Friday, May 04, 2012

Planning the Guildford Cycle Network

Since soon after arriving at the University of Surrey to begin my PhD studentship and discovering the terrible state of cycling infrastructure in Guildford, I started attending Guildford Cycle Forum meetings to try and discuss what could actually be done about it. For most of that time, the meetings have had a rather predictable format: a chorus of Forum members pointing out problems experienced by cyclists and opportunities to fix them, countered by County and Borough Council officials explaining either that no budget exists for cycling improvements, or that the changes requested weren't in their department and they couldn't address them.

Recently, however, some money has finally become available via the government's Local Sustainable Transport Fund (LSTF), and Guildford is hoping to receive approx. £900,000 of it, a large chunk of which is intended to fund cycling improvements.

A major component of Guildford's bid is the establishment of a network of cycle routes within Guildford. On Thursday 3rd May, Alan Fordham, the "Sustainability Programme Delivery Officer", hosted a Guildford Cycle Forum meeting at the Guildford Borough Council offices to present and discuss the routes that are currently planned for the network.

A total of fourteen local cycle routes are planned to be defined, mostly radial routes fanning out to the north from the town centre, which actually lies in the southern part of the town. Unfortunately, the route maps that Alan handed round at the meeting aren't available online anywhere yet; I asked him to circulate some digital copies by e-mail, but in case he doesn't get time to do so I will try to copy them onto Google Maps or something.

In following blog posts, I plan to discuss the routes and the weaknesses that I see in them based on my experiences cycling to and from Guildford every day. However, in this post, I want to discuss some more general points about the plans.

The most important point which I haven't seen addressed is what the overall objective of the project is, and how it will be assessed. In my opinion, the logical objective is modal shift, where journeys currently made by car are transferred to other forms of transport, and both the design of the network and its performance should be judged by how well it achieves that. I think this is supported by the purpose of the LSTF, which is to help promote the use of and migration to sustainable transport.

Tying into this point, one of the things that really isn't clear to me is what type of cyclist the routes are intended for.

  • Are they intended to be used by regular cycle commuters? Many of this class of cyclists will be aiming to cycle quite quickly and travel at all times of year in all weather conditions. Quite often they will be travelling at rush hour, and given rush-hour congestion and aggressive driving, would likely welcome the addition of good new cycle routes. These cyclists desire routes that have good sight lines, are no more obstructed than roads, and facilitate bidirectional flow well. Unfortunately, these kind of requirements can be very difficult to accommodate well without new, purpose-built segregated cycle facilities or the provision of mandatory on-road cycle lanes. I am one of these users.
  • Are they intended as an 'easy option' to attract occasional cycle commuters? The provision of signposted routes might be the key to persuading people to take up cycling to work, but if the routes are too much slower than driving, or have significant sections that put them in conflict with rush hour traffic, they might be put off. To me, this is a core target group, as moving them to cycling will often directly replace a single-occupant car journey, and I suspect that the problem may not be getting them cycling as keeping them cycling.
  • What about parents taking their children to and from school? When I was in Cambridge, I used to see a couple who would cycle to work at the university on their tandem, taking their children with them in a trailer and dropping them off at primary school on the way. For this kind of user, the routes really need to be accessible either when towing a trailer or when using one of the Dutch-style family carrier bikes with a bay in the front (these are also really good for shopping, or so I hear). For these cyclists, who are often heavily laden, it is important to provide facilities that are wide enough to accommodate them and have few sharp corners. Even a single chicane like this one can make a route impassible.
  • Are the routes intended to be used for school travel by children old enough to ride their own bikes, but not experienced or confident enough to fall into one of the first two categories? For these users, good segregation of cycle routes from traffic is important, because they will commonly want to ride with their friends and might be easily distracted from paying attention to other vehicles. Another factor is that, unfortunately, many of these users will be using equipment that is incomplete or in poor condition (e.g. bad brakes, or no lights), and once again, good segregation may be key in keeping them out of danger.
  • Or are the routes intended for casual cyclists and cycle tourists? These users, who will usually be travelling with a flexible itinerary, in favourable weather conditions, and at times of day when traffic is relatively light, can be accommodated much more easily than any of the other types of user described above.

In following blog posts, I will try to consider the proposed routes with reference to how suitable they are for each of above types of user. Unfortunately, one of my biggest worries about the network as a whole as it is currently envisaged is that it accommodates the last of those classes of user really well, but that many of the routes are fatally flawed for any of the other groups to depend on. Because of that, I worry that the objective of getting many people living in Guildford to change to cycling might be compromised.

Another problem is that there is very little money actually allocated under the plan to major improvement works (such as altering junctions to make them safer for cyclists, or changing road layouts to add cycle lanes of appropriate width), and that the main Surrey County Council highway planning department doesn't seem to be involved in the process. As far as I can tell, this seems limit the project to mostly an exercise in putting up signposts to direct cyclists onto the least inadequate of the existing routes (and even then, one of the Cycle Forum members raised the "environmental concern" that "ugly" signs were "unnecessary"). Fortunately, however, there are a few improvements being made to some of the most obviously hopeless spots.

Overall, I think that just the fact that this project is taking place is a major step forward for cycling in Guildford, finally making a move onto the long road towards making Guildford a town that's genuinely accessible by bicycle.

In my next post, I will investigate Route 4: Wooden Bridge to Jacobs Well, and how well it holds up during rush hour.

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