In January I said some nice things about the Caledonia Way, what is shaping up to be a very nice leisure (and perhaps, for some locals, plain utility) ride between Oban and Fort William, via Glencoe. I never got around to writing the other half of the story: the road to the isles. I don’t really have any interesting point to make about it, it’s just an excuse to post pictures of pretty places and crap cycle tracks. Continue reading “The crap cycle facility to the isles”
Who is shopping on Leith Walk?
On The Scotsman, Grant Kavanagh, owner of a print shop on Leith Walk, pleas for space on the street to be given not to proper cycling infrastructure but to more car parking. These are Kavanagh’s arguments:
Parking on Leith Walk is a real problem for businesses at the moment and it’s really a case of motorists bringing a lot more business than cyclists.
Everyone who lives and works on Leith Walk wants it restored so that we can encourage people back into the area. If people cannot park then they will not come down to Leith Walk and that will not help us at all.
There is a vast difference between the number of vehicles that pass down Leith Walk in comparison with the number of bikes, so I don’t understand the need for dedicated lanes for minority road users.
I don’t think I need to address that last claim — about cycling infrastructure being for the minority who are Cyclists — so soon after writing about it at length. It’s the earlier ones that merit a further look.
Kavanagh clearly believes that the businesses on Leith Walk are, or are capable of, attracting customers from all over Edinburgh, who drive in and park up to shop. His belief is quite typical of small retail business owners. We have developed a national myth about the importance of motoring and car parking to urban retail. I’ve written before about how this myth was explored a few years ago on Gloucester Road in Bristol — a road which shares important characteristics with Leith Walk, namely, being an arterial ‘A’ road, running through a densely populated residential neighbourhood, and being lined with small independent businesses and a few convenience stores.
The shopkeepers of Gloucester road were asked to estimate what proportion of their customers came by car. The average answer was more than two fifths. But actually only just over a fifth drove to the shops. They greatly underestimated how many people walked, cycled, or took the bus. Their estimates of how far their customers were travelling was also way out, with business owners believing that they are able to attract customers from miles around — just as Kavanagh does — when in fact most lived a short walk away. And they found little to support the idea that motorists were good customers, with drivers likely to rush in and rush out while pedestrians hang around and visit several different establishments.
Mr Kavanagh’s business is relatively specialist. His is not the only print shop in Edinburgh, but perhaps it is the best quality or best service or best value or for whatever reason he really is able to attract customers from all over the city and beyond. But, and I hope the business owners of Leith Walk will not take this personally, very few of the shops on the street are. I don’t believe that anybody is going miles out of their way to go to a Co-op, a post office, a pharmacy, a bakery, a kebab shop, Tesco Express or their barber, accountant, or solicitor. It should not be taken as a slur on the reputation of the perfectly nice delis and coffee shops to state that almost all of their customers come from no further away than the office buildings a couple of minutes up the road and the tenement blocks around the corner, for this is the nature of delis and coffee shops everywhere.
Leith Walk succeeds as a local high street because its shops and services are mostly local shops and services — the sort of essentials that everybody needs but nobody wants to have to go out of their way to obtain. Which is why I am fairly confident that if you surveyed the people who shop there, you’d find that most live locally and walk, many combine walking with the bus, more than Mr Kavanagh would expect cycle, and a lot fewer than he would believe drive (or ever would drive, however much car parking was provided). My guess is that of those who do drive, a very large proportion are making a journey of just a couple of kilometres — for we know that a large proportion of urban car trips cover very short distances — and that Kavanagh would again be surprised at how many would consider leaving the car behind — indeed, would be relieved to be able to do so — if they were to be given a viable alternative like safe and comfortable cycle tracks. And that would mean fewer local folk clogging up the parking spaces as they stop to spend 89p on milk, and more spaces for those who are driving in from miles around to spend big at the print shop.
But we don’t have to argue over our guesses. Why not test it? The methods of the Bristol study were simple enough, and it might take one person a weekend to replicate, or a small group could do it in an afternoon.
Why do people have such strange ideas about modal choice?
Glasgow’s literacy and numeracy rates are amongst the lowest in Europe. Since it has a smaller population of readers to serve, Glasgow should invest less in schools.
Compared to the rest of Europe, a low proportion of people in Glasgow are healthy. The relatively small number of Glaswegians making use of their health indicates that Glasgow can invest less than the rest of Europe in health services.
Glasgow has the lowest employment rate in the UK. Therefore we should do less to invest in jobs in Glasgow than elsewhere.
Meanwhile, a very low proportion of Glasgow’s population is willing to use a bicycle for transport in the city. Therefore Glasgow should invest very little in providing for bicycle transport
One of my policy recommendations has been implemented by Glasgow City Council. Can you guess which one? That’s right. Glasgow City Council do not interpret a lack of healthy people as a reason not to invest in health services, but they would interpret a fall in the number of people cycling as a reason to cut funding for cycling infrastructure Glasgow.
(For some reason Glasgow City Council do not see the fact that Glasgow residents own a negligible number of electric cars, and indeed that fewer than half of all Glasgow households have access to a car of any kind, as a reason not to give those few who are rich enough to be able afford an electric car a gift of free storage space all over the city.)
It’s obvious enough that investment in literacy, health and jobs is not aimed at helping those who are already healthy educated people in employment, but at those who are not and who would benefit from being so — indeed, that low rates of literacy, health and employment are indicative of problems that politicians should be fixing. So why do people have such difficulty grasping the point of investing in enabling cycling?
I’ve written before about this bizarre idea so frequently cited by politicians (and incorporated into their absurd cost-benefit analysis model for transport infrastructure spending) and commentators these days — that somehow everybody has made a completely free choice, entirely uninformed by the environment around them, the options that have already been provided for, or the constraints imposed by the laws of physics; and that it’s the politician’s job simply to provide for what people have demonstrated is their choice. The absurdity of this position is encapsulated rather well in the fabricated Henry Ford quote beloved of management consultants and self-help book authors — “if I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses”.
Stupid though the idea is, I can understand why right-wing politicians and a libertarian government would want to pretend that everybody’s current transport use is the result of a completely free choice and so exactly reflects the modes of transport that we would most like to be using and which the government should provide for, and that therefore any government action which resulted in modal shift would be an unacceptable state intrusion into personal lifestyle choices. What really infuriates me is when campaigners — and it seems to be peculiar to cycling campaigners — hobble their own campaigns with the same stupid idea.
It is an idea that is closely tied up with those soft measures campaigns: it is the idea that there is no point in anybody asking for any kind of cycling infrastructure because there are currently too few cyclists for the request to be heard, therefore we need to focus on “more realistic” soft measures and encouraging more people to ride, until eventually there might be enough cyclists to make an effective lobby. Well if you’re designing your campaigns around policies to provide things for cyclists — to solve “the problems that cyclists face” — of course they will go unheard and ignored, just as a campaign to “solve the problems that cable car users face” would be a stupid way to go about getting a cable car built. Cyclists are “a curious, slightly nutty irrelevance“, and Cyclists campaigning on behalf of Cyclists doubly so. It’s why the Cycling Embassy was so desperately needed — a campaign for a new transport infrastructure for all, not the usual request for a bit more room for Cyclists; it’s why LCC’s Go Dutch campaign succeeds in attracting attention beyond the usual suspects; it’s why the name Cities Fit For Cycling suggests a good campaign, while the headline Save Our Cyclists didn’t.
If you think you can’t campaign for cycling infrastructure because there aren’t enough cyclists, you’re doing it wrong.
Testing Edinburgh’s commitment
This perfect test-case for proper infrastructure is something to keep an eye on.
Edinburgh, the UK’s only signatory of the Charter of Brussels and somewhere in my top 3 least worst cities for cycling in Britain, made headlines and won some praise a few months ago when, in response to local and national campaigns, lobbying, protest, and the work of a few good local politicians, it was announced that the city would devote at least 5% of its transport budget to cycling. But finding the money for cycling is only half of the struggle: even once you’ve secured it, there are people getting in the way of it happening.
Edinburgh’s cycling infrastructure has so far mostly consisted of a relatively extensive but typically disjointed network of shared-use rail trails and paths through parks, plus the usual variety of scattered crap facilities. It was supplemented this year with a “quality bike corridor” — a local take on the Superficial Cycleway, with subtle red tarmac on a secondary road instead of bright blue paint on a trunk road. But recently the hyperlocal Greener Leith has been reporting on what looks like one of Britain’s best hopes for a proper showcase of the quality that it is possible to achieve, and the numbers and diversity of people using bicycles that follows, by implementing Dutch design principles for cycling infrastructure.
Edinburgh really have no excuse at all for not getting Leith Walk right:
This is exactly the sort of road that needs cycle tracks: an ‘A’-road. Ignore all that nonsense about “well you can’t have cycle tracks everywhere, so there’s no point asking for them anywhere”. You don’t need cycle tracks everywhere. You need cycle tracks on ‘A’-roads, where the higher speeds, the larger vehicles, and the larger volumes of vehicles are big barrier to cycling. Especially so when it’s also a retail high street, a business district, and a high density residential neighbourhood, as this shop and tenement block lined street is.
It has to be rebuilt anyway. A few years ago it was ripped to shreds when preparing the ground for the new tramway that never came, and so for several years it has had a temporary layout with rubber kerbs and plastic street furniture and ever widening and deepening potholes as the authorities argued about whose fault it was that the tram project went horribly wrong. Now with the tram line terminated just short of reaching Leith Walk, the extension indefinitely mothballed, the council can get on with putting the street right. Last month £5.5m was allocated for a major overhaul of the street, so even if Edinburgh hadn’t committed to funding cycling, money shouldn’t matter when the job needs doing anyway.
People want it. When asked what they wanted from their street — with a broad remit of design, services, policing, etc — the number one demand from locals was Dutch-style cycling infrastructure. And the council should not need to have great fear of opposition from the sort of outer suburban motorists passing through the inner city that politicians are traditionally keen to keep happy — for reasons that should be obvious from the map.
The route has already been surveyed by Dutch consultants Goudappel Coffeng, who reported on the vast amounts of space available for proper Dutch standard cycle tracks that there is on this street, with its acres of excess capacity, lane widths, turning lanes, stacking lanes, vehicle storage areas, and plain wasted space — and their assessment was made back when they were even expecting 8.0m of the street to have to be dedicated to a tramway which has now been shelved.
With council offices populated by old fashioned highways engineers following inadequate and inappropriate design manuals, excuses will no doubt be desperately sought for why providing properly for cycling on Leith Walk is really impossible, and that anyway the manual says that cyclists love sharing lanes with double deck buses really, and oh are you really sure but that would mean you would have to give way at every side road because it’s beyond our imagination to design a cycle track correctly at side roads. But there really are no excuses left here. The experts have already visited and pointed out how ludicrously easy it should be to get this one right.
We’re in the sad situation where properly designed and implemented infrastructure is so rare in Britain that things that should be boring little local technical matters become projects of national importance in our search for showcases and templates. And a situation where no high quality infrastructure has been achieved by a council without a lot of hand-holding by campaigners, quangos, and the few consultants who get it. So keep an eye on, and if needed lend a hand to, Greener Leith et al. Because Leith Walk should set an example and show off what can be done for cycling, but even if Edinburgh councillors are serious about doing it, it’s extremely unlikely that their officers know how to deliver their policy.
Why the Scottish budget matters
So Glasgow has been building what are (by our very low British expectations) pretty good cycle routes. Far from perfect, but a league above the usual crap cycle lanes. And in the Highlands, routes (primarily recreational) suitable for pootling families and hardcore tourers alike are taking shape. But this progress is under threat from cuts proposed in the budget bill that is currently going through the Scottish Parliament.
The Caledonia Way between Oban and Glencoe is not yet complete (and Sustrans never did get back to me regarding the status of funding for the final third), and patchy bits of a route like this is barely better than nothing: if you were put off by the fifty kilometres of main road, you’ll probably still be put off by the remaining fifteen. Nice to have for the 1% who were already cycling, but no use for growing that 1%. And by ending at Glencoe the route currently misses the trick of linking two railway towns, Oban and Fort William, 20km beyond Glencoe up the A82 trunk road. There is little sign of activity on there, or anywhere else on the Campbeltown to Inverness route, outside of the Oban to Glencoe section.
Glasgow’s routes are also currently incomplete, though somewhat safer as beneficiaries of the Connect2 project — a £50 million National Lottery grant awarded to Sustrans after a public vote (who says the public isn’t interested in funding cycling?). However, Connect2 is a one-off project that will only fund these few routes, and whether to move to the next level — from routes to the network, which the Dutch experiments of 30 years ago demonstrated to be where the really big gains can be made — will be a decision for Scottish politicians.
And politicians in the SNP administration now intend to cut their support for cycling — support that is already mediocre compared to that of the National Lottery, and embarrassing compared to the continent. The budget for “active travel” — cycling and walking — is to be cut from “pocket money” last year to “spare change” next year. At a protest in Edinburgh last month the transport minister in the Scottish government, Keith Brown, tried to blame the Westminster Treasury, who have forced a cut to the overall budget for Scotland. The crowd showed remarkable restraint in the face of such blatant dishonesty. Everybody there already knew that, despite Westminster’s cuts, Scotland’s transport budget is to rise, with additional spending on motorways and other old fashioned road widening projects on a scale that will dwarf the active travel budget.
How Scotland chooses to spend money on transport is obviously important to its residents. Glasgow especially feels the problems of car centric planning and car dependency greater than most of the UK. The city occupies unfortunate positions in league tables of health and deprivation, and while some would like to pin all of Glasgow’s health problems on personal failings involving Buckfast and deep-fried Mars bars, we know that a crucial factor in our health is the environment in which we live and extent to which it allows us to live healthily. For several decades the environment in Glasgow has been one in which choosing to walk or cycle has been made unattractive and difficult, and in which those who do make the choice will spend their travel time stewing in the fumes that drift off the motorways.
That’s not to say that everybody chooses to sit behind the wheel instead. Like the rest of the UK, a lot of people simply don’t have that choice — though you might be surprised to hear it given the reluctance of our media and politicians to acknowledge the existence of people who have never been able to afford to own cars. In fact more than half of Glasgow households are car free — one of the highest rates in the EU. A lot of those households are therefore denied many of the economic, educational and cultural opportunities that arise in this world built for drivers, at the same time as having to deal with all of the consequences of the motorways that thunder through their neighbourhoods. Glasgow’s transport environment has been propping up inequality as well as ill health, and the new budget proposes extending the out-dated policies that created that environment.
In a time of austerity and struggling economic recovery, what Britain generally, but Glasgow especially, desperately needs is a cheap, easy and egalitarian means for people to access economic opportunities, not more motorways on which those who can still afford it can burn wealth in the form of oil.
But how Scotland spends its money on transport is important to all of us, even if we don’t plan on using Scotland’s transport, and for the same reason that the outcome of the upcoming election in London matters to the whole UK. Devolution of power over transport planning and investment enables the sort of radical new policy directions and innovations that transport secretaries at Westminster have been unable to achieve in decades. In Scotland, the previous Labour administration used that power to make some notable reversals of the Beeching Axe. In London, Ken Livingstone used it to introduce the Congestion Charge, with its associated improvements to buses, ticketing and streets. In Wales, a cycling bill is in the current legislative schedule, and it looks likely (though details are not yet available) that if passed this would introduce new responsibilities and tougher standards for Welsh local authorities to provide for bicycle journeys, and may make changes to the law where the law currently stands in the way of quality provision.
The devolved administrations get to invest, experiment and innovate in a way that doesn’t happen in the rest of the country. But the rest of the country will follow eventually, when the solutions are no longer experimental or worryingly innovative. These administrations are the trend setters, so when they choose to squander their opportunities on old fashioned motorways instead of the transport we need in the 21st century, the whole country is waiting behind them doing the same.
Another quick update on a Scottish cycle route, before I post my conclusions about them. This is the Caledonia Way, NCN78, a 350km route from Campbeltown and the Mull of Kintyre up the Argyll coast to Oban, alongside the sea lochs to Fort William, and up the Great Glen to Inverness. The Caledonia Way is being developed primarily to be a great all abilities tourist trail (though with uses as a serious local transport route), linking some great Highland landscape to the railway towns via a relatively flat route.
The intention is for the route to be on dedicated cycle paths and tracks throughout, except a few short sections where existing suitable very quiet lanes and streets exist. This is, of course, a similar aspiration to that of the National Cycle Network, but one that sadly hasn’t always worked out quite as intended.
But the Oban to Glencoe section shows how the Caledonia Way is doing. Here, the cycle route runs alongside sea lochs, going the same way as the A828, a non-trunk primary route which is not very busy but is in many places engineered for very high speeds. Over the past few years the road has been acquiring cycle tracks. The organisations involved have not compromised on acquiring the amount of land that is required to build something on which you can pass, overtake and ride three-abreast:
Nor do they seem to have compromised on building all of the foundations, drainage and other structures that the route needs:
Here, where the road went into an existing wood, the path has been threaded further back from the road, hiding the traffic a little…
…but for much of the route cyclists don’t have to follow the road at all. The old Oban to Ballachulish railway also ran along here, and the cycle route has taken over the trackbed for several miles in a couple of different places:
Sometimes it doesn’t follow road or railway, but takes its own paths of least resistance:
There are a couple of places where the cycle tracks briefly get nasty. But the designers have at least proved that they understand what “minimum standard” means: the bare minimum which can be acceptable for those few yards where the expense of engineering out the geography would be unreasonable, not the sustained standard at which to build the whole route.
Sadly there have been a couple of really embarrassing prioritisation decisions, involving a (disused?) gated quarry road and one really very unfortunate little mess at a driveway (I’m hoping that this mess, which is next to the pinch-point above left and is only a short section of poor quality tracks between good quality railway paths, is just an interim link before something better can be done using the railway).
But, on the new tracks and paths, those are the most notable issues in the 50kms between Oban and Glencoe. That is, on the new tracks. There are some at the Oban end that are several years older, and are your typical 2.0m pavement construction. I hope it’s not too late for those to be revisited by the new designers, who clearly have a better idea what they’re doing…
But it’s not too late for everything to go wrong. Only a little over two thirds of the tracks and paths to bypass the A828 have been built so far, often leaving you back on the main road:
Though Irish Navvies (no really, the contractor’s trucks had IRL plates) are out there right now building more of it (and the progress since I rode it in the spring almost two years is immense):
And Oban to Glencoe is so far the only section of the Caledonia Way to have been built. Which brings me to my point — or will, when I get around to posting it.
Return to Glasgow again
A quick update on this post, which was in turn an update on this one. Briefly: when I passed through Glasgow in the spring there were some cycle tracks under construction (and on streets that the Mayor of London, and many cycle campaigners even, would no doubt describe as “too narrow”), and, while they looked pretty good, the markings were not yet down, so there were some ambiguities about how it might work.
I will make a wider point about these tracks and more in a future post, but for now, this post is just some photos showing off what Glasgow has been getting — not just here, but at several similar routes in the city.
The good news: the crossing of side-roads has been done pretty much exactly right: the priority is clear, and if the markings weren’t enough, the contrasting colour should be:
It’s not quite 100% perfect: as the coloured surface shows, there is still a rather generous sweeping curve for vehicles turning left onto the minor road to race across the tracks. But it’s plenty enough to make it one of the best examples of on-street cycle tracks in the UK… not that this is a great boast.
The not so good news is where the tracks switch from one side of the road to the other, at the same time as the road is intersected by another minor road. When I was last here, it wasn’t year clear how crossing to the opposite corner of the crossroads was going to work.
Well it’s a two stage crossing. The minor road is another cycle track priority crossing, with coloured surface to make it obvious, though this time the track first briefly jumps up and down kerbs (and slippery ridged paving that’s potentially dangerously aligned) over a wee patch of shared use footway.
Then comes the crazy bit, a toucan crossing:
I’ve only passed this way a couple of times — at the tail end of the evening and morning rush hours — so perhaps I’m not the best person to judge, but a signal controlled crossing seems like overkill. Signals are expensive to install and power, so you’d expect authorities to be cautious about using them. But I just can’t work out why they’re needed here. The two obvious simpler solutions would be to have a non-signaled crossing with cyclist priority (and a zebra), as has been done with the minor side-roads, or a non-signaled crossing with motor priority. My impression of the motor traffic volume was such that the latter would not hold up cyclists any longer than the signals do. The former would obviously be preferred, and my impression of cycle and foot traffic volume was that cycle priority and a zebra would not hold up motor traffic much — though it would hopefully contribute to slow speeds on a street lined with shops, flats, and a playing field. I don’t know… perhaps at the height of rush hour it’s required.
My suspicion is that there is a toucan here simply because the old fashioned engineering rule book can’t accommodate the more obvious alternative.
That’s the only real issue with this new section of the tracks. The width, though perhaps not generous, is certainly sufficient. It would be nice if we were in a position where all those bollards were not necessary, but we’re not. Further on at the traffic lights, the tracks have their own dedicated phase (sadly without a detector that lets cyclists go first, as the Dutch might have):
But the full route isn’t yet complete up to this standard. To reach the city centre you are still directed on an ad hoc route along old footways-turned-shared-paths (signed as cycle routes but still without drop kerbs or toucan crossings) across the tangle of motorway slip roads and into the foreboding poorly-lit motorway underpass. And that leads me to my point…
…which I’ll post when I get the time.
The remotest road
This was the ‘A’ road across the top of Scotland until the EU built a new, full-size one. It’s high up on the Moine — the moss — between Tongue and Hope. The house is miles from anything, built with the original road as an inn, back before bicycles and motor cars made Tongue to Hope less than a morning’s journey. I wrote about it before.
It’s a lovely place to go for a bicycle ride.
The friday photo theme is just an excuse to plug my pictures and prints.
Three* stone circles that are way better than Stonehenge
And now for some light diversion. David Hembrow describes the travels and travails of a Dutch family trying to get to Stonehenge by bicycle, faced with south east England’s network of motorways and motorways-in-all-but-name. I think I have solution to the Stonehenge cycle tour problem: don’t go to Stonehenge. It’s a bit crap. Stonehenge fell apart over the millennia, but the stones were stuck back upright at various times in the early 20th century. They were still concreting it back together right up into the 1960s. Stonehenge just looks weird, neither ruin nor full restoration. If you go there you’ll be behind a rope on a concrete footpath, next to thousands of vehicles each hour squeezing through the bottleneck on the A303.
Any alternative to Stonehenge is going to be blighted to some extent by Britain’s poor cycling conditions, but at least when you get to them it will have been worth it.
The obvious alternative is Avebury, a couple of dozen miles north of Stonehenge. Larger, more complicated, enigmatic and interesting than the famous neighbour. And sat on a confluence of Sustrans routes.
But you know Sustrans routes. I wouldn’t trust them to get me to Avebury. Better not risk it. Instead go for Castlerigg. More beautiful and breathtaking than the soft southern stone circles, set high on a hill yet dwarfed by the massive landscape of the Cumbrian Fells. And on NCN 71 from Penrith station, a generally delightful, if not perfectly direct, set of lanes and rail trails.
But at Castlerigg you’ll still be sharing with tourists. You’ll hear the distant traffic on the trunk road, and pass the car park on your way in. If you want something proper special, head for Machrie Moor. Machrie Moor is not a stone circle but a collection of them, all different designs and styles. I lost count of how many. To get there you’ll be needing a ferry, a half day’s ride, and a half hour walk up a winding track to a tumble-down old barn and the circles beyond.
Of course, as Kim illustrates, you’ll be sharing the roads with idiots, but at least it won’t have all been for the sake of Stonehenge.
Return to Glasgow
While touring the hills of England and Scotland a month ago, I briefly stopped off again in Glasgow. I think they must have read my blog and been shamed into action. Look how the city has changed in just six months!
This is new:
This is… interesting:
This is even newer, and not quite finished:
And this is even more interesting:
The tracks were put in by Sustrans as part of Connect2. When complete, they will link the University, museums, and park at Kelvingrove to the existing riverside path into the centre. Other than the funny business at the junctions, the tracks don’t look too bad, though in places — especially that sharp corner with the traffic lights — they are clearly too narrow to comfortably accommodate two-way operation, and we’ll see how they look after a few more years of street maintenance budget freezes. Other than those concerns, would these tracks prove that the British are sometimes capable of building high quality cycling infrastructure? Sadly I fear not. Elderslie Street and the riverside path are a considerable detour if cycling between the university and the city centre.
I almost didn’t recognise the city. But luckily a few things never change:
Not that Glasgow’s cyclists have anything to complain about. They have the ultimate segregated facility:
This pretense of neutrality
On Saturday I wrote about the leaked draft of the
Tories’ coalition’s draft new planning policy document:
LAs are told to take into account existing local car ownership rates when doing this. Fair enough, but why aren’t they also told to take into account the elasticity of modal share in the local area?
The line reminded me of the comment made recently by Andrew Boff, summarising the views of Conservative members of the London Assembly, who recently rejected the idea of a “road user hierarchy” which puts cyclists and pedestrians above motor vehicle users:
“It is true that we [the Conservatives] are, by instinct, anti-hierarchical and I agree with you that we should be making decisions to accommodate people’s choices not what we think their choices should be.”
Boff’s statement and the planning policy document imply the Tory position is that politicians should keep their own ideals out of transport planning and merely provide for the journeys that are already being made — to remain neutral, and let the people choose. Leaving aside how this fits with the idea that creating new journeys is required to boost the economy (“roads for prosperity” under Thatcher; high-speed rail and reduced planning control under the current government), the idea that merely “making decisions to accommodate” the modes that people currently “choose” to use could be either a neutral or a desirable policy is either spectacularly naive or spectacularly dishonest.
People’s transport “choices” are informed by the real world. The fact that somebody is making a specific journey by a specific mode does mean that they choose that journey and that mode or that they wouldn’t prefer to go somewhere else or use a different mode if it were available. This should be self evident. I write from a village in Dorset where people have today “chosen” not use the bus or train. Their choice may be informed by the fact that neither have been provided.
It is impossible to make a transport decision, even a decision to “accommodate” the status quo, which does not affect people’s choices, because people’s choices do not reflect an ideal isolated from the real world. And “carry on with what we’ve had for fifty years” is no less a political decision than “do something different,” because what we’ve had for fifty years is itself the result of a political decision. Cities do not naturally grow up with eight lane roads running through them; there is no objectively correct traffic signal priorities determined by the laws of physics. These are things that we have been given as the result of political decisions, decisions which affect our choices for which modes of transport to use, and more importantly, which modes not to use, however much we might want to use them.
This is a pretty core principle which affects everything in transport. Politicians must understand this if they are to get it right.
A couple of quick examples that passed my eyes this week (just a couple — really, any transport project or infrastructure could illustrate the principle).
First, Ian Visits reviews the history of the Docklands development, and the reason that the DLR was built. The original idea was that the Jubilee Line would be extended through the derelict industrial lands of the East. But the government took a look and realised that nobody was trying to make that journey — well duh, there was nothing and nobody there — and concluded that the £450 million would be wasted building a tube line for a journey that nobody made. So the Docklands Development Corporation built the light railway instead, and of course the glass skyscrapers and posh apartments soon followed. Suddenly there were a lot of people making journeys to and from the Docklands, so they reversed the earlier decision and extended the Jubilee Line out to it. Now there are 64 million journeys a year on the DLR, over 40 million through Canary Wharf on the Jubilee Line, and now Crossrail is on the way. The whole point of the Docklands redevelopment was “build it and they will come”. Saying “they don’t come so there’s no point building here” clearly missed that point.
Second, in Reversing Dr Beeching, which looked at the fact that Scotland (and to a lesser extent Wales) is reopening its railways, the new Kincardine Line, north of the Firth of Forth in Fife, was explored. The line connects the town of Kincardine to Stirling and the rest of the railway network. In the planning stages, all of the journeys made in the catchment area were analysed, and an estimate was made of how many of the journeys to Stirling would shift onto the railway. About 150,000 journeys a year were predicted, and the line only really got built at this time because it could also be used to get coal to the nearby power station. But of course, in the first year of operation it took three times as many passengers as predicted. Why? Because the railway opened opportunities for people to work and shop and spend their leisure time in Stirling and Glasgow, instead of having to drive to Dunfirmline or Falkirk. The fact that people were driving to Falkirk before the railway was built is not evidence that they wouldn’t rather have been going to Stirling by train.
There is always a difference between people’s transport ideal and the least-worst option that’s available in the real world. That difference is latent demand. There was latent demand for a railway to Stirling, and there was latent demand for a tube line to the Docklands. The fact that people were making different journeys, to different places, by different modes, was not evidence that the new lines, when built, would not be used.
(This is, incidentally, why the government’s decision not to pursue a network of electric vehicle charging points, though the correct decision, was made for the wrong reason.)
London can never provide for everybody’s ideal means of getting around. Most people in London travel in overcrowded buses and overcrowded tube trains, not because they want to, but because those are the least worse options available. Maybe on their journey they are dreaming of an ideal world where there is room and resources enough for all of us to have our own personal helicopters, but there isn’t. Or perhaps they have a more down-to-earth fantasy of room and resources enough for us all to drive into Central London, where congestion has magically been solved. Perhaps they have already abandoned those dreams, and merely long for the day when they can onto a bicycle without fear of being run off the roads by the trucks and taxis. The politician’s job is to eliminate the impossible and decide which are the least worst remaining options. That inevitably means accommodating some people’s ideals more closely than others’.
I fear I’m labouring the point, and anyway, the Tory assembly members’ argument fails on, from the politician’s point of view, a much more basic and important point: if Tory AMs think that the people who take the bus, or the people on the tube, or the people sat in cars in traffic jams, or the people braving the streets on bicycles are content with the transport choices available to them and would like their representatives to carry on giving them more of the same, they’re clearly not talking to their electorate, who would disabuse them in a second.
Followup: pimp my ride
Before the last random meandering tour of the hills and mountain ranges of England and Scotland (idea for a book: find the least flat end-to-end route) I briefly mentioned the latest accessories with which I had pimped my ride. A few people asked questions about both the handlebar smartphone mount and the solar phone charger.
The Herbert Richter HTC Hero mount was pretty good. The reviews worried me because somebody said that it had failed on the very first ride and their phone had been destroyed. My experience was far better: I must have done at least 1,000km, in all kinds of conditions and speeds, before the cradle was knocked loose when I hit shoddy roadworks while descending the hill into Melrose in the Borders at 35kmph:
The trench across the road was one of a series. A developer has very recently put up a little cul-de-sac called Scottsdale and has dug up the road at intervals to lay the power for each streetlight. It appears they couldn’t be bothered to compact the backfill properly before smearing a bit of tarmac on the top. The road is already sinking as the backfill settles, and the tarmac job is already crumbling off. Presumably Borders Council will be left with the bill when it (and the rest of the development) fully falls apart — which it probably already has by time of writing.
I wonder if prospective buyers notice this shoddy shortcut when they visit? I wonder how confident they feel about the quality of the construction at Scottsdale after this, their first impression of the developer’s work?
(Unfortunately I can’t find the name of the developer because if you attempt to Google for new housing you get about 1.75 million hits from SEO drivel — a hundred thousand pointless property search engines, all duplicating the same non-content but promising to help you find new homes and new houses and new properties ready to buy and rent, for sale and to let, in Scottsdale, off the B6059 Dingleton Road, TD6 9HR, Melrose, near Jedborough, Tweedbank and Galashiels, in the Scottish Borders, Scotland, United Kingdom. None of them actually tell you anything about the properties listed, but they’re very keen to tell you they have properties in Scottsdale, TD6, Melrose…)
Anyway, everything’s fine because the excellent thing about the Herbert Richter HTC Hero handlebar mount is that it is designed for the HTC Hero, and the HTC Hero is apparently indestructible. It has scrapes gouged out of it, and there’s barely a straight line or flat surface left on it, but it still does everything it’s supposed to do.
It would probably be even more complete if I hadn’t simply put it back on the mount. It fell off again a few days later, on the crumbling roads of Arran, and the cradle no longer clips onto the mount. It merely slides.
The mount cost £17, and I think it probably lasted about 17 days. It was convenient being able to put the phone on the handlebars for navigation, but I’m not sure it was £1-a-day convenient.
And somebody asked me about the FreeLoader solar phone charger. It’s worthless.
Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow
On Sunday I took a look at Glasgow, a town I have previously only passed through without stopping. Here’s my commentary: a mix of cameraphone and proper camera photos; some of the commentary comes from the live tweets that accompanied the cameraphone pictures.
The great overwhelming presence in Glasgow’s built environment is the M8, which crashes through the centre of the city, dividing the central business district from the inner suburbs, and filling them both with a tangle of concrete flyovers and junctions. While several British cities have motorway arterial routes, a massive backlash prevented the planners of the 1960s implementing their dream of flattening our city centres and neighbourhoods to build networks of through motorways. Instead, most cities stuck to bypasses and orbitals, with smaller and not quite so destructive inner-city ring roads. In this through-motorway design with big city centre grade-separated junctions, Glasgow looks very North American. Continue reading “Crap cycling and walking in car sick Glasgow”
Car-free holidays: bicycle over Rannoch Moor
It’s January and all the magazines are overflowing with supplements trying to sell you Mediterranean cruises and horrible beach holidays 4,000 miles away. AWWTM will therefore overflow with easy-to-organise alternative holidays, giving far greater satisfaction at a fraction of the price. They involve no sweltering traffic jams, no crowded beaches, no 2 hour check-ins and no 15 hours in economy seats. Nor do they need to involve lycra or mud — though for some you might want sun cream, and a bicycle with at least three gears.
My first suggestion for a car-free break is a really easy way for southerners to see the mountains, glens, lochs, and castles of the Highlands. It only takes a weekend, combines one of the best railway journeys in Britain with two days of 50-60 mile bicycle rides, and if you’re clever with the booking it could cost less than £60 for the whole thing. Londoners get there on the Caledonian Sleeper train, leaving Euston at just after 9pm on a Friday evening (others can board at Crewe or Preston later in the evening). Decide when you want to go (I recommend May, as it’s late enough to have long days, but too early for the midges) and set a reminder for 12 weeks in advance, when the £19 advance train tickets go on sale (prices can rise to over £100 each way when the advance fares run out, and in May the train is liable to be fully booked days in advance, but deciding at the last minute would at least give you the benefit of being able to pick a weekend that you know will be sunny). On the sleeper, you get a bed; a retro lounge car that will serve you breakfast as you cross Rannoch Moor in the morning sunshine, and dinner as you return the next day at sunset; a real old fashioned luggage van for your bicycle; and you get deposited at Fort William ready to start your ride on Saturday morning, and then back at Euston in time for work on Monday. Since it’s only a weekend trip, all you need is a small backpack or pannier to carry a change of t-shirt and pants, your sun cream, and a supply of bananas. Preparation couldn’t be less stressful. Continue reading “Car-free holidays: bicycle over Rannoch Moor”
Can you work out where I am?
I’ve been away from London for three weeks now, taking a break from the noise and the taxi drivers. I needed to eliminate distractions to get a couple of work and writing projects completed, so I’m doing an extreme telecommute experiment for the winter, while observing the transport and environment situation at the opposite end of the urban-rural spectrum. Can you work out where I am?
There’s a valley, one side of which won’t see direct sunlight this month…
And a railway station, with just a single change of trains on the 12 hour journey from London — but you would only be able to get here on one early morning departure a day from King’s Cross, or one late evening departure from Euston. Continue reading “Can you work out where I am?”