Saturday 18 June 2011

Cycling: lets get a little less "eco" about this

Though one tries to be independent as a blogger, and express original thoughts that have not been voiced elsewhere, occasionally a contribution to a particular subject comes along that just has to be highlighted, and basically, just relayed, as it seems to critically elucidate a vital issue which has always lurked just below the surface, with nobody really laying out before where the problem lies.

These are my thoughts on reading this invaluable contribution to the cycling infrastructure debate from David Hembrow. Hembrow lays out a number of common objections to the construction of quality cycle infrastructure that originate in supposed concern for the environment, and shows, though, basically, the application of common-sense, how invalid they are:
I was told as a child that money "didn't grow on trees". However, the one thing which certainly does "grow on trees" is of course trees themselves. Cutting urban trees and replacing them causes only a temporary change.
Eventually, any urban tree will become too large and need replacing. This is an ongoing process in all cities. To bring forward the replacement of a few trees to enable construction of top class cycling provision benefits the environment.
This issue has been floating around in my mind for many years as a campaigner for better cycling provision in London. A shibboleth-like "preservation of trees" argument has so often prevented changes to the roads to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. It has, in my experience, really been a major factor in preventing progress on better streetscapes and urban designs in the UK, because it has been an argument that has tended to be accepted by both "green" campaigners and those who wish to prevent change for the better, hence it has been effectively unanswerable, and the result has been a log-jam in altering the built environment to benefit cyclists and pedestrians. And yet, as Hembrow remarks with childish simplicity "One thing that certainly does grow on trees is trees themselves".

Other areas Hembrow deals with in his post are drainage, and its relationship to laying cycle paths with proper surfaces, and lighting. Another, that, I would add, is "disturbance to wildlife". These are all arguments that have, in my experience, been used to scupper pro-cycling and pro-walking proposals in London. The striking thing is that these arguments are not, typically, used to successfully prevent road-building, road-widening, construction of car-parks or other commercial or industrial development of land in cities. 

Why not? The answer goes to the heart of how our society thinks about cycling and walking. They are not regarded as serious transport. They are not regarded as a seriously productive part of the economy. Hence they are not regarded as a high economic priority (and see this fascinating post on the At War With The Motorist blog on how the economic contribution of different transport modes is currently officially being measured by our Department for Transport – it is horrifying). 

Because of this, infrastructure plans that will benefit cycling and walking are easily derailed by flimsy arguments dressed-up in ecological terms that are really just part of the great local government tradition of "creatively finding reasons to do nothing". In contrast it is widely accepted, by public and politicians alike, that "serious" infrastructure projects like new roads and railways and new housing or industry have to be driven through at the expense of some alteration to the natural environment. The alignment of pro-cycling and pro-walking campaigners, typically, with the wider environmental or green movement, facilitates this status-quo reinforcing situation. They themselves are often genuinely not sure what is "best for the environment" in the long term, with all these competing arguments. And so they too are likely to err on the side of caution, of not wanting to change anything.

Now, don't get me wrong here. I am not arguing for indiscriminately cutting down mature trees here there and everywhere, or casually paving over remote and undisturbed Sites of Special Scientific Interest, or lighting up the New Forest with laser beams (though the last really is what Southampton City Council wanted to do – and for no good reason!) But I am questioning the way competing considerations are often balanced up, particularly in the context of the dense urban environment of London. I am suggesting that the result of this balancing up is often not to produce, overall, long-term, a "green" result at all, but quite the reverse. Some examples, all from north-west London, may help to explain my case more clearly. 

In 2009 I was asked to look at plans for a new section (one of the last to be built) of the "London Cycle Network Plus", in Harrow. This was to be on heavily-trafficked main roads just south of Harrow Town Centre: Kenton Lane, Tyburn Road, and Lowlands Road. Now, in fact, Harrow LCC have a much better idea for where the cycle route E-W through Harrow Town Centre should go, but I am leaving that to one side. This was the alignment of the LCN+ route that the council wanted, on these cycle-unfriendly, not very wide, main roads that basically form a bypass to the town centre, and connecting two gruesome giratory systems, the Northwick Park roundabout and the  Lowlands/Bessborough Road roundabout. The only redeeming feature of this route is that it has some quite nice parkland on both sides of the road.

The plans the officers came up with showed the kind of classic "bitty" mixture of on-road and off-road cycling provision, that I have already criticised as ineffective in this post. They had sections of advisory cycle lane (the kind with dashed lines that motorists are allowed to park in), sections of off-road segregated track, and sections of shared-use path with pedestrians in the parkland by the south side of the road, alternating few times (I can't recall the exact details, and the don't matter) in a distance of little more than 1km. I tried to explain to the officers why this would not work: how short sections of off-road path are not worth cyclists getting on to and off again; how it is safer and more efficient to stick to the carriageway; how, for cyclists not confident enough to cycle on main roads, these little bits off-road will do them no good, and tend to create more illegal cycling. What would work in this location, we (I , the Harrow Cyclists representative and the CTC rep) argued, would be a consistently off-road cycle path (bearing in mind there was no chance that the (then) Conservative-run council would allow the loss of space for cars that mandatory cycle lanes on the road would entail).

The reason they could not do that? Trees. Mature trees in the way, trees that are a distinctive part of the Harrow landscape. Now, these issues are always difficult. These trees are indeed nice ones. This parkland with its trees is indeed a nice feature of Harrow town centre. But only relatively, only because the planners have made such a complete balls-up of the rest of Harrow town centre, covering it with elevated roundabouts, flyovers, concrete multi-storey car parks and cathedralic shopping centres.

Herein lies the rub. In case like this, there has been decades of destruction of the traditional characters of our English town centres by insensitive, commercially-driven, motor-centric planning. Where a little nice bit is left, everybody wants to preserve this. This might also be a good place to put a bike path. But, no, now you cannot alter anything in the landscape to make the bike path practical, because we have wantonly destroyed so much in the past, that now this landscape has to be fossilised. It cannot now be touched. So cycling again gets the back end of the deal. Cycling was not catered for when the big changes to the urban fabric were made, in the 60s, 70s and 80s, and regret at the cataclysmic mistakes of that era now paralyse thinking over optimising what remains. A "preservation mentality" prevents consideration of proper cycling infrastructure, and so the motor-dominated environment created in the late 20th century continues to rule.

A second case: on the border between the boroughs of Brent and Barnet exists a reservoir, variously known as the Brent Reservoir or the Welsh Harp (from the name of a pub which used to stand where the River Brent drained into the reservoir, but which was demolished in the 1970s to make way for the concrete jungle of the Staples Corner road junction). The Welsh Harp reservoir was created in 1835 as a header water supply for the Grand Union Canal. It is today surrounded by a mixture of public open spaces, industrial land, and housing. It is hemmed in with major roads on three sides: the A5, the A406 (North Circular Road) and the A4088. These roads and their major junctions to the west of the reservoir at Neasden and to the east at Staples Corner, which reached their modern form in the 1970s, make the reservoir and its open spaces quite inaccessible by any means of transport, but particularly by walking, cycling and public transport. They also cut off the open spaces on the north side from those on the south side. There is furthermore a lack of paths across these open spaces.

Neasden Recreation Ground by the Welsh Harp Reservoir, Brent: an under-used public space with a lack of suitable paths for walking or cycling, hemmed in behind the North Circular Road, reachable only via footbridges, from one of which this picture was taken. The dam is in the background, with Kingsbury Church beyond.
Looking the other way from the same vantage point: the community-severing A406 North Circular Road

The lands around the reservoir are administered partly by Brent, partly by Barnet, and partly by British Waterways. These bodies are supposed to co-operate in managing the reservoir lands through the Welsh Harp Management Committee. The land at the west end of the reservoir, near the dam, is occupied by various sailing clubs. These have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of limited public access to the reservoir lands. British Waterways will not allow the use of the dam as a walking or cycling route, though it would be extremely useful as such to allow journeys avoiding the horrible A4088 Neasden Lane. The unconvincing argument given for this intransigence is "security" – despite the fact that dams all over the country, and, of course, abroad, are used as walking and cycling routes. The overall effect of this is that the reservoir lands are extremely under-used and do not make the contribution they should to the public amenity of north-west London. People in NW London who wish to find a traffic-free cycle circuit in a park for leisure or family cycling or for teaching kids to ride have to go the south-west London, to Richmond Park, to do this. There is nothing for them in north-west London, an area containing maybe 5 million people.

It was suggested, as long ago as 1994, that a footpath should be created all the way round the reservoir, linking up the severed open spaces (the idea of cycle paths was not around at that time). The idea of a cycle and walking route around the reservoir was again put forward by Brent Cyclists in 2010. This idea has been rejected by the Welsh Harp Management Committee, both on grounds of cost (as usual), but also because it is claimed that cyclists and walkers close to the reservoir would disturb breeding wildfowl.

Now, I don't know what these wildfowl are. I don't know how special there are, exactly where they are, or if it is really true that a walking and cycling path round the reservoir would of necessity disturb them. It has not been demonstrated in detail to me, and so I have my doubts. Could not a path be routed to be sufficiently far from them not to trouble them? If not, could not some land be taken off the industrial premises, that hem the reservoir in quite closely at certain points, to take a path sufficiently far away from them? If these are not possible, and if their habitat must be damaged, could not another habitat be created for them elsewhere to compensate?  Even if none of these things can be done, is it reasonable that the breeding of these wildfowl in the middle of an urban area at an artificial reservoir take precedence over developing low-carbon leisure and transport choices for 5 million people?

Staples Corner. I think the breeding wildfowl are supposed
to be somewhere in the greenery to the right.
Well, is it? It is not an easy or obvious choice, but why shouldn't the reservoir lands be used to try to create pleasant and useful routes for walking and cycling that go a small way to undoing the car-dependency in the local population fostered by this car-centred infrastructure that has been used to hem the reservoir in?  On either side of the Welsh Harp, the concrete jungles of the Neasden junction and Staples Corner testify to the failed urban transport concepts of the Motorway Box era, cutting communities off from one another and forcing everyone into cars in order to get around, creating a brutal environment for anyone who tries to travel under human power. As in the Harrow case, the cause of cycling is stuck between the two apparently immovable barriers that none of this motor infrastructure can be altered now (it would cost far too much), and the bits of space that remain, and happen to have attracted the odd breeding fowl, or grown a big old tree, are considered too fragile to alter.

I think what is going on in these cases is that actually an exaggerated importance is being given to one small aspect of the natural environment as it is, that is being used as an excuse for no change. So there remains no-where to teach children to cycle, and no route to go for a decent walk before having to cross a huge road, that you have to do by climbing stairs up to a desolate walkway, and then down again on the other side, or alternatively by diving down some rank underpass. So the car-dependency is not challenged, so nothing is done to counter the ever-increasing pollution and noise (which can't be doing these trees or wildfowl all that much good). We have an eco-logjam where the small remaining green bits of the city do not seem to be usable for cycling, and Harrow, Brent and Barnet continue to make their disproportionate contributions to global warming. How much good is that doing to wildfowl, either at the reservoir or anywhere else in the world?

In The Netherlands, they do recognise that there is pressure on urban environments, and things are sometimes in the wrong place in towns and cities, and sometimes you do have to create significant temporary disruption in order to move things and re-arrange the urban elements, to create better choices for transport by foot, bike, boat, and even car. They are not afraid of spending money on this, and it doesn't seem to cause them big political problems, or problems with an ecological or preservationist lobby. Why not? Are people there just used to taking a broader, more longer-term, more holistic view of the issues?

Back to north-west London, and a third and final example, which demonstrates another type of problem that often confounds attempts to create off-road cycle routes in our cities. If we can't have a decent-length cycle route round the Welsh Harp, what about having it a bit further east, on Hampstead Heath? Well, Hampstead Heath is ruled by the Corporation of London, though it is geographically in the boroughs of Camden and Haringey. The Corporation is not a democratic body: it consists of City-types "elected" by the bosses of City firms. Why should they govern this area of open space in north London (and other scattered open spaces, such as Queen Park in Brent and West Ham Park in Newham)? Well might you ask. The reasons are diverse historical hang-overs, not good ones. Mrs Thatcher gave Hampstead Heath to them when she abolished the GLC. Anyway, they run the heath through their Heath Management Committee, which is advised by their Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee. This latter body is dominated by local residents groups, which consist of the wealthy owners of large houses which abut the heath. They are the people who make the roads around Hampstead, Highgate and the heath congested and dangerous for cyclists when they are in their cars, but, when they want to go get out of their cars and go walking on the heath, they consider it rather as most people do their back garden. They do not want to meet cyclists there.

Some limited shared-use paths for cyclists, which do not connect very well, were introduced on to the Heath by the GLC and preserved by the Corporation. There has been an endless campaign by Camden Cycling Campaign, occasionally abetted by Sustrans, to try to get more useful cycle paths on the Heath, which has been blocked down many years by the Hampstead Heath Consultative Committee and the Heath and Hampstead Society. This amenity group contains people very wedded a fiction that they decorate with the Latin title rurs in urba, drawn from the 19th century act that brought the Heath into public ownership, that means that the Heath is considered to be a bit of the countryside in the city. I have pointed out to them that if it really was countryside, they wouldn't be able to walk all over it, but this doesn't seem to cut much ice with them. They claim that cycling is too dangerous on the Heath, that more of it it would result in lots of injured or dead pedestrians (but why doesn't the existing cycling do this?), and that the paths are too steep and too narrow for cycling. They claim even if more cycling did not cause injuries, it would worry pedestrians and put many off from using the Heath entirely.

Many of the people who argue like this want to remove cycling from the Heath entirely. The often say they are "pro-cycling", but that they believe the cycle paths should be on the roads surrounding the Heath. These roads are of course narrow arteries full of large volumes of fast traffic going round the Heath. The Heath is even crossed by two busy roads: North End Way and Spaniards Road, but this does not seem to alter their rurs in urba concept, whereas, apparently, connected cycle paths would shatter it. Obviously they have never been as far afield as Richmond, or even Hyde Park.

One answer to the claim that the shared-use paths are too narrow is to suggest building new, dedicated cycle paths. But this suggestion drives these self-appointed guardians of the Heath to a new level of fury. The Heath should not be urbanised, they say. It should not be "covered in concrete", and it should not be made part of the transport network. Cycle paths would be the thin end of the wedge. The next thing would be motorways and housing estates being built on the Heath, destroying its delicate habitats, ruining it for everyone. This is exactly what the Heath and Hampstead Society, they say, has been fighting for 100 years to prevent.

Again, a "preservation of the natural environment" argument is very dubiously used to prevent the creation of useful cycle routes: places where families with children could cycle without quickly coming the the end of the path and a barrier created by a fast, busy road; places where children could be taught to cycle. In this case, the argument is clearly hysterical and used by those who are more motivated by their own narrow local interests than a broad environmental agenda. A compounding factor is the lack of democracy in the governance of the Heath.

So, the relationship of the "cycling as transport" lobby with environmentalism can be a troublesome one. We emphasise the "green" credentials of cycling, but cycling is in fact technology, and part of the industrialised society. It is just another technological solution to the human desire to move further and faster. In the move to promote cycling as "low carbon" transport, we can generate dubious alliances: as I pointed out in an earlier post, Team Green Britain, supporting cycle events such as Bike Week and even the London World Naked Bike Ride is a branch of the nuclear power industry (EDF Energy).

Team Green Britain promote cycling with a heavy "reduce your carbon footprint" message:
Gareth Wynn, Group Director, 2012 Programme at EDF added “As the first Sustainability Partner of London 2012, EDF Energy founded Team Green Britain to help Britons reduce their carbon footprints ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Travelling contributes significantly to most people’s carbon footprint, but cycling is a low carbon way to get around, plus it can be enjoyable and help you get fit at the same time. We’re hoping that Team Green Britain Bike Week will help people get back on their bikes, helping them reduce the carbon footprint of their travel in the long term”.
In my opinion this is the wrong way to promote cycling. In my opinion, virtually nobody starts cycling because the wish to reduce their carbon footprint and be more "green". Look, I am as concerned about carbon footprint as anybody: I am so concerned about my carbon footprint  that I spent £650 of my partner's money recently taking a train to Geneva (first class), when I could have flown (economy class, also at her expense) for £150. But even I, paragon of environmental virtue that I am, did not start cycling in order to save the planet. I started as a child as a means to gain independence. I started again as an adult as it was a cheap and efficient way to get around London (at a time when there was less traffic than there is now). I think we have to treat the people whom we want to get cycling as normal, selfish humans. I think we have to "sell" cycling to them on the basis, primarily, of convenience and economy and fun (so we have to actually make it convenient and fun, so that means getting the infrastructure right first), and, perhaps secondarily, though this comes some way behind, on the basis of health and fitness.

Ultimately, in both promoting, and providing for, cycling, the "less green" approach may be the one we need to get the ecological benefits we wish for in the long term.

1 comment:

  1. Vole,

    It's a nice post.

    I noticed some time ago how environmental arguments are used. People use them because they think an appeal to the environment is unanswerable. They tend, however, to interpret the environment's interests as reflecting their own. I explained my point in this blogpost:

    There are of course lots of good arguments for doing things that reduce emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants. But it's vital to weigh up environmental arguments in the same way one would any other argument. It's not an absolute discussion-closer, as many people seem to believe.

    All the best,