Are the Chch Cycle Design Guidelines up to scratch?

A little bit of controversy has been brewing this week with the release of a blogpost by well-known Dutch-based UK cycling advocate David Hembrow, which has taken aim at the City Council’s Cycle Design Guidelines.  Hembrow has produced a fairly critical commentary on these Guidelines and clearly feels that many of the things presented are flawed or downright unsafe. Is this criticism warranted?

{Disclaimer: I had a little bit to do with the development of the Guidelines, in being on a stakeholder group for it and supplying some of my photos}

Hembrow’s blog, “A View from the Cycle Path”, provides a fascinating and well-documented insight into how The Netherlands have provided so well for cycling over the past few decades (he also runs study tours for those who’d like to see first-hand). On occasion he also takes a swipe at “less-than-optimal” examples of cycle planning and design elsewhere, particularly in his UK homeland (which lately has been making a lot of song and dance about supposedly “going Dutch” for cycling).

Did Chch City get these designs horribly wrong?

(c/ Chch Cycle Design Guidelines)

Before responding to Hembrow’s concerns, I think it is important to appreciate what the Guidelines are and aren’t:

  1. This is a conceptual design guideline, not detailed design. Hence many of the images are what I’d consider “artist’s impressions” – for better or worse, they present a vision but without all the little nuances. There are very few dimensions given in the Guidelines – this was deliberate to leave them off the drawings so that someone wouldn’t just take a design concept from here and try and insert it somewhere without consideration for context. Page 8 states “The guidelines are not technical engineering standards,… the guidelines will be used to inform an addendum to technical engineering standards in the City Council’s Infrastructure Design Standards”. The current task at Council is now to convert these generic images into actual detailed designs for the first cycleways being planned, and a lot of consideration is being given to provide a very good level of service for people using them.
  2. This is not a Dutch cycle design guideline. It is a guideline for a city on the far side of the world that has an existing road/cycle infrastructure (and an existing road user culture) and a desire to step this up. This is likely to be based on a number of useful techniques that we have seen from all around the world. While the Netherlands provides many exemplary examples of how to provide for cycling, I have certainly seen other nice examples from elsewhere (some of them documented here on this site) that I believe can also work effectively here (and in many cases attract new people to biking as well). This will particularly be important in situations where we don’t have the immediate means to physically provide what might be the “gold” standard ($69 million will still only get you so much) – so what’s the next best option for now?

OK, so what concerns does Hembrow have about the Chch Guidelines?

  • The first concern was about the portrayal of a “Dutch intersection” on p.32-33 (some of you may recall we even mocked up a layout of one during the Open Streets event). Hembrow states that “The Christchurch design misses many key details. The geometry of it is also completely wrong.” While I grant that the “artists impression” layout is a bit simplistic (yes, they should have shown a rider stopping in advance by the island), I think it mostly captures the intent, which is to provide more protection for through and turning riders (it could have made a better effort to indicate that left-turning riders can go at any time, though). Hembrow is also concerned that a right-turning cyclist won’t be able to see their signals because they will be behind them. But standard NZ practice is always to have secondary signals on the other side of the road too (and I also wouldn’t mind trialling some of those smaller eye-level cycle signals here too). A related concern seems to be that it is largely based on a very popular intersection layout created by Mark Wagenbuur doing the internet rounds, that was his take on converting a standard US (and probably NZ) layout to a more Dutch-style one, but wasn’t meant to purport to be a “standard” (or even currently much-used) Dutch design. OK, I get the point being made, but the accompanying illustration showing an actual Dutch intersection (on the right) in comparison to Mark’s hypothetical layout doesn’t seem exceptionally dissimilar to me in concept…
"Dutch" intersection - is the conceptual version really that different from the reality? (c/ A View from the Cycle Path)
“Dutch” intersection – is the conceptual version really that different from the reality? (c/ A View from the Cycle Path)
  • I suspect that the labelling of the previous layout as a “Dutch intersection” in the Guidelines didn’t help; Hembrow may have felt that we thought this was a standard intersection layout in The Netherlands. But I think it was just a handy shortcut way to refer to it – it came from Holland; therefore it was a “Dutch intersection”. Evidently a more common approach in The Netherlands these days is to provide a “simultaneous green” intersection, or what has been described in the Guidelines (p.34-35) as a “cycle Barnes Dance” (i.e. similar to the popular all-crossing intersection setup for pedestrians). Here Hembrow raises concerns that the Guidelines “have unhelpfully provided extra paint on the ground seemingly to guide cyclists to ride across diagonally rather than using the curved paths that are normally taken. Actually the white markings shown are the standard NZ Barnes Dance markings for pedestrians – presumably this intersection also features a separate phase for them. I imagine that the average cyclist during their phase will go wherever they feel is reasonably direct and avoids collisions. Hembrow also misunderstands the text which says that “ideally” there would be “a separate cycle signal” – this doesn’t mean that a separate phase for the cyclists is optional (that clearly defeats the point of having a Barnes Dance); it means that the physical signals for cyclists may not necessarily be on the same poles as the motor traffic ones.
  • Hembrow also has concerns with other treatments proposed that we have discussed here before, including hook turns (or “two-stage turns), advanced stop boxes, and sharrows. I think this misunderstands their likely applications in a Christchurch context. We already have an existing cycling infrastructure based on traditional “on-road” designs that is not going to be replaced overnight. Hence we need ways to pragmatically improve the existing cycling networks in the interim, while acknowledging that some of them are more about improving the lot of the existing riders than attracting many new riders. Something like hook turns for example are a relatively simple way to make right turns a much less stressful manoeuvre where there are no other dedicated cycle turning facilities. I know that Hembrow regularly points out that cycling numbers in Denmark are in slow decline, but it is significant that the Danish make very common use of these and still achieve far higher cycling numbers than us. Hembrow also takes issue with a “pointlessly badly designed” cycle bypass shown on p.38, actually the one on Buckleys Rd that seems to work just fine; his example of the same concept done properly seems to be a completely different context (i.e. side-road crossing a two-way off-road cycleway).
  • Hembrow feels that there’s “far too much emphasis on on-road cycle-lanes”. However this reflects the distinction between the “Major Cycleways” (which will be the focus of the immediate works programme and emphasise physical separation or calmed streets) and the “Local Cycleways” that will fill in the rest of the network at least for now. That is why the Local Cycleways section of the Guidelines still includes quite a lot of on-road treatments (which as we have demonstrated elsewhere, can provide significant safety benefits in their own right). Personally, I would like to think that most of the Local Cycleway routes will eventually look and feel very similar to the Major Cycleway designs, but that won’t happen overnight. The intersection layout on p.61 comes in for a particular grilling by Hembrow as “especially horrifying” and “a recipe for disaster”. I think this is a bit alarmist (and in some cases quite wrong – there are always traffic signals visible in front of cyclists); even the text says that cyclists could be given an even higher priority in this scenario by having a cycle-only phase or by delaying left-turning vehicles. And let’s be clear – this is not an intersection layout for a Major Cycleway.
Apparently this is horrifying...
Apparently this is horrifying – I can think of far, far worse… (c/ CCC)
  • Hembrow feels that the Guidelines suffer from a lack of actual experience with the Dutch designs in practice; he even offers his famous Dutch cycling study tours as one solution. I must certainly confess to have only spent a few days in The Netherlands myself (and that was mostly in The Hague), so I would certainly welcome the chance to take a closer look some time. But of course, Christchurch has been receiving Dutch input into their cycleway developments courtesy of our recent visitors Mark and Leo (and Leo will be back soon to assist further). The Dutch duo recently provided some very useful formal feedback to Council on their initial impressions about the city and its cycleway planning process; I note that they had very few concerns with the existing Guidelines other than to point out that “the devil is in the detail” – yep, that’s why they’re only conceptual…
  • One issue that clearly annoyed Hembrow was the fact that one of the figures in Guidelines (p.34) had come from his own website unacknowledged. As a fellow private blogger, I can appreciate this concern; I try to acknowledge sources where I can (and have seen my own photos all over the place…). Certainly a belated apology and acknowledgement is due by CCC for this oversight.

I’ve overlooked responding to a few other little bits & pieces but, in summary, my personal feeling is that the Guidelines are not as fatally flawed as Hembrow makes out; in many places it is a case of differing expectations about what the document is for and how it will be used (plus a few technical misunderstandings). Some of it is for the new Major Cycleways and some of it is to enhance existing cycleways, and in neither case will designs be photocopied straight off this document. That’s not to say that there aren’t improvements that could be made to the details presented, and Hembrow makes some valid points (esp. about some of the dimensions/speeds quoted – I actually wish that no numerical values had been included, as they are very context-specific). No doubt we will get a few things not quite right, even with the benefit of international experience. As the installation and monitoring of various new cycleways in Christchurch gets into full stride, it is likely that a “version 2” of the Guidelines would be a useful update (notwithstanding that the addendum to the Council’s technical engineering standards will provide more of the detailed design guidance). But ultimately, the success of the future cycleway plans in Christchurch will depend a lot more on the collective skills (and continuous learning) of the design teams making them happen than what appears in a glossy public document.

What do you think of the Council’s Cycle Design Guidelines?

8 thoughts on “Are the Chch Cycle Design Guidelines up to scratch?”

  1. Glen, thanks for your considered reply. I ask you one question: What is the result that you are trying to achieved with your design guidelines ? Do you wish to make conditions for the 1% slightly better and perhaps grow cycling to a low single digit modal share or to do you want infrastructure which gets everyone cycling ?

    When you say that you think I “misunderstand the likely applications in a Christchurch context” of ASLs, sharrows and two stage turns I think you misunderstand that they have no context at all in the Netherlands. ASLs are rare (we have none left in the city), two stage turns more rare (the example I used to know about 200 km away has been removed, there’s another slightly closer which still exists) and sharrows have never existed here. None of these things is being built now. Why ? Because none of them are either convenient or safe.

    It’s true that the Danes have made heavy use of two-stage turn junctions. However, it’s also true that they have safety problems with them. No fewer than seven cyclists died on two stage turns in just the city of Copenhagen last year. You have chosen to copy Danish designs just as the Danes are now looking to copy Dutch infrastructure in order to improve their safety and cycling modal share.

    Now Christchurch is your city not mine, so you have to choose your own path. All I can do is advise. The Netherlands achieved its world beating modal share not by building a few high quality paths separated by lesser infrastructure (that was tried in the 1970s and did not work) but by building exceptionally good infrastructure everywhere.

    What the Dutch have now is not a luxury. It’s not gold-plating. This is the minimum standard of infrastructure required to support the cycling modal share of this country. If you want to aim beyond single digits and wish to compete on a world stage for modal share, you can’t afford to skimp on quality.

    1. Thanks David, I appreciate your ongoing dialogue on this matter; there are definitely things we can learn from your experience in The Netherlands. I think we may still “agree to disagree” on some aspects, but I’m happy to accept that my opinion may change on some of these as I gather more evidence.

      I believe our efforts will tap into the “interested but concerned” who are over and above the 7% of regular commuters we currently achieve. This is supported by research we have done on what type of infrastructure (mid-block and intersections) would make the “next 10%” hop on their bikes more regularly.

      One point I’d note: it does not appear that the two-stage turns were specifically responsible for the fatalities in Denmark; it was turning traffic against straight cyclists (we have had similar issues in NZ, esp. heavy vehs). Interestingly I thought that the example shown in your video of the two movements sharing the approach lane actually made it safer than having them side-by-side, where visibility is often compromised. But clearly having separate signal phases would be even better again.

      P.S: I hope to catch up and chat in person some time – preferably in The Netherlands!

    2. David, Christchurch already has 7% cycle mode share with above 15% in some suburbs, and is aiming higher. I think it is a bit unfair – and to be honest, comes across as rather snobbish – to castigate them as “making the conditions better for the 1%”.

    3. As a native Christchurcher (but now an earthquake refugee in Auckland and closely involved with Cycle Action Auckland (along with the invaluable Max below)) I must say I completley agree with David H on this.

      Why do we need more reports and guidelines and design guides? We know what world best practice is, it is the Netherlands (maybe Denmark at a pinch) – just copy it. Chch is flat and sunny. It was at one stage possibly the number two cycle city in the world after Amsterdam. However, times have changed and we now need to supply (the term David uses that I love) subjective safety for cyclist. It doesnt matter how safe we tell people the design is or how many models (usually designed by very experienced, confident cyclists) say it is safe, it has to FEEL safe to ANY age group regardless of gender – and that is what the Dutch have achieved.

      When David first criticised some of the stuff I had written on the CAA blog, I said to him to imagine if the Netherlands suddenly decided it wanted to be the best Rugby nation in the world. Imagine what a long way they have to go. First to convince people not to play football (e.g. not to drive a car), then that Rugby is safe (e.g. that cycling is safe), then supply the facilities and fields for playing Rugby (e.g. cycle infrastructure). That would be a monumental task.

      However, if NL was to switch to Rugby, who should they copy? Australia, Romania, Argentina, Scotland? Countries that have a tiny Rugby culture and player base? No, they should copy NZ, at the very least South Africa (although Rugby is a minority sport there too, probably the DK to NL in cycling terms).

      At the same time, cycling is not a sport (despite what MAMILs may think) it is a useful and practical form of transportation. We have a long way to go but I dont understand why we would look at countries and cities that have barely managed what Chch already has achieved – a 7% commuter modal share. We should copy NL and maybe DK – everything else is second rate and wont get the 8 to 80 cycling demographic we want and need.

  2. Sorry Lennyboy, but the design as portrayed in the guideline photo- ( with the caption c/ Chch Cycle Design Guidelines) is fundamentally different from the one you use to compare to a real intersection( left photo, with the caption “Dutch” intersection – is the conceptual version […]). In the Chch design, the cyclist is on the road, stops at the light with the cars, unlike the concept put forward by Mark in the first place. The difference is huge.

    I think that David Hembrow’s criticism is very harsh and negative, but his points are valid and I believe that they should be considered for what they are worth. Your response comes across as very defensive- it seems like you are trying to save face even though the guidelines are obviously flawed.

    I think it’s great that these conversations are going on and that the christchurch cycling design is getting international attention. Let’s try and make it the best we can!

    1. Yeh JD, I acknowledged that the CCC pic should have made it clear that you can stop in advance by the island and do free left-turns any time (although the layout doesn’t rule it out either). My key point was though that these little details will be captured by the actual detailed designs of any such facilities here. Unfortunately the Guidelines image is being viewed as an exact blueprint for how they will be constructed here. Clearly have to be careful even when presenting conceptual design drawings!

      There’s an interesting blog by Mark just posted that adds to the discussion – see I think an important point that he makes in his video (and I would reiterate) is that every intersection is different in some respects and therefore needs to be designed on its merits. There is no “one size fits all” solution in The Netherlands and neither will there be here.

  3. This is one of the most interesting and infomative read in Feb.

    Amidst the safety concerns and intersection designs, I can’t help but wonder how all these individual good designs fit into our wider urban fabric. How are the look and feel of these cycle spaces going to impact on our already cluttered streetscape? Are the involvements of urban designers and architects too late in the design and implimentation process?

    Maybe it’s just one architect’s frustration in an engineering world.


  4. It’s all about different expectations. David Hembrow is coming from: ‘If you want to enable cycling as a regular means of transport for anyone for any purpose, the subjective sense of safety is crucial; for that you need appropriate infrastructure; it’s not enough to scatter green paint over roads that continue to be dominated by motor vehicles.’

    The guideline authors seem to be coming from: ‘What can we do that is of some help in a political environment where 1. its not allowed to take space away from motorists; and 2. the budget doesn’t run to anything much more than green paint.’

    If those are the constraints, so be it; but don’t encourage unrealistic expectations of what it will achieve.

    BTW When David said ‘the 1 per cent’, I suspect he just meant ‘the strong and brave who are the demographic of current cyclists [except in the Netherlands].’ Maybe in Christchurch ‘the 1 per cent’ is actually 7 per cent, but that doesn’t change the basic point that if you want cycling to be attractive to a larger demographic, green paint is not enough.

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