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Landscape architecture of cycleways

Cycleways should be beautiful, safe and luxurious. This is not the case in Britain, but it could be. The UK has a National Cycling Strategy, promoted by the Department of Transport. Sustrans, with lottery money, is planning a National Cycle Network. The capital has a developing cycle network promoted by the London Cycling Campaign. There is also an active Cambridge Cycling Campaign. In Scotland, Strathclyde aims to make cycling in the area safe, popular and fun . 

The problem with these schemes is that provision for cycling is being promoted with too little imagination and far too little money. If we plan for 35% of journeys to be made by bicycle then cycle provision should receive 35% of the transport budget, after a catch-up period in which it receives 70% of the transport budget. This is simple equity. When the calculations have been done for the money saved elsewhere, it will be evident that cycling deserves funding from other budgets:

  • Healthcare: more exercise will produce a healthier population
  • Leisure: cycling is a major sport and leisure activity
  • Environmental protection: reducing the number of car, rail and bus journeys will reduce hydrocarbon emissions and damage to the ozone layer

The bicycle is a delicate instrument requiring muscular exertion. In favourable conditions, cycling is a sublime pleasure: one can bowl with a silent grace unattainable by any other means. Even in bad conditions, it can be as enjoyable as swimming or sailing in a rough sea. But this only applies if one's struggle is against the forces of nature. A cyclist's joy is too easily destroyed by motor vehicles. Not only are they noisy and smelly, they cause severe turbulence and threaten to crush the unlucky peddler. If one is being deafened by internal combustion engines, bored by a featureless landscape, poisoned by diesel fumes or forced to take diversions through back streets, one's enthusiasm for cycling can dim. 

Decision-makers should never forget that cyclists' behaviour is environment-friendly in the highest degree. It is also good for personal health. No expense should be spared in the planning and design of utterly superb cycleways . Society should invest in facilities which persuade citizens to become 'green commuters'. There are many opportunities and few standard solutions. Much depends on the speeds and volumes of cars, trucks and cyclists. If 35% of journeys are to be made by cycle, then substantial expenditure is necessary. It can be reduced to 35% of the transport budget when the basic infrastructure is in place.

Cyclepaths and separate cycle lanes are the obvious solution - but one of the best books on cycle planning contains a well-researched and destructive analysis of these ideas. Nobody should plan or build a cyclepath without reading Forester's Bicycle Transportation (Forester 1994 edn.). The author is a lifelong cycling enthusiast with a dispassionate commitment to the principles of transport planning. Further information can be found on John Forester's website.  His arguments are as follows:

  1. Cyclepaths are promoted by (a) people who want roads without cyclists, (b) cyclists who do not understand traffic engineering
  2. Cyclepaths have a higher accident rate than shared bike-car roads. The accidents result from hitting obstacles, other cyclists, pedestrians (especially children) and dogs. Accidents also occur at points where cyclepaths join roads.
  3. The mix of slow- and fast-cyclists on a narrow cyclepath is dangerous.
  4. Cyclepaths only work in North Europe because they are used by slow-speed cyclists travelling short distances at speeds below 12 MPH. American cycle-commuters travel at higher speeds for greater distances.
  5. Motorists are good at seeing what is in front of them and only a small proportion of cycle accidents are caused by cars hitting cyclists from the rear.
  6. Most car-bike collisions, which occur at junctions, can be avoided only if cyclists behave as vehicles and occupy a full car space.
  7. Many cycle accidents happen to unskilled cyclists.
  8. Cyclists cannot be accommodated on high-volume high-speed freeways/motorways/autoroutes.
  9. Motor roads achieve their highest flow-rates at 22 MPH. This speed is within the capability of cyclists.
  10. The maximum number of journeys made by cyclists on a cyclepath will be less than that made by motorists on roads of the same width. But cycle storage takes up less space than car storage. 
  11. Cyclepaths will not be used if they result in longer journeys or longer waits at intersections

The validity of Forester's arguments was demonstrated in Britain's new towns. At Milton Keynes, the combined leisure and commuting cycleway system, known as the Redway, was reviewed unfavourably by the Milton Keynes Cycle Users Group soon after its completion. They reported that over half the adult commuter cyclists in Milton Keynes prefer the grid roads, in spite of their dangerous roundabouts, because they are less hilly, more direct and easier to use. Furthermore, the accident rate on the Redway is greater than on the grid roads. It has steep gradients, sharp corners, planting boxes, pedestrians and other obstacles. The likelihood of a serious accident on the Redway is greater than on roads in Central London (Milton Keynes Cycle Users Group 1984).

Forester's arguments are persuasive but need to be read with some caution. As an engineer, he tends to see cyclepaths as 'right or wrong', rather than 'sometimes right and sometimes wrong'. Also, his points have less application in Europe, where he disparages cyclists for behaving as 'wheeled pedestrians' who only travel at 12 MPH. American cities have low densities and wide roads which both enable and require cyclists to travel long distances at high speeds. European cities often have high densities and narrow roads, which are a pleasure for the 'slow' cyclist. Having been engaged in debate for many years, Forester may also have learned to exaggerate his case. He enjoys cycle-racing and under-rates the vileness of cycling amidst fast noisy vehicles emitting lung and eye irritants from their exhaust pipes. Furthermore, as his title suggests, his interest lies more in 'transportation' than leisure cycling. Forester concludes that the best provision for cyclists is an extra-wide inside lane on a mixed car-bike road.  


Cycling in Cities - the Best Books   

John Forester, M.S., P.E.Cycling Transportation Engineer    

HBS is concerned with the science and engineering of bicycles    . 


Department of Transport. 1996 The National Cycling Strategy. London:Department of Transport.

Forester, J. 1994 2nd edn. Bicycle transportation. Harvard:MIT Press.

Provision for cycling in Berlin