Mainroading Cycling

Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.

The cycle lane ends

A6 southbound

What's going on here?

Is this good enough?

Worn away by cars

Enough space?

A good place to ride?

Plenty of space for who?

Adequate provision?

Pulling out?

Clear road

Leaving the city

Speeding up

Fast road

Still with me?

The joys of the open road?

Almost there

How much road do you want?

Lancaster University

Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.

It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.

For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.

As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).

Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.

Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).

The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?

So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?

For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others  less like me.

The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.

Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).

With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.

So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.

So what are we to do?

For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.

How do we get these changes?

By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.


Who should be squeezed?

Parked cars or moving bikes?

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17 Responses to “Mainroading Cycling”

  1. Richard Mann Says:

    Your options are to get rid of the parking and put in a high-quality lane or track, or tame the traffic and squeeze in what you can around the parking (minimum is 0.5m buffer, 1.0m cycle lanes, ~5.0m traffic, no centre line), or do nothing.

    If you go on about the fear of cycling, you tend to think it’s a choice between the first and third. And you end up doing nothing.

    I’d try the second, and see how far it gets you.

    (and see my essay on different types of cyclist: )

    • fonant Says:

      It’s not Dave Horton who is going on about the fear of cycling, it’s the fact that the fear of cycling on roads like this is the single biggest reason the general population would never even dream of getting on a bicycle. It’s the reason that there aren’t queues of people wanting to take cycle training classes. Only a tiny number of cycling enthusiasts will brave these sort of road conditions, and even they have to work hard to grin and bear it. And sadly even expert cyclists, even professional cyclists, are killed and injured on roads just like this. It is just not safe enough.

      So if you actually do want to get ordinary people choosing to ride their bicycles there is only one option: high-quality cycle tracks that protected cyclists from motor vehicles at least as well as pavements protect pedestrians: you have to have a kerb between the motor traffic and the people on bicycles.

      We’ve already tried painted cycle lanes in the UK, for many decades. The results are clear to see: they do almost nothing to encourage ordinary people to start cycling. Nothing we have done in the UK over the last thirty years has resulted in cycling being seen as an ordinary mode of transport usable by anyone. At our Primary school, easily reachable by residential roads, only two families out of 400 children cycle to school. Why don’t the rest? Because it’s clearly too dangerous (and, yes, even we get frightened by dangerous driving at least once a week, and there’s no way I’d let my children cycle to school on their own, even though they’re easily capable of doing so safely themselves: I don’t trust the motorists).

      On the other hand, there is a country that’s half the distance to me here than Edinburgh is, that HAS done things that make it safe and ordinary for 8-year-old children to cycle to school on their own. They even speak English pretty well, and have some of the safest roads in Europe for non-motorist road users. Why on earth can’t we copy what they’ve done? It is proven to work, and has very large proven benefits for the population and towns.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Absolutely Fonant, I think that’s really well put, thanks!

        Although I’d probably put it a bit more strongly than you do – you maintain the language of choice about cycling, whereas looking at the Netherlands and looking at what could and should happen here, I’d suggest that by much more forcefully ‘structuring’ cycling into the urban transport environment we could bypass some tricky questions of agency (not entirely, obviously – people will still need to take decisions) and ‘direct’ or ‘guide’ people into making short trips by bike.

    • fonant Says:

      Richard, your essay is interesting. The finding that “there’s very little take-up of adult cycle training” is repeated here in Sussex. No-one wants to learn how to cycle in frightening traffic (much like not many people want to take sky-diving lessons or rock climbing lessons).

      But you miss the whole point: if we only provide for “cyclists”, whether they’re Earthian or Venusian, or Martian, we only provide for at most 10% of the population, perhaps a bit more in university towns like Oxford and Cambridge where car ownership is low amongst students. This is where we are stuck in most of the UK, and the remaining 90% of the population, who aren’t “cyclists” at all, will never ride a bicycle for transport.

      If we are to have significant modal shift to cycling, we need to make it easy and attractive an option – certainly more attractive than going by car – for the 90% of ordinary people who aren’t “cyclists”.

      Existing cyclists who are keen enough to cycle on UK roads are a minority, and will always be a minority. Providing for them is nice, but won’t ever change the number of people riding bicycles for local transport. To get cycling to be a mainstream, ordinary, popular mode of transport we have to cater for the majority who aren’t, and never will be, “cyclists”.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        This is partly where I think we need to get clearer on what we want. It often feels to me that we’re talking at cross-purposes in UK cycling advocacy, because different people are actually striving for different things:

        Many (perhaps the majority?) of cycling advocates are still working with a model of cycling as being something which should be supported, but not in ambitious ways; so they’re generally happy with a bit more provision for cycling, and any signs of cycling’s increase.

        But some of us (and certainly you and me) know how big cycling could be, are very ambitious for it, and want therefore to make cycling – genuinely to promote or produce it, rather than merely provide for it.

        Clearly, if you think cycling could constitute 50% of all short urban journeys across the UK, you’ll think, say, want and do different things to if you believe cycling will remain a minority mode, at best able to contribute – say – 10% of all urban journeys.

      • fonant Says:

        I don’t think “we” need to clearer as to what we want, but that there are two different types of “we”. The first type of “we” is “cyclists” who already cycle despite our terrible road conditions. They are enthusiasts, and can’t understand why other people don’t ride bikes given all the advantages. The second type of “we” is the general population, who would never consider themselves “cyclists” but who would dearly like to be able to ride their bicycles for local transport.

        “Cyclists” are generally in agreement that they like cycle training, right-to-ride on all roads, and perhaps the occasional junction improvement. They don’t like the idea of “segregating” cyclists from “traffic” because they want to be traffic. They tend to follow the Tour de France, and are interested in talking about the latest bikes and equipment. They also feel a strong comradeship with other cyclists, at least other cyclists of the type they feel they belong to. Mountain bikers, cycle tourists and racing cyclists rarely speak to each other.

        “Everyone else” is even more in agreement: until motor traffic is kept away from people on bicycles there is no way they will even consider riding a bicycle for local transport. They are 100% certain that cycling on roads amongst motor vehicles is dangerous, and nothing will change their minds about this: if they give cycling on the roads a go they’ll soon enough have a frightening near-miss with some motor vehicle or other.

        We just need to realise that while cycle campaigning is done by cyclists, the politicians can easily ignore the campaigns. Cyclists are, and always will be, a minority of the population. We need to point out how roads can be made attractive for everyone to use on bicycles, and then the general population will start talking about it to their politicians and things will change very rapidly.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Hi Richard, thanks for reading and commenting. I’m not sure exactly what you mean by ‘your options’ but they don’t include what I advocate in this piece (and which is clearly therefore one of ‘my options’), which – to repeat myself for the purpose of clarity – is:

      1) Reduce the speed limit to 20 mph along this whole stretch;

      *AND* (i.e., not ‘or’)

      2) Separate motorised traffic from cycling.

      There are strong (indeed, I think compelling) arguments for doing both these things. Indeed, it is reducing the space available to motorised traffic which will help to produce a level of discomfort amongst drivers sufficient to make the lower speed limit effective. (And I would argue we need to make urban driving less comfortable than it currently is (along with the associated sense of entitlement which such comfort tends to produce), in order to make it less attractive.)

      The cycling corridor which can be introduced along this road (and I’m using this road as an example of many similar roads across Britain, and elsewhere) would be direct, continuous and give right of way to cycling (over motorised traffic, if not pedestrians) at every junction. (The number of junctions should be reduced by closing many to motorised traffic – this would have many positive effects, most notably making the residential streets on either side of this main road much more walking and cycling friendly.)

      The whole area of south Lancaster (the major part of the city) has been designed and built around cars; and it is this whole ‘system’ which is under question and needs changing.

      Without meaning to be arrogant (this isn’t about what I think; it’s about broader (increasingly discernible) changes, and about faith in the human capacity to ‘do the right thing’), I’m very confident that these systemic/structural changes will happen; the question is more how long will they take?


  2. Nicky Says:

    Good luck with that.

    • fonant Says:

      I’m optimistic. London is spending £900 million on decent cycle infrastructure over the next three years. With that sort of money (still a small percentage of highways budgets, but a lot more than we’ve had before) you can make some really useful and effective changes to the road environment.

      • Dave Horton Says:

        Absolutely. The ‘London announcement’ shows that we’re not simply dreaming; but that vision, dedication and hard work changes cities!
        Thanks for making time to comment 😉

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Nicky. If you agree, do lend a hand.

  3. Tom Cahill Says:

    I would be curious exactly how many people park along the A6. tiny point, but if one counted the cars parked along it, one would know how many votes might be “lost”, max, if the parking disappeared. One might also figure out if at certain points, perhaps near shops, some provision could be made for “five minute” parking to keep businesses happy. I only suggest this as a tiny point.

    I think the main point is slowing the traffic, with the aid of five or six robot speed cameras that automatically fine you. France has thousands of these, although they have not had an immense effect. they might have an effect in a town where much of the traffic is not “through” on the A6 (is it?), but everyday.

    But even then people will still be scared, normal non-cycling people. That is the real killer.

    Although narrow roads with solid settlement on both sides can be a problem too. It seems to me that along much of the road’s three miles some kind of wider, combination cycling and walking space, with a curb separating it from heavy vehicles could be constructed. No? Maybe losing a hedge or two, especially if the land belonged to one owner for some distance. Replant hedges. Then one is left with a few hundred metres of dangerous road where the houses are too tight for more width.

    In any case, I totally agree with you, and often ride on real roads just to make sure they are not stolen from cyclists.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Thanks Tom. I rode along the A6 a few times last week, as research for this post. (I generally avoid it in my usual cycling journeys.) People do cycle along it, but not many, and I’d say that – like many big roads – it probably becomes more ‘cycle-friendly’ the faster you’re travelling. It’s the kind of road I want to be riding at 18 mph, not 9 mph; and that’s not right, in terms of democratising cycling.

      There’s a stretch of residents’ parking very close to the Pointer roundabout; and I think this is the stretch which the Council officer sees as non-negotiable. As you say, there are actually very few cars, and (whilst as you know I’m in favour of grassroots politics and protest) I find it crazy that potential opposition from these residents could stand in the way of converting this approach to the city into one which fits with the twenty-first century, rather than (as at present) lurking somewhere in the 1960s.

      For both residents’ parking and short-term parking which will inevitably be required (if to a reduced extent – many of their customers will of course choose to walk and/or cycle!) for the shopping parades, there are many side roads off the A6. I believe many of these should be ‘plugged’ (closed to motorised traffic, but left open for cycling), but some of those which aren’t could be used by those people who currently park on the A6. (Though of course the changes I’m advocating fit into a picture of a Britain moving beyond its stranglehold by the car, rather than one still being gripped by it.)

      Beyond the city limits, as the A6 moves into ‘the countryside’ for the final mile to Lancaster University’s campus, the case for a cycling corridor would certainly be facilitated by some land take, hedge removal and ‘artery-widening’. But for me this should be a secondary measure – it’s the reduction in width of space available for the motorised modes which is key.

      In general I’m not happy about walking and cycling ‘sharing space’. Of course it can and does work in some places; and it’s good to consider it. But walking remains a very important means of urban mobility in Lancaster (and in general, across urban Britain) and we should be facilitating it by improving (and very often widening) pavements (sidewalks) rather than converting those ‘walking corridors’ into space shared with cycling. Cycling should take space from motorised modes. Cycling AND walking are the modes most appropriate to shorter distance urban travel (and a humane, convivial, ecological, socially just society), and it is these modes which should be prioritised above other modes across all urban space.

      So I think driving should have its spatial allocation reduced and be separated from cycling, which should have space newly allocated to it, which should be separated from walking which should – in general (though I agree with you that there are some VERY wide pavements which can be reduced) – have its space not just preserved but improved.

      I think we agree, but (as usual) your comments, questions and teasing out of detail helps to add nuance to the discussion.

      Glad that you’re still reading! (I’m aware my last few posts have been a bit ‘policy-oriented’ and ‘serious’, and I’m feeling the need for another ‘interesting ride’ so I can talk more simply about the joys of cycling again! I’m generally trying to strike a balance with my blogging this year, but it’ll be interesting to look back at year’s end to see whether I’ve ‘succeeeded’.)

  4. Tom Cahill Says:

    Certainly cutting the speed limit down is a first step, for everyone, in every urban area. No doubt.

    In addition, even on the A6, looking at the photos, remembering a bit who owns some fairly long stretches of land, it seems that a combination cycling and walking space could be built alongside the road. The pavements are VERY wide in some spots. A few hundred metres of hedge might be replanted, unless there are too many hedge worshippers about. I wonder if one took account of the exact space where this was possible, how much more wold be left where the press of the front “gardens” of houses would be the only obstacle to a wide path for both cyclists and walkers. Just curious.

    I would also actually count the number of cars parked alongside the A6 at various times. I doubt that there are that many. Its stupid and dangerous place to park anyway. Unless small spaces could be created here and there. If there are only a hundred cars parked, and half of them are in special spaces, the problem disappears at that level.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      You’re right, of course. As you probably know, one of my most regular and reliable riding partners is Jon Barry, who has probably done more than anyone for the cause of green politics in Lancaster during the time I’ve lived here. For him, I think, politics is (and has become more so, over time) the art of compromise – you might have your visions, know what you want, but when it comes to ‘the political process’ you’re highly unlikely to get it, and you’ll have to settle for a diluted version, but one which is still better than what currently ‘is’.

      I know this, I understand this, but I can’t, personally, do this. I don’t know why. (Are there different personality types, suited for different kinds of politics?) (Being narcissistic for a second) I want to think about change, set out what needs to change, but I’m much less keen on having my ‘idealism’ continually cracked up against the (seemingly, but not actually) brick walls of vested interests, convention, taken-for-grantedness of ‘how things are’; so I’d rather leave the hard, frustrating work of ‘putting it into practice’ to others, such as Jon! (That’s not entirely true, but you know what I mean?)

      These ‘tensions’ between ‘idealism’ and ‘realism’ seem currently particularly ‘real’ and powerful in the UK, precisely because there’s sense of a possibility of a paradigm shift in how we think about cycling (and so also about cars, driving, urban space, future life, sustainability). I’m not sure if such tensions can be worked out in better and worse ways, and – if so – how? Are there obvious ‘divisions of labour’ between ‘the idealists’ and ‘the realists’? Do the more ambitious visionaries at some point need to ‘get real’, or do their visions get converted by other actors, who’ve maintained a certain realism?

      I have so many questions, and no clear answers. (I kind of know it has to be that way, and in some senses I like it that way, but it also makes me hanker for reading/thinking about ‘old’ and ‘new’ social movements, both theoretically and empirically, in the search for insight!)

      Any words of wisdom? 😉

  5. cuddy Says:

    Rarely do I do un-sceptical fandom, but I bloody love your blog. I envy and respect the painstaking, careful, reflective evidence-gathering on which your conclusions rest. You speak as one with authority, and not as one of the scribes.
    All strength to you.

    • Dave Horton Says:

      Gee, thanks 😉 It’s very nice to be appreciated. (It can sometimes feel like I’m talking to myself, and so affirming when I learn I’m not.)
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to tell me you like it. (But your stuff is good and important too – and don’t ever think otherwise – we all do our bits, however best we can.)
      All the best

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