Surprise: traffic is the biggest barrier to cycling

Transport for Greater Manchester ran an online survey about cycling. In amongst a stack of questions about parking, they asked what, of all of the variables that are within TfGM’s control, the biggest barrier to cycling (or cycling more) is. It was hardly controlled and scientific, being promoted through online word of mouth, but it might still be of interest.

The results are in, and guess what?

It was hardly worth bothering. One more repeat result to add to the great stack of surveys and studies that found the same.

Friday photo: Ribblehead

Princess Elizabeth

As in so many of the things that the Europeans do better than us, the model by which our railways came about is shared with the Americans rather than our continent. When the railways arrived in the middle of the 19th century, most European governments saw the need for their own guidance in planning the railway network, to ensure that it was rational and efficient. But in Britain and America, anybody who could raise the capital could build any railway they liked. Our railway network is the bizarre product of mad Victorian capitalists fighting over real and imaged markets. For the first hundred years, three railways competed for the London-Scotland market — the routes that are now the East and West Coast Main Lines, plus a third, the Midland from St Pancras. Extending the Midland Mainline from Leeds to Settle, the third railway then climbs up the 16 mile long drag to the top of the Yorkshire Dales, the highest point of the mainline network, and down the other side to Carlisle, through 14 tunnels and over 22 viaducts along the way — amongst them the 24 arches of Ribblehead, 100 ft above the boggy valley.

In the 1950s, the future of transport was the motor car and the truck — or so the car and road haulage lobbies told us. The civil servants and politicians — especially the ones who owned road construction companies — knew that railways were the past and there was no point drawing out their death. When the line and station closure notices went up in the 1950s and 1960s there was opposition — from the by then falling numbers who relied on the trains, and from the unions. But the fight for many was a half-hearted gesture. Harold Wilson’s Labour government stopped the closures short of the Tories’ plans, but it was only the extent, not the principle, of the closures that Labour opposed, and much of the closures happened on their watch. Only the core lines of the railway could be saved by their white heat of technology. The Settle to Carlisle line scraped through, but without its trains to London and Scotland.

From there the railways trundled along, neglected, run-down, and resented, while road transport erupted and then settled into the mundane and equally resented mess that we’ve had for the past thirty years. Cars were still the future — even more so having transformed from exciting to mundane, liberatory to burdensome. And the British Railways still operated under those 1960s terms. The Settle-Carlisle line, wasn’t part of the future. The new “advanced” trains would use the West Coast line, and local traffic already went by road. It was ignored during the 1970s, carrying a token few passenger trains each day. By 1984, BR couldn’t ignore the maintenance of those tunnels and viaducts any longer. The neglect had damaged Ribblehead, and the repair bill was huge. They applied to close the line.

But BR had missed the change in mood that came with the reality of the future.

Like the closure of Mail Rail, the run down of the Settle to Carlisle was essentially closure by stealth: the deliberate under-use and dampening of demand — no accommodation of freight trains, no marketing of the passenger services — that cut income, and the deliberate lack of maintenance that clocked up the repair bill. BR wanted to close the Settle to Carlisle because the theory of the day stated that it shouldn’t be useful. They simply had to make reality match the theory first.

The Friends of the Settle to Carlisle formed in 1981 — three years before the closures were announced — because the closure by stealth project was not all that stealthy. It was obvious that the railway was being mistreated, and the Friends could guess why. Alongside exposing the dirty tricks, they did BR’s marketing for them — the spectacular engineering and views of the national park make it an obvious tourist attraction if nothing else — and patronage quadrupled. The justification for closure that had been carefully manufactured disappeared, though it took eight years before the government finally stepped in prevented closure.

Today the line takes several freight trains a day between the Clyde ports and Yorkshire, and passenger numbers have now more than recovered from the neglect. Everyone recognises that the received wisdom of the 1950s-1980s, that the railways were not the future, was at best short sighted. The powers of that time were stuck in a mass delusion about the sustainability of road transport growth, and it took some effort to pull them out of it. But it can be done.

The friday photo theme is an excuse for plugging my photography stuff.

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.

Avebury: dull enough that I've never been back for a better photo.

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.

Castlerigg: even on this freezing february weekday I had to hide the tourists behind the stones.

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.

Machrie Moor
Machrie Moor: perfect.
Machrie Moor
Machrie Moor

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.

Car-free holidays: Keswick by bus

Derwent Water on an April morning
Derwent Water on an April morning. Click the images for larger versions.
Download the Google Earth layers
Download the Google Earth layers

The Lake District is generally agreed to be England’s finest national park.  Unlike last week’s Scottish Highlands suggestion, though, during spring and summer in the Lakes you won’t be alone in the wilderness: you’ll meet hundreds of others out enjoying the countryside.  Which is great, except that most of the people out enjoying the fresh air on the hills will later be spoiling it by driving back to their hotels and cottages.  Like most English national parks, the Lake District is easily accessible from a major motorway, and 93% of the 8-9 million annual visitors come by car.  So, despite its low permanent population, it has a serious seasonal problem with congestion, car parking, and other blight from the influx of car-bound tourists.  Visitors are literally destroying the same wildlife and spectacular natural landscape that they are coming to see, as dual carriageways, bypasses and ever bigger car parks get built — merely inducing more demand and congestion.  In 2003, the local authorities even looked at the feasibility of introducing a Lake District Congestion Charge.  Clearly it would be irresponsible to drive to the Lake District and add to these problems.  But surely it’s not possible to have a break in the lake district without a car?

Normal everyday buses. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)
Simple everyday buses. But sometimes with the roof off. (By flickrer soloM920, CC BY-NC-SA)

I’ve had several.  Mostly they were by bicycle (and I might give some bicycle route suggestions in a future post), but one time it was by bus.  In february.  Which was excellent.  I imagine it would be even more excellent in April-June, when the full bus services are running, but before the schools break up and the families flood in with their mock military personnel carriers.  (I’ve also been to the Lake District once by car, and can honestly say that not only is possible to go there without one, it’s much better to go there without one — with a car you have to plan your day around it at least as much as you do with buses: where do you park, how are you going to get back to where you parked, etc)

Derwent Water from Latrigg
Derwent Water from Latrigg; Keswick is below the photographer, just out of view.

The buses are not tourist coach packages — the kind with a cheeky middle-aged northern failed comic giving distracting commentary between set 30 minute stops at “attractions” only the most senile of the passengers would want to visit.  They are simple normal everyday buses on reasonably frequent timetables.  Normal buses that get people to work, or the market, or the post office on pension day.  Buses are not complicated.

Derwent Water
Derwent Water

(Many Motorists, of course, will not have seen the inside of a bus in decades, and the idea of using one on a holiday in unfamiliar terrain will sound awfully difficult and complicated to them — especially if their only idea of a public bus is something that they’ve picked up from the worst Radio 4 or Daily Telegraph portrayal of a Brixton night bus.)

If you’re not already familiar with the Lakes then Keswick, in the north, is a good place to start — a small market town with the full spectrum of accommodation from youth hostels to luxury hotels.  It’s on the shores of Derwent Water, one of the prettiest of the lakes, and is surrounded by small hills with fantastic views which you don’t need to be a hardcore fell walker to climb.  Plus, if the weather turns bad one day, you can visit the world famous pencil museum.  (I’ve never been, but I know dozens of people who have and they all say: “not as awful as it sounds”.)  Or maybe an ironic trip to Cars of the Stars.

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