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Fork in the road as Danish and Dutch-style cycle routes spread

Cycling needs investment and ideas to avoid costly accidents. Ian West/PA

Bristol will be the first British city to “go Dutch” after the city council gave the green light to building a European-style cycle network that would not be shared with road traffic.

The city’s plans for a strategic cycle network chime with the Prime Minister’s announcement this summer of a cycleway to parallel the proposed High Speed 2 line linking London and the North, and a pot of £148m for England’s major cities to improve and “cycle proof” their transport infrastructure. After being concerned with “smoothing the flow” of road traffic, London’s Mayor is also now promoting a vision which includes turning many London boroughs into cycle-friendly “mini-Hollands”.

It’s encouraging to see the ambition to improve matters for cyclists reaching ever higher levels of political influence. It is excellent that there seems now to be more thought to investing strategically in cycling, and a greater willingness to invest the sums of money needed. The rhetoric is in place and funding is in the pipeline, but the jury is still out on what practical steps are needed to create attractive and comfortable conditions for large numbers of urban cyclists. Where is the detail, what is the model? Do we want to go with Dutch Pancakes, or Danish Pastries, or stick with our rather stirred up English pudding?

Dutch roundabouts and segregation

World-renowned for their cycling, the emphasis in The Netherlands is on cycle routes that are entirely separate from motor traffic. This traffic segregation has become the main focus of discussion about cycling provision, and is commonly discussed in the context of roundabout design in The Netherlands.

Networks should have greater ‘permeability’ for bikes than cars. John Parkin

Arguably the more important aspect is the nature of comprehensive cycle networks: routes tend to be more direct, remove difficult barriers to movement, and above all are designed so that it is quicker and easier to bike than drive. These are often referred to as filtered permeability networks, a phrase coined by Steve Melia from the University of the West of England.

The Danish mix

The Danes on the other hand (forgive the sweeping generalisations) are more prepared to mix cycle and motor traffic. For example at traffic light-controlled junctions, cycle users typically leave a kerb-separated cycle lane to join other road traffic on the main carriageway, progress through the junction, before returning to the separate cycleway.

Kerb separated lanes re-join carriageway at junctions in Copenhagen. John Parkin

Northern Europeans also have different highway code rules for road users. For example, helpful time saving protocols at traffic lights where pedestrians and turning traffic can move at the same time, with traffic giving way to pedestrians. These differences in the highway code create a different culture of responsibility, which affects the behaviour of road users.

Which suits the UK?

There is a danger in simply transplanting Dutch or Danish approaches to the UK. An important difference is the law surrounding traffic management. The UK does not have strict or presumed liability in road traffic law, where the default assumption is that the driver of a motor vehicle is liable to pay compensation if colliding with vulnerable road users. This is currently under debate in Scotland. It is interesting and perhaps bizarre that strict liability exists in UK law for owners of dangerous dogs and employers with potentially dangerous equipment, but not for drivers of motor vehicles - despite the 1,754 people killed on Britain’s roads in 2012 alone.

While some cities such as Bristol, Cambridge and London have seen a significant increase in cycling over the last decade, in other places - ostensibly with ready-made infrastructure in place, such as Milton Keynes and Stevenage - cycling takeup has been much slower.

The problem with segregated cycle routes is that their sole purpose has been to remove cyclists from the carriageway, to provide less hindrance for motor traffic. Unless cycle routes are specifically designed for the needs of cycle users they will remain underused and, as the evidence suggests, no safer than the highway.

Two-way segregated cycle route in rural Denmark. John Parkin

We know what cyclists’ needs are, and how to design for them: lanes should be direct, comfortable and attractive. Off-road routes need to have alignments that are well engineered and be wide enough not to feel cramped. Where routes coincide with roads, care needs to be taken to provide sufficient safe space for movement around vehicles.

The problem with cycle provision in the UK is that historically it has always been seen as “a problem” to be overcome. This is based on the misplaced notion that it is cycling that is inherently risky, rather than presence of motor vehicles. Road traffic management has been concerned only with maximising capacity and minimising delay. Thankfully we are seeing a recognition that in fact better urban traffic management is achieved by limiting speed.

The challenge for the UK now is to take cycling seriously enough to invest in the necessary quality of comprehensive, comfortable networks that will encourage people from four wheels to two.

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