Tag Archives: cycling cities

Big roads, crap cycling and bendy buses in the Development Pool

While London’s attention is turned to Blackfriars Bridge, those blissfully unaffected by the bumbling buffoon Boris* might like to take a look at the 45 proposals that councils around England have submitted to the DfT’s Development Pool in the hope of being picked for a share of the current £630 million available for local transport projects.

Heads of council transport departments and engineering consultancies have dusted off the bypasses, relief roads, distributors and links that they have been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and resubmitting for funding for fifty years.

Look at your local area in the Development Pool and you’ll find them all there. They’ll be called something like “town centre improvement”, “bus rapid transit”, or “cycle route enhancement and congestion relief package.”

Things like the Weston-super-Mare package, which will provide better bus services and enhanced cycle routes, by, erm, widening town centre roads and ensuring that they have substandard and probably unusable shared pavements alongside.

Of the Cross Airfield Link Road, proposed to open a large brownfield site to light industrial and retail developments,** the Weston package says:

The approval is for a single carriageway road 2.4km in length, four roundabout junctions and parallel shared-use foot and cycle ways. The proposed road is 7.3m wide single carriageway. A 3.0m wide segregated shared pedestrian and cycleway will be provided along the northern side of the new road with a 3.0m footway along its southern edge. Both the cycleway and the footway will be segregated from the carriageway by 5.0m verges which are to be planted with trees to create a boulevard along the road’s length. The scheme design includes Toucan crossings in strategic locations.

This sort of stuff should be illegal — I mean that, actually legislated against. Proposing a shared pavement as a transport route in a built-up area should mean automatic rejection from the Pool, pending a suitable revised design. Three metres should be the bare minimum width requirement for a two-way dedicated cycle track on busy roads like these, where large trucks are expected, and even then the council/agency should have to provide a very good explanation for why a 4.0m track or a pair of 2.5m unidirectional tracks would be unreasonable. Weston are proposing to spend our money on a future facility of the month, and that should be against the law.

There is a pattern to the Development Pool proposals. Another Westcountry project is the “South Bristol Link”. It’s a Bus Rapid Transit route, and definitely not the South Bristol Link Road, the extension to Bristol’s southern bypass that the council has been drawing and re-drawing, submitting and re-submitting for funding since the sixties. It just happens to be a road, and to follow the route of the South Bristol Link Road. But it has bus lanes, which makes this a Bus Rapid Transit project, and definitely not the same old bypass. Bristol has grown since the road was first proposed, but the route was set aside, leaving a strip of undeveloped land surrounded by housing. Here’s the artist’s impression of the Bus Rapid Transit system:

Look at that lovely 3.0m shared pavement — in this case divided into equal shares of 1.5m footway and 1.5m bidirectional cycle track. Doesn’t it look so inviting, riding against traffic, alongside the car parking bays, in a space barely wide enough for one bicycle. One bicycle is presumably all that the council are expecting: there is no provision for two bicycles travelling in opposite directions, or travelling in the same direction at different speeds. The council will no doubt seek a solution to that problem if and when it ever arises.

It’s a classic British road mockup. Hide all the cars and clutter and put unnaturally large pedestrians and cyclists in the foreground. The road would be carrying thousands of vehicles per day, swelling with induced demand, but here it’s all free flowing, and just a single homeowner parks a car in their neat free parking bay, gift from the council. Perhaps all the other cars are parked in the city centre because neither a 1.5m bicycle track nor a bendy bus to an edge-of-town park and ride interchange are attractive methods of getting to work?

A 1.5 metre bicycle track will be of no use to anybody. The parking bays will, if you let them, fill with second and third cars, and spill out over the drop kerbs and green spaces. Within a few years the city will discover, to everybody’s surprise, I’m sure, that there is limited demand for a bus between suburban housing and an edge-of-town park and ride interchange, and the bus lanes will quietly be turned into general traffic lanes.

I’m really quite embarrassed for Bristol, having praised them for exceeding our (low) British expectations on Redcliffe Bridge. Seriously, what the fuck, Bristol? “The country’s premier national and international showcase for promoting cycling as a safe, healthy and practical alternative to the private car for commuting, education and leisure journeys.” Bristol’s “cycling city” status clearly hasn’t really sunk in for the highways engineers, who plainly have no experience of cycling or how to provide for it, but who confidently give it a go anyway having read something once in an instruction book.

The city council are cutting hundreds of jobs, and I think I’ve spotted where a few of them of them could go.

While cutting those jobs, the city is seeking £43 million for this bypass Bus Rapid Transit line. I think the Cycling City team could use the money far more profitably, retrofitting the city’s existing big roads with wide, fast, direct, prioritised, attractive tracks, and could never support Bristol throwing the money away on the South Bristol Link. But even for an urban road project, and even leaving aside the contemptible crap cycle facilities, this is an especially bad scheme. The one potential benefit of a bypass is to have a designated road on which to push traffic from city streets. But to capture that benefit you have to reclaim those city streets immediately — make it unattractive to drive on them for anything other than essential property access and loading — otherwise people will just find new ways to fill the old streets with more ridiculous car journeys. With a southern bypass Bristol could close ratruns through the southern suburbs; take back space on the main southern arterial roads — the A38 through Bedminster, for example — for the pedestrians and cyclists who spend more money in the shops along them; it could even close some more of the inner ring road. Bristol failed to capture those benefits when it previously built big bypass roads, on the northern and eastern fringes, and it would fail to capture any potential benefits of a southern bypass, proposing to make it a little bit less attractive to drive only on a couple of residential streets and a country lane:

Take a look at your local schemes on the map. There are potentially worthwhile projects in the pool too, like rail upgrades and even reversing railway closures. More has been written about the bids by Sian Berry and George Monbiot. The DfT are soliciting comments on development.pool@dft.gsi.gov.uk, deadline TOMORROW, Friday — though I’m not sure why, and whether anybody will ever read them.

* but we’re all affected, sadly, due to London’s unfortunate influence over the nation.

** it’s actually one of the least indefensible of the new roads, and one of the least bad sites for such developments, being on brownfield located alongside a railway and within walking and cycling distance of the town’s population and railway stations. I’m sure they will fail to make good use of all that potential, but it’s still progress over road-only out-of-town greenfield sprawl.

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The Brunel Mile

Like most British cities, Bristol has a big inner ring road. It crashes through neighbourhoods of medieval houses and 1970s concrete office towers, and it thunders past landmarks from Brunel’s Temple Meads Station to England’s largest parish church, St Mary Redcliffe, a fortress of fast cars and pedestrian cages cutting the old central business district from the rest of the city.

But it’s not a ring road. The ends used to meet: from Redcliffe church it continued west over the bascule bridge and cut diagonally through the run-down Georgian Queen Square. Twenty years ago, Queen Square was taking 20,000 vehicles a day, including 1,000 buses. No wonder it was run-down. The council got rid of the vehicles, all of them, and restored the Georgian square, now a calm but popular little park. It remains one of the few notable examples of undoing 1950s-80s urban motorway mistakes in the UK, and it happened at the same time as one of the last of the mistakes, the M11 link, was being driven through Leytonstone.

The restoration of Queen Square left a bizarre stub of dual carriageway on Redcliffe’s bascule bridge (orange, below the ‘I’ in ‘Bristol’), carrying a tiny fraction of its designed capacity. When I was there in the spring I noticed that they had finally brought the builders in to do something new with the bridge. Here’s the finished £130,000 piece:

I was a bit disappointed — I’d been expecting them to move on to the other carriageway once this one was complete, for a pair of unidirectional tracks, but they’ve just gone for a bidirectional track using a single traffic lane, which apparently isn’t much help to the gentleman who is using the opposite pavement. Still, the one track is not an unusable width.

The reason they’ve gone for a two-way track here is that the council are not thinking in terms of fixing individual isolated streets, but nor have they yet got to the stage where they can think in terms of a network. If this were part of a network, you would have tracks on each side linking up to more tracks around the other big roads, as well as to the calmed low-traffic streets around here. Rather, Bristol is currently thinking in routes — that’s all they can do with the small pot of money they were given to become a “cycling city”. This is one of half a dozen routes that the city was able to create with the project.

It’s the “Brunel Mile”, a very direct route between Temple Meads Station to the bars, restaurants, and museums of the old harbour. Sadly, this short section over the bridge is probably the highest quality section. The cycling city website, Better By Bike, produced a video of it:

Lots of shared use plazas, parks, and pavements. That’s fine for access — making it possible to keep riding the final yards to the destination — but shared use doesn’t really make for an attractive through route, especially when it runs straight through a set of tables laid outside a cafe. Bristol already had a lot of shared use squares and parks — Bristolian pedestrians and cyclists seem to be able to get along without one interpreting the mere sight of the other as a near death experience. Little, if any, of the shared use in this video is new, but previously it was designated as shared use more because there was no reason to ban bicycles from those areas, rather than because they made useful through routes.

Bicycles have at least been given priority, and a raised table, where the route crosses Welsh Back, from Queen Square onto the bascule bridge — though there aren’t many other examples of this arrangement in the Westcountry, so it might take motorists a while to work out that their “give way” markings aren’t a mistake (notice that the producer of the video clearly had little confidence that the white van was going to give way at 0:57). And there’s no other priority crossings on the route — only some grey-green paint on Prince’s Street, and toucan crossings with very long waits on three different branches of ring road before finally reaching Temple Meads.

This is not a toucan.

Clearly the cycling city team were going for a cheap option — spreading their little grant thin over as many routes and projects as possible, and reusing as much existing infrastructure, whatever the quality, where they could. But when it came to a gap in their route, where no existing infrastructure could be commandeered, they’ve taken the time and money to do it right: they’ve taken a traffic lane out to built a proper usable cycle track, rather than dump people on a dual carriageway with the buses. Perhaps it’s not quite as much space as would really be desirable, but it’s enough, and with priority over the minor roads. And they did it, so far as I can tell, without being asked — without the campaign and the fight that was required in Camden.

With real funding, I think Bristol could do great things. The cycling city grant must have brought some of the right people in. With the grant all spent, I fear they will have been sent on their way.

The local rag doesn’t like it, but I always got the impression that the Evening Post was pretty irrelevant.

State intervention

In reviewing the Radio 4 documentary Bristol: Cycling City (I didn’t hear it and was too slow on the iPlayer), the Guardian‘s radio critic Elisabeth Mahoney once again revealed the bizarrely muddled thinking of a nation so thoroughly addicted to its car culture.  The Cycling City project, in which a mere £22 million was given to the city to invest in cycling infrastructure and projects, was, she said, a “large state intervention in lifestyle issues”.

The implication is that the billions we spend designing our roads and streets for motor vehicles does not amount to a large state intervention in lifestyle.  Or perhaps Mahoney thinks that the inner-Bristol ring road has always been there, that the M32 arterial motorway is a natural geological landform laid down in the last ice age, and that the traffic signals that allow the narrow old city streets to support such a volume of cars just shoot from the pavement without the council even having to put down the right kind of fertiliser.

The roads projects of the second half of the twentieth century add up to the biggest state intervention in lifestyle choices there has ever been.  Building for the motor car gave some people new freedom and luxury,  to others it gave divided neighbourhoods and cities ruined by blight.  People were pushed out of their villages by richer car-commuters from the city, elderly people were isolated by the loss of their bus service, and people who were quite happy not driving — who couldn’t afford to run a car — were forced into supporting one as the car culture around them led directly to the closure of their local shops and services and sources of employment.  Millions of people have had their lives forcibly changed by the state interventions that supported the car.

Amongst those whose lifestyle choices are affected by streets that have been designed for cars by government agencies are people who would like to be able to walk and cycle.  Currently the proportion of journeys made by bicycle in much of the UK is less than one percent, and even in Bristol is well within single figures.  Again, perhaps Mahoney simply thought that this is the natural state for cycling — that the rates above 25% regularly achieved by some European cities are unnatural, achieved only by the force of the state.  Actually, if you ask a sample of people on the streets of Bristol, or any other British city, about their transport choices then the chances are they will tell you that they would like to be able to walk and cycle for their daily local journeys, but their streets and neighbourhoods simply aren’t designed to allow it.  You have to cross a dual carriageway that has no crossing; you have to learn to love four-lane roundabouts; you have to cycle down a suburban ‘A’ road that has lines of cars each side parked half on the pavement and half covering the cycle lane, while double-decker buses and articulated trucks overtake six inches from your handlebars, and queues of cars grow behind you, honking, just incase you haven’t yet got the message that you do not belong here.  Most streets don’t look safe for cycling and walking, let alone inviting.  Many people want to take advantage of the time and money saving benefits of making short journeys on foot or by bicycle, but they don’t think they can.

There is nothing natural about this state of our streets.  They do not just spring up out of the fields with four lanes and a row of parking places outside the shops and no room for pedestrian crossings or cycle lanes.  Somebody designs them that way, and that somebody is in some way an agent of “The State”.  The state can’t not “intervene” in streets; it has a number of choices for what to do with streets, but all of them amount to an “intervention”, and all of them affect our lifestyle choices.  Designing streets with only the needs of the motorcar user in mind has been a massive state intervention preventing people from making journeys on foot or by bicycle, even if they had really wanted to. Funding infrastructure and projects to make it possible for them to make those journeys is not forcing anybody to cycle.  It is not state intervention.  It’s providing a level playing field.

We’ve reached a point where most of the people alive in this country today have always lived in an era of mass car ownership.  Over half of the population were born after the first motorway opened.  People have a habit of believing that the world they grow up in is the natural and objectively correct way for the world to be; that if it were any other way the world would collapse.  Which is a problem when it comes to our city streets, which over the past fifty years have been designed extremely badly, in what we can objectively say was the wrong way.

Weekly War Bulletin, 18 Dec

An SDLP Northern Ireland assembly member has proposed making riding a bicycle in Northern Ireland illegal except where the rider is wearing a plastic hat.  I can’t find much coverage of it, but this proposal appears to have already been delayed from August.

Also ongoing under-reported news from Northern Ireland, highlighted by Christian Wolmer this week, is the £800 million A5 dual-carriageway construction.  The bankrupt Irish government (who are already being prevented from opening another new motorway by the workers who are waiting to be paid for having built it) and the cut-happy British government are going halves on the Derry to Dublin road apparently because it makes for a nice piece of symbolic government cooperation.  I’m no expert on the Northern Ireland issue, but my understanding was that the British and Irish governments were already quite good at cooperating, and the issue is instead one of divided communities.  So what could be better than further dividing communities by driving another motorway through them?

The DfT has found that 60% of the people who are able to cycle say that they don’t because they think it’s too dangerous.  Who would have guessed?  And the road haulage industry have noticed that they’re getting rather poor publicity over all the cyclist deaths and victim that’s blame going on — but it’s ok, their PR department are on the case.

After a slow start, Bristol has allocated all of its £11 million cycle city budget.  York is still getting through its cycle city pot, with half a million on routes to and facilities in the station.

There is nobody cycling in Blackpool, therefore building cycle paths is a waste of money, say taxi drivers.  Blackpool cabbies have slammed the council for creating a road nightmare in the town.  “That’s our job,” the taxi drivers said.

Meanwhile, Boris has announced that London taxis will be electric by 2020.  I expect this to happen about as much as anything else that Boris has promised to make happen.  Boris is being praised for bringing in strict rules for taxis — six month checks and an age limit on the vehicles.  No newspaper journalist seems to have noticed that all he is doing is reversing his earlier relaxation of the rules…

There’s a 46% rise in those unregulated First Capital Connect season ticket prices outside of central London.

Northamptonshire’s road safety partnership is the latest to run out of money and switch off its cameras.

36,000 Motorists break speed limits at Gateshead Metrocentre.  None prosecuted. The Metrocentre, largest “shopping and leisure complex” in Europe, looks horrible: wide roads, dual carriageways, and acres of car parks.  And they’re surprised that people drive too fast in this sort of environment.  (I notice that 200k of the Bristol cycling city money went on a bike path to Cribbs Causeway, a similar out-of-town motorway-side “shopping and leisure complex”, when the goal should really be to reverse these awful soul-destroying developments.)

A kitten was thrown from a car on the M1.  And somebody’s throwing snowballs back at the motorists.

An Oxford Tube intercity bus fell over after taking the wrong exit from the motorway.

Two pedestrians were killed by a Range Rover driving on the pavement in central Glasgow.

The Waterloo cycle hire station is open.  I used it last night, and then ran for the train — ten minutes had been wasted running around the Picadilly area trying to find a bike in the first place.  Could you put some on Albemarle Street please?

Fat coppers break their bikes.

Nice acceptable middle-class crime: while local authorities have to cut services, Westminster are owed £18 million by people who think the world should organise itself around their Mercedes.  Meanwhile in Kent, nice middle-aged Jaguar owners have a bit of fun killing people on the motorway.

Wanking behind the wheel gets you a driving ban.  Mobile phone use not considered an equivalent offence.

For the benefit of vulnerable road users, the US are setting minimum noise levels for electric vehicles, which will presumably amount to a de facto global standard (unless and until another major car purchasing nation sets a stricter standard).

Delightfully absurd transport solution of the week?  A system of delivery tubes under Croydon.

A special bumper pack of zen: first, via RailwayEye, a Christmas carol flashmob in Sheffield station:

And via Going Underground, Christmas carols at Charing Cross:

Finally, via Hembrow, this delightful 1960s video of trains in the snow: