The Permeable Way - A Personal View on Cycling Infrastructure

Cycling is growing faster in the London Borough of Hackney than anywhere else in the UK, yet planners and transport professionals visiting this borough with a view to imitating its success on their own turf may be surprised to see little in the way of conspicuous cycle facilities. Danish style cycle tracks are nowhere to be found, and the 1000-strong local cyclists group, the London Cycling Campaign in Hackney, actively lobbies against the installation of cycle lanes.

That the penny has dropped regarding cycling as transport in London is well known, but the reasons behind this success story are less clear, often being (incorrectly) put down to the development of a comprehensive network of segregated cycle routes. Attend any transport conference with a speaker endorsing the success of London and chances are they will present a slide of a segregated section of the blue painted Barclays Cycle Superhighway Network (formerly the London Cycle Network+) in Cable Street. Certainly some segregation within the CSH does exist, but these sections account for only a tiny proportion of that network; probably amounting to not even a couple of percent of the total. Outside of the occasional section of pedestrian-cyclist segregation in local parks there are few cycle lanes or tracks in Hackney itself where the cycling modal share is ten percent and rising.

Of all the London Cycling Campaign borough groups, Hackney’s is the largest. They have benefited from a longstanding and consistent core of activists creating a mature and confident lobby group that speaks with some authority on what it believes to be the key issues behind the success of the bicycle as transport in this part of London.

Like many success stories, it is due to a combination of factors. These include: the Congestion Charge; a positive press reaction to the increase in cycle use; the free TfL London Cycle Guide maps and better bus lanes. Along with this there is peer observation (the general ‘fashionableness’ of cycling in London) and the cycling lobby developing a trusting and respectful relationship with local authority officers.

However there are other factors that may be less familiar to a visiting planner: ‘permeability’ and what Hackney’s cyclists call ‘invisible engineering’’.

Local cyclists describe permeability as 'maximum route choice with minimum diversion’’. For cyclists the bicycle performs best when it is used to travel as directly as possible to the desired destination. Diversions are a waste of time and energy. For a commuter with a 4-5 mile journey the occasional detour may be acceptable, but a journey that involves travelling around three sides of a square to avoid a priority junction becomes unnecessarily tiresome.

According to Trevor Parsons, the co-ordinator of The London Cycling Campaign in Hackney, the restoration of permeability to non-motor traffic through parts of the borough, along with engineering measures to reduce traffic speeds, have been among the most influential physical interventions carried out. By their nature these measures are almost undetectable to anybody seeking out what might be termed ‘typical’ cycle facilities. Rather, Hackney’s cyclists and their borough officers have developed a consensus which seeks to avoid what they consider to be tokenistic, and in the long term potentially dangerous, engineering solutions such as cycle lanes and tracks. Instead they have implemented measures which seek to reduce motor traffic speeds, restore cycle permeability to sections of the borough where this had been lost (principally to egregious one-way systems), operate a comprehensive programme of cycle training and support a general acceptance for peoples’ right to cycle on the highway. Hackney has hardly any green painted cycle lanes and the few dedicated segregated cycle tracks that do exist tend to be there to facilitate cycle access where other motor traffic is not permitted, for example restoring permeability via a cycle contra-flow along a previously barred one-way street.

The restoration of two-way working to the Shoreditch Gyratory, a formerly inner city triangle that stifled non-motorised traffic movement across the borough, has seen permeable access restored. It may be argued that this has assisted ongoing economic development to this previously unfashionable part of the city. Hackney alone is now home to twelve bicycle shops, where in recent years there were only three or four, which says something about the potential economic impact that promotion of cycling as transport can bring to an area.

The limitations of painted and even segregated sections of cycle lane, which the Hackney cyclists are keen to discourage have been highlighted by a number of recent deaths in London involving left turning vehicles. In the photograph attached to this article cyclists considered that the painted lanes were likely to position them too close to the nearside kerb, placing them at risk of sitting in an HGV’s blind spot and in danger of collision with any left turning vehicles. At the stop line cyclists should ideally be ‘taking the left lane’, meaning sitting in the centre of the left lane well into the sightline of HGV’s and left turning vehicles.

Conduct a survey on what most non-cycling people want before they will consider riding a bike and this list is likely to include cycle lanes, painted surfaces and segregated cycle tracks. But ask Mr Parsons and other members of his group in Hackney and the list will be quite different. It will involve offering a comprehensive cycle training programme, lower motor traffic speeds, easy direct travel from A to B by bike and generally accepting that we can share highway space.

Within The Design Manual for Roads and Bridges the Hierarchy of Provision for cyclists places traffic reduction, speed reduction, and redistribution of the carriageway via bus lanes and wide nearside lanes among the interventions to consider first when developing infrastructure for cyclists. The large increase in bicycle use happening within Hackney demonstrates that when thoughtfully implemented with other complimentary measures this hierarchy works extremely well.

Gary Cummins was a London Cycling Campaign borough co-ordinator in Hackney’s neighbouring borough Tower Hamlets between 1994-2000 prior to joining JMP.