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slef-reflections on Cycling on the Redways

  • Introduction: Please Stop Abusing the Redways
  • Redway Route Types
  • Redway Users Numbers and Preferences
  • Better Redway Data and Opportunities
  • Conclusions: Learn from the Redways
  • Comments
  • Cycling in 2007

Please Stop Abusing the Redways

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There are 1988 and 1989 papers by Cyclecraft Author John Franklin about poor accident records of the Milton Keynes Redways which are often cited by cyclists as showing why cycle facilities are dangerous or "farcilities". But I grew up riding the Redways and I think the closest I came to seeing a Redway-caused injury was when we accidentally rode onto an under- construction stretch by mistake and met a road roller.

I journeyed to work all the way along the north-west edge when I was employed in MK one summer. (The cross-city Redway I used was fairly quiet on the journey to work around 0700 but quite busy on the return - looked like "school run" traffic.) I lived three miles from the MK boundary for a decade and so I've had some time to think about this.

I think condemning the Milton Keynes Redways as dangerous farcilities is simplistic and misguided. Here's why:

Milton Keynes was one of the first English cities to have cycle routes designed in from the start. This means that there are cycle tracks of types and in spaces that we hadn't seen before. Where else did you get a network of both low-friction surface high-speed cycle routes with sweeping bends and grade-seperated junctions and connecting routes to every estate? How many places have that added since? Almost nowhere.

Milton Keynes is a massive cycle track experiment. In the 1989 paper, Franklin comments that it was "constructed with few limitations of space or finance" which simply doesn't ring true - the experiment didn't go completely to plan and the "secondary grid" of Redways between district centres mentioned in the 1998 paper has simply never appeared.

Nevertheless, there are things that work amazingly well, but there are others which are now obviously stupid, like not protecting the sight lines at some junctions and putting late-80s estate routes alongside feeder roads, where they have more frequent and busier level junctions. I believe some of the London data also suggests that the non-separated junctions are one of the three most dangerous places, which suggests that Milton Keynes is not a cycle track advocate's perfect design in the first place.

I'll continue to explain what else I disagree and agree with from the Franklin articles over a few more posts. If you have comments about the Redways or these articles, I'd like to hear them: please use the comments form at the bottom of my page.

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Aside: Redway Pictures and Signs

Mark Brown wrote:

"My major problem with the redways when I tried to use them was that they had very bad signage so it was often hard to figure out where you are and where you were going. The last time I walked any distance in MK I actually ended up walking along the side of the road mostly (there are very wide verges where there's no footpath) since that way I could at least tell where I was."

Well, when I was there, the signs were very good. They had a standard white- on-blue format, with major destinations in capitals and cross-city route identifiers.

Sadly, it seemed lots of them could be spun around on their round posts and they went missing an awful lot. Once, I even saw a route sign being used as a washing line prop somewhere near Linford! (I'm not sure where - I was lost because so many signs had been nicked!)

I think the Redways could teach us three lessons about signs: how to design a clear route sign, how not to secure the signs and always carry a route map!

Michael Greb commented:

"I want pictures! I went to the Milton Keynes cycling page but all they have are some tiny thumbnails. I want to see some pictures of the various types of junctions and what not. ;) This is the first I've heard of such a system and it sounds just dreamy.

I understand of course your contention that it isn't ideal but surely it beats the nothingness that we have hear in my medium sized American town."

I'm not sure. The few North American cities that I've visted had far wider roads than is typical in England (even in Milton Keynes) and the Franklin papers suggest that having no cycle tracks would be better than these cycle tracks. I suspect wide roads with cycle-friendly junctions would be the best, with some car-free cycle tracks as extras.

I don't have any pictures handy and PedNet's article doesn't have very big pictures either. Next time I'm visiting MK, I'll see if I can take an hour out with my camera. Or has another kind reader got a good picture collection?

Floris Bruynooghe commented:

"My experience is that European (including UK) drivers can't cope with wide roads, resulting in even more dangerous behaviour. Wide roads with on-road cycling lanes are probably pretty good. But they need to be clearly separated by a double line sort of like in Belgium, combine that with UK quality road surface (on average) and you might have someting usable.

The cycle lanes on UK A roads are a joke though, a very good example of how not to do it."

I assume this means the converted edge strips that you see on some fast roads (note: not all edge strips have been marked as cycle lanes and you especially shouldn't use unmarked ones). There's one of those in Milton Keynes, alongside the A5D dual carriageway. My main complaint against them is that they are too narrow and you get HGVs passing close enough to pull you around. Also, you have to cross every slip road/ramp which is a fairly unpleasant experience at busy times.

Redway Route Types

The unique Redway network was built in several phases. To be fair, I can't recommend the original network for anything other than low-speed connecting use, but the later, straighter additions to the original plan (the "cross-city Redways" mentioned in the 1998 paper and my introduction) early in the 1990s improved matters immensely.

Although the different types are mentioned in the introductions, this difference seems entirely ignored by the accident data, which is my main complaint against the papers. There's no way of comparing like with like, as far as I can tell. You can split the accident data for 60/70mph grid roads from the 30/40mph link roads and 30mph estate roads, but you can't split the long-distance maybe-40kph cross-city Redways from the maybe-20kph-if-lucky estate Redways.

Based on my years cycling around the city, I expect that the difference between grid Redways and grid roads is pretty small and that local Redways are far worse than local roads, but I can't prove or disprove that from his data.

What's more, none of the studies I've seen differentiate between construction phases or route types, which is like only having combined accident figures for the Fosse Way and the M1. It suggests interesting topics for further studies, but surely no-one can draw useful conclusions about cycle track design in general from it?

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Redway User Numbers and Preferences

My second problem with people who use the Franklin Redways papers to claim all cycle tracks are dangerous is that I don't trust the user number and preference estimates in the papers. I noticed cycle counters (sensor loops cut into in the path, attached to a grey cabinet with solar panel) scattered around King's Lynn, but I don't remember any in Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes Redways and Leisure Routes: An Information Sheet includes phrases like 'It is evident from casual observation...' while noting the combination of this with other data suggests a 'paradox' - maybe there's no paradox and some of the casual observations are simply improbable and unrepresentative?

The main source of cycle use data seems to be surveys rather than counters. A survey with 120 responses has quite some potential for error when used to estimate a city catchment area of 200,000 people. An "accident rate" equals "accidents per use", so an incorrect use estimate can make a very big difference, especially if use is still sadly small. As the author says, he has no accurate usage figures for the Redways. Another survey is included in the references, so I find it surprising that no usage information is quoted from that survey. Perhaps it would help to explain the figures in some way unwelcoming to the general tone of the piece?

Cyclist preferences seem to be taken from one cycle user group screenline count, rather than a cordon census or survey, which I also found surprising. I often rode parts of a trip on the 'least-bad' option for connecting the best route overall, not on the type of route I would have chosen if I had a choice. After all, when in my car, I'd probably choose to drive along a dual- carriageway from the edge of my village if I had the choice, but I don't, so I use a winding lane for the first mile or two. I don't prefer the winding lane to the alternative quarry road or the toll road: it's just a connection in a better route overall.

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Better Redway Data and Opportunities

Even with the above problems, Franklin's study seems to be the best that could have been done at the time. I think we need to push for better cyclist data, so we can see what the problems actually are and whether any of the conflicting theories can be supported properly. Personally, I'd do it by comparing like with like. Safety audits and accident data for equivalent routes should show which is safer.

I quite expect the totality of cycle tracks in an area to be less safe per user unit distance than the totality of roads in an area - there are some real stinker cycle tracks out there, in most towns, often built by non-biking local authority design consultants, and corrections for bad cycle tracks are not done as quickly as corrections for bad roads. The breakdown of causes of accident in Franklin's papers is interesting. The vast majority of accidents are caused by inadequate design, probably as a result of travelling at high speeds along the local routes which weren't really designed for speed. Some suggest occasional bridges as the best solution, but in my experience that has all the disadvantages of a dedicated network (more so in the case of litter and debris) plus a steep incline, but none of the benefits.

That's something we could learn from the Redways - how to maintain and how not to maintain cycle tracks. Another thing we could maybe learn is the importance of enforcement. Enforcement of traffic rules on the Redways used to be nigh on non-existant and many accidents were caused by education and enforcement problems, so it's roughly what I'd expect. At one point, there was some confusion which laws applied: Highway Code or local footway bylaws.

We could also learn about ownership and promotion. Responsible cycling and responsible cycleway use (for example, it only takes a few seconds to move debris off the main track) are essential to its success. After MKDC stopped issuing the redway maps and code for free (1992, I think), there was a noticeable decline.

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Conclusions: Learn from the Redways

One conclusion from the 1998 paper that I do agree with is that cycle route maps should show route types. The difference on the Redway maps between the red-marked Redways and the green-marked gravelled leisure routes should be taken further. I had hoped that the Sustrans National Cycle Network with its National and Regional Routes would meet this need, but it seems clear that they won't because of Sustrans's obsession with promoting leisure use. I'm sick of finding that a route I planned to use is a quagmire of unsealed packed gravel that is like riding on porridge when wet, or that it has give way markings at every locked farm gate. How about marking cycle routes on maps with their rounded design speeds in km/h? That would also help to estimate journey times.

I also agree that people assume that cycle-specific facilities are safer than roads, which means that bad cycle facilities are extremely damaging for promoting cycle use. If a good cycle facility is not possible in a given location, there should be no cycle-specific facility there. It is possible that the Redway experiment has resulted in fewer cycling trips in total. Bad and mediocre cycle facilities must be avoided at all costs.

However, I don't agree with Franklin's advocates that car-free facilities are unavoidably more dangerous than on-road provision. I think it's entirely avoidable, but track designers are just not avoiding it yet. Franklin's recent papers seem to soften his position and refuse to discuss things like cyclist- exempt turns and road closures, which are the best type of cycle facilities, in my opinion. (I've been challenged to provide data to support the idea that safe cycle facilities are possible - I have my eye on a new cycle route which I plan to ask for the data on in summer 2008. Sorry, but I need to wait for people to have time to crash...)

While the MK Redway network isn't perfect, it's a long way ahead of the facilities offered in most cities. We should learn from any successes and failures we can as we add cycle route networks across the country, using roads, lanes and tracks as appropriate. It is foolish to condemn all car-free tracks because a big experiment wasn't 100% right first time, especially as the 1990s Franklin papers don't give enough detail to see what went wrong - for all we know, it's the sorts of mistakes that are at least as possible on the roads, like bad junction design.

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Posted by mjr 2008-02-15 (permalink)

Mrs Taylor asked:

"are the council allowed to reroute a redway or are they right of way and if so can you help me to prove that they are??"

I don't know. Do you?

If no-one knows, I'd probably start by looking at the detailed OS maps for the area (which I think mark rights of way) and maybe make Freedom of Information Act requests for the order that established a particular redway.

However, even if they are a right of way, a council could reroute it through the usual transport planning process, although a member of the public and any affected councillors should be able to speak against it at a hearing.

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Comments are moderated (damn spammers) but almost anything sensible gets approved (albeit eventually). If you give a web address, I'll link it. I won't publish your email address unless you ask me to, but I'll email you a link when the comment is posted, or the reason why it's not posted.

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This is copyright 2007 MJ Ray. See fuller notice on front page.