Sunday, 2 September 2012

The army wants protected bike lanes in its garrison town; now the AA is calling for them and British Cycling too. It's time for London to get serious about cycling. And you need to help. Here's how.

Ceci n'est pas un bike lane.
Cycle super highway 7 at Clapham.
Where's the bike lane?
Last week, I wrote about the fact that British Cycling – the body which is responsible for the emergence of cycling as a winning sport in the UK – has decided to throw its weight behind the sort of cycling infrastructure you see in Denmark and the Netherlands: “We must have a set ofdesign guidelines for road and cycling infrastructure that are in line withthis international best practice and the political will to fund and implementit consistently throughout [London]."

Impressive stuff.

Even more impressively, Edmund King, the president of the Automobile Association followed up with a message of his own. In an editorial sent to every AA member, he wrote this:

There’s plenty I don’t fully agree with in Edmund King’s piece but I do agree with the general tone and I think the fact that the President of the AA is making such a bold statement about cycle infrastructure is very significant.

The point about cycle infrastructure really came home to me over the weekend when I travelled through an army town in North Yorkshire – Catterick Garrison. I spend a lot of time in North Yorkshire these days but not much in Catterick. Outside of Catterick, provision for everyday, utility cycling is essentially non-existent. What you have is lots of incredibly fast, winding roads, plenty of space for a cycle track but you have to grin and bear it, mixing with lorries and people speeding to work and back. Not at all fun. 

Amazingly, though, Catterick is criss-crossed by a grid of wide, protected bike tracks that take you places you actually want to go. There’s even a two mile off-road route along a disused railway to Richmond - the nearest big town. It's more direct than the narrow, fast and winding main road that is the alternative route. 
Bike track nips behind a bus stop in Catterick.

Copyright Oliver Dixon and licensed for reuse under this
Creative Commons Licence
The bike tracks in Catterick have traffic signals to help people cross major roads on their bikes. There are separate paths for pedestrians and cyclists, even separate pedestrian and cyclist bridges. There are (mostly) proper Dutch-style bike tracks that cross side roads as well. North Yorkshire council at one stage even toyed with the idea of closing some rural roads around the town so that they are no longer through roads for motor vehicles but only for bikes and pedestrians. This is the sort of thinking that is normal in the Netherlands and almost unheard of in the UK.

Later that evening, I spoke with someone from Sustrans who helped designed the bike grid. The army wanted its people to get about by bike, so it ‘sliced through problems’, he advised, and paid for the bike grid, with a little bit of help from North Yorkshire County Council and with advice from Sustrans. The result? Over 15km of properly protected bike tracks that connect residential areas with shops, schools and the rest of the garrison.

Clearly, with the right will and the right funding, the army has bashed heads together and made a proper, safe, protected cycle grid.

Boris plus bicycle. Shamelessly borrowed
from the excellent, new TwoWheelsGood blog
What’s particularly interesting about all this is that I’m hearing more and more (fairly concrete) rumours that Boris Johnson is serious about creating proper, safe cycle tracks in London. According to Two Wheels Good blog: “There is strong support from Mr Johnson for putting segregated lanes onmajor carriageways in Kensington and Chelsea”. I’ve heard similar (very well-sourced) noises about segregated cycle tracks in other parts of London as well.

No surprise there. Westminster MP Mark Field and Kensington MP Malcolm Rifkind are seemingly very unsupportive. What’s good enough for the army isn’t good enough for their Conservative voters, it seems. In that respect (just to show I’m not being party political about it, my own local Labour MPKate Hoey is almost toxically anti-cycling).

I think the likes of Rifkind, Hoey and Field are living in the past. I’m going to make a prediction that within five years, there will be a couple of high-quality, long-distance protected bike tracks in central London along major carriageways. But we might need the single-mindedness of the army to ‘slice through problems’ and bash together the heads of reactionary, conservative (of any political party) councillors and local MPs who want to subject Londoners to more motor cars, more noise, more pollution, more road deaths, fewer chances to cross the road and dying high streets choked with cars.

It’s time London started to change. I’m starting to think it might just get there. If Boris Johnson can bash the heads of these MPs and councillors together, I’d be very impressed indeed. But it’s still a very big ‘if’ at this stage.

What’s going to help, whatever your political views, is if everyone who reads this article writes to their MP and their councillors. And if you keep on at them (politely) about sorting out your neighbourhood to make it a place where people can cycle and walk or play in the street. It’s easy. Just click on Writetothem’s website and fire off an email to the list of councillorswho pop up against your postcode. Good luck.


  1. Excellent post. This is an interesting website (I thinks perhaps now not updated as often as it should be) that shows Boris pushing for a cycle-friendly solution at Lancaster Gate but not being able to get one through because of 'unsafe' risk to Park users!!!! (never heard of anyone dying in a Park but plenty of cyclists dying on London's roads...) - look at the section on Lancaster Gate

  2. THe use of cycles on RAF bases is widespread and the bike represents a neat and space efficient way to get between places that are (especially for an airfield) a long way apart.

    I was surveying for Sustrans about 20 years ago and passed through Kinloss on the quiet back road from Forres to Kinloss I saw 9 other vehicles - only one was a motor car, the rest were bikes going to & from the big town.

    The Army's policy does have some matching effect in London but instead of the pull it has to date always been a push, with providers blithely ignorant of the demand on their doorsteps. This is not least apparent at rail stations, where cycle use overall during the morning peaks has risen by 400% but for some spot locations the cycle parking provision has gone up between 1000% and 3000% - and those spaces are filled to overflowing. A classic example was St Pancras where the operator could not ignore the 50+ bikes being flyparked, and could not keep pace with every chopped off bike being replaced by a fresh fly parker, and the hassle that then came from the chopped off bike users.

  3. The Catterick bike tracks, and the similar facilities on many other military installations of all three services, are certainly a great example to set, and might well make good reference sites to support the case for wider application, but the Forces have certain advantages over local highways authorities.

    To start with, they are massive landowners – they almost certainly own the land which both roads and cycle paths run across, and the roads are not public highways – they may be available for public use but I’ll bet that one day a year there will be a checkpoint and a temporary barrier, just to prevent any adverse possession being established. If you own the land, you don’t need to purchase from landowners, you don’t need to get a landowner’s permission, you don’t need compulsory purchase etc. You presumably don’t also need traffic orders etc, although perhaps you need planning consent – maybe even that is not needed when you are the military.

    Secondly, the military is not a democracy. They can take rational decisions on what is useful to do, without having to worry about stroppy residents threatening to vote for the other guy because you took away their free parking space or slowed down their journey by 10 seconds. Never mind whether that is what residents would do (actually, they probably would, down in my neck of the woods) it is every councillor’s nightmare. The army can just take a decision. Of course it is not that simple because they have their own stultifying bureaucracy and no doubt they have to submit budget applications, health and safety evaluations etc, but at least all of this taking place “in the family”.

    Finally, it just makes sense on military bases. The populations are essentially transient – soldiers and airmen may well be on home base for only a few months at a time and even if it is a UK land base like an airfield, their posting will probably not exceed a couple of years. Cars can be a real drag if you are suddenly posted to Afghanistan and you now don’t know what to do with them. Families may be left in base married quarters but generally their need for a car is limited – schools will not be far away, ditto shops, and wives are likely stay-at-home as their children are generally young.

    I can imagine that a study of large military installations and their cycle facilities and use could provide some very useful reference material. I wonder whether anyone has ever done a survey?

  4. If you want to go a bit further than writing an e-mail to your MP about cycling, please do consider getting in touch with your local cycle campaigning group who urgently need the time and passion of local cyclists.