Thursday, 30 July 2009

Economics for Dummies (and City Councillors)

As you may have heard the City Museum has somehow managed to put on a hugely popular exhibition of art by Banksy. Queues are reported to exist all day long and a two hour wait seems to be fairly typical. Entrance to the Banksy exhibition is 'free' - that is it is paid for by the tax payers of Bristol rather than the people actually 'enjoying' the show, many of whom are visitors from around the country. More than 350,000 people are expected to visit the Banksy exhibition by the time it closes at the end of August.

Cost Benefit Analysis (CBA) as applied to transport planning puts a value on people's time so that the cost of congestion (queueing) can be compared to the cost of investing in increased capacity. The value ascribed to your time is highly variable depending on whether or not it's working time and how you travel. As a mere cyclist my working time is valued at around £17 p.h. but a car driver's working time is valued at around £27 p.h. Why I don't know off hand, probably just a reflection of deep rooted prejudices.

Non-working time is more difficult to put a value on. How much would you expect to be paid to stand around for a couple of hours doing nothing much in Queen's Road - £5 p.h., £10 p.h., £20 p.h.? Let's say £10 p.h as a conservative figure for the sake of the argument, so that's £20 for the two hour wait. Multiply that by 350,000 and we get £7 million as the value of all the time spent queueing, or in CBA terms the cost to the economy of the congestion.

Now let's suppose that someone in Bristol City Council has a clue about economics (I know, it's just a wild hypothesis) and institutes an admission charge to the museum set at a level that will just eliminate queueing (perhaps incorporating a time slot booking system). Let's guess that an admission charge of £5 would have this effect. That would result in an income of £1.75 million to the City Museum (which in turn could mean Council Tax being reduced pro rata - one can dream).

Such an admission charge would save those otherwise queueing £7 million but cost them £1.75 million in admission charges so a net saving to them of £5.25 million. In addition we have a potential saving to Bristol's Council Tax payers of £1.75 million, so the total benefit to the economy will be around the £7 million worth of time saving. Some of the value saved might well be spent in other ways in Bristol. For example visitors who weren't standing in a queue for two hours might well visit shops or cafes instead, perhaps spending an average of say £5 per head in the process so putting another £1.75 million into the local economy.

That's a simplistic summary based on some fairly arbitrary figures (do suggest corrections or refinements to this model), but it gives a useful indication of the scale of waste (which we all ultimately have to fund) arising from the economic illiteracy of Bristol City Council. Headline - Council tax payers' subsidy of Banksy exhibition costs local economy over £7 million.

Shared Space - Coming Our Way

A post today by Martin Jones alerts us to the fact that the Shared Space concept may soon be introduced to some Bristol streets. Park Street and the Clifton Triangle are specifically mentioned. I've blogged about Shared Use before, expressing reservations about the willingness of British motorists to accept the concept.

So what exactly is Shared Space? The principle is quite simple and appealing. All road users share the same space on the street on equal terms and with no priority given to one direction of travel over another (although the drive-on-the-left convention would continue to apply) or to vehicles over pedestrians. So no pavement / road distinction, no traffic signals or give way markings at junctions and no specific pedestrian crossings (since pedestrians can freely cross anywhere, almost as if the whole street were a zebra crossing).

Of course such sharing is only possible at very low speeds, perhaps around 10 mph, and with limited vehicular traffic volumes, especially through traffic. We already have examples in the form of Home Zones, based on the Dutch Woonerf principle, but these have little if any through traffic so cannot be taken as models for how the concept might work on busy streets like Park Street. The forecourt of Temple Meads station is cited as an example of shared space, but it still has separate pavements and of course no through traffic since all vehicles using that space are accessing the station.

Ashford before....

There are some examples in the UK, notable Ashford in Kent where the former ring road has been downgraded to what is claimed to be Shared Space and the results certainly look attractive in still pictures compared to what went before, as described in this post by Tom Vandebilt and as shown above (before) and below (after) here. However it's clear that this isn't pure Shared Space but retains some segregation and priority, notably keeping separate pavement and road (technically footway and carriageway).

.....Ashford after.

I expect that what we might get in Bristol will also be some kind of hybrid, or bastard child perhaps. Neither one thing nor the other, rather like what was done in the Centre ten years ago. Therein lies a danger. We may end up with something which confuses the existing conventions without giving clear guidance as to what replaces them. The Centre has been a road safety disaster with 6 pedestrian deaths in a few years at just a couple of crossing points for precisely that reason.

There is very little practical experience of Shared Space in the UK and virtually none in Bristol, so it is easy to think that Shared Space will be some sort of panacea. But experience elsewhere suggests that results will be mixed at best. Recorded injury accidents may fall but what about low level harassment and intimidation which is not recorded or even acknowledged by the authorities? Such conflict could even become worse as measures that give some priority or protection to pedestrians and cyclists are removed.

I've no doubt that we need to change the conventions of how streets are used by traffic and to change the visual character of our streets so they look like sociable places. But I believe such change must be based on a deeper understanding of the nature of conflict between different road users which does not yet appear to exist amongst the highway engineers who will be entrusted with implementing Shared Space. So watch this, er, space.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Sunday's Ride - Eastern Approaches

The weather forecast for Sunday isn't looking too good but I'm obliged to lead a ride nonetheless. I wouldn't blame anyone for giving it a miss if it looks like solid rain on the day (in fact please do, then I can slope off too), but just in case things brighten up here's the plan, although it might get curtailed a bit if bad weather sets in. We'll be pottering around slowly so nothing very athletic involved. Warning - likely to be muddy in places, not for the fastidious.

Rodway Common.

The idea is to explore the eastern fringes of Bristol, which mostly comes under South Glos these days and were formerly under Kingswood. The route I've put together, with help from John Grimshaw (who intends to come along), is almost entirely off road and mostly along the Railway Path corridor but without actually using the Railway Path itself or even much of the Ring Road cycle path. It threads together miles of off-road paths that have for the most part existed for many years but which are now supplemented by a detailed network in the new development at Emerson's Green.

Former coal mine at Emerson's Green

Overall distance, if we stick with the full route, is a little over 20 mostly flattish miles but may involve a little hiking and lifting bikes over stiles. Bring some food and drink in case although there's a good chance we'll be sheltering in cafes from time to time. And waterproofs of course, and maybe a change of clothing in case you get soaked. To emphasise the watery theme we'll be following rivers or streams most of the way. First the Frome, then Siston / Warmley Brook, then back beside the River Avon.

River Avon at Netham.

Another warning - there's an educational element in that we'll be looking at existing and proposed cycling infrastructure in the context of Cycling City, which is where John Grimshaw comes in to defend the project from my cynicism, but we'll keep the duologues to a minimum. Because we'll always be near (but not on) the Railway Path it will be easy to break off and head home if you feel you've had enough before the official end. Who knows we might all do the same.

An englishman's home ...... Warmley

Ride starts at the Arnolfini at 10 am on Sunday. If you're in east Bristol and want to join us as we head out we should be passing along the Frome (through Eastville Park and Snuff mills) about 10.30 ish but call me on 0775 282 7755 to liaise.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Bristol - London Electrification

The planned electrification of the mainline railway between London and Bristol (and also on to Swansea and with spurs to Oxford and Newbury), announced today, may sound like good news from an environmental perspective. Electric trains operate more efficiently because they don't have to carry their own fuel and fuel-energy converter (diesel engine) which reduces their weight and hence their energy consumption for a given speed. So they can save energy, or go faster, or a bit of both.

Existing electrification near Paddington (Westbourne Grove)

That's my first quibble. It looks like some of the potential energy saving may be consumed by higher speeds and faster acceleration, so saving all of 19 minutes on the Swansea to London run - small beer for a journey that takes at least 3 hrs. If we are serious about reducing our energy consumption then we have to question the endless pursuit of higher speeds. Yes, there is an argument for making trains faster to compete more successfully with more environmentally malign modes of travel, but if we priced all (road, rail and air) according to the environmental damage caused then that wouldn't be an issue.

It is claimed that the energy consumed by electric trains can be generated by renewables like wind, wave and tidal energy. But can it? Energy consumed by electric trains will be above and beyond what would otherwise be consumed, which is already way beyond the generating capacity of renewables, even if we add in nuclear. For the foreseeable future renewables and nuclear will continue to supply only a minor part of our electricity generating capacity, so in effect any additional electrical demand means more generation from fossil fuelled capacity. Thus it follows that the additional electricity generated for rail will be mainly from carbon emitting sources.

Last but by no means least there is the question of the capital cost, some £1.1 billion over the next 8 years we are told, although we all know what happens to cost estimates and timescales. Labour do not expect to be in government for the next 5 years or so, so it's easy for them to 'commit' a future Conservative government to public expenditure. They must know that huge public expenditure cuts are on the horizon, whoever wins the next election. But Labour don't expect that to be their problem. I guess they expect that the Conservatives will have to cancel or postpone this project, which will of course give Labour an opportunity to attack the Tories. Is that is what is really behind this announcement?

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Living Streets Launch in Bristol

My current obsession with matters bicyclical, prompted by the rich irony of Bristol being designated Cycling City, has resulted in my neglect of matters bipedal which I originally intended to be one of the main foci of this blog. Or in plain English, what about walking? So let's remind ourselves of some of the problems of pedestrianism in Bristol.

Here's the Bath Road, the main walking route from central Bristol and Temple Meads station towards the south east quadrant of Bristol, including Totterdown, Knowle, Arno's Vale and Brislington. What we find is a narrow footway sub-divided to be 'shared' with two-way flows of cyclists, hard up against a heavily trafficked road with no less than four wide lanes dedicated to motor traffic. To complement the traffic noise buffeting walkers from the right we have a brick wall and advertising hoardings to the left. The message is simple - in Bristol walkers (and cyclists) come a poor second to motor traffic.

Even where some effort is made to improve the lot of pedestrians we find motorists abusing those facilities, as with the driver of DU08 SXV above who regards the dropped kerb of the new pedestrian crossing on the centre as a convenient place to pull in to take a phone call. Such a callous disregard for the convenience and safety of those second-class citizens who walk is endemic in Bristol, as we see again below where the driver of VO51 CCD has parked at the junction of Westbourne Place with St Pauls Road, in Clifton, in such a way as to force pedestrians to walk out into the traffic on the main road. Needless to say no action has been taken or will be taken against these miscreants.

But there is hope. Tomorrow night a new Bristol branch of Living Streets will be launched with a meeting at Corn Street in in central Bristol at 7.30 pm. I have great hopes for this local group because it is being launched with the help of local Green activist Steve Meek (below), one of the leaders of last year's phenomenal Save the Railway Path campaign. I believe he is someone who is determined to focus on getting results and not just going through the motions as some so-called campaign groups do (you know who you are). Expect some fun events too.

What's more Living Streets nationally have engaged another Bristol based environmental activist Josh Hart to promote the cause. Some of you may have heard one of his compelling presentations on the need to curb traffic. He will naturally be taking a great interest in the Bristol group. So we can be confident that this group is really going to start making a difference, and the sooner the better. But of course we need your support.

Whether we are cyclists, motorists or public transport users, we are all pedestrians too. Walking is the most fundamental form of transport and the most sociable way of getting around. Chance meetings in the street are very much part of the walking experience and that helps to foster a sense of community and common interests, without which 'society' may well implode. Walking really should take first place in the transport hierarchy, even at the expense of my beloved cycling.

So please turn out tomorrow. All are invited
to the Living Streets Bristol kickoff meeting, upstairs room, Pizza Express, Corn St Bristol. 7.30pm Thursday 23rd July. If you can't make the meeting then at least make contact - or tel: 0789 999 2398

Monday, 20 July 2009

Do as we say...

According to a Guardian report Government departments, including those with a major presence in Bristol, are refusing to allow their own staff to take advantage of the Governments own Cycle to Work scheme, which is claimed to "promote healthier journeys to work and to reduce environmental pollution", despite encouraging thousands of companies in the private sector to participate.

Departments said to be blocking access to the scheme include the Department of Environment, Food and rural Affairs (which embraces the Environment Agency whose head office is at Aztec West in north Bristol) and the Ministry of Defence which employs thousands at its Abbey Wood complex in north Bristol. As an alternative to the scheme Departments offer employees wanting to buy bicycles interest-free loans and discounts at bike shops, but the savings under the Cycle to Work scheme could be four times as much, amounting to 40% of the cost of a new bicycle.

Personally I don't see why people should get tax breaks to buy bicycles, or anything else, in the first place. I don't want the government telling me how I should spend my money or how I should travel to work. Besides it's not the cost of bicycles that deters people from cycling, it's the behaviour of motorists which is something the government can legitimately do something about (but of course they do precious little).

In my admittedly limited experience the people taking advantage of the Cycle to Work scheme are relatively well paid and overwhelmingly middle class professionals. What's more they often buy very expensive bikes to supplement more prosaic bicycles that they already have. So it's very questionable whether the scheme actually delivers in terms of encouraging a modal shift towards cycling or helping people who genuinely cannot afford to buy a bicycle at the normal price.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

A Complete Sham?

"Is the democratic will of the people a complete sham?"

That's the question put by Bristol Civic Society and Redcliffe futures Group following Bristol City Council's decision to grant planning permission for a development in Redcliffe that ignores many of the principles agreed over many years of elaborate consultation over the redevelopment of the historic area to the south of Bristol Bridge.

You can probably guess my answer, especially after the way the Greenbank Railway Path land sale consultations have been ignored. But hope springs eternal and many people continue to invest countless hours in ultimately futile 'consultations' with bodies like Bristol City Council and all the quangos/partnerships/forums which it has spawned. It seems we all have to learn the hard way.

Here's the BCS/RFG letter as published recently in the Evening Post. It's worth reading carefully since it's a carefully constructed record of the way in which the council lead us up the garden path with time consuming consultations which involve them getting paid for sitting around in endless meetings but to finally capitulate to the demands of the developers.

The recent planning permission granted by the City Council to Carlyle Group, a "premier" American Private Equity Company, for their huge development site between Redcliffe Street and St Thomas Street has made a mockery of eight years' intensive community involvement by the citizens of Bristol, set up in 2001 by the Council as a formal partnership with the city Redcliffe Futures Group (RFG).

RFG has included representatives of professions and businesses, public authorities, residents' committees and other bodies including the Civic Society and Redcliffe Community and Environment associations as well as Business West, the local schools and the four Ward Councillors who represent the Redcliffe area. In all – and with key city council officers from various departments – about 30 of these representatives have been directly involved in the group over the period since 2001.

Out of this lengthy and detailed process, the group set out a clear vision of what they wanted for the area, culminating in SPD3 The Future of Redcliffe, adopted by the Council in July 2006 to provide a clear strategy for the future planning of Redcliffe over its 200-or-so acres of central Bristol.

SPD3 was a remarkable piece of democracy; a huge investment of energy, ideas and commitment by the citizens of Redcliffe and wider Bristol, together with their partner, Bristol City Council.

The planning permission given by this same city council three weeks ago ignores almost everything set out in SPD3, making a complete nonsense of the partnership between Council and citizens.

The community is wondering how meaningful is this partnership with the Council, which has cost them eight years of huge commitment in time and perseverance – all to produce very little for the citizens but high rewards to the developer? Even the council hasn't benefited, it would seem.

What went so badly wrong?

While the Carlyle Group may congratulate themselves over their success in raising the value of their ownership, the community may recall that this land site has changed hands five times in the past nine years and the promise of regeneration, employment opportunities and revival of the local economy have simply resulted in well-known business such as Pattersons, Pilkingtons Glass, Bristol Blue Glass and others being ousted from the area with the promises (and premises) remaining empty.

The soullessness of the Business Park characterises an area where no child or young adult is welcome and where underground car parking underpins most of the site. Such is the new promise for Redcliffe Village.

The people of Bristol do not want their city centre littered with what Global Private Equity Company developers choose to parachute in.

When will our elected representatives and the officers they employ heed what their constituents – the electorate – crave?

When will the City's high-minded ideals of exemplary involvement of its citizens in guiding the future of our beloved Bristol be matched by the Council¹s actions?

Or is the democratic will of the people a complete sham?

The Carlyle example isn't by any means unique; the truly democratic process of community involvement has been given little consideration elsewhere in our city. Bristol Civic Society has expressed its increasing concern over this almost farcical process of inviting and encouraging community involvement, then dismissing it out of hand.

Can the new Liberal Democrat Council offer a remedy? Is there a chance that our new political leaders can pay heed to the electorate?

Over to you, Lib Dems; we expect big changes from you in attitude to citizen involvement. You can start by reviewing this tragic permission given by the planning committee – based on a recommendation that, you will discover, ignored most of the key principles set out in SPD3.

Redcliffe Futures Group,

Bristol Civic Society

St Thomas Street in 1906, before the car.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

Spending the Cycling City Millions

At the beginning of the three year Cycling City project we were told there would be £22.8 million of funding of which £17.6 million would be spent on infrastructure (cycle routes and facilities). A year in and there isn't much to show for it, just 700 metres of upgraded path in St Werburghs and some new cycle racks and signs here and there.

Yet we were told to expect almost £3.5 million to have been spent on infrastructure by April of this year. As mere tax payers we are not party to information about the cost of such projects as the St Werburghs path upgrade, but I think we can safely say it falls a long way short of £3.5 million. Understandably it takes time to get these projects up and running, but even so people are beginning to wonder where the money is going.

Here's one possibility. This old stone bridge over the River Frome at Wickham Hill in Stapleton is being repaired, mainly it seems repointing the masonry. The bridge has been closed to general traffic for many years and is now only used by occasional walkers and cyclists, and a pipeline of some sort.

However the bridge is part of a route identified by Cycling City as requiring some 'new infrastructure' and one element of 'new infrastructure' appears from this leaflet to be located at or near this bridge. The text of the leaflet also refers to 'improvements' to bridges (but how do 'improvements' transmogrify into 'new infrastructure'? Oh yes, we've been there before). Just to confuse the issue (it wouldn't be Cycling City if we weren't confused) the marginally more detailed notes issued by Bristol City Council in March of this year refer to the need for the 'replacement' of this and another bridge.

If the bridge repairs are indeed Cycling City funded then one might ask if this is really the sort of thing that ought to be funded out of the that budget. It could be said that such bridge repairs are just part of the ongoing maintenance of our civic heritage and don't really count as 'new infrastructure' for cyclists. Still, they've got to find some way to spend the Cycling City money and in the continuing absence of any significant 'new infrastructure' perhaps this is as good a way as any.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Hourbike Launched with a Whimper

A report in today's Evening Post tells us that Hourbike has been officially launched in Bristol with four hubs, each with about 4 bikes, in central Bristol to complement the four pilot sites at Bristol Parkway and UWE (map here). The story includes a quote from my previous blogpost on Hourbike where I gave a predictably downbeat verdict. But it seems I'm not the only one with doubts about the viability of the scheme.

The Cycling City project seem to be disowning the project, claiming that the funding of £12,000 from Bristol City Council isn't Cycling City money and that Hourbike is not part of Cycling City. This is quite remarkable since all the evidence is that this was envisaged as being an integral part of Cycling City. The media certainly gave that impression at the launch of Cycling City last year and nothing was said to disabuse them of that idea.

The Post report says nothing about any official launch ceremony and so we might conclude that Cycling City don't want it to have a high profile. Even the inevitable Jon Rogers quote is quite guarded.
"Anything that encourages people to leave the car behind and find a healthy, sustainable way of getting about the city has to be welcomed. This pilot scheme will give us the opportunity to see what kind of demand there might be for a more widespread network in Bristol. We certainly wish Hourbike all the best."

Damned by faint praise? But it seems that the promoters of Hourbike have more than enough chutzpah to compensate for the fainthearts elsewhere. Dan Cooper, 28, Hourbike's sole employee in Bristol and nephew of Hourbike boss Tim Caswell (now, now, let's not hear the N word), said
"This can definitely work in Bristol. It cannot fail as an idea."

Mr Cooper goes on to say that there could one day be 2,000 of their bikes on the streets of Bristol (and will it endure for a thousand years too?). But he neglects to mention that the best known automated bike hire schemes, in Paris and Barcelona, were actually launched with thousands of bikes available from hundreds of locations, not just eight hubs that don't as yet even include the central railway station (a minor detail overlooked by the promotional video below).

According to Mr Cooper there are plans to open new hubs, subject to planning permission, in Temple Meads and Temple Quay. One wonders why they need planning permission at these locations but not elsewhere, and why have they been so tardy about progressing a hub at such a key location as Temple Meads. Are First Great Western perhaps lukewarm about encouraging cycling or getting cold feet about their involvement?

If Mr Cooper and family are so confident about the future success of the Hourbike project why have they come cap in hand for public funds to support it instead of raising the funds privately? Surely if it "cannot fail" then it can only succeed and prove a profitable venture? Or is it that no private investor will touch it with a barge pole?

Video summary. Desperation (How to get to the train station in 5 minutes?), Pacification (Ah, an Hourbike Hub), Expectation (This is quick, I'll soon be there), Acclamation (Ah, Temple Meads at last), Realisation (There's no fucking Hub here to deposit the bike!).

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Cycling City - Police Haul Cyclist Off Train

The 'Better by Bike' message of Bristol's Cycling City project doesn't seem to be filtering through to the British Transport Police or railway staff. The email message below was sent today, recording an extraordinary incident at Temple Meads when a cyclist, one of four who had boarded a train with four bicycle spaces, was hauled off by police in riot gear and 'held' in the British Transport Police office (which sounds like being 'arrested' to me). I'll say no more but let you judge for yourselves from this account.
"Recently my son had a very unnerving experience at Temple Meads.
He has a part-time lecturing job in Cheltenham, so regularly travels there from Bristol. He goes by train, taking his bike to use at each end of the journey. However this is a gamble as he cannot rely on there being a space on any train for his bike. Bike tickets are issued, but with no guarantee about being able to take the bike on the train it is booked on.

Last month a "rule" was brought in that there could not be more than 3 bikes on any train, even if there were more than 3 bike racks. This is apparently so the provision will be the same on all trains, and the newer trains only have 3 racks.

The train he and his bike were booked on had 4 bike racks, and fortuitously 4 cyclists wishing to travel. However jobs-worth rail staff insisted that one person leave the train. This was obviously nonsense (with no flexibility for a new rule), and it was not clear how it could be decided who had to unlock their bike and leave. All refused, including a woman who became very upset. My son had an important day ahead with external examiners coming to his college, so felt it was impossible to wait for a later train. When he tried to have a (reasonable) discussion with the staff, their response was to call the railway police. 4 police arrived in riot gear, grabbed hold of my son, and held him in their office. He was told he was lucky not to be arrested (so what the justification for his treatment was is unknown).

So this is how the station responds to customer care issues, and the need for transport links to avoid car use. Brilliant."

Meanwhile in a parallel universe....

......where there's a will there's a way.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

St George and the Dinosaur

It's been interesting to observe George Ferguson's manoeuvring on the Ashton Gate Tesco supermarket proposal. Back at the beginning of June George was giving the idea very conditional support, saying
"If we're just going to end up with a big shed and whopping car park, then the answer is 'No'. "But if Tesco are prepared to do something really special, an exemplar scheme which is carbon-zero rated, which has mixed use and which puts Tesco at the heart of a community, then I think you could end up with a much better, more profitable scheme."
If only they'd had the sense to hire George, he would surely have sorted them out with something suitably community friendly. But they didn't and in due course the entirely predictable plans for a big shed and whopping car park appeared. By June 24th George is evidently losing patience with the developers. It's reported that he supports the football club in getting high value for the site in order to make its new stadium work, but any supermarket should be part of a mixed-use community if it was to find favour with him.
"They have to grow up and recognise that that form of supermarket is a dinosaur."

Still BCFC and Tesco didn't take the hint and pressed on with their dinosaur plans. Meanwhile opposition to the Tesco plan was growing in George's manor and the inaugural meeting of BERATE (Bedminster Residents Against Tesco's Expansion into Ashton Gate) was coming up, so time for another subtle position shift. At the meeting on 3rd July George said

“There is nothing like a major threat to its future to galvanise a community. This is an appalling proposal – another giant shopping shed set in a massive sea of car parking. The potential economic and environmental damage to this area is immense."

"I fully recognise the importance of Bristol City’s success but it is quite wrong to imply that a new supermarket is something to do with the new stadium or the World Cup – the two issues have to be de-coupled. It is inappropriate and legally dubious to consider the applications for the new stadium and the new supermarket simultaneously”.
Now that last point, the importance of "de-coupling" the two planning issues (Tesco and the new stadium), is a very sound one and I'm entirely in agreement. As George says, it would be "inappropriate and legally dubious" to consider the two issues as if one was conditional on the other. But of course we know that that sort of thing happens all the time with Bristol City Council.

Indeed George may well be mindful of a very recent example concerning the redevelopment of the old Chocolate Factory in Greenbank, where the city council have decided to sell a plot of Railway Path land (the long hedgerow shown below) to the developer, Squarepeg, in contravention of its own Parks and Open Spaces policies and the results of extensive public consultation. The reason given by the council is that the planned redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory depends on the land sale (because that's what Squarepeg claimed, in exactly the same way as BCFC claim that their plans for a new stadium depend on the Tesco development proceeding).

Inexplicably there appears to be no record of George Ferguson speaking out against this earlier travesty of natural justice. Yet he must surely have known all about it, seeing as he is the architect of the Chocolate Factory project and the agent who originally arranged the land sale in a private meeting with the council's Strategic Director of City Development, David Bishop. Perhaps if George had spoken out about the Railway Path land sale being wrongly coupled with the Chocolate Factory development, his current concerns about the Tesco - New Stadium linkage might have a little more credibility.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

Let There Be Even More Light

There's nothing like having to pay your own electricity bill to encourage economy in the use of lighting. Conversely it takes a body like Bristol City Council to really waste energy, since whatever it costs comes out of our pockets, not their own.

Here near Temple Meads the spotlights are blaring around 7 pm when dusk is at about 10 pm at this time of year. Likewise around the centre and the glass arcade at St Nick's market (below). Now supposing you had some spotlights on your home coming on at 7 pm even at the height of summer, wouldn't it cross your mind that you were wasting energy, and money, and needlessly adding to carbon emissions? Yes, of course it would, and you'd soon do something about it.

But what if you work for Bristol City Council? Do you notice? Do you care? Is it your responsibility? Probably the answer is 'no' to at least one of those questions, because as we see nothing gets done about even such a simple matter. That's the nature of the beast. The Council is impersonal and irresponsible. Corporate responsibility means no one takes individual responsibility. Yet so many people want to give more corporate 'responsibility' to the same body to address environmental issues. People, they can't even be bothered to switch the bloody lights off!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

£19 million subsidy for south west airports

According to Guardian journalist Goeorge Monbiot, The government's South West Regional Development Agency (SWRDA) has spent £19m in recent years on extending the airport terminals at Bristol and Bournemouth, aircraft parking at Exeter and airport works at Plymouth and Newquay. The subsidies to Bristol Airport were made in 2004 and included £15,000 to pay for an economic assessment and greenhouse gas emissions assessment for a proposed direct scheduled service to New York and £1.5 million towards extending the terminal.

The bulk of the £19 million of SWRDA subsidies were directed at Newquay, so greatly undermining the attractiveness and potential of the existing rail link to the town. Likewise the £4+ million subsidy to Plymouth airport will give airlines a further competitive edge over rail. Now it is possible to fly from Bristol to Newquay in 45 mins for just £29 one-way which, even allowing for airport travel and check-in, is quicker and cheaper than rail (over 4 hrs, £65 off-peak return). Those low air fares owe a lot to public subsidy.

Air travel accounts for less than 1% of total UK business turnover but accounts for 13% of greenhouse gas emissions. You might think curbing the growth in air travel, particularly of domestic flights that can realistically be undertaken by rail or coach, should be the very top of the government's environmental agenda. Instead we find them pouring millions of our money into subsidies to support air travel at the expense of rail travel.

SWRDA is headed by career quangocrats Jane Henderson (CEO) and Juliet Williams (chair) - nice to see women taking a leading role in screwing the environment for our grandchildren. The board inevitably includes local serial quangocrat and Merchant Venturer John Savage, who, we are told, is "passionately concerned about the failure of the British educational system to produce opportunities for a large swathe of underprivileged young people..." which he "strives to redress" through, amongst other things, spending public funds subsidising the business and holiday trips of his privileged chums in the west country's elite.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

HourBike or NineDayWonderBike?

Bristol Traffic just beat me to it with pics of the new Hourbike installations, or hubs, in central Bristol, but at least I managed to find the one tucked away by At-Bristol as well as the one on Colston Avenue. The third is by the BRI and, er, that's it apparently, apart from the existing hubs at Parkway station and the UWE campuses. Map viewable here.

The idea is that you hire a bike near the origin of your journey (or modal transfer point like a railway station or P&R site) and then deposit it at a hub near your destination, so no concerns about bike security when you're not actually using it and no need to pay hire charges other than for the time you're actually riding the bike. Ideal, in principle, for shortish trips around town when you don't have your own bike available.

But with such a meagre distribution of 'hubs' the options are extremely limited. At-Bristol to BRI might just about be worth cycling and the BRI is quite close to the bus station, but either destination to the Colston Avenue hub is such a short distance that it's hardly worth the bother of hiring a bike. A longer journey combined with the use one's own bike lock to secure the bike at the destination is possible, but you'd pay for all the time on hire. And how many people are likely to have a decent bike lock with them?

Temple Meads station is the most obvious 'missing link', so could it be that First Great Western weren't willing to fund a Temple Meads hub, as they had at Bristol Parkway last year? Perhaps the minimal usage of the Parkway hub had given them cold feet? Could it be that a Temple Meads hub is due to appear shortly, before the official launch, whenever that is? As usual with Cycling City funded projects we know little more than can be observed on the ground or via the Internet.

One of the major issues with unsupervised automated bike hire schemes with hubs in public places is the vulnerability of the bikes to theft and vandalism, so let's have a closer look at the details. The bikes are secured by a prong attached to the top of the head tube which looks fairly solid, but the prong appears to be held to the head tube bracket by an allen key bolt. Could it be that all it takes to remove the bike is to undo an allen key bolt?

Another obvious vulnerability, pointed out by Bristol Traffic, is the easy removability of saddle and seat posts via saddle height adjustment mechanisms. BT didn't actually try to steal one, but I did. It doesn't work because at the high limit of adjustment something stops the seat post being raised any further, presumably an enlargement of the very end of the seat post. So at least they've thought of that one.

The lights look extremely vulnerable to damage, which is a shame because it's a neat little lighting system based on an expensive hub dynamo. The rear light could have been built into the rear carrier rack to protect it from casual damage and the front could have had a metal frame built around it for the same purpose. Or they could forget about lights altogether and let users make their own arrangements as and when necessary (which is what I think I would have done).

Both wheels are based on some fancy hubs incorporating brakes and with a dynamo in the front so might be considered desirable by those who appreciate such eminently practical features. The rims and tyres look quite decent too. The wheels are secured by what look like hexagon nuts but which on closer inspection appear to be some special security nuts. I wasn't 'tooled up' yesterday so haven't yet had a serious attempt at stealing bits, but we'll see in due course. I guess all the hub brakes connections would have to be undone too so maybe it's simpler to nick the whole bike.

The actual bicycle frames look cheaply built (crude welding) and clunky, so I don't suppose the bikes as a whole will be coveted by many, but some components are seriously vulnerable. CCTV might be a good idea to deter interference, but there were no signs advertising the presence of CCTV (which signs could be displayed even if there wasn't any CCTV, as on the Railway Path, if one wasn't too scrupulous about honesty - at least the Council shouldn't have any problem with that).

So my verdict, based on what I've seen, is that Hourbike in Bristol will be a nine day wonder and briefly attract a lot of media interest, followed by a longer period where it becomes a standing joke as the bikes suffer attrition but precious little in the way of legitimate use. This is primarily because the existing 'network' is so ludicrously limited. If Temple Meads and a few other central locations, perhaps including Long Ashton P&R, were included then it might have a chance.

Later correction 9 pm Saturday.

I've since discovered that the Hourbike bikes come equipped with a combination cable lock (combination issued on hire) so you wouldn't need to have your own lock. Having said that cable locks are notoriously easy to cut through and then the hirer would be responsible for the loss. Plus previous hirers of the same bike will know the combination. I wouldn't trust one.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Why Words Matter.

Following on from the last post about the use of the term "new" by Cycling City to describe existing cycle routes that are being upgraded, which provoked some interesting responses including this coverage in an online cycling magazine (thanks to Noel for that link), I thought it might be productive to explore why the meaning of words, semantics, isn't merely a matter for "sterile and pedantic" debate as suggested by Cllr Jon Rogers.

First a dabble in the theory. All our thoughts and actions are based on ideas which are formulated with words. If words don't have agreed and recognised meanings then we cannot use them with any precision. If we cannot use words with precision then the ideas based on them become amorphous and ultimately meaningless. Then our thoughts and actions have no solid basis, which leaves us prey to the shysters, snake oil salesmen and politicians of this world. If that makes any sense you might like this piece by Charles Eisenstein, kindly flagged up by Tim Beadle and others via twitter, which takes the theme much further.

Now for a practical example. Yesterday Jon Rogers, who I'm still convinced wants to be as open and transparent as is possible, answered a query about the Hourbike scheme raised on the public Bristol cycling Campaign forum, saying (in a series of responses which I've amalgamated)-
I had a briefing this afternoon about imminent HourBike launch. Small private company that has been quietly trialling up at UWE between Parkway Station and UWE.

Officer response..."It's not part of the Council's Cycling City programme, but a private initiative started before the Cycling City funding was announced and consistent with our aims to promote and increase cycling. As part of the programme however we are also looking at the options for wider access to bikes, of which hire on a bigger scale is one."

Hour Bike is privately funded. They have, I understand had a grant of £4k, with further £4K for launch and £4k due next year - total £12K from Council investment. Would you like me to ask if that is counted as part of the council share of it's investment in Cycling City?
But then quite a lot more information emerged from another source. It seems this "privately funded private initiative" is mostly funded by public funds (from Bristol City Council, the University of the West of England (UWE) and First Great Western) and originated from publicly funded research at UWE. So Jon Rogers might well be pondering what 'private' means in that context. Clearly the officers giving him advice have a very different idea of the meaning of the word to me.

We also learn that another £20k of Cycling City money was allocated to the second phase of the Hourbike project. How does that fit with the £12k funding (which may or may not be Cycling City money - we still await a response on that point) reported by Jon Rogers? Some people need to be reminded that Cycling City money remains our tax money, however many different agencies it's passed between, and we're entitled to know exactly what it is being spent on.

The Cycling City launch press release said -
And there are new plans for a 24 hour automated bike hire scheme called ‘Hourbike’, providing bike locations (docking stations) across Bristol City centre and further afield around Parkway Station and the University of the West of England. This is subject to agreements on funding by the operator.
So is it right to say that the Hourbike scheme is not part of Cycling City? The Cycling City PR materials seems to say that it is. The funding seems to say that it is. But the officers say that it isn't. Who should Jon Rogers believe? Who should we believe?

My interpretation of this is that Cycling City are distancing themselves from the Hourbike scheme, presumably because they don't think it's viable or simply aren't prepared to pump prime it to the level where it could be viable. The Hourbike map suggests just three new locations in central Bristol to go with the four existing locations at Parkway (above) and UWE. That looks like little more than a token gesture to me.

But of course if Cycling City were honest and open about these things we wouldn't need my 'interpretations' or speculation, rumour and guesswork. We'd have the facts, based on words with agreed meanings. Surely Jon Rogers must be beginning to appreciate the logic of that.

Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Cycling City - New for Old

There's an interesting debate going on in connection with Cycling City. What constitutes a "new" route as opposed to an existing route that has been improved in some way? The latest installment in this debate occurred yesterday with this story in the Evening Post claiming that "Two new links from the Bristol and Bath Railway Path could benefit cyclists and walkers living in Speedwell, St George, Redfield and Whitehall ".

The routes in question, shown on the map above (click to enlarge) by #24 and #25, are essentially existing routes (shown on the map below) which are already used by cyclists. However 'improvements' are proposed, including such things as light controlled road crossings and improved surfaces and realignments in places. So is it right to call them "new links"? As you can see from the comments on the article I accused the council of 'lying' over this use of the word "new" but Jon Rogers, the Executive Member for Transport, said -
This is a public consultation to create two new cycle links. True, the paths already exist, but the plan is to consult local residents and users of the Railway Path on improvements to the links to make them more suitable for cycling and walking. Words like "upgraded" or "improved" might strictly be more accurate than "new", but to accuse Bristol City Council of "lying" seems a bit strong.

Chris, we had the same sterile and pedantic discussion on the St Werburghs to Muller Road path, but if you travel along it you will see there is a "new path". The path is also "improved" and "upgraded".
The council press release for the opening of the St Werburghs path said "Bristol's trailblazing Cycling City programme has delivered the first completed kilometre of a new off-road cycle route". Note "route" rather than "path", so the "new" claim refers to the overall existence of the route, not some facet of it such as the new asphalt surface of the path. Yet it is well known that the very same route has been used by cyclists for at least the last 20 years.

The as yet non-existent link to Speedwell, actually built in 1980s.

The problem dates back to the beginning of the Cycling City project. For example the promotional leaflet issued in February of this year, at the first (so far) relaunch, included the map above which shows proposed "new infrastructure" (dark blue lines) and "new infrastructure on existing network" (broad cerise lines). So clearly the "new infrastructure" (dark blue) is by implication NOT on the existing network.

But the St Werburghs route (#2 on map above), which might reasonably be described as "new infrastructure on existing network" is in fact marked in dark blue and therefore as "new infrastructure" NOT on the existing network. Likewise the proposed "new link" to Speedwell (#24 on the map above) is shown as "new infrastructure" (dark blue) when it is in fact based on the existing network and so should properly be marked cerise). Are these "sterile and pedantic" distinctions?

Oddly enough the other "new link" (to St George) claimed in yesterday's Post story is shown merely as "existing network", but for a small element within it. So they can get it right occasionally, if only because they can't manage to be consistent about anything, even their deceits. The map shows many other examples of existing routes which are misrepresented as "new infrastructure", in fact most of what is marked in dark blue within the Cycling City area is existing cycle route.

Cycling City claims that it will deliver "13 miles of new track and 18 miles of improvements to the existing 73 miles of off-road track". So far, one year into the three year project, they have delivered less than half a mile of improved track. The 13 miles figure is pure fiction (and probably the other figures too, although I'm not yet in a position to prove that) and that fact will continue to be exposed on this blog until such time as the council come clean and withdraw all the false claims made in support of Cycling City.