Monday, 28 May 2012

Conservative council wants its kids to cycle to school, boost local economy and reduce congestion. Plans three Dutch-quality cycle highways. Shame this is Bournemouth we're talking about, not London.

Cycle highway under construction in Brighton
courtesy: Lo Fidelity bike blog
Last week, the Department for Transport announced it would hand money for investment in various local 'sustaintable' transport initiatives. One of these is in Bournemouth. Bournemouth is a lousy place to cycle. It has a couple of tiny stretches of decent bike track and (except for the summer) you can bike along the seafront.

The rest of the town is utterly car-sick with various 1960s motorway-style roads. Bournemouth has bred a culture where people are so tied to their cars that 48% of work trips under two kilometres are made by car. That's led to a townscape where the car is king and the local paper is up in arms about investment in anything other than more roads and 'unwanted' cycle paths (see here). It has also led to a culture where people are too scared to cycle. For good reason: "Bournemouth consistently ranks in the worst 7 authorities for pedal cycle casualties (per 100,000 population), frequently being the worst in England".

Bournemouth's Conservative council reckons that the town faces a choice. The road network 'is already overloaded', there are problems with traffic congestion, childhood obesity, gridlock on the school run, high road casualty rates. The list goes on.

However, rather than just build more roads, Bournemouth reckons it will get more bang for its buck by adopting a policy to reduce the number of cars on its road, while growing its population and its workforce. It plans to achieve that by getting people out of their cars on to their bikes. Instead of building roads so that people can more easily travel two kilometres in their cars, it is proposing a network of (initially) three cycle highways. What's more, the council has now raised the money to go ahead and, unlike London's cycle super highways, these sound like the real thing:

"The cycle highway will be segregated where possible from traffic but will have priority at side roads and junctions. It is not a footway conversion.The design will be...a 'Dutch style' cycle path on a main road which is suitable for primary aged children to cycle on."

The (initially) three cycle highways will be safe enough for children to ride on so that they can start cycling to school  What's more, these cycle highways actually go somewhere useful, which means people are going to want to use them. This is a very similar strategy to the one being rolled out in Brighton, where a new, segregated bike track is being built explicitly to help kids get to school safely.

And just like in Cambridgeshire and in Wales (which both announced similar cycle infrastructure investments recently), the council reckons that it can use these bike routes to increase economic growth and to increase mobility around the town to work and schools much more cheaply than any other mode. If half of your population is driving less than two kilometres to get to work, frankly, you clearly have a good chance of getting them off their backsides and onto a bicycle. Provided, of course, the infrastructure is good enough.

What's more, the council is very clear that it wants to reduce congestion for car drivers too. The plan is to increase the number of people cycling and thereby reduce the number of people who feel they need ro drive a paltry two kilometres. Result? Less traffic and therefore less congestion.

It's very refreshing to see a Conservative council understand the basic message that it can reduce congestion, make people's journeys faster, improve quality of life and - crucially - improve its economic growth prospects by building proper, meaningful cycle infrastructure. All at a fraction the cost of yet more roads exclusively for faster car journeys.

It's all the more irritating, in that context, to see the Conservative London Assembly Member for Havering opine on his website last week that none of this is relevant for London. Roger Evans thinks the Dutch model isn't 'compatible' with London. He says on his blog here that we might as well look to Littlehampton for leadership. To be fair to Roger Evans, though, he has put much more thoughtful opinion in his responses to comments on his blog. In his original piece, he implies indirectly that the 'cycling' agenda is not compatible with the Mayor's smoothing the traffic flow strategy. The fact is, as Chicago shows us, there's nothing wrong with smoothing traffic flow. Provided you don't use it as an excuse to trample facilities that enable safe cycling. Chicago has got this right by meshing its anti-congestion policy with its pro-cycling policy. London hasn't. You can read more about that here.

I think Mr Evans's original post is fairly misinformed. No-one's asking for Dutch cycle highways all across London. They're also not trying to thwart the Mayor's efforts to reduce motor congestion. They're asking for safe routes and safe junctions to be given EQUAL status to traffic congestion policies, just like they are in Chicago and now in Bournemouth too.

To give him credit where it's due, however, Roger Evans has been much more intelligent in his subsequent comments. He has added comments to his blogpost that I would broadly agree with, including this point: "Personally I am in favour of greater segregation where we can do it. Separate cycle paths remove the understandable fears which come from sharing road space with larger vehicles. This should also be the case at dangerous junctions."

Good. That's one Conservative council getting it right down in Bournemouth. And that's one Conservative Assembly Member getting it right (after some initially awful soundbites) in London. Maybe, after all, things might just be starting to change?