When is a Cycle Route Not a Cycle Route?

This week was ‘The Big Pedal‘ My children’s school – along with the rest of the country – were encouraging pupils to cycle or scoot to school. Not really a problem for us since we travel by cargo bike anyway.

I do worry though that my children get no more exercise travelling by cargo bike than they would travelling by car. This was fine while they were little, but they are now nearly 5 and nearly 7 and it is really time that they started shifting under their own steam a bit more. After all, they both have their own bikes and can ride them.

I tried, I really did try to get my head around the idea of my eldest riding his own bike to school. But I just couldn’t do it. The thought simply terrifies me. This is not overprotective parenting, or paranoia. This is a fear based on my daily experience on the roads between our home and our school.

I Know, Let’s Scoot To School

I know. A grown woman…on a pink scooter.

In my wisdom, I decided that, if we couldn’t all cycle, then we would scoot to school. (Yes, I do have an adult scooter. Yes, I am aware that at 43 years old I look a bit daft on a scooter).

In my head, this would be a lovely morning of the three of us scooting happily down the pavement. OK, so it would take a little longer than cycling, but that was fine.

It was not fine.

The thing is, our primary school has a huge catchment and we live towards the edge of it. This means that the most direct route to school is still 1.5 miles. It turns out that scooting 1.5 miles is really hard work. Especially if you are used to being a passenger on a cargo bike. And if you only got two-wheeled scooters the previous day. It took us 45 minutes to get to school and you can imagine the amount of complaining that went on. Suffice to say, it was not a good start to the day.

Scooting to school is not going to be a daily feature for us for the time being.

The West Edinburgh Link Project

Not to be deterred from my mission to get my children more active in their travel to school, I looked up the long awaited plans for the forthcoming West Edinburgh Link (WEL) Project.

This is the statement on the WEL home page:

‘Our vision is to transform cycling, walking, public spaces and accessibility for all within and around one of Scotland’s key business parks, in the west of Edinburgh.

The project will connect up South Gyle, Edinburgh Park and local neighbourhoods with high quality walking and cycling routes and new public spaces.’

Excellent, I thought. I live within the area covered by this project, and I am ready for my cycling, walking and public spaces to be transformed!

Half an hour later, after looking at the parts of the plans which should affect me, I had to accept that my life was not about to be transformed.

I was sorely disappointed and massively frustrated for three reasons:

  • The complete disregard for any journeys which are not directly from home to work (journeys).
  • The continued focus on painted cycle lanes and ‘quiet routes’ (safety).
  • The absurd detours cyclists are expected to make (distance).

To my mind, the WEL project lacks ambition and understanding.

Journeys

I am sure that lots of very well intentioned people have worked hard to put the project together. However, they seem to have completely failed to take account of people who need to take their children to school. The entire project appears to be aimed at people who will leave their houses and go directly to their place of work at the big business parks within the project. This is great, but most people’s lives don’t actually work like that. For anyone with children, life certainly does not work like that.

Another quote from the WEL website:

‘Situated in west Edinburgh, this project will transform cycling and walking access to one of Scotland’s key business parks. It will create friendly, new outdoor spaces in the South Gyle and Edinburgh business parks with new high quality cycling and walking routes.’

No mention of taking children to school or nursery before work. No mention of nipping to the shop for milk and bread between home, school drop off and work. This is a project which will only benefit those who travel directly between home and work.

I realise that I am very focused on the school run because that is what I do five days a week. However, even if you do not have children and you really do only travel directly between your home and your work, think about how different the roads around you are during the school holidays. Roads everywhere are undeniably quieter and less congested when the schools are on holiday.

So why are planners of projects such as this taking no account whatsoever of school catchments and journeys which involve home to childcare and then to work? Why are there no consultations being held at the local primary schools?

Safety

Instead of a focus on high quality, segregated cycle paths, the WEL has a pathetic reliance on ‘quiet routes’ and painted lanes on existed roads. Granted, there are a few segregated cycle paths planned, but to me they smack of tokenism.

This is probably the most dangerous road on my journey to school. It is a designated ‘quiet route’. This is after school drop off. On the way to school, I can’t take photos; it is just too dangerous. I am close passed on this road every day.

I cycle my local network of ‘quiet routes’ every day between home and school. They are the most dangerous parts of my journey. ‘Quiet routes’ are the reason why I do not allow my children to ride their own bikes to school. One problem with ‘quiet routes’ is that they are used as rat runs by drivers at busy times of the day (such as school run time).

Even worse, they usually have parked cars on at least one side of the road, if not both. This forces cyclists into the path of oncoming traffic. It also means that drivers try to squeeze past from behind where there is not sufficient room to do so safely. The vast majority of the close passes which I experience are on these ‘quiet routes’. I experience close passes multiple times each and every day.

After five years of using these ‘quiet routes’ every day, I feel qualified in my opinion that quiet routes are absolutely pointless

Incidentally, near me, the ‘quiet routes’ are the place to go to find the biggest potholes. They also are not gritted in winter.

As for painted cycle lanes on existing roads, they simply encourage drivers to pass cyclists closely, or drive in them, or park in them. They are so narrow that I could not even cycle alongside my child in these lanes. Again, I feel qualified in my opinion that  painted cycle lanes are absolutely pointless.

Distance

Instead of dealing with the massive obstacle of Maybury Road – a congested nightmare of four narrow lanes which takes the most direct route towards these business areas, instead the WEL gives us a meandering maze of shared paths and ‘quiet streets’. Yet the same project is very proud to announce their plans for a bridge over a railway line which will make a route more direct. Incidentally, this bridge also cuts out the part of the existing path which goes to another local school.

The End of the Rant

Manage that blind exit onto a road with two children riding their own bikes at school run time!

What really frustrates me about this project, is that it is not just this project. Time and again it seems that projects like this are applauded despite their massive limitations. I am happy to admit that I know nothing about how Sustrans funding works, but I can’t help thinking that they should be expecting more for their money before they hand it out.

When is a cycle route not a cycle route? When it is not safe to allow a six year old child to ride their own bike along it. And sadly, that is the existing cycle route to our school and there are no signs of that changing any time soon.

Rant over.

14 Replies to “When is a Cycle Route Not a Cycle Route?”

  1. I quite agree with your frustration. I lived in Buckstone when my kids were at boroughmur and despite it being the ideal distance to cycle (3 miles) I would never encourage them to do so. Cycling through Morningside is treacherous and only the most confident cyclist would do so. In our area we have the ‘quality bike corridor’ from Kings Buildings to George square. I avoid it even if it is my best route because I end up so angry every time I cycle along it. Needless to say I am usually the lone cyclist as everyone else seems to avoid it too! I was recently in Copenhagen and pine for cycling infrastructure like theirs. Every time I get on my bike, I wonder if today’s the day my luck will run out 🙁

  2. The Edinburgh example is terrifying. There is no evidence of thinking about what trips people do and why, no evidence of what happens in the Netherlands and Waltham Forest.

    I came across some interesting jargon – these types of failure happen because a holistic context was not seen. Berlin 30 years ago discussed ecological orientation

  3. Well said Diana! I too can speak from years of experience and totally agree with your points. It’s a difficult one though, do you turn down an onroad bike lane or quiet route in favour of nothing, because the “correct” solution is just too expensive or politically undoable? One I’m grappling with myself at the moment! Karen

  4. First off, you’re on the money.

    Having said that, if you want them to ride to school under your direction by their power, when ours were that age we used a Thorn Me’n’U2 triplet to get them to school, and it worked very well. Things like oxymoronic “access barriers” are still a problem as a triplet has a turning cycle like a jumbo jet’s, but since you have control of the steering and brakes it’s easier to use the roads without worrying what the stokers will do. It’s also quite a bit quicker than you doing all the work or having everyone on their own bike. You can also use it as a tandem if/when one graduates to their own bike.

    But back to the point, you’re quite right that solutions like you having an expensive niche vehicle is not the way this should be happening; there should be a system you can use with your children with everyone on their own bikes in decent levels of safety.

    1. I love the triplets! I looked at them when we were considering the electric cargo bike and it was a tough decision between the two. The cargo bike won out for versatility – I can drop off the kids and then do a week’s food shop, drop it at home then pick up the kids again without ever struggling for space. The rain cover with the cargo bike also helps – while the kids have good waterproofs, wet school bags is never much fun! If I could have afforded a triplet and a cargo bike I absolutely would have bought both but you’re right, they’re very expensive. Sadly they also rarely come up second hand. I have however recently acquired a second had tandem!

  5. Is this another example of the need for much more local decision making and planning? Instead of community councils being talking shops with a few ‘rights’ to comment on planning decisions taken elsewhere, they could be the places that devise and implement the local manifestations of city-wide policies in areas such as transport (including footpaths), waste collection, lighting etc..

    1. Absolutely. We do need more public consultations – at times and places which are accessible to those who work, and those who have children, and those who have both! But I also think that those of us with an interest need to do ourselves a favour and make sure we attend these consultations. I will put my hand up and say that this is the first time I have got involved in such a local consultation – I have left it all to others in the past and that just isn’t helpful!

  6. Spot on. I can transfer this example to many places in Calgary, Canada, where I live, and know full well that our experiences are not unique.

    I have unilaterally decided that parents are the key group that transport planners/engineers need to be engaging with on active travel/transportation projects. Engage with us and infrastructure will be designed for all ages, all abilities, all the time (in all weather conditions). Forget about us and bike routes for overly confident testosterone-infused men get built.

    As for the ‘quiet routes’ designations, I’m all for them if the speed is appropriate (at least) and there are accompanying road design techniques implemented to impose said speed reductions. Those changes do not cost a lot in the grand scheme of things. It should be a total no-brainer and in line with professional due diligence but the transportation engineers in charge of such projects. Otherwise it is pure negligence.

    Write on Diana, love reading your opinion pieces.

    1. I think there are lots of us quietly coming to the same decision. I have cycled all my life but have to say that cycle paths never particularly interested me until I had children – because I was a confident cyclist so didn’t feel I especially needed them. As a parent, I now see how essential they are.

      Quiet routes I could live with better if they always had no parking on either side of the road which would mean cyclists were not forced into the path or cars. We have 20 mph limits on all these streets in Edinburgh but the damage which could be done to a child on a bike by poor driving, even at 20 mph or less terrifies.

      I’m really glad you like the blog!

  7. Hi Diana, really enjoyed reading this. I have absolutely no knowledge of Edinburgh, but the essence of your points can be mirrored across many other towns and cities across the UK.
    I couldn’t help but notice how Planners come under a bit of fire in the comments below, but as a [recently employed] Transport Planner myself, I can’t disagree with any of the points raised.
    We are currently in the process of producing our own Local Cycling Walking Investment Plan (LCWIP), but despite only working in this role for a few weeks, I can’t help but already feel a massive sense of cynicism as to how far I will be allowed to push the boundaries (in terms of ambition), and more importantly, what exactly will come out of it once its complete.
    The first point, around ambition, from my point of view, is massively dependent on how far we can push overall road and street design. Public realm. For me, the two _have_ to go hand in hand, if any cycling/walking infrastructure investment is to prove successful. Waltham Forest and Der Nederlands have already been cited as prime examples, and they are absolutely right to be used as best practice. Simply building cycling lanes on their own – no matter how good they are – isn’t enough. Shared footways? Not the answer. Quiet routes? Only going to work if the route is well and truly quiet. That means good road surface (be it the Dutch brick paving style or smooth tarmac), strict traffic calming measures (bumps, chicanes, cul-de-sacs, enforcement, etc), sensible parking solutions, and proper signposting (big, loud, clear – not small, discrete, shy). Quiet routes quite simply need to be a case of All Or Nothing. The local council need to be absolutely clear that this particular route will be a 100% designated Quiet Route – “Quiet” *has* to mean Quiet. Otherwise, like you say, they are completely and utterly pointless.
    And this is where I believe CWI absolutely has to walk hand in hand with an overall spatial plan – whole road reconfigurations if necessary. Public realm improvements. Strict traffic calming (not just 20mph speed limit signs). C/W routes need to be Seamless, Safe and Sensible.
    Regarding your over-arching point around school routes. Again, wholeheartedly agree. Schools around my area are generally all on (or just off) busy roads, with massive reliance on the car. I see this every day – twice a day even. I’m not a parent myself but I see this daily traffic build-up and tragic dependence on the car to ferry kids to schools every day and it makes me despair. But there are some really good things we can do if we get the funding in place. From a personal point of view, schools and town centres need to form the foundation to any sound LCWIP. These are the key areas of social importance. I agree about the business park point. Sure, they are important and need to be planned for, but not as important as our schools.
    One final point that you raised about being a confident cyclist, but then your outlook towards cycling infrastructure changed when you had kids. I would just like to echo this exact sentiment for when my girlfriend started to come riding with me a couple of years back. While she is fit and healthy and likes to ride, her overall confidence – particularly on the road – was, and still is, relatively low. At first, I started off taking her on the similar kind of routes I do – but with less distance, and less hills. It soon became apparent she was like a duck out of water. Roads I considered to be normal – riding along at avg speeds of 16-20mph for example, were like motorways to her. I quickly began viewing these roads through her eyes, riding at a slower speed, with more time to take things in. Leisurely pootles are a different ball game to Time Trialling. I had to change my own outlook as a result. It makes you more aware of your surroundings and the road network in general. The poor surfaces, the narrow widths, the bad drivers, the poor junction layouts/crossings.
    As such, I now plan our routes much more carefully. We ride on wider tyres/wheels so we can go a bit more off-road (Sustrans type paths, gravel tracks), and always avoid busy/dangerous roads like the plague.
    But of course, we’re not really going anywhere unlike yourself and every other parent/child who needs to get to school every day. We have the luxury of looking at OS maps and Strava heatmaps to help us decide where will be quiet, safe and pleasant. And this – in a roundabout way – reaffirms your point. The national cycling/walking infrastructure in itself is all wrong. There is no logic, no purpose to it. If you want to ride, you have to follow the safe routes. And if there are no safe routes near where you live or where you travel to school, then tough. And this is wrong.
    Thus, I sincerely hope I can make a difference and right these wrongs, but only time will tell I guess (funding, funding, funding!).

    1. Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. It sounds like you are going into planning with empathy and a good understanding of the issues – which is really important! I completely agree with your comments about your girlfriend starting out cycling – I see the exact same thing leading breeze rides for women – it gives a whole new view of what cycling can feel like in terms of the joy and the fear. Having worked in education, I appreciate how difficult it can be to bring about real local change.

      Keep at it and change will come – albeit slowly!

      And promote consultations in primary schools, at times which parents can attend!

  8. Jonathan – keep it simple! Do you know Waltham Forest? Follow their stages! Start with a simple no entry sign at the end of a residential two way street with except cyclists sign. That makes the street one way entry but otherwise two way – drivers get 3 point turn practice!

    Then careful filtered permeability, planting, more expensive interventions near schools shopping centres

  9. Use opportunities like roadworks to experiment, trial things. Have a temporary planter diversion kit ready to roll! Be prepared to consult, ask, experiment.

    Pope Gregory to st Augustine – mountains are climbed a step at a time.

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