Saturday, 9 August 2014

Balancing Segregation against Vehicular Cycling

Why segregate? There is really only one answer to that question - motorised vehicles. Cycling is safer and far more enjoyable the further away you are from motorised vehicles. This is true even for roadies, like me, who seek out quiet lanes and roads that have very little traffic. However, there are many advantages to using the road system over the current mess of cycle-paths we have in the UK, because the way segregated paths are implemented in the UK is exceptionally poor.

The reason for writing this post, is a new cycle-path has just been constructed in the Peak District between Bamford and Hathersage. In theory it should be a welcomed addition because it is very well surfaced and reasonably wide, yet not all cyclists are using it, and the vast majority continue to the use the road. So why are the cyclists, including myself continuing to use the road?

Aside: Before continuing, take note, this is not a post that is pro Vehicular Cycling over segregation! It's about why UK segregation fails, and what's needed to fix it, and the massive trade off that is made when using the path over the road.

The answer to the above question, is quite simple, this particular road, despite being 50 mph, is perfectly fine cycle on. It already has a wide cycle-lane, and it is therefore less convenient to use the new shared-path. The shared path is only on one side, so cyclists on the opposite side have to cross the road - twice! They have to give way at junctions, and the path ends before Hathersage, where cyclists are forced to give way to cars, whereas if they have stayed on the road they could have continued uninterrupted!

Despite the above problems I sometimes use the new path, and when on it, it's actually quite nice to be segregated from the cars. However, that one, single, plus point is heavily traded against many other problems. If we list the good and bad points of using the road verses the cycle path, the two list are significantly skewed.

Riding on the Road

Good points:
  • Cars have to give way to cyclists. You are a vehicle that has the same "rights".
  • No loss of priority at junctions and roundabouts.
  • No pedestrians on the road (at least rarely).
  • Convenient and continuous.
  • Extensive network.
  • Usually a smooth tarmac surface, swept free from debris. Gritted and cleared in the winter
  • Roads are very well signed and mapped.
Bad points:
  • You are a vulnerable user

Good points:
  • Cycling in a space away from motorised vehicles
Bad points [regressive UK implementation]:
  • Loss of rights at junctions - you now have to give way at junctions
  • If you make a mistake giving way and get hit by a car - it's your fault!!! UK laws do very little, if anything, to protect you in this scenario.
  • These junctions have been built with cars in mind, not bikes. That means fast, rounded corners, and wide junctions, that can be difficult and sometimes dangerous to cross.
  • Shared with pedestrians, and dog walkers, who are usually oblivious to cyclists. Risk of collision, and you have to greatly reduce your speed.
  • Surfaces are usually worse than the road, debris, and rarely gritted in winter.
  • Massively disjoint network. One minute you are on a wide reasonable path, next it's narrow pavement and a dismount sign, thrusting you off the path at a dangerous junction.
  • These paths rarely transition from the road nicely.
  • Continuation and mapping of cycle-paths is awful. You have to have local knowledge to know where the paths are and where they go, and crucially where they cease or become unsuitable for say a road-bike.
It seems the only bad aspect of using the road is your vulnerability as a cyclist. Segregation is meant to fix that vulnerability, however, it is quite clear that in doing so it completely erodes all of the positives from using the road, and replaces them with many negatives and a whole set of new vulnerabilities - like being forced to cross the road at terrible places where you have lost the right of way and any protection in law.

Without question the way in which many UK cycle-paths are implemented is all wrong. All the above negatives does not mean I'm against infrastructure and segregation, because quite clearly many roads in the UK are not fit or pleasant to cycle on. I'm against the current regressive and awful implementations we have in the UK.

If we were to look at the infrastructure in the Netherlands the above negative points would be completely different! All the bad points would be flipped into good points
  • In the Netherlands there is no loss of rights, at many junctions cars give way to cyclists.
  • The law and design of the junctions protects the cyclists: They have presumed liability.
  • Junctions have been built and designed with bikes in mind, not just cars.
  • They are not usually shared with pedestrians. Cyclists have their own roads.
  • They are gritted in winter and high quality surfaces.
  • I dont think there's any such thing as a dismount sign in NL.
  • These paths are always linked up and transition nicely - they dont just spit you out at a horrific junction with only the road as an option.
  • Mapping is supposedly not a problem, they are well signed, and dont run out or turn to gravel or a muddy field.
So why are many cyclists continuing to use the road instead of this new path? Simple, the trade off is not worth it. Why leave a perfectly reasonable road for a path that is less convenient and actually places you in more danger when trying to cross two lanes at the end of the path.

In the Netherlands, by all accounts, they dont have these problems because they did things correctly. The trade off isnt compromised, they have segregation from cars, but crucially they dont have all the negatives that the UK paths have.

If this path had been built in the Netherlands, there would be no give way and dismount for the gates into the farmer's fields. The path would be continuous through the major junctions, with traffic lights for the cyclists. The path would also be continuous into and through Hathersage, with traffic calming for cars.

Instead, the path starts abruptly and ends abruptly making the transition onto and off the path more arduous and frankly dangerous than just staying on the road. There is nothing whatsoever to traffic calm cars at the start and end of the path.

I'm not against segregation, because I strongly believe some of the busier A-roads into the Peaks should have wide segregated cycle-paths, but the current UK implementation continues to be shoddy and panders to cars. Until that culture is changed it will be difficult to achieve the infrastructure they have in the Netherlands.


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