Cycling Infrastructure

General Introduction

Well designed networks are fundamental to normalized cycling. To encourage a large proportion of the population to cycle as a daily habit requires space set aside for cycling. The routes have to be direct, well-paved, suitable for typical cycling speeds, and must provide fair priority relative to other road users.

The above is easily stated; less readily achieved. British cities have been built as places to drive, or walk a bit, if you’re careful.  Turning them into places you can ride a bike as readily as drive requires a combination of sustained political will to enact a range of measures. That said, the challenge is not quite so awesome as it might appear at first sight. As observed later on this page, comparatively safe conditions for cycling exist in Britain now; the problem is that they exist in patches, separated by big, busy roads with big, busy junctions. They need to be joined up with credible, dedicated safe, safe-feeling routes.

Historic efforts to provide for cyclists in Britain have too often exhibited incompetence, or even institutional contempt. This led to profound disillusion with cycle lanes and tracks. Some cycling organisations maintained wary views on cycle infrastructure for decades. This attitude may be spurned now, but the concerns were well-evidenced, as related in this presentation to a conference on cycle infrastructure in 2002. The Warrington Cycling Campaign has published a book of crap cycle lanes called Crap Cycle Lanes and maintains a “Facility of the Month” feature on its website.

There has been a rekindling of interest in Britain for segregated networks. It is generally accepted that large increases in cycling will not happen without routes dedicated to cycling. There are other things that have to be got right too, but the infrastructure is a fundamental qualifier.

Even with competent designers and political sympathy, there are challenges to retro-fitting cycling routes into existing built-up areas or adding separate lanes to a rural road. Amongst the greatest practical problems are  buried; alterations to drainage, water mains, gas mains and such utilities, are expensive and disruptive. What do we do about dry stone walls or mature trees lining a country road? In many cases, it will not be feasible to make the modifications.

In addition, there is no national design standard for cyclists’ infrastructure. Roger Geffen, the Campaigns Director of Cycling UK, has written an excellent blog that summarises these issues.  At the time of writing, there is a project to consolidate existing design manuals into one national master, to be issued in draft form late in 2018.

My personal view, based on observations of how cycling has developed in Edinburgh, is that the infrastructure projects will take too long to be the entire basis of normalized cycling. Bear in mind that the Dutch started back in the early 1970s with 9,000 km of bike paths already built by an earlier era. It has taken almost fifty years – with Dutch levels of priority – to increase that to the approx. 29,000km in place today. Public health authorities like the former Chief Medical Officer for England, Sir Liam Donaldson, have advocated an eight-fold increase in cycling to address harms caused by lack of physical exercise. He means as “soon as possible”, not “sometime after 2070”.

It would be more realistic to use new cycle routes as “seeding” to encourage greater willingness by the general population to ride in benign traffic conditions. This would integrate plans for cycling with the trend to 20mph speed limits and zones.

That said, I will add another personal view: that infrastructure is the big risk in achieving normalized cycling. If the effort is botched (again), the renaissance will not happen.

The links below lead to two aspects of infrastructure. “History, Risk & Infrastructure” reproduces a peer-reviewed paper of mine that examined the contrasting choices made in Britain and the Netherlands through the post-war period. “Civilised Streets” is a summary of several comprehensive studies of cities that have achieved reductions in car use and increases in bicycle use. These case studies show what is possible, given the political will to implement the necessary measures.