Sunday, 29 June 2008

Cycling city - an alternative response

Just 26 years after I started campaigning in earnest for cycling to be taken seriously as a form of transport, and just 14 years since I finally gave up campaigning in despair (disillusioned, impoverished and with a career in tatters), the government and Bristol City Council have suddenly started to take cycling seriously as a form of transport. Or so it appears, if you believe the hype. But not everybody does. Here's a response published on Bike Radar which expresses the feelings of many who cycle in Bristol, the new flagship for cycling in Britain!

When I saw this in the news I actually became really angry. Seeing Ruth Kelly on the BBC only made it worse!!

Don't get me wrong, I am pleased that these initiatives are being taken, anything that might possibly make cycling on the UK's roads safer and more pleasant needs to be supported. It's just that living and cycling in Bristol on a daily basis means that you see the reality, the horrible cold truth of what Bristol City Council actually does (or rather doesn't), do on the ground, for cycling.

This is a city council that was prepared to support putting a bus route down one of the most used and popular cycling and walking routes in the country. Only after a massive outcry from every quarter did they back down.

Look at the most recent road schemes implemented over the last few years and all you see is really badly thought out, and often dangerous 'provision' for bikes. The new central shopping area, Old Market, Hotwells the list is endless.

Take the cycle access out of temple meads - the main station. there is currently NO facility to get back out and up to the north of the city without putting them slap bang in the middle of some of the busiest traffic in the city. The hugely used footbridge being shut to service the needs of the developers, but with no alternative in place.

An added bonus to this is our local rag (Bristol Evening Post, owned by the Daily Mail!) which regularly attempts to vilify us and wind up the already rabid anti cycling mob with it's shock horror 'lycra lout'

To make out that Bristol Council is capable of creating this cycling utopia based on current experiences stretches my credulity beyond breaking point.As far as I'm aware we have one, yes one! cycling officer to represent us and thats farcical.

Without genuine collective support, understanding and a strong will to actually implement the change needed to make this city's cycle access even remotely safe and cycle friendly we will see nothing but irrelevant signage and half assed painted cycle lanes which will do nothing whatsoever towards making Bristol safe for cycles.

Not much that I can add to that. It seems as if those who swan around in the higher echelons of government and in quangos like Cycling England and Sustrans are curiously detached from the grim realities that us ordinary cyclists have to contend with. Perhaps it's the thought of all the money and prestige they will garner that raises their consciousnesses above the mundane reality of our streets.

Friday, 27 June 2008

Subsidies for car owners?

Bristol City Council are proposing to formalise the system of subsidising car ownership by providing valuable on-street parking spaces at nominal cost. The proposals are presented as Residents' Parking Schemes (RPS), whereby on-street parking in the inner city would be regulated with the particular aim of eliminating commuter parking and providing resources to better manage residents' parking.

In comparison with the status quo, an anarchic free-for-all, the proposals appear to be a step forward. Illegal and obstructive parking should be controlled by wardens funded by the scheme and finding a parking place should become much easier during the day when much of the commuter parking should disappear (or shift to areas without RPS). But as Steve L flagged up elsewhere, the easier availability of parking for residents may encourage more use of cars since using one's car currently results in losing one's parking place and sometimes a long search for another one.

The fundamental effect of the proposals is to make car ownership and use a more attractive option for many. An on-street parking place must be worth in the order of £1,000 per year (around £4 per working day, compared to up to £15 per day with NCP), perhaps far more in those areas closest to the central CPZ (pay and display) area. Yet the Council are only proposing to charge £40 p.a. for the first car parking permit and £80 p.a. for the second. Even a third car permit will only cost £500, still far below a market rate in many areas.

In effect the Council are heavily subsidising car ownership. Households with two cars will benefit the most but the losers will be car free households, who will in effect be funding the subsidy by paying higher taxes than they would if parking was paid for at market rates. In Bristol as a whole 25% of households have 2 or more cars while 29% are car free, but in the inner city areas affected by the RPS proposals only about a fifth of households have 2 or more cars (and less than 1 in 20 with a third car) whereas about a third are car free. That's a third of households, often the poorest, who will be heavily penalised for daring to choose to be car free.

It's worth considering how this impacts on the relative wealth of households in the inner city areas affected. For simplicity let's say that the subsidy is worth £1,000 each for the first two cars and £500 for a third. There are around 1,500 households with 3 or more cars in the proposed RPS area and they will each receive the full subsidy worth £2,500 per year. There are around 6,000 households with 2 cars who will receive a subsidy worth £2,000 per year and around 18,000 households with one car who will receive a subsidy worth £1,000 per year. Then there are around 13,000 households with no car who will receive no subsidy whatever.

The total value of the subsidy to car owners in the RPS area could be over £30 million per year. That dwarfs current expenditure on alternatives to the car within the same area. It also represents a substantial transfer of wealth from the poorest households to the wealthiest. The value of the subsidy also dwarfs the value of all motoring taxes (VED, fuel duty, etc) paid by motorists so even deducting those taxes from the subsidy leaves a massive net benefit to motorists.

One has to ask how this sits with the Council's aspiration to be green, not mention its aspiration to help disadvantaged sections of the community. Perhaps going for market rates simply isn't a realistic political option, but why don't they at least acknowledge that what they are doing is subsidising car owning households at the expense of car free households. The public (and it seems the Council) need to understand that nothing is really free and that market values must at least be recognised as a reference point.

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Bizarre claims

As you would expect Bristol's bid for Cycling City status describes a city that few Bristol cyclists would recognise as their home town. Hype and hyperbole is too be expected, but one claim in particular goes well into the realms of fantasy. Bristol City Council claim that, if their bid is successful, they will have stemmed the rise in car use in just 3 years!

Now I suppose we must look carefully at what the dictionary definition of stemmed is. Collins says that to stem is to stop or hinder the spread of, so Bristol could plead they only intended to mean that they would hinder the rise in car use, but most of us, I think, would understand stemmed to mean stopped in this context. This is a remarkable claim since halting the rise in car use is proving extremely elusive throughout the UK.

For Bristol in particular such an objective, desirable as it might be, seems to be totally inconsistent with all the serious transport studies carried out in recent years, notably the Greater Bristol Strategic Transport Study (which predicts a 34% rise in the number of vehicle trips in the morning peak and an increase in the proportion of journeys made by cars) and the Joint Local Transport Plan. In addition we now have projections for population growth for Bristol City alone of 27% over the next 18 years, double what was previously expected.

I don't want to give any particular credence to the GBSTS or its methodology and there are of course many provisos that must be applied to any projections, including to note that the Greater Bristol area is similar to the old Avon County Council area whereas the Cycling City bid applies to the Bristol urban area (the City and the contiguous built up areas of South Gloucestershire) where traffic growth will be more constrained. But there is such a gulf between the traffic projections being made for the Greater Bristol area and the Cycling City bid expectation to stem the rise in car use in just 3 years that one can only conclude that someone somewhere has become seriously detached from reality.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Bristol marks start of National Bike Week

An important cycle link across the Centre by the Cascade Steps has been closed off to accommodate a promotional display for a sugary drink manufacturer. Only a narrow strip is left open south of the fountains and it looks as if the level access from Broad Quay will be blocked off, forcing cyclists to negotiate steps or take a longer detour. Could be pretty chaotic over the next couple of days!

There are many other locations in and around the Centre where such promotional displays can be accommodated without blocking or seriously constricting such key links for cyclists and walkers. One has to wonder at the thinking of the City Council in selecting this particular location, especially given the start of National Bike Week on Saturday.

This blunder comes on top of the closure of another key cycle link, Valentine's Bridge which crosses the River Avon near Temple Meads station, the main route for cyclists between city centre and the Railway Path. We are told the closure is to enable development of the north bank to proceed. It was originally agreed with the developer that a new bridge was to be in place prior to the closure of Valentine's Bridge, but this new bridge will not now be open until August 2oth. The Council have apparently allowed the bridge closure to go ahead so cyclists will be diverted onto the city's inner ring road to cross the Avon. This decision has been heavily criticised in on-line comments to the Evening Post article.

Saturday, 7 June 2008

Bristol Greenways in crisis

Just as the current plan to convert the Bristol section of the Railway Path (pictured above) to a route for guided buses recedes into the background (conveniently for Bristol's Cycling Demonstration City bid) new threats to Bristol's Greenways emerge .

The first new threat is once again to the Railway Path where teenage gangs are carrying out violent attacks on Path users in the Easton area. Although there has been a history of muggings on this section, the latest outbreak is alarming in its scale and violence, with bricks and baseball bats being used against victims, resulting in many being hospitalised.

These attacks represent just as serious a threat to the Railway Path as the bus route plan. The widespread publicity will inevitably result in a serious drop in use, especially outside peak times, leading to reduced natural surveillance and even more of a sense of isolation and still better conditions for the gangs to operate. Many users recognise this danger and some are determined that this should not happen, but will there be enough of them to counter the appallingly bad publicity?

The second threat to emerge is to the Malago Greenway (pictured below), a route for cyclists and walkers in south-west Bristol following the line of the Malago stream. Although less well known than the Railway Path it is important as a safe and attractive route for many living in that part of the city, as well as being valued as a wildlife corridor, particularly with the adjacent stream.

The threat is once again from a plan for the creation of a Bus Rapid Transit route. As with the Railway Path proposals, there are already signs of strong public opposition to the Malago route, but the BRT promoters cannot afford to lose another route or the whole concept of BRT will become a laughing stock. And the Malago corridor is nothing like as well known outside of south Bristol, so my guess is that this is going to be a tougher battle.

So what's behind this ongoing crisis with Bristol's Greenways? At the root of it is a history of half-heartedness on the part of the
City Council who have never really recognised the importance of such Greenways to local people, at least when it comes to investing the resources necessary to adequately maintain, promote and secure these cycling and walking routes. The fact that they have identified a large part of the Greenway network as suitable for rapid transit confirms this lack of commitment.

It's time for Bristol City Council to make up its mind. Does the city want to foster and develop its Greenway network to encourage cycling and walking, as so many of Bristol's citizens clearly desire, or does it want to let them run down through neglect of maintenance and security issues, coupled with endless threats to their longer term future, to clear the way for their true aspirations for more motorised transport?

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Parking in Bristol

It's obvious to everyone, motorist or not, that car parking is in crisis. From the motorist's point of view it's either too expensive or too hard to find, and from the walker's or cyclist's point of view parking takes up valuable road space that ought first to be allocated to those passing along the road. Increasingly the competition for parking spaces leads to illegal and dangerous parking that obstructs footways and cycle lanes.

Each year such examples of blatantly illegal and, I would say, arrogant parking as those illustrated here (and here) become more common and unremarkable. It wasn't so long ago that pavement parking was unknown, but when it started to appear in Bristol in the 1980s the police failed to stamp it out (when doing so would have been relatively easy) so that today it is so established that the police and local authorities would hardly dare do so.

But parking is one of the key issues that must be tackled if Bristol's aspiration to be a green city is to have any credibility. Clearly walkers are entitled to expect that footways and the main road crossing points are kept clear. Apart from the danger of obscured sight lines at road crossings and actual obstruction of the footway (especially for those with baby buggies or wheelchairs), the presence of vehicles on the footway undermines the status of walking, sending a negative signal when we should be striving to send positive signals.

Cyclists suffer particularly from on-street car parking, not just the illegal sort on cycle lanes but the generality of kerbside parking. Most streets in Bristol are perfectly wide enough to allow a reasonable coexistence of cyclists and motorists, with each being able to overtake or undertake the other, according to traffic conditions, quite safely and without intimidation. But add in kerbside parking on one or, more often, both sides of the road and cyclists and motorists are left to compete for the same limited space, with predictable consequences.

Roads exist to allow people and goods to be moved around safely and conveniently. That should be their overriding function, but in the UK we have allowed a situation to arise where motorists have come to assume that they can use roads for parking their vehicles, for the most part free-of-charge, even at the expense of the safety and convenience of others. That is not the case everywhere - in Japan for example you are simply not allowed to park in the street!

If we are to restore acceptable conditions for walking and cycling this parking crisis must be tackled. The first steps in doing so are clear enough - effective enforcement of the existing rules. But we must go further, challenging the assumption that the street can be used for free storage of motor vehicles. Parking space is a valuable commodity in urban areas, yet for the most part on-street parking is given away free-of-charge. This represents a massive subsidy to car owners at the expense of the whole community, including non-car owners - the opposite of a green tax, more of an anti-green subsidy.