Thursday 16 October 2014

Find the Lady, or the Shell game

Update:  I have learnt today via @forestcyclist that the New Forest National Park Authority's bare-faced scam described below has been rejected by the Department for Transport, which has refused them permission to spend Cycling Ambition grant money on widening a road and developing off-road cycling facilities in a private park 4 miles outside the National Park Boundaries.

This is a partial victory for cycle campaigners.  I say "partial" because the grant totalled £3.2m and only £1.5m has been clawed back.  £1.2m has apparently already been spent, and £500k has been approved for other new schemes (which are not as outrageous, but do to my mind look pretty dubious benefits to cycling in the Forest).

So, today we got a new paper on getting Britain cycling.  It has so far had a pretty underwhelming response.  Loads of comments/tweets deplore the paucity of funding proposed to boost cycling as transport in the UK – we spend about £2 per head pa compared with about £25 in the Netherlands, and eminent commentators such as Chris Hoy say that we need to be spending at least £10.

Indeed.  But what exactly is that £2 current funding being spent on?

Here are a few examples.

Southwark Bridge.  The City of London used an entire year’s grant, £200,000, from TfL under the now defunct London Cycle Network (LCN) scheme to install these high, wide concrete kerbs across the bridge.  

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Two hundred thousand smackers, for a couple of segregated cycle lanes each barely 200 yards long?  Well, it does sound a lot, I’ll admit.  Of course, it wasn’t all spent on men with shovels, concrete and asphalt.  In fact, in common with most of the City cycle infrastructure projects whose proposals  I have read in the minutes of the City Planning & Transportation or Streets & Walkways committees, the money was spent in roughly equal thirds:  one third on Pat & Mike, shovels and cement; one third on some third-party consultant’s report (about what I have no clue – health and safety?  environmental impact assessment?); one third on City of London Highways department staff time.  

Yes, that’s right, subsidising the wages bill of the City Corporation, probably the wealthiest local authority in the country, by a large margin.  An authority whose “2012 Local Implementation Plan” budget is about £116 million, £100 million more than Lambeth's.

But here’s the thing:  those cycle lanes were not, primarily, designed as cycle lanes at all.  For quite some time after the concrete barriers were laid, the space between them and the pavement kerb was inaccessible.  For some considerable time after that, the surface was too dire for most people to want to use it even if they could.  For a whole 200 yards (or less) you get some protection from traffic, only to be thrown unceremoniously out back onto the road again when you get to the other side of the bridge.

Because the cycle lane bit is an afterthought – if “thought” is the right word.  What was really going on here is that Southwark Bridge was being used as coach parking, and engineers assessed that the bridge’s structural integrity didn’t really permit this as well as the constant stream of moving traffic.  Some considerable work was done to restore the integrity of the bridge (as indeed was done on other bridges such as Blackfriars around the same time), and the bridge was effectively narrowed so that coaches physically could not park there.  Let’s face it, why would cyclists need such beefy kerbs, and where else would you see this muscularity of provision for them?
Or how about these, "side entry treatments" on Fleet Street and Ludgate Hill?

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The City has implemented several of these, typically at a cost of £20-30k each.  Again, the cost comprises roughly one third men shovelling material (in this case fancy granite setts, a particular obsession of the City planning department), one third external consultants, and one third subsidising the highways dept salary bill – again, paid for by LCN grant funding.

So, how do these benefit cyclists?  Their purpose, apart from the merely decorative, is to calm traffic emerging from side streets through surface treatments and raising the road to pavement level with a modest speed table, and thus reduce collision risk with traffic using the main drag.  That, of course, includes the occasional passing cyclist who, thus, is protected against being whacked by an impatient cabbie tearing through some favoured rat-run.

A benefit to cyclists, sure, but surely far more a benefit to motorists, so should it not have been paid for out of the highways budget?  It’s not as if the City is strapped for cash in that department?
Moving out of London now, we have the famous - infamous - Bedford "Turbo Roundabout".

I don’t need to go into this in any detail.  A cat, now living (or is it dead – isn’t that the nub of the paradox?) in Berlin has written extensively about it here.  Suffice it to say that £300,000 of cash from the Cycle Safety Fund – as the name implies, a fund to finance measures to enhance the safety of cyclists – was approved to be spent on remodelling a roundabout on “Dutch principles”.

The safety measures for cyclists?  Well, they didn’t include anything on the roundabout itself.  In that sense, it truly was Dutch – you would not expect cyclists to cycle on a Dutch turbo roundabout – because it was explicitly stated that cyclists should stay off the roundabout, and use a shared-pedestrian path around the perimeter.  A measure which could have been introduced at a cost of 3/6d  by simply putting up a few of those blue roundels, without doing anything at all to the roundabout.

No, the real issue with the roundabout was that it sees very heavy peak time traffic flows, was engineered to permit fast entry and exit, and so suffered an unacceptable rate of collisions – between motor vehicles.

And CTC and Sustrans signed off on this, leading me to terminate the fairly generous monthly donation I had made to Sustrans for a good many years.
I have been reading recently of a similar scandal in Cambridge, also involving a remodelling of a roundabout into “turbo” style.  The provision for cyclists around the perimeter does look a little better than that provided in Bedford, as long as action is taken to prevent motorists using it as a car park, but again most of the money targeted at cycling measures has actually been spent on infrastructure explicitly aimed away from cyclists.


Finally, deep in the forest something stirs  - the New Forest, that is.  There is a scandal brewing over the National Park Authority’s changing-pony-in-mid-stream manoeuvre whereby it abandoned the scheme on which it had applied for, and been granted some £3m from the “Cycling Ambition” fund, and is now trying to get away with keeping its grubby paws (hooves?)  on the money so it can spend it on schemes whose connection to cycling of any kind, least of all transport, is tenuous, to say the least.

The biggest slice of this pie is now, if the NPA gets its wicked way, to be spent here.


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Rhinefield Ornamental Drive, and the adjoining Rhinefield Road, near the Bolderwood Arboretum to the south-west of Lyndhurst (to those who know it, a toxically car-sodden town in summer, if not all year round) would under these proposals have some £1,175,000 spent on “upgrading” the unsurfaced margins of the road.

This is a road.  You can see that – there are cars on it, as in this Streetview image.  There are car parks alongside.  Caravans are towed along here – one was responsible for seriously injuring a cyclist recently, with the driver of the towing car possibly unaware of the havoc (s)he had caused.  The speed limit is 40mph, like much of the Forest.  This despite the fact that the road, as can be seen, is not really wide enough to be classed as two-lane, although not as narrow as single-track.

The road is popular with cyclists and it is not hard to see why.  It is a very pretty run indeed.  But motorists feel the same way about it, and the NPA knows, and acknowledges this:  by its own admission, the number of cars using this road daily exceeds the number of cyclists by one order of magnitude.

Without widening?  Ya Think?  The issue at present is that, in order for oncoming vehicles to pass each other safely along much of this road, it is necessary for one or both to pull off the tarmac and place its near-side wheels on the unmade margin.  Most drivers would probably prefer to slow down or even stop to do this.  Make up the margins, and oncoming cars could “safely” pass each other at speed, up to the legal limit of 40mph.

Cyclists don’t need this extra width.  There is plenty enough for them, and the road surface is plenty smooth enough, having been resurfaced only about 3-4 years ago.  The scheme is simply a road-widening measure to facilitate faster passage by cars, which not merely does not enhance the cycling experience but actually makes it much worse.  It is also something which, if it were to be done at all, should be paid for out of normal County road maintenance budgets.
Hopefully, the Department for Transport will call this in and tell the NPA either to find some proper cycling schemes (why not the original hire bike plan??) or hand the money back.
If not, I am almost tempted to say “Don’t give us any money, thanks.  I can do without your roundabouts and your fancy granite speed cushions and your rural race tracks”.

1 comment:

  1. City has a LIP of £116m! My LA has barely £3m, including principal road surfacing!