Rural cycle tracks: getting the design right

Sunday’s second cycling awareness ride for the A10 corridor showed some of the design decisions that can help to make this route a busy and convenient one for people on cycles.

A pleasant cycle along the A10 cycle track in full Spring.

A pleasant cycle along the A10 track in full spring.

The ride was very pleasant on a lovely Spring day. The countryside was looking beautiful with the cow parsley, hawthorn and horse chestnuts in flower.

Path widths

The path in the picture above is about 1.5m wide, however with the edges starting to break up and the verge herbs growing up the path feels very narrow and you have to cycle in single file. Unlike the verge on the immediate edge of the road this isn’t regularly cut. This is a rural route where there are few people walking on this shared-use path – it’s shared-use in the rural Dutch sense that pedestrians share the cycle track. However when you do meet someone walking they tend to step off the path to let the person cycling past.  While that’s very kind of them, if the path was a bit wider they wouldn’t have to give way. The situation is much different if you cycle up behind someone walking – potentially surprising them – or at night when people walking can be hard to see.

A wide cycle path allows people to cycle side-by-side and chat.

A wide cycle path allows people to cycle side-by-side and chat.

When the path is wider – about more than 3m here at Trumpington Meadows – people cycle side-by-side and chat as they go along. There’s no need to concentrate on the path, instead you can relax as you cycle and talk to the person beside you.

The path narrows and it's back to single file.

The path narrows and it’s back to single file.

A short distance on the path narrows to about 2m and these two riders instinctively moved back to single file and couldn’t chat any more.

With a oncoming coach and a narrow path and no verge these riders pause.

With a oncoming coach and faced with a narrow path and no verge these riders pause.

While most of the A10 path has a verge separating it from the road in some sections this isn’t the case. On leaving Harston I noticed a couple of riders holding back from joining the narrow shared-use path when they saw an oncoming coach. A verge provides reassurance that if you wobble a bit you won’t be hit by a wide vehicle and you don’t get blasted by its wake. The path through Harston village is very poor and will require a careful and considerate design if it is to be convenient for people on foot and bicycles and if it’s not to damage the look of the village in the way that the traffic calming has.

A part of the new path alongside the A10 – opportunity to chat again.

A part of the new path alongside the A10 – an opportunity to chat again.

A section of the path alongside the A10 was upgraded by Cambridgeshire County Council in the last year. The new path is of variable width and in places is about 2.5m wide and this allows people to cycle side-by-side, as the picture shows.

It’s clear that the path should be built to >2.5m throughout to allow people to pass one another (on a cycle or on foot) and so you can cycle side-by-side. There also needs to be a verge to separate the path from the road.

Junctions and crossings

Waiting to cross the steady stream of motor traffic on the A10/M11 roundabout.

Waiting to cross the steady stream of motor traffic on the A10/M11 roundabout.

Junctions and side road crossings are always a key issue on cycle tracks, especially on busy roads with high speeds. The speed limit on the A10 is 50mph in parts, 60mph in others and 30mph through Harston village.

Fortunately the new route will avoid the A10/M11 roundabout yet the current crossing shows some of the problems. The roundabout is designed to smooth motor traffic flow with relatively high exit speeds from the roundabout. Although it must be relatively quiet on Sunday morning at 10am there was a steady stream of traffic and you have to wait a long time to cross or try and guess which way vehicles are going. Junctions like this need at least traffic signals for people on cycles and foot, or for very busy routes, an underpass.

Crossing the A10 at Frog End can mean a long wait.

Crossing the A10 at Frog End can mean a long wait.

Further along the route we had to cross from the path on the east side of the road to go in to Melbourn. Despite this being a Sunday morning and so not very busy, we had to wait and watch carefully and judge vehicle speeds in this 60mph section. It was easier for us, we had marshals to help. The cycle route needs a safe crossing here. The British solution would be a signalled crossing, the Dutch would probably consider this too dangerous and opt for an underpass or bridge. There is plenty of space here though such a relatively costly underpass or bridge should probably wait until the route is busier.

Looking Forward

As part of the Cycle City Ambition Fund funding for Cambridge and villages a section of the path north of Frog End has been upgraded since last year. Plans are now being made for the section between Royston and Melbourn including a bridge across the A505. I think this will be a key link between Meldreth, Melbourn and Royston that will encourage new people to cycle as the current route on the A10 is very hazardous.

See also: The 2013 awareness ride.

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A10 corridor cycle route

Cambridge has a close relationship with its ‘necklace’ villages.  On the A10 south Harston, Foxton, Meldreth, Shepreth and the town of Royston not only have people traveling to Cambridge for work, shopping and leisure but there is considerable movement in the other direction to employers at Harston Mill and the technology and science parks in Melbourn as well as leisure destinations such as Shepreth Wildlife Park.

The A10 Corridor Cycling Campaign is working to improve cycling facilities on this route and organised an enjoyable campaign ride on 19 May 2013 to highlight some of the issues.

Accommodation bridge across the M11 at Trumpington Meadows

Accommodation bridge across the M11 at Trumpington Meadows

By special permission we were able to use the accommodation bridge that will become the cycle crossing of the M11.  The bridge is vital as it allows cyclists to avoid the roundabout junction of the M11 and A10 south.

The bridge was built to provide access to farmland when the M11 divided the land.  It is someway off the line of the A10 and it needs to appear to be a short and convenient link so people are not tempted to take a shortcut across the roundabout.  A route is needed from the end of the busway path across the bridge to the corner of the A10 at the crossing of river Granta.  This would be about the same length as crossing the roundabout.  We took a route that felt like a diversion.

Map showing the accommodation bridge with our temporary route in blue and desire routes in orange and pink.

The route alongside the A10 as far as Frog End, north of Melbourn, has a tarmac surface and is shared use though pedestrians are rare.  Like so many of these paths there appears to be no maintenance and if you travel along the path you have to dodge overhanging trees and skirt round cracks in the surface.  It’s also narrow, requiring constant attention and I could hardly imagine trying to cycle it at night being blinded by the lights of oncoming cars.

The route was OK for a leisurely cycle at low speed but at typical commuting speeds of 12–16mph[1, 2] this isn’t suitable or attractive, so you have the choice of playing with motor vehicles on a very busy road or not cycling.  I’m not sure this could become a big leisure route simply because riding next to rushing traffic for a long time isn’t what I go out to cycle for, though I might do it for a stretch to get somewhere.

There are relatively few junctions on the route but crossing a side road to a trunk road can be a dangerous and intimidating experience.

A typical scene along the A10 shared-use path: a narrow strip of tarmac with encroaching trees, overgrown edges, a cracked surface and a wide verge

A typical scene along the A10 shared-use path: a narrow strip of tarmac with encroaching trees, overgrown edges, a cracked surface and… a wide verge.

As part of its large Cycle City Ambition Grants (Wave 3) application Cambridgeshire County Council is proposing “to widen the existing path to a 2 metre wide shared use facility, with a 1 metre verge strip to keep users away from the carriageway” on the Harston–Foxton–Shepreth route.  While I welcome this investment it should be more ambitious still.

The aim should be for a 4 metre wide cycle track that, outside the villages, is shared use in the Dutch sense, i.e. as there are very few pedestrians those on foot can share the cycle track.  The key thing is that it is built as cycle track that is direct, smooth, convenient route so cyclists can travel at 20mph+.  In the villages the aim should be for full segregated of pedestrians and cyclists.

Why a width of 4 metres?  Firstly that’s what the Dutch have found works for cycle tracks and I suspect that this A10 route will become very busy if built as a high quality route – the experience of the busway path, amongst others, backs this up.  Secondly a wide path means machinery can get on the path to build a smooth, flat surface and for sweeping, gritting and other maintenance.  We need to consider maintenance when these tracks are built otherwise maintenance will be too expensive and may be neglected.

The picture above shows that in parts of the route there is space for a wide cycle track.  Clearly achieving this through the villages is going to be difficult and in the rural areas there may be resistance to replacing the verges with cycle tracks.

I hope the A10 Corridor Cycling Campaign will follow Ely Cycling Campaign’s ‘Go Dutch’ approach and that Cambridgeshire County Council will change their strategy to aim for a world-class route along the A10.