The number of people turning to cycling and walking is soaring, helped by the pandemic encouraging fresh air, exercise and local living. Despite the opposition of a vocal minority, urban residents have largely woken up to the future of transport – and it doesn’t have a combustion engine. We all want to reduce dependence on traditional cars, and this means giving people sustainable travel choices. As a landscape designer, reducing this car reliance gives me many exciting opportunities when planning new developments – including more space for gardens, parks and trees. It also presents a welcome challenge: how best to integrate sustainable travel?
Some larger scale cycle networks are being brought in across the nation – such as Chris Boardman’s Bee Network in Manchester and Mayoral-led schemes across London. Yet permeation of cycling infrastructure into urban developments is still lacking overall, and where they do exist, poorly executed one way systems, bollards, and bans on cars have caused disillusionment. Solving this problem and getting people on their bikes might have no singular solution, but us landscape architects navigating these issues on the ground have a few lessons to share from our experiences.
We all know that UK cities and suburbs are historically orientated around the car, with cycle lanes only a secondary consideration. This means that to make active travel appealing and to shift the balance in favour of the bike, planners and designers have to be bold and make changes that go further than merely adding a cycle path to an already planned development.
The reality is that designers and planners need to juggle the needs of all route users and neighbours – be these cars, bikes, pedestrians, buses, or children playing outside homes. We are always looking for a solution that is safe for all, while also being attractive, well landscaped, and fitting effortlessly with the wider development. This means challenging established norms to encourage thoughtful and cooperative use of the roadways.
The concept of cycle streets is gaining ground as one way to simply, safely and effectively bring all these forms of transport together. These are suitable for roads with a low level of car traffic – ensured either by location or with restrictions such as ‘residents only’ areas. Cyclists are given priority at the centre of the street, taking them away from footpaths and reducing the priority of the car (but with space for them cars to drive alongside), and they feature broad and safe pavements for pedestrians.
Responding to reality
There are of course practical issues with introducing cycle streets on a case-by-case basis, and as a key urban regeneration scheme in central Salford, our Pendleton project provided the perfect site to test these theories in reality. An existing cycle highway traced the site to the North, and the location of the new road through the development had the potential to link in and provide a faster cycle link into the city.
Contemporary new homes - Pendleton, Salford
While London has long been a UK leader in cycling infrastructure, the capital’s cycling design standards have also become a Bible for the UK’s other urban centres looking to get cycling. Greater Manchester in particular, with impetus from Mayor Andy Burnham, has shown a real appetite for better integrated cycling infrastructure. Pendleton was an opportunity to put the London standards into practice in Salford.
Running a cycle highway down the edges of a traditional road through a residential development could have caused many practical and safety issues – increasing the width of highway infrastructure, thereby introducing more points of conflict with pedestrians and bikes without a clear hierarchy of movement. So a cycle street was proposed – designed as high-quality public realm, with trees and rain gardens for natural drainage flanking the wide street. This helped to burnish the site’s sustainability credentials further than a simple cycle lane could have done.
While each scheme is different, the need to compromise is constant, and one common challenge is the dilemma of on-street parking. Cycle streets would ideally be designed without, but consumers do still expect parking close to home – even with all the active travel and public transport in the world. Pendleton’s cycle street therefore had to be designed to incorporate enough space for cars and bikes in a safe and logical way.
Negotiation was also needed with the local authority’s waste management and highways teams. Despite the clear enthusiasm from Salford’s local authority to push the cycling agenda, certain measures and rules must be followed – and officers were initially hesitant to make changes such as reducing parking numbers or recolouring the road for clarity, and had concerns about the impact on waste collection routes. But a compromise was reached and the cycle street was brought in.
Breaking down barriers
When it comes to guiding and filtering car and bike traffic between and around neighbourhoods, road users are less likely to object to filtering measures that also add to the beauty and sense of place in a development – rather than poorly thought out concrete bollards. But new developments do need to be plugged into existing urban contexts – so how to avoid negative interventions?
Key to the success of both permanent and temporary interventions is that they should be part of the aesthetic, and designed in from the start if possible (or even designed out altogether!). They should be bespoke, and landscaped into the development – part of the place as much as the rain gardens or trees lining the streets. True integration only comes through proper early stage planning and design. Through this, cycle streets and other active travel solutions can become a welcome part of a new development, not an inconvenience to be complained about.
If we really want to usher in a new age of active travel, we need to look at how all forms of traffic move through our cities. Regardless of the placement of a cycle lane, it’s never desirable to cycle near heavy traffic. Many cities don’t have room to widen roads, so hybrid streets are harder and it becomes an ‘either/or’ battle between drivers and cyclists.
Ultimately, we need to consider all forms of transport holistically within larger spatial plans. We must embed the principles of sustainable and healthy travel in our urban masterplans at the earliest stages, and ensure that cycling infrastructure isn’t just an add-on. But at ground level, overcoming the real challenges of implementation can only be achieved by bringing together planners, architects, councils and developers to talk through the challenges. There may be compromises, but this will help us future proof our urban areas, making them greener, healthier, and safer to travel through – now and for tomorrow.
As originally written for Velocity Magazine.
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Urban cycling, Infrastructure, Healthy Communities