…I made a little video with the incoming chair of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain, who you might also know as the author of As Easy As Riding A Bike…
Full story here.
Another of the Embassy AGM Infrastructure Safari writeups. Shorter and not quite so nerdy: a scenic circuit of the lower section of the former docks in the evening sunshine, including a Victorian-era riverside shared path, a huge incongruous 1960s road system beside the Clifton Suspension Bridge viewpoint, and another example of Bristol turning roads into parks. The main point, though, was that the old quaysides and riverside paths, despite all their limitations, make usable and even pleasant (if you’re not in a hurry) cycle routes, linking up to the other traffic-free routes, and perhaps help to explain Bristol being that fraction better than the rest of the country at widening access to cycling.
I promised to write up the other infrastructure safaris that the Cycling Embassy took while in Bristol for the AGM in May. David Arditti blogging about the safaris prompted me to get on with it. Previously I showed you the Railway Path. Left to come are a couple of rough and rambling posts, accompanied by Google Earth infrastructure safaris, on Bristol’s arterial cycling infrastructure (below) and city centre streets, hopefully leading to the properly thought out post that will eventually get to the point.
So on the Sunday morning safari we looked at the options for utility cycling between the city centre and residential and commercial neighbourhoods in the north of the city.
The basic context is that we rode from the city centre through 5km of residential neighbourhoods until we hit the outer ring road. The latter is late 20th century car territory — motorway junctions sending out tentacles of dual carriageway distributor roads to roundabouts around which car oriented commercial development grows. Much of the British aerospace industry, a major Ministry of Defence office, retail and logistics businesses, offices and R&D for tech companies, and a large university rise from a sea of car parks out here in the “North Fringe”, just outside the city boundary in South Gloucestershire, where the council allows that sort of thing. The route we were looking at was therefore one of important traffic flows: two centres of employment (and culture and retail and education) and the residential neighbourhoods they serve.
There are several different arterial routes serving this traffic: of road, rail and cycleway. We headed north on the original artery — the traditional main road, the A38 Stokes Croft/Cheltenham Road/Gloucester Road (turning off onto the lesser Filton Avenue for a shortcut). Just a normal British urban arterial ‘A’ road, 2 lanes + 2 bus lanes where room permits, dozens of buses in peak hours, car parking in the off peak hours, row upon row of shops and houses and little residential side roads. Occasional token painted 1.2m advistory cycle lanes, of no use to anybody under the parked cars.
We headed back on a new Cycling City funded cycle route, Concorde Way, on about 50:50 residential backstreets and 3.0-3.5m shared paths. The route is not bad. Nowhere near modern Dutch standards, obviously. There are a couple of little fiddly bits with toucans and pavements. There’s a street that’s used by motorists as a ratrun. There are paths as narrow as 3.0m shared between pedestrians and cyclists, despite this being a densely populated urban area. There are paths even narrower than that, briefly, where they reuse the 1970s subways under a motorway junction. There’s a new home zone built on a through trunk cycle route. I wish it were better, but I congratulate its designers for doing so well against all the odds, fighting the rules of British Highways engineering all the way. Aforementioned pinch points aside, it’s not too narrow, it’s not too slow, it’s not too unsafe, it doesn’t ever abandon you. It has advantages, like avoiding all the traffic signals you get on equivalent main roads. It’s a 5km cycle route that works the whole way, and which is enabling people who would not otherwise get around by bicycle to do so, while at the same providing a route that confident and speedy cyclists won’t turn their noses up at.
In that sense, this might look a bit like a case of unravelling routes: putting the cars somewhere else, where they can’t bother the people on foot and on bicycles.
But that this is far from having been satisfactorily achieved is illustrated by the fact that that there are at least as many people on bicycles on the old main road as there are on the dedicated cycle route. Because the cycle route’s one really big flaw is that it isn’t where most people want to be. It runs through a park by a river, through allotment gardens beside the railway cutting, across the wasteground underneath the electricity transmission lines and past the rugby practice field. Politically easy to achieve and physically easy to build, in places where there is little competition for the space. Whereas the main road runs past the shops, and the offices, and all the houses.
And so it appears that this is less like unravelling routes and more like dual networks: the idea that if you just put a basic cycle route on back streets and traffic-free paths to enable children and the less confident to train themselves up, eventually they become confident enough to man up and take the lane with the trucks and buses on Cheltenham Road. The difference is that in most other cases, the quality of the cycling infrastructure is cut to a bare minimum and then cut some more (because it’s just a training network, so what do things like directness and speed and comfort and capacity and actually going somewhere matter?), whereas this one is genuinely good and useful and nice, if you happen to be going in that direction.
It’s great that Bristol has built this, and the several other similar new arterial cycle routes. I don’t blame them for going for this stuff instead of the main roads at this point in time. It’s the politically easy low-hanging fruit of paths across parks, derelict railway corridors and wasteland; and the relatively cheap quick wins of filtered permeability and little paths and bridges here and there to join up riverside paths and quiet streets into longer routes. Of course you’d do those things first.
But the lesson from the Netherlands — who did all the experiments for us, decades ago — is that routes like these will only buy you so much modal shift, and they can’t deliver a whole Cycling City. For most people, if the cycleway doesn’t go where they’re going, they won’t cycle. What really starts to deliver impressive numbers is enabling cycling for all, not just the unusually confident and tolerant few, to ride on that main road, the one where the shops and the offices are, the one with all the residential streets running off it. And what really makes a Cycling City is not routes but a network: if people are to routinely pick the bicycle over the car without thinking or planning, they need to be confident that whatever their journey, especially those to places they’ve never been by bicycle before, they’ll be able to just get on and go without fear of being dumped in traffic on a dual carriageway or multi-lane roundabout.
There is one more artery in this story: the M32 motorway. I wrote about it before — how parks were paved over, railway viaducts blown up, and inner city neighbourhoods bulldozed as it was thrust into the heart of the city. After all the destruction it brought in its path, the final tragedy was that, far from being designed to relieve the old arteries and streets of traffic, allowing the likes of Gloucester Road to be reclaimed from the passing motorist by its residents and shoppers, the motorway was designed to pump an ever greater volume of traffic onto those streets. But it would not be at all difficult to start fixing that mistake — to reclaim the space needed for cycling on the main arteries by sending motorists to the motorway. Which is the point I’ll get to in a future post.
The Cycling Embassy went to Bath and Bristol for the AGM, and around the discussion and decisions for the future, we had fun riding around a couple of my favourite cities pointing at the nerdy details of the infrastructure, seeing if there was anything to be learnt about what to do and what not to do. I promised to do write-ups of them, and decided to experiment with using Google Maps as a medium for doing a photo essay tour.
You can take the tour by going through the pins in the left-hand panel, clicking them in turn to open the bubble with the information about each point of interest; alternatively, hide the panel, set your browser to full screen mode, zoom in at the Bath (eastern) end of the yellow line and start following it west, clicking the bubbles in turn for the information (some of them can be easy to miss when zoomed in, though). Or for a third option, click on the “KML” link to open it in Google Earth for easier zooming and panning around.
I prepared a lot of photos in advance (and then failed to prepare a blog post in advance), but didn’t manage to get everything. Thanks to As Easy As Riding A Bike and A Grim North for capturing all the photos that I’d failed to get.
If you like the format, I’ll do the other Safaris that way too.
Boris Johnson is “doing an awful lot to try to encourage cycling“. He’s doing Skyrides. Did he mention that he’s doing Skyrides? He is, you know. He’s doing Skyrides.
Actually, I usually only find out that he’s doing Skyrides on the day they happen — in the evening, after they’ve happened. Usually when Boris is telling us what jolly good fun everyone has had, and how everybody is now going to cycle everywhere. Or when Freewheeler is making fun of them. The point I’m getting at is that, while the Skyrides may be well advertised, they are not any better advertised than most big events in London. The high turnout at Skyrides can not be explained by fantastic advertising alone: the advertising merely alerts people to the existence of an event for which there is already vast but stifled demand. A day of conspicuously safe, quiet, unintimidating and unpolluted car-free streets almost advertises itself.
On a Skyride, people who would like to be able to cycle without having to interact with double-decker buses and men with ven get to do so. When they go home afterwards and the road-blocks are rolled back, do they feel in any way different about cycling among the chaotic metal missiles? Previous reviews of the evidence suggested that most merely remain unconvinced, no more or less likely to make journeys by bicycle. But one new piece of anecdotal evidence mentioned in an aside at the Embassy meeting (sorry, I noted the idea but now don’t remember who said it) suggests that some would-be everyday bicycle users do think differently after a Skyride than they did before.
Before the Skyride, people would like the opportunity to cycle — they want an easier, quicker, more fun way to make mundane everyday journeys; they’re worried about the amount of the family budget being gobbled by the car or the season tickets; and they want the family to be able to get some relaxing gentle exercise in the fresh air together. Their ears have pricked up at all the talk of The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, and they’re thinking of signing up, but aren’t completely decided yet. They hear about a Skyride and want to give it a go — it’s the excuse they’ve been looking for to dust off the bikes and remember how it’s done. And they go out and play in this car-free utopia, and see just how great things could be. And at the same time, they’re shown exactly how that compares to the real world — while being bombarded with helpful messages about how to survive vehicular cycling.
Skyrides don’t merely fail to encourage everyday cycling. By temporarily taking away the cause of the problems with our streets, they highlight just how bad the problems are. The would-be cyclist, on the edge of joining The Mayor’s Cycling Revolution™, can never go back to cycling with the traffic — not after they have seen and experienced Utopia. Just as your fancy gadget ceases to be fun the moment you see the amazing specs on the latest model, riding a bike ceases to be easy and fun when you’ve seen how much better it can be. The air ceases to be fresh and the exercise ceases to be gentle and relaxing. (Some people go as far as emigrating as they seek again that found but lost utopia.)
Skyriders may yearn to see that lost utopia again; yearn for it to exist always. But until it does, they will never be recorded as “cyclists”, never be part of a revolution, never be considered by the politicians, planners, and tabloid hacks who don’t even acknowledge their existence. Until that Utopia is built, what else can normal people do but silently dream of bicycles?
I think the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain wants to be the answer to that question. I think they can be.