Cycle Superhighway: the detail!

Members of Leeds Cycling Campaign and local cyclists were invited to an initial meeting with Mark Robinson, LCC cycling officer, to discuss the plans for the new cycle superhighway as part of the recently announced "Highway to Health" project. You can see more information and download the bid documentation here:

PLEASE NOTE this does not replace the formal consultation process with local residents, elected members etc, which will take place over the coming months. The meeting was a chance for us to see how the plans are progressing, to discuss options, and for Mark to test out some general ideas as the plans are worked up.

It was encouraging to see that the ideas for the cycle superhighway have continued to improve since the bid application was made. The draft plans published in the Ambition Bid documentation seemed to give up at some of the most difficult places, with multiple-toucanned junctions and instructions to "cycle on carriageway". Most of these are being greatly improved as part of the ongoing development of the plans.

We started by discussing some of the underlying principles: we agreed that with the ambitious targets in the bid for increasing the number of cyclists, we should aim for 2m single direction and 3m bidirectional cycle lanes. The lanes need to be wide enough for cyclists to overtake each other and for safe stacking at junctions - and when cyclists are pulling away from junctions, natural wobble will mean they need plenty of space. Currently the guidance in on-road cycle lanes is for 1.5m "where possible" and 1.2m where necessary. In practice we've not been able to find a single cycle lane in Leeds that is 1.5m wide (from the inside of the paint, to the edge of the kerb) and a 2m lane will feel improbably wide to Leeds cyclists.

The discussion moved on to types of kerb and physical separation: what should the barriers between traffic, the superhighway, and the pedestrian footway be made of? We agreed that the widespread use of 45 degree kerbs on the continent is something we should aim for on the inside edges of the superhighway. This provides an easier route into and out of the lane (for example, if you wanted to add / remove a layer of clothing, moving onto the pavement may be safer than stopping in the Superhighway). And if a cyclist strays too close to the edge of the lane, the angled kerb will prevents the wheel being "grabbed" and safely deflect the bike back into the lane. We agreed that a 50mm drop may be better than the standard 100mm between superhighway and pavement, and superhighway and carriageway.

Next up was the physical separation between superhighway and carriageway, and how to prevent vehicles parking or pulling up onto the margin of the superhighway. While this boundary would have the normal vertical kerb, it might still be tempting for motorists. In some places, a bollard or obstacle will be needed in the boundary between superhighway and traffic: little concrete lumps, or decorative sculptures of cycle helmets. Seville has some good examples.

Superhighway colour and surface was next. All agreed that the surface should be coloured where it extends through a junction and vehicles will come alongside or cross it. Given the physical separation of much of the superhighway, it probably doesn’t need to be coloured throughout, and coloured surfaces can be costly. Though we didn't agree on a particular colour (blue is used in London due to a certain bank's involvement; green and red are commonly used in the rest of the UK) it needs to be bright, durable enough to withstand being driven over in some places, and anti-skid surfaces increase resistance to the bicycle's tyres so should be avoided. We agreed that areas that are being driven over, and therefore suffer more wear and tear, should be refreshed regularly to keep the cycle route's appearance safe and appealing.

Discussion then turned to how the Superhighway will behave at side road entrances, or as we prefer to describe it, "how do we get cars across the Superhighway safely". We looked at two main options:

(1) Very quiet side road
On the approach to the side road, the superhighway will be raised up to footway level (usually it will be halfway between carriageway and footway) and will cross the mouth of the side road on a raised table. White chevrons will be in place on the road at the edges of the raised table, to indicate to drivers that they should give way to the superhighway. The curves of the side road entrance should be tightened if necessary, to reduce the speed of vehicles entering and exiting the side road and encourage careful driving. We agreed that tightening the curves is one of the most important aspects of these crossings.

(2) Less quiet side road. We discussed two options for side roads where there will be significant traffic.
(A) One is to join the superhighway to the general highway shortly before the side road entrance, making the cyclists more visible to vehicles on the road and hopefully reducing problems of 'left-hook' where a left-turning vehicle hits a straight-on cyclist. The kerb separating the superhighway from the vehicle lane would stop several metres short of the carriageway, and the superhighway will drop down to the level of the road. At the mouth of the junction, it may be possible to paint "give way" lines on the road before the vehicle crosses the superhighway, and the same on the side road as it approaches the crossing of the superhighway.
(B) An alternative is to deflect the superhighway so that the crossing occurs several metres back from the mouth of the junction. Then it can be treated more like the very quiet side road, on a raised table. There would be space for a vehicle, after turning in from the main road, to wait before crossing the superhighway. Similarly a driver wanting to exit the side road would cross the superhighway first, and then have space to wait before turning out into the main road.

There was a lot of discussion about these two options! We found it difficult to determine which would be objectively and subjectively safer, and which would be most easy to understand for drivers. Whatever we decide on, it needs to be obvious for all users and - bearing in mind the underlying intention of the bid - must be encouraging for those who currently don't cycle. We decided we needed some further research on what is used in other places and whether there is any consensus on what works best.

We then moved on to consider how the route should behave at a large roundabout. This type of situation is a real challenge to designing a quality cycle route. There can be heavy traffic flow on major roundabouts, it can be fast moving outside peak times and approaches often have two lanes. Making manoeuvres at such a roundabout can be a challenge even for experienced cyclists. In the Netherlands, this type of interchange would often be a "turbo-roundabout" specifically designed for keeping vehicle traffic moving, while cycle lanes avoid it altogether using underpasses or alternative routes. Their solution to preventing accidents is simply to keep vehicles away from bikes. However, in many such locations in Leeds there isn't room for an underpass. We discussed the idea of a "floating disc" or bridge for cyclists and pedestrians above the roundabout, but the examples built in other countries are massively expensive (£20m each).

One option is to provide cycle friendly Toucan crossings of the approach roads to the roundabout. In Leeds, toucans are often broken down into segments so each manoeuvre takes several separate button-pushes and often sharp changes of direction between metal fences, requiring Danny MacAskill's bike handling skills

The discussion included possibilities like:
• stopping the whole of an approach road at once for a single direct Toucan per road
• signalising the whole roundabout and providing a cycle-only green phase
• informal crossings on the approach roads, similar to Zebra crossings
• diverting the route to avoid the roundabout altogether
• cycling on-carriageway on a calmed version of the roundabout

Again we didn't reach a consensus on a best solution and all agreed to think about it some more and seek out examples of good practice from other places!
It's fantastic to be able to contribute to the design of some really good cycle provision. Everything we discussed in this meeting is a massive improvement on the infrastructure on the ground in Leeds at the moment. In some areas we're struggling to know what it best because, while we want to aim for continental-style design, British drivers just aren't used to it: moving straight to Dutch style design could be counterproductive. We need solutions that help drivers to acclimatise to a new role for cyclists, and protect inexperienced and timid cyclists as well as hardened LCC members!