Gonville Place pedestrian/cycle crossing

This article was published in 2006, in Newsletter 67.

The north side of Gonville Place Crossing. Many cyclists cannot make the sharp left turn without veering onto the opposite side of the two-way cycle path.
Photo: The north side of Gonville Place Crossing

After more than two months of disruptive construction work, a previously segregated pedestrian/cycle crossing over Gonville Place at the end of Gresham Road has been converted to a combined ‘Toucan’ crossing. When I saw the proposal notice in March this year, I had a feeling that this was likely to be a downgrade for cyclists along an important commuting route. I objected on the grounds that the existing segregated crossing was far superior for the safety of all concerned as it minimised conflict between cyclists and pedestrians. I pointed out that the large volume of cycle and pedestrian traffic together with the sharp turn made by cyclists travelling into town meant that the proposed unsegregated crossing was inappropriate. I also requested that no additional bollards be added, as these tend to restrict movements by wide pushchairs, wheelchairs and cyclists towing trailers. I commented that one major improvement for cyclists would be to lower the kerb on the Parker’s Piece side of the crossing since I had seen a lady fall badly when she followed the natural line of a cyclist and hit this raised kerb. Indeed, the kerb had been highlighted with yellow paint earlier in the year, suggesting that it was earmarked for lowering. As a last point I asked that the crossing plans be sent to the Cycling Campaign for comments.

Cambridge Cycling Campaign did not formally object to the Traffic Regulation Order changing this crossing from a special cycle crossing to a Toucan, as such crossings, for example the Queen’s Road crossing at Burrell’s Walk, have proved generally effective and remove the two legal problems of cycle crossings. As with some other recent changes, we were not sent drawings and hence were not able to point out obvious errors in design. The Officer’s report on the crossing to the AJC stated quite incorrectly that ‘County and City officers have developed the layout in consultation with Cambridge Cycling Campaign.’ We were not consulted.

A short meeting with detailed plans available should easily have prevented all these problems and saved the County Council a lot of money. We ask for effective consultation in future to develop cycle crossings which are specially designed for a city in which an exceptionally high proportion of people cycle.

My objection meant that the proposal for the conversion of the crossing had to be put before the Cambridge Traffic Management Area Joint Committee. But hardly any information about the nature of my objection was given to the Committee. They were told only that I considered that the proposals would be detrimental to cyclists and a danger to pedestrians. The AJC unfortunately, but not surprisingly, authorised the crossing without acting on any of my suggestions. In subsequent email exchanges I learned that council cycling officers and a safety team had already approved the initial design. I also learned that the dangerous kerb would not be lowered because prohibitively expensive changes were also required to an adjacent British Telecom chamber.

Why so many bollards and posts, especially the one on the right next to the fence? Wheelchair access is reasonable on the right but not on the left.
Photo: Why so many bollards and posts?

Now that the crossing has been installed, I am appalled at the outcome. It is half its former width, there are numerous poles and bollards occupying the limited space, and the overall layout results in a dramatically increased risk of cycle:cycle or cycle:pedestrian collision compared to the former crossing. The following is a summary of the main problems with responses I and others have gleaned from the Council:

1. Layout of the sharp left turn when travelling into town: Despite my pointing out that this turn was already very tight, a new signal post has been inserted directly in the path of a turning cyclist. During construction it was realised that the BT chamber prevented the original intended position. Surely the planners should have foreseen this problem, as the chamber was the reason the nearby dangerous kerb could not be lowered (see above). Cyclists are also forced to make the sharp left turn on the patterned concrete slabs added for the visually impaired. These provide significantly less traction than a normal surface, particularly in the wet.

Friday 14 July 2006 08:30 to 09:00
Cyclists crossing 205 77%
Pedestrians crossing 62 23%
of the latter, walking in cycle path
…on Parker’s Piece side 9 15%
…on Gresham Road side 23 37%

I monitored the new crossing on a few occasions and noted that more than half the cyclists I saw, after making the sharp turn, veer onto the wrong side of the two-way cycle path to avoid the two new posts that bifurcate the start of the cycle section. I have already experienced a couple of near head-on collisions at this point when travelling out of town. It is worth noting that the design of the old crossing clearly maintained the polarity of the cycle path on the bend, thereby avoiding collisions. I have suggested to the council that one of the posts, which is there only to house a small ‘start of cycleway’ sign, should be moved to one side. The other post holds the advance cycle pushbutton. You might ask why this was inserted, since no-one uses it. It was included based on a Cycling Campaign suggestion for a different crossing; the plans were not sent to the Campaign for comments, and I reminded the council that the design of the other crossing is completely different. If these posts are moved or removed, the cobbled central area also needs to be taken out.

2. Excessive bollard syndrome. The bollards added to the ‘pedestrian’ area at the end of Gresham Road restrict wheelchair and wide pushchair access on one side. This is despite a statement made by the Council that this would not happen. The result is that most people use the wider gap intended for cyclists. It is also unclear why the inter-bollard distance for the pedestrian area is so different on the two sides of Gresham Road and why a bollard has been inserted immediately next to a fence, thereby needlessly narrowing the minimal pavement space.

The spacious segregated layout with substantial gaps between bollards at the Queen’s Road crossing.
Photo: Queen's Road crossing

3. Signal location. Two signal boxes are provided on each side of the crossing to indicate when pedestrians and cyclists can cross. However, they are both on the same pole. This means they are easily obscured. In addition, on the north side cyclists are invited to ‘Push and wait for signal’ at the advance push buttons when travelling out of town. However, from this location they cannot see the signal. Unlike the fairly recently installed pedestrian/cycle crossings at Queen’s Road and Mitcham’s Corner, there are no traffic signals for pedestrians and cyclists visible on the opposite side of the road.

4. Reduced space for crossing and increased risk of collision. Cambridge has an expanding population. Why then halve the width of this already busy crossing? Other pedestrian/cycle crossings in Cambridge are as wide as the original Gonville Place crossing. It now means that at busy times pedestrians and cyclists spread out along the full width of the crossing, and when the lights change everyone meets in a confusing mêlée in the middle. Previously, cyclists and pedestrians were segregated and there was a natural ‘polarity’ over the cycle section, with most cyclists keeping left.

5. Automatic detection of approaching cyclists to activate the traffic signals has been removed. Such detection has for many years been a very positive feature of this crossing, and is particularly appropriate for its unusual layout. The officer who presented the report to the Area Joint Committee on 24 April said immediately after the meeting that automatic detection would continue and this has since been confirmed to the Cambridge Cycling Campaign by a senior councillor. But there is no sign of willingness by the signals team of the County Council to reinstall automatic detection in the immediate future.

6. The safety audit prior to construction makes for interesting reading. The team recommended installation of a chicane rather than bollards at the end of Gresham Road. Thankfully this was not taken up. The report states that of recent accidents at this crossing, several have involved motor vehicles skidding into each other when suddenly stopping. Anti-skid surface on the approach to the crossing was proposed as the solution. The report also states that there was ‘surprisingly only one collision involving a cyclist.’ Why surprisingly? I would suggest that the lack of collisions involving cyclists means the crossing should not have been altered. Given these statistics I don’t see how reducing its width will help.

Segregated crossing working well at Maid’s Causeway.
Photo: Maid's Causeway.

In summary, an enormous amount of time and money has been spent on downgrading an important cycle crossing. I am left extremely concerned about the overall manner in which cycle facilities are designed and their installation managed. Let us only hope that by raising debate over the Gonville Place crossing, we can prevent the same happening to other segregated, or properly laid out shared, crossings (e.g. Queen’s Road and Maid’s Causeway: see photos). All of the above points have been made to the Council, with a request that they be put on file for future reference.

Are there any positive outcomes to this new crossing? One is that new cameras check that the crossing has cleared before the road signals turn to red, although surely this could have been installed on top of the old crossing. Cyclists are now legally allowed to turn left into Gonville Place from Parker’s Piece and to turn right from Gresham Road into Gonville Place. Apparently it was illegal before: but did anyone ever take notice and was this ever enforced? Moreover it is now more difficult to make these manoeuvres because of the narrower crossing which concentrates cyclists and pedestrians.

Within the correspondence that I have had with the Council’s signals team, I repeatedly get the argument ‘The layout of this type of crossing is a standard used by many local authorities.’ I had hoped that the uniquely high use of cycles in Cambridge meant that this statement was not naturally applicable. I challenge the Council to find many people who agree that the layout is suitable in this particular instance and works better than the previous layout.

Martyn Smith