Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Cycling City: The Grim Reality

When Bristol won Cycling City status last year most cyclists were overjoyed, imagining that the investment of £23 million of public money would make all their dreams come true, but of course there were doomsayers, notably me, who warned that Bristol City Council simply didn't have the competence or the "culture" to do anything worthwhile beyond lining the pockets of the legions of consultants and Quangos who cling parasitically to all publicly funded projects.

It's too early to say "I told you so" but we can say "what you see is what you get". Here's an example (above) from the long established designated cycle route through St Philips where it passes under the railway. Because the road is closed to motor traffic it becomes neglected by the authorities, off their radar. They drive around and see what drivers see, not what cyclists or pedestrians see. An example of the "cultural" issues that need to be addressed if Bristol is to be a Cycling City.

Here's another (above), this being part of Sustrans' National Cycle Network NCN3 near Callington Road in Brislington. Again it seems that 'off-road' means 'off-radar' as far as the authorities are concerned. And what are potential cyclists going to think about the status, safety and attractiveness of cycling if this is presented as an exemplar for cycle routes?

The current proposals for Cycling City identify this "traffic-free" route above, lurking under the M32 viaduct and blighted by constant noise and pollution, as proposed for "new infrastructure on existing network" and worthy of "enhancement". Any ideas? Short of wholesale redevelopment of the corridor it looks like a dead loss to me. This route is an "alternative" to Stapleton Road. So what's wrong with Stapleton Road itself? Why shouldn't it be a safe and attractive route for cyclists? If the object of Cycling City is to promote cycling in a positive way, shouldn't cyclists be seen to take pride of place on our main thoroughfares where everybody can see them, not diverted onto seedy back alleys?

Further along the same route we find an example of what can only be called "incompetence" on the part of highway engineers. Isn't it a no-brainer not to place black steel posts in the middle of a black-top road? It certainly wouldn't be permitted or even contemplated if motorists were using the road, for fear of the consequences of the all too likely collisions, especially in conditions of poor visibility, but if it's a road just for cyclists and walkers then such basic safety considerations are forgotten. Why?

Another example of the same "thinking", or rather lack of it. This cycle track (right of the white line) is part of the Cycling City "new infrastructure" along Easton Way leading to the M32 subways. The new traffic lights on the M32 roundabout are controlled via this box. So where to put it? In the middle of the cycle track of course. And for good measure let's paint it mat black so it's difficult to see at night. Job done. Yes, these people actually get paid for doing this! The message? Lack of intelligence or common sense need not hold you back. Just apply for a job with Bristol City Council.

This is how it should be done (Grove Road, Redland), and how it is done when those poor vulnerable motorists are involved, who must be protected from even their own stupidity, not to mention that of highway engineers. No expense is spared in making obstacles in the road conspicuous - lighting, kerbing, white lining on the road, white and yellow bollards of collapsible plastic to minimise the consequences of a collision. But look at the cycle provision - fine in principle but look at the levels and the sharp turn required to clear the parked vehicles. Again an inherently dangerous design for anyone foolish enough to try to cycle through the approved gap rather than just going against the no-entry signs.

Finally subways, of which quite a large number are being incorporated into the Cycling City route network. This example is at Hengrove Way but is typical of many in Bristol that cyclists are expected to use because the road junctions above are not managed in a way which is consistent with safe cycling. The picture speaks for itself.

So it seems that there are fundamental problems with the "culture and competence" of Bristol City Council itself which have to be addressed if anything worthwhile is to come out of Cycling City. Progress towards that fundamental change is not yet out of the question since Cycling City still has two years to run and the new Executive Member for Transport and Sustainability, Jon Rogers, is taking personal charge. As a cyclist himself he seems to appreciate the need for a root and branch reform of the Cycling City project and a review is currently underway, but he should not underestimate the resistance to cultural change within his own council.


Noel said...

Oh my, is that actually a television in a puddle under the bridge? It must be traffic calming so as to slow one down before the sharp blind turn up the narrow glass-strewn shared pavement into the showcase carpark.

Chris Hutt said...

Yes, it's a TV and someone's written "weapon of mass distraction" on the screen! You see, you get a wittier class of traveller on cycle routes. Maybe it's an art work? I'll add a pic of the front view.

Ben S said...

Another excellent post Chris.

I cannot believe that the crack alley behind Stapleton Road is seriously being considered as a suitable cycling route. I have lived, worked and played in Easton/St Pauls for decades so am braver on my bike than many, but I would avoid that route if at all possible. I know several people over the years who have been mugged, or subject to attempted muggings, along that path.

I know I should do the research myself, but: how can someone with limited time, but a lot of drive to be involved, influence any of this decision making? Are you on any committees or anything like that? Are there consultations out there that I should be completing?

And I'm sure I have said it before but I will say it again - love the blog, keep up the good work.

Chris Hutt said...

Hi Ben, thanks for the comments. You highlight an important issue for all of us. We want to do something to raise the level of awareness and debate about these issues, but find the "official channels" about as productive as cycling on soft sand (which Sustrans' NCN 33 does at Burnham - Brean by the way!).

I've wasted a lot of time in consultative meetings over the years and have come to the conclusion that they are there to contain and control the energies that might otherwise threaten the status quo.

But don't despair. You can put your points directly to the horse's ear, as it were. Jon Rogers insists that he wants to remain open and accessible, so why not email him directly - jon.rogers@bristol.gov.uk - or try your local councillors (same email format). They are there to serve us (and they get well paid for it these days).

If you keep each email to one point, clearly titled, Jon or whoever will probably forward it to the appropriate officers. You can be sure that your points will get more serious attention that way.

If we all do that it will make a difference and needn't take a lot of time.

green tomato said...

Also Ben you can join bristol cycling campaign

Noel said...

I've been wondering the same thing really. Although I have my best ideas on what is wrong with the current 'farcilities' and networks when I'm actually out on my bike. By the time I get home I've forgotten all the important bits and I've nothing to say. I have a terrible memory. I really should take my camera around with me 'Bristol Traffic' style.

I think the best thing is for whoever is in charge to actually get on a bike and spend a few days riding around Bristol with a bunch of real cyclists. Let them experience the roads and existing cycle facilities first hand. They need to know that a few token lanes here and there does not make a cycling city.

Are they going for a real "cycling city" with this money or are they just spending some money on some crap token cycling facilities? This is the real question. If they arent going to go the whole hog then whats with the pretentious "Cycling City" title? Its really just "Some money being spent on a few cycle lanes City".

So when the money gets spent the way the council really wants to spend it, to fuel their own agenda such as bendy buses and whatnot, whilst claiming its "for the benefit of cycling" how is that title really going to look? And when the evening cancer gets in an uproar about whats been done on this road or that, everyone can stand up and point at the cyclists and say "its their fault". Its win win for the council, free money to do with what they want as long as they make it look like a benefit to cycling and a scapegoat to blame when it gets criticsm.

Cycling city? It will be a little less Assen and a lot more ass!

...Sorry, I guess I do have a few things to say when I get home after all.

Thomas Guest said...

Thanks for this post Chris.

Unfunnily enough I was cycling from St Philips to Montpelier a couple of nights ago, right past the TV in a puddle you've photographed. You can do the whole route on cycle tracks, many of which are car free, but it's half as long again as using St Philip's Causeway, and generally a very sleazy experience.

I have two young children. They are capable enough bike riders but too young for me to trust them on the busy Bristol roads. With a bit of effort, off-road cycle tracks can be found, but much of the time they are about as attractive as your pictures suggest.

The picture isn't completely bleak, though. The recent-ish redevelopments of Broad Quay, Queen Square and generally around the harbourside have made some space for cyclists alongside pedestrians.

Anonymous said...

Dear lord. I cycle pretty much everywhere, yet never knew that route behind the M32 existed. What a stupid place. Although is does explain where all the kiddies on 'their' bikes vanish off to. Great blog. Keep it up. Quite how people can manage to keep up this standard in their spare time when the can't manage it even though it does it full time is beyond me.

Anonymous said...

It was meant to say Post in there somewhere...

WestfieldWanderer said...

Chris Hutt said: "Yes, it's a TV ... Maybe it's an art work? ..."

That'll be the Sustrans contribution, then. They're particularly adept at "king's new clothes" style "art-works".

A lot more adept than creating viable cycle routes. That's for sure.

Anonymous said...

further on from the black box on easton way is the fantastic matte black lampost that they felt compelled to place right in the middle of the path.

another favorite is the cycle islands into the tunnel at St Werburghs, since this will now form part of the super highway they are creating perhaps they'll rip these up and start again?

Jon Rogers said...

Hi Chris and everyone

The officers have not been idle. This came through this afternoon...

1. Avonmeads TV-Obviously somebody has illegally fly tipped in this location. The land ownership issue has never been properly resolved when the Spine Road and Avonmeads was built.

The land is not adopted highway nor within the ownership of the council however we will arrange for Cleansing to remove the television."

2. Callington Road - We have an appointed contractor who inspects every fortnight.

However again it would seem as though somebody is intent on causing damage and obstruction illegally.

We will arrange for the trolleys to be returned to the supermarket from which they originated.

3. Frome Route - I note your correspondent`s comments about the environment of this route which can't really be addressed without the complete removal of the M32 which is obviously not an option.

With respect to his comments about why don't more people cycle on Stapleton Road rather than use the Frome Route we know, based on evidence, that certain groups may find traffic free routes more attractive than on road routes.

This would seem to be borne out by count data for the Frome route which show approximately 700 pedestrians and 450 cyclists are using the route in this location.

Stapleton Road is currently under review as part of GBBN and we know from evidence elsewhere in the city that improvements for buses have resulted in increasing the number of people cycling.

4. Fox Road Barrier-The reason for the installation of this barrier, some years ago, was to deter vehicles from trying to use this route or worse be dumped on the route causing obstructions.

We are not aware that it has caused problems for either pedestrians or cyclists in being able to see it and avoid collision with it.

5. M32 J3 black boxes-This would appear to have been an error on our part in that these street lighting feeder pillars were not relocated as part of the signalisation works for the M32 J3.

We have issued an instruction for them to be moved into the adjacent verge.

Have a good evening


Chris Hutt said...

Jon, thanks for taking the trouble to come back to us with those comments. I'm pleased to note that some of the problems will be dealt with.

However the examples shown were not unique but typical of many others that anyone cycling around Bristol on off-road routes will encounter regularly, as I think other people's comments on this thread confirm.

In relation to point 3 - the Frome route, the point that I'm trying to make is that if so many people are looking for alternatives to cycling or walking on the Stapleton Road when that is the most direct and convenient route then there is clearly something wrong with the management of traffic on the Stapleton Road.

The same could be said for most of our traditional arterial roads. In general traffic speeds are too high and on-street parking restricts the width available for motorists and cyclists to pass each other safely. Diverting cyclists onto back-street routes is not the answer.

As for the claim that GBBN (bus network) treatment leads to increased cycling, I really think we should be asking to see solid evidence for this. As far as I am aware there isn't any.

What's more it's self evident that bus lanes take a lot of available road space which might otherwise be used to allow more space to cyclists and motorists to pass safely. They are a mixed blessing for cyclists.

Thanks again for your feedback.

Anonymous said...

We in Bristol Traffic celebrate Chris's tour of the parts of the city we don't always get to visit, though he appears to be more negative about the experience than our commentary, which always strives to be upbeat.

St Philips: the main problem with the back routes is that it takes forever to meander in and out the parking lots, until you eventually hit the bike-lane-of suicide that directs you under passing vehicles.

M32. No nice way over at night. Removal of that road -or at least turning into a bike lane- would be a nice option, sarcastic comments from council staff notwithstanding.

Gloucester Road. There is more bike traffic on it, though we cannot say the GBBN is the cause, as causality is hard to measure. If it has seen a growth in traffic above all unenhanced routes, then maybe it could get credit. The new riders tend to be unfit, hence their tendency to run red lights. They use it as a substitute for speed.

David Hembrow said...

Are they really seriously suggesting cycling on the sand between Burnham and Brean ? I used to live in Burnham and tried when I was younger to cycle that very route. It's just about possible on wet sand where the tide has just gone out, but you can't ride on dry sand. Also, you have to cross dry sand to get to wet sand, the wet salty sand does horrible things to your chain, and you can forget it altogether with narrow tyres...

Anyway, the examples you give are just awful. No consideration of social safety at all, so no-one but the brave would consider using them after dark - or even in the day time for that matter, and from what has been said it would seem they're not direct either.

Even the beeb noticed a few days ago that litter feels unsafe.

I like the slogan on the tele, though.

McD said...

Well done for bringing these issues to attention Chris.
As you say in response to the comments - these examples are certainly not unique and it is good that your blog has resulted in some action. However, unless the general public report such problems you're going to have your work cut out addressing them all through your blog.

One of the problems is that there is no easy way of reporting such problems and tracking what happens about them. The successful Cycling City bid includes in section 4.1.2 A major enhancement to the cycle infrastructure in Bristol
“Early establishment of a pro-active cycle network management regime. This would include setting up a fault reporting hotline and a rapid response network maintenance scheme (both on-street and off road, including NCN routes) at the start of the project;”
Has the project started yet?

Another issue is that to get anything done there are so many different departments involved and historically no-one to co-ordinate it. Emails are frequently un-answered – telephone calls cost us money and take time – and we get no record of what has been reported. At the Cabinet Meeting on Cycling City one of the councillors said that this was a new opportunity for a cross-department initiative – joined-up thinking and action so that all departments were actively supporting the objectives of Cycling City.

I intend to raise the lack of a fault reporting system at the 26th April Bristol Bike Forum. Meanwhile I would urge all citizens to persevere and take the trouble to report any problems that they encounter and if they want action prior to a proper fault management system being put in place to join the Bristol Cycling Campaign and let them know. Once we get a system for reporting then we can chase action across the whole city.


Chris Hutt said...

That's very helpful information McD.

I guess one way of tackling maintenance issues is to publicise a dedicated contact number and website on signs at the locations where most problems occur. However such a system would rely on there being sufficient users of the route prepared to go to the trouble of making the call. I wonder if there are.

I don't want to have to post every single incidence of an abandoned trolley or whatever on the blog. That would be a permanent job. I'm only trying to give an indication of a widespread problem that isn't being adequately addressed.

However I must report one positive thing. The contractor who looks after the Callington Road path (behind Tesco)actually had the initiative to ring me up this morning and ask if I knew anything about the supermarket trolley that he'd been asked to clear! That proves that there are people out there who do care and from what he said it was obvious that he takes his responsibilities very seriously. In fact I felt a bit miserable about publicising it since it was clearly an unfair reflection on the diligent work he does.

Anonymous said...

"....removal of the M32, which is not really an option..."

This has been done, admittedly in a more civilised country than ours - judge for yourselves.


Chris Hutt said...

You're right to say that something should be done about the M32. It's a hideous scar through Easton and St Pauls. Sticking cycle paths under its grim shadow is hardly the answer.

Even with the highway as it exists the adverse environmental impact could be mitigated by reducing traffic speeds. This would reduce noise and pollution at a stroke.

Then some sections could be covered over with what would be in effect very wide bridges, so creating attractive links between the communities on either side and space for recreational facilities.

That's an expensive option of course but if motorists want a high speed link cutting through inner city communities then they must pay for the necessary mitigation, with tolls if necessary.