Blog post by Catriona Swanson
This week’s blog post was inspired by a really lovely visualisation of a separated traffic-free route created by @infraCGIs and posted on Twitter the other day. The visualisation shows a wide footpath and cycle track separated by a landscaped buffer complete with street lighting.
Visualisation showing how the Fallowfield Loop could look (Credit: @infraCGIs)
The route is the Fallowfield Loop in Manchester which I believe is the busiest traffic-free route, at least for cycling, in Greater Manchester. According to TfGM’s automatic cycle count data the route saw a 230% increase in use since March 2020.
It’s a route I know well as I lived within a few minutes walk of it for 5 years and regularly used it for leisure walks, jogging (my version anyway), as a route to the local park and for blackberry picking. I didn’t cycle at the time due to not living close enough to work to cycle (and there being no safe route anyway) and having nowhere to store a bike. But I always saw lots of people on bikes using it too despite the many barriers at its entrances and dotted along the route at the time (most of which have since been removed thanks to the efforts of the Friends of Fallowfield Loop and some of the local councillors).
Now, before we go any further, let’s look in a bit more detail about what the route is currently like.
The Fallowfield Loop is owned and maintained by Sustrans (with a lot of support from the Friends of the Fallowfield Loop and forms part of the National Cycle Network. At the point of the route where the visualisation has been done it’s about 23 metres wide and the corridor is generally between 20 and 30 metres wide so this is a fairly typical section. The current shared use path is approximately 2.1 metres wide and you can see that there is a wide strip of closely mown grass on one side and some grass and brambles (which I used to pick) on the other before you reach trees and embankments.
How the Fallowfield Loop currently looks (Credit: @infraCGIs)
I thought it would be useful to show the existing and “proposed” as cross sections as the perspective used in the visualisation has the effect of exaggerating the width of the cycle track. Unfortunately Streetmix (which is brilliant and free) doesn’t include a shared use traffic-free route option so I’ve had to show it as a “sidewalk” (yes, it’s American) and it doesn’t allow me to do embankments either but you get a sense of the space available (the space between the trees and embankments is probably a bit more than what I’ve shown, if anything).
Existing cross section of the Fallowfield Loop (Credit: Streetmix)
At the moment the 2.1m shared use path is substandard in anyone’s book. 3 metres is generally considered the desirable minimum but busy routes should be wider. Space is often a constraint on the width of traffic-free routes, particularly ones along canals but that’s not an issue here where a 3, 4 or even 5 metre path could easily fit in the space available.
As shown in the cross section below, the proposal shown in the visualisation would fit in the space between the trees and embankments so the only loss would be to some mown grass which isn’t particularly biodiverse and some brambles. The rest of the space would be kept as it is now (which is mainly taken over by brambles) so the net loss to biodiversity would be negligible, particularly if the scheme is led by landscape architects who could use the opportunity to improve biodiversity along the route, for example by cutting back some of the brambles and replacing them with other, appropriate, native planting.
The proposal would create a 3.1m two-way cycle track, a 1.1m planted buffer and a 3.2 footpath. These widths are not set in stone and could be played around with but seem sensible in terms of creating comfortable space for walking and cycling based on my knowledge of pedestrian and cycle flows (which would need to be checked as part of the design process). The buffer is a nice touch as it creates space to introduce some really attractive planting which would help with biodiversity (and not be swamped by the brambles that have taken over everywhere else) while encouraging people walking and cycling to stick to their side (paths separated by white lines do a pretty poor job of that).
Proposed cross section of the Fallowfield Loop (Credit: Streetmix)
For anyone who does need to cross over because they’ve accidentally entered on the wrong side or where there’s access points along the route, the visualisation shows a gap (complete with the correct tactical paving!) to enable this without people needing to trample over the planting.
Twitter vs. Facebook
The visualisation was posted a couple of days ago and soon got a serious number of retweets and likes on “cycling Twitter”.
It’s what many active travel campaigners and designers would consider to be top notching infrastructure which treats walking and cycling as separate and very different modes of transport while being sensitive to the semi-rural setting of the route (although the section shown is actually in Gorton in Manchester which is anything but rural!).
This comment was fairly typical:
“YES. I just HATE shared use paths: when I'm walking I am stressed by the bikes; when I'm biking, I'm massively anxious about dogs/kids/elderly/anyone. Endless stressful negotiations. Shared paths are stressful paths”.
So far so normal - it’s a beautiful visualisation afterall and exactly the kind of infrastructure LTN1/20 suggests we should be building on routes with high flows of pedestrians and cyclists.
However, this morning as I was browsing Facebook, I noticed that someone had posted the visualisation on the Friends of Fallowfield Loop group and that the reaction was completely different. It probably didn’t help that the visualisation was posted without explanation so many people thought it was an actual proposal for the route (funding has been secured to improve it, afterall). To be fair, it does look similar to the high quality visualisations TfGM has been commissioning for the Bee Network routes and it’s unusual for people to do this quality of visualisation for “fun” (read free although I would encourage people to support @infraCGIs financially if they appreciate their work) so you can understand the confusion.
However, while there were lots of supportive comments, there were a lot more that really didn’t like the visualisation at all. Unlike “cycling Twitter” who were supportive of the proposal for providing separated space for walking and cycling, the members of the Facebook group were much more concerned about the impact of widening the route on wildlife. This comment was typical:
“Depressingly urban for me I'm afraid. Turns a lovely peaceful semi-wild corridor into a commuter highway”.
There were also mentions of “cyclists in Lycra” and even the route being described as a “cycling rat run” which suggests some people don’t think the route should be used for cycling at all.
My own unscientific poll
Twitter and Facebook are very different social media platforms and, in my experience at least, it’s common to get quite different responses on each. For example, Twitter creates bubbles of people who are interested in the same thing such as cycling infrastructure whereas Facebook has location-specific groups. As a result, most of the people ‘liking’ and commenting on the proposal on Twitter didn’t know the local context but are knowledgeable about cycling infrastructure whereas all of the people on Facebook know and use the route but aren’t particularly interested or knowledgeable about walking and cycling infrastructure.
I was intrigued about the difference in responses and wanted to test whether the ‘likes’ on Twitter really did translate into “cycling Twitter” thinking separation is better than shared use so I created a poll and asked people to choose between separation and a wide shared use path on a busy route where cycles are a big proportion of users (i.e. where the likelihood of conflict between users is high). The poll got a huge response with almost 700 people participating over a 4 hour period. The results were stark with 94.7% of people voting for separation confirming beyond all doubt that, on busy traffic-free routes, people (in my Twitter bubble of cycling campaigners and professionals) want walking and cycling to be separated. This isn't to say that everyone agrees and there was some vociferous dissent in the comments from one person!
My unscientific Twitter poll
Is separation realistic?
Some of the arguments against separate paths for walking and cycling include lack of space and lack of funding. As I’ve already shown above, space is certainly not a constraint along the F’loop. And I don’t really accept the funding argument - if we can find funding to spend on new motorways and increasing the capacity of junctions to save drivers a couple of minutes on their journey time, we can afford this, particularly if we have a network plan in place which identifies it as a strategic cycle route.
Routes just like this (although arguably not quite as pretty as the visualisation for the F’loop) already exist in Waltham Forest and Enfield where cycling campaigners report that the world has not ended.
The graphic below created by Adam Reynolds shows the benefits in terms of capacity (note, these are rough calculations), comfort and safety of delivering separating walking and cycling infrastructure.
Separated infrastructure like this is particularly welcomed by blind and partially sighted people and deaf people for who sharing a route with people cycling is particularly unwelcome. As with ‘shared space’ schemes, shared use paths may entirely exclude some disabled people.
Why the controversy?
So, why would some people argue for separation and others argue for shared use? I think a big part of the problem is that people have very different views about what and who (in terms of modes) a route is for. When we design streets we normally think about movement and place, i.e. are we designing for people to move through a space such as on a distributor road or are we mainly designing for people to dwell in a space such as in a town centre? This then feeds into how we design the space for cars and for pedestrians in terms of the number and width of traffic lanes, widths of footways, what crossings to use etc.
However, when it comes to traffic-free routes, we don’t often apply the same logic and tend to just default to 2.5-3m shared use paths without thinking about the different ways people will use them which is likely to range from walking the dog to foraging to teaching kids to cycle to cycling to school or work. However, we often design them as if only the leisure uses will happen and expect people cycling to cycle very slowly and give way to people walking which isn't really acceptable if we're not providing a safe alternative for people who want to cycle to work.
For example, the Fallowfield Loop is really popular with families and dog walkers. But, as I said in the introduction, it is also a really busy cycle route. Therefore there are high flows of both pedestrians and cyclists. The needs and speeds of these different users are very different and puts them in conflict with each other. Often each “group” or “mode” will blame the other for causing the conflict (cyclists going too fast, dog walkers not keeping their dogs on a lead or under control etc) but, in actual fact the infrastructure is creating the conflict by not catering for the demand and use.
What’s the solution?
I’m afraid I don’t think there is a one size fits all solution but I think understanding the potential use of a route would help inform the design. In other words, we need to take an evidence-based approach to design cycling infrastructure in the same way as we have for designing any other transport infrastructure. The Local Cycling and Walking Infrastructure Plan process enables us to develop evidence-based network plans which identify key strategic cycle routes and understand the sorts of numbers we need to cater for. We should be developing these plans so we can identify key traffic-free routes where separation is needed and how wide the routes need to be to cater for the demand. This will also help us justify the additional costs.
Where there are constraints on routes which means we can’t achieve the widths we need, that’s when we really should be looking at providing protected cycling infrastructure on roads rather than providing substandard traffic-free routes which does no-one any favours.
Thanks for reading! I’m really interested in what people think about this topic so please do leave a comment, particularly if you have an examples of traffic-free routes you think work well whether they are shared-use or separated!
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Note about the author
Catriona Swanson is co-founder of In Tandem and an Associate at PJA. She specialises in planning and designing active travel schemes and has delivered award winning inclusive cycling infrastructure including traffic-free routes, protected cycle tracks and low traffic neighbourhoods.