Friday, 27 July 2012

Coventry's hat-trick of Olympic cycling own goals



I have promised to put my Olympic cynicism to one side once the show starts, so here is my one and final blog rant on the subject:

From the conversations I've been having with Coventry City councillors over the last few weeks, it would seem that several of them are genuinely interested in backing more projects to encourage cycling and walking. We also have the new scheme to look forward to in the south-west of the city. So what on earth has gone wrong in the city centre, much of it associated directly with developments for really big games?

Route closures

Thankfully, the general trend in the UK and also elsewhere in Europe is towards providing better facilities for cyclists, so this makes it even more amazing that Coventry has decided to go against this trend by closing a couple of key routes in the city:

Hales Street contra-flow – this street previously had a contra-flow lane, providing easy navigation from the Coventry Transport Museum through to the start of Corporation Street. Now cyclists must take a much longer route round, and this includes an unnecessary hill climb.

Why was the contraflow removed? It seems that Coventry's powerful taxi lobby has taken precedence over cyclists, yet there must be numerous other places where taxis could wait for passengers, so why remove an existing lane?

Some might point out that taxi drivers are always going to be a powerful bunch in the city where their vehicles were assembled, but Coventry’s cycling history should not be forgotten either.

Starley statue -- for the ultimate symbolic insult, the cycle lane which runs past the statue of James Starley, widely credited as being the father of the modern bicycle, ends abruptly onto the newly paved streetscape, with no form of indication about just exactly where cyclists should go, or how they should join the lane if arriving from the other direction.

Broadgate confusion -- technically, according to the council engineer who co-ordinated the project, the lane that runs through Broadgate is actually still open for cyclists. Given that at one end the sign says "pedestrian zone" without mentioning cycling, and the other simply has no entry sign, why would anyone assume that cycling was permitted?

Worse still, when I asked about putting some signage to confirm that cycling was allowed, I was told "oh no, we wouldn't want to do that, the whole aim is to keep signage to a minimum -- less is more".

Unfortunately, this is a terrible case of style over substance, firstly because there is nothing in the shared space mantra that says signs should be removed completely, and secondly because the very stylistic concept of less is more went out of fashion in the early 1980s.

There simply is no excuse for not being able to put a simple blue circle to demonstrate that cycling is acceptable from either end. As signage is there anyway, this would have cost nothing to have implemented if it was done properly from the start.

Parking removed

You would have thought that when around £7,000,000 has been allocated towards improving the streetscape in city centre locations such as Broadgate and Bull Yard, there should at least be a moderate allocation to provide a few more cycle parking stands. After all, the city does want to encourage more cycling, doesn't it?

How much do standard Sheffield type cycle parking racks cost I hear you ask? An individual rack should cost around £30 plus VAT wholesale, but if the council really want to splash out and make it as easy as possible to park, they might want to buy 1000 or so, thus earning a good discount.

However, the installation cost is much more variable -- if done as part of an existing project, there is no reason why each stand should have taken more than a few minutes to install. I think the £70 per installed rack should be a reasonable guideline price, so even the seemingly large number of thousand of them would still only cost £70,000, or just 1% of the overall budget. Where on earth did the rest go? Given that the whole point of this project was to make the city environment more appealing, and that this was entirely about improving the environment for non-car users, the fact that such a tiny amount has not been made available really is completely inexcusable.

For a long time during construction work around Bull Yard, there were two temporary signs -- one for motorcycle parking and the other for cycle parking, yet both spaces were exactly the same -- marked off with a fence, but nothing to attach a bike to. This isn't a problem for a motorbike as they still need a key for the ignition, and they can be further immobilised with a chain. Providing just a space for bike parking with nothing else is utterly pointless, but I was assured at the time that this was just a temporary anomaly, and that I should quit being so facetious. So what has happened now that the work is finished? Motorcyclists now have a long rail they can attach their bikes to, but there is still no designated parking for pedal cycles. Surely there is someone in City Hall who checks always plans and asks why all the bike spaces have gone?

On the plus side, there have been a few extra stands installed in the Burgess next to KFC, but these far from compensate for the ones that have been removed in Broadgate and outside Bull Yard. Cycle parking should be one of the easiest wins, and more racks should be added as usage grows – so why have they been removed? For neatness perhaps – except that in the absence of more stands, people just chain their bikes to the benches, making the environment less pleasant for people who want to sit on them.

Godiva awakes sends the wrong message

Now maybe this is just me, but with the BBC banging on all week about Coventry's great “gift horse” to the Olympics, I can't help but think back to the ancient Greeks and the city of Troy. Lady Godiva was protesting about high taxes, so I'm not sure that if she was around today, she would really want £2 million spent in her name, especially when associated with an Olympic Games that is already 10 times over its original budget by some estimates. This money spent on simple measures like signage and 20mph zones would have gone a very long way indeed.

Let’s hope that with the Games now about to start, we can forget about all the security mishaps, and appreciate the coming together of so many nations. With Bradley Wiggins’ victory in the Tour De France last Sunday, together with the Olympic events, cycling should be on the up.

So once the Games are finished, I trust that the powers that be in Coventry Council start to give a little bit more thought towards how we can deliver a transport network in the city that is as good for people who don’t want to use their cars as it is for those that do.

Why don't cyclists use cycle lanes?

Thursday, 26 July 2012

If Bristol can do it, so can we

Bristol City Council have confirmed that they will be rolling out a programme of 20mph zones across the city.

According to the BBC:

The Liberal Democrat-run council said about 89% of those surveyed in pilot areas approved of 20mph zones. The council said the speed limit would make the roads less dangerous and encourage walking and cycling.
The estimated cost of city-wide rollout is £2.3m and will be funded by local transport budgets.
Other cities, including Liverpool and the university cities of Oxford and Cambridge, the current UK leaders in terms of cycling participation, have also already committed to this limit. In Amsterdam, where the standard speed limit is 20 kmh (about 12mph), there is little other major cycling infrastructure on many streets, as it is not needed.

Well, I have one simple message to the powers that be in Coventry - if they can do it, so can we! Stop tinkering around with un-proven and half-baked junction modifications, stop removing cycle lanes and parking in the city centre and do something that can be applied across the whole city at a very low cost.

Of course, some key arterial roads should have higher limits, and this is why a trunk network of 12 designated radial routes is still needed. Using the Dutch city of Groningen as the best case scenario, you can still have an extensive city wide cycle network which is used for the majority of all trips, whilst also having an efficient network of trunk roads, which Coventry is already well known for. With good design, there is room for both.

Right now, after signage, designation of lower speed limits is one of the best options available in terms of return on investment.

The council has already committed (with central government help) to just under £6m worth of cycling infrastructure between the centre and Warwick University / Canley. So what can they do to make sure the rest of the city isn't left out?
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  1. The first thing to do would be to designate a network of key routes, using what we already have, and to ensure that signage makes them easy to follow. The bike wheel as suggested in the Manifietso is a suggestion for how this might be done, but the key thing is to do it.
  2. The next thing would be to roll out 20 mph zones across the city - no need for pilots, this strategy is proven else where. If Bristol, with a population of 430,000, can do this for £2.3m, then a city like Coventry, which already has several 20 mph zones anyway, should be able to do this for less than that - £1.5m might be a pro-rata figure, but £2m should do it comfortably.
Now the figure of £2m brings me on to my next pet rant, the Godiva "Awakes" project, which is also costing £2m. There has been a lot of talk in London about having a lasting Olympic legacy. So far, all I have seen in Coventry where Olympic money is concerned is lanes and parking removed. I'm not sure that Lady Godiva, known for protesting against high taxes imposed for horse riders, would approve of the money being spent in her name, but that is one for another post. Even if the new Broadgate does look a lot better, there are still some gremlins in Coventry City Council who are sending out the message that they don't like us very much.

Fortunately, a measure like 20 mph speed limits should be hugely popular with parents, whether their kids ride bikes or not, as long as it is done right. Go after pleasing them first, and hopefully those of us who are merely cyclists and not parents can be pleased as a by-product!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Of course cycling is political, but it should always be above party politics



 One of Coventry's city councillors has asked me about my political affiliations. I can make no secret of the fact that as an individual, I am conservative leaning, at least within the British political spectrum. However, the reason for setting up the Manifietso website and blog was to create a platform for better cycling, both here in Coventry, and in any other city that wants to become bike friendly.

Any campaign which is asking for government and other organisations to do things, and every now and then to spend a little bit of money, is always going to have an inherently political element, but there is no need for cycling to be caught up in party political squabbles. 

Consider some of the main schools of thought which drive each of the main political parties, and it is clear that arguments to promote cycling should be able to satisfy all camps:

Labour / Socialist

  • The Labour Party has traditionally been interested in helping disadvantaged groups, and when it comes to road safety, cyclists are amongst the most vulnerable of all road users. 
  •  In terms of social inclusion, cycling is completely free to the participant at the point of use, and the costs of owning an entry-level bike are also extremely low, especially when compared with the cost of buying and running a car. 
  • Car dependent cities create considerable barriers for anyone who is unable to drive -- not just because they are too old or too young, and also not just because of the costs of learning to drive and then of driving itself. There are also many people who are excluded from driving because of medical or other reasons, but who may be able to ride a bike. I write as one of these people myself - I have previously had a driving licence, but surrendered it for medical reasons. Even though these means I qualify for a free bus / Centro rail pass, having a bike means I still have far greater mobility than a pass can ever provide.

Conservative (traditional)

  • Many traditional conservatives have often favoured a planning approach which is skewed towards the private car. Increasingly, they are seeing that this approach is not just out of date, it also makes little economic sense. The economic arguments for encouraging cycling are extremely persuasive, given that bikes cause next to no wear and tear on the roads.
  • Every journey undertaken by bike instead of in a fuel burning car is helping to reduce the balance of payments deficit. 
  • Mile for mile, it is always going to be cheaper to provide high-quality, well used cycling infrastructure than it is to subsidise rail and bus services. 
  • Conservatives often like to talk about personal responsibility, and this is extremely important when it comes to health and fitness. No other form of transport can also provide such a huge physical and mental health benefit, and this far outweighs the risk from accidents. Cycling provision should be developed in tandem with improving the pedestrian realm, as walking and running also convey huge health benefits.

Anti-cycling Drivers

  • If there is any political group which presents the biggest challenge to advocate of cycling infrastructure, it is the driver who insists that motorists are already the victims, and that cyclists are the ones who "pay no road tax" and constantly flout the law. Perhaps we should start by pointing them to what Jeremy Clarkson has to say about cycling in Copenhagen! 
  • The road tax argument is completely spurious -- pedants will point out that there is no such thing as road tax anyway, as Vehicle Excise Duty (VED) is a tax based on the pollution a vehicle causes, not a right to use the road. Cyclists would be zero rated anyway if they did have to register their bikes for VED, as cycling causes no local pollution. 
  • Bikes, together with cycling-equipment and sports nutrition are all subject to VAT at 20%, and given that the average UK council expenditure on cycling at less than £1 per person per year, it is easy to see that cyclists actually make a net direct contribution to the Exchequer. This is before any calculations are made about the external costs per mile of cycling as opposed to motoring (See I pay road tax link above more more on this).
  • However, there is no doubt that we do still have a serious problem with discipline amongst cyclists in the UK. Any pro cycling campaign and who pretends otherwise is deluding themselves. This still needs to be kept in perspective -- by far the biggest offence caused by cyclists is riding on pavements. Why do so many cyclists ride on pavements instead of on the road where they should be? A lot of the explanation for this stems from bad road design.
  • Another very legitimate gripe made by motorists is that cyclists regularly jump traffic lights, and that they are very rarely stopped. My observations from the time I spent in the Netherlands are that pavement riding there is completely non-existent, and that traffic light jumping is also extremely rare. This goes to show that if the right facilities are provided, together with appropriate training and enforcement, cyclists will stick to the rules.


Liberal/Libertarian

  • There is a libertarian school of thought which might ask what business a city has in encouraging more people to ride bikes. Isn't this simply a question of individual freedom of choice? 
  • This argument might be completely valid in the private realm, but transport always requires interaction between different users. Even the richest individuals who own high-performance cars or private jets still rely on public roads and shared usage airports to get around. The libertarian viewpoint simply is not relevant when it comes to strategic planning -- the amount of land available for transport is finite, and the best way to make use of that land is to encourage those forms of transport which take up the least amount of space. Cycling is one such mode. 
  • Any plan of action to encourage more cycling within a particular city must be focused on providing the best quality infrastructure, together with training and promotion programmes to support that development. Although in some cases, road space previously given over to cars will need to be surrendered to cyclists and pedestrians, most of the time, there is enough space for all road users. If the right facilities are provided, then people will naturally choose to ride their bikes -- there should never be any need for coercion!

Green

  • Green politicians will naturally say that they have always been in favour of cycling, although it is by no means their exclusive realm. 
  • The two major environmental benefits of cycling come from reduced local air pollution, together with a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions, when a trip by bike is compared with an equivalent journey by another means of transport. However, any argument aimed at encouraging individuals to cycle more must start with the most fundamental argument of all -- and that is that cycling is fun! After that, tell people how much money they can save by cycling instead of driving, and then talk up the environmental benefits. This is not to belittle the importance of combating climate change, it is simply a way to engage people by focusing on the "what's in it for me" element first. The rest follows naturally.

Naturally, I can only cover a few elements of the political spectrum, but it is safe to say that the pro-cycling lobby is very much a cross-party campaign. 

This doesn't mean that a blog like this won't inevitably be accused of political bias -- this is unavoidable, considering that I am often going to be highly critical of the current state of cycling infrastructure in Coventry, and that the current administration is Labour - controlled. 

However, I am only interested in having a go at what is there because I passionately believe that things can be made better. It is up to the politicians - of any colour - to fix that.