Saturday, 31 October 2009

Cycling City - Critical Mess

Here's an amusing little quandary for Cllr Jon Rogers and Bristol's Cycling City leadership. They've just launched a new web site, called Better by Bike, as reported on on this blog back in September. Unlike previous Cycling City web sites this one is intended to allow a certain degree of public participation, at least in terms of posting details of forthcoming events and rides. No doubt this is in response to Jon Rogers' wish for the project to be more open and to embrace the wider cycling public.

But straightaway the principle of openness is put to the test. Someone has posted details of all the forthcoming Critical Mass bike rides on the Better by Bike events list. Now for those of you that don't know Critical Mass is pretty controversial since it involves a large group of cyclists completely taking over the section of roadway they are using, typically spreading out to occupy two or three traffic lanes to block any overtaking by motorists. To some extent this is a necessary tactic to keep the ride as one coherent body and not allow it to become fragmented.

Needless to say some of the motorists stuck behind a Critical Mass ride and reduced to a snail's pace for anything up to, what, a few minutes (shock, horror) don't appreciate this tactic and tend to express their frustration by illegal horn sounding and, given half a chance, aggressive overtaking. On occasion things can get nasty and violent confrontations have ensued, although that is certainly not the objective of Critical Mass. This facebook site gives more background to Bristol Critical Mass.

Like many cyclists I've always had mixed feelings about the event. It's good to get together with other cyclists once a month to enjoy that fabled 'safety in numbers' and to create a different kind of street culture for a couple of hours. But I've never been comfortable with the inevitable (?) confrontation with motorists. I know they bring the whole city to a standstill twice a day for 250 days of every year but even so I can't help wondering if aggravating them serves any useful purpose.

Anyway back to Jon Rogers and Cycling City. How are they going to react to discovering that they are using council resources to host details of such a controversial event as Critical Mass? Openness is all very well in theory but when it means advertising Critical Mass on a council web site even a liberal democrat like Jon Rogers might have second thoughts. My guess is that Critical Mass will be scrubbed from Better by Bike by noon on Monday.

Pics from Bristol Critical Mass summer 2009

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Cycling City - Those Unofficial Conference Minutes.

I wasn't able to attend yesterday's Cycling City conference - "Gaining Momentum" - due to a throat infection that I haven't shaken off yet. Uncontrolled violent coughing doesn't go down too well at such events. A pity really, judging from the rather critical Evening Post report. Normally one would expect any problems to be glossed over for such a public event but it seems that enough may have been said to substantiate a fairly negative article, even if the headline itself drifted off into speculation.

However a copy of the unofficial minutes have come my way (one of the few perks of being a blogger is the occasional and mysterious appearance of such things in one's inbox), apparently having been left behind on a table. Having read them I now suspect I got off likely. Whoever wrote these notes (and I genuinely have no idea who it was) is (a) brilliant (so all BCC's employees are in the clear) and (b) obviously had the conference scenario down to a tee so I suspect it wasn't his first, although it may be his last.
Cycling City conference  Gaining Momentum

Cllr Dr Jon Rogers (Executive Member,Transport): (Welcome): You're all lovely! 3 cheers for Cycling City! I love you all, even the bloggers (shows slide of Green Bristol blog)...I love your friendly criticism! Traffic lights are green - lets go! Evening Post loves me now too! 3 cheers for Cycling City!

Jan Ormondroyd (Chief Executive Officer): (Opening remarks): I've got a bike! I'm all wobbly! 3 cheers for Cycling City! I want it!

Philip Darnton, Chairman, Cycling England: (Keynote address): 3 cheers for Cycling City! Why is Bristol so important to Cycling England? Because there are only four of us and our jobs depend on it! Now's the time to pull together! Its easy! Just spend all the money, and then tell us how much cycling has improved!  You can do it! Oh yes you can! Oh YES you can! Pleaeeeese! I'm such as nice chap!

David Bishop (Strategic Director): 3 cheers for Cycling City! Yes we really want it. Oh yes we all do. We want a sustainable Bristol a congestion free Bristol and cycling so important  - we mean to succeed, errm (looks at notes and sits down)

Hugh Annett (Director of Public Health):  Cycling is healthy! 3 cheers for cycling!

Ed Plowden (Programme Manager): (breathlessly rushes on. we're doing this and this and this and this and this and this and we're going to do this and this and this and this and this (images flash by on screen). phew ! (mops brow); time for a cuppa!

Convenor: Now we'll have a pretend workshop. Talk to the people on your table about the things on the postcard for 45 minutes.

(45 mins later) - Convenor: Now wasn’t that fun. Next we have Silly Question Time. If you listened very carefully at the start you'll have heard me whisper that you should write your question on the card which is in your recyclable delegate bag with the free squeezy water bottle. I have 5 questions for the panel. First question is (reads card) ... ?????

Panel:David Bishop: 3 cheers for cycling city!

Convenor: Next question "Are you sure you've got the balance between hard and soft measures right???"  Now that's a hard one.

Panel - Ed Plowden: Absolutely yes. My balance is fine. They've taken my stabilisers off! Watch me go down Gloucester Road! Wheeeee….!

Convenor: Next question is "Are you listening to the voices of experience???."

Philip: It's SO important that people with experience think they're being listened to.And everyone one else too. Listening is so important.

Convenor: Question: "Will you maintain the cycle paths???

Panel (Ed):  That’s a good one - will we or won't we? The answer is we'll make them so they can be maintained. 3 cheers for cycling city!

Convenor: No more questions!

Philip Darnton: (winding up): This is such a great day! Now's the time to pull together! No more silly squabbling! Just do it! You'll be able to say to your grandchildren: Oh yes, I was there…...I was there when it all started at Gloucester County Cricket Club on Monday 26 October 2009...I heard the Chief Executive say "I want it!" 3 cheers for…………

(Here the notes end with mark of a broken pencil lead..)

Monday, 26 October 2009

It's Blame the Victims Time

When the clocks go back in late October and we all find ourselves setting off home in the dark it's traditional to mark the change with a flurry of press releases trying to place the blame for road collisions and casualties firmly on the shoulders of the victims.

Here is one example of this autumn's crop from an organisation calling itself Road Safety GB, which was formerly unknown as the Local Authority Road Safety Officers Association, a bunch of career bureaucrats who have taken the concept of ineffectuality to new depths. 

"Road Safety GB has launched a campaign to highlight the extent of the danger presented to children by the darker evenings that follow October’s clock change."

And that danger is? We're not exactly told, except that -

"The national campaign encourages children to wear bright, reflective clothing, especially for walks to and from school" 

So the danger, it seems, arises from children behaving irresponsibly by wearing school uniforms or, even worse, fashionable and practical clothes on their way to and from school. Do Road Safety GB tell us why this should be so dangerous? Er no, it appears to be assumed that everyone 'knows' why wearing normal clothes is irresponsible and dangerous. All we get is a reiteration of the blame mantra -

"Be Bright, Be Seen’ places the responsibility on people of all ages to ensure children wear bright, reflective clothing.."

"...twice the number of child pedestrians were killed on the nation’s roads in November compared with October and December, while there is a 10% increase in the overall number of pedestrian fatalities...During the week, nearly 40% of all pedestrian casualties occur between 3pm and 6pm."

No mention of how our children are getting killed. Do they spontaneously combust perhaps? Or get struck by lightning?  Or might it possibly have something to do with all those cars hurtling around, routinely breaking speed limits, jumping red lights, failing to stop at Zebras, driving on footways, chatting on mobiles, texting and generally fiddling with electronic devices rather than bothering to do anything as boring as actually looking where they're going?

No mention of cars or motor vehicles whatsoever in the Road Safety GB press release. No mention of speeding, no mention of the need to stop on red or at Zebra crossings, no mention of the dangers of driving on footways, chatting on mobiles, texting and all the rest. All we get is the subtlest hint, no more, of the possible involvement of motorists -

"...but Road Safety GB is also calling for adults and drivers to be more aware at this time of year....also on rush hour drivers to be especially watchful during their journeys, ensuring headlights are working correctly."

So what is it that 'adults and drivers' are supposed to be more aware of? Oh yes, that their headlights are working correctly. So it seems we 'adults and drivers' can carry on speeding, texting and chatting on mobiles to our hearts' content providing our headlights are working correctly. According to Road Safety GB these things are so insignificant as to be unworthy of even the slightest mention in a road safety press release and who are we to argue with these supine, self-serving pathetic parasites.

So motorists, when you're multi-tasking in your car, speeding along residential streets while chatting on your mobile, and some child gets in YOUR way and ends up a mangled, lifeless heap in the gutter, remember the Road Safety GB advice and be sure to check whether the child was wearing 'bright reflective clothing'. Unless your very unlucky the child won't be so you can rest assured that the blame is entirely theirs. As long as your headlights were working correctly of course.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Going Down

While public lifts perform a valuable role in the wider world, acting not only as an encouragement to pedestrians and cyclists but also as major tourist attractions, as we see in pictures here from Lisbon (45 metres high) and Oregon (40 metres), here in Bristol, with its proud tradition of technical innovation and now Cycling City, even a modest suggestion for a 30 metre high public lift for cyclists and pedestrians to be built on the side of the unprepossessing Trenchard Street multi-storey car park is met with contempt.

However to his credit the City Council's Executive Member for Transport, Cllr Jon Rogers, has not joined in the popular derision but is, he says, keeping an open mind about the possibility. In fact he made some enquiries about the status quo with the existing Trenchard Street lifts which have been used by cyclists for decades as a way of avoiding slogging up the Park Street escarpment. He helpfully posted the reply he had from officers as a comment on yesterday's Evening Post Traffic Lights piece (in response to an earlier enquiry about why the "NCP car park on Park Row now prevented people - primarily the elderly and disabled from using their lifts") and it's worth a read -
"Trenchard Street Multi-Storey Car Park is serviced by three lifts. The original lift cars were constructed with the car park and are approximately 40 years old. We commenced a major refurbishment programme of the lifts in April 2009. Two of the lifts have now been fully refurbished and the third one should be completed by the end of November 2009. The cost of the refurbishment project is £340,000.

"The refurbishment of the lifts has been undertaken for the following reasons:

"There were health & safety concerns regarding the reliability of the lifts. The age, general wear and tear and vandalism of the lifts had resulted in a significant number of lift failures resulting in poor customer service, and unfortunately, an increasing number of more serious incidents of customers being trapped within the lifts causing distress and inconvenience.

"The increasing difficulty in maintaining the lifts and sourcing spares because of the age of the installation.

"The lifts failed to comply with the DDA 1995.

"It has been found that approximately 60% of the users of the old lifts in the car park were not people who were parking there. Instead they were pedestrians and cyclists who were using the lifts as a short cut between Trenchard St and Park Row. This practice had resulted in fee-paying customers either being delayed or, in some cases, being excluded from the lifts because of the space taken up by the bikes and other users. There were also incidents of customers having their clothes marked by oil and dirt from bikes. Usage of the lifts by non-customers has added significantly to running costs (maintenance and energy), as well as reducing the life of the lifts.

"In view of the above, it was decided that when the lifts were replaced the car park tickets would operate them, as this would improve the environment and service to our customers by reducing waiting times. Limiting their use to fee-paying car park users will also reduce future wear and tear to the lifts, and hopefully also reduce the amount of vandalism occurring. We should also benefit from reduced energy and maintenance costs.

"If we were to allow non-customers to use the lifts again this would counter the above benefits of the refurbishment project for the management of this car park.

"Arguably if we were to introduce a charge for using the lifts the associated additional maintenance and energy costs could be recovered but customer wait time would increase making it a less attractive car park for users. It would also be difficult and expensive to introduce a charging regime for non-car users. If a scheme of charging none car-park users were to be introduced we would once again encounter problems of lift overcrowding and the potential for customers to damage their clothing. On balance therefore it is believed that the current limitation on lift usage is appropriate.

Jon Rogers goes on to note in the comment that "The interesting thing about this response is that it does show a demand for the lift in Trenchard Street by cyclists, pedestrians, parents with buggies and disabled people who don't have a car parked there. This was part of the suggestion from Chris Hutt for a bicycle lift up the outside of the car park."

Indeed the officer reply informs us that the majority use of the lifts was by pedestrians and cyclists rather than motorists! Clearly such an intolerable situation could not be allowed to continue in Cycling City and they have now spent a substantial sum on a mechanism (above) specifically to deny the opportunity of using the lifts to mere cyclists and pedestrians. Need I say more?

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

It's Blog Wars

My would-be Nemesis 'Dapper Dan' has obviously been encouraged by the unprecendented viewing figures his blog would have gained since I linked to it yesterday. He's warmed to his theme and has posted again explaining how I am a threat to the Cycling City project and with it Bristol chances of ever being a "true cycling city".

Dapper Dan seems to have a rather muddled and simplistic world view. If only, he says, we'd all rally around Cycling City and give it a chance, then perhaps in 30 years time something worthwhile might be achieved. Yes, he's actually saying that "Success .. won't be evident during the lifetime of Cycling City" which is pretty much the point I've been labouring over here. So he condemns my blog as negative and pessimistic yet agrees with the main thrust of my argument, contrary to all the Cycling City hype.

Dapper Dan argues that the views expressed here are not "representative". He says -
"I simply am not willing to believe that the majority share the one sided argument that (Mr Hutt) represents. Yes the Council gets it wrong. Yes the time frame for the delivery of the project is far too short. Yes the stated targets will probably be missed"
- so contradicting himself by showing that he agrees with my 'unrepresentative' observations.

Actually I think the general thrust of my views are probably quite 'representative' of a substantial proportion of cyclists, otherwise why would this blog have any credibility? Why would politicians and the media bother to follow it and comment on it if they thought it was only an oddball, isolated viewpoint? As it happens my Google Alerts trawl this morning picked up yet another blog commenting on Cycling City here. While I don't agree with all the detail I think the main thrust of it is pretty much along the lines I've pursued here. It's by no means unusual to come across similar views quite independently expressed.

You can read more over on Dapper Dan's blog, but I'd like to reproduce my comment here. It's a kind of cri-de-coeur, which I think is good to let forth now and again.
Dan, I didn't set the time scale or the budget or the targets for Cycling City. They were set by Cycling England and Bristol City Council (and South Glos). They were the ones who said they would double cycling in Bristol in less than three years and that provision for cycling would be transformed. They were the ones who made false claims about the funding levels and the extent of new infrastructure.

All I've done is point out that the Emperor has no clothes. I wasn't the one who took him for a fool and told him his clothes were magic and would be seen by everyone else but himself.

As you yourself appear to be agreeing Cycling City was ill conceived. I tried to point that out from the outset but most people were blinded by the £ signs and started fantasising about some golden age for cycling. Now the dismal reality of a long hard slog over decades is sinking in.

You say give it a chance to succeed. Well I did, starting about 30 years ago as it happens. I dedicated a large chunk of the prime of my life to trying to make things happen on the cycling front, with some limited success. But for the most part my efforts were rebuffed and I was left broken and financially ruined by the experience. That is what happens in the real world to anyone who attempts to promote radical change against powerful vested interests.

So you see why I am cynical today. I've seen how opportunists exploit the Cycling City concept for their own career ends, milking it while it lasts and then moving on to the next cause to be showered with taxpayers' money. These people do us no favours. Their focus is on their careers and pensions, not on putting their jobs on the line to force through difficult changes.

The thing I most regret about my earlier work was helping to establish the Cycling Project Team on Avon County Council. We had high hopes for them because we assumed they would be motivated like we were, putting cycling before all else. But they turned out to be career bureaucrats who always compromised the interests of cyclists to save their jobs. That's why we have so many tokenistic and ill-functioning cycle 'farcilities' around Bristol.

Why should we expect any better from Cycling City? We've seen enough to know that the same bureaucratic mentality prevails. We've seen enough to know that the interests of cyclists will again be compromised to perpetuate the bureaucracy. Just watch how the 20 mph idea, which actually has great potential, is being watered down by bureaucrats anxious not to create controversy. These are the ways of the world and the sooner people wake up to it the better.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Blogger Gets Some Stick

I know my critical style isn't to everyone's liking but my critics rarely present anything resembling a rational argument against it, so it was interesting to find this in this morning's Google Alerts. 'Dapper Dan', who tells us little about his background or interests, obviously isn't a fan of Green Bristol Blog and doesn't hold back in making that clear.
There's a blogger out there that I don't think would be able to see anything in a positive light, who somehow manages to make even the sunshine seem gloomy. Yes I accept there may be a role of scrutiny in there somewhere, and yes, at times the Council can be crap but there must be better, or more constructive ways of criticism than this.
Somehow I knew he was talking about me even before I followed the links back to this site. I suppose it's gratifying to have confirmation that I'm making an impact, but I was a little disappointed that Dapper Dan's critique wasn't a bit more sophisticated.

Dapper Dan seems to think that we should be uncritically positive about whatever the council do without regard to the paucity of the reality on the ground, rather in the style of 'Pravda' in the former Soviet Union. It's hardly necessary to labour the point that this is not the British way of doing things, however much Dapper Dan (who with that attitude surely works for the council?) wishes it were.

I believe that there is a real danger of this country drifting towards 'statism', particularly under the impetus of the need to adapt to environmental concerns. Each step along such a path will consist of small, almost trivial steps but in time that's where it will lead.

Cycling City, as originally constituted, is one such step. From the outset it sought to exclude those of us who had years of practical experience of campaigning for cycling and place all the power with the apparatus and apparatchiks of the state, whether under the guise of Bristol City Council, Sustrans or Cycling England.

Such arrogance was bound to provoke a fierce reaction and I make no apologies for playing my part in that. Cycling has survived and even prospered not because of the actions of the state but despite the actions of the state. Even today we see the state at every level pouring massive subsidies into long distance motorised travel, so encouraging lifestyles which are increasingly unsustainable.

Against this we have pathetically tokenistic gestures like the £100 milion allocated to the Cycling Demonstration Towns. In terms of national expenditure on transport that is no more than the small change that one might toss to a beggar on the streets. And yet the Dapper Dans of this world think we should all be terrible grateful and positive. Who is the deluded one?

Monday, 12 October 2009

Another Council Cock-up

It's sometimes seems that no weekend walk or cycle ride is complete without coming across at least one example of civic incompetence and last week-end was no exception. Down at the Hotwells end of the Floating Harbour the Junction Lock swing bridge, aka Merchants Road (shown in red below), was closed to road traffic including pedestrians to allow upgrading of the operating mechanism and other renovations to take place. So the only means of crossing the docks was at the other end of the Cumberland Basin, either via the Plimsoll Bridge (in green below) or the Entrance Lock gates.

View Cumberland Basin crossings in a larger map

For walkers that represents quite a big detour, over 500 metres, so what about providing a more direct alternative? The most obvious alternative (orange above) would be to use the walkway across the top of the new Stop Gates just 85 metres to the east and easily accessible and viewable from both sides of the closed bridge. So what do Bristol City Council do? They erect security fencing either side of the stop gates to prevent people crossing! After all we can't have people resolving their own problems in a simple, straightforward and inexpensive way because then we might start asking ourselves what we actually need the Council for.

Instead the Council concoct a complicated, obscure and expensive 'solution', by funding (with our taxes) a 'free' ferry to connect across the east end of the Junction Lock (blue above). The designated ferry landing stages are at the Pumphouse and the Nova Scotia, each about 100 metres from the closed bridge. But of course it's not possible to view one landing stage from the other, so where does the ferry wait? It waits on the opposite bank at the Cottage landing stage because from there it is just possible, with good eyesight, to view both of the designated ferry landing stages.

So there we have our expensive and complicated 'solution', but how to make it obscure? Now this is where Bristol City Council come into their own. Most of us would take it for granted that such an arrangement would require very careful signing to ensure that people arriving at the bridge to find it closed were made aware of the alternative arrangements, in particular the location of the ferry landing stages and the procedure for attracting the ferry. But not Bristol City Council. What is blindingly obvious to the rest of us simply doesn't occur to them.

The end result is total confusion  - no official signing except a pathetically (and ungrammatically) improvised bit of wood jammed in the railings on one side of the bridge, "half of Bristol" scrambling around security fences to try to get across the stop gates, cyclists and pedestrians wandering around trying to find an alternative crossing, a ferry boat waiting forlornly at a remote location on the opposite bank trying to observe potential passengers at landing stages over 130 metres away and walkers looking at deserted ferry landing stages wondering if and when a ferry might arrive. Who but Bristol City Council could manage to oversee such a hopeless cock-up?

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Where the real money goes #1

Bristol City Council, who make so much of their aspirations for improving public transport, walking and cycling, are pressing ahead with plans to spend £40 million on a new road linking the A370 at Long Ashton with the A38 and the A4174 Hengrove Way. This will form another element of the Avon Ring Road and will increase the pressure for a further link between Hengrove Way and Hick's Gate on the A4 Bath Road where the Avon Ring Road currently terminates.

View Avon Ring Road in a larger map

To put the money in context £40 million is around 4 times the extra investment allocated to cycling for the whole of greater Bristol through the Cycling City project, which gives you a pretty good idea where their real priorities lie. This £40 million investment in new road infrastructure (£10 million per kilometre!) is just one of many planned and ongoing projects to increase the capacity to accommodate car traffic, which together add up to hundreds of millions of pounds of public investment. Such largesse in favour of the car allows major engineering works to be undertaken (e.g. the viaduct below), the kind of thing that is simply out of the question as far as cycling and walking are concerned.

Of course development of this scale never occurs in isolation and in this case it will be an integral part of the proposed Ashton Park 'urban extension' between Dundry and Long Ashton, which includes the proposed football stadium which is in turn dependent on a major new Tesco at Ashton Gate, or so we are told by the developer. Extra traffic generated by these developments, which include around 10,000 new homes, will probably more than offset the extra road capacity created so congestion is likely to continue to get worse.

Building road infrastructure just locks us even more rigidly into car dependence and makes a transition to a sustainable transport system even more difficult. Ring roads in particular encourage travel around the fringes of a city in patterns that are too dispersed to serve with public transport, walking and cycling. Public transport really only works on radial routes focussed on traditional city centres. Ring Roads undermine those patterns of movement so weakening the viability of existing public transport.

So what are Bristol City Council playing at? Do they have a coherent and sustainable transport policy or is it just a question of making gestures to cycling and walking while continuing with 'business-as-usual' aimed at perpetuating the unsustainable, car orientated growth of Bristol, even though few of us actually want that growth?

Later edit - Stockwood Pete has kindly supplied a link to the West of England Partnership report which the decision was based on . Also worth following up a Pete's earlier blog posts on this.

Laer still edit - The Bristol Blogger is back and has covered this issue too, in his inimitable style.