Pinch points built into the design of roads that narrow the carriageway with the aim of forcing motorists to slow down are instead making cyclists feel unsafe as drivers try to squeeze past them, according to an academic at the University of Westminster.
Senior transport lecturer Dr Rachel Aldred and innovative cycle-light company Blaze teamed up last autumn to launch the Near Miss Project, seeking to gauge the extent of an issue that commonly affects all bike riders and deters many from cycling in the first place.
According to Dr Aldred, a pilot project found that “the average person experienced three near miss type incidents in just one day,” 30 September last year. Now, she has written a blog post based on the initial findings of the project, which ran for a fortnight from 20 October to 2 November.
The post addresses the issue of “carriageway narrowing, which might involve pedestrian build-outs, crossings with refuges, road works, parked cars and so on,” which Dr Aldred notes is implemented “to slow motor vehicles and attempt to make drivers behave better.”
She adds that according to Urban Design London in its 2014 sourcebook Slow Streets,
Drivers slow down when they feel the space they are travelling in is narrow. This is because they feel less sure of the space available to them. Pedestrians and other activity next to the carriageway are closer, more visible and more likely to encroach onto the carriageway and the driver has to negotiate with on-coming traffic in less space, meaning that vehicles may reduce their speed.
The document goes on to recommend pedestrian buildouts and 3 metre carriageways, since they would make overtaking dangerous and thereby encourage drivers to wait behind cyclists rather than attempt to pass them.
As Dr Aldred points out, that conflicts in 2002, the Transport Research Laboratory was critical of such infrastructure, saying:
Measures that deliberately require cyclists to obstruct traffic in order to produce a traffic calming effect should be avoided. The strategies adopted by some cyclists to deliberately hold up drivers until the cyclist believes it is safe for them to pass are likely to provoke particular hostility.
Dr Aldred said: “The TRL paper is now over ten years old, and it feels like the approach has shifted, given that the use of ‘primary position’ (or ‘taking the lane’) is a cornerstone of Bikeability cycle training.
“The Near Miss Project provides an opportunity to explore this debate further from the viewpoint of cyclists who’ve experienced near misses.
“I hadn’t intended to start with writing about this topic, but looking at the qualitative data – descriptions of experiences, feelings, responses to incidents – I was immediately struck by the frequent mention of ‘pinch point’ or more general terms related to road narrowing.
“An initial count suggests these featured in around one in twelve of our nearly 5,000 incident descriptions. This includes incidents in London, in villages, and everywhere in between.”
Her blog post is accompanied by a number of examples of incidents caused by carriageway narrowing gathered as part of the research.
Those include the anxiety that pinch points cause many riders, the additional risk posed at such locations by other factors such as poor weather, and incidents where cyclists felt themselves at risk or intimidated as a result of having to take primary position, including motorists acting aggressively towards them.
“Where does this leave design guidance? Asks Dr Aldred. “I think we need to think carefully about carriageway narrowing and buildouts, given driver behaviour at pinch points and the impacts it may have on cycling.
“As the UDL sourcebook says, a three metre wide space is clearly not wide enough for a 1.8m wide car to safely and comfortably overtake a cyclist. However, the experiences described here suggest narrow carriageways are not preventing close overtakes.
“Even with such little space, a minority of drivers want to try to overtake; if a cyclist is near the gutter they may experience a close pass, and if a cyclist is in primary position they may experience abuse and harassment, perhaps even being driven at,” she adds.
You can read the full blog post, including the first-hand accounts taken from participant in the Near Miss Project, here.
Simon has been news editor at road.cc since 2009, reporting on 10 editions and counting of pro cycling’s biggest races such as the Tour de France, stories on issues including infrastructure and campaigning, and interviewing some of the biggest names in cycling. A law and languages graduate, published translator and former retail analyst, his background has proved invaluable in reporting on issues as diverse as cycling-related court cases, anti-doping investigations, and the bike industry. He splits his time between London and Cambridge, and loves taking his miniature schnauzer Elodie on adventures in the basket of her Elephant Bike.