Cycle Superhighway: the detail, Part 2!

Since the last blog, we’ve had two more meetings with Leeds City Council’s cycling officer to discuss the design of the Cycle Superhighway. We’ve moved on from the fairly straightforward stuff, like a straight bit of road with minor side streets, to the difficult stuff: what will happen to the superhighway at junctions? We are all agreed that a superhighway is only as Super as its weakest point. We don’t want a route that is “98% safe” – the 2% where you try to get into the right-hand lane of three, dodging 40mph traffic, is not going to entice new people to the joys of cycling. It isn’t going to make mums and dads wave little Susie and Johnny off to school, happy in the knowledge they’re on the brand new cycle-safe superhighway.

It needs to be safe, but it’s equally vital that the route is convenient and direct. This is where we have to make choices and accept compromises because, sadly, cycling isn’t going to take priority over vehicle traffic on the A64 and A647.

So, to the detail. At a straightforward junction, there are two types of layout favoured on the Continent: the Danish and the Dutch style. Supporters of each type have strong feelings, but both are a significant improvement on any cycle facility in Leeds at the moment.

Netherlands cyclist and blogger David Hembrow loves Dutch infrastructure and is critical of the Danish design:

But here’s an American in Copenhagen who clearly finds the Danish style works (and many of the features this blogger finds so offputting about cycling on American roads will be familiar to Leeds cyclists):

There are two main differences between Dutch and Danish styles (I’m going to talk about UK right and left – on the continent the directions are of course reversed).  As the segregated path approaches the junction, the left-turning traffic and the straight-ahead cyclists have to cross each other. At most normal British junctions, the cyclist looks over their right shoulder and tries to judge whether it’s safe to “take the lane”, or move across from a left-turn-only lane into a central straight-ahead lane. For many cyclists, this is one of their least comfortable manoeuvres, especially in Leeds’ multi-lane junctions. Secondly there is negotiating the junction itself: right-turning cyclists have to cross the straight-on traffic approaching. Again, to turn right at this type of junction in Leeds you would join a right-hand traffic lane which might be the 3rd or even 4th lane across, and join the flow of vehicles turning right.


Part 1: going straight on without getting left-hooked.

In Danish design, left-turning vehicles and straight-on cyclists cross each other as the left vehicle filter lane appears. Straight-on cyclists simply continue on their path and negotiate with the left-turning traffic, which may theoretically give way to the cycle lane – I’m not sure whether this is made explicit in road markings or if it just happens. In Copenhagen, with a steady stream of cyclists, and drivers used to seeing them, it works fine. The downside of this option is that it’s still possible to get left-hooked by inconsiderate or inattentive left-turning driver.

The Dutch alternative is to keep all the traffic lanes together until the junction with no separate left filter lane for vehicles. The cycle lane stays on the left, all the way up to the junction’s stop line. Then, left-turning vehicles are held by a red light, while cycles and vehicles go straight on. After a while, the straight-ahead cyclists are stopped by a red light, and the left-turning vehicles get a green light. The downside of this option is that you have to divide the green-light time between straight on cyclists and left turning traffic, so it can involve a bit more of a delay for cyclists. But it does remove the risk of the left-hook.


Part 2: turning right.

At the Danish style junction, right-turning cyclists go straight on with the traffic, but cleverly position themselves to the left. As they cross the junction they pull over to the left, into a special cyclists’ waiting area at the mouth of the side street. They spin 90 degrees right so that they’re facing out of that side street, towards the road they wanted in the first place. When the lights change, they’re in the correct position to progress what is now straight-on. This is sometimes called a “two stage” right turn and a modified version of it has been proposed for a junction in London. I’ve tried this in Leeds at some of the more intimidating junctions and it does work, though Leeds junctions aren’t built to facilitate it, and there are often islands and bollards in the way.

A Dutch style junction is not that different, except that the waiting area is more separate from the vehicle lanes, being part of the segregated cycle path around the outside of the junction.

The effect of both of these types of junction is the same: right turning cyclists do not turn right with the flow of traffic, but they complete the straight-ahead part and the right-turn part separately: and consequently there is a bit of a delay. But compared with mixing with right-turning vehicle traffic, either of these will feel a lot safer to new less confident cyclists.


A third way: the simultaneous green.

There is an alternative for junctions with cyclists wanting to make lots of different turns. Once in each phase of lights, all the vehicle traffic is stopped, and cyclists get a green light all at the same time. In the Netherlands it’s called “tegelijk groen” and we suggested the UK name could be the “Benny Hill” option, because there should be music coming out of the lampposts for the cyclist free-for-all phase. Tegelijk groen happens quite a lot in the Netherlands and, miraculously, none of the cyclists crash into each other. The riders negotiate, they’re quite small and nimble, and the thought of crashing your bicycle into another bicycle at a junction is mutually assured destruction.

It’s not apparent in this video clip, but Dutch cyclists will often give hand signals to make their intentions clear. And drivers of mobility scooters benefit too!

This is unlikely to get a look-in in Leeds at the moment, as the people in Urban Traffic Management and Control (UTC) don’t tend to like phases of the lights where no vehicle traffic is flowing. This is why pedestrians have to cross the road in about seven separate steps to make the diagonal crossing from Morrisons on Woodhouse Lane to Leeds Met University.

So, there are choices to be made here, and we can’t have everything. A safe cycle route that can be used by young and old means we will sometimes have to stop and wait, and either the Dutch or Danish route may involve slightly more delay for right-turning cycles than the current system of using the vehicle lanes. Cyclists in busy cities in the Netherlands quite often have to stop and wait for their left turns. But if these changes lead to more people feeling they can choose cycling, we think it’s worth it.


The Big Junction Problem

There is one more challenge to the superhighway: junctions that are so big and busy, they’re incredibly off-putting to the less confident cyclist. In Leeds there are several of these big roundabouts, controlled by traffic lights, with multiple traffic lanes on the approaches and on the roundabout itself. They handle a large amount of vehicle traffic, through complex and delicate phasing of the lights. Examples on the superhighway route include the junction of the A64 with the outer ring road at Seacroft; the junction of the A64 with Cross Gates Road and Foundry Lane (where Burger King is); the junction of York Road and Selby Road by the railway bridge; Armley Gyratory; the junction of Bradford Road with the outer ring road (Dawson’s Corner); and the Thornbury triangle, by the cinema on the outskirts of Bradford.

Currently, top quality facilities for cyclists are advanced stop lines for those who want to negotiate the roundabout as if they were a vehicle, and a set of toucan crossings for those who want to pootle (or even get off and push) safely round the edge. The Lawnswood Roundabout on the Otley Road (A660), part of the NGT scheme, is currently being planned on exactly this basis. It’s a shame that instead of having a single good solution that works for all cyclists, we end up with two inferior alternatives: safe or direct.

There’s a fundamental problem with trying to put a continental-style segregated cycle superhighway down a major arterial route in Leeds: these tricky junctions will always throw a spanner in the works. The need to maximise the vehicle capacity of the junction doesn’t tend to mix well with the needs of people on bikes. The continental solution would usually be to keep the bicycles well away from these junctions, using underpasses or flyovers to provide completely separate routes. But we just don’t have the money to do this on the superhighway scheme: a single junction like the A64/outer ring road roundabout could be made safe for cycling by a cycle-flyover or underpass, but this could swallow up two-thirds of the whole budget.

So there are several options to consider. One proposal is to slow the traffic and calm the roundabout, so that cyclists can mix safely on carriageway and make their movements in the vehicle lanes. But having to cycle on the carriageway at the most difficult points might make the whole route less attractive to new cyclists, however 'calm' the roundabout is. Providing a safer route for cyclists would have to involve several Toucan-style crossings, and the complex traffic light phasing means that there will usually need to be several separate crossing movements to get over each road. An alternative could be cyclist zebra crossings of the approach routes, but if the planned capacity of the superhighway is realised (5% of journeys by 2020) a constant stream of cyclists on the crossing could cause unacceptable delays to the vehicle traffic. It's unlikely a 'simultaneous green' could be provided until the demand for cycling showed that it balanced the demand for vehicle movements. But it's important to remember that junction capacity shouldn't just mean vehicle capacity: capacity for allowing people on bicycles and on foot to move around is just as important. In fact, taking into account the health, economic and environmental benefits, some people think cyclists and pedestrians should be counted as more important than people in cars!

At the moment, there isn’t a clear best option for dealing with these junctions. The best guess is that we will make some compromises at the moment, and work to improve them over the long term, when proper investment in high quality continental solutions can be found. In the meantime, your suggestions are gratefully received!

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Follow the link above to David Hembrow's blog and scroll down to the post by 'townmouse', who writes that in GLASGOW there are a number instances of 'simultaneous green' phases for pedestrian lights, suggesting that some sort of precedent has been set.