In the Northumbrian village of Corbridge, a stretch of road has had some white lines removed and some new ones painted.
And it’s causing a stir.
It will surprise few that the reaction from drivers—at least, the reaction reported by the media—has not been positive (though note that some criticise the county council’s approach rather than the lanes per se). We all naturally resist change that is foisted upon us, especially when it appears to be to our detriment.
But it also seems to have divided online discussion among cycling infrastructure advocates. Some have celebrated the scheme; others have been dismayed. So, why the mixed response?
This design is far from new: there is a similar treatment on a road near where I live, and you may have one near you. Notably, it’s a treatment that’s been used in the Netherlands: a fact that is often seen as a mark of quality, but not everything the Netherlands build is good.
The idea is to channel the flow of motor vehicle users to the central lane, leaving the cycle lanes for those on pedal cycles. When two motor vehicles need to pass head-on, they move into the cycle lanes to do so.
Where the motor traffic flow is overwhelmingly unidirectional, channeling the flow in this way may work reasonably well. Also, where the motor traffic flow is normally bidirectional but very low in volume, it may be tolerable. But where the flow is more significant, the design breaks down: drivers must predominantly drive in the cycle lanes. (And it should go without saying that this design is not compatible with high speeds.)
Arguably, then, if this design is used on roads with any appreciable traffic levels, one effect is to train drivers to drive in cycle lanes. The higher the motor traffic flow, and the lower the pedal cycle flow, the more this is reinforced.
Indeed, once this starts to occur, it’s difficult to see where any benefit lies. Drivers still have to use the near side of the carriageway and move out to safely pass people on bikes, just as with a normal carriageway. The only difference is in the line markings: instead of a central line which tells drivers that they’re on “someone else’s bit of road” when they move across it, there’s a nearside lane line which communicates a suggested position to adopt when passing. It’s a nuance that influences people’s territorial nature, though the effect of it on practical outcomes is a matter of conjecture. (It’s worth noting that the Corbridge treatment is a small improvement over many similar implementations, in that the advisory lanes are allegedly 5ft wide. Most are rather narrower, and suggest closer passing as a result.)
This video gives an excellent demonstration of how the design fails once flows become non-negligible.
So, the treatment is not ideal. But many argue that it is an improvement worth having; it’s better than nothing. Some ask, not unreasonably: How could it be done better?
But “better than nothing” is a dangerous mantra, and in any case this view begs the question: Is this actually better? Indeed, what does “better” mean?
Cycling advocacy inevitably boils down to a small number of key aims, and two of these—arguably the main two—are casualty reduction and increased participation. (There is perhaps a thin strand which connects these: fear reduction.)
Whether this treatment achieves the former is debatable: I’ve seen no evidence on the matter and I have doubts that any statistically significant data even exists (which, if so, might itself tell us something), but I confess I’ve not looked. My concern is perhaps more with the latter.
Is this a change which will cause more people to cycle? Looking at the map, this seems an unlikely commuting route: it leads east out of the village into the countryside and to a large dual carriageway, not across the river to the station from which people can commute to Newcastle (which—being 20 miles from Corbridge—is too far for most people to consider cycling to). It forms part of the Hadrian’s Cycleway, so attracts leisure riders, but while people using Sustrans tourist routes may not be the hardy enthusiasts of the sportive or touring ilk, the nature of most Sustrans routes is such that people are likely to be expecting to share space with motor traffic at some points along their journey. Indeed, further up the road there is a ridiculous sight: a National Cycle Network sign mounted on a national speed limit sign.
I am commenting from afar, and those who are familiar with the area may beg to differ, and maybe this actually is providing a perceived benefit to people riding on the road, but it will certainly be interesting to see whether cycling flow has increased in a year’s time.
The thing is, though, that even if this is a slight improvement over the previous layout, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better than nothing.
Sounds paradoxical? I’ll explain.
So, what is better?
When the question of “what do you think would be better here?” is raised as a challenge to dissenters of any scheme, it is valid in some respects but it makes a huge and problematic assumption, which is that we should look “here” first.
And this is the crux of the matter: “better than nothing” tends to enter the conversation when we’re already looking at the tree instead of the wood. It’s very easy, once you’re prepared to cycle on the road on a regular basis, to perceive the points which feel the least comfortable. But this is a self-selecting viewpoint, and it results in these parochial, piecemeal adjustments instead of targeted applications of a more circumspect and holistic view of the situation. It is one of the factors which constantly pulls us back to a culture of sharing the carriageway and excluding the people who don’t wish to do so: people who have overcome the more fundamental barriers to cycling will tend to overlook them.
This is why “better than nothing” is often worse than nothing: even if it actually is better in one specific location, it’s a near-certain bet that doing something in a different location is better overall, and thus—in the location in question—the better solution involves doing nothing.
Use the force wisely
As the CTC proudly reports, the change was hard-fought and won by one of its local activists. The CTC is rightly proud of the effort invested by its volunteers, who are both numerous and enthusiastic. And I have great admiration for the tenacity those who can achieve these sort of changes. But this effort and tenacity warrants the direction afforded by a national strategy.
The “Space for Cycling” flag has flown nationally for some time now, and—let us be absolutely clear on this—paint on a carriageway is not Space for Cycling. Organisations like the CTC are in a position to channel the flow of their members’ valuable and finite time and energy into a holistically productive strategy.
Maybe it’s time to channel a little time and energy persuading them to do that.