Tuesday 28 October 2014

Why do cyclists fear being banned from busy roads ? Is it faster to cycle on roads than cycle-paths ? What really makes cycling safe and convenient for everyone ?

Assen's cycle-racing circuit a few days
. The winner of this race averaged
59 km/h for 3/4 of an hour. The
fastest cycling takes place on tracks
which are away from motor vehicles.
All types of cycle racing are extra-
ordinarily popular in the Netherlands,
hence even many smaller cities have
specially built cycling circuits on
which people ride extremely quickly.
A fear which is often expressed, especially in the UK but also in other countries with little cycling, is that adoption of Dutch style cycling infrastructure will somehow lead to people being forced off the road. It is usually assumed that the road is the efficient place to cycle and that being forced off the road will be a problem for keen cyclists.

In fact, bicycles are at their fastest on specially built segregated infrastructure and on closed roads. If you don't believe me, try following this link, and also this one.

The no-cycling sign seems to wind up
some people. However when there's a
better alternative by cycle it's not a
problem to leave this road to the cars.
There is nothing inherent about being on a road with cars which makes cycling efficient. In fact, it's quite the reverse. For example, it is only because cars exist that traffic lights were ever invented. When cyclists have to stop at traffic lights, this is because the route which they are using is used by, or crosses, a route for cars.

The people who worry most about being banned also sometimes point at the Netherlands as being a place where cyclists have lost a right to ride on all roads. But how important is it to Dutch cyclists that they're not allowed to ride on every road ?

If you don't like the sign banning bikes,
then how do you feel about this sign ?
Both result in cycling without cars.
Where are the complaints in the Netherlands?
Actually, it turns out that this is not important at all. What matters in practice is that cyclists have a high density grid of high quality efficient routes to use to get to all possible locations. It's not very important at all that cyclists should go to the same places as cars can go to by following exactly the same routes. There's no reason to assume that the routes that cars are allowed to use are also the best routes for cyclists.

Unravelling of cycle routes from driving routes means that cyclists don't have to put up with infrastructure which is necessary for cars and the inconvenience of sharing roads with cars is removed. In the Netherlands cyclists often don't have to stop for traffic lights precisely because they're not riding with cars.

For example, in the city centre of Assen most streets are either not accessible by car, or have been made less useful by car than by bike. The result is very good conditions for cycling. Indeed, it's more efficient for cycling now than it used to be because getting rid of the cars meant that the many traffic lights which used to be present and which once delayed cyclists on city centre streets are no longer required.

Through the countryside, country roads have been made unusable or un-attractive to drivers and here too there are many cycle-paths which take more direct routes.

By making a distinction between cyclists and drivers, it's also possible for drivers to be built the sort of junctions that they need without cyclists needing to being aware of them at all.

Motorway south of Assen. I've never
even been tempted to cycle here. The
photo was taken from a bridge which is
only for bikes. Much more like it.
Why doesn't anyone complain about being banned from Motorways ?
How effective is the law which requires cyclists not to use motorways ? I would say it's barely worth having that law at all. People are sufficiently unenthusiastic about cycling on motorways that it is extremely rare that anyone does so, and the law is only part of the reason why people don't do so. It is so rare that people actually do ride their bikes on motorways that those who do this often end up on television. I've never heard of anyone fighting for the "right to ride" on motorways.

Distances here are often shorter by bike
than by car. It's not often so in the UK.
In the UK, main roads are sometimes built with dual carriageways and these are often motorways in all but name. The same speed limit applies and traffic levels can be very high. The main difference between dual carriageways and motorways is that it's required that motorways have a parallel route for the banned slow vehicles (not just bikes, also tractors, low power motorbikes etc.).

I still have the large collection of
Ordnance Survey maps which I
built up of places where I rode as
a touring cyclist in the UK.
Detailed tour planning was
required to minimise use
of unpleasant roads.
No vehicles are banned from dual carriageways so no parallel route has to be built. Despite the lack of an alternative route, cycling on dual carriageways is also almost unknown in the UK. That there is a law to ban people from cycling on motorways but not from dual carriageways is pretty much beside the point because few people cycle on either. In effect, dual carriageways and other busy roads already have a ban so far as most people are concerned. Cycling on such roads is so unpleasant that very few people care enough about their right to ride a bicycle in such conditions that they actually do so.

In the Netherlands I spend much less
time planning and much more time
enjoying fantastic conditions for
cycling. Being banned from roads
is simply not an issue when
cycle-paths are like this.
When I lived in the UK I was one of those rare people who actually did ride on dual carriageways sometimes. I would generally plan my routes to avoid unpleasant roads but if they were the only efficient route to my destination, I'd use them. This wasn't because they were pleasant but because I had a lack of choice.

However we have to recognise that even a short length of busy road may as well be a thousand miles so far as most people are concerned. Most people simply will not cycle in those conditions regardless of their right to do so.

No real reasons to complain
In the Netherlands I've never had a reason to ride on a road so unpleasant as those which I sometimes used quite frequently in the UK. Just as the UK provides an alternative to motorways for slower vehicles, the Netherlands provides cyclists with alternatives to unpleasant roads. These alternatives very often take shorter routes and quite often combine that with more pleasant scenery. They can even have a better surface than the road. It's not a hardship to use these routes at all, this just makes cycling more pleasant.

Retirement in the Netherlands...
All types of cycling are incredibly popular in the Netherlands because all types of cycling are enabled by having a comprehensive grid of high quality infrastructure.

While the cycle-paths are filled by commuters and children on Monday to Friday, Saturday is when you'll see any number of shoppers, Sunday mornings are when you'll see many racing cyclists and sunny Sunday afternoons are when the cycle-paths become especially filled by people of all ages just going out for a pleasant ride.

Touring is incredibly popular in the Netherlands. It's a mainstream activity here, not something for a small minority, because it's accessible to everyone. Whether you ride long or short distances, fast or slow, it's all possible.

Not perfect, but serious problems are rare
Of course the Netherlands is not perfect for cycling, but conditions on cycle-paths which really do not work for cyclists are rare. In seven years I've only found one place where the cycle-path was so seriously inadequate that I really wanted to ride on the road. You can see it in this video:

If all cycling infrastructure in the Netherlands was as poor as that shown in the video this would indeed be a problem for cyclists. However, actually what is shown here is a rare exception: a cycle-path which is not of high enough quality to support a high and growing cycling modal share. It should have been replaced by something which meets current standards many years ago. Note again that this is absolutely not the norm. It's just a short bad section in one town. The rest of the grid is better and that's why cycling works. Ordinarily, we don't even have to behave like this even if there are road works.

Note: Please don't make the mistake of assuming that the video above demonstrates the typical quality for cycle-paths in the Netherlands. The video above shows a cycle-path which is well below average quality. It is highlighted here in order to make the point that it is not good enough. Watch other videos which demonstrate normal quality paths on which it is possible to make very good progress by bike.

Should cyclists be banned from roads ?
Would I ban cyclists from riding on the roads ? Of course not. I wouldn't ask for this because there seems little point in asking for it. Nothing to gain. In places where there is no alternative route of sufficient quality and directness it would be a disaster to ban cycling on roads because that would make it impossible for the small number of people who cycle now to continue to do so. I would never support banning cyclists. It may seem surprising therefore that I chose to move to a country where cyclists actually are banned from a significant proportion of the road network. Read on:

Fast Dutch cyclist choosing to ride on
the cycle-path, though parallel with
a main road and a motorway
Given infrastructure of high enough quality it actually doesn't matter terribly much if you can ride on the road because there is no advantage to riding on the road. When cycle-paths are more pleasant and more convenient than the roads, people simply don't opt to ride their bikes on the road. Not even fast cyclists.

In the Netherlands, cycle-paths don't (usually) make people ride slowly. Even some very fast races occur on cycle-paths. When infrastructure is of this quality, a ban from riding on the road is academic. It makes no difference to anyone. In the Netherlands that is the point which has been reached very nearly almost everywhere.

One proper network for everyone
No-one designs different infrastructure for beginner drivers vs. experienced drivers because this would be ridiculous. It's just as ridiculous to design cycling infrastructure which is not good enough for all cyclists.

An underpass near our old home in the
UK. I saw school children crash into
barriers installed supposedly to prevent
"fast" cycling. This falls well short of
Dutch standards for underpasses.
If it doesn't work for a relatively fit and fast cyclist then it's not of good enough quality for beginners or children either. If that sounds unlikely, look at the video above a second time. Watch how when the infrastructure is too narrow even school children cause stress to the people who they overtake or who are coming in the opposite direction.

Crashes and injuries are more likely for any cyclist wherever the infrastructure quality is lower than it should be. Wherever complaints are heard about "fast cyclists", it's usually an overly simplistic reaction to conditions which make cycling unsafe for everyone.

Unaccompanied children and racing
cyclists have the same needs.
High standards are important to achieve a high cycling modal share and a high degree of safety. Experienced and fast cyclists have nothing to fear from proper cycling infrastructure because their needs are actually the same as everyone else's needs. i.e. direct, comfortable and safe cycling.

Cycling infrastructure which isn't good enough for everyone isn't good enough for anyone.


Alan Braggins said...

As you know, it's not unknown for UK cyclists to encounter highly compromised infrastructure which we're told is "Dutch-style".
The fear is, I think, not so much that "that adoption of Dutch style cycling infrastructure will somehow lead to people being forced off the road", but that cyclists will be forced off the road without real Dutch style infrastructure.
The Milton Road effect writ large - "you've got a crap shared-use path, that's good enough to get you off the road".

David Arditti said...

While I agree with all you say, you kind of leave a question unanswered here: is the Dutch government right to ban cycling on the roads where it does so?

I would say you are underplaying the importance of this. I suspect the law forms an intrinsic part of the 'social contract' which underlies the Dutch transport system. Cyclists are just not allowed in places where their presence would be incompatible with the principles of sustainable safety, for the good of everyone. On the other hand, they can't complain about this, as they get the facilities they need elsewhere.

The inverse is what we see in the UK and other English-speaking countries. There is a laissez-faire freedom for cyclists to go wherever (except on a very limited motorway network), but this is felt somehow to absolve government from a duty to actually give them safe places to cycle.

So the ban on cycling in the Netherlands on many roads may be of no practical importance to cyclists themselves, but maybe it is of political importance in securing public support for the whole system.

David Hembrow said...

Alan, I was in Cambridge during the time that the Milton Road path was built and I understand your concern. The "Milton Road Effect" is real. I've had drivers toot at me for riding on the road along there.

The Milton Road path is well below even the quality of the Dutch cycle-path above which I'm complaining about. It's somewhat narrower (!), has extremely limited sight-lines, and you give way to everything along Milton Road using junctions which are in some cases quite incredibly unsympathetically designed.

The Milton Road path doesn't really connect with much at either end, it is very short and it fizzles out to become a narrow on-road cycle-lane a little further North. From my memory, that actually seems like the good bit though there's little that's actually good about this part either.

Milton Road is a busy A road and the quality of the cycling environment there is simply not nearly good enough. That's the real problem. Cyclists have a choice between inadequate on the road and inadequate on the path but there's no place to cycle along there which is truly good.

David Hembrow said...

David: You ask a good question and, as usual, you make very good points. Perhaps this can play some part in building political support. I'm not sure, though, and I think there's a considerable risk in places where the conditions simply aren't nearly good enough, as Alan has experienced above.

Sustainable safety for cyclists in the Netherlands does indeed come in part from not finding ourselves in dangerous places. But whether its necessary to ban cyclists from those places in order that people won't cycle there is something I'm less sure about. Busy roads simply aren't inviting when there's a better alternative. The ban is self-enforcing and I think the law has no significant effect.

Childbacktandem said...

Why do cyclists fear being banned from busy roads?
Because people, all sorts of people -drivers, pedestrians, cyclists, mums, neighbours- tell me, often perfectly nicely,that I shouldn't be on the road. Because judges say that cyclists are to blame for getting run into from behind and killed because there was a 'cycle path'. Because not wearing helmet and hi-viz means cyclists don't get full compensation so, even if the law doesn't stop them, the insurance companies are creeping closer and closer to managing it. Because of local councillors who say 'That's what a push bike is for: pushing". Because of all the people who say "what's a few minutes inconvenience walking compared with saving your life?" Because of schools that ban pupils from cycling so they grow up never riding a bike and believing that roads are for cars. Because developers can get away with saying that it is "unrealistic" to expect primary school children to be walking or cycling to school one mile along a country lane. Because "if there is a 'cycle facility', you should use it". Because "we" want our town centre for pedestrians, not for dangerous cyclists. Because providing cycling facilities outside the town centre will "interrupt traffic flow". Because there is "no need for cycle facilities on this fast road because cyclists shouldn't have any need to use it". Because modal share is tiny so it's "not economic to provide for cycling". Because this road hasn't had enough cyclists killed on it to need a cycle path. Because more and more adults are riding on the pavement and believe that it is irresponsible to ride on the road. Because a 70mph dual carriageway is a "busy road", next a 60mph single carriageway is too busy for cycling, then a 30mph dual carriageway A road, then the local distributor roads...
Frankly, because the only reason we are not being stopped already on a piecemeal basis as busy roads are built or 'upgraded' is that a historical quirk of the law happens to make it too much hassle to ban cycles.
In another generation maybe sweeping legislation to keep cyclists off roads for their own safety will look like simple common sense to a generation of helmeted, hi-viz-wearing, pavement-riding, leisure-cycling-only legislators.
Do I believe all these reasons are valid? No, of course not, but what about the people who want to stop me from cycling on roads? believe them.

Jitensha Oni said...


I sympathise but I don't see why what you say means everyday riders should fear a ban, even with UK cycling in its current parlous state. The few percent of UK hi-spec road bikers might have just cause but a target demographic of potential and actual utility cyclists shouldn't, even with poor facilities. Referring to the other commenters…

1. Milton Road.

I've just clicked my way along Milton Road northbound in Streetview (Sept 2014 images) and counted…

23 riders on the footway or on the off-road path, even when an alternative on-road lane was provided.
1 on the footway despite there being a mandatory lane on road
1 in the advisory cycle lane outside the shops in Oak Tree Avenue
0 on the carriageway outside of the cycle lanes.

So my eyes tell me that most people appear to be cycling on abysmal infrastructure (as opposed to the road) by preference. A ban wouldn't make any difference to them. Someone please show me data that demonstrate that the Streetview images are atypical and that these people would rather be on the road.

2. Laissez-faire.

While it may not be applicable in some US states either, more germanely for the UK discussion, laissez-faire also seems to disappear when it comes to riding on footways or footpaths (cf Japan) - except on highly restricted lengths of specially designated sections - though it is well developed when it comes to motors parking on the same. By implication, mixing foot and bicycle traffic must be less safe than mixing bicycle/foot and motor traffic - except on those aforementioned specially designated sections, some of which can be as narrow as 1m. In addition, there's a tendency to try to make the busiest sections of route for foot and bicycle, i.e. crossings at junctions, shared use, but not the intervening sections. Go figure!

So I'm seeing a highly restricted form of laissez-faire when it comes to UK bike riders. Their routes are much more highly circumscribed than other road users get (not to mention more difficult to navigate). This is partly why there isn't even a grid, let alone a decent one. But if you had an on-road ban you'd have to improve the network hugely, if not the build quality. Not something for an everyday utilty cyclist to fear.

Note I'm not actually disagreeing with David Hembrow in the slightest. I'm saying that a significant proportion of untilty riders have already effectively banned themselves from busy roads. This has to be enabled further by building good infrastructure so that more are willing to ban themselves, not trying to force them them back into sharing the road.

Childbacktandem said...

Hi there Jitensha. I actually am an 'everyday' cyclist (if you saw me you would not mistake me for a 'hi-spec road biker', I promise!) and I would have a massive amount to lose from a ban, and so would huge numbers of others.
When we build new houses some of the amenities follow 'later' ie often not at all. If we allow bans on on-road cycling, I am sure that the bans will end up preceding adequate infrastructure. The definition of 'adequate' will be very weak to start with and then get diluted and 'promises' of better infrastructure to come later will prove worthless.
Certainly, current dangerous conditions are stopping me using many roads but the legal right to use the road is of day to day practical use. It is also one of the few powerful bargaining chips we have for better infrastructure and it will never be regained once it is chipped away.
PS Our local authority's 'leisure routes' for 'everyday' family cyclists include crossing the 70mph A24 dual carriageway -personally I avoid this (most especially with children) and, when I do cross, I tend to prefer to dismount but, if that's where they trying to send me, it will make me even more angry to be told that, as well as being a crazily dangerous cycle route, it yet another official cycle route that it is illegal to ride on.

David Hembrow said...

Childbacktandem: You seem to think that I'm actually calling for a ban. I was quite explicit in my language above that I'm not, for exactly the same reasons as you give.

However there will only ever really be "huge numbers" of people cycling when the problems faced by anyone getting onto a bicycle are solved. Good quality infrastructure isn't optional for true mass cycling.

Incidentally, we don't have the problem of things happening 'later' in the Netherlands in housing developments either. When the development is under construction, temporary facilities are built. Most of the school buildings in this video are temporary and many have now been replaced with permanent buildings. While the same suburb was under construction there were temporary shops provided until the permanent ones were built. What's more, none of the facilities are built on the cheap because developers have to foot the bill for repairs long after they leave the site. In some cases this can be as long as a twenty year contract.

The problems that the UK has, with new housing developments just the same as with cycling infrastructure, are entirely down to the way that the UK is organised. It seems that too many jobs are given to "Bodgeit and Scarper" just because they quoted very slightly less, rather than actually requiring things to be done properly.

Architectonic said...

The fear is that given planners outside of Denmark or the Netherlands have no clue how to build cycling infrastructure, cyclists will be forced on to dangerous second rate infrastructure.

In Australia, when they say they're building "cycle paths", they mean narrow shared-use paths.

If you send feedback before construction they simply say they are following the best practices from the Austroads guidelines. Planners in Australia are sadly ignorant that the Austroads guidelines are very far from international best practices.

Mark Hewitt said...

I think the problem is that people living in the UK have only experienced low quality infrastructure.

Certainly there are some railway paths near here and I took one at the weekend, but you go from being able to go as fast as you need along the road, to being basically limited to around 10mph due to the amount of people out walking, especially with dogs, that you just cannot go much faster.

As far as off road routes go then they will never be a viable alternative to the roads so long as they are also seen as good places for dog walking.

Alan Braggins said...

I used Milton Road as my daily commuting route at the time of its changes, which I suspect gives a better view than a single Google StreetView pass. (I changed my route, something that just looking at Milton Road now can't show you, and I wasn't alone.)
And, more importantly "most riders have already been intimidated off the road onto inferior infrastructure, it wouldn't make any difference to ban the rest" is exactly the sort of argument that the remaining cyclists are quite rightly afraid of.

David Hembrow said...

Alan: What's this nonsense about a "single streetview pass" ? My experience of Milton Road comes not from looking at Streetview, but from riding my bicycle along Milton Road on many occasions. I lived in Cambridge for nearly 20 years.

You put another statement ("most riders...") within quote marks in your reply above as if you are quoting someone, but it's not a quotation at all. That sentence does not appear within the blog post or in anyone's comments above yours. Not only did no-one say that, but no-one even said anything close to it. So where did your "quote" come from ?

I think that perhaps you've misread something which has a very different meaning. Many people, including myself, have pointed out on many occasions that the majority of the population of the UK have been intimidated into either not cycling at all or cycling less than they would otherwise due to the choices on offer from the current infrastructure. In your comment where you reveal that you've had to change your route you demonstrate that you are amongst those who are affected by this.

This problem is caused because the choices on offer to those who cycle in the UK are so very poor.

What is being discussed is specifically the type of bad choice which Milton Road offers to anyone who might wish to cycle:

i.e. the road is both unpleasant and dangerous. What's more, the narrow shared path alongside is also unpleasant and dangerous, but comes with the added problem of being rather inconvenient.

This is exactly the sort of dire infrastructure which I have always opposed - including during the time when I lived in Cambridge and campaigned for better conditions for cyclists in that city. I suffered from exactly the same "Milton Road effect" as you have suffered from because I rode my bike there too.

I think you have somehow managed to completely miss the point of this blog post. Please go and read it again. Including the last sentence: "Cycling infrastructure which isn't good enough for everyone isn't good enough for anyone"

I'm not calling for any half measures. I'm calling for high quality provision which is suitable for all "types" of cyclists because anything less doesn't really work well for anyone.

My point is as follows: If you had decent infrastructure along Milton Road then not only would you no longer feel intimidated into taking a different route, but this would be a route open to the entire population rather than being one open only to those who will put up with the bad conditions.

Alan Braggins said...

Sadly, Blogger doesn't seem to have reply threading. I wanted to comment on "I've just clicked my way along Milton Road northbound in Streetview".

Alan Braggins said...

(i.e. I was agreeing with the points in the body your post, while answering your titular question.)

David Hembrow said...

Alan: By the sound of it, I was the one who misunderstood your intention so I apologise for that.