Friday photo: urban motorways

The four mile M32 arterial motorway, from the M4 right into the centre of Bristol, and beneath it, Bell Hill / Stapleton Road, a residential street made unfit for people by the presence of the motorway.

Once upon a time, Bristol was divided only by the River Avon, the river which flows east to west through the city centre harbour and under the Clifton Suspension Bridge in the spectacular Avon Gorge. There was a North Bristol and a South Bristol. The Victorian railways made some new barriers to movement of people around neighbourhoods within the city, but they largely ran along the edge of development, boxing it in, rather than cutting through and dividing places.

But then, at the start of the 1970s, the planners smashed a path through Eastville and St Agnes for the M32, tore down the Thirteen Arches railway viaduct, fresh kill from the Beeching axe. Perpendicular streets were cut in two; parallel streets were half demolished, the other side made unbearable by the new motorway that looked in on the upstairs windows. Lower Ashley Road has become two streets that share only a name, separated in the severed neighbourhoods of Easton and St Pauls. St Agnes, which once lay between the two, and merged with them as fuzzy overlapping neighbourhoods do, doesn’t really exist anymore. There is now a North Bristol and a North East Bristol, the motorway making a far more formidable border than the river has been for centuries. There are just a half-dozen potential crossing points for people on foot or on bicycles, and most of those are intimidating period concrete underpasses through complex tangles of wide and fast motor junctions. If the walls don’t stop you, the death strip will.

The motorway allows the rich to move out to the Gloucestershire countryside and commute back into the city each day, in ever longer jams of single-occupancy vehicles as the years pass. They’ll tell you how hard-done-by they are, having to pay so much more in tax than is spent on roads, having to put up with the sight of all those freeloading losers who get to bypass the jams in the new motorway bus lane, the pedestrians who can stroll through their underpasses unimpeded by signals or signs or stacking traffic, and the cyclists who ride by in the parks beside the motorway on one of those extravagant taxpayer-funded Cycling City routes.

The people who have really paid for the M32 are the people of St Agnes, forced out of their homes. Their neighbours left living in the dead-end stubs of terraces amongst the ruins and under the watch and the 24/7 noise of the passing traffic. The businesses that withered and died and the communities that slipped away. The kids who go to Millpond Primary School, twenty metres from the edge of the motorway, breathing the fumes all day, and the kids they’ll never meet, living a hundred metres away in an entirely separate community across the impenetrable frontier. No amount of motoring taxes can ever pay for the things that were taken from these neighbourhoods — safety and security, health and peace, community and prosperity, lives and livelihoods — because those things were never offered up for sale. Car ownership in Easton and St Pauls is low — people have never been able to afford to run a car, never needed or really wanted to own one — but they’ve paid for the car more than any in Bristol.

Where the M32 is the dagger thrust into the heart of the city, the Railway Path is the thread that ties the neighbourhoods of northeast Bristol together.


“The Dutch have always had cycle tracks”

So says a favourite canard of those who are opposed to reclaiming road space for dedicated bicycle infrastructure. Dutch cycling never declined in the face of the motor invasion, they say, because the cycle tracks were already in place. Therefore copying the Dutch at this late stage wouldn’t work in the UK.

In fact, the Dutch built some very British looking urban roads during the rise of the motor car:

Saturday, early afternoon, Spaarndamseweg, a main arterial road into Haarlem; two or three lanes of 50kmph (~30mph) traffic in each direction, big confusing junctions full of “stacking” and turning lanes that create merging chaos when the lights go green, and on-street bicycle lanes that are only slightly better than those we get in the UK. There are people cycling here, but relatively few considering that this is a main route in a city of cyclists on a sunny saturday. Most people are riding on nicer alternative routes, but these few decided that directness was more important.

It’s a very old road layout now. At some point in its more recent history a nasty junction has been patched, to add a bicycle bypass, a couple of hundred yards long, that allows users to avoid a set of traffic lights — busy junctions are the top priority for treatment because they are the most dangerous and intimidating places.

But it has now reached the top of the pile for a full rebuild, and of course, while the city still needs an arterial route for motor vehicle access, some space is being taken from the cars and given to proper attractive bicycle paths, wide smooth flat asphalt, well behind the kerbs and parked cars:

It took me 1,000 km of poking around to discover this one big road with such bad cycling provision, and soon the example will be gone. But 10 years ago I would have found several, and 30 years ago they would seem normal — books of Dutch photographs from the ’70s and ’80s are full of these British-style streets. It’s big and fast roads like these that cut people off, preventing journeys along or across them from being made by bicycle. It’s constant improvement to streets and to the network of cycle routes that keeps the Netherlands at the top of the league table — and it’s the constant deterioration of our own streets that is keeping us down.

Haarlem council have a page in Dutch (or badly translated by Google) about the developments.

I assume that all of the readers of this blog already subscribe to A view from the cycle path, which has stacks of information about the Dutch way of doing streets.