Monthly Archives: March 2013

Bike paths along main roads are key

I’ve discovered a great new tool on Google Maps which shows the required cycle network in any city, town or village across the country!

Here’s how to use it:

  1. Open Google Maps
  2. Search for your location in the box at the top
  3. Et voilà! Your cycling network map is displayed clearly.

Here’s a bike network map for central London (I’ve removed the labels so you can see the roads more clearly):

A standard road map of London (with the labels removed)

It’s the vehicular cycling network of today, and the all-citizen cycling network of tomorrow!

Here’s how it works:

  • The green and orange roads are main routes which need good quality separated (aka segregated) cycle tracks. These roads are too busy to mix bikes with motor vehicles, especially the green ones. (Note: Since writing this, Google have changed the way they colour the roads, making the green roads yellow, the orange ones white, and the white ones off-white, so it’s not as easy to spot main routes any more. Bah!)
  • Most of the yellow roads require separated cycle tracks, but some of them can be made one-way or be blocked from being used as a through-route by motor traffic, in order to reduce the usefulness of them and therefore reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them.
  • The thin dark lines (or white roads if you zoom in) will all be either one-way streets or filtered to make them useless as through-routes and therefore vastly reduce the amount of motor vehicles on them, and the speed limit will be 20mph or lower, so cycle paths won’t usually be required on them.

Simple, eh? How great of Google to provide us with such a tool!

I’m joking, of course, but the point I’m making is a serious one. There are many advocates for alternative routes for cycling, but the important routes are already there: they’re the main roads, the big ones which go directly from one place to another, which people are already familiar with.

So I’m not entirely convinced about the “quietways” aspect of the Mayor of London’s “Vision”  (I’m not the only one) and nor am I convinced that Hackney has cracked it for cycling.

Of course, I genuinely applaud Hackney council for the filteredpermeability measures, 20mph zones, parking restrictions and removal, and the few cycle paths which they have installed (though I doubt I’d be heard above the sound of Hackney applauding themselves) but their main roads still leave much to be desired and are generally horrible.

While 20mph zones and low-traffic streets are good in themselves (indeed, they’re an important component of a “liveable” city), on their own these measures will not enable mass cycling.

With these cheap and easy options, Hackney is going after the “low-hanging fruit” (i.e. the people who are already eager to use a bike) who will put up with inconveniences such as back-street routes. To grow the cycling rate (and demographic range) will be much more difficult – do they want children riding bikes to school, or pensioners riding bikes to the shops? Do they want people with disabilities – such as wheelchair or motorised scooter users – to be included in this transport revolution?

The problem with the “quietways-only” method favoured by Hackney is that you can’t ride very far without coming up against a large, busy road.

Let’s imagine that every single minor road and street in London had been properly traffic-calmed to a level where everybody felt safe riding a bike on them, but the busy main roads were still places full of heavy traffic where bicycles and motor vehicles were expected to mix. The “safe cycling” map of London might look like this (black lines only):

A map of central London with the main roads removed.

Hmm, these quietways are rather restrictive and disjointed. (Note that the black lines include walking-only routes, so it would be even worse than this. If only Hyde Park was that cycle-friendly!)

Not much use, is it? All the useful, direct routes with the places you want to go are out of reach. The streets which are inviting for cycling don’t go anywhere useful, and each neighbourhood is disconnected from the next by a main road. Even if the main roads could be crossed without actually cycling along them, it’s not a good transport system because the small streets are difficult to navigate.

This is what cycling through Hackney feels like to me. There are some fine streets, but you’ll frequently come up against horrible motor vehicle-dominated thoroughfares. It’s not a network, it’s a patchwork.

Main roads are the main roads for many reasons: They are the direct routes from A to B. They have the shops, the pubs, the dentists, etc., which people want to visit. They offer social safety, in that they’re well-lit, visible and busy.

Similarly, the back streets are quiet for a reason. They’re not direct routes to anywhere. They’re mainly residential, with few locations people wish to visit. Late at night they can be largely deserted, which leads to people fearing to use them.

A photograph of a dark, empty, spooky street

“This quietway might be a little too quiet…” (Photo: Sereno Casastorta)

Why should people be relegated to fiddly routes through small streets just because they’ve chosen to ride a bike, while people driving cars have the most convenient, easy and direct routes?

Furthermore, if we really are planning for huge increases in cycling, why should these quiet residential streets be over-run with people on bikes? Can they really become a safe place for children to play if they’re also rat-runs for thousands of bike users who have no more connection with the area than a taxi cutting through from one station to another?

As far as I can see, cycle paths along main roads is the headline. Filtered permeability and 20mph zones are great, but they’re just the support act. Without dedicated bike paths on the main roads these streets are nice but disjointed fragments which will do little to encourage more cycling.

Most of the major roads in London could easily support decent cycle paths, and I suspect that’s true for much of the UK also. (Certainly, it is the case in Leeds.) It may be a politically difficult step to take, but it’s a necessary one if cycling is to become a serious transport choice for everyone.


If you’re wondering how I made the custom maps, I used this.


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Proof that I am completely out of touch

I’m living among lunatics – and they’re in charge! Don’t tell them, or they’ll think it’s me that’s crazy.

I have weird, deviant beliefs, you see.

Such as this: Residential streets should be for the use of residents and their visitors, not for use as rat-runs for people passing through.

I know this makes sense to you, dear reader, as you and I can see I’m making sense. But to most people out there, the idea that residential streets are for the people who live there is a strange, crazy notion which must be resisted at all costs.

I refer you to my main exhibit, a clipping from London’s main newspaper, the Evening Standard:

A clipping from the Evening Standard newspaper, where a taxi driver describes how to avoid congestion on main roads by using residential streets as rat-runs.

Am I insane, or is everyone else?

So here we have a hypothetical punter who wants to go from the tube station at Oxford Circus to the tube station at Archway, and decides that the best way to get there is by taxi.

But fair enough – maybe they have lots of luggage, or are a wheelchair user. But because the Evening Standard’s “Clever Cabbie” knows that the direct route through Camden will be congested, they can use a route which avoids the traffic jams and instead cuts through quiet residential streets.* (Well they would be quiet streets if it wasn’t for all the rat-running traffic.)

A photo of the junction of Holmes Road and Spring Place, which the Evening Standard newspaper recommends people use as a rat-run

Do you live near Holmes Road or Spring Place? The Evening Standard thinks there should be more transient cars passing through here! (Photo: Google Maps)

The offensive thing is that vehicles using routes like this provide nothing of benefit to the neighbourhood, but they bring noise, fumes and danger.

Why do we allow our residential streets to be used this way? Why are routes like this even possible – shouldn’t all through-traffic be on main roads? Do councils, despite their fine talk about ‘better neighbourhoods’ and so on, secretly like these rat-runs because they reduce congestion elsewhere?

But again, this proves how out of touch I am with the general consensus. That London’s main newspaper can even consider printing such a piece (and it seems to be a regular one) shows how rat-running is considered normal, acceptable, even something to be encouraged, whereas safe and pleasant streets are the dreams of mad people like you and I.


I haven’t done The Knowledge of course, but I wonder what our Clever Cabbie’s route would be if residential streets were unavailable for rat-running (as they are in any sensible country). Would they head East along Euston Road/Pentonville Road joining the A1 at Angel? Or would Caledonian Road be pressed into service?


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Give the people what they want (i.e. a path)

I’m going to go a bit off-topic here and rant about something which isn’t cycling. Anyway, walking is transport too, and it’s my blog so there! There’s also a bit about ramps.

I’m sure you all know what a desire line is – it’s the path between two points that people want to take. This often manifests itself in bare lines of earth in a field of grass, where many people have walked across it in the same place.

Sensible authorities will legitimise these paths by making them permanent. After all, people just want to walk from A to B, so why make them go the long way round for no good reason? Aren’t we meant to be encouraging more walking?

With that in mind, I present to you Geraldine Mary Harmsworth Park, more commonly known as the green area which surrounds the Imperial War Museum in London. There’s a clear desire line running across a large area of grass from one gate to another, and what’s the park’s solution?

A photo of a grassy park, with a dirt path running across it where many people choose to walk. The park has erected a small fence to discourage walking.

That’ll stop ’em!

A small fence.

A middle-aged woman carrying shopping steps over the fence.

How dare this woman take a direct route home? Hooligan!

That’s right, they’ve decided to punish people who choose to walk across the corner of the park by installing a low fence. Maybe the fence isn’t for that reason. It’s a fairly useless fence anyway as you can see, this woman has no problem stepping over it.

Update: After reading PaulM’s comment below (and having had a good night’s sleep) I see now that while the low fence presents no difficulties for most people, it’s an impenetrable barrier to those with mobility difficulties. This is pure discrimination. Some people can walk but find it hard to lift their legs much off the ground – why are they prevented from using the grass? This is unacceptable. (It’s not some 1970s relic either – the fence was added in late 2012.)

But why spend money discouraging people from walking that way? Just put a footpath in, it can’t cost much more than that fence! There’s plenty of grass, it’s hardly going to ruin the ambience of the park – the constant motor traffic on Kennington Road does that just fine.

I ain’t jubilant

Elsewhere in the capital, beside the London Eye, lies the bafflingly expensive Jubilee Gardens. (Strangely, for what is really just a small area of footpaths, grass and flowers, it even has its own website.)

The designers chose a path which ignores entirely the desire line of people walking.

An aerial photo of Jubilee Gardens showing the pedestrian desire line which is ignored by the installed footpaths.

The orange line is the desired walking line. The brown area is the rapidly-expanding flower-beds. (Photo: Bing Maps)

Lots of people cross the Thames using the footbridge, and then want to head south-east across Jubilee Gardens, but they’re not meant to do that.

First, there was a small flower-bed with a gap in it. Then the flower-bed was enlarged and the gap was closed. Then four benches were installed in the way. Then the flower-beds were enlarged again. And now…

A photo of Jubilee Gardens' ugly attempt  at preventing people walking: four metal poles with striped tape between them.

Yeah, real classy.

They’re going to ridiculous levels to stop people walking in a straight line. (They’ve even tried shouting!) There’s about five pairs of these stripy-tape barriers in place, and of course they achieve nothing. There are already new bare patches at the side where the flowers have been walked on.

INSTALL A PATH! Even some stepping-stones! Or a grass area! Anything but this annoying “you can’t walk that way because we messed up with the design” rubbish. Just because whoever designed the park failed to take into account the concept of people passing through it, shouldn’t mean that everyone will forever meander around the long, looping footpaths.

They’re fighting a losing battle, like King Canute holding back the tide. Just install a footpath and be done with it. (It’ll only cost another couple of mil, surely?)

It’s not all bad

Anyway, lest it be thought that I hate everything and only ever complain, here’s something which I like very much, and it seems to me that it’s kind of the opposite of the “you shan’t walk here” mentality.

A well-designed ramp for wheelchair users, set into stairs at the Southbank Centre in London

So good you don’t even notice it

I don’t use a wheelchair, and I don’t know anybody who does (so if you do and this bit’s all wrong then please let me know), but in my life as a transport geek I’m always looking out for how life is made difficult or easy for those who need to use wheels to get about. So often there’s a clunky lift (often used as a janitors’ closet) or a narrow ramp. But it looks to me that whoever designed the steps at the Southbank Centre really did a wonderful job.

To access the lower level of the Southbank Centre, where there’s shops and restaurants, you have to walk down the stairs. Except there’s also a ramp, but it’s not some patronising afterthought like many accessibility features I see.

Another view of the quality ramp at the Southbank Centre in London

It looks almost accidental

It requires no special skill to use, or even any thought at all. It’s just there, permanent, reliable and where it’s needed. It doesn’t ask wheelchair users to go around the back and press a button and wait, or round the side and down an afterthought of a ramp.

The ramp isn’t even noticeable to someone who doesn’t need to use it, it’s built into the steps so gracefully. The design recognises that people need to get from up here to down there (or vice-versa) and that while most people can use stairs, some might not be able to, and it caters for everyone beautifully. It’s also useful to parents with push-chairs, or tourists with wheeled luggage, of course. And it does all this without any fuss at all. Great infrastructure.

And finally…

Anyway, that’s all I have for now. Normal subject will be resumed shortly. (I have something good brewing about cycle paths.)


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The road to Hell is paved with ASLs

Whether you call them Advanced Stop Lines and Advanced Stop Zones or prefer the more casual-sounding ‘bike box’, they all amount to the same thing: a piece of crap.

I believe that the real reason for their existence is not to make cycling safe, as you might think, but rather to get cycling campaigners to shut up. Neither of these goals has been achieved, of course.

ASLs make sense in that perfect, ideal world where the Highway Code is set. There, humans can all be trained and/or forced to behave perfectly at all times – a bit like North Korea, or Stepford.

Image from the UK government's Highway Code, showing ideal use of a bike zone at a traffic light junction. So perfect!

The Highway Code’s idealised version of the UK. There are more people on bikes in this image than there are in the whole of West Yorkshire.

But here in the real world, inhabited by imperfect and fallible human beings, people on bikes still get killed when the traffic lights change, and an ASL does nothing to help a bike user who arrives while the traffic is already flowing. They’re often ignored by drivers too, the police don’t enforce them. Unfortunately, all this means that ASLs have become another endless battle in the War On The Roads™ and some cycling activists spend a large amount of time trying to convince drivers – and the authorities – to respect them.

It does annoy me when I see drivers pull up across the ASL. Of course, I have no problem if, say, an ambulance causes the flow of traffic to stop and the lights change to red leaving a car stranded there. But so many people drive up to a red light and over the first white line right into the bike area. Some drivers even drive across both white lines and into the pedestrian crossing or junction beyond!

I’d argue that if you’re unable to bring your vehicle to a halt before reaching a clearly marked position on the road, you really shouldn’t be operating such a machine at all.

A van is stopped at a red light, completely within the 'Advance Stopping Zone' for bike users.

This van has very neatly stopped within the ASZ, note the centimetre-accurate alignment. Maybe the driver mistook it for a parking space?

ASLs are not good infrastructure

But for all that, I don’t really care. I’ve been asked to sign petitions to get the police to enforce the rules. (Which would be nice for a change.) But really, I won’t waste my time polishing a turd, and neither should you.

Improving ASLs is not what cycling campaigners should be spending their time on. It would be like, say, environmental campaigners asking Shell and Esso to use a nicer font in a lovely shade of green. Or perhaps it’s more like a slave asking for the chains that bind them to be chrome-plated.

What I’m saying is that the ASL is a pretend friend to a bike rider. They’re there as a kludge, a poor compromise between total motor dominance and calls for cycling infrastructure. They’re rubbish. Yes, I know that drivers should stay out of them, and everybody should follow the rules, but it’s a distraction from the bigger picture. The whole argument is worthless.

Nobody is waiting for ASLs to be enforced before they take up cycling. Nobody is saying “if only there were more areas at traffic lights where I could sit in front of growling motor vehicles, I’d take up riding tomorrow!” In fact, I reckon the idea of sitting on a bike in front of a large motorised vehicle is one of the key points which prevents more people from using a bike for transport.

Two people on bikes wait in the ASZ at a red traffic light. Immediately behind them are buses and cars.

A rare instance of an ASZ relatively free of motor vehicles. Does this attract people to cycling? “Ooh, lovely, a painted area which allows us to position ourselves in front of heavy vehicles! Let’s do this every day!”

Don’t waste your time campaigning for this rubbish to be enforced or improved. Don’t ask for nicer chains, demand their removal!

There are very few places where an ASL is appropriate, yet the UK is covered in the damned things. There are already tried-and-tested solutions for junctions which don’t involve mixing up motor traffic with bikes – or mixing bikes with pedestrians, as is the current fashion in the UK. Pedestrianise London has a good article covering the right way to do these things so I won’t write about them here.

Sure, they have a few ASLs in Cycling Heaven – ahem! – I mean, the Netherlands. But they’re not common, and are considered an old-fashioned design. Any infrastructure geeks going visiting the Netherlands will find themselves pointing at them excitedly – “Ooh! There’s an ASL, just like at home!”

When the Cycling Revolution™ comes, ASLs will be the first against the wall

The worst thing about ASLs is that they’re designed for very low levels of cycling. Sure, one or two bikes are fine. Maybe even five or six. But what happens if twenty people were to arrive on bikes? What about fifty? Where are they all meant to go?

A birds' eye photo of a UK road junction with an ASL. All vehicles are positioned perfectly, no motor vehicles have entered the ASZ. But the ASZ can only hold around ten bikes, and there are twenty in shot, overflowing up the left-hand side of motor vehicles waiting.

Is the UK ready for the Cycling Revolution® or are we designing roads for cycling shares of, ooh, say, about 2%?

The photo above shows pretty much an ideal situation for a junction with an ASL. There’s a wide cycle lane and no motor vehicles have encroached beyond the stop line. But the ASZ is already filled with about ten bikes and is overflowing into the cycle lane, where another ten people on bikes are waiting in the van’s blind spot. The ASL does nothing for these people.

Why are we designing infrastructure which cannot handle more than a dozen people on bikes? The design is so weak, it’s proof positive that the government has low cycling targets, because the infrastructure they’re putting in simply can’t handle more than a very small number of people on bikes.

But imagine if the orange van was a lorry – should all bikes wait behind it? What if the ASZ looks clear and the lights change while passing the lorry? What’s the goal of this infrastructure? Suddenly it’s all rather confusing.

Or even take a look at the Highway Code’s idealised image of how an ASL works at the top of this post. Note that even in their perfect world’s green-ticked scenario, there’s a bike on the left-hand side of the left-turning car. Even if that bike moves to the front of the ASZ, what happens when a fourth or a fifth bike arrives? The system just can’t cope with more than a few bikes.

How large would the ASL have to be to cope with the doubling of cycling which London is expecting?

An altered photograph showing a junction with an extremely long (20m or so) ASZ, to demonstrate why ASLs aren't compatible with large numbers of people cycling.

Mmm, roomy.

So that’s why I don’t like ASLs, and that’s why I want rid of them.


If you’re not convinced by my arguments, feel free to try one of these other esteemed bloggers: the Davids Hembrow, Arditti or Brennan, and also Paul James, Freewheeler or Londonneur.


Update: And there’s more, from NI Greenways, Cyclegaz and WillCycle. Thanks to Stripymoggie, Mark Skrzypczyk and WilliamNB in the comments below for these links.


Also, I just noticed this comment which I made on David Hembrow’s blog in May 2012, making the same point. I must have been mulling this over in my mind for quite some time!


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