Where would you cycle?

An example of dual cycling infrastructure.

With the new consultation on the second stage of the Perry Barr cycle track (see this blog post for details - Consultation closes July 19th, and we have a quick response letter you can send) I thought we needed to get some opinions from Birmingham's cycle users about what type of infrastructure they wanted to ride on. Briefly, the new consultation has a cycle track that has give-way lines at every side road and puts cycle users onto shared-use pavements and toucan crossings at both of the main junctions along the route. We think that this is a serious step down in ambition after the standards set by the initial A34 and A38 routes, and that cycle users would be given a choice between a piece of infrastructure that was safer but much slower, or cycling on the highway. To test this, we set up a small experiment at the Let's Ride Birmingham event at the start of June.

In brief (more details on the methods at the end for those who are interested) we showed people at the event a photo of a street in Waltham Forest (see the photo at the top of this article) and asked them to tell us if they would ride on the highway, with the advisory cycle lane, or on the bi-directional cycle track. Their answers were colour coded (see photo at the end for what the board looked like): Red if they felt confident cycling (with yellow used after we ran out of red dots); Purple if they felt less confident; Blue for cycling with a kid on the bike; Green for cycling with kids on their own bikes.  For the cycle users who told us that they would cycle on the highway, we then asked them if they would make that choice if they had children with them (We assumed those who chose the bi-directional cycle track would make the same choice if they had children with them).

The totals were:


With these results, it is important to note that we asked most of the people who first chose to cycle on the highway if they would make that choice with children, and the response was an overwhelming 'no'. For people cycling on their own, with no-one else to worry about, there was a fairly even split between the two options, but once children were added into the equation, the overwhelming majority of even those people confident on the highway opted for the cycle track.

Many of the people who chose the highway said that they didn't want to have to give-way at the side-roads. One person did say that they opted for the cycle-track because the cycle lane was broken up by the bus stops, however many of the people who chose the highway wouldn't have been worried about this as many commented that the cycle lane was too narrow and they would take primary position on the carriageway, which would take them around the bus stops more easily. Those choosing the highway saw mainly speed and continuity as more important than the feeling of safety and security that the cycle track would offer. But this choice had its limits, shown when children were added into the mix.

After the participants gave me their answers, I explained the reason why I was asking their opinion - because of the current consultation on the next section of the A34 cycle track which presents cycle users with a similar choice. One of the participants explained that she wouldn't be able to use the shared use pavements because she needed more space and distance to steer; she felt that although the A34 and A38 cycle tracks that were just finished were ok for her, the toucan crossings in the new plans would be too difficult to cycle around. Another participant, on a recumbent tricycle, explained that although she could reverse the tricycle to do a multi-point turn, she found many toucan crossings difficult too because of the confined and tight corners. Like many of the participants, they felt that riding on the highway would be faster and more comfortable, although many also said those roads were intimidating to cycle on.

The results of this small survey show that a two-tier infrastructure (bi-directional cycle track next to advisory cycle lane or bus lane) will result in a split of cycle users if the segregated infrastructure is not continuous enough. A very significant number of cycle users will opt for the more direct on-highway option, but will then not take that option if they have children with them. They might then choose the segregated infrastructure, but equally so they might choose to drive if they think the segregated infrastructure is much slower than their normal choice of the highway. When cycle users are split in their choices like this, the result is that people who don't cycle become confused and irritated by the irrational (in their eyes) behaviour of cycle users going across the whole of the pavement and the highway. Cycle users on the highway are delegitimised by the existence of the segregated infrastructure, while the lack of cycle users on the segregated infrastructure becomes evidence that it is a waste of money. Segregated infrastructure does not gain as much support among people who cycle as it could, since many see it as pointless, and fewer people will believe that they can cycle those routes with their children, as they don't normally cycle there.

We can not accept the delivery of a two-tier cycle infrastructure network, because it will fail to deliver the results that we want to see. It is essential that all cycle infrastructure projects are designed to deliver continuity and speed so that they are attractive to all cycle users. It is important that people want to cycle on the new infrastructure, rather than feeling bullied into using it by hostile highway conditions and belligerent drivers.

Methodological Notes and Comments

The survey required participants to make a judgement about their own confidence as a cycle user. I tried to make it feel comfortable for people to identify themselves as less confident cycle users, but there were very few who did so. I think that there was still a pressure for people to present themselves as confident, although perhaps I happened to just meet many confident cycle users.

There was a danger that participants would feel embarrassed into saying that they would choose to cycle on the highway, to make themselves appear to be 'competent' cycle users. To combat this, I mentioned that I had taken the photo myself, and that I had cycled down the road along the cycle track (both of which were true). By doing so, I would make the cycle track a legitimate option for people to choose. I am confident that the choice between the cycle track and the advisory cycle lane was something that the participants made as free as possible from the worry of having to appear to conform to expectations.

When a participant chose the advisory cycle lane, I followed up by asking if they would make the same choice if they had children with them. Most of the time I opened this up by asking if they had children, and asked them to imagine either their own children, or their young relatives, on their bikes. The intention was to ensure that the participant was focused on the feelings that parents would have in making a decision about their children, rather than someone making a choice about any random child off the street.

For people who chose the cycle track, I did not ask a follow-up question about cycling with children. My assumption was that the same choice would be made if they were thinking about children. For this reason, the overwhelming majority of the green dots were for people who had selected the advisory cycle lane as their first option.

The sampling was opportunity sampling, based on people who walked past the community stalls at the Let's Ride Birmingham event at the beginning of June. I do not know how well that sample represented the overall composition of participants riding around the track or the Birmingham cycling community as a whole. Issues with sampling might have over-stated the proportion of cycle users who would opt for the highway when on their own, but it will not have had any impact on the proportion who selected the cycle track when cycling with children.

The survey does not test how sticky the choice to use the segregated cycle track would be if participants were to find out that along the whole length the cycle track was significantly more discontinuous and slow than cycling on the carriageway. Given the strong uniformity about where to cycle with children, those journeys would disappear rather than switch to the highway, but it is not clear how many respondents would switch to the highway when cycling on their own if the cycle track became too slow.



Survey board.jpg

This photo shows the setup of the board that we used to ask people's opinions about the photo of the two types of cycle infrastructure.
This photo shows the setup of the board that we used to ask people's opinions about the photo of the two types of cycle infrastructure. At the top we have the photo of the road next to the explanatory notes. Below we have the two options: Ride on the main carriageway; Ride on the cycle track. We needed to start using the yellow dots for the confident cyclists after running out of red dots.