Last year I wrote about a section of the A23 – a Highways England-administered road – that had been widened (or ‘upgraded’) from a four lane to a six lane road, matching the motorway-like nature of the rest of this road as it runs south from Crawley (an extension of the M23 motorway) to the south coast at Brighton.
The subject of that post was principally the cycling and walking facilities that had been built as part of those construction works.
Prior to construction (between 2011 and 2014) this road was essentially a complete no-go area for walking and cycling, with no alternative but to cycle on a carriageway with a 70mph speed limit, carrying nearly 70,000 vehicles a day. There is now an alternative that is – for the most part – very good.
As I write this, a similar construction project is underway on another Highways England road, a section of the A21 between Tunbridge and Pembury, on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. This road is not as busy as the A23, carrying nearly 40,000 vehicles per day, it involves converting a single carriageway road into a dualled four lane road, rather than a six lane road.
But it is very reminiscent, in that it involves adding a lane in each direction, and in the fact that parallel walking and cycling provision is being provided alongside this new ‘upgraded’ section of road. Again, like the A23, there was no cycling (or walking!) provision along the (single carriageway) pre-construction A21.
Last week Tunbridge Wells Bicycle User Group were invited to take a look at how construction of this parallel provision was coming along, with completion of the whole project due in September, and I was kindly invited along too.
As you will see from the photographs that follow, the whole scheme is very much a work in progress. But the cycling and walking provision looks like it will be of a high standard.
Starting at the southern (Tunbridge Wells) end, the path runs northwards parallel to what will be a motor traffic slip road, joining the main A21.
The path here is something like 2.5-3m wide, which I think will be wide enough, especially given that, along this southern stretch, there will be parallel provision on the other side of the dual carriageway (but we didn’t get to see that, because of the nature of the construction work).
I suspect, going by what we saw, this will actually be the worst part of this path alongside the A21. The biggest issue here will be the proximity of the path to the carriageway; it certainly felt quite exposed walking along here, even with the lower traffic speeds on the A21 through the roadworks. There is definitely a need for some kind of barrier and (ideally) one that has some noise abatement function.
Further north, the path will be further way from the road.
Here we can see the new northbound carriageway, serving as a two-way A21 while construction takes places on the southbound carriageway, at the extreme right. We are walking on what is left of the old A21, which will form the foundations for the new path. The separation is much better here, although again it would be good to have something between the path and the road for more comfort.
Approximately one quarter of the way along the upgraded section of road, there is a an underbridge junction (helpfully marked as ‘underbridge’ on the map, above!), connecting up some rural lanes on the eastern side of the road. This bit of road also serves as the access point, off the A21, for the existing houses along the former road.
The road is (deliberately) bendy, to slow drivers down as they enter this new environment. The path will continue northwards alongside it, without interruption, although we were told it will be slightly narrower here, and closer to the road. The photograph above shows approximately where it will go, to the left of the road. There will (theoretically) be very little motor traffic here, and a lower speed too, so this proximity is not too much of a problem.
If you continue cycling north, you will then be using the former A21 road, which we walked along.
This will now serve as the access road for the handful of houses (four or so) along this old section of the A21 – you can see one of them to the left, in the photograph above. Although people who live here will now have slightly longer car journeys (this ‘service road’ will be a dead end to motor traffic, meaning they will have to drive back to the previous junction to join the A21) these residents will have a much better environment, living next to a very quiet lane instead of next to a fast, busy trunk road carrying 37,000 vehicles a day.
I shot a short video at this spot to give some idea of the change in nature of this road. You can still hear the A21, behind the bank, but it’s possible to talk quietly, and hear birdsong.
This service road continues northwards, running in parallel to the new road. For me the most impressive part of the new route is this cutting.
Again, we see motor traffic running in two directions on what will be the northbound carriageway. Meanwhile we are walking on what will become the dead-end service road, or cycle path (it will be gated at approximately this location, to stop drivers using it to continue northbound). Clearly, an enormous amount of ‘extra’ earth has been removed here to create a wide path, with good separation from the new A21.
The path will also be fenced off from the A21; we could see the fence under construction as we walked northwards.
In the distance here is the extent of the route we were able to walk; construction is still taking place. But even so we were able to get within a few hundred metres of the junction to the south of Tonbridge; this will form a very useful link between the two towns, which are only about four miles apart.
The real problem is going to be ensuring that Kent County Council (and the local borough councils) manage to build routes of this quality right into their town centres. This route will only connect up the outskirts of both towns; for people to cycle between them, they need the same high standard of facility along the length of their journey. If they have to battle along motor-traffic dominated roads just to reach this new path, then its potential will not even be remotely fulfilled.
Of course, in one sense it is relatively easy to build cycling infrastructure alongside this kind of road scheme. For a start it is something of a blank slate; the cycling infrastructure can simply be delivered with the project. And in addition there aren’t the kinds of issues that make building cycle routes in urban areas more problematic. To take just one example, there aren’t many junctions to deal with – the cycleway simply runs alongside the road. These are problems that will have to be overcome at a local level.
That said, it is very encouraging that a scheme that was developed many years ago is coming to fruition with what looks like a very useful piece of cycle provision embedded within it. Even within the last few years, Highways England have been moving forwards on the design of cycling infrastructure, so it is good to see something of this quality that dates from before those improvements. Highways England standards like IAN 195/16 – Cycle Traffic and the Strategic Road Network – represent one of the best avenues for ensuring that cycling is properly designed into our road network, at every level.
The challenge is going to be ensuring that provision of this quality is built into the existing Highways England (and regional equivalent) road network, not just into new schemes like this one, and even more importantly, ensuring it happens outside of the Highways England road network – where these new routes bump against the remit of local authorities who may have little or no experience, enthusiasm, or funding. If that doesn’t happen, then routes like this one will be isolated and underused – a waste of their potential, which would be a great pity.
My thanks to TWBUG, and to Alison from Balfour Beatty and Tom from Highways England for showing us around.