Gravel, speed humps and a missing bridge - the ongoing problems with Verulamium Park cycle paths

Loose gravel on the cycle path in Verulamium park

Loose gravel on the cycle path in Verulamium park - Credit: Archant

The district council opened the path following a decade-long fight by St Albans Cycle Campaign (STACC), which submitted a 1,000-strong petition calling for improved facilities and safety for cyclists, and is funded by Section 106 contributions from the developers of the King Harry Park estate.

The shared-use path allows both cyclists and pedestrians to use it on designated sides, and runs from King Harry Lane to The Fighting Cocks pub, with a second stretch between Westminster Lodge and St Michael’s. But many cyclists have been accused of ignoring the no-cycling signs in force for the missing section and carrying on regardless.

This is because a bridge planned to link the two paths has yet to be constructed, as it is caught up in bureaucracy at county council level.

The park routes have also been criticised for not being connected to the existing cycling network, particularly the Alban Way, which limits access from the east of the city.

When the first stretch opened last October, disability activists immediately raised fears that the speed humps along the cycle path would pose problems for people with mobility issues, whether in wheelchairs or using walking frames.

But now other users are also speaking out – this time about the gravel used to surface the path, which not only makes travelling on wheels harder, but can cause greater injuries if you fall over.

STACC chairman John Metcalf offered the organisation’s official viewpoint on the new cycle path: “I gather there are plans to modify the humps and also that one possibility is to take some out. A safety audit has been done and decisions are awaited from the council. I favour taking out the speed humps on the cycling side where the path is segregated as they serve no useful purpose. But, keep them, if they can be made safe for wheelchair users, on the pedestrian side to deter cyclists from using the pedestrian side.”

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Concerns over the gravel surface are also on his radar: “We have had complaints of punctures from cyclists which seem to have been caused by the sharp flints in the loose gravel. Loose gravel is dangerous and there is a high risk of skidding when braking at the unmarked crossroads. It also makes the speed humps difficult to see and the gravel is building up at these humps.

“Obviously, with a loose layer on top of Tarmac it is not possible to see any white lines on the surface to mark the speed humps or to mark the crossing.

“However, I’m told that the loose gravel will be swept off in the next couple of weeks, but it should not have taken this long to get rid of this potential hazard.”

The other issue is the width of the path between Westminster Lodge and St Michael’s, which is only two metres in parts, far too narrow to cope with cycles and pedestrians, and well below the Department of Transport’s recommended three-metre minimum for a small number of users.

Mr Metcalf pointed out: “We do not have a small number of users: we have a large number of users and we cannot understand why government advice has been ignored on this.

“We want good relations between pedestrians and cyclists but the sub-standard width of this path will not help and we are hoping that St Albans council will put this right as soon as possible.”

STACC is also awaiting the report on the county council-funded St Albans Cycle Study, which was commissioned way back in 2011 from Steer Davies and Gleave consultants.

“We commented on a draft list of priority projects in February 2012 and despite repeated requests have still not seen any recommendations or report on the project. I am told that there is a meeting this week to finalise the report on the study but the report has been promised at regular intervals over the last year so I am not holding my breath.”

But he added a final positive comment: “Overall, despite the problems, we are pleased that the district and county councils have delivered the cycle paths that were so much in demand.”

St Albans district council has responded to some of the issues raised in connection with the cycle path.

A spokesperson explained the use of gravel to surface the path: “Gravel laying is a normal part of the construction process when a path is laid. It helps ensure the path’s top layer is properly embedded.

“Excess gravel is swept away after a few weeks. The civil works contractor will be doing a mechanical sweep shortly.”

The issue of connecting the park with the existing cycle network is also in hand: “Verulamium Park cycle path will eventually form part of the St Albans Green Ring – a path through and around the city area.

“The latest part of the project, resurfacing works to the Alban Way, will be taking place this autumn [see story below left]. The Green Ring project is scheduled for completion in 2015.”

And the speed humps are also being reviewed in light of problems raised by disability groups: “There was a complaint earlier in the year from a member of the public who had concerns about the speed bumps from a disability access perspective.

“Following a meeting with them, we are now considering various technical aspects before agreeing what course of action to take.”

A spokesperson for the county council, which is responsible for the bridge, said: “The bridge project is currently being assessed in outline by [contractors] Sustrans to see what is feasible. It would also need English Heritage consent and maintenance agreements for the new structure.”

He emphasised that the scheme was not being held up by Section 106 monies linked to the King Harry estate.

The spokesman also offered hope when it came to the long-awaited report into cycling in the district: “We are currently working to finalise the St Albans Cycle Study by the end of the financial year. We will engage with local stakeholders on the final draft.”

WE asked cyclists who regularly use Verulamium Park for their comments on the paths.

Cyclist Alex Walsh, from St Albans, said: “The amount of loose gravel is ludicrous - as an adult cycling on it I can’t believe how dangerous it is for two reasons: firstly you can’t turn for fear of skidding off and secondly it obscures the markings for the speed bumps. I nearly came off this morning when I failed to see a bump properly - the sun coming in at an angle through the trees makes the path stippled with sun and shadow anyway.”

His wife Claire added: “I use the causeway section of the path most days with the pushchair, and occasionally on my bike. The gravel makes its incredibly difficult to push the buggy, particularly uphill, and also wears out my shoes!

“It’s also become a nightmare walking in the park along these paths with the children. As soon as they fall over the gravel seems to shred their knees and I spend ages picking tiny bits of gravel out.

“I cannot understand the choice of gravel, surely if the intention is to slow down cyclists then it only needed to be placed on the cycle lane side. I would say that personally when I am cycling I also find that the gravel makes it easier for me to skid the bike which makes it quite dangerous with a baby on the back of the bike.

“I support cycling in the park but I do think that it has become dangerous as many cyclists seem to be flaunting the rules and doing silly things such as going far too fast near pedestrians. I hardly ever let my one year old walk anymore because he has very nearly been run over a couple of times. There is a dire need for a separate bike entrance/bridge from King Harry Lane as that area in particular is an accident waiting to happen.”

St Albans resident Chrissie Saunders said alarm bells rang as soon as she heard about the gravel paths.

“As a mum my first thought was for mums with prams and then moved onto anything with wheels: scooters, wheelchairs, inline skates, bikes, mobility scooters. It must require more energy to cycle on gravel than Tarmac. Have you ever tried to cycle on sand or loose gravel?”

But she also had issues with the risk of injury posed by the surfacing: “My husband and daughter go to the park most weekends cycling. He tows her to the park behind his bike and then releases her so that she can practice away from the busy streets. The park is perfect for this. She is now a fairly confident cyclist.

“However, last weekend, she was cycling on the netball courts then made the turn onto the new path and the bike came out from under her when she hit the loose gravel path and scraped her elbows. The injuries aren’t serious, nothing more than normal grazes as part of growing up but I’m more concerned about the knock in confidence.

“When they first proposed the new paths we were excited, even though I don’t remember the old paths being in that much disrepair, albeit a bit narrow. I was hoping for nothing more than clear markings for a cycle path. We often cycle through the park and on numerous occasions people have shouted at us, even though we go around them on the grass, as they thought we were not allowed to cycle through - new markings would make this more clear.”

Cyclist Matt Bigg added: “I think the cycle path is great idea, I just wish there was more routes around St Albans. My main issue is was this really thought through? Was a cyclist even consulted in the design process?

“Why add tons and tons of gravel on top of perfectly good Tarmac. It seems to cause problems and rips the hell out of children’s skin! It also hasn’t lasted that well. If you follow the path along and up the Roman wall, it just seems to be ageing very quickly, with lumps and visible signs of wear all over the place.

“Why, why, why are there speed bumps, and on the pedestrian side of the path! What is that all about? I also think signage has been a big issue. People really are not sure what side of the path to walk or cycle.”