Criticism of Bedford's design for a 'turbo' roundabout on a major junction needs to be placed in context. Here Chris Peck explains why the project was cleared by a panel involving CTC.
Bedford's turbo roundabout has proved controversial

Bedford's design was funded by the Cycle Safety Fund at the beginning of 2013.

Using a Dutch 'turbo' design as a basis, the roundabout aims to slow traffic speeds, while allowing cyclists to use shared use footways and cross the roads using zebra crossings. 

Why this compromise solution came about (and was funded) is explained below.

The background

The money (£20m) for the fund was allocated in the summer of 2012, with local authorities given a very brief window to submit proposals to Sustrans. The criteria in the application form was that the submitted project should tackle actual and perceived safety concerns, and do so in ways that were innovative (for Britain!).

Sustrans ran the process: they processed local authority applications, and their officers prepared local feedback on each one. That feedback, and the often basic and early plans from local authorities, were circulated to the panel members which comprised representatives of Sustrans' technical team, Transport for London, British Cycling, the Campaign to Protect Rural England, Cyclenation and CTC. There were 140 proposals in total (over 2,000 pages of material), ranging from one scheme worth over a million pounds, to a couple which were only a few thousand pounds in value.

We on the panel then had a few weeks to read through them and flag issues for discussion at a series of meetings with the Sustrans team running the process. Other than trying to ensure that local volunteers had been consulted, which they had been in approximately 75% of cases, we had grave concerns about the number of pavement conversions, and the inadequate treatment of many major roundabouts by the proposals.

Don’t forget that this process occurred (late 2012) before TfL began their trials of roundabouts or ways of planning segregated facilities. Even today, the regulations which might permit good segregation at junctions are at least a year off. Nevertheless, the level of ambition from local authorities was worryingly low, perhaps exacerbated by the very short deadlines and ludicrously short timeframe to spend it (having received funding, local authorities had about 15 months to spend it!). It also shows, unfortunately, the sheer lack of desire in local authorities to try anything really radical: although we in the panel advised Sustrans of what advice they should feedback to local authorities on their schemes, a full redesign wasn’t on the cards in most cases given the timescales.

Concerns about quality

At each of these meetings there was considerable concern expressed about the poor standards of design for cycling in the applications: most were not for high quality infrastructure and only a few were truly innovative. The available funding covered over half of the schemes submitted: it therefore wasn’t a particularly challenging funding process. We were faced with dozens of low quality pavement conversions and fiddly toucan crossings.

In our discussions, we gave thought to telling DfT, “sorry – too many of these schemes are not good enough, you’ll have to take the money back and sort out your regulations to permit better schemes to come forward.” However, we decided that this would be counterproductive: budget underspends are damaging for long term funding prospects, and we also wanted to make sure that more money would come for similar schemes in the future. This meant we knew that we should still put forward schemes for consideration even though they were below standard, on the basis that all of them were likely to make the situation better (even if only a little).

Instead, the panel fed back to the DfT that the timescales were far too short, that we were unhappy with the quality of the schemes, and that more flexibility needed to be given to local authorities to plan cycling infrastructure that works well and satisfies the needs of all users. It may well have been in part thanks to this message that the Department has rapidly improved the way it is approaching cycle infrastructure, with greater flexibility given to local authorities to trial new approaches.

Many of the schemes funded have been criticised as being below the ideal standard: these include a ‘continental’ roundabout in Abingdon (which also has an unsatisfactory off-carraigeway pavement conversion), the ‘Seven Dials’ roundabout in Brighton (now complete), the Catholic Church junction in Cambridge and the Perne Road Roundabout in Cambridge. The latter in particular we felt was a very good candidate for segregated cycle facilities with priority over side roads – but the local authority are proceeding with their existing, fairly weak plan to reduce the circulating width and make small changes to the design of entry and exit lane mouths.

Bedford’s roundabout

Bedford's "turbo" roundabout

As it happened, the Bedford roundabout was one of the few schemes that proposes something truly new. Of course this isn’t how the Dutch use this design of roundabouts – everyone, including the scheme designer, knew this at the time. Turbo roundabouts like this are generally only used on very busy rural routes, although a few are now being used on suburban distributor (‘A’ roads) in the Netherlands, as in the photo to the right.

However, compared to the current design (a massive, flared acre of tarmac), a turbo roundabout in this location would mean reduced speeds of traffic at the junction, which improves safety for those crossing at the side roads.

In the application, the designer submitted a mocked up version of what the roundabout could look like with a ‘proper’ Dutch design, including side road priority for cyclists on fully segregated cycle tracks and tight curve radii to slow vehicles. However, and this is crucial: he couldn’t get this accepted by the authority, because the local authority felt that the roundabout capacity isn’t sufficient to deal with current traffic volumes with only one approach lane. This is why – even when dealing with individual junctions, steps must be taken to reduce overall traffic volumes across the network as a whole, to ensure that adequate capacity is released to allow space for cycling. The problem is that this turbo roundabout is likely to increase capacity.

Union Street roundabout. Compact with cycle tracks

In addition, this particular design is still not permitted by regulations which rule out placing a cycle track next to a zebra crossing, and do not permit priority crossings which aren’t on road humps (road humps would be a political challenge on the main road into Bedford). Although those regulations are likely to change, they will come too soon for the timescales for this design.

Using zebras to allow cyclists to cross is far from ideal. Again, DfT are working on an alternative approach (a segregated pedestrian/cyclist priority crossing) which may also be deeply flawed, but that isn't available to use at the moment.

The criticism of the designer of the scheme is not entirely justified: he at least had imagination, and, although he explored the other options, couldn’t pursue the best one because of poor regulations, a lack of political commitment, and the need to obey the traffic carrying capacities of the network.

The officer who designed the scheme, Patrick Lingwood, is one of the most experienced and sensible cycle planners in the country. He spent several years seconded to the Department for Transport. He explains his approach here [2]

Ultimately, this is the sort of compromise solution that we end up with when there is insufficient political will to reduce traffic, and a lack of adequate regulations to permit the approach that would be taken as standard in the Netherlands. Along with other groups, we in CTC are lobbying to change that. Attacking those who are trying to muddle through under current conditions isn't particularly helpful.

Two files from the original application are available for download below.

Possible roundabout designs [3]1.95 MB
Union Street Roundabout background information [4]1 MB
Present layout [5]
Present layout [5]1.4 MB
Proposed layout [6]
Proposed layout [6]562.12 KB