Wednesday 4 November 2015

Powerful Words

This week's post is more of a reply to a post from Katja Leyendecker, erstwhile engineer and now PhD researcher.

In her post, "A Common Language", Leyendecker decries a Sustrans suite of city-based publications which essentially present an inconsistent approach to the language being used to described "cycling facilities". She helpfully links to a US website which seeks to provide some smart language for various things linked to providing safer streets and is worth a look. The post ends with a plea to get some common language in the UK so people are able to know they mean the same thing.

Before I continue, let's have a non-cycling example. If I said "pavement", I would be confident that most people would think I am talking about the paved area along the side of the road, (a sidewalk to those over the Pond) which is normally separated with a kerb and normally at a higher level than the road. This is a mass-market word which probably didn't need me to describe. But, if you were talking to a highway engineer, they would recognise pavement as the various layers which make up a road (generally applying to the carriageway, but can mean the footway or indeed a cycle track). 

Oh, that's some more terms I have introduced. A carriageway is that part of a highway which is generally constructed for vehicular traffic to use (including cycles). Carriageways are generally designed to be heavy-duty because of the damage inflicted on them by motors. A footway is actually what someone like me would call a pavement. A cycle track is like a footway, but reserved for cycle use, except when it is shared with pedestrians.

I'll pause for a moment as this has got a little complicated and probably confusing. We professionals like our own language and this applies to highway engineers as it does doctors and the legal profession. Language is a powerful tool. It can be used as a common "code" between like minded professionals and it can be used to exert power over those who don't know that code. Despite me being a fan of people asking stupid questions (and there is no such thing as a stupid question), people don't like asking for clarity and so the "them" and "us" system of power is maintained.

But, please don't blame the professionals completely (apart from the lawyers of course). For highway terminology, we have primary legislation (hence my friendly pop at the lawyers) which sets it out. The Highways Act 1980 is the principal (but not only) source of interpretation with Section 328 (often written as S328 and the act written as HA1980) defining a "highway" and S329 defining most of the other terms we need to be concerned with. So, returning to the items mentioned above;

carriageway” means a way constituting or comprised in a highway, being a way (other than a cycle track) over which the public have a right of way for the passage of vehicles

footway” means a way comprised in a highway which also comprises a carriageway, being a way over which the public have a right of way on foot only

cycle track” means a way constituting or comprised in a highway, being a way over which the public have the following, but no other, rights of way, that is to say, a right of way on pedal cycles with or without a right of way on foot.

The reason for the confusion in the cycle track term is that it can be shared with pedestrians - i.e. a "shared use" cycle track. Even more confusingly, a shared use cycle track can be unsegregated (a free for all) or segregated (often with line painted down the middle). As a layperson, an engineer referring to a shared use, unsegregated, cycle track is a bit of a mess. I would also say that segregated and unsegregated isn't strictly defined legally, it comes from guidance (but don't worry about it here). A cycle track can also be purely for cyclists, but that is another discussion as well! I think that "cycleway" would be a better term and be consistent with "footway", but again, there is no legal definition.

There is no legal interpretation for road or pavement, although I guess road is probably understandable by most lay people. As I have said, pavement is probably used most consistently outside of highway engineering circles. Groups such as Living Streets and the media at large perpetuate the use of pavement in campaigns and reporting, but a little part of me always finds it grating when I am personally used to the "official" term of footway.  My guess with the Sustrans reports is local employees or volunteers involved haven't quite managed to get a "house style" and perhaps the messages are being watered down as a result.

Personally, I would rather stick to the legal terms where they exist because ultimately there is something we can refer to and we don't need to guess. Where there isn't then we should try to use similar language. For example, we have "continuous footway" which means a footway which extends across a side road - technically a footway can do this, but adding continuous gives a helpful descriptor.

I know this post seems to be me forcing my world-view onto others, but as explained in Leyendecker's post, inconsistency creates confusion and certainly within the cycling spheres, so many terms are bandied about no wonder we are in this state. The legislation can be pretty impenetrable sometimes and really, the Government should put together an authoritative list of definitions (with references) to make lives easier. But, it is official and when used in dealing with those within the highways community (who ultimately implement schemes) you will at least be able to put your point across. Of course, to speak to us on our terms means there is some learning to do - but always ask for clarification.

I will leave it up to you of course. I have a list of terms on the glossary page of the blog and the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has an extensive dictionary on a whole range of terms (and you might recognise the odd definition from yours truly!).


  1. There is a common legal definition of “road,” but it comes from road traffic law rather than highways law: section 192 of the Road Traffic Act 1988. And while I haven’t found a definition of pavement, I do note that section 5 of the Highway Act 1835 uses the word in its definition of “highway.”

    1. Yes, RTRA1988 also have definitions, but I didn't want to get more bogged down. Road as defined there come more from the "road traffic" approach, slightly different to the "infrastructure" approach of HA1980.

      The Highways Act is virtually completely defunct with most repealed, save two clauses. The online version shows this the 1980 definition prevails.

    2. I''m a cycling campaigner and I'm due to meet some people who are angry about having a small amount of parking removed. I don't know what their exact gripe is. I think that there is no right to leave obstacles (such as cars) on the Queens Highway -- only to move along it -- and your definition above seems to support that. Am I right? (I may not say it, probably a bit upsetting to aforesaid parking aficionados)

    3. They feel threatened. They have enjoyed the "right" (actually a "tolerated" obstruction) for a long time and now "you" want to take it away. That is the way this will be set up to start with. I hesitate to use the word, but they will take a fundamentalist approach that parking is their right and cannot be taken away.

      Schemes which bring some of these people along can include some compensatory parking close by. But, if there is no negotiation, the discussion becomes difficult and people will get entrenched. But, that is why people are elected to make decisions.

      This applies to any scheme, not just cycling. I have it all the time when I am trying to get bus stop clearways in so buses can pull into the kerb to make the accessible!

  2. If a footway extends across a road, can it be legal for vehicle users to cross it, or would they always be committing a crime under s.72 Highway act 1835?

    1. It's a good question. Continuous footways are essentially larger versions of vehicle crossings (from the carriageway to private land) and also can be thought of as mini "shared spaces" (although I am less happy with the definition).

      The key here would be that of a legal challenge in terms of the design approach with continuous footways and until and unless that happens, yes, there may be a technicality to explored, but there are so many examples I challenge would fail and probably it would confirm their status.