Wednesday, 31 August 2011

"A route system that just works" is reserved for motor vehicles in the UK. The same people simply aren't taken seriously if they want to cycle

So speaks a former Surrey resident, recently moved to Holland, about his experiences of using a bicycle in the Utrecht.

Former unfriendly cycle route

The funny thing is, the UK's road engineers and town planners know exactly how to create conditions like those described in Utrecht. 

Flicking back to Surrey, here's an example in the town of Woking. Pictured left is a rutted canal-side route as it used to look.  

Thanks to funding from the now defunct Cycling England, the route now looks like this.

Money was spent to give the route a better surface and provide clear signage. Importantly, says the council, the route connected to the places where people lived to the town centre and business centres.

And hey presto, Woking saw a 200% increase in cycle volumes along this signficantly cycle-friendlier route.

It's not a huge surprise. Give people good quality routes that go places they want to go. Keep them apart from motor traffic. And more often than not, they start to cycle or walk on them.

I was never really convinced by Cycling England. It always seemed somehow too small and too insignificant to make much of a difference for people who want to cycle in England. And it had a pre-occupation with creating routes with names like 'Pluto' and 'Moon' which always struck me as plain weird. You wouldn't admit to using the 'Pluto route' down the pub.

But now that it's gone, we're left with something called the Local Sustainable Transport Fund, a policy that "grants to provide local authorities the freedom to develop the targeted transport packages that address the particular transport problems in their areas".

The fact is that a lot of local government is either pretty spineless when it comes to the 'transport problems in their areas'. Faced with a population who drives, it would have to be a fairly bold and confident local government that stands up and really tries to give people alternatives for getting about their local area. 

Let's take the canal route pictured above. Part of the route included a humble pedestrian / cycle island to assist walkers and cyclists crossing the a main road. The traffic island gave them a chance to cross the road. It didn't give them priority but it allowed them to continue 'as seamlessly as possible'. Forward-wind and "opposition to the scheme from local drivers in Brookwood resulted in a petition to remove the island. A counter petition was submitted to retain the island, but the Local Committee decided to remove the island which was carried out 12-months after its installation". (the story is rather complex. Google 'fishwick island cycling' and you'll see what I mean)

Alternatively, look at another Surrey town. Farnham proposed two routes for non-motorised traffiic. Both were intended as "a continuous, attractive route for pedestrians, cyclists and those with disabilities that will link the main amenities of Farnham. These include the hospital and health centre, numerous clubs, Waverley Council offices and the station. It is intended for both commuter and leisure use and will be mostly traffic-free. Where roads need to be crossed, vulnerable users will take priority over motor traffic. The new route is designed to make Farnham a more pleasant centre for shopping, eating and entertainment and make it more attractive to tourists. By enabling cyclists and walkers to bypass some of Farnham's worst congestion it will encourage some to switch from cars to healthier and greener ways of getting round the town."

Blimey, I thought. That sounds exactly like the sort of thing that the chap in Utrecht was describing. Safe, convenient, clear routes that give the same sort of status to pedestrians, cyclists and people with disabilities that are already given to other people in motor vehicles. All of a sudden it sounds like here's a council wanting to create conditions that people in Utrecht might recognise. After all, as Vole O'Speed blog points out, it's not impossible for cycle facilities to have priority in the UK. He shows plenty of worked examples here.

But I spoke too soon. "Both schemes have had money allocated either from the Surrey County Council Highways budget or from Section 106 'planning gain'. Unfortunately progress has been minimal and it is looking increasingly likely that these funds will be lost." Surrey County Council has just helped push for the completion of a £371million tunnel not far from Farnham.  There's plenty of money for transport infrastructure projects. But not for cycling.

Brighton's Preston Road. Cycle
route designed to speed up
bus lane not a safe or
convenient cycle route

It seems our local government bodies simply don't think that cycling offers options to all sorts of people and brings its own economic benefits: Many of those same people can be going to many of the same places they go to in motor vehicles for exactly the same purpose.

The reality is that the 'sheer pleasure of riding a machine that just works on a route system that just works' is reserved in the UK for the motor vehicle. Cycling is fitted around the motor vehicle, generally made to move people on cycles out the way of motor vehicles and putting people into third-class facilities that are often dangerously designed.

The cycling route system in the UK very rarely works. It's a route system for motor vehicles with a few patronising tweaks added to give the appearance of a cycling route system. It is by no means a system that works to make it safe, convenient or more sensible to cycle than to drive. And I don't see that changing for a very long time yet. Not, at least, unless movements like the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain really start to pull us cycling types together fast and loudly.

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