How to Repair the Suburbs (and how not to): A case study from the Barrhead Road

I’ll keep this one under 20,000 words I promise

East Renfrewshire Council recently opened two consultations as part of its extended “spaces for people” scheme. One affects a road that I depend on personally and is a key transport corridor for the area connecting the surrounding culs-de-sac and local access roads. The road is badly designed and, as a result, is a major bottleneck for active travel in the area.

The proposed plans have some problems, but overall the current proposed design is pretty good. More importantly however, is the fact they are “pretty good” but in the suburbs. Designs like this alongside proposals like the Ayr road grade separation proposal, the upgraded intercity bike path, and the proposal to add a Dutch style CYCLOPS junction at my old primary school, and early ideas to add Dutch lanes to Davieland Road are often difficult to get traction for in the UK.

To see a proposal like this show up for an arterial road in a car-infested suburb that markets itself based on connectivity to a motorway and schools is still quite remarkable.

Furthermore (unless you knew what you were looking for) if you looked at the area on a map for the first time, you might not realise how dependant this hyper-local area is on the Barrhead road or why it should be prioritised for this type of upgrade. What this proposal really highlights is that someone (or multiple someone’s) paying attention and analysing transport capabilities as a system.

You can read the proposal and respond to the consultation for the Barrhead Road here.

You can read some of my opinions on the current alignment of the Barrhead Road here.

My Response

Following is my response to the consultation:

“The current design of the Barrhead road encourages high speeds and dangerous overtakes for cycling. This is exacerbated by the fact that the surrounding suburban sprawl means the road is often unavoidable for a bulk of journies. This redesign provides a much needed redesign and safety improvements which create a much needed active travel corridor.

One criticism I have is that shared paths should be avoided unless absolutely unavoidable. Shared spaces create conflict points between pedestrians and cyclists and leads pedestrians to view cycle space as an extension to the pavement creating more friction.

Additionally, as someone who lives on Carswell road, the pavement is of poor quality and it requires re-paving. The cycle path on the rest of the route is smaller than the recommended minimum width of 2m which is excusable given the space constraints. However as it approaches the Carswell Road entrance there is ample green space that could allow it to expand or maybe move further away from the road.

Lastly, it is disappointing that the opportunity for a Dutch style roundabout was not taken at the Westacres Roundabout instead of a sub optimal shared space. The roundabout has ample space and is surrounded by bush, a Dutch style system could easily be implemented and would increase the routes attractiveness approaching the Aurs Road project.

This design will provide vital links to the Aurs Road project and to the Ayr road, however consideration should be given as to how it connects. At the moment the junction at the Avenue Shopping Centre is a nightmare and unsafe. Travelling through the avenue is difficult as they restrict access to Mackinlay Place meaning you have to use the pedestrian area (walking the bike). Then you have to contend with illegal parking around the takeaways, however this is out with the scope of this consultation.

It is extremely pleasing and relieving to see suburban districts like East Renfrewshire propose and build fixes such as this. The creating of an active travel corridor along the Barrhead road will link up a number of active travel journeys that are much more difficult or not possible (safely) at the moment.

It is a genuine commendation that East Renfrewshire is making efforts to enable active travel and replace car trips, despite the usual excuses to simply leave things as they are. There are entire cities in the UK that are less proactive than the designs currently under proposition by East Ren, for which councillors should be proud.

I live on Carswell road attempt to travel by bike instead of car for the health and ecological benefits.

At the moment, many journies are difficult due the the suburban 70’s design; a mixture of being unsafe and feeling very stressed on fast roads to using irritating and slow shared spaces with irritated pedestrians who are not expecting you, feeling like a child cycling to school again.

I have given up trying to cycle on the Barrhead road due to the behaviour of drivers; I either sheepishly cycle up the pavements which is illegal and feels anti-social or I walk which adds significant time to journies. This discourages a number of journies I might make and incentivises me to drive instead, despite disliking driving.

I would love the ability to cycle to the avenue and other nearby locations and get a cargo bike to ditch my car entirely.

I would love to know that future generation of school kids will have the option to cycle to the Ayr road and connect with the ‘Dutch cycleway’ and CYCLOPS junction (from the other consultation) to cycle to school safely.”

The Aurs Road Consultation

Also included in this round of consultation is a proposal for a redesign of the Barrhead end of the Aurs Road.

The Aurs Road is one of those ‘former-country-lanes-now-turned-into-a-mini-highway-because-cars-infest-everything’ roads connecting Newton Mearns and Barrhead. There is currently a separate, much more advanced proposition to realign the Aurs Road, build a pavement and cycleway, and also a visitor centre and proper car park. This proposal is very good and long overdue to open up the magnificent Darnley Dams to more people.

The proposals for Barrhead are sub standard. Setting aside my praise of ER council -which I believe has got vaguely the right idea- this proposal applies good practice for safe streets to arterial roads, while doing absolutely nothing for so called “safe streets”.

Dutch Sustainable Safety principles say that local access roads should not separate users but should instead use traffic calming to reduce the speed of motor vehicles, while connector roads should separate modes of travel and facilitate interactions between them.

The proposals apply mediocre traffic calming to a two-lane per direction road that has a 6.5m wide central reservation being used for nothing. Central reservations with plants on them do not improve the visual aesthetic for pedestrians of cyclists and have relegable effect for drivers. Yet the existence of some grass is used to rule out realigning the road, removing a travel lane per direction, or -get this- adding a cycle path.

Next, they correctly identify the utility of “safe streets”, the somewhat ironically named (are we admitting that we’re resigned to other streets to being “not safe”) concept that certain key routes can be prioritised for active travel by discouraging car through-traffic. They key part of the idea they have missed is that you actually have to discourage car traffic. This is best achieved through the use of modal filters and traffic calming which route through traffic around onto main roads. A single modal filter either in the middle or at one end means all parts of the street can still be accessed by car, you just can’t go straight through as a short cut.

In the case of the Barrhead end of the Aurs Road, they have done nothing, but put proposed putting up some route finding signs. The issue is that Local residents already know where the schools and shops are. Signs (or lack thereof) are not the reason you don’t have more people cycling to complete day-to-day tasks.

In my estimation, they should take the ideas applied to the main Aurs Road and apply them to the desired “safe streets”, while the Aurs Road itself should be realigned to have a dedicated cycle path by taking space from the central reservation. I would also go further, saying that a road like this should not be dual lane; it is short and residential, if capacity is a concern then the road could be realigned (for safety) to allow higher speeds, there is no justification for a dual carriageway unless increased car use was a target outcome.

“This design is sub standard considering modern precedents and standards such as LTN1/20.

The traffic calming proposed for the Aurs Road would be better served on the local access and side streets in order to slow local access traffic.

The main route along the Aurs Road is a higher capacity connector and as such should segregate different modes of travel. The cycle paths from the realignment of the Aurs Road (at the dams) should continue through in order to connect Newton Mearns and Barrhead.

This design absurdly shows sub-optimal pavements (at 1.8m width) and no cycle provision at all despite two car lanes in either direction and an enormous 6.5m wide central reservation. Taking just 2m from the reservation could allow a minimum standard 1m bike lane in either direction without even having to take space from the main carriage lanes.

On the note of that central reservation, green public space is important but is lost when used like this. While driving, your sense of speed is lowered (everything feels slower), in addition there is a tunnel vision effect while driving which increases with speed; the faster you are travelling the less you are effectively able to perceive things that are not immediately in-front of you. People driving on this road are not going to benefit from enjoying this greenery, and if most are travelling 30mph+ they probably aren’t even perceiving it. So why is it there? If there is a strong desire to keep the green space, why not move it to the outside where the pedestrians are?

The idea of specific Active Travel routes is commendable, but with no traffic calming or modal filters, how is this expected to encourage more active travel? What regard will dangerous road users pay to a sign asking them to be nice?”

Why Build Bike Lanes in the Suburbs?

I grew up in a suburb of Glasgow called Newton Mearns, and like everyone who grew up in suburbia I assumed the entire world looked like this, and always had done, with a few stylistic variances.

After high school I spent the first 7 years of my adult life in London, first in high school, then as an essential worker in Waitrose & Partners in Kings Cross Station during the first 1.5 years of Covid.

It did not take long to develop an appreciation for different ways of laying out urban environments and the idea that public transport enabled great mobility, and even allowed you to live your life without a car! (a radical notion to someone raise in the suburbs). This developed into an interest in sustainable transport, namely the railways, trams, and then public transport more generally.

That wasn’t the end of the story however. As I remarked in a previous post, I undervalued the importance that active transport and local transport connections play in sustainable transport. After all, if I can’t bring the shops closer to me, I’d much rather cycle the 1km to get to them than even be dependant on a bus.

Due to personal circumstances I decided to return to Scotland, not knowing where to set down roots, I came back to old familiar Newton Mearns and resigned myself to no longer having the tube or mobility as I understood it. I started to learn about street design and utility cycling, I built an ebike, and the importance of local sustainable transport began to dawn on me.

Building a tram line (which you should still do by the way) takes time, effort and money, even getting new bus routes can be a pain in the backside. But building our streets in such a way as to make them safe to walk and cycle on, is relatively cheep and easy. Furthermore, every study into the subject has found that building safe cycling infrastructure and making walking more attractive always produces modal shift. People -not everybody, but a signifiant amount- want to cycle more, they want alternatives to car travel, the way this is enabled is through safe infrastructure and safe streets.

A graphic showing the relative proportion of confidence riding a bike. If roads are unsafe, only the 4-7% will take the option to cycle.

Eric Post (2022) Making the Case for Level of Traffic Stress Analysis. Available at: (Accessed 27/04/2022)

There’s this idea in sustainable transport and urban design of the “missing middle”. It posits that short journies can be made walkable, journies longer than, say, 1 mile require progressively heavier transport systems interconnecting with other networks. But then you have those journies that are too short for waiting for a bus, tram or metro, but are too long to conveniently walk.

With the caveat that I’ve never lived full time outside the UK, I’d say one of the big differences between “modern” UK suburbs and North American suburbs is that ours are ‘technically walkable’; you can feasible walk to the shops and back (its only 1.5km) but it will take time to do so. Also, if you get halfway home and realise you’ve forgotten something, you’re going to think hard about going back.

Screenshot of a route planned in Google Maps. The route shows a 30 min wal to a station 1.5 miles away and a 22 minuite train journey covering 9 stops. The totla time is 54 minuites,
Glasgow relies greatly on dense heavy rail for public transport. Shown here is a trip to Glasgow Central taking about 1 hour. Take a look at the breakdown on the left, only 22 minutes are spent in motion on the train, over half the time is spent waking to the train (within the catchment area). There are no buses that go that way and active travel is difficult to say the least.

Much of Glasgow fits this pattern; longer journies are viable with public transportation (if you don’t mind waiting), short journies are walkable, but there’s a middle ground not suited to either. A space which contains journies “technically walkable”, but inconvenient, and not attractive or safe to cycle.

Active travel, cycling, and improving the public realm (e.g. adding more benches) has a unique ability to fill this gap. The vast majority of the car trips we take are under 10 miles, with over 50% under 5. These are prime journies (for those able) to be replaced by a bike or ebike.

In a broader picture, car numbers have doubled in the past 30 years and cars are twice as big as in the 1970’s. Markets are pushing the sales of SUV’s which have a disproportionate negative effect on safety for those outside of the vehicle. If it feels like the roads are more congested, faster, and meaner in recent years, its probably because they are. The only way to address this is modal shift; getting more people to use modes other than the car for more journies, which is a key social and economic focus for many governments and local authorities today, trying to deal with the result of mid-20th century car-focused planning.

What’s really interesting about the Barrhead Road consultation is that I was unaware it was coming. I consider myself pretty clued-in to active travel projects in the city and have long had a bone to pick with the Barrhead road but I missed this one outside my front door. In fact, I had drafted this letter I intended to send to the local council, not expecting much of it, I just wanted to voice my opinion.

With a few exceptions, the ideas that I had in mind have come to appear in the proposed design. The letter is incomplete but redundant now, it goes as follows:

“Title: Fix the Barhead Road [sic]

To Whom it May Concern,

I am writing to you to lodge a complaint about the quality of the Barrhead Road which I and my family find dangerous and a barrier to local active travel.

The road stretches from the Westacres Roundabout at the end of the Stewarton Road diversion (from the M77 construction) to intersect with the Ayr Road at the Avenue shopping centre. Its positioning means it acts as a collector road for the collected neighbourhoods of Westacres, Balgrey, Caplerig and (to an extent) Malletsheugh.

The Road is unavoidable due to the nature of the suburban layout in these areas for any journey. In Craig Place, we find that without a connection to Eriskay Crescent (cut off by a fence), it is impossible to plan any route, by any mode of transport, to any local destination, without using it.

The road is built in an older style with a decent sized pavement on either side, grass verges creating a clear-zone, a single travel lane in either direction, and turning lanes creating a central reservation with pedestrian refuges. The layout is boxed in on either side by properties, a wall on one side and a stone verge on the other.

While this design may have been broadly innovative in days gone by, it lacks by modern standards and creates downright dangerous situations for active travel. The pavements are badly maintained due to successively being dug up for repairs. The grass verges serve no real purpose given that the road is theoretically supposed to be driven at safe speeds (30mhp) anyway and serve only to increase the ‘design speed’ of the road. The road feels safe to drive at high speeds on, despite being a residential collector road.

The turning lanes add to this effect; they use valuable space to prioritise high speeds for through traffic for relatively little time saving benefit, leading to driver frustration if something else is perceived to inconvenience them. The pedestrian refuges are welcome given the volume and speed of traffic but could be replaced with zebra crossings if the design speed of the road was decreased. Alternatively the refugees could be retained as islands on a shortened central reservation.

Cycling on this road to connect to a residential street feels suicidal. Drivers are used to cruising at 40mph+ and have little patience for interruptions leading to aggressive behaviour and many close-passes. Close-passes are dangerous at the best of times, but due to the inclusion of the central reservation drivers feel safer to perform them, and will often cut in dangerously to avoid the pedestrian islands. Travelling westward downhill some drivers will wait to overtake then all overtake at once passing the second junction with Westacres road, making it difficult to pull out to turn right into Balray Road and creating near misses with cars coming off the roundabout. The gradient going uphill is steep but necessary due to the geography of the hill (there is no other gentler way up) leading to yet more dangerous overtakes across limited visibility curves.

There is an expression used by some that goes as follows; “if you design your road like a gun barrel, don’t be surprised that people drive like bullets”. The Barrhead road looks long and straight, its forgiving design and reservations give a false sense of security to drivers leading to antisocial behaviour. I am no doubt sure you know about the case, currently in court, where a driver was able to reach excessively high speeds (allegedly under the influence) coming down the road, mounding the grass verge and propelling the vehicle into number 1 Ballgray Road in early 2020. How was this person able to even achieve such speeds without hitting something first? Why does a 40mph arterial have clear-zones like this?

In accordance with modern design standards, specifically making reference to LTN 1/20 I would -from a laypersons perspective- offer the following recommendation. First the road should be redesigned to accommodate safe active travel provision separated form motor vehicle traffic, next the use of trees or other road side furniture could be used to lower the visual speed of the road and calm traffic, and lastly consideration should be given to where cut-throughs could be achieved to allow walking and cycling journeys to avoid the road if possible.

An obvious first step would be removing the central reservation and turning lanes on the stretch that has them. Rodger Avenue, Castle Road, Waterside Avenue and Balgray Road manage just fine without the 5-30 second wait incurred by a turning vehicle, there is no sense in making the rest of the road more dangerous to save that time for Westacres and Greenfarm Roads. 

This freed space would be more than adequate to install a Dutch-style grade-separated cycleway which would benefit all the neighbourhoods listed in the introductions paragraphs and provide a vital connection to the Ayr Road bike lanes.

Grass verges are useful aesthetically and in terms of preventing illegal parking / incursions into the pavement so it would be nice if they could be retained, however, if more space was needed it could be taken from them.

Resurfacing of the pedestrian pavements would be a good opportunity to undo years of successive subterranean work that has made the surfaces extremely poor quality. It would also be a chance to design raised entrances to the side streets to comply with modern design principles and highway code yield priorities (although this is not a priority concern, just an idea).

I am aware of the Darnley Dams project and the proposal for Dutch style cycleways and an intelligent protected junction at the primary school. The Balgray road could potentially act as a critical link to wider active travel routes and open up active travel options for children as well as adults. 

East Renfrewshire Council demonstrates an understanding of how to build safe infrastructure and a commitment to enacting this understanding. During the consultation on Davieland Road, East Renfrewshire’s statement on the benefits of the new layout, while also acknowledging its flaws, and an assertion that a ‘Dutch style’ cycleway would be needed at some point. This is an unusual and highly commendable statement to make, given that some other authorities might create a compromised solution and leave it at that.

Despite largely being built to the design standards of suburban development in the mid-to-late 20th century, East Renfrewshire boasts some truly admirable active travel infrastructure, I believe that making the Barrhead road safer could be another jewel in that same belt and work to create safer communities for all.”

There is this strange idea that cycle infrastructure should only exist in inner-city areas. Sometime this is justified by claiming that once you leave the inner-city areas there is less traffic and therefore less need for infrastructure. Another assertion states that once you leave the walkable city core everyone drives everywhere and therefore there’s no point, and besides, everything is too far away anyway.

Both of these assertions are based on the idea that once you leave the city, there is so much space and everything is so sprawling that there is no point trying to make provision.

These assertions don’t stand up under scrutiny, yes suburbs are sprawling which increases the distances you have to travel, but not significantly more than you might travel across a city. Just because the shops are 1km away instead of 200m is in fact the perfect reason to give people the option to cycle. In Newton Mearns the roads are congested, driver behaviour is increasingly aggressive, delays are common, and every other car is an SUV.

Building safe cycling infrastructure is often much easier in the suburbs because you have less constrained geometry. In the Netherlands there is of course good quality infrastructure but once you travel outside the city it often improves in quality by leaps and bounds.

Doesn’t it make sense to try to reduce the number of short journies made by car, to address these problems, before annoying people like me start banging on about health benefits or how great cargo bikes are. Why should the suburbs be consigned to car dependency while cities get pleasant public spaces and walkability?

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