Surrey’s Failed Roundabouts

This morning I had the misfortune to witness a car being driven into a cyclist (well, I at least had the fortune not to be that cyclist: the incident occurred on a route that until this week I’d been using daily).

Fortunately, although he hit the deck fairly hard and sustained some cuts and bruises, the rider was not seriously injured. But the design of the road at that point is very clearly dangerous, and it’s a design that is being planned elsewhere.

The Walton plans

In July, Surrey County Council released their plans for the Walton Bridge links cycle path. The detailed layout is available as multiple PDFs, but in broad terms it’s a design typical to Surrey: the “cycle path” is largely actually a shared path with pedestrians, and is constructed broadly as per any pavement.

There is a fundamental issue with shared paths carrying people on foot and people on bikes in that they are really the same design as a road carrying people on bikes and people in cars, and the result is the same: the faster users are frustrated and the slower users are scared. Whether on foot or on a bike, a shared path only works tolerably if the flow of at least one of the modes is close to zero. And what’s the point in ploughing money into a path that only works when it’s not used?

There is, however, another issue with these paths as implemented in Surrey (as, indeed, they generally are in the UK). At every junction, the path gives way to the road. There is no continuity, and there are a great many points at which flows cross and different users must interact, with the priority being given to the vehicles capable of doing most harm. So rather than use the interactions to reduce the kinetic energy that’s kicking about at the junctions by making drivers slow down and be cautious (which can be achieved by using raised tables and correspondingly set back give way lines), they add all the complexity of numerous interactions whilst retaining the same levels of energy that would be present on a straight stretch of road. Which seems a retrograde step.

A predictable failure

When I saw the designs for Walton, I tweeted as follows:

Sure enough, today I saw the exact incident I’d foreseen.


The following Streetview image better shows the road layout (click it to go to Google Maps).


The cyclist had started crossing the road from the left; his front wheel was just passing onto the traffic island when the driver moved forward and her car hit him, sending his rear wheel—and him—up into the air.

The failure modes

There are at least two obvious ways in which this design is dangerous.

Firstly, a cyclist approaching it from the left of the picture cannot see easily past the hedge to their right: so when the road is relatively clear, the rider is obliged to ride across the road in the hope that there isn’t someone approaching it quickly (which happens). The implementation of this “design” exacerbates this problem by using tactile paving slabs, which are extremely slippery in the wet, and which in this case slope to the side. From personal experience, even approaching this junction as slowly as possible, it is quite easy to slip here when a car suddenly appears and the brakes must be applied at the last minute.

However, the failure mode that seems to have caused this morning’s collision is a different one. Collisions of this type will, fortunately, generally occur at lower speeds, but the likelihood of this collision seems high.

The cyclist had already crossed nearly all of the road. Yet the driver evidently hadn’t seen him, despite the fact that he would have been clearly visible to the left and had already mostly passed the front of the car.

As a driver—whether you are moving at moderate speed or queuing behind another car—when you approach a roundabout like this your focus is to the right, towards the approaching traffic to which you have to give way. On this roundabout, people often drive round quickly—the junctions have shallow angles which encourage high speeds, a feature that is extremely problematic when placing cycling infrastructure—and there is extremely heavy flow here at peak periods. If you’re going to get out of the junction, you have to keep watching the traffic to your right.

You’re looking to the right constantly, and you don’t necessarily expect cyclists appearing right in front of your front bumper.

Yet the cyclists have to cross, and when the traffic is heavy they have to do so when the cars are stationary and waiting to get out. There are two lanes to cross here, so it’s not trivial. There’s no way to be sure the drivers are aware of you.

It would be easy for more dogmatic cyclists to say, well, obviously the driver should have looked both ways before pulling out. Indeed so. But the design discourages this behaviour, and actually there’s little if anything there to visually remind drivers that this is a cycle crossing point; whilst there is everything to encourage drivers to keep their eyes firmly to the right, away from approaching cyclists.

And so this collision was, after so many rolls of the dice, an inevitability.

Reject the design

The design is hugely flawed. The priority is wrong, the visual features are hugely inadequate, the driver’s focus is inherently and uninterruptedly led away from vulnerable users, and cyclists are left to simply trust their luck.

Yet this design is still being used. The Walton plans are riddled with it. The plans as a whole are woefully inadequate and patently dangerous.

It’s a well-known fact that over two thirds of collisions involving cyclists occur at junctions, yet Surrey persistently builds cycle routes that subject people to far more junctions than the road (this path, for instance, has at least nine junctions in the space of a mile; taking the road alongside it involves only three). And not only are there more, but they are nearly all of dangerous design.

Consultation on the plans is open until 27 August, and I would urge everyone to respond pointing out the dangers of them.

One thought on “Surrey’s Failed Roundabouts

  1. davidhembrow 21 August 2013 / 16:35

    “After so many rolls of the dice…” – precisely. When conflict is built into design as it is here, the odds of something bad happening are increased for everyone who uses the junction.

    The principles of sustainable safety are methods of improving the odds. They remove conflicts by keeping incompatible modes apart from one another as much as possible and by making those places where people do naturally have to come together so that they are self-explaining and don’t require so much negotiation, assumption and guess work.

    Thinking about things in this way is a very powerful technique to reduce injuries on the roads, especially amongst the more vulnerable road users. i.e. cyclists & pedestrians, but more widely also disabled people, children, older people, equestrians and others who are over-represented in the UK’s injury statistics.

    We live near the most dangerous junction in the whole of the Netherlands. It has exactly the same problem as this roundabout does of requiring that people using it look in all directions at once in order to avoid incidents and almost exactly the same language as used in this blog post has been used to describe this junction in The Netherlands. Junctions like this are dangerous because human beings are easily over-loaded by having to do too much at once.

    Surrey’s problems are no different to the problems of any other county or any other nation. Dutch innovations in applying sustainably safe principles to their roundabouts could just as well be applied to Surrey’s roundabouts. The same goes for all the other infrastructure. Start following best practice and success in reducing injuries while increasing cycling will follow.

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