When we talk about improving cycling infrastructure, what do actually mean? What’s the difference between a painted bike lane and one protected with armadillos, orcas, wands or a full kerb? What does any of that even look like? And most importantly: what does it feel like to cycle on? After all, the ultimate goal of decent cycle infra is to make more people feel safe enough to swing a leg over a bicycle and leave the car at home. And what better way to decide whether something feels safe enough than to go and ride it yourself.
With the Stretford Cycleway having been completed in late 2018, a small group of us Prestwich cycling advocates set out on an infrastructure safari one Sunday morning last month to see how these kinds of features actually behave in the wild. And on returning I urged my companions to write up their impressions and perspectives of the different styles of infrastructure we experienced. So I hereby introduce you to David and Dom, our guest contributors to this post.
Dom set the scene rather nicely: “If you want to make sure you don’t overdo the rose-tinted glasses when assessing the latest bit of cycling infrastructure in Manchester, a good way to start is to do it on a cold, wet December Sunday morning.” This is of course an important observation: if we do want the people of Greater Manchester to consider cycling as a natural option for everyday journeys, then it also has to be feasible in most, if not all, conditions, and not just on sunny Sunday afternoons.
Thus, on this rather drab winter day, we headed out from Prestwich along the painted lanes on Bury New Road. In David’s view, this “felt pretty unpleasant – sporadic ‘advisory’ cycle lanes with cars parked in them, lanes that disappeared at the places the road narrowed. As it was Sunday the traffic wasn’t too bad, but there were still plenty of cars and buses thundering past, and this part of the ride never felt relaxing or enjoyable.”
Turning right on to Knoll Street, we made our way on to the Broughton Cycleway along Great Clowes Street in Salford. This was an early Salford Council experiment with light protection, using, as David puts it, “little rubber bollards and plastic wands” (the bollards are technically known as “armadillos”).
Both David and Dom preferred this to the stark minimalism of the painted white line: “It felt a lot more comfortable to be separated from traffic!” (David); and “Once on it, the wands and armadillos give a visual segregation to the lane and create a degree of protection: at least those in cars can see it.” (Dom). However, it is far from perfect. David noted that “the lane surface was pretty uneven in places and could do with a clean – it was full of road debris and piles of rotting leaves,” and both bemoaned the ease with which folk in vehicles can breach the low armadillos to simply park in the bike lane. Indeed, Dom flagged up an important point: “the small lumps of rubber, while not much of an impediment to a car looking for a convenient place to stop, do make the turning out in to the traffic a touch more of an obstacle course for those of us on two wheels”. So if a vehicle is parked in the bike lane, dodging the armadillos to go round it on a bike is something of a faff.
Dom also made the point that the lack of junction treatment on most of this scheme negates the intended safety benefits of the scheme: “In the opposite direction – back towards Prestwich – this stretch of road also contains one of the most dangerous junctions in Manchester with cars turning left at speed in to Lower Broughton road”. Conversely, and inconsistently, where the Broughton Cycleway crosses the inner ring-road Trinity Way, greater thought has (more latterly) been put into junction safety: “the green painted cycle lane continues across the junction and felt comfortable to ride across, as its very clear where you’re supposed to be” (David).
In the age-old tradition of British cycling infrastructure, the Broughton Cycleway peters out after this junction and ultimately comes to an end at Chapel Street (though plans are afoot to put in some really good cycling and walking provision there in the near future). We then had to wend our way through the distinctly cycle-unfriendly Manchester city centre. David again: “The less said about crossing the city centre the better – this section was horrible with cars and buses everywhere and terrible road surface full of holes.”
From there we joined the Oxford Road Cycleway at the first available opportunity by the Palace Hotel. This is Manchester’s (and indeed Greater Manchester’s) flagship cycle infrastructure project: stretching from Whitworth Street to Whitworth Park, with Dutch-style kerb-protected lanes and bus-stop bypasses, this scheme met with general approval in our group:
David: “This part felt classier than the Broughton Cycleway – a really smooth surface, separated from traffic by proper kerbs and attractive planters. The contrast going from the city centre to this was massive – so much more relaxing and enjoyable to travel on.”
Dom: “Get past the Palace theatre, however, and one of the nicer bits of protected cycle lanes begins. […] This time, however, we had to cut it short and again go through my favourite manoeuvre: another right turn to get to our last bit of infrastructure for the day.”
And thus we were nearly at our destination of the newly completed Stretford Cycleway, which occupies Stretford Road and Talbot Road in Trafford. The first section of Stretford Road is as yet untreated, and consequently not great to cycle on: “the first part of Stretford Road felt very similar to Bury New Road – unpleasant” (David).
The Cycleway only starts after the junction with Chorlton Road, to a mixed reception in our little group. To me the Stretford scheme is positioned somewhere between the Broughton and the Oxford Road levels of comfort: the “wand orcas” provide greater separation than the Salford armadillos (if anyone’s looking for a name for a sports team, you’re welcome), but you’re still more exposed than behind the stone kerbs of Oxford Road. Both of my co-riders commented on the apparent omission to upgrade the surface when installing the cycle lane: “it might have been nice if a bit of attention had been paid to the road surface” (Dom) or “the lane surface was pretty rough for most of it” (David).
Also, the separation did not appear to be comprehensive: “it felt like the separation from traffic disappeared at what felt like random places” (David).
And inevitably, like most others, the Cycleway comes to a stop, “this time at a nice dual carriageway” (Dom). We then simply turned round and rode the route in the opposite direction.
The overall impression of the Stretford scheme was positive. David’s impression was “I enjoyed riding on the Stretford Cycleway – it felt very similar to the Broughton part, and dramatically more pleasant to ride on than the earlier part of Stretford Road.” And Dom’s slightly more reserved judgment: “it is always heartening to see this incremental improvement in protecting vulnerable road users”. Again, he makes an important point: what is now the Stretford Cycleway used to be a vehicle lane, then it was a painted bike lane, now it’s a scheme with light protection. Rome, or indeed Amsterdam, wasn’t built in a day, and flawed as these various schemes are, they are all a step in the right direction. You can’t tackle the woes of car-dependency without enabling more people to travel car-free, and you won’t get more people travelling car-free unless you provide a safe and attractive environment for that. And in the absence of sustained and significant funding for cycling projects, you build what you can, when you can. The consensus in the group was, completely unsurprisingly, that some protection is better than none, and more protection is better than just some. To give the last word to my two companions:
David: “It was really interesting to see what cycling on these different bits of infrastructure felt like, and overall the contrast between the main roads with segregated cycle lanes and the rest was massive – they felt so much safer and more comfortable. If you could cycle from Prestwich down Bury New Road to the city centre in safe segregated cycle lanes, I’m convinced it would give new travel choices to so many people that (rightly) wouldn’t feel safe cycling at the moment.”
Dom: “It is true that none of this is (yet) joined up, that none of the solutions are perfect in terms of protecting people on bikes, and that more still needs to be done for other vulnerable groups where the provision of the infrastructure can often create problems. But staying positive – and with just a hint of tint – these were three examples where the choice of active travel has for a short distance been made much easier.”
If you’d like us to redo this trip, and we can get enough people together, let us know. Likewise, if there’s any new cycling infra projects that are worth riding out to, let’s go on safari!
That being said, and given it is still winter, if you’d rather experience the trip without the inconvenience of having to cycle it, we filmed the various bits as follows: