Friday, 27 May 2011

Proper infrastructure - the pros and "cons"

It's difficult to know what the official Australian position is about decent cycling infrastructure. With a few exceptions such as Clover Moore in Sydney, you get the impression the prevailing view is that bikes are vehicles and should therefore be treated and behave the same as all other vehicles. There are some painted lanes dotted about the place for them but in the main, people on bikes are expected to share the road with motor vehicles.

The Australian Cycling Strategy 2011-16 outlines an intention to double the number of people riding bikes over the next five years. The strategy does highlight the need for decent infrastructure and facilities but does not give much detail about what exactly that means. It only discusses "cycle route" and "end of trip facilities". Both important of course, particularly the routes, but what sort of routes is important.

There are two schools of thought about cycling facilities. First is the view that if you want to encourage normal people to choose the bike to go about their business you have to make that the easiest and most convenient form of transport. You also have to make it safe and to feel safe. Telling people that they are statistically safer on a bike than in a car while their wobbling across a bridge with four lanes of fast-moving traffic and a side wind does not work. The second is the vehicular cycling view as described above - bikes have every right to be on the road and the best thing to do it teach people how to use the roads safely.

The vehicular cycling view prevails in the UK. If you ask me, it explains why so few people get around by bike even though it is now one of the densest countries in Europe and why those who do in the main dress in battle gear.

The UK's "National Cyclists' Organisation" (the CTC) outlines its view about dedicated cycling infrastructure on its website. It recommends the heirarchy of provision method. The starting point of that is that the preferred option should be to make the road itself safe and attractive for cycling. Off-carriageway provision, it says, should be the last resort in most cases. The problem with the suggestion though is that it is circular. How do you make a road safe and attractive for cycling when it is clogged with multiple lanes of fast-moving traffic. The answer is you can't.

The CTC goes on to answer the rhetorical question "what's wrong with off'carriageway provision?" They then give 8 reasons.

Now everyone is entitled to their opinion of course. My own humble opinion is that the 8 reasons are - in a word - poo. Here they are:

Moving cyclists off the road takes them out of drivers’ field of attention, increasing the chance of a driver failing to see or notice them at a junction.
Then design the road system in such a way that drivers do notice them at a junction or design the junction to avoid conflict in the first place.

Unless they have priority over turning traffic, pavement cycle tracks also force cyclists to stop and look behind them, as well as to the front and the side (i.e. scanning through 270 degrees), before crossing side-road junctions and driveways.  This is awkward for children and less experienced cyclists, i.e. the very people who are most at risk in such situations. By contrast, on-carriageway cyclists can position themselves in the traffic stream to avoid being overtaken from behind where this might be dangerous (e.g. at the approach to a junction), thus reducing the range they have to scan to just 90 degrees (i.e. to the front and side only).

The answer is obvious. Give them priority over turning traffic. At the moment, pedestrians already have priority over traffic turning on to the road they are crossing by operation of Rule 72 of the Australian Road Rules. It is true that "on-carriageway cyclists can position themselves in the traffic stream" but not everybody is overly keen to do that. Would you expect an 8 year old to? Also, you can find any number of helmet-cam videos on YouTube showing drivers turning left and cutting across those same "on-carriageway cyclists".

Off-carriageway cycle tracks often cause problems where the track merges back into the road. Again, this is particularly problematic for children and less experienced cyclists, who are often not alert to the dangers of re-entering the carriageway after being on an off-road track immediately beforehand.
Well, that depends on the type of road. If you have a separate bike lane next to a busy road, ending it abruptly and forcing cyclists back on to the road is just bad design. Don't do it. The only roads that those cyclists should be merging on to are quiet roads.

Pavement cycle tracks are generally unpopular with pedestrians and people whose vision is impaired, especially in urban areas.

True. But this is simply using an example of crap cycling infrastructure as an argument against it. Simply painting a bike stencil on a pavement is not an investment in cycling infrastructure.

They also send out confusing mixed messages about what is acceptable behaviour for cyclists. In some locations they are positively encouraged to ride on the pavement, whereas elsewhere this is an offence – and one which can provoke a good deal of anti-cyclist sentiment and even physical aggression.

The same answer applies. If you are designing things properly, the expected behaviour of cyclists, pedestrians and motorists should be clear. If motorists are expected to stop and give way, make that clear. They will do so. People generally do not speed through red traffic lights. They are expected to stop and generally do so. The same applies to give way signs.

Some paths are not only poorly maintained but also badly designed: too narrow, obstructed by lampposts, telephone boxes, bus stops etc.

Some paths are not only well maintained but also well designed: sufficiently wide, unobstructed, no telephone boxes, bus stops, mattresses, etc.

The average cyclist travels at 12 mph, with commuter cyclists travelling far faster. However most off-carriageway facilities are not designed for such speeds and there is rarely enough room to cater for all the intended users.

The average cyclist travels at 12 mph, with "communter cyclists" travelling far faster. Properly designed off-carriageway facilities are designed to allow for such speeds. Properly designed off-carriageway facilities are sufficiently wide to cater for all the intended users.

What's more, separating cyclists from drivers reinforces the idea that roads are primarily for cars and that cycling is not a serious mode of road transport.

What's more, separating cyclists from drivers reinforces the idea that governments and local authorities take people's safety seriously. Giving priority to cyclists and pedestrians and ensuring that they can enjoy direct routes while motorised traffic is diverted away from residential and built-up areas reinforces the idea that walking and cycling are legitimate modes of transport that are taken seriously.


  1. "... pedestrians already have priority over traffic turning on to the road they are crossing by operation of Rule 72 of the Australian Road Rules." Is this correct? This would be a surprise to most Australian pedestrians.

  2. Hello there,

    It is correct although as you say, not many pedestrians or motorists are aware of it. The Rule is here:

    You'll see also in subrule 4 thats cars are required to wait for pedestrians crossing a slip lane. That is another rule that is routinely breached.

    As you say, the rule would be a surprise to most pedestrians and motorists so we should be aware of the old saying:

    "Here lies the body of Samuel Gray
    died while asserting his right of way".

  3. You are "dead right." The rule is generally ignored with most drivers intimidating their way through intersections.