In October last year, Andy Walsh, head of Dublin City Council’s Active Travel unit, promised that he would look into making cycle lanes that the city wants to quickly install, more attractive.
“We want to try to make these interventions as pleasant looking as possible. So, we’re not creating another problem when trying to solve one,” he said.
Councils are often using long rows of plastic flexible black or orange bollards when bringing in temporary or even permanent schemes, which not everyone says are visually appealing.
Mark Philpotts, a highway engineer who specialises in active travel, says it makes sense to use cheap and easy-to-install materials when installing road infrastructure that you might have to take up again.
“To test the lanes, it’s really hard to make it pretty, that’s the problem,” says Philpotts. “They’re very visually intrusive. But from a user standpoint, they do make you feel protected.”
Are bollards the only way to go, or are there other materials councils can use to make cycle lanes more visually appealing?
Risk of pushback?
Sometimes, a council will use cheap, easy-to-install and remove materials like plastic bollards initially, to install a scheme temporarily.
They need to see how the scheme would work with the street, and what the local response is, Philpotts says.
“There can be lots of pushback against cycle lanes,” he says. “If you design a scheme from the start and put it in permanently with concrete and verges and trees and everything else, if there is a problem where you get some big pushback and you have to make changes, that’s a lot more costly.”
That’s often why councils use flexi-wands, he says. A physical barrier between lanes looks more visually intrusive than a white line on the tarmac, he says, but they keep cars and bikes separate. “And if they need to, they can change them easily and cheaply.”
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The cycle lanes on Griffith Avenue in Whitehall, Dublin, for example, were initially installed with rows of flexi-wands, and last year were replaced with concrete kerbs as the scheme became permanent.
Feljin Jose, a spokesperson for Dublin Commuter Coalition, says that Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council (DLRCC) has shown since the pandemic that it can install safe, aesthetically appealing cycle lanes in quick time.
The Coastal Mobility Route, which runs from Seapoint to Sandycove, looks pleasant, he says. “And that was done in seven, eight weeks.”
A February 2023 report on the Coastal Mobility Report, prepared by the sustainable transport and mobility research group at Technological University Dublin, said that aesthetic appeal should be seen as an important aspect of active travel.
Even rapid-build/temporary infrastructure, it says, “should contribute rather than detract from the area’s urban design.”
The report said that too many bollards were not aesthetically pleasing, and were described “as being unsightly and not contributing to the visual or architectural landscape.”
Some respondents to the report said that the speed of the installation, and avoiding the slow process of public consultation, was a positive aspect of the scheme, and complaints about the appearance of the bollards from locals were not mentioned.
What alternatives are out there?
Temporary kerbs are often made of recycled rubber, and are the same height as a regular kerb, bolted into the ground, says Philpotts.
However, they require adding holes into the concrete which then become difficult to fill if you are changing the scheme, he says. “It’s hard to play around with those. For a temporary scheme, you need something a bit more flexible.”
The DLRCC report mentioned temporary kerbs, and said that they could be a trip hazard for people crossing the road.
Planters are good, but they require maintenance and may not be the right size for the road, says Philpotts. “And if the plant in the pot isn’t that big, it will dry up quickly in the summer.”
Pitman Tozer Architects, a London-based architecture firm came up with an idea for making cycle lanes look more beautiful and eye-catching, not just to drivers, but to would-be cyclists who might need convincing that the roads are safe enough for them to feel protected.
The ‘Blooming London’ design was the winning submission to a 2021 active travel competition, hosted by New London Architects. The Blooming London design is made up of tulips, lit up brightly in yellow and red and lining the cycle lanes on either side of the road across London Bridge.
“So the idea being that you plant a line of them and to improve the cycle safety by segregating a cycle lane but also making the environment more beautiful,” says Tozer.
They wanted to encourage people to continue cycling after the pandemic, as something fun, he said, “particularly aimed at people who were nervous about cycling, but who had found the benefits of cycling during the pandemic.”
Bringing bright colours to the road would benefit all road users, he says. “They’re unusual and surprising, they have a surreal quality, so if you notice them, hopefully, you notice to keep away from hitting into them.”
Local schools could have their students design the tulip heads, to encourage connection with the cycle lanes, too, he says.
“The hope is that by making them beautiful, they are more welcome within the communities where we install the cycle lanes, so they are regarded as positive additions, rather than the frankly ugly black and white wands,” he says.
The tulips were inspired by images of the Tour de France passing flower fields and a poppy art installation on Tower Bridge. “Bringing a bit of a romance into street furniture,” he says.
While they are just as quick to install as regular bollards, they have a slightly higher price point, he says. But because they are so brightly coloured, you may not need as many. “If they’re more effective maybe you don’t need so many of them,” he says.
Do engineers meet architects?
If the road can be completely reimagined and redesigned to fit a cycle lane would probably offer the best shot at making it work visually and practically, says Philpotts.
“Go down the whole street, you can reconstruct the footpaths, do the cycle tracks at the same time so everything looks like an integrated part of the street,” he says. “Rebuild the whole thing, with utility and drains.”
Retrofitting is often squeezing elements into existing layouts to make it work, he says, meaning the cycle lane may never look quite right to the eye.
Project budgets for cycling don’t often stretch for these kinds of redesigns beyond simply installing a needed cycle lane, he says.
“I imagine with the pushback you get, those people would push back regardless of what you did,” he says. “Take their views into account, but do you actually give them much weight?”
“People say, it looks ugly, they don’t want them, and then they complain of the cost,” he says. “Councils never win.”
Making projects look nicer may be easier if road engineers worked a bit more like architects, says Tozer, by incorporating aesthetic appeal with functionality.
“It goes back to education, I imagine, as in, the training of architects is very different from the training of road engineers,” he says.
Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown employed architects for the coastal mobility route team, says Jose, of Dublin Commuter Coalition.
“It wasn’t just a bunch of engineers who really liked bollards and safety equipment. I think it’s really about the staff you have on your team, and how much attention to detail you’re willing to pay.”
Communications teams, too, who know how to explain road infrastructure to the public, he says. “People who will talk to community groups on the ground, listen to what they have to say, and actually be able to communicate that to the design team.”
Claudia Dalby is a freelance journalist and this article was funded by readers of IrishCycle.com. By subscribing today for €5 or more you will also help fund more journalism like this.