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. Tim says:

    Thanks for a great review. I live and work near the Oxford Road Corridor so I get the benefit of using the new infrastructure every day, but it’s nice to see how it feels to someone new to it. Agree with almost all of it except one major exception, as I mention below.
    I think it’s useful to give some slight back-story. I would divide the bit you cycled into three sections:

    a) South of the Curry Mile to Fallowfield and beyond.
    b) The Curry Mile itself.
    c) Oxford Road, ie from the north end of the Curry Mile itself into town.

    These were all done at different times (pretty much in that order) as part of differing schemes.

    (a) uses quite a bit of what was already there such as the raised cycleways past Owens Park. Unfortunately the bus-stop-bypasses tend to wither out as you go south, and the pavement based section heading north past Platt Fields is a bit of an “optional” dogs dinner – as you say, “horrible”! Quite a few cyclists just use the bus lane still.

    IMHO the best quality stuff is (c) – Oxford Road itself to the north (despite some issues as it nears the city centre). This was done as part of the Bus Priority scheme. It was a long time in the planning and is still being finished off now.

    I completely agree about the width. You may have noticed (c) is a bit wider than (b), but overtaking is still uncomfortable, even on standard bikes. As you say, trikes could be really tricky. The cycleways can already be busy with commuters and deliveroo riders. I imagine many students who don’t cycle for lack of a bike might become keen users of the new mobikes making the Oxford Road Corridor even busier bike-wise, which would be good but make the narrow cycleways more congested.

    Section (b) – the Curry Mile – is not only narrower than I’d like, but quite winding. Simply put, I feel the political necessity of leaving so much on-street parking in really spoils it. Parking spaces mean the cycleway and pavement are narrower than they could be, and parked cars create a potentially dangerous visual obstruction. Surely better park off the busy main road where there are already several large car-parks. And that disagreement I mentioned? The curry mile junction you highlight is very much my least favourite along that stretch. I’m sure it’s the kind of thing considered good-practice elsewhere – very popular with Dutch-style aficionados – but too many drivers seem to consider the deflection in the cycleway an indication that cyclists should give way. The double-yellow lines across the cycleway don’t help, but it’s often very unclear who should give way. British drivers aren’t used to turning the corner, and then having to stop and give way. You crossed it when it was clear! I would much rather have seen continuous cycleway and footway all the way through, possibly slightly raised, to give a clear indication that drivers need to give way as they turn and cross not only the cycleway but the footway too.

    I know what you mean about chamfered kerbs, but I feel the vertical kerbs give a clearer indication to pedestrians not to stray into them – advantages to both.

    “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” …perhaps because the road isn’t between the footway and bus-stop? 😉 I know the belishas seem like overkill, but many cyclists still don’t stop for pedestrians even at the mini-zebra-crossing. It’s a tricky one.

    Anyway, enough waffle from me, except to agree that I find it a vast improvement. I often ride all along here with my kids on the bike, which I wouldn’t have seriously considered previously. I think many people forget how bad the Curry Mile used to be for cycling.

    Thanks again for the article and the video.

    • Thanks for the good feedback. I agree with most of what you say and have in fact produced stills to illustrate many of those points. It just seemed to be getting too long, so I left quite a bit out. Perhaps I’ll do a follow-up or edit this to add more.

      It’s interesting to hear another view on the set back side road crossing. I agree that continuous footways and cycleways, raised above the road is the best solution for all the side roads, and better for pedestrians too.

      Regarding “the road isn’t between the footway and bus-stop” – that all depends which footway you are on when you need to get to the bus stop, surely.

  2. Tim says:

    Sorry, one more thing. You didn’t mention our swanky bike counters (6:56 and 19:04 in the video)!

  3. Pete Owens says:

    Given the pages of criticism I am curious how you come to the conclusion it is “Pretty Good”. The most serious issue you correctly identify is how dangerous it makes the junctions due to the risk of hooking collisions. This is an issue I take particularly seriously in this case as my daughter is currently studying at Manchester University – and while she tries to avoid using this route if possible it is difficult given the road passes through the University.I really don’t wan’t to see her killed killed because segregationist planners ignore the basic principles of traffic engineering (ie NOT arranging for traffic turning left at a junction to approach to the right of traffic heading straight on).

    A couple of months ago I was in Manchester so I rode the route to take some photos to upload onto cyclestreets and I found it pretty scary. I was riding slower than you were and wouldn’t have attempted to undertake a left turning car as you did at 3:45. Nevertheless I did have to perform several emergency stops to avoid hazards, mostly other cyclists and pedestrians, but also a couple of turning vehicles. The danger is most serious at priority junctions where you need to check for traffic coming from three directions. This is particularly tricky where you are hidden from other road users behind parked cars. I spend five minutes at the junction of Walmer Street and observed several near misses:
    https://www.cyclestreets.net/location/89953/
    https://www.cyclestreets.net/location/89955/
    https://www.cyclestreets.net/location/89956/

    One thing that has been a major improvement is conditions on the carriageway at the northern part (Oxford Road itself rather than the curry mile). Most motor traffic has been removed, the speed limit has been reduced to 20mph and there are now two wide lanes rather than four narrow ones:
    https://www.cyclestreets.net/location/87799/

    • Hi Pete. I can’t disagree with anything you have said there. “Pretty good” is a relative term, and in this case I am comparing it to what I usually encounter, and to what was there before – in both cases absolutely dreadful. I agree that Oxford Road is by far the best part, due partly to the 20mph speed limit and largely to the removal of motor traffic, but there are huge improvements that could be made throughout the route.

      Regarding the bit at 3.45, I did comment specifically on this in the text, saying: “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 incompatible approaches: separation and protection in the parts between the junctions and sharing the carriageway at the junctions themselves.” I think this sums up the whole problem with the scheme – it is neither one nor the other.

    • Jim says:

      I think its important to point out just how horrendously dangerous the curry mile was before these lanes. Along the entire length of it. It really was truly, unbelievably bad. Yes, the lanes could’ve been done better, yes they could’ve moved phone boxes instead of wobbling around them, etc, but then would they have gotten built?. probably not.

      Think of it this way. A few years ago, your daughter could’ve been flattened at any point along the curry mile. Now though, the danger points are consistent and obvious. A few particular locations suffer problems (as in your photos), and all it takes is a couple of rides and you know where and when to be especially on the look out. Previously you had to be on high alert for every mm of the journey. With some political will, now it will just take some redesigning to improve the danger spots.

      The same applies to Oxford Rd, but as pointed out, the now much lower traffic volumes make it an altogether much more pleasant and less hectic place to cycle. It just a shame they haven’t made the lanes wide enough for comfortable overtaking. They could have!. Its forcing too many quicker riders to just take to the main carriageway. Bidirectional probably would’ve been better.

      Another thing to point out it the time of day. First thing in the morning, there is maybe a 10th of the traffic that is there in the afternoon. It a completely different place to ride through and because of that the curry mile section is much more akin to the later oxford road lanes.

      • Again, I can’t disagree. This video started at about 5.40pm on a Friday; it might be quite different at other times.

        As I said in the text, the route is a vast improvement on what was there before, as well as on what exists across most of the country, but it could have been a lot better.

    • Tim says:

      I agree it’s far from perfect. Junctions are always going to be the tricky bit but they could be done a lot better. Hopefully before too long the UK can adopt something more like the “protected intersection” model for larger junctions (anyone not familiar with the idea can google that term – well worth a look).

      But once again I find it to be a vast improvement. I wouldn’t have previously entertained the idea of cycling that road with my kids on a cargo bike, but now we do it quite often, albeit while exercising some caution. In fact I bought the bike mainly with that in mind.

  4. Jim says:

    Thanks for the great write up. I’ve been meaning to record and upload some example commutes like this, maybe in the next few weeks. They can show the realities so much better than trying to type things out.

    For example Tim’s comment about the belisha beacons and crossings – personally I’ve found that its usually not possible to stop at the crossings. They’re just too miniaturized to work. Often pedestrians have their back to you or are hidden behind the shelters. You don’t know if they are going to cross or not and being at the front, middle or back of a single file bunch of bikes means it almost always isn’t safe or possible to try and slow/stop anyway. That being said, I’ve only encountered a pedestrian actually wanting to cross at the zebras maybe twice. People just cross when they need to, and that’s totally fine. Much better in fact as there far less conflict when people cross in natural gaps caused by traffic light swarms/bunching up etc. Basically I think they are not needed/overkill.

    The rumble strips are also a bugbear of mine. The whole idea is for cyclists to use the lanes and not the carriageway. So the rumble strips are just one thing too much for me. Most of them are thin enough, but the ones near the westbound counter are an inch thick and really jar my bad shoulder. I’m sure this is part of the reason I see people skip this section and use the road.

    I’ll go back to what I was getting at in my reply to Pete. The lanes aren’t perfect, but they solve so many of the problems over the length that it almost feels to me to be a luxury to be able to focus on the details that they’ve got wrong. Which is actually amazing when you remember what these roads where like before. For example in your video at 18:25 the double yellow lines are right on the apex of the natural line to take when rejoining at road level. Its fine most of the year, until my front wheel slide out on those slippy lines in the rain, Don’t know how i stayed on the bike, but I did and pulled a muscle in my back as a reward!. Now I wince whenever I see people go over that spot – but its the natural line! – they shouldn’t be painting wide yellow paint off camber! 🙂

    Anyway. Its all a huge improvement for cycling, and the extra numbers and even dads cycling with kids proves that. But there’s still plenty to rant about once I start typing 🙂

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