Daws Lane

It all started last summer. For the past four years I have been working in Fulbourn and twice a day I pass along Daws Lane.

It is a pleasant little traffic free path, connecting Cherry Hinton with the eastern suburbs of Cambridge. It is well used both by cyclists and pedestrians.

Like other paths in the vicinity, Daws Lane is rather too narrow and suffers from poor sight lines. In summer this is exacerbated by growth of rampant vegetation – nettles lunge out from the ditch bank and brambles trail long, barbed, invisible tentacles from the trees overhead. Every autumn one or two trees blow down, festooned with ivy, so that riders have to limbo under them.

Despite these limitations, it is a very useful and attractive path, certainly better than the nearby Snakey Path (scarily narrow) or the horrible pavement conversions along Cherry Hinton Road. Periodically, after an intimate encounter with the nettles, the lack of maintenance would get to me and I would consider writing an angry letter, but life, on the whole, is too busy.

Then one morning I was following a mother taking her two young children off to nursery. The older girl was obviously enjoying one of her first trips without stabilizers. At the point where the Daws Lane path joins the road, there is a high cypress hedge jutting into the path, blocking off visibility to one side and reducing the width of the path to the extent that two people can no longer pass.

Flustered by an approaching cyclist the young girl tangled with an encroaching branch and flew over her handlebars, face first onto the tarmac. Fortunately no teeth were lost and after a cry and a cuddle she was OK. I am always amazed by just how robust young children are; had it been me I think I would have needed the rest of the week off.

That was the moment when I decided that something ought to be done. Had I known then how much personal time and effort would be invested in this short section of path, I might have thought twice. I have been doing some counting. It took four months, 15 emails and about 12 000 written words (that is around 240 words for every metre of path), but in the end I got that Leylandii cut back and the encroaching vegetation trimmed.

Daws Lane still falls a long way short on most target cycle track design criteria, and only part of the path was dealt with (the remainder is not a legally defined right of way), but the worst blind-spots have been improved. It does demonstrate that persistence pays.

So what were the issues?

Photo: the problems.

It came as something of a shock to me that here, in cycle friendly Cambridge, maintenance engineers fail to understand the basic needs of cyclists. It came as an even greater shock to discover that those same engineers continued to view Daws Lane only as a footpath, despite signs declaring it as a cycle route, despite the council producing a map showing the same, and despite the evidence of large numbers of cyclists using it.

Such ignorance might be excusable in rural Hertfordshire, but Cambridge has the highest rates of cycle use in the country. One in four Cambridge workers gets to work by bike – that is higher than the proportion of Londoners who drive to work. What would the reaction be if London’s traffic engineers didn’t understand the basic needs of drivers? It is inexcusable.

The issues are simple and easy to understand; they are the same for all vehicles. A cyclist or driver needs:

1. Sufficient width to be able to pass another vehicle or pedestrian safely. And…

2. Sufficient forward visibility to spot and avoid other road or path users and any potential hazards.

Failure to provide sufficient width and visibility creates conflict and bad feeling. It is in nobody’s interests, other than those who seek to portray cyclists in a negative light. Where a path is little more than a metre wide, and you cannot see round bends, it is inevitable that you will give somebody a fright, sooner or later, no matter how slowly and carefully you ride. Unfortunately people with an anti-cycling axe to grind will jump on such incidents as evidence that cycle paths are ‘dangerous’ and cyclists are inherently reckless. Few non-cyclists will consider that the fault may lie with the path, or that it can easily be solved through responsible maintenance.

The design and maintenance of cycle paths is not difficult. In most respects it is much easier than designing for motor vehicles. The principles are the same as for motor traffic but the requirements are more relaxed. In any given situation a cyclist’s maximum speed will be half that of motor vehicles, cyclists require less than half the space and require half as much visibility. The only problem is that cyclists have grown used to putting up with less and don’t complain enough.

Nowadays engineers have no excuse for not knowing what those requirements are. The CTC, Sustrans and local campaign groups have worked hard at improving the quality of design guidance. Sustrans and the Institution of Highways and Transportation (in collaboration with the CTC) have published some excellent guidelines. Central government has published draft guidelines for local authorities. Many local authorities such as London, Lancashire and Lincolnshire, have published detailed manuals on cycleway design and maintenance.

Strangely, Cambridgeshire has not.

The key document for maintenance issues is Application Guidance Document AG26 published by the Transport Research Laboratory. This clearly lays out the design criteria for cycle paths, and the action trigger levels for maintenance. The latter are divided into two levels – the maintenance trigger, where usability of the path is compromised, and the safety trigger, where a crash and injury could result. Daws Lane fails both sets of criteria.

With the best will in the world, it would not be possible to bring Daws Lane or its neighbouring paths up to the standard of a new, green field path. Like most of our road network, it has evolved from an older, less demanding use.

Photo: More problems.

It is constrained by property boundaries, by the needs and desires of the occupants of those properties for privacy, by ditches, by the amenity value of trees and vegetation, and by the need for access to the allotments.

But constraints are not an excuse for doing nothing. We cannot practically bring most historic roads up to modern design standards but that does not stop us dealing with issues that would make them unsafe or unusable. It may not be possible in all circumstances to achieve ideal visibility, but that should not stop us achieving the best possible within the constraints. A 3 m wide track may not fit but we can certainly do better than 1.2 m (the minimum width at present). Even without increasing the width of tarmac we can double the ‘effective width’ just by cutting back encroaching vegetation.

Poor width or alignment isn’t a good reason for ignoring maintenance. On the contrary, when we are starting off with substandard width or visibility, it is all the more important to ensure that we maintain as much of it as we can at all times. This is a good reason for upgrading the quality of the path as a whole. With better alignment, maintenance is less demanding.

What can you do?

Complain more!

Don’t sit back and expect somebody else to do it. Contact the council (via the County Council website, or links from the Cambridge Cycling Campaign website). Make a nuisance of yourself if no action is taken.

Report overgrown paths, make it clear that it is not acceptable, that it is not safe and that the Council should be taking positive action.

Get to know what is required for a cycle path to operate successfully and safely. If in doubt, ask the author. I have summarized the design requirements in the table below. Don’t allow yourself to be fobbed off: if it feels wrong, it probably is wrong.

Geometric Parameters for Cycle Paths
Parameter Recommended Minimum
Gradient 3% 5%
Width 3 m 2 m (1.5 m if part of shared path)
Crossfall 2.5% 2% to 3.3%
Radius of curvature 15m or greater
Visibility on bends 30 m 20 m
Design speed 30kph min

The Long View

I was quite shocked by the apparently haphazard way in which Cambridge’s off-road cycle paths are managed. Critically:

1. None of Cambridge’s “cycle routes” have been legally adopted as “cycle tracks”. We have a mish-mash of public footpaths and permissive paths, with no protection of the rights of people to cycle on them.

2. There are no maintenance agreements for the routes. The County Council did not even know who owns the land over which the Daws Lane path passes. Maintenance agreements should define who is responsible for maintaining which aspects of the path ‘corridor’. As the name implies, these are agreed by consent of the various parties and help smooth the rather adversarial relationships sometimes experienced with householders.

3. There is a need to audit Cambridge’s off road cycle paths and identify:

a. Where they fail to meet design or maintenance standards.

b. Which of those situations can be easily rectified by good, constructive maintenance.

c. Which of those situations require more drastic intervention.

d. Which of those situations cannot be rectified due to insurmountable constraints. In this case, is there a better alternative, or do users gain most benefit from the existing situation despite its shortcomings?

e. Who should (and who is capable of) maintain each section of route.

Alasdair Massie, Senior Engineer at Hannah Reed Consulting Engineers and formerly the CTC’s Right to Ride Representative in North Hertfordshire.