I had an ‘interesting’ weekend on the cycle paths of North Hertfordshire and East Bedfordshire, one which clearly illustrates why people aren’t clambering over each other to use newly built cycle facilities. The saddest thing is that my experiences were on parts of the National Cycle Network (routes 12, Great North Route, and 51, Sandy-Bedford), supposedly our flagship project.
We hadn’t planned an expedition, I was just taking my son (7) to play football against a rival school in Letchworth. Against my better judgement we took the cycleway for the short distance that it coincided with our route. Over a distance of 400 m we had to stop for three closed gates, negotiate two blind bends, an unsealed surface and an access barrier so intimidating that we had to stop and walk through it.
We gave up with the cycle track at the end of this short path to avoid having to stop and give way at four cul de sac entrances in 100 m. Not much danger of any of them reaching 4000 vehicles per day (or even per month) so why the reversal of priority? Given the proposed Highway Code changes and the recent conviction of Daniel Cadden for riding in the road where there was an adjacent cycle path, we were risking prosecution at this point.
…we had to negotiate some very close bollards, with a trailer bike, while turning. We didn’t make it.
Route 12 had one last sting in its tail. To get off the road and onto a short traffic-free stretch across Norton Common we had to negotiate some very close bollards, with a trailer bike, while turning. We didn’t make it. The trailer bike caught on a bollard and both father and son spilled onto the tarmac.
Needless to say we took the main road home rather than mess around with any more cycle paths.
On Sunday we took part in a local ‘treasure hunt’ on bikes, again with the trailer bike. Unbeknown to us this went over the new A1 Tempsford Bridge and a section of NCN route 51. Tempsford Bridge is a new, purpose designed cycle bridge, so taking a trailer bike over it would be no problem, right?
Wrong. We managed the five 90° turns, we even managed the 180° turn, but the anti-family barriers defeated us. Five times in the width of a four-lane road we had to stop, disconnect the trailer bike, and manhandle it over chest-high barriers. Luckily we were part of a group because there was nothing to stop the children wandering onto the carriageway while I was battling with the barriers.
What were the designers thinking? A short distance to the south is a road bridge with similar gradients on the ramps. Are there any chicanes or barriers or 90° bends on this road bridge? Of course not, that would be nonsense, so why are they on the cycle bridge?
Suggestions on how to get a trailer bike through them are welcome – especially from the designers! Note the width as well – recommended minimum width for a two-way shared-use path is 3.0 m. This is only 2.0 m, less approx 0.5 m for the guardrails each side giving only 1.0 m effective width, before we take into account the effects of gradient and barriers.
NCN route 51 should be a great cycle path. It follows an abandoned rail line for most of its route and so is largely traffic free. The Victorian railway engineers had done a great job of creating a cycle route. The problems came where their 21st century counterparts have adapted it to join the modern roads and thread it through housing estates.
Wherever a modern engineer has been involved he seems to have taken the nonsensical option. Where the track doglegs to the right across a road it unaccountably sets off heading left, then changes its mind and loops back on itself. Where visibility to one side is blocked by a high wall, punctuated by numerous side paths, the cycle lane is placed hard against the wall so that riders have no chance of seeing anybody about to emerge from a side path. There are bollards and textured paving everywhere – particularly on bends and crossings where they are a hazard, and the path zigzags about with no regard for visibility or bend radii.
We finally gave up with the cycle route when we had to disconnect and manhandle the trailer bike over yet another anti-family barrier. The roads, despite their traffic, are a far more attractive alternative.
I am not going to stop cycling just because of a couple of bad encounters with cycle paths, but many people using these paths are cycling for the first time. Inspired by environmental concerns, or to teach their children to ride, their impressions of cycling will be shaped by these facilities.
What impression will they take home? Over the course of the weekend we rode no more than one and a half miles on ‘cycle infrastructure’, but had to manhandle our trailer bike over six barriers, and had to stop unnecessarily at many others. Both I (an experienced cyclist, not given to falling off bikes) and my son suffered a fall.
This sort of experience will not persuade people to leave their cars at home and travel by benign means. On the contrary, it just reinforces the largely false stereotype of cycling being strenuous, slow, inconvenient, hazardous, and of very, very low status. Cyclists, so the barriers shout, are not to be trusted, but to be stopped and controlled.
This has turned into a bit of a rant, but it does make me very angry. If riders were free to ignore poor facilities it would be bad enough, but with ever growing pressure to force cyclists off the road it is vital that cycle infrastructure is fit for its purpose. In short, cycle infrastructure should provide a quality of service as good as the road it follows or better. The quality of engineering should attract users, not put them off, and cycle infrastructure should be inclusive – designed for all users, not just the ones that can squeeze through the gaps.