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"Urge and Merge" - how not to get mass cycling

Oxford, Transport — May 2019

There's an approach to cycling which my friend Scott Urban calls "urge and merge". The first part of this involves encouraging people to cycle, through providing information, training, and so forth. The second part involves then getting them to "merge" with the motor traffic, to share space with dense traffic flows, perhaps even to "take the lane" and cycle as if they were a vehicle — or in some cases to "merge" with people walking. This is an approach that has dominated thinking about cycling in the UK for decades, despite the fact that it clearly hasn't worked. Things are changing, but these ideas keep being used as an alternative to avoid more effective but harder changes.

Three lists illustrate how how this works, with a focus on Oxford, where decades of "urge and merge" have moved the cycling modal share nowhere.

Here is a list of "urges" that are (mostly) good and useful, but will only minimally affect how much cycling happens, given more fundamental constraints:

  • teaching children how to ride bicycles
  • providing better maps and information about routes
  • bike maintenance courses
  • helping people buy bikes
  • personal travel plans
  • expounding the health and environmental benefits of cycling
  • getting children to pester their parents to let them walk or cycle to school

Oxford at least is already well-provided with most of these — cycling is visible enough that it's hard to imagine anyone living here doesn't already know that it is an option and that it's often the fastest, cheapest, and most reliable one.

And here's a list of "merges". Some of these would be useful, but some are counterproductive and many are only useful for the fitter and more confident among those already cycling. None of them address the key barriers preventing people cycling.

  • fixing potholes and improving road surfaces
  • making all roads inside the ring road 20mph
  • driver education campaigns
  • "share the road", "respect" and "mutual politeness" campaigns
  • shared bus-cycle lanes — merge with the buses
  • narrowing carriageways on main roads to try to force people cycling into the main traffic flow (Cowley Rd, Frideswide Square) — merge with the traffic
  • shared "walk-cycle" spaces, allowing cycling on pavements (Frideswide Square) or putting pseudo cycle tracks onto footpaths (all over the place) — merge with the pedestrians

On the other hand, experience elsewhere shows that some infrastructure changes can make a big difference to the numbers of people cycling:

  • reduction in motor traffic volumes, using modal filtering, road pricing, bus gates, parking reductions, or other measures
  • where traffic volumes remain high, separate space for cycling
  • road junctions that adequately provide for walking and cycling
  • with low traffic volumes, street layouts that restrict traffic speeds (or have 20mph limits enforced by cameras) and which prioritise people walking and cycling

But these will all require paying more than lip service in ranking cycling above private motor vehicles in an abstract hierarchy of transport modes.


  1. Couldn't agree more. Segregation -- including segregation at junctions -- is the only way to get people back on their bikes who say that they think cycling is too dangerous. Would you want your 12 year old child mixing it with heavy vehicles? If all the secondary school children in Oxford could cycle safely to school -- and did -- it would solve a lot of Oxford traffic problems during term time at a stroke!

    Comment by Dick Wolff — May 2019
  2. Perhaps a traffic ban in streets neighbouring schools at each end of the day (Magdelen College School being a prime example) - ticketed enforcement, with appropriate exemptions. It could probably be done via the PSBO rules that are more often used to oppress - this would liberate both parents and pupils in the long term.

    Comment by Robert Paynter — May 2019

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