Lost in Translation: Applying the CROW Manual in the UK

If I said that the UK embraced Dutch cycling design principles decades ago, I think many of my fellow UK engineers would think I was a bit odd. However, in the 1930s and 1940s, we had planned and built infrastructure along main roads which, from a position of looking back from 2020, we'd certainly call "Dutch-style". Writer and historian Carlton Reid even managed to find a layout of a protected roundabout in a design manual, through his research into Britain's lost 1930s cycleways.

The UK has lots of cycling design guidance produced by government, as well as regional and local municipalities. The quality is highly variable, but five familiar design themes often appear:

  • Coherence
  • Directness
  • Safety
  • Comfort
  • Attractiveness

These will be very familiar to designers on the other side of the North Sea, as they appear in the CROW 'Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic'. The one oddity is "coherence" which appears as "cohesion" in the CROW Manual, but it means the same thing. We also prefer to use the word "cycle" in preference to "bicycle" to further demonstrate that it's not all about two-wheeled machines.

The UK lacks guidance which is both as detailed and as concise as the CROW Manual, and which can easily be applied across the whole of the country. As a UK designer I find the different approaches here inefficient, and it sometimes provides a stark change of approach on the streets at municipal boundaries. The UK also suffers from the idea of building "cycle routes" rather than "cycling networks", which means that heavily compromised route sections or junctions serve to erode the overall performance. Maybe our obsession with routes comes in part from our complicated financial processes, which tend to concentrate on benefit-to-cost-ratios for largely linear projects, rather than the more fine-grained development of networks.

In some parts of the UK, we are fortunately now thinking of complete networks. And as far as I am concerned, our leader is the London Borough of Waltham Forest, which is building protected cycling infrastructure on key main roads—including protected junctions—and then joining it all up with neighbourhood redesigns to prioritise cycling (and walking), removing through motor traffic from residential areas and investing in overcoming barriers (such as railway crossings).

 Lea Bridge Road, Waltham Forest, London. A 4-way junction design based on Dutch principles.

The good news for UK designers is much of the CROW Manual does translate into our context. Clearly our policy, historical and legal positions are different from those of the Netherlands, so application of the advice needs to be tempered by an understanding of the differences.

One area of contention (and one of the things which frustrates me) is the use of roundabouts in non-built up areas, and more specifically, how we accommodate cycling around them. The UK approach is to build roundabouts for high capacities and high driver speeds, which leads to multi-lane approaches, and layouts which make it easy to drive in and out of at speed. We then expect people to cross the arms of these roundabouts, often close to the circulatory area.

A UK roundabout in a non-built up area. The arms flare at the circulatory area to allow drivers to access and leave the roundabout at speed. The crossing point is where traffic leaves the roundabout.

The classic Dutch roundabout keeps driver speeds low with approaches perpendicular to the circulatory area, and there's only one traffic lane in and one traffic lane out of the roundabout on each arm. Crossing by cycle is over one traffic lane at a time using a rectangular island which is part of the speed-reducing layout. If it's more complicated than that, the Dutch tend to separate the cycling network. The UK doesn't, and so we end up with very large, signalised roundabouts which seem to take forever to cross.

The classic Dutch roundabout for non-built up areas. Slow driver speeds and easy to cross by cycle with crossing points set back from the circulatory area.

If only UK designers had the five design themes in mind, they might understand how hostile our approach is to people cycling, because aside from whether a roundabout is part of a coherent network, they are often indirect in terms of waiting to find a gap in fast moving traffic as well as feeling very unsafe and uncomfortable to navigate.

It seems that the UK is rediscovering how to design for cycling, and the good news is that good principles translate around the world. I personally find the CROW Manual a constant source of design inspiration.

Mark Philpotts is a walking and cycling design specialist based in Sweco UK's London office. Sweco plans and designs the sustainable communities and cities of the future. We are Europe's leading architectural and engineering consultancy with 17,000 staff including 1,350 in the UK giving a local presence. We have extensive walking and cycling planning and design experience across the UK and Europe delivering projects for a diverse portfolio of public and private sector clients. More on Sweco's Urban Insight which is a long-term initiative that provides insights about sustainable urban development, seen from a citizen's perspective. The initiative is built on a series of reports written by Sweco's experts, which provides society and decision-makers with the necessary to better understand and meet current and future challenges.

For the entire month of June, the Dutch Cycling Embassy and CROW are partnering to offer the 'Design Manual for Bicycle Traffic' for HALF PRICE. Purchase your copy online today.

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