Armadillos: The Emperor’s New Infrastructure

Please, dear non-London readers, I apologise for covering the capital so much! But while this blog post may have originated with a London street, its influence is spreading so it should concern you too, wherever you may be.

It’s no secret that I’m not entirely keen on the new Royal College Street design. I’m clearly not alone in thinking this, either.

The whole idea of these “armadillos” – as the currently-fashionable little plastic blobs are called – is to provide cycling infrastructure on the cheap. But as my dad always said, “if you buy cheap, you buy twice.”

While Royal College Street isn’t the best example of cycling infrastructure, I admit that it isn’t a complete disaster. The cycle lane does work most of the time (in the places it’s actually there, and when there’s no bus passengers, and when no car has driven over the armadillos – though that’s quite a few caveats, mind).

But the only reason that armadillos even work at all on Royal College Street is because they don’t stand alone, but are interspersed with large protective planters, and because the street has a relatively low level of motor traffic.

That level of traffic is not low enough, in my opinion – if there is a level of traffic at which armadillos are suitable, I’d say Royal College Street still exceeds that, which is why earth-filled planters were included as part of the design. But even they are not enough either.

Recently bollards have also been added to the mix – or should that be ‘added to the mess’? The bollards are there to protect the planters, which are there to protect the armadillos, which are there to protect people on bikes. And people have won awards for this nonsense!?

It might have been easier to just do the job properly in the first place.

Royal College Street in Camden, showing a planter, bollard and armadillo to protect the cycle lane.

Armadillos and planters and bollards – oh my! (Photo: Joe Dunckley)

(Though I must say I was pleased to see the parking bays also recently moved away from the edge of the cycle lane, to give some safety from the door zone.)

Meanwhile, outside the M25…

In Manchester, the council have been experimenting with armadillos alone to separate cycle lanes, which hasn’t been a resounding success, shall we say. “Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester” has been covering it thoroughly, but essentially they’ve discovered that armadillos aren’t made of some sort of magic car-repelling material after all.

An armadillo which has been smashed by motor vehicles.

This is not quality cycle infra. (Photo: Mad Cycle Lanes of Manchester)

TfGM are wanting to use armadillos on Oxford Road, where taxis will be pulling over to pick up and drop off passengers. Will taxi drivers be fearful of crossing these low plastic humps? I can hazard a guess that they won’t.

Shrinking armadillos

They’ve also shrunk over time. When people first started banging on about how Seville had massively increased its cycling rate, we were seeing pictures of these big concrete things:

A protected cycle lane in Seville, which uses much bigger blobs, made of concrete and much closer together.

This is what was originally promoted – large, concrete armadillos (Photo: Claudio Olivares Medina)

But somehow they’ve shrunk in the meantime, and become tiny plastic things which many drivers don’t even notice:

Though the Seville “Tobys” are much better than the frankly pathetic armadillos, I’m still not a big fan. They’re simply not high-quality infrastructure. They reduce the usable width of the cycle path as they’re essentially an intermittent high kerb. They should, at least, keep the cycle path clear of motor vehicles.

(Apparently Bristol have rejected armadillos on their Clarence Road project, in favour of Tobys.)

The same is true of the planters, by the way. I don’t know where the idea first came from, but check out these examples from Vancouver. They’re about twice the size of the Camden ones, much closer together, and are themselves protected by a concrete kerb. Suddenly it’s clear why the Camden ones are failing…

In conclusion: Armadillos are rubbish.

Like painted lanes in the 1980s and ASLs in the 1990s, some cyclists imagine that armadillos may alleviate some of the problems they face and welcome them as a positive measure.

But like those other half-hearted attempts at cycling infra on the cheap, they are not the high-quality infrastructure that is needed to increase cycling rates in Britain.

These little plastic blobs are currently very fashionable in transport design circles and they are already starting to spread around the country as yet another way of doing cycling on the cheap instead of doing it right, once and for all, by doing what is proven to work.

Make no mistake – armadillos are popular because they’re cheap, not because they’re effective.

I’ve been trying to think of a situation where armadillos might be suitable, but I can’t. The nearest thing I’ve seen in the Netherlands have been at roadworks or on temporary routes, and even there they’ve been much larger, heavier, concrete blocks – and even they don’t provide protection against a badly-controlled car. So what hope does a little plastic blob have?

Even as a  temporary measure to try out a cycle route before committing it in concrete, I don’t think they’re good enough. And the schemes where they are being installed aren’t temporary. These projects are intended to last for decades. Remember how Enfield council thinks they could be used?

Laughably awful visualisation by Enfield council, showing narrow bike lanes in the dooring-zone, and bus stops on the wrong side of cycle paths.

If this is Dutch, then I’m a Dutchman’s uncle.

So be careful what you wish for, my dear cycling campaigners, and be careful what you welcome. You may be about to praise the next great nationally-adopted cycling failure.



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48 responses to “Armadillos: The Emperor’s New Infrastructure

  1. Andre

    They do exist in the Netherlands, see It’s a major route for both momorists and cyclists too, but it’s also a place that would have been redone (with a better cycling infrastructure) several years ago. That that has not happened yet, is because the canal this bridge is over will be closed to through traffic (for ships) later this year. Undoubtedly they have been waiting for that to do improvements here – if I understand correctly, a new bridge will be built with a fully separated two-way cyclepath.

    • Thanks for that, Andre.

      What you’re saying is that the example you’ve given is old infrastructure which is long overdue for renewal.

      Here in the UK this sort of thing is the latest aspirational infrastructure which people are winning awards for!

    • davidhembrow

      We have some right here in Assen as well. Concrete ones, just a short stretch, and again something that should have been replaced years ago. In fact, I was once told that this would have turned into a proper cycle-path by 2009. Sometimes things do take a little longer than expected. Now building alongside has finally been replaced, perhaps we’ll see the needed upgrade of this cycle-path.

      It’s not really terrible, btw. It’s survived because it works fairly well in this location. There are no junctions of note along here, only a couple of drive-ways. The cycle-path is 2.3 m wide inside the armadillos so it’s not really too narrow. But it’s still old hat for NL.

      • Thanks for including that link David, I knew you had a photo of something similar somewhere!

        • davidhembrow

          I’ve added another photo, taken yesterday. The loose armadillos have now been replaced and realigned. Each is 1 m long, 25 cm wide and 12 cm tall. They are solid blocks of concrete. When they were loose, I tried to lift one and it was heavier than I thought I could lift without damaging my back.

          Actually, these are altogether a different thing to what is being installed in the UK. But they’re still inadequate. An example of what not to copy.

  2. Paul Gannon

    When Camden designed the remake of Royal College St they decided that they wanted ‘segregation lite’. I’m not sure why they wanted this, possibly aesthetic opposition to kerbs or similar motivation. I would have a quite different starting point, namely ‘segregation effective’ and I too am not convinced that these little plastic lumps are effective. It seems to me that they are designed to send the message to motorists that you can drive across them if necessary.

    I hope that LBCamden will keep close watch on this project and will have the courage to revert to more effective means of segregation if this experiment shows that the armadillo continues to fall short in terms of effectiveness. Their effectiveness can easily be measured against the very effective kerb-based segregation (on one side of the road only) provided by the first phase implementation and taken out for the armadillo/planter version. The armadillos should be shown to be equally effective if they are to stay in place. It would be a great pity if the safety provided by the first phase of RCS was compromised by a sub-standard approach based on a preference for ‘segregation lite’.

    • My understanding is that they wanted “segregation lite” because it allowed them to do it without falling foul of DfT rules and having to get lots of painful special approvals. Unfortunately, I don’t see that explicitly called out in the presentation slides where I heard Brian Deegan say this:

    • There’s a difficulty with measuring the effectiveness of the current “lite” arrangement, in that they’ve changed a two-way track for two one-way tracks. I would have favoured keeping the original track as the northbound track (while fixing the bus stops). But then that might not have won an award!

      I can tell you now that there’s no way the new design is as effective as the old, especially at junctions where it disappears altogether.

      • Paul Gannon

        I’m only referring to effectiveness at keeping motorists out of cyclists’ dedicated space (given that the posting is about armadillos). The kerb system used for phase 1 was 100% effective (I only ever saw one motor transgress & that was a road works vehicle). If the armadillos & planters are not 100% effective they fail my test. What is needed, given teh uncertainty raised by users of RCS, that a survey over a specific time is needed to see if they are also 100% effective & if not they should be replaced by a proven design. One or two-way working is not relevant to this test.

        I agree that the junction design is dreadful, but that is a separate issue.

    • Any cyclist on here will know that each of those vehicles that strayed on to the Armadillos would otherwise have been clipping the apex of the corner, potentially taking out any cyclists in the process. So this video shows them working. HOWEVER the question is; does NOT fighting these open the door to poor quality infrastructure and I would argue that it does. It is hard to be balanced when any concessions immediately become the standard. Armadillos may well have places where they are in fact a good solution but accepting that is as good as saying “forget ‘Dutch’ Armadillos will do”.

  3. Gar

    A cycle lane/track near me, alongside a very busy by pass. About a mile long I have only ever seen three other people on it in 15 years since it was built, so I know by now it was built specially for me, but I wonder how many cycle tracks are the same, built to please campaigners but not for people with bicycles, since there are apparently none!?

    • MJ Ray

      What does it connect to?

      But I think most campaigners know bypasses aren’t great for parallel cycleways because people on bikes don’t need to avoid towns and villages like people who want to go fast in cars do, plus those towns and villages contain destinations.

      What’s important is that bypasses don’t cut other routes… which is a mistake that the Norwich northern distributor road may repeat, from the looks of it.

  4. Almost inevitably, Manchester seems to have looked at the Royal College Street scheme and seen best practice – not something bare-minimum, but something to actually aim for and maybe not quite reach. No surprise, when it’s been touted as best practice in certain quarters.

    We have some newish kerb-segregated cycle lanes up here, and our “cycling czar” has described them within my hearing as “over-engineered”. This fills me with dread for whatever schemes they’re cooking up next – presumably he’d rather have these armadillo things or something…

  5. Jitensha Oni

    It looks to me like they keep cyclists in more effectively than they keep motorists out. I’m basically with Paul Gannon; but would also be critical from a practical cycling point of view. With the old bidirectional path along RCS there was plenty of space to overtake other cyclists – as there is in all the examples you show from outside of the UK. The narrowness of the RCS unidirectional paths makes this more of a problem for those wishing to stay on the paths, and it should not be necessary to pop out onto the main carriageway to overtake. Segregation needs minimum standards to be convienent and direct, and RCS fails to deliver.

    Using armadillos of the design shown, whether alone as in Manchester or in combination with planters, is completely unnecessary (IMO). If you’re not going to install proper deterrents to motor vehicle incursion, as shown from outside of the UK (and again it has to be on decent width paths and lanes or you inconvenience the cyclists), some white paint would do, as here (please ignore the pitiful width of the lanes). The vertical height and overall shape of the armadillos is less than the inverse geometry of many potholes that UK motorists have to cope with on a daily basis, so they are not going to deter anyone in a motor vehicle. Moreover they presumably cost considerably more than a dab of white paint.

  6. Andy R

    I’m not a Local Government engineer, I’m one of those bloodsucking consultants, but I do know that historically getting money out of central government for any local transport improvements (certainly outside London) seems to be like getting blood out of a stone – to get money specifically for cycling virtually impossible. However, with the recent LSTF and CCAG funding, things are starting to happen.

    However, because of that historic lack of funding, at the moment a lot of LAs are still only in the ‘establishing routes’ phase – making the political statement of taking space from motor vehicles – creating a precedent. They seem to be doing this using methods which are quick and cheap, but how else would you have them create networks from zero? Especially since that government money comes with deadlines for when it has to be spent.

    I accept there are many commentators on here who could lecture me in great detail on how the Dutch do things (and it is my intention to one day go on one of Mr. Hembrow’s study tours – in the meantime I’ll make do with talking to colleagues in the Netherlands, including an engineer who sat on the committee that put the CROW guidance together); however there are also many who haven’t a clue what goes in to ‘shifting a few kerbs’, as I’ve seen it described. Nor the difference in costs between this ‘hard’ infrastructure and the ‘softer’ alternatives.

    • I’m a campaigner. It’s my role to push for the best at all times.

      Perhaps it’s part of your job to be an apologist for the low quality output of a broken system, to find reasons why things can’t be done, but that’s not my concern.

      For too long cycle campaigners have tried to be great friends with politicians and planners and engineers, but this has come at a cost of being afraid to criticise in case it annoys a drinking buddy.

      If someone is suggesting poor quality, ineffective infrastructure – cheap though it may be – then we’re at odds and I will be criticising.

      Until the UK is better than the best bits of the Netherlands, I won’t be satisfied. I’ll always be pushing for more, and aiming for better. It’s the only way anything can progress. If I was asking for tiny things, praising little plastic blobs, where would that get us?

      • Andy R

        “I’m a campaigner. It’s my role to push for the best at all times. ”

        That’s fine, believe it or not most engineers would like to give cyclists the best infrastructure – we have a duty of care to the public and under the Road Deaths Investigation Manual we can be subject to the 3am knock on the door if someone dies on a scheme we have designed. But it undermines campaigner’s credibility when, as I said, they can quote chapter and verse the CROW manual and what and how the Dutch do things, but have no concept of what we face trying to get this stuff implemented in the UK, be it the regulations we have to satisfy – look at some of the designs by the resident highway engineer on the CEoGB website to either comply or get round those regs – or the ins and outs of getting funding and the numerous, some might argue pointless, strings attached.

        If you think I am being an apologist for poor schemes, so be it. However, when it comes to cycle infrastructure I would suggest the only difference between us (again, believe it or not, as you will) is that I have dealt with the politics (large and small ‘p’) of traffic schemes for years, the stuff the public don’t see (even if they are conscientious about attending every planning meeting or consultation). How the initial ideal slowly gets butchered by a thousand cuts. As an engineer I might like to be an idealist, but experience continues to force me to be a realist. However, I can assure you it won’t stop me aiming high in every scheme.

        • platinum

          I’ve used the example before of another type of experts in their field. Doctors of medicine. It’s extremely important that these people are highly trained, not only initially but continually throughout their careers as scientific knowledge moves on. It’s extraordinarily important *because lives depend on it*.

          Now if a politician was to tell a doctor how to do their job, “no don’t bother with proven effective medicines when sugar pills are so much cheaper”, a trained physician and expert in his field would rightly tell the uneducated ignorant politician to fuck off, rather than lie to patients, who not only desperately want to live to the end of the day, but to actually have a pleasant and fun lives.

          Why is it only in the field of highway engineering that the second scenario is not only acceptable but the engineers are making excuses and colluding with it themselves!

          Isn’t it time we have a hippocratic oath for engineers – I will prescribe roads for the good of my road users according to my ability and my judgment and never do harm to anyone.

          • That’s a superb idea!

            I agree, it’s about time engineers were given the power to tell the politicians when they’re wrong. Unfortunately the system’s just not set up that way at the moment. It needs changing to be evidence-based, not lowest-common-denominator vote-winning based.

        • I’m very pleased to hear that you aim high in every scheme, and will continue to do so.

          If that’s the case, then you can use campaigners such as myself as proof of demand to your political bosses. Without people like me and others pushing for the best, why would the political bosses consider it? Whinging buggers can only help you to get the best stuff approved.

          (I do also write articles criticising those above you in the system, by the way. There’s plenty to choose from.)

    • Andy,
      I’m not sure how you think “consumers” of these networks might respond?
      I have 3 sons and a grandson on the way.
      When I want them to be safe how do you think I should respond to Councils and Consultants wasting money on “softer” alternatives that have never worked anywhere?

  7. Pingback: Cycle campaigning - Page 26 - London Fixed-gear and Single-speed

  8. ” Especially since that government money comes with deadlines for when it has to be spent.” Surely this is at the heart of much of the poor infrastructure we see – facilities are rushed and ill thought out as LA’s etc need to be seen to “use it or lose it”. Wasn’t this one of the excuses given for the Bedford fiasco a couple of weeks ago? What we need to see is a change in policy ring-fencing cycle infrastructure funding enabling councils to roll it over so that they have the capital to do a proper job.

  9. I just saw james Bakers video above from Manchester’s use of Armadillo’s and the one thing is clear, painted cycle lanes alone do not work as the cars simply drive over them. However each car that hit the Armadillo’s soon realised where they were & after going over the first 3 or 4 of them soon rejoined their own lane – I think that proves they actually work even when that massive truck goes over them. This lane really needs a build out or/& bollard to stop them at the start of the lane.

    Unfortunately even with all the big sums banded about cycling there’s no amount of money available to segregate all the cycle lanes from car lanes with concrete kerbing with all the drainage & litter collection issues they entail. In Camden where concerte kerbing is used youwill see in the mornings that the faster cyclists do not use them as they are not permeable you cannot easily over take slower cyclists and you are hemmed in.

    Why not read what the local cyclists in Camden think of them,surely they should know best – see article??

    also that cycling has increased on this part of camden 50%

    Camden have a feasibility study which shows collisions have dropped from 1 serious & 2 minor each year on average and are now down to zero a year after installation of the Armadillo’s.

    ps: the concrete Seville bollards shown above are being replaced with Armadillo’s as there has been serious collisions when cars hit them and are dangerous when a cyclists lands on them.

    • So – there’s no money, defer to the “experts”, don’t criticise? Great campaigning attitude there.

      If people have to leave the cycle lane to overtake, then they’re not wide enough. The Camden lanes are not wide enough.

      I myself use Royal College Street, and I have given my opinion of them. Telling me to forget what I’ve seen with my own eyes and instead read the council’s propaganda is rather strange.

      The Royal College Street scheme has been in place for about seven months, so how can Camden have yearly statistics for it? They’ve also changed from a two-way track to two one-way tracks, which will be responsible for any safety improvement. There is no evidence yet that the presence of little plastic blobs improves safety.

    • Ah, I’ve just realised why you’re so keen to defend – you work for Cyclehoop, the company selling this rubbish! Talk about a conflict of interest.

      Well I can ignore your comment, in that case, as your wage depends on selling these little plastic blobs to gullible councils, how can you be anything but entirely biased?

  10. Bill

    Royal College Street is better than most of London, but that is not saying much. This morning a mini-cab was parked in the South bound cycle line on Royal College Street, outside the Vet’s college entrance at around 8.20AM. I stopped to ask the driver why and he simply shrugged.

    I use RCS twice a day, morning rush hour and a little after the evening rush hour. I was in the habit of emailing news of damaged planters to The Camden engineering team but have given up as they are damaged so frequently.

    Terrible to say but every amendment to the original segregated lanes in Camden has resulted in a worse facility. Byng Place and Russell Square (west side) being two other examples.

    • Thanks for sharing your experiences of Royal College Street, Bill. The work that was done 10 years ago should have been built upon and extended, rather than nibbled at and tweaked. Why spend money redoing one of the few streets with cycling infra, and ignore all those without?

  11. James Edwards

    I think Royal College Street works pretty well with the planters and Armadillos. Not a fan of the segregated lane in Tavistock Place they are way too narrow and that’s all you can get in London. At least with RCS you can weave in and out of the lumps and planters. Sure it is good to ask for proper segregated lanes but this is a pretty good alternative.

  12. Bill

    If you ride along St Pancras way between Camden Road and Georgiana street you will see a segregated lane as wide as the original RCS lane. This is safely segregated and wide enough for safe overtaking.

    Regarding Tavistock, the lane is too narrow for the current number of users and should be widened with the space being taken from the carriage way. There is plenty of room on the roads in this part of London, just very poorly allocated.

  13. They’re not just earth filled planters they’re plant filled planters!

  14. MaccGary

    Watch the video again. It shows the Armadillos working – cars get out of the lane within a second or two. If I drove down that street regularly I wouldn’t make that mistake twice; the noise inside the car must be horrendous.

    So yeah, I don’t see the problem and I don’t think your case against this kind of segregation is anywhere near to being conclusive.

    If they don’t want them in Salford we’ll take them in Macclesfield!

    • Did you not see the photograph of the smashed-up armadillo? That’s what happens when they keep getting hit. They’ll need replacing very regularly. They also do nothing to prevent an intentional encroachment, such as a stopping taxi or delivery lorry. They’re poor infrastructure.

      • MaccGary

        I did see the photos, but since the original post on madcyclelanes none of the Armadillos seem to have been smashed (another poster above says they were reinstalled last month?). The recent posts seem to be about bollards, not smashed Armadillos.

        Like I said, if you don’t want them in Salford we’d be happy to take them off your hands as we have absolutely nothing in the way of protection here. In the meantime, good luck waiting for funding for fully segregated concrete lanes on all roads in Salford. Nice idea, but back in the real world I suspect you’re in for a long wait.

  15. What I don’t understand is that often now for roadworks they use those prefab slot together concrete barriers, but for protecting cyclists little bits of rubbery plastic are considered up to the job.

  16. fixer

    Wow, lots of ideas about what not to do. Does anybody dare contribute something positive ie ideas about what should be done?

    To ensure answers actually relate to the real world I’d say you need to come up with a solution that fits some criteria:

    Can drop into our existing infrastructure without digging up the roads
    Can be installed by 2-3 man gangs
    Costs less than £100/linear metre in materials
    Cannot be broken by cars

    After that you can come up with the solutions that fit your own criteria for safety etc.

    • Sadly in your desire for a cheap solution you are in danger of forgetting that Armadillos etc do not help when it comes to junctions of all kinds. That is where the real cost comes and Armadillos don’t fit well a Dutch style safe junction.

    • Yikes. What an unreasonable set of demands! Do any motor-centred improvements like extra all-traffic lanes ever fit in those restrictions?

      Although do semi-tracks (cycle lanes raised up to a level between all-traffic and footways with 45-degree kerbs) fit all of those except 2-3 man ganging?

      dave42w makes the big point, though. Junctions are the danger. Happily, many junctions could be improved relatively cheaply by reprogramming signals and adding a few green bike early-start lights, but there’s no will among politicians for such easy improvements yet.

    • Tell you what, let’s just draw cycle lanes in chalk.

      We can get two schoolkids to do it for pocket money, and it cannot be broken by cars (unlike the armadillos and planters which are regularly whacked and cracked).

      It’ll be no more effective than armadillos, of course, but then effectiveness doesn’t seem to be one of your goals.

  17. The only reason I might use these would be if I had to have a cycle lane instead of a cycle track, but even then I would make the armadillos a bit bigger, filled with cement so they are sturdier and add more retroreflectivity and colour to them to be attentive. Maybe when the only space I have on the road is for a 2.9 metre wide car lane and 1.75 metre wide cycle lane, but even then, that doesn’t feel adequate enough to me. I might raise the cycle lane a few centimetres and add a forgiving curb on the left side of the cycle lane so that the cyclists have a bit more room.

  18. Jo H

    We drive into Manchester along Great Clowes Street/Blackfriars Road, Salford where there have been ‘armadillos’ placed along each side. This road used to be two lane traffic which has subsequently been cut down to one lane which has increased congestion and therefore air pollution. Also before reading this article I wasn’t aware you were able to drive over them as an emergency vehicle struggled to get through the traffic as, I presume, most car drivers aren’t aware they’re safe to drive over and therefore they were struggling to move to one side to make way. All in all only a huge success for the cyclist it seems.

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