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Local roads and cycleways: Winter maintenance

Highways By Michael Florance, Associate Engineer – 26 January 2023

Cycle path with building in the background on a snowy winter day with a pale blue sky


Michael in a light green open collar shirt smiling in front of a living wall

Michael Florance

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After the latest spell of crystallising water vapour weather, we can once again reflect on the inadequacy of the UK’s infrastructure and maintenance regimes when dealing with snow. Although it was not quite the USA’s bomb cyclone level of snow, we still saw people, traffic and goods coming to a grinding halt. One group facing the challenges of commuting during such weather is cyclists. Simply put, pursuing active travel when the UK has been hit by snow is almost impossible.

I’ve seen and heard countless examples of cycleways, footways, greenways, and bridleways being unrideable. At the same time, I am confident that no driver would accept the space allocated for vehicles on roads being left undriveable. The question that we need to answer, then, is why can’t we maintain the spaces for cyclists (and pedestrians) as well as we do for vehicles? I’m not saying we need to be perfect, but in most cases it seems like we don’t even try. The Highways Act places a legal obligation of maintenance on highway authorities – this includes winter maintenance. And if we are talking highways, that includes all useable parts of adopted highways, which then extends to cycleways.

We can look to other nations, such as Denmark, for how to do better. I’m perhaps being both harsh and optimistic in equal measure by referencing the cycling capital – but we should at least aspire to replicate how they treat their cyclists. In the same way that we in the UK categorise our roads by vehicle use and accessibility for winter maintenance, in the likes of Denmark this is extended to pathways and cycleways.

There are going to be questions on budget, but if we are serious about promoting year-round active travel in the UK, our maintenance regimes need to change and follow suit. Cycleways need a high level of service to be continually maintained, otherwise they pose a serious risk to cyclists. Even without snowfall, we need a high level of service. Wet or damp surfaces can freeze overnight when temperatures drop, and ice can then be even more of a problem. Do we need response teams on-hand like we have for the gritting of carriageways?

Around November/December 2022, there was a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the maintenance of footways and cycleways, so we are beginning to see change. For the first time ever, I saw a great example of a UK region taking winter maintenance of cycleways seriously, with the London Borough of Waltham Forest sweeping and clearing their dedicated cycle lane on the A172.

While there are challenges, particularly with accessing some cycleways, higher service levels can be achieved. Copenhagen have shown it’s possible, and so has Waltham Forest. Active Travel England just announced £32.9million of investment to create a national network of experts. And I hope that proper, long term, winter maintenance strategists are included on the list.