Thursday, 21 January 2010

The Railway Path - Before and After

Following on from yesterday's post about the excessive tree felling on the Railway Path north of Ridgeway Road I've dug out a few pics to try to give a 'before and after' effect. The before pics, taken without permission from Martyn's railwaypath blog, were taken in the spring of 2008 and so include foliage which would not be present in mid winter, but it gives some idea of the impact on the visual environment of the Path, even allowing for some greening of the denuded embankments over the next few months. One can at least see why the impact is a bit shocking to regular Path users who have grown used to feeling as though they are travelling through dense woodland.

Above and berlow - looking northeast towards Lodge Causeway Bridge from a position north of Drummond Road footbridge.

All the tree felling depicted here is on the south side of the Path. The lighting trench is being installed on the north side so the damage to tree roots will be confined to the that side. Likewise the need to clear around the lighting columns to avoid foliage obscuring them will be confined to the north side. Virtually all the south side felling is unnecessary in the context of the installation of lighting.

Above and below - looking southwest towards Drummond Road footbridge.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Overkill on the Railway Path?

Over at Fishponds work has just started on extending the street lighting of the Bristol & Bath Railway Path from Ridgeway Road to Staple Hill Tunnel. The work involves digging a trench alongside the Path for the electricity cables and a certain amount of disruption and visual impact is inevitable, but some Path users have expressed concern at the extent of the impact on the once green corridor.

One can understand that a certain amount of cutting back of existing vegetation is required, including the removal f trees that have grown too close to the Path. As a general principle about a metre or so of grass verge should be maintained either side of the tarmac path itself to ensure that the full width can be used and to ensure reasonable sight lines. Lighting also needs to be clear of envelopment by adjacent foliage. But the contractors seem to be taking things too far.


It seems pretty clear that many mature trees well over a metre from the Path have been felled. Is this really necessary? The effect is devastating, reminding me of how the old railway looked back in the early 1980s before the Path was built. Of course the vegetation will grow back but the trees will take decades to recover. The importance of the 'greenness' of the Railway Path corridor cannot be overstated. It was the loss of the 'green' quality that above all prompted thousands to protest against Bristol City Council's recent plans to build a BRT bendy bus track along the Path.


At least one complainant has taken the initiative of emailing Bristol's 'Transport Supremo' Jon Rogers about this and I urge others to do the same. We know from bitter experience over many years, indeed decades, that we cannot entrust the care of the Railway Path to the local authorities. They lack the awareness of the sensitivities that rightly attach to the Railway Path which still represents a rare example of the popular will overcoming bureaucratic intransigence.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Slow and Nice

Now that the snow and ice is disappearing it is perhaps time to become a little nostalgic about it. Of course there were problems with ungritted pavements (as I may have mentioned) and neglected cycle paths, but every cloud has a silver lining and so with the snow and ice - it radically reduced the speed and volume of traffic which is the holy grail for many environmentally minded campaigners. At a stroke Mother Nature achieved what we mere humans can only dream of - a city where cars were rarely used, where everyone drove slowly and cautiously, where walking became the default mode of transport and where people suddenly found that they had time to stop and talk to each other.

Others have waxed lyrical on the same theme. Even hard case Evening Post columnist Mike Ford (the Bedminster Bigmouth) seems almost human in his latest column. Those commentators attribute the change in the public mood to the snow and ice but I suggest that it was as much the secondary effect of dramatically suppressing vehicular traffic which transformed out streets from hazardous race tracks to places to enjoy at a gentle walking pace. So many people have remarked on how much more sociable our local streets became over the last few weeks with neighbours stopping to talk to each other for perhaps the first time ever.

In part I think this renaissance in sociability was down to the fact that the street itself (and not just the narrow footways at the side) became a relatively safe place to walk, or just to stand and chat. The presumption that the street was the exclusive domain of vehicles was called into question by the impassable nature of the snow and ice covered footways. Everyone seemed to recognise this and even the 4x4 brigade seemed a little less arrogant. On almost every street except those that had been cleared most people took to walking down the middle of the road out of sheer necessity.

So can we reclaim something of that pedestrian friendliness and sociability by slowing and restraining traffic as a matter of course? That is certainly what many hope and the widespread support for the 20's Plenty (20 mph) campaign is I believe based largely on such aspirations. I'm tempted to ask whether we should perhaps abandon pavements in some streets and encourage people to walk down the middle of the road instead. This approach is known as 'shared space' but remains very controversial with many feeling that pedestrians would then be at the mercy of bullying motorists. At least let's all think about the lessons that we can learn from the Slow and Nice experience of the last few weeks.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Why Cycling City is Off Track

Tonight (but see PS below) I get my 15 seconds or so of fame in a TV programme, Inside Out,  going out at 7.30 pm on BBC 1. My brief appearance will be part of a 10 minute slot on Cycling City, also featuring Cllr Jon Rogers and a few other local cycling savants. Basically Jon will be seen shivering out on the St Werburgh's path being upbeat and positive while I will be seen shivering on Hartcliffe Way being critical and negative. We were both interviewed (separately) for about an hour or so, but little of what was said will find its way into the programme, perhaps just a few sound bites to fit the narrative.

One sound bite that I'm sure will be used is when I am asked if Cycling City is succeeding or failing and I reply....well, you guess. So why is it failing? Well in the first place it set itself hopelessly unrealistic targets, especially doubling the number of cyclists within the three years, and so by its own criteria it's bound to fail. If it was merely a question of setting over ambitious targets Cycling City might be forgiven - we've all been there. But the problems are more fundamental than that.

I blogged about these fundamental problems on many occasions but in essence in comes down to a lack of honesty and openness which we can trace back a very long way, through the previous Labour administration of Bristol City Council to Cycling England and Sustrans. All subscribe to the idea that you can and should spin a story even if it has little substance to back it up. The Sustrans National Cycle Network was an outstanding example of this and it was a remarkably successful sleight-of-hand since no one was really in a position to go and comprehensively check on what really existed, before and after NCN, on the ground.

But in Bristol it's different. It is possible for one person to explore all the existing and proposed cycle network and see exactly how existing routes are being presented as new ones (e.g. Hartcliffe Way above). But having based the Cycling City strategy on this deceit it's very difficult for the Council to back out of it - what would be left to give credibility to Cycling City? As it happens the more intangible aspects of Cycling City, like the publicity generated, may well prove to be the more significant in terms of encouraging cycling, but people expect to see physical changes on the ground and they are difficult to deliver, especially within such a short time scale.

PS. Having just posted this, I now hear that this Inside Out feature may be postponed and replaced with a 'snow' special. I'll update if I hear anything more definite.

PPS. Yep, it's confirmed that the Cycling City feature will now go out next Monday instead.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Slippery Sustrans

Bristol is home to "the UK's leading sustainable transport charity", Sustrans, who have their national head quarters down in Trinity Street, next door to the Cathedral and conveniently within spitting distance of the Council House. Sustainable transport of course means above all cycling and walking, so it is perhaps instructive to note their own efforts to clear the well used walking route outside their offices (the white facade below).

That's strange, even by 4 p.m. on Wednesday 6th Jan (above) no one in "the UK's leading leading sustainable transport charity" seems to have bothered to clear the pavement outside. Perhaps they were short staffed that day, what with the snow problems. Surely by Friday 8th (below) someone will have noticed that the pavement outside is in need of clearing, or are they all too busy designing glossy brochures and flashy websites to notice what is going on outside in the real world?

Friday, 8 January 2010

The Ice Man Cometh

After my petulant outbursts yesterday about Bristol City Council's failure to deal with hazardous pavement icing, even when specifically reported to them, there was the usual exchange of jibes on Twitter which resulted in Cllr Jon Rogers (Executive Member for Transport & Sustainability no less - below) challenging me to go out with him there and then and spread some grit.

I could hardly refuse and so for 40 minutes or so after 9 p.m. passers-by on Queen's Road, Clifton, were entertained by the sight of two scruffy middle-aged men scrabbling around grit bins like tramps scavenging dog ends. We quickly emptied one of the two local grit bins but the grit in the other was rock solid and unusable. Still we managed to deal with the worst sections of the footway and it was gratifying to see that people immediately started to follow our line of grit over the ice (visible to my right below). One even said thank you!

So that's what can be achieved with a bit of gumption. Jon Rogers' has a lot of that, it has to be said. He even lectured me on how to walk on the roads against the oncoming traffic to avoid having to use slippery pavements, explaining that you don't give way until you see the whites of their eyes! And I thought I was the militant one. To Jon even the snow and ice is an opportunity to assert a new paradigm for the concept of sharing the roads. I'm all for that.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

How Many More before Bristol Council Act?

As warned on this blog on Monday and again this morning, the junction of Richmond Hill and Queen's Road is proving lethal with walkers falling like nine pins. In about 20 minutes this evening I witnessed dozens of slips, half a dozen falls and one suspected broken bone requiring an ambulance. In addition almost every car emerging from Richmond Hill was sliding on the ice into Queen's Road, unable to stop.

It was all pretty sickening, watching and knowing some were going to fall, knowing that each car was going to slide out of control on the ice. And all avoidable, if only we had a Council able to listen to a simple bit of advice and act on it. But instead we have a Council suffering bureaucratic rigor mortis, unable to respond even at this most elementary level of human decency. You take pictures, you explain the problem, you put it on a public blog, representatives of the Council see it and - nothing.

So now we have real injuries, fractures, confirmed by photographic evidence. Will this be enough to inject some life into this moribund council? Probably not, so alienated are they to feeling anything resembling empathy with the public they are supposed to serve. I despair, this is just a simple matter of spreading some grit. Is that so difficult? Do I have to go and do it myself? Oh for a spade and wheelbarrow (which I haven't got). Can I bear to go back again, knowing that it is just a matter of minutes before I see another fall?

Get A Grit!

As we wake up today to find that all the slush and water from yesterday's slight thaw has frozen solid to ice, thanks to overnight temperatures that reached -7° C, many of us might have cause to wonder why nothing seems to be done about making at least some of our pavements safe to walk on. Even yesterday late afternoon some predictably lethal patches were claiming victims, like the Richmond Hill/Queen's Road junction highlighted here on Monday.

As also discussed here on Monday, Bristol City Council's policy is to grit the main roads but not the footways (pavements), leaving pedestrians to fend for themselves. The Council's justification for this seems to be that if they did anything for pedestrians at all they would then be held responsible for all pavements, although the same logic does not seem to apply to motorists. There are of course one or two exceptions, like the carefully cleared ramps up to the entrance to the Council House (below). At least they are keeping their own house in order.

All the Council appear to do as far as us lowly pedestrians are concerned is to refer us to their extensive collection of grit bins, although Cotham Councillor Neil Harrison does say on his blog that "Pavements on the main roads get gritted by the manual road cleaners on their normal rota". Well there was precious little evidence of that yesterday. The only pavements that had been cleared appeared to have been done on a piecemeal basis by adjacent shop keepers, as we see below in Park Street, which apart from being a major pedestrian thoroughfare is also rather steep and you might think something of a priority for gritting.

So what about these grit bins. I can confirm that all the ones I inspected (yes, I am that sad) are full of grit, but the grit isn't getting where it's needed because the Council seem to have overlooked a rather vital link in the chain. Just how do they suppose the grit is going to get spread on our pavements? Cheery teams of volunteers working selflessly to improve their communities? A nice idea but unfortunately that's not the nature of our society. So the grit remains untouched in hundreds of grit bins spread around the city.


But what about Cllr Harrison's claim that "Pavements on the main roads get gritted by the manual road cleaners on their normal rota"? It seems we spend £5.5 million of street cleansing, which averages out at about £10,000 a day, enough to employ a hundred or so Street Cleaning Operatives you might think. So what were our small army of Street Cleansing Operatives up to yesterday? I happened across one and followed discreetly for a while (that's about as good as it gets for me these days). Totally ignoring the snow and slush, he busied himself trudging around in a forlorn attempt to find items of litter to pick up. When our streets are crying out for gritting this is just totally stupid (not that I blame the Operative per se - I presume he was just doing as instructed).


By chance I came across some info about York's response to snow and ice. We see that despite being a relatively flat city they appear to have a comprehensive plan which includes treating the pavements on many strategic pedestrian routes with no less than eight downloadable maps showing exactly which pavements will be kept clear. So York's a bit further north and gets more snow, but is that really any excuse for Bristol City Council's comparatively pisspoor response?

Later edit: this post got 'retweeted' on Twitter a fair bit and there is now a #GritforBristol topic.

Monday, 4 January 2010

Priorities Made Plain

However much Bristol City Council might talk up how important they think walking and cycling, their true priorities are laid bare for all to see when the snow falls. Here we have a view of Queen's Road, Clifton, from 1 p.m. on 21st December, a little more than 12 hours after the snowfall. The main roads are of course clear and operating normally but the pavement in the foreground at the junction with Richmond Hill, the main walking route from Clifton, remains untreated and walkers are already sliding around as the snow is compacted to ice.

This location is notorious for becoming treacherous for walkers after snow falls since it is heavily used, slopes markedly and is shaded from the winter sun by the adjacent block of flats. Yet there isn't even a grit bin at this location. One of the nearest grit bins is located on a traffic island by the Victoria Rooms (visible as a yellow lump in the distance below), convenient for use on the road but hopelessly inconvenient for the footways. Even four days later no attempt had been made to deal with the ice, other than to wait for a thaw, and the pavement remained treacherous.

 Down at the Docks it's a similar story. The south side quays are largely shaded by adjacent buildings from the low winter sun and by 25th December the snow had turned to an almost continuous sheet of ice and remained so for days afterwards. And this at a time of year when a walk, jog or bike ride around the Docks would be a very popular and necessary recreation. But the ice has clearly put so many people off, not to mention those who've ended up in hospital with sprains or fractures. Should it not be part of the duties of the Harbour Master to ensure that quay sides are kept safe for walking, jogging and cycling, the main ways in which most people interact with the Docks?

The Council's policy appears to be to grit and clear the main road network, but not including footways or cycleways, however important they may be. That is simply inconsistent with their new rhetoric about encouraging cycling and walking. This coming week, with sub-zero temperatures forecast for every night and some sleet and snowfalls, will see many more 'accidents' as people follow the Council's exhortations to walk or cycle to work. We have the right to expect strategic walking and cycling routes to be identified and treated in the same methodical way as the strategic routes for motor vehicles.

PS - It seems the Evening Post take a similar view.  Oh dear.

Saturday, 2 January 2010

The Centre - Alternative Routes

The proposals to restrain general traffic passing through the Centre will inevitably have knock-on effects for other parts of the road network and it will be the capacity of the wider network to absorb displaced traffic that will limit what can be achieved in the Centre. That is not to say that all the displaced traffic will have to be accommodated elsewhere. Some displaced car trips will be made by other modes instead and some will not be made at all, but a proportion of displaced trips, particularly those made by vans and lorries, will still need to be accommodated somewhere.

View City Centre changes - Dec 2009 in a larger map

The map above attempts to identify the alternative routes that will bear the brunt of the displaced traffic. As well as taking out the option of linking from Baldwin Street to the Centre the map shows Prince Street Bridge as closed to motor traffic as is already planned to accommodate the Ashton Vale BRT. The net effect is that journeys by car, van or lorry between the Clifton area and the south of the city become very constrained compared to what is currently possible. There will be almost no practical means of passing between those areas between the Cumberland Basin to the west and Newfoundland Circus (Cabot Circus) to the east.

In the south to north-west direction it appears that a couple of other routes will remain open (shown light blue on the map) along sections of one-way street, via Union Street in Broadmead and via Small Street and Nelson Street (although this latter is very circuitous). Union Street is frequently congested anyway and is an important bus route so it's unlikely that extra traffic can be accommodated there. In the other southbound direction one or two routes are possible but so circuitous as to be impractical, except perhaps the Bridewell St - Pithay route shown yellow which I suspect will need to be closed off to prevent it developing into a major rat run.

Elsewhere we can see that Park Street will become less attractive as a through route since it will lead only to St Jame's Barton, which can be reached more directly via Park Row - Marlborough Street. Indeed this might pave the way towards closing Park Street itself to motor traffic and diverting traffic via Jacob's Wells Road, but that's another story. Clearly Park Row - Marlborough Street will take displaced traffic and given how congested that corridor already is that must present problems.

From St James Barton round to Newfoundland Circus, Old Market (above) and Temple Circus will also take displaced traffic. In addition this is the planned route of the BRT going anti-clockwise around the city centre so there are more capacity issues there. Something has to give if these changes are to be pushed through. That something should not be the economic vitality of the city and we have to recognise that motor traffic, particularly commercial van and lorry traffic, has an important role there.

So that just leaves the private car, the elephant in the room that we all know is the root of the problem but few will dare criticise directly. Yet the relative ease with which cars pass around the city must change quite dramatically if any real improvements in the quality of the urban environment are to be achieved. Politicians like Jon Rogers have the unenviable job of trying to persuade a population, wedded to a myth of personal freedom through car ownership, of this simple reality.

Friday, 1 January 2010

All Change at the Centre?

We've been hearing rumours for a while of plans for some radical changes to traffic patterns around the Centre and Bristol City Council decided to slip the controversial announcement out in the doldrums between Christmas and the New Year. Both the Evening Post and BBC picked it up, followed by a story on bike news site Road CC. The Post story attracted over 200 comments which is pretty good for the middle of a national holiday so they've run it for two more days. The proposals are shown in some detail on the map below (click to enlarge).

 The essential elements of the proposal are that Colston Street and Baldwin Street will be closed to general traffic (except buses and cyclists) at their junctions with the Centre (St Augustine's Parade, Broadquay and Colston Avenue) and the only route through the Centre for general traffic will be north-south (shown east-west on the maps) from below College Green through to Lewin's Mead. Movements via Baldwin Street will not be possible except by circuitous local links. In addition the ends of Denmark Street and St Stephen's Street will be closed off to all traffic to eliminate potential rat runs and further improve the pedestrian realm. The effect of the proposals is more clearly shown on this map.

The Council are consulting on the proposals and to their credit have adapted their 'Ask Bristol' site to become what is in effect a Wordpress blog enabling comments to be posted, viewed and even commented on in turn, in the familiar manner. So far the response to the blog style approach seems to be positive and it's certainly far more engaging that Ask Bristol's previous highly controlled nods towards public engagement.

Comments on the proposed Centre remodelling are predictably mixed and often polarised. Some think the Centre should revert to a glorified traffic roundabout as it was in the 1980s while others think the current proposals far too tame and unambitious. My view is that these are basically sound proposals that strike the right sort of balance between the need to reclaim more of the public realm from the car and the need to accommodate a reasonable level of vehicular access.

Of course there is much more that can and should be done but in reality these things need to be carried through incrementally so that they can bed in and we can all adjust. Too much change in one go will provoke a backlash (and we get a taste of that from the BEP comments) and undermine the longer term objectives. We want to make as much progress as possible but there are limits to how much change people will accept before things get nasty and I suspect these proposals are pushing at that limit already.

The closure of Colston Street in front of the Colston Hall (above foreground) will allow for the creation of a kind of Piazza and complement the work to upgrade the Colston Hall itself. The closure of the end of Baldwin St will remove much of the existing traffic in Baldwin St and even in Park St since Park Row will generally provide the most direct route towards the south and east of the city. Pedestrian movements from the Centre towards the Old City (Corn St) and Broadmead will be much less interrupted by traffic flows into Baldwin St.

The Closure of other streets that currently connect to the Centre, like Denmark St and St Stephen’s St will improve pedestrian permeability and safety and bring those streets into the Centre 'ambience' and perhaps improve trade for businesses in those streets. Restricting the main north-south St Augustine’s Parade traffic to two lanes will allow for reasonable access but discourage through traffic and so minimise the impact of the remaining traffic. This could be complemented by making the whole Centre area subject to 20 mph limits to reduce potential conflict with pedestrians.

There is clearly much detailed work to be done to refine the proposals, for example in terms of accommodating cycle movements and providing priority crossings for pedestrians, but the big battle is to get the main thrust of the proposals accepted. As with the 20 mph proposals, we can play an important role in bringing that about. The Ask Bristol site gives us a suitable platform so let's all give Jon Rogers the support he deserves in trying to bring these much needed changes forward.