Road without pavement?

…or pavement without road? A critical look at the contradictions in provisioning “space for cycling” and expecting it not to compete with pedestrian interests.

Or pavement without road?

As the debate about manufactured conflict on Edinburgh’s cycleways continues, there have been encouraging signs that I’m not alone in wondering why people are suddenly held to a much higher standard when they leave their car at home.

Less than chivalrous behaviour behind the wheel is seen as lamentable, perhaps, but certainly understandable, even inevitable. When the same person is persuaded to try cycling instead, any failing on their part becomes a moral panic, not just bringing down wrath on them but on all of the other 43% of UK citizens who own bikes!

I’ve already written about my scorn for collective responsibility (twice!). In this post I’d like to try and stir some thought on the other great question of our times: why is it seen as less than legitimate to use a shared cycleway for… cycling on?

I was prompted to write this post in particular by yet another CCE debate. The point has been made many times that people drive at similar (or greater) speeds on roads where peopler are walking, with or without pavements, so cycling behaviour is both expected and still a massive improvement. Someone replied:

A cyclist brushing by a pedestrian at 20mph on a shared space route doesn’t feel like a brush with a slow moving vehicle.

Make driving in town wholly unattractive … thus freeing up road space for safer cycling.

Then remove the shared space routes; it doesn’t work, and will never work, while people see them as a belt along as fast as you can pedal, (motorised)traffic-free cycle route.

They’re not; they’re for pedestrians and more vulnerable, less road-confident, or just those out for a meander, cyclists.

If you want a “hard-going” route into town at maximum pace, use a road. Not a shared space. It doesn’t work, and causes unnecessary animosity.

A question of expectations

Edinburgh’s West Approach Road was built onto the North British rail line which ran into Princes Street Station (demolished in the late 60s). It’s an unfriendly tarmac canyon which speeds traffic for a little over a mile, saving drivers a few minutes at either end of the day:


Let’s suppose for a moment that the Council decided to seize the forum’s advice boldly and re-allocate the West Approach Road for cycling. They’d probably want to let some greenery grow at either side and have a narrower strip of tarmac, but everything about the route is otherwise spot on – good gradients, well lit, etc etc.

At last we’d have a route which re-allocated space to cycling, one which wasn’t contentious with pedestrian lobby groups, a virtual paradise!

But wait… Edinburgh Council have done *exactly this* with another stretch of the same railway line. Just a few hundred feet from the paving of the West Approach Road, the same railbed has been (slightly more sympathetically) tarmacked and presented to the city as a key commuter route which is not accessible to cars:


Naturally it’s wildly popular with people cycling between the West End, Leith, and anywhere else in the northern half of the city. And what do we say about it?

“remove the shared space routes; it doesn’t work, and will never work … use a road”


Cycle routes for cycling on

I’m sure I’m not the only person who thinks this process of self-hatred is weird. I don’t want to condone nasty cycling any more than I would condone nasty driving, but if we have any realistic aspirations for cycling as an everyday (continental style) activity, we have to understand that people must ride somewhere.

Some of them will go faster than others, and if the West Approach Road ever is converted to a shared cycleway, we *will* see this exact debate play out again. It is not realistic to imagine that we can create separate cycle space free of pedestrian conflict, because almost by definition, cyclists and pedestrians will compete for anywhere that fear of violence at motorists’ hands is removed.

Shouldn’t we be honest about the fact that creating cycle space competes directly with other modes (pedestrian as well as motorised) but that it’s still eminently worth doing?

Shouldn’t we be up front about the fact that not every driver is perfect, and so taking people out of their cars in the process of making a more liveable city inevitably results in less-than-heavenly cycling, but that this is still a huge leap forward?

Because if even cyclists don’t believe this, what hope anyone else?

4 thoughts on “Road without pavement?”

  1. Can’t agree more.

    Ideally we’d have many cycle only roads with pavements for pedestrians and or people who fancy going at walking pace. But given that it seems hard enough to get muddy tracks or lines painted in the gutter, this is unlikely.

    I am lucky that for my 10 mile trip to work I have the choice of 30/40 mph roads or a shared use track. I pick the road because it’s more direct and I can go as fast as I want. However, it sounds like you (and many others) don’t have an option of a reasonable road. If I had to choose between a 70mph dual carriageway and a shared use path, I’d probably take the path and I’d keep trying to go reasonably fast because I don’t want to spend an hour getting to work.

    I think much of the “self hatred” comes about because of the vast range of people who lump themselves into the “cyclist” bucket. It’s quite reasonable, because they ride a bike but I can imagine that if many cars could only do 30mph and a whole bunch of others could do 70, then there’d be the same sort arguments over motor infrastructure.

  2. Good points John.

    If NEPN didn’t exist, I would either need to move house or get another job. Life is too short (perhaps literally, in the worst sense) to use Edinburgh’s roads where there’s an alternative.

    It’s not that I think it’s particularly lethal per se, since I can happily manage 20mph+ all the way to work – but I hate constantly breathing in heavy diesel fumes and (especially when I take the car) there is the usual stream of cretinous driving to worry about. Who wants to get cut up by a truck driver with one of those noxious “cyclists stay back” stickers and end up a statistic when the alternative is merely to cause mild and passing vexation in Johnny ped?

  3. Dave,

    I’ll cover a few things in this post, if not directly related, then related to some shared aspects.

    I now live in the Netherlands. It is indeed the cycling utopia that it’s made out to be – pretty much. Still, various user groups (race cyclists, mopeds, mums on bakfiets) still get collective blame of one sort or another for various reasons, usually due to a few people leading to general tarring (so nothing new there). Our bike facilities are incredible, so everyone uses them for all sorts, inevitably leading to conflict of some sort – no system is perfect, not even this utopia! Race cyclists go along at 25-40kmh, and in most places this is perfectly safe. I’ve seen people attaching trailers to to get their fishing kit to the local canal/lake and use the same facilities just as safely, though some argue they’re too wide (same for the bakfiets) and/or fast. Then there’s the mums with the bakfiets and disabled on mobility scooters. For the most part, it works well. And our bikes lanes go to the places you want to go to, so mass cycling works because it’s easy and safe. Trip to the shops? No problem. Need to get to work? Done. How about a nice leisurely saunter in the country? Easy. 160km day-tour? You get the idea.

    A lot of these arguments just come down to different users’ behaviour, and the subsequent perception. Personally, I try to remember to slow down and be more careful in built up areas, or where there are more people ahead of me – especially if they have/are children or are obviously just having a bimble (these users can be unpredictable). When I get to more ‘open road’ – be it wider, emptier bike lanes or country roads, from which most traffic is diverted anyway, leaving them all but deserted, then I can up the pace. Not everyone does this, and I’ve seen race cyclists acting like lunatics when there are lots of people around, clearly not travelling at their pace, yet who seem to insist on not slowing down. As you point out – no-one’s perfect, and I’m certain I’ve not acted in the best way possible on all occasions.

    This post and some of the comments, regarding allocation of space is interesting for me because it reminds me of how some things are done here. In many places, motor-vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians all have their own lanes, thus separating the traffic streams and for the large part, removing conflict and stress, and making it easy and attractive to not use the car. When I hear arguments that there is no space in the UK, this is rubbish. There is space (NL is the most densely populated country in Europe) – it’s a case of re-allocation, there’s just lack of commitment firstly on government’s part to re-allocated road space and secondly on the part of campaigning organisations who seem to insist on asking for things that have little impact. Talking of re-allocation, I know a few examples here where the road – the entire road – has been re-allocated, from priority to cars to priority for bikes. Yes you can drive on it, but the surface colour (red) indicates it is first and foremost a bike road. And there are examples where the bike path is clearly the old road, and a shiny new road, completely separate from the path, is built right next door. However, this isn’t viable everywhere, nor is separate road, cycle and pedestrian infrastructure. So you get shared space (many city centres for example). Then you have to shift your expectations – I expect to travel more slowly on a bike, and (and this is critical here) – I expect to passed by cyclists when I’m walking, sometimes more quickly and closely than I’d like, but I expect it. So do most other people, and they all get on just fine.

    All this is great. But it’s taken the Netherlands 40 odd years to get here. It started with a nationwide, dedicated commitment to take room from cars, give room to bikes and people and change mindsets. It’s happened, and no, the ecomony didn’t collapse as a result – shops still trade, people still go to work. Your last paragraph sums it up nicely. Initially it may not be heavenly, but it’s better than what you have now. But you know what? If people get together collectively to support cycling as a way of life, then maybe in a decade or so, you may have something like what we have over here. The choice is yours. Bicker about conflicts, which happen anywhere and will lead you nowhere, or think bigger and get what you want.

    If interested, see for lots (lots!!!) more on this kind of thing – from an expat living near Groningen.

  4. Janez, thanks for taking the time to write such an in-depth reply!

    It’s a pity we don’t have a more realistic view of these things in the UK. In the case of the Barnton path (my ‘manufactured conflict’ post, above) it seems like the objections of just one household have resulted in the misalignment of a major through route… I suppose we’ll get there eventually if we persevere!

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