A ride down Oxford Road, Manchester

The Friday before last, I had a bit of time to spare before the start of the World Naked Bike Ride in Manchester, so I decided to have a ride down Oxford Road and back to see what the new infrastructure is like. I made a video of the whole route, from Portland Street, down through Rusholme to Fallowfield, and then back up to All Saints Park:

This is  quite long (25 minutes), but I wanted to show it as ridden, including delays due to traffic lights. These can be quite annoying and some of the waits are quite long, but in fact, of the 13.5 minutes it took me to get from Portland Street to Fallowfield, only 3 minutes was spent waiting at traffic lights.

In my opinion, this is a massive step forward compared to what is in most of our roads and streets, though I do have some reservations. After writing, I realize that the rest of this article seems quite negative, so it’s worth stressing that I do think the infrastructure here is a vast improvement on anything else I have seen in this country, probably with the exception of London.

The width.

With the small number of cyclists I encountered, the width is OK; there is just enough space for overtaking if the cyclist in front rides close to the kerb. I was only delayed very briefly by congestion under these conditions:

However, I can imagine it will be a real problem when the number of cyclists increases. The situation with width is not helped by having vertical rather than chamfered kerbs, as cyclists will tend to stay away from the hard kerbs, but this has been discussed many times elsewhere.

I do think the width is really is going to be a problem, though, when someone wants to use it on a tricycle, or with a trailer. Imagine trying to overtake a tricycle safely on this path. This has serious repercussions for accessibility. My wife, for example, is unable to ride a bicycle since she lost her sense of balance, so a trike is really the only option.

Another strange feature in relation to the width is the use of a double-width section of kerb at the entrance to each section of protected cycle lane:

It’s hard to understand why they have done this; surely a way could be found to fix a bollard without introducing this obstruction? I think these must be a real problem at busy times.

Here is another one further down towards Fallowfield:

Bus stop bypasses

These are good. The curves at the beginning and end are not too sharp and there is plenty of space for people to wait, mount and dismount the buses.

It’s good to see that a lot of attention has been paid to drainage here, and in a way that doesn’t create a hazard for people on cycles.

There are speed bumps in the cycle way within these bus dtop bypasses, around the crossings, but they are not too severe, and attention has been paid to defining crossing points for people to get to the bus stop, though people do tend to cross anywhere in practice.

I do think the belisha beacons and “give way” signs on some of the crossing are overkill to say the least. It begs the question: if the designers feel a need to put speed bumps and expensive crossings on the cycle path, then why are there none of those things on the road, where the vehicles are far more dangerous to pedestrians? The motor-centric mentality clearly still prevails even here.

Junction treatments.

At most of the junctions, the protection ends, and in some places that feels unsafe. I suspect that is one of the reasons why I see a lot of cyclists going through red traffic lights to wait nearer the mouth of the junction, giving them a head start when the light changes to green:

The position of the cyclist in front here after the traffic ights have changed to green resukts in a much lower risk of being left-hooked compared to my position:

A similar approach is taken at most side roads, with the cycle lanes moved out to the inside of the main carriageway, placing the rider in a position that they would be advised to avoid during Bikeability training.

The left hook danger is exacerbated here by the very wide flare on the mouth of the side road, allowing motor vehicle drivers to turn left here without really slowing down. This junction would be far better designed with the side road coming straight up to the line of the cycle way with a small kerb radius, and the protective kerb on the right of the cycle lane coming almost up to the mouth of the junction, forcing motorists to slow right down before making the turn into the side road.

It is worth noting that, had the cycle lanes not been there, I would probably have positioned myself further out from the kerb here to reduce the chances of left hooks and motor vehicles pulling out as I am passing. Unfortunately that is all but impossible with the protective barriers in place on the approach to the junctions.

This is an example of the kind of design I criticized some time ago in Salford, in which the design approach is trying to adopt both a motor-centric mentality, which necessitates “vehicular cycling”, and a protected infrastructure mentality but without the proper protection. These are two completely incompatible approaches and the design manages to achieve neither as a result.

This problem is further illustrated y a situation I found myself in at a traffic light controlled junction earlier on the route:

In this image, I am approaching the junction in the protected cycle lane, with the traffic light on red and a car in the main carrageway indicating to turn left, when the traffic light starts to change. By the time I have drawn level with the car, the light has changed to green and the car is starting to pull away.

At this point I am still travelling faster than the car, but I am concerned that the driver may drive into me if I continue. A commentator on YouTube criticised me for passing on the inside here, and I can understand why. I’m quite sure that I have priority in the situation, but that is not at all clear from the road layout and markings, in which the separate lane that I am riding in disappears at precisely the point where I pass the car. This is exactly the kind of situation that protected cycle infrastructure should try to prevent. It is also a situation that I would not get into in the absence of the protected cycleway, as I would usually avoid putting myself on the inside of a left turn lane at a junction. Again, this is an example of infrastructure that tries to mix two incomptible approaches: separation and protection in the parts between the junctions and sharing the carriageway at the junctions themselves.

This junction even has an advanced stop line (ASL), which is very much a vehicular cycling concept, albeit an ill-conceived one. When the traffic light is red, the cyclist is encouraged to try to make it to the cycle box at the front by filtering the inside, and then finds they are in a bad road position if the traffic light changes before, or as, they get there. If the traffic light is on green as the cyclist approaches, then they really ought to be riding in primary position through the shared space of the junction, but it is impossible to get to that position from the protected cycle lane.

Another illustration of this same problem is provided by this close encounter with a bus when I was riding back towards the city centre:

One small improvement over this design is the advanced green light, which may be seen at another junction on the route:

Here, the green light for cyclists is displayed a few seconds before the lights change for motor vehicles. This is good in that it gives cyclists who are waiting at the red light chance to get away before the motor vehicles start to move. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really solve the problem of lack of clarity over the priority when cyclists are passing motor traffic on the left at any other time. It is really only a marginal improvement over the advanced stop line, as both a just designed to give cylists a head start when the traffic lights change to green on what si, at that point, a shared road.

I found a far better approach at one junction that I felt was designed well; similar (but not identical) to some Dutch designs I think:

This junction gives priority over the side road to cyclists who are travelling straight ahead, just as they would have if they were riding along the main carriageway. The point where the cycleway crosses the side road is set back from the junction, so that cyclists and motorists can see any potential conflict before it becomes a problem, and allowing the cyclist and motor vehicle to cross at right angles to improve mutual visibility. It also provides motorists turning into the side street with a space to wait when they have to give way at the cycleway, reducing any pressure on the motorist to avoid delaying vehicles behind. Also, the priorities are absolutely clear to all parties because the crossing is separated from the junction. The one criticism I would give is that the flare on the junction is still too wide – a much smallet kerb radius would force drivers turning left to slow down more – but the junction is otherwise very good.

One problem is that there is not always sufficient space to implement a treatment like this. The rule should be, though, that if you can’t separate cycles and motor vehicle in space, you should separate them in time by providing cycle specific traffic light phases.

Another example that I felt was rather unsatisfactory was this junction with a narrow cycle lane in the centre of the side-road:

There will always be a worry for a cyclist approaching the junction along the side road that a driver will come up the inside and risk hitting the cyclist, particularly with parking so close to the junction. This is even more of a concern for a cyclist turning left onto the main road; I would be inclined to ignore the cycle lane myself in that case.

Parking protected cycle lanes.

One piece of good practice I saw here is the use of parking protected cycle lanes; something that I also saw used extensively on a recent trip to New York City.

If councils must have on-street parking, then this is a far better option than the cycle lanes that pass through the door opening zone between parked cars and the main carriageway. Having said that, I did find a rather bad example of that here:

I find it virtually impossible to pass a taxi in this situation without moving out of the cycle lane. They have a tendency for doors to open suddenly, and are regularly seen to make sudden U-turns from this position.

Of course, painted lines on the road need to be enforced if they are to be effective. It is illegal to drive across the solid white line here, but this driver really doesn’t care about that:

Speed limits

Most of this route has a speed  limit of 20 miles-per-hour, even where the protected cycle lanes are.

This does help to mitigate to some extent the poor junction design, though I still don’t think it passes the 8 to 80 test; I wouldn’t be completely happy about my grandaughter cycling along here when she reaches 8 years old.

Unfortunately, when you get closer to Fallowfield, there are sections of shared carriageway and junctions, some with narrow painted cycle lanes, with a 30 MPH speed limit.

This really is not great, and could put off novice cycle riders who need to ride the whole route to get to their destination.

Right turns

This is an area where the difference between the protected bike lanes approach and the sharing the road approach seem to be most pronounced, so it’s not surprising that the conflict between these is really apparent here in the designs for right turns. In the sharing the road approach, it is important for a person on a cycle to start moving early to the correct road position for the turn – either in primary position on a single lane carriageway or in the right hand lane on a multi-lane carriageway. The protected bike lane approach, on the other hand, will, when designed properly, keep the cycle rider separate from the motor traffic at all times, usually by a combination of separation in space and separation in time (through traffic light phasing). Unfortunately this scheme prevents the first and fails to do the second.

Often the approach used is just to dump the cyclist out into the traffic immediately before or at the junction, so that there is little or no possibility of getting into the right road position for the turn. Here is an example:

Quite how a rider is expected to get from the little give way lines at the exit from the cycle lane to the right turn just a few metres down the road is a mystery. The best approach here would be to get out of the cycle way early enough to move into primary position, but that seems practically impossible on this approach:

This arrangement appears a number of times through the scheme:

And there is a particularly bad example here:

Here the rider who wishes to turn right at the traffic lights has to go out into the road right in front of a row of parked cars, which may be blocking the view for drivers approaching from behind. I suppose the safest strategy for a rider here, when road is busy with motor traffic, would be to wait until the traffic lights change to red, then move out into the ASL cycle box to take up a position level with the centre of the right turn lane.

Car parking slalom

As you go through the “curry mile” section of the route, the cycle way becomes something of a slalom, due mainly to the fact that the designers have sought to maintain on-road parking throughout most of this section:

It is unfortunate that the maintenance of the holy parking spaces was given such prominence as this can be a very busy section of the route, especially for pedestrians, whose space has been severely compromised:

The space could have been used to provide more width to both the cycle way and the footway.

Conclusion

As I said at the beginning of this piece, I think this is a vast improvement on all the other roads I know in Greater Manchester, and is far better than the very dangerous situation that existed before, especially in the “curry mile”. It is a big step forward to see investment going in on such a scale as this. The battles that have to be fought to get a scheme like this in place on main roads in a busy urban area should not be underestimated and it takes commitment and political will to achieve it. Even placing a 20 MPH speed limit on a road can be an uphill struggle. This should be seen as very good platform from which to improve in the future, and it should at least help to show the authorities that putting cycle infrastructure in place can significantly increase the number of people choosing to get around by bicycle rather than by car. Hopefully the rather posh looking cycle counters will help to make that point well:

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11 Responses to A ride down Oxford Road, Manchester

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Chris Boardman’s appointment as Walking & Cycling Commissioner for Manchester | The Alternative Department for Transport

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