James Daley: The Cycling Column
Why cycle paths are a danger - to the cyclist
Tuesday 05 December 2006
Although Britain's cycling infrastructure has undoubtedly improved significantly over the past few years, a good proportion of the new cycle paths and routes around our cities seems to have been terribly ill-conceived.
Any regular cyclist in London (and most other British towns, too, I imagine) will be all too familiar with the frustration of the often useless and occasionally dangerous gutter cycle lanes.
All too regularly, these are littered with cars, drain-holes and all sorts of other obstacles, forcing cyclists to veer back into the stream of traffic or, if you're unlucky, landing you with a buckled wheel or a puncture. Perhaps most frustratingly, these lanes also invariably have a habit of disappearing altogether just at the time you need them most - such as when the road begins to narrow.
Gutter cycle lanes also seem to change the way that motorists treat you. With a clear white line marking out the cyclists' section of the road, drivers all too often tend to take the view that as long as they keep on their side of the line, then they're being fair. But most gutter cycle lanes are a mere metre-and-a-half wide, so once you've given yourself a good distance from the kerb, you're almost shoulder-to-shoulder with the traffic if it's hugging the border of the cycle lane.
Conversely, when there's no marking, drivers tend to be more inclined to give you the same sort of distance as you give yourself from the kerb.
I'm not sure quite what the answer is. Strangely, nothing seems to get some parts of the cycling community more annoyed than the suggestion that there should be more segregated cycle paths - keeping bikes off the road altogether. I don't support this either, but not for the same reasons as most.
While many of those who feel most passionately about segregation tend to make the point that bikes have just as much right to the roads as cars or any other vehicle, my concern with these paths is simply that they are often more dangerous. Given that they tend to run alongside a road, perhaps using half of the pavement, they leave cyclists much more vulnerable. Motorists driving alongside tend not to pay attention to what's going on in an adjacent cycle path, so if a driver decides to turn off, all too often they won't even bother to check if any bikes are coming up on their inside. In contrast, if you're on your bike in the regular flow of traffic, the chances are much greater that you'll be seen.
My preferred method of tacking around town is to use the back-street sign-posted cycle routes, which keep you on the quieter roads and which are populated by far less traffic. London has built up a particularly impressive network of these in recent years, and the GLA will send you the maps, showing where all the routes go, for free. ( https://www.tfl.gov.uk/cycles/routes/london-cycle-guides.asp).
Inevitably, however, there are times when you can't avoid taking to the main streets, where once again you're dicing with death back in your metre-and-a-half wide piece of gutter - or on the adjacent cycle path, forced to slowdown and do a full 360-degree check when you get to every intersection.
In old cities such as London, the roads are simply not wide enough to accommodate bigger cycling lanes, and even if we wanted more segregated cycle paths, there often isn't room for these either.
One idea that might make a difference in the capital, however, is to make greater use of the Thames. A letter from a reader last week suggested building a cycle path along the south bank, which would protrude out over the river. Although it remains a pipe dream for now, bicycle highways such as this are perhaps the only way of providing a safe cycling network.
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