Thursday, 20 October 2016

Leeds Bradford Cycle Superhighway - Update

In July 2015 I paid a visit to the Leeds - Bradford Cycle Superhighway (see Last month I was invited back to see the finished article, along with staff from Transport for London and various other English local authorities.

When the Superhighway was being constructed this kind of separate infrastructure was new, not just in Yorkshire but also in London, with only one short section of separated cycle track running out towards the Olympic Park in Stratford. I was occasionally invited to contribute to the external design review panel for the Leeds-Bradford route, and there were endless discussions about kerbs, drains, width and junction designs.

Civil engineering, and the 'traffic engineering' branch of it, is largely about adhering to standards, and cycle routes are invariably non-standard. Online cycle campaigners have given the Leeds-Bradford route quite a bit of stick for being 'sub-standard' during the last year.

The problem is that many of our roads and streets date from Victorian times and their dimensions are largely determined by the medieval field boundaries of the plots of land that were sold to Victorian developers at a time before cars existed. There has to be some flexibility and creativity to adapt these to the needs of the 21st century. Can traffic lanes be removed? Can parking be moved? Can you still drive a bus round the corner if the road is narrowed? Will there be enough time for drivers to see cyclists when there are walls and buildings obscuring the view? What looks at first like a simple 'Space for Cycling' exercise in two-dimensions quickly becomes more complicated when you factor in the gradient, sight lines, the dynamics of moving traffic, the swept path of large vehicles, the way in which surface water will run off and the capacity of the existing drainage to cope with more run-off, how close are tree roots, gas mains, electric and fibre optic cables to the construction, and ......  the list goes on and on.
The bus stop that breaks all the design standards - but in practice, with rarely more than one person present at any time, is this really a problem? During the peak hours there are two lanes of queuing vehicles here and there was a requirement to retain space for emergency vehicles to get through.

Besides the technical debate there is always politics. Every junction becomes a political battle ground about delays to buses, lengthening the queue of traffic and speculation about safety for pedestrians, cyclists and drivers. Every car parking space that needs to go is viciously contested by the people affected. Virtually every shopkeeper in the land thinks that 100% of his business arrives by car.

Leeds - Bradford is all about the art of the possible. What can realistically be done in a hilly, low cycling neighbourhood with high car ownership and limited public support. It also represents a bit of a pioneering phase for segregated cycle infrastructure, particularly as many of the originally proposed junction and crossing treatments only became legal after construction, so designers had to revert to older solutions such as toucan crossings.

Residential parking space retained to provide protected cycle track to nearside of cars, with a coloured 'warning strip' in the door zone.

At around 9 miles long, the Leeds-Bradford route must be the longest stretch of (largely) separate urban cycle track in England. For the most part this isn't a 'shared footway' with pedestrians on it, it is a genuine road for cyclists.

Typical two-way section with adjacent footway. Some parts are also one-way on either side of the road. While this section may not look ideal, you have to compare it to what it was like to cycle into Bradford on the carriageway here before (below)

The next phase is to complete the route into Leeds city centre and out to the east. At the moment it stops at the ring road, which is its major failing. A segregated route into the city will be the key to fulfilling its potential to get large numbers of users.

New parallel cycle/zebra crossing under construction near the start in Armley. These crossings only became legal in Summer 2016.

On some of these site visits where I come away thinking that I would never use it. Thankfully there were only a few compromises here, mainly junctions that were beyond the budget and timescale of the original scheme. Most of these are due for upgrade at some point, but in the meantime they stand out, particularly the ring road crossing mentioned in my last blog, where cyclists get a green man most of the way across and then get held on a very narrow traffic island on the final left turn slip. This would be very dangerous if more than one or two cyclists were present. Having had a green light most of the way through the junction, it would also be easy for a cyclist to assume priority at the last light and get run over. This site is due a major junction upgrade, which would potentially give cyclists the a fully grade separated arrangement.
Major junction at the ring road still needs to be completed.

Some of the narrow bus stops and bus boarders have had very unfavourable press, not from users but from bloggers. In reality these are stops where only one or two people are ever present, and the chances of encountering a cyclist are rare. The dimensions are not ideal, but they are entirely adequate for the local context. The use of toucan crossings at some of the junctions is a bit 'clunky', and I imagine that these are largely bypassed by cyclists who either don't wait for the lights or revert to the carriageway to maintain priority. Some of the locations would be ideal for a 'European style' parallel green system to enable a simpler layout with fewer delays, something that British Cycling is about to campaign for.

Nice straight and clear path for cyclists at this signalised junction.

In contrast, this toucan crossing to go across a side road, constructed in 2015, is very 'old school' and less convenient than the advanced stop line it replaced. 

In other places, more modern and direct crossings for cyclists have been introduced, enabled by regulatory changes in 2016.

The 'shared space' at Stanningley Bottom is a section where the road was too narrow for cycle facilities, where there was also pressure from local businesses to retain car parking and access.  A 'naked streets' approach  has been adopted, but without any vertical or horizontal traffic calming, no change in surface texture, no carriageway narrowing or side road entry junction treatments. So it feels quite out of place compared to the segregated provision on the rest of the route. The replacement of a T junction with a 'virtual' mini-roundabout has however been a success in helping to slow down traffic and improve the functionality of the junction. It's a location that is hemmed in by the railway line and surrounding topography, so no obvious solutions to finding space without demolishing some buildings.
This junction and shared carriageway section are distinctly 'out of keeping' with the remeinder of the route. To make a truly 'low speed shared space' here would require a major investment in  'place-making' works such as a textured road surface and further 'visual narrowing' of the carriageway. However, due to its location it will always be a very busy place with few alternative routes available.

A lot of lessons have been learned in building the route, and the sections that were constructed later are noticeably better than those that were done first. More importantly, the route has proven that multiple political and technical obstructions can be overcome, which in turn has helped to secure future political support for new cycle routes.

One-way cycle track at side road crossing with clear priority over turning vehicles

The route hasn't seen the kind of overnight increase in users that occurred when the cycle superhighways opened in central London this year, but it is a hilly suburban route between two cities in an area where cycle ownership and use is extremely low. Nevertheless, cycling has increased by 30% in the few months since the official opening in June 2016, with over 30,000 journeys to date. This is a route along a busy road that is primarily used by commuters. We didn't see many other cyclists on our late-morning site visit, but everyone that we saw, from old ladies to lycra-clad club cyclists, were using the cycle tracks. When I visited in 2015 it was during the evening peak, and I found myself sharing the carriageway with cars going at 60 mph in places and then trying to squeeze past queuing traffic at walking pace a few hundred yards further on. I can certainly see the benefit of being able to cycle at a consistent speed.

Perhaps more telling was the attitude of local authority staff who were present. Five years ago if we went on a cycling site visit, everybody would have been in hi-viz and helmets, and we would have been given a 'risk assessment' to read. Instead we had a very relaxed site visit, most people in normal working clothes, where we were able to stop and chat in safety.

High quality facilities are also being delivered in Cambridge, Bristol, Leicester, Manchester, Nottingham, Newcastle and Norwich at present, so it appears that there is at last some momentum outside London.

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