When it comes to cycling and more specifically, the design of cycling infrastructure, the Dutch do things very differently to us Brits and this shows in their amount of everyday bicycle usage. We can look at pictures of the Netherlands and swoon over the segregated cycleways as much as we like, but the really important question is; what DFT rules need to change to allow us to recreate a little bit of Holland here?
Let’s look at the characteristics of a Dutch cycleway and see what’s missing:
A key principle of Sustainable Safety is that of consistency, or rather, that of being able to recognise a new environment via familiar patterns and layouts. This improves safety, if every cycleway looks familiarly like a cycleway, then we all expect to see cycles upon it, as such the Dutch have standardised on a consistent red tarmac rather than the hodge-podge of colours and patterns we sprinkle on our roads (and they used to on their cycleways).
I think we can manage that, we can build nice smooth roadways with lovely smooth tarmac, so we can do the same for cycleways. Nothing needs changing, just the practice of treating cycleways as a kind of roadway rather than an afterthought and to standardise on a nice red colour for the tarmac (red is less garish than green or blue while remaining distinctive).
To be comfortable, cycleways need to be wide enough for the wobbliest of cyclists or for two bikes to be ridden side by side. So the Dutch mandate a 2 metre wide path by standard (1.5 metre minimum where space is scarce).
I’m pretty sure that we’ve got the same if not more space in the UK than they have in Holland, it being one of the most densely populated countries in Europe (in fact on average twice as densely populated as the UK), and even though we often measure in feet and inches, I’m sure we can measure 2 metres to produce nicely sized cycleways.
Curbs can be a pain, especially if you crash into them and fall off your bike. However they don’t have to be. If you’re building a cycleway for cycles, then you don’t have to use curbing designed for motor cars. Instead you can use what I think the Dutch call the forgiving curb, a curb with a nice 45 degree angle, so rather than strike your pedal and topple over the curb, you harmlessly bounce off of it.
Can we build tracks without enormous towering curbing funnelling us dangerously into a narrow twisting spaces? There’s nothing in the DFT guidelines saying not, so of course we can, we just need guidelines to introduce forgiving curbs into the repertoire of solutions.
Separation from motor traffic
The Dutch have a set of simple rules stating how much separation there should be between the roadway and the cycleway/pavement depending on the speed limit of the road.
The faster the road, the more separation, and if there’s no room, then a physical barrier should be used to provide not just physical safety, but also to make people feel safe. Again, it’s just guidelines on how much separation there should be based on the type and speed of the road.
Car parking is a problem with cycle infrastructure when it comes to the UK, even when a cycle lane is painted with a mandatory solid line (mandatory meaning that motor vehicles must not enter), it is still perfectly legal for motor vehicles to park in the cycle lane. Crazy. It is possible to paint a double yellow line within the cycle lane so as to ban parking, but this often fills half of the lane with paint providing even less room for bikes and still doesn’t disallow waiting within the lane.
All of this is a waste of time and paint, the Dutch of course have a much simpler solution, you’re not allowed to park directly on the carriageway of a major road outside of an urban area (as far as I understand, that’s a road flanked with a solid white line), and when you do enter an urban area they restrict parking to designated parking spaces only (see the sign on entering the village in the image above).
Could we do that here? Probably, it’d just require the changing of some existing rules, we could start by simply making it illegal to park in cycle lanes.
Dutch cycleways are continuous, that is they don’t have gaps in them, they are a complete solution from door to door, unlike in the UK where when the engineering gets tough, the cycleways become pavement or roadway.
Here are some pictures to remind you of what it’s like in the UK, these particular examples from the wonderful A316 cycleway in the London Borough of Richmond Upon Thames which vanishes as soon as a junction appears.
In contrast, when you get to a junction on a cycleway in Holland, the cycleway continues safety through the junction either by being part of the signalised junction, having right of way, or by giving way, depending on the type of junction and the volume of the roads and cycleways.
Can we do this in the UK? Yes of course. We have cycle traffic lights and we have cycle priority junctions, it’s just a case of continuing the red tarmac through the junction and adding some paint, signs and/or lights (we’ll look at indicating priority below). Technically there’s nothing stopping it being done this way, just for it to be a DFT recommendation so that engineers don’t worry about getting into trouble for doing things differently, shared use pavements are the easy way out as well as being the officially sanctioned option, it’s no wonder so many get built.
Cycle traffic lights
As mentioned above, to have continuous routes when you have traffic light controlled junctions, you are going to need specific traffic lights for bicycles.
That doesn’t sound too tricky, just put up some more lights and point them at the cycleway. Sometimes you need to put them near to lights for motor traffic so you need to differentiate between them, and so you paint the light bulbs like little bicycles and everyone knows where they stand. Alternatively if space is limited, you shrink them down in size to more cyclist friendly dimensions.
The problem in the UK is that although you can have green and amber bicycle shaped lights, the DFT don’t allow us to have bicycle shaped red lights which causes confusion when they have to appear amongst the myriad of lights they love to decorate roadway junctions with (see Bow roundabout “head-start” for an example). We also can’t make small lights, they have to be the same size as lights for motor vehicles.
Priority over sideroads
And finally we get to the biggie.
In Holland a cycleway (and a pavement) is deemed to have the same importance and thus priority as the roadway it follows, so even when separated by 5-10 metres from the roadway, it retains the priority over any sideroads that the roadway has. This makes logical sense and is enforced on the ground via the use of give way markings (the triangle markings) and “elephant feet” markings (the line of big square markings).
In the UK such things are mandated by the DFT in chapter 5 of it’s guidelines “Traffic Signs Manual” which has a whole section (section 16, a massive 7 pages of the 151 page chapter) devoted to road markings for cycle infrastructure.
Section 16.16 talks about cycle tracks (that’s a cycleway that is separate from a roadway) crossing roadways.
CYCLE TRACKS CROSSING ROADS
16.16 Except as described in para 3.25, a cycle track crossing a road will be the minor road at a priority junction, and marked as shown in figure 16-5, or be under signal control (see figure 16-6). The marking (sometimes known as “elephant’s footprints”) formerly shown on working drawing WBM294 and in LTN 1 /86 “Cyclists at Road Crossings and Junctions” should never be used to indicate an unsignalled crossing point. It is liable to cause confusion, and be misunderstood as giving cyclists priority over road traffic. At signalled crossings, the marking to diagram 1055.1 is usually adequate to indicate the crossing point for cyclists. However, if the route to be followed is not straightforward, the “elephant’s footprints” marking might be helpful. As it is not prescribed, special authorisation must be sought from the Secretary of State (see para 2.1).
And as you can see it explicitly states that a cycleway always yields priority to a roadway, no matter what size or statue the roadway or cycleway are. It also states that the elephant feet markings should not be used as they may cause confusion (and heaven forbid perhaps alert a driver to the presence of cyclists).
This guidance leads to crappy cycleway designs like below, but you can’t blame the engineers, the guidelines tell them to design it like this.
There is one exception to this guidance however, as stated by paragraph 3.25 (section 3 is “stop and give way markings” in case you’re interested).
3.25 Regulation 25(6) enables the marking to diagram 1003 to be used to give priority to a cycle track crossing a road. The length of road crossed by the cycle track must consist of a road hump, which should be of the flat-topped type. The hump must extend across the full width of the carriageway, in accordance with direction 34(2). The marking to diagram 1023 should also be provided, together with a longitudinal warning line to diagram 1004 on each approach. The hump must be marked with diagram 1062 (see para 21.9). The Give Way marking should be placed on the carriageway of the road, not on any part of the hump.
What this basically says is that to be given priority, the cycleway must cross the roadway on a hump marked with warning triangle markings and give way markings in the roadway.
This isn’t really all that great, what we really need is a simple, space efficient, and consistent way of marking these crossings so that everyone has a clear indication of what’s going on, maybe the internationally recognised elephant’s feet markings (which are only allowed at signalised crossings in the UK). So DFT, lets change the rules to allow elephant’s feet markings on cycleway crossings to show priority and at the same time add an implicit give way meaning to the markings so we don’t need to muddy the road surface with pints of white paint.
So to sum up, we can get a long way with today’s DFT guidance and with just the will to take cycle infrastructure seriously, but there are a few gaping holes that could do with being fixed and that we should be pushing the DFT to fill.
- Introduce guidance on how to install forgiving curbs.
- Guidelines on how much separation there should be between roadways and cycleways based on the type and speed of the roadway.
- Make it illegal to park in all cycle lanes.
- Introduce guidance on how to continue cycleways through junctions.
- Allow bicycle shaped red lights and small light stacks for cycleways.
- Change the rules to allow elephant’s feet markings on cycleway crossings to show priority and at the same time add an implicit give way meaning to the markings.
Simple. Job done.