The Plain cycling project

Our comments on Oxfordshire County Council's plans as they stood at Jan 2014 for redesigning The Plain for the benefit of cyclists.

1 February 2014

Here are our comments on Oxfordshire County Council’s plans as they stood at Jan 2014 for redesigning The Plain for the benefit of cyclists. You might also be interested in this critique and exploration of alternatives by Graham Smith of Urban Design and Cyclox.

The Plain Roundabout: Comments on proposals presented 30th January 2014

Thank you for the opportunity to examine the latest proposals for the re-configuration of The Plain, following the award of funding from the ‘Cycle City Ambitions’ budget. We have now had an opportunity to consider and exchange views on the proposals as presented, and I set out our conclusions as follows:

In essence the proposals as presented amount to little more than the re-alignment of kerbs in key locations, adjustment of levels, alteration of surfacing materials and colours, and the application of road paint. Given the ambitious claims for the intended effect of achieving a 20% increase in cycling through this roundabout, and that this scheme can act as a ‘catalyst’ for improvements elsewhere, and particularly across Magdalen Bridge and up the High Street to Longwall Street, it seems doubtful that such modest proposals will be effective. Likewise, it seems doubtful that these proposals will constitute much of a step forward in fulfilling the stated ambition of Oxford City Council, to make Oxford the premier cycling city in Europe!

A fundamental criterion of the design appears to be that there should be no adverse impact on motor vehicle traffic flows. This assumption was emphasised by implication throughout our discussion, yet the objective is stated to be the achievement of a 20% increase in cycling. The obvious purpose of increasing cycling is to effect a mode shift to cycling, and thus a reduction in motor vehicle traffic, to the benefit of all and to the city environment, rather than to continue to prioritise the particular interests of motorists.

It would thus be logical at least to design the improvements on the basis of a 20% reduction in motor vehicle traffic, corresponding to the intended increase in cycling. It seems entirely legitimate that The Plain enhancements may entail some temporary disadvantage to motorists, and this may enhance the probability of success in the achievement of the scheme objectives, and those of the funding stream. In fact, the design appears to be predicated on the assumption that no reduction in vehicle traffic volume or flow is acceptable, which is completely contrary to the purpose for which the funds were made available, and the prime objective of the policy of encouragement of cycling.

There is a wealth of evidence (e.g. by research at Lancaster University) that fear is the main instinct which discourages cycling, so any measures to increase cycling must eliminate the perceived threats. The over-riding objective for any design must be to do this, whilst making journeys by bike as simple, straightforward and convenient as possible.

The proposals presented still appear to represent not the primacy of the cyclist in this environment, but the continued and undiminished accommodation of the motor vehicle; convenience for motor traffic appears still to be the priority, and the proposals seem to reflect only an effort to mitigate the adversities confronting current and potential future cyclists, rather than the elimination of perceived threats. What should be the prime design criterion, given the project objectives, thus appears to have been perversely subjugated to the retention of inappropriate design criteria, obsolete given the purpose of the exercise.

This criticism is evident in the design, for example by the provision of only one ‘through route’ for a cycle lane, that from High Street to London Place. All other routes are interrupted by the need to compete with motor vehicles making a variety of manoeuvres on the roundabout, a challenging scenario for inexperienced cyclists or those contemplating cycling. On the roundabout itself, there is no indication of any intention to prioritise the safety and convenience of cyclists, or to signal this priority to all road users. This omission must be addressed.

The major ESPRC research project ‘Understanding Walking and Cycling’makes clear that to eliminate the perceived threat to cyclists properly-segregated routes are essential, without the possibility of encroachment by vehicles (either moving or parked), or the necessity for cyclists to compete with motor vehicles for space. This is particularly true in circumstances where drivers may be distracted or concerned with other issues, such as negotiating an entry to the roundabout.

Although space is constrained at The Plain, and it is a complicated junction, we feel strongly that physical segregation, if only by flat, or nearly-flat kerbs is perfectly feasible, and should be adopted for delineation of most of the cycle lanes. Our membership includes very experienced urban designers, as well as chartered civil engineers with highway experience, and we do not accept that there are insurmountable construction problems with such a solution. We are unconvinced that separation of cyclists from motor vehicles by painted, dotted lines will do anything to engender the confidence of potential cyclists and eliminate the perception of threat from motor vehicles, such that they will adopt this mode, as is the objective of the exercise. We would reiterate that the principal aim of these works should be the elimination of the perceived threat to cyclists; failure to achieve this will be a betrayal of the purpose of the project, and of the basis on which funding was provided.

A further benefit of the separation of cycle lanes by kerbs is that this would enable double yellow lines indicating parking restrictions to be positioned outside the cycle lanes. One effect of these lines being positioned within cycle lanes is that it sends a signal to drivers that the vehicle carriageway has more generous width, extending across the cycle lane, and in which it is acceptable to drive, which encourages higher speeds. It also sends a signal that it is acceptable to park for loading across the cycle lane. Yellow lines outside cycle lanes, conversely, emphasise the exclusiveness of the cycle lane, and diminish the risk that cyclists may need to veer into the vehicle lanes to pass loading vehicles, or share the cycle lane with vehicles overrunning. By sending the visual signal that the vehicle lane is narrow, lower speeds are induced. The physical delineation of the cycle lane by a kerb should also facilitate the use of materials of contrasting colour.

In terms of details, we suggest that consideration be given to extending road markings westwards on High Street to signal the need for those intending to proceed on Cowley Road, Iffley Road or Cowley Place to move to the right early, to be in position to use the dedicated right-turn cycle lane. The road direction marking currently shown (London Place indicated as a left turn) is confusing; the left lane should be marked straight ahead, with the right lane marked right only.

The extent of the raised surface at some of the road entries to the roundabout should be reconsidered; that at Iffley Road is especially short, i.e. close to the roundabout entry. Earlier signalling of the specific change in character of the highway at this roundabout, by extending the carriageway differentiation further back is likely to be beneficial in changing behaviour so as to present cyclists with a less threatening environment.

Careful consideration of drainage arrangements is essential; cyclists are often forced to negotiate ponding through poor drainage design and implementation, as well as kerbside gullies and utilities covers. These can be distraction to concentration and are often even dangerous, since installation standards and maintenance are frequently poor. If kerbed separation of cycle lanes were to be adopted, this situation could be alleviated. It is noted that there are a considerable number of utilities covers in the carriageway at this roundabout.

As part of the transformation of the perceptions of the nature of the environment at this location, consideration should be given to landscaping, i.e. tree planting, which can convey more of a sense that this is a ‘place’, not just a highway roundabout. The immediate area constitutes a vibrant commercial centre for small businesses, cafes, restaurants and pubs, and the incorporation of well-designed and attractive additional cycle parking would be pragmatic and at the same time would reinforce the message of the primacy of cycling in this urban environment.

High Street / Longwall Street junction

The proposals suggested here, for the modification of the footway to the north-west corner of this junction, to allow ‘semi-informal’ cycle movements across the corner of the footway, whilst including cyclists in the left-turn, on-carriageway ban appear sensible. However, this proposal should be considered in the light of the proposed development of nearly 300 student residential places in Manor Place, and the consequential effects on traffic of all kinds. For information, Oxford Civic Society has made the following relevant observations on the development proposals:

“Traffic assessment:

Although a car-free development is proposed, there will still be service vehicles for laundry, food materials, building maintenance, waste disposal, and taxi services to be considered; the effect of these on the environment of Manor Place, the connecting roads, and the road junctions should be assessed, and mitigation measures proposed as appropriate.

The stated secure cycle storage provision (1 cycle space per 2 students) is based on Council minimum standards, and not on a realistic (or any) assessment of the likely travel mode choices of the intended residents. Monitoring of traffic associated with St Catherine’s College may be a more appropriate basis for assessing the necessary provision. Brief consideration of the likely destinations for residents’ journeys suggests that the vast majority, perhaps all of the residents will use bicycles, especially since this will be a car-free development, there are no bus services in adjacent streets, and the nearest bus stop is at least 800m away. In these circumstances it is clear that cycling is likely to be a very attractive proposition for most residents, and the current proposals for bicycle storage appear totally inadequate.

A proper assessment of the effects of bicycle traffic generation on Manor Place, Manor Road, Longwall Street, Jowett Walk and South Parks Road should be made, and the enhancement necessary to improve safety for cyclists travelling to and from this development on all these roads, and negotiating their crossings and junctions. Similarly, an assessment of pedestrian traffic needs and enhancements requirements should be considered.

These considerations should also include the effects on motor vehicle traffic of the increased crossings by pedestrians and cyclists of Longwall Street, and the current proposal to withdraw the exception for cyclists from the left-turn ban for travellers heading east on High Street, at the Longwall Street junction.”

I hope you will be able to accommodate the views expressed above in the continuing development of the project proposals; meanwhile, thank you again for your cooperation

Peter Thompson

Chairman, Oxford Civic Society