places, bad in others, but something that can be improved upon.

On the negative side, the Leeds-Bradford cycleway demonstrates to me the need for clear, strong leadership in design, investment and implementation, to ensure that money being spent on cycling isn’t wasted on poor (and even dangerous) designs that will inevitably have to be fixed at a later date, as I suspect is true for a good deal of the route. It also demonstrates the need for clear political leadership at a national and local level, leadership that makes the case for modal shift, is willing to make tough choices in favour of it, and to face up to objections.

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23 Responses to A visit to the Leeds-Bradford Cycle Superhighway

  1. Andy R says:

    Quote: “…designs that will inevitably have to be fixed at a later date, as I suspect is true for a good deal of the route…”
    And there’s the rub. Now it’s in, unless (god forbid) something goes wrong – and we’re talking fatalities – I can’t see City Connect, LCC or BCC going back and re-modelling this. The track record of all those organisations suggests the scales won’t suddenly drop from their eyes, they won’t have a revelation and decide this route could be so much better. This is as good as this route’s ever going to be even if we somehow saw Embankment levels of cycling overwhelming its capacity.

  2. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head in the last paragraph, as to a degree the problem we have playing out over the country has been happening in London over the last few years whereby TFL & Boris often faced fierce opposition to the various proposals for the Cycle Superhighways from local boroughs but eventually they pushed on through and we are getting some genuinely good (and in some cases I’d almost consider using the word excellent!) cycle infrastructure with the E/W and N/S routes and they have been going back and re-doing junctions on the original CS7 which used to be little more then a bit of paint now has some good segregated sections that remove a lot of the conflicts.

    Over the country as a whole the lack of central government policy on this really shows as effectively they’ve just washed their hands of it and devolve all the decision making to local councils who invariably don’t bother or just plain don’t have a clue!

  3. Just on the point about surfaces, the usual reason some surfaces are bumpier than others is that they have been hand-laid rather than machine-rolled. If they council had any balls they would make the contractors go back and do the job properly.

    • Simon still says:

      We get this in London too. The cycle track across Clapham Common was relaid a few years back (wasn’t clear why as it was not in poor condition and the parallel pedestrian path wasn’t done at the same time). Previously it had a camber on and drained well. It was relaid without a camber and uneven. In the wet it has a layer of water over the whole surface, with larger puddles where it’s lower. In cold weather a surface layer of ice. I brought this up with Lambeth’s cycle officer and it was supposedly examined and declared within spec.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Can you find out what the spec is and then push to get it changed?

        Locally, cycling suffers the Norfolk Transport Asset Management Plan which is a disgraceful document that effectively says small blemishes on carriageways get filled, yet cycle tracks must have 30+% damaged surface before anything is done – and forget about them being built properly as policy. That mainly happens if the contractor takes pride in their work and doesn’t cut costs, or if they’ve got the proper equipment on site for building carriageways (where hand-laid washboard isn’t accepted) anyway.

  4. Anton Flugge says:

    This post nicely highlights an issue I have been thinking about for a while now: Is it necessary to go through a phase of bad infrastructure before we can get to good infrastructure or could we make the jump to good infrastructure directly? I think I am coming down on the opposite side to Andy R in his comment. I am now more or less convinced that there is probably no other way to first build bad infrastructure and then improve, even though it is a collosal waste of money, I believe it’s necessary for councillors to see people start using it, before they approve anything proper. In London we also first got bad super highways, before we now got better ones. In my birth town Frankfurt/Germany I have now seen for the last 25 years how conditions improve very gradually and get a little better every time I visit. It’s not great, because it means progress is so slow, but at least we see progress in more and more places. I would just wish my current home Oxford(shire) would be a little less behind… anyway, they start building bad cycle ways like the one discussed here slowly as well.

    • Jitensha Oni says:

      Not sure about that, I can think of plenty of tolerable UK infrastructure, some going back to the 30s. But I came on here to make the point that maybe we need stronger interventions against motor traffic than you get in the Netherlands and Denmark, where things have ‘bedded down” so to speak and a reasonable equilibrium has been achieved. For example, I would put a stop line on the exit to a side road before the cycle path crosses, and extremely damaging (if hit) bollards at the apex of the cycle path-carriageway divider at entrances to side roads. Funny how, when I put these things in consultations, they never get implemented. You’d think you can’t let the motors be damaged or drivers be culpable even through their own agency. Hey ho.

    • chrisrust says:

      I can’t agree. The Sustrans big push for the National Cycle Network at the Millennium resulted in a huge mileage of inadequate routes (rather than a smaller network of good routes). Much of that network is underused and fading away because it never attracted traffic so had never been improved.

      • Anton Flugge says:

        Of course I did not think about Sustrans “National cycle network” when I talked about bad cycle infrastructure😉 From what I have seen from the “National cycle network” it’s not cycle infrastructure at all… maybe more seriously, I think one of the main problem with the “national cycle network” is that Sustrans vision for cycling is in the British tradition of seeing cycling as a hobby, recreational or sports activity. We don’t need “bad recreational cycle paths” as a first step, we might well need “bad commuter/utility cycle paths”.

        • chrisrust says:

          I think that’s a bit unfair to Sustrans, they started out with the Bath Bristol cycleway which is a very successful route for utility cyclists, they do a lot of work on active travel and safe routes to school, and cycle training as well as providing consultancy to Local Authorities on urban cycling provision. And the NCN was a good idea that has taken a lot of leisure travellers out of motor vehicles completely, rather than driving to the nearest bit of greenway for a ‘bike ride’. Leisure travel is travel and on the increase.

        • Bmblbzzz says:

          The Bristol–Bath path actually predates Sustrans, having been created by a body called Cyclebag, which then split into a riding group (Cyclebag East, still going) and a path-building organisation, Sustrans. More significantly, the NCN is mostly rural so can’t really be compared with the route in this post or infrastructure in London and other cities. All it does have in common with them is that it varies in standard and character enormously.

  5. Clive Durdle says:

    I would get heavy – contact the council auditors with detailed criticism like http://www.aviewfromthecyclepath.com/2011/08/but-we-have-driveways.html

  6. Mike says:

    Thank you, I enjoyed and learned from your article.

  7. HivemindX says:

    Personally I far prefer to be ‘reintroduced’ to the carriageway well before side roads. In my experience being off the road (on the footpath as far as many motorists are concerned) means at best that they expect you to yield and drive accordingly and at worst they literally don’t know you exist.

    This is not to excuse side roads with the sort of open curves designed to keep motorists speed up. Effectively on and off ramps for what I like to call half-assed pseudo motorways.

    • Mark Williams says:

      In my experience, a large proportion of motorists behave in exactly the same way even when you have been `reintroduced’ or never bade farewell. Also, bear in mind that most of the thermoplastic will have worn through once they have motored over it a few hundred thousand times.

  8. Bmblbzzz says:

    “It also demonstrates the need for clear political leadership at a national and local level, leadership that makes the case for modal shift, is willing to make tough choices in favour of it, and to face up to objections.”

    This, for me, is the most important point. And that leadership can be found in – a few – local authorities. What we’re completely lacking is any meaningful commitment at national level. Unfortunately I don’t see that happening while “the economy” (mostly meaning your wallet, including of course petrol/diesel prices) is electoral king.

  9. MJ Ray says:

    I feel the council responsible is being criminally lethal on that dangerous dooring-and-posts section next to the six-lane carriageway at many levels – including the designers who should have refused to produce plans for such deadly obstacles, the executive who should have refused to approve such plans and the contractors who should have refused to build such obvious meat-grinders – but even if anyone is killed, I doubt government will be held to account for its misdeeds.

    • Fee says:

      Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 and The Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007. People are held accountable and convictions do occur.

  10. Jim says:

    Good article. I have a few ‘gripes’ with this project.
    1 – The bus stop slaloms are utterly ridiculous, even more so because people stood waiting for a bus often do in the middle of the cycle path.
    2 – I’m curious to know whether the path will be swept of debris / broken glass & gritted in winter.
    3 – Motorists are now of the opinion that all cyclists MUST use the cycle path and are not allowed on the main carriageway. Given the shortcomings (not yet finished, appalling surface in parts, bus stops, being forced to give way to traffic turning right / into domestic residences / businesses) I’m still using the road. Verbal assaults from motorists are now a daily occurrence. Physical assaults (cars deliberately swerving into your path etc) a weekly one.
    4 – IT’S NOT EVEN FINISHED YET!
    Having visited Copenhagen recently I was struck with how little road furniture they have to ease cycling – it’s purely a state of mind that motorised transport cedes to non-motorised, rather than throwing money at contractors.

    • MJ Ray says:

      1 – the bus shelters seem to be facing the wrong way. This is partly they are so narrow that installing them the usual way round for such bypasses would make it obvious that the island is too narrow, just like everything else in the layout. They’ve squeezed everything into too little width, rather than take anything from the carriageway.
      2 – I suspect it’ll probably be swept and treated like a footway. I don’t know what the councils there currently do and if it’s enough. Norfolk is mostly on-demand and they refuse to de-ice cycle tracks.
      3 – Report them to the police.
      4 – Yes, the lateness of this project makes its design screwups even less excusable.

      I’ve not been to Copenhagen, but what I read suggests there is some substantial road furniture, as well as the sort of mindset you get from more people cycling. How do we get to more people cycling without modernised the roads, though? (Leaving aside that Leeds/Bradford seem to have failed to improve things with this particular project.)

  11. Fee says:

    The Leeds Bradford ‘city connect’ as an example of what not to do when designing infrastructure for NMUs. Its dangerous for all users (drivers, cyclists and pedestrians). I doubt the safety audit will be made public, though it would make interesting reading.

    Sure the idea of the city link was great, but the routing of it along the busiest roads in the area was beyond moronic. The reason why most of these cycle routes do not take space from the carriageway is that they are already over capacity and some are motorway diversion routes. I don’t want to cycle along side that. That the routes take from the pedestrian facility is even more stupid as quite now along several footways, a parent cannot push a pushchair along as it is too narrow.

    I’m a local tax payer and shudder to see bodged schemes like this, you realise that every pot hole costs money to repair and pay for repairs of vehicles damaged by the defect (they cost millions to councils). The cost of repair for each authority is going to make that paltry £30m seem like chump change in a very short while. Didn’t help that they were doing the work in winter.

    It would nice if the future phases of the scheme was programmed more holistically using the same team of workmen and designers to build on skills and experience… not holding my breath

    • Mark Williams says:

      You don’t want to cycle alongside it, but you do want [other people?] to push pushchairs alongside it? Weird! You must have a very strange definition of `over capacity’ given that the pictures show largely empty carriageways. Not sure what potholes you are referring to (spotted one blocked drain, though), but the councils almost certainly won’t be shelling out a single GBP if the vehicles are pedal cycles. The idea that motorways need (or, indeed, even ought to have) diversionary routes which somehow take precedence over cycle routes at any time is the only `beyond moronic’ part.

  12. Hi there, I’m a journalist for Yorkshire-Voice. I’m writing an article about the cycle superhighway and I would like to quote your blog. I couldn’t find any contact details on here to ask permission. I’d appreciate it if you could get back to me, my email is leonie.stanton@hotmail.co.uk

    Thanks.

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