You can’t please everyone

I went to the seafront in Portsmouth recently and took the opportunity to look at the relatively new Seafront Cycle Route. I applaud Portsmouth City Council for trying to encourage cycling in the city, although I think the new road layout is a missed opportunity to really demonstrate the council’s vision of being a healthy, low carbon city, and leading the UK in minimal car use by 2027. My main concern, however, is that I think the road design may increase the likelihood of an accident by relying too heavily on people diligently paying attention to their surroundings.

The cycle path along the seafront in Portsmouth fills a gap in the National Cycle Network route 2 that runs from Folkestone to Exeter. The dedicated cycle path is a great addition, which will hopefully encourage more bike use. The new segregated design will hopefully discourage accidents involving bikes and motor vehicles, however it may increase the risk that cyclists will collide with pedestrians, one of the main reasons cited for not allowing cycling on the existing promenade.

Room for manoeuvre

The two way cycle lane runs alongside the promenade, and is separated from the new car parking lane by chevrons and intermittent raised kerbs (see photos below). The chevrons are there for car users as a space to unload their belongings and passengers, however, they leave little room for error, and people are only one small step from being in the path on an oncoming bike.

When I visited the seafront I did get my two kids out of the car quite safely, although I felt my youngest was rather vulnerable being left in his buggy on the chevrons whilst I unbuckled my other child. It felt a bit like we were in the middle of the road, which I think technically we probably were. I’m not sure how safe I would feel if that little one wasn’t in a buggy. I guess in principle this is no different to getting your children out on a normal road, except with this configuration there is no ‘safe’ side of the car away from traffic. I am well aware of the importance of teaching children road safety, but I also understand how excitable children get, particularly when they’ve just arrived at the seaside for a day out, or can see an ice cream van. I think it is a lot to ask them to stay within such a narrow space.

Speaking of ice cream vans, I’m not sure where these will be situated now. Will they park in the car parking lane, and if so will people need to queue along the chevrons without drifting into the cycle lane?

Physical indicators

The limited space of the chevrons is not just a potential problem for those with children. When standing on, or walking along a traditional pavement a person literally has to watch their step as they move from pavement to road. However, when a person steps from the chevrons to the cycle path there is no physical indication of the change from a pedestrian area to the cycle path: this allows people to wander onto the cycle path inadvertently. I’m not convinced that relying on a visual barrier is adequate, particularly when people on foot are likely to be focusing on other tasks whilst moving alongside and crossing the cycle path.

The intermittent raised kerbs between the cycle lane and parking lane should help people on foot identify when they move into the cycle lane. However, because the raised kerbs are only intermittent they require people to look at their feet to avoid tripping up, rather than being aware of any cyclists that may be coming along.

Pedestrians and cyclists in the same space

The reliance on people to be consistently aware of their surroundings is particularly prevalent along areas of the seafront where the chevrons are used as a safe path to get to a payment point, or a crossing to the promenade (see photo below). On a busy day people will need to walk along the chevrons with any children, buggies, and picnics they have with them, whilst avoiding any other people, and whilst not tripping over the intermittent raised kerbs. It would be all too easy to step onto the cycle path without looking. In fact, if you have a buggy, you would need to step into the cycle lane in order to avoid the raised kerbs.

People need to stand on cyclepath to get parking ticket

The situation is perhaps exacerbated as car users must cross the cycle lane to reach the pay and display machines on the promenade. There are no barriers along much of the promenade, so cyclists could be faced with pedestrians crossing their path at any point. Where there is limited access to the promenade due to a high wall, people paying for their parking ticket need to stand, and potentially queue in the cycle path (see photo above).

Mobility problems

The raised kerbs are an issue for people with buggies. Not only do they force people using them onto the cycle path, but also, depending on how cars are parked, people may need to lift their buggies over the raised kerbs in order to cross the cycle path.

More worryingly, I should think they are a real challenge for anybody with mobility problems, something that doesn’t seem to have been accounted for in the design of the disabled parking bays. I had parked my car at the Eastney end of the seafront, just before the road bends to the north away from the sea. The photo below demonstrates how a disabled person would either need to park against the flow of traffic in order to get out on the chevrons, or would need to get out of their car onto the road, right next to a corner where they would be out of view to oncoming traffic until the last second.

Disabled parking at Portsmouth sea front

The disabled parking spaces do not seem particularly long, and with more than one car parked this would make it difficult to get a wheelchair, or walking frame from the boot of a car. The raised kerbs are an obstruction for any anyone moving around a car with a wheelchair or walking frame and also need to be negotiated in order to get to the drop kerb on the promenade that unhelpfully isn’t positioned opposite the disabled parking bays. This design leaves disabled people in an unnecessarily vulnerable position, and increases the likelihood that disabled people who arrive by car will have to travel along the cycle path to get to the promenade.

Protection from the promenade

As well as people crossing the cycle path from the car parking lane, there is also a risk of intrusion from the promenade. Previously when on the promenade the parked cars offered a barrier to moving traffic, or at least the parking spaces meant it was a distance before any wayward child was in harm’s way. Now there is less room for error as the cycle lane is right next to the promenade, so any roaming dog, ball or child will instantly be in the path of cyclists.

Pleasing everyone?

On reflection, instead of cyclists being in danger from cars, the new road design encourages cyclists and pedestrians to be a danger to each other. This seems incongruous to the underlying objectives for the cycle route outlined in a report presented to the Portsmouth City Council Cabinet:

  • to increase cycling by 4%
  • to reduce obesity levels
  • to create an accessible city with integrated and sustainable transport. This is in line with the Climate Change strategy that states ‘Portsmouth’s long-term aim is to lead the UK in minimal car use and make walking and cycling the first choice for people to get around the city’.

All these objectives suggest that pedestrians and cyclists should be prioritised in the new scheme. So it seems strange that with an objective to minimise car use that the main car route around the seafront is relatively unchanged, apart from the removal of 150 parking spaces, and even these are compensated for by cars being able to park on the common on busy days. The speed limit even remains unchanged at 30mph, although the road has been somewhat narrowed, and there is the potential for reduced visibility of people on any crossings due to the inclusion of a cycle lane and a parking lane that could obscure the view of people waiting to cross, or already crossing.

In contrast, the new layout leaves cyclists needing to have their wits about them in order to avoid anyone who has just got out of their car. Those that have driven need to negotiate cyclists, which is particularly problematic for vulnerable groups like the elderly, disabled and young children.

So not only do I think the new design encourages accidents, but I also think more could have been done to showcase Portsmouth’s commitment to minimise car use, by providing facilities that prioritise pedestrians and cyclists, even if this is to the detriment to general car users.

An alternative?

I think there is a way to redesign the seafront that is less problematic. These are only ideas, and are in no way a thoroughly thought out solution. I have not taken measurements, or looked at standards, so feel free to comment if you have any thoughts or alternative suggestions.

  1. Completely segregate the cycle path from the traffic. A continuous raised kerb would keep cyclists safe from the traffic, and would provide a physical indicator for pedestrians that they will be stepping onto a cycle path.
  2. Minimise pedestrian crossing points by putting more benches and shelters along the seafront. This will also reduce accidental intrusions from the promenade by providing a barrier between it and the cycle path. The shelters will also encourage people to leave their cars to sit on the promenade rather than just sitting in their cars.
  3. Allow people safe exit from their parked car by moving the parking to the north side of the road and by providing a pavement on the side away from the traffic.
  4. Provide people with more visible and safe passage across the road and cycle path to the promenade by creating more zebra crossing points. This will also minimise random crossing of the cycle path.
  5. Provide clearly distinct disabled bays near to crossing points, and drop kerbs to allow easy manoeuvre with a wheelchair or walking frame.
  6. Reduce the speed limit along the seafront.

The downsides of this design include (but I am sure are in no way limited to)

  • People who like to sit in their cars and look at the sea will now be parked further away from the promenade.
  • People arriving by car will need to cross the road, but the provision of more crossing points should make this safer.
  • There may be further reduction in car parking spaces, but on busy days maybe the common can be utilised, or a park and ride scheme can be introduced to encourage people out of their cars altogether.

Portsmouth priorities and phase 2

Currently the Seafront Cycle Scheme only runs from Eastney to Southsea pier. The second phase, which has yet to be started, will take the route for the remaining distance along the seafront. In an attempt to see where Portsmouth City Councils priorities are I’ve taken a look at the core strategic direction for Portsmouth as outlined in the Portsmouth Plan (pre-submission draft).

The plan outlines the long term objectives for the city of Portsmouth. I’ve highlighted the relevant points below, followed by a reference to the appropriate section in brackets. There is a real emphasis on moving away from the car as a form of transport by making “walking and cycling…the first choice for transport within the city”, and for Portsmouth to “lead the UK in minimal car use” by 2027. The Plan goes so far as to state that “[p]riority will be given to cycling and walking in new developments and when improving roads and the network of cycling and walking routes will be enhanced” (1.32, 2.4, 2.9, 4.112)

There are two underlying drivers for these objectives:

  • to promote healthy living within Portsmouth, where in 2005 52% of adults were classed as obese compared to the national average of 37% (4.76).
  • to reduce the carbon footprint of the council by 30% by 2016/7 (1.39, 2.4).

The Plan pulls together these two drivers by highlighting how increased cycling and walking benefits individual fitness “but also improves health through a reduction in traffic omissions, improved air quality and a reduction in road accidents”(4.75). It also identifies the seafront as an enabler to healthy choices “improving access to and enhancing the seafront to increase people’s use of the area for exercise and relaxation” (2.21)

This makes me wonder how these objectives will manifest themselves with the next phase of the cycle route, assuming the scheme goes ahead. Will the design of the cycle path leave those visiting the seafront in no doubt about the priorities of Portsmouth? How will Portsmouth demonstrate its ambition to lead the UK in minimal car use?

If Portsmouth Council wants to fulfill their objectives then at some point they will need to upset the motoring majority in order to make cycling and walking a more attractive option. If Portsmouth wants to ‘lead the UK for minimal car use’ then they need to stop putting the needs of motorists at the forefront of road design. 2027 is a long way in the future, but the change needs to start as soon as possible, if future generations are going to grow up thinking cycling is a viable, respected and safe form of transport.


2 responses to “You can’t please everyone

  1. Hi Emma , I read your report with interest. So pleased that you support the core strategies of PCC that many cyclists in Portsmouth also support. I am dissappointed that your speculative observations and predictions are unsubstantiated by hard evidence and data to support your opinion. It is anecdotal. The existing c route is imperfect and a compromise , but in over a year no catastophic massacres have occurred. It is far easier to alight from a car here than in most other streets in Portsmouth. Try unloading a buggy in the road with the old echelon parking. Drivers then till had to walk along behind the booots of cars to find a parking meter. This will change soon anyway with pay by mobile. However imperfect is the new layout it is safer than the old one. Try cycling with your little ones along the route, as I do cleanly and regularly with 5 of my small grandchildren. I didnt dream of it when there was the former layout. That was 40 years old and designed when cars were fewer and smaller. It did not meet modern Deaprtment of Transport standard.

  2. Hi H Reed, thanks for taking the time to comment on my post. I feel compelled to comment back.

    This is not a report, merely a blog article that I have decided was worth me taking my time to write. I appreciate a report would require reference to research related to road safety, human factors and psychological studies into human perception, and situational awareness. To be honest I haven’t had the time to dig out related work in this area to substantiate my opinion. My analysis of the current infrastructure is based on my professional capacity within the field of human factors where I look at the design of environment, systems, processes and equipment and how it enables people to make mistakes. I acknowledge that this is not in the road safety domain, but I do think I have some perspective that is not simply anecdotal.

    Why am I interested? Well I am not a seasoned cyclist, in fact I am not even simply a ‘cyclist’, or someone who uses a bike. I am one of those people that would spend more time on my bike if I felt our roads were safer. I am probably one of those people that the council would like to convert to a cyclist to help their car use figures. It is because I would like to spend more time cycling, because I have a vision about the kind of world I would like to live in, that I have taken a closer look into the reasons why I don’t. Which is why I have a blog with a few cycling related articles on it. I admire people, probably like yourself, who have taken the step to cycle more, and with their children or grandchildren. So I probably have a different perspective to a ‘motorist’ or a ‘cyclist’, as I have no wider agenda than my own. Also I am not associated with any organisation involved in the seafront cycle route, so therefore I can say what I want without misrepresenting anybody else.

    I have not claimed that there would be “catastrophic massacres” on the seafront cycle path. I merely stated that I thought the redesign would increase the risk that cyclists and pedestrians would be involved in accidents with each other, which is very different. I have no data on the number of accidents that may have occurred (although I have found a report of one incident, and more importantly I have no data on the number of near misses that may have taken place. This would perhaps give some indication of how reliant the design is on people’s observation of the environment around them.

    I did used to get my kids out of the car when it was echelon parking and felt it to be infinitely easier and safer than the current design. I’d get the folded double buggy out of the boot and walk next to the car to the promenade (even with a car parked next door this was achievable). Then with the buggy set up I could get each child out in turn and strap them into the buggy. No walking in the road with children required. I also had visited the seafront with my disabled father (he doesn’t use a wheelchair but is very unsteady on his feet and uses a walking frame or a walking stick). I haven’t yet taken him to the seafront but I would be interested in how easy he found getting from the car to the pavement.

    I do think that the redesign offers some improvement to the old road design, but as you say it is a compromise. What I hope I have conveyed in the article is that I think it is very sad that we are still making these compromises even with the council highlighting the need to move people onto bikes/foot for reasons of curbing obesity levels and a greener planet. At some point we will need to stop compromising, and I just hope that it’s sooner rather than later.

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