As Easy As Riding A Bike)
An old post from Joe Dunkley that resurfaced yesterday in the wake of some comments about Christopher Chope – a former transport minister in the Thatcher government and helmet law enthusiast – has prompted me to reflect on some of the intrinsic problems with ‘shared use’ footways.
The history of ‘shared use’ is itself rather murky, as that post from Joe Dunckley explains.
I understand the “cycle tracks” — that is, crappy shared pavements — that [the Thatcher government] introduced in the 1980 Highways Act were not intended to encourage and enable cycling, but to improve road safety by getting cyclists out of harm’s way while the poor things saved up to buy a car of their own.
This is a good explanation of the background assumption behind the Act – namely, an assumption that cycling was an insignificant mode of transport, one that would either remain insignificant, or disappear completely. The intention of this 1980 Act – which allowed footways to be converted to ‘shared use’ – was clearly not to improve conditions for walking and cycling. Instead it rested on the belief that cycling was so negligible it didn’t deserve its own space, and could just be ‘added’ to the walking environment, presumably until it vanished out of existence.
Of course this brings us to the basic problem with ‘shared use’. It’s a design philosophy that is based around an assumption that cycling is, and will remain, a tiny mode of transport.
‘Shared use’ isn’t future-proof. Anywhere it is implemented in urban areas, in preference to designing for cycling in a space separated from walking (be that cycleways, or low-motor traffic streets) amounts to a prediction that negligible, current, cycling levels will remain negligible.
And indeed, it’s largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. The inconvenience of using shared use footways, coupled with the conflict with people walking that results, serves to actually suppress cycling levels – a point made in this post from New Zealand.
Shared paths are The Hunger Games of urban transport. Pedestrians and cyclists are thrown together in a hostile environment to fight over the breadcrumbs left by cars and see who survives. They are effectively a self-sabotaging form of infrastructure. The more popular shared paths become the worse the level of service gets for both modes, which then undermines uptake.
There’s – quite literally – no space for growth in cycling on shared use footways. To illustrate this, we can look at environments where cycling was formerly accommodated on a shared use footway, but now has its own space. For instance, on Lower Thames Street.
There ins’t a huge number of pedestrians walking here, but combining the current levels of cycle traffic – greatly increased following the construction of CS3 – and the current levels of walking on that footway would clearly be a recipe for enormous conflict. Only with sufficiently wide, separated space for each of these modes will we see any growth in cycling. ‘Shared use’, in an urban context, is self-suppressing.
In choosing to employ ‘shared use’, highway engineers and planners are assuming that cycling will remain a tiny mode of transport. It represents a continuation of that 1980s belief that cycling wasn’t worth bothering with, and indeed that 1980s hope that it actually disappears. Cycling needs its own space if suppressed demand for it is to be unlocked – ‘shared use’ certainly isn’t that space.