Cycle road marking
Cycle road marking

The 'Hierarchy of Provision'

What is the best way to provide for cyclists on the highway network? Sharing space with motor traffic? Or segregated as much as possible from it? And what about all the options between these extremes?

Many people who don’t cycle say they’re held back by their fear of traffic, and reckon they’d cycle if there were more cycle paths away from the roads.  Local demands for 'traffic-free' routes can be quite persuasive for councils, but when they install segregated tracks they often meet with opposition from cyclists who would prefer to cycle on the road rather than lose priority at every side-road on a poorly designed segregated cycle track - particularly if they are fast, confident commuters.

The dilemma over how to decide on the best option for a given location led to the development of the 'Hierarchy of Provision', a concept that was officially endorsed by the Department for Transport (DfT) in 1996.* In theory, therefore, the Hierarchy has been embedded in the Government’s cycling policies for years.

The Hierarchy in practice

The Hierarchy of Provision table (Cycle Infrastructure Design, DfT, 2008):

Essentially, the Hierarchy advocates traffic reduction, speed reduction, redesigning junctions and reallocation of road-space as the most desirable solutions for achieving more and safer cycling; while converting footways (pavements) to shared use for pedestrians and cyclists, remains the last consideration.

Clearly, less motor traffic and lower speeds would make a significant difference to the experience of existing cyclists, and help encourage more people to cycle in the first place. And, as 75% of cyclists' collisions happen at junctions, designing out the hazards at these locations is crucial too.

As the DfT guidance says,  the measures listed in the Hierarchy are not meant to be mutually exclusive. By way of example, it says, "....reducing traffic speeds on links may enable junction geometry to be tightened to provide easier crossings for pedestrians; reducing the volume of traffic may release carriageway space to provide cycle lanes or tracks."

Cycle lanes (lanes painted on the road)

In the right place, cycle lanes may offer a useful 'comfort zone', but they must be implemented well and appropriate for the circumstances. If not, they can encourage drivers to overtake too closely; steer cyclists out of drivers' vision and into the gutter; or leave them stranded at junctions.

Width is one of the most important factors: they should be at least 1.5 metres wide, preferably 2 metres.


Some people object to all forms of segregation, especially given the extremely poor – and sometimes hazardous – quality of some segregated cycle ‘facilities’. The message that they’re there merely to keep cyclists out of the way is equally unpalatable.

However, segregated facilities are not all the same, and if applied properly, the Hierarchy allows for this. For instance, if segregation involves reallocating road-space in favour or cyclists, it contributes to motor-traffic reduction, a top measure. On the other hand, as simple pavement conversions do not have this effect, they should remain at the bottom – even though shared use cycle tracks may still be the best option for higher speed main roads.

Meanwhile, cycle tracks that are wholly separate from roads (e.g. through parks and open spaces, or along canals, rivers and sea-fronts) should be treated as a distinct category altogether. Provided they are well designed and maintained, and well linked to the wider road and/or cycle route network, these can sometimes be among the most valuable cycle facilities of all, particularly for new cyclists, children and/or those who need to build up their confidence.

Nevertheless, cycle tracks should still be seen as complementary to the aim of creating a fully cycle-friendly road network - and not a substitute for it.


* The Hierarchy first appeared officially in the UK as the 'Hierarchy of Solutions', published in 'Cycle-Friendly Infrastructure: Guidelines for Planning and Design' (Department of Transport/CTC/Bicycle Association/IHT, 1996). In 2008, it was published again, revised and renamed, in the DfT’s 'Cycle Infrastructure Design'.