Hybrid cycle lanes: best of both worlds?

This article was published in 2007, in Newsletter 74.

Several years ago, we started looking at proposals for continental style on-road cycle provision, which I dubbed ‘hybrid’ cycle lanes.

Effectively, these are an attempt to combine the best aspects of both on-road cycle lanes and off-road cycle tracks, whilst excluding the harmful aspects of both. They are on-road cycle lanes that have some kind of physical demarcation to provide the feeling of protection that less confident cyclists want.

What are they?

These two photographs taken from our 1997 trip to Groningen in the Netherlands are clear examples:

In Groningen
In Groningen

The key physical aspects are:

  • They are on-road
  • There is some kind of physical demarcation between the cycle lane and the carriageway
  • They are at least 2 m wide
  • They are uni-directional, not two way

As a result:

  • Cyclists are in the standard position where they can be seen by drivers. Compare to a typical British-style cycle track such as Barton Road, where cyclists emerge unexpectedly.
  • The space that cyclists need is made clear, and there is room to overtake.
  • Drivers are actively discouraged from using the cycle lane as parking, because of the coloured surfacing and having to drive over a cobbled or textured surface.
  • At side roads, priority is maintained, unlike a Barton Road-style track where cyclists must look in several directions and then give way before crossing.

Reconciling both on-road and off-road cyclists

Cyclists in the UK are constantly torn between two opposing camps, which it must be said does not make things easy for local authorities charged with delivering more and safer cycling.

Some cyclists are fast enough to keep up with the pace of motor traffic on busy city streets, and are confident and experienced enough to be happy mixing with it. At the other extreme, are cyclists who feel much more vulnerable, and happy to pay the price of reduced convenience for the safety of physical separation from traffic. Most cyclists fall between these two extremes: we find off-road facilities inadequate, while the roads nearby are made more hostile (the ‘Milton Road effect’). But it is possible to provide a road environment which caters for the entire range of cycling abilities.

Barton Road – some of the best provision in the city but still highly problematic: lack of visibility at side roads, give ways, and hidden driveways. Yet less confident cyclists prefer it to the road.
Image as described adjacent

The Campaign’s policy mirrors that of much national guidance which is that improving the safety of the road environment, and reallocating road space away from cars is the way to improve the lot of cyclists. This ought not to be controversial, but achieving it in practice is far from simple.

Proposals for 20 mph zones are opposed by many and traffic reduction implies a huge set of societal changes that can take a long time to achieve. Selective road closures show what can be achieved, but reducing traffic on, say, East Road or Milton Road could not be done without truly radical measures like congestion charging.

So it remains debatable how much this would really attract new cyclists, because of potential new cyclists’ perception of cycling on the road. It is easy for those of us who have been cycling for some time, even on busy roads, to forget about the fear of traffic that others have, especially parents considering getting young children to cycle to school. Would even a traffic-calmed East Road actively attract children and their parents to cycle?

Looking abroad

Is it remotely likely that continental engineering and design standards of properly off-road tracks would be achieved in the UK?
Image as described adjacent
Image as described adjacent

The Netherlands shows us that the perceptual issue can be tackled. Speaking as one someone who rarely uses off-road tracks, because of the actual dangers they present (give ways at side roads, lack of visibility from driveways, poor maintenance, lack of driver visibility, etc.), I found cycling in Holland extremely refreshing. Even speeds of 20 mph could be achieved without difficulty on tracks beside the road. However, there is a different mindset in both local authority planners there as well as motorists, who seem to take more care. I think it highly debatable whether off-road cycle track provision can ever be done to a good standard in the UK, given this mindset issue and lack of engineering experience.

The Netherlands have shown that genuinely high-quality cycle facilities can encourage people to cycle. As we went round the country, we saw large numbers of cyclists cycling anywhere and everywhere, a total lack of motorist aggression, a complete absence of helmet-wearing and people simply enjoying cycling for both leisure and utility.

Even then, there remain questions about the actual safety of continental tracks, with some recent studies questioning these. A study, Road safety and perceived risk of cycle facilities in Copenhagen showed a decrease in collisions on road sections between junctions but a decline in safety at the junctions themselves, with a 9%-10% overall increase in accidents and injuries. Yet construction of facilities is quoted to have led to an increase in cycle traffic by 5%-7%, albeit with no change in car traffic.

Do nothing?

It is certainly the case that, in many cases, doing nothing would be better than adding specific cycle provision. The dreadful lanes outside the Botanic Gardens are a good example.

However, while removing these cycle lanes would mitigate existing problems, doing so would arguably not encourage people to start cycling, i.e. increase levels of cycling. That area will simply not become cycle-friendly unless space is made to actively favour cycling – by removing the car parking, and then including measures to stop vehicles using the freed-up space.

Hybrid tracks

I would argue that hybrid tracks, where there is space for them, would encourage people to start cycling whilst not at the same time harm the interests of on-road cyclists, as they are, ultimately, still on-road.

Sort-of hybrid. (Netherlands). On road but with physical demarcation. Cycles can enter & leave the main road without difficulty, while being separated from traffic.
Image as described adjacent

As a ‘faster cyclist’, I would welcome the way they would keep motorists out of space for cyclists, enabling me to maintain a good speed, and enhance my status on the roads in the eyes of motorists. Less confident cyclists would also be attracted to such a facility because they give the space and ‘feeling’ of separation that they like about Barton Road-style paths, but without the actual safety problems which these have.

The key aspect is cost. Making such tracks may well involve things like moving verges and services. But a quality agenda comes at a price. With millions available from a potential congestion charging scheme, might this at last this be possible?

If hybrid lanes do go ahead as part of the congestion charging proposals, we want to see designers and consultants from the County Council going abroad to see for themselves what is needed, or even to get engineers from the Netherlands to design British provision. With the money that would be available, there would be no excuse not to do so.

In terms of rules and regulations, we see nothing that would prevent these being done in the UK. They are effectively like wide on-road lanes, surfaced but with some kind of physical demarcation between lanes.

Where?

The key question is often space. But improving cycling does mean re-allocating roadspace.

For a start, the main roads in the new developments offer an opportunity for wide cycle lanes, including in this hybrid style.

Places like Queen’s Road, along the Backs, could include such provision if there were not so much car parking – again, reallocation of road-space. Milton Road, without a bus lane (as the congestion charging proposals now include) is another example.

New provision, such as the Addenbrooke’s Access Road, would have been a good place to consider this, rather than the mish-mash of both on-road and off-road paths.

Really, anywhere where a 2 m cycle lane could be fitted in is a good place to consider. And there are places in Cambridge, if Councillors and officials would think out of the box to really favour cycling rather than trying to fit it in. But elsewhere, and on these roads too, the need for traffic and speed reduction remains as important as ever.

What do you think?

As a Campaign, we need to discuss hybrid cycle lanes, and push for a trial somewhere in Cambridge. We have already succeeded in getting the idea into the County’s proposals for demand management, though it is now incumbent on us to push the proposals for such lanes to be built to the best Continental standards. The front cover photo, from the Netherlands, has been ‘flipped’ and white paint added to give you the idea for British bicycle riding.

Come along to the October and future monthly meetings to discuss the ideas.

Martin Lucas-Smith, Co-ordinator