A standards-based approach to roads

Dearest readers, I’ve got a bit of a confession to make; I’ve been learning how to drive a car. Don’t worry though, I’m not planning on buying one or giving up on cycling. In fact, one of the main reasons is  (as I have written about before) there is an awful lot of discrimination against non-drivers when applying for jobs which do not require any driving whatsoever. I will write in more detail about the experience of learning to drive in another post.

Whilst first-hand experience has only enhanced my belief that our current approach to road design always favours the convenience of motorists over the safety of all other road users (after years of UK cycling, driving is really easy) there is one aspect which remained the same whether cycling or driving; the inconsistency of the road experience. Many of the routes I have driven down on driving lessons are the sorts I would usually avoid when travelling by bike (such as the A55) which has allowed me to see areas of the road network which I have traditionally been effectively excluded from.

Grosvenor Court Roundabout

For example, in the centre of Chester there is the Grosvenor Court square roundabout where the dual carriageway surrounding the town centre meets the Foregate Street (the end Chester’s ‘shared space’ main shopping street) and City Road, which leads to the train station. The lane markings on this roundabout highlight the inconsistency in UK road design.

Entering this roundabout from Foregate Street, you are encouraged to use the left lane for taking the first exit or travelling straight on. The second lane is straight on only, with convention dictating that this lane is used when the left lane is busy.

Entering the roundabout in the left lane, with the intention to go straight on, you are then confronted with this. You must move into the middle lane to go straight on. Hopefully the person in the right lane knows not to enter this lane.

The two lanes are now both marked as straight on. Best practice dictates that if possible you should stay in the left lane.

Once again, a middle lane opens up. This time it is for the users of the right-hand lane to use, presumably for the purposes of traffic stacking.

Here, the left hand lane can be used to take the left exit, or to go straight on. Once again it is best practice to where possible, to stick to the left when going straight on here. In this image it appears that the driver of the silver hatchback has become confused by the layout of this particular roundabout and is in the process of changing lanes.

This is probably why the driver became confused, the left lane allows traffic to take the left exit or go straight on. There are four traffic lanes by this point.

This time, neither of the two left-hand lanes allow traffic to proceed straight on. Instead, the left two lanes are directed onto the A51, a short urban dual carriageway lined with various businesses.

Hoole Way Roundabout

This is the approach to Hoole Way roundabout from St. Oswalds Way (West). Here the left lane is for the exclusive use of traffic taking the first exit, with straight on traffic sent to the right-hand lane.

Here we can see that the right-hand lane can be used for taking the right-hand lane of the first exit onto Hoole Way, another short urban dual carriageway, or to stay on the roundabout in the leftmost of the three lanes at the traffic lights.

This lane is labelled with a straight arrow, indicating that traffic using this lane may proceed straight on. However, in this case, this is actually referring to leaving the roundabout at the next exit, St Oswalds Way (East)

Both of these roundabouts have significant internal inconsistencies in their design, in addition to differing from each other. Despite this, they are actually next to each other on Chester’s bizarre inner ring road (bizarre because despite it being a dual carriageway, not one of the roads feeding in or out of the ring road is a dual carriageway).

The result of these inconsistencies is confusion. Whilst locals will become familiar with the particular peculiarities of the roads, junctions and roundabouts in their area, those visiting an area, or who do not frequently use a particular road, junction or roundabout will not be. The non-standardised nature of the design of roads, junctions and roundabouts in the UK means that experience of other roads, junctions or roundabouts on the road network will not necessarily prepare a person for using any other road, junction or roundabout.

Add to this distraction, lapses in concentration, poor maintenance, vastly different modes of transport sharing the same infrastructure and good old fashioned incompetence and we have the British road network, a recipe for a disaster which claims thousands of lives each year and which effectively restricts the choice of transport for many to only the most heavily armoured modes.

I decided to write this piece during an ISO 9001 training session. Whilst not exactly riveting stuff, it impressed upon me the value of consistency. Most of the problems with the UK road network find their root in this lack of consistency, standardisation is sorely lacking in almost all aspects of road design. This is why there are inconsistencies between the roundabouts examined above; there is no standard[1][2][3] to make road features such as roundabouts consistent internally, let alone consistent with with each other. The result is that a road user has no idea what to expect when encountering a roundabout or large junction for the first time.

This is also why we have little cycle infrastructure, with much of what has been provided being less than useless; there is currently no requirement to provide cycle infrastructure on any road and where planners choose to add it, there is no standard to ensure cycle infrastructure is consistent, safe or functional. All that exists is guidance which offers generally poor solutions and is easily ignored by highways engineers and local authorities. This lack of standardisation makes cycle infrastructure especially vulnerable to corner cutting and thoughtless, dangerous design choices based on the whims and prejudices of the individuals responsible for a given project. The situation is little better when it comes to pedestrian infrastructure.

Before I took driving lessons, I wanted the UK to adopt a Dutch approach to road design because I was a cyclist. Having experienced the roads from the perspective of a motorist, I  want it just as much. Regardless of mode, the road user experience needs to be consistent in order to be safe. This consistency means making sure road users know what to expect when tackling a particular type of junction, it means that the safety and convenience of a particular group of road users can’t be subordinated (or ignored altogether) based on the whims of individual planners or councillors. Regardless of how you travel, we should all be able to agree that it’s time for a standards-based approach to road design.

7 thoughts on “A standards-based approach to roads

  1. We have inconsistent road markings in Cambridge, they almost seem designed to catch visitors out. I reckon that the problem is that road system design is focused on throughput rather than consistency and “local tweaks” will speed traffic flow more than the odd visitor getting in the wrong lane will slow the traffic flow.

    The other thing you might notice whilst learning is how inconsiderate some motorists are to anyone with an L plate on their car or even driving within the limit. My daughter was driving along a road with double white lines and a 50mph speed limit at 50mph one night. A boy racer impatiently whizzed past her and gesticulated his annoyance at being imped!. Unfortunately he had not realised that there was a police car behind him, which lit up and overtook my daughter and pulled the boy racer into a layby for a chat. It was a good lesson for my daughter as well.

    Good luck

    • Local tweaks are definitely the name of the game in Chester too. The problem is that whilst they may marginally increase traffic capacity where they are situated, there is usually no more space downstream to accommodate the extra vehicle flow. Even if there was, the little bit of extra capacity is soon filled up and we are back where we started, but with a road which is less safe for the unfamiliar user and likely less safe overal for vulnerable road users.

      I’ve not had any trouble from motorists when driving with L plates, although it could just be that after cycling for years the contempt by motorists for each other is so tame compared to that which they show for cyclists, that I’m oblivious to it.

  2. Baffled face from across the Channel: every traffic planner has to figure out their own solution? Thou aren’t jesting, eh? That’s the method from before the industrial revolution.
    There are zillions of business that have proven the value of using a template or a standard many many times(possibly altering a bit when necessary).
    Could you enlighten my to why planners in counties/cities/ etc do not have to conform to a standard? How did this come about? You have building codes, which specify safety details for homes. You have rail traffic guides, with lots of safety functions, which functions through the whole country. Why can any city make their own road, without template or safety norm?
    Are roads less strictly tested than helmets?
    Here we have it on the national news (nu.nl) if a cyclist dies in an accident and the county is pressed to remedy the infrastructure. OK, that’s NL. You live in England (translates to dutch as scary-land btw), but this truly baffles me. Don’t you want to spend government money efficiently (or even effectively) I must be missing something, so is it a cultural thing? Freedom is more of an american asset, as far as I was aware.
    I am still baffled by this.

    • It’s less to do with ‘freedom’ and more to do with the fact that the UK approach is to mitigate, rather than properly plan ahead. Hence we end up with a seres of localised solutions to localised problems, with no forward thought to them at all and no thought for how local changes cause new problems downstream.

  3. @Anonimica The UK government is clearing up some of the inconsistency you point to by removing many of the standards that apply to building codes … but that’s off topic.
    @chestercycling I understand the thrust of your argument, and agree with much of what you say, but how far can we push it?

    Traffic lights show even more inconsistency than road markings. For example we have “smart” traffic lights in our area that are deliberately inconsistent because they purport to improve the flow of rush hour traffic in one direction or another. Your point about such inconsistencies pushing the bottleneck further upstream is borne out by experience of these inconsistent lights, and in fact it is quite disconcerting when the timing of the lights differs from their usual state. I think the smart lights situation supports your argument, but more generally should traffic lights throughout the UK follow one of a small number of standard patterns? I really don’t know …

    • A small number of standard patterns might be a good idea. However, changing the pattern of lights is less of a problem than the differences seen in junction layouts, simply because whilst the timings may differ, people still know what they are supposed to be doing when they see a red or a green light. When they see an amber light, they also know what they are supposed to do, but instead the will generally speed up to beat the red.

  4. Pingback: Safety tips for cyclists | Chester Cycling

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