Between 2011 and 2014, a relatively short 2.5 mile stretch of the A23 (the trunk road running between London and Brighton, on the south coast) was widened from two lanes in each direction, to three. This was a £79 million project – the plans for which are available here – which brought this short stretch of 4 lane dual carriageway into the line with the six-lane nature of the rest of the road. The A23 is now very much a motorway-style road.
Part of this upgrade included a properly separated walking and cycling route. Prior to the widening project, if you wanted to cycle along this stretch of the A23, you had to do so… on the carriageway itself.
The A23 cycling environment, in 2008.
This road carried (and still carries) around 60-70,000 vehicles a day, travelling at high speeds, so really, anything would be an improvement, compared to cycling in this kind of environment, which is only something the most hardcore nutters would even consider.
I’ve been told that the Highways Agency are proud of what they’ve done for cycling as part of this project – that they think it’s really excellent. So, my curiosity piqued, I headed out to have a look at it.
The first thing to say is, it’s much, much better than anything else I’ve seen built for cycling in this area. There aren’t any barriers along it, the path is smooth, and it looks like it’s been well-built (I guess it helps if motorway contractors are building it as part of a much larger scheme), and it’s reasonably direct. I’ve been passed comments by local cycling campaigners who have used words like ‘excellent’ to describe it, and ‘pleasantly surprised’.
To be fair, I was actually pleasantly surprised myself – it was better than I expected. But (and here’s the ‘but’) – ‘much, much better’ than infrastructure that’s been built in West Sussex is the definition of faint praise. It’s not really that hard to exceed expectations here, because the infrastructure is either non-existent, or dismally bad – even stuff that’s being built in 2015.
So while this section of the A23 is usable, and good by local standards, by Dutch standards – and by the standards we should be aspiring to – it’s pretty poor. It’s not of an acceptable width, and on the few occasions where it does have to deal with ‘technicalities’ (i.e. crossing roads and entrances) it fails dismally.
I’m reluctant to criticise the Highways Agency here. They have at least thought about designing for cycling, and done a reasonable job. But given that this was a £79m project, involving substantial engineering, basics like building the path wider than an (in my opinion, unsafe) width of two metres should really have happened as a matter of course. It would have cost next to nothing extra, in relative terms, set against the massive overall cost. But let’s have a look at it.
I cycled from south to north, and then back again; most of my photographs were taken on the northbound trip. I joined the scheme pretty much where it starts, at the ‘Warninglid’ junction, where the Cuckfield Road crosses the A23 on a bridge.
Looking north, heading down towards the A23, on the right of the photograph.
It was a little unnerving cycling down here, towards a slip road onto a massive trunk road. It just didn’t feel like somewhere you should be on a bike, given the long history of abandoning cycling on these kinds of roads in Britain. It’s the kind of environment I’ve approached in trepidation before, carefully assessing where I might need to bail out and retrace my steps. But sure enough, at the roundabout there were small cycling signs pointing in the direction of Handcross, sending me down a service road, marked as a ‘dead end’.
We really need to start putting exemption plates on these signs; it’s a dead end for motor traffic, but it isn’t for walking and cycling. It’s a route.
This turned out to be absolutely fine. The service road leads to two businesses – a car dealership, and a garden centre. That’s it. The entrances and exits to these businesses that used to exist on the A23 have been closed off, and the A23 is fenced away, on the right.
I only met one vehicle going down this stretch of road. Perhaps the road itself it could be designed a little bit better. The limit is marked at 40mph, which seemed a bit too high for a cycle route, and given the likely volume of motor traffic here it might make more sense to adopt ‘Dutch style’ cycle lane markings on either side, and no centre line. But despite that I think it works – service roads like this can be good cycling environments if traffic volumes are low, and that appears to be the case here.
At the end of the service road, there is another set of (confusing) ‘dead end’ signs. If you’re walking or cycling, again, you have to ignore these, because the ‘dead end’ is your route.
As the service road comes to an end, you are directed onto a 2m path, pretty close to the A23, but still shielded by a wooden fence. It feels okay, but (and this is my major quibble) it’s just not wide enough for a two-way path.
The path then meanders around a spill pond, presumably designed to ‘capture’ run-off from the A23 to prevent flooding. This pond must requires motor vehicle access, because the path immediately widens to 4m.
The stingy 2m path instantly becomes 4m at the point motor vehicle access is required.
This was the best bit of the entire ‘upgraded’ route. The path was beautifully wide and smooth, and a good distance away from the A23 itself. We then meet Slaugham Lane, a minor country lane that used to have entry and exit slips onto the A23 – dangerous ones, which have sensibly now been closed, just like the direct entry and exit points for the garden centre, which is now only on a service road.
This is the right thing to do – it doesn’t make sense to have a motorway-style road butting immediately onto a small country lane, or onto businesses. There were some local objections to the loss of this junction, because they now have to drive further, but if you’re going to turn an A-road into something like a motorway, then that should also mean decreasing the number of access points. Motorways (and trunk roads) should be for long-distance trips, not for enabling short ones.
This ‘closure’ now means this country lane is completely separated from the A23 (except on foot and bike, of course), so it’s even quieter than it was before. This is definitely a positive outcome. We do, however, have to cross under the A23 (on the bridges in the photograph above), because the path switches sides and continues northwards on the other side of it, the east side.
Here we turn left onto the old entry/exit slip road leading back up to the southbound A23, which is now only an access to a farm and to the continuing cycle path beside the main road. (Annoyingly, it’s another misleading ‘dead end’ sign).
This section is, unfortunately, not as good – we’re back to a measly 2m. Meanwhile the farm has a nice and generous new 4m concrete road, as if to say, here’s what you could have won.
And it is very close to the road. HGVs come whistling past you a few metres away, as there’s no hard shoulder.
People commented on Twitter when I shared this picture that they would ‘take this’, given that it is on the correct side of the crash barrier, and that many UK A-roads don’t have anything like this, at all. That’s fair enough, but I don’t think our current low horizons and low expectations should mean being satisfied with something that is substandard. It can and should be better. In fact at this width I think this path is dangerously narrow for two-way cycling, given that this section of the A23 is on a reasonably steep hill.
This is what a path beside a major road should look like.
Wide enough to not have to worry about oncoming traffic. But clearly the people who built the path beside the A23 think, like me, that it is dangerously narrow, because there are six ‘SLOW’ markings painted on the path in the downhill direction.
It’s very easy to pick up speed here, given a continuous gradient of 6-8%. Just freewheeling on the way back down my speed quickly got up to 20mph, which felt very fast on such a narrow path. If I’d met anyone coming the other way I would have felt the need to slow down a lot more, and that’s really not good enough on a path built beside a motorway, designed for 70mph+ speeds. It’s the same basic template as the motorway – no bends, good sightlines – that should allow high speeds, but the width is so miserly ‘SLOW’ signs have had to be painted on it. That’s pretty embarrassing.
Slightly alarmingly the path is littered with debris from motor vehicles, particularly the legacy of HGV tyre blowouts. This reminds you just how close you are to the road, in case you had forgotten.
On the approach to Handcross, the northern end of this upgraded and ‘cycle proofed’ road, we encounter the one and only side road this project had to deal with. And it’s a big fat failure.
The cycleway quickly shows its true colours, reverting to footway-specific design, with sharp corners, no markings to indicate what you should be doing if you are on a bike (just like a pavement) and some tactiles to bump over.
This isn’t even really a side road; it’s just an entrance to a business, and not even a major one at that, just a chap selling vintage sculptures out of what looks like a a caravan. I suspect it would be quite easy to give cycling priority across the side road, given the very, very limited use of this entrance, and the fact it’s on the slip road, not the A23 itself. But priority or no priority isn’t really the issue. I wouldn’t have minded a two-stage non-priority cycle crossing. The real problem here is the ambiguity, and the lazy, easy (and crap) option of just designing a footway and then plonking cycling on it with a blue roundel, the kind of thing that is just so awfully typical in new ‘design’ for cycling in places that just don’t care. A two-way cycle-route crossing an entrance like this could be so much better.
So the ‘test’ of the one side road that had to be dealt with was flunked. That’s not particularly confidence-inspiring, if the Highways Agency think this a good scheme.
The path then goes up the slip road coming out Handcross village. Unfortunately the path stops halfway up the slip road, meaning you have to cross it (heading either south or north) just at the point motorists are accelerating towards motorway speeds, to join the A23.
Again, this is poor design. Cycling out of the village in the direction the photograph is taken, I have to look back through 180° over my left shoulder to see whether any motor vehicles are coming (at ever increasing speeds at this point) before attempting to cross, again on some bumpy tactiles that require 90° turns. ‘Box ticked’, in that some ‘cycle provision’ is here, but if this is the kind of thing that the Highways Agency are doing across Britain, then I think we should be concerned.
From what I’ve seen from this short stretch of the A23, ‘providing for cycling’ seems to involve putting a 2m footway alongside the road in question, designing it for walking, and then…. just allowing cycling on it. The sections of this ‘improved’ stretch of the A23 that are good – the service road, and the access road to the pond – are good simply because they’ve been designed for motor vehicles. If people weren’t going to be driving on these stretches, they would be the same 2m path as the rest of it. And of course the ‘cycle provision’ disappears at junctions, where you have to cross the road like a pedestrian. For schemes beside trunk roads – fast, arterial roads – that simply shouldn’t be happening.
The other problem – and this isn’t the Highways Agency’s fault – is that these schemes are built in isolation from the surrounding area. So while this section of cycle facilities – despite its faults – does allow people to cycle along the A23, it simply doesn’t connect up with anything else, because it is surrounded by roads and bridleways controlled by West Sussex, who are still living in the Dark Ages as far as cycling infrastructure is concerned. Really, the Highways Agency’s engagement with ‘cycle proofing’ has to extend to the surrounding network controlled by local authorities, otherwise it is pretty meaningless – you simply won’t be able to get to the roads that are ‘cycle proofed’.
So it’s a start. But there’s a huge amount of room for improvement.