Saturday, 19 September 2020

Cycling In Town Centres Is a Network Issue

Every so often there's a flurry of complaints about people cycling through pedestrianised areas. Sometimes there might be a media item in which a talking head holds the cycling community at blame for the behaviour of a few and in some cases, the local authority will ban cycling, yet wonder why people are still there.

Discourse around this subject always comes at it from the wrong end, which is either the behaviour of a few individuals or concern about people cycling from those who maybe cannot quite articulate the issue.

A typical UK local authority response to cycling
in pedestrianised areas. (Hatfield, Hetfordshire).

I'll take the latter first. If you are walking in a pedestrianised area (in a general UK context), you're not expecting people to ride near you on a cycle. In fact, given how woeful the UK's mode share is for cycling (in general), someone cycling is a novelty to most people in most places. To some, the fact that there is someone cycling in what they thought was "their" space is enough to make people concerned - in other words, the person on foot has had their experienced safety compromised because of an unexpected interaction.

Johannes Paul II Straße, Aachen, Germany. 
A pedestrianised area where cycling is permitted. 
The street layout encouraged people to cycle 
in the centre of the street.

With the former, I am talking about the behaviour of the type of person who decides it's appropriate to cycle through a pedestrianised area at their normal riding speed. Even this isn't clear cut. There will be people (as there are in any walk of life) who are plain antisocial. If they weren't riding a cycle, they would be pushing in the queue to get on the bus or if they were driving, they would be speeding as they drove past a school at kicking out time. 

There will also be other people who are still in fight or flight mode after mixing with traffic on the ring road who haven't yet relaxed from the experience and dropped their pace - it's complex, but from the point of view of someone startled by suddenly seeing someone cycle by, there is no difference - they cannot possibly know what sort of person has gone by.

A couple of people in ordinary clothes cycling through
a pedestrianised area. Heads up, taking their time.
Leicester city centre where cycling is allowed.

I thought it might be interesting to see what the research says. Three Transport Research Laboratory (TRL) reports make for some helpful reading. 

First is a study from 1993 for the Department of Transport, "Cycling in Pedestrian Areas", which used video analysis to look at the issue. The study analysed 1 hour video recordings of 12 English sites and 9 mainland European sites and then 12 hour video recordings and questionnaires at 4 English sites. 

The English sites were a mix of places where cycling was banned, allowed during some hours and allowed all the time. The sites on the mainland were similarly arranged in terms of access time, but where cycling wasn't permitted, there were periphery routes available.

Vestergade, Odense, Denmark. One of the original
streets in the study which has different access times for
cycle traffic on different sections.

The findings from the report were;
  • Pedestrians alter their behaviour in the presence of motor vehicles where they are permitted in a shared area whereas the presence of cyclists has no appreciable effect;
  • People cycling adapt their speed to suit pedestrian density and dismount if required. Conflicts are generally dealt with by people cycling taking avoiding action;
  • Pedestrian areas have good safety records. The sites in the study had no pedestrian/ cyclist collisions in 15 years apart from one child pedestrian. No collisions were observed in the analysis of the video footage.
  • Where cycle traffic flows are higher the surface treatment and placing of street furniture and  shop displays can have a significant influence and a clearly identified section for cycle traffic aids orientation and operation with people tending to walk at the sides of the street and people cycling in the centre of the street.
The conclusion of the report stated;

The extensive observations made during this report has disclosed no real factors that justify the exclusion of cyclists from pedestrian areas and indicate that cycling can be more widely permitted without detriment to pedestrians.

It is important not to exclude cyclists from pedestrian areas and force them to use dangerous alternative routes. There are a wide variety of appropriate and satisfactory solutions (in terms of design and regulation) the choice of which will vary from place to place, and depend on local circumstances.

The Narrow Way (Mare Street) in Hackney is
pedestrianised with cycling permitted. 
There is a hint of where to cycle with the 
street layout. The alternative routes aren't 
great, so it's a useful link.

In terms of the pedestrian and cyclist interviews, the main point of concern was around the place where motor traffic had access (Oxford) and both groups felt safer in Chichester where motor traffic was banned.

In 1998, TRL published a report titled "Alternative Routes for Cyclists Around Pedestrian Areas". This study looked at 9 English towns where there were comprehensive bans on cycling in their cores and the quality of the routes available to people cycling to bypass them. Three towns were examined in more detail where there were signed diversion routes around the pedestrianised areas. 

Gallowtree Gate, Leicester, had a cycling ban at the time of
the study with a signed diversion for cycling,
but it's now open to cycling at all times.

There is some interesting commentary (p13) in the report which states;

Shopping trips (52%) and leisure trips (13%) are the cycle trips most likely to be foregone or transferred to another mode. Commuter cyclists are less likely to be deterred from travelling by cycle due to the pedestrian area restriction: whereas the main journey purpose of 26% of cyclists interviewed is commuting/business, only 11% of trips foregone or transferred are commuting trips. 

For those journeys that cannot be made by bicycle, because of the pedestrian area cycling restriction, 31% are transferred to walk, 24% to car (driver) and 15% to bus. 26% are not made at all as the respondents travel only by bicycle.

Notwithstanding the age of the study, this suggests that town centres lose out by banning cycling twice because some people don't make the trips at all and some will drive rather than cycle which adds to local traffic congestion.

Friarsgate, Winchester. Off-peak cycling is allowed
in some parts of the city core and banned in others. 
The alternatives include busy one-way streets which
are hostile to cycling.

The study noted that there was a lack of reported collisions between people cycling and walking as a side note; with the most interesting conclusions for me being;
  • The alternative routes created additional risk from traffic and inconvenience to people cycling compared with the pedestrianised route;
  • The alternative routes were longer, with almost half involving dismounting, and a different route was almost always necessary for the return trip;
  • Where signed alternative routes for cyclists were provided, most people found them to be safe and convenient;
  • Cyclists using the pedestrian areas and the alternative routes tend to choose routes on the basis of directness and minimising delay.
  • Because of the diverse journey patterns of cyclists in the town centres, safety needs to be improved throughout the road network. This would assist cyclists in town centres and reduce the incentive to cycle through the pedestrian area
The third report is from 2003 and titled "Cycling in Vehicle Restricted Areas", again from TRL. the study was three cities (Cambridge, Hull and Salisbury) and was more concerned about behaviours. The study used video, manual speed surveys and interviews of cyclists and pedestrians. There were also discussions with the local authorities and others around nine other places.

In the summary, the following statements are made;

It was shown that pedestrian flow, regulations, the types of cyclist and the characteristics of the site influenced dismounting and cycling speeds. The majority of cyclists tended to slow down or dismount and push their bicycles when pedestrian flows were high. However, a minority (mostly young males) continued to cycle quite fast.

The interviews with 300 pedestrians and 150 cyclists, showed that the majority of pedestrians said that they were "not bothered" by cyclists using the VRA [vehicle restricted area]. However, a number of people had witnessed collisions between cyclists and pedestrians in the VRA and a majority of pedestrians at two of the three sites said they would like to see cyclists excluded for at least part of the day.

When you dig into the report, the wish for exclusion seems to come in where cycling flows are higher and only then after prompting. There is some useful discussion around how people cycling should be managed in terms of the position they take in the street. Visual impairment groups suggested that there should be a fence or barrier providing separation, but the report notes that this and indeed, a strong visual delineation would not meet urban design objectives; however, the use of street furniture could usefully channel people cycling to the centre.

In all three reports, there's obviously a fair bit to read through. Despite when they were undertaken, I think we have got some very useful information and discussion arising from the research.

From my own experiences visiting some of the places in the research and from my trips to northern European cities, I wasn't particularly surprised by the contents of the reports. The third report was one I was familiar with (but hadn't reviewed for a while) and the first two were new to me in researching this post.

So, we have evidence to suggest that most people on foot aren't generally bothered about people cycling unless flows get high and maybe concerns only get expressed when pushed. We can see that there are people who are basically just antisocial when they cycle. We've seen that visually impaired people have concerns (fully legitimate in my view). 

There's evidence to show that cycling bans are bad for the town centre in terms of losing visitors or some switching to cars. We have also seen that some local authorities ban cycling but do nothing about the diversion routes which are often hostile, indirect and with poor accessibility.

Rue de l'Eau, Luxembourg City. Pedestrianised with some 
motor vehicle access, but two-way cycling allowed.

I mentioned "interaction" at the start of this post. The evidence suggests that most people cycling take responsibility for their own behaviour and that of the person on foot - by that I mean, people are dropping their speed and dismounting when it get busy as well as anticipating the unpredictability of other people. We've also seen that by and large, there are very few collisions where people can cycle through pedestrianised areas.

Design Implications
This is a two-fold issue. The thing that most people tend to look at is the pedestrianised street itself, but in fact, it's a network level design issue. People with no business in the town centre won't be immediately thinking about slowing down too much, their minds are somewhere else and so we should be catering for them with proper routes around core pedestrianised places. These routes should feel safe, direct and legible and if done properly, we've cleared out the people who don't need to be in the the town centre which reduces the overall flows that some pedestrians find concerning.

Vaartscherijnbrug, Utrecht, The Netherlands. If you don't
need to cycle into the city centre, you can cycle
around the edge to get somewhere else.

Then with the pedestrianised areas themselves, we can use street furniture placement or perhaps textural cues to guide people cycling to the centre of the street away from stop fronts where people walking may have their attention elsewhere. Having a clutter-free central area is also pretty useful for fire access, maintenance and (where permitted) servicing; so it's a win-win.

Storgatan, Malmö, Sweden. This is the entrance to
a pedestrianised area where cycling is permitted.
The street layout still hints at the historic road layout
with different paving in the centre and with street furniture
well-positioned, people cycling stick to the centre.

The important thing is that we should be welcoming people to our town centres because it is good for them both. People obviously work in town centres and there are people who find cycling easier than walking - bans on cycling directly discriminates Disabled people who rely on cycles at their mobility aids; could you imagine the public reaction to banning mobility scooters?

The challenge we have is that local authorities that ban cycling in the UK don't provide decent alternatives (notwithstanding the needs and wants of people wanting to cycle to shops and businesses). Even this week, Worcester County Council has extended it's ban on cycling in Worcester City Centre to 10am - 6pm, from 10:30am - 4:30pm. This is apparently to make things safer for pedestrians and it has the backing of businesses after consultation (whether anyone else had a say isn't clear). 

Worcester follows the pattern of the hostile places in the 1998 TRL study because their ban doesn't come with safe and direct routes around the pedestrianised area. The way around is a heady mix of one-way streets, including the A38 where people cycling get to play with buses, HGVs and general traffic. Your outgoing route would also be different to your incoming route. Clearly the City and County are happy to turn away customers, workers and disabled people. Presumably they can produce evidence supporting the ban and the equality impact assessment they did before extending it.

Hovedgaden, Nordby, Fanø, Denmark. This village
centre is largely pedestrianised and cycling is
welcomed. There is actually a cycling bypass on the
road which skirts the village to the ferry terminal which
takes some of the through-cycling out.

You may feel that until and unless alternatives are provided, cycling shouldn't be permitted in pedestrianised areas. I have to disagree because the evidence shows that it is a low risk thing to allow (as well as being good for town centres and people). 

If there is a problem with behaviour, then this is tackled through design of the space and designing out through cycle traffic. Then you can switch the enforcement you were going to deploy on the ban onto the idiots who don't behave and you target this activity when pedestrian flows are highest because that's when the potential for interaction will also be highest.

Vismarkt, Utrecht, The Netherlands. There is a peak
hours cycle ban here, but people ignore it if they
feel they're not causing a problem.

In the final analysis, trying to ban a fairly simple form of human-powered transport is doomed to fail. If you think about it, the people who manage to get to a hostile town centre are already pretty committed and will have dealt with equally hostile roads getting there. A local authority putting up a sign won't stop them and let's face it, the chances of getting caught are going to be slim unless they really are being stupid at peak teams. 

In my view, managing and nudging people in a situation like this is far more productive than trying to ban them and we have already done the research to back all of this up.


  1. Thank you for bringing these 3 reports together.
    I live in Reading, which has a strange thing about pedestrian areas and cycling.
    Half of the Broad Street pedestrian area is part of Readings cycle network, and at either end includes the town centres largest cycle parking provision, half has cycling prohibited, with some signage. I abide by this, many don't and I can fully understand this as there appears to be no apparent reasoning to the difference. In fact the area where the is meant to be NO CYCLING has a less cluttered route.
    And then Reading has placed NCN 4 straight through the pedestrianised shopping and dining/drinking area of the Oracle along the Kennet. It would all appear to make very little sense and very much lacks consistency.

  2. Great article and very interesting reading.

    If only my home was banning cycling on a pedestrianised high street though...

    Penrith attempted to pedestrianise the marketplace as lockdown restrictions eased in the summer in an effort to allow social distancing, only to reverse the changes after about a week as they were 'hurting local businesses'. The council could have done a much better job of promoting the plan and consulting with people, but nobody considered that maybe business was suppressed by a national lockdown, rather than an inability for people to park right in front of a shop. Given that the backlash against the road closures was explicitly against a public health initiative, pedestrian safety didn't get a look in either!

    So now, we're back to sharing narrow medieval roads with a constant stream of motor traffic that makes crossing from one side of the high street to another slow and unpleasant, at best...