It’s a great shame that an article about cycle paths in Hertfordshire has to be negative and critical, but that, sadly, is a reflection of their current state.
At issue seems to be the lack of a maintenance program and a lack of pre- or post-work inspection. Which is perhaps because our Highways Panel don’t understand the benefits of allocating budget to encouraging the bike as a means of transport. Instead cyclists get advice to wear helmets and high viz vests: http://m.hertsdirect.org/mediareleases/highways/PR_19582/ .
In early 2015 the County Council announced they were budgeting £40 million for highways improvements.
I was prompted by this announcement to see which cycle paths could be improved. Many of the cycle paths are the responsibility of Highways so it would be reasonable to expect them to be included in the budgeted works.
I visited some local paths armed with a spade and secateurs to expose the extent of any vegetation problems.
Below are some images and descriptions of what I found. Where they are doesn’t matter as this post is about the general state of paths, not reporting specific issues.
In this photo you can see that the available width of the combined pedestrian and cycle path is less than half what it should be. Note the spade at left which shows the hidden edge of the path. I would be very surprised if this section of path has seen any attention in the last two years
The red line in the next photo shows the approximate left hand edge of the path. How old is that shrub overhanging the path?
This is an example of sweeping (or not) of a cycle path. What’s not very clear from the photo is that a good deal of that debris is broken glass – the cyclist’s friend.
The next photo shows tree root damage. I reported this on the Highways fault reporting website about two years ago, their response was that it was not a trip hazard for pedestrians as it was below the height for pedestrian trip hazards and they would therefore be taking no action.
About the only sort of bike capable of riding over this at any normal speed without severe shock to bike and rider is a full suspension mountain bike. A fault like this is a significant safety hazard and could result in the rider of a regular bike falling off. This is quite a good example of the low priority the Council accords to those who wish to travel by bicycle – there is a standard for hazards on facilities for pedestrians but not apparently for bike routes.
I’m not quite sure what the purpose of the ribbed tiles are but they do a good job of damming the path and providing a place for debris to land on and for vegetation overgrowth. This wouldn’t be an issue if the Council were doing proper monitoring and maintenance.
This is a typical example of the state of the cycle paths. Clearing back the vegetation shows the proper width of the path. The turf is quite thick here so it’s hard to believe it’s been cleared in the last couple of years. The available width is not much more than half the surfaced width. Someone is going to have to go into the verge if two people meet. This is creating conflict, a situation that would be unthinkable and unacceptable on a motor traffic route.
This is a footway not a cycle path. It shows the Council’s commitment to people who walk. That is a small tree growing out of the footway. It’s obviously been growing there for some years.
Blackthorn is the bush which produces white blossom in the hedgerows in early spring, and at the end of summer, sloes, the bitter berries used in making sloe gin. It also has vicious spikes which could easily take an eye out. Here is some growing at face height over the cycle path. Not nice to run into at night.
Here are some more photos of the typical state of cycle paths between towns and which show the low priority HCC give to those wanting to travel by bike.
There are other hazards for non-motorised travellers too. This one is a matter of police priorities.
And for contrast here is how it could be done. Why this 200m stretch is in this relatively well maintained state is a mystery.
Hertfordshire is characterised by small centres of population within cycling distance of each other. Occasionally, as Hatfield and Welwyn Garden City or Hatfield and St Albans, they are connected by quite respectable cycle paths. In other examples, such as Harpenden and St Albans, there is a legal route along the footway but it is of poor quality.
I visited the Harpenden to St Albans route recently. There are some ok sections but mainly it is overgrown and the surface is very rough. In some stretches the width is reduced to 6 inches by grass and weed overgrowth.
Harpenden to St Albans is not a great distance to travel by bike so it’s a shame that we are not encouraged to do so.
The route from Redbourn to St Albans is rather similar. It also has a footway alongside which is narrow, bumpy and overgrown. In this case it is not a legal cycle path so you must share a narrow road with fast traffic – even if you are primary school age.
Many cyclists are not happy with the state of cycle paths in the county, particularly paths between centres of population so I asked Councillor Terry Douris, the chair of the Highways Panel, how much of that £40m was earmarked specifically for maintenance of cycle routes.
Councillor Douris initially replied to say “If there are any maintenance concerns with any cycle path, then this can be reported via Hertsdirect.”
I was unhappy with this response for two reasons,
- it is true you can report issues but often no action is taken.
- my request for information was about maintenance over the County not about specific issues.
As I understand it the Highways Department presents a program of works to the Highways Panel for approval. It must therefore be the Panel which is responsible for allocation of the budget and the decision on whether to maintain cycle paths.
On a positive note Councillor Douris said “HCC are investing over £1.7m in either designing or delivering cycle schemes in 2015/16”. I look forward to the results of this welcome investment.
A second response from Councillor Douris said “In the case of maintenance works, cycle facilities are integrated either with roads or pavements (as appropriate) rather than being separately identified as almost all highway cycle facilities share a surface either with a road or a pavement and we would usually maintain the whole surface at once not just one part of it. They therefore do not appear separately on the programme.”
Again this is an unsatisfactory answer.
- It tells us there is no specific budget for maintenance of cycle paths, maintenance that benefits cyclists only occurs by happy chance on the back of road or footway maintenance.
- It also tells us that if any monitoring is done it is not done from the perspective of cyclists’ needs.
- And many of the roads around the County are simply unsuitable for sharing between people on bikes and people in cars.
There is an enormous amount of evidence from around the world showing the positive effects and economic benefits of funding for cycling. The DfT says “targeted investment into cycling can bring very strong returns to society.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/348943/vfm-assessment-of-cycling-grants.pdf)
Unfortunately this evidence doesn’t seem to have reached our own County Council. Utility and commuting cycling remains a very low priority and the Council continues to believe that to get people moving you need to get motor vehicles moving.
Hertfordshire is due to massively increase it’s population as required new housing is built. If nothing is done to change modes of travel away from private car and towards active travel and public transport, traffic jams and delays will become the costly norm, with working hours lost and greater highway maintenance costs, not to mention negative health effects of poor air quality, obesity and other effects of lack of excercise.
We need funding for utility and commuting cycling now and we can start by getting the infrastructure we already have into good order. Even 1% of that £40 million would go a long way towards investing for the future of a sustainable transport network.
Comments from other people who travel by bike, or by members of the Highways panel or department are welcome. If you have a favourite poorly maintained, or well maintained stretch of cycle path please let us know in the comments.