Localism update

Previously, Eric “Rubber Knickers” Pickles’s Department for Communities and Local Government has got a lot of press claiming to be handing power to local people when in reality taking away local people’s defences against harmful commercial interests who want to pave the fields with sprawl and ruin town centres.

But Greg Clark, the minister for decentralisation, planning policy and cities, has finally made a suggestion that is not entirely awful: transport policy independence for the English core cities. Devolution of transport policy has been a great success, driving innovation and progress in a way that central government has been unable or unwilling to do. In Scotland, the Beeching Axe is being rolled back. In London, the Congestion Charge has paid for massive public transport and public realm improvements, including innovations from Oyster to the Overground. In Wales, legislation for cycle network standards is on the agenda for the current assembly term.

Giving the core cities — Birmingham, Bristol, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester (which already has TfGM), Newcastle, Nottingham and Sheffield — transport policy powers equivalent to the Mayor and TfL (though hopefully correcting the mistakes in the London model before applying it) could, under the right local leaders, drive further innovation. Bristol and Newcastle might choose to show the country how to design streets in which people can cycle. The Yorkshire/Lancashire cities might club together to improve their intercity rail.

But it all depends on the money. A few of the core cities already have trams or metros, but only because the cities could persuade central government to pay. Others got nothing — Bristol is left desperately scrabbling around for the pennies to pay for a barely-better-than-nothing Bus Rapid Transit system because ministers won’t give it a tram.

Devolution of urban transport policy could be an excellent move, but only if Pickles and Clark make sure that the cities get the money, the powers, and the continuing central government support that they would need if they are to make real progress. Otherwise it’s just the devolution of blame for the current mess — the shirking of responsibility. Letting cities develop policies doesn’t make up for having none of your own.

Just Stay Indoors

How best to get the road safety message to the yoof of today? A catchy hook? A rap? Too passé. A cartoon? Too juvenile. What about zombies. Brilliant. Depict an apocalyptic world populated by undead victims of road traffic accidents. The kids will love it. Or be too terrified to ever leave their homes. But that’s a risk you take if you’re Newcastle City Council. The first line of the council’s new Road Safety website states:

Traffic is the single biggest cause of accidental death for 12 to 16 year olds.

The second is suicide. Being a teen is ace! Alongside gory, gratuitous mocked up photographs of zombified traffic victims, are tabs on cycling and pedestrians. These are divided into facts and, er, survival skills. Because transporting oneself outside of a vehicle is that dangerous. Here are a few of those facts.

  • Teenage boys are six times more likely to be killed or seriously injured on bikes than teenage girls.
  • Young people aged between 11 and 16 are more at risk of being killed or seriously injured as a pedestrian or cyclist in road accidents than any other age group.
  • Wearing a cycle helmet can improve your chances of survival, and reduce the chance of serious injury.

Firstly, your chances of being killed as a cyclist as ridiculously low. Far, far lower, than as a motorist. There were 104 pedal cyclist fatalities in 2009. To begin a section on cycling with the assumption that YOU MAY DIE is to basically scare off a generation of teenagers from forming walking and cycling habits that could become embedded in part of a healthy lifestyle.

In a similar vein, the section on walking warns teens that:

  • Young people aged between 11 and 16 are more at risk of being killed or seriously injured as a pedestrian or cyclist in a road accident than any other age group.
  • Traffic is the biggest cause of accidental death of 12 to 16-year-olds.
  • 1 in 5 teenagers report having been involved in a road accident.

Again, I see this as scare-mongering – in addition to being told that if they walk home late at night they will be kidnapped and murdered, they will now also be mown down by vehicles, unless they drive or board them.

Why are the council ploughing money into an “edgy” campaign that will only serve to turn teens away from cheap, healthy modes of transportation? People who start walking and cycling in their teens, generally keep walking and cycling. I’ve lost count of the number of peopel I’ve met in their twenties who want to cycle, but are unsure of where to start, and wish they had kept it up instead of stopping once they hit 13. Cycling isn’t dangerous, if you teach drivers to look out for cyclists properly, and if cyclists feel safe on roads. Similarly, if pedestrians have places to cross, they don’t get run over.

A savvy website may grab attention, and make the council feel “hip”. Unfortunately, the cost of outreach schemes, when the health service is overstretched due to heart disease rates skyrocketing years down the line is a lot harder to predict.