Tag Archives: bristol

Cycling probably isn’t in decline in Bristol, but the city still has complacency issues

This popped up in my Tweetdeck saved searches column:

It caught my eye because I’m quite ready to be critical of Bristol. And I will be.

But first, some reassurance. These numbers are (a) just a levelling off after years of growth, (b) probably not representative of the real situation in Bristol, and (c) probably a load of rubbish.

The numbers come from the Department for Transport. Here’s how they look when plotted as an index relative to 2000, alongside motor vehicles (beware, truncated y axis):

image

So this “decline” should be seen in the context of cycling journeys still being higher in number than in the last decade.

But actually this probably isn’t the right data to even tell you whether there has been a levelling off. You might get a clue from the fact that this data puts cycling’s mode share at 1-2% in a city that claims several times that much cycling.

It’s because this is Department for Transport traffic count data, and the DfT only count on main roads. Roads like these:

roads

The biggest, busiest and fastest roads in the city, including several where cycling is not even legal.

But Bristol’s strategy for cycling has largely neglected the main roads. (That is itself one of my criticisms of the city, but we’ll get to that.) Bristol’s rise as a cycling city is built on the foundations of its off-road routes on post-industrial corridors — the Railway Path, harbourside, greenways and towpaths. And in recent years its main policy developments have been slower speeds and filtered permeability on residential streets and in the city centre, as well as the development of additional joined-up off-road arterial routes.

So one could almost hypothesise that a fall in DfT main road traffic counts are what you’d expect to see in a city where the policy has been about creating alternative routes to the main roads.

Finally though, even for the dataset that it is, these numbers need to be taken with a big pinch of salt, because they are DfT traffic counts. The clue is in the fact that the line for cycling is really all over the place. These are based on a single day per year sample, probably collected by folk sat by the side of the road with pencils and paper, and so subject to big sampling noise.

That doesn’t mean Bristol’s doing alright

In 2012, we took the Cycling Embassy to Bristol to admire the Railway Path, the Living Heart Campaign for city centre filtered permeability, the then newly completed Concorde Way arterial route and the harbourside. Since then there have been some developments.

Bristol had just voted to replace its ineffective council-led model of local government with the mayor-led model, and there were high hopes that the city might start seeing some progress after years of plodding along. Hopes were higher still when independent George Ferguson was elected later that year with a mandate for improving cycling in the city. Ferguson’s policies even promised to finally start addressing the main roads, and thanks to the volunteer-run Bristol Cycling Campaign, there’s even a network plan ready prepared to work through.

So three quarters of the way through his term, what have we got?

The Baldwin Street cycle track and the Clarence Road cycle track (2 years late and with the council instantly pandering to incompetent motorists by reducing its defences). Two very welcome schemes. But that’s three years for a kilometre of tracks, not even fully connected to the wider network. At this rate it will take centuries to complete the network.

But far more worrying than what hasn’t happened is what has. Bristol is still designing crap like this — and building it, despite the countless warnings they’ve received:

brt

Busy, narrow, discontinuous shared use footways of the kind that should have been consigned to Crap Facility of the Month 15 years ago. This is not the stuff of a “cycling city”.

Bristol is still doing far better than — and doing nothing quite so embarrassing as — the likes of Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester, of course. But that should go without saying. That should go without saying. Bristol is expected to be better than Birmingham and Leeds and Manchester. But it’s certainly not exceeding expectations. It’s not moving forward or graduating from the low-hanging fruit of greenways to the hard work of fixing main roads. When London is building the NS/EW superhighways and many more kilometres of good stuff besides, nothing Bristol is doing looks exciting anymore.

And I think that’s because Bristol doesn’t appreciate what it has got, or understand how it got it. It has fallen for its own myth that it is an alternative city, and takes it for granted that the cool, green, self-reliant people of Bristol have a cycling culture. In fact, that culture arose alongside its off-road routes, and it could disappear just as quickly.

Worse even than the crap facilities on new roads is closing the Ashton Bridge for a year, severing greenway routes, to build a busway — diverting anyone who is left willing to cycle onto a dual carriageway. Or closing the Railway Path for months with similarly inadequate diversions. Over the past few years the city has variously proposed destroying the Railway Path entirely, destroying the riverside “chocolate block” path, and destroying part of the harbourside, all in the pursuit of mediocre bus systems serving the outer suburbs.

It is clear that council officers in the city have no appreciation of how absolutely critical these kinds of routes are — how dependent the growth in cycling modal share has been on them, how much they contribute to the city’s mobility, and how easily and how totally the city can be set back by allowing such routes to be destroyed. But outside the council there’s a complacency too. I don’t think many people quite appreciate just how critical the harbourside routes are, for example, because they exist by default as spaces left behind by industrial decline, rather than as something that had to be fought for, paid for, planned, designed and built. Yet they tie together the city’s radial routes in the centre — a vital function that other cities can struggle with immensely.

I could go on.

Bristol is still far better than Birmingham or Leeds or Manchester. But it’s not radical. And it needs to start taking its cycling infrastructure seriously. Because mode share can go down as well as up — and the fall can be faster than the ascent.

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Repost: Exclusive: things tend to have a greater effect on the world once they exist

So the Institute of Advanced Motorists have press released the fact that casualties are up on 20mph streets (deaths are down, but they were already in single figures, so that’s random). I thought it might be worth reposting this sarcastic rubbish that I bashed out last time some idiot tried to claim that an increase in casualties on 20mph roads is evidence of their failure.

I heard on the lunchtime news on Radio 4 today the shocking news of an increase in the number of people injured on 20mph streets. Back when there were fewer 20mph streets, fewer people were injured on 20mph streets, they revealed. Now that there are more 20mph streets, more people are being injured on 20mph streets. This road safety intervention, they concluded, isn’t working.

This watertight logic perhaps also explains why BBC News have been so quiet on the destruction of the NHS. Before the NHS existed, literally nobody at all died in any of the then non-existent NHS hospitals. Almost as soon as the NHS was created, people started dying in the newly created NHS hospitals. Clearly the NHS doesn’t work.

Members of the Association of British Nutters will no doubt be getting very excited about these numbers, but before they make rash recommendations they should remember that back before the British motorway network was built, there were literally no people injured on the British motorway network, whereas now that the British motorway network exists, there are lots.

I hope that the main elements of the astonishing innumeracy that went into the BBC story — the failure to put the raw numbers into any kind of useful context, either of the rapid growth in the number of streets with 20mph limits as it has become easier to set the limit (or their changing nature as 20mph starts to roll out beyond quiet residential streets onto busier high streets), or of the far higher number (and, more importantly, rate) of injuries and death on either equivalent 30mph streets or on the same 20mph streets before the speed was lowered — should be obvious. Needless to say, reducing speeds on a street from 30mph to 20mph cuts injuries, regardless of the entirely banal fact that those few injuries which remain will thenceforth be added to the tally for 20mph streets instead of that for 30mph.

So, mockery over,  there’s a more important point: should an increase in injuries, if there really had been one, automatically kill off further roll out of 20mph zones?

Those who dwell at the bottom of Bristol’s Evening Post presumably think so

It beggars belief that the council intend reducing the 30mph speed limit. A limit introduced when there was no such thing as MoT’s, ABS brakes, crash zones on the front of cars and good street lighting.

I can see no justification in spending this money and would dearly love to know who Bristol City Council think it will benefit? It certainly won’t be the youth, disabled or elderly.

James R Sawyer clearly thinks that the 20 zones must be all about safety, as he argues that his ABS brakes and crash zones are already plenty enough to keep him safe as he drives through Bristol at 30. But Bristol have always been clearabout why they’re moving towards a 20mph city:

Councillor Jon Rogers, Cabinet Member for Care and Health, said: “…20 mph zones create cleaner, safer, friendlier neighbourhoods for cyclists and pedestrians. They are popular with residents, as slower traffic speeds mean children can play more safely and all residents can enjoy calmer environment.”

Slower speeds are not a simple issue of cutting crude injury statistics. They’re more about reviving communities which have been spoiled and severed by traffic speeding through them, reclaiming a little bit of the public realm that has been monopolised by the motorcar, and enabling liveable walkable neighbourhoods to thrive. Far from “certainly no benefit for the youth, disabled or elderly”, we know much — some of the research having in fact been carried out in Bristol itself — about the many adverse effects of higher speeds and volumes of traffic, and the loss of shops and services due to car-centric planning and living and the blight of high streets by arterial traffic, on the mobility of those most excluded from the car addicted society, particularly the young, the elderly, and the disabled. If they’re lucky, these people will be forced into dependency on those willing to help them get around; if they’re unlucky, they will simply be left isolated and severely disadvantaged. But of course, we don’t like to acknowledge the existence of the large numbers of people who are excluded from much of our society, culture and economy by our rebuilding the world with nobody in mind except car owners.

The injury statistics cited in the BBC News piece include minor injuries, which is most injuries at slow speeds — little things which don’t require a hospital stay. What are a few more cuts and bruises if it means that thousands of kids are free to walk to school with their friends instead of stuck inside mum’s car? Would we rather keep the infirm all shut up and sedentary with no access to the shops and the services they need, too intimidated by the anti-social behaviour of motorists to cross the road, than risk one person having a fall?

These strands can be tied together by the other piece of context that would have been worth including in the BBC piece: in the same year that injuries in 20mph zones increased, injuries to pedestrians and cyclists in general increased — in part because there are more to be injured. It has always been the case that the great road safety gains that successive governments have boasted of have been won mainly by making streets so dreadful that people find them too frightening, stressful, unpleasant, humiliating or ineffective to walk, cycle, or do anything other than sit in a secure metal box on. Start making the streets a little bit less awful and people return to them.

“The overall results show that ‘signs only’ 20mph has been accompanied by a small but important reduction in daytime vehicle speeds, an increase in walking and cycling counts, especially at weekends, a strengthening of public support for 20mph, maintenance of bus journey times and reliability, and no measurable impact on air quality or noise.”

Like cycle tracks, which people still like to claim increase car-cycle collisions (they don’t) despite before-and-after studies largely ignoring the fact that the point of cycle tracks is to widen bicycle use from the confident and quick witted to the people who were are otherwise too scared, stressed or infirm to do so, so invalidating the before-and-after study design, an increase in minor injuries after speed limit reduction, even if it were really to happen, would be far from proof of a failure.

Postscript, July 2014

The IAM make a thing of the DfT stats showing a 26% increase in serious injuries in 20mph limits and a 9% decrease in 30mph limits. Given that the base figures for the two sets are so different, that amounts to 87 more injuries in 20 zones and 1102 fewer injuries in 30 zones. Of course, the only figures that would really matter (in the absence of a double blind randomised controlled trial) are before/after comparisons of the streets that have switched and/or case-control studies of those streets (at least, for measuring injuries; as I said before, there are other important outcomes to 20 zones besides injury rates). And given that these numbers are not (and could not really be) normalised to the changes in total length of the two types of street, and are influenced by far too many confounding variables, I wouldn’t dream of suggesting that they’re worth drawing any conclusion from. But if you’re intent on drawing a conclusion, given the trend in switching 30mph streets to 20mph streets, a net reduction in serious injuries of 1015 seems like a far more pertinent one than a 26% increase in injuries on 20mph streets.

Repost: Pickles peddles pointless parking press release

Not having anything new to post, but having been reminded of this antique scrawl by last week’s Cycling Embassy response to the Department for Communities and Local Government’s consultation on whether they should interfere in local parking policies, I figured I could fob you off with something originally posted way back in august 2011.

This week, the Department for Communities and Local Government put out a press release about town centre parking. Unlike last time, they didn’t even have to announce that Pickles is ending The War On The Motorist™. On that point, their work was done for them, by 36 newspapers and the Daily Express. Aren’t they well trained?

This time around, Rubberknickers Pickles is ending The War by lifting restrictions on how much of our town centres can be given over to car parking. The idea is nothing new, of course, but it is assumed that most will have forgotten the previous occasions when it was announced. The “news” is that the paperwork has gone through: the new version of the government’s planning rules are complete.

As far as I can tell, the notorious limits on car parking provision that have been dropped were Policy EC8, “Car parking for non-residential development,” in the Planning Policy Statement 4 of 2001 [PDF]. This policy instructs local authorities:

Local planning authorities should, through their local development frameworks, set maximum parking standards for non-residential development in their area, ensuring alignment with the policies in the relevant local transport plan and, where relevant, the regional strategy.

In determining what their maximum should be, the policy suggested that authorities think about the needs of non-car users, the effects of congestion and need to tackle carbon emissions and air pollution, and:

h. the need to make provision for adequate levels of good quality secure parking in town centres to encourage investment and maintain their vitality and viability

j. the need to provide for appropriate disabled parking and access

k. the needs of different business sizes and types and major employers

That is, the notorious Labour control-freakery over town centre parking was, er, an instruction for local authorities to develop guidelines that they think are suitable for their own local situations. The Policy document goes on to state that these local standards that authorities have developed should then be applied to planning applications — unless the planning applicant gives a good reason for them not to apply.

So these maximum limits are locally decided and not really binding. That doesn’t quite look like “centrally controlled parking quotas” to me. In his press release, Pickles says:

The Government believes councils and communities are best placed to set parking policies that are right for their area and based on local need – not Whitehall. Local people know the level of parking that is sustainable for their town centre.

Which seems to be exactly what the old Policy document supported.

Perhaps there was some other Labour policy, rule, or law that I haven’t been able to find? Anybody?

I’m not sure what real difference the removal of this policy makes. Previously councils were made to think about the effect of congestion and pollution and the like on their town centres, and the needs of people on foot and bike and bus. When a planning application came in they would know how to recognise whether it would be bad for their town, and they would have a good pre-prepared excuse to reject a development that would make their town centre a more congested and polluted place, or which would hinder walking, cycling, and public transport. But I assume that they’re still allowed to reject those developments if they still don’t like congestion and pollution and dead places?

But perhaps the new policy document will send a message to local authorities: your town centres are in a bad way, and you need to do something about it. In his press release, Pickles says that the removal of this rule will “provide a big boost to struggling high streets”:

The new draft National Planning Policy Framework, recently published, will do away with these anti-car restrictions introduced in 2001 and give high streets a boost to compete for shoppers. It will encourage new investment in town centres, provide more jobs and encourage more charging spaces for electric cars.

Unfortunately, Pickles doesn’t explain how the new Policy will translate into more competitive town centres with more jobs. More importantly, he presents no evidence to support the statement. So I went looking for it. Luckily, Greg Marsden has already reviewed the evidence on parking policies.

One of the studies that Marsden reviews is the 2002 Lockwood Survey, which divides “town centres” by size of the town/catchment area, and whose summary states:

4.   Findings of the parking survey:

Major District Centres: Poor store performance is linked with low levels of parking, reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Sub Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with reliance on car parks more than 5 minutes walk from prime shopping streets and high charges (the report gives indicative levels).

Regional Centres: Poor store performance is linked with high charges for 3 and 4 hour stays (the report gives indicative levels).

But when Marsden looked at the data he found it a lot more difficult to support these conclusions. In “major district centres”, those with very low levels of parking were indeed more likely to be performing badly. But those with mildly low levels of parking did better than those with high levels. And in regional centres, those with higher levels of parking were struggling more than those with lower levels. But those with very high levels of parking did a little better than those with very low levels.

There simply doesn’t seem to be any pattern in this data at all. The authors of the original report had cherry picked those parts of the data that made it look like low parking provision was harming shops, while ignoring those parts that said the reverse. Marsden found the same for parking charges and the proportion of parking spaces within a five minute walk of the main shopping area: the data was all over the place, showing no obvious and consistent relationship with economic performance. Why not? Because if variation in parking provision has any effect on town centre attractiveness and competitiveness at all, it is masked by far more important factors — perhaps factors like whether the town centre is easy to get to, has shops people want to use, and is a nice place to be.

So why is Pickles press releasing his new policy as the saviour for struggling town centres? Why did most of the newspapers toe that line? We’ve developed a national myth that giving over more of our town centres to parking is good for the businesses in them.

Sustrans documented the nature of this myth by talking to traders and shoppers on Gloucester Road in Bristol. Bristol is relatively dense and affluent with above average cycling and car ownership rates and, even by British standards, appalling public transport. Gloucester Road doubles as a major artery with many bus routes and a neighbourhood centre lined with mostly independent shops. As Bristol Traffic documents, its bus and bike lanes are usually filled with parked cars.

Not Gloucester Road, but a near-by case study which might teach us some things about why town centres are in decline

Shopkeepers on Gloucester road estimated that more than two fifths of their customers came by car. In fact it was only just over a fifth. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. The shopkeepers were perhaps being big-headed, believing that their businesses were capable of attracting people from a wider catchment area, when in fact most customers lived within an easily walkable distance.

And the shopkeepers greatly overestimated the importance of drivers to their business in another way: while the people who walked were likely to stick around and visit several shops and businesses, the drivers typically pulled up, ran in to one shop, and got out of there as fast as they could. Perhaps that’s because often they couldn’t even be bothered to park up properly and instead stopped in the bike lanes outside their destination.

High street shopkeepers and business owners greatly overestimate the importance of drivers to their success. Why? Perhaps proprietors are more likely to be drivers themselves, and, as is so often the case with motorists, can’t get their heads around the fact that so many others aren’t? Perhaps their view of the street through the big shop window is dominated by the big metal boxes passing through? Perhaps they see the apparent success of the big soulless out-of-town supermarkets and shopping malls, attribute that success to the acres of car parking, and leap to the conclusion that car parking is all that a business needs for success — that the model which succeeds on the periphery can be applied to the model that is failing in the centre.

I suspect that the opposite might be true. Those who are attached to their cars will go to the barns on the ring-roads. You won’t attract them back to the town centres. But by trying — by providing for the car parking at the expense of bike paths and bus lanes and wider pavements — you might drive away the surprisingly high proportion of town centre customers who don’t come by car, who come precisely because, unlike the malls, the town centre is walkable and cycleable and because the bus can get through. Town centres aren’t just competing with out-of-town malls and supermarkets any more. Those who don’t want to drive to out-of-town barns can sit at home, click on some buttons, and have things driven to them. Compared to most of the traffic-choked high streets in this country, that’s quite an attractive option.

Bristol: this is an embarrassment, sort it out

Bristol is, I think — and have mentioned here many times — one of the top three least worst cities for cycling in the UK. They understand there that it is the danger and discomfort posed by motor traffic that prevents people from cycling, and it is their steady expansion and improvement to traffic-free routes that enabled a near doubling of cycle modal share for commuting since the 2001 census, to what is, by Britain’s risible standards, a relatively respectable 8%.

And this last week the city invoked jealous looks from the rest of the country on twitter when it opened the consultation on the latest in its long backlog of cycle network infrastructure projects: a proposal for what it describes as a “Dutch-style” bidirectional cycle track alongside a main road and the New Cut of the River Avon a little way south of the city centre. Not because the few hundred metres of cycle track are in themselves all that revolutionary, but because they saw a city quietly getting on with it, happy to replace car parking spaces with cycling infrastructure, and with little of the “Crossrail for bikes”-style hype.

So it should be a subject of great embarrassment for Bristol that at the same time as designing “Dutch-style” cycle tracks that take space from motoring on Clarence Road, it is finalising planning permission for the next Facility Of The Month alongside a big new ringway road — dressed up as a Bus Route — a couple of kilometres to the south.

The latest visuals of the South Bristol Link Road are strong contenders for the most ridiculous artist’s impression of a new road yet — and gosh does that prize have some competition.

_68808465_13.07.16reservedcorridorartisticimpressionfromnewsletter

And amongst the wildflower meadows and sylvan glades of this new paradise, where morning motorists will no doubt be serenaded by songbirds as they speed uninterrupted through the city like they were promised in the car commercials, pedestrians and cyclists will be treated with utterly contemptuous shared pavements.

brt

A nineties throwback, a footway with a white line down it, interrupted by every driveway and sprawling side-road. Straight out of the government’s Manual for Crap Facilities.

Elsewhere Bristol is learning the lesson that much of its first generation cycle infrastructure — the Railway Path, the quaysides, and many dozens of “fiddly little bits” documented in detail by Sam Saunders — is proving inadequate, victim of the city’s small success, as their insufficient capacity and lack of clarity creates conflict between users. Which is why the city is learning to build “Dutch-style” clear cycle tracks — Clarence Road being the latest of a series.

And it’s why it’s so galling to see a proposal for something not even up to standards of that first generation of infrastructure. A facility that is, at best, worthy of Birmingham or South Gloucestershire.

Why Bristol is still failing to be a cycling city

In writing up the Cycling Embassy’s AGM infrastructure safaris, I said some nice things about Bristol. I think it’s the least worst city for getting around by bicycle in Britain. But despite the good things that Cycling England’s demonstration city project achieved, and the city council’s boasts about it, Bristol has failed to become a cycling city where it most matters.

The city was named and shamed by The Times for one of the worst junctions in the country, the St James Barton roundabout — aka The Bearpit — on the inner ring road. Four lanes of circulating traffic forming a formidable barrier to getting into the city centre from the arterial roads that terminate here. But while one wing of the city council considers new variations on the Great British shared facility — awkward kludges to work around the mistakes and omissions of the 1960s — another is independently working on “public realm improvements” just yards away, each apparently oblivious to what the other is doing. And neither of them seems to have a clue that this is a “cycling city”.

Regular readers might already be familiar with the street that they wish to improve: the A38, one of those arteries terminating at St James Barton. It’s variously Stokes Croft, Cheltenham Road, and later Gloucester Road. It’s the artery explored in this infrastructure safari, and, a few miles up, the high street that was the subject of this post on how people get to their local shops.

Heading north out of town, if you survive St James Barton, you’ll need to turn onto the bus lane, underneath 51°02, onto Stokes Croft (technically North Street for the first hundred yards or so), and then try to dodge the buses which are overtaking you on the bend ready to immediately pull into the bus stop that’s hidden just behind 51°02’s stilts…

…while on the southbound carriageway a single lane widens into four for stacking at the roundabout, much having been bulldozed out of the way for them half a century ago. Continuing northbound, a section of extra-wide footway — spare space set aside when there were ideas that this road should one day be even wider — is mostly lifeless in this land of the motor…

…and finally, the section of sprawling highway ends abruptly where the old street dimensions and frontages survived the bulldozers… but suffered the years of planning blight from threats of road widening that left them in a poor state of repair and, when occupied at all, usually occupied by the city’s less wholesome businesses.

There’s no doubt that this is a pretty foul place for pedestrians, with a cloud of fumes coming off the four lanes of stacked traffic waiting for the lights; and the cars speeding around the blind bend from the roundabout; and the acres of dead space in the non-standard road layout that encourages non-standard manoeuvres. So the city council are consulting on “public realm improvements” for this area, hoping to bring the pavements alive with people and street cafes. So what are these improvements?

Taking out the bus lane to widen the footway, leaving cyclists with that thoroughly discredited facility, the 1.5m on-carriageway cycle lane, leading cyclists into exactly the same deadly conflict with the bus stop as before, and providing the ever delightful environment of buses pulling in and out inches to the left of you, speeding cars and trucks inches to the right of you.

And acres of dead carriageway replaced with acres of dead pavement, and again, that widely tried and widely failed 1.5 metre cycle lane, a gutter sandwich between traffic and the driver-side doors of the loading and parking bays. But it’s OK, the designers have thought about the needs of cyclists: the loading bays are supposedly  “wide enough to create a safe buffer between car doors and passing cyclists”. And a raised table will apparently slow drivers down as they nudge the steering wheel slightly to turn across the cycle lane into that grossly distended side road, King Square Avenue, so that’s alright then.

No doubt the trees and fancy fashionable paving will make this a less awful place to be on foot, but I’m not sure people will be rushing to set up pavement cafes next to the totally unchanged four-lane stacked traffic. It’s treatment of symptoms without addressing the real causes of the problems here.

More to the point, it’s still useless if you’re on a bicycle, because, like everything built by the city’s highways engineers, it’s designed with Britain’s useless guidelines and rules. And that’s why Bristol’s authorities can not claim to be administering a cycling city. The great things that have been achieved in the city can be attributed to either the few excellent hard working cycling officers, or to the consultants and contractors bought in and guided by Cycling England during the demonstration city project. But the cycling office appear to have been put in a silo, able only to get paths put in where they won’t inconvenience anybody — through the parks, behind the allotment gardens, under the electricity pylons; and the hired expertise left when Cycling England and the demonstration city project went up in the bonfire of the quangos. The rest of the council seems to be as oblivious about cycling as any other authority in Britain: the highways department are as obsessed as any other with traffic flow and junction capacity; transport officers are just as obsessed with buses; parking enforcement just as powerless to keep cycle lanes clear; police just as indifferent to dangerous driving. It’s not a cycling city, it’s a city with a cycling department.

You can see it when a southern bypass is proposed with a 1.5m wide pavement cycling facility; when the flagship cycle path is suggested as the perfect location for a BRT line; when quaysides and riverside paths — crucial for linking together the network of traffic-free cycle routes in the city centre — are left impassable for years due to construction work (or lack of it); and every time the highways department puts in another 1.5m cycle lane in the gutter underneath the car parking.

All of the candidates to be Bristol’s first mayor say they want to be in charge of a cycling city (even if one of them doesn’t mean it) and all of them recognise that there’s a way to go before they can claim to be so. If they’re to get there, they need all their officers behind them, not just the few in the cycle paths office.

Exclusive: things tend to have a greater effect on the world once they exist

I heard on the lunchtime news on Radio 4 today the shocking news of an increase in the number of people injured on 20mph streets. Back when there were fewer 20mph streets, fewer people were injured on 20mph streets, they revealed. Now that there are more 20mph streets, more people are being injured on 20mph streets. This road safety intervention, they concluded, isn’t working.

This watertight logic perhaps also explains why BBC News have been so quiet on the destruction of the NHS. Before the NHS existed, literally nobody at all died in any of the then non-existent NHS hospitals. Almost as soon as the NHS was created, people started dying in the newly created NHS hospitals. Clearly the NHS doesn’t work.

Members of the Association of British Nutters will no doubt be getting very excited about these numbers, but before they make rash recommendations they should remember that back before the British motorway network was built, there were literally no people injured on the British motorway network, whereas now that the British motorway network exists, there are lots.

I hope that the main elements of the astonishing innumeracy that went into the BBC story — the failure to put the raw numbers into any kind of useful context, either of the rapid growth in the number of streets with 20mph limits as it has become easier to set the limit (or their changing nature as 20mph starts to roll out beyond quiet residential streets onto busier high streets), or of the far higher number (and, more importantly, rate) of injuries and death on either equivalent 30mph streets or on the same 20mph streets before and after the speed was lowered — should be obvious. Needless to say, reducing speeds on a street from 30mph to 20mph cuts injuries, regardless of the entirely banal fact that those few injuries which remain will thenceforth be added to the tally for 20mph streets instead of that for 30mph.

So, mockery over,  there’s a more important point: should an increase in injuries, if there really had been one, automatically kill off further roll out of 20mph zones?

Those who dwell at the bottom of Bristol’s Evening Post presumably think so

It beggars belief that the council intend reducing the 30mph speed limit. A limit introduced when there was no such thing as MoT’s, ABS brakes, crash zones on the front of cars and good street lighting.

I can see no justification in spending this money and would dearly love to know who Bristol City Council think it will benefit? It certainly won’t be the youth, disabled or elderly.

James R Sawyer clearly thinks that the 20 zones must be all about safety, as he argues that his ABS brakes and crash zones are already plenty enough to keep him safe as he drives through Bristol at 30. But Bristol have always been clear about why they’re moving towards a 20mph city:

Councillor Jon Rogers, Cabinet Member for Care and Health, said: “…20 mph zones create cleaner, safer, friendlier neighbourhoods for cyclists and pedestrians. They are popular with residents, as slower traffic speeds mean children can play more safely and all residents can enjoy calmer environment.”

Slower speeds are not a simple issue of cutting crude injury statistics. They’re more about reviving communities which have been spoiled and severed by traffic speeding through them, reclaiming a little bit of the public realm that has been monopolised by the motorcar, and enabling liveable walkable neighbourhoods to thrive. Far from “certainly no benefit for the youth, disabled or elderly”, we know much — some of the research having in fact been carried out in Bristol itself — about the many adverse effects of higher speeds and volumes of traffic, and the loss of shops and services due to car-centric planning and living and the blight of high streets by arterial traffic, on the mobility of those most excluded from the car addicted society, particularly the young, the elderly, and the disabled. If they’re lucky, these people will be forced into dependency on those willing to help them get around; if they’re unlucky, they will simply be left isolated and severely disadvantaged. But of course, we don’t like to acknowledge the existence of the large numbers of people who are excluded from much of our society, culture and economy by our rebuilding the world with nobody in mind except car owners.

The injury statistics cited in the BBC News piece include minor injuries, which is most injuries at slow speeds — little things which don’t require a hospital stay. What are a few more cuts and bruises if it means that thousands of kids are free to walk to school with their friends instead of stuck inside mum’s car? Would we rather keep the infirm all shut up and sedentary with no access to the shops and the services they need, too intimidated by the anti-social behaviour of motorists to cross the road, than risk one person having a fall?

These strands can be tied together by the other piece of context that would have been worth including in the BBC piece: in the same year that injuries in 20mph zones increased, injuries to pedestrians and cyclists in general increased — in part because there are more to be injured. It has always been the case that the great road safety gains that successive governments have boasted of have been won mainly by making streets so dreadful that people find them too frightening, stressful, unpleasant, humiliating or ineffective to walk, cycle, or do anything other than sit in a secure metal box on. Start making the streets a little bit less awful and people return to them.

“The overall results show that ‘signs only’ 20mph has been accompanied by a small but important reduction in daytime vehicle speeds, an increase in walking and cycling counts, especially at weekends, a strengthening of public support for 20mph, maintenance of bus journey times and reliability, and no measurable impact on air quality or noise.”

Like cycle tracks, which people still like to claim increase car-cycle collisions (they don’t) despite before-and-after studies largely ignoring the fact that the point of cycle tracks is to widen bicycle use from the confident and quick witted to the people who were are otherwise too scared, stressed or insecure to do so, so invalidating the before-and-after study design, an increase in minor injuries after speed limit reduction, even if it were really to happen, would be far from proof of a failure.

The Living Heart Safari

Champion Square

Champion Square: shared space that works, because it’s combined with filtered permeability.

Finally, the Saturday evening Infrastructure Safari at the Cycling Embassy’s AGM in Bristol in May. This was led by Steve Melia, a transport and town planning academic at the University of the West of England and campaigner from the Carfree UK and Living Heart for Bristol campaigns. That latter campaign formed the theme for the safari, a short ride around the city centre looking at the big roads that blight it and the ways in which traffic reduction has already helped to make a more thriving liveable city, and the potential for further reduction.

The Google Map tour is here.

The basic idea of the Living Heart campaign is to cut traffic and create a liveable city centre through the careful use of selective permeability to make it impossible to drive through the city centre, without preventing anybody who has a genuine need to be there with a vehicle — residents, traders, and deliveries — from driving in and out. In a sense, they are seeking to make the best of the Bristol that the motorway mad 1960s planners left us, with its arterial motorway and inner ring road, by switching from a system which used the big roads to feed ever greater volumes of traffic into the old city streets to one which uses those main roads to remove traffic from those streets. Or, to put it another way, they would block up the ratruns, freeing them up for more suitable and useful purposes.

Queen Square, before and after, from the Living Heart campaign.

Compared to much of the country (and I know, that’s hardly a ringing endorsement), Bristol already has a relatively good record on creating a liveable low-traffic city centre. It started in the 1980s with strategic road blocks and short sections of pedestrianisation to close ratruns in the Old Town, at King Street and Corn Street and the like, and continued in the Broadmead shopping area with (poorly enforced) bus-only streets coupled to one-way systems which enable access while making unattractive ratruns. More dramatically and famously, Bristol has succeeded in rolling back some of the mistakes of the motorway mad past: the inner “ring” road dual carriageway isn’t a ring any more. Where for decades it crossed diagonally through the fine Georgian Queen Square, blighting the area so that all around was neglected and run down, it was closed amid much protestation in the mid-1990s, and the square restored in stages through the 2000s, giving the city a much loved little park and thriving commercial zone. Similarly College Green outside the cathedral has lost a main road.

But the city centre still suffers from motorists trying to find a shortcut through the old streets, at times making them unpleasant places to be and to do business, and trapping pedestrians, cyclists and public transport users in the mess they create, not just fellow motorists. The campaign are not greatly attached to any one specific means of keeping this through traffic out of these unsuitable streets — there are lots of potential places where a block or a bus gate would be appropriate and have the desired effect. But they particularly point to the four bridges that cross the harbour within their ring road cordon as obvious places to consider.

And they have a good local example to cite. Unfortunately we were too busy looking at railway paths to look at the city centre while in Bath. At first sight Bath, with a perpetually jammed trunk road almost through the heart, would seem an unlikely choice for a lesson on liveable low-traffic city centres, but it would have been worth looking at for the ways in which many of the old city centre streets have been reclaimed from traffic while maintaining essential access: through road blocks with pedestrian and cycle permeability, a one-way system around the historic and commercial centre which enables access for delivery vans and then sends them back to the same main road they came in on, and, of interest to Living Heart, Pulteney Bridge bus gate. Together these things create some pleasant public spaces, some streets fit for cycling, and some bus routes not completely blocked by jams of ratrunning motorists.

Ultimately the Living Heart campaign, and Steve’s safari, is about segregation: separating traffic away from people. It’s what all of the diverse safaris in the Westcountry were ultimately about. Which will be explored properly in a post to conclude this whole thing. If and when I get around to writing it…