Policy lag (or why bike lanes will be crap for a while yet)

Mark from As Easy As Riding a Bike blog tweeted a screen grab from Streetview recently of a newly painted bike lane in Horsham with the caption "Where that Department for Transport 'cycling money' is going. Brand new (2014) cycle 'infrastructure' painted in Horsham with Local Sustainable Transport Fund cash".  It doesn't take a rocket scientist - let alone a road engineer - to work out that this is crap:

This shouldn't just make cyclist's blood boil. Not only is at best unusable and at worst downright dangerous, it's also a complete waste of tax payer's cash; something we are frequently reminded is in short supply these days.

However Horsham is not alone in splashing the cash (and the paint) around.  Here's a shot I recently took in London's shiny new Olympic Park.  This road layout is little more than a year or two old, and yet contains poorly painted sub-standard bike lanes which really help no one and serve no purpose:


There's a faction of cycle advocates who would say it is not worth asking for cycle infrastructure at all, because all you get is nonsense like this.  I can empathise with their position - the internet is filled with pages and pages of examples just as bad as this (or worse).

I've argued before that you need three things to make successful cycling cities:

  • Political Will
  • Money
  • Design knowledge

And in the above cases I would strongly argue that it is the latter - design knowledge - which is lacking.  There are plenty of road engineers out there who don't have a clue how to accommodate cyclists in their designs, but there are plenty more who would like to do so but are nervous from straying from the manual.

In UK road design circles innovation cowers in the shadow of liability, perhaps understandably when you consider that it is people's safety potentially at stake.  As a consequence most of the space between buildings is filled in like a "Paint by Numbers" picture, fitting in whatever the manual says is appropriate.  
Busy road with lots of vehicles?  There's a pre-defined solution for that.  
Quiet cul-de-sac with heavy pedestrian activity?  There's a pre-defined solution for that, too.  Call it "tick box urbanism", if you like.

The trouble is that most streets take a few years to get from the drawing board to reality, and in that time I would argue the aspiration of cycle campaigners has evolved whilst the guidance has struggled to keep up.  In just a few short years in London we've gone from a situation where campaigners (and campaigns) could not even decide whether they wanted cycle provision or not, to a much broader consensus with far more ambitious aims.  The London Cycling Campaign and others are now asking for - and getting - high quality, European-style separated infrastructure.

How wide do you want your spanking new bike tracks?

Transport for London have been quick to get their design skills up to date (see the Cycle Superhighways proposed for central London and the construction work currently ongoing around the Oval) whereas some of our local borough authorities are much further behind the curve.

And here's the trap. For those behind the times who are still following guidelines to the letter, there's a real policy lag.  As has been remarked elsewhere, not all of the guidelines designers and engineers are employing are particularly effective at prescribing environments suitable for cyclists of all ages and abilities.  Whilst there has been much in recent years to help make streets more attractive, there has been less about improving the actual subjective experience of riding a bike.

This policy lag - the inability of the paperwork to keep up with the aspiration - will ensure that for every fantastic new cycle track built over the next few years there's going to be plenty of crap, as well.

Further reading:

Rachel Aldred: what's wrong with place and movement hierarchies?
As Easy As Riding a Bike: when will design guidance think of cycling as something for all?
A View From The Cycle Path: 3 types of Cycle Safety



charlie_lcc said...

The London Legacy Development Corporation is both designer and planning authority for most of the crap cycle routes in the Olympic Park. As far as we can find out none of their designers have been on the new cycling infrastructure design courses being run for TfL.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks Charlie, that's fascinating insight. I was aware that the LLDC had all sorts of unique planning rights but I had assumed they'd be a bit more up to speed about sustainable transport options.

What is interesting is that I was in the park at the weekend and people *were* using it to make journeys by bicycle. There are some excellent elements of infrastructure but there is a lot of poor stuff too. I can't help but feel that if things were just a tiny bit better that the Olympic Park could act as a real "cycle connector" between neighbouring boroughs and help to raise the cycling numbers hugely.

t.foxglove said...

"I would strongly argue that it is the latter - design knowledge - which is lacking. There are plenty of road engineers out there who don't have a clue how to accommodate cyclists in their designs"

I couldn't disagree more. The engineers are highly trained professionals and know how to build decent infra for all transport modes, there is just no money/political will at local level and no requirement from central government to do so.

Most cycling budgets in local authorities are at the £2/head level, given an average population of 175k that may build 1km of decent segregated cycle track.

My LA are spending nearly £1m on cycle infra for a pop' of 500k spread over 800 sq miles, no wonder we end up with blue signs on lampposts.

As a comparison one recent roundabout upgrade cost £1.75m and they have planned 5 miles of new road at a cost £80m & £8m on moving a bus station.

The main driver for the road upgrades & building are to improve traffic flow & reduce congestion, the bus station as economic regeneration; that is what the money gets allocated for and that is what the project has to deliver. Cycling infra is nice to have but an afterthought that won't be allowed to compromise the main reason for these projects; which is why we will get a 3m wide shared use footpath alongside them at best.

DfT can issue as much guidance as it likes & pay for all the engineers to head off to Assen on a Hembrow tour but unless that guidance carries weight & teeth, ie is a standard not best practice, then it will be thrown out of the window on each scheme as it 'wasn't practical' to provide it without either impinging on the real reason for the project or it pushed project costs up & so was an easy thing to cut.

At the DfT road show in Nov 2014 to discuss their cycling guidelines, a question from the floor was "Will we have to follow these guidelines or could we install something sub-optimal?" The DfT response was that they will leave it to the Local Highway Engineers to decide what is best for their area.

Can you imagine them saying the same about a new A road? That lane widths, surface treatment, safety barriers, junction designs; were all up to locals to desgin.

ibikelondon said...

Thanks @t.foxglove for stopping by and taking the time to share your thoughts and experiences.

Starting with your last point about being allowed to treat cycle provision as sub-optimal, this demonstrates my case in point: this is a case of not enough political will to get the job done. Just as there is political will in your LA to spend £8M on moving a bus station, so in London there is political will to spend nearly £30M on a bus / bicycle and pedestrian priority project (the West End Project in Camden).

Regarding engineers being highly trained professionals, I don't disagree that they've had much training but that's not to say they know the first thing about this brave new world of designing cycle infrastructure...
Here's two cases in point: last year one of the UK's BIGGEST and indeed respected engineering firms contacted me asking if they could borrow my CROW manual and asking my opinion about painted cycle lanes. They made it explicitly clear that they were excited at the potential new revenue stream that cycle provision might create but had no idea where to start.
Also last year a Coroner in the UK slammed the design of a road layout which was specifically blamed for leading to the death of a cyclist. Now of course that road layout was as a consequence of the brief (the money and the political will) but the engineering knowledge was sorely lacking too, with awful consequences. In another case TfL came within an inch of being charged with a corporate manslaughter case because of one of their designs, and the events leading up to its implementation.

I've sat in countless meetings with designers and engineers who weep and wail about being contained by the brief, and my answer is always the same. You're employed to bring knowledge as a solution. If you're knowledge can't provide a solution to a poor brief, then don't take the job.

I do agree wholeheartedly with you that provision in design manuals should be much clearer and robust about both cyclists and pedestrians, and that's a particular bone to pick with the DfT. Perhaps the end users of all these manuals should let them know?

Alistair Burns said...

The double yellow or red lines inside bike lanes are a hazard in themselves. On Vauxhall Bridge where the lane is scandalously narrow a friend went flying on a wet day when her bike slipped from underneath her as she crossed onto the double reds.

ibikelondon said...

I totally agree @Alistair - the cycle lane that used to be on Lambeth Bridge was even worse: it was double lines, about two inches of clear space and then the boundary of the bike lane. Obviously you could ride outside the bike lane if you wished, but it was so antagonistic to other road users.

Here it is in 2009:

Thankfully it has been re-done since then and is a bit better.

Paul M said...

I feel I must disagree with T Foxglove's disagreement. While I am in no way an expert in civil engineering or road design, I don't think you need to be either to be struck by the fact that TfL could spend perhaps £1 million per mile slapping blue paint on the tarmac, leading to several fatalities and trenchant criticism by coroners of the manner in which said blue paint led unsuspecting cyclists into a place of danger, while other cities, notably Chicago, managed to construct properly segregated cycle lanes for a small fraction of that cost - literally 10% or so - and as far as I am aware have seen significant improvements in cycling casualty rates.

Hester said...

I also have to disagree. Cycle campaigns have engineers and transport specialists within them too. It shouldn't be up to volunteer campaigners to go through a design and change every dropped kerb to a flush one, or ensure 45 degree kerbs are installed rather than 90 degree ones where people are expected to cycle over them at an angle, but we have done such things. That's not an issue of political will, it is absolutely an issue of knowledge and training.

Jon said...

For me the key is the political will, illustrated by local residents.

It is a huge challenge, and one that I think the cycling campaigning community is getting much better at. Engineers are frequently very highly skilled, although that doesn't mean that continual professional development shouldn't take place. The real problem is when their internal clients eg. local councillors, choose the priorities of a given scheme which result in cycling improvements at best being 'bolted on' at the end.

I do think as some of the better schemes hit the ground this year, the more progressive (from all political colours) councillors will start to raise their game and demands from the engineers.

Unknown said...

I don’t know about you, but one problem I have with riding in lanes is being blinded by overpowered tail-lights, I came up with a solution for it:


Let me know what you think, I know it’s unconventional…

The Ranty Highwayman said...

The post had a comment about risk aversion which I understand. There is also the issue of proposing radical (for UK) and getting torn apart by:

(a) senior LA staff who don't understand the objectives of a scheme and are often not engineers.

(b) innovation being rejected by politicians.

(c) rejected schemes meaning funding not spent, so bollocking for senior manager and kicking for the designer.

For designers, they are so far from being sued for designs it is unbelievable, but they can protect professionalism and reputation by structuring what they do properly.


Andy in Germany said...

Our local town has just rolled out a similar 'bike lane' with much fanfare, at a time when the nearest big town is making much better infrastructure. Therein lies the rub of course, cycle lanes are a 'local issue' whereas roads are planned at a state level and therefore heve much more joined up thinking...

ibikelondon said...

Thanks everyone for all your comments (I struggled to keep up with the comments coming in on this post!)

One point worth highlighting is the one Ranty Highwayman makes above about people who make bold proposals being torn apart if things go wrong. This is a very powerful point and I think we should not underestimate how hard it is in some environments to stick your head about the parapet.

Any ideas how we counteract this sort of culture? I'm not sure I know where to start!

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