Friday, 13 July 2012

Bristol, Bath, Brighton, and the continuing work of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain

Slightly revised version of a post previously published on my WordPress site. Comments could not be transferred, unfortunately.

I am afraid I have not kept this blog much up to date with recent developments, though I have been busy attending things relevant to cycling: the Cycling Embassy AGM held in Bristol in May, the Cycling Cultures report launch at the University of East London, and meetings discussing the preliminary results of TfL's junction reviews. I will give some thoughts arising out of the first of these today.

Despite having been born and brought up in the south-west quarter of England, I had never actually been to Bristol, and I had never seen the "flagship" National Cycle Network route, the Bristol to Bath bike path, so all this was very interesting. The Cycling Embassy group were shown not only the Bristol to Bath path, the full length of which we cycled, but also the work on the Two Tunnels cycle (and walking) route within Bath, which will, eventually, link the B2B path with new suburbs..

Cycling Embassy folk arrive at Bath on the one hot Saturday we have had his "summer"
The long blocked-off entrance to a railway tunnel in Bath that should soon be part of a magnificent cycle route
Brand new bridge forming part of the Two Tunnels Greenway, Bath
This awkward crossing of a road on the Two Tunnels Greenway will soon go in favour of a bridge
Good junction treatment where the Bristol to Bath route crosses a minor road (but the vegetation could do with cutting back)
Refreshment stop on the Bristol to Bath path
Later in the day, after the AGM itself, we were shown around Bristol town centre by Steve Melia, who explained how the area had been change to favour walking and cycling in recent years, and went into proposals for further reducing motor traffic in the centre and the politics of this change. The meeting extended over a whole weekend, and on the Sunday there were two further bike trips round Bristol and its environs, both led by Joe Dunckley. The first explored cycling conditions in the northern suburbs and some of the established and developing routes (other than the B2B path), and the second took us to some new places including scenic views of the Avon gorge.

Steve Melia (left) explains proposals to further limit motor traffic in the centre of Bristol by restricting the use of the bridge in the distance
The Clifton suspension Bridge by Brunel, from the riverside path
Having been clueless about Bristol's cycling credentials before, I was very impressed. Here was a town that does have some natural advantages in generating a cycling culture, such as a compact, historic centre and a large student population (though, as a proportion, nothing like as large as that of Cambridge, Oxford or York), but also some disadvantages: severe hills, severance by big roads, and suburban residential, commercial and industrial sprawl. Yet the level of cycling was impressive, and the progress made and being made to facilitate that cycling through real and sometimes controversial infrastructure change not insubstantial.

Not particularly smart or expensively-designed, but this is Shared Space in Bristol that is genuinely shared because most motor traffic has been excluded. Contrast with London's failed Exhibition Road scheme.
Rather magnificent new bike path in the northern suburbs of Bristol
Part of the Concord Way route, North Bristol
The Concord Way route passes under a big road here. The space is insufficient, but at least a properly-connected and continuous largely traffic-free cycle route has been provided, a great rarity in the UK
Decent space for cyclists and pedestrians side by side through Castle Park in central Bristol
Sensible design of main road segregation continues the route over a bridge
If Bristol had the student proportion that Cambridge or even York has (which it could not have as it is a bigger, more diverse place, I am sure if would be far and away the leading cycling city in the UK. It may justifiably make that claim even now. For the basic fact about Cambridge is that relatively poor infrastructure there is trumped by the fact that the students literally have no other possible way of getting around. They are not allowed to own cars: a long-standing agreement between the university and city council ensures this. No other city could replicate this situation. The cycling level is high in Bristol, despite the hills, because the cycling infrastructure is the best in the UK. By "cycling infrastructure", I mean this to be taken in a broad way: not just specific bike paths and lanes, though these make a significant contribution, but also the measures that have been taken to control motor traffic both in the centre and in some suburban areas. We tend to regard the "centre of gravity" of cycling in the UK as being in the east: well-known cycling places are London, Cambridge, Peterborough, York and Edinburgh. But towns and cities wishing to become more cycle-friendly probably should look at Bristol more than any of these. Britain's cycling centre of gravity is here, in the west.

Bath is fairly cycle-unfriendly at the moment; the B2B path is not satisfactorily connected to the town centre, the riverside path that is supposed to have that function being far too narrow, and the on-road alternatives hostile. But the local authority is progressive and with Sustrans is working hard, and it looks like the Two Tunnels Greenway will be a huge breakthrough. Even without a good  connection to Bath town centre, the Bristol to Bath path is absolutely at capacity, and urgently needs to be widened (or have alternative routes built to take some of the pressure off). We were accompanied on the ride on the path by a Bath councillor, the city's "Cycling Champion", and he recognised this. The path is a victim of its own success, and is generating the need for more investment on cycling infrastructure elsewhere. He made the legitimate point that, due to shortage of available funds, it was hard to decide whether the existing path should be improved or developments made elsewhere. This is not a choice that really should have to be made.

Bristol to Bath path in Bristol suburbs: cyclists taken clear of busy roads; hugely popular with all ages
The Bristol-Bath path is making a huge contribution to tourism, transport and leisure of people of all ages and walks of life in the area, and that success should be built on. It is typically 3 metres wide, but, as Joe Dunckley pointed out, the whole line of the railway bed is far wider, and in most places it could be widened to 4 or 5 metres at least. There is the problem that the railway is, for a distance between Bristol and Bath, still in place on a single track, operated by steam enthusiasts. Neither the path, nor the railway, can ever be all that satisfactory on this stretch with the other present. This is a conflict that I have seen elsewhere on NCN paths in the UK (in Norfolk). It comes from the fact that we have been relying on these disused railway alignments as our only serious  source of land for inter-town cycle paths, and they are a resource in very short supply. We should be instead thinking about doing what the Dutch do: local authorities there can, and do constantly, acquire land for new cycle paths that are unrelated to the road network, and so suffer no environmental influence from traffic. There is an immense demand for these routes, and the supply, at the moment, is pathetic. This is why, when one path, the Bristol to Bath one, is done reasonably well (though to nothing like Dutch standards of quality), all the world and his wife and their family and dog and horse come to use it.

Where the B2B path enters the suburbs of Bristol, it does not conk out or divert onto minor roads or collide with cycle-unfriendly traffic systems, as do most off-road cycle paths in the UK when entering urban areas. It is carried over motorways and roundabouts on bridges that almost made me feel I was back in the Netherlands, where, of course, high-level engineering totally separating cycle flows from motor traffic is the norm. The original line of the railway did not go properly to Bristol city centre, but new links have now been created within the city to allow you to cycle, traffic, free, all the way there. And when you get to Bristol city centre, there are extensive almost traffic-tree spaces to cycle around in.

Bristol waterfront: a little bit "Dutch"
Yet another bridge for cyclists and pedestrians in central Bristol
Cyclists of all ages come out for business and leisure in Bristol because of the existence of convenient and spacious traffic-free paths and bridges
One of the biggest and most commendable roll-backs ever of inappropriate motor invasion of a historic city centre in the UK  took place in Bristol in 2000 when the Inner Circuit Road, driven diagonally across Queen Square in 1937, was removed, and the square restored to its peaceful, Georgian grandeur, a place for sunbathers, walkers and cyclists, with the occasional delivery by van allowed. This massive change is a signal one to give encouragement to those who believe it is possible to improve our cities and actually make big, popular changes that involve removing traffic. There was great opposition to the removal of the Inner Circuit Road at time, but now nobody in Bristol would have it back in Queen Square. And I suspect this change in modern times had a wider effect on the psychology of the city, and put in train a desire to change even more in the environment for the benefit of people not travelling in space-wasting metal boxes, a realisation that radical things can be done,  that has led to the subsequent improvements to the city centre, and development of some decent (by UK standards) mostly traffic-free routes to the suburbs.

Steve Melia indicates the route of a huge road through Bristol's Regency centre prior to the restoration of Queen Square in 2000. The statue is George III by Rysbrack (1733).
Bristol is certainly not a miniature Amsterdam or Copenhagen (though in places it does resemble them). The standard of the cycle panning and engineering is far off what the Dutch would consider acceptable, and there are still far too many main road barriers, poor crossings, nasty junctions, built-in pedestrian/cycle conflicts, and other issues arising from car-centric planning of the past. But compared to the Borough of Brent it is a bit of paradise. And it is moving visible in the right direction, whereas the London suburbs (with the exception of odd projects like the Olympic Park, which haven't helped cycling either) seem to be set in concrete at Epoch 1970.0, the changes required being so vast that no London borough can contemplate the expenditure that is necessary.

Measuring a cycling and pedestrian path in the northern suburbs of Bristol (local authority: South Gloucestershire) that foolishly tries to contain two directions of cycle flow in 1.3m

Cycle route on a nice new estate at the Bristol Council–South Gloucestershire border foolishly obstructed by a wooden post. It would never occur to me to suggest that this problem could easily be remedied by a couple of men with a hand saw in the dead of night.

Inconvenient low-priority multi-stage design of crossing of cycle route of main road that also is inconvenient for pedestrians and mixes cycle traffic with pedestrians inappropriately

This is not a cycle path, it is just a pavement. Shared use is generally not appropriate in towns.
Near Bristol Cathedral: not too bad a cycle path, but again, to my mind, too much confusion between cycle and pedestrian space in a small area, too much subtlety with the tiny red cycle symbol tile, and a silly (worn-out) "Give-way".

The main purpose if the Cycling Embassy AGM was to decide the direction and strategy of the organisation after its first year of existence, which was devoted mainly to explaining to the world why it should exist at all. Many people have asked me, "Why another cycling organisation in the UK?", but I have not the slightest doubt that the setting-up of the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain was necessary, and, indeed, a long overdue step. The reason was that the UK needed a pressure group to demand, on a national basis, the type of high-quality dedicated cycle infrastructure that is the necessary prerequisite of a mass cycling culture. The existing cycling organisations were not doing this. They were doing many other good things, representing their members, providing services to them, and organising training, and acting as suppliers of services to government, but not this. Or if they were, it was a too low-key and mixed-up message to work.

We needed a body that shouted a single, clear, unambiguous message about cycling "from the rooftops": Mass cycling as transport ain't going to happen in the UK without proper cycle paths and tracks everywhere, in the city, suburbs and countryside. There was some overlap between the objectives of the Embassy and Sustrans, the great charity responsible for the B2B path and other elements of the National Cycle Network, but they were and are primarily a provider of a practical service involving the organisation of volunteers, not primarily a political lobby group, and also, as recipients of large amounts of public (or lottery) money, they could not be regarded as a fully independent force. Also, I think it is fair to say that the founders of the Embassy regarded Sustrans' apparent collective concept of the nature of the cycle infrastructure that the UK required to be inadequate. We felt there needed to be a voice that was (in a friendly, constructive way) critical of Sustrans and of inadequate demands by other cycling organisations.

So that was what the Embassy was about, but what sort of organisation should it be? A membership organisation, a pressure group, a think-tank, or a political lobby? This was debated at this AGM. It was decided that the Embassy should not a membership organisation. It was decided that there is no need for another organisation to compete with CTC and British Cycling to be a provider of benefits (such as insurance) to individual cyclists in return for a membership fee. These organisations do a good job. The Embassy also, it was decided, does not have the resources to be a consultee on whatever problems or schemes need addressing for cycling on a local basis across the country, though we do with to supply good information to local campaigning groups, who are the proper people to advise local authorities as to what needs doing in their areas.

The Embassy, it was decided, should free itself primarily to be the national lobby directed at central government (Westminster and the devolved administrations) for asatisfactory policy, legal backing, and funding for building cycling through provision of cycle-specific infrastructure across the UK, based on best-practice from what has been proven to work in other countries. The Embassy would be a network of supporters who all shared the vision of mass cycling on quality separated infrastructure, with all the huge economic, social and health benefits for the nation we believe that would bring. With a large support base, pledged to support a clear manifesto, it would be possible to go to central government and say "This is what X thousand people think on this subject. What are you going to do about it?"

This is the point. For too long (almost the whole period of the invention of the bicycle, in fact, the British government has failed to provide a lead on how the bike should be accommodated in our country. We have been watching and discussing the successful pro-bike policies of some of our continental neighbours, particularly, of course, the Netherlands, for 80 years, wondering whether or not they could work here, while continuing, in practice, to design-out the bike from our urban and rural environments so comprehensively that the vast majority of the population consider it totally out of the question to attemp to meet the daily transport needs by cycling. In each decade, in each generation, and in each parliament, ministers of transport have insisted that it is "the responsibility of local authorities" to provide for cycling, without giving them the direction, the legislative backing, the powers and the funding to do it. If this attitude had been taken in respect of the nation's railways, its ports, motorways and airports, we would have none – as we have (with precious few exceptions like the B2B path) no effective cycle infrastructure.

We need a change that has to come from the top. Getting this is the huge task that the Cycling Embassy of Great Britain has set itself. Every town, city and rural district in the UK needs to have what Bristol has, but far more, and better, and that won't happen until central government has said loud and clear that this is what they want and provided the cash, freedom and expertise to local authorities to make it happen. That will mean ending the long British tradition of treating cycling as some sort of toy or diversion, but reassessing it thoroughly as universal efficient mass transport for medium-length daily journeys and part of the core infrastructure requirements of a modern advanced nation, on a par with motor, rail, air and sea infrastructure.

It's a long way off. But in Bristol, Bath, and other places, many people are working towards this goal, and, little, by little, in places, it is becoming a reality, and then other places can see how it is done. Brighton (with its Green Party council) has taken the latest substantial step with a high-quality cycle track on Old Shoreham Road that looks as if it will be genuinely useful to many cyclists. As more good examples of working dedicated cycle infrastructure appear around the country, other towns will want the same, and, with the correct policies from central government, a momentum will develop that has the potential to transform the appearance of our towns and the nature of local transport across the UK.

The Cycling Embassy is organising an Infrastructure Safari on bikes for campaigners, planners, politicians, and anyone interested to see what has been achieved in Brighton and Worthing on Saturday 18 August. Sign up to the Embassy (if you have not already done so) to be kept informed, and put the date in your diary. And if you think the Embassy should come and look at cycling developments in your town, then tell us. Don't forget also that the Embassy is organising another study tour party with David Hembrow in Assen, Netherlands, in September. If you want to understand what it is really all about, what the Embassy is actually aiming at, this is the one "must-do" activity. You will see how riding a bike becomes really "as easy as riding a bike" in the correct environment, and why we urgently need this in the UK. We've been discussing this for 80 years. We shouldn't loose any more time.

1 comment:

  1. That is some pretty impressive infrastructure. I did a bike trip last summer and spent some time in London, which wasn't the best riding, but clearly, I should have visited some other cities instead. Maybe for my next trip?