Mobility Cycling A Need-to-Know Guide to Cycle Highways

A Need-to-Know Guide to Cycle Highways

Jo Helme
I studied (and cycled) at the Universities of Cambridge, Nottingham and Vienna. My day involves squeezing information out of cycling advocates, experts and policymakers, and then writing all the juicy bits into articles. When the climate crisis gives you lemons, ride bicycles.

Everything you need to know about cycle highways, covering all the basic information, steps to creating a cycle highway and insights from people working in the field. 

What Are Cycle Highways? A Whistle Stop Tour 

Cycle highways pride themselves on being high-quality cycle routes which cover long distances, usually connecting suburbs and residential areas to business districts and city centres. As well-lit, wide and direct infrastructure, cycle highways cast cycling as a serious transport option for people travelling into cities. 

Cycle highways are catching on, with cities around the world etching them into the scenery. The Fietssnelweg in Flanders consist of around 120 routes of 2400km which connect Flemish cities, whilst the Supercykelstier in Copenhagen aim to link 30 municipalities with over 850km of bike highway. Germany’s Radschnellwegen have become an important source of tourism and South Korea’s 30km cycle highway connecting Daejeon with Sejong is roofed with solar panels. London features seven cycle superhighways whilst Norway has invested €850m on its super-sykkelveier.  

Cycle highways essentially magnify the traditional benefits of cycling, hence their rising popularity among cities. The long distances covered by cycle highways result in significantly increased public health, reduced car emissions, economic returns and less congestion. Copenhagen’s cycle superhighways illustrate this, having resulted in a 23% increase in the number of cyclists, of which 14% previously travelled by car, and 333 fewer sick leave claims per day.

Given these benefits, it is no wonder that cycle highways have been catching on. To find out how make cycle highways a reality in your city, look at the steps below. 

Stages to a Cycle Highway 

According to CHIPS, an EU project on cycle highways, there are four main stages to constructing a cycle highway: planning, designing and building, selling and evaluating. Following this structure, we have outlined the key issues to consider during each stage, all narrated by experts in the field. 

1. Plan 

A good place to start is establishing a central body to coordinate the cycle highways. Due to the number of municipal borders a cycle highway may cross, having a body to manage the project, communicate across regions, secure funding, pool knowledge, ensure coherency and evaluate is a valuable asset. Copenhagen’s ‘Sekretariatet for Supercykelstier’ manages the cycle highways in 30 municipalities over the capital region, and has been cited as a critical success factor by several EU reviews

Sidsel Birk Hjuler, Head of the Cycle Superhighways Secretariat for the Capital Region of Copenhagen, argues that the next most important step is defining a concept of what the cycle highways will be. “You have to do that fast,” she states, “but don’t let it hold you back in testing things out –develop pilot projects in parallel to find out what works.”  

When gathering preliminary information, public bodies often face the decision of whether to outsource this to a consultant or carry it out themselves. Joris Van Damme works as a Cycle Highways Project leader for the public administration, Provincie Vlaams-Brabant in Belgium. He recommends ‘co-creation’ between the two parties. “Administrations should already have a rough idea of what is possible, spoken to different stakeholders and drawn up some scenarios. It will save you costs and makes a lot of sense.”

He argues that public bodies should not be deterred by a lack of software – he always uses the route creating device on Google Maps.  “When there is a co-creation meeting, I show the map and draw routes whilst discussing, so we can visualise it and find solutions together” he explains. 

The F212 connects Asse with Brussels. Image credit: © Province of Flemish Brabant

Planning the routes requires an understanding of where popular destinations are, who uses them, and how they link to public transport and the local cycle network. “An ideal start and end point would be a railway stations, or as close as possible,” recommends Julian Baker, a cycle highway consultant for Kontextplan, Switzerland. Engaging with stakeholders, such as public transport bodies, industry, residents, universities and others is also vital to ensure the route meets people’s needs. That said, finding political consensus is often the determinant. In Sidsel’s experience, “the route is basically based on what the municipalities agree on”.

A final piece of advice is to ensure that all possible route options have been consider. “One of the biggest mistakes is overlooking a route scenario,” says Joris, “because if you miss one, its often too late to go back when building starts.” 

2. Design and Build 

When designing cycle highways, Julian argues that the central pillars should be fast, safe and attractive. “This means having a route which is continuous, with as few stops as possible, wide and built for everyone,” he urges. In a similar vein, Copenhagen’s highways centre around directness, comfort, and feeling safe and secure. 

Cycle highways can be made safe, fast, and attractive through several infrastructure features. They must be independent of motorised traffic, direct with a low gradient and have minimal bends. The surface should be smooth and cyclists should be afforded priority, usually through overpasses and underpasses. Cycle highways should have good lighting, connections to public transport and may feature maintenance facilities like tyre pumps, bike parking and pausing points. 

Width is also important, as highways should be wide enough to allow for different speeds and size cycles. “There’s a lot of discussion over width,” says Julian. Whilst cities usually aim for four metres for bidirectional paths, “it basically depends on how many cyclists you expect to use the infrastructure,” he says.

Lastly, cycle highways should be branded with a dedicated logo, colour, naming system and tag line.  “You should be able to explain and understand the cycle highway in one sentence,” states Joris, “for instance, what is the F20 cycle highway? It’s a cycle highway from the train station in Halle along the canal to Brussels.”

Another element that Joris stresses is the need for a future-proof brand. “It might seem superficial,” he states, “but if you start designing a specific brand and name for a local cycle highway, after a few years the network will grow but it will not be coordinated.” He points to Flander’s network as a best practice example, as it has a single brand colour of blue and begins with F plus a number. In his ideal scenario, there would a European wide system with C numbers and a branded colour. 

Don’t get caught out by uncoordinated branding – see the F3’s blue logo. Image credit: © Province of Flemish Brabant

3. Campaign 

“You need infrastructure, but you also need to promote it – you can’t do one without the other,” states Julian. “We should aim to advertise bicycles like we advertise cars.”

Campaign ideas include opening ceremonies, group bike tours, posters, web adverts, radio coverage, newspaper articles and prices to loyal users. To have maximum impact, campaign efforts should be sustained long term rather than be seen as a singular event. 

“Its also extremely important to get businesses on board” says Sidsel, “your trip doesn’t end mentally on the bike path; it ends at the safe bike parking or shower.” Ensuring that there are adequate connecting cycle routes to workplaces, showers, lockers, bike parking and even an employee bike leasing system are equally key to shifting behaviour towards behavioural cycling.

Copenhagen’s experience testifies that communication strategies do pay off. The most popular cycle superhighway, Farumruten, was built in the 60s and 70s, and has not undergone significant upgrades since. However, due to the communication efforts highlighting the travel option, there has been a dramatic 68% increase in bike traffic. 

4. Evaluate 

“Assessment is priceless,” says Sidsel, “if you cannot prove the effects of what worked and why, then your project will not gain political interest.” Using surveys, counters and questionnaires from the very beginning of the project is therefore vital to understanding the effect of cycle highways and whether they meet the needs of users. 

“Numbers are valuable,” Sidsel states, “they show the potential of what cycle highways can achieve.” Collecting figures on the impact on people’s health, the environment and the economy all build a portfolio which a city can showcase for future investment. 

Evaluating also allows you to learn from mistakes, as Sidsel found out. “Our first route was planned along a very nice pathway, used locally for school routes or dog walking,” explains Sidsel, “we would not do that again – it simply generated too much conflict.”

Hence, evaluation allows cities to build on the progress of cycle highways in order to continue momentum and accomplish more. 

In a Nutshell… 

Plan, design and build, campaign and then evaluate – these are the steps to turning the perks of cycle highways into a permanent reality. If you’re curious to challenge your conception of cycle highways, then check out our ‘Nice- to- Know’ guide where we tackle some of the trickier questions. 

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