The Leeds-Bradford Cycle SuperHighway

poor side road junction design Because the cycling community has been mostly negative about the cycling superhighway I was expecting something pretty awful when I finally did the route from Bradford to Leeds. In the event I didn’t think it so very bad. It’s usable with care but for a hard core roadie it’s not got much to offer and they will, reasonably, stay on the road. Unfortunately car drivers will see the bike route and think, in their unsubtle way, that’s where you should be so it won’t improve tempers.

It’s not a great feat of engineering. The worst feature is that there are many points where the route winds around to cross side roads where it shouldn’t, for both safety and efficiency reasons. Even on my few trips I saw how hazardous this is – three bikes, at the entrance to MacDonalds at Thornbury, using a raised crossing on a side turning and a car turning into the side turning, and BOTH, of course, thought they had right of way. There’s no clear indication of right of way for either. The use of raised crossings of side roads is combined, in the official design specs, with stop lines before the raised crossing for vehicles approaching the raised crossing from the main road. At the entrance to MacDonald’s this hasn’t been done and so it’s dangerously unclear about rights of way at one of the busiest side roads on the route. The picture at the top of this post shows another dangerous crossing where, positively, they have this time added a give way line before the raised crossing, but why does this swerve away from the road at all? It means that cars emerging from the side road will simply assume they have right of way. It’s only a one way bike lane and was going sensibly alongside the main road. There’s no problem of space, no two way bike lane, to complicate matters. The bike lane should, of course, have continued straight on right next to the road. It’s poor design and I’m sure it will generate some injuries and even a slow speed collision can be dangerous. I saw cyclists simply jumping off the cycle path and onto the road for a hundred yards to avoid these hazardous junctions (especially on the numerous swerves that the path takes heading towards Bradford on the long straight to the Thornbury roundabout) but that has another set of problems. And, yes, the path is absurdly narrow at some points, especially where it goes past bus stops. To an extent this is the problem of retro-fitting a dense urban area with a bike route but there’s obviously a desire to not take much space from the motorised carriageways, which in all fairness are pretty heavily used. There are points where the route puts pedestrians in danger from bikes because neither the pavement nor the bike lane is wide enough.

The route dumps you on the road occasionally which means it isn’t really a fully segregated route, so fearful souls may be surprised to find themselves in the traffic (roadies like me will suddenly feel at home!). I did the route between 7am and 8am, so not too busy, but later it might be more of an issue. The surface of the bike route is OK but often not road like – it ain’t all smooth. How did they do that tarmac? Evidently some of it was done in a patchy way without proper rolling. But it cost a lot so where did the money go? I suspect more money was spent on marketing than on making it, one of the diseases of the modern world. There’s street furniture in hazardous places, but that’s common in the UK and we’re ready for it. On a dark night it’ll claim some victims…

At the end of the route you are in the middle of central Leeds with all the lack of provision for bikes that that location currently implies. So at the end there’s a bit of a surprise awaiting you and you are going to have to either walk or get on the road.

There’s the occasional bit of glass, there’s evidently some deliberate smashing of glass on the route since it’s much more glassy than the pavement next to it – but it must be being swept regularly though it is still more littered than the main road. I would recommend a good layer of kevlar or similar within your tyres, or very thick tyres. Having ridden the route, I immediately ordered a gatorskin hardshell (for the front, to match the one at the back). It’d be nice to do the route without feeling very vulnerable to glass and the like. No-one wants their morning commute disrupted by puncture repair / switching tubes over. It’s always raining when that happens…

It’s not a SUPERhighway, it’s just a basic bike route that gives a spatial nod towards doing your commute by bike. In a country that has treated bikes in urban areas very badly, this is a small but welcome improvement. Is it safe though? Well, pretty safe if you go slowly and carefully or if you are a very aware urban cyclist who knows where you’re going. Just don’t hurtle along near the bus stops, badly merged side roads and odd bits of street furniture. In terms of getting you to work without having to be very very awake and pumped up with adrenaline, it succeeds. If you are very very awake and an adrenaline junky (that’s lots of road cyclists) then you’ll stay on the road.

Does anyone actually use it though? On the few occasions I’ve used the superhighway there were few bikes using it. In mitigation you don’t turn around the oil tanker of car focussed transport policy in a year or two and it may well pick up, especially if the worst bits of the design are corrected. Perhaps it does better when the school run is under way, that was outside my usage times.

What does it need to be more usable? All side road junctions should give clear priority to the cycle route, which should not swerve off around raised  chunks of side roads or have Toytown stop lines painted on them. It should without exception be just part of the main carriageway reserved (and often, even mostly, segregated) for bikes. Currently there’s too  much button pressing for pedestrian crossings. In some places space needs to be taken from the motorised carriageway, especially where bus stops make the bike route unacceptably narrow. The bits where the tarmac is uneven need to be redone. Some weird bits of street furniture (telecomms boxes, signposts and many others) need moving out of the bike route.

Cyclists going from Bradford to Leeds have two significant advantages – the prevailing westerlies mean that in the morning, when you are probably still a bit slow and sleepy, you get a tailwind; and it’s mostly downhill too. After Thornton, on the edge of Bradford, it’s predominantly downhill to Leeds. Coming  back down into Bradford on a sunny day can even get within a whisker of being pretty – you can see the moors above Oxenhope in the distance at one point. If the wind is still blowing from the west you may well find yourself going uphill against the wind a bit on the way home. Signposts in Bradford claim a time of well under an hour (45 mins from the Otley Road roundabout) to get to Leeds. That’s optimistic. It’s taken me about 50 mins at least to get to my office, and I would not recommend trying to hurry it – there are plenty of minor hazards (as said, side turnings, street furniture, narrow lanes, pedestrians). They should put the mileage, not a time, since the time will vary according to the legs of the individual. No doubt it’s more encouraging to say ’45 mins to Leeds’, someone might just try it, rather than 10 miles. The funny thing is that if you didn’t use the Superhighway but just biked along the road, you could be there in 30 mins.

The best bit of the route is in Armley where it goes straight along the side of the road, mostly segregated and reasonably wide, with a good surface and you don’t have to join the pedestrians in pushing crossing buttons every few hundred yards.

There’s another point where the word ‘MERCKX’ is visible, but it is quite worn graffiti. Why was this written on a railway bridge in Leeds? Perhaps a drunken moment of enthusiasm, but since Merckx retired in 1978 this was a very retro moment of enthusiasm…. it can’t have survived forty years can it?

I’m a bit sleepy in the mornings so a segregated route, given the density of the traffic (in  more ways than one), suits me more or less. I’ll reserve my adrenaline for use coming down the lanes off Ilkley Moor…

[Later] Ah, if you use the cycle route besides all the usual clobber remember to carry a couple of bungees – the ancient but waterproof pannier I’ve been using just fell off, after the bolts gave up the struggle after one too many jolts… Connected it tightly to the seat post using some of its many straps and that kept it lying on the pannier rack.

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