Sunday, 25 May 2008

What are Cycle Houses?

Bristol based architect George Ferguson has proposed the construction of a number of "cycle houses" alongside the Bristol & Bath Railway Path in Easton as part of the redevelopment of the Chocolate Factory. George, never one to understate things, describes this as a "world first" and a "groundbreaking proposal". So what exactly are "cycle houses" and what makes them so different to common or garden houses?

Looking at the plans, we see that these are basically 3 bedroom houses with ground level car parking, but with a bicycle store at 1st floor level, which in turn is linked directly to the Railway Path by a small bridge. Planting will create a green screen between the houses and the Path for privacy, but at the third floor level the living room and sun terrace will overlook the Path. Previous housing developments along the Path (e.g.
Clay Bottom, Brixton Road) have tended to turn their backs on the Path so this more Path oriented aspect is welcome.

But is this sufficient to justify calling these "cycle houses", let alone "groundbreaking" or "a world first"? It's not as if these houses forgo having their integral car parking spaces, nor is the development as a whole anything other than car oriented. And this at a time when the option of genuinely car-free housing is at last being discussed. What better location for car-free housing, alongside what is probably the best example of a high quality urban cycle/walkway in the country, giving easy, rapid access to the city centre and both local and main railway stations?

There is another reason for concern about this proposal. It appears from the plans that the cycle houses will encroach onto the Railway Path land, cutting into the lower section of the embankment. Could it be that the hype around these "cycle" houses is designed to persuade the public to accept this publicly owned land being taken for private development? Were the houses presented as nothing more than 3 bed houses with integral car parking (which is what they appear to be) public reaction to encroachment onto the Railway Path might be rather different.

(For follow up posts click

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Want not, waste not

It's not my area of expertise, but waste seems to be one of the big issues relating to Bristol's alleged greenness, so a few thoughts. We are producing unprecedented levels of material waste, much of it packaging of sometimes dubious utility. The costs of disposing of this waste is rising as attitudes towards what is environmentally acceptable change. It all reflects our growing levels of disposable (aptly named) wealth, so the wealthier dispose of a lot more than the less wealthy, yet what we each pay towards the cost through Council Tax only varies slightly with our wealth and bears little relationship to the amount of waste produced on an individual basis.

The old Friends of the Earth mantra was reduce, reuse, recycle (in that order!). We seem to have completely ignored the first two and focused instead on the last, where the benefits are often marginal. It is so typical of government to ignore the difficult fundamentals and focus on peripheral issues where token gestures can be made. We are endlessly told how much more of our waste is being recycled but rarely told how much more waste we are producing overall, and certainly not how relatively little the amount of non-recycled waste has reduced.

So let's consider a fundamentally different approach, one based on the polluter pays principle. The person generating the waste should pay for its disposal according to the amount and type of waste produced. We all then have a financial incentive to minimise our waste and to reuse and recycle. OK in principle but by what practical means can it be applied? Attempting to charge people at the point of waste collection is fraught with problems and the unscrupulous can easily evade such charges by dumping their waste elsewhere (e.g. in someone else's bin).

But there is another way of charging for waste, at the point of purchase. Yes, all waste is originally purchased with a cash transaction so how simple to add to the price a sum to reflect the likely cost of disposal, not only of any packaging but of the item itself. In the modern world few items purchased are not thrown away within a decade or two, even items of furniture which would once have been handed down through generations are now regarded as disposable.

The beauty of such an approach is that it could deal with the ultimate safe disposal of hazardous waste. Products that contain environmentally harmful materials could attract a larger initial disposal charge at the point of purchase to provide for a suitably large "deposit" to be refunded when the hazardous waste is finally disposed of in an approved manner. Refundable deposits could also boost reuse and recycling rates, as in the old days of deposits on soft drinks bottles. Well, that's my tuppence worth (or twenty pence worth with Advanced Disposal Tax included).

Monday, 19 May 2008

Shared space

There's a new vogue for the concept of Shared Space, apparently pioneered by the late Hans Monderman of the Netherlands. The idea derives from the much earlier Dutch experiments with Woonerven (literally living yards, but now known as Home Zones in the UK). Instead of trying to segregate different road users by physical (footways, cycleways) and temporal (traffic lights) means the Shared Space concept throws them together in an anarchic way and lets them all "negotiate" their conflicting ways by "eye contact".

It works surprisingly well, we are told, at least in the Netherlands. The lack of road markings, signs and priorities means everyone is in doubt about how to proceed through the Shared Space, so they do so slowly and tentatively, looking other road users in the eye to establish that fundamental human contact which at least acknowledges the other person's existence, and by extension their equally valid claim on the space being competed for. Because the approach requires a lot of the clutter of road signage to be removed, public spaces are left looking better.

But a word of caution. The UK is not the Netherlands. We do not have their tradition of respect for cycling or their familiarity with the concepts of sharing space. The attitude of many motorists is that they pay for the roads and they have prior rights over walkers and cyclists, who they see as freeloaders. That attitude is bolstered by continued references to Road Tax instead of Vehicle Excise Duty, even though Road Tax as something specifically raised to pay for roads was abandoned well over 80 years ago and only lasted for 16 years anyway!

In any case, Shared Space is hardly a new concept. Apart from the partial segregation of walkers using pavements (footways), the public highway has always been a Shared Space in principle. The roundabout is an example of Shared Space which is far more common in the UK than elsewhere in Europe or North America, but in most cases they are perceived as hostile to cyclists and walkers. For decades in the UK the pressure has been towards more segregation, often at the request of walkers and particularly cyclists, who look enviously at the extensive networks of segregated cycleways in the Netherlands.

So let's not assume that Shared Space is a panacea for our traffic problems. Without a fundamental change in attitudes on the part of all road users it will simply allow motorists more scope for using their inherent might to assert priority over walkers and cyclists, exactly as has happened over the last century. Not only do motorists need to understand that they have no greater right to road space than anyone else, but walkers and cyclists need to be encouraged to be more aware and assertive of their rights. Perhaps only giving walkers and cyclists prior rights over motorists will restore some kind of balance.

Sunday, 18 May 2008

My toe in the water

18th May 2008, the day I finally take the plunge and set up my own blog. I've been following other blogs for a few months now, frequently posting comments and sometimes testing the host's hospitality. So I thought it was time to sort out one of my own. At the very least it's no more than a personal record of my thoughts and deeds, recorded for my dotage so that I can see that I was once a literate and rational person (or so I now think) and of course something for posterity, to show the future world that I once existed and thought. But I hope this turns out to be of contemporary interest to others too.

But why the Green Bristol Blog you ask? Because I intend to focus on issues that relate to the greenness or otherwise of Bristol, a city that has recently acquired ambitions in that direction. My hope is to inject some observations of the mundane reality into the debate, to help bring people back to earth, so to speak. You will be guessing by now that my approach is going to be a critical one, and so it will be. I make no apologies for that, since I regard criticism as a vital ingredient to any sensible debate. Having said that, I will try to be fair, honest and objective, and it will be open to anyone to comment on what I say, particularly if they think it fails to be all of those things. I am also happy to receive suggestions as to what should be highlighted here.

My focus will be on the way Bristol works for those who prefer to walk and cycle, not just in the limited sense of the availability of routes but in the character, quality and sociability of the environment in which walking and cycling take place. To me a journey on foot or bike should be a positive experience in itself, not just a means of getting from A to B. That is certainly true in the absence of motor traffic, as evidenced by the popularity of walking and cycling on traffic free routes. Of course any motor traffic tends to degrade that and a lot of motor traffic ruins it, but there is still much that can and should be done to make walking and cycling as pleasant as possible, even in an urban environment where motor traffic is inevitable.