Is there anywhere in Britain that manages to make a bigger mess of its cycling policy?
I like living in Sheffield. It’s very friendly, an attractive place close to great countryside and the right size for a city. But sometimes I feel that it has the most inept approach to cycling policy of any town or city I know in Britain.
If you want to approach Sheffield on the National Cycle Network you need to take Route 6 which follows the lower Don valley into the city centre, along a route known locally as the Five Weirs Walk, an urban green space created a few years ago. It also provides a traffic-free walking and cycling route from the city to the vast Meadowhall shopping Mall and the extensive sports and leisure facilities along the Don Valley. All sounds great doesn’t it?
But as the photo above shows, Route 6 just doesn’t get you there, it’s blocked in at least two places through total neglect. The photo above is one end of the “Spider Bridge”. Two things stand out, the bollards all have an NCN Route 6 sticker, and the bridge is blocked by a crude temporary barrier which seems to have been there for more than a year. (NB Since I wrote this Simon Geller has told me that the bridge is now open again and he’s posted a comment below which takes me to task on a number of points)
The bridge which is suspended above the river while it snakes through a tunnel under the railway, has lost most of its stainless steel wire guardrails, stolen for scrap, more than once. This appears to be too expensive to repair.
Further along the route a long section is blocked for no reason. The gates installed to close it after dark now seem permanently shut.
Elsewhere on the route there are signs telling cyclists to get off and walk, sections of road that are deeply potholed and when you finally struggle through to the city centre you are just dumped at the inner ring road with no idea how you might get into the city across a maze of busy roads and run-down areas on the fringe of the city centre. “Welcome to Sheffield, please go away!”
In previous years the Five Weirs Walk has been blocked because it was falling into the river. Its winding route (quite attractive) is much longer than the direct road into town, and it is closed after dark, so not of any value for commuters and other year round cyclists.
For cyclists, the answer is not to repair or improve this failed leisure facility. The Lower Don Valley has been totally rebuilt in the past 20 years and there was ample opportunity to create an excellent all-weather, all-hours, route for cyclists and walkers running parallel to the main road with some nice landscaping to soften the environment for everybody. Lots of people commute along this level route between Rotherham and Sheffield and the Lower Don Valley is a growing area for employment, shopping and leisure, for example it includes the big English Institute for Sport facilities plus an athletics stadium, indoor arena and ice rink as well as two big shopping areas, cinema, bowling alley and night clubs.
Even today there is space for some development for cyclists, here’s a section of the main road through the valley, probably the last section in need of redevelopment.
You can see this is a wide four lane road and there is plenty of space to the side, The blue fence on the left conceals an undeveloped site and for most of the length of this road there would have been room to create a parallel track if the planners had been thinking clearly. Even today it might be possible but most of the really good opportunities to landscape something worthwhile into the scheme have been lost.
I’m not a big fan of off-road cycle paths, on most roads I would prefer that the design allowed bikes to mix with traffic, but this is a busy road on weekdays and a bit of a racetrack so it makes sense to give the cyclists some room to themselves.
All this fits in with other failures in Sheffield.
This path leads down to an underpass which is one of the few safe places to cross the inner ring road. Note the two women on the left, they are walking across a flowerbed that the city council inserted, with dense shrubs, to stop people from doing what they are doing, but hundreds of cyclists and pedestrians each day have forced a path through because it’s the logical direct route between workplaces, shops and university on one side and houses, football ground and student residences on the other. People have always used this route but, when the area was redeveloped to create more car parking for the Decathlon Sports megastore (which is where these two women were going), the planners deemed that walkers and cyclists should take a circuitous route which is at least 100 metres longer. That kind of thinking works for cars but is completely stupid for people.
Here’s a similar underpass nearby that is designated as a cycle route, again it’s one of the few places that you can cross the city’s 4-lane “ring of steel” without having to mix with main road traffic.
As you can see it’s pretty tight and cyclists have to take care when turning out of the tunnel, but that’s no reason for plonking a guardrail across to force an impossibly tight turn. Try that on a tandem.
When you rejoin the road you have to navigate this very tight dogleg to join the traffic, again the person who designed this clearly does not ride a bike. No reason not to design a smooth transition from the footpath to the road, it might need the planners to recognise that the cyclist should be protected from the cars by the road layout, rather than having to stop at this pointless junction. Planners like to make cyclists stop and get off.
Incidentally the cycle lane coming from the right is pointless because you can only reach it by riding round the deathtrap 3-lane roundabout on the ring road, if you can do that you really don’t need a bike lane.
But if you do find your way onto the on-road cycle lane, after a couple of hundred yards you come to this
The (very narrow) cycle lane just stops and up ahead you can see the buildings of the main shopping centre, but the only way to reach them is to navigate another big roundabout. Personally I don’t mind mixing with the traffic but these cycle facilities are not aimed at people like me, they only make sense if they allow less experienced, less confident cyclists to feel they can ride into the city. Sheffield is riddled with barriers to all but the most confident and experienced.
Finally, here is the entrance to the main cycling route into the city centre from the southwest, according to the cycle route maps published by Sheffield City Council. If you look closely you’ll see the “except for cycles” on the “no through road” sign.