‘Boris’s New Cycle Super Highways’ by Dr Matthew Hardy, MSc lecturer


(c) Krysten Newby

The proposal by Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, for North-South and East-West protected cycle tracks has drawn attention to cycle danger reduction in the UK, an area in which the country lags behind best practice. Cycling in London has doubled in the last 10 years, but research by Transport for London (TfL) suggests that this is merely existing cyclists making more trips. The same report identifies the barrier to increased cycling as being the perception of danger (TfL 2010: 45). Segregated ‘cycle tracks’(1) have been suggested by a wide range of advocates(2) as a means of increasing cycling’s share of traffic, with the aim of humanizing city centres and reducing carbon emissions.

Cycle tracks parallel with major roads were first introduced in the 1930s as a means of reducing the then extremely high rate of cycle deaths and serious injuries on roads that were for the first time dominated by motor vehicles. In the UK, the new A4 dual carriageway west of Hammersmith known as ‘Westway’ included parallel cycle tracks, for example. Initially they were hotly opposed by the Cyclists Touring Club, which feared that they were a precursor to cyclists being banned from all roads except cycle tracks. In Germany they were introduced along with the Autobahn programme, as it was recognised that cyclists were incompatible with fast traffic. These were perhaps the inspiration for the tracks on the A4.

After WW2, cycle tracks were often included as part of the British New Towns programme since up to 50% of Britons regularly cycled at the time. Harlow included a few, and at Stevenage a comprehensive set of cycle tracks parallel to major roads was planned. These were grade-separated at junctions and remain the most comprehensive network in Britain. They followed the model established in Holland, where cycling remained a dominant mode of travel after the War. However, in planning the Stevenage road system no attempt was made to promote cycling in the town centre, and with massive car parks adjoining the shopping area and mainline station, cycling didn’t become the dominant mode.

Meanwhile in Holland, traffic was growing, and in parallel, motorways and urban road widening started to change town Dutch town centres. Initially these changes were welcomed (as in Britain) but along with the rise of motor vehicles came a shocking rise in child fatalities. By 1973 Dutch parents had seen enough, and a very active campaign known as Stop de Kindermoord (‘Stop the Childmurders’) was successful in stopping road expansion in city centres. Parents also demanded safe facilities for their children to cycle to school. The result was the first attempts at segregated cycle lanes.

The Dutch also experimented with the Woonerf (Home zones) concept: areas with a 10kph (6mph) speed limit where through traffic was prevented. This became the norm for residential areas, and existing suburbs in most Dutch towns were subsequently retrofitted to eliminate through traffic and promote cycling. Some attempts were made at ‘shared space’ in town centres, but it was not thought suitable for children and did not spread beyond a few examples implemented by Hans Monderman.

The programme to install segregated cycle tracks in the Netherlands has now been running for over 40 years. It covers virtually every town centre in the country, together with lanes on most other roads, making segregation the norm where the speed limit is over 30kph (20mph) or vehicle numbers exceed 2000 vehicles per day. Dutch traffic engineers have been refining the design of tracks continually, guided by the CROW manual, to improve cycling conditions and with the aim of reducing collisions to zero. Tracks are generally 2m wide on both sides of the road or 4m wide if they are two-way. They avoid road junctions where possible or, if necessary, provide separate traffic signals for cycles and pedestrians. This has been extremely successful in reducing collisions and has led to cycling becoming the norm for commuters, with 39% of all trips under 5km (3 miles) taken by bike, compared to 2% in the UK. It was recognised early on that to be effective, a dense grid of protected routes was necessary in town centres. The standard is for tracks to be set out in a 200m grid in town centres.

Copenhagen has recently introduced cycle tracks using a series of four simple standards for cycle tracks and a fairly comprehensive implementation in a short while. This has also been successful in increasing cycles in the urban area, though the network is not as comprehensive as that in Holland and the standards not as uniformly high. The principles are summed up in a simple diagram produced by the traffic engineers Copenhagenize.

Seville and New York have recently introduced systems of segregated cycle tracks. Those in Seville were introduced quickly and provide a comprehensive network – 50 miles of tracks – across the inner city. The result has been a rapid rise in cycling, by all age groups, from 0.2% of all trips to nearly 7% within 4 years. New York has mostly installed painted lanes without segregation and has experienced a less marked rise in cycling rates. However, businesses fronting the streets with a cycle lane experienced a rise in turnover, as the cycle traffic calmed and improved the pedestrian environment as well. In the UK, cyclists and pedestrians spend more than car drivers on High Streets and pedestrian and cycling improvements have led to substantial turnover increases.

In London, TfL has found that 22% of Londoners questioned were thinking about cycling, but of these 37% saw cyclists as vulnerable to motor vehicles and were therefore afraid to cycle. As 2/3rds of journeys by car are less than 5 miles, improvement of cycling conditions would be likely to lead to a massive rise in cycling in London. This is important for public health, because research from Spain has shown that the health benefits of cycling outweigh the risks of by 77 to 1, even with current road conditions (Rojas-Rueda et al 2011). Research has shown that if all these trips were walked or cycled, £17bn would be saved over the next 20 years together with a huge number of diabetes cases, heart attacks and cancers, because of the health benefits (Jarrett et al 2012).

Accordingly, the cycle tracks proposed by the Mayor of London can be seen as a first step towards a different sort of London: quieter, with better air quality, with more lively and successful streets, and with healthier residents.

Dr Matthew Hardy is a Senior Lecturer in Architecture and Urbanism at the Prince’s Foundation for Buliding Community, with which the MSc in Sustainable Urban Development is partnered.  He was the founding secretary of the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism (INTBAU), and is co-founder and co-editor of the academic journal Journal of Urbanism published by Routledge.

1) As distinct from ‘cycle lanes’, which are part of the road, usually divided by a white line.

(2) For example, London Cycling Campaign; Cyclists Touring Club; Automobile Association; British Cycling; and others.

Rojas-Rueda, David et al (2011 updated) ‘The Health Risks and benefits of cycling in urban areas’. BMJ 2011;343:d4521 doi: 10.1136/bmj.d4521 p1.

Jarrett, James et all (2012) ‘Effect of increasing active travel in urban England and Wales on costs to the National Health Service’. The Lancet, Volume 379, Issue 9832, Pages 2198 – 2205, 9 June 2012. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(12)60766-1


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