The importance of centre line markings on two-way cycleways

As a general rule, cycleways in urban areas in the Netherlands are marked distinctively. If they are two-way, they will have a dashed centre line. If they are one-way, that centre line will obviously be absent.

Two-way cycleway, with clear dashed centre line

Two-way cycleway, with clear dashed centre line

One-way cycleway. No markings required.

One-way cycleway. No markings required.

I think this is actually tremendously important – it lets you know exactly what to expect when you are cycling along a piece of infrastructure. You will know, from looking at it, whether to expect ‘traffic’ coming in an opposing direction. It also tells other people navigating these environments exactly what to expect – a dashed centre line will tell people walking that they should expect cycles from two directions. And the same is true for drivers, when they cross this infrastructure.

Unfortunately (and it is early days) we don’t seem to have the same level of consistency in Britain, as yet. While plenty of new two-way cycleways do have clear centre line markings –

The cycleway past the Houses of Parliament. Clearly marked as two-way.

The cycleway past the Houses of Parliament. Clearly marked as two-way.

Others don’t – even the on the same ‘route’.

Two-way cycleway on the Embankment. Markings are intermittent, or absent

Two-way cycleway on the Embankment. Markings are intermittent, or absent

I think this can cause problems for pedestrians in particular. The photograph above just looks like a one-way stretch of path, heading away from the camera. There isn’t anything to tell someone wanting to cross to expect cycling in an ‘unconventional’ direction, on the right hand side of the road. I suspect this lies behind the small number of minor collisions between people walking and cycling on this stretch of road – people are crossing without looking in the ‘wrong’ direction. This has nearly happened to me on a few occasions – I can clearly see pedestrians not looking for me as I approach.

Nothing to tell this pedestrian to expect cycles from her left as she crosses

No indication here for this  pedestrian to expect cycles from her left as she crosses.

No indication for people crossing to and from this bus stop island to expect people cycling from this direction.

No indication for people crossing to and from this bus stop island to expect people cycling from this direction.

A centre line marking would make it clear that this is two-way ‘road’, for cycles, and make it more likely that people will look in both directions. It won’t eliminate this inherent problem with two-way cycleways, but it will at least mitigate it.

I think the lack of centre line marking is also a problem for people cycling. There are no centre line markings in Blackfriars underpass, despite this being one of the narrower sections of new two-way cycling infrastructure in London, narrow enough to resemble a one-way cycleway.

screen-shot-2016-11-25-at-11-41-30This lack of marking may have been a contributory factor in the largest (and most serious) pile-up seen so far on new cycling infrastructure, captured on video by 4ChordsNoNet.

Just before the collision occurs we can see people overtaking well over onto the ‘wrong’ side of the cycleway. Because there is no centre line, there is no clear, constant visual reminder that, if you are overtaking, you may well be in a section of ‘cycle road’ where you should expect oncoming cycle traffic, which will result in complacency and the kind of incident seen in the video above; especially when people are cycling in the ‘conventional’ direction, on the left hand side of the road.

I suspect consistent centre line marking will also mitigate the problems experienced by people cycling against heavy tidal flow, where (without a centre line) people tend to spill well across the cycleway in the dominant direction. This can be intimidating for people heading in the opposite direction. A centre line would reduce this problem – people can still cross it to overtake, of course, but they would be reminded more clearly that they are going against the flow, rather than simply claiming more space for their direction of flow.

It’s not clear to me why centre lines are absent on so much of London’s new cycle infrastructure, but I think it’s an obvious mistake that is resulting in problems of understanding and (at the moment) minor collisions. The good news is that it would be very cheap and easy to remedy!

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21 Responses to The importance of centre line markings on two-way cycleways

  1. James Holloway says:

    I’d say on the CSH, giving people a good amount of overtaking room is a very good idea for the same reason cyclists need Highway Code 163 to encourage drivers to give enough room.

    Even travelling with other cyclists, you need maneuvre room to avoid potholes, etc. I think the problem comes from assumptions that cyclist on cyclist overtakes require less room, when this really isn’t the case.

    Same goes for riding one behind the other. As road users, we shouldn’t be treating other cyclists as a peloton where you ride inches away. Likewise the same vigilance for overtakes is needed (check it’s clear, check back to see if it’s safe to go, check again before moving back left afterwards).

    • jeldering says:

      I think in many cases cyclists overtaking each other do take a lot less room than a car overtaking a cyclist. When the speed (differentials) are small, I don’t mind being overtaken with about 30cm distance handlebar to handlebar. In Dutch city centres with busy cyclepaths this is quite common and rarely leads to problems.
      However, it becomes a different issue e.g. on this CSH in the video which is a straight track with people cycling fast in opposite directions.

  2. Clive Durdle says:

    Width is a major issue – see ian and cycle design vehicle

    And two way next to a bus stop?

  3. Bmblbzzz says:

    That all seems sensible. In the case of that particular crash, there were oncoming cyclists a few seconds before the collision so it seems highly unlikely anyone involved failed to realize it was a two-way section. Nevertheless, a centre line might have helped avoid the situation by making it clear exactly where each cyclist could expect to ride.

    In fact, ISTR that the WHO recommended consistent centre-line marking as one of the easiest ways to improve life expectancy in ‘the developing world’; it’s counted as a health measure because globally, road accidents are a significant cause of death.

  4. Paul Luton says:

    An interesting post; especially as removing centre lines from roads is seen as an effective way of reducing speed and making them more cycle-friendly. It also reduces the tendency of drivers to squeeze past cyclists to avoid crossing the centre line. I suppose that a significant difference is that roads are bi-directional by default whereas ?most? cycle tracks beside carriageways are uni-directional.

  5. Paul Luton says:

    Putting in a centre line might make too obvious how narrow the track is !

  6. D. says:

    As regards the cycler path next to a bus stop island: isn’t it “common sense” to look both ways before crossing a marked cycle path, regardless of whether it has a centre line? I mean, even it is *was* a one way path, there’s always the possibility of a cyclist travelling against the flow. I hate it when people say “common sense”, but still…

    • Of course, but the point of good design is to reduce the chances of mistakes occurring. It’s good practice to look both ways regardless, but not everyone will, and a centre line will reduce the number of people making a mistake.

      • Sykles says:

        Absolutely agree with the article and what you write here Aseasyasriding – all road users are more likely to take the 2-way fact in subliminally because everyone knows what a centre line means without having to remember to use common sense.

  7. SteveP says:

    One thing that confused me when I moved to the UK many years ago was that a white line in the center of the road does not indicate a one-way system. In the US and Canada, opposing lanes of traffic are always divided by a yellow line and same-way lanes by white markings. Therefore it is instantly obvious when you are within a one-way system or two-way, even on a rainy night in unfamiliar territory.

    In the UK, white lines just divide lanes – could be from a cycle lane, same way traffic or oncoming traffic. I’ve turned into streets and because all the parked cars on both sides were facing me, slowed to a crawl thinking I had turned into a one-way street the wrong way by mistake. But no, it’s just that most of the residents arrive from the other direction,and unlike other places, there is no prohibition against parking the “wrong” way (although, technically, they had to drive on the wrong side to do so).

    So – in my opinion, the UK’s traffic engineers delude themselves that their ways are the “best” without awareness of how other countries do some things better. Not long ago there was a BBC show about how wonderful UK motorway signage is? What??? Have they never been anywhere else? France is ten times better – for one thing, they have redundant signage in the central reservation, so you can see exit signs that are invariably blocked by large trucks otherwise. Really.

    • Mike says:

      An interesting view from abroad Steve, and you raise some valid points. But you must remember we start from where we are and systems grow incrementally; it’s only after some time that hindsight provides us with reason to reflect. And often it’s too expensive or too complicated to go back and start again.
      Our white lane-lines make perfect sense when you consider that parking restrictions are marked in yellow. Too many colours would make for confusion especially on our narrow, congested streets. In any case all one-way streets have high level restriction signs in bright red and white; you have to be trying quite hard to miss them.
      And, over here at least, there is no “wrong” side of the road. It’s where you are while performing certain manoeuvres, overtaking for example.
      Whilst you are right to say there is no general prohibition on parking facing oncoming traffic, it is illegal at night. Not that you would know it as such minor rules are rarely enforced; the police have better things to do.
      Finally, how you can say the French motorway signs are better than ours when they are written in a foreign language is a mystery to me. And I have been to Dieppe.

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        The systems are collapsing incrementally. Older bidirectional tracks in the Borough of Kingston upon Thames all have centre lane markings (as do those in adjacent boroughs IIRC). Here’s two:

        https://goo.gl/maps/p773ZQdCg8P2
        https://goo.gl/maps/wdXSZ82EGuR2

        The brand new bidirectional path along Portsmouth Road in Kingston-upon-Thames lacks centre line markings for most of it’s length* but does have diagram 1057 symbols.

        This lack of centre lining seems to have started since TfL commissioned an international best practice report** before producing the LCDS. Unfortunately, they seem to have a) gone for a pic’n’mix approach integrated with the TSRGD, and b) made the decisions without much further consulting with the various foreign Cycling Embassies, -izes etc, presumably under the philosophy that they know their local roads best.

        In the best-practice report, the only places that are shown consistently without many paths with central lines (and I don’t know much about to contradict) are places in Sweden. Christchurch New Zealand is not shown with any, though the cyclingchristchurch blog seems to show some, while curiously, none are illustrated for Utrecht. Everywhere else centre lines are pretty standard.

        Anyway, not much of this has filtered into the LCDS; the longest section I could find (6.3.14) says:

        “Where centre lines are omitted – for example, where flows are expected to be tidal and designers wish to suggest there is more flexibility in use of width – an alternative may be the use of pairs of diagram 1057 cycle symbols in opposing directions.”

        This is bizarre. No traffic flow is absolutely tidal and who on earth needs telling when there’s “more flexibility” ? Certainly not the good folk of Bradford:

        https://goo.gl/maps/AoiaGqvxXCL2

      • SteveP says:

        Thanks – I do understand that change is hard and once the public “educated” into a system it is difficult to undo. That said, the use of yellow/white lane markings are very helpful and as mentioned, seen instantly even on a rainy evening. There are so many signs in cities like London trying to actually read them while driving would be dangerous if it were not simply impossible. In the US and Canada (and elsewhere away from British indoctrination) the emphasis is on driving safely and parking is considered (as it should be, IMO) secondary. Driving the wrong way on one-way systems cause death and injury regularly – bad parking, not so much.

        As to French signage, I am reminded of a Mr. Wyatt trying to book a hotel in France but having trouble making himself understood. ‘Allow me to spell it phonetically” he said. “Waterloo, Ypres, Agincourt, Trafalgar, Trafalgar!” 🙂

      • Jitensha Oni says:

        [Bah, first attempt at a post before SteveP’s 2nd seems not to have worked, so…]

        Rather than growing, your systems are collapsing – incrementally. Older bidirectional tracks near me in the Borough of Kingston-upon-Thames all have centre lane markings (as do those in adjacent boroughs IIRC). Here’s two:

        https://goo.gl/maps/p773ZQdCg8P2
        https://goo.gl/maps/wdXSZ82EGuR2

        The brand new bidirectional path along Portsmouth Road in Kingston-upon-Thames lacks centre line markings for most of it’s length* but does have diagram 1057 symbols.

        This lack of centre lining seems to have largely started since TfL commissioned an international best practice report** before producing the LCDS. Unfortunately, they seem to have a) gone for a pic’n’mix approach integrated with the TSRGD, and b) made the decisions without much further consulting with the various foreign Cycling Embassies, -izes etc., presumably under the philosophy that they know their local roads best.

        In the best-practice report, the only places shown consistently without many paths with central lines (and I don’t know much about to contradic) are places in Sweden. Christchurch New Zealand is not shown with any, though cyclingchristchurch blog seems to show some, while curiously, none are illustrated for Utrecht.

        Anyway, not much of this has filtered into the LCDS; the longest section I could find (6.3.14) says:

        “Where centre lines are omitted – for example, where flows are expected to be tidal and designers wish to suggest there is more flexibility in use of width – an alternative may be the use of pairs of diagram 1057 cycle symbols in opposing directions.”

        This is bizarre. No traffic flow is absolutely tidal and who on earth needs telling when there’s “more flexibility” ? Certainly not the good folk of Bradford:

        https://goo.gl/maps/AoiaGqvxXCL2

        *It does have them at junctions and where the track crosses contrasting paving in the shared use section.

        ** http://content.tfl.gov.uk/international-cycling-infrastructure-best-practice-study.pdf
        http://content.tfl.gov.uk/international-cycling-infrastructure-best-practice-study-appendix.pdf

  8. Jim Stanton says:

    The Dutch cycle centre line is very minimalist. Short dashes with long gaps. It is a reminder that the cycleway runs both ways, but it is only a suggestion, it feels like you can ride where you like. If there is no oncoming cyclists then people can spread out to fill both lanes, and then squeeze up again when someone comes the other way. Bikes are not cars, and they only need a ‘light touch’ to guide them safely, so the road marking match the behaviours.

    Most British cycle centre lines are too heavy, they feel like a car centre line separating MY lane from YOUR lane. Like crossing it is a risk. Maybe this is why they are not often used.

    Cyclists don’t need lanes. As you say, we just need to know there is a chance of two-way traffic.

    Maybe it is not a big deal, but I think the little details are important.

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  10. Phil Jones says:

    TfL decided to omit centrelines on CSH because they thought it would increase capacity during peak hours, where flows are tidal. As joint author of the international best practice study I thought that was a mistake – still do.

    • Mark Williams says:

      Perhaps, maybe, the `mistaken’ application of wishy-washy `guidelines’ where rigid [compulsory] standards would be more appropriate, i.e. providing less leeway for incompetent or hostile practitioners to design bad stuff? Presumably, it was a hard requirement to move the dashed line in the seventh picture above a mere ~100 mm to the left and add solid double lines to the right—all paid for with the cycling budget?

      Longitudinal markings haven’t stopped UK carriageway users from crossing onto the `wrong’ side of a road or changing lanes since their introduction nearly 100 years ago. It just tells us what we might expect to encounter there. Without evidence to the contrary, there is no reason to suppose it would be any different for cycleways. Instead of constantly trying to re-invent the wheel (as a heptagon, in this case) for cycling, why not simply instantiate the same carriageway dash patterns/ solid line/ hatching with a maximum width of 50 mm and height of ~2 mm? BTW, the latter is the main part which makes them uncomfortable to cycle over.

      • MJ Ray says:

        Indeed. What’s more, the difference between different approaches (centre lines or opposed cycle symbols) is minor, but what really hurts is the lack of consistency so almost no users ever know what to expect and often the most aggressive users dictate usage. 😦

  11. MJ Ray says:

    Cambridge seems to use the pairs of cycle symbols, either both the same way up (one way) or opposed (two way).

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