Below is a sequence of photos I took yesterday as I rode three miles south from Lancaster city centre along the A6 to Lancaster University. The journey took about ten minutes. I know they’re boring, but please indulge me. We need to discuss the future of cycling on main roads, yet such discussions – much like cycling on main roads itself – remain repressed. Cycling is still expected to take the long route, via back roads. This must change. It’s time to mainroad cycling.
Let’s look at this specific case, the A6 between Lancaster city centre and Lancaster University.
It’s a stretch I know well. It’s a key route linking two of the district’s biggest ‘trip attractors’. In the city centre are shops, businesses and key services, including the Royal Lancaster Infirmary and many schools. Lancaster University has over 12,000 students and 2,500 staff; it’s supposedly committed to reducing car use to its campus but for the 17 years my life has been connected to this institution it has struggled in half-hearted ways to encourage cycling.
For the first two miles of the three mile route, the A6 runs through residential areas – there are three shopping parades, several pubs, a primary school and a supermarket. Beyond them the speed limit increases from 30 to 40 mph. The road is straight and climbs gently over the first mile before flattening out until the University’s driveway.
As a cycling corridor the A6 has been generally ignored. Much more effort has gone into creating alternatives to it than in improving cycling conditions along it. Although it’s the most obvious route to make cycle-friendly, it’s not been seen that way (for reasons you might know, but which I’ll not explore here).
Dynamo, the local cycle campaign, recently decided to challenge this institutional indifference to cycling on the A6, and specifically to push for high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling infrastructure along the entire stretch I rode yesterday. As cycling’s relevance becomes more widely understood and its profile rises, it’s time to mainroad – and so mainstream – cycling here.
Dynamo anticipated key individuals to be intransigent and require persuading, but not the County Council’s former Senior Cycling Officer and current Sustainable Travel Officer; he believes dedicated space for cycling along the A6 is impossible, because of lack of space (i.e. width) along some sections, and because residents would oppose the removal of on-road car parking along others. In other words consideration of improving conditions for cycling along the A6 is in danger of falling at the first hurdle due to a dismal (especially coming from the County Council’s Sustainable Travel office) failure of imagination (that the road can look otherwise) and will (that priorities can be changed).
The road clearly has room for dedicated cycling space along this entire stretch; and it’s equally obvious that cycling should trump residents’ car parking – what’s more important, a few parked cars or many moving bikes? So I find both excuses pathetic, and infuriating. I’m sure there are nooks and crannies in government offices everywhere similarly stubbornly resisting an enlightened approach to everyday travel, so I can’t be the only one who gets angry about this sort of thing, can I?
So, what’s it like to cycle these three miles?
For me as a fit and assertive cyclist, it’s OK. I’m used to the strange sensation of a stream of speeding traffic sweeping past my shoulder; and I’m generally trusting in other people’s good intentions and capabilities not to run me down. As we know, however (and this is probably a good thing!), I’m in a minority. And I’m not so daft that I can’t imagine, as I ride, what the experience would be like for others less like me.
The cars, buses and trucks come thick, fast and often close. You are moving through an environment utterly dominated by motorised modes, with no protection whatsoever. The driver has a metal shell, the pedestrian has the pavement, but the cyclist is exposed and vulnerable. People don’t know this so much as feel it, if only vicariously. Of course they’re not going to cycle here.
Short stretches of red painted tarmac come and quickly go, but it’s not really clear what they’re for; certainly they offer no protection. They’re also very narrow, far too close to the kerb, and usually full of debris. Cyclists are given the option of coming off the road to negotiate a big roundabout just south of the city centre, which wrongly presupposes people would be happy riding on the road to begin with. The changes which have been made on the A6 have nothing to do with building a mass culture of ordinary cycling; they’re about providing enough to keep us quiet (even though these changes are often useless and/or dangerous).
With the hindsight afforded by the Understanding Walking and Cycling research, I was extremely naïve to once believe ordinary cycling might ever grow under such conditions. It’s an insanely hostile environment to cycling. That naivety was of course a (sub)cultural attribute and many cycling advocates have similarly swallowed and become deluded by their own rhetoric.
So people won’t cycle here. But we want people to cycle here. It is on the most direct, flattest routes, with the most services, that they’re most likely to cycle.
So what are we to do?
For this stretch of road, my own proposal is as radical as it is obvious and sensible. It entails twin changes. First, reduce the speed limit to 20 mph. This will civilise the road, returning it from cars to people, and ensuring it’s a fitting gateway to a fine city. Most important slower speeds enable motorised modes to be squeezed closer together; cycling has been squeezed long enough and it’s re-prioritisation time. This will facilitate the second change, of inserting a high-quality, continuous, dedicated cycling route. Because even with motorised modes limited to 20 mph most people won’t want to mix with the volume of traffic that’s likely to remain for the foreseeable future on this road. Also, unless cycling is allocated clear space of its own it’ll continue to be pushed around by transport’s heavyweights.
How do we get these changes?
By believing in them, sharing them, and arguing for them. The fulfilment of cycling’s potential to change our world depends on it.