Friday, 17 June 2016

But there's a lovely new bridge for cyclists there, so why do you ride on the road?

The city of Plymouth is hemmed in by two rivers - to the west is the Tamar, which also forms the border with neighbouring Cornwall, while to the east is the Plym, which gave the city its name.

Rivers are great, but they sure mess with transport links and the main bridges over the Plym is Laira Bridge to the south and an unnamed bridge on Plymouth Road a bit further north. Laira Bridge is the primary link for whole swathes of Plymouth, such as Oreston, Plymstock and Elburton, and it's also used by commuters travelling into the city from the South Hams.

As Laira Bridge is only two lanes in each direction, it is a significant bottleneck especially during rush hour. Even a relatively minor collision can rapidly cause large tailbacks of traffic to form. 

To make matters worse, a new housing development is nearing completion just to the east of Laira Bridge, while the new town of Sherford being built on the eastern edge of Plymouth will add even more cars into the mix.

I cross Laira Bridge most days while cycling to or from work. When cycling in, I tend to go on the shared south pavement of Billacombe Road before continuing along the shared south pavement of Laira Bridge itself. This is purely as it is usually quicker than filtering through traffic with cars changing lanes all the time.

When I cycle home however, I ride on the road. Most of the time traffic is slow along here and I am forced to slow down as a result, but often I reach the speed limit along this stretch of road to the roundabout at Morrison's.

Now parallel to Laira Bridge is an old railway bridge that has recently been revamped as a shared path for pedestrians and cyclists. The revamp was well done, or rather as well as shared paths can be. It is important to point out at this stage that shared paths are bodges that introduce designed-in conflict. Guidance to cyclists state we shouldn't exceed 15mph along shared paths and that we should instead ride on the road if we wanted to go faster.

I was recently asked why I cycle on the road over Laira Bridge, and why I don't use the old railway bridge.

There are several reasons:

1) The rail bridge is a shared path, and as pointed out above, cyclists aren't supposed to exceed 15mph on shared paths. By contrast, I often do 30mph, which is the speed limit, on the road.

2) To use the rail bridge, I have to exit the traffic stream I was riding in to take a ramp up onto a shared pavement. I then have to slow down, turn sharply left, weave through stupid chicane barriers before stopping at a completely blind t-junction. IF clear to proceed, I will then have to turn right to ride over the bridge. On the far side, I have to double back along a ramp before trying to join the road on The Ride. Once on The Ride, I have to wait at the traffic lights (that often don't detect cyclists!) before turning left onto Billacombe Road, where I *have* to ride on the road as the north pavement isn't shared.

All that, instead of the 20 seconds to ride straight over Laira Bridge on the road, while NOT yielding priority.
The Google Maps image below shows it clearly: why would you choose to take the yellow route instead of the blue route? It simply doesn't make any sense to do so.



Drivers very often think cyclists are selfish for not using infrastructure provided for them, usually describing such infrastructure as "perfectly good".

And yet, if I presented drivers with a route alteration that will take them off course, force them to stop and start several times, negotiate obstacles deliberately placed in their way before rejoining the road they'd left and had surrendered priority to, they'd ask me if I was mad.

Here's the thing - stopping and starting in a car requires far less effort than on a bicycle, so cyclists quite naturally want to preserve motion. This means NOT turning off unless that is needed to get where we're going, and it certainly means NOT surrendering priority only to be forced to wait for ages later on to rejoin traffic.

Bicycle infrastructure in the UK however is mostly absolute rubbish and mostly based on the Sustrans model of shared paths. Such paths are based on the concept that cycling is a leisure activity only done occasionally, and never at speeds exceeding 5mph, by people who'd rather cycle through deep muddy puddles than share a road with cars.

As a result, the vast majority of cycling infrastructure is utter crap. If roads were built to the same standards, driver would be up in arms all the time, but cyclists are expected to be grateful for the crumbs thrown our way.

There is a HUGE latent demand for cycling throughout the UK and Plymouth is no different. During big Sky Ride events, on closed roads, people came cycling in their thousands.

All relevant research about reasons why people don't cycle more tells us exactly the same thing: fear of traffic. And yet cycling is the only reasonable way cities across the UK, and indeed the world, can solve their growing traffic and pollution crises.

But to do so, we need to change the quality of cycling infrastructure that we deliver. For starters, shared paths are a definite no, as are pavements "converted" for shared use. Decent cycling infrastructure is segregated from other traffic, is continuous, doesn't desert you when you need it most, doesn't treat you like a second-class citizen by forcing you to yield priority all the time and allows you (as far as possible) to maintain momentum.

The rail bridge over the Plym does none of these things and while it's the ultimate fantasy of those who think cyclists only ever pootle along at 5mph, for commuters at present it is simply a bridge to nowhere.

Npw the city of Plymouth received funding to extend the route further, avoiding having to double-back down the ramp onto The Ride. When that's completed, depending on how well it was done, I might change my mind. Until then, I'll ride on the road over Laira Bridge and I can find no logical argument at all for me to stop doing so.

The take-away from all this is simple: if you build decent infrastructure, then cyclists will use it. If you build rubbish, they won't.