A common language

In the UK, we do not even have a common way to describe cycling infrastructure. There are various reasons for this – one major one is perhaps that serious and sensible cycling infrastructure (let alone a network of cycleways) does not really exist in the UK. To move on, we must talk language, I think.

report by Sustrans, the Newcastle version is called bikelife, came out yesterday and it demonstrates this exact lack very clearly. Below I list the varied (and confusing) “terminologies” used in the Sustrans reports for the different cities:

  • bike route
  • traffic-free routes
  • off-road cycleways
  • shared-use footpaths
  • cycle lanes on roads
  • cycle lanes
  • protected bike lane
  • paths alongside roads, separated from traffic
  • routes separated from traffic, alongside roads
  • cycle lanes painted on roads
  • bus lanes you can cycle in

People live within a certain distance of

  • cycle lane, track or shared use path
  • designated cycle lane, track or shared use path
  • designated cycle route

As well as the categorisation (and lost context), it is also the order which is questionable.


I propose that we ought to work very hard to develop a mutually-understood and agreed common language so we can talk to each other, and the public, in a much more meaningful way. Language is our chance to get our message across, clearly and concisely.

This is not hair-splitting, or nit-picking. No. Language is a communication and a campaigning tool.

Sustrans, as self-proclaimed experts on cycle-friendly designs, should know better, I strongly suggest. I met the bikelife project manager earlier this year. It’s a real shame that my suggestion wasn’t taken up: I had asked the project manager to take real care and put a lot of thought into the infrastructure wording and categorisation, and I pleaded that they get in touch with CEoGB to agree a ‘harmonised’ infra terminology for the report. Sustrans evidently decided against this. I am second-guessing Sustrans would say in their defence, that the cities are different and that their data vary. And I have no doubt that Sustrans worked very hard to pull this project off (for a fee paid by each city).

However I would reply, that this was an opportunity to harmonise these varied approaches and inform and educate transport authorities. It would make talking in the future easier, simpler and more cooperative. Now it’s just an opportunity lost, as the bar and the baseline have been set.

Isn’t it time we got together and got talking on infrastructure categorisation, professionals and advocates alike? Maybe the Dutch may have done a thing on that. Or, staying in the UK, and in the absence of a useful DfT standard, the London Cycle Design Standards may help. Naturally, CEoGB know a thing or two on cycling infrastructure. The US is certainly talking language.

It’s about different groups working together. Sustrans sadly, once again, decided against doing so.


9 thoughts on “A common language

    1. Reinforces the myth – and runs completely counter to the normalising “We are the traffic” shout by pedestrians and cyclists when plannerspeak presumptions choose the term solely for motorised traffic.

      A traffic free cycleroute is an oxymoron – no traffic = no cyclists!


  1. Yes. Currently, confusion over words so often means that the demand for better cycling infrastructure (which includes a whole range of interventions including filtered permeability, improved junction designs, physically separated cycle tracks …) is heard by non-experts as ‘Oh, they want a white line painted in the gutter’ or ‘I see, you want a blue sign pointing you onto the pavement’.


  2. It is my experience that Sustrans do not understand the needs of the ‘non leisure cyclist’. My use of Sustrans adapted infrastructure has led me along poorly maintained indirect routes. The routes have often taken me into areas where I become nervous about my personal safety.
    Sustrans do not appear to communicate with their ‘customers’ or engage with cycling user groups. Reporting a hazard on a Sustrans route is so difficult that problems remain for years. They even seem to have some ‘political’ control over their volunteers.
    If others feel that my comments are unfair then I can only say that they are from a ‘customer’.


    1. The imperative which in some ways Sustrans has landed themselves with is that “Target”, rather than a more general goal. When you get a wadge of money based on a very basic target of 10,000 miles of cycleroute (an easy to ‘sell’ objective along the lines of bread & circuses to the masses) then quite obviously you will use every connivance to reach the total – opening their values to accept the delivery of quantity not quality.
      In some ways the Cycling England wriggle room mantra More People More Safely More Often was more wisely chosen.
      As with HS2 he objective of delivery has overtaken the perspective of sound preparation – routes planned from the desktop or screen, instead of basing this on broad local and historical knowledge.


  3. One problem is that both Sustrans and CEoGB are basically unaccountable as far as I can tell. They could agree whatever they like and most cycling campaigns would just continue to ignore them. OK, I like CEoGB’s current position better but there seems like essentially nothing stopping them “doing a Sustrans” and detaching in the future.


  4. I don’t think there’s much comparison between Sustrans and CEoGB. CEoGB are a campaigning group. As far as anyone can tell, they are completely self-appointed, but I’m not sure how important that is, as they don’t seem to be taken seriously outside the ring of those already interested in the subject. Sustrans, in contrast, are more about construction and planning of routes. Again, self-appointed, but arising from the successful practical work of a small group four decades ago. Unlike CEoGB, we know that LAs and even DfT listen to them (though whether they take notice of what they hear is not certain… ).


  5. And to address the topic of language or terminology, I agree that some standardisation of what terms refer to what structures would certainly be helpful, in many ways.


  6. Taxonomy (I worked for several years in the service of a database of educational research) is very important. A lack of “tags” or thesaurus terms” or “standard terms” (uniquely defined words and phrases) in any human endeavour leads to poor information and poor understanding, Work that has already been done gets ignored if no one can find references to it. Regular neologisms (making up new words for old things) and competing definitions of the same term serve some purposes but foil many others in the process. You’ve struck a clear note here.

    I have been looking at bikelife data for Bristol and in the process have come across some rich data generated by Bristol City Council (and visible within this interactive map: https://www.bristol.gov.uk/map-of-bristol-city-centre if you have time and patience.) The officers concerned have put a lot of effort into it and it does draw attention to the massive gaps and to the desperate shortage of continuous cycle-only tracks.

    The terminology used in the classification of existing and proposed cycle routes (shared or exclusive) looks like this: take a deep breath…

    Advisory Cycle Lane
    Advisory Cycle Lane – Contraflow
    Advisory Cycle Lane and Shared Use Path
    Bus Lane
    Bus Lane and Cycle Track within Highway
    Bus Lane and Shared Use Path
    Bus Only
    Cycle Track away from Highway
    Cycle Track within Highway
    Mandatory Cycle Lane
    Mandatory Cycle Lane – Contraflow
    Pedestrianised Street
    Shared Use Path – Bridge
    Shared Use Path away from Highway
    Shared Use Path within Highway
    Signed only contraflow
    Unsurfaced Shared Use Path away from Highway

    Despite lots of half good and a few quite long sections of one or more of the types in that list, there is still only 1 kilometre of continuous and exclusive cycle track within the City boundaries.

    The revitalised Space4Cycling campaign is looming as a National effort – and as you have written here Kats, I hope we can start to shred away the claims that we already have lots of useful dedicated routes. We do need clear language if we want to be able to say what we want and what standard it needs to reach. (that Bristol map data does include an attempt to assess each section – the word “aspirational” crops up a few times).

    I don’t want to make Bristol look silly on this front. To some extent there are good people working against Neanderthal opposition within a punishing (and worsening) financial climate.


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