19 November 2010

The Stevenage Dream

Update - March 03, 2013: Brilliant resumé about the history of Stevenage's cycle network and the visionary who planned over at Roads Were Not Built for Cars.

I found this in a book at the library a couple of years ago - can't remember the book - about Danish/Dutch style bicycle network in... Stevenage.

Yes. Stevenage.

Anyway, I believe the book was from the 60's or early 70's. From the photo, it looks promising. I haven't been to Stevenage recently so I was wondering if any of our British readers could tell us tales of promise from this hidden bicycle culture pearl.

What's it like in Stevenage these days? Is this intersection still around?


Gareth Rees said...

Here's that junction on Google Maps: the cycle paths are still there.

ibikelondon said...

Sadly, just like Milton Keynes, the new town was built so beautifully for cars that no one bothered to cycle - you can get everywhere really fast and without hindrance in your car. You'd think this was an obvious from the start but the dedicated cycle network at Milton Keynes is held up ALL the time here in the UK as the prime reason why "cycle paths can't / don't / won't work" here. Well, duh!

scruss said...

I thought the picture was from "The Penguin Book of the Bicycle" — an awesome book from the mid-70s, written by two poets — but their view of Stevenage was slightly different.

East Kilbride in Scotland was built to a similar plan. When I was riding near there in the 1980s, most of the bike infrastructure was unmaintained, most likely littered with broken glass, and the unlit underpasses were havens for wee neds to go glue sniffing.

Bristol Traffic said...

The issue here is that the underpasses and overpasses were designed to keep pedestrians and cyclists out the way of the more important cars. The underlying goal of all UK 1970s road designs wasn't "provide a safe walking and cycling environment" so much as "provide fast driving environment", with segregation as one of the means to achieve this, not an end of itself.

If you want to see good segregation, the Railway Path from Bristol to Bath does it, as it is faster than any of the driving alternatives, no giveways, well lit, popular and safe to use. Which is why the local councils tried to turn it into a bus lane. Either they thought the people walking and cycling would be grateful for their greenery removed in exchange for a narrow path alongside a fenced off bus route, or they underestimated how assertive the troublemakers would be when they felt their routes were threatened.

What that railwaypath debacle did show is that in those cities where the segregated paths work they are loved by the locals, so the real issue for the UK is how to do segregated paths that work, and how to link up your entire city this way.

Bristol Traffic said...

As an aside, we like the title of your post, reminds us of our own coverage of the Bearpit, Central Bristol's premier motorway underpass and inner-city park.

We are pleased to see that you are coming round to our way of thinking.

Klaus Mohn said...

What Bristol said - plus, this intersection looks like Brasilia to me, a city built for cars. Underpasses are dark and smelly paths allocated to the poor people who don't own a closed, climate-controlled car and drive it everywhere.
The La Défense business district in Paris is a terrible place to get around by bike - it was built on a segregated model, too.
In England and in France, we need to reclaim our land from schemes that are stuck promoting the systematic and universal use of private automobiles. This picture represents one of them.

Peter said...

Columbia, Maryland is another planned community where paths were put in as part of the planning to connect the 10 "villages" that make up the town. The path system is fully connected with over and underpasses at major road crossings. You can see the full system if you go to google maps and click the "bicycle" option.

I found the system mostly used by dog walkers and joggers. Almost no bicycles. What bicycles I did see were using the road system rather than the paths. I asked why and they said that it was difficult to share the paths with walkers and also design flaws such as blind intersections made them somewhat dangerous.

The other problem is the path system is only within Columbia and doesn't connect to the rest of the area. There are very few destinations within Columbia.

Ralph Aichinger said...

There is a strange beauty in this photo: The optimism that was expressed in shaping an environment for cars is quite evident in this picture.

You could not do this today, I think. You can still build motorways and multi-lane roads today, but you no longer can make them that beautiful, and certainly you can't get them that empty even for making a photo, when they are new.

On the one hand this is a beautiful picture, maybe even a beautiful road design, on the other hand each time I look at it, I imagine what this might look like today: Probably very loud, very dirty and unpleasant. Lots of cars, traffic jams. The bikepaths maybe littered and scary at night.

Then it was about motorization, today it is about de-motorisation. And I think it is good that way.

l' homme au velo said...

Variations on a Theme,same thing in Dublin. The New Town that was Built in 1966 in Ballymun with Blocks of Council Apartments in a Kind of Soviet Era Style of Pre Fab Concrete.

With a Huge Roundabout on the main Road with the same Underpasses as Stevenage.

Some Years ago they decided to Regenerate the Town and Demolish the Apartments and Seven high Rise Tower Apartments and Built Houses instead.

The Underpasses under the Roundabout had become areas of Unsocial Activities with Drug Shooting Dens and Smelly and Littered with Glass and Unsafe for Pedestrians. So they finally filled it in.

The same thing happened in other areas of the City with these Roundabouts they were filled in. They were not properly looked after with Lights always broken and Littered with Glass and dangerous for anyone Cycling through them.

At that time there was no Cycle Lanes at all just a shared use Pathway just to get the Cyclists and Pedestrians out of the way of the Cars. Things are slowly getting better now although with badly designed Cycle Lanes unfortunately.

Adam said...

Peter, I grew up in Columbia. A couple of the most critical design flaws of those paths are a) most are only about 5 feet wide for 2 way traffic, and b) they mostly run through wooded areas with no lighting. As most American suburbanites and their bicycles are oriented towards performance and the narrow, winding and dark paths are not well suited for cycling faster than 10 mph, those suburban paths and the suburban cyclists using those paths just don't mesh. Although they were great place for us teenagers to smoke pot.

Amsterdamize said...

great to see some history of that design, which I know very well. My hometown Houten has 'm at several roundabouts and I've seen them elsewhere.

Can't get more convenient and safe than that.

Anonymous said...

Some pedestrian underpasses in Brasilia (portuguese text):
They are humiliating.

Jimbo said...

Yep - classic example of how segregation isn't the end of.

Stevenage has a lower level of cycle commuting than almost anywhere else in the East of England (Harlow, another town with segregation, is even lower!). Just 2.9% commute to work, against an East of England average of 3.9%. Cambridge, just down the road, is a mixture of car-restricted narrow roads, cycle lanes, some cycle paths and... cycling culture. It manages 26%.

We experimented with the 'build it and they will come' mentality a few times. It doesn't work very well. Good facilities, good promotion, dense residential areas and measures to deter car use are what is required. Those who think that by asking for them Dutch style facilities will be provided everywhere and used need to go to a place like Stevenage and have a good look.

Klaus Mohn said...

Jimbo - I presume that "build it and they will come" DID work really, really well in Stevenage! Just, y'know... if you're talking about cars :)

Jimbo said...


Sort of - and yes, ibikelondon is partly right: Stevenage and Milton Keynes do have very good road networks for cars. But so do most Dutch towns. David Hembrow is always at pains to say how easy it is to drive there, yet many people choose to cycle.

Stevenage: car commute: 69%, cycle 3%
Milton Keynes: car commute: 71%, cycle 3%

Then look at a few other towns, which are simply old and densely populated:

Gosport: car commute: 60%, cycle commute: 11%
Oxford: car: 42%, cycle: 15%

The regional average in the south east of England (where nearly all these towns are) is 65% car and 3% cycle.

Inner London (2009): 20% car, 8% cycle.


Peter said...

Adam - thanks for the explanation. I'm glad you found the paths useful as a teenager :-)

Warren T said...

Gareth, looks like they've got more than one of those interchanges. Found another here: http://maps.google.com/maps?f=q&source=s_q&hl=en&geocode=&q=Stevenage,+United+Kingdom&sll=54.188155,-3.208008&sspn=9.962525,23.510742&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Stevenage,+Hertfordshire,+United+Kingdom&ll=51.890792,-0.195259&spn=0.002562,0.00574&t=h&z=18

James said...

I grew up near Stevenage. Occasionally, I used to ride my bike through the town, around 15-20 years ago. I seem to remember that it was quite a nice place to cycle through actually, in that I was grateful to at least have the option of not cycling on all those busy dual carriageways and roundabouts. The paths were slightly neglected in that not many other people seemed to use them, and there were lots of weeds growing out through the concrete. Also some of the underpasses were a bit intimidating with the odd blind-corner, but nothing too awful.

OtherAberdeen said...

We've got one of them in Aberdeen. The cycle lane which transects it is actually part of the UK National Cycle Network Route 1 and is well used by utility cyclists accessing the town centre.

Richard Mann said...

Houten doesn't have dual carriageways and large car parks in it's town centre(s)