I do enjoy discovering highway engineering relics which turn out to be clever little interventions that we have forgotten to do and in this post, we head to Peterborough to look at such a relic.
On the one hand, it's great to see old layouts that make walking, wheeling and cycling easier because it shows that we've always been able to do this stuff. On the other hand, it's also sad, because rather than rolling them out everywhere, it reminds us that the UK chose the wrong path to mass car use which is so difficult to face today.
To the north of the city of Peterborough, the A47 and A15 meet with both roads amusingly called parkways. Just south of this junction we have Harebell Close, part of the larger Dogthorpe part of the city. The suburbs of Peterborough being a product of it becoming a New Town in 1967 with lots of low density development surrounding the historic city centre.
In common with many New Towns, there is also a network of walking and cycling routes which are separated from the road network, but like the others, it's low density development and where driving was made far easier. Over the years, the quality of the separate networks has been allowed to degrade and it hasn't really been expanded. The 2011 cycling commute mode share was 5.7%, compared to the national 2.7% and so at least being fairly compact, flat and with some cycling infrastructure, it gives the place something to build upon.
Anyway, Harebell Close has an interesting junction where a cycle track meets the road (below). It is a junction because cycles are vehicles and the cycle track is meeting a carriageway.
I'll go through the details shortly, but the the location came to my attention through tweets from the local MP, Paul Bristow (Con, Peterborough). Who had apparently been campaigning for barriers to be placed across the cycle track.
As you would expect from Twitter, the MP received a schooling in access issues and the Equality Act 2010, but even when noting comments from the Peterborough Cycle Forum, he doubled down and wrote to the council's chief executive about the issue.
This is a fascinating insight into day to day local political campaigning because "road issues" is a great subject to generate a bit of noise given how many politicians only listen to noisy adult drivers with everyone else ignored.
Like traffic signs and pothole repairs, a campaign for a couple of barriers is also a good tactic because it's pretty cheap, it's something that generates a good photo of Things Getting Done and it plays well to those who are listened to. Within the local authority, a CEO is able to push just a request down the food chain as inevitably, there will be a manager somewhere happy to instruct the work to shut the politician up - it's easier to acquiesce because it takes so little time and effort, compared with actually resisting such nonsense with data, facts and logic.
I don't think I need to explain why barriers across a cycle track is a bad idea, but you can read this post from 2016 for more, even where there might be an issue of compromise (which isn't the case here). Meanwhile, lets look at the details of Harebell Close and try to get under the skin of what the issue really is.
If we go back to the first image (above to save scrolling), there are several points of detail which can be gleaned. The general layout has a 5.5m wide carriageway with a couple of 1.8m wide footways; a layout which can be found all over the UK for estates of this age.
At the crossing, the carriageway is narrowed to about 3.2m which means drivers have to give way to each other. The narrowing is also asymmetric with the nearside (on each approach) being narrowed far more than on the offside. For drivers, this gives two messages. First it is very obviously that they should slow down, but more subtlety, that oncoming traffic has priority. There are no signs to explain this because the layout is self-explanatory.
The asymmetric narrowing also physically helps to slow drivers because they have to steer to the right fairly abruptly. The area that is narrowed is also paved in a completely different material (above) with bollards to give some visual verticality to the horizontal deflection. The lighting columns on the nearside to each approach make sure the junction is well lit and so further provide verticality.
The very interesting thing about the asymmetric narrowing is creates a bit of a zig-zag through the junction that you only notice on a closer inspection. Across the junction, kerbs flanking the carriageway continue through and while disappearing into the background, they do add to a suggestion that general traffic has some priority.
We can also note that the junction is actually on a raised hump which provides some vertical deflection for drivers as well as a flatter place for cycle traffic to cross. For the cycle track, there are give way markings before the junction which indicates priority for general traffic and the cycle track ends short of the carriageway on each side to provide tactile paving, perhaps recognising that people may well be walking along the cycle track which is signed for cycles, but over which people have a right to walk.
The tactile paving is also interesting. At the edge of the carriageway, there is red crossing blister paving which is actually reserved for zebra crossings and signalised crossings. This should ideally buff, or at least a non-red contrast.
The grey paving behind is actually a UK rarity - a guidance path surface. This is used to guide visually impaired people along a route when the traditional cues, such as a property line or kerb edge, are not available. This has been deliberately provided here because the arrangement seems to guide people to the crossing point. It's an odd arrangement.
So there we have it. A layout which is a junction, does some clever things with vertical and horizontal deflection and with a change of materials, but which still prioritises the road. Throw in a warning signs for a cycle route crossing ahead on each side of the junction aimed at drivers, we have an interesting layout which generally seems to mitigate the risk of a collision. In terms of data, there haven't been any actually injury collisions here for 20 years and while we should be careful with applying casualty data (as it's only a small part of an overall consideration), the junction seems pretty safe to me.
Let's go back to Bristow's letter and look at the detail.
"Residents expressed concern that cyclists can not easily see that a road crossing is coming up and as a result cross the road at speed which creates risks for all road users - pedestrians, cyclists and motorists alike."
This is really a projection. The concern is coming from adults who drive and despite living here and knowing the layout intimately, still have concerns. There are just 50 homes beyond this junction and so this is genuinely a low traffic environment and so it hints that driving residents don't really want to slow down and check the junction. Even if someone cycling didn't slow down, they are still not going to be faster than someone driving through, even with the traffic calming. What the residents actually want is for the state to mitigate any liability they might be carrying into the junction under the veil of "safety".
Throwing in "all road users" is absolutely classic politics. The whole "all road users" trope is used by those trying to suggest that everyone has come to the game on a level playing field with the same power. This is absolutely not the case and argue as they might, physics is the final arbiter. He throws in some more Legitimate Concerns.
"There is also a children's play area near by which means many families are using the road in close proximity to the cycle crossing"
There is a little playground at the end of Harebell Close and because the street curves back on itself, it is directly served by the cycle track. I wonder if by "families using the road" he is worried about locals driving to the playground which would be odd. He goes on.
"I understand that under Equality Act 2010, Section 20, any physical feature installed should not put a disabled person at a substantial disadvantage. I would not support a barrier that would do this and I have been reminded of the law several times in a 'spirited' way by members of the Peterborough Cycle Forum on social media. However, this is an issue of safety and the Act must not be a reason to do nothing. Working with local residents, I am sure a solution can be found that suit cyclists, pedestrians, motorists and disabled people."
I'll take this as some progress that he understand that barriers can be discriminatory, but his passive aggression against the local cycle forum shows just how embedded the thinking is that a barrier is a solution per se. Then we're back at a solution that suits everyone - the point is, we are dealing with physics and the second best solution is reducing the energy of the situation which has to be aimed at drivers and it is they who should be made responsible. The best solution is removing general traffic, but that's not an option.
Let's also consider the users a little more. Drivers are trained, licenced and insured. They are adults and have a better developed understanding of their environment and the risks associated with it. Then let's say we have a couple of 10 year old children using the cycle track to get to the playground. They have a less developed idea of risk, speed perception and they certainly haven't been trained in the rules of the road, or at least not to the extent that a driver has.
I would contend that users of the cycle track might, on balance, be less understanding of the role of the give way markings than drivers, but cyclists can also adjust their speed so they don't need to stop before crossing (which is a time penalty). To a driver approaching the junction at a speed excessive to the situation, a young cyclist going straight across might appear fast, but in reality this isn't the case. Throw in the general proposition that it isn't in cyclists' interest to be in a collision and although we have a good layout, it is still set up to favour and indeed to absolve the driver of responsibility and so in providing a solution to the "problem", we need to go further.
Let's swap the propositions around. Here we have a cycle track which is useful for utility purposes and it is the (car) based route which has to cross it. Cyclists have an energy penalty for every stop and so maintaining momentum is important. We also have users who may not be trained in what traffic signs mean and who might not be the best at judging risk. The answer here is to change the junction to put the absolute responsibility for crossing the space on drivers which is completely appropriate for the conditions.
The image above has the cycle track made continuous across the junction with the kerbs along the carriageway edge removed in favour of kerbs running across a driver's line of travel. These are design cues which require drivers to slow right down and check before crossing. One thing that does need doing, and I am in agreement with Bristow on it, is that the bushes need cutting back to improve visibility between modes. This is not to absolve drivers of responsibility, but to ensure that when they are in the correct position, they can actually see to check before crossing. Some blocking of visibility is helpful as it stops people glancing early and running through.
This approach has been available for decades and it is featured in Local Transport Note 1/20 Designing for Cycle Traffic (see Figure 10.6) - a "cycle priority crossing". Whist I would argue that the design layout is far more important than administrative control through the use of traffic signs (including markings), the minimum requirement is to provide a pair of dotted give way lines (diagram 1003) and the additional of a painted give way triangle and upright give way signs is overkill in my view for this type of situation with low traffic flows. I would even look at omitting the give way lines based on a risk assessment.
The sketch above shows what an updated version of this layout could look like. Rather than the gentle slopes up to the junction, I have used entrance kerbs to provide both the vertical deflection and the visual cue across the line of travel and I have added give way markings to be explicit. I have also assumed the bushes have been dealt with to provide better visibility at the junction.
Really, this is the kind of layout which Bristow should be pushing for. One which makes allowances for the knowledge and energy of those cycling and which makes driver responsibility explicit. I am not coming at this from a premise that cycling should be prioritised at all times, but from the premise that this type of situation should very much prioritise cycling and through good design, we require the party with the capacity to do the most harm to have the responsibility for the safety of all road users.