Monday 14 June 2010

14 and a half feet please

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The image above is from a cycle path which I use for a good part of my commute. I've written before about how this path is great for commuting at a decent pace, and shown how this cycle path has priority over side roads. The cycle paths here are 2.5 m ( 8 feet ) wide, that's the minimum allowed for a unidirectional cycle path. Such paths should also be separated from the road by a minimum of 1.5 m (just short of five feet), however, in this case, the separation is actually about 4.5 m ( 14 and a half feet ).

Back in Britain there is currently a campaign called "3 feet please" (link is not longer correct), which is asking merely for motorists to give cyclists 3 feet ( 0.9 m ) of clearance as they pass cyclists. The campaigners behind this correctly notice that "Fear of traffic" (i.e. a lack of Subjective Safety) prevents people from cycling in Britain, but their suggested fix is woefully inadequate.

"3 feet please" didn't originate in Britain. It is actually an idea that the British have imported from the USA. The problem is that while this passing distance requirement is law in some American states, the cycling rate in the USA is just as low as it is in the UK. Britain copying America or America copying Britain is never going to result in a high rate of cycling (and you can add any of the other English speaking countries to this. Australia, New Zealand etc. They all have about the lowest rate of cycling it is possible to have).

It's no good looking to where people don't cycle to find ways to encourage people. You need to look to where people cycle a lot. The Netherlands leads the world by a wide margin. 3 feet is not enough. Complete segregation of cyclists from motorists is what is actually required to make the masses feel that cycling is safe. It's also required to make cycling efficient and safe.

This can be achieved by a combination of two means: high quality cycle-paths with proper traffic light and roundabout design, and by treatment of roads to achieve segregation without cycle-paths. The concepts of Sustainable Safety lie behind the Dutch success.

The Dutch highway code tells drivers to pass cyclists with a minimum 1 to 1.5 m gap. However just like everywhere else this doesn't mean it actually happens because just as everywhere else, drivers make mistakes. What keeps cyclists safe in the Netherlands is not tbe law but the physical infrastructure which exists where most cycled journeys are made. To learn from the Netherlands it is necessary to emulate the things which really make a difference here, not just anything which is "Dutch". Note that the example cyclists are shown riding side-by-side. That's normal in the Netherlands.
This infrastructure isn't only for high speed adult commuters. I also made a video showing how school children use this same cycle path to get into the city from a village. Note also that in this instance the cycle paths have a concrete surface which is smoother, and faster to ride on than the asphalt of the road. This type of surface is increasingly common in the Netherlands.


Anonymous said...

Hi David,

This looking at worst-practice for advice on best-practice is all too familiar here in Australia...

Our state politicians have spent a fortune on trips to Los Angeles to learn how to improve our public transport of all things! I thought it was a joke when I read about it - I almost choked.

I keep writing to them telling them of this place called Europe; a place which was born before cheap oil and will fare better than us after it. Having said that, urban sprawl seems to be hitting some countries in Europe of late - a worrying trend at this point in history.

What do they build for our future in Australia? McMansions in the middle of nowhere; Roads - lots of them - with token cycleways nearby which lead nowhere.

Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

Martin said...

Totally agree David , here is Aus we have the Campaign " A Metre matters" same idea ,by the Amy Gillet foundation. ( . Amy Gillet sadly lost here life while training on roads in Germany in 2005. There are a number of people including myself saying that this is not enough clearance particularly on major arterial roads and highways. A physical separation is needed but as our per capital funding is less than double figures,doesn't look like will be getting much improvement soon.

Marco te Br├Âmmelstroet said...

Hey David,

From a safety point, I completely agree. But we should be careful (or at least aware) of the political reality. In Munich, asking something like this will be "cycling political suicide". I wrote a response

Anonymous said...

I have been looking afresh at our local roads and some could be easily and cheaply altered to allow for good cycle routes although getting the 1.5m separation may be difficult. I see the possible option as being a 4m wide two way route plus 1.5m separation and then the two lanes of motorised traffic. The Badminton Road through Coalpit Heath is three lanes wide, about 10m in total, and about 5km long. The third lane is in part a bus lane but mostly a central refuge lane for cars that are turning right. There is a length of basic cycle lane at the northern end of the road but it is narrow and lacks any protection. The space that could be useful in terms of cycle safety is given over to the convenience of the motorised traffic, a feature that also brings a high average speed.
I nod to Marco, but as for cycling suicide in the UK we have already arrived, this is the end game and with the costs of owning a car going up we are all losers.
Mark Garrett, Bristol UK

Anonymous said...


Do not forget that the '14 feet between' bicycle path David wrote about is a path *between* cities, next to a *highway*, NOT a path within city limits.

People tend to think that ALL Dutch cyclepaths are separated. Not so.

It's very simple.

Within citylimits there are streets where cars are not allowed to ride faster than 30 km/hr (or even slower than that) such as the Haarlemmerstraat (as shown). Here cyclists are not separated from cars, as traffic is effectively 'calmed down'. Where cars are allowed to go faster, bicycles are totally separated, and between highways (80-120 km/hr) and cyclepaths, such as the path David described, there is a 14 feet distance.

The faster and therefore more dangerous the cars are, the more separated the bicycles are.

(I'm sure David could explain it all far better than lil' ol' me)


freewheeler said...

My impression is that few cycling activists in Britain are enthusiastic about this campaign, on the pragmatic grounds that even if it passed into law, who would enforce it?

When even something as rudimentary as Advanced Stop Lines for cyclists are not enforced, campaigning for legislation of this sort seems utterly pointless.

In any case, any responsible driver would give a cyclist far more than a metre.

I'm afraid '3 feet please' is just another time-wasting initiative which diverts attention and energy away from the need to provide safe, convenient cycling infrastructure.

British cycle campaigning seems prepared to embrace anything and everything except the concept of safe segregated infrastructure, which is why cycling's modal share is unlikely to grow significantly in any British town or city.

In my outer London borough conditions for cycling are very definitely getting worse not better, and transport infrastructure remains comprehensively car-centric.

ibikelondon said...

I'm inclined to agree with Freewheeler here; the law in the UK already stipulates that other traffic should give a cyclist as much room as a car when overtaking (ie. considerably more than 3 'feet', whatever they are) If the UK is so set on going down the vehicular cycling route then do it wholeheartedly and make the campaign 'As much room as another car please', otherwise, like David said, let's get building some decent infrastructure!

Soft campaigns like cycle awareness and cycle training are all OK, but couple them with really good quality infrastructure that provide true subjective safety and you have a velorution on your hands...

Anonymous said...

I founded the 3 Feet Please campaign in the UK. Yes it originated in USA but so did Coca Cola and Brits still seem to enjoy it.

It's not cycling activists who need to be convinced to give cyclists more room, it's motorists.

Hence a clear, simple message that's easily understood by all road users.

Sure, segregation would be great but in London at least there's no room and no money so it's not going to happen.

Campaigning for behaviour change is more realistic right now. And BTW it's not just 3 feet, it's a minimum of 3 feet - big difference.

Please visit and vote your support!

David Hembrow said...

David: please don't take it personally. You're trying to encourage a change for the better, and that's to be applauded.

Britain has a long history of looking to the US for inspiration, whether or not it makes sense. The US has produced many great things, but it's simply not the place to look to find out about mass cycling (or for solutions to other problems that Britain has looked to the US for guidance on, such as obesity or gang violence).

But why are you making excuses for the government's lack of action ? London has plenty of room. There are any number of wide roads in the city which if they were in the Netherlands would have rather better infrastructure than they do now. There are also any number of one-way streets which could be beneficial for cyclists instead of problematic if only the road network was designed as it is in the Netherlands. The pitiful amounts of cycle parking across London and the UK as a whole are also a problem. Campaigners should criticise these things, not make excuses for them.

And "no money" really is not a good excuse ? Building cycling infrastructure has been shown many times to pay back for itself several times over, including very recently in the UK. If you have little money, it's a very good idea to spend a part of what you have on cycling. The Dutch have always recognised the fiscal effect of investment in cycling.

Besides, there is money in Britain. Plenty of it. It's just not being spent on cycling. Britain had plenty recently for baling out the banks, and still has plenty to continue building roads and fighting wars. These things consume more than it would cost to start building proper cycling infrastructure across the entire country.

freewheeler said...

David Love’s position seems to me to be comprehensively wrong. It is helpful to have him expressing his views here but I am dismayed to hear someone who is ‘LCC Trustee and Vice Chair’ putting forward a position which seems to me amazingly ignorant. It reinforces my view that the London Cycling Campaign is a major obstacle to the development of mass cycling in London.

The LCC is in love with spin, stunts and froth of which the ‘3 feet please’ campaign is a perfect example. It is a nonsensical campaign which is going nowhere, just like the LCC’s fatuous policy statement about the future of cycling and its delusionary belief that mass cycling will somehow happen without the infrastructure to support it. The LCC is an organisation in denial. It came up with fantastic targets in the 1990s, which have not been met. Instead of asking why it simply embraces new and equally meaningless targets.

It is utter rubbish to say that there is no room in London for safe segregated cycling infrastructure. The West End is full of very wide streets where Dutch-style infrastructure is perfectly possible. Safe segregated cycling infrastructure is equally possible in the outer London borough where I live. The basic challenge is to remove on-street car parking.

The money is also there. It’s a question of what you want to spend it on. Cycling campaigners get excited when they are given crumbs, meanwhile millions are spent on road ‘improvements’ designed to promote motor vehicle flow.

‘Campaigning for behaviour change’ among motorists strikes me as pointless and bizarre. London’s drivers are not prepared to comply with quite basic traffic law. Somehow hoping that we can persuade them to be nicer to cyclists is a waste of time. Most London drivers have never ridden a bicycle in their lives, so asking them to empathise with cyclists is futile.

David Love’s notion of ‘realism’ seems to me all too typical of the ostrich-like mentality of Britain’s leading cycling campaigners. Cycle campaigning in Britain has been a failure on a massive scale at both a national and local level and it’s time to hold failed organisations like the LCC and CTC to account. Vehicular cycling has failed and trying to change the behaviour of motorists is a failed strategy. Only Dutch-style infrastructure will work, but this is something both the LCC and CTC shut their eyes to, run as they are by vehicular cycling ideologues who are blind both their history of failure and the possibilities which safe and convenient segregated cycling infrastructure open up.

Glenn said...

I live in the U.S., and I'd love to have even a 3 foot bike lane along the edge of the road. That being said, the State Highway running by our land has a 60 foot right of way, but the road, fog line to fog line, is only 22 1/2 feet. That leaves 18 3/4 feet on each side for a foot path, bike path and plenty of separation for all.
Of course, this is the U.S., the State Department of "Transportation" (automobile transportation anyway) will never fund bicycle infrastructure, as everyone knows cycling is "sport", not "transport". Sigh.


John in NH said...

The three feet laws in many states (including my home state) are good for the environment we have to bicycle in right now. Many times I know a car could not possibly give me three feet due to a very narrow road, so I take the lane, I hate doing so but I will if I need to. That being said I fear that many cycling advocacy groups (including the one I am interning with) make small targets and make do with that. Instead of advocating for full separated infrastructure (no matter if the money or road width is there or not) and then negotiating down as needed to fit the space, they start at the lowest level of poor on street bike lanes of only 3 feet and call it good for now with maybe the push for more later. I feel this is a major problem with many advocates; they negotiate themselves down before the negotiations even start. In the US being a supporter of fully separated infrastructure means you are an idealist and are not living with reality.

However, that does not need to be the case. While I personally advocate for separation and look at all roads and imagine how they could work if separated, I still have the understanding that it likely will not happen that way. But, if nobody advocates for the best we could possibly have, how do we even think to ever have true cycling rates of over 30%. Separation is not always the best solution, however when federal policy says speed limits in towns and cities are normally set at 30mph, on street lanes are not proper in that situation. We need to lower the town speeds to 25 and then 20, and below in residential areas, only then, when cyclists are going the same speed as cars, will many feel safe being on the roads. Providing good intersections and good intercity connections are key, rail trails can help with both of them providing grade-separated infrastructure between many communities.

We all (in the English speaking countries) need to stop making due with pittance and advocate for true infrastructure, if we don’t get it ok, in many cases on road cycle lanes are more unsafe (despite the rise in subjective safety) than none at all. Getting on roads paths and calling it good is not going to get us much above 8-10% mode share (if that). In many ways, organizations are still hampered by the vehicular cyclists that ran them for so many years (including mine until relatively recently). It is hard to escape that, but learning from The Netherlands, and Denmark even is how we can achieve cycling rates. We can do it, it can happen, but only if we stop negotiating down before we even start.

The views expressed here are mine alone and unfortunately do not yet represent the views of the Massachusetts Bicycling Association (although they do understand that separation is the only way to get cyclists on the road)

Phil R. said...

Where I live there is little chance of ever having such infrastructure. Though the road right of way is wide enough for it.

By the way the head of Giant Cycles of Taiwan is currently cycling around The Netherlands looking at your cycling infrastructure. They hope to bring this to Taiwan.

Kevin Love said...

A photo of my favorite Toronto cycle infrastructure may be found here:

Segregated, safe and with barriers sufficient to stop the largest of out-of-control trucks.

Brian Jones said...

When I see these bike facilities in rural areas I always wonder what was involved politically and logistically in acquiring the land alongside these roads. Was compulsory purchase involved? Was there initially any opposition? What was done to placate this opposition?

I ask this because I often wonder what we can learn in the UK about how to construct a rural cycle infrastructure.