Saturday 18 October 2014

Cycle Superhighways

Typically, the aim of a strategic cycling plan is to increase the number of cycle trips whilst reducing cyclist injuries.

When Val Shawcross spoke at the Transport Select Committee hearing last December, she said:

"I think, looking back over the period of time where we've had the latest programme—since the current Mayor has been in City Hall—of trying to promote the cycling revolution—for which there is great enthusiasm in London—I mean this is seen as an enormously positive thing for our health and environment. But I think the early infrastructure was poor and was weak and did not offer the appropriate levels of protection in the most dangerous environments.

"In 2010, we carried out an early survey of the reaction of cyclists to the installation of the first two Cycling Superhighways, which I think was CS3 and CS7. We had over a thousand cyclists comment on them, and actually 60% of the people who commented said at that point they didn't feel safe enough on those Cycling Superhighways, and that was because those early Cycling Superhighways had issues on them. For example, there were areas where the strips of blue paint were too narrow, and disappeared at the most dangerous points of certain junctions; certainly there wasn't any actual physical segregation, again at the fast and most dangerous areas of the roads. And bearing in mind these are on London's most dangerous roads to begin with; I mean, by definition that's where they've gone. And we did call at that point for the Mayor to evaluate these properly and retrofit to improve them before moving on. I think since then, there's been a gradual improvement in the quality of the infrastructure that's gone in. And certainly the last extension to Cycling Superhighway 2 was completely segregated, and I think that probably represents the type of infrastructure that should have been put in in the first place. So I think there's been a long process of learning from mistakes.

As to the cost, "the blue Superhighways without the physical segregation going in were about a million pounds a kilometre, so they were already pretty expensive, and I think that's because there was a special blue paint invented for the purpose, and so forth, and so on. But there were some complementary measures as well. I think we underplay those. There were things like training schemes that went around those areas."

Cycling in Copenhagen (Picture credit: The Guardian)
The Danes invented a special blue paint for the purpose,
and then the British (of course) reinvented it.

There were two big mistakes, I think, made with the Cycle Superhighways. Firstly, they were massively over-hyped. Apart from CS3—which used to be LCN 15—the remaining three cycle highways mostly operate at a minimum level of functioning. The second mistake was that cyclists were sometimes positioned in the wrong place relative to the motor traffic, particularly at junctions, and were not therefore visible to the drivers of HGVs.

The lesson we appear to have learned from the three "blue paint" Superhighways is that only segregated facilities are appropriate on busy roads. But actually, I think this is a mistake. These high-engineered solutions are the destination, like a beacon shining brightly in the distance; if they are the start-point, it's likely to be a very long, very slow journey. (Note: CS routes 1, 4, 6, 10, 11 and 12 are currently on the "too-difficult-to-do" pile; only CS5 and CS9 are moving forward.)

When plans to build an airport in the Thames Estuary were rejected by the Airports Commission, Boris Johnson suggested that Whitehall was totally wedded to the idea of expanding Heathrow. He said: "They can't get their heads around the series of risks, as they see it, that are involved with the estuary solution. I think they take all of those risks together, and they rule it out that way. And I think that is not the way our ancestors would have approached it. I mean, we would not have a Tube system if we took this attitude."

"I remembered another wise quote: 'A man's strength is measured in tears, not his fears.'"

David Arditti said recently: "We will, for the foreseeable future, actually need to accommodate significant flows of motor traffic on many roads which the dense cycling grid (that is needed to enable mass cycling) will not be able to totally avoid."

Like it or lump it, this is how it is. The idea, then, that we should be avoiding vehicular cycling solutions (as a stop-gap) is preposterous. Done properly, they would make conditions safer for existing cyclists—not safe, necessarily, but safe-er—and could be installed relatively cheaply and relatively quickly. (For more information, please refer to this blog.)

Anyway, the reason I started thinking about the Cycle Superhighways is because of something that Mark Ames said recently. He said, "Existing cycle highways have seen increases in ridership of 30 to 40%, and that is just with blue paint." Now, I had no reason to doubt Mark, but I just wanted to check it out for myself, and have, you know, some fun with numbers.

CS3 is mostly on the back streets, so I couldn't find much in the way of up-to-date data for that. But the three other CS routes are on the main roads, and here the Department for Transport collects traffic flow data on every junction-to-junction link.

So I picked two points along each of these routes at random, and plotted that data onto graphs.

The first route I am going to look at is CS2X (indicated by the outer green placemark). This route was installed in November 2013.

CS2 (indicated by the inner green placemark) was installed in July 2011.

The CS7 route is indicated by the two blue placemarks. This route was installed in July 2010.

Online Graphing

Online Graphing

Finally, the CS8 route is indicated by the two red placemarks. This route was installed in July 2011.

As a final thought, I wanted to see what a graph showing the average use of the three CS routes would look like.

The spike in 2006 can be explained by the 7/7 bombings (July 2005).


If anything then, Mark understated the relative success of the "blue paint" Cycle Superhighways: perhaps as much as a 70% increase would be more accurate, though admittedly things have tailed off over the last year. By way of comparison, the only data I was able to find about CS3—a largely segregated route—showed an 83% increase (source).

Impressive though these numbers are, in the wider scheme of things, I don't think they make a hugely significant difference. There are something like 580 000 bicycle journeys made each day in Greater London (source), and between them, the three "blue paint" CS routes carry a little bit more than one per cent of the total cycle traffic.

According to a recent report on

"The key advantage of the proposed cycleways is that they will be separated from motor traffic. As well as making it physically harder for people cycling to be hit by cars, buses and trucks, separated lanes make people feel safer, so it's far more likely they will be used."

It is true that segregated routes are more likely to be used, but actually things are not as black-and-white as the report suggests (source). The report continues:

"The poll found that only 10 per cent of Londoners say a painted cycle lane would make them feel much safer and 23 per cent say it would make them feel a little safer, versus a total of 51 per cent who say it would not make them feel safer. By contrast, 74 per cent say a physically segregated lane would make them feel safer."

A visualisation of proposed segregated cycle tracks on Bow Road (CS2)

I am specifically not saying that we shouldn't be building segregated tracks like the one pictured above. Rather, I am very emphatically saying that we should be building segregated tracks like the one pictured above within the framework provided by a functioning cycle network.

Also, what exactly is the argument or evidence which says that providing for the needs of a load of people who don't yet cycle is more pressing than providing for the needs of a load of people who do (or who are most likely to)?

I have yet to hear any such argument or evidence, though I have asked this question many times (most recently here and here). At this stage, then, I do not believe the authorities in London should be trying to develop a cycling environment around the needs of that group of cyclists known as the Interested but Concerned (i.e. the 51% of Londoners who say that painted cycle lanes would not make them feel safer). I do very firmly believe the authorities in London should be trying to develop a cycle environment around the needs of that group of cyclists known as the Enthused and Confident (i.e. the 10% of Londoners who say that painted cycle lanes would make them feel safer).

If nothing else, the benefits of this approach would be more immediate, more widespread and more far-reaching. It would cut through a lot of red tape. It would make the best use of London cycling's greatest asset: the labyrinthine network of quiet streets and parks. It won't be seriously fabulous; it definitely won't get any kudos; but it would be real.

Connectivity and density: these are not simply desirable, they are essential; and nobody, not ever, disputes this.

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