Doomed to dissatisfaction

This article was published in 2002, in Newsletter 44.

I argue that building at pavement level inevitably leads to poor quality cycle facilities.

Off road or on road? That’s a perennial question and has as many answers as there are cyclists. Some cyclists want to be as separate from traffic as they possibly can, irrespective of how poor or even legal it is. Others decry anything but the road as suitable for cycling and avoid off-road facilities almost on principle.

In between, there are those (like me) who take a pragmatic approach, using whatever suits the journey, mood and weather. Avoiding the worst facilities and confident in traffic to a greater or lesser extent, but using the better constructions when it suits us and welcoming them as an improvement.

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Frequent driveways mean repeated undulations in pavement cycleways. This example is on the newly constructed path on Trumpington Road, though the ramps are better further on where the path is set back from the road.

Even when using them, nearly everyone is frustrated that facilities could be so much better. Seeing European examples shows just what we are missing. Some aspects of northern European practice are hard to emulate. Many continental cities are more geared around apartment living. So the preponderance of driveways we get here is often less. Communal off-road car parking fees up space. Other aspects, though, could easily be adopted.

Fundamental to all this is the way in which nearly all construction here – across the country, not just in Cambridge – is done at pavement level. The cycleway is a specialised part of the footway rather than the road way. Perhaps that’s a hangover from the days when ‘cycle facility’ meant just allowing cyclists to use the existing pavement.

Secondly there’s only limited willingness to give up some of the decades-old design parameters for roads and junctions – the way kerbs curve into a junction for example.

Pavement level facilities are hard to build. The space for getting machinery in is often limited. The foundations are not built to road standards, so weeds are often a problem within months of completion. Driveways, minor entrances and so on require a ramp down onto the road, and conventional pavement construction spreads these across the whole width of the path. This means each driveway presents a thump up and down for the cyclist.

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Typical of European streets, this path is constructed at the same level as the road, is straight, smooth and level, and does not require a Give Way. Cars wait further back so do not block the junction. Even when the cycle track is higher than the road, this typical arrangement (from Ry, Denmark) meets side roads with a smooth, straight, barely perceptible ramp, and crosses forward of the car Give Way line.

Being at the same level as pedestrians means each inevitably strays into the other’s space. Often cyclists have to do so in order to pass safely. Cost and space considerations usually mean such facilities are only built on one side of the road, so two-way use is needed (and having to cross the road twice can reverse any safety advantages of a cycleway).

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The way kerbs are curved at junctions means a pavement level path joins at an odd angle offset from the desire line, and also requires a wider road crossing.

At junctions, cyclists always have the Give Way against them. The best we have achieved so far in Cambridge is a three-way Give Way. The argument is that drivers cannot be trusted to give way in this country (well, not in Cambridge anyway) so it is not safe to reverse priorities. But this discounts the actual behaviour, where most cyclists don’t observe the Give Way properly. Starting and stopping at these frequent intervals is frustrating and takes effort, so human nature means people don’t do it. Unfortunately, some cyclists also don’t know what the markings mean. I think the current arrangement serves largely to place the fault on cyclists when there is a collision, rather than doing anything to improve safety.

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A typical Cambridge scalloped bump down onto the road: off the straight line, always a Give Way, cars frequently block the way and the kerb is not flush.

Furthermore, the many different directions cyclists should look – including 180° behind – is demanding. This is typically combined with pedestrians and cyclists coming together at the same point, tactile paving and inspection covers lessening stability, and often a bump down and a wiggle off the straight line. There’s a lot to handle at once.

Where the path is not set back from the road, the splay of the kerb means that the ramp down and up isn’t lined up with the path and is at an angle across it (see diagram). The slope is over a very short distance (unlike driveways), scalloped out of the path. Yet the width to cross is increased by the curve.

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Wheelie bins often block pavement cycleways.

Pavements have other obstacles too. Permanent ones like bus stops and temporary ones like wheelie bins and parked vehicles all add to the mêlée.

Contrast all this with various European models which use a kerb to segregate the path – on both sides – from the road. Sometimes these are wide kerbs including planting, even car parking. But the path is at the same level as the road and the kerbs inserted after construction. This means it is all laid as part of the road, with all the advantages of foundations and mechanisation.

Segregation by level means pedestrians and cyclists don’t mix. Ramps down are not needed – though sometimes cycleways are a half-level raised, where ramps down are gentle and straight, not a bite out of a kerb. Linking into junctions is smooth and at right angles. More fundamentally, being at road level when the junction is reached means that the path appears to be part of the junction, so side roads more naturally give way to them. In many places this is emphasised by the side road being raised, not the cycleway. Both the footpath and cycleway physically take precedence and cars have to drive over the continuous pair of paths, not the other way around.

At larger junctions, bringing the cycleways in at road level means it is easier and more natural to think of them as part of the junction, so are signalled as part of it, rather than as part of the pedestrian phase. Only at Barton Road, and perhaps the exit from Coldham’s Common, do we really have this level of integration in Cambridge, with proper ramps and angles.

So, it is my contention that building cycleways as part of the pavement rather than part of – but separate from – the road way is inevitably doomed to create second and third rate facilities. Getting away from conventional pedestrian and car-oriented design – creating long smooth ramps and sharper junction angles, for example – could help. But fundamentally, road-level construction just makes the design thinking better for the end users.

David Earl

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In Groningen, Netherlands, the footway and (separate) cycle track both run right across the mouth of many side streets, completely changing the perception of priorities.