Tag Archives: scotland

The crap cycle facility to the isles

Glenfinnan

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

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.

Leith

If the Netherlands had proper stone to build with, it would probably look a bit like Leith… but cycling there would be far less stressful.

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.

Leith Walk in the rain

Leith Walk in the rain by stewartbremner, on Flickr

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.

Leith Walk

Leith Walk by Chris_Malcolm, on Flickr

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.

Caledonia Way

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:

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Nor do they seem to have compromised on building all of the foundations, drainage and other structures that the route needs:

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Here, where the road went into an existing wood, the path has been threaded further back from the road, hiding the traffic a little…

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…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:

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Sometimes it doesn’t follow road or railway, but takes its own paths of least resistance:

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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.

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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).

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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…

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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:

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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):

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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.